BROADWAY BOUND: On the Brink

BROADWAY BOUND: Brighton Beach Revisited

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Virginia Repertory Theatre at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, VA 23069

Performances: March 15 – April 28, 2019

Ticket Prices: $44

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

Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, the third in his semi-autobiographical trilogy about Eugene Jerome and his family, is a heartwarming story that tackles real-life issues. In the hands of director Steve Perigard, who also directed the first part of this trilogy on this same stage in 2016, along with this talented cast – many of whom also appeared in Brighton Beach Memoirs, it is a masterful piece of storytelling. It is some years later, and the brothers are trying to break into comedy writing. They finally get their big break, and just as things begin to work out for them, things begin to fall apart for their parents.

Running about two hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission, the story unfolds in a leisurely manner that allows the dialogue – and there is a lot of dialogue – to unfold in a natural manner; it almost feels as if we are reminiscing about family matters or listening in on our elders – which young Eugene and his grandfather, Ben, do frequently – who pretend they do not know we can hear them.

Tyler Stevens, who first caught my attention as an actor in Brighton Beach Memoirs, has returned in the role of Eugene, the younger son of the Jerome family of Brighton Beach*. He also narrates the story. If anything, he has grown stronger and brings even more to this character than before. Eugene’s thoughts on intimacy are mature beyond his years and strike a contrast with many of the indecisive comments he often makes when talking to his brother. CJ Bergin makes his Virginia Rep debut as older brother Stanley, and he ably captured Stanley’s enthusiasm as well as his moments of doubt, but he did not seem to wear his role as comfortably as Stevens. Perhaps because I held such fond memories of Stevens in the role of Eugene, this contrast was more palpable.

Jill Bari Steinberg stepped back into her role as the mother, Kate, like a favorite pair of house slippers. Her need to nurture and even her eccentricities are familiar. Jewish mother, Italian mother, Greek mother, black mother, universal mother – Kate is not a caricature, but a memory. One of the most touching scenes occurs when Kate reminisces with her son about her youth, her love of dancing, and how she finagled an opportunity to dance with 1930s and 40s film star and noted dancer, George Raft. Steinberg and Stevens dance together – mother and son – and time stands still. Eugene later narrates how awkward such an intimate moment with one’s mother can be and this, too, feels authentic.

One cannot mention memories without noting that Jeff Clevenger stepped into the role of Kate’s husband, Jack – a role that had previously been performed by the late Andrew C. Boothby, to whose memory this production has been dedicated. Clevenger managed to bring humanity and depth to Jack. Yes, Jack betrayed his wife and family, but he was also a loyal friend to his former lover, staying by her side through an unnamed terminal illness, and his sons loved him. Like real life, things are not just black and white.

The cast also included Ken Moretti, also making his Virginia Rep debut as Ben, Eugene’s grandfather and Kate’s father. Ben clings to the past, and his socialist beliefs, and while he is not demonstrative, he fiercely loves his daughter and grandsons. Moretti more than adequately reveals these qualities, often with his posture and actions rather than with words. Sara Collazo, another returning cast member, rounded out the cast – and the family – as Kate’s sister, Blanche, who married up the social ladder, much to the dismay of her father, Ben.

Terrie Powers’ multi-level set is divided into four separate spaces: the brothers’ bedrooms upstairs and a comfortably nondescript living room and dining room downstairs, with doors leading to the kitchen and the front entrance. The black metal mailbox on the door-frame and the mezuzah (prayer scroll) that Jeff touched – one of his few tender acts – on entering through the door could have been taken from my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn where I grew up. (No, we were not Jewish, but the previous owners of our house were.)

Lighting by R. Jonathan Shelley further defined the spaces, and Corbin White provided the sound design, which seemed a bit uneven on opening night. (There was one effect in act one that startled me; I wasn’t sure if it was a toilet flushing or the nearby train rumbling by.) Sue Griffin costumed the men in neatly creased trousers, dress shirts, and fedoras. Jack sported suspenders. Kate wore a uniform of modest, printed house dresses with coordinating sweaters and a pair of open toed casual wedges that looked identical to the ones my grandmother wore. And as a born Brooklynite, the Jerome family’s accents sounded nostalgically familiar.

