girlfriend: a tender tale of first love

GIRLFRIEND: A Summer Romance

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: June 24 – July 9, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10-20

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Girlfriend, a two-person musical, is a summer romance about first love. Set in a small town in Nebraska in 1993, in the weeks following high school graduation, the story follows two young men as they explore their first love. The girlfriend of the title is an unseen but central character – much like the adults in Charlie Brown’s world – and one begins to wonder if she really exists at all. The budding love, so tenderly explored by Todd Almond’s book and carried along by Matthew Sweet’s punchy and energetic rock music and lyrics, is between Will, a sort of nerdy young man with a charming sense of humor and no plans for the future, and Mike, a popular jock who struggles with his attraction to Will as well as with his father’s plans for his future.

Cooper Sved, who was most recently seen in RTP’s Corpus Christi, plays Will, and infuses his character with energy, and endearing insightfulness. I am less familiar with Ray Wrightstone, who was recently in the cast of Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England (as an Early Man in a museum diorama). Wrightstone, who looked every inch the handsome jock, struck a tenuous balance that admirably captured Mike’s tension as he navigated the treacherous waters between his father’s expectations that he attend medical school, his teammates who hungrily chomped at the bit at any hint of homosexuality, his attraction to Will, and his desire to please everybody and not upset the boat. Of course, it is an impossible challenge.

Sved and Wrightstone are supported by a rocking four-piece band, under the musical direction of Levi Meerovich on keyboards. The band, especially the women, Hannah Goad and Roxanne Cook, provide background vocal support and even get a number of their own. My only complaint is that the music was sometimes too loud and overpowered the dialogue.

Chelsea Burke’s direction kept the one act play – running about an hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission – moving along at a great pace, assisted by some lively choreography by Aza Raine. Running in tandem with Grey Gardens, The Musical, girlfriend remarkably managed to transform the larger production’s set so that it was unrecognizable. Michael Jarett provided the moody lighting, and Dylan Eubanks provided the sound design – which included some very amusing movie sound effects. A running joke in the show is that Will and Mike keep attending the same movie all summer.

Something about the intensity and intimacy of this story reminded me of The Last Five Years, another powerful musical duet that was produced at TheatreLAB The Basement during their 2017/2018 season. After just a little digging around I found that Chelsea Burke also directed that show. So now, I’m not sure if the similarities I felt were due to the story lines or the genres or to the director’s special touch. It could be a combination of all of the above. At any rate, it makes me want to pay special attention to Burke’s future work. At this writing only two performances of girlfriend remain – on July 8 and 9, so don’t put it off if you plan to see this touching musical duet.

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: RTP website and Facebook page

 

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THE WIZ: Ease on Down the Road

THE WIZ: Everybody Rejoice!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: June 21 – August 4, 2019

Ticket Prices: $36-63

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

 

OMG! I can’t think of a better time than the night I spent at Virginia Rep’s production of The Wiz!

The Wiz is a familiar story, based on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The all-black version is familiar to many, from the 1975 Broadway show, starring Stephanie Mills as Dorothy (with book by William F. Brown, lyrics by Charlie Smalls, and choreography by my former teacher, George Faison) or from the 1978 film version starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow.
Virginia Rep, under the direction of Artistic Director Nathaniel Shaw and Director/Choreographer Kikau Alvaro uses the Brown/Smalls script, but with re-imagined staging, using scenery by Kimberly V. Powers and costumes by Jeanne Nugent that were inspired by Afrofuturism and visual artists of the African American diaspora (e.g., Romare Beardon and Lina Iris Viktor). In layman’s terms, think Wakanda, and you have a pretty good idea: African prints meet modern technology and run into urban swag. It may not have lived up to the verbal description, but the colors and styles really popped and worked well with Alvaro’s dynamic choreography.

