A CHORUS LINE: For the Dancer in Us All

A CHORUS LINE: What We Do for Love

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: June 6 – July 14, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-40

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

 

When you think A Chorus Line you think of Broadway, or a touring show to some large venue such as, perhaps, the Altria Theatre. Think again. A Chorus Line, the ground-breaking, iconic musical, the musical “that celebrates the dancer in us all,” originally conceived and choreographed by Michael Bennett, with book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante , lyrics by Edward Kleban, and music by Marvin Hamlisch – yes, THAT A Chorus Line – opened at the Richmond Triangle Players. . .AND IT IS AWESOME!!!

Who would have thought you could fit a chorus line of 17 people across that stage? Well, now we know. This production, directed and choreographed by Justin Amellio, features Alexander Sapp as Zach, the intimidating Broadway director who is conducting an audition for an unnamed Broadway show, and Andrew Etheredge as his assistant, Larry. The entire show takes place on the bare stage of an unnamed Broadway theater, where the dancers who have come to audition for a show are unnerved when Zach not only puts them through the paces of jazz, ballet, and tap combinations, but asks each potential chorine to tell him something about his or her life.

There are about 21 dancers at the start of the show, but four are quickly eliminated. Of the remaining 17, Zach is looking for just four men and four women. To complicate matters, one of the women, Cassie, is Zach’s former girlfriend, who has recently returned from Los Angeles after an unsuccessful run at becoming an actress, something, it seems Zach wanted for her more than she wanted for herself.

This is a true ensemble piece, and when the dancers perform their routines – some deliberately missing a step or turning the wrong way – they transport the audience to another world. This is oh so much better than watching any dance program on television. While it’s all about the dance, A Chorus Line has some notable dramatic moments – and humor, too.

Sheila (Zuri Petteway) is sassy, obnoxious, older, and a plus-sized woman. The gargantuan chip on her shoulder might have gotten her eliminated from any other audition, but Zach apparently saw something in her. During her interview, she opens up and reveals that she had a difficult childhood mitigated only by a love for ballet. Bebe (Ijsah Byrd) and Maggie (Rachel Marrs) join her in her reverie, “At the Ballet.” Beautiful, svelte Kristine (Katherine S. Wright) reveals that while she can dance rings around others, and act as well, her one shortcoming is that she cannot sing. Wright (who I am assured really can sing well), hilariously brings down the house with her tone-deaf screeching. It’s even funnier when Al (Derrick Jaques), Kristine’s over-protective husband who is also auditioning, steps in and finishes her sentences for her, singing on key.

Another humorous highlight was Val’s (Mallory Keene) performance of “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three,” a song I remember as the “T & A” song. Perhaps the name was changed for the sake of political correctness. At any rate, it is a humorous take on an all too real situation: a dancer or performer whose superior talent is overlooked because she does not fit the idealized standards of beauty. Val’s career finally took off after a visit to a plastic surgeon, to acquire the more marketable curves.

Cassie’s (Daria DeGaetano) solo, “The Music and the Mirror” was satisfyingly dynamic, and “What I Did for Love,” led by Diana (Alexa Cepeda) was bigger than life – or at least bigger than the RTP stage. Other memorable moments included a touching scene in which Zach comforted Paul (Steven Rada) after Paul haltingly revealed how difficult it was to reveal his sexuality and occupation to his parents, and later when Paul falls and re-injures his leg – effectively ending his dancing career – and has to be taken to the emergency room.

My only two observations are that I wish the tap combination could have been performed in tap shoes, and the beautiful glittery, golden finale costumes, which fit the men perfectly, seemed to have a weird pucker at the back zipper on the women’s rear ends.

Kudos to the entire cast – too numerous to mention all by name – and the phenomenal creative team, which included musical direction by Kim Fox, lighting by Michael Jarett, and sound design by Joey Luck. Originally scheduled to run through July 7, as of opening night A Chorus Line, has already been extended through July 14, and many performances are already sold out. Get your tickets now; this is not to missed.

