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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Shrek The Musical





Book and Lyrics by: David Lindsay-Abaire.  (Based on the Oscar-winning DreamWorks Animation film and the book by William Steig.)

Music by: Jeanine Tesori (I’m A Believer by Neil Diamond)


Venue:  SaGaJi Theatre, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 West Dale Street, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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

Date of Performance:  Saturday, December 3, 2016. 

If you’ve got young kids, you know about Shrek.  He’s the big green ogre we first met in a Dreamworks blockbuster film in 2001.  Unlike the mythological ogres who were thought to feast on small children, Shrek is a lonely, lovable and very funny hero.  The film was adapted for the stage, opening on Broadway in December, 2008.  The show was nominated for twelve Drama Desk Awards and eight Tony awards (it won one Tony for costume design).  Shrek the Musical has been produced worldwide since 2008, and landed on the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center stage for the Christmas season.  

In the unlikely event that you haven’t already seen the film or the stage production, the script is a love story designed to appeal to children of all ages (rude noises are plentiful and funny).  Shrek (David Wiens) lives by himself in a rancid swamp, and he’s quite happy there, at least until his habitat is invaded by a gang of fairy tale creatures (the usual suspects…Pinocchio, the Fairy Godmother, the three little pigs, etc).  It seems they have been banished from the Kingdom of Duloc by the diminutive Lord Farquaad (Max Ferguson).
Fairy Tale Characters.  Front, L-R:  Elf (Arielle Miagkov), Pinocchio (Kevin Pierce),
Peter Pan (Sammy Gleason).

As Shrek tries to help the motley crew of imaginary characters, he rescues a wayward donkey (Danny Wilfred) from Farquaad’s guards.  The donkey is chatty, perky, and endlessly annoying, but Shrek agrees to take the donkey with him to confront Farquaad.

It true fairy tale fashion, Shrek winds up fighting a dragon and crossing a lake of molten lava to find Princess Fiona.  Of course, true love ensues and endures, despite the dreadful mismatch between a beautiful princess and a green ogre.

Lead (and Equity) actors David Weins and Maggie Davenport make a marvelous couple; their chemistry is genuine and the kids in the crowd know it.  Despite the seemingly disqualifying traits of their characters Weins and Davenport pull off a ‘beauty and the beast” love story.  Both have strong acting and singing skills, and those skills are on full display in the rude but endearing tune I Think I Got You Beat, featuring a farting and belching medley. The humor is obvious, but the song has the stealth effect of humanizing the beauty and the beast.  Whether one is a princess or a green monster, the loud expulsion of gas from the digestive tract is a trait we all share.  Weins and Davenport are just like us, despite their polar opposite characters.
CENTER:  Fiona (Maggie Davenport), Shrek (David J. Wiens).

Danny Wilfred’s donkey is amazingly light on his hooves, doing his dance moves with an exuberant equine finesse.  Wilfred has an sharp sense of comedic timing and a variety of exaggerated facial expressions to punctuate the comedy.  Max Ferguson has a “diminished” role as Lord Farquaad, proving that great things come in small packages.  Ferguson has a beautiful booming voice, and he cuts it loose for his signature song The Ballad of Farquaad.  It should be noted that just as Wilfred is light on his hooves, the same can (and must) be said of Ferguson’s knees.

The Saturday matinee was not without its challenges.  A stage hand had to sneak onstage to secure a wheeled set piece, and Ferguson’s mic failed briefly during one of his songs.  That said, though, this is an excellent production.  Christopher Sheley’s set makes extensive use of scrims.  Lighting Designer Holly Anne Rawls lights them up with what seems like magic.  Rawls lights a scrim house in the second act, creating a strikingly beautiful scene between the donkey and Fiona.  Director Nathan Halvorson infuses endless energy into his characters, and his touch with the tap dancers is unique.  They start the song behind a curtain hiding all but their shoes.  It’s a marvelous device to make the audience focus on the talented tappers.

Shrek The Musical attracts a young audience.  I estimate that at least 1/3 of the theatre fans were under the age of 15 at this performance.  This show speaks to kids; they can easily relate to Shrek’s isolation and to Fiona’s search for true love’s first kiss.  In many ways, we are all kids.  No matter our age, we all get the message:  don’t judge people by their appearance.  Our similarities are much more prominent than our differences.

The Fine Arts Center is making a statement with Shrek The Musical.  We’ve had a difficult election year, so costume designer Lex Lang puts the donkey in a T shirt with the words “Make Duloc Great Again.”  We are reminded that Duloc is already great, and not because it almost gets a wall to keep people out.  It’s because, in the end Duloc welcomes all despite their differences.