The movement ranged from ballet to urban to tap. I sat up and took notice of the tornado, created by the dancing ensemble and the orchestra and my respect for the choreography and dancing remained at an all-time high throughout the first act. I recognized the dance expertise of Ira White – a member of the Richmond Ballet – before I could even see his face, and other ensemble dancers, including Michelle Mercedes and Rachel Seeholzer brought the ensemble up a notch or two from the usual ho-hum musical theater dancing. When D. Jerome Wells, the Tin Man, broke out into a smooth tap dance, my heart melted – for about the fourth time, and it was only the first act!

My heart started melting with the orchestra’s Overture, under the able musical direction of Anthony Smith. The entire score – which gave equal weight to the instrumental and the vocals throughout the production – was absolute perfection. The sound quality was very good, and vocals were clear, even when spoken off stage. My heart melted yet again when Toto ran across the stage at the beginning of Act One, and for the third time when Desirée Roots, as Aunt Em (one of THREE roles she plays) serenaded Dorothy with “The Feeling We Once Had.”

I know people were smitten with Brandon LaReau’s Lion, and rightfully so, as he owned that role and played it for every laugh and tender moment he could wring out of the very willing audience, but I quickly developed a soft spot for Dylan T. Jackson’s Scarecrow, whose insightful comments throughout belied his lack of a brain. When the Tin Man described how, as a flesh-and-blood woodcutter, he had cut of first one leg and then the other, Scarecrow asks why he didn’t think that, perhaps, he needed to get rid of the cursed ax. And speaking of the Tin Man, not only did Wells win me over with his tap dancing, but he closed out Act One with a soulful rendition of “What Would I Do If I Could Feel?” that was worthy of an R&B concert date night.

By the end of the first act, my face hurt from smiling and laughing, my eyes were leaking from laughing and an overload of joy, and my heart was a puddle on the floor at my feet. But this show wasn’t done with me yet. It wasn’t enough that Desirée Roots melted my heart with her ballad to Dorothy, she then killed it with an over-the-top performance as the good witch Addaperle. Her wand didn’t work, she couldn’t make herself disappear, and she carried her magic paraphernalia in a gigantic glittery handbag. She was like a magical, bedazzled version of everybody’s favorite, slightly inebriated aunt at the family cookout. Then in the second act she threw down as a punk-rock styled Evillene in black lace, a bustier, and thigh-high boots. “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” was never sung better.

Jessi Johnson didn’t appear until midway through the second act, as Glinda, a good witch. Dressed regally, with a torch-carrying entourage, she graced us with her powerful and sensuous voice in “A Rested Body” and a reprise of “Believe in Yourself” before making a diva-worthy exit.

I didn’t forget Dorothy. Mariah Lyttle, a recent graduate of Ithaca College, has a voice to be reckoned with. While she was strong and clear in “Soon As I Get Home” and other songs with the ensemble and her motley entourage, she was really able to shine in the heartfelt Finale, “Home.”

Jerold E. Solomon also did double duty, as Uncle Henry in the first act and as The Wiz in the second. Solomon more than met the challenge of “Ya’ll Got It” after revving up, so to speak, from the mild-mannered misfit who became The Wiz to a hyped-up revivalist-style preacher who poured a heavy dose of self-empowerment on the citizens of Oz before disappearing in his magically restored hot air balloon.

There may be no such thing as perfect, but I couldn’t find a single thing I didn’t like – no, love – about this production of The Wiz. There are a few, shall we say, strong words or innuendos, but this is, overall, a family-friendly production. The couple sitting next to us was a grandmother on a date with her pre-teen grandson. There were lots of children in the audience, which was more diverse, overall, than one usually finds in the November Theatre. With all that’s going on – the scene changes, the sparkling lighting effects, the music, the songs, the dancing that moves off the stage and into the aisles – the entire production runs just slightly over two magical hours. I hope I have time to see this beautiful show again before it closes on August 4. It’s pure happiness on a stage.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer (who was once a poppy in a scene from The Wiz), teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

The Wiz
D. Jerome Wells (Tin Man) and Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy). Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy) and Jerold E. Solomon (The Wiz). Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Desirée Roots (Evillene). Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Wiz.1
Desirée Roots as Aunt Em, Addaperle, and Evillene.

