MISS GULCH RETURNS!: When Fiction Becomes Reality

MISS GULCH RETURNS!: The Bitch is Back!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: May 15-25, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Ding, dong, the bitch is back!

Some shows teach lessons, some force the audience to adjust their perspective, some raise questions, and others tug at your heartstrings. Fred Barton’s one-man show, Miss Gulch Returns!, does not require anything of its audience but that you sit back and enjoy it – preferably with a drink at hand. Performed by Robert Throckmorton, who is revising the role he first performed more than a decade ago, to great acclaim Miss Gulch Returns! is a musical parody, based on the character of Almira Gulch, the bicycle riding neighbor of Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and Dorothy in the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz.

In the film, Gulch threatens to have Dorothy’s dog, Toto, put to sleep, claiming he has bitten her. Aunt Em is not intimidated, and tells Miss Gulch, “Almira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn’t mean you have the power to run the rest of us.” Later, Dorothy sees Miss Gulch transform into the Wicked Witch of the West, and her bicycle transform into a flying broom.  Barton has woven many Oz-related references into Miss Gulch Returns!

What makes this even funnier is that Barton’s Miss Gulch is a spin-off of a fictional character who is the “real-life” embodiment of a fictious character!

Throckmorton first appears onstage in dark pants and a jacket – with a piano on one side and a bar on the other, it looks and sounds as if we are about to experience a traditional cabaret. The Robert B. Moss Theatre has been slightly rearranged; where there are usually a few tables at the rear, tables have been added to alternate rows, starting with the very front row – where I sat. And there is an extra table set up at the foot of the stage with a candle, a drink, and a basket with Miss Gulch’s hat on top.

After just brief introduction and a couple of songs, Throckmorton approaches this little table and engages in a seductive conversation with an invisible Miss Gulch before suddenly ripping off his tear-away clothing to reveal Miss Gulch’s spinsterly gray dress and the show is off and running at breakneck speed with nonstop laughs fueled by double and triple (if that’s possible) entendre.

Barton’s Miss Gulch assumes that the Wizard of Oz Miss Gulch has a life as an actress and cabaret singer after the film and follows her life in songs, some half spoken and some sung full out with Throckmorton’s subtle but delightfully strong voice. These include self-descriptive and advice-filled torch songs, including “I’m a Bitch” and “Pour Me a Man” in the first act and “I’m Your Bitch” and “I Poured Me a Man” in the second act. My favorite one-liner, bar none, was venomously delivered near the top of the second act, when Miss Gulch was bemoaning being the recipient of all her married and partnered friends’ complaints: “Defecate or de-commode!”

The music and lyrics are by Barton as well as the book, Joshua N. Wortham, the musical director, accompanies Throckmorton on piano, and occasionally acts as Miss Gulch’s straight man or handler. Miss Gulch Returns! is staged by Throckmorton and Steve Perigard, with moody lighting by Amy Ariel (who has a lengthy resume of lighting designs and just finished her third year as a lighting design and engineering student at VCU) and the scenic and sound design is by RTP associate producing director Lucian Restivo. The set, on three levels, had a sort of timeless feel of unspecified era, and there was a lovely slide show of iconic movie stars (e.g., Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Cher, and Lena Horne, to name a few) that heightened the vintage visual element.

I never saw Throckmorton’s earlier portrayal of Miss Gulch, but there were many in the audience who did. At least one came specifically because she had heard that Throckmorton was recreating the role and she had retained fond memories of it for more than a decade. Ready or not, perhaps it’s time for a new generation to meet Miss Gulch as she continues to hilariously blur the line between reality and fiction.

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: as noted

MissGulch_468
Robert Throckmorton as Almira Gulch (Dorothy’s nemesis from “The Wizard of Oz”) in the musical comedy “Miss Gulch Returns!”, playing at Richmond Triangle Players’ Robert B. Moss Theatre through May 25. Photo by John MacLellan
MissGulch_289
Robert Throckmorton as Almira Gulch (Dorothy’s nemesis from “The Wizard of Oz”) in the musical comedy “Miss Gulch Returns!”, playing at Richmond Triangle Players’ Robert B. Moss Theatre through May 25. Photo by John MacLellan.

Miss Gulch 1

Miss Gulch 2
Photo by Joshua N. Wortham

 

 

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ATLANTIS: The Truth Will Rise. . .

