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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.

In CCM’s “Clybourne Park”, Home is Where the Heart Is

Review by Kevin Reynolds of “Clybourne Park”: CCM Acting

On a cold, busy night in Clifton, a friendly and appreciative audience bypassed the sold-out UC men’s basketball game in favor of a production of Bruce Norris’ award-winning play, “Clybourne Park”, a CCM On Stage presentation directed by Richard Hess.

The set of “Clybourne Park”

Picking up where Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal “A Raisin in the Sun” lets off, the first half of Clybourne Park (referring to a neighborhood in Chicago) takes place in a single room in a home in 1959: a nice home, with nothing ostentatious other than the ability of the Stoller family to employ a housekeeper. The patriarch, Russ (played with great skill by Matt Fox), tries, badly, to maintain a façade that he is ready for a move to the suburbs and to a corner-office job. His wife, Bev, tries to break through that façade but it takes the confluence of several neighborhood visitors to bring the family’s secrets,s and Russ’s disdain for the people living around him, to the surface. The other actors do well embracing these characters despite sometimes not always capturing the older ages they are portraying.

Act Two opens with the same set, but the arrival of moving men triggers a turntable that takes the action and the audience 50 years into the future, to the same house that is now dilapidated, covered with graffiti, and wanting to be purchased by a young couple. The neighborhood declined after the Stollers left, but now, as in many cities around the country, including ours, the appeal of restoration, renovation, and city living is drawing suburbanites back, but with bigger plans (a la McMansions in 2009) for the property. In a unique casting twist, Hess defies convention and casts separate actors in each act, where normally one cast plays both. That’s all I’ll say about that so, as not to give certain twists away, but this second act cast felt more age appropriate to their characters and played the self-absorption and self-perceived importance of their roles perfectly. At times, you really do want to just slap each one of them out of their me-zone, except Kevin, the one who tries to keep the peace and lighten the mood…for the most part…portrayed exceptionally well by Trey Peterson.

Special credit must go to Mark Halpin and his crew for the set design and construction. It’s rare to hear applause as a set rotates, but it’s a magnificent transition from the 1959 house to the what’s left of it in 2009. Kudos also to CCM student Nina Agelvis for a lovely lighting design. It set the mood and gave Halpin’s set a bit of depth and a sense of place, but was not showy or distracting.

You will see, hear, and feel a lot of today’s world in both acts of Clybourne Park, which either says something about the foresight of the playwright, or the inability of humans to learn, grow, and improve. I suppose that’s up to us decide as the final lights go down.

I’ve added a photo of the first act set so you can get a sense of the space and the feeling that, even with the boxes stacked up for moving, it was a loving home. You’ll have to make your way to the Patricia Corbett Theatre to see the dramatic transformation to 2009, and I encourage you to do so. Clybourne Park runs Friday (7:30 p.m.), Saturday (2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.) and Sunday (2 p.m.). Ticket info can be found here: https://ccmonstage.universitytickets.com/w/event.aspx?SeriesID=3

Review by Jenifer Moore of “Blues for an Alabama Sky” Falcoln Theatre

Your blues ain’t like mine. Everyone is working hard to navigate this thing called life. While some are up, others are down. But despite circumstances, having a tribe to share life’s journey makes it worth it.

Well, sort of. Falcon Theatre’s adaptation of “Blues for an Alabama Sky”, by Pearl Cleage, reinforces this notion in a complicated, yet, endearing way. Set in 1930’s Harlem, the five-person cast takes us on a journey through self-sufficiency, heartbreak, and aspirations against the backdrop of the Great Depression.

The play hilariously commences with southern belle turned nightclub singer, Angel (Bryana Bentley), being carted home by her quirky friend, Guy (R. DeAndre Smith) and a mystery man (Elliot Young), following her drunken tirade toward her newly married lover. As a result of her actions, not only does she lose her job, but Guy does as well for having her back amidst the drama. From that point on the play twists and turns in a way that is equally confusing and amusing throughout the nearly 150-minute showtime. Guy, a gay costume designer, has dreams of traveling to Paris to cloth singer/dancer Josephine Baker in the finest fabrics he can stick a needle and thread into, while Angel welcomes any dream that involves being well taken care of. The troubled singer, out of an apartment and the wardrobe, is taken in by Guy who happens to live across from the demure social worker named Delia (Elizabeth Taylor). Rounding out the cast is the mystery name affectionately known as Leland, an ultra-conservative Southern gentleman, and Sam, the neighborhood doctor who has a knack for having a good night on the town.

The play is a delight as it is progressive before its time with its inclusion of a gay character in addition to one who advocates for family planning–in a church no less! The complexity of addressing these taboo topics in relation to the time and acceptance of the black community is a much-needed exploration. While the cast expertly handles the topics with care, obvious missteps with script delivery are noticeably awkward and stalling. There are a few notable moments though. Bentley is astonishingly part good angel part bad, leaving audiences yearning for more. One minute she is reeling you in with her sultry, smooth wit and the next undercutting you with crass and sass. One would say that she has perfected the role the second time around playing the troubled singer, however, it’s evident that Bentley has a natural inclination for the stage. Smith is the perfect balance for Bentley’s Angel as he rightly and often comically points her shortcomings. Taylor and Young show great promise in their debut at Falcon Theatre, while Holland, Jr. elicits a strong presence.

Overall, “Blues for an Alabama Sky” at Falcon Theatre would be an exceptional night on the town. The aspirations for a life beyond struggle will warm your heart. The production is a part of the Falcon Theatre’s 30th Anniversary season and runs on weekends until February 8. Tickets and more info are available at www.falcontheater.net or by calling the box office at (513) 479-6783.

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

Review of “All the Way”: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falcon Presents Deep “Blues for an Alabama Sky”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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