 

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

A Chorus Line_1
A Chorus Line – Photos and Resumes, Please
A Chorus Line_3
Steven Rada as Paul
A Chorus Line_2
Alexa Cepeda as Diana
A Chorus Line_4
A Chorus Line – The Grand Finale

PRELUDES: Folk, Fate & Fantasy

PRELUDES: An Inspired Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: May 23 – June 30, 2018 [Recently extended through June 30!] Wed-Sat @ 7:30pm; Sun @ 4:00pm

Ticket Prices: $15 – $45; Special Date Night Romance packages available for $60 per couple

Info: (804) 355-2001 or info@firehousetheatre.org

 

Historically, the Firehouse Theatre’s current production of Dave Malloy’s inspired musical, Preludes, is significant. The work, a hybrid of classical music and an amalgam of various styles from folk to contemporary, has been mounted only twice before: it premiered at Lincoln Center in 2015 and made a German-language debut in Austria in 2017. When you see the musically complex and visually layered production, it’s easy to understand why this unorthodox musical has not been widely produced.

Preludes has all the elements of musical theater, but with an operatic demeanor, and then there are substantial sections that are purely instrumental.  The cast is uniformly and outstandingly talented and versatile, acting, singing, and occasionally playing instruments.

Actor Travis West, one of the play’s two Rachmaninoff’s, spends the entire 2 hours and 10 minutes onstage at the grand piano – which he actually plays! Not only does he play music by Sergei Rachmaninoff (a noted composer and pianist of the late Romantic period), but he appears to have mastered the folk songs, samplings of other classical composers, and contemporary sounds while musical director Susan Randolph Braden on synthesizer fills in the rest of the beautifully eclectic score.

PJ Freebourn plays the role of Rach, the social, emotional, and less musical side of the main character. Freebourn’s portrayal of the composer very successfully and sympathetically draws us into the world of the composer during the three years of his deep depression that resulted in a writer’s block. His therapy with Dr. Dahl (a surprisingly subdued and self-contained Georgia Rogers Farmer), his relationship with his fiancé, Natalya, who is also his first cousin (Isabella Stansbury) are explored in realistic detail, quite in contrast to the time-changing setting and costuming choices that place this production squarely in a space that is neither the 19th century nor the 21st century, but both at the same time.

Jody Ashworth brings moments of insight and humor as Rachmaninoff’s friend, Chaliapin, and Levi Meerovich (yes, he really is of Russian descent) takes on multiple roles as several well-known Russian figures: Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Glazunov, Tsar Nicholas II, and The Master – all of whom were key figures in Rachmaninoff’s life and musical development. His wheezing, asthmatic Tsar was particularly memorable. As Meerovich explained in Thursday night’s talkback, it was not so much that he had to play each of these figures, but that he had to portray how Rachmaninoff saw them in his mind.

Free-flowing and with an often tenuous relationship to expected concepts of time and place, of what is real and what is embellished, Preludes is a surprisingly warm and intimate production that makes the audience feel as if we truly have a better understanding of both the man and his music. Why, for instance, die he consider C sharp minor to be the coolest key? What’s it like to produce a seminal work at age 19 and then spend years trying to figure out what is success and failure?

Director Billy Christopher Maupin insists he started with and still has more questions than answers about this production, and that appears to be a good thing, because he has directed with a hand guided by questions seeking answers and a respect for the ambiguous. Leslie Cook-Day’s costumes, likewise, have an ambiguity. Black, white, and gray blend in clothes that are at once contemporary and from a century or two ago. Ryan Dygert’s sound design is filled with ghostly sighs and breaths, heartbeats, and rattling chains.  Visual chains are draped around the actors and the sets, some of them symbolically broken.

Emily Dandridge contributed some intense and well-integrated choreography, and Tennessee Dixon’s set and projections were almost a character on their own: four separate seating areas – a café table, the piano, a porch swing, and a psychiatrist’s office – were spread across the stage while animations and looped video and slow-motion video of the pianists’ hands subtly connected all the disparate elements.

Preludes is not a show I would recommend to someone who has never seen a musical or an opera, or anyone who likes things to turn out with all the ends neatly tied up – but it is a production I would highly recommend to anyone and everyone who likes excellent theater, good music, and stunningly creative theater.

 

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: Bill Sigafoos

 

Preludes_2
Georgia Rogers Farmer, PJ Freebourn, and Jody Ashworth
Preludes_1
PJ Freebourn and Travis West

PINKALICIOUS, THE MUSICAL: Tickling the Audience Pink at Willow Lawn

PINKALICIOUS, THE MUSICAL: You Get Just What You Get and You Don’t Get Upset

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: April 6-May 13, 2018

Ticket Prices: $20

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

 

Pinkalicious, the newest offering at the Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn, starts of with a bang and maintains a high level of energy – and pinkatasticity – for a solid hour.

