Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tarzan The Stage Musical

Book by:  David Henry Hwang
Music and Lyrics by:  Phil Collins
Running Time:  2 hour, 15 minutes (includes 20 minute intermission).
Date of Performance:  Sunday, July 20, 2014
You know you're in for something special as soon as Tarzan The Stage Musical opens in Act 1, Scene 1.  You're immersed in an African jungle, as thunder, lightning, and a driving rain surround you.  Your view is filtered through a scrim in front of characters on a cliff, struggling to make it through the storm, vulnerable to a deadly leopard attack.  The sound, the lighting, and the total effect is one not unlike a post-impressionist painting by Henri Rousseau.  The Tarzan opening tableau is at once a beautiful but frightening masterpiece.  It is one of the most engaging opening scenes I have ever witnessed.
Henri Rousseau, Tiger in A Tropical Storm (1891)  Credit:  Wikipedia.
What follows is a kind of magical, if sometimes meandering, journey through two cultures; one of gorillas, and the other a British scientific expedition.  
With such a powerful opening scene, one is given to wonder whether the rest of the production can live up to the appetizer.  On every technical and professional level, Tarzan does indeed deliver on its opening promise.
Shannon McKinney's jungle lighting is superb; one gets the distinct impression that we are really seeing the rainforest, not a stage.  David Thomas treats the audience to an auditory gem, mixing music,vocals, and jungle background sounds, creating a totally immersive audio experience.  Think of the best movie sound tracks you have heard in surround sound.  That's what Thomas has done for Tarzan.
Making actors look like gorillas is pretty near impossible, but Meredith S. Murphy's costumes, combined with Diana Ben-Kiki's wigs and makeup, are about as close as you can get.  The effect is splendid; one immediately accepts the actors as gorillas.  
The Arvada Center has wisely engaged the considerable talents of Flying by Foy to swing its actors over and above the stage.  The vine swinging Tarzan and his gorilla family give the show the flavor of the original "noble savage" Tarzan of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Considering the dangers of putting multiple actors on swinging vines for substantial parts of the performance, The Arvada Center deserves abundant credit for hiring Flying by Foy to insure their safety.
Brian Mallgrave's set design is a fully functional representation of a jungle rainforest.  However, it is not just functional; it is also a majestic green playground for his actors.
Every single technical, costume, make up, sound, set and lighting detail is spot on.  Tarzan is a BIG Broadway musical, and the Arvada Center has spared no expense to make it look, sound, and feel like a major Broadway production.  
Jennifer Lorae (Jane Porter) and Brian Ogilvie (Tarzan).

Brian Ogilvie is a picture perfect Tarzan, with washboard abs and a loincloth, he becomes the ape man.  The fact that he is gorgeous, though, does not distract the audience from seeing his immense acting and singing talents.  He is the whole package, bringing the title character alive.
Andrew Russell is imposing as the gorilla Terk, befriending Tarzan and helping him adapt to the gorilla culture.  Laurence A. Curry (Kerchak) is the patriarch of Tarzan's gorilla family, and Curry is adept at being both wise and frightening, sometimes simultaneously.  At the show I saw, Curry had a few minor vocal missteps in his otherwise capable performance.
Laurence Curry (Kerchak) and Shannon Steele (Kala).
Jennifer Lorae (Jane Porter) portrays Jane as both a proper British lady and woman who is physically attracted to Tarzan.  Her alternating innocence and lusting are both well played; Lorae is capable of showing us both personalities in the same character.  Her British accent is impeccable, and Tarzan's mutual attraction to her is easy for us to understand.
Shannan Steele (Kala) is Tarzan's surrogate gorilla mother; she is caring, loving, gentle, and charming.  She adopts the human boy and loves him as her own son.  Steele bridges the cultural gap, offering Tarzan a true and loving gorilla family.  Even under heavy make up and a gorilla suit, Steele is the focal point every time she is on stage.
Make no mistake; Tarzan is an impressive production.  However, like most musicals, it is more about the music than the message.  The message here, for my taste, is a weak one: What is the cruelest beast in the jungle?.  I understand that I may not be the ideal demographic for Tarzan.  At its core, it is a show for kids, and it works very well for that target audience.  
Since musicals are more about the music than the message, that music has to be engaging.  Here, again, Tarzan is disappointing.  Phil Collins, who has had an impressive career making music, gives us little to remember here.  The score includes one of his fairly well known songs, You'll Be In My Heart, but otherwise, the music is largely forgettable.  I can pretty much guarantee that no one will leave the theater humming a tune from Tarzan.
I do, however, recommend Tarzan, as it is a marvelous production despite a lackluster script.  If you have kids, bring them.  Not only will they love it, but this is the kind of Broadway show that can inspire kids to get into theater.  For that reason alone, you should consider taking your kids to Tarzan.