That message is precisely the right one for a divisive election season and a much needed Christmas season of giving and healing.


NOTES:

The theater is not dead, but theater etiquette may be on its last legs.  This performance included both late arrivals (as late as 40 minutes after the scheduled curtain) and early departures (at the dramatic climax of the love story).  In both cases, the disruptions were within two or three rows of the stage, making the incidents obvious to everyone in the room.  In both cases, it was parents with several kids in tow, distracting both the actors and the audience from the story.  It’s disrespectful, and it’s a lamentable display for the impressionable children in attendance.  

This show makes extensive use of theatrical fog/smoke.  It is hypoallergenic, and should not cause a problem for those with allergies.

This show closes on January 8, 2017. 

Photo Credit:  Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Jeff Kearney, photographer.


CREATIVE TEAM:

Producing Artistic Director:  Scott RC Levy

Directed and Choreographed by:  Nathan Halvorson

Music Director:  Jerry McCauley

Scenic Design:  Christopher Sheley

Lighting Design:  Holly Anne Rawls

Sound Design:  Ben Heston

Costume Design:  Lex Liang

Hair, Prosthetics & Makeup Design:  Jonathan Eberhardt

Properties Design:  Emma Dean

Production Stage Manager:  Kaetlyn Springer

Tap Choreographer:  Zachary Seliquini Guzman


CAST:

Shrek:  David Wiens*

Fiona:  Maggie Davenport*

Donkey:  Danny Wilfred

Lord Farquaad:  Max Ferguson

Dragon/Mama Bear/Ensemble:  Alex Campbell

Pinocchio/Ensemble:  Kevin Pierce

Gingy/Sugar Plum Fairy/Ensemble:  Rebecca Meyers

Little Fiona:  Ellie Levy/Ella McCauley

Teen Fiona/Elf:  Arielle Miagkov

Witch/Mama Orgre/Ensemble:  Alannah Vaughn

Papa Bear/Papa Bear/Ensemble:  Thomas Voss

Peter Pan/Ensemble:  Sammy Gleason

Ugly Duckling/Ensemble:  Tracy Hedding

Captain of the Guard/Ensemble:  Micah Spiers

Big Bad Wolf/Pied Piper/Ensemble:  Adam Blancas

Pig #1/Ensemble:  Parker Fowler

Pig #2/Ensemble:  Nate Ferrick

Pig #3/Ensemble:  Casey Fetters

Fairy Godmother/Ensemble:  Carmen Shedd

Baby Bear/Ensemble:  Micah Wilborn

*Members, Actor’s Equity Association


THE SWAMP BAND

Bass:  Jay Hahn

Keyboards:  Sharon Skidgel

Violins:  Elisa Wicks & Cynthia Robinson

Trombone:  Rick Crafts

Trumpet:  Sean Hennessy

Reeds:  Ed Hureau & Cully Joyce

Percussion:  Richard Clark

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

After.






Playwright:  Chad Beckim

Company:  Pikes Peak Community College Theatre Department (PPCC)

Venue:  The Theatre on Pecan Street, 1367 Pecan Street, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Running time:  1 hour, 50 minutes (includes 10 minute intermission).

Date of Performance:  Thursday, November 17, 2016. 


He served seventeen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Monty has been exonerated by DNA evidence and released back into a world he hardly recognizes.  The transition is not going well.

Chad Beckim’s play After. is both funny and tragic as it follows Monty’s return to freedom.  That freedom is, in many ways, not much better than doing time in the Big House.  Looking for work, he uses the state of New York as his last “employer.”  Looking for a tooth brush in a drug store, he is dazed and confused by the endless choices.  Looking for a relationship with Susie, he ends up beaten and bloodied by her former boyfriend.  And at every turn, Monty is confronted by his accuser, desperately needing him to cure her guilt for sending him to prison.

One might think Monty’s predicament is a dramatic device for some interesting story telling.  It might be, but it also bears a striking resemblance to reality.  Innocent people really are sent to prison, and it happens more often than we realize.  Using DNA evidence, more than 340 people have been exonerated by The Innocence Project since it was founded in 1992.  Twenty of those freed were on death row.

To the extent we might like to think that this is an isolated problem, and that it “couldn’t happen here,” we would be wrong.  It can, and it does.  The impact on the accused is devastating.  The loss of confidence in the justice system is substantial.  And it is beyond disgraceful that an innocent man can be locked up for decades due to what is arguably misconduct by an elected official.

