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Outside It Is Winter, But in NKU’s Corbett Theatre, “Cabaret” is So Hot, *woo*!

Review by Jack Crumley of Cabaret: NKU Theatre

An ice storm and polar vortex hit the Cincinnati area two weeks ago. Temperatures were around 60 last week. Now it’s cold again, but Northern Kentucky University’s production of Cabaret is a Valentine that’ll keep audiences warm for the next few days.

Cabaret tells the story of a nightclub in 1931 Berlin, Germany, just as the Nazis are rising to power. Specifically, it’s about Cliff Bradshaw, an American writer, and Sally Bowles, an English performer who works at the Kit Kat Klub. Sally inserts herself into Cliff’s life, and they start to fall in love as the world around them starts to fall apart. There’s also a secondary plot involving Cliff’s elderly landlady, Fraulein Schneider, and her blossoming romance with an elderly tenant in the building, Herr Schultz.

Director Brian Robertson’s production tells the story presentationally. The Emcee, played by the inimitable Faustina Gorham (more on her in a bit), is resurrecting the run-down club in her memory, and it’s as if the audience is watching dancing girls and guys perform the musical at the club. Everyone on stage is scantily clad, at best, all the time. The guy playing Cliff (Mattison Sullivan) wears a vest and tie over his underwear. Herr Schultz (Matthew Nassida) is a man in spectacles and a sportcoat up top, and leggings straight out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show from the waist down. The woman playing the aging Fraulein Schneider (Sarah Hack) puts on a flower-print dress over her top and skirt, hunches over a bit, and she’s in character. When she’s not in character, she and the other performers are having a drink or lounging around on the outskirts of the stage. It makes for an incredibly interesting show, visually. As the main action is going on, you can take in subtle interactions between members of the cast off to the side. It sounds distracting, but for me, it gave the show an added level of depth. These are people playing characters playing characters. In between scenes that tell the main story, there are cabaret-style musical numbers that relate to the plot.

Even though that plot is about Cliff and Sally, it’s the Emcee who steals the show. Faustina Gorham’s performance is arresting. It’s infused with a Miley Cyrus-style sexuality and exuberance. Every single gesture she makes or syllable she sings is planned and purposeful. She’s dancing with the girls, working the crowd with classic songs like “Wilkommen,” or positioning herself on stage to be just outside the action, but all still very active. As much as Joel Grey defined the role in the 1972 Bob Fosse film, having a woman like Gorham play the part fits so perfectly with the queer and gender-bending undertones of the story, it’s hard for me to imagine a man playing the Emcee from now on. She’s the one you’ll be talking about after the show.

My praise of Gorham should in no way indicate that the rest of the cast is lacking. This entire group of actors is outstanding. Their voices all blend really nicely, and they’re all able to act as they sing, an ability that sometimes gets glossed over in musicals. And again, we’re talking double-duty: They’re playing cabaret performers who are playing musical characters. Sullivan’s Cliff has a quiet intensity about him that flares up. Hack’s Schneider is so believable as an older woman until Hack steps out of the main area, sheds the dress, and goes back to being a dancer. Her chemistry with Nassida’s Schultz when they sing “Married” is truly touching.

Makenzie Ruff plays Sally, the one-time featured player at the Kit Kat Klub who’s tossed out when her relationship with the club’s owner fizzles. Ruff’s voice is spectacular. Like Gorham, she’s a performer who’s often at the heart of the action, leading the company with songs like “Don’t Tell Mama” and the classic “Mein Herr.” But Ruff really shines in the more introspective moments. She absolutely brought the house down on Saturday night when she sang “Maybe This Time,” and her performance of “Cabaret” near the end carries the weight of this frivolous-now-serious story. It’s fitting that Ruff and Gorham share the final bow.

These actors who sing are also dancing during this show. Natalie Bellamy and DJ Bruegge’s choreography is at times, sweeping. From the chair gymnastics in “Mein Herr” to the living cuckoo clock-like dancing number to kick off Act II, this cast is put through some paces. Also, they’re playing these characters and singing these songs and dancing these steps in various states of undress. What costume designer Ronnie Chamberlain lacks in actual fabric is more than made up for in creativity. Stockings, lacy bodysuits, football shoulder pads, corsets, leather pants, and heels are all featured. It’s really impressive work that showcases each character’s personality.