Broadway Bound certainly addresses the brothers’ show biz dreams, even including a lengthy radio show excerpt, but the focus is on the people and their relationships and that is what makes this a fitting offering for the Acts of Faith theatre festival and a memorable drama you will think about long after the final bow.

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*For non-New Yorkers: Brighton Beach is a part of the Borough of Brooklyn, which is part of the City of New York. But for people in Brooklyn – as well as the other “outer” boroughs of Queens, Staten Island, and The Bronx, going into Manhattan is called going to “the City.”

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: And Proposals of Marriage

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: “People Who Do Not Complain Are Never Pitied”

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

At: Leslie Cheek Theater at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard, RVA 23220

Performances: March 8-24, 2019

Ticket Prices: $30 Adults; $25 VMFA Members & Seniors 65+; $20 Students (with ID)

Info: (804) 340-1405, quilltheatre.org or https://reservations.vmfa.museum/

 

The Quill production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, adapted for the stage by Christina Calvit, is quite possibly the most fun I’ve ever had at a Quill production. Running just over two hours, the show is a delightful comedic romp that follows the trials and tribulations of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett as they – well, mostly Mrs. Bennett – try to find husbands for their five unmarried daughters.

Calvit has limited the novel’s multiple subplots and kept the story fairly simple and easy to follow, as is the language, and director Christopher Owens keeps the cast moving at a fair pace that is upbeat and maintains the classic character and deportment. Jeremy Gershman’s Regency era choreography adds an element of cultural authenticity while keeping the cast literally moving along at bubbly pace.

Irene Kuykendall and Axle Burtness have the lead roles of Elizabeth, the Bennett’s smart, beautiful, and stubbornly independent second daughter, and Mr. Darcy, the tall, handsome, and arrogant stranger who steals her heart. In one of the early ballroom scenes, the two admirably kept their conversation going while dancing, without missing a syllable or a step. If you’re looking for well-roundedness or depth of character, I don’t think you’ll find it here, but that’s not necessarily a shortcoming – just an observation of the adaptation’s purpose and the director’s vision. The comedic pacing was fine, while the characters’ chemistry was not developed in a way that made their ultimate passion convincing.

Kuykendall and Burtness may have had the lead roles, but Melissa Johnston Price commanded several scenes, first as the openly gold-digging mother, Mrs. Bennett, and then as the demanding matriarchal patron, Lady Catherine Debourgh – the aunt of Mr. Darcy. If Kuykendall and Burtness did some fancy stepping on the dance floor, Price did some fancy quick changes from Mrs. Bennett’s matronly dress, that resembled nothing so much as wallpaper, to Lady Debourgh’s elaborately layered widow’s weeds and cane. Price sums up Mrs. Bennett’s character with one line: “People who do not complain are never pitied.” (For Lady Debourgh, one might paraphrase that to, “People who do not bully others are never feared,” but that carries much less panache.)

Joe Pabst, in the quadruple roles of Mr. Bennett, Sir William, Colonel Forster, and Fitzwilliam was also no slouch in the quick change department. I’m sure kudos are due to unnamed backstage assistants. Pabst seemed to enjoy his roles as much as the audience, but I found his delivery of my favorite line a bit too subtle. When Elizabeth declines the proposal of Mr. Collins, her father asks if she understands that “your mother will never see you again if you don’t marry him. . .and I will never see you again if you do.” Here, it might be helpful to know that she is the daughter who spends the most time with her father, apparently helping him with the family’s business.

We learn more about Elizabeth and Jane, the second eldest and eldest, respectively, and the headstrong youngest daughter, Lydia, but very little about the other two – Kitty and Mary.

Tradition dictates that the eldest, Jane, played by Maggie Quick, must marry first, but Lydia, played with great energy and enthusiasm by Annie McElroy, has no regard for tradition, and places the family name in jeopardy with her impetuous actions. Mary, who is traditionally described as the plainest in looks, is played by the lovely Allison Gilman, and Kitty, gets so little attention that the considerable comedic skills of Nicole Morris-Anastasi are sadly underutilized.

