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“Alabaster” shines in World Premiere at Know Theatre

Review by Christiana Molldrem Harkulich of “Alabaster”: Know Theatre

A goat walks across stage and she is “aware that she is a goat,” but “Alabaster”, by Audrey Cefaly at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati, is not just a play about goats. Part of the rolling world premiere from the National New Play Network, this production is an intimate look at the fight to be seen between two survivors of trauma on a farm in Alabaster, Alabama. By turns laugh-out-loud funny and emotionally raw, “Alabaster” is not to be missed.

The aforementioned goat, Wheezy (played with comic precision and pathos by Keisha L. Kemper) is our narrator on this journey of connection. Wheezy introduces us to June, the artist shut-in owner of the farm (played by Maggie Lou Rader). As the play begins June is getting her portrait taken by Alice (played by Kelly Mengelkoch), a fancy-New York City based art photographer working on a series of portraits of women with scars. Over the tight two hours and two acts, Rader and Mengelkoch share tension and heart as they reveal the traumas and desires of June and Alice. Wheezy isn’t the only goat on the farm; she has companionship from her dying mother Bib (played wonderfully in her Know premiere by Jodie Beth Linver). To say more of the plot is to give the play away.

Cefaly’s play about grief and connection is directed with a swift and knowing hand by Lisa Sanaye Dring. The flow of moments from anger, to goat braying hilarity, to passion, to overwhelming grief are truthful and honest. Andrew Hungerford’s set is gorgeous and evokes the importance of place for June. Jennifer Fok’s lighting and Doug Borntrager’s sound designs work together to make the journey into the storm that is June’s grief real and startling. There is some use of strobe in the play. Noelle Wedig-Johnson’s costumes give the play a grounded feel, it’s refreshing to see a character who is bare-faced and is still seen as beautiful and desirable.

Wheezy, the wise goat, tells the audience during “Alabaster” that “it’s not not Love to walk away.” In a play about the fight to connect, this wisdom about walking away from the loved people and places we grieve is a startling reminder of how we heal. “Alabaster” is a magnificent production, and a wonderful evening of theatre.

“Alabaster” runs at Know Theatre of Cincinnati through March 21st. Tickets are available here:https://knowtheatre.com/season-22/alabaster/. Don’t miss your opportunity to see this play!

CSC’s “Pride and Prejudice”: Jane Austen Unleashed

Review by Sheldon Polonsky of “Pride and Prejudice”: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

A first glance at the rather austere drawing room set while sitting down to the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company‘s production of “Pride and Prejudice” might lead you to believe that you were in for yet another strait-laced version of the Jane Austen classic most of us know and love. But listening to the chamber-music versions in the background of pop songs like Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” or Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” might tip you off that this is not going to be your mother’s Jane Austen. And you would be right.

Now, full confession at the outset: I am a card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool Janeite. I’ve read every novel at least twice, made a pilgrimage to the Jane Austen museum in Bath, and will be the first to call-out any adaptation that doesn’t do her justice. But what I usually find fault with, especially in stage productions of Austen’s work, is indifference to her incredible dry wit and incisive humor, which make me laugh out loud every time I read her. There was no fear of that in this lively adaptation by Kate Hamill and artful direction by CSC veteran Sara Clark, which amps up the humor to 11. Whether it was the histrionics of Mrs. Bennet (Sara Mackie), the obsequiousness of Mr. Collins (Darnell Pierre Benjamin), or the puppy-dog antics of Mr. Bingley (Jude Walker), almost everything is played over-the-top. Whatever you may think about this production, you won’t be bored. Bold choices for a much-beloved classic, but ones that usually work, sometimes magnificently.

