LIVIN’ FAT: Living Large

LIVIN’ FAT: The Return of Good Times

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Pine Camp Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Road, RVA 23227

Performances: November 8-17, 2018 with performances at 8:00 pm November 8, 9, 10, 15, 16 & 17; 10:00 am November 14 and 4:00 pm November 17.

Ticket Prices: $10 for Groups of 10 or more; $12 for Students and Seniors; $15 General Admission

Info: thetheatreubuntu@gmail.com or https://livinfat.brownpapertickets.com/

If Livin’ Fat, the current production by the Heritage Ensemble Theatre at the Pine Camp Cultural Arts and Community Center has the look and feel of a 1970s era sitcom, there is a good reason. It was written by Judi Ann Mason, whose work includes Good Times, Sanford and Son, and A Different World, as well as the film Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. Director dl Hopkins remained true to the sitcom genre, using snappy pacing and staging that made the audience feel as if we were, at times, peering into the Carter family’s living room through an invisible screen. Characters even approached the edge of the stage to look out the window, and often crossed one another precariously close to the edge of the stage.

What’s even more remarkable about Livin’ Fat is that Mason (1955-2009) wrote it when she was a 19-year-old drama student at Grambling State University and it earned her the Norman Lear Award for comedy writing. Given that distinguished history – and the strong cast – I’m upset that I did not, could not love this production.

Livin’ Fat takes place in the “front room” of the Carter family home in the Black Quarter of an unnamed southern town. Yes, that’s what my grandmother called our living room, too. The room is spotless but shabby, and on the wall behind the sofa is the obligatory triptych: Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy. Big Mama (Sharalyn Garrard) is a disillusioned widow, given to snappy comebacks. She also has a surprising affinity for the young people in her life and often sides with her grandchildren much to the chagrin of her daughter. Mama (Andrea Shantell Dunnaville) has a direct line to God and can quote scripture for any situation. She is equally yoked to husband Calvin (Arthur Muhammad), who works two jobs to support his family and is a stalwart deacon at their church. The parents’ faith and the family’s future are tested when their son, David, comes into an unexpected windfall.

David (Akiel Baldwin) is a college graduate who, upon returning home, could find no other work than as a janitor at a bank. A fate would have it, one day while working at the bank, the bank gets robbed and no one noticed that a bundle of money was dropped on the floor where it found its way into David’s dust rag. Later references to the “dust” in his pocket, therefore, have two meanings – the “dust” from his cleaning rag and an old slang term for being so poor there is “nothing but dust” in your pockets.

Garrard is consistently funny, tossing off sarcasm like breathing, waving her wig in the air, referring to her television set as if it were her lover, eating ex-lax chocolate laxatives like candy to soothe her unnamed “condition,” and being contrary just for sport. Dunnaville takes broad comedy to extremes, often to the point of making her character a caricature. On the positive side, her projection and diction are excellent, and we never have any trouble understanding her, even when her daughter Candy (Imani Banks) is blasting music from her bedroom. Muhammad’s portrayal of the father is the most moderate, contained, and realistic of any of the play’s six characters. He is, therefore, a positive role-model and a model black father. Candy is the least developed of the characters in the family, yet Banks takes advantage of every moment on stage. She is the cute but annoying little sister, given to exaggeration, and does not know the meaning of giving up. When sent to her room, she silently reappears in the background, listening to what the grown-ups don’t want her to hear.

As David, Baldwin must walk a delicate line. College educated – and probably the first in his family to attend college – he is expected to do better than his parents’ generation yet must show respect while living in their home. He does not complain about his menial job, but he talks of his dreams with his best friend. For the most part, Baldwin achieves this balance with aplomb, with the assistance of his side-kick Boo (Marsalis McKeever). Boo, who has not gone to college and seems to have no plan at all for his life, is David’s ride-or-die friend who stands out for two characteristics: when he comes into some money, he spends it all on loud clothes; and he speaks out of the side of his mouth, as if he has marbles in his mouth, making it difficult to clearly hear anything he says.