I also enjoyed Joel White’s portrayal of the obsequious cousin and heir, Mr. Collins, whose annoying speech quirk of adding “mmmmm” in the spaces between words while gesturing as if holding a large, invisible hat with a large feather are strangely endearing. As Mrs. Bennett’s brother-in-law, Mr. Gardiner, he is the picture of manners and gentility. And I must include a brief mention of Audrey Sparrow and Ethan Cross, two high students who played the role of servants – welcome to the company of Quill Theatre.

Reed West designed the set, which contains many architectural elements that rotate to create the various environments, with the support of lighting by Gregg Hillmar. Patricia Wesp designed the costumes, which I thought were much more elaborate and well-constructed for the men than for the women. While the daughters generally had dresses appropriate for the unmarried young women of a gentleman of little means, Mrs. Bennett’s shapeless dress was dangerously close to resembling a flannel nightgown. Several members of the Regency Society of Virginia attended Saturday’s performance wearing period attire that rivaled that of the actors onstage.

Pride and Prejudice is a delightful production of a classic love story that reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s become a classic for a reason: we recognize these people; it appeals to a wide range of ages; it crosses class; and it addresses real problems with humor. Pride and Prejudice has a run of only ten shows, so don’t hesitate if you like to see it.

 

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 not available at the time of publication.

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EVERY BRILLIANT THING:#1 Ice Cream

EVERY BRILLIANT THING: What Hope Is

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: HATTheatre, 1124 Westbriar Dr., RVA (Tuckahoe) 23238

Performances: March 1-15, 2019

Ticket Prices: $25 Adults; $20 Seniors; $15 Youth, Groups, Students & $12 with RVATA card; Reservations Required – No tickets at the door

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

It’s hard to imagine a warm and engaging comedy about mental illness and suicide but that is exactly what the team of Vicky L. Scallion/Artistic Director, Chris Hester/Actor, and Frank Foster/Director and Scenic Designer have pulled off with Duncan MacMillan and Jonny Donahoe’s Every Brilliant Thing, now running in the far West End’s HATTheatre.

In short, the one-man play is about a man looking back over his life and telling the story of how he survived as the child of a mother whose first attempt at suicide occurred when he was a 7-year-old school boy waiting for his mom to pick him up from school. While Hester is the only professional actor on stage, the script calls for him to enlist the help of numerous audience members. Some read lines from a card when their number is called. For example, #1 Ice Cream. Others have actual roles and characters with coached or adlibbed lines. There is the veterinarian who is called to euthanize the family’s elderly dog, Paws McCartney, and Mrs. Patterson, who is a school counselor with a Snoopy sock puppet. There is his dad and his girlfriend Sam. Interestingly, Hester’s character, the main character, remains unnamed.

Every Brilliant Thing is one boy’s attempt to fight depression. By the time his mother gets out of the hospital, he had begun a list of things worth living for. Ice cream. Yellow. People falling down. Peeing in the ocean. Many of these things are so simple, and others are quite funny. But even though he keeps adding to the list, his mother doesn’t get better. The boy grows into a man, and fears, too, will succumb to the demons of depression. His father, unable to help, copes by retreating into his home office with his records. In an early poignant moment – and there are many – the boy stands outside the door of his father’s study waiting to see what type of music he will play. That will let him know whether to enter or head downstairs and fend for himself.

Every Brilliant Thing reminds us that it is natural for the children of suicidal parents to blame themselves. There have been many studies completed, and it has been determined that suicide is contagious. After a high-profile or celebrity suicide, suicide rates spike sharply. There is even a name for the phenomenon of copycat suicides: the Werther effect, which takes it name from Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther.

The audience interaction creates a distraction or diversion that balances the serious nature of the subject with unexpected interjections of humor. Foster has also created balance with his design elements. He has transformed Scallion’s tiny black box theater into a comfortable living room with a variety of chairs and sofas set on both ends of the room, including the area that is usually reserved as the stage, and small tables that hold conversational lamps, trivia cards, a chessboard. There’s even complimentary coffee and hot chocolate and warm chocolate chip cookies for the audience. Erin Barclay designed the lighting, which incorporates all the little lamps. Hester has the area between the two banks of seats, with occasional forays into the audience. At one point he breathlessly attempts to high-five every member of the audience. His sweaty brow and panting are genuine and endearing, as is the rest of his performance.

