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Monday, September 23, 2013

Seven Guitars

 
Playwright:  August Wilson

Company:  Theatreworks

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

Date of performance:  September 22, 2013
Running time:  3 hours, 5 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission)

As a blues fan, Seven Guitars  is a show I eagerly anticipated.  Based on some of the preshow publicity and photos, my expectations included an entrée of blues music with a side order of dancing: 
     “It tells the story of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, a guitar player who went to Chicago and made a hit record, and now wants to go back and do it again with his band.”  From the Theatreworks web site.

I was wrong, and I think it important to clarify what expectations one should have going into Seven Guitars.  It’s not about blues music.  It’s about the “blues.”  The blues you have because you’re poor.  The blues you have because you will always be poor.  The blues you have when every adult male you know has done jail time.  The blues you get when every man you have loved has done you wrong.  Repeatedly.

Seven Guitars is about the subject matter of the “blues,” not the music itself.  That’s a good thing.  It’s just not what I expected, or what any other ticket holder should expect.

What you WILL get with is a richly detailed cultural tapestry of African American life in the Pittsburg Hill District of the late 1940’s. It’s a gritty engaging look at the demeaning, dispiriting effects of perpetual poverty.  But most importantly, it’s about the character and spirit that endures in  the daily struggle to survive.  Seven Guitars is a compelling script that documents the frustration, desperation, and the hopes of oppressed people everywhere.

That compelling script, however, needlessly challenges the audience with its 3+ hour running time and its meandering dialog that creates a drag on the actual story telling.  Wandering from the geographical differences between roosters and whether Canewell (Donald Paul) can follow the topic of conversations, the script would benefit from some serious editing.

Floyd "School Boy" Barton (Calvin Thompson) & Vera (Nambi Kelley)

The Theatreworks cast has impeccable credentials; each is an experienced and accomplished actor.  When you have such a critical mass of talent on the stage, the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.

One of the many strengths of Wilson’s script is the strong female characters.  Lynne Hastings (Louise), Nambi Kelley (Vera) and Melissa Taylor (Ruby) portray strong but vulnerable women who would be great role models for my daughters.  Kelley’s nuanced performance is enhanced by her facial expressions; she doesn’t need to move her lips to show us she’s indignant, angry, skeptical, or flirtatious.  She’s a master of her craft, and a delight to watch.  Hastings’ Louise is the mature female voice of reason, keeping the peace in the midst of constant pain and conflict.  Hastings is a perfect Louise, moving quickly and easily from compassionate to stern, from loving to harsh.  Taylor plays a street savvy young woman whose innocence is long gone.  She has a twinkle in her eye that tells us a lot about how she came to have “man trouble.”

The male characters in Wilson’s script are also strong but flawed.  Calvin M. Thompson (Floyd) struts, strums, and talks trash just like one would expect from a budding blues musician with a “hit record.”  His fruitless attempts to reconcile with Vera are touching; he’s a cad, but he’s cute, charming, and vulnerable.  We can’t tell if he needs Vera or actually loves Vera.  It’s a fine line, and it’s one that confounds Vera as well.  Thompson has the only musical moments in the show, one where he sings the blues about quitting moonshine, and one requiring him to sing an acapella version of the Lord’s Prayer.  It’s not often that an actor or a song can bring tears to my eyes, but Thompson’s soulful prayer for his mother did it for me; I suspect he did it for others in the audience as well.  It was a perfect moment in Floyd’s tragic character arc.

Michael Broughton’s “King” Headley is a joy to watch.  “King” suffers from at least two afflictions, mental illness and tuberculosis; Broughton is convincing on both counts.  No dialect coach is credited in the program (a shame, assuming there was one), but Broughton’s Jamaican/Haitian dialect stands in stark contrast to the rest of the characters.  Broughton’s ”King” is not quite crazy enough to be committed, and just sane enough to interact with his neighbors.  Headley’s last scene is a stunner; he commits a gruesome act and cries real tears on cue.  For me, at least, that is a skill reserved for a very small number of very accomplished actors.

L-R:  Michael Broughton, Calvin Thompson, Robb Douglas, Donald Paul
Robb Douglas (Red Carter) and Donald Paul (Canewell) are Floyd’s band mates and friends.  Both actors are outstanding, Douglas as the cool, hip drummer and Paul as the harmonica player who thinks every conversation is about him.
The set design (Jonathan Wentz, designer) is a beautiful rendition of an urban back yard.  The costumes are exquisite (Ashley Rhodes Gamba, designer), faithfully recreating both the look and the feel of the era.  Director Clinton Turner Davis makes the most of the considerable talent at his disposal, bringing the Pittsburg back yard to life. 

