Tuesday, January 09, 2001

Our Town

Think back to a time before computers, a time before cell phones, a time before television. Think of a time when a date with your best girl was a soda at the drug store, and when the first kiss was a very big deal.

Think of Grover’s Corners.

Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire is the setting for Thornton Wilder’s classic play, “Our Town,” presented by Acme Theatre Company, under the direction of David Burmester.

The play consists of three acts, with three years between the first and second act and nine years between the second and third act.

The principal actor is the Stage Manager, who remains on stage the entire time explaining much of the action. He is aware of the present, and privy to both the past and the future. Jasen Oler handles the role of Stage Manager competently. He seems perfectly at home as he walks across the nearly bare stage, describing the town, painting the scene, and acting as a liaison between cast and audience.

In the first act we follow a typical day in Grover’s Corners, and meet some of its citizens, as they go about their daily business. George Gibbs (Chris Schmidt) and Emily Webb (Eleanor van Hest) are young adults, living next door to each other, best friends, going to school together, and sharing secrets, dreams, and homework tips, leaning out their respective bedroom windows.

Their mothers, Mrs. Webb (Emily Henderson) and Mrs. Gibbs (Eden Kennedy-Hoffman) spend a lot of time doing kitchen duty--preparing meals, stringing beans for supper, and making a home for their husbands and children, including George’s sister Rebecca (Alexis Beddard) and Emily’s brother Wally (James Henderson).

"Both of those ladies cooked three meals a day - one of 'em for twenty years and the other for forty - and no summer vacation. They brought up two children apiece, washed, cleaned the house ... and never a nervous breakdown. It's like what one of those Middle West poets said: You've got to love life to have life, and you've got to have life to love life... It's what they call a vicious circle,” says the Stage Manager.

The fathers, newspaper editor Mr. Webb (Pheelykx Guttenberg) and Doctor Gibbs (Nick Herbert) chat over the back fence and talk about the goings on in the town. We meet other citizens of Grover’s Corners--Howie, the Milkman (Steven Schmidt), Joe Crowell, the newsboy (Josh Nielson), and Constable Warren (Dylan Myles-Primakoff).

Act two is dedicated to marriage. We witness George and Emily falling in love and we are all invited to the wedding, which is attended by all the townspeople, including a very excited Mrs. Soames (Alaina Boys).

Act three takes place in the town cemetery. Emily has died in childbirth and is buried in the town's cemetery on a rainy, dreary day. There she is reunited with those friends and neighbors who have died before her, and who help her adjust to her new existence. Though Emily is granted one day to return to her old life, we watch her accept death as a natural extension of life and begin to disengage from life, as she finds peace in death.

One of Wilder’s requirements in staging “Our Town” is that the play must be done on a bare stage, with a minimum of props. In his notes to this production, Burmester expresses his desire to make this production different from Acme’s 1987 production, and so he turned to live sound effects. The sound technicians, Clarissa Lyons, Jessica Harris, Sarah Hartmeyer, Nick Herbert, David Markman, Rob Rogers, Steven Schmidt and Jake Stoebel have created a wonderful array of gate squeaks, bowl stirring, silverware clanking, and other sounds that you would find in daily life, but it unfortunately is one of those great ideas that doesn’t work in actuality. The sounds are very distracting and in some cases unnecessarily highlight a bit of pantomime that an actor may have forgotten.

But despite the distraction of the sound effects, Acme has once again presented a polished, professional production. In the end, its simple message teaches us the true value of life. As the Stage Manager says, "Whenever you come near the human race, there's layers and layers of nonsense .... We all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names ... that something has to do with human beings."

Three more performances of “Our Town” remain--January 11, 12, and 13, 8 p.m. at the Veterans’ Memorial Theatre. Tickets available at the box office on the night of the performance.

Monday, January 08, 2001


Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist is hardly a story which lends itself to a sprightly musical. An orphan boy forced to slave in a workhouse until he gets sold to an undertaker, and who then runs away to join a band of thieves apprenticed to the crafty and cunning Fagin. It has poverty and child abuse and crime and murder. Not the typical stuff of musical theatre. And yet Lionel Bart’s adaptation has become one of the most beloved musicals of all time.

The elements that make this show work are the endearing children in the cast, strong principal characters, and upbeat musical numbers that keep the show moving along at a steady clip.

Unfortunately, there is nothing sprightly about Davis Musical Theatre Company’s production of Oliver!, which opened this weekend. The tempos are slow and the show, at nearly 3 hours, drags terribly. However, despite tempo problems, Director/Choreographer Jan Isaacson has created a good looking, imaginatively staged, creatively choreographed production.

The children’s chorus, which opens the show, is small, but for the most part well disciplined, showing a surprising number of good voices for a group so young. “Food, Glorious Food” was a testament to the amount of hard work that the children put in to get the dance numbers right.

Nine year old Ed Bianchi in the title role looks the perfect Oliver. He has a wonderful stage presence and the perfect look of an abandoned waif. He was hampered in Act 2 by being put in a bed on the upper level of the set so that his body was not visible to a good portion of the audience, and his voice was not able to project over the blankets that covered him, but when blocked appropriately he was a delight.

