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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Church Basement Ladies Sequel: A Second Helping



Written by:  Greta Grosch (inspired by the bestselling book Growing Up Lutheran by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Martin).

Music and Lyrics by:  Dennis Curley and Drew Jansen

Company: BDT Stage

Venue:  BDT Stage (aka Boulder's Dinner Theatre), 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder CO 80303

Running Time:  2 hours, 20 minutes (includes 20 minute intermission)

Date of Performance:  Friday, September 12, 2014 (Opening Night performance)

Boulder's Dinner Theatre has long been known for it's excellence in producing dinner theater shows that keep us coming back time after time.  They have changed their name to BDT Stage, but with the same management, same team, and the same commitment to excellence, they have another winner on their hands:  The Church Basement Ladies Sequel:  A Second Helping.  

The Church Basement Ladies are back, and they're better than ever.

In fact, if you saw the original Church Basement Ladies at BDT Stage, you'll be pleased to see three of the actors back on stage:  Bren. Eyestone Burron, Barb Reeves, and Wayne Kennedy reprise their roles as Mavis, Vivian, and the Pastor.  

For those not familiar with the original, don't make the mistake of thinking you had to see that first.  It's not necessary to see the original show to understand and enjoy the sequel, which is a freestanding, freewheeling, musical comedy of the first order.  

The action takes place (surprise!) in a church basement kitchen somewhere in Minnesota, where the faithful ladies of the basement whip up food and wisdom in nearly equal portions.  For those who don't speak "Minnesotan," the program includes a page of definitions, including Lutefisk and Lefse, which thankfully don't appear on the BDT Stage dinner menu.  Nor can you get an "Egg Coffee" with your dinner:

"Coffee is a staple at any Lutheran gathering.  The water and grounds are boiled in a large pot on the stove, and an egg is added to catch the grounds.  That's Lutheran ingenuity."

Ugh.

L-R:  Sarah Grover (Beverly), Bren. Eyestone Burron (Mavis), Wayne Kennedy (Pastor), Barb Reeves (Vivian), Tracy Warren (Karin).


What you will get is a great story set in 1969-70, when the country was changing even as things stayed the same in the church basement (where the Vikings constantly raise hopes and then dash them).  The high school kids are mixing a little too well at the Mixer, the Viet Nam war is dividing the country, and women are demanding equality.  Karin (Tracy Warren) is having misgivings about being a church basement lady, and her daughter Beverly (Sarah Grover) is newly married and newly pregnant. In a "circle of life" plot twist, the baby is born as Karin's husband dies. Karin can't help but wonder what she has missed out on by limiting her life to the church basement.  She is right to wonder...and we might want to do the same.  We may not be devoted to a basement kitchen, but we probably have other self imposed limits that become crystal clear when we are confronted with our mortality.

Interestingly, the only male character, the Pastor (Wayne Kennedy) is the one who totally breaks out of the mold.  Although he is perhaps the least likely character to move out of the basement, he surprises us with a complete transformation into a touchy, feely, even "groovy" version of an urban minister. Congrats to costume designer Linda Morken, who dresses the Pastor in a period costume that stuns us with its flair and its fun (and, "it's reversible!").
 
As you have come to expect from BDT Stage/Boulder's Dinner Theatre, the set, the lights, the music are all first rate.  Curt Wollan's direction is inspired by his mother, "the consommate church basement lady."  Curt clearly knows his mother and the culture very well; there's not a false note anywhere in the production.  I know; I grew up in Wisconsin, which is nearly as Lutheran as Minnesota.

Church Basement Ladies Sequel: A Second Helping is not just entertainment.  It's social commentary about a time and a place, and it's a life lesson.  We all need to get out of our comfort zones to experience the fullness of life.  Most traditions serve a purpose, but there can be value in breaking with traditions that needlessly limit our lives.  I think the expression "life begins at the end of your comfort zone" is true, and BDT Stage has an entertaining, fun, and hilarious way to remind us of that truth.  

I expected to be entertained, and to laugh when I went to Church Basement Ladies Sequel:  A Second Helping.  I was not disappointed...I WAS entertained and I DID laugh (a lot).  As I was leaving the theater, though, I smiled about what I didn't expect: a lesson in life.  The Church Basement Ladies are wise as well as funny, and I am a better person for having spent a few hours with them.  
Church Basement Ladies, A Second Helping is great family entertainment with a special message.  You will laugh at them, but the Ladies are the kind of people we know and love.  It's a pleasure and a privilege to spend a couple of hours with them at the BDT Stage.

