Sunday, June 23, 2013

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

Photo Credit:  The Colorado Springs Fine Art Center

Production Conception, English Lyrics by:   Eric Blau and Mort Shuman
VenueColorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado
Running Time:  2 hours (includes 15 minute intermission)
Date of Performance:  Saturday, June 22, 2013

Jacques Brel, for those unfamiliar with his work, was a Belgian singer-songwriter and actor whose music and films were popular in the 1950's through the 1970's.  His popularity started in Belgium and France, but eventually spread across the world.  He was known for his thoughtful, poetic lyrics, and, in some ways, was comparable to Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen.
The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is an entertaining, and at times outstanding, rendition of Brel's moods and music.  The lyrics have been translated from the original French into English, so there's no language barrier whatsoever in this production.
The four person ensemble cast is strong; each has a marvelous singing voice.  They bring Brel's music to life with all the appropriate attitudes:  poetic, introspective, plaintive, sensitive, and at times a little naughty.
Max Ferguson's performance of Amsterdam (Brel original here) at the end of the first act was a showstopper. Had it not been just before intermission, Ferguson's performance would have literally stopped the show anyway for prolonged applause.  Ferguson put his entire body and soul into the melancholy story of sailors on leave in Amsterdam.  Amsterdam is one of Brel's signature songs; some very successful artists have covered it, including David Bowie, John Denver, and Rod McKuen.  Ferguson works Amsterdam to an explosive crescendo, taking no back seat to the likes of Bowie, Denver or McKuen.  
Ferguson and Alejandro Roldan combined for Girls and Dogs, which was easily the funniest number of the night.  Brel doesn't really prefer dogs to girls, but it's obvious that a girl friend broke his heart:
The girls
Will treat you like trash
Or let you be brash
It depends on your cash
But the dogs
Don't depend on a thing
They just lick your face
When they see it end
Oh, the dogs
Don't depend on a thing
And maybe that's why
They're man's best friend

As expected, though, the script saves the best for last; the ensemble closes with two Brel tunes (Carousel and If We Only Have Love) that leave the audience begging for more.
Carousel (Brel original here), done with precision choreography, takes the audience for a spin on a carousel at the carnival:
We're on a carousel
A crazy carousel
Carnivals and cotton candy
Carousels and calliopes
Kewpie-dolls with painted faces
Tricky shell games and missing peas
Merry-go-rounds quickly turning
Quickly turning for you and me
And the whole world madly turning
Turning, turning 'till you can't see

The ensemble delivers a delightful, wonderful recreation of the carnival, the mood, and the ride.  Carousel is a  piece of wonderful music, brilliant choreography, and amazing harmony.  It is, all by itself, worth the price of admission.
The finale, If We Only Have Love (Brel original here), is haunting and oddly contemporary:
If we only have love
We can melt all the guns
And then give the new world
To our daughters and sons

Listening to the lyrics, I was immediately transported to John Lennon's Imagine
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace... 

Brel was ahead of his time.  The list of those who have been influenced by Brel is extensive: 
Photo Credit:  Centerblog
John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Cindy Lauper, Rod McKuen, and Frank Sinatra, to name only a few.  The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center production deftly demonstrates why he was so influential.
Still, I felt somewhat conflicted about the performance.  I found the script lacking because, actually, there is no real script.  The entire performance is Brel's music.  There is no narration, no context, no story line to tie it all together.  A minimal story line for musicals that are, in essence, extended concerts, is common.  Abba's Mama Mia, The Who's Tommy, Forever Plaid, The Four Seasons Jersey Boys all have a story line to tie the music together. 
I suspect the story line here is nonexistent because Brel would have wanted the music to stand alone on its merits, and it does.  But without some context, the audience it appeals to is largely Brel's fans.  Thirty-five years after his death, that's a pretty small group.  Some information (on stage, not just in the program) about his life, his music, his poetry, and his success would be helpful for those born after 1970.