My point is that After. may be fiction but it’s based on the fact that “justice” is a relative term.   Not all who are accused get a fair shake.  Sometimes the reasons are economic, sometimes they’re racial, sometimes, as in Monty's case, they're evidentiary.  In the case of Clarence Moses-EL, the reasons just defy any rational explanation.

Released from this flawed justice system, Monty encounters many predictable challenges in his new freedom.  Beckim’s story telling is enhanced by his familiarity with the challenges facing convicts:

Beckim recalls living with a family in Harlem from 1999 to 2001. They had six children and the first two were products of the prison system.

“So, when you stop to think about it, a third of the kids did time,” he says. “It is scary and remarkable that the things I got away with as a white guy, my black friends didn’t get away with.”

Gabriel Espinoza-Lira plays Monty in this PPCC student production, and he does it with a convincing dose of depression, dejection, and rejection.  His Monty shuffles through his dilemma with a passive acceptance of his sorry state of affairs.  Espinoza-Lira plays Monty as not just an innocent guy who has been done a great injustice.  He adds layers of humility and unexpected cooperation to Monty.  He’s not looking for revenge or redemption.  He just wants to be left alone.

Chap (Anthony Cramer) is definitely one of Monty’s antagonists who refuse to leave him alone.  Chap is a priest who can’t help trying to ease Monty’s suffering and yet he can’t escape making it worse in the process.  Cramer is persistent; he wants Monty to speak to his accuser.  Monty has no intention of doing so.  Cramer injects enough ambiguity into his character to hide his motives.  One is never sure if he’s trying to help Monty or help his alleged victim.

Estephany Sedas plays Liz, Monty’s sister, who takes him in when he’s released from prison.  She’s generous but impatient, needing a quicker adjustment than Monty can make.  Alex Morgan (Eddie) is Susie’s “ex” boyfriend, but he is best described as a goon.  He traps Monty and pounds the daylights out of him for messing with his girlfriend.  Morgan is a convincing heavyweight.  I wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley.

The comic relief falls to Hossein Forouzandeh (Warren) and Pam Rodriguez (Susie).  Yes…that’s correct.  There’s comic relief in the midst of the injustice visited upon Monty.  Forouzandeh is the boss/co-worker at the doggy day care where Monty gets his first job.  The dog pee/poop jokes practically write themselves, and Forouzandeh serves them up with a side order of glee.  He’s at his best when he’s at his funniest.  

Rodriguez is the ditzy drug store clerk who helps Monty pick out a tooth brush.  That’s a fairly simple transaction, but Rodriguez turns it into a major sporting event.  For some reason, she needs to tell Monty why she’s glad he doesn’t use Axe deodorant (link may be NSFW):

Like, you’ll see these good looking guys, well groomed, well maintained, together, the kind of guy that you see and secretly think, “He looks like a nice guy to talk to,” only then they walk past you and they smell like they just got stuck in a cologne thunderstorm.
They got stuck in "cologne thunderstorm."  That’s a punch line with a punch.

Not that Rodriguez is just hanging around for the comedy.  She has a bedroom scene with Monty that doesn’t go well.  The tension is palpable.  Rodriguez puts the awkward situation into clear focus.  For Monty, it’s deflating.  Pun intended.

After. has something important to say, and the PPCC production says it well.  Justice is not always delivered in equal quantities to all comers.  

Still, there are some things I might have done differently with After.

1.  Warren and Monty play chess.  That requires a real chessboard and 32 small pieces. Those 32 small pieces are a huge challenge onstage.  It can be like a fire drill:  stop, drop, and roll.  The pieces didn’t stay where they belonged, and it was distracting.  Even offstage, it was very difficult for stage hands to move the board and chess pieces in the dark.  I heard several pieces hit the floor and roll backstage.  It didn’t have to be this way.  

2.  Costumes were not credited in the program.  If the costumes are out of the actor’s own closet, that’s fine.  Here, though, there was a commendable effort to put the actors in appropriate clothing.  Specifically, Warren and Monty had matching doggy day care work shirts.  Susie had a CVS logo on her pharmacy outfit.  Let the audience know who gets the credit.

3.  Set design was not credited in the program.  It was a fairly basic set, but recognizing the work is important.

4.  Perhaps the costume or set design credit was included in the “Special Thanks” category in the program.  One can’t tell what the contributions were for the twenty or so entries in this category.  Sets and costumes are integral parts of the production, and deserve specific credit.

