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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Remembering Murray...


Murray Ross, bigger than life, at the construction site of The Ent Center for the Arts.  March, 2016.




This is a huge loss for the Colorado Springs theater community.  Murray Ross, Artistic Director at Theatreworks, was one of a kind.  He built Theatreworks from the ground up, branding it with his personal passion, energy, and flair for innovation.  He will be fondly remembered and sorely missed by all who knew him and his work.

I didn’t know Murray well; we never sat down and had a beer.  I met him in person just once.  Like most of us who follow live theater in Colorado Springs, I knew Murray best through his work.  His impact has been both immense and unforgettable.  The proof of his genius and his humanity came to me in two remarkable experiences, one onstage and one offstage.

1.  The first Theatreworks show I saw (on March 13, 2013) was Everyman on the Bus.  My late wife Linda was a Henry Judge, and she was assigned to judge Everyman for the Colorado Theater Guild.  Little did I know how transformative that show, and Director Murray Ross, would be for both of us.

Everyman on the Bus was not just one of the most creative and profound performances I have ever seen, although it certainly was that.  It was also a perfectly timed message to my wife Linda and I about life and death.  Linda had terminal breast cancer, and she would be gone just 60 days after Everyman.  The play greatly affected both of us; it gave us context and strength for what we would endure in the following two months.  

The music for Murray’s Everyman production included contemporary songs that spoke to life and death:  Knocking on Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan), That’s Life (Frank Sinatra), and especially, Awake My Soul (Mumford and Sons).  Linda had a burning passion for theater.  The lyrics for Awake My Soul gave her comfort in her last days, just as they now help us appreciate Murray’s life:

In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
Where you invest your love, you invest your life

Murray invested his love, and his life, in his work.  That investment has brought abundant rewards to all of us.  

2.  As many readers of this blog know, the constant travel and writing commitments for Theater Colorado have grown substantially since it’s humble beginnings back in 2012.  In May of 2016, I announced that I would no longer be able to meet those commitments.  

When Murray Ross heard that Theater Colorado was going away, he reached out to me via email.  His message was a heartfelt thanks for all I had done, and a plea to continue writing for Theater Colorado.  Rather than covering ALL of Colorado, Murray suggested that I limit my writing to just the Colorado Springs area.  

As I mentioned above, I met Murray only once.  It was on July 28, 2016, at Rock Ledge Ranch, just before the opening performance of Antony and Cleopatra.  I saw him and his wife Betty, killing time before heading into the tent.  I walked up and introduced myself and my wife Roxie.  Murray was as gracious, as friendly, and as compelling as I expected.  Of course, he reminded me that he wanted Theater Colorado to continue.  

If you’ve ever met Murray, you know how persuasive he can be.  I thought long and hard about his message, and in August, 2016, Theater Colorado became Theater Colorado Springs.  

Without Murray’s thoughtful and unexpected intervention, Theater Colorado would have died and Theater Colorado Springs would never have been born.  For that, I am very grateful.

We are all grieving this loss, but also celebrating his life.  He made a difference in our lives.  That’s an enormous accomplishment, and one that we can all aspire to achieve.  So I’m sending my sincere condolences to Murray’s wife Betty, and to their families, friends, and many admirers.  

Murray’s influence was much broader than just his family and friends, though.  So thanks, Murray, for all you have done.  We will grieve for you, and we will celebrate your love, your friendship, and your many accomplishments.  We are better people for having known you, and Colorado Springs is a better place for having had you and your gift of wonderful, inspiring theater.


NOTES:

Theatreworks has scheduled a celebration of Murray Ross’ life for Thursday, January 19 at 5:30 PM.  Parking is free in all campus lots for this event. Here's the campus map: http://tinyurl.com/zs9dhuk.

An endowment fund has been established in Murray Ross’ name.  Donations can be made here.  





Murray appreciated my work for Theater Colorado/Theater Colorado Springs, even when I took issue with some of his work (see Ludlow, 1914 and Antony & Cleopatra).  That’s class.  Since he had such an impact on me personally, I’m including the links below.  These posts document the last few years of Murray's extraordinary work.  