 

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GREY GARDENS, THE RECLUSIVE MUSICAL

GREY GARDENS: Poor Little Rich Girls

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: June 24 – July 27, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10-40

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Grey Gardens, The Musical, with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie is a two-act musical that is full of humor and drama and emotion. But the two things that make this musical stand out are the fact that it is about real people and that both of these people are brought to life by the enormously talented Susan Sanford.

On the advice of a friend and colleague, I watched Albert and David Maysles’ 1976 documentary Grey Gardens prior to attending the musical. The award-winning cinéma-vérité chronicles the tragedy and wonder of these two women, both named Edie, both of whom defied the laws of society and blazed a trail that few would want to follow. Like a road-side accident, I didn’t want to watch, but it was impossible not to look and as fascinating and heart-rending as the documentary was, it didn’t even come close to the emotional roller coaster that Wright, Frankel, and Korie created in this musical, brought to life on the RTP stage by director Debra Clinton and musical director Kim Fox. I may have laughed at Sanford’s antics, both as “Big” Edie in the first act and “Little” Edie in the second act, but I was in tears by the time the cast took their final bows.

Grey Gardens, for those, like me, who do not follow society, was the estate of Edith Bouvier Beale, an aunt of our former First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, and her daughter, “Little” Edie Bouvier Beale. “Little” Edie was a debutante in the early 1940s, apparently with somewhat of a reputation, as she was nicknamed “Body Beautiful Beale.” Her young cousins Jacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier and her sister Lee Radziwill were apparently frequent visitors to the 28-room East Hampton Estate in its heyday. My favorite line, spoken by “Little” Edie in the second act: “It’s a mean, nasty Republican town.”

The first act of Grey Gardens, The Musical mixes fact and fiction, and it’s not clear where the line is drawn. But it seems that mother Edie’s love of singing went against her husband’s puritanical grain, and he took off to Mexico with his lover Linda and obtained a quickie divorce. After that, things quickly went downhill at Grey Gardens, and by the time we get to the second act – and by the time the Maysles show up with their cameras – the place has fallen into disrepair. Much of the dialogue in the second act is taken straight from the documentary – another reason to do the homework and watch it before seeing the show.

There are holes in the walls that allow free access to all the stray cats and racoons the two women have adopted, the mansion is full of fleas, and there is apparently little or no working plumbing. When “Little” Edie prepares a plate of pâté for her mother, the woman sitting next to me and I gasped, unsure if the surely expired can contained pâté or cat food. The Suffolk County Board of Health was on the verge of condemning the house and evicting the two Edies until their more solvent relatives stepped in and made the necessary repairs. It is unclear whether this made much of a difference in the Edies’ lifestyle – and I kept wondering how they were supporting themselves. Who was paying the taxes, and the grocery bill, and how is it that the lights were still on?

Practical considerations aside, Gray Gardens, The Musical is equally hilarious and heartbreaking. In addition to Susan Sanford, who acts and sings her heart out and is outrageously funny, first as the overbearing mother Edith Bouvier Beale in Act One and then as “Little” Edie in Act Two. Sanford does an impressive job balancing “Little” Edie’s desire to break away from her mother and become independent against her sense of responsibility to stay and take care of her mother. This dilemma is beautifully foreshadowed in Act One by Grey Garrett, who plays the Young “Little” Edie Beale. One minute Garrett is begging her mother, played by Sanford, not to sing, the next she is defending her right to do so when her grandfather, “Major” Bouvier, played by Kirk Morton, denigrates his daughter for her eccentricities and quiet consent to her absent husband’s affairs. Boomie Pedersen as “Big” Edie, the mother, in the Prologue and Act Two has mastered the role of the screaming, overbearing mother – possibly in the early to mid- stages of dementia, although with manipulating, narcissistic personalities it’s sometimes hard to tell – to the point where you almost forget she’s just acting. The dysfunctional chemistry between Pedersen and Sanford is a force to behold.