NOTES:  

There is ample parking at BDT Stage, with parking lots on both the north and the south sides of the building. 

This show closes on November 8, 2014.  This show is suitable for all ages.  You don't have to be Lutheran to have a great time at this show.  If you happen to be Lutheran, this is one show you should definitely NOT miss.


Pre or post show dining suggestion:  

NONE.  Dinner is included in the price of your ticket.  

I had the Prime Rib French Dip sandwich, which was scrumptious.  Other options include Chicken Cordon Bleu, a new Vegetable Coconut Curry, and the always popular Potato Crusted Cod.  There are seven (7) choices in all for your entree, and two others for an additional charge.  

BDT  Stage is known both for outstanding theater AND for an outstanding menu.  Enjoy, but don't forget to tip your waiter.  Dinner is approximately 1/3 of your ticket price; tip accordingly.  No.  Wait.  Be generous.  The cast may be waiting your table, and they deserve your best tip.  They are giving you their best, both at dinner and on the stage.


Tickets HERE.

Photo Credits: BDT Stage
 

Creative Team:

Director:  Curt Wollan

Musical Director:  Neal Dunfee

Scenic Design: Amy Campion

Lighting Design:  Brett Maughan

Sound Design:  Wayne Kennedy

Technical Director:  Jared Williams

Costume Design:  Linda Morken

Choreographer:  Jessica Hindsley

Producer:  Michael J. Duran



Cast:

Vivian:  Barb Reeves

Mavis:  Bren. Eyestone Burron

Karin:  Tracy Warren

Beverly:  Sarah Grover

Pastor:  Wayne Kennedy

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Grounded



Playwright:  George Brant

Venue:  The AvenueTheater, 417 East 17th Avenue, Denver CO, 80203.
Running Time:  1 hour 25 minutes (no intermission).
Date of Performance:  Sunday, September 14, 2014 (Regional Premiere)

Grounded is a war story, but one unlike any you've seen before.  It turns the brutality, the danger, and the risk of war on its head.  Modern war is combat without casualties, victory with minimum risk.
Laura Norman is one of the best actresses in the Denver area, and the winner of the Best Actress in a Drama Henry Award in 2013.  It's hardly surprising that she turns in a tour de force performance in Grounded.  That's a good thing; she's the only actor on stage in an 85 minute one woman show.  Not only is she alone on stage, but she has exactly 2 props:  a chair and a water bottle.
Norman's challenge here begins with memorizing 85 minutes of dialog (or, more properly stated, 85 minutes of monologue).  But that is only the beginning.  The audience has to imagine nearly everything she says.  There's no representative scenery, no military props, no concrete image of war.  She has to MAKE us see the war.  She has to MAKE us see her family and co-workers.  The only tools she has available are the script, her gestures, and her facial expressions.  That she can do so much with so little is a testament to her superb acting abilities.
Just like The Pilot's F-16, Norman's performance is also "state of the art."  She carries on a non-stop conversation with herself and the audience as she deals with the profound questions raised in Grounded.  She's an experienced F-16 pilot; cool, calm, rational, and accustomed to dealing with danger.  No.  Make that comfortable with danger.  Comfortable with risk.  Comfortable with the constant threat of dying in combat.  All of which makes her ultimate crisis at the end of her performance even more striking.
To call the set simple is both correct and yet misleading; there is a light box backdrop for Norman's performance.  It is an LED device, as the credits include both an engineer and a programmer for that backdrop.  There is also a second LED light box that Norman stands on (approximately 10 feet square and 8" above the stage). Both light boxes turn on and off on cue, adding color and texture both behind and below Norman.
Lighting of the more traditional kind (as opposed to LED boxes) is excellent here, especially in the last scene as Norman's face is lit by a single spot light which dramatically dims to complete darkness.  
F-16.  Photo credit:  Defense Talk
Color is important to The Pilot; she is an F-16 pilot in the Air Force; blue is where her heart and home are.  The blue of the sky is like a magnet...she would rather be there than pretty much anywhere else.  The light boxes give the audience the necessary blue visual clues whenever The Pilot is thinking about flying her F-16. 
Josh Hartwell's direction is impressive.  He has blocked Norman's 85 minutes on the stage with various positions for the chair and appropriate breaks with the water bottle. Every move Hartwell has put Norman through is designed to help her tell her story. When she stops to drink from the water bottle, the audience can't wait for her to finish drinking and continue telling us about her war.
I don't want to go into details about the story, as I don't want to expose too much of the plot.   If you'd like details, check the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company web page, which has a brief plot summary.  I will say that Norman is The Pilot who gets grounded, and that it is very difficult for her to handle.
Grounded raises important moral questions about war, and equally important legal and practical questions about privacy.  Both the moral and the privacy questions are provocative.  
Reaper Drone.  Photo credit:  Drone Wars
  • Is it a war or a video game if your plane is a drone?  
  • Are any of us safe from the prying cameras that are literally everywhere in our culture now?

