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“All the Way” with LBJ (and Shakespeare too)

Review of “All the Way”: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

All the Way, a raw and unflinching portrayal of the tumultuous year between the Kennedy assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s presidential run in 1964, explodes onto the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s stage.  The 2014 Tony winner written by Robert Schenkkan is crafted as a thriller which shows three different camps striving to either promote or destroy the civil rights movement in the 1960’s.  As the audience, we can eavesdrop on the political strategies and shenanigans developed by “accidental president” LBJ (Jim Hopkins), the black caucus of Rev. Martin Luther King (Sylvester Little, Jr.), Roy Wilkins (“ranney”) and Rev. Abernathy (Warren Jackson) plus the Southern Democratic bloc opposition led by Senator Russell (Joneal Joplin).  Additionally, we see the fractures within each of the groups as the NAACP (Wilkins and King) fights the more aggressive groups (Abernathy) while pragmatic Johnson spars with the more liberal and idealistic Senator Hubert Humphrey (Brent Vimtrup).  

At the center of the show is the spot-on portrayal of Johnson by Jim Hopkins.  This is an ensemble piece, not a “star” vehicle, but the show is driven by the bombastic and irascible master politician Johnson.  Fortunately, Hopkins does not try to impersonate LBJ but rather mimics his facial expressions and channels his unique Texas drawl but, more importantly, fills the theater with his enormous personality and ego.  However, we also see Johnson and the other historical personages as real people complete with blemishes, warts, prejudices and selfish motivations.  J. Edgar Hoover (Bruce Cromer) is shown as venal and petty while traversing his own agenda to castigate and humiliate King, against Johnson’s wishes, while King’s extramarital affairs are publicized.  None of this, however, is gratuitous since it demonstrates human foibles.

At its heart, this is a study of the rough and tumble of American politics.  Johnson was the master manipulator and compromiser, trading votes for congressmen’s pet projects, sweet talking,  arm twisting, intimidating and threatening when necessary.  Johnson chastises Humphrey by saying that politics “ain’t about principles.  It’s about votes.”  We can also see the entrenched Southern opposition to any form of desegregation.  They warn LBJ that his stance on civil rights will lose the entire South to the Republicans.  How prescient.  

Another interesting ploy is the juxtaposition of several stereotypical black occupations of tailor, servant, bartender and barber versus their political and powerful counterparts.  The “servants” never talk while the leader’s pontificate.

This is a very large cast with many of the actors playing multiple roles.  In addition to those mentioned above, some other outstanding performances include Kate Wilford as Lady Bird (among others), Justin McCombs with a supercilious take on George Wallace, Candice Handy as Coretta King plus an impassioned speech by Fannie Lou Hamer, Maggie Lou Rader as the ambitious wife of Humphrey and the fawning spouse of George Wallace.

The static set design by Shannon Moore is elegant and efficient.  There are two stairways leading to what appears to be jury boxes or choir lofts on each side of the stage.  There were actual audience members in some of the seats and other actors would frequent the space as well, often acting as a “Greek Chorus” or as a crowd.  A number of props were rolled in including the Presidential desk, signage carried by the Black caucus and several structures which subbed for tables, chairs, etc.  Scene changes were differentiated by lighting (Justen Locke) and sound (Douglas Borntrager).  In reality, the entire theater was the stage since a lot of the action took place in front of the stage and in the aisles.  Costumes and wigs by Rainy Edwards faithfully depict the Washington dress of the era.

The frenetic pace is a combination of the lighting, video, sound and constant motion by the actors all effectively choreographed by Director Brian Isaac Phillips.  

All of the dramatic elements combine to make this one of the most powerful shows and performances I have seen in a while.  The show is lengthy and it helps if you know a little of the actual history that is shown.  In an actual election year, the timing is appropriate and many of the themes, disagreements and biases are still with us.  Consequently, I encourage you to “elect” to see the nomination of “All the Way”, currently running as the Cincinnati Shakespeare theater.