As appealing as these characters are, and as much as they made me laugh, I found the overall production uneven and underwhelming. The juxtaposition of Dunnaville’s broad sitcom comedy with Muhammad’s more conservative portrayal, Dunnaville’s over-enunciation in contrast to McKeever’s muffled utterances, the frequent (and utterly accurate) use of the word “nigger,” (I hate the euphemism, “n-word”), and author Mason and director Hopkins’ adherence to the sitcom genre just didn’t connect for me. After the show, my constant companion and theater date suggested that (a) I wasn’t really black and (b) Livin’ Large would really, really appeal to older black churchgoers (except, perhaps for that word I mentioned above) and potential black theatergoers who don’t go to the theater because they don’t see enough representations of themselves and their lives onstage.

There is, after all a moral dilemma – a foundational element of good storytelling: should David be allowed to keep the “found” money or should he return it? Has he, in fact, committed a crime? Calvin, the head of the household, takes the question to God, and after a period of prayer, the family abides by his decision. To find out what he decided, and how the play ends, I suggest you go see Livin’ Fat for yourself. (Dates and times are listed above.)

Livin’ Fat: written by Judi Ann Mason; directed by dl Hopkins; with lighting by Geno Brantley; sound by dl Hopkins (a nice 70s playlist); costumes (character and period appropriate) by LaWanda Raines; set by Margarette Joyner; carpentry by Vinnie Gonzalez; photography by Pamela Archer-Shaw; and videography by Dewey Collins.

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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Link to WRIC interview with director dl Hopkins and Sharalyn Garrard (Big Mama): https://www.wric.com/community/-livin-fat-hits-the-stage-in-rva/1576260858

Photo Credits: Photos courtesy of Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company

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MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS: A Holiday Heartwarmer

MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS: When Dreams Come True

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: October 27 – December 30, 2018

Ticket Prices: Start at $21

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

Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a musical adaptation of a children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater, and the book for the musical is by Robert Kauzlaric with music and lyrics by George Howe. It is a book unfamiliar to me, my daughter, and my two grandsons, but after spending Sunday afternoon at the Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn it will likely find it way onto our bookshelves this coming holiday season. It has comedy, adventure, and penguins.

Richard Popper is a house painter and decorator of modest means; he and his wife Florence live on a strict budget that does not allow for the travel and adventures Mr. Popper dreams of. He is especially fond of Antarctic exploration and penguins. Of course, there’s more to the story. Imagine their surprise when the Poppers hear on the radio that Mr. Popper’s favorite explorer, Admiral Drake, has received Mr. Popper’s fan letter and is responding with a surprise. Soon a large crate is delivered to the Popper’s Stillwater, Minnesota home and inside is a genuine Gentoo penguin from Antartica that quickly becomes a part of the Popper’s little family. (In the book, it seems the Poppers were British and have two children, but in the musical the live in the USA and their only children are the feathered kind.)

The Popper’s household soon expands, as their male penguin, Captain Cook, eventually grows lonely, and an aquarium that Mr. Popper contacts for help has a lonely female penguin, Greta, that they generously ship to the Popper’s residence. The next thing you know, there are ten penguin chicks and the poor Poppers have to figure out how to keep all these penguin bellies full of fresh fish and frozen shrimp. Their solution – Popper’s Performing Penguins – leads to more hilarity and the gradual realization that touring on the vaudeville circuit is no way for a family of birds to live.

Yes, I said vaudeville. Mr. Popper’s Penguins was written in 1938 and vaudeville as well as references to the WPA (the federal government’s New Deal Administration program called the Works Progress Administration from 1935-1939, when it was renamed the Work Projects Administration), along with Mrs. Popper’s job search and the family’s focus on finances will likely go over the heads of the young audience members as well as most of their parents. Let’s face it, I’m a grandmother, and this was before my time, too. I only know about these things because I teach dance history! My daughter did ask what WPA was, but neither grandson seemed to notice or care.

All the shenanigans are skillfully handled by director Josh Chenard, with musical direction by Jason Marks and choreography by Wes Seals. A cast of five talented actors play all the roles – some thirteen different characters, with Derrick Jacques as Mr. Popper and Renee McGowan as Mrs. Popper. Keaton Hillman Emma-Claire Polich, (both ensemble) and Eve Marie Tuck (swing) play all the other characters. Both Kingston (age 10) and his mom Soleil were impressed by Keaton Hillman who changed characters, costumes and accents with the dexterity of a magician, and manipulated the Captain Cook penguin puppet as well.