The first question is probably easier; war has always been a "state of the art" exercise.  Those with the superior weapons (be they clubs, bows/arrows, guns, or bombs) nearly always win.  
Drones are a state of the art weapon, and those who would fight them with swords and rifles are probably doomed.  The real question is whether a drone pilot, who is thousands of miles from the battlefield, is a warrior or a gamer.  It's an open question, and one that may will be debated for a long time.
The more difficult question here is the privacy one.  They're often called "security cameras," but whose security is protected when everything we do is watched by someone?  Privacy has perhaps become an antiquated notion; very little traditional privacy still exists.
Laura Norman.  Props:  1 chair, 1 water bottle. Light boxes behind and below.
BETC has another "wonderful story, wonderfully told" in Grounded.  
This is a short run.  It's a rare chance to see Laura Norman own the stage for 85 minutes.  You will be challenged, and you will be mesmerized.  You may look up at the blue sky after the show and see things a little differently.  And you may pay more attention to all the "security" cameras in your world...at least the ones you can see.  

NOTES:  
Grounded contains strong language and intense scenes.  There are several "F Bombs," along with some fairly graphic sexual references.
The Avenue Theater is in one of the most densely populated parts of Denver.  Street parking is an option, so allow sufficient time to circle the block a few times.   If necessary, you may have to use one of the nearby pay lots.  There are a number of restaurants and bars within 2-3 blocks of the theater.
This show closes on September 28, 2014. 

Pre or post show dining suggestion:  
Rather than a recommendation, this is a truly a "suggestion."  Avoid eating at the nearby and well known Stuben's Restaurant at 523 East 17th Avenue, Denver.  We made that mistake, and will never be back.  HERE are the details.

Photo CreditsThe Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company except where otherwise credited.  

Creative Team:
Director:  Josh Hartwell
Production Designer:  Andrew Metzroth
LED Engineering & Construction:  Ted Metzroth
LED Software Programmer:  Stephen McCray
Costume Design:  Brenda King