Also doing double duty were Durron Marquis Tyre, as the servant Brook, Sr., in Act One and his son, Brook, Jr., in Act Two and Elijah Williams as “Little” Edie’s fiancé Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. in Act One and “Big” Edie’s friend Jerry in Act Two. It was interesting that Brook, Sr., seemed more refined that his son. Sr. wore a cutaway suit, while Jr. wore overalls – a reflection of the state of the house. I liked Williams in his role as Jerry more than as Kennedy, perhaps because the second character and his relationship to the family more closely reflected the oddities and conflicts of these fascinating women.

Caroline Berry and Anya Rothman were sweet and adorable as the young Jackie and Lee Bouvier, and Eddie Webster had an interesting supporting role as George Gould Strong, “Big” Edie’s accompanist and companion.

Frank Foster’s scenic design was serviceable, but unremarkable, although the production did a good job changing from relative grandeur in Act One to shabbiness in Act Two. Matthew Banes’ lighting and Joey Luck’s sound design both enhanced the overall effects, but Ruth Hedberg’s costumes and Joel Furtick’s hair and makeup really nailed it. “Little” Edie’s costumes for Act Two were spot on and would probably get a word of approval from the real “Little” Edie.

The broad and flat Boston-Long Island accents were often startling – even to this Brooklyn girl – but seemed pretty accurate. Director Clinton even choreographed some lively dance steps, and musical director Kim Fox and her musicians helped keep things moving along at a nice pace.

Grey Gardens, The Musical is one of the most heart-wrenching musicals you will ever see – and I hope you do see it. After the first week of performances, Richmond Triangle Players had to extend the run from July 13 to July 27, and tickets will likely be hard to come by for the remainder of the run.

 

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

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Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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THE TEMPEST: Sublime or Subliminal?

THE TEMPEST: It’s Complicated

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

At: Agecroft Hall & Gardens, 4305 Sulgrave Rd., RVA 23221

Performances: June 6-30, 2019

Ticket Prices: $30 Adults; $25 Seniors; $20 RVATA & Students (with ID)

Info: (804) 340-1405, quilltheatre.org or https://agecrofthall.tix.com/Schedule.aspx?OrgNum=1528

The current Quill Theatre production of The Tempest is sublime – though not perhaps for the reasons you might expect. It was not just the play, but all the components that came together to make up the entire evening. Saturday’s weather was perfect – not too hot, not too cool, not humid, no rain, and the bugs remained mostly at bay during the first act. The atmosphere was festive, with pre-show picnickers scattered across the spacious lawn, and vendors selling fruity ice pops, ShakesBeer and wine. The sixteenth century manor house and its tiered gardens, where one might encounter The Festival Young Company wandering about reciting monologues or go for a stroll during intermission provided the perfect setting for a festival.

The Tempest is complicated. Prospero, the lead figure, is the usurped Duke of Milan but he is also a powerful sorcerer. I’m not clear on whether he was a sorcerer before he was deposed and set adrift and landed on this remote island, or if he became a sorcerer as a result of his betrayal by his own brother, Antonio. John Cauthen and director James Ricks together give us a Prospero who is multi-faceted, showing a softness for his young daughter, Miranda, played by newcomer Madison Munson. She and her love interest Ferdinand, played by another newcomer, Dean Hall, brought a sense of innocence and normalcy to this otherwise convoluted tale. But Prospero is a complicated hero. He treats his servants Ariel and Caliban callously, forgives those who wronged him, and in the final scene begs the audience to release him. And he is so magically convincing that we comply.

Jeff Clevenger in the role of Trinculo, the king’s jester, and Adam Valentine as Stephano, the king’s drunken butler team up to bring much needed humor and physical comedy to this sometimes dark comedy, liberally sprinkled with betrayal, romance, and tragedy. But the two most noteworthy characters for me were Ariel and Caliban.

