PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES: A “Pump Rock” Country Musical

PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES:  A “Pump Rock” Country Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

A Collaboration of Richmond’s 5th Wall Theatre and Hampton’s American Theatre

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

Performances: March 10-31, 2018 [Note this show will be performed in Hampton, VA April 13-22]

Ticket Prices: $32 General Admission; $15 Students; $20 RVATA Cardholders

Info: (804) 359-2003 or https://5thwallpumpboys.brownpapertickets.com/

 

Pump Boys and Dinettes is not your ordinary musical. Created by a performance group of no less than six, who are all credited with the music, book, and lyrics, one might expect this musical to be all over the place. One would be wrong. Don’t care for country music? Doesn’t matter; this isn’t the whiny, twangy, my-woman-is-gone-and-my-dog-is-dead kind of country music. Don’t care for musicals, you say? Go back and read my first sentence.

Pump Boys and Dinettes is the most fun I’ve had in the theater in recent weeks and that’s saying a lot, since the Richmond theater community has produced some excellent theater this year. The ensemble is dynamic; the entire cast sings, acts, and plays instruments (okay, that might be stretching it a bit, but keep reading). The musical numbers are high-powered, and there are even a couple of a capella numbers that feature some rather awesome harmonizing that even my untrained ear could recognize and appreciate. Then the Dinettes pick up wooden spoons and play percussion on pots. So that’s why the pots are out front instead of back in the kitchen. . .Oh, and then there is tap-dancing – in cowboy boots!

While there isn’t really a narrative in the traditional sense, we do get to meet some of the residents of Frog Level, North Carolina who work on Highway 57 at the Pump Boys service station and the nearby or attached Double Cup diner. The Pump Boys consist of Jim (John Mervini on rhythm guitar), L.M. (Mike Cefalo on keyboard, including a brief stint on an accordion), Jackson (Michael Bamford, lead guitar) and Eddie (Sean Powell on bass and harmonica). Not much work gets done at the service station, since the Pump Boys are all playing music a lot more than pumping gas. Indeed, when a customer calls to check on the status of his Winnebago, he is told it will be ready, maybe, next week. The customer is put on hold – on the ancient phone held together with duct tape – so the Pump Boys can give him a status update singing “Taking It Slow.”

Rachel Marrs (Rhetta Cupp) and Desiree Roots Centeio (Prudie Cupp), the sisters who run the diner, seem to somehow get more work done. The Dinettes serve coffee, moon pies, and slices of pecan pie to the audience at the beginning of the show and collecting tips in Act 2. “Tips” is the title of a sassy duet in Act 2, with the money collected going to the 5th Wall Development Fund. In addition to feeding the audience with art and food, Centeio sits on gentlemen’s laps and dances with an audience member (Friday night it was my fiancé Albert Ruffin) while singing “The Best Man” and the sisters escort a female audience member onstage, so Jackson/Bamford can serenade her in “Mona,” a song about his crush on a mall cashier.

“The Fisherman’s Prayer” is a beautifully harmonized number by the Pump Boys in Act 1, which also features a heat-warming ballad, “Mamaw,” sung by Jim/Mervini. Act 1 ends with The Dinettes and L.M. donning cowboy boots and Eddie donning tap shoes for “Drinkin’ Shoes.” Highlights of Act 2 include L.M.’s “T.N.D.P.W.A.M.” which stands for The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine, and the hilarious “Farmer’s Tan,” again featuring L.M. with the Dinettes. Everyone gets at least one featured number except Eddie, but he does get to do an awesome “duet” with his upright bass. While each cast members shines individually, Mervini, Marrs, and Centeio are standouts and Cefalo is a surprise when he emerges from behind his keyboard, it is the magnetism of the ensemble that makes Pump Boys and Dinettes a hit.

