Skip to content

Falcon’s “A Great Wilderness” is Topical and Provocative

Review by Laurel Humes: A Great Wilderness: Falcon Theatre

Falcon Theatre closes its season with a drama about a hot-button topic – conversion therapy, or trying to change a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.

Whoa. But before you stop reading, know that A Great Wilderness has no for/against opponents shouting at each other, no preachers quoting or misquoting the Bible. This is a quiet play, not without tension, but more about individual motivations.

Walt (Allen R. Middleton) has devoted his life to counseling teenage boys out of their homosexuality at his Idaho wilderness camp. His reason is soon revealed, and it is deeply personal.

Plans have been made for Walt to retire to an assisted living facility, mostly by his domineering ex-wife, Abby (Arlene Borock-Balczo), who fears he is slipping into dementia. Unknown to her, Walt takes on one more client, Daniel (Caleb Farley).

Even if you are opposed to Walt’s mission, it is difficult to dislike him. Middleton’s portrayal is of a gentle man. He’s big, but rumpled and stooped; even the seat of his corduroy pants droops.

But Farley’s Daniel is scared. What is going to happen? Will there be shock therapy? His parents haven’t told him anything.

The first scene is just Walt trying to soothe Daniel, asking easy questions and really listening to the answers. But then – boom – Daniel goes out for a walk, disappears, other characters appear, and you start to question: What is this play really about?

Stick around for Act 2, much stronger and more compelling.

There is fine acting in A Great Wilderness. Middleton seems not to play Walt, but to embody the character, who is still suffering from personal tragedy 30 years ago and now – at this end of a career he made for himself – doubting his purpose. Farley, as Daniel, especially shines in a second-act near-monologue (sorry, that may be a spoiler).

Borock-Balczo portrays Abby as brisk and controlling, but still capable of sharing tears with Walt over the tragedy they shared. Holly Sauerbrunn is very good as Daniel’s mother, conflicted between her love for her son and her husband, who has given up on him.

A Great Wilderness, ably directed by Clint Ibele, is sure to provoke post-show discussion. And that is a hallmark of good theater.

A Great Wilderness continues Thursday-Saturday through May 19 at Falcon Theatre, 636 Monmouth St., Newport. Tickets are available at 513-479-6783 or at http://falcontheater.net.

Incline’s “Bye Bye Birdie” Soars

Review by Laurel Humes of Bye Bye Birdie: Incline Theatre

Bye Bye Birdie is just plain fun, the perfect opener for the easy-going summer season at Warsaw Federal Incline Theater.

The musical now is nearly 60 years old, inspired by Elvis Presley, his fanatical teenage fans, and the period when the famous singer was drafted and served in the Army. Still, the show and especially the songs seem fresh and relevant.

There is much to enjoy in Incline Theater’s production, starting with the darling “Telephone Hour” number. Staged on a Hollywood Squares-type set (another historical reference!), teenage boys and girls are all on their phones, abuzz with the news that Kim (Mikayla Renfrow) and Hugo (Joel Parece) are pinned.

The high-energy number is a preview of what we’ll see throughout the show – the teen ensemble is comprised of talented young singers and dancers, drawn from area colleges. Kudos right away to choreographer Jeni Bayer Schwiers and costumer Caren Brady (poodle skirts!).

Meanwhile, there is an adult love story between Albert (Jeremiah Plessinger) and his long-suffering secretary and fiancé Rose (Renee Stoltzfus). Albert is songwriter and manager for heartthrob Conrad Birdie (David Emery). Revenues will plummet during Birdie’s Army stint.

But here’s the gimmick that brings everyone together. Send Birdie to Sweet Apple, Ohio, for “One Last Kiss” to local fan club president Kim, and a whole lot of media coverage (remember the Ed Sullivan Show?).

There are some fine performances. Plessinger is a smooth singer, and the “Put On a Happy Face” number also shows off his dancing and acting talents. Stoltzfus’ Rose is fiery and funny; her comedic acting gift, along with great singing and dancing, are on best display in her “Spanish Rose” solo.

Mikayla Renfrow, a musical theatre student at UC’s College Conservatory of Music, certainly has a great career ahead of her. She has natural stage presence, paired with a wonderful voice.

There is a comic tour de force by Angela Alexander Nalley as Albert’s overbearing mother, doing all she can to break up his romance with Rose. Dylan McGill is funny as Kim’s father, doing his best impression of Paul Lynde, the comic actor who played the role on Broadway and in the movie. “Kids” is a standout number, with McGill and Samantha Stapleton as his wife.

Bye Bye Birdie, directed by Tim Perrino, is a lively, entertaining evening of theater.