The set is marvelous.  It has the look and the feel of a real jazz nightclub.  The Musicians are excellent; do not miss their entrance at the beginning of the second act.
Photo Credits:  The Colorado Springs Fine Art Center and Centerblog.
This is a family show for tweens and up, although the younger folks in that group may find it boring compared to Lady Gaga or Kanye West.  
For pre-show dining, try Cafe 36 at the Fine Arts Center.  They do a special menu for each production.  The menu for Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris features some excellent French cuisine selections.

Director/Choregrapher:  Nathan Halvorson  
Scenic Design:  Christopher L. Sheley
Lighting Design:  Holly Ann Rawls
Costumer Design:  Janson Fangio
Sound Design:  Christian Medovich
Musical Director:  Ian Ferguson
Costume Designer:  Janson Fangio

Cast (Ensemble):
Lacey Connell
Alejandro Roldan
Max Ferguson
Halee Towne

The Musicians:

Piano/Conductor:  Ian Ferguson

Percussion:  Josh Birkhimer

Bass:  Jay Hahn

Guitar:  Alan Joseph.

Friday, June 14, 2013

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Playwright:   Dale Wasserman, based on the novel by Ken Kesey.
VenueThe Edge Theatre, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood Colorado.
Running Time:  2 hours, 15 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission).
Date of Performance:  Thursday, June 13, 2013.

Dale Wasserman's script for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest takes place in a mental institution, the very place where we try to separate the sane from the insane and "treat" the insane. Randale P. McMurphy, a malingering convict trying to serve out his sentence in the relative comfort of a mental institution, is introduced into the mix of patients under the care of Nurse Ratched and Dr. Spivey.  
It's a perfect construct.  We see how the sane, but conniving McMurphy fares in the hands of mental health professionals.  Feigning insanity, rebelling at every opportunity, McMurphy would quickly be returned to prison if the mental health system works as expected.  Of course, it doesn't.  
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a very ambitious undertaking for The Edge.  It's a large cast (15-16) on a small stage, requiring careful blocking, lighting, and direction.  Despite the challenges, the production is seamless.  Director Rick Yaconis has made full use of every inch of the stage, while managing the intricate entrances and exits needed with such a large cast.
The set is simple but effective.  One gets the sense of being in the "institution," complete with the doors, windows, and a nurses station.  Lighting is "spot on."  At several points in the performance, Chief Bromden (Sam Gilstrap) is alone on a darkened stage for a monologue.  In each case, a single spotlight is used to great dramatic effect, lighting the Chief while he talks to his ancestors.
Left:  Scott Bellot (McMurphy)  Right:  Sam Gilstrap (Chief)
Gilstrap does something that is surely difficult for an actor:  he pretends he's deaf.  The illusion is complete; he does not respond to any speech, noise, or commotion.  Those who haven't seen the play (or the movie) might be surprised to learn that it's an act.  When he finally speaks, one marvels at the sound of his voice and the depth of his thoughts.  Gilstrap creates a convincing, powerful Chief who finds himself by the end of the play.
The patients who shuffle on and off stage (listed below) are at times frightening, charming, and puzzling.  They display a variety of mental issues, ranging from delusional to catatonic.  I think it no insult to say that each and every patient on this stage is convincingly crazy.  Joe Von Bokern (Billy Bibbitt) is outstanding; he flawlessly delivers lines that require repeated stuttering.  Besides the stuttering, though, Von Bokern must create a Billy who is vulnerable, innocent, and tragic. His performance brings out that vulnerability and innocence which ultimately contributes to his tragic end.  
Nurse Ratched is the villain here, and Jada Roberts is a sufficiently evil and menacing Ratched.  She never cracks a smile, unless she's getting the best of McMurphy. Roberts plays Ratched somewhat sympathetically.  She doesn't really dislike the patients, she's just following the rules.  That those rules are senseless, oppressive, degrading, and damaging to the patients is not her concern.
Maggy Stacy adds some spice, some heat, and some fun to the cast in her role as Candy Starr ("a common prostitute"). Stacy plays a floozy with flair, at times stealing the scene from Chief, Billy, and McMurphy.
Those have seen the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest will remember Jack Nicholson playing Randle P. McMurphy.  That is one tough act to follow, but Scott Bellot is more than equal to the task.  He plays McMurphy with a swagger, a wink, and a smile.  He brings a mix of attitude, energy, and mischief to the performance, all of which are genuine traits we would expect in McMurphy.  I'm also told by some of the female audience members in the first row that his shirtless look is "hot."  
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a work that entertains, makes us laugh, but ultimately reveals much about how we treat our friends, families, and neighbors with mental problems.  It is much more dark than funny.
Despite their mental issues, each patient, in his own way, retains a great deal of what makes us all human beings.  That they are treated so poorly may make you uncomfortable.  That we, collectively, are responsible for a system that could swallow up a sane person (McMurphy) and totally ruin him may also make you uncomfortable.
And that, I think, is the ultimate value of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  We are reminded that we may someday be judged by the way we treat the "least" among us.  It's a reminder, sadly, that we truly need.
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" at The Edge is a sobering theater experience.  It is also a theater experience not to be missed.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  Photos by Rachel D. Graham for The Edge Theatre Company.