This show is suitable all ages, and highly recommended for kids of all ages.  
This show closes on August 3, 2014. 

Pre or post show dining suggestion:  
Beaujo's Colorado Style Pizza, 7525 W. 53rd Avenue, Arvada CO, 80002.  Beaujo's is only a few minutes drive to or from the Arvada Center, and offers a traditional Colorado pizza menu.  Choose from Mountain Pies, Prairie Pies, and gluten free pizzas.  Sandwiches, a salad bar, and a full bar are also available.  Happy hour is 3:00-6:00 PM, with daily specials on wells, wines, and beers.

Tickets HERE.
Photo CreditsArvada Center For The Arts & Humanities, P. Switzer.

Director:  Gavin Meyer
Musical Director: David Nehls
Scenic Design:  Brian Mallgrave
Lighting Design:  Shannon McKinney
Sound Design:  David Thomas
Costume Design:  Meredith S. Murphy
Choreographer:   Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck (also appearing as the Leopard)
Wig & Make Up Design:  Diana Ben-Kiki

Tarzan:  Brian Ogilvie
Jane Porter:  Jennifer Lorae
Kala:  Shannan Steele
Kerchak:  Laurence A. Curry

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Full Monty

Book by:  Terrance McNally

Music & Lyrics:  David Yazbek

Company:  Theatre Aspen

Venue:  The Hurst Theatre, 470 Rio Grande Place, Aspen CO, 81611

Running Time:  2 hours 45 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission)

Date of Performance:  Saturday, July 12, 2014

Theatre Aspen has an ambitious summer schedule; there are three shows running simultaneously in July, The Full Monty among them.  You might think the pace could dilute the quality, but you would be wrong.  The Full Monty is a first rate, fun, sexy, and raucous musical powerhouse.

For those who have seen neither the 1997 film nor the Broadway musical, The Full Monty is essentially a male strip show with a message.  The musical moves the story from England to Buffalo NY, where six unemployed steelworkers are desperately seeking both employment and dignity.  When the bank forecloses, the child support is in arrears, and the job outlook is bleak, desperate men will take desperate measures.  They will even strip for cash to pay the bills.

The Full Monty gives women and couples permission to gawk, leer, and cheer for the "regular guys" who will give them what they want:  the FULL Monty.  No teasing, no winking, no false modesty, but the full frontal fun that doesn't require a trip to a sleazy strip club.  Judging from the audience reaction, everyone was taking full advantage of the opportunity to have some of that forbidden fun.

Terrance McNally's book rises above the sexy subject matter, if only slightly, to reinforce some important family values.  The message here is that there is dignity in being or becoming the best father and husband possible.  Grace, courage, and ingenuity trump the shame and embarrassment of showing your "goods" to a thousand screaming fans.  It's a worthwhile message, but The Full Monty is really about having fun.  At that, it is a wild success.

It would be an understatement to say that the performers are very talented; their bios in the program are replete with Broadway, off-Broadway, regional theater, and film credits.  These are not your aspiring stars.  They are highly successful actors having a summer lark in the mountains.  
They've got the goods.

