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
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LUCKY ME: A Comedy Exploring the Joys of Being Flawed

LUCKY ME: Finding Joy in the Cracks and Flaws

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: April 6-21, 2018

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

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

Hilarious – but with substance. That is pretty much all you need to know about Robert Caisley’s Lucky Me, but I’ll elaborate a bit anyway.

I would be remiss not to mention the stellar cast. First and foremost, there is Amy Berlin as Sara Fine. Sara isn’t just having a bad day; she’s had a couple of bad decades. When we meet Sara, she’s coming home from the hospital on crutches with her foot in a boot. She fell off the roof. Oh, and it’s New Year’s Eve. Berlin is so well-suited to this role you might think it had been written with her in mind. Cautious, caring, sarcastic, and complex, this is a big, multi-layered role that gradually reveals Sara to be much more than what we see on the surface.

Accompanying Sara is Tom, her new neighbor who kindly rescued her from the bushes and took her to the hospital. Tom is played by Matt Hackman who achieves a heretofore unknown balance of persistence and incredulity. Who knew there would ever be a need for such a balance? A new single male neighbor and a single woman always suggests the opportunity for romance, but these two have so much baggage – or backstory, as Yuri would say. Tom initially appears painfully awkward, but we soon learn that all of Caisley’s characters have more quirks and cracks than seems humanly possible, and that’s what keeps the laughs rolling in waves.

Bill Blair stumbles about – or more precisely hobbles, lifting the left foot as if climbing the stairs or approaching a curb with each step – blindly because his character, Leo, who is Sara’s father, is blind and apparently in the early stages of dementia as well. But the wily Leo has, as Tom so rightfully points out, selective memory loss, and conveniently calls Tom by the name Brad – but telling you why would require a spoiler alert and I think this show is worth seeing for yourself, so that I won’t reveal it here.  Leo’s blindness seems to be selective also, as he navigates the apartment, its step leading to the bathroom and bedrooms, and its kitchen with ease and he conveniently “smells” when Tom is wearing his TSA uniform.

And then there’s Yuri, the buildings landlord who always seems to be hungry and makes most of his entrances from Sara’s bathroom. Todd Schall-Vess, who appears only in the second half, plays Yuri. Sara and her dad live in a second-floor, two-bedroom apartment in Denver, Colorado. That’s important – at least the second-floor part is – because Sara is perpetually plagued by a leaky roof. No matter where she places her fish bowl, the leak will appear over the fish bowl, upset the pH of the water, and kill her fish. Sara also has a light bulb problem. Even when she buys the new squiggly fluorescent kind that are supposed to last for thousands of hours, her light bulbs always burn out. She spent $4700 on light bulbs in one year. Her cat disappeared. The kid across the street keeps breaking her window with a hockey puck and a variety of balls representing different sports. It’s no wonder Yuri feels entitled to help himself to a snack or two. And there’s more. At one point Yuri tries to warn Tom against getting too involved, using a word that probably translates from the Ukrainian as unlucky or cursed, followed by spitting twice in the air.

This quartet works so well together that it must have made director Billy Christopher Maupin’s job that much easier. I liked Eric Kinder’s extremely colorful set, with its fairly spacious living room, narrow kitchen, and detailed hallway leading to the rear of the apartment. Buddy Bishop also did a great job with the sound design, keeping it interesting but subtle. Theo DoBois designed the costumes, and Gracie Carleton the lights. I was slightly disturbed by the stagehands whose frequent appearances seemed too long or too frequent or both – maybe it was because it was so obvious. During one set change, Berlin remained on stage and the audience applauded after the stage hands left; I wasn’t sure if they were applauding the close of the scene or the stagehands.

Lucky Me isn’t an entirely light and fluffy comedy. There are some questions about what is meant by Leo’s wife being gone and how exactly did Leo lose his sight and who was Brad and what happened to him? Some of these questions are answered satisfactorily, but others are not. This helps this quartet seem more human, so that we laugh with them – not just at them.