Most of the pared-down cast of eight play multiple roles, and their quick changes and off-beat casting choices add to the humor. Miranda McGee, who usually handles all the matronly roles (including Lady Catherine in this production) also plays the 14 year old Lydia believably and exuberantly. Three actors play both male and female roles, including Benjamin (Collins/Wickham/Miss Bingley), Walker (Bingley and a hysterically morose Mary Bennet) and Jeremy Dubin (Mr. Bennet and Charlotte Lucas). At first I thought this might become off-putting, but Mary and Charlotte especially became actually quite engaging and tender characters, and it was refreshing to hear Charlotte’s frank observations about the female condition being voiced by a male. Dubin was also very endearing as Mr. Bennet and his comic timing was, as usual, flawless..

I also feared that some of the serious themes and romantic emotions would be overshadowed by the slapstick, but that was not the case, especially in the second act. Courtney Lucien’s Jane Bennet was patient and sympathetic, and the all-important chemistry between Elizabeth (Caitlin McWethy) and Darcy (Grant Niezgodski) was palpable. McWethy’s emotional upheavals were sincere and smooth, and my only nit with Niezgodski was that he was just a bit too likable from the outset.

The set, by scenic designer Shannon Moore, was clean and elegant, played in the round with many audience members at the back stage but with a rotating turnable to allow constantly refreshing viewpoints. The sparse scenery was compensated for by an evocative lighting design by Nina Angelvis. Costumes by Clara Jean Kelly were eye-catching but not too overbearing.

One could quibble with this production if one wanted to. Some of the sight gags may have been overly broad or repetitive, and yes, Mary’s and Mr. Collin’s channeling of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” was a little too over-the-top and gratuitous. But let’s give credit where credit is due. I would rather a production like this one take risks that don’t always pan out then rely on the same-old same-old. And anything that makes Jane Austen more accessible to contemporary audiences, and refreshes the joyfulness and timelessness of her wit, is worth it in my opinion. I think Jane would approve.

“Pride and Prejudice” plays at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company‘s Otto M.Budig theater through March 28th. Tickets are available on their website, www.cincyshakes.com.

Human Race’s “Gloria: A Life” is a Story Well Told

Review by Raechel Lombardo of “Gloria: A Life”: Human Race Theatre

There’s only so much one can cover in a little over an hour about a pivotal women’s movement throughout the latter half of the 20th century.  But I must say, The Human Race Theatre Company’s “Gloria:  A Life” by Emily Mann sure does give a solid crash course on Gloria Steinem and her political influence.  The play focuses on Steinem’s life, career, and activism, as well as the movement she was a part of, and the other women who also made it possible.  This production is a perfect opportunity to showcase intersectional feminism in all of its artistic choices.

To the women on stage, what a strong, fantastic, eclectic, and celebrated group of unique female performers.  Jennifer Johansen (Gloria), Burgess Byrd (Woman 2), Rae Buchanan (Woman 5), Eileen Earnest (Woman 6), Sherman Fracher (Woman 3), Andréa Morales (Woman 4), and Aurea Tomeski (Woman 1) have created this honest, open atmosphere for you to hear their stories and even share yours as well.  They all know how to portray strong in ways other than anger and grit, which is a true testament to the range women have, and I thank them for their representations.

To the crew who had such a unique, accessible, and inclusive vision for the environment for this play to thrive in, I applaud you for being so clear-cut, classy, and full of a thousand words all at the same time.  Again, a true testament to the juggling capabilities of women, whether in oppression or in open individuality.  Isaac Harris (Technical Director), Eric Moore (Head Carpenter/Charge Artist), Alexander Capeneka (Carpenter/Scenic Artist), Jacquelyn Duncan (Production Stage Manager), Michelle “Elle” Zimmerman (Assistant to the Director/Moderator), Anna Moore (Production Assistant), Mikayla Burr (Props Master), Debra Howard (Costume Stage Manager), Andrew Ian Adams (Wardrobe), Alexander Koker (Projection Operator), Bailey Olean (Sound Engineer), Dave Arnold (Production Artwork), Miami Valley Interpreters, Gayle Smith (Audio Description), Heather N. Powell (Publicity Photographer), and Scott J. Kimmins (Production Photographer) have done an elegantly collaborative job.

