STEEL MAGNOLIAS BLOOM AT ACTS THEATRE

SHORT TAKE:

Lovely production of Steel Magnolias running at ACTS Theatre in Lake Charles, LA from August 2, 2019 through August 11, 2019.

WHO SHOULD GO:

With parental discernment – probably mid-teens and up. A slight bit of language and serious topics, but mostly because the nature of the format – six ladies talking in a single stationary set – while engrossing to the more mature audience members  would bore the little ones.

LONG TAKE:

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing the dress rehearsal of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias at ACTS Theatre. This comedy-drama is set in a 1980’s Louisiana beauty parlor and performed with great affection for the Southern women about whom this play revolves. The six ladies in the cast nailed it. Their timing, their energy, and their easy camaraderie the night before opening felt as though they already had several weeks of performances under their belts and were only tweaking for the weekend run.

The blocking was artfully choreographed, allowing easy access to all the characters, always a concern with an ensemble cast.

The stage for Truvy’s Beauty Parlor was terrific in all its brightly lit, lightly cluttered and detailed natural realism. For anyone who has ever spent time in a beauty parlor, you could almost smell the familiar hair care products and feel the warm breath of the hair dryers ubiquitous to ladies’ salons.

The director of this all female cast, Zach Hammons, is male. He, with his terrific back stage crew,  did a tremendous job with the style and technique of an experienced director. Veteran of the stage as an actor for many years and winner of performing awards, he is fairly new to the role of director.

I found his masculine behind-the-scenes influence a great advantage to this show, helping subtly inform the extensive, but never seen, male supporting players, whose actions are talked about, affect and are occasionally heard by the females on stage: Shelby’s Dad and M’Lynn’s husband, Drum, Tommy and Jonathan, Shelby’s brothers, Truvy’s husband, Spud, Ouiser’s boyfriend, Owen, and Annelle’s husband, Sammy. These men are all actively present in their women’s lives but are never present on stage. Zac confided to me that where most plays have two months to prepare, because of the exigencies of scheduling, they only had one month, but you would never know it to see the show. It’s tight and well timed, brisk in tempo, maintaining its intensity in both comedic and tragic moments from opening line to closing curtain call.

Ashley Dickerson plays Shelby, the optimist who does not let anything get her down and is the center of the play. Ms. Dickerson has performed both at ACTS and Lake Charles Little Theatre on many occasions.

Kathy Heath plays Shelby’s mom in a very challenging role of varied, and occasionally intense, often subtly repressed, emotional turmoil. Ms. Heath has lent her experience to both ACTS and McNeese Theatre, the latter from which she graduated with both a BA in theatre as well as a BS in Mass Com.

Joy Pace literally bursts onto the stage as Ouiser, the curmudgeonly neighbor to M’Lynn’s family. Fiercely loyal and sometimes merely fierce, her bark is always worse than her bite as she frequently steals scenes while providing comic relief. Ms. Pace has extensive experience as director for ACTS, and Artistic and Executive Director for the Itinerant Theatre, with a BA in Speech, and an MFA in directing, but this is her performing debut with ACTS Theatre.

Veronica Williams is Truvy, the energetic Eveready Bunny and the owner of the  shop in which all the action takes place. This is only Ms. Williams’ second stage outing, her first as Rosie in Mama Mia! garnering her an ACTA for Best Supporting Actress.

Taylor Novak-Tyler is Clairee, the sweet and lovable widowed dowager who provides advice and acts as a mediator and peacemaker to the sometimes tense female interactions. Ms. Novak-Tyler is another generous contributor to the stages both at ACTS and Lake Charles Little Theatre.

Shelby Castile plays Annelle who starts as the gentle and shyly fragile newbie to town who has the greatest character arc in the show. No newbie to ACTS Theatre though, she has been on stage here many times before.

So head on out to ACTS Theatre to see this terrific rendition of these very familiar women who are, indeed, Steel Magnolias – but, similar to the juxtaposition of opposites in the very title of the play – be prepared to both laugh until you cry and cry until you laugh.

BYE BYE BIRDIE – FUN AND FEEL GOOD NOSTALGIC MUSICAL AT LAKE CHARLES LITTLE THEATRE

 

SHORT TAKE:

Lively, charming, upbeat, family friendly musical comedy based loosely on the departure of Elvis for the Army draft at the height of his popularity.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone and everyone can and should attend this fun 1960’s retro musical.

OPENING LAKE CHARLES LITTLE THEATRE THROUGH APRIL 28, 2019 – BUY TICKETS HERE.

LONG TAKE:

1958. And at the height of the career of one of America’s most famous singing icons, during the age of the mandatory military service – he was drafted. Elvis’ fans about lost their collective minds. His manager of questionable ethics, “Colonel” Tom Parker, turned down multiple offers by multiple branches to have Mr. Presley assigned to cush duty in the entertainment special services. Not only did he not want his prize cash cow to sully his reputation as a “celebrity wimp out,” but more importantly, if Elvis had served as an entertainer, the military branches would have had FREE access to those recorded performances in perpetuity. So off to the army, as a regular Joe, Elvis went, where he served honorably and with some distinction, rising to the rank of Sergeant and qualifying as an expert marksman upon his discharge.

In 1960, a parody musical based loosely upon the personalities, if not the exact details, of Presley’s historic departure for boot camp and active duty opened on Broadway.

The story is of a financially desperate mama’s boy, Albert,  about to lose his first big singing client, Conrad Birdie, to the draft. He and his emotionally desperate girlfriend, Rose, who he has strung along for eight years, hatch a plot to turn chicken feathers into chicken salad by turning Conrad’s departure into a publicity stunt.

