Thursday, April 19, 2018

It's a Sister Act: Illness Leads to Role Switch in Texas Tech's Little Women

Maddie Bryan Prepares for a Performance
of Little Women.
Photo by Anna Ruth Aaron-Despain

Standing on the Texas Tech Theatre mainstage on Friday night, sophomore music theatre major Maddie Bryan was trying to calm her nerves. She was forgetting to breathe, and she kept fidgeting and twiddling her thumbs. Her director was walking her through what she would be doing on stage that night. She had been working on the show for nearly two months, but tonight she would be doing a role she hadn’t rehearsed for a second.

It was 1:30pm when Bryan got the call that Jordan Sheets, the senior theatre major playing the starring role of Jo March in Texas Tech’s production of Little Women would not be able to perform in the 7:30pm show, and Bryan would be going on in her place.

It’s a story that has been presented time and time again in plays and musicals. The lead actor can’t perform for whatever reason and another actor is thrust into the spotlight. It’s how Shirley MacLaine got her big break on Broadway. The same with Sutton Foster (who, coincidentally, originated the role of Jo March). The plots of 42nd Street, Phantom of the Opera, and The Understudy all revolve around this theatrical mythos. But now, for students at Texas Tech University, it was happening for real.

Bryan had been playing the role of Meg March up until this point. When asked to step into the lead role, she felt anxious.

“I wasn’t gonna say no,” said Bryan with a laugh. “I got to the theatre right at 2:30, scarfed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana, and started to work immediately.”

With Bryan moving from the role of Meg to Jo, there was another problem: who was going to play the role of Meg?

“When I walked into the theatre, I heard someone singing my songs,” Bryan said. “I turned the corner, and it was Casey Joiner.”

Joiner had served the production as accompanist during the entirety of the rehearsal period. When asked by the director for her opinion on who could play Meg, Joiner volunteered herself.

“Since I had been there since day one, I was willing to step in,” Joiner said. “I just wanted the students to feel like they got everything they expected and could have gotten out of the show.”

(From Left) Maddie Bryan, Baylee Hale, Jordan Sheets,
and Julia Rhea.
Photo by Dori Bosnyak
Bryan remembers someone curling her hair while she started her makeup. Someone else was putting on her microphone as she was finishing her lipstick. All the while, she was listening to the songs she would have to sing on repeat. The cast tried to remain calm.

At 7:30, the curtain rose, and the cast was off and running with everyone doing their best to make sure that none of the cracks in the fa├žade were showing.

“People would be pushing me in an acting way, guiding me, making it look natural,” said Bryan. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Sophomore Baylee Hale, who plays the role of Beth, had a different reaction to everything going on around her.

“For the first couple of numbers, I was backstage laughing hysterically,” Hale said with a grin. “It felt like a prank, like any moment someone would walk out and say, ‘Gotcha!’”

After the final curtain fell, Bryan and Joiner were shoved down front for an extra round of applause.

Although she wasn’t able to attend the performances, Sheets said she learned a valuable lesson from the ordeal.

“I had no idea how supportive and how much of a family this theatre department was until this happened. No matter what happens, these people have your back.”

Bryan took it all as a learning experience.

“It was an incredible opportunity,” Bryan said. “This sort of thing happens all the time in professional theatres. You’ve got to be ready.”

“The show must go on.”

Little Women continues through April 22 in the Charles E. Maedgen, Jr. Mainstage Theatre, located at 2812 18th Street between Boston and Flint Avenues. For tickets and more information, call (806)742-3603 or visit theatre.ttu.edu.

--Shane Strawbridge

One With Nature: An Interview with Adam Adolfo

Adam Adolfo
I had the opportunity to discuss Adam Adolfo's current project, Elemental: Nature's Rhapsody, opening this weekend in and around the reflecting pool in front of the Winspear Opera House, as part of the Elevator Project at AT&T Performing Arts Center.

Read the full story at TheaterJones.com.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Talk About Infectious: 600 Highwaymen's The Fever

At times brimming with gleeful nostalgia and others indicting the audience for their sins, The Fever by 600 Highwaymen, the moniker for theatre artists Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, cultivates a powerful and gripping theatrical experience.

The rest of the story is at TheaterJones.com.