And thank you to the playwright, Emily Mann.  Thank you for creating a piece for women, by a women, about women, inclusive of all women, and allowing women of all shapes, colors, ages, and so on to play.   That, in itself, really contributes to the dialogue of equal rights, in that it is often difficult finding shows like that, even today.  You put in thorough effort to pay homage to these women in such a concise and playful thesis.

Go enjoy the theatre, see a wonderfully talented ensemble of women playing everyone, and have a discussion about where we’ve been and where we’re going.   “Gloria:  A Life” is running until March 15 at The Human Race Theatre Company, get your tickets while you can.

NKU’s “HMS Pinafore” Proves a Jolly Good Time

Review by Nathan Top of “HMS Pinafore”: NKU theatre

A jovial sitcom of an operetta from 1878, Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore” tells the story of two romantic couples aboard the titular ship. While clearly attracted to one another, pride and rank prevents the twosomes from confessing their feelings for one another, much less to the rest of the ship’s residents. The show is filled with subtle dry comedy and plenty of double entendres to chuckle through.

While the show’s material is “gay and frivolous,” the production quality is no joke. Co-directed by Kimberly Lazzeri and Nicole Perrone, this college production feels professional on every account, flying by seamlessly from beat to beat in this mad-dash comedy. Choreographer Jay Goodlett has called upon his inner John Cleese to create some appropriately goofy dance numbers, adding to the gleeful tone of the show. Costume Designer Ronnie Chamberlain has built some beautiful pieces of period attire for the cast with allow them to not only look appropriate but dance as well. Lighting designer Jeremiah Kearns and scenic designer Anna C. Catton built a fresh, open-air world that feels large yet intimate. However, one of the unsung heroes of the show is sound designer Zachary Collins. The lightning-fast dialogue and even snappier lyrics could have gotten totally lost if the micing hadn’t been as excellent as it was, allowing the 1800s Gilmore Girls-esque dialogue to clip on by and tickle the audience’s funny bone. Damon Stevens, musical director for cast and pit, has assembled and highlighted the abilities of all his musicians. The pit is clear but not overbearing and the vocal numbers are radiant from beginning to end.

The leading hero and heroine of the story, Ralph Rackstraw (Jackson Hurt) and Josephine (Adria Whitfill) drive the narrative with charming chemistry and naivete. Each has a moving ballad as well as an endearing duet between the two concluding the first act. The aspiring Captain Corcoran (Jacob Threadgill), proves to have humorous and formidable opposition to the match. This is intensified by Joshua Van Nort’s regal performance as the pompous yet romantic Sir Joseph Porter and Joel Morgan Parece’s classic trope of a bitter, unattractive, semi-undermotivated villain, Dick Deadeye. The real break-out of the show is the electric Ally Davis as Little Buttercup, the amusing port-vendor and love interest of Captain Corcoran. Davis’s performance is magnetic throughout the show, especially during her duet with Threadgill on “Things Are Seldom What They Seem.”

NKU’s outstanding cast and crew proves that a well-done show, however dated, can ultimately be timeless. Be sure to grab your tickets here. “HMS Pinafore” runs now through March 1st.

“H.M.S. Pinafore” Sails in NKU’s Corbett Theatre

Review by Kevin Reynolds of “H.M.S. Pinafore”: NKU Theatre

The works of Gilbert & Sullivan are full of tuneful songs, quick wit, and some societal messages couched amongst the fun. The production of “H.M.S.Pinafore” by Northern Kentucky University’s School of the Arts captures all the best of this operetta with strong performances, an eye-catching set, and a perfect balance of whimsy and old-fashioned romance. 
The plot is familiar for the 1800’s: a girl from the upper-class is betrothed to a man she’s not met, but first falls in love with a man from a lower-class. What makes it work are the songs and the occasional bit of silliness. All the action happens on the H.M.S. Pinafore, beautifully designed by Anna C. Cotton and her team. While I wonder if any ship in the English Navy was ever that clean, it shows the pride of the crew working under a captain they love. 