Falcon Presents Deep “Blues for an Alabama Sky”

Review by Laurel Humes of “Blues for an Alabama Sky”: Falcon Theatre

Complex characters, witty dialogue and social issues combine to make Falcon Theatre’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky” a compelling production.

The setting is 1930 Harlem, the beginning of the Great Depression. The 1920’s Harlem Renaissance, described as an intellectual, artistic and social “explosion,” had been good to the play’s main characters. But the good times are winding down.

Fired Cotton Club singer Angel (Bryana Bentley) can’t find another job. Her long-time gay friend, costumer Guy (R. DeAndre Smith), takes her in. But the closing of many nightclubs puts him out of work, too.

Guy’s dream is to convince famous singer/dancer Josephine Baker to bring him to Paris as costumer for her shows. Angel wants a singing job, but she’ll settle for being taken care of by a man.

“What do you see in this guy?” Guy asks her about Leland (Elliott Young), a church-going, conservative Alabama transplant who can’t see the true Angel beyond her resemblance to his late, beloved wife.

“A rent check that won’t bounce,” is Angel’s curt response.

Angel and Guy’s friends have dreams, too. Social worker Delia (Elizabeth Taylor) wants to open a Margaret Sanger birth control clinic in Harlem. Sam (Keith Alan Holland Jr.) is a doctor and a partyer who now, at 40, yearns to be in love –- maybe with Delia. 

Bentley’s Angel draws us in with her beauty and sassy speech – just as she wows Young’s Leland in a terrific flirtation scene they share. Soon after, though, Bentley shows us a hurt and bitter side of Angel, as she recounts an “audition” with a club owner who wanted something more personal than a singer.

Smith plays Guy with such good-natured, funny flamboyance that you’re surprised there is just one scene when he’s in danger of physical attack for being gay, given the time period. Thank costume designer Beth Joos for outfits that match his flashy personality.

Compared to her friends, Taylor’s Delia comes off as straight-laced and maybe even too meek to be a Sanger follower, at a time when birth control was barely legal and certainly still controversial. But Taylor convinces us with her quiet intensity, and lets us see her softer side as she falls in love with Sam.

Director Torie Wiggins and the fine cast make “Blues for an Alabama Sky” a forcible theater experience, especially in the harder-hitting second act. 

The show continues at Falcon Theatre, 636 Monmouth St., Newport, through Feb. 8. Go to www.falcontheatre.net for ticket information.

CSC’s “All The Way” Proves Gripping and Thought Provoking

Review by Nathan Top of “All The Way”: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Written by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, “All The Way” begins with Vice President Lyndon Johnson taking on his new role as POTUS immediately following the Kennedy assasination. The rest of the show revolves around President Johnson’s first year in office, where he must navigate members of Congress and civil rights leaders to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964, all while running for reelection.

Under the direction of Brian Isaac Phillips and assistant directed by Darnell Pierre Benjamin, the lengthy script moves as a fast-paced political thriller. Major beats fly by, keeping the audience on their toes and grabbing the them by heart along the entire way.  The versatile and fluid set, designed by Shannon Moore, allows the scenes, locations, and timeline to breeze by cinematically. The pre-recorded and in-the-moment projections, designed by G. “Max” Maxin IV, further the audience’s envelopment in the world and provide necessary exposition for the show. Lighting designer Justen N. Locke adds to the dramatic blocking of the show, especially during staged phone call conversations, and sound designer Douglas J. Borntrager delivers a flawless evening of well-timed sound cues and rapid-paced dialogue from the actors projected crystal clear.

Jim Hopkins carries the show as the captivating President Lyndon B. Johnson, giving us a heavily layered performance grounded with subtext. Hopkins is fascinating to watch, capturing the many contrasting sides of President Johnson, from bully to victim, champion to politician, conqueror to defeated.  We root for this character for the entire duration of the show, not because he is always right but because he is consistently compelling.  

Sylvester Little, Jr. gives a highly nuanced performance of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., chronicling the fall arc of minister and activist discovered to be not-a-saint. Little is a strong foil to Hopkins, with Dr. King acting as a pillar of virtue in contrast to President Johnson, who must utilize tactics and compromise to maneuver the bureaucracy of Congress. This is highlighted in a scene during the second act when the two men simultaneously deliver iconic speeches to two different audiences, both contrasting in receptivity. 