Yes, the two adult penguins were large puppets (credit Kylie Clark with the puppet design – something Virginia Rep Children’s Theatre does so well) while the 10 penguin chicks were smaller, stuffed versions. Emmitt (age 4) was enthralled by the penguins. He spent most of the hour (no intermission) perched on the edge of his seat, his eyes wide open so as not to miss anything. He did tear his eyes away from the stage to lean in and ask his mom, “Can I have a pet penguin?” He made a second earnest plea out in the parking lot, adding that the penguin could live in the refrigerator.

With about six musical numbers, Mr. Popper’s Penguins moved at a fairly rapid pace – but never felt rushed. Jaques and McGowan carried most of the story, and their voices are strong and clear, making it easy for attendees of all ages to understand the lyrics. Jeanne Nugent’s costumes are lovely – especially the women’s wide-legged pants that remind me of Ms. Celie’s pants from The Color Purple. Mrs. Popper’s apron, Mr. Popper’s bow tie, and painter’s coveralls, and the props used by the various characters (a wooden dog, a hat with the gray hair attached, Mr. Popper’s painter’s ladder and pipe) are all overly exaggerated, almost cartoonish.

Taking this theme about as far as it could go, Chris Raintree’s set includes larger than life library books that open up to reveal entire rooms. “Atkinson’s Kitchen Companion” houses the Popper’s kitchen while their living room is housed within a tome entitled “432 Proudfoot Avenue” and the admiral’s ship is docked inside a book on Antarctic exploration. The production is visually stimulating but not over stimulating.

There’s also lots of word play. Captain Cook and Greta’s brood are given the names of famous explorers, such as Ferdinand, Columbus, and Magellan. There’s also Isabella and Victoria, who wears a tiara. Finally, but not least, there is all the alliteration! Mr. Popper’s Penguins alliterates just about every “p” word you can think of, and when they run out of “p” words they alliterate other letters of the alphabet.

Recommended for ages 4 and up, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a family-friendly production that is perfect for the younger members of the audience and is being offered as an alternative or addition to holiday staples, such as The Nutcracker. Unlike many productions of past seasons, there is none of the double entendre and innuendo that seemed to be intended for the adults. Here, the focus is all on the pleasure of the kids, and Kingston and Emmitt would give this production a combined two thumbs up.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

Mr Popper's Penguins
Renée McGowan and Derrick Jaques. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Mr Popper's Penguins
Renée McGowan and Derrick Jaques. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Mr Popper's Penguins
Eve Marie Tuck, Derrick Jaques, Renée McGowan, Keaton Hillman, Emma-Claire Polich. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

SONGS FROM BEDLAM: The Lunatics Take Over the Asylum

SONGS FROM BEDLAM: Tu Es Fou

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: October 18 – November 4, 2018; Daily Planet Health Services benefit w/ post show talkback on October 28 and Friends 4 Recovery benefit w/ post show talkback on November 4

Ticket Prices: $15 – $30

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

 

Songs From Bedlam is a new production of Richmond playwright Douglas Jones’ play that gives voice to the insane, the homeless, the alcoholic, and the overlooked. First produced by Barksdale Theatre (now VirginiaRep) in 2003, the script has been revised, the direction has been placed in the hands of Todd LaBelle, Jr. who allows the characters to unfold naturally and unadorned, and the actors are placed on display in a three-dimensional, interactive box designed by Chris Raintree.

And I use the phrase “placed on display” quite deliberately. The characters are placed on display like fish in an aquarium, like animals in a zoo, like freaks in a sideshow, like the conjoined twins and women from Africa who were considered curiosities during the World’s Fair. In a way, it appeals to our baser instincts, yet it is hard to look away. At times, I felt that by sitting in the audience, we had stolen the final shreds of dignity and privacy that these poor people had. Songs From Bedlam is compelling and brutal, and meant more for discussion and introspection than entertainment.

LaBelle has a strong ensemble to work with: Axle Burtness, Claire M. Gates, Irene J. Kuykendall, Jonathan Hardison, Granville Scott, and Linda Snyder fill the generic roles of nameless characters identified only as Young Man, Young Woman, Woman, Man, Old Man, and Old Woman.