It took two directors to make this magic happen: Kimberly Lazzeri handles the music, and Nicole Perrone the acting. They blend the two elements seamlessly and keep the action moving briskly. Damon Stevens and his eight piece orchestra provided the perfect accompaniment and Ronnie Chamberlain’s costumes were spot on, from the sailors to the head of the English Navy. 

The cast was vocally strong, though not always in an operatic (or operetta-ic) way, which is fine for this production, more of a musical comedy than anything else. However, when Adria Whitfill begins singing, you can imagine how different this would be in the hands of an opera company. Her vocal skills were only matched by the personality she brought to the love-lorn Josephine. There were many other outstanding performances, but Joel Morgan Parece as the miserable Dick Deadeye and Ally Davis as Little Buttercup really shined in their character roles. 

If you wonder whether an operetta is for you, know that none other than Monty Python”s Flying Circus was influenced by Gilbert & Sullivan and you truly get that sense throughout this wonderful production. “H.M.S. Pinafore” runs through March 1 at NKU’S Corbett Theatre. For tickets, visit NKU.edu/sota

Covedale Rings in Seldom Produced “Meet Me In St. Louis”

Review by Nathan Top of “Meet Me in St. Louis”: Covedale Theatre

Based on the 1944 film starring Judy Garland, “Meet Me In St. Louis” is a time capsule of a show, with the book by Hugh Wheeler and a score built out of the classic American songbook by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. Set in the frictionless world of  St. Louis, Missouri in 1903, the story revolves around the lives of the Smith family, focusing on second oldest daughter Esther and her will-they-won’t-they relationship with the charming boy-next-door, John Truitt. Each member of the Smith family has their own sitcom-esque storylines as the show breezes through the year leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair. 

Director and choreographer Dee Anne Bryll brings this nostalgically vibrant world to life, with several fast-paced and sometimes appropriately goofy choreography (specifically for “Under the Bamboo Tree”). The period costumes designed by Caren Brady are not only attractive to see but also build the world of 1904 as a vibrant yet sophisticated time. The skeleton framework set of the Smith home was cleverly designed by Brett Bowling and not only allows the audience to see through the world of the show but also view the pit musicians upstage. During the Act One finale “The Trolley Song,” a large trolley rolls on stage and spins around, creating a particularly enthralling visual effect. Music director Ryan Henrich has created a clean show sound with both the cast and the pit. The exposed trumpet solo during the dancebreak of “A Touch of the Irish” was a highlight of the show. 

Since the main plot is a near obstacle-less courtship between two high school steadies, there is potential for the show to stall or drag through several parts of the show. Fortunately, the magnetic cast grabs the audience’s attention from the opening. The leading lady Esther, played by sultry-voiced Sydney Kline, begins the show with the simple and beautiful ballad “The Boy Next Door.” Kline continues to delight the audience with her other features,  including an extended solo on “The Trolley Song” and the classic “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” 

Starring opposite Kline is the handsome Matthew Gretz, who plays Esther’s love interest John Truitt. Their chemistry is palpable and fills the courtship scenes and drives the story to the inevitable conclusion. Talia Zoll and John Langley play the matriarch and patriarch of the Smith household, Anna and Alonso, who compassionately capture the meaningful challenge of raising five strong-willed children, each coming of age in their own right. Zoll gives a bewitching performance on the song “You’ll Hear A Bell,”  which rings as the emotional heart of the show. 

Brianna Bernard and Dylan McGill, playing young lovers Rose Smith and Warren Sheffield, awkwardly continue on their own courtship while Angela Alexander Nalley as Katie and Joe Hornbaker as Grandpa Prophater interject throughout the show will well-timed comedic punches. 

You won’t want to miss this seldom produced show. “Meet Me In St. Louis” runs now through March 8th. Tickets can be purchased here.