The rest of the large and talented cast doubles as two or more characters apiece. Katie Wilford, while playing several roles, stands out as Lady Bird Johnson, the strong and loving First Lady of President Johnson. The show is riddled with riveting and heartbreaking monologues from several characters. 

Since the show runs for about three hours, make sure you put enough change into the parking meter but, whatever you do, do not miss this show. “All The Way” runs now through February 15th.  Tickets can be purchased at https://cincyshakes.com/buy-tickets-for-all-the-way/

A Puppet, A Pastor, and a Play come together for “Hand To God” at the Incline

Review by Mary Kate Groh of “Hand to God”: Incline Theatre

If you thought puppets were used only in children’s story-telling, you were wrong. Written by playwright Robert Askins, “Hand To God” is a hilarious, raunchy satire about teen angst, Christianity, and puppets, now playing at the Warsaw Incline Theater. 

This play is definitely not a family-friendly show to bring your kids to since it contains R-Rated adult language and jokes. “Hand to God” opens with a perfectly comedic monologue by “Tyrone” and Jason (Alexander Slade). Slade masters his comedic timing and leaves audience members rolling with laughter. His ability to transform from an awkward youth into the bombastic and raging puppet, Tyrone, is a true talent. Hats off to Slade for pulling off such a challenging performance! 

Jason’s mother, Margery (Karie Gipson) is an anxious widower who runs the puppet ministry class who fends off Paster Greg’s (Brian Anderson) creepy romantic advances. Timothy (Jack Kremer) is a troubled riff-raff who is in the puppet ministry with Jason and the sweet and naive Jessica (Hope Pauly). Kremer plays this hooligan with scene-stealing humor and animation. 

The set design (Brett Bowling) is very convincing for the location of a church basement where much of this play takes place. However, some of the scene changes felt too long, but the catchy Christian music that played between scenes helped carry the show along. At times, I felt the large church basement set design took away from the scenes that didn’t take place in the church basement such as the hilarious car scene with Jason and his mom or the teetertotter scene with Jason and Jessica. 

This play is not for the easily offended as it has over the top dark humor that pokes fun at Christianity. However, if you want to see a demonic puppet deliver a vulgar opening monologue about organized religions, this is the show to see. 

Hand to God plays at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre Jan. 23-Feb. 9 [East Price Hill] .  For tickets, call the theater at 513-241-6550 or go here: http://www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/Incline/News.aspx

Puppets Play with People in “Hand to God” at the Incline

Review by Blair Godshall of “Hand to God”: Incline Theatre

The play “Hand to God” could be described as a dysfunctional family drama/teenager coping with angst saga/angry satire on Christianity/ horror movie/ raunchy comedy/ puppet show. All these elements coexist like a cat fight you can’t stop watching in Robert Askins’ script, now playing at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre. 

Puppetry is the show’s signature but it’s not as similar to“Avenue Q” as you might think. I was expecting every actor to have a puppet but it’s not the case here. Both this play and “Avenue Q” contain “R” rated adult humor so don’t bring the kids. Manipulated principally and masterfully by the hilarious Alexander Slade (who plays unhappy teen Jason), the all-too-animated puppet Tyrone is the show’s most compelling character. The mild-mannered Jason’s uncontrolled, raging, teenage alter-ego, Tyrone, curses, threatens, intimidates, seduces, and physically attacks other characters. His self-image is that of well… Satan himself. 

Slade does a marvelous job, not only of manipulating the puppet physically but in switching seamlessly between Jason’s younger, more tentative voice, and Tyrone’s lower-pitched growl. Playing two characters (or two manifestations of the same character) is no easy task, and Slade is more than up to it. I was really impressed with his performance and ability to lure the audience in. Jessica (Hope Pauly) plays a sweet girl who has a crush on Jason. I won’t give anything away, but her character surprised me the most.