Cast:
The Pilot:  Laura Norman

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ludlow, 1914


Created by:  Brian Freeland and the LIDA Project
Venue:  Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theatre, 3955 Regent Circle, Colorado Springs CO 80918.
Date of Performance:  Thursday, September 11, 2014. (Opening night performance.)
Theatreworks is known for taking risks.  They produced Every Man On the Bus last year; the stage was actually a city bus meandering through Colorado Springs.  They produced Venus in Fur earlier this year in a vacant industrial building downtown.  Both were marvelous, edgy productions that provided audiences with a unique experience.
The premiere of Ludlow, 1914, was another such risk.  Murray Ross, Artistic Director for Theatreworks, describes Ludlow, 1914 as follows:
"It is a deliberately fragmented series of physically based expressionistic scenes prompted by the Ludlow conflict and experience-we are calling it a 'dramatic vaudeville.'"
It's not a documentary.  It's "dramatic vaudeville."  
The LIDA Project put the script together, using a collaboration of a collective creative ensemble.  That script turns out to be nearly as chaotic and disturbing as the Ludlow Massacre itself.
Sitting in the audience waiting for the curtain to go up on Ludlow, 1914, one sees musicians and actors milling about the stage, chatting, tuning instruments, and otherwise just killing time.  Strangely, they are not in character, and seem to be unaware of, or disinterested in, the audience just a few feet away.  As the play begins, an actor tells us to turn off our cell phones as he begins the show by yelling out light cues to the tech booth.  
The combined effect of the pre-show promenade and the audible light cues is jarring; it gives the impression that the performance is more improvisational than scripted.
As the show begins, we are transported back 70,000,000 years to the Cretaceous period;
Celebrating the Earth Monster.
the beginning of the process of transforming plant and animal life into coal and oil.  We are introduced to the unseen "Mother Earth Monster," a fictional character who comes and goes throughout the performance.  I get it; this is an allegory about our use of fossil fuels.  I also understand the relevance to the Ludlow mine tragedy.  Unfortunately, this allegory distracts greatly from what would otherwise be the focus:  the men, women, and children who died in a massacre in April, 1914.
The script for Ludlow, 1914 takes so many detours that the drama  is secondary to the political and historical spin injected by the LIDA Project.  For example, we are treated to Mother Jones in drag.   What would be the point of portraying Mother Jones, probably the most prominent woman in the labor movement in U.S. history, in drag, if not to mock and diminish her legacy for cheap laughs?  Is this "dramatic vaudeville?"  If so, I've seen enough.
Socialism vs. Capitalism.  No contest.
If only Mother Jones in drag were the only diversion from the tragedy at Ludlow.  It's not.  The script also includes a heavyweight fight featuring, in one corner, Capitalism, (in a costume resembling Uncle Pennybags, the Monopoly Banker), weighing in at 800 pounds.  In the other corner, we have Socialism, weighing in at 90 pounds.  Not to spoil the plot here, but Socialism loses badly.  
The final scene of Ludlow, 1914, is, predictably, the massacre.  It is staged, however, such that the audience isn't sure how to react.  Finally, after 20-30 seconds, there was some uncertain clapping, as the show appeared to be over.  
To be clear, my dispute with Ludlow, 1914, is related to the fragmented and fanciful script.  The production of that script is capably directed and acted.  Still, a great production of a flawed script is rarely a memorable theater experience.  
The LIDA Project's motto is "Art designed to infect the mind..."  Indeed.  Infected does seem to be the appropriate verb.  One should leave the theater entertained or provoked by the subject matter, not by the novelty of the presentation.  Great risk holds the promise of great reward, but also the possibility of failure.  Theatreworks and the LIDA Project must be commended for taking great risk.  That said, however, the rewards for that risk are elusive here.  
Experimental theater is unconventional, but it still has to tell a story.  Theatreworks and the LIDA Project have taken one of the most dramatic and tragic events in Colorado history and muddled the story almost beyond recognition.  Ludlow 1914 is a lost opportunity.  
As the printed program properly points out, there is a generalized ignorance of the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado.  It's a moment in our history that inexplicably remains obscure.  I had high expectations that Ludlow, 1914 would start to change that ignorance.  Sadly, it's unlikely to move the needle at all.  
I'm not one of those Coloradans who is ignorant of the Ludlow Massacre; I've stood on the
Ruins of Ludlow after the massacre.  Photo credit:  Wikipedia.
ground at the site where those 66 people died.  It's a remote, solemn, lonely place.  It's not funny.  It's not vaudeville.  It was real people, gunned down and/or burned to death by the Colorado National Guard and the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (a John D. Rockefeller enterprise) camp guards.  
The New York Times had this description:  
The Ludlow camp is a mass of charred debris, and buried beneath it is a story of horror imparalleled [sic] in the history of industrial warfare. In the holes which had been dug for their protection against the rifles' fire the women and children died like trapped rats when the flames swept over them. One pit, uncovered [the day after the massacre] disclosed the bodies of ten children and two women.
UMW Ludlow Memorial.  Photo credit:  Wikipedia.
It's a story that should be told; and a story that is unfortunately diminished by a whimsical and unfocused script in Ludlow, 1914

NOTES:  
As I can't recommend Ludlow, 1914, I offer readers some helpful links to learn more about the Ludlow Massacre.  If you're unaware of the events of April, 1914, these links will give you a great deal of insight into the tragedy.
The Design Team here includes job descriptions that I do not recognize from any other production.  Since I do not know what a Pixel Twister/Cinematographer, an Incandescence Artisian, an Anti-Gravity Consultant, or a Ghost Light Metalsmith does, I did not include them in the list below.
This show closes on September 28, 2014. 

Photo CreditsTheatreworks, unless otherwise credited.
Tickets HERE.

Director:  Brian Freeland
Dramaturge:  Murray Ross 
Collaborator:  Jeannene Bragg
Production Scenographer:  Steven J. Deidel
Co-Scenic Design:  Alex Polzin 
Co-Lighting Design:  Stevie Caldarola
Costume Design:  Betty Ross

CAST:
MEN                               WOMEN                             CHILDREN
ERIK BREVIK              RACHAEL BAKER             JACK ENGLISH
TERRY BURNSED      BETH CLEMENTS             SANAA FORD
MARK CANNON     JANE FROMM                     EVAN SLAVENS
BRUCE CARTER     MARGARET KASAHARA     MICAH WILBORN
                                                                                    KATELYN STURT
TRAVIS DUNCAN                                                     GALEN WESTMORELAND
DAVID HASTINGS                                      
TOM PARADISE