The show continues through May 27 at Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, 801 Matson Place, in the Incline District of East Price Hill. For tickets, call 513-241-6550 or go to www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com.

Incline’s “Bye Bye Birdie” Brings Happy Faces All Around

Review by Doug Iden of Bye Bye Birdie: Incline Theatre

Elvis is in the building – sort of.  The 1960’s spoof on Elvis Presley’s military service, Bye, Bye Birdie, opened at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater amid energetic music and gyrating bodies, straight out of that era.

When the play was originally shown, the producers did not expect a long shelf life but, here we are, almost 70 years later, and the effervescence of the musical continues.  The show is pure fun, pure entertainment while poking a few satirical jabs at the cult of celebrity.  The show has become a bit of a cult classic but, in my judgement, it’s the exuberant dancing, uplifting songs and over-the-top enthusiasm of the cast that carries the performance.  That’s why we still watch it today.

The story line is pretty simple.  Conrad Birdie, a parody of an out-of-control rock and roll phenom, has been drafted, much to the consternation of this manager, Albert Peterson (played enthusiastically and somewhat naively by Jeremiah Plessinger who is becoming a Covedale/Include regular.  Peterson’s agency is having financial difficulties and the impending loss of his star could be catastrophic.  However, his long-suffering secretary/girlfriend Rose Alverez, portrayed by Renee Stoltzfus, wants Albert to quit the agency, marry her and become “An English Teacher” which she intones in a wistful but frustrated tone.

To accomplish her goal and guarantee financial stability, Rose conjures up the scheme to have a televised special with Birdie and a devoted teenage girl singing a new song written by Albert called “One Last Love”.  She arbitrarily picks a name from the Conrad Birdie fan club file, Kim MacAfee (Mikayla Renfrow) from rural Ohio.  The plan is for Birdie to visit Sweet Apple, stay with Kim’s family and then appear remotely on the Ed Sullivan Show singing the new song.  Kim is momentarily mesmerized by Birdie, much to the chagrin of her recently pinned steady Hugo Peabody (Joel Parece).

Another interesting side story is the constant guilt trip foisted on Albert by his mother, Mae (Angela Alexander Nalley).  Mae’s scathing wit (in a politically incorrect manner) is aimed at Rose as Albert’s mother tries to sabotage the relationship with her son. Never fear – it all works out in the end.

Birdie is definitely a throwback to old fashioned musicals with a lot (did I say a lot) of music and dancing.  There is a dance routine in virtually every scene, choreographed by Jeni Bayer Schwiers from solo performances to stage-filling numbers.  Increasingly, Incline is casting college students and alumni which enables young dancers to show off their talents in big production numbers such as “Honestly Sincere” and “A Lot of Living to Do”.  Renee Stoltzfus as Rose excels in several dance numbers including “An English Teacher”, “What Did I Ever See in Him” and the hilarious “Spanish Rose” when she tries to seduce some Shriners while cavorting under a table.

Another highlight is Dylan McGill as Kim’s father Harry MacAfee.  McGill mirrors, and at times seems to mimic, Paul Lynde who originated the role on Broadway and reprised the character in the movie.  He is normally angry and frustrated when he sings the ironic song “Kids” with his family but then assumes an angelic pose as the family sings “Hymn for a Sunday Evening” about the Ed Sullivan show.  Plessinger portrays a pleasant but often befuddled and overwhelmed Albert but delivers some good songs including “Baby, Talk to Me”, “Rosie” (a duet with Rose) and the classic “Put on a Happy Face”.  I was most impressed, however, with Mikayla Renfrow (a sophomore to be at CCM) who has an engaging personality and an excellent voice.  She has a real future in musical theater.  David Emery was appropriately arrogant and disdainful as Birdie.

Brett Bowling’s sets add significantly to the show with very brightly colored boxes which serve as the interior of the MacAfee house, the stairs of the town hall and other locations.  Caren Brady’s costumes blend with Bowling’s sets with very bright colors for most of the cast but contrasts with Alberts somewhat drab hues.  Director Tim Perrino keeps the show moving briskly and Steve Goers directs the band.

The show is unapologetically escapist theater but, if that’s what you like, Birdie delivers.  This was the first rock and roll Broadway show with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams but Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis don’t need to worry about the competition.

So, don’t say Bye Bye, say Hello Hello to this delightful show running at the Incline theater through May 27.  Their next production is Once On This Island opening June 6.