Seven Guitars is a challenging but worthwhile experience.  Although it goes on too long, and the script seems unfocused at times, it is an intimate look at people, poverty, and persistence. The performances are first rate, and the Lord’s Prayer is unforgettable.   Seven Guitars was not what I expected, but it nevertheless exceeded my mistaken expectations. 

NOTES:
This play runs through September 29, 2013.
This show is appropriate for all ages, but it may not hold the interest of younger children for three hours.
Parking at the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater is available in the adjacent lot; despite signs to the contrary, vehicles will not be ticketed for parking there during performances.
Preshow/post show dining suggestion:  BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, 5150 North Nevada Avenue, Colorado Springs.  Only 10 minutes or less from the theater, BJ’s has a full cocktail menu, craft brewed beers, sandwiches, pizza, and burgers.  I had the “Sweet Pig” pizza, usually called Hawaiian pizza.  The service, the food, and the seasonal Octoberfest brew ($5.50/pint) were all very good.

Photo credit:  Theatreworks

Director:  Clinton Turner Davis
Set Design:  Jonathan Wentz

Lighting Design:  Matthew Adelson

Sound Design:  Alex Ruhlin

Costume Design:  Ashley Rhodes Gamba
 

CAST:
Canewell:  Donald Paul
Red Carter:  Robb Douglas

Vera Dotson:  Nambi E. Kelley

Louise:  Lynne Hastings

“King” Hedley:  Michael Broughton
Ruby:  Melissa Taylor

Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton:  Calvin M. Thompson

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Full Monty


Book by: Terrence McNally
Music & Lyrics:  David Yazbek
Company:  Boulder's Dinner Theater
VenueBoulder's Dinner Theatre,  5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder CO
Running Time:  2 hours, 45 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission)
Date of Performance:  Saturday, September 21, 2013


I suspect that few among us have not seen the 1997 film version of The Full Monty.  It was a surprise hit that year, partly because it portrayed male strippers in delicate detail.  The real charm of the film, however, was the six unemployed steel workers who faced daunting challenges and overcame them, proving themselves both provocative and responsible citizens, fathers and husbands.
The stage version of The Full Monty deviates somewhat from the original (the six British steelworkers are now from Buffalo NY), but the script still tells the story of six regular guys who have the courage to do whatever it takes to put food on the table.  The stage version also differs in format; its a musical.  Music in the film was more about the dancing than the story telling.
Boulder's Dinner Theatre production is an eye popping, high energy triumph of regular guys over desperate circumstances.  The fun starts in the opening scene as the female ensemble is hooting, hollering, and gawking at a gorgeous male stripper (Jason Vargas).  It takes about a millisecond for the audience to join in the fun, clapping, yelling, and escalating the estrogen fueled mischief.
Director Scott Beyette has assembled a fine cast, starting with Seth Caikowski as Jerry.  Jerry lost his job at the steel mill, and is about to lose his son Nathan (Thomas Russo) because he's behind in his child support.  Caikowski deftly handles the huge dramatic range from desperation to inspiration with seeming ease.  
Joel Adam Chavez, (Dave), delivers exactly the right performance for all us regular guys, as he struggles with his body image issues and his need for validation as a husband and lover.  Chavez carries a few extra pounds to the stage and he can't imagine showing his "goods" to 1,000 screaming women.  Chavez got my sympathy, my empathy, and finally my delight when he triumphantly demonstrated how sexy regular guys can be.
Robert Johnson's performance as he auditioned for the stripper gig is a total showstopper.  Big Black Man is great music, great lyrics ("every woman's fantasy is a big black man"), and when done by Johnson, a laugh out loud masterpiece.  Johnson brings a big bass voice and some fabulous dance moves to the party, whipping the audience into a frenzy.
Perhaps the best musical moment in the show (OK, the guys are fully dressed, so this is debatable) is the tune Michael Jordan's Ball.  Matthew D. Peters' choreography is superb, and the cast pulls off the precision moves as if, well, they are actually Michael Jordan.  It's a beautiful moment; the regular guys find a way to "fake, spin, and shoot," opening the door for the novices to become real dancers.  
Scenic Designer Amy Campion has constructed a beautiful, functional set that includes bringing an actual automobile on stage.  She gives us set pieces for bedrooms, street scenes, and both on stage and back stage at a strip club.  All are well done and create a real sense of place in each case.
The Full Monty is a musical, and Neal Dunfee leads a great orchestra here.  They play from behind a wall, which is unfortunate.  They deserve to be front and center, so we can see as well as hear them.  It's the music that makes a musical, and Dunfee and crew are masters of the genre.
For those who have seen the movie, you may be wondering about the "finale" of the stage show.  Do they do the "the full monty?"  You'll have to find a spoiler somewhere else.  I will say this, however.  You will NOT be disappointed.  The finale is the female fantasy (and a male fantasy as well), that you bought the ticket for.  As a bonus, the actors are also your servers.  I doubt that many of us have ever come to know our waiters this well.
If I have any criticism of The Full Monty, it is not with the production but with the script.  The play is about (or at least should be about) the dancing; a fair amount of the music was for story telling rather than dancing.  The ballads slow the pace.  At 2 hours and 45 minutes, The Full Monty could be better with less music, more dancing and faster pacing.
The bottom line here, though is that The Full Monty is a hit; it's a fun, entertaining, inspiring production in the best tradition of Boulder's Dinner Theater.  Get a ticket, get to The Full Monty, and cut loose.  Bring your husband, your wife, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, or any other consenting adult.  It's your chance to get a strip club experience without going to a seedy night club on East Colfax.