There are 19 musical numbers, plus a reprise of the opening “Highway 57” and a closing medley of the show’s “Greatest Hits.” Most are hard-pumping, foot-tapping, danceable numbers that keep a smile on your face from start to finish. The show runs about 100 minutes, with a fifteen-minute intermission, under the seamless direction of Richard M. Parison, Jr. with musical direction by Christian Storm Burk and choreography by Karen Getz (whose work I adored in VaRep’s Fiddler on the Roof in 2013).

I also admired Rich Mason’s scenic design – a simple but authentic looking little diner on the audience’s right, and a somewhat less detailed and extremely clean service station to the audience’s left. Most of the action takes place center to right, but there weren’t many people seated on the left side on Friday night. Michael Jarrett designed the lighting, which featured a few nicely mottled effects in Act 1, and Sue Griffin and Marcia Miller Hailey did the costumes. The Pump Girl’s waitress uniforms were adorably attractive.  Let’s not forget Amy Ariel, who assisted with the lighting, Roger Price who designed the sound, and Barry Green who designed the props – of which there are quite a few. And let’s not forget to thank 5th Wall’s Artistic Director Carol Piersol and The American Theatre’s Artistic Director Richard M. Parison for selecting this show to partner.

Pump Boys and Dinettes is beautifully showcased in the intimate space of TheatreLAB’s basement. Make it a point to find your way down the steep steps that lead to this marvelous space before they close.

 

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

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Photo Credits:

5th Wall Theatre

Pumpboys

Pump Boys_1
Michael Bamford, John Mervini, Rachel Marrs, and Desiree Roots Centeio
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DAMES AT SEA: Making Waves at Swift Creek

DAMES AT SEA: Pint-sized Extravaganza

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: March 8-May 15, 2018

Ticket Prices: $38 Theater only; $55 Dinner & Theater

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

Dames at Sea, with book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller and music by Jim Wise first opened Off-Off-Broadway in 1966 but is perhaps best known for its 1968 production which introduced a new actress named Bernadette Peters. Twenty-six years ago, Dames at Sea was produced at Swift Creek Mill and two of the 1992 cast members – Robyn O’Neill and Steve King – apparently enjoyed it so much they have returned for another run.

A parody of the 1930s-style musical extravaganza, Dames at Sea is dated and corny and probably the most fun you’ll have in a month. The first act is set in a down-trodden Broadway theater, and Act 2 is set on the deck of a naval ship. Sweet-faced and innocent Ruby (Anne Michelle Forbes) arrives on Broadway from a small town in Utah with a suitcase containing only a pair of ruby red tap shoes and by the end of the day she has been hired as a chorus girl, meets a guy, becomes a star, and gets married. I don’t know how many hours are in this day, but if they can bottle and sell days like this, I’m placing my order right now.

Part of the tremendous charm of this two-act show is that all the impact and energy of a Busby-Berkeley movie musical, including showgirls, props, dancers creating geometric floor patterns, lots of color and movement, are all accomplished with a cast of six. In addition to Forbes, who is a 2016 TheatreVCU graduate making her Swift Creek Mill debut, there is Nicole Morris-Anastasi as Joan, a wise-cracking chorus girl who befriends Ruby; Travis West as Ruby’s sailor boyfriend Dick; and Derrick Jaques as Dick’s friend Lucky, who also happens to be Joan’s on-again, off-again boyfriend.

Returnees Steve King in the dual roles of theater entrepreneur Hennesey and the naval officer Captain Courageous and Robyn O’Neill as the diva Mona Kent together generate some of the show’s most humorous moments with a touching number called “The Beguine” that recreates their youthful romance. King alternates between sweet, shy glances and lascivious ogling of O’Neill’s bosom. O’Neill may portray a star who is losing her luster, but it’s impossible to feel sorry for her character as she also acts as the protagonist, jealously trying to hang on to the ingenue role while maintaining leading lady status – a dangerous game that wreaks havoc on Ruby and Dick’s budding romance and nearly sidelines the entire show within the show.

