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CSC’s “Tom Sawyer” is a Playful Play

Review by Doug Iden of Tom Sawyer: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Mark Twain and Shakespeare?  Seems a little incongruous but this delightful production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company theater bridges the gap.  I half expected a line such as: “Get thee thy brush and paint yonder fence”.  But, alas, there were no such lines.  The lines that do remain are a quick-paced but a significantly sanitized and politically correct adaptation of Twain’s memorable story by Laura Eason.  But the real vision comes from Director Sara Clark who relishes the playful and adventurous abandon of childhood.  Nothing is impossible for imaginative active youngsters from which adults could learn a significant lesson and that becomes the heart of this production.  The play has its dark sides, yes, but the youthful spirit of adventure shines through.

Admittedly, you are in the world of “suspension of disbelief” as adults cavort on the stage as teenagers but both the dialogue and charisma of the actors helps transcend the audience into the youthful world of Hannibal, Missouri in the 1800’s.  Only eight actors portray numerous characters plus the ensemble.  An ongoing narration by different actors, performed almost like new bulletins, informs us of scene changes, time lapses, etc. but helps move the story along briskly.

The star, of course, is Tom Sawyer, played with charismatic glee by Cary Davenport.  Davenport, literally, bounces around the stage with an almost continuously infectious smile.  His effervescent élan and love of life brightens the entire production.  Tom and his buddy Huck Finn (Kyle Brumley) open the production with their series of adventures including playing hookey and fishing.  Huck is an abandoned youngster who lives on his own and lives by his own rules.  Aunt Polly (Miranda McGee) who is raising Tom thinks that Huck is a bad influence and tries to steer her charge away from the homeless boy.  But that, of course, only encourages Tom to continue his activities with Huck.

Next, we see the domestic side of Sawyer’s life with Aunt Polly and Tom’s brother Sid played with a bored vacancy by Justin McCombs.  It’s the juxtaposition of Sid, who is straight-laced and well groomed, with Tom who is reckless and sloppily dressed, that signifies Twain’s social satire.  There’s just enough “meat” in the story to be interesting as adult fare.

Romance appears as Tom becomes smitten by Becky Thatcher (Caitlin McWethy) who plays a coquettish teenage girl in a blue gingham dress who flirts with Tom but has an on-again, off-again relationship throughout the show.

But all is not sweetness and light as Tom and Huck witness a murder in the cemetery committed by the infamous Injun Joe, portrayed menacingly by Christopher Jordan Salazar.  Injun Joe frames his companion Muff Porter (Geoffrey Warren Barnes II) who is then condemned to be hanged.  This creates a moral dilemma for Tom and Huck.  Do they stay silent and watch Muff hang or divulge what they saw and become possible victims of Injun Joe’s retribution?

The set, lighting and costuming become integral components of Sara Clark’s vision.  Unlike the two previous shows in their new theater which used a plethora of technical toys, this set (designed by Shannon Robert) is much more “old school” and extremely effective.  The stage is a multi-tiered, wooden structure with a futuristic tree in the back on one side and a platform on the other.  Both structures have different uses throughout the play.  But the ingenious part is the multi-tiered stage.  In keeping with the childlike theme of the story, the actors would pull up parts of the stage and create different illusions including a river (with real water), a campfire, gravestones and several scenes with desks or pews both in a school and in church.  It almost appears as though the children/actors were playing with Lincoln Logs or Legos as they continuously reconstruct the set as the play progresses.  Salazar (Injun Joe) also plays the firebrand minister and the disciplinarian teacher in the church and school scenes.

Denise Watkins has designed costumes which clearly differentiate the adults from the children.  The adults wear traditional Puritanical garb with high necks, long skirts and suit coats for the men.  In contrast, the children wear very loose clothes which don’t always match and many are barefoot.  With one exception, we see Sid dressed as the Victorian idea that children are “small adults” and has a suit.  One comic sight gag at the end shows Huck dressed in a suit after being adopted by the Widow Douglas (Miranda McGee).