Jason’s family is in crisis. His father recently died, apparently of overeating, and his mother, Margery (Karie Gipson), a woman beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown with an appetite for rough sex, is nearly always out of control. Her character begins at a high level of anxious intensity and stays there throughout the play giving her a one-dimensional feel. 

The most ambiguous character is Greg (Brian Anderson), the pastor of the church in which Margery and the teenagers participate in a puppet ministry (yes, you read that right). We first see him in a cringe-worthy, uncomfortable attempt to romance Margery, then later he seems to want to help the others through their difficulties, but I still can’t get past the character’s creepiness. 

Timothy (Jack Kremer) plays the role of a total jerk with great believability where everyone in the audience will want to take a swipe at him, but they won’t because the other characters in the play do it for us. Timothy wants only one thing and finds it in a hilarious scene for which director Dylan Shelton deserves praise and a high-five for staging (you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to when you see the play). 

The technical aspects of the production are well executed. Brett Bowling’s set is a convincing reproduction of a church basement/room, complete with religious posters and cheap furniture (notably the beanbag chairs). The set serves a variety of functions but some of the set changes slow the play’s pace at times. This is a props-heavy show, and designer Caren Brady provides a nice collection of Bibles, plastic toys, pictures, bookcases, etc., many of which are abused from the characters’ emotional wildness. 

The lighting/sound designer (Denny Reed) memorably changesthe lighting to dramatic red when Tyrone is at his most devilish and there is a nice effect when Timothy puts out one of the lights in the church basement but my question then is, how does a lightbulb come back on if it was broken? Smaller sound effects, such as a car door closing when Jason gets out of Margery’s car, are well coordinated with the action.

Like I mentioned before, this is not a play for children, so don’t let the puppets fool you into thinking otherwise (those little devils; no pun intended). Additionally, it more than pokes fun at organized Christian religions and many will find it to be sacrilegious, so you can’t say I didn’t warn you. For all the hilarity, it’s a pretty dark play and yet, audiences will relate to the play’s over-the-top humor and connection to the struggles of a troubled young man. The elusive Tyrone starts and ends the show as a foul-mouthed lecturer on the history and sociology of religion. He might be a kind of external demonic force as well as the voice of Jason’s anger, grief, and frustration, but Askins refrains from providing easy answers.

Hand to God plays at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre
Jan. 23-Feb. 9 [East Price Hill]   For tickets, call the theater at 513-241-6550 or go here: http://www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/Incline/News.aspx

New Parents’ Worries Exposed in Know’s “In The Night Time (Before The Sun Rises)”


Review by Christiana Molldrem Harkulich Of “In the Night Time”: Know Theatre

Nina Segal’s “In The Night Time (Before The Sun Rises)” at Know Theatre is a timely and dark story at the intersection of exhausted new parenthood and global climate precariousness and war. As the Woman and the Man keep reminding us, these disparate events that happen all over the world are not connected—except when they are. Over the course of an hour on the Know stage, “In the Night Time shows a woman and a man—in the throes of new parent exhaustion and an endlessly crying baby—telling stories to soothe as they expose their worry about the future. 

“In the Night Time” is an intimate performance written in a poetic third person voice. The writing reminds me of a mix between the narrative theatre of Mary Zimmerman’s “The Metamorphosis” or the metatheatrical writing in Itamar Moses’s “Authorial Intent”. Elizabeth Chinn Molloy as Woman and Brandon Burton as Man have a believable connection and great chemistry. The play seems to happens in someplace in the near future, but also out of time. In the course of the play we learn through stories, addressed directly to the audience, about the Man and the Woman’s relationship and the worries they have for their new child and the realities of the world collapsing around them. Their world onstage is filled with the debris of a post-apocalyptic or war-torn world, it reminded me of pictures of apartment buildings in Syria after the bombings. While the play is in English, the events could happen anywhere in the world since the realities of new parenthood and crying babies are universal. 