They choose one of the thousands of rabidly fanatic members of Birdie’s fan clubs, Kim MacAfee of small town Sweet Apple, Ohio, at random for him to bestow a last pre-induction kiss on national television. The insanely anticipated event turns Kim, her jealous boyfriend Hugo, her straight-laced overwhelmed parents, Doris and Harry, all the other fan members, and her town of Sweet Apple, not to mention the nation, on their respective ears.

And so the stage is – literally – set for the hilarious nostalgic musical comedy, Bye Bye Birdie, playing at Lake Charles Little Theatre  (from April 13 through April 28, 2019 – shows start at 7:30 with Sunday matinees starting at 2 pm).

Directed by stage veteran Randy Partin, the set is simple with scene changes accomplished with moved furniture, sign changes and backlit photos. This is to keep the focus on and leave ample room for the joyous and energetic song and dance filled plot,  choreographed by Karly Marcantel.

Albert is played with Phil Silvers-like restrained comedic panic by Cameron Scallan, singing and dancing such universally known tunes as “Put on a Happy Face” with Dick Van Dyke (who played this role both on stage and in the movie) style. Rose is Taylor Novak as the put upon brains and backbone of the company as she belts out boisterous numbers like the catchy “Spanish Rose”. Heather Foreman finds just the right comedic balance in the contradictions of the wide-eyed, naïve and budding Kim, with clear and innocent conviction, as she beautifully serenades the audience with songs like “How Lovely to be a Woman” while donning Tom-boy duds, singing “One Boy” to Hugo while swooning over Conrad, and “What Did I Ever See in Him?” These leads belt out sometimes challenging tune and patter lyrics with infectious enthusiasm.

The main supporting characters are Ashley Dickerson as interfering pushy mother Mae; Jordan Gribble, Amber Netherland and Cole Becton as Kim’s family; Antonio Dre as Conrad, and Wiliam Stanfield as Hugo.

There is a large cast and an ensemble of players who make up the groupies, bar patrons, parents, community members, news reporters and sundry other denizens of this funny and musical retro story.

The styles are poodle skirts and pompadour hair. The songs are clever and catchy. All the performers sing and dance their hearts out for this tongue-in-cheek romp.

So for some clean, musical retro fun – go see Bye Bye Birdie before this wonderful play says “Bye Bye” to Lake Charles.

SAM AND ELVIS: EXCELLENT PRO-LIFE INDIE ABOUT A TEEN, HER AUNT AND A STUFFED DOG *

SHORT TAKE:

Well made indie film about the relationship between a foster teen, her eccentric aunt, and a pro-life message.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens and up for some mild cussing but mostly for the conversation and plot topics of family violence and teen sexuality.

LONG TAKE:

Who would have thought you could make a charming (mostly) family friendly comedy about a dead dog, an abused foster child, and her eccentric aunt. Well director Jeffrey Ault manages to do just that in the movie Sam and Elvis. Based on Susan Price Monnot’s play titled Dead Dogs Don’t Fart, with the screenplay written by a collaboration between Monnot and Ault, the story is about a bright but defensive and hostile orphaned foster teenager named Samantha played by Marcela Griebler placed in the care of her Aunt Olina played by Sally Daykin who in turn lives alone with her taxidermied dog Elvis.

This little indie film starts off a bit clunky as Olina expresses her doubts to Elvis, avoids an incessantly ringing phone and eats the random junk food she finds about her cluttered home. However, it finds its footing quickly once the aunt and her ward are brought together and bounce their strong personalities against each other.

The acting demands occasionally become significant but newcomer Griebler holds her own. Rounding out the cast are Pete Penuel as Larry, Olina’s platonic friend and Sara Hood as Rebecca, the well-intentioned and overly sincere but somewhat inept social worker who serves as occasional comic relief.

Ault uses simple and natural settings and clothes that likely came out of the actors own wardrobes. This is to the plus, as the focus is correctly placed on the relationships involved. The other production values like cinematography, sound and the background music are sterling and perfectly meet the mood of this small gem filmed almost entirely within Olina’s house.

People speak their minds in Sam and Elvis. No polite pussy footing around impolite or bad behavior. No tip toeing around differences of opinion. And in this there is a large plus in the negative.

What I mean by that is – despite circumstances which emerge in the plot, which I won’t divulge but you can easily guess, at no time does anyone consider abortion as an option for anyone. At no time is it suggested that an unborn baby is merely a “fetus” or some other euphemism for unborn child, which circumlocution liberals and pro-death dealers fling around like a shield to disguise the holocaust level murders they champion. A baby is called a baby regardless of whether it is in or out of a womb. And that is a breath of fresh air.

There is a bit of mild cussing sprinkled throughout and the topics of domestic abuse and teen sexuality make Sam and Elvis inappropriate for younger teens. But the powerful message of familial bonds and respect for life shine forward making Sam and Elvis a definitely should-see film.

* AND IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THIS MOVIE PLEASE CHECK OUT UNPLANNED – THE STORY OF ABBY JOHNSON, THE FORMER ABORTION ACTIVIST AND DIRECTOR OF THE PLANNED PARENTHOOD FACILITY IN BRYAN, TEXAS, WHO CONVERTED TO THE PRO-LIFE MOVEMENT IN ONE EPIPHANAL MOMENT.

SCREWTAPE LETTERS – A RIVETING LIVE PERFORMANCE OF THE C.S.LEWIS CLASSIC

 

SHORT TAKE:

A fascinating one-man play based on the C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters – the letters from a senior demon to his nephew/student demon.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone old enough to read and understand the source book: The Screwtape Letters. As a rule of thumb….13 years old and up.