 

Tyandria Jackson, an 18-year-old senior at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, adeptly captures the imaginative spirit of the little girl known as Pinkalicious who first came to light in the book of the same name written by sisters Elizabeth Kann and Victoria Kann. It helps that Jackson is petite, but when she dons the Pinkalicious wigs and pink pajamas or pink fairy princess dress, we are completely won over.

 

Anthony Cosby, a Children’s Theatre veteran, who recently appeared in Songs from the Soul, may have been acting since the age of 10, but he is an adult now, and quite a bit taller than Jackson – so it was quite amusing to see him play the role of Peter, Pinkalicious’ little brother. Cosby’s child-like wonderment and enthusiasm also won me over.

 

Rebecca Turner and Brent Deekens played the parents – Mr. and Mrs. Pinkerton. Turner plays the mother as a tiny dynamo who keeps the household running smoothly, while Deekens’ father starts off distant and clueless until midway through when he makes a startling confession.

 

Like most Children’s Theatre productions, Pinkalicious has a moral foundation. This time it is about accepting yourself for who you are. The story drives home the point that this applies to adults as well as to children. At one point young Pinkalicious has somewhat of a meltdown over her parents’ cupcake restriction, leading to the song, “You Get What You Get and You Don’t Get Upset.”

 

Young viewers are probably quite familiar with the characters from the book series, or the television series, neither of which I have ever perused. This is where I must make a confession: I do not like the color pink – never have! So, while I have seen the books and I have heard the name Pinkalicious, I never read the books, the first of which appeared in 2006, to any of my grandchildren. Speaking of grandchildren – you will not find the usual assessment by Master Kingston: at the last show, when he found out the next production would be Pinkalicious, he informed me in no uncertain terms that he would not be my date for the next show.  So, with this backstory in mind, I attended and enjoyed every minute of Pinkalicious – despite all the pinkness and in spite of being abandoned by my favorite date.

 

Leslie Owens-Harrington, most often credited with choreography, directed this rose-colored musical with a dancer’s eye and Billy Dye directed the music (music and lyrics by John Gregor), keeping everything moving along at a tickle-me-pink pace. The fifteen musical numbers that were all great fun, but two stood out for me. When little Peter, tired of being ignored and having to shrink under the bright pink light of his attention-seeking older sister, just can’t take it anymore, he whips out dark glasses and sings a soul-stirring rendition of “I Got the Pink Blues.” Immediately after that, Pinkalicious, having eaten one too many pink cupcakes, has turned completely pink and gets mistaken for a flower by a bee and a bird in the park, leading to the amusing “Buzz Off” number.

 

One of the lessons about acceptance is that it’s okay for boys and men to like pink. Looking around the nearly full house at the Sunday matinee, I counted only about four young boys and perhaps half a dozen dads and grandfathers. As pink as it is, and for all the focus on the title character, Pinkalicious is not just for girls. It is a bright and peppy production that is family-friendly. There is a complete absence of any of the adult-level innuendos that are so often sprinkled into children’s shows, so families should feel confident in bringing everyone from the suggested age of four and up. I would feel comfortable bringing a three-year old who could sit for a one-hour show, no intermission.

 

Desiree Dabney and Audrey Kate Taylor round out the cast as Dr. Wink and Allison, Pinkalicious’ best friend, respectively. They fill ensemble roles: bee, bird, cupcake monsters, etc. In addition to Owens-Harrington and Dye, the creative team includes Terrie Powers (colorful set with oversized cartoon-like props), BJ Wilkinson (simple and effective lighting with a few special effects), and Ruth Hedberg (costumes with flair, especially Pinkalicious’ garb and Mr. Pinkerton’s Liberace-like finale jacket). There are cupcake monsters, atmospheric smoke, and an almost magical costume-change. Even I was almost tickled pink.