CCM’s “Clybourne Park” is Thought-provoking, Uncomfortable and Absolutely Necessary


Review by Jenifer Moore of “Clybourne Park”: CCM Acting

If you are planning to attend a showing of CCM’s “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris, prepare to be equal parts entertained as well as reminded of the ways of living in America. Set in inner-city Chicago, the production picks up where barrier-breaking playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” leaves off, with a white family preparing to move after selling their home to an African American family. In total transparency, Act I starts off somewhat slow with Russ Stoller (expertly played by Matt Fox) enjoying the simple pleasures of life with 1950s tunes on the radio and a spoon deep in a tub of ice cream. Bev (Abby Palen), his wife, stirs about nearby packing up the remainder of the home with the assistance of the Francine (Paige Jordan), the family’s maid. While everything seems okay, the couple’s friendly, yet strained, banter is an indication that something more troubling sits beneath the surface of their home life and they’ve transitioned from thriving to surviving.  The play begins to pick up with the introduction of neighbors and “friends” and soon all hell breaks loose. And not in a good way.  

I don’t want to give the plot away, but I will say this ” Clybourne Park” is about many things–home, community, prosperity, change and at the center of it all, racism. I found myself and much of the audience squirm awkwardly throughout various points in the production, but I believe that it was absolutely necessary. The topic of racism and America’s historical relationship to it is hard to approach, yet CCM, under the direction of Richard Hess, brilliantly nails it. 

The cast carefully exposes how institutional racism, red-lining, and gentrification have affected the social construct of our history for decades.  While Act I shows the unsubstantiated fears of white homeowners at the thought of an African American family moving in and changing the ‘character’ of the neighborhood, Act II explores how the African Americans create communities and the act of gentrification moving in to destroy them is yet again another reminder that they are not deserving of equality. What I love about the cast is that they are unrelenting in channeling the emotions of the characters. The choice to use separate casts for both acts is bold yet welcomed as it allows audiences to see the range of theatrical expertise at this nationally ranked premier institution of learning. Again, while some of the dialogue is cringe-worthy, it is an honest representation of the America we see not only in 1959, but also 50 years later in 2009. 

I would be remiss if I did not mention Mark Halpin and the fantastic work of the set design. As I gazed upon the set prior to the show beginning I wondered how they would modernize the elements to reflect 2009. By this point in history, entertainment has moved from radio to TV and the old rotary phone exchanged for cell phones. The visuals and sounds of Act I included traditional oak flooring, large area rugs, and contemporary music. Enter Act II in dramatic fashion (it’s too exciting to share!) to the sounds of “Home” by Chi-town’s own Kanye West. 

All in all, CCM’s production of “Clybourne Park” is a must-see. It is thought-provoking, uncomfortable, and requires audiences to ponder how the effect of unbalanced policies, socio-economics, and bias affect the lives of all Americans. This is especially true for the Queen City which is undergoing its own gentrification to the cheers and jeers of many.  Home may be where the heart is. But we must ask ourselves what happens to our hearts when they are no longer welcomed where the home is? 

“Clybourne Park” runs until Feb. 16 at the University of Cincinnati Patricia Corbett Theater. 

Tickets and more info are available at https://CCM.uc.edu/boxoffice.html or by calling the box office at (513) 556-4183. 

Covedale’s “Meet Me in St. Louis” is “Arch”-etypical Nostalgia

Review by Doug Iden of “Meet Me in St. Louis”: Covedale Theatre

The year long wait by the Smith family for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (known informally as the St. Louis World’s Fair) is depicted on the Covedale Stage in the theater version of “Meet Me in St. Louis”. Based upon “The Kensington Stories” by Sally Benson and the classic 1944 musical with music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, we see the middle-class life of a turn-of-the-20th-century family in middle America.  The movie, starring Judy Garland, concentrated on her character Esther but the expanded theatrical version is more of an ensemble piece which further tells the stories of the entire family.  