LONG TAKE:

My husband and I spent a disturbingly delightful and entertaining 70 minutes with a demon the other afternoon. The demon’s name was Screwtape and he is the creation of one C.S. Lewis. Lewis is the author of the children’s Narnia series as well as deeply philosophical books like The Four Loves, science fiction like Out of the Silent Planet, religious apologetics like Mere Christianity, theological guides like The Problem of Pain and self-mortifying confessions like A Grief Observed.

Lewis was a prolific writer and a deeply committed, practicing Christian who made the long, arduous and painful, but soul fulfilling journey from casual Christian to atheist to devout believer.

For those unfamiliar with the book, The Screwtape Letters is a precursor to the “found footage” movies so prevalent today but created for far more ennobling reasons. The preface to the book Screwtape warns of the dangers of either denying the existence of devils or, contrarily, indulging in an “unhealthy and excessive interest” in them. The first half of the warning reminds me of the line in The Usual Suspects by “Verbal” Kint who admonishes his listener that: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” The latter half of the warning brings to mind a comment by C.S. Lewis that this book was the easiest for him to write but also the one that made him most uncomfortable – so much so that he resisted the urgings of his publisher and the general public to write a sequel. He did, some years later, write a short piece entitled Screwtape Proposes a Toast, which, in a condensed version opens the play.

In any event, C.S. Lewis in his preface to Screwtape Letters, states he will not explain how these letters “fell into my hands”. Suffice to say they are a collection of correspondence between Screwtape, a senior demon in Hell, to his nephew/student/lesser demon, Wormwood. In these letters Screwtape attempts to instruct Wormwood in the fine art of seducing a soul (referred to as his “patient”) away from “the enemy” (God) to be food for the denizens of Hell.

During the course of his instructions, Screwtape exposes many of the subtle fallacies and self-delusions to which people who call themselves atheists, as well as those who think of themselves as Christians, can fall prey (my choice of phrase here both gruesomely punny and deliberate).

One would not think that a one-man play dramatizing what amounts to a series of theologically themed short essays could be either interesting or funny. But this play is both. This is a credit to both the wry, dry wit of Mr. Lewis as well as the construction of the play itself. The set is fairly sparse, creating the allusion to a well-to-do Englishman’s smoking room, (smoking – like brimstone. See what I did there?), with two unusual additions. One customization is the twisting ladder which reaches up to the ceiling upon which one can climb to retrieve and send posts via an attached pneumatic tube. The second inclusion is of Screwtape’s wordless, androgynous assistant demon, Toadpipe, who, in the production we saw, is costumed like an evil Papagano from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, all in artificially colorful feathers from head to toe. He/she has no lines but grunts and growls and pantomimes his/her obsequiousness and occasional little mutinies.

The performance was riveting, compelled as we are to breathlessly await the determination of whether the man about whom they communicate will succumb to Wormwood’s ministrations or successfully resist the abyss of Hell.

There is an interesting tension created by Lewis, in that the protagonist, the one with whom audiences, in the overwhelming majority of plays, are naturally manipulated into sympathizing, is a demon from Hell. Resisting the impulse to root for Screwtape, as the protagonist of the tale, is similar to the same pull of temptation which each of us must continually struggle. This odd conundrum reminds us how easy it would be to find ourselves in the clutches of a Wormwood – or that we might already be in this danger. Fortunately, in Screwtape’s commentaries on his increasing frustrations with the failures of his nephew, we are also shown how to extricate ourselves.

We saw Screwtape at the beautiful Jeanette and LM George Theater in Houston, but it is only playing through March 17, 2019. However,  it will be playing at many future theaters to come and you should catch it when you can. OR a community theater in your locale should contact the Dramatic Publishing Company and see about performing it.

In addition, I must compliment the A.D. George Theater whose self-proclaimed mission is:

To produce compelling theatre, from a Christian world-view, that engages a diverse audience.

Screwtape was our first experience with this theater and it promises to most definitely NOT be our last.

BRAVO to the George Theatre and C.S. Lewis!

THE GIVER – AN ORWELLIAN TALE FOR THE YOUNGER AUDIENCE

SHORT TAKE:

Dystopian, cautionary tale of the quietly, dysfunctional society, which has chosen the security of “Sameness” over independent thought, strong emotions, or variety, and the boy tasked to be the new “Receiver” of all the memory experiences everyone else has rejected.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Appropriate for any and all ages but the sophisticated concepts and deliberately monochromatic presentation may be unengaging for younger audience members.

LONG TAKE:

 

The Giver, is a societal fiction parable based on the children’s novel of the same name by Lois Lowry, which follows the character arc of a boy named Jonas. Jonas, played by Abram Conner, lives in a society which has rejected individuality and Free Will for the unquestioned “security” of Sameness. They believe that to be given a choice is to risk making a mistake and enduring pain.

To that end there are no strong emotions, memories of anything except what needs to be known for their chosen jobs, or even color. Differences are not tolerated and those who fall outside of the exacting parameters of what is acceptable: the old, the lame, the unhappy, even twins for the “confusion” they could bring – are relegated to Elsewhere by an unseen but loudspeaker commanding “Committee”. No one is to ask where “Elsewhere” is, there is no reference to any higher authority than the Committee, and God, as well as His gift of Free Will, by default, has been excluded as well. As a result, morality is what the Committee says it is and all acts commanded by them are accepted. A chilling thought with chilling consequences.

Jonas is surprised, (which surprise is apologized for by the Chief Elder), by being chosen as the next Giver. The Giver’s job is to hold, then pass on to the next Giver, the unwanted knowledge and experiences of the human race. The Giver is an advisor to the unseen but unquestionably obeyed, Committee, providing them with perspective they do not have, when faced with situations for which they are unprepared. For example, his is the voice of reason to not shoot down a plane which has accidentally overshot their air space.