Take, for example, Tally Sessions, who plays Jerry Lukowski.  His Broadway credits include Big Fish and The House of Blue Leaves.  As the lead character for The Full Monty, he gets the chance to display not just his acting chops, but also his talent for singing and dancing.  He takes full advantage of the opportunity; he is unquestionably a true "triple threat."  His Jerry is sufficiently desperate, sufficiently pathetic, and, most importantly, a sufficiently devoted father.  Sessions brings all the dimensions of Lukowski's character into sharp focus, and injects a mischievous sense of fun into it in the process.

Of course, Sessions is not the only talent on the Theatre Aspen stage.  The show starts with a bawdy, brassy strip show put on by Richard Jarrett ("Keno" Walsh).  I've seen 3-4 productions of The Full Monty, but Jarrett's "warm up" act is by far the best I've ever seen.  In fact, "warm up" doesn't do it justice.  He heats up the crowd to a fever pitch.  Dane Agostinis (Dave Bukatinsky) is marvelous; he exudes masculinity and fragility in equal measure.  Where the others have "six packs," Agostinis has a twelve pack on display.  As he says, "who wants to see THIS dance?"  

The answer, of course, is we all do.  Agostinis represents all of us, the regular guys and gals who do our best to hide our flaws from the world.  We want to see him dance because that gives the rest of us hope that we could do the same.  He overcomes his fear of laughter and humiliation, and in the process, helps all of us with our fears.

The musicians are excellent, but the mix is sometimes a little too heavy; the lyrics can jumble at times.  That said, though, The Full Monty, a la Theatre Aspen, is a high energy hoot.  The production values are top shelf, the talent is amazing, and the venue is spectacular.  If you are looking for a summer mountain getaway, get your tickets.  It's the best show in town, and maybe the best musical in Colorado right now.

Hurst Theatre, Theatre Aspen.


Parking can be difficult, but there is a public garage at the Visitor Center on Rio Grande.  The theater is in Rio Grande Park, about a 5 minute walk from the parking garage.  The theater is the tent-like structure just past the skate park.

If you have time, spend a few minutes (or longer) at the John Denver Sanctuary, adjacent to the theater.  It's a beautiful and fitting memorial to the man and his music.  Lyrics to some of his most famous songs are etched into stones in the Song Garden.

This show closes on August 9, 2014.  

This show is suitable for mature teenagers; but it is not recommended for children under 12. 

Pre or post show dining suggestion:  

Aspen is a foodie paradise.  However, even in the summer, reservations are recommended at the best restaurants.  Since I'm not a foodie, I won't make a recommendation for fine dining in Aspen.  Rather, I will just give you a link or two to help you get started if you're into fine dining.

Forbes Travel Guide

Food and Wine

Taster's Pizza, Aspen.
Much more to my simple tastes was Taster's Pizza, 455 Rio Grande Place, conveniently located at near the parking garage for Theatre Aspen.  Pizza, calzones, pasta, and salads, fast and at a reasonable price.  It's NOT for 
foodies.  It's for the rest of us.

Photo Credits: Theatre Aspen

Creative Team:

Director/Choreographer:  Mark Martino

Musical Direction:  Eric Alsford

Scenic Design/Lighting:  Paul Black  

Sound Design:  David Thomas  :  

