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How Can You Say No? This April, Shuffle Off to Cove-da-le for “42nd Street”

Review by Jack Crumley of “42nd Street”: Covedale

It’s not hard to understand why musicals during The Great Depression were such a thing. It was a chance for audiences to forget about their problems for awhile, get some jokes, maybe some commentary on current society, and be left with a couple catchy tunes in their heads. “Anything Goes”, “The Cradle Will Rock”, and “The Wizard of Oz” all hit either the stage or the screen during this period, but arguably the ultimate Depression-era, glitzy, Hollywood musical hit movie houses at the start in 1933: “42nd Street”. (“Footlight Parade”, starring James Cagney, also came out in ‘33, but a stage adaptation of it isn’t currently playing at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts and 42nd Street is).

Directed by Lloyd Bacon (who also directed “Footlight Parade”), with music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin, “42nd Street” tells the story of Peggy Sawyer, a young woman fresh off the train from Allentown, PA, looking to dance on Broadway. She’s wide-eyed and enthusiastic, and even though she misses the audition for the upcoming show “Pretty Lady,” her fellow dancing girls recognize her talent and convince the director, Julian Marsh, to give her a shot. Sawyer runs afoul of the show’s star, Dorothy Brock, and she accidentally injures the diva just before opening night. After Marsh fires Sawyer, the rest of the cast convinces him to hire her back to play the lead. A marathon rehearsal later, with a bit of encouragement from Brock, and Sawyer rises to the occasion and becomes the Broadway star she hitherto only dreamt of being.

The cast for this production at the Covedale is huge. I’m truly impressed by the way Director and Choreographer Maggie Perrino juggled so many people on stage (not to mention balancing it with her other job as theatre director at The Carnegie in Covington). This show is loaded with big song and dance numbers, almost Busby Berkeley-esque. “Overture,” “Shadow Waltz,” “Getting Out of Town,” and “We’re In the Money” all are songs that have at least a dozen people on stage singing and dancing (and that’s just in Act I). My knowledge of specific dance steps is ~limited~ at best, but the performances in this show included kick lines, ballet, tap, and a lot more. This show has the most challenging, advanced choreography I’ve seen in my time reviewing shows for LCT. And every last dancer does it with a smile.

Not only is this cast huge, but it’s hugely talented. Nearly everyone in this show is singing a song as they also hoof their way through the aforementioned choreography, and Perrino was able to bring back a lot of familiar faces. I recognized several actors in the ensemble whom I’ve seen easily handle the lead roles in other shows: Faustina Gorham (“Cabaret”), Elliot Handkins (“The Graduate”), and Kyle Taylor (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) jumped out at me the most. This show rests on the shoulders of Hope Pauly’s Peggy Sawyer, and she is outstanding. Her singing voice and her speaking voice both give a sense of youth and inner strength. And since she starts out as a chorus girl, she, too, is dancing like crazy on stage before her character is tapped to step up to be the lead. Peggy has to be shy, determined, graceful, outspoken, fearful, and confident in this show, and Pauly sells each emotion as much as she’s selling every dance step.

It was nice to see Marissa Poole back on stage with her “Graduate” co-star, Handkins, but in the role of Dorothy Brock, it was also nice to hear Poole’s singing voice. Poole’s work on stage, screen, and radio has honed her talent, and you can hear it in her spoken dialogue and her singing. Her character softens by the end, and her performance of “About a Quarter to Nine” was a sweet coda for a previously cruel character.

Also showcasing an outstanding voice is Justin Glaser as Julian Marsh. Just like his time as Daddy Warbucks in 2017’s Annie, Glaser brings his towering size and commanding baritone voice to this show, delivering lines that would come off as cheesy if said by an actor with less gusto. Glaser shines in the Act II song “Lullaby of Broadway.”

Some other actors I want to mention by name because their work jumped out at me: Josh Heard as Andy Lee is often featured as a dancer in this show, and he has an excellent tap solo near the beginning. Chris Logan Carter (“Young Frankenstein”) as Bert Berry has excellent chemistry with Kate Mock Elliott’s Maggie Jones. It’s hard to miss the huge smile and featured footwork of Jules Shumate as Anytime Annie, a character who’s part grows as the show moves along. And this is Matthew Nassida’s first time on the Covedale stage, but his powerful tenor voice singing Billy Lawlor’s songs will stay with me.