Supporting these superlative performances is an orchestra that never overpowers the singers, conducted by Jamey Strawn. The reeds, brass, strings, and drums didn’t hit a sour note and played with the same sense of fun that the cast is showcasing. They played from the back of the stage, and it’s one more testament to the strength of this production that there were no issues between the orchestra and the actors, even with no one in front to direct.

The only issue I had was with the sound. One of the microphones had a bad wire or was rubbing against something, and that was distracting for much of Act I. To the credit of the cast (again), that microphone issue didn’t seem to affect their performances at all, however. The problem was eventually fixed, and I doubt it will be an issue again.

Cabaret tells a powerful, intense story that’s masked in lighthearted gaiety. This production at NKU handles the material in a deft, talented, and unique way. This is a mature show–in a sense that goes beyond offensive language or nudity–that’s being presented by a brilliant group of people. It is not to be missed.

Cabaret plays Wednesday to Sunday at the Corbett Theatre on the campus of Northern Kentucky University through February 24. For tickets, call 859-572-5464 or visit theatre.NKU.edu

In CCM’s “Our Country’s Good”, a Dream Has Lost Its Way

Review by Alan Jozwiak of Our Country’s Good: CCM Acting

This is a dream which has lost its way. Best to leave it alone.

These lines, spoken by an Australian Aborigine (Jabari Carter) on seeing the arrival of the first British ship coming to the shores of Australia, beautifully sums up the helplessness and hopefulness that is contained within Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play about the founding of Australia, Our Country’s Good.

Our Country’s Good is the winter Mainstage offering of CCM Acting and the play tells what happens when a group of convicts, forced to found Australia’s first penal colony, are invited to put on a staged production of George Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer. Added into the mix of events are objections of the play by several of the officers, dwindling resources of food, in-fighting by different convicts, and the imprisonment of some of them who are accused of aiding in the escape of their fellow prisoners.

The drama off the stage is just as great as the convicts put on the stage.

Kudos should go to director Susan Felder. She has a unique genius of clarifying relationships and highlighting character story arcs. In Our Country’s Good, Felder skillfully works with her actors to construct a play that effectively moves swiftly from scene to scene while juggling twenty-plus characters without confusion. This is a pretty mean feat since this is the only production of this play that I’ve seen that has been able to do this.

The secret to Felder’s success is that she holds in equal measure the horror of the convict’s situation while keeping the lightness and levity also found within the play. Our Country’s Good has plenty of laugh lines and Felder is able to make the humor sparkle and shine throughout.

This is a play where practically the entire cast delivered strong performances, so it is going to be hard to single out for discussion all the strengths of the actors. Since this is an academic production, I will focus my comments on some of the graduating seniors who were in the cast.

James Egbert did an outstanding job with the role of Harry Brewer, the British midshipman who saves a young woman Duckling (Kayla Temshiv) from the gallows by adding her to the list of those bound for Australia. Egbert delivers a believable performance and is able to deliver the wide range of emotions that Harry Brewer faces over the course of the play.

Carter LaCava was incredibly funny as Robert Sideway, the London pickpocket whose pretentiousness and over-the-top pomposity was delightful to watch. I particularly enjoyed his exaggerated mannerisms and exalted airs while rehearsing. They were the perfect fit for the character.

Madeleine Page-Schmit was great as the convict Mary Brenham. Page-Schmit walked a nice line falling between subdued innocence and sassy worldliness. She also had some wonderful laugh lines and solid moments of pathos throughout the play.

She worked well with her fellow convict and friend Dabby Bryant, played by Jacqueline Daaleman. Daaleman did a wondrous job with Dabby, making the character into a sassy forward woman who was willing to look out for her friend Mary Brenham as she is willing to fight for women she distrusts, like Liz Morden, played brilliantly by Abby Palen.

In the final analysis, this was a strong production that delivers some wonderful performances, along with plenty of laughs, thoughtful commentary on theatre and life, and life-and-death drama. It forced me to re-evaluate this play and I think it should be a must-see for the serious theatre fan. For more information on this and other CCM performances, go to the CCM website for the show for more information: https://CCM.uc.edu/.