1.  Everyman on the Bus.  March 8, 2013.

2.  Venus in Fur.  March 23, 2014.

3.  The Servant of Two Masters.  May 1, 2014.

4.  Ludlow, 1914.  (Mr. Ross was the Dramaturg.)  September 11, 2014.

5.  Happy Days.  March 27, 2015.

6.  The Liar.  April, 2015.

7.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, August 13, 2015.

8.  Ghosts.  October, 2015.

9.  Girl of the Golden West, May 3, 2016.

10.  Antony and Cleaopatra, July 28, 2016.

11.  The Game of Love and Chance, October 23, 2016.

12.  A Christmas Carol, December 3, 2016.


This show and this life closed on January 3, 2017.  The standing ovation continues.


Photo Credit:  Facebook/Murray Ross

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Last 5 Years



Music/Lyrics/Book by: Jason Robert Brown


Venue:  First United Methodist Church Theater, 420 North Nevada Avenue, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Running time:  1 hours, 30 minutes (no intermission).

Date of Performance:  Friday, January 6, 2017. 

If you haven’t heard of Chameleon Arts & Entertainment, you’re not alone.  It’s a modeling and career enterprise that is now producing live theater.  As far as I know, Jason Robert Brown’s The Last 5 Years is its first production.  Brown’s two person musical is unquestionably an ambitious project for a first outing.  

Brown’s script is virtually all sung, with few spoken lines.  That’s a challenge for the actors, both of whom have robust resumes.  Malerie Jo (Catherine Hiatt) was superb on the First United Methodist Church stage as the lead in First Company’s 2014 production of Thoroughly Modern Millie.  Nick Charles Madson (who, coincidentally, was  also in the Millie cast with Malerie Jo) has been a regular at the Thin Air Theatre Company, including a role as Charlemagne.  Jo and Madson are both talented, capable and engaging; a more qualified cast for a local production of The Last 5 Years would be difficult to find.

Brown tells a story that doesn’t have a happy ending.  I’m not spoiling the plot by saying that it chronicles the end of Catherine and Jamie’s marriage; that much is disclosed in the program.  It’s a fairly common plot; the lovers grow apart and are not up to the challenges of married life.  Catherine and Jamie have a classic “starter marriage,” a relationship that burns brightly before flaming out.  Brown tells his story in chronological order (Jamie’s version) and in reverse chronological order (Catherine’s story).  That’s a gimmick, but a useful one.  The story we see is two people on totally different arcs, and the effect is that we know from the outset that the bond between them is doomed.

Nick Charles Madson (Jamie) & Malerie
Jo (Catherine).
Madson and Malerie Jo shine in their solos (their only duet is when they sing their wedding vows and kiss).  Malerie Jo is particularly engaging singing at her kitchen sink in A Part of That.  Madson mesmerizes in The Schmuel Song, perhaps the best song in the show.  When Madson wraps it up with the words ‘Have I mentioned today how lucky I am to be in love with you?,” we know he means it, even though his love is not as enduring as he thinks.

Madson’s set design is both creative and functional, and the changing of set pieces between scenes was seamless.  His direction is crisp, using the entire stage but in three sections, creating a sense of intimacy by lighting one third of the stage and darkening the rest.  

Notwithstanding the talent and the energy of Chameleon’s cast, the opening night performance was somewhat rough around the edges.  The musicians were seated onstage at house left.  The lamp lighting the sheet music for the piano was a brilliant blue/white globe that, at times, overpowered the actor’s lighting, and at other times was simply distracting.  A stage hand without lines appeared onstage during Catherine’s auditions; she also walked on and off stage once for no apparent reason.  There were times when an actor was barely lit (save for the piano lighting).  Malerie Jo’s opening number was intermittently overwhelmed by the musicians, making her lyrics difficult to discern.  

Still, this is a commendable production of a rather bleak story.  Seeing, hearing, and experiencing the loss of a lover is something most of us (sadly) can relate to.  If you haven’t had a “starter marriage,” you’re lucky.  For those of us who have, we know the love, the pain, and the loss on full display in The Last 5 Years.  We also know that after it’s all over, we know ourselves much better, and we’re substantially wiser in our future relationships.  Those are painful life lessons, but that pain is often essential to becoming a better  person and a better partner.