NOTES:  
For obvious reasons, this show is rated R.  It contains adult language and adult situations.  
Boulder's Dinner Theatre was closed by floods in earlier this month, and had to cancel five performances.  They are now back in full operation.  If you want to do something for flood victims, support Boulder's Dinner Theatre.  Like the characters in The Full Monty, Boulder's Dinner Theatre has triumphed when times got difficult.  The show must, and does, go on.
As usual, you will find the dinner selections at Boulder's Dinner Theatre varied and delicious.  
This show closes on November 9, 2013.  
Photo Credits:  Boulder's Dinner Theatre

Producer:  Michael J. Duran
Director:  Scott Beyette
Scenic Design:  Amy Campion
Audio Design:  Wayne Kennedy
Lighting Design:  Rachael Dugan
Costume Design:  Linda Morken
Choreographer:  Matthew D. Peters

Cast:
Jerry:  Seth Caikowski 
Dave:  Joel Adam Chavez
Harold: Scott Beyette
Ethan:  Burke Wilson
Malcolm:  Brett Ambler
Horse:  Robert Johnson
Nathan:  Thomas Russo/Kaden Hinkle
Pam:  Alicia Dunfee
Georgie:  Amanda Earls
Vicki:  Joanie Brosseau
Jeanette:  Shelly Cox-Robie
Teddy:  Matthew D. Peters/Bob Hoppe
Keno:  Jason Vargas
Reg/Tony:  Scott Severtson
Susan/Molly:  Tracy Warren
Joanie:  Jessica Hindsley
Estelle: Norelle Moore

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Chicago


Book by:  Fred Ebb & Bob Fosse

Music by:  John Kander
Lyrics by:  Fred Ebb
Based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins

Produced by Barry and Fran Weissler

Venue: Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Boulevard, Colorado Springs, CO
Date of performance:  September 18, 2013

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



“So I started fooling around.  And then I started screwing around.  That’s the same as fooling around, but without dinner.”  Roxie Hart, Chicago.