In CCM’s “Our Country’s Good”, Redcoat is the New Black

Review by Sheldon Polonsky of Our Country’s Good: CCM Acting

For its winter Main Stage production, CCM Acting has taken on Timberlake Wertenbaker’s challenging historical dramedy, Our Country’s Good. Set in Australia’s first penal colony in the 1780’s, Wertenbaker’s play is long, complex and filled with difficult dialogue and profound thematic elements. Although I have never seen it performed, I can imagine a hundred ways to present this play badly, even with the most seasoned professional company. Luckily, CCM‘s director and young cast found a hundred ways to do it well.

Our Country’s Good opens with the arrival of convicts and the British Royal Marines in Sydney Cove, observed by a lone aborigine. The convicts–both male and female–may have escaped imprisonment or hanging back in England, but they suffer from beatings, unjust punishments, hunger and emotional debasement by the soldiers–whose life in the isolated colony and harsh conditions is a punishment of their own. The new governor, Captain Phillip (Jabari Carter) wants to promote better relations with the prisoners and improve their character, and his idea of having them put on a play is eagerly taken up by a second lieutenant, Ralph Clark (Jack Steiner). The endeavor is frustrated both by fierce opposition by many of the officers, who see the prisoners as irredeemable, and by the prisoners themselves, many of whom are illiterate and see their situation as hopeless. Led by Clark, however, and an instinctively talented convict, Mary Brenham (Madeline Page-Schmit), the company begins to forge a bond between the colonists which presages Australia’s development from penal colony to nationhood.

Our Country’s Good is a perfect ensemble piece with plenty of roles, many double-cast (as originally conceived by the playwright). Although the cast is led by Steiner’s and Page-Schmit’s relatable and humanizing performances, every player has their chance to shine, and shine they do. In this production, CCM definitely impresses with the range and depth of their students, and all 15 cast members put in stellar performances with no weak spots. I almost feel guilty singling out any for praise since everyone was so talented. Nevertheless, I was most impressed by Abby Palen, as the prisoner Liz Morden, who has the most difficult transformation from dehumanized to inspiring; Duncan Weinland, as the bookish Jew, Wisehammer, who emotionally demonstrates the power of words to overcome misfortune; and Cameron Nalley, who seamlessly morphs from the sadistic Major Ross to the gentle convict/hangman James “Ketch” Freeman and embodies them both so well one can hardly believe he is only one actor. Kudos also to Jacqueline Daaleman (Dabby Bryant) and Carter Lacava (Robert Sideway) who lighten the show with their considerable comedic talents, and James Egbert and Kayla Temshiv, who play a tormented soldier, Harry Brewer, and his conflicted mistress Duckling (Egbert also gets lots of laughs in his secondary role as the unintelligibly Scottish officer Campbell).

The biggest applause, though, should go to the director, Susan Felder, who shepherded all this talent and keeps this potentially lumbering script moving and engaging. She wisely balances the play’s humor and pathos and keeps the blocking eye-catching. All the technical aspects of the production were equally accomplished. Joshua Gallagher’s scenic design, dominated by desert-designed risers and a giant sun/moon, highlights the starkness of the landscape in a visceral way, reinforced by dramatic lighting design (Michael Ekema-Nardella) and an other-worldly sound background including didjeridoo (Zachory Ivans and Travis Byrne). Ashley Trujillo’s costume design and Samantha Kittle’s hair and make-up artistry were detailed and authentic, especially impressive given the many quick changes that the multiple roles demanded.

I would be remiss not to recognize two other aspects of the production, often overlooked. Yue Shi (Jenny), the production stage manager, had a superhuman feat keeping this all together, and the quick changes of the cast must have been quite challenging to choreograph (I still cannot get over Jabari Carter’s almost instantaneous transformation from Captain to aborigine). Finally, the dialect coaches, D’Arcy Smith and Katherine Webster, need a special shout-out. Nothing could have sunk this play (especially with young actors) quicker than ridiculous accents, but this play not only captured very believable British dialect but the nuances of different classes and locations, from Irish to Scottish to Cockney and African. CCM recently lost Rocco Dal Vera, a beloved expert in this field, and it’s wonderful to see others carrying on this legacy of fine vocal coaching.