NOTES:

This show closes on January 15, 2017. 

This show is suitable for all ages.  However, the subject matter is probably more appropriate for teens and up.

Malerie Jo and Nick Charles Madson share only a single scene in The Last 5 Years.  That’s a shame, as their chemistry is very real.  They are engaged to each other.  I’d love to see that chemistry in another production.  Maybe Grease?  Or Phantom of the Opera?  Perhaps West Side Story?  Malerie and Madson, live and in love onstage and off.  I’d definitely see them in any of those shows…and I’d buy tickets for every performance.



Tickets HERE.  

CREATIVE TEAM:

Director/Set Design:  Nick Charles Madson

Music Direction:  Jana Lee Ross

Costume Design:  Malerie Jo

Lighting Design:  Tristan Hilleary

Stage Crew:  Osiana Bodine, Olivia Snively-Gonzalez

Stage Manager:  Katie Snively-Gonzalez


CAST:

Catherine Hiatt:  Malerie Jo Bycura

Jamie Wallerstein:  Nick Charles Madson


MUSICIANS:

Piano:  Jana Lee Ross

Violin:  Elizabeth Kahn-Lanning

Cello:  Elise White

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

MURRAY ROSS...1942-2017.



For those who may not have heard this sad news, I have copied below the message I received late yesterday from Drew Martorella, Executive Director, UCCS Presents:

Dear Friends,

It is with the most profound sadness that I must share the news that my inestimable friend and colleague Murray Ross passed away on January 3, 2017 with his wife, sisters, sons and his dog Toby by his side.    

In his own words (which appeared as the last line of his directing bios for years), he was married to the painter Elizabeth Ross, was the father of four splendid sons (two acquired , two sired), and was regularly walked by his dog, Toby.

Murray was an artist of the highest regard, an extraordinary academic, and a bold leader in the arts. In his 42 years at UCCS, he made wonderful and seemingly impossible things happen—he built a professional theatre company, he produced classic and contemporary plays in classrooms, buses, warehouses, basements, and, of course, the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, and he put true beauty and goodness out into this world.  

He worked with thousands of students, artists, actors, and staff and without a doubt left an impression on each. If you were lucky enough to be among those thousands, you know that he was wickedly funny, tremendously smart, a bit of an anarchist, a dreamer, a daydreamer, and a great lover of life. Good wine, great art, dinners around his ancient kitchen table, adventures (on stage and off), storytelling (on stage and off) and spirited debate filled his life. 

If he is to be measured by the company he kept, he stands tall. With the lifelong friends he met in college, he helped dismantle systems of segregation; with his wife, Betty, he founded THEATREWORKS and they produced over 100 shows together; and with the support of great artists and patrons he, in no small part, made it possible for UCCS to build the Ent Center for the Arts.

I have known and worked with Murray for over twenty years. And while I was the Executive Director of THEATREWORKS we were essential to each other. We were best friends. And I already miss him terribly.

Once more, to quote Murray, “In play we are free, and we are human, and in the theatre we are free and human together. We wish you joy.” I share his wish for joy for you all.

We are determined to build on what he started.  We will continue to make magic in improbable places, spread joy, celebrate the greatest plays ever written, and try our hand at a few new ones as well. I know we will do all of these things and have a very good time along the way. It’s just what Murray would have wanted.

Notes may be sent to the family in care of the Office of the Chancellor, 401 Main Hall. At the request of the family, donations can be made to the Murray Ross Artists Endowment Fund with the CU Foundation. Click here to go to the CU Foundation page to give your gift.

Drew Martorella

***************
Words fail me, but Drew's eloquent tribute to Murray captures both his strength and his spirit.  This loss came much too soon; Murray's work was not finished.  He was a major force bringing the new Ent Center for the Arts to life.  It will house Theatreworks' new home in a black box space and carry the name "Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theatre."

When I first walk into that theater next year, I will know it as the Murray Ross Theatre.  He dreamed it.  He built it.  And his spirit will always inhabit that space.


Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Nerd



Playwright: Larry Shue 


Venue:  Funky Little Theater, 2109 Templeton Gap, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Running time:  2 hours, 35 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission).

