Monday, March 22, 2004

Steel Magnolias

Louisiana-born lawyer/actor/playwright Robert Harling wrote Steel Magnolias originally as a short story as therapy to help him deal with the untimely death of his diabetic sister, his “best friend,” following childbirth. "My nephew was about to turn five," he explained, "and I suddenly realized that if I didn’t put down on paper what happened to his mother, he’d never know who she was."

While the story tells of a tragic event, Harling injected it with a heavy dose of Southern humor, filled with wonderfully witty banter and wisecracks (“If you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me!”). He set it in a beauty parlor, the mysterious and fascinating place where his mother and sister would disappear for a few hours each week with their friends.

Steel Magnolias premiered on Broadway in 1987 and was later made into a hugely popular movie with an all star cast that featured Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLean, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah and garnered an Academy Award nomination for Julia Roberts.

The Winters Community Theatre has chosen Steel Magnolias as its spring production, directed by Howard Hupe.

From the moment the curtains open on the Truvy’s Beauty Shop in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, thanks to the set design of Trent Beeby, Gloria Marion and Howard Hupe. we enter the world Harling created, and begin eavesdropping on the close knit group of women friends, these Southern belles whose shared camaraderie, joy and grief gives them the softness of magnolias, and the strength of steel.

The four-scene play takes place over a two year period of time in the late 1980s. All action takes place in the beauty shop under the direction of owner Truvy, played by Gloria Marion, who wields a comb with the professionalism of a real beautician (which Marion is in real life).

As the story begins, it is Shelby’s wedding day. Gina Wingard is a delicious Shelby, a headstrong young woman determined to have her own way, whether it is about the decorations for her wedding hairdo, or the decision to risk her life in order to have the baby for which she so desperately longs (“I would rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”)

New to the beauty shop is Annelle (Jennifer Hale), a young woman new to town, hiding a secret, and in need of a job. Hale seemed a bit unsure of herself in the opening scene, but grew more confident as the play progressed.

The marvelous Germane Hupe is Claree, an eccentric widowed millionaire. Hupe has wonderful comic timing and gets the most out of her biting sarcastic comments (“Very good, Annelle! You’ve spoken like a true smart-ass!”, “Ouiser could never stay mad at me; she worships the quicksand I walk on.”)

Maggie Burns is very funny as the crusty old spitfire Ouiser, who has a running feud going with Shelby’s father, her next door neighbor. (“The only reason people are nice to me is that I have more money than God.” “I’m not crazy; I’ve just been in a bad mood for 40 years.”)

Shelby’s social worker mother, M’Lynne, is played by Ann Rost. Rost was often the weakest in the cast, her lines spoken so softly they barely made it past the first row. However, she took command of the stage as the grieving mother, following Shelby’s death and had the audience in the palm of her hand, sniffles audible throughout the house. Her anger came from the very depth of her soul and was painfully familiar to anyone who has suffered the loss of a child.

This production of Steel Magnolias is a little rough around the edges, with some stumbling over lines here and there, but the six-woman cast forms a cohesive ensemble which combines to give a very real, funny, and moving experience for the audience.

Steel Magnolias continues at the Winters Community Center, 201 Railroad Avenue, Winters on weekends through March 28.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Guys and Dolls

It’s always good when you can walk out of a theatre thinking about something you’ve seen that really excites you. That “something” came in the person of Michael R.J. Campbell, Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Davis Musical Theatre Company’s production of “Guys and Dolls.” Campbell is a talented young man with a big voice and his “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” combined with Michael Miiller’s energetic choreograpy was easily the high point of this production.

“Guys and Dolls,” the 1952 award-winning musical by Frank Loesser, based on the book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling (based on tales of Damon Runyon) is a light-hearted look at the darker side of 1940s New York, and the lovable gangsters who inhabit it.

Director Jan Isaacson has assembled a cast of remarkably strong singers. Without exception they give wonderful voice to every song. Some are better actors than others.

Steve Isaacson was born to play the lovable scoundrel Nathan Detroit, a wise-cracking wheeler-dealer who runs the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York. Detroit is faced with a problem. Lt. Brannigan (Michael Miiler) is cracking down and he can’t find a place to hold the evening’s game.

Detroit has been engaged for years to Miss Adelaide (“the famous fiancee”), a dancer at the Hotsy Totsy club. All Adelaide wants is to finally marry Nathan and live in a house “with a picket fence and bookends.” Lauren Miller is a delightful Adelaide and, second only to Campbell’s Nicely-Nicely, delivers some of the most memorable musical numbers in the show.

Brennen Cull plays Sky Masterson, a high roller who is one of Detroit's regulars. Nicole Burritt-Smith plays Sarah Brown, the dedicated Salvation Army worker who has chosen to live among the seamy characters off Times Square in an attempt to convert the sinners. A wager between Masterson and Detroit leads to an unlikely romance between Masterson and Brown.