Above all, Our Country’s Good is a show about the transformational power of theatre, and its ability to raise our sensibilities and unite people of disparate backgrounds. In her director’s notes, Susan Felder notes how theatre in the United States has become devalued at both the educational and societal level and how much that impoverishes us. In this play, one character announces pointedly, “People with little attention [and little imagination] should not go to the theatre”. Unfortunately, today’s ubiquitous media and instant gratification threaten us with losing both. But CCM‘s production of Our Country’s Good demands our own.

CCM Acting presents Our Country’s Good through Feb. 17, 2019 at Patricia Corbett Theater. Tickets are on sale now through the CCM Box Office; student discounts are available.

Covedale’s “Almost Heaven” Will Give Uou a “Rocky Mountain High”

Review by Doug Iden of ‘Almost Heaven”: Covedale Theatre

“Sunshine on my Shoulders Makes Me Happy” is one of the most popular songs written by John Denver and, in his words, best sums up the production Almost Heavennow showing at the Covedale Theater.  If you like John Denver, you will like this show.  If you don’t like John Denver, well…..

This is a classic Broadway Review which is a compilation of themed songs tied together by a gossamer-thin thread of a story.  The theme here is the music, lyrics and life of John Denver.  The show sits mid-point between a plotted play and a musical concert, sometimes sliding towards the story but, more often, towards the music.  The story, brief as it is, tells Denver’s life history as a way to segue into the music which is presented chronologically as he wrote it.  His story is mostly sanitized and uplifting but there is mention of his drinking and contentious divorce from his wife Annie.

Characteristic of many Reviews, there are no characters per se.  All seven singer/actors are identified as “company”, playing different parts throughout the show but, mostly, singing. However, one “company” character (Liam Sweeney) does represent Denver and tells most of his story.  Sweeney “portrays” Denver as a personable, enthusiastic character, has a good singing voice and sports a pseudo-Denver haircut to boot.  The other six singers (Brian Anderson, Kelsey Rose Cummings, Elaine Diehl, Annie Schneider, Jamie Steele and Kyle Taylor) alternate between doing solos, duets, singing in the chorus and acting various parts.  

There are a number of musical highlights in the show starting with Cummings singing “Rhymes and Reasons”, “I Guess I’d Rather Be in Colorado” and “I’m Sorry”. Cummings has an excellent voice for Denver’s music. Sweeney displays a laconic style with “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy” and a brief but excellent duet with Cummings featuring “Annie’s Song”.  Taylor (most recently seen at The Carnegie inHunchback of Notre Dame) excels in “Country Roads”.  Schneider nailed my personal favorite Denver song “Leaving on a Jet Plane”.  With a decidedly country/western style, Diehl sang the haunting “Fly Away” and Steele led the chorus in the rambunctious homage to Jacques Cousteau in “Calypso” which ends the first act.  

The second act opens with “Country Boy” featuring a variety of folksy musical instruments including a washboard, Jew’s harp and spoons. Several of the singers also accompanied themselves on guitars.  Another interesting moment was “Grandma’s Feather Bed” using an upright feather bed prop with various actors popping up from the bed.  Director Tim Perino also makes an appearance as a singer. The show ends with the entire chorus belting Denver’s anthem “Rocky Mountain High”.

Keyboard/Conductor Greg Dastillung leads the on-stage band of Aaron Almashy, Geoff Pittman, Hannah Mueller, Jan Diehl and George Bruce while leading the singers.  The opening number was a little rocky but the cast and the band warmed up to the music.

Brett Bowling’s set design was apropos with a mountain cabin on the side with the sign “Welcome to the Rocky Mountains”.  A video screen was flanked with totem poles. Snow covered evergreens appeared on both wings with a surrealistic image of a mounting bridging the two wings across the top of the stage.  Caren Brady’s costumes were simple but appropriate.  The women wore dresses with cowboy boots and the men had blue jeans and shirts.  Sweeney (as Denver) wore a buckskin jacket.