 

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

pinkalicious_tyandria_jackson_pr_sbpinkalicious_illus_topPinkalicious

Pinkalicious
Tyandria Jackson and Anthony Cosby
Pinkalicious
Brent Deekins, Tyandria Jackson, and Anthony Cosby
Pinkalicious
Anthony Cosby, Rebecca Turner, Brent Deekens, Tyandria Jackson, and Audrey Kate Taylor

PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES: A “Pump Rock” Country Musical

PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES:  A “Pump Rock” Country Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

A Collaboration of Richmond’s 5th Wall Theatre and Hampton’s American Theatre

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

Performances: March 10-31, 2018 [Note this show will be performed in Hampton, VA April 13-22]

Ticket Prices: $32 General Admission; $15 Students; $20 RVATA Cardholders

Info: (804) 359-2003 or https://5thwallpumpboys.brownpapertickets.com/

 

Pump Boys and Dinettes is not your ordinary musical. Created by a performance group of no less than six, who are all credited with the music, book, and lyrics, one might expect this musical to be all over the place. One would be wrong. Don’t care for country music? Doesn’t matter; this isn’t the whiny, twangy, my-woman-is-gone-and-my-dog-is-dead kind of country music. Don’t care for musicals, you say? Go back and read my first sentence.

Pump Boys and Dinettes is the most fun I’ve had in the theater in recent weeks and that’s saying a lot, since the Richmond theater community has produced some excellent theater this year. The ensemble is dynamic; the entire cast sings, acts, and plays instruments (okay, that might be stretching it a bit, but keep reading). The musical numbers are high-powered, and there are even a couple of a capella numbers that feature some rather awesome harmonizing that even my untrained ear could recognize and appreciate. Then the Dinettes pick up wooden spoons and play percussion on pots. So that’s why the pots are out front instead of back in the kitchen. . .Oh, and then there is tap-dancing – in cowboy boots!

While there isn’t really a narrative in the traditional sense, we do get to meet some of the residents of Frog Level, North Carolina who work on Highway 57 at the Pump Boys service station and the nearby or attached Double Cup diner. The Pump Boys consist of Jim (John Mervini on rhythm guitar), L.M. (Mike Cefalo on keyboard, including a brief stint on an accordion), Jackson (Michael Bamford, lead guitar) and Eddie (Sean Powell on bass and harmonica). Not much work gets done at the service station, since the Pump Boys are all playing music a lot more than pumping gas. Indeed, when a customer calls to check on the status of his Winnebago, he is told it will be ready, maybe, next week. The customer is put on hold – on the ancient phone held together with duct tape – so the Pump Boys can give him a status update singing “Taking It Slow.”

Rachel Marrs (Rhetta Cupp) and Desiree Roots Centeio (Prudie Cupp), the sisters who run the diner, seem to somehow get more work done. The Dinettes serve coffee, moon pies, and slices of pecan pie to the audience at the beginning of the show and collecting tips in Act 2. “Tips” is the title of a sassy duet in Act 2, with the money collected going to the 5th Wall Development Fund. In addition to feeding the audience with art and food, Centeio sits on gentlemen’s laps and dances with an audience member (Friday night it was my fiancé Albert Ruffin) while singing “The Best Man” and the sisters escort a female audience member onstage, so Jackson/Bamford can serenade her in “Mona,” a song about his crush on a mall cashier.

“The Fisherman’s Prayer” is a beautifully harmonized number by the Pump Boys in Act 1, which also features a heat-warming ballad, “Mamaw,” sung by Jim/Mervini. Act 1 ends with The Dinettes and L.M. donning cowboy boots and Eddie donning tap shoes for “Drinkin’ Shoes.” Highlights of Act 2 include L.M.’s “T.N.D.P.W.A.M.” which stands for The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine, and the hilarious “Farmer’s Tan,” again featuring L.M. with the Dinettes. Everyone gets at least one featured number except Eddie, but he does get to do an awesome “duet” with his upright bass. While each cast members shines individually, Mervini, Marrs, and Centeio are standouts and Cefalo is a surprise when he emerges from behind his keyboard, it is the magnetism of the ensemble that makes Pump Boys and Dinettes a hit.

There are 19 musical numbers, plus a reprise of the opening “Highway 57” and a closing medley of the show’s “Greatest Hits.” Most are hard-pumping, foot-tapping, danceable numbers that keep a smile on your face from start to finish. The show runs about 100 minutes, with a fifteen-minute intermission, under the seamless direction of Richard M. Parison, Jr. with musical direction by Christian Storm Burk and choreography by Karen Getz (whose work I adored in VaRep’s Fiddler on the Roof in 2013).