In the spirit of a large-scale musical, everyone sings and everyone dances. O’Neill gets to strut her stuff in the opening number and to belt her heart out in “Wall Street” and “That Mister Man of Mine.” Forbes shines in her lovelorn ballad, “Raining in My Heart,” which is more touching than her big show-saving number, “Star Tar.” On Saturday, parts of “Choo Choo Honeymoon,” one of two big numbers for Morris-Anastasi, were unintelligible from my seat on the right side of the audience. I don’t know if the same was true for those further left, but this is something that is certainly easily fixed through technology, staging, or a combination of the two.

I was quite pleased to see – and hear – that Dames at Sea is one musical that takes its dancing seriously. The work is infused with tap dancing – and while it appeared to leave O’Neill a bit winded, Forbes, Morris-Anastasi, Jaques, and West came with the energy. What they may have lacked in technique (none would fare well, hypothetically speaking, in a contest with Savion Glover) they more than made up for this potential shortcoming with big attitudes and a facility for handling props (mops, umbrellas, and more). We have choreographer Alissa Pagnotti to thank for this enthusiastic, period-style tap choreography.

Tom Width directed with his usual innate joy – every play he directs seems to be his favorite – and did the scenic design as well. There was no magic in this script, but Width did manage to work in an avalanche of falling bricks and oversized wrecking ball in Act 1, and a couple of cannons blasting confetti at the finale. Leilani Fenick is the musical director, conducting an 8-piece orchestra hidden behind the set. Zachary Townsend designed the lighting, which includes a follow-spot intentionally designed to recreate the authenticity of the period, and Maura Lynch Cravey designed the costumes. I was particularly fond of Ruby and Joan’s tap shorts. (Yes, I did mean shorts, and not shoes.) Dames at Sea is a leave-your -worries-at-the-door and just enjoy yourself kind of musical.

 

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

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Photo Credits:

Swift Creek Mill Facebook page

 

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ERMA BOMBECK: End-to-End Wit

ERMA BOMBECK: At Wit’s End

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

VirginiaRep

At: Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, VA 23069

Performances: March 2-April 15, 2018; Acts of Faith post-show discussion Sunday, March 18  UPDATE: This show has been extended through April 29! 03/26/2018

Ticket Prices: $42

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

Writers Allison Engel and Margaret Engel pulled much of their material for their one-woman play, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, directly from Bombeck’s own words. The syndicated columnist and best-selling author who was active from the 1960s through the 1990s was known for her often self-deprecating and invariably witty assessments of her own life as a suburban housewife.

Catherine Shaffner steps easily into the role, so much so that one nearly forgets she is acting. Bombeckian one-liners like “never go to a doctor whose office plants have died” roll off her tongue with ease. Occasionally, the humor becomes pure poetry as when Shaffner relates Bombeck’s reminiscence on pregnancy: “the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle.”

Along this one-hour journey, we learn that Bombeck started out making a mere $3 per column, but at her peak her work was syndicated in 900 newspapers throughout the US. One of her 3 children described her job as a “syndicated communist.” Bombeck also published 15 best-selling books which provided her with the celebrity and the currency to travel around the country with Betty Friedan as a champion of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment). The woman who once characterized feminists as “roller derby dropouts” became an ardent supporter of women’s rights and a member of the President’s Advisory Council for Women. Much to her disappointment, the amendment failed three votes short of the 38 needed for ratification.

The period from the 1960s to the 1990s was a significant time for women who were seeking to establish a balance between family and career and that is illustrated in some humorous and subtle ways in the play. Most strikingly, see Shaffner/Bombeck locked away in her bedroom, perched on the edge of her bed, using an ironing board for a desk, banging away on a portable manual typewriter, as her children slip notes under the door asking for money to go to McDonald’s. (After digging around in the cushions of a chair, Shaffner/Bombeck slides the pile of coins under the door in response.)