Once again, for the season-ending show, Costume Designer Caren Brady must’ve been saving up her budget. The bevy of actors all have multiple costumes, with the dancers in the ensemble likely putting on upwards of ten outfits over the course of the show. Going from street clothes, to rehearsal garb, to the the flashy stage costumes for the performance of “Pretty Lady” also means these actors have to execute some of the fastest costume changes I’ve ever seen.

Scenic Designer Brett Bowling’s stage pieces are mainly about the “Pretty Lady” performance, with a couple rotating flats on the side for smaller dressing room and diner scenes. Denny Reed’s lighting design plays up the radiance of a razzle-dazzle Broadway show. “42nd Street” is the quintessential story of “‘midwest newcomer with a dream’ hits the bigtime,” an especially American concept that has put more wannabe actors on a bus headed to the city than any big name director or hot new script. The musical came out before so many tried and failed over the decades since, allowing cynicism set to in, and it is unabashedly, unironically selling its story with every line, every note, and every step. Several characters smoke on stage (using what appears to be a vape prop), but there is no foul language or inappropriate-for-children content.

“42nd Street” plays Thursday through Sunday at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts now through April 28, 2019. Tickets are available by calling 513-241-6550 or going to the Covedale website,

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s “Macbeth” is a Kilty Pleasure

Review by Sheldon Polonsky of “Macbeth”: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

It was almost 8 years ago when I saw one of my first productions at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company—a marvelous production of “Macbeth” with Nick Rose and Sara Clark—so it was with a satisfied sense of coming full circle that I was looking forward to their latest presentation of the same play, opening this weekend. My anticipation was heightened by learning it was the directorial debut of Miranda McGee, one of their most spirited and compelling actresses (who played a witch in the earlier production). If I had an expectation, it was that her vision would be as “over-the-top” as her acting–meant in the most respectful and appreciative sense possible. I was not disappointed, as McGee pulls out all the stops to provide a flamboyant, lurid and shocking version of this Shakespearian classic.

Kelly Mengelkoch and Giles Davies (foreground) in “Macbeth”

McGee puts the Scott back in the Scottish play, setting the scene in 17th century Scotland , replete with castles, Great Kilts, tartans, drums and bagpipe music. The opening scene sets the tone of the rest of the play. It begins with the three witches (Darnell Pierre Benjamin, Courtney Lucien, and Caitlin McWethey), robed, taloned and faceless, nightmares out of the most frightening modern horror film. Their presence immediately indicates that this production will not shy away from the more supernatural elements of the plot, as they go on to tempt Macbeth (played by Giles Davies) into betraying and murdering his king, Duncan (Kenneth Early), but aren’t relegated only to the heath but haunt the entire proceedings. The next moment is a blood-curdling scream–not the scream of battle but of Lady Macbeth (Kelly Mengelkoch) giving birth to a still-born baby–a brilliant device which underpins her willingness to trade her maternal instincts for murderous ones, and dovetails perfectly with her later soliloquies. Next we do hear the screams of battle in an extended combat scene showing the savagery and viciousness of Scottish clan warfare, portending the unvarnished violence and bloodshed throughout the play, most notably in Macbeth’s murder of his friend Banquo (Justin McCombs) and the horrifying massacre of the children and wife of MacDuff (Grant Niezgodski), as well as several unexpected and gratuitous deaths late in the play.

McGee’s direction is backed by several fine performances. Mengelkoch’s Lady Macbeth is focused and vivid, as she masterfully manipulates and goads her husband’s ambition but ultimately cannot master her own guilt. A bearded Justin McCombs is imposing as Banquo and makes a truly terrifying ghost in the banquet scene. Two wonderful supporting roles included Candice Handy as Duncan’s unapologetically female but powerful daughter, Malcolm, and Cary Davenport who lends much-needed comic relief as the porter.

Throughout it all, the character of Macbeth himself remains the most enigmatic. Davies’ interpretation lurches between the feckless, ridiculous, self-assured and inhumanely cruel, sometimes in the space of a single scene or even a single monologue. If the central question of Macbeth is his agency–his free will or lack thereof–Davies’ portrayal seems to firmly suggest that Macbeth is a man entirely in the grip of forces and passions–both worldly and other-worldly–that he cannot begin to control and hardly even comprehend.