JEREMIAH WALTER

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Memphis



Book & Lyrics by:  Joe DePietro
Music & Lyrics by:  David Bryan
Running Time:  2 hour 40 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission).  
Date of Performance:  Tuesday, September 9, 2014. (Opening night performance.)
Jim Hogan (as Huey Calhoun)

Memphis takes place (obviously) in Memphis, Tennessee in 1951, when Huey Calhoun (Jim Hogan), a white teenager, pokes his head into an underground rhythm & blues night club.  Despite his chilly reception, he hangs out with the black patrons long enough to demonstrate that he can sing and dance as well as the next (white) guy.  Delray (Keith L. Hatten), the club owner, tolerates Huey, but draws a line when he senses Huey is attracted to his sister Felecia (Aisha Jackson).
From that rather bold but not very wise  start, Huey, through what was then known as "race music," breaks through the segregation of a major southern city to expose both races to new experiences.  I think an expression from the French Revolution is helpful here;  "you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs."  Huey breaks some eggs, and then fries them up, Southern Style.
Huey, on the brink of being fired from his job, offers to play music at his lunch break at Collins Department Store.  He DJs, but he doesn't play what the boss wanted:  Perry Como.  Instead, he plays his favorite genre:  rhythm and blues, colored style.
The music is irresistible, and the Collins shoppers get up and dance. Choreographer Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck puts the shoppers on delightful display, dancing to "Scratch My Itch."  It is an overwhelming sight right out of the gate in the first act.  The dancing appears spontaneous, and it is spectacular.  There is so much going on that it's hard to take it all in.  It's a splendid introduction to the music and dancing that follows.  It is in the second act, though, that all the dancers square off together.  They literally put on a dancing clinic for those of us with two left feet.  We get an opportunity to see how it's done by very talented professionals.
Chris Campbell's eye popping costume designs are a kaleidoscope of colors and styles, all a perfect fit for 1951.  The details are remarkable; Felicia has numerous costume changes, and for each new dress she has impeccably matching shoes.  Combined with Megan O'Connor's hair styling and wigs, the cast looks like it just walked in from a Dick Clark Show set. 
The cast is packed with Equity actors, and they all have extensive stage resumes.  Aisha
Aisha Jackson (as Felicia Farrell)
Jackson (Felicia) is not just incredibly talented; she is also a beautiful woman that we could all fall in love with, so it's no surprise that Huey zeros in on her as soon as he meets her.  Jackson has the voice of a songbird, the grace of a Goddess, and a "light up the room" smile.  Oh.  And she can also dance.  Like a star.  
Jim Hogan (Huey) has a mischievous charm and innocence; he thinks he can change the world.  Hogan convincingly, if somewhat naively, does change the world.  Hogan's charm is secondary to his talent; his voice is marvelous and he can also dance.  Also, like a star.
Keith L. Hatten (as Delray)
Keith L. Hatten (Delray) brings gravitas to the cast; as Felicia's older brother, he can barely stand a white guy dating his little sister.  Hatten has a deep, resonant voice that can send chills down your spine, and his disdain for Huey is palpable.  In addition, for a guy of his size, he's remarkably nimble on his feet.
There are a couple of actors who literally stop the show with their singing and/or dancing.  Mathenee Treco (Bobby) gets to sing "Big Love" on Huey's TV show, and he gets to throw out some amazing dance moves in the process.  Melissa Swift-Sawyer (Mama "Gladys") brings down the house with her vocals in "Change Don't Come Easy."  The cast literally has to wait for the applause to die down after both Treco and Swift-Sawyer finish their songs.
Director Rod Lansberry puts a sensitive touch on the love story here, making sure that the forbidden context is clear, and that the attraction between Huey and Felicia is strong despite the danger.  Lansberry slows the action in a violent scene, exacting the maximum effect from the brutality.  The audience involuntarily recoils at the sight.
It's difficult to describe the experience of sitting in the audience on opening night; there really aren't sufficient superlatives to describe the Arvada Center's production of Memphis.  This is one of those shows that you don't want to end.  It's a feast for the eyes, a feast for the ears, and a feast for the soul.  You will tell your friends, your family, your coworkers, and anyone else who will listen that they should not miss this one.
Given that race relations are still somewhat frayed more than 60 years after the setting in Memphis, this Tony Award winning musical is not just fun, not just engaging, and not just a rocking good time.  It's also something few musicals can claim to be.  It's a musical with a message, and that message is one that's relevant today.  That message?  The barriers between races are ones we ourselves created, and they are needless and harmful. 
Memphis won four Tony Awards in 2010, including Best Musical.  I did not see Memphis on Broadway, but I'm certain that the Arvada production is no less professional or entertaining  than the Broadway version.  Memphis at the Arvada Center is a great script, with excellent music, and an accomplished cast at the top of their game.  You will not see a better musical anywhere.  If you don't have tickets, don't wait.  