Marcia Miller Hailey has dressed Shaffner in black slacks, a print blouse, and flats. She may be a nationally known author and feminist supporter, but she looks like a car pool mom. John Moon directed Shaffner – a job that I am sure was made all the easier because of Shaffner’s laidback expertise and natural wit. Her pacing and timing were perfection – never rushed, never hurried, but rather intimate and inviting. Several times the corded push-button phone on Bombeck’s bedside table rang and she informed her husband, Bill, that she had people over – meaning us, her audience. The size of the theater, with seats on three sides of the stage, reinforces this sense of intimacy and inclusion.

One thing I found a little odd was Terrie Powers’ set. It depicts a modest suburban home, supposedly in a subdivision in Dayton, Ohio, with the usual elements such as a raised step at the front entrance with a bit of decorative railing, and sections of a sitting area, a nearly complete bedroom, and a dining area with neatly some appliances neatly ensconced on shelves. I understand that the bedroom was centerstage because it was Bombeck’s office, but I found the placement of the bedroom and the proportions of the partial rooms around it peculiar and distracting – and little homey touches like an apron, a laundry basket, a visibly cordless iron, or a vacuum cleaner that seemed slightly out of sync with its recorded sound didn’t help matters.

Decorating dilemmas aside, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End is a delightful hour of theater (sans intermission) that will send you home with the corners of your mouth upturned and your cheeks sore from smiling.

 

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

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Photo Credits:

Aaron Sutton

 

Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End
Catherine Shaffner
Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End
Catherine Shaffner
Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End
Catherine Shaffner

Acts of Faith

I AM MY OWN WIFE: One man, 30+ characters

I AM MY OWN WIFE: One man, 30+ characters

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players in Collaboration with 5th Wall Theatre

At: The Robert B. Moss Theatre at Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Avenue, RVA 23230

Performances: March 8-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-30

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

I Am My Own Wife is undoubtedly one of the more unusual plays of the season. Written by Doug Wright, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning production is a one-man show about a man living as a woman in East Berlin up to and beyond the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. And it is so much more than that. Scott Wichmann plays all of the more than 30 characters, but the focal point is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, perhaps one of the most well-known transvestites in history.

Charlotte earned a living as curator of the Gründerzeit Museum – a mansion filled with an eclectic collection of everyday objects, mostly salvaged from war-torn Germany during the time of the Nazi regime. Needless to say, antique bureaus, gramophones, original Edison phonographs, and cuckoo clocks were not nearly as rare as a man wearing a dress in Nazi Germany. The fact that Wichmann does not make an attractive woman is all the more realistic, as by all accounts, Charlotte was not your usual glamorous drag queen, but rather preferred to wear a plain black dress, her own hair – quite white in later years – and a simple string of pearls. As if this isn’t intriguing enough, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, nee Lothar Berfelde, was a real person (1928-2002).

Wright based his play on a series of interviews he conducted with Charlotte between August 1992 and January 1993. Much of what he discovered was unverifiable or contradicted by written accounts – many of which, themselves, were suspect. The plot thickens with accusations and evidence of Charlottes spying for the Stasi, or German secret police, which stood in stark contrast to her being honored in 1992 with the Bundesverdienstkreuz or  Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for her work in preserving German artifacts. Wright, who wrote himself into the play as one of the dozens of characters, raises questions and leaves his audience to draw our own conclusions.

Wichmann, who has mastered the one-man show with several productions, including the 40+ characters in the wild and witty Totally Committed and a spot-on portrayal of comedian George Burns, has experience with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, having played this role before, in 2006, with the same director, Morrie Piersol. I did not see that production, but can only assume that both brought new insight, depth, and maturity to the current production.

I Am My Own Wife, a statement Charlotte made dismissively when her mother suggested it was time to marry, is a riveting production, anchored by Wichmann’s razor sharp and eerily effective character transformations. Each character has his or her own distinct voice, accent, facial expressions, posture, and mannerisms. To my wholly inexpert ears, Wichmann’s Texan accent and German phrases sounded quite authentic and I was actually quite pleased with myself at being able to pick out many of the German words and phrases. How so many different people can inhabit one fairly compact body without any physical or visible damage is amazing.