I also admired Rich Mason’s scenic design – a simple but authentic looking little diner on the audience’s right, and a somewhat less detailed and extremely clean service station to the audience’s left. Most of the action takes place center to right, but there weren’t many people seated on the left side on Friday night. Michael Jarrett designed the lighting, which featured a few nicely mottled effects in Act 1, and Sue Griffin and Marcia Miller Hailey did the costumes. The Pump Girl’s waitress uniforms were adorably attractive.  Let’s not forget Amy Ariel, who assisted with the lighting, Roger Price who designed the sound, and Barry Green who designed the props – of which there are quite a few. And let’s not forget to thank 5th Wall’s Artistic Director Carol Piersol and The American Theatre’s Artistic Director Richard M. Parison for selecting this show to partner.

Pump Boys and Dinettes is beautifully showcased in the intimate space of TheatreLAB’s basement. Make it a point to find your way down the steep steps that lead to this marvelous space before they close.

 

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:

5th Wall Theatre

Pumpboys

Pump Boys_1
Michael Bamford, John Mervini, Rachel Marrs, and Desiree Roots Centeio

DAMES AT SEA: Making Waves at Swift Creek

DAMES AT SEA: Pint-sized Extravaganza

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: March 8-May 15, 2018

Ticket Prices: $38 Theater only; $55 Dinner & Theater

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

Dames at Sea, with book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller and music by Jim Wise first opened Off-Off-Broadway in 1966 but is perhaps best known for its 1968 production which introduced a new actress named Bernadette Peters. Twenty-six years ago, Dames at Sea was produced at Swift Creek Mill and two of the 1992 cast members – Robyn O’Neill and Steve King – apparently enjoyed it so much they have returned for another run.

A parody of the 1930s-style musical extravaganza, Dames at Sea is dated and corny and probably the most fun you’ll have in a month. The first act is set in a down-trodden Broadway theater, and Act 2 is set on the deck of a naval ship. Sweet-faced and innocent Ruby (Anne Michelle Forbes) arrives on Broadway from a small town in Utah with a suitcase containing only a pair of ruby red tap shoes and by the end of the day she has been hired as a chorus girl, meets a guy, becomes a star, and gets married. I don’t know how many hours are in this day, but if they can bottle and sell days like this, I’m placing my order right now.

Part of the tremendous charm of this two-act show is that all the impact and energy of a Busby-Berkeley movie musical, including showgirls, props, dancers creating geometric floor patterns, lots of color and movement, are all accomplished with a cast of six. In addition to Forbes, who is a 2016 TheatreVCU graduate making her Swift Creek Mill debut, there is Nicole Morris-Anastasi as Joan, a wise-cracking chorus girl who befriends Ruby; Travis West as Ruby’s sailor boyfriend Dick; and Derrick Jaques as Dick’s friend Lucky, who also happens to be Joan’s on-again, off-again boyfriend.

Returnees Steve King in the dual roles of theater entrepreneur Hennesey and the naval officer Captain Courageous and Robyn O’Neill as the diva Mona Kent together generate some of the show’s most humorous moments with a touching number called “The Beguine” that recreates their youthful romance. King alternates between sweet, shy glances and lascivious ogling of O’Neill’s bosom. O’Neill may portray a star who is losing her luster, but it’s impossible to feel sorry for her character as she also acts as the protagonist, jealously trying to hang on to the ingenue role while maintaining leading lady status – a dangerous game that wreaks havoc on Ruby and Dick’s budding romance and nearly sidelines the entire show within the show.

In the spirit of a large-scale musical, everyone sings and everyone dances. O’Neill gets to strut her stuff in the opening number and to belt her heart out in “Wall Street” and “That Mister Man of Mine.” Forbes shines in her lovelorn ballad, “Raining in My Heart,” which is more touching than her big show-saving number, “Star Tar.” On Saturday, parts of “Choo Choo Honeymoon,” one of two big numbers for Morris-Anastasi, were unintelligible from my seat on the right side of the audience. I don’t know if the same was true for those further left, but this is something that is certainly easily fixed through technology, staging, or a combination of the two.

I was quite pleased to see – and hear – that Dames at Sea is one musical that takes its dancing seriously. The work is infused with tap dancing – and while it appeared to leave O’Neill a bit winded, Forbes, Morris-Anastasi, Jaques, and West came with the energy. What they may have lacked in technique (none would fare well, hypothetically speaking, in a contest with Savion Glover) they more than made up for this potential shortcoming with big attitudes and a facility for handling props (mops, umbrellas, and more). We have choreographer Alissa Pagnotti to thank for this enthusiastic, period-style tap choreography.