One interesting plot approach is the use of letters (real ones, I presume) which the “company” frequently reads which helps move the story along and highlights significant times in Denver’s life. Another device is the use of pictures projected onto a large screen at the back of the stage.  The pictures show news elements (Vietnam protests, for example), pictures of Denver’s family and albums and many scenic views.  Sometimes the pictures are augmented by dialogue, but often stand alone.  The pictures are, of course, queued to events displayed through the plot or the music onstage.

John Denver’s music and lyrics represented a unique voice and a personal view of his world.  The music floated between prevailing genres of the day including folk, rock, country and western, protest and traditional popular songs.  His music, often criticized as corny and irrelevant, was genuine and always filled with joy and his palette was huge, including deeply personal songs, raucous “how-downs”, protest melodies, love songs and almost spiritual anthems to the great outdoors.  His canvass encompassed the eastern wilds of West Virginia to the sweeping vistas of the mountain west to an exhilarating exploration of the sea with Jacques Cousteau.  But, unlike many other self-absorbed, angst-driven composer/lyricists of the day, Denver’s music transcended the maudlin and painted a universal image of his exhilarating world.  His songs were simple but never simplistic.  

Overall, I found the production competent, enthusiastic, joyful and entertaining.  There’s a lot to be said for a show that’s entertaining.

So, “Country Roads, Take Me Home to the Place I Belong, Covedale Theater, West Side Mama, Take me Home”.  Almost Heaven plays through March 10.

Covedale Honors the Memory of John Denver with “Almost Heaven”

Review by Laurel Humes of “Almost Heaven”: Covedale Theatre

John Denver fans, here’s your show: “Almost Heaven” at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts.

Nearly 30 of Denver’s songs, which he wrote and/or sang, are performed by a great 7-person company of vocalists and 6-piece band. The songs span a career that started in 1965 and tragically ended in 1997, when Denver died piloting an experimental plane.

Do not expect a clear chronology of Denver’s life and songs. There is very little explanatory dialogue, so the show may send some casual fans to Google to fill in the blanks.

But there is excellent use of a video screen that displays images to root the songs in specific times and places. This is especially effective in the first act – the assassinations in the 1960s, the Vietnam War and the hippie movement.

Denver’s folk-singing start was with the Mitchell Trio, known for satirical songs that criticized current events. So “Draft Dodger Rag,” with some clever choreography, is in the show, along with the Denver-penned “I Wish I Could Have Been There (Woodstock).”

Especially poignant is 1971’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” performed in front of images of Vietnam soldiers. 

The focus in the second act is more personal: Denver’s marriage (“Annie’s Song”) and then divorce; move to Colorado (“Rocky Mountain High”), and even a drunk driving charge.

What I had forgotten (okay, I Googled!) was Denver’s commitment to the causes of world hunger and ecology. The rousing performance of “Calypso,” an ode to Jacques Cousteau, is backed by video images of the exploration ship.

Covedale’s stand-in for John Denver is Liam Sweeney, who certainly favors the singer with his lanky build, blonde hair, and sweet smile. But the songs are shared equally by the entire company of Brian Anderson, Kelsey Rose Cummings, Elaine Diehl, Annie Schneider, Jamie Steele and Kyle Taylor. All have strong and beautiful voices, and there is a good mix of solos and ensemble singing.

Only once do we see video of the actual John Denver singing. Then it’s muted, and Sweeney takes over. That could have been scary, the actor next to the icon. But Sweeney’s performance is especially strong here.

Brett Bowling’s set design is wonderfully rustic, highlighted by the exterior of a barn and blending in elements of mountains and pine trees. An especially nice touch is the framing of the video screen in Native American totems.

Here’s a first: director Tim Perrino is so in love with “Almost Heaven” that he and his guitar take the stage toward the end to join the company in “I’d Rather Be a Cowboy.” The temptation to sing along is shared by the audience, so don’t be surprised if you hear your seat-mates – or yourself. 

“Almost Heaven: the Songs of John Denver” runs through March 10 at the Covedale Center, 4990 Glenway Ave. Tickets are available at www.clpshows.orgor 513-241-6550.

Right This Way to “Cabaret” at NKU

Review by Kevin Reynolds of “Cabaret”: NKU Theatre

On a Valentine’s Day evening, what good is sitting alone in your room?