Chicago is one of my favorite musicals; it’s a fitting and fun tribute to bad girls everywhere.  The Pikes Peak Center’s professionally produced touring production is no exception.  The show played to a packed house, all of which was standing and cheering as the final curtain fell.
Chicago is the opening act for the Pikes Peak Center’s “Broadway in Colorado Springs” season.  It’s a promising season; Chicago is a hit, to be followed by The Addams Family, Hello Dolly, and Memphis.  That’s a powerful lineup; I got my season ticket early.
A Broadway touring production has a very tall order.  They must deliver the Broadway Experience (state of the art staging, special effects, music, and talent) in a different theater every few days.  The audience expects, and the production must deliver, a flawless performance every time.  This cast, crew, and orchestra does exactly that, delivering a high energy, fast paced, pitch perfect blend of great music, comedy, and glitz to the Pikes Peak Center stage.
Roxie Hart is the bad girl star of Chicago, and she’s played here by Paige Davis (of TVs Trading Spaces fame).  Davis’ Trading Spaces gig gave us the cute and perky Paige, but in Chicago she takes great pleasure being the sassy, sexy, unrepentant criminal Roxie Hart.  If you’ve only seen her on Trading Spaces, you might be surprised to see her in Chicago. Davis has musical and acting chops in abundance.  In fact, you may be asking yourself as you leave the theater who is the real Paige Davis?  Is she the cute TV hostess, or the saucy, sultry, provocative Roxie Hart? 
Terra C MacLeod plays Roxie’s foil, Velma Kelly, with equal gusto.  MacLeod is a gifted performer, and she brought her A game to the Pikes Peak Center stage.  She can belt out a tune with the best of Broadway, and she has made pouting an art form.
Brent Barrett as attorney Billy Flynn (“all I care about is love”) is a delight; he can turn on the charm for a jury while spinning a web of half- truths and outright lies into a plausible (but not very plausible) defense.  His singing voice is magnificent; it’s a shame he doesn’t get more opportunities to use it here.
I love “Mr. Cellophane,” Amos Hart’s (Todd Buonopane) solo.  By "solo" I mean that he has no back up vocals, but also that he is really, truly alone as Roxie’s neglected, disrespected, and somewhat pathetic husband.  Buonopane does not disappoint; he’s a dour, glum Amos that no one notices.  Or loves.
The set is minimal but interesting; the entire stage appears to be enclosed in a picture frame.  There are no real set pieces, save the orchestra at center stage.  The 15 person orchestra is seated on three levels rising from the stage.  It is a musical, and the orchestra is certainly central to any musical.  However, the set reduces the stage area by half, and that restricts some of the larger production numbers. 
Chicago is a dynamite opening for the Broadway in Colorado Springs season, and it’s a great omen for the other Broadway touring productions headed to the Pikes Peak Center. 

NOTES:

This play had a limited, two night run, September 17-18.  If you missed it, well, you really missed a very good time.
This show is not appropriate for pre-teens; it includes adult themes, adult situations, adult language, and simulated violence.
Preshow dining suggestion:  Saigon Café, 20 East Colorado Avenue, Colorado Springs.  It’s about a 3 minute walk to the theater, and the Vietnamese menu is impressive.  I tried the hot and spicy beef lemongrass, which was excellent.  Bottled beers include Saigon, which is brewed…wait for it…in Saigon.
Photo Credits:  Pikes Peak Center



 
 
 

Director:  Walter Bobbie  (Director/Recreation:  David Hyslop)
Choreography:  David Bushman

Music Director:  Jack Gaughan

Set Design:  John Lee Beatty
Lighting Design:  Ken Billington

Sound Design:  Scott Lehrer

CAST:

Roxie Hart:  Paige Davis
Velma Kelly:  Terra C. MacLeod
Amos Hart:  Todd Buonopane
Matron Mama Morton:  Carol Woods
Billy Flynn:  Brent Barrett

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo


Playwright: Rajiv Joseph
Company:  The Edge Theatre Company
VenueThe Edge Theater,  1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, CO
Running Time:  2 hours, 10 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission)
Date of Performance:  Sunday, September 1, 2013