Burtness, for instance, portrays an affable but obsessed man who is driven to visit the aquarium every day and stare at the same exhibit, while Kuykendall tells the compelling story of a prostitute who killed a client who violated her one rule, “don’t kiss me.” Later she tells the heartrending story of a woman who could not let go of her dead baby and Gates uses sign language for her monologue because her character has cut out her own tongue. Snyder’s character speaks of childhood abuse and Scott’s alcoholic character is, perhaps, the most familiar – sort of like the philosophical alcoholic uncle at the family reunion.

The set has a top, and the back wall has panels that slide out to provide walls and benches, but the front and sides are open, and a handful of audience members were invited to sit onstage, in observer seats provided for that purpose – a reminder that Elizabethans in the 16th century would pay a fee to visit Bethlehem Hospital, from which Bedlam got its name, and watch the “lunatickes.”  There are also some interesting lighting effects by Andrew Bonniwell, especially at the beginning when Burtness is inside the aquarium. This is, indeed, an innovative format, and an all-encompassing environment, but the historical precedent and subject matter are somewhat distasteful, and this is theater that deliberately and bravely sets out to discomfort rather than entertain its audience.

The characters are costumed in plain, off-white scrubs, like prison uniforms, which Nic Charlie Perez has decorated with words and pictures that are significant to each character. Burtness, for instance, wears eyes and Snyder has the image of the Virgin Mary and the words “you are my angel” and “smack.”  Hardison’s top bears the words “silly fellow” while Kuykendall sports the warning “do not kiss me.”

For all its harshness, Songs From Bedlam is filled with beautiful, poetic language. Jones has a way with words, and in addition to the sign language (which I thought went on too long without interpretation or at least captioning), there are liberal sprinklings of French, Spanish, and Latin, all enhanced by Ryan Dygert’s subtle sound design that includes echoes and whispers as well as music, including some original music composed by Kelly Kennedy.

For this production, the Firehouse Theatre is partnering with community organizations, the Daily Planet Health Services and Friends 4 Recovery Whole Health Center, with talkbacks and receptions for the October 28 and November 4 productions. There is also a related PhotoVoice exhibit in the lobby. The post show talkbacks should prove to be interesting, as the serious, real life, depressing nature of this subject matter is not the usual subject matter of an evening of theater. Do not go to Songs of Bedlam expecting a 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: Tom Topinka

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GUTENBERG! The Musical! (with two exclamation points!!)

GUTENBERG! The Musical! (Really)

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

At: Libby S. Gottwald Playhouse, Dominion Energy Center, 600 E. Grace Street, RVA 23219

Performances: October 12 – November 3, 2018, Thursdays-Saturdays @8:00pm & Sundays @2:00pm.

Ticket Prices: $32 Adults; $27 Seniors; $22 Students & RVATA Members (with ID)

Info: (804) 353-4241 or quilltheatre.org

 

Gutenberg! The Musical! is a play-within-a-play written by Anthony King and Scott Brown who present their comedic farce as a backer’s audition of an historical fiction about the German printer Johannes Gutenberg. Got that? Stay with me, because it doesn’t get any simpler.

Chris Hester and Paul S. Major play the authors Doug Simon and Bud Davenport, who are pitching their musical in hopes of finding someone to back them in a Broadway run. The show is hyped as big, splashy, and better than all others of its genre. But they have no actors, just a few props and a collection of baseball hats with the names of all the characters (e.g., Drunk #1, Drunk #2, Mother, Daughter, Gutenberg, Monk, Helvetica, Old Black Narrator). Doug and Bud switch hats as they rotate through the characters, sometimes stacking them for efficiency, or wearing one on their head and one on each hand to simulate crowd scenes. They string hats on a line, held up with the assistance of two audience members, and are even able to create a chorus line. Musical numbers from honkytonk to rock ‘n roll and romantic ballads are interspersed with puns, explanations of musical theater terminology, such as the definition of a metaphor, an example of a charm song, and a running gag recurring line involving dirty thatched roofing.