Brant Russell directs the play with a lighter tone (verging towards children’s theatre) which is in direct opposition to the apocalyptic design choices of Scenic and lighting Designer Andrew Hungerford and Costume Designer Noelle Widig-Johnston. The tone and the aesthetic come together at the end of the play—melding primarily through the excellent sound design by Doug Borntrager. The child’s endless screaming reminds us that while global problems are overwhelming, the immediate local problem must be dealt with first. 

For a childless 30-something married professional, this play reminded me a lot of conversations I’ve had with friends about whether or not to have children (and NPR articles: https://www.npr.org/2016/08/18/479349760/should-we-be-having-kids-in-the-age-of-climate-change ). It sends home the message how much we are connected and what the stakes of the future are. “In The Night Time (Before The Sun Rises)” plays through February 8th at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati– tickets available here: (https://knowtheatre.com/season-22/nighttime/). 

Know’s “In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises)” is a Defining Moment


Review by Raechel Lombardo Of “In the Night Time”: Know Theatre

Ostensibly, Know Theatre‘s “In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises),” by Nina Segal, is a play; it certainly has all of the characteristics and structure of one.  It follows the hypothetical, every day circumstances, and very personal lives, of a man and a woman who have a love story—somewhat conventional or unconventional, depending on how you interpret it—and ultimately have a child.  In order to tell this story, however, it has a unique, almost poetic, speech and tone to it. For this reason, I would argue “In the Night Time” is more an incredible performance of a poem–and a poem whose poetic elements of tone, wording, and metaphors weren’t just in the lines and acting, but in the totality of what was put into this production.

Playwright Nina Segal made a bold choice in writing this multi-formatted love child of written and performative art, representing the strange way we feel as people trying to figure ourselves out and this messed-up world, and I applaud the journey.

Director Brant Russell tackled this interestingly abstract script in such a fantastic way, allowing the audience to feel all the overwhelming senses you may feel when going through such a crazy, poetic, existential crisis.  A tip of the hat to Resident Stage Manager Meghan Winter for sticking with the vision and supporting it, as I do not doubt it was often an enigma and quest to discover. And thanks for dealing with the messy apartment!

Scenic and Lighting Designer Andrew J. Hungerford was surely a great collaborative force to orchestrate the vision of the space and how it, too, should echo the meaning of the poetry.

And don’t think I didn’t notice your handiwork, Costume Designer Noelle Wedig-Johnston.  If the saddening dialogue and dystopic environment wasn’t enough, her direction in worn clothing allowed us to fully buy this as the reality the characters have endured, whether taken in a literal or metaphorical sense.

Elizabeth Chinn Molloy, who plays the role of Woman, is a truthful perspective of the fiery power women have inside them, while also having to occasionally set that aside and not realize it fully due to circumstances.  I find her rather captivating, and she certainly set the stage in how she defined her character’s existence.

Brandon Burton, who plays the role of Man, is also a nicely paired truthful perspective of the honest fear and doubt men aren’t allowed to show, and the boyish charm and controlling privilege they often hide behind.  I find his honesty a relief, and appreciated the synergy he developed with his fellow actor’s energy to complete the overall fear we all feel.

Sound and Projection Designer Doug Borntrager is tasteful in his use of the signature baby sound and simply defining the shift in poetic dialogue or chapter.

Technical Director Henry Bateman executed the vision of the designers and director; this, as everything else, clicked for me, truly making the production a mutually collaborative process.

Kudos to Props Master and Paint Charge Kayla Williams and Props and Paint Artist Kara Trusty for not only the perfect selection of objects in quantity and quality, but for the idea of the apartment space being in chaos as an intentional execution rather than just thrown about.  Once again, the collaboration to work with such a unique script and tackle the beast was well done.

If you’re looking for something that breaks away from the usual plot-based structure of a play, something a little more abstract, something with various things to say and various ways to say it, take a look at “In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises)” at the Know Theatre, running until Fe

Carnegie’s “Joseph” Paints the Night Fantastic

Review by Doug Iden of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”: Carnegie

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” coated The Carnegie stage with many colors on opening night of the musical, based upon the well-known Biblical story.  Originally performed as a 20-minute High School concert written by then teenagers Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the show evolved first as a 40 minute one-act play and, ultimately, as a full-blown musical.