I absolutely adored Adam Turck’s portrayal of Ariel, Prospero’s spirit servant. Painted in blue, and draped in nondescript layers of identically painted fabric, Turck has adopted quirky movements that add to his otherworldly persona. At one point he appears on top of the wall that separates the stage from the gardens, where he crouches to deliver his lines. Often lurking in the background, where he nearly blends in, it is almost possible to believe that he is invisible to all but Prospero – and the audience.

Now as for Caliban – I don’t know if anyone else has said this but. . . .Why is the black actor (a) a slave and (b) called a monster and a savage? Okay, I understand that this is the character that Shakespeare wrote, but Walter Riddle is the obviously a POC and he plays a savage monster. I’m not saying he didn’t do a good job, but I just couldn’t get past that casting choice. I am not the first to say this, but Prospero, you are a Colonizer! The subplot of Prospero’s treatment of Ariel and Caliban and the vastly different ways they respond to their oppressor is more intriguing than Prospero’s story.

James Ricks’ direction kept things moving along at a nice pace; there was lots of action, and Ricks’ sound design included a few subtle touches that enhanced the overall experience. BJ Wilkinson doesn’t have much to do in the way of lighting as it’s still daylight until the second act, and Anna Bialkowski’s costumes, which put the noblemen in modern day suits, was visually cohesive and aesthetically pleasing. There are also a few delightful musical moments, with original music by Jason Marks.

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: Production photos by Aaron Sutten; Group selfie by Noah Downs

Tempest.5
Adam Turck
Tempest.4
Cedar Curran, Travis Williams, Chris Dunn, John Cauthen, Jonathan Hardison, Derek Kannemeyer, Jeff Clevenger
Tempest.3
John Cauthen
Tempest.2
Jonathan hardison, Adam Turck, Chris Dunn, Derek Kannemeyer, Travis Williams
Tempest.1
Shakespeare Festival Audience Selfie, 06/15/2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

OFFICE HOURS: QUITTING TIME

OFFICE HOURS: Six Actors; Sixteen Characters; Six Stories in Search of a Laugh

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: June 7-22, 2019

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

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

CAT Theatre’s 55th season has featured some interesting productions and some novel premises. The season opened with Boeing, Boeing, a French farce from the 1960s, followed by A Doublewide, Texas Christmas¸ written by the trio of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten who also wrote The Savannah Sipping Society that is currently playing at Swift Creek Mill Theatre. The new year brought a revival of Becky’s New Car, which I first saw some years ago at Hanover Tavern – both times I was one of those selected from the audience to assist “Becky” with her onstage wardrobe change. Earlier this spring they offered a musical comedy, BINGO! that included audience participation with real bingo cards, markers, and prizes. The final offering of this season is Office Hours, a comedy by Canadian playwright Norm Foster.

Office Hours is a series of six vignettes, each set in a different office in the same city on the same day, near quitting time. A cast of six versatile actors plays sixteen different characters with great energy and enthusiasm, but with varied levels of success. The first act, consisting of four scenes, seemed to drag at times, but I’m not sure whether it was due to Andrew Bryce’s direction or Norm Foster’s script. Maybe Canadian humor is different from ours. At any rate, the second act seemed to hit the laughs more accurately, and the play ended with a surprise twist I truly didn’t see coming.

The six scenarios are separate but intertwined. Hints and clues are sprinkled throughout that help keep the viewer engaged and provide a sense of smug satisfaction when the plot twists are revealed. Throughout the various scenes characters refer to the beautiful office space and the nice furniture. This provides an unintentional running joke as Hunter Mass’s set looks like a collection of mismatched thrift store items: a desk; a sofa; 2 or 3 chairs in different styles and sizes; a bookcase that doubles as a bar; 3 small tables. The office desk and chair seem too small, and when one or two of the character remark on its large size and the general tidiness of the office I wondered how they could do so with a straight face. There are also two doors, two tall windows, one of which has a latch that allows for access to a ledge, and a picture on one wall that is changed at the beginning of each scene.