Production Manager:  Vernon Willet

Costumer:  Nicole M. Harrison


David Dyer:  Conductor, Keyboards

Nicole Patrick:  Drums, Percussion

Scott Wasserman:  Abelton Programmer


Georgie Bukatinsky:  Nancy Anderson

Buddy "Keno" Walsh/Ensemble:  Richard Jarrett

Reg Willoughby/Ensemble:  Ed Foran

Marty/Ton Giordano/Ensemble:  John Caliendo

Jerry Lukowski:  Tally Sessions

Dave Bukatinsky:  Dane Agositinis

Malcolm McGregor:  Ben Liebert

Ethan Girard:  Spencer Plachy

Nathan Lukowski:  Carter Graham

Susan Hershey/Molly/Ensemble:  Amber Carson

Joanie Lish/Ensemble:  Kyra Wharton

Estelle Genovese/Ensemble:  Elise Kinnon

Pam Lukowski:  Erica Aubrey

Teddy Slaughter/Ensemble:  Todd Fenstermaker

Harold Nichols:  James Ludwig

Vicki Nichols:  Michele Ragusa

Jeanette Burmesiter:  Mary Stout

Noah "Horse" T. Simmons:  Randy Donaldson

Dolores/Ensemble:  Bailey Frankenberg

Friday, July 11, 2014

Gruesome Playground Injuries

Gruesome Playground Injuries by Raviv Joseph.  Doug (Jamie Wollrab), Kayleen (Laila Ayad)
Playwright:  Rajiv Joseph
Company:  Triptych Theatre Company
Venue:  Carsen Theatre, The Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder CO, 80302.
Running Time:  1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission).
Date of Performance:  Thursday, July 10, 2014 (Preview performance)

Rajiv Joseph is a gifted playwright; his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo garnered him a finalist nomination for a Pulitzer Prize in 2010.  Bengal Tiger is a broad, profound and challenging script, dealing with very big issues.  Unlike Bengal Tiger, Gruesome Playground Injuries (hereafter GPI) narrowly focuses on two self destructive friends who are incapable of emotional growth.
While the two plays have distinctly different focal points, both put the audience in awkward, powerful and yet delicate emotional situations that show us real people at their best...and at their worst.
GPI tells a non-linear story about Doug (Jamie Wollrab) and Kayleen (Laila Ayad) over a period of 30 years.  Friends since they were both eight years old, Doug and Kayleen constantly drift apart and then reconnect during their personal crises.  Doug specializes in physical injuries; he "breaks his face" on the playground and gets hit by lightning, for starters.  Kayleen's crises are more emotional than physical, although her rape contains both elements.  Neither is capable of learning from his or her mistakes.  The episodic crises in bedrooms and emergency rooms are both predictable and inevitable. 
Triptych's production features crackling performances from both Jamie Wollrab and Laila Ayad.  Their chemistry is palpable; their friendship is so deep as to border on platonic love.  Their damaged souls are on constant display, whether they are 8 years old or full grown adults.  
Wollrab is an accomplished, first rate actor; here he ranges from a hurt little boy to a broken adult, evoking our empathy and our sympathy at every turn and at every age.  When Doug learns that Kayleen was raped, he is furious.  Wollrab explodes with sincere fury; he is clearly capable of killing the rapist.  As a child, Wollrab retreats into his little boy mode, speaking in a little boy voice, with little boy facial expressions.  His Doug is simultaneously innocent and toxic, devoted and distant, caring and careless.
Laila Ayad is a talented actress who both complements and confronts Wollrab.  Her alternately angry and loving relationship with Doug is masterful.  She fiercely provokes Doug at times, and yet she can tenderly touch him when he most needs a touch.  She can kiss him one moment, and vomit the next.  She alternately loves and hates Doug, and Ayad makes each moment credible and even logical.  
Director Eric Hunnicutt has added some interesting touches to his version of GPI. I counted approximately seven (7) costume changes for the cast; Hunnicut puts those costumes changes on stage, in full view of the audience.  The first was was a little jarring, but I came to see the costume changes as a metaphor for the these characters who do not "change" no matter what clothes they wear.  Neither Doug nor Kayleen grow emotionally over the 30 year span, and changing their clothes doesn't change their characters.  It's a constant reminder that Doug and Kayleen can change how they look but not who they are. 
Hunnicutt doesn't use projections or some other typical method to tell us what we need to know about the scene changes.  I won't spoil how he gives those cues to the audience, but I found it very effective.  It not only gives the audience the necessary information, but the information stays in their consciousness as the time line shifts back and forth.
Lights (Kevin Fulton) and sound (Rick Reid) are both effective and subtle.  Fulton lights the stage during the costume changes by having the actors switch on floor lamps.  He's signaling to the audience that a costume change is happening, and when the floor lamps are switched off, we know we're back to the story.  Rick Reid's sound design includes an unobtrusive but eery heart monitor during a scene in which Wollrab has literally no lines to speak.  Reid's background "beep...beep...beep" is all we need to hear from Wollrab.
Joseph's final scene is somewhat anticlimactic, leaving the audience in the emotional detritus of his two characters.  There is lesson, no growth, no resolution for them, or for us.  We have witnessed a 30 year friendship that nobly withstands episodic crises, but which never fully blossoms.  Joseph's question for us is "Do we have a Doug or a Kayleen in our lives?"  
Sadly, the answer for most of us is probably "yes."  
We know exactly who Doug and Kayleen are, because we know people just like them.  
Doug (Jamie Wollrab) and Kayleen (Laila Ayad).  
This show is suitable for teens and up.  Be aware, though, that the script includes adult language and implied rape and violence.
If you're traveling from the north, south, or east, plan on road construction on both Highways 36 and 93.  Both roads can be challenging until the work is done (if ever).  Possible alternate route:  I-25 to exit 229, then west on Highway 7.  Highway 7 becomes Baseline Road near Boulder.  
This show closes on July 20, 2014. 
Pre or post show dining suggestion:  