McGee certainly uses the Shakespeare Company stage and its technical abilities to their fullest extent. The closeness of the audience to the stage makes the action and shock almost palpable, with more than a few audible gasps the evening I was there. Justen Locke’s scenic design is earthy and formidable, filled with stone and parapets with broken areas suggestive of the recent war and destruction. His lighting design, along with Douglas Borntrager’s sound and video design, augment the suspense and horror and provide exhilarating special effects for the play’s supernatural elements. Rainy Edwards designed authentic and eye-catching period costumes, while Gina Cerimele-Mechley, the fight choreographer, created some of the most exciting and gruesome combat sequences I have ever seen on stage.

If you like your Bard to be bold, bloody and unbridled, then this is the “Macbeth” for you. It runs from April 5th-May 4th at the Otto M. Budig theatre, with tickets and other information available on their website,

You’ll Rise to Your Feet for “Yeast Nation” at CCM Studio

Review by Liz Eichler of “Yeast Nation”: CCM Musical Theatre

When the musical is set in 3,000,458,000 B.C. at the bottom of the primordial sea, you know you’re in for something…unusual. CCM’s Studio Musical Theatre Series is presenting “Yeast Nation,” by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis, the same team responsible for “Urinetown.” Directed by Vincent DeGeorge, it is a fast-paced saga of love and power of anthropomorphized yeast cells. And it works!

The power is in the tongue-in-cheek book and lyrics, eaten up by the audience Friday night. The music (Musical Director Henry Lewers) is challenging, but overall masterfully done, especially the duets.  Directed and choreographed by Vincent DeGeorge, with winning synchronized microorganism movements which range from interesting isolations to the hustle. Very clever. This is a laugh-out-loud show, with deadpan delivery, and good timing in sight gags and bits.

“Yeast Nation” is about, well, a nation of yeast led by Jan-the-Elder (Eli Mayer) who has strict rules, primarily forbidding the yeast (mostly his children) to rise or procreate, and as the food supply dwindles he rules with a platform of sameness. His daughter, Jan-the-Sly (Delaney Guyer), plans to overthrow him for power, not for the good of the nation, and plots to kill the next in line with the help of Jan-the-Famished (Jamie Goodson), whom she has blackmailed. Sly’s target, Jan-the Second-Oldest (John Collins), falls in love with Jan-the-Sweet (Bailee Endebrock), but Jan-the Wise (Erich Schleck) wants her, too. Love is a new complication in this yeast nation, predicting both joy and pain. New characters are introduced (played by Elijah King and Veronica Stern) that further complicate the nation.  

Every student is an amazing performer.  The music calls for great range, and they handle it with ease.  Anya Axel as the narrator/seer Jan-the-Unnamed opens the show powerfully and tells the audience what they are in for.  It is a presentational show; the fourth wall is broken many times, and we creatures from the future are warned.  Mayer is a strong and proud father who commands his nation and the stage with his booming voice. Some of the best musical moments come during duets, such as Goodson and Guyer, or Collins and Endebrock. The hilarious lyrics “It won’t be a bother to murder my father” or the multilayered “Is there more to life” add to the richness. There are many memorable numbers, including “Stasis is the Membrane (that keeps us all together),” “I’ll Change the World Around Her,” and “The World Won’t Wait.” Schleck channels his inner Squidward and has some of the funniest moments. The Yeast Ensemble includes: Olivia Buss, Carlee Coulehan, Haley Holcomb, Victoria Popritkin, Jordyn Baline Walker, Nick Berninger, David Littlefield, Quinn Surdez, and Jake Waford.

The set (Joshua E. Gallagher) is a simple box of silver fabric strips, a ladder (to rise), some moveable seating, and disco balls, all making a great backdrop to the colorful lighting (Nicholas Smith).  There is a groovy retro modern feel in some of the clothing. All the clothes are white, but full of clever details and texture. Kudos to the uncredited coordinator.  