One may choose to agree or disagree with von Mahlsdorf’s lifestyle, one may choose to sympathize with or loathe her decision to become a spy, one may even question Wright’s choices about what to include in the play and what to exclude. Wright states in a program note that he used “somewhat selective remembrances” of his encounters with von Mahlsdorf and took the “customary liberties of the dramatist” in editing the work, but there is no denying that this is a fascinating piece of theater, well cast, and brilliantly executed. The subject is no laughing matter, but there are a few well-placed moments of humor – something the opening night audience seemed not too sure of at first. It could have been due to Charlotte’s enigmatic nature; in describing the reconstructed gay bar in the basement of the manor house, for example, Charlotte/Wichmann says the original owner catered to homosexuals because they didn’t get drunk, didn’t fight, and always had money to pay the bill.

Kudos to Piersol for his unobtrusive direction, to Frank Foster for a simple yet elegant, sharp edged set, Andrew Bonniwell’s subtle lighting, and Lisa Lippman’s plain yet effective costume design. I Am My Own Wife has a very short run – just eight performances – so don’t hesitate it if you think you might want to see it. You won’t be sorry.

 

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, WomeninEuropeanHistory.org, and RTP website

 

I Am My Own Wife_John MacLellan
Scott Wichmann as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf
My Own Wife Charlotte
the real Charlotte von Mahlsdorf

I Am My Own Wife

HELEN SIMONEAU DANSE: Land Bridge

HELEN SIMONEAU DANSE: Land Bridge

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

At: Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts W. E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, 922 Park Avenue, RVA 23284

Performances: March 3, 2018

Ticket Prices: $20 Adults; $15 Students

Info: (804) 828-2020 or http://arts.vcu.edu/dance/

Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Dance & Choreography is hosting the 2018 Mid-Atlantic South Regional Conference of the. American College Dance Association March 4-7, 2018. More than 400 students and faculty from college and university dance programs around the region and the nation are expected to attend the four days of adjudicated performances, master classes, scholarly research presentations, and myriad opportunities for student and faculty exchanges both in and outside of the studio. Build around the theme of Bridging Community, the conference will celebrate “dance as a means of forging empathy and connection through inquiry and effort.”

On Saturday the North Carolina-based contemporary dance company of Helen Simoneau offered a pre-conference concert for one night only. Simoneau’s first evening length work is aptly titled “Land Bridge,” and is based on an investigation of heritage, assimilation, and identity as seen through the lens of a herd of caribou. (This makes sense once you realize that Simoneau is a native of Québec, Canada where caribou, also know as reindeer in this part of the world are a threatened species – that’s a step down from endangered.)

Simoneau’s diverse troupe of eight dancers is sublimely athletic and it is mesmerizing to watch them move through this piece. The work begins with the dancers moving in slow procession to the beat of a drum. They sink majestically into a one-legged plié, as if trudging or migrating unhurriedly through deep snow. The silhouette of the dancers’ bodies, with heads bowed and shoulders and upper torsos rounded also suggests those pictures of the evolution of man.

“Land Bridge” is about cycles and repetition. The opening processional repeats several times before the herd changes direction and the movement reappears in abbreviated form later in the hour-long work. At one point all eight dancers connect and spin apart like a centrifuge, then balance on one leg with both hands held at the sides of their heads, fingers pointing up, suggesting antlers. A tandem crawl, with one dancer face up atop the back of the other, suggest the communal nature of this work and at the same time is a typical tableau. Another is a bottoms-up posture with the head on the ground – a reference, no doubt, to the caribou’s manner of digging into the snow in search of food, and to the etymology of the French-based word “caribou” which can be translated to mean “snow shoveler.”