If any reader has the impression that the treatment of the mentally ill as depicted in the 1960's has somehow magically been remedied, please disabuse yourself of that notion.  Consider this:  while recent gun control debates have emphasized the problems with the availability of weapons for the mentally ill, there is little likelihood that anything will change.
If nothing else, perhaps The Edge and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest will be a catalyst for a few individuals to take action.  Changing the system is difficult, perhaps impossible.  But there is honor in the effort, and a chance that even the poor, defenseless and weak among us may someday be treated with dignity.
For that, I thank The Edge and the cast and crew of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  May your contribution to the community someday be remembered as the difference you made by putting on a powerful, provocative One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Photo Credits:  Rachel D. Graham for The Edge Theatre Company.
This show closes on June 30, 2013.  
There is some strong language and some disturbing violence in this performance, so use discretion if you want to bring children.  
Pre-show dining suggestions:  Elephant Bar or Ted's Montana Grill in the Belmar area.  Both restaurants are within a few minutes of the theater.

Director:  Rick Yaconis
Scenic Design:  Justin Lane
Lighting/Sound Design:  Alex Ruhlin
Costumer Design:  Caroline Smith

Cast (The Staff):
Dr. Spivey:  Randy Diamon
Nurse Ratched:  Jada Roberts
Nurse Flinn:  Kelly Ann Dwyer
Aide Warren:  Peter T. Marullo
Aide Williams:  Ryan Danielson
Aide Turkle:  Donovan Arterburn III

Cast (The Patients):
Randle P. McMurphy:  Scott Bellot
Dale Harding:  Ken Street
Chief Bromden:  Sam Gilstrap
Scanlon:  Leroy Lenard
Cheswick:  John Greene
Martini:  Ryan Goold
Ruckley:  Bob Byrnes

Cast (The Guests):
Candy Starr:  Maggy Stacy
Sandra:  Amanda Flageolle

Saturday, June 8, 2013


Playwright:   A. R. Gurney
Venue:  John Hand Theater, 7653 East 1st Place, Denver Colorado
CompanySylvia is a joint production of the Firehouse and Spotlight Theatre Companies.  
Running Time:  2 hours, 15 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission)
Date of Performance:  Friday, June 7, 2013