While it will never appear on a list of “most romantic musicals,” the current production of “Cabaret” at Northern Kentucky University‘s School of the Arts certainly evokes plenty of other emotions.

Director Brian Robertson has assembled a stellar cast of performers with strong voices and a cohesive choral style. This is a good time to point out that, while “Cabaret” has always featured fluid gender portrayals, I would define this production as gender defiant. It starts from the first moment with a female Emcee, which at first seems counter to traditional “Cabaret” wisdom, but when you are exposed to the relentless debauchery of pre-Nazi Berlin and the overt sexuality oozing from the stage, those concerns — combined with the commanding stage presence and fully embraced portrayal by Faustina Gorham – that choice seems completely reasonable.

And while the Emcee often garners much of the attention, there can not be a compelling, emotional “Cabaret” without a compelling, emotional Sally Bowles. Every pivotal moment, every plot advancement, and every true sense of humanity comes through Sally. Makenzie Ruff brings all the acting and musical power the role demands and then some. Her performance of “Maybe This Time” was heartfelt, beautifully phrased, and brought raucous cheers from the opening night audience. 

There are several other performances of note: Sam Johnson as both Ernst and one of the kick line dancers proved his tremendous versatility. Haley Gillman as Frau Kost really brought the vocal goods to the Act One finale of the reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a duet with the aforementioned Sam Johnson, when the tone of the entire production shifts to Nazi fear right before our eyes.

Finally, Sarah Hack and Matthew Nassida as Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz pulled off what I think was an interesting choice by director Robertson. As the two elders in the story, they never changed out of their decadent Kit Kat Club attire for these roles. Instead, by donning a few costume pieces, they adopted some older person characteristics (a little slumped over or a slightly higher-pitched voice) to become Schneider and Schultz. I admit that it took some getting used to, seeing the kindly fruit vendor Schultz in a fedora, suit jacket, mesh t-shirt and fishnets with garters. But again, when seen in the context of the entirety of this production’s vision, it was a consistent choice and they pulled it off beautifully.

High praise to the set design by Lindsey Purvis – it was an excellent use of the space from side to side, front to back, and top to bottom. The placement of the outstanding 11-piece orchestra (under the direction of Jamey Strawn) at the back of the stage perfectly fit the Kit Kat Club. The tawdry, gender bending costumes by Ronnie Chamberlain and the excellent dialect coaching by Taylor Isabel Winkleski made the characters resonate more fully.

If you’ve seen “Cabaret” before, don’t let that keep you from seeing this singularly unique, well-staged and well-performed production. In fact, a little research showed the casting of a female as the Emcee is a rare occurrence and, frankly, has many detractors. I can see why, if done simply as a stunt and the surrounding production doesn’t embrace that choice, but this one does, and it makes for a truly satisfying theatrical experience.

“Cabaret” runs through February 25 at NKUs Corbett Theatre. For tickets, visit NKY SOTA Box Officeor call (859) 572-5464.

We’re Butter Together: A Review of American Legacy Theatre’s Production of “Spinning into Butter”

Review by Alan Jozwiak of Spinning Into Butter: American Legacy Theatre

(Note: this is a new and updated review of my previous review–the first review was with the understudy cast and this is a second viewing.)

Racially motivated hate crimes are becoming all too common on college campuses.  In 2017, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported close to 280 hate crimes across college campuses throughout the United States. These hate crimes can take any number of forms — including racially derogatory notes sent to minority students. Such notes forms the basis of the American Legacy Theatre’s latest production, Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning into Butter.

Spinning into Butterdeals with the aftermath of fictional Belmont College dealing with the racism behind these derogatory notes, both from the administration and the student body. Administrators Strauss (Elliott Young) and Kenney (Katie Groneman) want to find a quick solution to the problem, either by creating racial forums or generating ten-point plans to deal with the issue.  Students Greg (Ray Dzhorgov) and Patrice (Anyssa Selkirk) want to use the incident to explore issues of racial politics and identity, while faculty member Ross (Caleb Farley) and Dean of Student Services Sarah (Hannah Rahe Goodman) each explore their own racial biases.