In a post-show talk, Simoneau elaborated on how her work often focuses on the individual within the group and the many ways in which the dancers’ connections reflect variations of locking antlers, sharing weight and power. This is especially clear in a section where two men meet center stage and fall into one another, forcefully dragging and tossing one another in a great display of power. “Land Bridge,” in which the patterns and cycles of animals and humans merge and become one is set to an original score by Nathalie Joachim that blends human and electronic sounds.  Chanted sighs and percussive gurgles cycle and repeat while the lighting by Carrie Wood at times makes the dancers look as if they were lit from within.

Dancer Burr Johnson, now in his eighth season with Helen Simoneau Danse, is a VCU Dance alum. It’s always a pleasure to see successful students return to show off their results of their hard work. Personally, I can hardly wait for this company to return to Richmond for another public performance – hopefully for more than one night.

 

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:

Company photos by Peter Mueller; Helen Simoneau’s portrait by Todd Turner Photography

 

JOHN & JEN: A Musical of Second Chances

JOHN & JEN: A Story of Second Chances

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

At: HATTheatre, 1124 Westbriar Dr., RVA 23238

Performances: March 2-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: $25 Adults; $20 Seniors; $15 Youth, Students, Military w/ID; $12 RVATA Card Holders; Reservations Required – No tickets at the door

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

Any excuse to spend an evening with Georgia Rogers Farmer (Jen) and Chris Hester (John) is an evening well spent. In this two-person chamber musical that fits perfectly in the intimate black box that is HATTheatre, Farmer and Hester do not disappoint.

For those who don’t like spoilers, do not read any further until after you have seen this show. There is no way to write about this show without giving away a key component that some might consider a spoiler.

John & Jen spans some forty years, from about l950 or 1952 until 1990 in the life of Jen and the two Johns in her life. In Act 1, Jen welcomes her little brother into a world that proves to be filled with both love and chaos.  Interestingly, the same father that Jen considers to be a source of chaos is a source of stability and love for John. Perspective matters from start to finish in this intriguing and intimate work, written by Tom Greenwald and Andrew Lippa, with music by Lippa and lyrics by Greenwald.

In his director’s note, Doug Schneider indicates that he did not like the first version he heard of this show, which was first performed Off-Broadway in 1995, but became hooked on this newer version, a 2015 revival, which included some new songs and arrangements and dropped some of the original songs. I’m curious about the original version, as I found the current songs and music somewhat uneven.

In Act 1, Hester was quite funny in the sister-teasing “Trouble with Men” and the duo was rough and intense in the scene-closing “Run & Hide.” Likewise, in Act 2, Hester got a chance to shine with boyish exuberance in “Bye Room,” and the two had a touching closing number with “Every Good-Bye is Hello.” Throughout both acts there were touchingly sweet moments that allowed Farmer’s epic voice and presence to soar, but the material she had to work with just didn’t seem to be. . .well. . .big enough. I want to find a phrase that is the opposite of “sung-through musical”; that would be a musical in which some lyrics are spoken to music rather than sung. While that makes it easy to follow the story, it seems to be something less than musical. While I enjoyed the performers and their portrayals of their characters, this is not the kind of musical that makes you want to run out and buy the soundtrack.

The four-piece chamber orchestra, under the musical direction of Joshua Wortham was quite good, with Wortham on keyboard, Michael Knowles on cello, Marissa Resmini on violin, and Nick Oyler on percussion.  But again, at times the score was stunningly beautiful while often it disappeared into the background – not what one expects in a musical.

One of the most interesting aspects of John & Jen is that Jen is the same character for both acts, whereas John is Jen’s little brother in Act 1 and her son in Act 2. So, Hester has to, in effect, play two different roles with different personalities, growing up in different decades, opposite the same mother figure, while answering to the same name, John. Jen, the sister, promises to always be there for her little brother, but then he goes off to Vietnam and they never see each other again. Knowing the backstory of Act 1 gives the audience inside knowledge that helps us understand Jen’s overprotective parenting of her son.