For some inexplicable reason, there are different styles and different eras of telephones in each office scene, but the furniture remains the same, and even though the set is carefully rearranged for each scene, there is too little to distinguish the various scene. Oddly, on the night I was there, there was a noticeable but inexplicable dip in the lighting near the top of the first few scenes. Chris Stepp did the lighting and sound design, and while there were interesting and tuneful musical selections between scenes, I think more could have been done with the lighting to make each office unique.

Running themes that tie the separate scenes and characters together include the office setting, the phones, the furniture, and most interestingly, ledge jumper, a leather bound Day-at-a-Glance planner and a thick book by an erotic novelist who uses the pseudonym Margaux Kenyon.

Bill Blair is one of the more imposing members of the cast, and makes a lasting impression as Warren Kimble, a on-air journalist who is demoted as the result of age-ism and Lloyd Penny, the seemingly hen-pecked husband of a domineering wife and father of two sons: one a gay lawyer and the other a straight figure skater.

PJ Freebourn’s characters include an unnamed One-Armed Man and a shallow cheater named Mark who concocts the most amazing excuses for his infidelities and tries to use them to manipulate his young wife, Ellie.

Madeleine Gish played three very different character. In the first scene she was Pam Gerard, the overly confident and self-promoting production manager who demoted Warren Kimble. She next appeared as Ellie Young, the savvy young wife who hired a private eye to document her husband’s infidelities, and finally Sharon Freeman, a love-starved psychiatrist  looking for to a long awaited weekend tryst, who put her own needs above those of her client who inconveniently decided to end their Friday afternoon session on the window ledge of her office. Gish did a great job making each of her characters distinct.

Hogan Holt also played a trio of characters, but my favorite was Artie Barnes, the overweight jockey. Foster, the playwright, seems to like tossing a monkey wrench of realism or tragedy into the midst of his most comic moments, and in the case of Artie he did not disappoint. It seems that during one race, Artie’s horse suffered a heart attack and died on the track. Yet Artie, who fluctuates in and out of denial at the drop of a hat – in his case a slightly bedazzled and bedraggles cowboy hat—insists he’s a svelte 112 pounds.

Paige Reisenfeld plays both Francine Majors, a frustrated production partner, and Rhonda Penny, the mother of the gay lawyer who insists that gay sons are the result of a domineering mother. In one of the funniest scenes of the night, she brings lunch to her son’s office, in an oversize picnic basket. The food choices inside warn us that something is not quite right with her: a large jar of giant gherkins (pickles), a cucumber, orange-aid, a polish sausage, and an uncooked eggplant. Her husband carries a bag with a McLobster sandwich. (I don’t know if that is a real thing and didn’t dare check!)

Joel White’s character included the gay son and a has-been movie director, Bobby Holland with an obvious drinking problem who tries to pitch a new project that sounds like a barely doctored revival of the Tarzan story.

There is a lot going on, and I enjoyed following the twisting threads of the various stories and discovering how they were connected. Yet, with all that – and a pretty good cast, to boot – Office Hours falls short of the comedic gem it wanted to be.

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: Jeremy Bustin Photography

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THE SAVANNAH SIPPING SOCIETY: Life on Randa’s Veranda

THE SAVANNAH SIPPING SOCIETY: Hilarious Southern Women’s Comedy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: June 1 – July 13, 2019

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

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

The Savannah Sipping Society is another celebration of southern women from the comedic writing of the trio of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten, who also brought us The Golden Girls, The Hallelujah Girls, and The Dixie Swim Club. Director – and Swift Creek Mill Theatre Artistic Director – Tom Width fondly referred to it in his pre-show curtain talk as a “comedy of recognition” as the characters are so familiar and the situations so relatable.