This is a fun show which may remind you of “Sponge Bob” and of course “Urinetown.” GO! not only for the CCM talent, but for what is probably a “proto-narrative” you’ve never seen before, yet also a warning, not to run through all of our natural resources. You will rise to your feet at the end!  Two more shows – April 6 at 2 pm. and at 8 pm. Tickets are free but arrive early to put your name on the waiting list. Contact the CCM Box Office 513-556-6638 for more information.

NKU’s YES Festival Ends Powerfully With Student-Written “A Black Boy in Pink”

Review by Kevin Reynolds of “A Black Boy in Pink”: NKU Theatre

I think we can all imagine 1959 Cincinnati as a judgmental, unaccepting town for African Americans. It’s before the Civil Rights era kicked in, the majority living in very specific neighborhoods, including the West End. Now imagine being 19, black, and gay. Dismissed by family, unable to find a job, but needing a place to live and the occasional luxury of make-up and pink, silk ladies’ bloomers.

Je’Shuan Jackson and Nathaniel Clifford in “The Black Boy In Pink”

A rarity in Northern Kentucky University‘s YES Festival, “The Black Boy in Pink” is written by one of their own students, BFA in Playwriting candidate Isaiah Reeves. Performed in the intimate confines of The Henry Konstantinow Studio Theatre, the opening night audience saw some of Reeves’ personal experiences translated into the character of Wyatt, portrayed by Je’Shuan Jackson. He’s an old soul trapped in a young man’s bigger body. He’s alone in the world except for his pimp, Rudolph (Thomas Smith) who connects him with a variety of men for sex-for-pay and keeps Wyatt convinced that this is the only option for a gay black man.

One of Wyatt’s johns turns out to be a well-known businessman he’s seen on TV commercials, Douglas Russell, purveyor of Russell’s Wieners (who claim to be better than Kahn’s, one of the many Cincinnati references made throughout – more on that later.) Douglas (Nathaniel Clifford) is a newlywed who married one of his meat packing plant secretaries, Iris (Sally Modzeleski), a rough-hewn woman desperately trying to fit into a wealthy home but generally just being obnoxious and overbearing. Douglas’ younger brother Vincent (Cameron Myers), an aspiring (but really awful) playwright with no interest in the family business, and maid Blair (Haley Gillman) are the ones most trod upon by Douglas and Iris for their lack of success and status in life. Ultimately, they fight back but there’s not a real winner in the war. Except Wyatt.

Brian Robertson directed Reeves’ script with aplomb, using the small black box space effectively as the action moves from Wyatt’s apartment to the Russell’s dining room. The set by Anna Schwartz and lighting by Matt Schutte are both effective in illuminating the different social strata of the characters.

Ultimately, every character in Reeves’ world are living lies, except Wyatt. Even at 19, he knows who he is and aspires to be better. He knows he has disappointed his parents and beloved grandmother, but he insists on being his true self. Je’Shuan Jackson gives a layered performance full of heart and, ultimately, hope. The cast, including Gabriela Barbosa Gonzalez in two roles, show the foibles that humans have – fears, aspirations, disdain, even lust and greed – but only one character truly depicts love, and that’s Wyatt. He has a love for himself even when those around him show him nothing but disdain.

One other performance I must point out is Haley Gillman as the maid, Blair. In part comic relief, in part green with envy because Iris should have been her, in part lovelorn school girl with a passion for Douglas, and in part conniving co-conspirator to get even with them both, Gilman (whom I saw perform and sing brilliantly as Frau Kost in NKU‘s recent production of “Cabaret”) is a force on stage who grabs your attention and holds it no matter which iteration of her character is on display.

As mentioned, there are a LOT of Cincinnati references from 1959: Hotel Gibson, Shillito’s, Pogue’s, Ruth Lyons…some make perfect sense for place setting, some felt as if they were forced in to make sure the audience doesn’t forget it’s Cincinnati. But that is a very small criticism of an overall exceptional script filled with fleshed-out characters and a highly personal story that may be a revelation to audiences, and a lead character that is singularly unique, not a characterization nor meant to be pitied. Remember the name Isaiah Reaves…I hope there will be much more from his pen on stages soon.