The lighting designed by Justen Locke is also very effective.  The play starts with a yellow backdrop indicating a new day.  You almost want to start singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”.  The projections then change throughout.  In one scene, we see lighting bleeding out of the bottom of the tiered stage.  However, it is the cave scenes when the lighting (or lack thereof) works best because it adds to the terror and menace of Becky and Tom getting lost and then being pursued by Injun Joe.

The audience was a mixture of adults and children.  This is a good family show and the kids seemed to enjoy the production as much as the adults.  It is also very funny, especially during the first act.  All of the offensive language from the original book has been excised although they have retained much of river vernacular.  The kids in the play show the adults how to have fun and begin to realize their dreams.

So, grab your steamboat or your raft and float down to the Otto Budig Theater for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer running through December 9.

 

CSC’s “Tom Sawyer” is an Adventure to Lift Your Spirits

Review by Liz Eichler of Tom Sawyer: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Caitlyn McWethy and Cary Davenport in “Tom Sawyer”

“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is the history of a playful boy and his friends, certain to lift your spirits on these dark fall days.

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production is visually appealing, and picks out some of the best parts of Mark Twain’s classic. It allows you to feel, to remember what it was like to have one foot in the adult world, but another firmly rooted in freedoms of childhood. Young and old will love it.

Tom Sawyer is a 12-year old boy, around 1845, living in a small town near the Missouri River. Everyone in the town knows each other (for good or bad). It is the story of his friendship with Huck Finn, Joe Harper, the new girl Becky Thatcher, his Aunt Polly, brother Sid, and a few other local characters.

Cary Davenport has the perfect devilish grin, so you can see why Aunt Polly forgives him for so many broken rules. You see his mind flit from one idea to the next, as his energy, enthusiasm and charisma reframe dreadful chores into a desired activity in the iconic fence-painting scene. You may not recognize Miranda McGee as sweet Aunt Polly, attesting to the amazing range of this talented actress. Caitlin McWethy captures the innocence and girlishness of Becky Thatcher, and her scenes with Davenport are some of the show’s most charming. In between the dialogue, McWethy and Davenport give you a dictionary of looks, movements, and smiles.

The entire ensemble captures a sense of play, without (too much) effort. Director Sara Clarke has molded the play, by Laura Eason, into a creation of fun and wonder, exploration and adventure. The simplicity but effectiveness of the set (Shannon Robert) and lighting (Justen N. Locke) is amazing. (CSC is still showing audiences the full capacity of the space, using clever techniques that may recall “Transformers” – a childhood toy from another era.) Costumes by Denise Vulhop Watkins beautifully capture the class differences of the era. My favorite “scenery” is the cave, told in rich soundscape (Doug J. Borntrager).  The ensemble includes Geoffrey Warren Barnes II, Kyle Brumley, Justin McCombs, Christopher Jordan Salazar, and Crystian Wiltshire.

This is a show for the whole family,* from the young’uns to the grannies. Perfect for the holidays, capturing the fond memories of Childhoods Past, and the Childhoods yet to come, it plays through December 9, but get your tickets now (www.cincyshakes.com)—as they will go as quickly as childhood.

*From the CSC website: recommended for children ages 8+ but the whole family can still go– on Sundays Nov. 26 or Dec. 3, younger kids (4+) can have Artist-led child care DURING the performance, free for subscribers. Contact the box office or website for more information.

Finding the Story Behind the Story of Peter Pan in Broadway in Cincinnati’s “Finding Neverland”

Review by  Alan Jozwiak of Finding Neverland: Broadway in Cincinnati

A boy who could fly.  A pirate with a hook for a hand.  A fairy who can fly. Mermaids in the sea, and more.

This improbable set of plot elements is part of one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time–J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.  What fans of Peter Pan might not realize is that the story they loved as children was originally a play and that play almost did not see the light of day.

The story of how Peter Pan almost didn’t make it to the stage and the real-life inspiration behind those beloved characters forms the basis of Finding Neverland, the latest musical by Broadway in Cincinnati. Based off the 2004 Academy Award-winning film by the same name, Finding Neverland shows what happens when artistically stuck playwright  J.M. Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe) meets recently widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Lael Van Keuren) and her four children.  What emerges is the inspiration for the characters and situations within the play Peter Pan.