Set in Savannah, Georgia, in the present day, the story takes place over a period of a little more than six months, and mostly on the second story veranda of Randa Covington’s home. The authentically and lovingly detailed set designed by Width, fashioned from wicker and bright colors, hanging plants, features a little table that serves as a bar – an all important focal point for most of the shenanigans that take place. (Not being familiar with Savannah homes, I did wonder if the kitchen and living room were also on the second floor – and found this mildly distracting each time Randa or one of her friends ventured inside to get grab some glasses or check on something in the oven.)

The four women who fuel this feverish frolic initially meet at a yoga class – or more precisely in the lobby juice bar of a yoga studio where they all found the class more than they had bargained for. “Honestly, I’m at an age where all I usually exercise is caution,” Dot pants after collapsing into a chair, putting her feet up, and fanning herself vigorously. The juice bar and a few other locations where the women stand to give monologues are unadorned corners of the stage defined only by bright spots of Joe Doran’s otherwise subtle summery lighting.

Width has assembled a fabulous cast who exuded such warm and natural chemistry on opening night one can only imagine how tightly knit they will be halfway through the run, Joy Williams is the smart and quirky Randa Covington, owner of the veranda. She is a single and independent career woman, an architect who recently lost her job. Jacqueline Jones is Dot Haigler, recently widowed just as she and her late husband were about to start their life-long dream of a retirement near the water. Widowhood is nearly eclipsed by more pressing problems, but her friends pulls together to provide life-giving support.

Robin Arthur is Marlafaye Moseley, a gum-chewing divorcee who recently relocated from Texas. Marlafaye is the most physical comedian. At one point she proclaims, “My mama didn’t raise no fool,” as she places a jester’s hat on her head. Jennifer Frank plays Jinx Jenkins, a make-up artist and self-proclaimed life coach who came to Savannah to care for her sister, who is suffering from dementia. The four, ranging in age from 49 to 69 are united by their circumstances. All are stuck in a rut of some sort, and in need of adventure, romance, and most of all friendship and it is this bond of friendship mixed with unique southern twists that is the heart and soul of this play.

Marlafaye gave up a career in nursing to become a representative for a liquor company, so the four unlikely friends are never short of adult beverages – hence the title. The laugh-a-minute first act imperceptibly morphs into more serious situations as life encroaches on these lovely ladies, and just as it seems the second act is about to end on a sad and introspective note, the writers toss in a happy surprise ending. Rather than feeling cheated – as one would if this had been a drama – this is a vindication of both the genre and the geography.

The Savannah Sipping Society has the pacing and staging of a situation comedy. The audience even sounded like a sitcom laugh track, offering frequent and loud outbursts of sometimes raucous laughter. Having previously enjoyed several plays by this trio of writers, I came prepared to enjoy The Savannah Sipping Society. The Dixie Swim Club (in which Jennifer Frank, Jacqueline Jones, and Joy Williams have all appeared) has remained my favorite, but The Savannah Sipping Society may be a close second as far as characters and may be a tie for laughs.

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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WRONG CHOPPED: Experimental Comedy

WRONG CHOPPED: Dumb Fun

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: May 17 – June 8, 2019

Ticket Prices: $22 General Admission; $12 Students

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

 

Dumb & fun.

The world premiere of Wrong Chopped at the Firehouse Theatre is a new iteration of Levi Meerovich and Dixon Cashwell’s absurdist theater piece that was first workshopped at the Firehouse last fall. Lest you think I’m being critical, “fun and dumb” are words that co-writer Meerovich used to describe the work. Other words used by the production team include the phrase “stupid comedy,” a sort of disclaimer that the participant viewer should not expect “high intellectual property.”

Although it may appear to be improvised, the organized chaos on the stage is quite intentional. The entire play – and I use that word loosely – is scripted, down to the grunts and stutters. But what is it about? As the title suggests, Wrong Chopped is a parody of Food Network cooking shows. Four chefs compete for a $10,000 prize. They must create an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert using the mystery items in a basket. The food items range from bones to eggs, but there are other items as well, things like a part of a sentence and a framed photo of actor Stanley Tucci who apparently has something of a cult following among this crowd.