ATLANTIS: A New Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: April 12 – May 5, 2019

Ticket Prices: $36-63

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

Keep in mind that Atlantis is the fictionalized representation of an ideal society – a utopia – and you will have an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the new musical, Atlantis: a new musical. Atlantis is being developed by Virginia Rep in partnership with Glass Half Full Productions and Greg Schaffert (Peter and the Starcatcher) as well as PowerArts and support from the Muriel McAuley Fund for New Plays and Contemporary Theatre.

This production boasts a boatload of designers and artists. Matthew Lee Robinson wrote the music and lyrics, while the book was a joint effort of Ken Cerniglia, Robinson, and Scott Anderson Morris. The story, which involves the uncovering of secrets that make this idyllic island possible and a young girl who questions the status quo, reminded me of the Disney children’s film, Moana, that I unwittingly watched while spending quality time with my Miami grandchildren one visit. The music was well written, but the lyrics were not memorable – and not always easy to understand.

Jason Sherwood’s seaside fantasy set with its billows of fabric that suggested fish scales and waves, the neon arches, and the moveable structure that could be a mountain, a boat, or whatever it needed to be, was attractive and purposeful, creating a feeling that was both ancient and futuristic at the same time. BJ Wilkinson’s lighting and Derek Dumais’ sound design enhanced this effect and the overall feeling of another world, sometimes shadowy and sometimes brilliantly colored. Anthony Smith was the musical director and Kikau Alvaro did the choreography – both of which worked with Tony award nominee Kristin Hanggi’s direction to keep things moving along at a good pace. Amy Clark’s costumes seemed to be in search of an era, with some garments – as well as hairstyles – appearing to be inspired by ancient times and other by futurism. Think Star Trek meets Ancient Greece.

I enjoyed the cast, although many of the characters seemed underdeveloped. There were a lot of people in the cast, but it seems only a few had names we needed to learn or remember. Antoinette Comer was both skillful and interesting in the lead role of Maya, the ruler’s daughter who was determined to rock the proverbial boat, but the role of her counterpart, Kaden, played by Julian R. Decker seemed to have been given less thought – although he did get the most soaring solo of the show,  with  “Let’s Start a War.” Marcus Jordan was interesting but a little stiff as the ship wrecked stranger, Arah, who washed ashore and confirmed Maya’s long-held suspicions and The Order’s worst fears – that there was, indeed, something beyond “the seam” where the sky meets the ocean. A favorite character was Lucy Caudle as the ever-present and deeply observant little sister, Alexa.

Jerold E. Solomon, Katrinah Carol Lewis, Susan Sanford, and Debra Wagoner as some of the adult leaders and parents all had distinct and interesting roles that were not yet fully developed – sort of like the adults in Peanuts who are often depicted as instruments whose sounds are not fully articulated. Of course, this could have been done on purpose, to emphasize the secrecy that shadowed this utopian community.  It will be interesting to see how, as this work is developed and refined, these characters are developed without substantially lengthening the show, which currently runs around two and half hours, with one intermission.

So, like a true utopia, which exists only in the mind, Atlantis is not perfect, but it is an enjoyable musical that is quite unlike all the other offerings of this current season. And it’s definitely worth seeing. For some, it’s pure entertainment, and for others, it represents an opportunity to study a production from its inception and watch how it changes over time.

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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BINGO! The Winning Musical: Grab Your Dauber and a Rabbit’s Foot

BINGO! The Winning Musical: A Birthday Tribute

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: April 19-May 4, 2019

Ticket Prices: $23 General admission; $18 RVATA Members; $13 Students

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

The invitation to “come play Bingo with us” is not just hollow words. The first thing I noticed when I entered the CAT Theatre space on Tuesday evening was the aroma of popcorn. After checking in at Will Call and obtaining my program, I was given a set of bingo cards, a dauber, and a ticket that could be exchanged for a cup of popcorn before the show or during intermission. Inside the theater half the audience seats had been replaced by tables for six, transforming the space into a reasonable replica of a bingo hall.

Bingo! The Winning Musical, with book by Michael Heitzman and Ilene Reid and music and lyrics by Hietzman, Reid, and David Holcenberg, is an interactive comedy that kept the audience engaged with three fairly fast-paced rounds of standard bingo (five-in-a-row) while the actors participated in more advanced versions of the game, such as covering numbers in the shape of a happy face or an airplane. The play, directed by Pat Walker, opens on three friends staring out the window observing a raging storm, and briefly debating the wisdom of attending their weekly bingo storm. Bingo wins out over safety, and they show up late at their favorite bingo hall only to find that they have missed the early bird game and even worse, some newcomers (i.e., theater patrons) have taken their lucky seats.