This is a lavish production with outstanding visual elements.  The end of the first act has Barrie and Captain Hook (John Davidson) on stage as a pirate ship is created on stage around them.  Also at the end of the second act, there is a beautiful stage exit for Sylvia Davies that involves glitter, a shawl, and wind machines (I won’t say any more so as not to spoil the effect.  It is truly touching).

The strong visuals, combined with strong acting and singing by the cast, are able to overcome some of the shortcomings of the musical.  This musical does not have many memorable songs (“Play” being perhaps the most memorable, similar in intention to the Les Miz song “Master of the House”) and the ending with the death of Sylvia Davies gets glossed over in favor of an uplifting ending, which feels a bit out of place.

However, I can say that I truly enjoyed the experience of seeing this show.  After a hard day’s work, it was a delightful respite and the acting alone made it wonderful to watch.    Harrigan Tighe played J.M. Barrie to American tastes, playing his part more like a cool uncle who likes to horseplay than a British literary figure who can use his imagination like a child.  Harrigan Tighe has a beautful voice and sings very well, displaying his vocal prowess in his solo parts in the song “Stronger.”

Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Lael Van Keuren) is also a vocal standout.  Van Kueruen shows a nice range for belting out the song “All that Matters” to the softer “Sylvia’s Lullaby.”  Similarly, the Davies children were also strong actors and singers.  The children Peter (Connor Jameson Casey), George (Bergman Freedman), Jack (Wyatt Cirbus), and Michael (Tyler Partrick Hennessy) acted naturally like ordinary children who could beautifully harmonize when needed.  Their solo song “We’re All Made of Stars” was a highpoint in Act II.

Special kudos also needs to go to John Davidson.  Davidson lights up the stage when he enters, whether playing his dual roles as the acerbic theater producer Charles Frohman or the wiley Captain Hook.  This is not surprising because Davidson is THE John Davidson from TV’s That’s Incredible and The Hollywood Squares, as well as appearing in a wide array of Broadway shows.  I had not realized that it was Davidson when I saw this show, making it a  double delight to see this talented performer in action.

A telling note for the strength of a Broadway touring show is how well they cast their supporting roles.  Finding Neverland had many standouts in this department, from the bumbling stage manager Elliot (played to perfection in the performance I saw by the swing Matthew Quinn), the pompous actor Mr. Henshaw (played by Dwelvan David), and the proper society matron Mrs. du Maurier (played wonderfully by Karen Murphy).

In short, this play proves what I always say about playwrights–they are awesome creatures that deserve more credit and respect.  In Finding Neverland, we see how one playwright finds his inspiration by going, in the words of Peter Pan himself, past the second star to the right, and straight on till morning.

Finding Neverland runs from November 7-19, 2017 at the Aronoff Center for the Arts.  For ticketing information, go to the Aronoff Center box office in person or online at CincinnatiArts.org.

 

Broadway Series’ “Finding Neverland” Shows the Power of Storytelling

Review by Liz Eichler of Finding Neverland: Broadway in Cincinnati

Beautiful Storytelling—that’s a quick summation of Finding Neverland, playing now through November 19 at the Aronoff in Cincinnati.  Adding a few words: Amazing.  Fresh. Joyful. Talent. And of course, Glitter Tornado. Two more words: Go Now.

“Finding Neverland” is a story of how J. M. Barrie formulated the script for “Peter Pan,” using part whimsy, part observation, and part looming deadline. Barrie is a successful playwright in Edwardian London, and meets up with a recently widowed mother and her imaginative young sons.  Barrie rediscovers what it means to be innocent and just “play,” falls in love with the mum, and is inspired to put it on the London Stage.  “Finding Neverland” is a musical, based on a movie, based on a book, based on what was shared or remembered about growing up. Some things are “facts” and some are “improvements,” and some are fun or moving musical numbers.

The star of the show is the visuals in all forms, from the treatment of Tinkerbell, to the richly detailed Edwardian clothing and scenery, the projections and lighting, and the choreography. There is something so fresh about the colors, the movement, and the use of space. I was transfixed.