One of the best parts about Every Brilliant Thing is the sound design, by Scallion, based on the authors’ instructions. Music cues the young boy on whether to interact with his father. Music marks the family’s happy times – when they gather around a piano in their kitchen, of all places, and sing soul songs. There’s a record player and an album in a yellowed jacket that Hester plays at the end. And there is a soundscape that includes Ray Charles and Cab Calloway and other music appropriate to the time (which in this case begins in 1982 and covers several decades as the boy becomes a man).

Every Brilliant Thing will be different each time it is performed, as the new audience members bring new inflections to their lines. At Sunday’s Acts of Faith talkback, Hester revealed that he looks forward to relating to new audience member at each performance. He himself is no stranger to depression and mental illness in the family. When the audience was informally polled to see how many had been affected either personally or with mental illness in their families, every single person present raised a hand. Maybe the list couldn’t save this boy’s mother, but it seems to have saved him, and making lists and keeping journals are components of many self-help programs and therapies.

I recommend Every Brilliant Thing because it is an intriguing production. It will make you laugh, it may make you cry, as it did the young woman who played the role of Sam on Sunday afternoon. But more importantly, it provides a non-threatening opening to discuss these very real and very timely issues: depression; mental illness – or better yet, mental health; suicide. Every Brilliant Thing puts the audience to work and reminds us that there is always hope.

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 uncredited at the time of publication

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AN ACT OF GOD: The Beginning and the End

An Act of God: Thou Shalt Laugh

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: February 27 – March 23, 2019. (Opening Night – March 1)

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

An Act of God is an irreverent comedy in which the One and Only God settles casually into a talk-show set to chat and rant about what’s wrong with the universe. The Richmond Triangle Players production marks the Richmond debut of David Javerbaum’s play, first produced in New York in 2015.

The all-female cast is headed up by Maggie Bavolack as God, supported by Kylie M.J. Clark as the Michael and Anne Michelle Forbes as Gabriel. Michael starts out helpfully fielding questions from the audience but becomes increasingly insolent, challenging God like a precocious child. This eventually brings on the wrath of God, causing Michael to lose a wing – which we later see bent and reattached with a generous application of duct tape. The more compliant and sweet-faced Gabriel is the keeper of the Guttenberg bible – which is housed in a guitar case – and dutifully reads verses as God updates The Ten Commandments. Both archangels are smartly dressed by Sheila Russ in white pant suits and glittery silver boots.

But this show mostly belongs to Bavolack who, despite a few opening night stumbles, smoothly navigated Javerbaum’s script, which started as a series of tweets and then became a book before manifesting as a play delivered in the form of a list. Director Jan Guarino must have given Bavolack free reign because her performance is an intriguing balance of warm and natural, sarcastic and funny, as she enumerates the new commandants. (A few old ones were kept because they were just that good.)

Bavolack wears a gold trimmed white caftan with fluffy white unicorn slippers – sort of the sartorial equivalent of the mullet (you know, business in the front, party in the back). Her hilarious delivery of the list is varied in style and tempo. God’s updates to The Ten Commandments range from the relatively mild (Thou shalt not tell me what to do) to the controversial (Thou shalt not tell others whom to fornicate). Some commands are delivered almost matter-of-factly while others require extensive anecdotes or take long detours.

Bavolack also interacts with the audience, calling out a pair of latecomers and directing other comments directly to those who occupied front row seats – make that the first two or three rows. Oh, and there is a runway that extends the stage into the aisle.

The script has adlibs built-in, allowing for a sprinkling of timely or local references. There’s a fleeting mention of our Commander in Chief and one particularly impressive local reference that Richmond has almost as many houses of worship as confederate monuments. (I wonder what an actor would insert here if performing in Brooklyn, or Philadelphia, or Miami…) There’s even a song at the end, “I Have Faith in You,” when quite suddenly things take a bit of a surprise turn, and the celestial trio takes pleasure in belting it out like rock stars.

Chris Raintree’s design, with its set of double steps (which did not succeed in suggesting a stairway to heaven, if that was the intention), a white sofa, a “poof” or ottoman, a coffee table, and a podium, looks like a celestial talk-show set. Bavolack’s eyes are projected onto the backdrop and emblazoned on the “merch” – a mug, tee-shirt, and magnet are among the show-themed items for sale at the bar. Michael Jarett’s lighting includes a few lightning strikes and there’s a bit of smoke as well.