The chefs are Jenny Brackish (Tyler Stevens), Bolton Kane (Chandler Matkins), Darude “Blaze” O’Ronald (Cheslea Matkins), and Goo Henry (Dante Piro). Brackish seems to be a stay at home mom, Kane is a New Age philosopher, Blaze is a street chef who operates a food truck, and Henry is, well, I’m not quite sure, but Henry apparently has a long-standing feud with the show’s host, Ted Allen, played with manic intensity by John Mincks.

The judges include a woman (Tara Malaka as Daniel Craig) who insists she is an actor who plays James Bond and “a rhyming holy woman,” who goes by the name Cardinal Bigsauce (Abbey Kincheloe). I never caught the occupation of the third judge, Marlas Jones (played by Doug Blackburn).

There’s also a camera person, Payton Slaughter, who captures odd angles of the actors and at one point gets usurped by Chef Kane who brings the camera into the audience and takes video selfies with audience members. And then there was Levi Meerovich, a co-writer who was also The Watcher. One of my favorite parts of the show was the opening scene or prologue when Meerovich, looking very handsome with a fresh haircut and a formal tuxedo jacket, approached the keyboard placed in a corner in front of the stage from where he accompanied the actors, occasionally made comments, and directed the projection of videos of old television shows and other, assorted images. When he first came out, Meerovich took off his jacket. And his shoes. And his vest. Then he put on his shoes and pulled his jacket on over his white dress shirt and red boxer briefs, and that’s how he very comfortably completed the show.

You may notice that in the first paragraph I used the phrase participant viewer – well, that’s because the audience isn’t merely observing. The cast sometimes invades the audience space, making the audience participants in the action. And then there are those, like the row of young people directly behind me, who laughed so loudly and so often that they virtually became part of the show.

There is really no point in giving a plot summary – there isn’t any. This is a messy play – physically and metaphorically. There is lots of rice and popcorn and catsup. There are references to James Bond, Hamlet, and numerous movies and television shows, as well as many more references I probably didn’t get because I’m of a different generation. But in answer to a friend’s question, did this show make me feel old? – not at all. It did not make me feel old, but it probably does have greater appear to people who are in their 20s and 30s. People in this age group laughed the longest and loudest. One woman closer to my generation said she laughed but sometimes didn’t know what she was laughing at. And do you know what? I think that Meerovich and Cashwell would find that perfectly acceptable.

Wrong Chopped may be classified as theater of the absurd. It’s also been referred to as avant garde and dada. By whatever label, it is non-traditional theater, and offers a viable alternative for those who want something different, funny, and irreverent. I would not place myself among that group. If you like a linear plot, a play with a clear beginning, middle, and ending, and a conclusion that neatly ties up everything – this isn’t it. If you’re looking for something totally different than what you usually find on Richmond theater stages, and you don’t even know what the term “comfort zone” means, then you might be the target audience for Wrong Chopped.

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

5_Tara Makala, Payton Slaughter, Tyler Stevens, Doug Blackburn, Chandler Matkins, Dante Piro, Chelsea Matkins, John Mincks, Abbey Kincheloe (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Tara Malaka, Peyron Slaughter, Tyler Stevens, Doug Blackburr, Chandler Matkins, Dante Piro, Chelsea Matkins, John Mincks, and Abbey Kinchelow,
4_Abbey Kincheloe (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Abbey Kinchelow
3_Tara Malaka, Abbey Kincheloe, Doug Blackburn, John Mincks (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Tara Malaka, Abbey Kincheloe, Doug Blackburn, and John Mincks
2_Tyler Stevens (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Tyler Stevens
1_John Mincks, Dante Piro (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
John Mincks and Dante Piro

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