Full disclosure:  There are two kinds of people in this world:  those who love dogs and those who love cats.  I'm a dog person, so my objectivity here could be compromised.  Sylvia (the title character) is a dog.  
Dogs are unique pets; they love their owners unconditionally.  The same cannot be said of cats, birds, or fish.  In fact, it can't always be said of people either.  We love some of the people in our lives, but with the possible exception of the love we have for our children, our love is usually conditional.  Sylvia (the dog) brings her unconditional love to Greg and Kate, empty nesters whose relationship is profoundly affected by Sylvia's unrelenting devotion to Greg.
Kate never wanted a dog, much less a dog like Sylvia.  She quickly senses that she must compete with Sylvia for Greg's love, and that she may ultimately lose that competition.  When Greg brought Sylvia home, he effectively introduced a third person into a committed couples' relationship.  He didn't foresee the impact Sylvia would have on his marriage or on his career.
Portraying an animal onstage is a challenge; one must not only express the animals' thoughts and emotions, but also the appropriate mannerisms for that animal.  Sometimes this is accomplished through technical marvels (Warhorse, Lion King).  In Sylvia, it is accomplished by a thorough understanding and recreation of dog's personality, movements, and habits.  The effect is, frankly, amazing.
Sara Metz as Sylvia is the most convincing dog you may ever see onstage.  She nails it. 
Andy Anderson (Greg) and Sara Metz (Sylvia)
From the first few lines of the first scene, she not an actress-she is a dog.  She IS Sylvia.  Playing Sylvia is physically exhausting to watch, and I'm sure it's physically exhausting for Metz to perform.  She must need a "dog nap" (as opposed to a "cat nap") after the show.  She is onstage for nearly the entire performance and is constantly moving around on her hands and knees. 
Emma Messenger (Tom/Phyllis/Leslie) plays multiple roles, convincingly portraying both male and female characters with equal ease.  She is a gifted actress; she appeared last year in the marvelous ensemble for The Laramie Project.  (If you missed The Laramie Project, you missed one of the best local productions of 2012.)  Messenger's roles here are important for the plot, but also for her ability to deliver a punchline that has punch.  She wrings out every possible laugh every time she is on stage.
Andy Anderson (Greg) must be a dog lover offstage, because he is definitely a dog lover onstage.  To his credit, Greg returns Sylvia's unconditional love, but to his detriment, the love he has for Sylvia is love he has denied to Kate.  Anderson helps us understand and empathize with the lovable but misguided (and frankly lost) Greg.
Molly Killoran is a complex Kate; she's career woman, wife, and mother.  She's  justifiably
Sara Metz (Sylvia) and Molly Killoran (Kate)
conflicted by the distressing relationship between her husband and his dog.  Her character arc requires her to go from rejecting Sylvia to accepting her.  Killoran never misses a beat; the audience believes her evolution from rejection to acceptance.  
Katie Mangett (Director) skillfully brings out all the emotional and comedic moments, and has an obvious insight into all the things we love about dogs.  
Sylvia is a comedy with a message about our relationships to our dogs and to each other.  It's an important message, delivered with laugh out loud fun.  (I couldn't stop laughing at Sylvia's reaction to a cat on her turf; it's hilarious.)  Whether you favor canines or felines, you will be charmed, amused, and perhaps inspired by Sylvia.  It's an entertaining show that will both make you laugh and make you think.  

SPOILER ALERT:  Never having seen Sylvia, I did not know it includes music (a single song).  It's a poignant moment in the script, and Anderson, Metz, and Killoran are marvelous singing both individually and harmonizing together for Cole Porter's Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye.

MORE FULL DISCLOSURE:  It's a long story, but I have a cat.  I don't "own" a cat; no one does.  Chemo is a male Blue Russian cat, which creates conflict and competition for both of us.  So far, I'm still the Alpha Male in the house, but he's gaining on me.  Chemo is one of the main reasons I fall in the "dog person" category.


Photo Credits:  Spotlight Theatre Company.
This show closes on June 29, 2013.  
Expect some F-bombs here (yes, Sylvia has a potty mouth), so use discretion if you want to bring children.  (No nudity or violence).  Pre-show dining suggestions:  Salty Rita's and Serioz Pizza, both nearby at Lowry Town Center.