Date of Performance:  Saturday, December 10, 2016. 

For those unfamiliar with playwright Larry Shue, he created several stage comedies, before his abrupt death at age 39 in a 1985 plane crash.  His script for The Foreigner won two Obie Awards in 1985, and the front range has seen two crackerjack productions of that script recently (see here and here).  The Spotlight Theatre Company production won the Bill’s Best Award for comedy in 2015.  

Shue’s first successful production, The Nerd, debuted in 1981 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and Shue himself played the role of Willum Cubbert (a central role done very well here by Sam Suksiri).  Funky Little Theater’s current production of The Nerd is a loving, very funny tribute to Shue’s all too short career.  

It would be difficult (and a total spoiler) to go into great detail about the plot of The Nerd.  If you’re familiar with the resemblance between houseguests and fish, you get the gist of it.  Rick Steadman (Chris Medina, in a role that seems to fit him like a glove) is “the nerd,” but he’s also the houseguest from hell.  Impervious to insults and thoughtless beyond comprehension, Medina as Steadman effortlessly sows discord, anger, and frustration in his host’s otherwise normal existence.  

"The Game of Shoes and Socks."
Medina is simultaneously charming, disarming, and alarming as the barely civilized Steadman.   Medina is the Funky Artistic Director, but he drops all pretense of decorum as Steadman.  His inner clown is on full display when he engages the rest of the cast in the game of “Shoes and Socks.”  Trust me.  No matter how well you know Chris Medina, you probably have never seen this side of him.  

Sam Suksiri makes his Funky debut as Cubbert, the insecure, indecisive yet still lovable architect Willum Cubbert.  Suksiri wavers between gratitude for Steadman’s heroism and revulsion at his coarse, boorish behavior.  Cubbert doesn’t handle conflict well, and Sukiri does a near perfect demonstration of Cubbert’s struggle to get control of his home and his life.  

Shue’s cast includes Steadman’s polar opposite in the Axel Hammond character, a pretentious, pompous, proper guy who makes a living as a drama critic.  Shue pokes fun at the critic; Hammond starts writing before he goes to the show, and leaves 30 minutes before it’s over to make his deadline.  When asked if he has ever seen a show he likes, Hammond is emphatic.  Nope.  (I can take a joke, but I promise readers that I never start a review before seeing the show, and never leave early.)
Riley Taylor as Thor.  As annoying as he looks.

Richard Sebastian-Coleman deftly plays Hammond; there were times when it was difficult to determine who is the more annoying:  Hammond or Steadman?  Hammond is totally self absorbed.  Steadman is barely self aware.  Neither is anyone with whom I’d want to spend 5 minutes.  Sebastian-Coleman never breaks character, constantly asserting his alpha dog dominance while delivering biting insults to anyone in range.  

Isabel Forrest (as Tansy McGinnis the TV meteorologist) and Sophie Thunberg (as Clelia Waldgrave) are the ladies of The Nerd, and both add punch and fun to the onstage antics.  Forrest is Cubbert’s love interest, and she convincingly muddles her dilemma of choosing between her love and her career.  Forrest occasionally lets her cast mates break her up, briefly breaking character.  She brings that TV weather gal look to the stage; she’s perky, proper, and chatty.  Forrest has a natural stage presence that quickly makes her the focus as soon as she walks onto the set.

Sophie Thunberg (as Clelia Waldgrave)
Thunberg deals with anger in an unusual way; she destroys stuff.  She breaks the china.  For Funky’s sake, I hope they budgeted for enough cups, saucers, and plates to keep Thunberg happy.  She gets carried away by the carnage.  Thunberg’s most memorable scene, though, is during the game of “Shoes and Socks.”  She answers that age old question once and for all:  how does one discretely remove her pantyhose in a room full of strangers?  It’s not easy, but Thunberg nails it, to marvelous comedic effect. 

Jeremy Farrell (Warnock Waldgrave) is well cast as the hotel magnate (without orange hair) who bullies and berates his architect Willum Cubbert.  Farrell has the gravitas to pull off his frustration of dealing with his architect/servant Cubbert.  Riley Taylor plays the Waldgrave spoiled brat offspring, and he is 100% irritating as Thor Waldgrave.  