Early in the play the authors admit that their “research” consisted of a brief Google search, the result of which was that there is very little known about the life and times of Johann Gutenberg. So. . .they decided to just make up stuff, hence the historical fiction. Among the things they made up is the name of Gutenberg’s fictitious love interest, Helvetica and, apparently, the name of the town, Schlimer – a word that is suspiciously similar to schleimer, which loosely means “ass-kisser.” There is also a totally unrelated connection to the Holocaust, and several unkind and politically incorrect references to stupidity. Monk, the evil monk, calls Helvetica a “dumb German anti-Semite,” and Helvetica later sings that “history is paved with the hearts of the stupid.” Oh, and Gutenberg starts out as a winemaker, who handily turns his wine press into a printing press, quite forgetting to tell his lovely, love-truck assistant that she can stop tromping on her bucket of grapes.

Hester and Major, of necessity, remain on stage the entire time, and they are accompanied by Charlene (musical director Leilani Fenick). Both are enthusiastic, energetic, and affable, as Jan Guarino’s direction and choreography keep everything moving along at a fast clip. The eighteen or so people in the Sunday matinee audience seemed to have a great time. There was lots of laughter and applause, and a woman I chatted with during intermission made a point of telling me, completely unsolicited, that she was very happy that she could clearly hear and understand all the lyrics – something that is often a problem in musicals.

There’s just one major problem. Rather than humorous, or zany, I just found the whole thing silly. It tries too hard and, at least for me, there was no “aha” moment that made it all worthwhile. I don’t care that it isn’t big and splashy, that there are just two actors, no sets, and no laser lights, but, I’m sorry, Doug and Bud, Gutenberg! The Musical! isn’t better than Cats!!

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Photos from Quill Theatre’s Facebook page

Gutenberg.1

Gutenberg.2
Paul S. Major and Chris Hester
Gutenberg.3
Chris Hester and Paul S. Davenport

BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY: Location, Location, Location

BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY: The Family We Choose Sometimes Chooses Us

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company

At: Theatre Gym, Virginia Repertory Center, 114 W. Broad St., RVA 23220

Performances: October 13 – November 4, with previews on October 11 & 12 and talkbacks October 21 & 28

Ticket Prices: $10-35

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

 

Written in 2014, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s multiple-award winning play, Between Riverside and Crazy, could have been ripped directly from current headlines about police shootings of black men in America, but it was actually inspired by the shooting of a black undercover officer by an off-duty white officer on a New York City subway train in 1994.

Add to a controversial shooting the additional components of illegal activities, drug and alcohol addiction, strained relationships, faltering faith, and unresolved grief, and you have the makings of a compelling drama. Walter “Pops” Washington, the cantankerous patriarch, is played by David Emerson Toney, an experienced actor who is an Assistant professor of Acting and Directing at VCU, but new to the Richmond stage.

Toney’s portrayal of Pops is a delicate balancing act of rage, hurt feelings, loss, love, and longing. At any given time, the audience is not sure which emotion is going to come bubbling up and erupt over Rich Mason’s set – the kitchen and living room (later bedroom) of what is described as a “pre-war apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City.” It’s important to know that this is an unusually spacious apartment, in a highly desirable neighborhood, that it is protected by long-standing rent control laws that prevent the landlord from pricing the coveted units out of the reach of (mostly elderly) residents. Pops starts drinking early in the morning and is so fond of the word m—–f—– that it appears that it’s even the preferred name for his dog.

After the death of his wife, Pops opened his home to his son Junior (Jerold E. Solomon) who shares more than a name with his father. It was interesting to see Solomon, who is often cast in the role of the father figure, placed in the position of prodigal son. The chemistry and conversations between father and son provided some of the most fascinating and revelatory moments in the entire play.

In addition to father and son, the household includes Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Juliana Caycedo) and Junior’s friend Oswaldo (Thony Mena). Lulu is a somewhat mysterious figure, simultaneously portrayed as a good girl and a “working girl.” She is genuinely caring, but there is something off about her, which is never really explained. Oswaldo is presented as a strong, sympathetic figure – a set-up for one of two completely shocking events in this two-act play. Individually both Lulu and Oswaldo share a special relationship with their host, and both call Pops “Dad.” I loved everything about both Mena and Caycedo, right down to her skin tight clothing and his Nuyorican accent.