Director:  Katie Mangett
Scenic Design:  Bernie Cardell
Lighting Design:  Brian Miller
Costumer Design:  Greg West

Sylvia:  Sara Metz
Greg:  Andy Anderson
Kate:  Molly Killoran
Tom/Phyllis/Leslie:  Emma Messenger

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Drowsy Chaperone

Max Ferguson, Scott RC Levy, & Becca Vourvoulas

Book by:   Bob Martin and Don McKellar
VenueColorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado
Running Time:  2 hours, 15 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission)
Date of Performance:  Friday, May 31, 2013

The Drowsy Chaperone begins with a bit of irony; the narrator/Man in Chair is "blue" ("blue" being a little self-conscious anxiety resulting in a non-specific sadness). The cure for the blues?  Man in Chair takes us back to a fictional 1928 musical (one of his favorites) called "The Drowsy Chaperone."  The irony is that although the Man in Chair is blue, no one else is after the exhilarating, laugh out loud romp that is The Drowsy Chaperone.
A play within a play, the Man in Chair plays his cherished 33 and 1/3 RPM long playing record (Google it if you don't know what that is) of the Drowsy Chaperone original soundtrack as the story plays out before our eyes on the stage.
Having won five Tony Awards in 2006, The Drowsy Chaperone is a nearly perfect night at the theater.  It has an inventive and very funny script, engaging music, and fizzy choreography.  Predictably, it is no small feat to put this production together.  Finding the right mix of acting, singing, dancing, comedic timing, and musical talent is difficult, but the success of The Drowsy Chaperone depends heavily on all of these elements.
Director Cory Moosman has put together a superb cast that is more than equal to the task.  Each is multitalented, and the cast is truly greater than the sum of the its parts.  They don't just bring the necessary talent to the stage, but also an infectious energy and a sincere sense of fun.  

Becca Vourvoulas as Janet Van De Graaff
Becca Vourvoulas (as Janet Van De Graaff) is a show stopper; she can hold a note for what seems like an eternity.  The term "takes your breath away" is descriptive; that she doesn't pass out from a lack of oxygen is amazing.  
Max Ferguson (as Robert Martin) and Zachary Seliquini Guzman (as George) are marvelous doing "Cold Feets" in the first act.  Tap dancing is not yet a lost art, but it's close.  Ferguson and Guzman remind us why we love the clickety clack of feet on floorboards.  The two of them do a difficult dance routine flawlessly and with a flourish. They earned the spontaneous, sincere applause the audience showered on them at the end of the number.
The technical crew is as talented as the cast; the set, lighting, sound, and costumes were all top shelf.  Costume designer Janson Fangio dressed the cast in authentic 1920s outfits, with an emphasis on color, fit, and finish.  Thanks to Fangio. everyone on the stage looked picture perfect for their roles.  
Obviously, no musical production can succeed without excellent music, and the musicians under Jay Hahn's direction provide it in abundance.  All too often the musicians labor in the background, in the dark, and in a pit.  Director Cory Moosman wisely gave the audience a chance to recognize them at the opening of the second act.  
I haven't said much about the plot here; it is a farce, after all, and what else do you need to know?  Suffice it to say that virtually every woman on stage is wearing a wedding dress at the end.  I don't do spoilers, so you'll have to see for yourself how a show about a wedding (singular) turns into a show about a half dozen couples heading to the altar.
The Drowsy Chaperone ticks all the boxes.  It's a high energy, outrageously funny evening of musical theater.  

Photo Credits:  
This show closes on Sunday June 2, 2013.  
This is a family show; there's no vulgarity, no nudity, and no violence.  For pre-show dining, check out Cafe 36 at the Fine Arts Center.  They do a special menu for each production; The Drowsy Chaperone menu was excellent.  I highly recommend the Adobo Braised Pork Relleno.

Director:  Cory Moosman
Scenic Design:  Erik D. Diaz
Lighting Design:  Jonathan Spencer
Costumer Design:  Janson Fangio
Sound Design:  Christian Medovich
Musical Director:  Jay Hahn
Choreography:  Mary Ripper Baker

Man in Chair:  Scott RC Levy (also Producing Artistic Director)
Mrs. Tottendale:  Laurie Gabriel
Robert Martin:  Max Ferguson
George:  Zachary Seliquini Guzman
Adolpho:  Stephen Day
Janet Van De Graaff:  Becca Vourvoulas
The Drowsy Chaperone:  Amy Sue Hardy