A Q&A with Jennifer Engler

Jennifer Engler has appeared at Circle Theatre as an actor in productions of Hope and Gravity, Miracle on South Division Street, Marvin's Room, and Picasso at the Lapin Agile. As a Director at Circle Theatre, she worked on Application Pending by Greg Edwards & Andy Sandberg, and According to Goldman by Bruce Graham. Jennifer is an associate professor at Texas Christian University, where she teaches various levels of acting, auditioning, movement, and dance.

The rest of the story can be found at TheaterJones.com.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Flaws Make it Beautiful: Mosaic Theater Company's Paper Dolls

Mosaic Theater Company’s production of Philip Himberg’s Paper Dolls is not perfect, but that’s what makes it work.

Set in Tel Aviv in 2004, Paper Dolls centers around a group of Filipino immigrants who work as caregivers to elderly Orthodox Jewish men by day and by night work as a drag entertainment group called—you guessed it—The Paper Dolls. This “play with songs” differs from a traditional musical in that the songs don’t advance the story; they are, however, an integral part of making this story come alive. In moments where the Himberg’s script allowed the pace to lull (such as a long backstage discussion with all the Dolls after we see them perform for the first time), I missed the music that defines these characters. When that music returns, it is all the more special for the wait.

Although the play was written before the most recent election (it premiered in London in 2013), the thematic material and images appear to pull from the daily headlines. The Dolls are faced with concerns of blending with a new cultural environment while still holding on to their own identity. Characters talk about walls, both literal and metaphoric, to illustrate the fear of “the other”. When one says that the people in the country built a very big wall, they are met with the response “A wall will not be the answer”—a sentence with massive resonance in recent months.

Himberg allows his play to drift into syrupy sentimentality, at times resembling an after-school special more than a dramatic work, but the performances from the cast force you to care about these people. The actors that make up the Paper Dolls—Evan D’Angeles, Ariel Felix, Jon Norman Scheider, Rafael Sebastian, and Kevin Shen—perform so naturally together that their loving behavior is a foregone conclusion. These trans performers are family—in one case, literally—and their affection for one another is evident in their actions (such as in one moment where one willingly places themselves in danger for the sake of another). The rest of the cast does their part to iron out problems with the script (Lise Bruneau’s Adina must change her entire perception of Ariel Felix’s Sally between scenes with no clear indication why), and it is seeing them wrestle with the text that makes their victories all the more satisfying to watch.

The two-story set design by James Kronzer resembles the exterior of a tenement structure with its worn-down walls, metal railings, and barred windows. The open design along with the clever use of fire escape staircase on wheels allows director Brokaw to keep the downtime between scenes to a minimum, pushing the pace to a satisfying clip. Costumes by Frank Labovitz are a gratifying mix of average day-to-day clothing and spectacularly designed show outfits. Labovitz has created many of the costumes for The Dolls by hand out of recycled newsprint, a visual representation of their fragility, innovativeness, and determination.

Paper Dolls appears determined to let its cracks show. The script has its problems, lines are flubbed and dropped, and the singing sometimes is out of sync, but it doesn’t matter. These imperfections harken back to the gritty nature of the beginnings of back-room drag. These imperfections show the cracks in these people and their lives. These imperfections create a show that feels hand-crafted rather than machine processed. In an artistic world that rewards paragons above all else, Paper Dolls succeeds because it is imperfect.

Friday, April 13, 2018

A Cart Without a Horse: Studio Theatre's Translations

Studio Theatre’s production of Brian Friel’s Translations proves difficult to map out. By the time the second half gets its footing and ratchets up the tension and dramatic intrigue, the show is already out to pasture. The blame here lies primarily with Matt Torney, whose direction upends a worthwhile effort from his team.

Translations tells the story of a hedge school in the townland of Baile Baeg, an Irish-speaking community in County Donegal in 1833. Owen, the son of perpetually buzzed schoolmaster Hugh, returns after six years away with members of the British Army to create a map that replaces the native Gaelic town names with English ones. Miscommunication over language, the power of the unspoken, and tensions between England and Ireland threaten to rip the community apart as the political becomes personal. The script conjures images of contemporary issues such as xenophobia, erosion of national identity, and cultural imperialism. Friel’s script has all of the actors speaking in English, but we are supposed to understand that they are actually speaking two different languages: Gaelic for the villagers and English for the Brits. This elegant solution to a complicated problem takes far too long to settle in and work under Torney’s direction. The effect becomes inscrutable, further muddying already choppy waters.