The show opens with a classroom of youngsters (Charlie Lindeman, Elliot Martin, Kelly Morgan, Jackson Schabell, Athena Updike and Kit Valentine) listening to the story of Joseph by the Narrator (Tia Seay) in the “Prologue”.  Joseph (Frankie Chuter) appears singing “Any Dream Will Do” joined by the children’s chorus which sets the positive tone of the show. Chuter is very effective as Joseph with a good stage presence and an excellent voice.  Seay has a good soprano voice in the critical role of the Narrator who tells the story.  

Then, the curtain opens and we meet Joseph’s father Jacob (Sean Mette) and his brothers (Kyle Taylor, Kate Stark, Ashley Morton, Mattison Sullivan, Emma Moss, Caleb Redslob, Chloe Price, Cian Steele, Maddie Vaughn and Geoffrey Hill) in the song “Jacob and Son”.  The brother’s jealousy boils over when Jacob presents Joseph with a “coat of many colors”.  Incensed about the favoritism, the brothers plot to avenge themselves.  We also learn about Joseph’s propensity for dream interpretation in “Joseph’s Dreams”.  However, the brothers sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt and assume they will never see him again.

In Egypt, Joseph is sold to Potiphar (Redslob) and is earning his respect but Mrs. Potiphar (Kate Stark) in a very slinky dance tries to seduce him which lands Joseph in jail.  In one of the best songs in the score, Joseph bemoans his imprisonment with the impassioned “Close Every Door”.   But his ability to interpret dreams brings him to the attention of the Pharaoh and he soonrises to prominence in Egypt.  

Interwoven throughout the show as singers and dancers are the Teen Ensemble comprised of Sylas Craven, Fiona Blanchet, Chloe Esmeier, Jaden Martin, Madeline Moore, Sara Moore and Sam Olt.

Part of the charm of the show is the variety of song genres which are complemented by matching dancing routines choreographed by Director Maggie Perrino.  The first genre is Country and Western with the song “One More Angel in Heaven” accompanied by square dancing and western costumes with cowboy hats.  The first act ends with “Go, Go, Go Joseph” which is a celebration of Joseph’s release from jail with a full company Go Go (disco) dance routine.  There is even an homage to Bob Fosse with a routine using derby hats and featuring eccentric Fosse choreography.

In the second act, Joseph’s brothers are feeling sorry for themselves in the Parisian Bistro song “Those Canaan Days” followed by a Caribbean song with appropriate dancing to the melody “Benjamin’s Calypso”.  

But the song and the performance that steals the show is the Pharaoh, portrayed by Sean Mette, as Elvis Presley in the rock and roll version of “Song of the King”.  Matte impersonates Elvis well complete with outrageous costume and stereotypical Elvis movements.  The large audience, comprised of many children, were surprised and delighted by the Elvis routine.  

Overall, this is a joyous, exuberant show with, seemingly, all participants thoroughly enjoying their performances.  However, there are many serious themes underlying the frivolity including jealousy, slavery, ambition, power, class differential and despair.

The theme of the “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is accentuated throughout the show by very colorful costuming, lighting, set design and some clever gimmicks.   The costumes, designed by Cheyenne Harnberg, are an eclectic combination of modern school dress complete with ubiquitous backpacks and a assortment of robes and shawls reminiscent of ancient middle eastern garb.  The highlight is the Coat of Many Colors which is destroyed in the first act but continually reappears as colorful ribbons of fabric used during the dances.  There are also a variety of wigs which add to the humorous dress.

Also adding to the “color” theme is the first act finale which features flashing hula hoops with other cast members wearing blinking lights and a revolving disco light designed by Larry Csernik.

The set design by Doug Stock is simple but effective and evokes the ancient society with a series of Egyptian figures and cartouches painted onto the stage façade.  Another interesting touch are two Egyptian statues of Pharaohs which appear in the second act.  

So, don your most colorful garb and drive your chariot to The Carnegie Theater to see “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” playing through January 26.