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: Daryll Morgan Studios http://www.daryllmorganstudios.com

Lucky Me-3
Bill Blair, Amy Berlin, Matt Hackman, and Todd Schall-Vess in “Lucky Me”
Lucky Me-4
Amy Berlin (as Sara) and Matt Hackman (as Tom)
Lucky Me-2
Amy Berlin and Matt Hackman
Lucky Me-1
Matt Hackman and Amy Berlin

ROMEO AND JULIET: When Society Fails its Youth

ROMEO AND JULIET: Young Love and Old Problems

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Produced By: Quill Theatre

At: The Leslie Cheek Theater at the VMFA, 200 N. Boulevard, RVA 23220

Performances: April 6-22, 2018

Ticket Prices: $35 Adults; $30 VMFA Members; $25 RVATA Members; $20 Students

Info: (804) 340-0115/340-1405 or quilltheatre.org or http://reservations.vmfa.museum/state/Info.aspx?EventID=128

Millions of students read Shakespeare every year, and Romeo and Juliet is one of the more popular plays. Most people are probably familiar with the name, and many probably think they know the story. But Romeo and Juliet was meant to be seen, not just read, and this Quill Theatre production makes Romeo and Juliet accessible to today’s audience. It’s not that the language has been changed, but rather that director James Ricks and his very solid cast reveal the basic humanity of the work: the artistry; the layers; the love; the senseless feud; the disconnect between parents and children; grief; and the consequences of not listening to one another – at any age and in any language.

Nate Ritsema, in his first show with Quill Theatre, is a young and earnest Romeo, full of energy and enthusiasm. He is well cast for the part, having made his professional debut in 2016 with the Virginia Shakespeare Festival production of Romeo and Juliet. Liz Earnest, recently seen in the tense drama I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, at TheatreLAB is hardly recognizable as the same person as Juliet. Earnest’s Juliet is unmistakably a teenager. Her mother and nurse make a point of emphasizing near the top of the first act that she is just weeks away from her fourteenth birthday, and her impatient response to her mother’ bidding, her naivete about love, and her lightning quick changes of emotion further attest to her youth. It’s interesting, on some level, that Earnest’s last two roles are as a daughter seeking the approval of a strong and capricious father figure; the outcomes are vastly different.

Matt Shofner is hilarious and more than a little over the top as Romeo’s close friend Mercutio. Of course, he gets killed off in the first half, and no one quite fills his shoes for the remainder of the play. Other humorous moments are provided by Melissa Johnston Price as Juliet’s nurse. Price momentarily steals the show in her big scene with Juliet and her mother as she runs on at the mouth, barely stopping to catch her breath, and starting in again every time Lady Capulet thinks she has found an opening to talk to Juliet. Price’s counterpart is Bo Wilson, making his acting debut with Quill Theatre, where he has more often been credited as writer or director. Wilson was delightful as Friar Lawrence, who unwittingly initiates much of the trouble by marrying Romeo and Juliet against their feuding families’ wishes.

Seen in terms of today’s news, Romeo and Juliet has bullying and gang violence (i.e., the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues), sexual harassment (Lord Capulet’s treatment of his daughter Juliet and his wife Lady Capulet), suicide (both Romeo and Juliet ), drug abuse if you count poison as a drug), and child marriage (Juliet’s marriage to the also-teenaged Romeo, and her father’s plan to marry her off to the obviously adult Paris, played by Axle Burtness). I’m sure there are some other hot topics in there but that’s plenty to start a discussion or two or three. Lady Capulet (Irene Kuykendall) is elegant and obviously oppressed, while Lord Capulet (Colt Neidhardt) comes across as something of a despot not deserving of our sympathy. Other than the lead characters of Romeo and Juliet and the supporting characters of Nurse and Friar Lawrence – and Mercutio – most of the other characters seem intentionally underdeveloped. The reason may be found in the title of the play. It is noteworthy that I attended a preview – prior to opening night – and found few if any of the quirks and rough edges that often mark an opening night. Actors, lights, sounds, fight scenes, all ran remarkably smoothly and aided in the audience’s suspension of belief and overall enjoyment.

Fight choreographer Aaron Orensky had plenty to keep him busy, as the play opens with a brawl and there is swordplay throughout. Costume designer Cora Delbridge created some brilliant designs and some that seemed rather predictable; I think the goal was to strike a balance between traditional and contemporary. If so, some costumes achieved this more than others. Some open sleeves, for example, appeared stylish and elegant and others just looked ripped and torn.  Reed West’s set has simple, clean lines – a balcony, some steps, a bier that serves as a bench, a bed, and a funeral slab – and is given more depth by Michael Jarett’s lighting. All-in-all I somehow enjoyed this production much more than I expected and relished the challenge of comparing traditional versus contemporary themes, thanks to Dr. Matteo Pangallo’s “dramaturge essay” that twice asked why we continue to read and perform Romeo and Juliet couched in terms of older generations that fail their youth and confronting the constraints of the past.

Romeo and Juliet runs for just over two and one half hours, with one intermission, through April 22 with a preview on April 5 and opening night on April 6, Fridays and Saturdays @7:30pm, Sundays @1:30pm. Sunday performances will be followed by a talk with the cast and director.