NOTES:  
Memphis contains mature subject matter and violence.  Discretion should be exercised for younger teens.
Memphis is a city with a very rich civil rights history, including the site of the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  The Loraine Hotel is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.  
I've been there, and I wish every American could visit this landmark museum.  It's a national treasure that visitors will never forget.  



It's also where I got my favorite coffee mug.

This show closes on September 28, 2014. 

Pre or post show dining suggestion:  
For authentic, but not fancy, Mexican food near the theater, try the Monterey House Restaurant at 9809 West 60th Avenue, Arvada.  It's a small neighborhood kitchen that's been in business for 65 years.  You'll get an excellent house Margarita for $4.50.  Your smothered burrito includes big chunks of pork.  Great food & service at reasonable prices.  Remember.  It's not fancy.
It's about a 10 minute drive between the restaurant and the theater, weather and traffic conditions permitting.   
Photo CreditsThe Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, P. Switzer Photography.
Tickets HERE.

Creative Team:
Director:  Rod A. Lansberry
Music Director, Conductor, Keyboards:  David Nehls  
Choreographer:  Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck
Scenic Design:  Brian Mallgrave
Lighting Design:  Shannon McKinney
Sound Design:  David Thomas
Costume Design:  Chris Campbell
Wig and Makeup Design:  Megan O'Connor

Cast:
Felicia Farrell:  Aisha Jackson
Huey Calhoun:  Jim Hogan
Delray:  Keith L. Hatten
Bobby:  Mathenee Treco
Gator:  Vincent Smith
Collins, Mr. Simmons:  Robert Michael Sanders
Buck Wiley, White Father, Gordon Grant:  Mark Rubald (through first week of the run), Jeffrey Roark (remainder of the run).
Mama "Gladys":  Melissa Swift-Sawyer



Monday, September 8, 2014

A Few Good Men


Playwright:  Aaron Sorkin
Company:  Spotlight Theatre Company
VenueThe John Hand Theater, 7653 East First Place, Denver CO, 80230.
Running Time:  2 hour 30 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission).
Date of Performance:  Sunday, September 7, 2014
Many of us are familiar with A Few Good Men; it was a 1992 courtroom drama film starring Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, and Demi Moore.  It takes some "stones" to put A Few Good Men on the small stage at the John Hand Theater knowing it will be compared to the big budget Hollywood film version.  I am here to tell you that Director Bernie Cardell and Executive Producer Pat Payne have no fear of that comparison.  Nor should they.
Court Martial of Lance Corporal Dawson (Dylan Rush) and PFC Downey (Josh Lamb)
The story, for those who may not have seen the film, involves two low level marines at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, accused of murdering one of their own:  Private First Class William Santiago.  The Court Martial appears to be an open and shut case, and Lt. J.G. Dan Kaffee, a smart ass, inexperienced and minimally dedicated attorney is assigned to defend the pair.  He does defend them, following the twists and turns of the evidence to an unexpected verdict.
There's MUCH more to the story, but you'll have to buy a ticket to hear it.
Cast of "A Few Good Men" with Rosemary Smith, Costume Designer


Spotlight Theatre Company's production has a large (15) and very strong cast on a magnificent but simple set.  Lighting (Vance McKenzie) is focused on the actors, whether there is 1 or the entire cast on the set.   The lighting is especially dramatic for Captain Matthew A. Markinson's (Marc Stith) unforgettable final scene.
Luke Allen Terry's sound design includes a lot of military music, as well as a shocking, dramatic gun shot.  Both are essential to the drama and the mood for A Few Good Men.
Set for "A Few Good Men."
Bernie Cardell's set design is a multilevel and highly functional one that represents the many locations involved, from Gitmo to Washington D.C.  A few strands of barbed wire in the background remind us of both Guantanamo Bay, where the crime takes place, and Fort Leavenworth where the guilty will serve their sentences.  A large American flag on the wall serves to highlight the courtroom during the Court Martial.  It's a very small space, but Cardell utilizes every square inch with a few tables, a few chairs, and very little else.
Cardell's direction, with help from Haley Johnson, is fast paced and focused; the action is non-stop as the complicated story unfolds.  Rosemary Smith's costumes are incredibly accurate recreations of military uniforms, from service white to service blue and service khaki. These "costumes" are, to my untrained eye, precisely how the characters should be dressed for A Few Good Men.  Every detail in the costumes, from the starchy look of the shirts to the female headgear, looks authentic.
L-R:  Charlie Wingerter (Lt. J.G. Weinberg), Stephen Krusoe (Lt. J.G. Kaffee), Miriam BC Tobin (Lt. Cmdr Galloway). 