Shue has baked in a plot twist that ties up all the loose ends, and it’s a doozy.  Just when you think you have figured out where The Nerd is going, Shue pulls a  major surprise.  I’ll say no more, but don’t duck out early.  You’ll miss the entire point of The Nerd.  
Jeremy Farrell (as Warnock Waldgrave)

The Saturday night performance was packed, and for good reason.  The Nerd is one of Funky’s funniest productions yet.  Having company for the holidays can be stressful, but if you think your company is annoying, see The Nerd.  You’ll be glad you’re not hosting Rick Steadman at Christmas…or at any other time for that matter.


NOTES:

This show closes on December 17, 2016. 

This show is suitable for all ages, although younger children probably will miss a fair amount of the humor.  Middle school kids, however, will relate very well to many of the jokes.  

Nearly everyone in this cast (Medina being the only exception) is new or nearly new to the Funky stage.  Each made a promising statement in The Nerd.  Funky will benefit greatly from their continued participation in future productions.


TICKETE HERE.
Set and cast, The Nerd.  L-R:  Richard Sebastian-Coleman (Axel), Sam Suksiri (Willum),
Isabel Forrest (Tansy).


CREATIVE TEAM:

Director/Lighting Design:  Dylan McClintock

Set Design:  Chris Medina

Original Music/Sound Design:  Chad Orr

Costume Design:  Brandi Blackwood

Assistant Costume Designer:  Cara Marshall

Makeup/Hair:  Garrett McCormack

Props Manager:  Justin Weinzierl

Stage Manager:  Chelsie Bennett

Assistant Stage Managers:  Will Sobolik & Megan McManus


CAST:

Warnock Waldgrave:  Jeremy Farrell

Tansy McGinnis:  Isabel Forrest

Rick Steadman:  Chris Medina

Axel Hammond:  Richard Sebastian-Coleman

Willum Cubbert:  Sam Suksiri

Thor Waldgrave:  Riley Taylor

Clelia Waldgrave:  Sophie Thunberg

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Christmas Carol


Gabriel Levy (Tiny Tim) & William Metzo (Ebenezer Scrooge).



Author: Charles Dickens.  

Adapted and directed by:  Murray Ross

CompanyTheatreworks

Venue:  Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, 3955 Regent Circle, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Running time:  80 minutes (no intermission).

Date of Performance:  Saturday, December 3, 2016. 

Make no mistake; Ebeneezer Scrooge deserves his literary notoriety as a cruel, heartless miser.  

“What‟s Christmas to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older but not an hour richer. If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”

The above quote from one of the first scenes of A Christmas Carol is self explanatory.  Scrooge is a misguided misanthrope, and proud of it.  That’s how we still see him today, 173 years after Dickens published his novella A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas (now commonly known as A Christmas Carol).

Theatreworks has produced the Dickens classic 10 times over the last 46 years, and this, the 10th production, is an interesting deviation from what we’ve come to expect.  Artistic Director (and production director) Murray Ross describes it this way:

“This reimagining of the Dickens classic insists that performance is just as much about the loving communion between actors and audience as it is about the moral delivered…we return to “A Christmas Carol” at a moment when our country is deeply divided over what seems to be intractable differences and calls for goodwill and compassion are much needed.”

Ross has definitely created a kinder, gentler, and more compassionate story.  His Scrooge (William Metzo) is a flawed but genuinely human guy whose redemption is based more on enlightenment than fear.  