The story pulls you in.  Yes, a few weaknesses in script, but the story is told so lovingly by director Diane Paulus, and the cast. Barrie is played by CCM grad Billy Harrigan Tighe, a lovely tenor. The child actors are amazing, with great voices and the right level of “realness.”  You may see a combination of Turner Birthisel, Connor Jameson Casey, Wyatt Cirbus, Bergman Freedman, Tyler Patrick Hennessy and/or Colin Wheeler. John Davidson (whom you may recall from TV, hosting “The New Match Game” and “Hundred Thousand Dollar Pyramid”) is great fun and a commanding presence.  Lael Van Keuren (Sylvia) is a sweet and imaginative mother and companion. Karen Murphy (Mrs. Du Maurier) makes you think of Maggie Smith, self-possessed, but also a great sense of comic timing. The whole ensemble is strong, and each knows how to pull out a laugh and enrich the characters.

The inventive movement by choreographer Mia Michaels (you may know her work from So You Think You Can Dance) elevates the show, and is performed by strong and diverse dancers.  So many numbers, including the Circus of Your Mind and When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground, redefine Broadway performance style.

So scooch up close and lose yourself in the amazing storytellers in “Finding Neverland.”  Get tickets at www.cincinnatiarts.org.

Finding Neverland Will Have You Thinking Happy Thoughts at the Aronoff Center

Review by Spencer Smith of Finding Neverland: Broadway Series

Finding Neverland, the 2004 film about J.M. Barrie starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, is now a fully imagined Broadway musical. Despite a few technical glitches on opening night, this is sure to become a fan favorite of the 2017-2018 season.

J.M. Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe) is struggling to write his next hit. His current play is not doing so well and theatre producer Charles Frohman (John Davidson) is ready to give it the hook. While spending the afternoon in the park attempting to cure his writer’s block, Barrie meets Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Lael Van Keuren) and her four rambunctious children Peter, George, Jack and Michael. This youthful energy might be exactly what he needs and the croc- I mean clock- is ticking. Anxious to see where this might lead, Barrie invites Davies and her children to dinner. Much to the chagrin of Barrie’s wife Mary (Kristine Reese) and Davis’ mother Mrs. du Maurier (Karen Murphy), imaginations run wild during a very entertaining dinner. After a few rounds of toss-the-toupee, Mary is not pleased and J.M. finds himself in the dog house. Out of favor with his wife, Barrie begins to spend more time with Davies and her four children while Mary starts to spend more time with Lord Cannan (Noah Plomgren). Tighe, Keuren and the rotating cast of four boys have a wonderful chemistry. The intricacy of their relationship is the heart of the show and the fuel that Barrie needs to write what becomes the story of Peter Pan. Tighe and Keuren both have fantastic singing voices and listening to Keuren sing “All That Matters” is itself worthy of your ticket price.

The book by James Graham is absolutely one of the most effective scripts I’ve seen on a stage in a long time. You’ll be laughing out loud when Mrs. du Maurier recalls her wild years (“It was the 60’s”) and the next will have you feeling like Sally Field in, well, almost any movie. The same can not be said of the music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, of UK pop group Take That fame. When their musical moments are centered around character development the songs are most effective. Many others left me wondering what the show would be like as a play. I would pay to see that play. Director Diane Paulus has put the real-life fairy tale of J.M. Barrie right before our eyes and it is one of the most beautifully crafted shows I’ve ever seen. If you doubt me, just wait until Sylvia goes to Neverland towards the end of the show. It’s one of the most technically stunning “So You Think You Can Dance”esque moments but it does not disappoint.

Choreographer Mia Michaels creates one of the shows most debatable flaws. The traditional story (it’s turn-of-the-century London) juxtaposed with the pop songs and very contemporary movement is clearly an artistic choice, but left me feeling the same as I did watching Spring Awakening. If something feels like a distraction I begin to debate its worth.

Despite the debatable flaws, the cast onstage and the show they perform at the Aronoff Center is top-notch. I just wish the two ladies sitting next to me on opening night had looked up from their phones long enough to get lost in Neverland for a few hours with the rest of us.