But while there is no violence or discord, there is also no mercy or love. Babies are produced by what one might consider “brood mare” humans and then assigned to a parental unit constructed and assigned by the “Committee”. No natural births or normal intimacies are permitted but routinely squelched with medication. Only Jonas and the Giver feel anything deeply.

This is a brave and difficult to play to produce as emotions, interactions, and even colors are muted to beige and gray. The only meaningful actions take place in Jonas’ mind as the Giver gifts him with memories of things like snow and hills, which have been eliminated with “climate control” and geographical obliteration.

Director Kris Webster had the challenging task of creating a world without hues or music and few sounds outside of the actors subdued voices. Only as Jonas learns of the world “before” does he emote or perceive color.

Abram Conner, as Jonas, carries a large load on his young shoulders as the primary conveyor of emotion and personal complexity, having to act out what neither the other characters nor the audience can see. Scott Holtzman, as the Giver, is the weary voice of one who has been burdened too long with all the joys and woes in the troubled past of the world and functions as the one source of true fatherhood to Jonas. Jordan Gribble plays Jonas’ “assigned” father, Taylor Novak-Tyler his chosen mother and Annie Hachtel as his selected sister. Kane Todd and Ashley Dickerson are Jonas’ school companions, Aaron Webster is the Chief Elder and Margaret Martin is one of the aging members of the community. The troupe has the imposing task of having to rein in every actors’ instinct to emote, in order to portray this Orwellian environ, which has more in common with 1984 than you might expect in a child’s story.

The props are minimalistic as in Our Town with chairs and tables and a sled being brought on and off as the needs be. The mood is very reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery with an air of over-supervised gloom hanging over the story. The clothes are gray and unadorned, the furniture is drab and featureless, even the books are (at first) without color.

A play which includes veiled topics of euthanasia, failed tries at utopian societies, and Free Will is strong fare for a story aimed at a youth demographic, but The Giver playing February 8 – 18, 2019 at ACTS Theatre, will lend (see what I did there?) itself to spirited conversation in the debate about the cost of relinquishing one’s Free Will in the name of what appears to be the Ultimate Nanny State.

So, the moral might suggest, when thinking about the possibilities of a world without conflict or pain, without discord or obstacles to overcome ….. be careful what you wish for.

THE CARPENTER – NEW DARK COMEDY OF ERRORS PREMIERING AT THE ALLEY THEATRE, HOUSTON, TX – COULD HAVE USED A BIT OF – RECONSTRUCTION

SHORT TAKE:

Clever, amusing and dark comedy of errors, Texas-style, which would have benefited from a couple more runs through the drafting process.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults ONLY for gratuitous profanities and bawdy behavior.

LONG TAKE:

 

The Carpenter, making its world premiere run now through February 10, 2019 at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas is a clever but flawed play. Written by Houston’s own Rob Askins as part of the Alley’s All New Festival in 2017, the play is a loose — a very VERY loose version of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper – though that is only my observation. I did not see that reference in any of the interviews with the playwright.

 

First let me say that the Alley Theatre is a GORGEOUS venue where there are NO BAD SEATS! And I admire the Alley for staging and lending so much time and effort to new innovative plays. So kudos and plaudits to one and all involved with this production.

The story is about two half-brothers who meet for the first time as adults in a bar. The older brother, Gene, is a hard drinking, womanizing, bad-decision-making ne’er do well who introduces himself to the audience Our Town Stage Manager-style at the beginning of the play with a soliloquy espousing his own personal, somewhat profane, world view. The younger brother, Dan, is an up and coming programmer about to make the sale of his life. Despite never having met they bear a significant resemblance in the way they look and dress and their personal preferences in beer. Dan lets slip he is getting married that weekend and with vague promises of getting together again some time makes  a hasty retreat. Gene, slyly winking to the audience, justifies his ominously referenced future actions with an analogy about the envy one primitive must feel for his sibling who has learned to climb, being able to thereby achieve a spot closer to the sun.

Gene’s predictable and unwanted appearance at the pre-wedding festivities in Dan’s soon-to-be in-laws, very posh, Dallas, Highland Park home, is compounded by Dan’s humiliation-inspired fabrications about Gene being the Carpenter who will build for his bride, Terry, a gazebo for the wedding.

I won’t tell more above the SPOILER warning sign because I don’t want to ruin the fun for those who want to be surprised, but I suspect Mr. Askins, to his credit, was informed in his plot choices by many of Shakespeare’s comedies of error and mistaken identities.

Before I launch into a Cinema-Sins style critique let me advise that The Carpenter IS a lot of fun and I enjoyed the romp, but was frustrated by the fact it could have been so much better.

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS

I understand the desire modern playwrights have to make cheap emphasis with expletives and even bawdy sexual references, but the plethora of them in this play is not only lazy writing and off putting, but undermines those moments when a carefully chosen profanity or innuendo might have had the impact the author was looking for. But by the time those chosen moments arrive we are numb to any effect.

The stage was gorgeous. I was not privy to the script so do not know how much of the stage craft was dictated by the playwright’s instructions and how much was the director’s responsibility. On first glance it was stunning. A bright white, elegantly appointed living room with an embarrassment of evidence that a wedding was being planned in a wealthy Texan home: couple photos and balloons, a stuffed paper mache ostrich and a box of stuffed white doves, and a large framed photo of their (probably prize winning) horse Bodacious. Large cushioned foot rests by a large sofa would serve as a collection spot for the actors to lounge and play on. And right in the middle was a dazzling gold festooned curved staircase leading up to an ample second floor. Eight openings in the stage, up and down stairs and into the audience area, provided an enormous amount of flexibility for the performers, which served well as the action heated up and the exits and entrances became flights and chases.