It is the cast of 15 actors, however, that really make A Few Good Men rise above the crowd.  Each delivers a professional, emotional, and authentic performance with the proper military precision.  That said, though, it is Andrew Uhlenhopp (Col. Nathan Jessup) who stands out in this stellar cast.
Andrew Uhlenhopp (Col. Nathan Jessup)
Uhlenhopp is riveting as the Gitmo commander.  He is arrogant, sarcastic, dedicated, intimidating, volatile, stern, and principled.  He is also misguided, and Uhlenhopp cleverly shows us the man both dominating his subordinates and then breaking down when confronted by his own lies.  Uhlenhopp's performance is off the charts; he pulls out all the stops.  You cannot see him on stage without whispering "wow" to yourself.  He's on my short list for 2014 acting awards.  Yes, he's that good here.
A Few Good Men took me by surprise.  It's been a long time since I've seen the film, but I thought I knew what to expect.  I was wrong.  Instead of sitting back and watching what I thought would be a routine drama, I spent a good part of 2 hours on the edge of my seat.  Spotlight's production is taut, engaging, and rewarding.  
I don't usually say "don't miss this one," but that's the correct advice for A Few Good Men.  Don't miss this one.  

NOTES:  
A Few Good Men contains strong language and intense scenes.  It should be OK for teens if they can handle a dramatized suicide.
I am posting a few more photos than usual for A Few Good Men.  It's a large cast and a beautiful set, and I want to convey as much of the audience experience as possible through a few extra photos.
The John Hand Theater is located on the Lowry Campus of Colorado Free University.  For those unfamiliar with the area, it is off Quebec Street near 1st, just east of the Lowry Town Center.  There is a parking lot at the theater.  
Full Disclosure #1:  I'm a retired attorney; my practice was employment law.  That may be useful information for the reader, as I'm probably much more interested in courtroom dramas than the average person.  
Full Disclosure #2:  I have never served in the military.  To the extent that something in A Few Good Men might not quite ring true to a veteran, I would likely not notice it.
This show closes on September 27, 2014. 

Pre or post show dining suggestion:  
Casey's Bistro and Pub, 7301 East 29th Avenue (Stapleton Town Center),is an Irish style pub with a terrific menu and a "Geeks Who Drink" trivia contest every Thursday at 9:00 PM.  Have a pint with your fish and chips; Irish draft beers include Guinness, Kilkenney,  and Smithwicks.
It's about a 10 minute drive between the restaurant and the theater, weather and traffic conditions permitting.   

Tickets HERE.

Creative Team:
Director:  Bernie Cardell
Assistant Director:  Haley Johnson
Scenic Design:  Bernie Cardell
Lighting Design:  Vance McKenzie
Sound Design:  Luke Allen Terry
Costume Design:  Rosemary Smith

Cast:
Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson:  Dylan Rush
PFC Louden Downey:  Josh Lamb
Lt. J.G. Sam Weinberg:  Charlie Wingerter
Lt. J.G. Daniel A. Kaffee:  Stephen Krusoe
Lt. Commander Joanne Galloway:  Miriam BC Tobin
Colonel Nathan Jessep:  Andrew UIhlenhopp
Captain Matthew A. Markinson:  Marc Stith




Saturday, September 6, 2014

Ring of Fire

 


Conceived by:  Richard Maltby, Jr.

Music and Lyrics by:  Johnny Cash

Company:  Lake Dillon Theatre Company

Venue:  Lake Dillon Theatre, 176 Lake Dillon Drive, Dillon CO 80435

Running Time:  1 hour 55 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission)

Date of Performance:  Friday, September 5, 2014

Ring of Fire is a Johnny Cash bio musical that appeals to a lot more folks than just those who were big fans of The Man In Black.  It also appeals to everyone who values a true piece of Americana.  Cash's music had, and still has, a nearly universal appeal, combining country music with rock influences, creating the brand new genre called Rockabilly.  In truth though, Cash conquered nearly every genre, from country to rock, from gospel to blues, and from folk to pop.