I would not categorize An Act of God, which is, of course, a part of the Acts of Faith Theatre Festival, among my favorite scripts, but the performance delivered by Bavolack and company is a delightfully entertaining way to spend 75 minutes.

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

 

(L to R) Anne Michelle Forbes (Gabriel), Maggie Bavolack (God), and Kylie Clark (Michael) clear up some misconceptions about the Holy Word in David Javerbaum’s comedy “An Act of God”







Maggie Bavolack delivers the new Word
Anne Michelle Forbes as God’s wingman Gabriel
Kylie M.J. Clark as the questioning archangel Michael

CONCERT BALLET OF VIRGINIA: It’s a Circus Out There

CONCERT BALLET OF VIRGINIA:  43rd Annual Winter Repertory Gala

A Dance Review & Some Random Thoughts by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Woman’s Club Auditorium, 211 East Franklin St., RVA 23219

Performances: February 8 – March 3, 2019

Ticket Prices: $18 for adults; $15 for seniors and students (with valid ID); and $12 for children

Info: (804) 798-0945 or www.concertballet.com

It has been awhile – at least two years, maybe three – since I’ve seen a performance by the Concert Ballet of Virginia. This company, which describes itself a “collection of unsalaried Virginians. . .operating within the framework of a full-scale professional dance company” occupies a unique position. Based on a mission to reach large, diverse audiences, the performing company itself is a form of outreach, offering performing opportunities to many who want to experience ballet without the commitment of a full-time professional career. Many performances take place in schools, bringing storybook ballets and dance exploration to students of all levels.

The company also offers two annual gala programs at The Woman’s Club Auditorium on East Franklin St. The recent 43rd Annual Winter Gala, held February 24, included live music by The Concert Ballet Orchestra and two new works, The Banks of Green Willow, choreographed by Concert Ballet dancers Allie Davis and Will Taylor and Circus, a collaborative story ballet created by three Concert Ballet dancers – Toni Lathan, Allie Davis, and Valerie Shcherbakova –to Norman Dello Joio’s “Satiric Dances.”

The Banks of Green Willow, set to music arranged by Richard Schwartz (Symphonic Winds and The Concert Ballet Orchestra), tells the story of an elegant couple in evening dress returning home through a park after enjoying an evening at the ballet. The rich black and green costumes work well with what appears to be a Victorian-era set, featuring gas lamps and a park bench. Concert Ballet dancers Allie Davis and Will Taylor choreographed the piece, keeping the choreography sweet, uncomplicated, and effective for the scene they created.

Circus is a colorful finale piece that includes dancers of all ages and abilities. There are acrobats and tumblers, a snake charmer, tigers, monkeys, a strong man, and more, all under the big top. Company director Scott Boyer takes on the role of an evil Magician, who appears to be vying with the troupe’s Snake Charmer for the affections of the circus’ Tightrope Walker – who looks like the ballerina atop a classic music box.

The program also included works from the Concert Ballet repertory, including an East Indian inspired Sleeping Beauty ballet, Naila, for the junior dancers with stylized movements, a very red-themed and festive Fledermaus, choreographed by Scott Boyer to music by Johann Strauss, and a revival of the company’s “Emperor Waltz.” If I am economical with details, it is because the programs were mis-printed, and The Concert Ballet Orchestra conductor, Iris Schwartz, announced the music and dance selections – without benefit of a microphone.

One thing this company does very well is backdrops and sets. The Fledermaus set included three gigantic chandeliers against the all-red backdrop; The Emperor Waltz featured Greek goddess dresses with Grecian pillars and candelabra – some with real lights – and Naila had some very pretty Alladin-esque costumes.

Another thing they do well is provide live music. Between dances, the orchestra offered a variety of selections from patriotic marches to Gilbert and Sullivan to Big Band.

At the Woman’s Club, there are a couple dozen tables where audience members can sit cabaret-style and order desserts and coffee prior to the start of the program, and during intermission. Most of the audience members appeared to be family and friends of the performers. The program is family friendly, and there were many toddlers in attendance – most of whom were surprisingly attentive! At least one dad ignored the pre-show announcement not to take photographs or make video recordings, and no one seemed to mind.