Tom Width directed with his usual innate joy – every play he directs seems to be his favorite – and did the scenic design as well. There was no magic in this script, but Width did manage to work in an avalanche of falling bricks and oversized wrecking ball in Act 1, and a couple of cannons blasting confetti at the finale. Leilani Fenick is the musical director, conducting an 8-piece orchestra hidden behind the set. Zachary Townsend designed the lighting, which includes a follow-spot intentionally designed to recreate the authenticity of the period, and Maura Lynch Cravey designed the costumes. I was particularly fond of Ruby and Joan’s tap shorts. (Yes, I did mean shorts, and not shoes.) Dames at Sea is a leave-your -worries-at-the-door and just enjoy yourself kind of musical.

 

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:

Swift Creek Mill Facebook page

 

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ERMA BOMBECK: End-to-End Wit

ERMA BOMBECK: At Wit’s End

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

VirginiaRep

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

Performances: March 2-April 15, 2018; Acts of Faith post-show discussion Sunday, March 18  UPDATE: This show has been extended through April 29! 03/26/2018

Ticket Prices: $42

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

Writers Allison Engel and Margaret Engel pulled much of their material for their one-woman play, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, directly from Bombeck’s own words. The syndicated columnist and best-selling author who was active from the 1960s through the 1990s was known for her often self-deprecating and invariably witty assessments of her own life as a suburban housewife.

Catherine Shaffner steps easily into the role, so much so that one nearly forgets she is acting. Bombeckian one-liners like “never go to a doctor whose office plants have died” roll off her tongue with ease. Occasionally, the humor becomes pure poetry as when Shaffner relates Bombeck’s reminiscence on pregnancy: “the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle.”

Along this one-hour journey, we learn that Bombeck started out making a mere $3 per column, but at her peak her work was syndicated in 900 newspapers throughout the US. One of her 3 children described her job as a “syndicated communist.” Bombeck also published 15 best-selling books which provided her with the celebrity and the currency to travel around the country with Betty Friedan as a champion of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment). The woman who once characterized feminists as “roller derby dropouts” became an ardent supporter of women’s rights and a member of the President’s Advisory Council for Women. Much to her disappointment, the amendment failed three votes short of the 38 needed for ratification.

The period from the 1960s to the 1990s was a significant time for women who were seeking to establish a balance between family and career and that is illustrated in some humorous and subtle ways in the play. Most strikingly, see Shaffner/Bombeck locked away in her bedroom, perched on the edge of her bed, using an ironing board for a desk, banging away on a portable manual typewriter, as her children slip notes under the door asking for money to go to McDonald’s. (After digging around in the cushions of a chair, Shaffner/Bombeck slides the pile of coins under the door in response.)

Marcia Miller Hailey has dressed Shaffner in black slacks, a print blouse, and flats. She may be a nationally known author and feminist supporter, but she looks like a car pool mom. John Moon directed Shaffner – a job that I am sure was made all the easier because of Shaffner’s laidback expertise and natural wit. Her pacing and timing were perfection – never rushed, never hurried, but rather intimate and inviting. Several times the corded push-button phone on Bombeck’s bedside table rang and she informed her husband, Bill, that she had people over – meaning us, her audience. The size of the theater, with seats on three sides of the stage, reinforces this sense of intimacy and inclusion.

One thing I found a little odd was Terrie Powers’ set. It depicts a modest suburban home, supposedly in a subdivision in Dayton, Ohio, with the usual elements such as a raised step at the front entrance with a bit of decorative railing, and sections of a sitting area, a nearly complete bedroom, and a dining area with neatly some appliances neatly ensconced on shelves. I understand that the bedroom was centerstage because it was Bombeck’s office, but I found the placement of the bedroom and the proportions of the partial rooms around it peculiar and distracting – and little homey touches like an apron, a laundry basket, a visibly cordless iron, or a vacuum cleaner that seemed slightly out of sync with its recorded sound didn’t help matters.

Decorating dilemmas aside, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End is a delightful hour of theater (sans intermission) that will send you home with the corners of your mouth upturned and your cheeks sore from smiling.