Clifton Players presents British-Style Romp in Northside

Review by Liz Eichler of “Champagne Gods”: Clifton Players

Clifton Performance Theatre is in Northside now, at the Liberty Exhibition Hall, presenting “Champagne Gods” by Emily Dendinger, emulating the style of a British ‘40’s comedy. The Clifton brand is evident with the intimate performance space, the familiar faces in the cast, and the welcoming from the staff.  If you’ve been a fan of the Clifton, you’ll be happy to see this production.

The show, directed by Kristin Clippard, is about a group of esteemed archaeologists and museum staffers at the British Museum, as they unveil a new exhibit, the “Kylix” of Apollo, which is purported to be an oracle, which could reveal the viewers’ soul mate.  Is this sophisticated group of PhD’s gullible or desperate enough to ask the oracle if they are with the right person? Will mad cap hijinks ensue? Of course.

Clarissa (Carol Brammer) is the planner in chief of the unveiling gala and is a great mix of authority and glam. Arthur (Michael G. Bath) is the retiring director, 15 days married to the young brash but likeable American, Gwendolyn (Eileen Earnest), accompanied by his enterprising 14-year old son (Peanut Edmundson). The archeological team of the beautiful and brilliant Holly (Mindy Heithaus) and work-focused Will (Brandon Burton) are also both drawn and repelled by seeking the oracle’s advice on love.

The evening is worth it to see Eileen Earnest, and be thoroughly transfixed by her comedic skills, although everyone has performance strengths in this ensemble. The cast is dressed to the nines and the set is the beautiful gilded backdrop of the Liberty Exhibition Hall stage, with enough balloons to signify gala. “Champagne Gods” is a 40’s era piece but translates well enough to cap off a pleasant evening in the Northside. There are weaknesses in the script, and in the accents, but Clifton Performance Theatre always delivers on live, intimate theatre.

“Champagne Gods” plays through May 12, including a performance on Monday, May 7.  For more information go to www.cliftonperformancetheatre.com

Miami University’s Captivating, Fun “Tartuffe” Still Strikes a Strong Note

Review by Shawn Maus of Tartuffe: Miami University Theatre

Moliere may have written Tartuffe over 300 years ago, but it’s a lot of fun for today’s audience, especially with this captivating, delicious comedic production at Miami University.  It feels fresh and poignant as ever.

Lewis Magruder directs this fine ensemble of actors through the twisting plot with each performer grounding farcical moments in exuberance and physical humor. Although faced with difficult rhyming text, the entire cast is able to deliver the lines in a lively style.

The story revolves around Tartuffe, a conman pretending to be a devout, religious man,  who gains entry into the house of the wealthy Orgon, who is completely influenced by him and takes his every word as gospel. The title character himself doesn’t show up until one hour into the play, but until then we hear an awful lot about him. Madame Pernelle (Eleanor Alger in  inspired comical overacting of exaggerated gesture ) and Orgon, her son, are supporters of Tartuffe, bringing him off the street and into their house. The rest of the family despises him as a hypocrite and a falsely pious man who has taken over their home and condemned their way of life. Orgon even arranges for Tartuffe to marry his own dim-witted daughter, Mariane, something she reluctantly accepts despite the protests of the man she truly loves, Valere. Fed up with Orgon’s blind faith and lack of rationality, his family devises a plan to trap Tartuffe and expose his fraudulence. And that’s where the fun begins.

As Tartuffe, a handsome Sam Adams is properly reptilian, but Adams plays him with much subtlety, showing how a charismatic man of well-rehearsed charms and duplicity can sway the many — though not all — who seek unearned holiness. He is a a great comical villain, especially with his pseudo sinister expressions and brazenness of the televangelist type.

Bob Cobb brings dynamism and dignity to his portrayal of Orgon. He is both a clueless and likable stooge.  Cobb with his basso voice and clear diction make his blustering comedic timing priceless.

Kevin Garcia is a winner in the character of Valère who elicits laughs every time he overreacts to a perceived slight by his adored Mariane (with Katie Boissoneault’s Mariane matching him comic stroke for stroke). His command of expression in scenes of forlorn love against those highlighting his virtue are performed with charisma and a “gee-shucks” lost boy attitude that of scene stealing fun.

Kaite Boissoneault’s effervescent, loopy portrayal of Mairane (Orgon’s daughter) brings to mind Ann-Margaret in Bye Bye Birdie – a very pretty, yet unsure teenager.

Of all the characters, Dorine has the meatiest part, and embodied by Elizabeth Bode she is not pigeonholed into a standard “executive assistant” character.  Bode’s portrayal is commanding, yet soft, brimming with sharp comedic expressions easily registered on her face even when she is upstage and the audience members in the back of the house were thoroughly enjoying the snarky looks and grimaces. She plays the character with a bounce in every step and is smart and sarcastic.