OK…I agree.  These are some minor quibbles.  That’s because After. was well done overall.  Given that it’s a student production, I wouldn’t have been surprised at a few dropped lines, some missed cues, or blocking problems.  Those mistakes were noticeably absent.  That’s a credit to Director Sarah Shaver and the entire cast.  Rehearsal is hard work, but it pays off.

I’ve mentioned some items that were missing from the program, so I’ll also mention something I was very pleased to see included there.  The Cast Bio for Estephany Sedas says this:  “it is in the great interest of the public to bring awareness of this subjects (sic) to the people.”  I agree 100%.  

Theater is entertainment, but it is also a force for change.  A wise theater mom once told me she reminds her son from time to time that “every audience will include someone seeing their first play, and someone seeing their last play.”  Both of those people deserve your very best effort.  

Your performances will make a difference to someone in the audience.  You may never know how or why.  But remember, when the lights go up and the show starts, you are creating an experience for 10, 20, 50, or even 100 people who will never forget what you did on that stage.  The pay may not be great, but changing lives is priceless.


NOTES:

This show closed on November 18, 2016. 

For more information on justice for those wrongly convicted, see here, here, and here.  

For more information on the exoneration of Clarence Moses-El, see here and here

For more information on the death penalty and innocence, see here and here.  

This production includes American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation provided by PPCC second year IPP students:

Monty:  Nathan Oden

Liz:  Amanda Foster

Chap:  Lei Lani Barela

Warren:  Desi Petz

Suzie/Eddie:  Cheyenne Waldrop


Photo Credit:  No photos available.


CREATIVE TEAM:

Director:  Sarah S. Shaver

Set Designer:  Jeff Jesmer

Fight Choreographer:  Max Ferguson

Lighting/Sound Design:  Tristan M. Hilleary

Tech:  Danielle Sanchez, Carmina Paner, Joey Sanchez, Candy Markum

Props/Running Crew:  Danielle Sanchez

Poster Design/Running Crew:  Val Quarles

Running Crew: Joey Sanchez

Stage Manager:  Amanda Feess-Armstrong


CAST:

Monty:  Gabriel Espinoza-Lira  

Liz:  Estephany Sedas

Chap:  Anthony Cramer

Warren:  Hossein Forouzandeh

Eddie:  Alex Morgan

Susie:  Pam Rodriguez

Stella and Lou







Playwright:  Bruce Graham

Company:  Vintage Theatre

Venue:  Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, Colorado.

Running time:  85 minutes (no intermission).

Date of Performance:  Friday, November 18, 2016. 

Bruce Graham is an award winning playwright who knows a lot about life, love, loss, and the challenge of our sunset years.  Graham’s The Outgoing Tide is probably one of the best scripts I’ve ever seen on these subjects.  His characters are real people, and his stories explore the most painful problems of our lives.   It's no simple task, but Graham has a gift for capturing the meaning of life in both our most mundane and most profound moments.

Graham’s Stella and Lou is a whip smart script that cleverly combines what would seem to be mutually exclusive themes:  comedy and grief.  It’s simultaneously laugh out loud funny and joyless.  Lou (played by Chris Kendall at his most despondent) is a good guy who cannot handle losing his wife two years ago.  Stella (played by a completely disarming Emma Messenger) is on a mission to push, pull or drag Lou out of the pit of his extended grief.  Donnie (Peter Marullo) is too young to get it.  He’s engaged but not in love.  Donnie doesn’t see that he’s facing the same dilemma as Lou:  when you stop living you start dying.  

The story is at once tender and gut wrenching.  Lou can’t get past his loss.  Stella, a nurse who cared for Lou’s wife, wants to help Lou get out of his funk.  It’s a challenge; Lou rejects all attempts to break out of his grief.  He is determined to mourn his wife indefinitely.

Chris Kendall (Lou).
Director Lorraine Scott’s cast is small but powerful (two members of this cast won "Bill's Best" awards in 2015).  Chris Kendall is both inspired and inspiring, fleshing out the deep despair that has beaten Lou to an emotional pulp.  Kendall doesn’t just speak Graham’s words.  His gait, his facial expressions, his halting delivery, and his gestures all contribute to the black emotional pit that Lou inhabits.   Kendall gives us hints of Lou’s lost humanity, generously donating $1,000 to Donnie as a wedding gift.  Even in his generosity, though, Kendall comes across as a tired old man distributing his earthly possessions before it’s too late.  

Kendall won the Best Actor Award (Drama, Large Companies) in my 2015 "Bill's Best" post for his role in Outside Mullingar.  He's in the running now for the 2016 version as well.