I chatted with a young woman seated near me – we weren’t seated at a table but sat on chairs in two rows at the rear of the room.  (There were also seats in the balcony – the program was well attended. It was, in fact, a full house.) She didn’t have family or friends in the cast but had seen the program listed on Facebook and decided to come as she’s trying to sample more of the culture that Richmond has to offer. While I enjoyed the music and admired the sets and costumes, I had some major private thoughts about the caliber of the dancing: flexed feet; uneven lines; unsteady balances; dancers looking at other dancers for cues, and more. But my companion for the day had no such reservations and indicated that she plans to come to the next performance as well. I think that is just the sort of outreach education The Concert Ballet of Virginia aims for. Some of the characteristics I consider signs of professionalism might be deterrents to someone who is new to dance, or who wants to be entertained, but not. . .challenged. Perhaps she will come again. Perhaps she will also want to sample some of the contemporary dance and other local offerings. Did I witness the birth of a new audience member – a potential patron of the arts? I hope I see her again.

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: There were no photographs available at the time of publication.

Concert Ballet

SWEENEY TODD: A Close Shave

SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: February 14 – March 14, 2019

Ticket Prices: $35 general admission; discounts available for students, seniors, industry

Info: (804) 506-3533 or theatrelabrva.org

TheatreLAB’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a large-scale musical undertaking by a relatively small theater company. And they nailed it!

Director Deejay Gray has outdone himself. The cast, the tone, the pacing, the minimalist industrial set – also designed by Gray – and the intimate setting all work together to create a juicy, gory, bone-chilling evening of theater. I noticed that the program cover says, “TheatreLAB is proud to present Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

The ensemble is led by Alexander Sapp as the vengeful barber and Bianca Bryan as Mrs. Lovett, his landlord and owner of the pie shop that finds success only after adding a special secret ingredient to her meat pies. Both are deliciously intense and over the top. Sapp is unrelentingly manic in his quest for vengeance, after having been wrongfully deported to Australia so a corrupt local judge, Turpin, could take advantage of his beautiful young wife. Bryan is positively chilling in her remorseless determination to win the barber’s affections and advance her failing pie business – which she herself describes in song as, “The Worst Pies in Town.”

But the strength of this production does not rest solely on the shoulders of the two leads. William Anderson, as the corrupt Judge Turpin appears in his first scene with his eyes wildly bugged out, and the next time we see him he is ripping pages from his bible and flagellating himself as he tries to talk himself out of his lustful attraction to his beautiful young ward, Johanna – who is actually the daughter of Sweeney Todd, and sees in the pompous Turpin only a father figure. Mallory Keene plays Johanna with a sweet innocence – except when demanding kisses from her true love, Anthony Hope, or grabbing a pistol to shoot her jailer!

Kelsey Cordrey is an interesting sidekick as Beadle Bamford, the Judge’s lackey. Wordlessly, Cordrey conveys contempt for the Judge, and perhaps even envy and a desire to have Johanna for himself.  Then there’s Audra Honaker who does double duty as the mysterious beggar woman and Pirelli, a rival barber. Interestingly, neither of Honaker’s characters are who they first appear to be, but it is the role of Pirelli that infuses some much needed hilarity into this horror story of a musical.

Matt Shofner charms as the loyal young apprentice, Tobias (Toby) Ragg. Freed from bondage to the flamboyant and fake Pirelli after Pirelli has a visit with Todd, Toby becomes attached to Mrs. Lovett an performs a touching duet in which he promises that nothing can harm her as long as he’s around. Little does he know. . .

The cast also includes Matt Polson as Anthony Hope, the young sailor who saves the shipwrecked Sweeney Todd and befriends him – pretty much against his will, and two musicians who remain onstage and occasionally get swept up in the action. The violinist is Marissa Resmini, and John-Stuart Fauquet on piano is also the production’s musical director. Michael Jarett designed the lighting, and there are plenty of special effects to cover the bloody throat slitting, indicate the bakeshop ovens are working, or create projections on the rear wall. Gray has covered the rear and side walls in industrial strength plastic, making me wonder, on entering, if perhaps the audience might need bibs, like the ones you get in seafood restaurants, to keep from getting splattered with blood. The audience has to walk through the set to get to their seats – and everyone is encouraged to use the facilities before the first act or wait until intermission. With everyone glued to their seats – partially in fear – I don’t think anyone thought of going to the bathroom during the first act.