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (also referred to as Tiger below) is a dramatization of some real events in 2003.   As American soldiers and marines attacked and occupied Baghdad, the Baghdad Zoo was destroyed.  Only 35 of the approximately 650 animals survived.  The rest were released or killed by looters.  Many were eaten for food, and many others starved when the zookeepers were no longer able to feed and care for them.
Rajiv Joseph's script uses the destruction of the Baghdad Zoo as a springboard for some very serious themes:  the cruelty of war, the loss of human dignity, and the conflict between one's mission and one's morals.  However, Joseph's overarching goal in Tiger is to ponder what appear to be the mutually exclusive concepts of war and God.
I think it is safe to say that the American public was only aware of the Iraq war in a superficial, sanitized sense.  The reality, of course, was much more brutal, much more cruel, and much less moral than we may have imagined.  Stories of torture and murder at Abu Ghraib and Mahmudiyah notwithstanding, war coverage rarely included the daily grind of death and destruction.
Joseph spares us no messy details as he confronts the paradox of moral depravity, cruelty, and suffering in a world supposedly ordered by a Supreme Being.  "What God would create a predator, then condemn him for preying?"  It's a question each of us must answer for ourselves.
The Edge Theatre's production of Tiger is an outstanding example of what a talented cast and crew can do with a pointed and profound script.  From the opening scene, one cannot look away for an instant.  We quickly become engaged with the moral dilemmas as we discover that Tom (Nathan Bock) is not the soldier/savior we imagine, but a looter who wants to get rich with his stolen booty.
Kev (Kevin Lowry) and Tom (Nathan Bock)
With only a few props, Director Richard R. Cowden and Scenic Designer Price Johnston have transformed the small Edge Theatre stage into a working war zone.  It's no easy feat, but the Tiger set is a small marvel. 
Cowden wisely stages Tiger in the round.  In this intimate setting, the audience feels that it is in the "action," as opposed to observing it.  The effect is especially noticeable near the end of the second act, as Tom (played by Kevin Bock) lays dying of a gunshot wound.  His proximity to the other actors is virtually the same as it is to the audience.  We cannot help but feel his anguish as his life slips away before our eyes.  
In another nice touch, Cowden helps the audience distinguish between Kev (Kevin Lowry) the soldier and Kev the ghost.  Although still in his combat fatigues, Kev appears barefooted as a ghost.  It's a small but telling clue that Kev is no longer among the living.
Tiger (Paul Page)
The performances are all very strong.  Paul Page gets an excellent opportunity to show his acting chops as Tiger, and he wastes none of that opportunity.  He paces in his cage, he growls, and takes on all the big cat mannerisms while acting as a narrator who tells the story and asks the important questions in the process.  Page benefits from Joseph's strong writing in the first scene of the second act; Joseph benefits from Page's compelling, engaging monologue about the young girl in God's Garden.  Page's 5-10 minutes of intimate story telling here may be the best 5-10 minutes of drama this season.
Nathan Bock (Tom) and Kevin Lowry (Kev) embody the moral dilemmas of those sent to do a very dirty job.  They are, literally and figuratively, ghosts of the people they once were.  They have lost parts of themselves, and will never be the same as a result.  Bock and Lowry run the range of their roles like the expert actors they are, going from friends to enemies, from dedicated soldiers to lost souls, eliciting sympathy and even pity from the audience.
Sam Gilstrap (Musa), Yasmin Sweets (Iraqi Woman), and Miranda Vargas (Hadia/Iraqi Teen) have difficult roles; they not only have to act out the delicate situations the script hands them, but they also have to do it with credible Arabic lines.  They nail the Arabic, just as they nail the hopeless situations they find themselves in as citizens of an occupied country.  Alberto Ocampo (Uday) adds the look and the personality of Uday Hussein.  Ocampo's Uday is as cool as he is cruel, as confident as he is insensitive.

The offstage talent here deserves special credit.  Firyal Alshalabi has done a superb job of coaching the cast on their Arabic lines; the results are consistently credible.  Diana Ben-Kiki's wig work is excellent.  Costume designer Caroline Smith has somehow gotten her hands on some very authentic combat gear, and has made the Iraqi women on stage look like they just stepped out of the streets of Baghdad.
This is one of those productions that many will find challenging, and even disturbing.  Those are two very good reasons to see it.  We are currently undergoing a political and policy discussion about whether to get involved in yet another armed conflict in the Middle East.  Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a thought provoking punch in the gut about the consequences of our military adventures.  
Could there be better time for The Edge Theatre to produce a play that confronts us with the gravity of our military decisions?  I think not.  This is an excellent script in the hands of a talented cast and crew presented at a critical point in time.  See it.  Ask yourself the question:  how do I reconcile the brutality of war with the existence of God?  If you can't answer that question, perhaps you will have a good start on how you feel about military action in Syria...or any other place for that matter.

NOTES:  
There is ample parking on the street and on the north side of the theater.  This show is not suitable for younger teenagers or preteens.  Seating is limited, and tickets will be difficult to get.  You may want to book seats as early as possible.
This show closes on September 29, 2013.  
Photo Credits:  The Edge Theatre Company

Director:  Richard R. Cowden
Scenic Design:  Price Johnston
Sound Design:  Richard R. Cowden
Lighting Design:  Andy Killion
Costume Design:  Caroline Smith
Wig Design:  Diana Ben-Kiki
Arabic Language Consultant:  Firyal Alshalabi
Stage Manager:  Nina Harris

Cast:
Tiger:  Paul A. Page 
Tom:  Nathan Bock
Kev: Kevin Lowry
Musa:  Sam Gilstrap
Iraqi Woman:  Yasmin Sweets
Hadia/Iraqi Teen:  Miranda Vargas
Uday:  Alberto Ocampo