The show opens with introductions of the Smith family in the summer of 1903 with Lon (Tyler Rosenblatt) reviewing the catalog for Princeton, Rose (Brianna Bernard) anticipating a long distance call from possible fiancé Warren Sheffield (Dylan McGill), Esther (Sydney Kline) pining over their neighbor John Truitt (Matthew Gretz), Agnes (Clare Graff) and Tootie (Morgan Reynolds) playing with her dolls.  We also meet mother Anna (Talia Zoll), Grandpa Prophater (Joe Hornbaker) and maid and principal busybody Katie (Angela Alexander Nalley).  They are all relaxing but agog at the upcoming event while singing the classic “Meet Me in St. Louis” which is repeated numerous times throughout the show.  

Gruff attorney father Alonso (John Langley) comes home for dinner in a bad mood and disrupts the carefully laid plot to allow Rose to speak privately with Warren on the new-fangled telephone. Alonso views his role as provider-in-chief instead of doting father with his wife mediating between her husband and the children. The call finally comes through and we hear a feisty Rose staking out her role in regards to the relationship,

All of the Martin/Blane songs from the movie are featured plus a number of additional songs which the pair wrote for the 1989 Broadway show.  The new songs are serviceable but do not compare with the original score.  Sydney Kline is well cast as a more rounded Esther and has a good singing voice, starting with the plaintive “The Boy Next Door”.  In the second act, Esther and John join for a nice duet “You are for Loving”.

A highlight of the first act is the novelty routine “The Trolley Song” featuring most of the cast.  Brett Bowling designed a trolley facsimile with the siblings and friends riding the trolley with John trying to catch up.  Another highlight of act one is the square dance number “Skip to My Lou” followed by “Under the Bamboo Tree” featuring Esther, Agnes and Tootie.  School for the Creative and Performing Arts student Morgan Reynolds is delightfully charming as Tootie and almost steals the scenes she is in along with 14-year old Clare Graff as mischievous imps causing problems for their older siblings.  

The first act moves a little slowly but the pace quickens after intermission with a rousing trio of Katie, Esther and Rose singing “A Touch of the Irish”.  Nalley (as Katie) provides comic relief and home-spun philosophy along with an excellent soprano voice.  

Father creates a family crisis when he announces that he has accepted a position in New York City and they would all be moving east.  The family, for differing reasons, is not happy but try to make the most of it with a game but half-hearted song “A Day in New York”.  As the family acclimates to the prospect of moving, they rally around the rambunctious “The Banjo” led by Tyler Rosenblatt.  

The seasons pass from Halloween to Christmas which is highlighted by the iconic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.  Father realizes that he has made a mistake and announces that he will not accept the transfer and they will stay in St. Louis.

Dowling’s set is static with the family living and dining rooms and a porch as the primary features.  It is quite detailed and represents a middle-class home at the time.  He has a painting of a Ferris Wheel on a mural in the back which was a feature the actual World’s Fair which was held at the current location of the St. Louis Zoo and Forest Park.  Costumes by Caren Brady were authentic period dresses for the women and more formal attire for the men.  The trick is to create the illusion of heavy, multi-layered clothing while allowing the performers freedom to move and dance.  The onstage eight-piece orchestra conducted by Ryan Henrich accented the singers well.  Director/Choreographer Dee Anne Bryll handled the dancing well despite a smaller stage due to the set and the orchestra. 

The ensemble nature of the show (versus the movie) is a bit of a good news, bad news situation.  On the one hand, we see much more of the entire family with their individual desires, goals and dreams but that also seems to somewhat dilute the charming and intimate nature of the movie.  The show is a little uneven and the microphones did not seem to be adjusted quite right.  The sound for the men seemed correct but it was difficult at times to understand some of the women.  However, it is a worthy effort with a lot of personality.

So, wait for the “clang, clang, clang” of the trolley and hop aboard down to the Covedale Theater for a nostalgic view of the Smith family in St. Louis running through March 8.