Let me preface this by saying that Friel’s script possesses a maudlin pace. Even so, Torney's direction does nothing to help the audience stay engaged. Torney fails his actors by not giving them any method to add any tension until after the act break, and his placement of actors appears more arbitrary than functional.

Despite Torney’s lackluster direction, the performances and dialect work from the cast are pleasant across the board with a few notable standouts. At times stoic alternating with genuine affection, Matthew Aldwin McGee charms with his dedication to his friends, family, and students in his role of Manus. His patience while teaching a student to introduce herself endears us to him. Joe Mallon and Caroline Dubberly as Doalty and Bridget provide a much-needed breath of fresh air and jolt of energy in a plodding first act. Bridget and Doalty have plenty of gossip to spread, and you can virtually see them licking their chops waiting for their turn to jump into the fray. In a play so dependent on language for both plot and theme, it is ironic that the strongest performance of the night comes from the actor with the least to say. Megan Graves pours every ounce of her soul into the broken psyche of near-mute student Sarah; although she only speaks a handful of words, the determination she exhibits while struggling with learning to speak inspires. Watching her operate is worth the price of admission.

The design team mostly does its part to give the show a fair place to play. Set design by Debra Booth provides a rustic look at an Irish hedge school. Her dirt covered floor, bricked walls, and thatched roof conveys a sense of a rural home while sharp metal, a steep staircase, and a rickety door foreshadow potential dangers ahead. Costume design by Wade Laboissonniere grounds the show in drab earth tones covered in dust for the Irish and bright, caustic reds for the Brits. The most effective element of the technical design comes from sound designer Palmer Hefferan. Her chosen musical palette of Celtic strings and percussion along with environmental sounds do double duty in contextualizing the play’s temporality and geography along with creating variations in ambience from quiet country hamlet to ominous thunder and rain.

Torney has assembled a team that does everything in its power to make Studio Theatre’s Translations a journey worth taking, but they would benefit with a more competent leader at front. The cast and crew do admirable work in this effort despite Torney; I can only imagine the hurdles they’ve had to overcome to get here.

Waiting for Dorothy - The Wiz at Ford's Theatre

A Wiz without a Dorothy isn’t much of a Wiz at all.

That doesn’t mean that the production of The Wiz currently running at Ford’s Theatre is a lost cause. Director Kent Gash fills his stage with glorious spectacle, but if we don’t care about Dorothy, what does it all matter?

The Wiz is a 1976 musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. The story is the same—Kansas farm girl gets transported to a magical land by a tornado, kills the first person she meets, and then teams up with three strangers to kill again—but this time with an African-American aesthetic replete with black vernacular, music, expression, and updated cultural references such as Siri and Wakanda. Its appeal is infectious.

Unfortunately, our Dorothy is completely unlikable. The script by William F. Brown and Charlie Smalls doesn’t give enough time to establish that Dorothy likes Kansas and her family at all before she transports to Oz (and Gash doesn’t help matters with his staging). Dorothy exists in this Oz as a tour guide introducing us to her supporting cast, and Ines Nassara’s portrayal jumps straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon and only has one setting: overdone. Mugging for the audience and overreacting facial expressions are her baseline, and it does nothing to improve the production. The supporting cast fares better, especially Hasani Allen’s rubber-physiqued Scarecrow and Awa Sal Secka’s Glinda (whose reprise rendition of “Believe in Yourself” threatened to take the roof off the theatre). Music Director Darius Smith draws powerful vocal performances from the cast, and the orchestra under his direction deserves accolades.

The scenic design by Jason Sherwood (with a big assist from projection designer Clint Allen) brims with versatility including a gigantic circular panel that serves as a projection screen, crystal ball, and the Wiz’s balloon, along with another piece that literally turns Dorothy’s world upside-down. Costumes by Kara Harmon give life to the citizens of Oz with dazzling colors, sparkling fabrics, and ambitious construction. Gash’s directorial hand keeps the aesthetic vision consistent throughout, and it all adds up to what should be a satisfying production.

But any retelling of Oz comes down to Dorothy, and this one misses the mark. It doesn’t matter how well-crafted the rest of the production is—if we don’t like Dorothy, we may find ourselves wishing that we could click our own heels three times to get out of Oz.

---Shane Strawbridge