Cull and Buritt-Smith are both newcomers to DMTC and add much vocally. If you close your eyes and listen to Burritt-Smith, you might think you were listening to a young Shirley Jones. It’s a delicious, clear sound. Cull has a strong baritone and he comes alive whenever he sings. Unfortunately, there is little chemistry between the two characters, which makes their passion unbelievable and gives little energy to most of their scenes.

Returning for a second time as Arvide Abernathy, grandfather to Sarah, Bob Eggert’s touching “More I Cannot Wish You” displayed an unexpectedly strong voice.

Others in the cast include Mike McElroy as Benny Southstreeet; Ryan Adame as Rusty Charlie, ; Ben Bruening as Harry the Horse; Heather Sheridan as General Cartwright and Michael Jones as Big Jule.

Dancing is sometimes one of the weak points in community theatre productions, whose members are often stronger actors than dancers. However, Michael Miiller does wonders with DMTC casts. He has created such tight dance numbers in this production that it’s difficult to tell who in the cast has dance training and who does not. Whether a small ensemble for Hotsy Totsy club performances or full cast living it up in Havana, each dance number is a gem.

Jean Henderson has done her usual competent job in the costume department, especially in the colorful ensemble for the Havana scene. However, perhaps her most striking visual is for the Hot Box dancers in “Take Back Your Mink.”

One tiny quibble – in a production where such attention has obviously been made to period, in costume and set design (by Jennifer Walley), it was surprising in the opening number to see a photographer holding a camera as if he were looking at the LCD screen of a digital camera, rather than through the eyepiece of a film camera. Disconcerting and distracting for an amateur photographer to watch.

Guys and Dolls has a number of familiar tunes (“I’ll Know,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “If I were a Bell,” “Luck Be a Lady” as well as the title song). It would be surprising if the audience did not emerge humming one of them at the end of the evening.

The production runs through March 28th at the Varsity Theatre.

Fiddler on the Roof

Tevye can't understand why the world is changing. The simple milkman from the little Russian town of Anatevka, in a strong portrayal by Davis Musical Theatre Company's founder and guiding light, Steve Isaacson, sits on his milk wagon -- the horse is lame again -- and asks his God why.

"Fiddler on the Roof," the perennial favorite based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, with music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, is at the Varsity Theater through Dec. 7.

The story is about change ... the changing relationships between parents and children, the changing political scene, the change in ... tradition. Some changes are easier to accept than others.

Mary Young reprises her role as Golde, Tevye's wife, who met him on their wedding day and who is surprised to realize, after 25 years, that she really loves her husband.

Their three oldest daughters are of marrying age and Golde turns to Yente the Matchmaker (played by Cathy Rasmussen) to find them a "perfect match."

The girls have other ideas. The oldest, Tzeitel (Lauren Miller) is secretly in love with Motel, the Tailor (Ben Bruening's best role to date), and begs her father to let her marry him instead of the older Lazar Wolf, the Butcher (Rick Simonson). Seeing how much in love the two are, Tevye gives his permission.

When it comes to the next daughter, Hodel (Wendy Wyse), Tevye reluctantly agrees to let her follow her love, the idealistic activist Perchik (Ryan Adame), to Siberia, knowing he may never see her again.

But when his favorite, Chava (Jillian Johnson) falls for a Russian soldier, Fyedka (played by Tevye Ditter -- that's really his name -- a man with terrific voice), the father draws the line and declares his daughter "dead."

The DMTC production, directed by Michael Miiller, is lively and fast-paced. The musical numbers are outstanding, particularly the opening number, "Tradition," involving all the townspeople in a circle dance and "To Life," a rousing song of celebration following Tevye's pact with Lazar Wolf to the marriage with his daughter.

The dream sequence, which Tevye concocts to convince Golde of the wisdom of the marriage of Tzeitel and Motel gives Jan Isaacson a chance to shine as Grandma and Dannette Vassar to make the most of the role of the ghost of Fruma-Sarah, the butcher's first wife.

(Kudos also to Rich Kulmann, the perfect Rabbi.)

Sets, designed by Isaacson, are utilitarian, but they work. It is unfortunate that the backdrop is not stretched tightly across the frame (and is badly bunched up in one corner), as the movement of actors backstage causes it to ripple badly and distracts from the action on stage.
The 16-piece band is under the direction of Andy Sullivan, and Noel Bruening does her own playing on stage as the Fiddler.

A nasty flu bug has been making its way through the company and affected some of the otherwise strong voices of cast, in both pitch and volume, a situation that surely will be cleared up by next weekend.