Peter Marullo (Donnie).
Peter Marullo’s role is critical; Donnie is an emotionally immature adult who senses the hazards in life.  He’s engaged, but highly uncertain whether he should be getting married.  Sometimes alcohol helps ease the distress, but it also increases his confusion.  That Lou and Stella give him conflicting advice doesn’t help.  Marullo deftly takes Donnie from angry and confused to an emerging adult in charge of his life decisions.  It’s a transition that seems lost on Lou, who refuses to confront his fears until the very last minute.

Emma Messenger (Stella).
Emma Messenger made me cringe with both empathy and sympathy; her low key pleas to Lou were ignored or rejected outright.  No matter how sincere, how persistent, or emotional her approach, Lou was as impenetrable as the packaging for a new compact disc.  Messenger uses her full arsenal of chicanery to reach Lou, and is crushed when it all seems to fail.  Ms. Messenger has a gift for enchanting and enthralling audiences on every stage she steps onto; the Vintage stage is no exception.  This is a full throttle Emma Messenger performance; she grabs the audience by the lapels and won’t let go until the lights go down.  If you haven’t seen her onstage before, Lou and Stella will make you a fan.  

Ms. Messenger won the Best Actress Award (Drama, Small Companies, tied with Haley Johnson) in my 2015 "Bill's Best" for her role in 'Night Mother, also at the Vintage.  To quote Tina Turner, she’s “simply the best” at what she does.

Lorraine Scott’s direction is sensitive, especially with regard to the male characters.  In the hands of another director, Lou might come off as self centered and lost.  Scott keeps him lovable but trapped in a very dark place.  Her touch with Donnie is also telling.  He won’t take calls from his soon to be wife, and he keeps drinking when he should be thinking.  Still, Scott keeps him likable even when he’s thoroughly misguided.

Door/Window.  Set by Jeff Jesmer.
Set designer Jeff Jesmer has skillfully created a Philadelphia bar, complete with a working beer tap.  Jessmer uses a door/window combination at stage left, and the cast uses it for both interior and exterior locations simultaneously.  It’s a dramatic enhancement; we see Stella primping outside before she enters the bar. 

Graham’s vision of profound grief is both disturbing and yet human.  Grief is universal; we will all experience loss, and we will all walk a mile in Lou’s shoes.  There’s no “Owner’s Manual” to tell us how to handle our own loss.  We muddle through as best we can.  While Lou’s despair is deeper and longer than most, no one can criticize him for it.  Grief sets its own pace.  He needed help; Stella gave it to him.  Graham’s script gave her a valid reason to act, but Stella probably would have helped Lou for no reason at all.  

That is perhaps the message that Graham cares about most.  Don’t be a bystander to suffering.  Reach out.  Take a hand.  Make a difference.  Graham reminds us that failure is likely, but if we can heal even 1% of the suffering around us, we can change a life for the better.  Those are long odds, but the effort is noble and the results can be heroic.

Lou's Bar, complete with working beer tap.  Set by Jeff Jesmer.



NOTES:

This show closes on November 27, 2016.  This show is appropriate for teens and up.

Graham has another thread in Stella and Lou that would merit a stand alone play.  Ask yourself these questions:  

1.  “Who will be there at my funeral?  

2.  "What will they say about me?”  

Very good questions, and ones that I have been mulling over since the curtain call at the Vintage.

FULL DISCLOSURE:  The story of Stella and Lou closely tracks the last five years of my life.  The love, the loss, and the grief are all still fresh for me, as is Stella’s heroic effort at emotional rescue.  For that reason, I suspect Stella and Lou may have had a bigger impact on me than it would have when I was 25.  Or 35  Or 45.  I’m a wiser person now than I was then, and Stella and Lou captures my own emotional evolution.


Photo Credit:  Vintage Theatre

TICKETS HERE:


CREATIVE TEAM:

Executive Director:  Craig A. Bond

Artistic Director:  Bernie Cardell

Production Director:  Lorraine Scott

Board Liason:  Sharon Dwinnell

Production Manager:  Biz Schaugaard

Assistant Director:  Sharon Dwinnell

Set Designer/Master Builder:  Jeff Jesmer

Scenic Painter:  Julie LeMieux

Lighting Design:  Jen Orf

Sound Design:  Rick Reid

Dialect Coach:  Jeff Parker

Props:  Beki Pineda

Costume Design:  Katalena Valdez

Stage Manager:  Andrew KC Nicholas


CAST:


Stella:  Emma Messenger

Donnie:  Peter Marullo