Supporting characters included Bianca Bryan as Pop’s former partner, Detective Audrey O’Connor and Larry Cook as her fiancé, Lieutenant Caro.  They take turns playing good cop/bad cop and frequently confuse the difference between caring and coercion. I found the dynamic between Bryan and Cook interesting, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe Bryan’s tears when her character tried to play the victim; she just seemed too strong for that. Last but not least there was Maria Hendricks as the Church Lady, an almost mythic creature who appearance, long after we had been told to expect her, was a startling contrast to what I had been led – or lulled – to expect. Hendricks provided the second big shock of the evening, in a most delightful and humorous way, blending sex and spirituality with an unexpected cultural twist.

Between Riverside and Crazy reminds me of those commercials that point out that families are what we make them. There is nothing standard about this family, but there is something unsettlingly familiar about each member and the family unit they have created. The final scene raises more questions than it answers. “Does it have a happy ending?” asked the woman I met and chatted with pleasantly throughout the evening. “That depends,” I responded. It depends on what constitutes happiness for you. It depends on which questions are important to you, what you need answers for, and how much ambiguity you can live with. What is important to you, and what can you live without?

Rich Mason’s set manages to achieve an elaborate sense of spaciousness, but the aged and drab furnishings contrasted oddly, to my eye, with the tall elegant windows, and the kitchen appeared outdated, even though the exact time-frame was never clear. And maybe it was just me, but the family’s entrances and exits from both an upstage door and a downstage corner and their sudden appearances on the rooftop sometimes seemed to defy the laws of physics. Jesse Senechal included some subtle and appropriate effects in the sound design while Sarah Grady’s costuming was appropriate and consistent for each character – although I did wonder, if is it common for police officers to come to dinner in uniform.

Tawnya Pettiford-Wates has directed Between Riverside and Crazy with sensitivity and perception. The cast has responded with authenticity that defies perfection. The resulting experience makes for unforgettable, must-see theatre.

NOTE: Between Riverside and Crazy contains adult language and is recommended for viewers ages 16+.

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 Collins Photography

 

 

VaRep_Cadence_Between_Riverside_3
Jerold E. Solomon, Juliana Caycedo, Bianca Bryan, and David Emerson Toney
VaRep_Cadence_Between_Riverside_4
Bianca Bryan, Larry Cook, and David Emerson Bryan
Between Riverside and Crazy
David Emerson Toney. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.
VaRep_Cadence_Between_Riverside_6
Jerold E. Solomon and Juliana Caycedo

 

Between Riverside and Crazy
David Emerson Toney and Maria Hendricks. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.
Between Riverside and Crazy
Thony Mena and David Emerson Toney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LIZZIE: An Axe Musical

LIZZIE:  The Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

5th Wall Theatre

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

Performances: October 11-November 3, 2018

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

Info: (804) 359-2003 or https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3613679

 

Lizzie Bordon took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one. Who would ever think of turning the story of Lizzie Borden into a musical? Well, apparently the team of Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Steven Hewitt (music), Cheslik-deMeyer and Tim Maner (lyrics), and Maner (book and additional music). The punk rock opera got its start as an experimental theater piece in 1990, and by 2013 had evolved into a two-act rock opera with an all-female cast and hard-driving (but thankfully not deafening) music.

Thanks to the opening number and finale, that old jump-rope rhyme will be stuck in my head for days, as will bits and pieces of this fascinatingly odd and weirdly satisfying piece of theater. Rachel Rose Gilmour is Lizzie Borden, while Rachel Marrs plays her sister Emma Borden, Anne Michelle Forbes takes the role of Lizzie’s friend Alice Russell, and Michaela Nicole fills the high-top sneakers of Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, the Borden’s maid.  Pualani “Lani” Felling and Morgan Lynn Meekins both pull triple duty “Roadies” who sing with the onstage band and also act as stagehands, moving the microphone stands and trunks that serve as the only props; they are also the understudies for the four main characters.

The five-piece band, under the very capable direction of Starlet Knight, is not merely accompaniment, as the music is the driving force behind this entire concept, and what a concept it is! The story of the bloody murders of Lizzie Borden’s stepmother and her father have been the subject of so many tales – in literature, movies, an opera, a television series, a ballet – that it seems more legend than fact. This production seems to freely mix fact and fiction as well as to attempt to time travel, placing the events of 1892 into the modern era of punk rock. Alex Valentin’s costumes are a blend of Victorian couture, 19th century bordello, and punk rock. Vinnie Gonzalez’ set design looks like the backstage area of a rock concert, consisting of stacks of trunks, speakers, and microphone stands. The band and their instruments and the roadies occupy the upstage area, and the actors and roadies often strut and stride, sometimes confronting the audience up close.