Ring of Fire is less a tribute to the man than to his music.  No actor/musician plays a Cash character per se; rather they all play his music and narrate important points in Cash's life story.  We hear about his dirt poor upbringing in Arkansas, his brother's death, his rocky start at Sun Records in Memphis, his breakup with his wife, his descent into drugs, and his love story with June.  These are all compelling moments, and the cast puts their hearts and souls into these peaks and valleys of the Cash legend.


Jessica Kahkoska
 
Ring of Fire tells those stories through Cash's music, so it takes an enormously talented cast to make this show work.  Lake Dillon Theatre Company's cast is exactly that:  enormously talented.  Each and every one of them is a true triple threat:  they sing, they play multiple instruments, and they act their hearts out.  Jessica Kahkoska is the only woman on stage, and she takes no back seat to her four male counterparts.  She can rock the music with all of them, and she can sing a sweet solo (Waiting on the Far Side Banks of Jordan) that can bring tears to your eyes.

Her four male castmates do a bang up job on every song they do, but especially on an acapella version of Memphis.  Director Chris Alleman and Music Director Cameron Kinnear turn them loose with some unusual but very effective percussion instruments.  It works very well; the music is reduced to a primal prison beat with stark lyrics.  The effect is both magical and unforgettable.


Ben Whitmore
 
Ben Whitmore appears in black in the second act, singing a soulful and penetrating The Man  In Black. The image is striking; Whitmore in a long black coat, playing his guitar, and sounding like the Man himself.  Cash, a Christian fundamentalist, wore black for the poor, the hungry, the prisoners, the soldiers who fight and die, and for those who can't or won't hear The Word.  Whitmore's performance is touching and poignant; Cash's lyrics are still as relevant today as when he first wrote it.

There's a lot of red meat here for Cash fans:  I Walk the Line, Folsom Prison Blues, Ring of Fire, Egg Sucking Dog (Keith Potts obviously loves this one), Hey Porter, Jackson, I've Been Everywhere, Sweet Bye and Bye, Cry, Cry, Cry, If I Were a Carpenter, and the very personal Five Feet High and Rising.  Each is a Cash classic; all are performed with an infectious energy fitting the Cash legacy.  There's also a decidedly politically incorrect tune here.  It's OK to cringe.  Cash displayed his outlaw persona in some of his music, and Delia's Gone is one of those.  It's a reminder that Cash knew the seamier side of life, and it's not a surprise that his music sometimes reflects questionable values.  (Or, perhaps Delia's Gone might just be a song with a sense of humor, like A Boy Named Sue.  In that case, I just don't see the humor.)
Music Director and Sound Designer Cameron Kinnear had a difficult task in the small space at Lake Dillon; he needed to keep the music loud enough to let the audience sense the power, but without blowing them out of their seats.  Kinnear made a decision to keep the music acoustic, as opposed to amplified.  In such a small space, it was a very wise choice.

Ring of Fire is a dynamite production, well worth the trip to Dillon (a 2.5 hour drive for us).  I have a couple of quibbles with it (actors at times seem only half lit, and a few of the songs seem to exceed the range of the cast), but that doesn't change the bottom line.  Ring of Fire is a toe tapping, knee slapping, sing along good time.  You WILL leave the theater wits a song in your heart.  Whether it's Jackson or Folsom Prison Blues, or one of Cash's many other hits, you will feel enlightened, entertained, and impressed by Johnny Cash and by the Lake Dillon Theatre Company's production.  Cash was a true American musical genius; he may be missed but he is not forgotten.

NOTES:

There is ample public parking on Lake Dillon Drive, including several handicapped spots in front of the theater.

This show closes on September 21, 2014.  This show is suitable for all ages.  Although they may not remember the music, kids very well may like this show anyway.


Pre or post show dining suggestion:

The Dillon Dam Brewery, 100 Little Dam Street, Dillon, is a large local pub and brewhouse.  You can get a variety of Dam Good Beers, on draft, of course.  Burgers and traditional pub fare is available, as well as a kids menu (not always available in brewpubs).  I recommend the spinach salad and the Dam Straight Lager.  Kind of a healthy meal with lots of hops...

Tickets HERE.

Photo CreditsLake Dillon Theatre Company

Creative Team:

Director:  Christopher Alleman

Musical Director:  Cameron Kinnear

Scenic Design:  Benjamin Whitmore

Lighting Design:  Jacob Welch

Sound Design:  Cameron Kinnear

Costume Design:  Michelle B. Hathaway


Cast/Musicians:

Jessica Kahkoska

Kevin Alan

John Hays

Keith Potts
Benjamin Whitmore