Abby Chafe plays Elmire with just the right amount of Mae West strut and sauciness.   As Police Officer, although a minor role who comes in at the end of Act Two to arrest Tartuffe and neatly wrap up the plot, actor Kevin Vestal, shows tremendous dedication to his character and makes use of his short time on stage with a great presence as the angel-like royal messenger with the moral of the story.

Brooke Vespoli’s’ makeup  is  a highlight of the show. Meggan Peters’  wardrobe of vivid colors against a grayscale pallet gives an extra flourish to each of the actors’ characterizations.

The enormously talented student production crew shows its love of design with a classical set as its porticos beautifully convey the architecture of a Georgian mansion. Gion DeFrancesco’s set design (a raked stage with an elliptical cornice!) indicates the family’s affluence and interest in style.

Thoroughly entertaining and engaging this Tartuffe is great way to send-off the Miami University theatre season. I had a smile on my face the entire time. Tartuffe plays at Miami University through Saturday night May 5th. Visit the website http://miamioh.edu/cca/academics/departments/theatre/ for ticket information.

 

Carnegie’s “Motherhood Out Loud” is a Candid Look at Being a Parent

Review by Hannah Gregory of Motherhood Out Loud: Carnegie Theatre

The Carnegie’s Motherhood Out Loud must have been meticulously planned as a pre-Mother’s Day treat. With spring finally settling in, this show about the givers of life seems appropriate. This medley of stories about motherhood touts the authorships of many female playwrights, including notable names such as Theresa Rebeck and Beth Henley.

The show’s organization could not be more impeccable: the audience is led from birth to children coming home to take care of their mothers in chapters, each of which begin with a themed vignette where actors metaphorically set the stage for what we can expect; then, three monologues follow, and on we go. The show is tight and concise, pausing only where it needs to and promptly moving on––a wise decision on behalf of director Jodie Meyn, as the show runs over two hours.

Jenny Roesel Ustick’s set is simple and malleable, featuring abstract pink pillars, a large white platform, and a chair. Nicholas Smith’s lighting highlights characters in a gentle wash, and sound designer Avery Reynolds utilizes soothing percussive music for scene changes. With such a simple set, actors must rise to the challenge of painting the scene with their words.

And they do.

This small but mighty cast––featuring Erin Carr, Liz Carman, Nazanin Khodadad, Martha Slater, and R. DeAndre Smith––is lovely to watch as actors shift from character to character. Standout pieces include “Queen Esther” performed by Carman and “My Baby” performed by Slater, but every actor on stage gives a humanness and familiarity to each character they portray. The show also touches on difficult issues like adoption, stepchildren, and surrogacy and balances the awe-inspiring bringing-life-into-the-world moments with the whackier I’m-about-to-fight-with-this-mom-at-the-park moments.

The piece as a whole is a gentle reminder that motherhood isn’t all dewy and divine; in fact, most of it is damn difficult. With so many characters, it also reminds us that no two experiences are the same.

As one woman gleefully quipped behind me, “That’s exactly what it’s like!” This piece will obviously resonate the most with mothers themselves, though there were a few men in the audience chuckling along. Though the title may imply a family-friendly show, leave the smaller kids at home for this one unless you’re fine with them hearing some language. Motherhood Out Loud is best enjoyed with close friends or generations of women in the family.

Motherhood Out Loud runs at The Carnegie thru April 29. For tickets, call 859.957.1940 or visit thecarnegie.com.

CCM Immerses Its Audience with “H2O: A Play About Water”

Review by Shawn Maus of H2O: A Play About Water: CCM Acting

“The Greeks called me Poseidon. The Americans: Katrina, Harvey, Irma. I am the damn breaker and the hands that cup Monet’s lilies.?

According the Wikipedia, water is “a transparent, tasteless, odorless, and nearly colorless chemical substance that is the main constituent of Earth’s streams, lakes, and oceans, and the fluids of most living organisms.” Its chemical formula is H2O, meaning that each of its molecules contains one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms. Water covers 71% of the Earth’s surface with only 2% of this water being fresh for drinking.

That’s the science.

At CCM‘s Cohen Family Studio Theater you learn the drama of water.  Conceived and directed by Richard Hess and written by six CCM students this 60-minute play (selected to be performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – and possible Cincy Fringe), the audience is swept into the creative tides of storytelling.  Water God (Carter LaCava) and Water Goddess (Jenny Molet) anchor the tale of the life-giving and death-taking/defying bodies of water through the ages.  The scenes takes us through the horrors of waterboarding, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Flint, Michigan water crisis, the Great Dustbowl/Black Sunday of 1935,  and the Dakota Access Pipeline protest to the pleasures of remembering what it was like to go fishing on a lake in the warm summer sun. There is much more going on here than political statements.