Lizzie, the Musical creates a big feel in an intimate space and I could not imagine it in a larger space. It needs to be seen and heard and felt from up close. Rachel Rose Gilmour gives a dynamic performance, running through a range of emotions from rage to fear, from crying out in desperation to vulnerability. There are intimations of abuse, incest, and lesbian relationships. There is murder and mystery, and while in real life Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murders and lived out the rest of her life in the same town where the murders took place, Fall River, Massachusetts, there also seems to be a confession and a cover-up.

The entire cast is powerful, but in addition to Gilmour, I must mention Michaela Nicole. Not only does she give Bridget/Maggie a mysteriously strong attitude, but the woman can rock and roll with the best of them, and clearly makes this maid more than a supporting role. Marrs brings an edge to the sister, Emma and Forbes shows the friend Alice caught in the conflict between loyalty and truth.

If blood, gore, murder, mystery, strong women, and loud music with a head-banging beat appeal to you, you won’t go wrong with Lizzie, the 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: 5th Wall Theatre

THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY: Who Dared to Be Different

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey: The Price of Being Different

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: October 6-15, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-20

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Sweet. It’s not a word one would normally attach to the story of a 14-year-old murder victim, but in the case of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey it fits.

This one-man show written and originally performed by James Lecesne is the simply and intimately told tale of a young boy who, when life served him lemons, made a huge bowl of punch and shared it with the entire town. Leonard, who was sent to live with his non-biological aunt (you know, the extended family kind of aunt) was unapologetically different with his green plaid capri pants and his rainbow colored platform sneakers, made by gluing layers of flip-flop soles to the bottoms of a pair of Converse sneakers.

Jeffrey Cole, under the careful and understated direction of Melissa Rayford, allows the story to unfold with sensitivity and even a bit of humor as he portrays nine different characters in a small Jersey shore town where being different will get you chased home from school with sticks – and, ultimately, tied up in fisherman’s knots, wrapped in a net, and dumped in a lake. Some of the most touching and revealing speeches are given by Leonard’s cousin Phoebe Hertle (16, going on 45); his drama teacher, the locally famous Buddy Howard; his aunt’s client, the “high-hair redhead” Marian Tochterman; and the old clockmaker, Otto, in whose shop Leonard seeks refuge from the neighborhood bullies. The story is largely narrated by Chuck DeSantis, the detective assigned to Leonard’s case. In a surprise ending, the detective’s life is touched maybe more than any other.

Perhaps because it was originally a young adult novel, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey lacks the rawness, the intensity of The Laramie Project. Leonard is running in tandem with The Laramie Project and uses the same set – stripped bare of the locational identifiers. In fact, Leonard requires only a single folding chair, a small work table, and an evidence box. The rest of the atmosphere is created by Michael Jarett’s subdued lighting and a rather agreeably layered sound design by Lucian Restivo, who also did the set.

Some of the characters seem more caricature than genuine. Marian, for example, bears more than a little resemblance to Alice from the 1970s sitcom of the same name – yes, the Alice, who with her own “high-hair” coined the phrase, “kiss my grits.”  Cole subtly varies the nuances of each character, changing his posture, adding a gesture or a tilt of the head, but it sometimes took a moment or a few words before I was certain which character he was portraying. He did not seem to have the lightning fast reflexes of Stevie Rice or Scott Wichmann – both of whom are currently appearing in The Laramie Project, but in the end, he delivered the story with a sensitivity, gentleness, and sense of wonder that left the audience with a feeling of comfort that did not excuse the horror of what happened, but somehow tinged it with a veneer of sweetness. This sweetness was, I think, more a reflection of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey¸ of the character of that young man, and the lasting ways in which he touched those around him, than any attempt to downplay the very real dangers of homophobia and hate crimes.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey runs about 75 minutes, with no intermission. I am glad I went, but before recommending it to others, I would caution that seeing both The Laramie Project and The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey might prove overwhelming to some. To paraphrase Leonard Pelkey’s friends – you might be doing too much.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Louise Ricks

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