Ross’ ghosts are not the ones we expect; they are more spiritual than demonic. The Ghost of Christmas Past (Shay Anderson, who doubles as Martha Cratchit) is a delicate, gentle soul won’t judge Scrooge.  The Ghost of Christmas Present (Sammie Joe Kinnett, who also plays Fezziwg) is a mischievous mirage, winning Scrooge over (and by extension, all of us) with a wink and a smile.  The Ghost of Christmas Future (Steve Wallace, who doubles as Marley) is decidedly soothing in both his roles. He’s not the tormented ghost we expect.  Rather, he’s a much needed cautionary tale for Scrooge.  No scary ghosts?  Nope.  None.  In fact, even their costumes (designed by Stephanie Bradley) suggest something other than fear.  Shay Anderson is dressed all in white, adorned with some tiny multicolored Christmas lights.  She looks nothing short of angelic.  Sammie Joe Kinnett sits on a throne, dressed in royal robes. He’s more enlightened despot than scary phantom.  
L-R:  Lynn Hastings (Mrs. Fezziwig, Mrs. Cratchit), Mike Lee (Bob Cratchit, Dick Wilkins),
 Gabriel Levy (Tiny Tim), William Metzo (Ebenezer Scrooge).  

This kinder, gentler production benefits greatly from its youngest performers.  Gabriel Levy (Tiny Tim) has the look of a tragic child of crushing poverty, but also the youthful exuberance of a compelling Tiny Tim.  It took about 10 seconds for me to realize that he’s as talented and lovable a Tiny Tim as any I’ve seen.  Kensington Van Hook (Fan/Belinda Cratchit) is remarkable for a 7 year old.  She knew every line and delivers each with a 7 year old’s sincerity and innocence.  She hits every mark, and steals every heart.

Lighting Designer Seth Alison distinguished himself here, using subdued lighting punctuated with several scenes lit only by candlelight.  Those scenes were both striking and authentic; one can easily imagine candlelight being the only light in a 19th century impoverished London hovel.  This is a stripped down production, with a simple set, a small cast, and a breezy pace for it’s 80 minutes.  The tone and the message are fresh and relevant.  This is A Christmas Carol with a heart but not a villain.  

We all know Scrooge for his flaws, but he rarely gets credit for his redemption.  Perhaps it is time we rethink A Christmas Carol and recognize that Scrooge is a model, not a pariah.  He learns, he changes, and he literally puts “his money where his mouth is.”  We can learn from his mistakes, and we can make his transformation our own.   

Ross mentions “the loving communion between actors and audience,” and that’s exactly what he delivers.  The actors invite the audience onto the stage to join them for a cup of mulled wine after the curtain call.  It’s a special moment, bringing the two groups together to celebrate, and importantly, to communicate.  As Ross says, at this moment in time, goodwill and compassion are essential.  A Christmas Carol is Ross’ gift to a divided community, binding us with his vision, his actors, and a simple cup of spiced warm wine. 

May we all take the gift and the lessons of A Christmas Carol to heart and recognize the qualities we share…and need.

Join the cast after the show for a spot of mulled wine...

NOTES:

This show closes on December 24, 2016. 

Photo Credit:  Theatreworks.


CREATIVE TEAM:

Artistic Director/Production Director:  Murray Ross

Scenic Artist:  Craig Crowder

Carpenters:  Charles Redding, Benton Gray, Justin Giannetto

Lighting Design:  Seth Alison

Sound Design:  Jason Ducat

Master Electrician:  Eric Grosenbach

Technical Director:  Randy Dipner

Costume Design:  Stephanie Bradley

Props Manager:  Rebecca Dull

Stage Manager:  Elise Jenkins

Assistant Stage Manager:  Alexandrea Pingrey

Production/Shop Crew:  Gia Bhuang, Will Blocker, John Cooke, Jacob Del Valle, Jennifer Gebhart, Ruth Geiger, Natalie Keil, Salvadore Placensia, Charles Redding, Jonathan Smith, Jess Whiteside


CAST:

Ebeneezer Scrooge:  William Metzo*

Bob Cratchit/Dick Wilkins:  Mike Lee

Fred/Young Scrooge/Peter Cratchit/Ali Baba:  Tony Vo

Fezziwig/The Ghost of Christmas Present:  Sammie Joe Kinnett*

Mrs. Fezziwig/Mrs. Cratchit:  Lynn Hastings

Belle/Fred’s Wife/Charwoman:  Rachel Jacobs

The Ghost of Christmas Past/Martha Cratchit:  Shay Anderson

Fan/Belinda Cratchit: Kensington Van Hook

Tiny Tim:  Gabriel Levy

Marley/Ghost of Christmas Future:  Steve Wallace

* Member of the Actor’s Equity Association.