“The Black Boy in Pink” runs through April 14 as part of the YES Festival. For dates, times, and tickets, visit

Covedale Hearkens Back to Broadway’s Heyday in “42nd Street”

Review by Doug Iden of “42nd Street”: Covedale Theatre

“Come and meet those dancing feet.  It’s the avenue I’m taking you to, 42nd Street.”  That song tapped its way onto the Covedale Theater stage while taking you to a bygone era depicted in the 1933 movie classic of the same name.  One of hundreds of “backstage Broadway” Hollywood musicals of the day, 42nd Street tells the oft-told story of a chorus-line girl (Peggy Sawyer played by Hope Pauly) who tries to make it big on Broadway because of an injury to the star.  It takes the theater clique “break a leg” literally.

This is an old-fashioned, big production number musical full of songs and dancing that you rarely see today.  For most modern musicals, dancing is a four-letter word.  However, in its heyday, these unapologetically sentimental and somewhat corny musicals ruled Hollywood and Broadway.  And that’s ok because these shows are loud, brassy, enthusiastic and downright fun.  If you are from a certain generation, you will be very familiar with the songs of Harry Warren and Al Dubin, including “Young and Healthy”, “You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me”, “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” and the title song.  When the movie was adapted into a musical in 1980, additional Warren/Dubin songs such as “Lullaby of Broadway”, “Dames”, “About a Quarter to Nine” and “We’re in the Money” were included. 

Like most musicals of its day, these shows were mostly big production numbers tied together by a gossamer thin thread of a story.  Consequently, the production numbers, especially the dancing, are critical to the success of the show.  Led by Director/Choreographer Maggie Perrino, a cast of 24 people sang and danced their way admirably through the multiple song/dance routines.  Most of the dancing was classic chorus line tap dancing (ala the Rockettes) but there was also some soft shoe, waltzes and ballet mixed in. 

This is a risky type of show because it does require competence in a variety of dancing styles, and the entire ensemble is up to the task both with dancing and singing. Precision dancing with a dozen people is tough, but the moves and the timing were very good, led by Josh Heard (Andy), Royce Louden, Matthew Nasida (Billy Lawlor), Pauly as Sawyer and many more ensemble singers and dancers.  Jules Shumate as Anytime Annie and “songwriters” Maggie Jones (Kate Mock Elliott) and Bert Berry (Chris Logan Carter) provide the comic relief while contributing to the dancing and singing.

The dancing merged well with the set design by Brett Bowling and lighting by Denny Reed.  Bowling used a split stage technique, rarely seen at the Covedale, with a red curtain separating the front of the stage from the back.  The majority of the acting took place in the front stage with props on either end which were either windows or a bar and a dressing room when turned around.  When the curtain opened (sometimes completely and sometimes halfway) we could see an art deco representation of the Broadway skyline which is where most of the ensemble dancing took place. 

Five production numbers highlight the show.  My favorite was the “Shadow Waltz” which featured dancing on the stage and hoofing behind see-through screens.  The “We’re in the Money” routine featured chorus line dancing in bright green costumes by Caren Brady.  The lollapalooza number is “Lullaby of Broadway” (originally from Gold Diggers of 1935) featuring long-suffering producer Julian Marsh (Justin Glaser) singing the lead behind the dancing/singing ensemble.  Glaser has a good voice and adds a campy element to the show.  Then, the song that doesn’t really fit the show at all but is still delightful is “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”.  We see a number of curtains hanging from a replica of an old sleeping car from a train.  While singing the song, the actors open the curtains and close them, sometimes in unison and sometimes individually.  The last big number is the title song.  Marsh has fired Sawyer because he thought she had deliberately injured the star Dorothy Brock (Marissa Poole).  She’s at the train station waiting to return to Allentown, PA when Marsh tries to convince her to star in the show.  He’s not successful but the full cast suddenly appears and, through the song, convinces her to stay.  Marsh delivers the classic movie line, “Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” 

Brady has apparently blown the budget again on costumes.  Not only is there a large cast, but a vast variety of clothes including formal garb, rehearsal costumes, nightclothes, flapper outfits, etc.  There must have been a lot of quick-changes in the back.

Lest I forget the “star” of the show.  Marissa Poole plays Dorothy Brock as an aging but tyrannical and demanding ingénue whose sugar daddy (Abner Dillon played by Chris Bishop) is financing the show.  However, she is secretly in love with Pat Denning (Michael Wirick) which adds pathos to an otherwise comic character.  However, after the injury, she magnanimously counsels Peggy in the song “About a Quarter to Nine”.