As Water God and Goddess remind us, “Water is life. Life is Water.” It’s a complex relationship.

The life of the stage is encased in a set design of pure poetry.  As you enter the theatre bright blue fabric coats the stage.  That fabric becomes the water as Fish and Water God and Goddess enter along with Scientists to take us on a spellbinding tour of our relationship with the water, the planet, the stories of people who have survived and perished because of our symbiotic relationship with the power of H2O. The choreography of the fabric is amazing and breathtaking.  At times it’s a ballet of movement sweeping the hurricane victims (“I saw a dead man float by, mouth open…”), or the riptide of  surf in Hawaii (“I didn’t believe that someone could die on a beach this beautiful in a place that smells of lilacs and salt water.”), or just the fun, peaceful, frolicking blue calm of Dan and his wife (whose whistling is an annoyance to Dan, but comic delight to the audience). The flowing “material of blue” is a symbol of water’s wisdom, grace, music, power, chaos and beauty of this commodity that is bought, sold, collected and connects us with each other and our world.

Water God and Goddess are exotic beings of nature with their layers and textures of clothing and face of paint strokes that seem to hold magic powers of war, peace, tranquility and protection. The character reactions are genuine as the ensemble cast earnestly work through the  emotions of internal struggles, completely random events that disrupt lives and the quality and depth of relationships. And to add another element, the script adds some rousing renditions of tunes from Simon and Garfunkel, Bobby Darin (or Frank Sinatra, depending on your preference for the tune “Somewhere Beyond the Sea”), even Burt Bacharach.

This is a play that connects the audience on a variety of levels and is accessible to a wide audience.  It deals with themes of great love and forces us to look inside ourselves to overcome a struggle with the most powerful element on earth.

This is a play that is urgent and exhilarating at rises on massive strengths of its solid emotions, incredibly committed cast and and visually gripping scenic design.

You are completely involved in everything that happens and you feel like you are a part of life of water and that this water is life.

H2O only played the weekend of April 19-21st at CCM, but I hope the play will be performed again by them or others, so that more people can experience this most poetic, dazzlingly creative, theatrical achievement unrivaled in its beauty, ingenuity and brains.

So In Love We Are! with NKU’s “Kiss Me Kate”

Review by Spenser Smith of Kiss Me, Kate: NKU Theatre

Northern Kentucky University closes its current season with a wildly entertaining production of Kiss Me, Kate, a musical within a musical telling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

The action of the musical within the musical tells the story of Shakespeare’s characters Bianca (Natalie Bellamy) and Kate (Sally Modzelewski), whose father Baptista (Joshua Van Nort) would very much like them both to wed. Bianca is the more willing of the two, having fallen for Lucentio, who is her real life love Bill (Trase Milburn). Her sister Katherine is the shrew that cannot be tamed, although Petruchio, played by Fred (Alexander Slade), is willing to try. Are you still with me? This mirrors the action that takes place offstage. Lois (Bianca) and Lilli (Katherine) are having the same relationship issues in their real lives. Several mistaken identities and a forged signature contribute to the supporting characters, which adds to the evening’s many laughs. Ben Cohen (Gangster #1) and Kevin Birdwhistell (Gangster #2) come to collect a debt and find themselves a part of the show. They are given an opportunity to steal the moment towards the end of the show and they do not disappoint. The four lead actors hoof through all two and half hours, singing and dancing the shows many energetic production numbers. This show doesn’t stop for a second to catch its breath and compliments are deserved by the whole ensemble. Stand-out moments include “Tom, Dick or Harry”, “Always True To You…” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”

Director Corrie Danieley has assembled an all-star cast. What a pleasure it is to see her giving so many new faces the opportunity to shine. Her simple direction, backed up by efficient set design by Ron Shaw, allow the play to swiftly navigate multiple locations with ease. Nothing kills musical comedy quite like clunky transitions. Choreographer Rachel Perin (an NKU grad) has cooked up delicious material for both of Lois’ numbers and a difficult tap sequence for Bill in Act 2. Perin has proven again that she has a knack for staging large production numbers with creative precision. This production is absolutely delightful. It’s the perfect representation of classic musical comedy.

Anxious for what’s next at NKU? Wunderbar! Check out their annual summer dinner theatre featuring Life Could Be a Dream, featuring doo wop tunes of the 50s and 60s running three weeks in June and the Neil Simon classic about two unsuspecting roommates The Odd Couple in July.