Cantina Laredo, 1680 29th Street (29th Street Mall) is close to the theater, and offers an upscale, gourmet Mexican menu.  Dos XX Lager and Amber on draft, and an excellent Margarita menu.  Happy Hour specials, 4:00-7:00 PM.  Dinner menu has several gluten free choices.  It's definitely an upscale atmosphere in the dining room; tables include white linen tablecloths.  Patio seating if you're feeling more casual (and if the weather permits).  Free (and plentiful) parking.

Photo Credits:  Triptych Theatre Company.

Director:  Eric Hunnicutt
Scenic Design:  Scott Schuster
Lighting Design:  Kevin Fulton
Sound Design:  Rick Reid
Costume Design:  Caroline Smith
Production/Stage Manager:  Lara Maerz

Doug:  Jamie Wollrab

Kayleen:  Laila Ayad

Sunday, July 6, 2014


L-R:  Shahara Ray (Joanne), Margaret Ozaki (Jenny), Adam Shelton (Bobby),  Danielle Gillespie (Susan)
Book by:  George Furth 
Music and Lyrics by:  Stephen Sondheim
Venue:  Bug Theatre Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street, Denver CO, 80211.
Running Time:  2 hours, 30 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission).
Date of Performance:  Saturday, July 5, 2014 
"Did you ever want to be single again, even for just an hour?"
It's an interesting, if somewhat cynical question.  Married or single?  Which is the better way to spend your life?  Is it better to have your "freedom" or to have "company" for life?  
Sondheim is perhaps the best living American contributor to musical theater; his works include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd.  Perhaps the crown jewels of his resume are the lyrics he wrote for West Side Story and Gypsy.  
Company won six (6) Tony Awards when it debuted on Broadway in 1971. 
Producing Company on the small stage at the Bug Theatre is a challenge.  With a cast of fourteen singers/actors, and a twelve piece orchestra (yes...that's right, a total of 26 performers), it's a huge project (see below for a detailed list of performers/musicians).  
Lest you think the task impossibly difficult, here's the news:  Equinox is more than equal to the challenge.
Director Colin Roybal has minimized the traffic problems created by so many actors entering and exiting the stage by seating them onstage, in the dark, in front of the orchestra.  They are still visible to the audience, but not part of the action.  They enter and exit, but they are constantly onstage.  In effect, they become a mirror of the audience, watching us through the dim light, as we watch them.  I thought this might be distracting.  It's not.  In fact, it rather reinforces the "company" theme they bring to the story.  They're like the "company" that lurks in our lives and never really leaves us.
Adam Shelton (Bobby)
Roybal's cast and orchestra are unquestionably talented.  Adam Shelton (Bobby) has a rich, full, voice to match his first rate acting skills.  Pay attention to his facial gestures; he can convey his mood with saying or singing a word.  Mica Dominguez-Robinson (Marta) has a heavenly voice, and she knows how to use it.  Paul (Matt Cantwell) stands out in every number; he's a natural on the stage.  In fact, all of the voices are superb; when the company combines their voices the effect is like a well tuned engine that both hums and roars. 
The onstage talent (and that includes the orchestra) is on
Side by Side by Side
full display as the second act opens with Side by Side by Side.  It's a marvelous, upbeat, rollicking, high energy gem of a tune that showcases the ample acting, singing, and dancing expertise of this cast.  (See this for an idea of how Side by Side by Side can light up a stage).  I sat up straight in my seat, marveling at the sights, sounds, and energy generated by these performers. 