The trouble is that the staircase blocked a lot of the action. Had it been far downstage it would have served the same purpose but not gotten in the way. There is nowhere in the audience where some of the action wasn’t obscured, no matter how clever the blocking for the actors.

SERIOUS SPOILER

The mood throughout the play is slapstick humorous with a teensy touch of the sinister while promising that all will be well in the end – sort of like Noises Off meets Two Gentlemen From Verona. But nowhere in the play does the author or director prepare you for the sharp left turn into film noir, Agatha Christie territory it takes in the last five minutes. To its credit there is a Thornton Wilder touch of moralizing, tying Gene’s speech in the beginning to a warning about the inevitability of fate that comes, in one form or another, to us all – that we must be prepared because it can come when we least expect it. But in a turn as twisty as the elegant stairs in the Alley Theater itself, but more fitting to the middle of Deathtrap than the much lighter play The Carpenter leads us to believe it is, we suddenly jumped to the end of a far darker story. Kind of like finding out the comedian who you thought was playing a heart attack for laughs really — died. (Which actually happened to Dick Shawn).

But even this would have worked had the denouement occurred in the middle of the play with time to incorporate the event into the warp and woof of the story OR had there been any indication that one or the other of the brothers had had a darker past than was inferred. I, frankly, fully expected one more twist to rectify this contradiction in mood before blackout, but none came. Instead it was a payoff without adequate set up.

When you call something The Carpenter, especially when the main character wags on in a homiletic fashion, it is not unreasonable to expect a few Christian themes or at least a nod in that direction, but despite the backdrop of a marriage there was none. Even the ceremony was thrown at the couple by the bride’s best friend during a particularly ridiculous action scene as a dressed up civil ceremony with delusions of New Age druidism.

Then there’s Terry, the rich and indulged but confused and sweet fiancée who really only wants to love and be loved by Dan. But in the play’s final minutes, and without sufficient justification or provocation Terry goes from being like the loveable but ding batty Gracie Allen to Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd.

The reaction of Venus, Gene’s stripper girlfriend, to the climactic scene is uncharacteristically, but plot conveniently, bland, exiting without real purpose, leaving us wonder where the firebrand we initially met went.

While perhaps Mr. Askins is suggesting that we all wear masks under which are monsters, the transformation is unexpected, under prepped and jarring.

If it was supposed to be a comedy, the characters should have all received a certain justice. If a tragedy, then they all get some kind of comeuppance, even if that is death. But there was only a little of both and not enough of either to be satisfying.

There are also a LOT of “in-jokes” about Google in particular, the tech world in general and the current political scene, which will age very poorly. Granted, this kind of nod to a contemporary audience dates from Greek plays (Aristophanes’ ribald Lysistrata was written as a protest against what he saw as the waste of life in the Peloponnesian War), to Groucho Marx (Animal Crackers – whose song “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” was titled as a lampoon of a notorious Hollywood coke dealer). But where those classics used such frippery as decoration, throw-away lines which a modern audience can ignore and still enjoy the play, Mr. Askins leans so heavily on current events that ticketholders 20 years from now may be scratching their heads in confusion at half of the jokes.

The acting was fun as Gene and Dan imitated the mannerisms and eccentricities of each other, first in jest and sarcasm and latter in more earnest. Everyone else was a broad caricature: Terry, the Texan equivalent of a Valley girl, Claire her promiscuous best friend decked out like a walking fashion extravaganza, Kip as Terry’s rich Texas father drunkenly shooting at the ceiling with his ever present oversized rifle, Steve as Dan’s best friend-promoter in his golf outfit-style mismatching clothes. They were funny and heroically gave it their all, but the script lent them insufficient material. (Upper left reading clockwise: Cass Morgan – Cheryl – Dan’s mom, Ken Wulf Clark – Dan, Wade McCollum – Gene, Jessica Savage – Claire, Buddy Haardt – Steve, T. Ryder Smith – Kip, Brooke Wilson – Venus, Valeri Mudel – Terry, Molly Carden – Dan’s down-to-Earth sister).

If I have mentioned a lot of other stories: Our Town, Noises Off, Sweeney Todd, Deathtrap, it is because this play feels more derivative that it should have. It is as though Mr. Askins did not have the courage of his fundamentally interesting convictions and hid behind a lot of references. That is a shame because I believe he had something fairly important to say – that life is short and death will one day come for all of us. But his heavy handed awkward treatment of this message got a bit ….. buried, if you’ll excuse the pun.

While I was glad I went and it IS worth the ticket price, I think Mr. Askins has promise but it was not completely …. nailed down… in The Carpenter.

LUTCHER THEATER – A FONT OF THEATRICAL TREASURES AND A REVIEW OF SOMETHING ROTTEN

SHORT TAKE:

Go to the Lutcher Theater in Orange, Texas to take advantage of all its theatrical delights.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everyone, depending on the age appropriateness of the play being offered.

LONG TAKE:

Something Rotten has come and gone from the Lutcher Theater, but more about that later.

My husband and I have been to this lovely performing arts venue, the Lutcher Theater, many times. They are nestled in Orange, Texas at 707 W. Main Ave. and their season never disappoints.  You can get tickets here for the shows remaining season and for information for seasons to come.  We highly recommend you frequent this treasure. From the well chosen plays to the building itself, where there are no bad seats, we suggest you discover for yourself the Lutcher Theater and all the theatrical magic it has to offer.