Finding Neverland continues at the Aronoff Center through November 19.

For tickets, visit the box office located at 650 Walnut Street , call 513-621-2787 [ARTS] or you can order online at cincinnatiarts.org.

Carnegie’s “Tenderly’ is a Bluesy Portrayal of Kentucky’s Favorite Songstress

Review by Hannah Gregory of Tenderly: Carnegie Theatre

Going into Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical, you may expect a nostalgic piece that skirts you away to the 1940’s and 50’s, churning medleys of Rosemary Clooney’s warm, sultry voice into a feel-good musical. While it certainly highlights hits from Clooney’s career, the second show in The Carnegie’s 2017–2018 season is hardly fluff. With only two actors –– Kim Schroeder Long as Rosemary Clooney (or Rosie, as she’s fondly called) and Allen Middletown, who portrays Rosie’s doctor (as well as various friends, family members, and others who affected Rosie’s life) –– Tenderly requires top notch, versatile performances. It delivers.

Tenderly functions very much as a staged biopic, taking us through Clooney’s life as a young Kentuckian with oft-absent parents and then her rise to fame as a singing starlet. The show focuses on Clooney’s stint in a psychiatric ward and is told through her sessions with her doctors and through flashbacks of her life. The crux of the show hearkens to her breakdown at a performance in Reno and the events that preceded such an episode. Highlights include the explosive “Come On-A My House,” “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?” where Schroeder Long stretches her acting chops and the music’s merry-go-round theme darkly underpin Clooney’s psychosis, and “Are You in Love Again” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” which provide a nice rising emotional arc.

Directing team Dee Anne Bryll and Ed Cohen take control of the script written by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman, keeping the audience engaged through nice moments of movement and stillness. Though Act One occasionally drags, the exposition is nearly necessary to understand Clooney’s descent into near madness, and the pay off is worth it –– Bryll and Cohen seemed to notice the lag and kept scene transitions energetic and quick. A wonderful side note: Tenderly was developed for production at the Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, OH and subsequently produced at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

Tyler Duncan Gabbard has designed a brilliant set –– the walls and furniture are a simple, clinical white that place us directly in the world of the ward. Accessories on various shelves provide an intimate touch, almost as if we are peering into her true self; this heavily contrasts the larger-than-life photos that adorn the backdrop, a nod to her public image. The lighting by Michael Ekema-Nardella serves the piece well.

Costumes by Helen A. Raymond-Goers are smartly designed. It is a difficult task to costume a show where actors go in and out of different characters; Raymond-Goers delivers with ease, highlighting a character’s essence with one or two quick items that be easily donned or ditched.

And then there’s the music. Steve Goers’ music direction is a true asset to Cincinnati theatres. The three-piece band plucks every note with precision and personality, and there is not a single note or lift Schroeder Long utters that isn’t brimming with intention and purpose. If the story doesn’t speak to you, the music will.
Tenderly: the Rosemary Clooney Musical is currently running at The Carnegie through November 19. Snag your tickets today by calling 859-491-2030 or by visiting www.thecarnegie.com.

 

CCM’s “The Earth is Flat” Shows the Rising Stars

Review by Shawn Maus of The Earth is Flat: CCM Acting

I have to confess that I love seeing new plays debut.  I know that many times there is still work to be done.  I’ve been known to see a debut play and then (even if it’s a few years later) see the production again to see what, if any, kinks have been worked out.

The premiere production is beautifully staged, often moving with a solid team behind it.  The debut of Todd Almond’s The Earth is Flat at the College-Conservatory of Music’s Cohen Family Studio Theatre admittedlyhas  a few things to work out. It’s a mark of a well-made play when you arrive at intermission with no idea where it is heading and you want to come back to see how it ends, although in this instance you may have a hunch Ethan will come into his own.

Developed through a new playwriting seminar at CCM, the play tells the story of Ethan and Derek, college roommates meeting for the first time on move-in day at, of course, the University of Cincinnati.