Sondheim's story is complex, but not very profound, which would make Company a fairly typical Broadway musical.  Bobby's friends, despite their less than optimal marriages, are always trying to hook him up with the right girl.  It turns out that Bobby has already met the right girl(s).  Many of them.  He has also met some guys, and one of them may also be right for him, but he's not talking.  Bobby has a classic male aversion to commitment.  Whether he's ready to work on his relationship issues is something that you'll have to buy a ticket to find out.
It occurred to me that Bobby's dilemma may have a lot more relevance than I realized at first.  The nation is on the verge of permitting same sex marriages in all 50 states.  If you're gay, lesbian, or transgender, and if you've been thinking about marrying the person of your dreams, you may want to see Company just to get some witty and worthwhile perspective on the pros and cons of being married...or single.
I would be negligent if I failed to mention the orchestra, toiling, as it were, in the semi-darkness of their upstage lair.  It's not a musical without live music, and this orchestra is the heartbeat of Company.  So to the orchestra, a tip of my hat for making Sondheim's marvelous music come to life for all of us out in the audience. 
Equinox has taken on a weighty task, and triumphed over the challenges like the big leaguers they are.  Company is a standout, and a superb addition to the Equinox resumé.  In fact, it may well be their best musical production to date.
By way...if you're married, have you thought about the question I asked at the top of this post?  Would you like to be single again, even for just an hour?  
Whatever your answer would be, ask yourself another question now:
Do you really believe the grass is greener somewhere else?  

This show is suitable for teens and up.  Be aware, though, that the script includes drug use and adult situations.
This show closes on July 19, 2014. 

Pre or post show dining suggestion:  
Gaetano's Excellente Cucina and Cocktails, 3760 Tejon Street, Denver.  Not unlike the setting for the final scene of the final episode of The Sopranos, Gaetano's is an authentic Italian restaurant once frequented by the local Italian community.  Check out the mug shots in the restrooms; some of Gaetano's clients were wanted by the local and national law enforcement folks.
The food is excellent (try the Lobster Ravioli), and the cocktails are unique.  The sign in the bar states that "The choice of a cocktail is a statement of character."  Choose carefully.  
Free parking across the street.

Photo CreditsEquinox Theatre Company.
Director/Set & Light Design:  Colin Roybal
Music Direction:  Hunter Hall & Michelle Fitzgerald
Production Sound:  Curt Behm
Costume Design:  Susan Rahmsdorff

Bobby:  Adam Shelton
Marta:  Mica Dominguez-Robinson
Sarah:  Nancy Begley
David:  Devin Bustamante
Susan:  Danielle Gillespie
Larry:  Joel Silverman
Paul: Matt Cantwell
April:  Kristi Siedow-Thompson
Kathy:  Angela Mendez
Harry:  Patrick Brownson
Jenny:  Margaret Ozaki
Peter:  Timothy Kennedy
JoanneShahara Ray
Amy:  Natasha Gleichmann

Piano 1:  Michelle Fitzgerald
Piano 2:  Hunter Hall
Violin 1:  Aimee Nelson
Violin 2:  Nancy Larson
Viola:  Karen C. Keehn (Fridays), Marily De Queiroz (Saturdays)
Percussion:  Brian Jaffe
Trombone:  Gary Hand
Cello:  Kevin E. Johnson
Bass:  Ian Hanson
Reed 1:  JD Little
Reed 2:  Aeryk Parker
Trumpet:  Erica Jaffe