Recently we traveled to see Something Rotten. I mean, it isn’t rotten. Well, the play we saw IS Something Rotten, but it is not, in fact, ANY kind of rotten. It really is, actually, wonderful. Nominated for dozens of awards, the play garnered Christian Borle the 2015 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Cleverly conceived and amusingly told, Something Rotten’s title comes from a line in Shakespeare’s most well known play, Hamlet, when Marcellus, a soldier who has seen the ghost of their deceased king, warns that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” But the play Something Rotten is most definitely NOT – rotten.

Something Rotten musically tells the story of the two Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel, who are rather good playwrights. However, they have the great misfortune of being contemporaries of, and therefore, competitors with — Shakespeare.

The tone is self-parody but the execution is erudite. While the whole thing is a hoot and laugh out loud funny in the witty lyrics and energetic pacing, it is steeped – DEEPLY – as you might expect, in Shakespearean language.

HOWEVER, EVEN if you’ve never heard a word of Hamlet, or Much Ado; if you think of Othello as only a board game and MacBeth may as well be in Swahili for all the sense it makes to you, you will still find Something Rotten very entertaining, but then you’ll miss the rich pudding of inside jokes. Almost every line, situation, and concept is referential to a Bardian play, and skewed by droll songs into a reflective parody. It’s comical and self-aware, often skating right up to that fourth wall but never quite breaking it.

And if that were not enough, there are homages to dozens and dozens of other Broadway shows. In the song, “A Musical,” for example, there are at least 20 allusions to other Broadway outings from Suessical to Sweeney Todd, from Annie to Evita. But you have to be quick to catch all the lines of lyric or iconic musical phrases.

And anachronisms abound. It’s a translation, if you will, of what the Renaissance might have been like in London, seen through modern eyes. Shakespeare is treated like a rock star, holding MTV-style stage performances of his sonnets and signing autographs on women’s bosoms. In “It’s Hard to be The Bard”  he moans of his own self-doubts in having to one-up himself with every play – a sentiment which I’m sure can be shared by every high performing actor and director in Hollywood. While the Bottom brothers moan their financial doldrums and the older brother loathes the far more successful Will Shakespeare in “I Hate Shakespeare,” his younger brother Nigel is a fan.  Frustrated and desperate, Nick seeks out the fortune teller, Nostradamus, who sings his predictions of the future, in “A Musical.”

Meanwhile, Nick’s wife, Portia, decides to dress up like a man and go out to earn some much needed rent money in “Right Hand Man,”and Puritans seek to close Nick down or have him beheaded. If the names and some of the situations ring a Shakespearean bell, that is because they are supposed to.

To get a delectable taste of the show watch here as the Broadway cast performs two songs on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

The costumes are period, the performers we saw were child-on-a-sugar-high, contagious level energetic. I do not know what troupe you might see but the musical lends itself to an upbeat, feel-good time for all.

But it is not FOR all audience members. The language can get rough and, while nothing is seen or done, the topics of conversation occasionally veer into the bawdy.

While no longer, at the moment, in Beaumont, you can catch this little gem on its tour around the country. And if you can’t catch up to it geographically, do not dismay. I predict that some day soon this will be transformed into a movie. It’s too delicious not — to be. (See what I did there?)

 

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE – A DELIGHTFUL COMEDY OF TERRORS AT OUR OWN LAKE CHARLES, LA ACTS THEATRE

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The Addams Family was an endearing bunch of creepy oddballs. Appearing like zombies, witches and vampires they were actually a loving Mom, Dad, kids and extended family of rich and philanthropic homeschoolers.

The family of Queen Eleanor and King Henry II, in the classic Lion in Winter were not so companionable, and battled continuously with each other throughout the play. Different members bond with, then betray, each other, jockeying for power, land, revenge, attention, or love. At the end of a particularly vicious argument with her husband, Eleanor, left sitting on the floor in the doorway, gathers herself together and to self-console muses: "Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?"

The Guardians of the Galaxy is a band of violent and ethically questionable outlaws and vigilantes who come together as a family unit in part to (re)raise Groot, who is a sentient tree. (See my review on that one here .)

NONE of them have anything on the Brewsters.

The premise of Arsenic and Old Lace is that Mortimer, a once cynical-of-romance theater critic, now totally smitten and freshly engaged to Elaine, the girl next door, goes to his sweet, loving, maiden aunts’ home for a visit and to break the good news.

In residence is his adorable Uncle Teddy, who thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt, periodically charging up the stairs he knows as San Juan Hill and digging grave sized locks in the basement, which he thinks is the Panama Canal. Hovering in the background is the ominous, but so far absent, other brother, Jonathan. And so the stage is literally set for this very black and very funny slapstick comedy about a family which would put the Guardians on alert, make the Addams Family startle, and have both Henry and Eleanor running for cover. Bodies pile up and are switched like the plates of tuna in Noises Off or the suitcases from What’s Up Doc, identities are hidden and a good time is ultimately had by all…except for the corpses…in Arsenic and Old Lace.

I hesitate to say more for the benefit of those readers who have not seen either the play or the brilliant 1944 movie directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant. If you don’t know the story it is just too delightful to spoil. If you do know some of the details then it will be like going back for seconds of your favorite ice cream.

Clay Hebert, the director and Officer Klein, is a familiar and welcome face from every stage Lake Charles offers. He has a resume which spans from McNeese's Theater to ACTS, and from Lake Charles Little Theatre to the Bayou Players and independent film productions all over Lake Charles. Clay artfully guides this fairly large cast through the quick draw and fast paced humor of Arsenic, which is to comedy what very dark and deliciously bitter semi-sweet morsels are to chocolate chip cookies, skillfully leading his troupe over that tightrope between horror and humor.