The nature and familiarity of these relationships is what makes this an Acts of Faith production. Jen wants to replace her missing brother with her son, and it takes a “Talk Show” scene to expose her fears and a “Graduation” to open the door to a resolution. The device of using a talk show format, which almost but not quite involved the audience, to air one’s dirty laundry was a much-needed tension reliver and weirdly amusing break from the intensity of the relationships. Christmas traditions, feuding parents, Little League, rebellious children, first dates, leaving for college, differing political views, hippies, draft dodging (do today’s young people even know what the draft was?) are all familiar to most families, which may be why a few scenes may be misted not by the lighting designer but by the viewer’s own eyes.

Michael Jarrett has designed some lovely projections that carry us through the decades and life events of Jen and her two Johns, while Erin Barclay designed the lights, Frank Foster created the scenic elements that consisted of two straight-backed chairs on opposite sides of the stage with a storage bench stage center, and Linda Shepard designed the simple wardrobe that allowed Hester and Farmer to make subtle but key changes – a Christmas sweater, a blanket, a tie-dyed skirt –  right on stage.

John & Jen is a tightly-woven, intense, and intimate musical and Hester and Farmer bring far more for it than it gives to them.

 

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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 Eib Photography

WINGS: A brilliant stroke of a musical

WINGS THE MUSICAL:

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23220

Performances: February 15 – March 10, 2018; Post-performance talkbacks March 1 & 8

Ticket Prices: $20-35

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

Bianca Bryan is brilliant as Emily Stilson, a former wing walker (a daredevil who performs acrobatics or stunts on the wings of a moving plane) navigating through the darkness and struggling to recover her memories and her words after suffering a stroke. Jeffrey Lunden’s Wings: The Musical is a not a musical in the traditional sense. Described in the Firehouse Theatre’s press release as a chamber musical because of its small cast of five and trio of musicians, Bryan’s role is written with a sometimes-operatic musicality that represents the depth and scope of Emily’s reach for her former self.

The focus is almost entirely on Emily, and Bryan remains on stage for the entire 80 minutes. Her mastery of the garbled speech patterns of a stroke patient are all too familiar and make the clarity of her singing even more dazzling.  As is so often the case this season, there is no intermission. Lauren Elens has a strong supporting role as Emily’s discerning therapist and friend, Amy, and Landon Nagel has a shining moment as a fellow patient in Emily’s rehabilitation center as, Billy. A former baker or chef, Billy has trouble remembering his signature recipes, but finds putting his thoughts into song during a music therapy session helpful. The result is a fabulous song about cheesecake.

Andrew Colletti and Lucinda McDermott round out the cast, playing dual roles, first as Emily’s somewhat stern and distant doctor and nurse and later as fellow patients and group members Mr. Brambilla and Mrs. Timmins. Bryan sings most of her lines; the rest of the cast speaks most of theirs.

On a raised platform, Music Director Kim Fox plays keyboard, with Maddie Erskine on cello and Taylor Bendus on Flute. (Even with the raised platform, the petite Fox was invisible behind her music stand, but her signature musical style and direction were unmistakable.) The music is quite good and combined with the sound design and lights Wings is a small musical that carries a big impact.

Vinnie Gonzalez designed a clean and spare set, populated with a couple of movable benches, a serving art, and a wheeled chair – not a wheelchair – for Emily. Two platforms adorned with wires added depth and there were subtle touches like the protective griffin symbols painted on the blue walls and the double winged ceiling fan over the stage. Bill Miller’s lighting was at times breathtakingly beautiful, especially at the end, and Jason Blue Herbert’s sound design added depth and texture, peppered with realistic roaring engines. All of this was beautifully woven together by Kerrigan Sullivan’s sensitive direction, bringing a gentle and empathetic perspective to a difficult and seldom explored subject.

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 — Bianca Bryan, Lauren Elens, Landon Nagel, Lucinda McDermott, Andrew Colletti, Maddie Erskine, Kim Fox, Taylor Bendus