A newcomer onto the Cincinnati theatre scene, American Legacy Theatre (A.L.T.) is the brainchild of Matthew David Gellin. The driving force in creating A.L.T. is to change the nature of the theatrical experience. The group is dedicated to presenting their shows in intimate, site-specific settings that complement the themes of their shows. For example, in November, the company had a show held on the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar in response to audience interest in gentrification in Over-the-Rhine. 

Ultimately, A.L.T. has a stretch goal of becoming part of a National Theatre in the United States (we are the only first world country without a National Theatre).

A.L.T.’s partnership with The Carnegie Center of Columbia Tusculum, a former Carnegie library, makes it the perfect location for the formal academic feel of Belmont College.  Bookcases line the walls of the theatre space and the high vaulted ceilings convey a splendor of yesteryear.  Director Matt Gellin further highlights this space by having a theatre-in-the-round arrangement. Gellin does a fine job at moving actors through the space without privileging a particular angle.  

Gellin is also able to get sculpted performances where actors interact with each other in interesting ways.  For instance, Ray Dzhorgov, who plays Greg, did some wonderful facial and verbal reactions to Sarah’s questions about forming the student group Students for Tolerance.

It made Greg’s small role that much more interesting to watch.

Hannah Rahe Goodman, who played the lead, Sarah, was a wonderful study in how the bland niceties of professionalism can hide roiling emotions of anger, hurt, and hatred. Rahe Goodman does a strong job showing the ways that Sarah’s professional mask slowly disintegrates over the course of the play.  Rahe Goodman is in every scene of the play, so the audience gets a chance to see that slow destruction of her mask in slow stages. 

Rahe Goodman was particularly strong with Sarah’s long speech in the middle of Act II where she reveals all her racist thoughts.  Equally compelling was her speech at the end of the play where she talks about holding the hands of Simon Brick, the African-American student who was the target of the derogatory notes.  The pathos of the scene was moving.

The cast also had two out standouts—the actors plays Ross (Caleb Farley) and Strauss (Elliott Young).  Farley plays Ross as the carefree man-boy faculty member who was sleeping with Sarah while his other girlfriend Petra was out of the country. Farley brings conviction to that part and is skillfully able to interact with Sarah (Rahe Goodman) in ways that are enjoyable to watch and holds the audience’s attention.

Elliot Young as Strauss is a wonderful blend of crazed insistence with blowhard surety. Young knows how to deliver the right amount of each of these traits in his performance to make the audience never certain what he will do next.  His interactions with Kenney (Katie Groneman) were also a wonderful study in how actors react to other.  

The title of the play Spinning into Butterdraws the story of Little Black Sambo, where the tigers who take all of Little Black Sambo’s clothing spin themselves into butter by running around in circles. Taking the title and “spinning” it a little bit further, the play ultimately comes to the conclusion that “we’re butter together” by recognizing our common humanity instead of being divided by issues of race. 

I saw this production with the Monday night understudy cast and felt the play was deserving enough to be seen again with the main cast.  As a play, Spinning into Butteris rich and complex enough to be seen several times without feeling repetitive.  This production in particular is a solid rendition of a timely play that should not be missed.  Spinning into Butter is seldom performed in the Cincinnati area and it has enough drama, heart, and issues to satisfy anyone who loves theatre. 

Spinning into Butterruns for the next two weeks, with performances running at 7:30 pm on February 7, 11 (second understudy performance), 15, and 16 with 2pm performances on February 10 and 17.  Go to https://www.americanlegacytheatre.org/spinning-into-butterto find out more information concerning production dates/times.

American Legacy Theatre’s “Spinning in Butter” Highlights Its Unique Mission

Cincinnati’s newest entry into the theatre scene, the American Legacy Theatre, presents a powerful and personal scrutiny of racism on campus with its latest production, Spinning in Butter.

The driving force of the new American Legacy Theatre (A.L.T.) is to change the nature of the theatrical experience. The brainchild of  Matthew David Gellin, a local actor-director who has been a regular around Cincinnati theatre, A.L.T. productions are a response to audience feedback concerning topics their audience wants to see discussed onstage. From that point, A.L.T. finds plays which match up those topics. In addition, the group is dedicated to presenting their shows in intimate, site-specific settings that complement the themes of their shows. For example, in November, the company had a show held on the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar in response to audience interest in gentrification in Over-the-Rhine. Finally, A.L.T. has another lofty but important vision: to become part of a National Theatre in the United States, the only first world country without one.