 

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: Quill Theatre

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AN OAK TREE: The Physical Substance of a Thing

AN OAK TREE: in which nothing is what it appears to be

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: April 4-14, 2018 (8 performances only)

Ticket Prices: $25 General; $10 Students/Military/RVATA

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

 

Every playwright, director, artistic director thinks their work is unique. In the case of Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree I can quite honestly say this is not like any play you’ve ever seen before.

Landon Nagel plays the role of the Hypnotist each night, but the other actor, the Father, is played by a guest actor who has not seen the script before the show. These guest actors, as they are called, will include Aaron Anderson, Brandon Carter, Audra Honaker, Boomie Pedersen, Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, Alan Sader, Foster Solomon, and Tyler Stevens. I went on Wednesday, the preview night, and Audra Honaker had the honor of being the first of the guest actors. For those who are curious how the show might differ with different cast members, the Firehouse is offering an Acorn to Oak Upgrade: for $20 you can come to as many of the performances as you like. I assume the guest actors are forbidden from reading reviews – so if any of you happened to get this far: STOP HERE! Do not read this until April 15!

Without giving away any secrets to legitimate, paying audience members, An Oak Tree does, in fact, have a plot. The Father lost his daughter who was killed after getting hit by a car while walking to her piano lesson. The Hypnotist was the driver of the car. Both men have been affected by the accident. The Father has transferred his love and grief for his daughter onto an oak tree at the side of the road near the accident scene, while the Hypnotist has lost his powers of suggestion. The Father has come to the Hypnotist’s stage show to find answers. After that, things become, well, confusing. Everything that happens, everything that is said is scripted, yet nothing is what it seems to be.

Landon Nagel, who at the beginning of the play describes himself perfectly – 6’2”, thick brown hair – is perfectly cast for the role of Hypnotist. I could not tell whether his frequent verbal stumblings and reversals were scripted or opening-night jitters. Given the Hypnotist’s state of mind, I’ll opt for the former and find out later. Like a true hypnotist, Nagel draws his audience in, and at the end, we’re not quite sure of what we have seen and heard.

Honaker appeared quite confident in her unrehearsed role and even said afterwards that she loved the freedom of not having to over-rehearse. Honaker provided several moments of humor in this otherwise dark play. Nagel feeds her lines, some of which we can hear, and some delivered through an earpiece so that only she can hear. When he asks for volunteers from the audience, Honaker is assigned all the roles, and when the Hypnotist introduces the faux volunteers, Honaker uses a different voice and body language for each. Later, as the Father, after being hypnotized into believing she is naked, she climbs over a piano stool and slips behind the raised stage. Nagel and Honaker worked well together.

About those volunteers: Nagel makes an announcement at the beginning of the play that when he asks for volunteers, the “real” audience is not to respond. On Wednesday night, one audience member either did not hear or choose not to follow those directions and proceeded to behave as if this was a show with audience participation. I did check to see if this was scripted and confirmed that he was, indeed, an actual heckler. Did I mention he was wearing a hat. . .?

The title, An Oak Tree, is taken from Michael Craig-Martin’s conceptual art work of the same name. Created in 1973, Craig-Martin’s work consists of a glass of water on a glass shelf, and an accompanying text. The text, in the form of a Q&A or interview, includes the statements: “I have changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. I didn’t change its appearance. The actual oak tree is physically present, but in the form of a glass of water.”

In the play, the father has changed the physical substance of his daughter into a tree, and the hypnotist has adopted Craig-Martin’s philosophy that the artist speaks to a receptive audience. An Oak Tree is directed by Mark J. Lerman. Tennessee Dixon is the production designer, and Todd Labelle designed the lights. Robbie Kinter’s sound design, which included some original music, was especially effective, subtly creating the perfect hypnotic atmosphere. The technology was seamless. Honaker received a lot of her direction through an earpiece, and Nagel had handle a hand-held mic (which, to my surprise, was not annoying), and tap a foot pedal to switch from talking to the audience to speaking into Honaker’s earpiece.

An Oak Tree is not your usual play; it is, after all, based on a conceptual work of art. What did I think of it? I didn’t know what to expect, and it’s not what I expected. To take a cue from the director, Lerman, “That’s all I have to say….Still need more? Then it’s time to watch the play.” An Oak Tree runs just over an hour, with no intermission.

 

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

AN OAK TREE - Landon Nagel (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Landon Nagel in “An Oak Tree”
1_AN OAK TREE - Landon Nagel (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Landon Nagel in “An Oak Tree”

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