Louis Barrilleaux, another talented veteran of ACTS, LCLT and McNeese for over 20 years, is Mortimer, the eye around which this storm circulates.

Kelly Rowland and Sarah Broussard, respectively as Martha and Abbey Brewster, age themselves convincingly 50 years to play Mortimer’s adorably naive and unassuming aunts whose home is the site for some rather….unexpected events. Both ladies have degrees in performance, Kelly in music and Sarah in theater, with a wide and diverse range of acting credits.

Rebecca Harris, an actress with an impressive resume, is Mortimer’s confused but stalwart fiancee.

Aaron Webster, a self-described reluctant actor, is eminently creepy as Jonathan, the ne'er-do-well prodigal brother.

Brahnsen Lopez, another stage veteran, plays Jonathan’s would-be repentant colleague, Dr. Einstein (not Albert).

Matt Dye, local radio personality and frequently cast in small but scene stealing roles, does it again as Teddy.

Mark Hebert, Dusty Duffy, Dylan Conley and Kathy Heath round out the cast with memorable supporting characters.

 

The set is terrific, creating the authentically homey, gentle parlor of two elderly aunts, making the sinister events all the funnier for the contrast, complete with two sets of stairs and a landing up and through which Teddy has the freedom to charge with abandon, a window seat which can house…various and sundry… and French doors through which the characters are free to pop in and out.

I was privileged to interview Diki Jines, master electrician on the set and will have his interview clips up shortly below, talking about the set, its design and a little background.

Timing and blocking are very key, especially in this comedy of terrors and Clay has the tempo and coordinated actions and responses wound like a Swiss Cuckoo clockwork.

It’s a joy to watch a stage full of such talented veterans work smoothly together, and the fact most are old friends and/or fellow thespians, who have trod the boards often together, helps catalyze the chemistry that makes this play full of intimately connected characters work. These performers know each others’ rhythms and make the most of their considerable pool of experience to bring us a delightful evening of fun and fright, chills and chuckles, comedy and carnage, shocks and snickers, jocularity and jump scares.

So go warm up — or chill out — in anticipation of Halloween at ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. But be sure to BYOW. (Bring your own wine.)

BUY TICKETS HERE, OR CALL (337) 433-2287

LITTLE WOMEN – ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES I’VE SEEN IN YEARS

SHORT TAKE:

Artfully modernized, faithfully told beautiful adaptation for the contemporary audience of the classic story, Little Women.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everyone. Anyone. All ages. Please go, bring friends.

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LONG TAKE:

We know this story extremely well, inside and out. I’ve read the book. I’ve taught it as part of our curriculum several times over the span of homeschooling six kids.  I have seen a number of filmed versions including the appalling one where Katherine Hepburn was way too old to play Jo and a lovely one with Susan Sarandon as Marme. Our family was IN the danged play at our local community theater 12 years ago. My second oldest daughter played the lead, Jo, and the rest of our family either had parts on stage, behind the scenes or were present for every rehearsal cheering their siblings on. We’ve incorporated lines and expressions like "love lornity" and how French is a "silly slippery language" from the play into our traditional family sayings. Shoot, with four girls of our own, there were times I've felt as though we were LIVING scenes from Little Women…but I had never truly appreciated the story of Little Women until I saw this 2018 modernized film.

Little Women, marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of the source book, has been refurbished to modern day and is arguably one of the best movies I have seen in years. The film makers have adapted this Civil War era story to the 21st century with the same skill as the innovative Cumberbatch-Freeman Sherlock updated the original Conan Doyle invention, or Steve Martin refreshed Cyrano de Bergerac into the whimsical Roxanne – that is to say with both seamless, creative invention and great respectful affection for the source material. It is a testament to the timelessness of the concepts foundational to Louisa May Alcott’s novel that it translates so well, but it is the talent of the gifted screenwriter Kristi Shimek, newbie director Clare Niederpruem and the actors that makes it blossom onto the screen.

For the benefit of anyone suffering the misfortune of not being familiar with the story, the premise of Little Women follows Jo March from childhood to womanhood as she and her sisters grow and mature together in the warm embrace of loving parents and stalwart friends through joys, embarrassments, mistakes, misunderstandings, and the other comedies and tragedies of life.

For those who are blessed with a familiarity of the subject, rest assured the writer and director have a love and respect for the material. The tale has not been changed by the displacement in time, but is transformed into an image more familiar and therefore more accessible to 21st century audiences, without altering a single iota of character development, story arc, or theme. John Bunyan’s famous Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, is as notable here as it was in the original script and novel, forming the underlying themes of passage from human frailty and sin to redemption, suffering the travails of life with forgiveness, courage, and love. Instead of the Civil War, the father is deployed overseas. Instead of letters they have Skype. The charity the original characters perform for a starving mother and children next door is done at a homeless shelter. The children are homeschooled and the social faux pas are appropriately updated to reflect the unwiseness of modern youth. As many lines as can be are pulled directly from the book, but updates, where needed, are appropriately made.

I’ve known Lea Thompson was a fine actress ever since I first saw Back to the Future at the theater in 1985. I was floored to discover, some 20 minutes into the movie when Marty goes back to the past, that the same woman who played a dowdy, overweight, burnt out, disillusioned and embittered alcoholic was NOT in fact 50 years old but a brilliant little 24 year old actress who nailed the tragic first version of Lorraine in the opening scenes of that now famous movie. She hits the bull's eye again in Little Women as Marme, the gentle, warm and archetype maternal figure of the March family.