Honey (Caitlin St. Clair) is a blonde bombshell with a heart of gold. A rather dim bulb, she is three-times divorced and has her eye on Sam (David Atkins), an ex-con auto mechanic who calls the numbers for the bingo games. Patsy (Sandra Clayton) is a petite woman in a brightly colored jogging suit who has adopted a number of superstitious rituals involving troll dolls and rabbits’ feet. She won’t play bingo without performing her rituals, although it has apparently been years since she has actually won a game. Finally, there is the sharp-tongued Vern (Amber Dawn dePass), the leader of ladies’ night out by virtue of her strong personality.

Bingo! The Winning Musical is set in a fictitious suburb in Pennsylvania in current times on the 90th anniversary of the birth of bingo. For some reason, it seems as if the group is celebrating the birthday of Edwin S. Lowe, who popularized – but did not invent – the game of Bingo. Lowe’s portrait has a prominent place center stage, there are birthday cakes, and the cast sings “Happy Birthday” as a postlude. (Interestingly, while it is known that Lowe died on February 23, 1986 in his Manhattan home, his exact birthdate is unknown, other that it was sometime in 1910 in Poland.)

In flashbacks, we learn that fifteen years ago Vern had a major falling out with her best friend, Bernice (Vanessa Fetcher) over a winning bingo card, and the two haven’t spoken since. Since this is a comedy, Bernice’s daughter Alison (Emma Grace Bailey) shows up in the present to try to reconcile her mother and Vern as Bernice is dying. And since this is a comedy, Alison has disguised her long brown hair with a long brown wig – and no one recognizes her except Minnie, the manager of the bingo hall, who tags her as a soap opera actress.

At one point Vern heckles an audience member who is sitting in “her” lucky seat because he has won the door prize – which she even attempts to take from him. Minnie Martinelli, the manager of the bingo hall, maintains order among the ladies, assists the patrons of the bingo hall (including the audience members), and does basic maintenance. This includes everything from keeping everyone calm when the power goes out because of the storm to sweeping up discarded bingo cards to sucking the gas out of a patron’s car to refuel the generator when it runs out of gas.

 

Martinelli, who is played by Cynthia Mitchell, Executive Producer of the Bifocals theater of senior actors and a CAT Theatre Board member, does of all this with a soft voice and surprisingly subtle comedic timing, while dePass and Fletcher carry off the broader, more physical comedy. Bailey’s over the top solo, Nurse Ratched’s Lament from Cuckoo, the musical version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had actors in the audience roaring with laughter.

There are humorous scenes involving a moving portrait and a hidden door, and a “surprise” ending. With all of this going on, it’s a mystery that the first act seemed to drag on far longer than the hour it actually took. And it’s almost possible to forget this is a musical, even though there are at least half a dozen songs and reprises of several. The reason for this, I think, is that while the actors have pleasant voices, they rarely project and soar, but rather sing as if trying not to disturb the neighbors. I’m not sure if this was an artistic decision by music director dePass or due to acoustic limitations. There’s that and also that the music is recorded rather than live. At one point I found myself considering the word parody to describe this show.

In addition to dePass who played Vern and was Music Director, St. Clair did double duty as Honey and the show’s Dance Captain. And Pat Walker was both Director and set designer.  There were several dance numbers featuring umbrellas as props. The minimal set – unusual for CAT Theatre – consisted mostly of black walls, a portrait, a desk for Sam, a table for the Bingo!  ladies, and, of course, the tables for the audience.  Atkins, Fletcher, and Mitchell were all making their debut on the CAT stage. Walker previously directed Enchanted April for CAT a few years ago and has directed the Bifocals senior theater for both Barksdale/Virginia Rep and now Bifocals at CAT.

On leaving the theater, many people remarked how cute Bingo! is, with one describing it as adorable. There is nothing remarkable about Bingo! The Winning Musical. It is an enjoyable, stress—free two hours of musical comedy that doesn’t require the audience to think or make decisions or judgments. And you get to play along.

 

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: Courtesy of Ann Davis

Bingo.1
Sandra Clayton, Amber Dawn dePass, and Caitlin St. Clair
Bingo.2
Sandra Clayto, Caitlin St. Clair, David Atkins, Emma Grace Bailey, and Cynthia Mitchell
Bingo.3
Sandra Clayton, Emma Grace Bailey (front), Amber Dawn dePass (rear), and Caitlin St. Clair

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.