If you like old-fashioned musicals with lots of spectacle, you will enjoy 42nd Street.  So, put on your dancing shoes and tap on down to the Covedale theater through April 28.

Friendship, Love, and Dungeons & Dragons Tell the Tale in NKU’s “Initiative”

Northern Kentucky YES Festival – “Initiative” – attended opening night, Thursday, April 4– Kevin Reynolds

Photo: Trevor Browning, Brandon Critchfield, Piper Bates, and Kali Marsh– credit The Northerner/Josh Kelly

Review by Kevin Reynolds of “Initiative”: NKU Theatre

There’s the family you’re born into and the family you choose. Benton, Kentucky native and Atlanta-based playwright and actor Jacob York shows the power of the latter in times of crisis in his newest play, “Initiative,” the second of three productions in the 19thBiennial YES Festival, hosted by Northern Kentucky University

Trevor Browning, Brandon Critchfield, Piper Bates, and Kali Marsh in “Initiative”

A group of friends who spend hours playing the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons are challenged to face, together, the tragic diagnosis of their friend Dave. For these 20-something’s, it’s their first confrontation of mortality outside the fantasy world they create together when they play. 

A personal note: I don’t play Dungeons & Dragons and only know a bit about it from several episodes of “The Big Bang Theory.” However, it becomes apparent fairly quickly that York and his characters are using the structure of Dungeons & Dragons to allow Dave the chance to make memories he will, sadly, not live to experience. There is some explanation of terminology, but at times, you just have to (excuse the game reference) roll with it.

The cast all brought different strengths to the stage, often switching from their present-day characters to others playing out in Dave’s “make memories” fantasies. Under Mike King’s direction, the action keeps moving through 10 scenes (or sessions, as they are called) in two acts. 

Dave (Brandon Critchfield) and Meg (Piper Bates) are boyfriend and girlfriend, facing Dave’s diagnosis and accompanying fear, neurosis, anger, and ultimate acceptance. The strongest first act session was the third when Dave is facing the tribulations of treatments and struggling with the idea of “Is it all worth it?” while Meg struggles to understand that kind of thinking and determine where she fits in.

Dave has three D&D-playing friends who all preceded Meg in his life; his best friend, Tyrone (James Dawson) has the most trouble accepting Dave’s inevitable fate. Dawson did well with a part that, truthfully, felt underwritten. The hazard of “the best friend role” rises up here – he’s not given as much to work with as he serves as the game master throughout.

Kali Marsh is the quirky, occasionally emotional, but comfortable being the only girl in the game Sky. She will go off into her own world during the game, but the guys are accustomed to that and their mutual affection for their friend is palpable.

The standout performance comes from Trevor Browning as Benny. It’s not that Benny is that unique or a fully-realized character on the page, but Browning’s dynamic and engaging presence simply fills the stage. Benny is the energetic, funny friend who doesn’t seem to have particular luck at D&D, but you sense he’s happy that he’s found his tribe. And his portrayal of an English professor in Dave’s fantasy to earn his master’s degree was pure gold.

Two other actors fill a variety of roles from stage managers to students to tourists on a beach. Reagan Ruth and Timothy Belton portray NPC #1 and NPC #2 and, in truth, I had to look that up to discover it means Non-Player Character. Even so, they inject character into each appearance. 

The set from Cat Johnson is your basic living room but it’s functional for the game playing and the times when it must become a classroom or graduation stage or even a church bathroom. 

And I feel confident in saying that in all the years I’ve attended plays and musicals, a production credit for a D&D Advisor is a first. Charlie Roetting, a lecturer at NKU and member of OTRImprov, lent his role-playing expertise to the production. I trust they got it right.