Needless to say, with its themes of sexual assault, insanity, murder, corruption, imprisonment, incest, and more, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a part of the 2019 Acts of Faith Festival. And several performances are already sold out, so don’t wait, reserve your tickets now – and if you can, sit in the first row.

Oh, and did I mention that the singing is powerful (I could understand most of the lyrics) and the music sounds like a small orchestra, and not just two musicians? Well, it is (lack of clarity may have been due to musical phrasing, I’m not sure) and it does!

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

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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ONCE: Not Your Usual Love Story

ONCE: It’s Complicated

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: February 8 – March 3, 2019

Ticket Prices: $36-63

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

I may be among the minority of those who never saw – or even heard of – the 2007 movie, Once, on which this musical is based. But that didn’t stop me from becoming totally immersed in Once on VaRep’s November Theatre stage. As a matter of fact, musical seems too narrow a term to encompass this production.

Get to the theater by 7:30 for an 8:00pm show. There are two vendors in the lobby – who later stroll the aisles of the theater for the first 5-10 minutes of the show – selling beer. A jam session starts in the lobby and makes its way down the aisles and onto the stage, sharing the aisles with the incoming audience. It’s all very loud and festive and inclusive – an all-encompassing theatrical experience quite unlike any other. The Irish accents and folk dance enhance the sense of adventure. (I assume the Irish and Czech accents were pretty authentic; after awhile I became some engrossed in the play that it didn’t matter.)

Once is based on the motion picture of the same name, written and directed by John Carney. The music and lyrics for the musical are by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, with book by Enda Walsh. For this production, William James Mohney has designed a moody, multi-purpose set that serves as a music shop, a recording studio, a vacuum repair shop as well as the apartment above, and more. A raised stage, a few chairs, a slew of instruments – it’s all very minimal, but the lighting (by Joe Doran), the props, and the movement create the necessary spaces. Indeed, in the final scene, Girl and Guy are physically only a few feet apart, but she is in her apartment in Dublin while he is in New York – and they are singing the same song.

For those who, like me, are not familiar with the story, the two lead characters, who are nameless, are Guy, a talented Irish singer and songwriter whose life has come to a standstill since his girlfriend moved to New York and Girl, an energetic and insightful Czech woman who bursts unexpectedly into his life and encourages him to make music and go after his lost love in New York. But this friendship seems always to be on the verge of romance, and at one point, catching some air and studying the night sky, Girl tells Guy – in Czech – that she loves him. He asks for a translation, but she mutters something about the rain and runs off.

There is magic between the two – Ken Allen Neely and Katherine Fried – both of whom I believe are new to VaRep and the Richmond stage. Their singing flows naturally and is often intimate and romantic, in contrast to the ensemble numbers which are often rousing and more than once set the audience to clapping along. We root for their love, but it is not to be – at least not in the physical sense.

I also tremendously enjoyed Jon Patrick Penick, the owner of the music shop who freely lent Girl the use of a piano and became a part of Guy’s demo band. Penick added a comic touch with his pretense of gruffness and his heart of gold. His unexpected friendship with the capitalist bank manager, Andrew Nielson, added a bit of extra flavor to the second act. Lauren Wright is a powerhouse as Reza, singing, dancing, and seducing Billy with equal enthusiasm.

All of the ensemble actors are also part of the orchestra and some are part of Guy’s demo band as well, acting, singing, and playing all the instruments. And they dance. VaRep artistic director Nathaniel Shaw has directed with an easy pace that varies between the frenetic and the reflective, and Shaw’s choreography – which moves the cast even when they aren’t dancing – is organic and fluid. Once is unexpected, unconventional, and thoroughly enjoyable.

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

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Photo Credits: Jay Paul

Once
Trevor Lindley Craft, Lauren Wright, Will Hart. Photo by Jay Paul.

Once
Trevor Lindley Craft, J. Michael Zygo, Jon Patrick Penick, Lauren Wright. Photo by Jay Paul.

Once
Ken Allen Neely and Katherine Fried. Photo by Jay Paul.

Once
Ken Allen Neely. Photo by Jay Paul.

Once
Hilary Alexa Caldwell and Christopher Seiler. Photo by Jay Paul.