Steve Isaacson was restrained by a cervical collar, but it did nothing to hamper his performance. Except for lacking any attempt at a British accent (which most of the rest of the cast managed to carry off very well), Isaacson’s Fagin was a delightful mix of evil and whimsy, struggling with some long-forgotten principles and trying to decide between his principles and his inherent greed.

The talented Colin Sphar brings a cocky assurance to the role of the Artful Dodger, Fagin’s right hand boy. He is a good actor who moves well on stage and has a strong singing voice.

Equally impressive were Brent Null’s Mr. Bumble and Lexie DeRock’s Widow Corney. Both had strong clear voices and played off each other very well.

Others in the cast included Tim O’Laughlin in a Mr. Sowerberry, a characterization which was almost more “wolfman” than “undertaker,” Sarah Null as Mrs. Sowerberry, Helen Spangler as Nancy, Megan Houpt as Bet, Tommy Callahan as Bill Sikes (not “Sykes” as spelled in the program--this reviewer is sensitive to the proper spelling!), Ben Bruening in the dual roles of Noah and Mr. Brownlow and Noel Bruening as Old Sally.

Act II’s “Who Will Buy” singers -- Savannah Scott, Christa Garnett, Tim O’Laughlin, and Brian McCann -- were exceptionally strong.

Mark Allen has designed a two-level set which functions well as an orphanage, the “Three Cripples” public house, Fagin’s hideout, or Mr. Brownlow’s mansion with the hanging a a few simple pieces and placement or tables. The use of a fog machine at two points of the show seems a bit out of place. While the intent was obviously designed to create the sense of foggy London, the noise and nozzle of the hose were distracting.

There were twelve instruments listed for the off-stage orchestra, under the musical direction of Steve Isaacon (no conductor is listed in the program), though the sound would make one question whether all 12 instruments were playing at the same performance.

Oliver! is a good family show which children and parents alike will enjoy. Its shortcomings are few and are more than compensated for by its strengths.


"With true love anything is possible--even miracles,” says Mr. Lundie, the wise old philosopher of Brigadoon (played with much dignity by Tim O’Laughlin). And therein lies the message Davis Musical Theatre’s production of the Lerner and Loewe musical, currently delighting audiences at the Varsity Theatre, through January 28th.

Director Steve Isaacson has created a sprightly, sparkling production, which moves at a steady clip and draws the audience in from the opening strains of the backstage chorus.

Isaacson has assembled a strong cast headed by Jaime Tvrdik as Tommy Allbright, the American who stumbles across the magical Scottish town of Brigadoon on the one day in 100 when it comes to life. Tvrdik, who bears an uncanny resemblance to David Letterman, is making his DMTC debut and is welcome addition to the company.

Tommy falls in love with the village lass Fiona McLaren (wonderfully played by Amanda Duran). Their duets, some of the more memorable Lerner & Loewe music (“It’s Almost Like Being In Love” and “The Heather on the Hill”) are outstanding.

Comic relief is provided by Tommy’s heavy-drinking pal Jeff Douglas, played by DMTC veteran Ben Breuning and by Meg Brockie, the lusty wench who sets her tam-o-shanter for him. What Jan Isaacson, as Meg, lacks vocally she makes up for in enthusiasm and energy, though she probably would have been better off not attempting a Scottish accent.

(For the most part, the accents used by the rest of the cast sounded authentic to an American ear and were carried consistently throughout the show.)

Supporting players were generally excellent. Dena Lozano is a sweet Jean McLaren, preparing for her wedding to Charlie Dalrymple (Seth Arnopole). Arnopole has a steady tenor, though his “Bonnie Jean” could have used a bit more volume.

Chris Garcia is the Hapless Harry Beaton, who threatens to leave Brigadoon and cause the town to disappear forever. His fight with Tommy stretches credibility a bit (Tommy can knock him down several times, but apparently can’t reach his arm to hold on to him long enough for the others to help bring him back to town), but it’s a minor point.

Dave Mauck as Angus MacGregor, Bruce Wallace as Archie Beaton, and Cliff Wood as Sandy each give strong performances (and special recognition should go to Brian McCann who, while not given a character name in the program, has several small solos and is outstanding).

A decided highlight of this production is the choreography by Amanda Duran. Program notes indicate that this is Duran’s first attempt at choreography and the professional results she has achieved would indicate that she has a real talent for the job. The dances were imaginative and the dancers well drilled. Particularly noteworthy was the sword dance, performed by Chris Garcia, Cliff Wood and Marc Valdez.

The DMTC orchestra was in fine form, and the addition of bagpiper Liz Steuber for the funeral of Harry Beaton was particularly effective.

Jean Henderson’s costumes give the right taste of an 18th century Scottish village, and the parade of tartans was a colorful display.

Set design was by Ron Easley and lighting design by Mark Allen.

At the end of Brigadoon’s day, Tommy must decide if he’s willing to risk all to stay with Fiona, or return to his own life and his fiancee (Noel Breuning) in New York and give her up forever. "It's the hardest thing in the world to give up everything...but sometimes it's the only way to get everything," advises Mr. Lundie. Tommy’s ultimate decision proves indeed that “with love all things are possible.”