“Initiative” is heartfelt and, at times, emotional. There are moments that feel a bit too much like a Hallmark Channel movie, but the intrinsic message is real and the characters are challenged by a reality that will impact their lives forever. “Initiative” runs through April 14 as part of the YES Festival. For dates, times, and tickets, visit

NKU’s YES Festival Opens With The Short But Dramatic Life Of James Dean

Review by Kevin Reynolds of
“Fast Young Beautiful”: NKU Theatre

Northern Kentucky University kicked off its 19th Biennial YES Festival on Wednesday evening with a production of Ethan Warren’s latest, “Fast Young Beautiful.” The YES (Year End Series) Festival spotlights new plays and new playwrights and exposes their work to NKU students and theatre lovers. Mike King, professor of performance at NKU and co-organizer of the festival, told the opening night audience that this is the longest running festival of its type in the US and that 301 plays were submitted for consideration. Two were chosen, plus a third rarity, a play written by a junior BFA candidate at NKU, Isaiah Reeves.

Rachel Kazee (left) and Charles Adams in “Fast Young Beautiful”

“Fast Young Beautiful” is performed in the large, spacious Corbett Theatre on campus, and tells the story of actor James Dean (the only character that has a full name, though the others, as you will see, aren’t hard to identify), his relationship (friendship is too strong a word) with a young actor named Dennis, and their experiences on and off the sets of “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant.”

The year is 1955, and Dennis, portrayed by sophomore Charles Adams, is seeking his cinema fame and gets signed quickly to Warner Bros. and assigned a small part in “Rebel Without a Cause.” He strikes up a tempestuous relationship with young (very young) Natalie. While James Dean is the titular star with the prerequisite brooding, drinking, and disdain for authority, I found the Dennis-Natalie relationship to be the real heart of the play. Two very young, but desperate for fame, actors traversing the studio system, lecherous directors, and in search of their acting chops and place in the world.

Dennis is at once goofy, charming, obstinate, angry, and rueful and we watch him learn and grow. Charlie Adams brings him to life and shares those human frailties, while junior Rachel Kazee embraces Natalie’s desire for stardom, her submission to authority, and a real hurt when she feels betrayed by Dennis.

Credit to junior Landis Helwig for taking on such an iconic personality as James Dean. His legend is so strong that it’s hard to replicate faithfully, but Helwig did an admirable job.

Most of the other cast plays two parts, one in each act as they focus on the two different films. Of particular note is junior Alexander Slade who portrays the two directors, Nick and Stevens. While Nick could be portrayed with just a bit more creep for his relationship with the young Natalie, he really embodies the meticulous, no-nonsense Stevens. This is a man with a successful career, a well-deserved reputation, and his own tried-and-true ways of doing things. When Dennis and James Dean defy him and mock his work filming the atrocities of WWII, he gives an impassioned and personal lesson to the two “kids” who have disrupted his set. It is a life-changing moment for both, and later Stevens shows a more human side when he could have easily walked away.

A brief word about the five Figments – ostensibly the Greek Chorus of this play. While they serve a purpose providing transitions, setting the time of the happenings, comic relief, even portraying James Dean’s car, the choreographed dance numbers seemed out of place and distracting, and they often spoke in unison which made comprehension a little tricky. And this rings true for others in the cast. As I mentioned, the Corbett stage is large and there is no backdrop – it’s open to the back wall and the set, by Rob Kirby, is sparse – two ramps with scaffolding about midway on the stage. While I applaud eschewing microphones, more projection is needed from many, especially in those quiet moments, or when background music is playing, or when acting far upstage. I wish the set and more action happened closer to the audience in order to capture all the emotions and nuances.

Director Nicole Perrone kept the pace brisk and was supported nicely by the lighting design of Aaron Burns. “Fast Young Beautiful” runs through April 14 as party of the YES Festival. For dates, times, and tickets, visit

Jitterbugs “Swing!” on the Carnegie Stage

Review by Jack Crumley of “Swing!”: The Carnegie

The Carnegie is pulling out all the stops for its final show of the 2018-2019 season with a  production of “Swing!”, a musical that ran on Broadway from late 1999 to early 2001. It’s more of a revue, showcasing the popular music and dance style that came out of Harlem just before World War II. “Swing!” was originally conceived by Paul Kelly with original direction and choreography by Lynne Taylor-Corbett. Even though it was only on the Great White Way for a short time, it was nominated for multiple Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Choreography, and Best Orchestrations, and now it’s playing in Northern Kentucky for the next couple weeks.