Almond is a writer of wit and courage –tackling the issues of theology, coming-of-age, and of course the “earth is flat” movement.  The Earth is Flat creates a space that blends the mundane and exciting life of college with the mystic, that slips between the life of the moment and whatever comes after.  It’s clear, funny, and naturalistic.  It doesn’t romanticize the college dorm life, or gloss over the struggles of middle class family life; the bonds are intense and come through with all the emotional twisty encounters of disappointment, discovery and love.

Richard Hess directs with a sure touch for the sensitivities of his two struggling college souls.  He is aided by the outstanding talent in the two men, highly contrasted but equally sympathetic, who together generate a sexual charge that makes the air crackle.

Jack Steiner plays the title character, Ethan, a friendless, anxious high-school senior who gets caught up in a moral quandary—and becomes an unwitting hero—after the tragic death of his older brother Jeremy. Steiner’s performance is genuine, competent and charismatic.  Steiner artfully holds down the character without allowing Ethan to become a college student cliché in performance or character development.

Ethan’s roommate, Derek, is sprinkled with mischief. Graham Lutes is tremendous — a beguiling mix of bombast and naivety while being quietly revealing.  He leaves you with a sense that he’s about to have some astounding and important work in his acting career.

Jennifer, Ethan’s sister, was portrayed by Madeleine Page-Schmit on opening night. She brings a simple depth with lasting relevance that makes Jennifer consistently lovely and moving.

Meg Olson plays Shelly (in the opening night production), the YouTube video “earth is flat” sensation who disses on Ayn Rand and who is trying to save all from the delusion that the world is a globe. Olson is brilliant at bringing humanity to the loony Shelly.  She infuses Shelly with strange social behaviors in which love and loneliness spar.

Paige Jordan (as “Woman  – Various Roles) and Graham Rogers (Man – Various Roles) steal nearly every scene.  They wring subtext through every physical movement and bring remarkable raw wit, adolescent anguish and lots energy.

The characters’ mounting issues are resolved with exactly the right mix of emotional resonance and theatrical force.

When I was a high school theatre director you longed for scripts like this that allowed the students to play roles that fit their situation. There is only so much you can get from a teenager trying to play characters written for adults.  Almond’s script will win your heart as so much of the success lies in the charm of the actors, and we’re not shortchanged.  Each of these actors is a pro; they know what they’re doing and they delight in it.

I could say very nice things about story, but I’d rather you discover it.  I will say it’s a pleasure to see this play in these discordant times. We need all the love, warmth and friendship we can get.  I was reminded of my own experiences as a college student and loved every moment of looking back on my college days through these characters.

I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Mr. Almond as a playwright and where this cast of stars will land.

Human Race Theatre’s Raises the Roof in “The House”

Review by Liz Eichler of The House: Human Race Theatre

Pictured (left to right): Caitlen Larsen, Alex Sunderhaus, Vince Gatton and Scott Stoney in The Human Race Theatre Company’s production of THE HOUSE.
PC: Scott J.

Human Race Theatre’s The House is a BLAST.  The dark comedy runs through November 19, and is a short, fun look at how important a house is to a family. It’s a humorous look at a couple ready to downsize, and the young couple ready to buy, to start their own family and having new feet trod the beloved stairs.

“At the center is always the house, like another member of the family,” the older couple reminisce, never entertaining the thought that the new owners may want to give the house a make-over. That is the major conflict, and the comedy is in how these individuals manage themselves through the conflict.

Scott Stoney and Caitlin Larsen play the older couple, and Vince Gatton and Alex Sunderhaus play the younger couple. All are great with physical and verbal timing. Stoney gets to deliver one of the best dental monologues ever written, by author Brian Parks. Sunderhaus beautifully balances professionalism and her choices when she does not get her way.

This is a new work, but it is very familiar territory, if you ever grew up in a house like the one on stage, or if you sold a home.  There may be some issues with time (it looks like the couple has been there a lot longer) and it treads on some not politically correct ground, but director Margaret Perry makes sure the audience leaves full of smiles after a lot of good belly laughs.

For tickets contact ticketcenterstage.com or call Human Race at 937-228-3630.