I was honestly not familiar with any of the other cast members before seeing this Little Women. Most harken from TV shows and B movies, but every one of the performers is not only tremendous in their roles, but fit into and shape their characters so perfectly I will have difficulty ever thinking of these March family members and friends as anyone but them (with the except of our own family members, of course).

Sarah Davenport is perfect as the high strung, impulsive, often unthinking and deeply emotional Jo. Allie Jennings ditto as Jo’s favorite sister and alter ego, the gentle, kind and resolute Beth. Melanie Stone is lovely as Meg, wanting nothing more than to be a wife and mother. Elise Jones and Taylor Murphy playing the younger and older Amy, respectively, do a great job of the self absorbed and easily smitten youngest sister without losing Amy’s vulnerability. Lucas Grabeel steps into the part of Laurie with just the right combination of awkward and delightful as the lonely young man next door anxious to join a family. Ian Bohen as the caring and insightful Professor Freddie Bhaer, Bart Johnson as the warm and loving Papa March, Michael Flynn as Laurie’s kind and thoughtful grandfather Mr. Lawrence, Stuart Edge as Brooke, Barta Heiner as Aunt March and even Goober the cat contribute their support to this brilliant and beautiful film adaptation for the contemporary audience.

The dress and sets are simple and fit the time and place of a family of well cared for and spiritually sound young women. The sweetly fitting soundtrack is decorated with modern day songs which accurately reflect the needs of the film's moods. Most of the action takes place in and around the March and Lawrence homes. The filming style is of flash – backs and forwards – as time moves on and memories are rekindled by events in Jo’s dynamic present. And I really enjoyed the cinematically creative and tasteful way Ms. Niederpruem conveyed the passage of time.

Go see this wonderful version of Little Women. Read the book either before or after…or both…and gain a fresh new appreciation for this enchanting, inspiring and enduring tale of spiritual growth, family strength and the power that love and faith have over the buffets and trials of life. Bring Kleenex.

NOT YOUR MOM’S FREAKY FRIDAY – THIS IS A FABULOUS PLAY!!!

In 1976 Disney came out with a really dumb movie called Freaky Friday starring Barbara Harris and a VERY young Jodie Foster about a mother and daughter who get their wish to be each other for a day. It’s the old – careful what you wish for. The daughter thinks her mom has it easy because she has all the control. The mom thinks the daughter’s position is a toddle because all she has to do all day is go to school, come home and snack. Both are, of course, wrong. But the story, as presented, is silly and superficial, trite and leans heavily on all the cliched generation gap misunderstandings. They didn’t do any better with the Shelley Long version in 1995 or the Jamie Lee Curtis version in 2003.
 
So when my husband bought tickets to go see the new musical version I had to laugh. Why not? On vacation, let’s be brainless. By intermission my husband and I turned to each other almost simultaneously and said “Our kids have GOT to see this!!!” The music is catchy with clever lyrics, the script is funny and fast paced. The acting in the one we saw with Heidi Blickenstaff as mother Katherine and Emma Hunton as daughter Ellie were absolutely brilliant and totally believable. The singing was stunning and powerful but nuanced with “attitude” and comic timing. And most importantly it has a really good PLOT! I guarantee you will see yourself somewhere in this play – as the parent, as the child, as the sibling – older or younger – or as all at some point in your life. To see yourself as others see you. Prepare to laugh – a LOT – but bring some kleenex too.
 
Instead of a throw away one-note gimmick, the tale here is of a widowed mom, Katherine, on the eve of remarriage trying to hold together her fledgling catering company and her fragile family – still traumatized and battered by the untimely death of the father 6 years before. (AGAIN underlining the importance of the DAD!!!) The father leaves his wife and daughter each a “magic” hourglass, as though knowing this day would come. And at the apex of the stresses from the wedding preparation, a journalist about to do a story on the mom’s business, the daughter’s crush on Adam, the popular guy in class, and a simple conflict in scheduling – well, they get their respective wishes. Fleshing out the cast is: an adorable 10 year old little brother, Fletcher, who is looking forward to having a Dad again; Mike, the deeply patient and understanding fiance; Katherine’s underappreciated assistant; Katherine’s oblivious parents; a timely parent-teacher meeting; some teenaged angst; a class cutting up frogs in biology class and….a treasure hunt. And yes all these elements work together like gears in a clock to make a funny, warm, insightful, catchy, brilliant little musical. I think this the best thing Disney has done in years.
 
While focusing mostly on the mother and daughter, the supporting cast is not forgotten. Each gets a moment to shine. And the ensemble group is utilized to the full as well. There are some moments in the play which would have done Mozart proud – as at times there are upwards of 6 people singing in the same song about their different agendas or perspectives – and it all makes sense (think the ensemble song “Tonight” in West Side Story or the Act II and IV octet finales in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro).
 
The songs each have a personality of their own as well – from the cocky “I Got This” where Katherine and Ellie assume pretending to be each other will be a breeze, to the lyrical heartbreaking “After All of This and Everything” which Ellie, in Katherine’s body sings to a sleeping Fletcher, to the bitterly funny “Parents Lie”, and the just plain old cute “Women and Sandwiches” which Adam sings to Fletcher in an attempt to explain the fascination women have for him and will one day have for Fletcher.
 
If you want to get a preview of Freaky Friday you can hear the songs on Youtube.
The play opened October 4, 2016 in Arlington, VA and we were blessed with being able to see the original cast leads in Houston. This play will, no doubt, make the rounds around the country – or be filmed at some point. But don’t let the previous original versions put you off. This is a truly “magical” play.
FIND and go see this play SOMEWHERE!!!!!!