The tone is set as soon as the curtain opens, and we see the RL Little Big Band right there on stage. The band is excellent. Even in the most melodically advanced musicals, the band is there generally in the service of the singing actors. In this show, the band is just as much a character as anyone else on stage. Band Leader Randy Linville commands the drums, Phillip Bowden plucks an enormous upright bass, Jeff Folkens’ trumpet sizzles. The band killed it Sunday afternoon. Easily the best instrumental performance I’ve ever seen in a stage production.

Not to be outdone, Director and Choreographer Tracey Bonner has assembled an exceptionally talented cast. All of the actors dance in the show, and some are featured as singers as well. Let’s start with the singers: R DeAndre Smith (who I saw about this time last year in “Motherhood Out Loud”) kicks off the show belting out the classic “It Don’t Mean a Thing, if it Ain’t got that Swing,” introducing the dancers who will be Lindy hopping all over the stage for the next two hours.

After that, featured singer Bethany Xan Jeffery takes the stage for “Bounce Me Brother with a Solid Four.” Jeffery radiates a confidence that makes taking your eyes off of her nearly impossible. She’s so present in every song, and when you hear her sing, you’ll understand why her resume includes national and international tours of “Kinky Boots”, and roles in stage productions of “Sister Act”, “The Addams Family”, and “The Little Mermaid”. She and R DeAndre Smith have really fun chemistry in “Bli Blip,” where they play a couple on a first date, but they mostly communicate in scat singing. And Jeffery absolutely brought the house down with her Act II number “Blues in the Night.” Talent must run in the family, as her mother, Xan Waddell Jeffery, is the music director for this show.

Rounding out the featured singers are real-life married couple Sarah Viola and Dave Wilson (who played Marian and Harold in the Carnegie’s 2017 production of “The Music Man”). Wilson handles a mainly supporting role in this show, both in song and dance, but Viola’s beautiful, operatic voice is on full display. You’d think that might not be the best fit for a jazzy production like this, but it’s perfect for her intro number, “Two and Four,” about a proper, somewhat repressed woman learning to love that big band swing. The two have a romantic moment on stage with “Love You Tonight,” about a man and woman who meet during wartime.

Singing with Viola in “Two and Four” is John Woll, who is the only actor credited as both featured dancer and singer. And both of those talents are most prominent in the all-guy performance of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” which has more of a slow jam, R&B vibe to it.

Then there’s the dancers. These five talented people fill every inch of the Carnegie’s relatively small stage space with rock steps, chicken walks, Texas Tommys, and all the lifting/jumping gymnastic moves you’d expect to see in a 1940s dance hall. Dance Captain Trase Millburn leads the way with a grace that I’m not used to seeing on such a tall man. I’m sure I’m not the first person to compare Millburn to Tommy Tune, but it’s praise. He has a great tap solo in “Swing it, Brother, Swing,” which kicks off Act II.

Collin Newton was performing at the Carnegie a couple months ago in the adaptation of Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. As one of the Featured Dancers, he’s in a variety of songs this time around, but he gets to play a nerdy newbie in “Kitchen Mechanic’s Night Out,” where he cuts loose on a date with one of the women dancers played by Grace Vetter. Vetter is a freshman at Northern Kentucky University, and she brings a youthful exuberance to the stage. She also vamps it up in a sultry dance number as the band plays “Harlem Nocturne.”

The other two women dancers not only wow the audience with nonstop energy, fast feet, and acrobatic jumps, but they do it all with thousand-watt smiles on their faces. Franchesca Montazemi and Renee Stoltzfus are strikingly talented dancers, and even when they’re doing little character interactions off to the side or in the background, they’re committed to the characters they’re playing. Montazemi has a sweet performance with Trase Millburn called “Dancers in Love.” My only complaint about Stoltzfus is that I wish she was in the show more.

The show comes to a head with a dance competition segment where dancers bring members of the audience on stage and a winning couple is decided by audience applause. That leads to Bethany Xan Jeffery having one last, big song with “Stompin’ at The Savoy,” which also featured one of the quickest cast costume changes I’ve ever seen. Then it’s the big finale and curtain call that brought audience members to their feet.

“Swing!” is an energetic, snappy production that’s worthy of the musical genre it’s celebrating. The cast, the choreography, the band, Cat Schmeal-Swope’s solid costume design, all of it makes for a really excellent show that’s appropriate for all ages.

“Swing!” plays at the Carnegie Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through April 14. Tickets are available here.