Spinning in Butter examines the rise of racially motivated hate crimes , which are becoming all too common on college campuses. One such form of hate crime, writing racially derogatory notes against minority students, is the basis for A.L.T.’s current production, written by playwright Rebecca Gilman, who experienced a similar incident while as a student.

Spinning into Butter takes place at fictional Belmont College, a private school in Vermont where the student population is largely white.  Dean of Students Sarah Daniels has to work around the needs of her fellow administrators and the college community when racially charged notes appear at the dorm room of Simon Brick, an African-American freshman.  What follows is a revealing exposé on how the administration and student body respond to the racist incident. 

For this show, Gellin took this topic of racial injustice and found a strong venue where it could explored—The Carnegie Center of Columbus Tusculum.  A former Carnegie library, the center’s main activity room is perfect for conveying the serious academic nature of Belmont College.  Bookcases line the walls of the theatre space.  Gellin further stages the show using theatre in the round, meaning that there are no privileged viewpoints.  As a director, Gellin does a fine job at moving actors through the space without privileging a particular angle.

I saw their production on a Monday night and Monday nights are reserved for the understudies to perform.  Part of the mission of the American Legacy Theatre is to be a teaching company and they have a complete cast of understudies for every role. Not only are they on call in case an actor in the main cast can’t make it onstage, they also get a chance to tread the boards for at least two productions throughout the run of the show.  Being an understudy for this show also means attending almost all of the rehearsals of the main cast.

Since I saw an understudy cast, I will not go into critiquing performances, other than to say that there was some fine actingt.  I did get a chance to interview both actors playing Sarah—Hannah Rahe Goodman and her understudy Katelyn Nevin.  What follows are some of the questions that came up in the post-show Q&A, as well as through conversation with the actors after the show: 

 What was the most challenging thing about performing this show?

Rahe Goodman: I had to stop judging Sarah [my character].  I was struggling to memorize some of her lines because I saw her as a racist.  I had to find ways to stop judging her and letting her reveal her own thoughts without my commentary.

Nevin: The long monologue Sarah has in Act II [where Sarah reveals her racism]. Also, I have three younger siblings who are mixed race, so playing a racist has been hard.  I am close to my younger sister and I have to stop thinking about her whenever I get to Sarah’s long monologue.  I could not get through it otherwise.

What was the experience of rehearsing this play?

Rahe Goodman: Since Sarah is in every scene, Matt [Gellin] made me work on breathing from my diaphragm during rehearsals so that I could sustain my performance.  I’ve gotten into the practice of doing a ten-minute meditation where I would mindfully breathe before a show and it helps sustain my breathing during performance.  It also helps me have more of an emotional connection with Sarah, making me able to go deeper into her character.

Nevin: I was at most of the rehearsals with Hannah [Rahe Goodman], so I got a chance to see her at work.  I was impressed with Hannah’s process of rehearsal in the way that she could get to the emotions within a scene.  It helped me with my performance with Sarah.

Sarah interacts with all the characters within the play.  Which character is the most fun for you to work off of?

Rahe Goodman: It is a toss-up between Ross [played in the main cast by Caleb Farley] and Strauss [played in the main cast by Elliott Young].  It is fun with Elliott because he can give back as much as I give him within the play.  With Caleb, we can work off each other very well.

Nevin: Ross [played in the understudy cast by Ray Dzhorgov].  Ray and I are friends offstage and we have the same sarcastic type of personality.  It is fun working with him on stage.

Even having seen the understudy cast, I feel that this production of Spinning into Butter is a very worthwhile experience.  It is a provocative piece of theater and a good sign for things to come from American Legacy Theater.  I would put this on the list of theatre productions to check out.  Spinning into Butter runs for the next two weeks, with performances running at 7:30 pm on February 7, 11 (second understudy performance), 15, and 16 with 2pm performances on February 10 and 17. Tickets can be obtained on their website www.americanlegacytheatre.org/.