 

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 Sutton

 

Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End
Catherine Shaffner
Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End
Catherine Shaffner
Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End
Catherine Shaffner

Acts of Faith

JOHN & JEN: A Musical of Second Chances

JOHN & JEN: A Story of Second Chances

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

At: HATTheatre, 1124 Westbriar Dr., RVA 23238

Performances: March 2-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: $25 Adults; $20 Seniors; $15 Youth, Students, Military w/ID; $12 RVATA Card Holders; Reservations Required – No tickets at the door

Info: (804) 343-6364 or hattheatre.org

Any excuse to spend an evening with Georgia Rogers Farmer (Jen) and Chris Hester (John) is an evening well spent. In this two-person chamber musical that fits perfectly in the intimate black box that is HATTheatre, Farmer and Hester do not disappoint.

For those who don’t like spoilers, do not read any further until after you have seen this show. There is no way to write about this show without giving away a key component that some might consider a spoiler.

John & Jen spans some forty years, from about l950 or 1952 until 1990 in the life of Jen and the two Johns in her life. In Act 1, Jen welcomes her little brother into a world that proves to be filled with both love and chaos.  Interestingly, the same father that Jen considers to be a source of chaos is a source of stability and love for John. Perspective matters from start to finish in this intriguing and intimate work, written by Tom Greenwald and Andrew Lippa, with music by Lippa and lyrics by Greenwald.

In his director’s note, Doug Schneider indicates that he did not like the first version he heard of this show, which was first performed Off-Broadway in 1995, but became hooked on this newer version, a 2015 revival, which included some new songs and arrangements and dropped some of the original songs. I’m curious about the original version, as I found the current songs and music somewhat uneven.

In Act 1, Hester was quite funny in the sister-teasing “Trouble with Men” and the duo was rough and intense in the scene-closing “Run & Hide.” Likewise, in Act 2, Hester got a chance to shine with boyish exuberance in “Bye Room,” and the two had a touching closing number with “Every Good-Bye is Hello.” Throughout both acts there were touchingly sweet moments that allowed Farmer’s epic voice and presence to soar, but the material she had to work with just didn’t seem to be. . .well. . .big enough. I want to find a phrase that is the opposite of “sung-through musical”; that would be a musical in which some lyrics are spoken to music rather than sung. While that makes it easy to follow the story, it seems to be something less than musical. While I enjoyed the performers and their portrayals of their characters, this is not the kind of musical that makes you want to run out and buy the soundtrack.

The four-piece chamber orchestra, under the musical direction of Joshua Wortham was quite good, with Wortham on keyboard, Michael Knowles on cello, Marissa Resmini on violin, and Nick Oyler on percussion.  But again, at times the score was stunningly beautiful while often it disappeared into the background – not what one expects in a musical.

One of the most interesting aspects of John & Jen is that Jen is the same character for both acts, whereas John is Jen’s little brother in Act 1 and her son in Act 2. So, Hester has to, in effect, play two different roles with different personalities, growing up in different decades, opposite the same mother figure, while answering to the same name, John. Jen, the sister, promises to always be there for her little brother, but then he goes off to Vietnam and they never see each other again. Knowing the backstory of Act 1 gives the audience inside knowledge that helps us understand Jen’s overprotective parenting of her son.

The nature and familiarity of these relationships is what makes this an Acts of Faith production. Jen wants to replace her missing brother with her son, and it takes a “Talk Show” scene to expose her fears and a “Graduation” to open the door to a resolution. The device of using a talk show format, which almost but not quite involved the audience, to air one’s dirty laundry was a much-needed tension reliver and weirdly amusing break from the intensity of the relationships. Christmas traditions, feuding parents, Little League, rebellious children, first dates, leaving for college, differing political views, hippies, draft dodging (do today’s young people even know what the draft was?) are all familiar to most families, which may be why a few scenes may be misted not by the lighting designer but by the viewer’s own eyes.

Michael Jarrett has designed some lovely projections that carry us through the decades and life events of Jen and her two Johns, while Erin Barclay designed the lights, Frank Foster created the scenic elements that consisted of two straight-backed chairs on opposite sides of the stage with a storage bench stage center, and Linda Shepard designed the simple wardrobe that allowed Hester and Farmer to make subtle but key changes – a Christmas sweater, a blanket, a tie-dyed skirt –  right on stage.

John & Jen is a tightly-woven, intense, and intimate musical and Hester and Farmer bring far more for it than it gives to them.

 

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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:

Jason Eib Photography