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Aurora Theatre70
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Synchronicity Performance Group11
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Alliance Theatre Company10
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New London Theatre9
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Kudzu Playhouse8
Gypsy Theatre Company7
7 Stages7
New Dawn Theater6
Fabrefaction Theater Company6
Atlanta Musical Theatre Festival5
Academy Theatre5
Resurgens Theatre Company5
The Weird Sisters Theatre Project5
Staged Right Theatre5
Marietta Theatre Company5
Performing Arts North5
Southside Theatre Guild4
Next Stage Theatre Company4
Agape Players, Inc.4
Oglethorpe University Theatre Department4
Actors Theatre of Atlanta4
Button Theatre4
North Fulton Drama Club4
Pinch n' Ouch Theatre4
The Magari Theatre Company4
Out Front Theatre Company4
Theatre Arts Guild4
Vernal & Sere Theatre3
Main Street Theatre Tucker3
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Cherokee Theatre Company3
Serenbe Playhouse3
Theater of the Stars3
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New Origins Theatre Company3
Elm Street Cultural Arts Village2
Capitol City Opera Company2
The Fern Theatre Company2
The Performer’s Warehouse2
Impulse Repertory Co.2
Merely Players Presents2
Acting UP2
Theatre Buford2
Epidemic Theatre Group2
Bozarts Little Theater2
The Renaissance Project1
MelloDrama Productions1
The Kudzu Players1
Catalyst Arts Atlanta1
Wallace Buice Theatre Company1
City Springs Theatre Company1
Chattahoochee Community Players1
Dorsey Theatre1
2 Fat Farmers Productions1
Northside Church1
Orange Box Theater1
Stage Two Productions1
Peachtree Players1
Johns Creek Players1
Mixed Revues1
True Colors Theatre Company1
New African Grove Theatre Company1
Right On Productions1
Folding Chair Classical Theatre1
Independent Artists’ Playhouse1
Chronicle Collective1
Red Phoenix Theatre Company1
Polk Street Players1
Newnan Community Theatre Company1
Ouroboros Theatre Productions1
Rising Sage Theatre Company1
City of the South Theatricals1
Lolek’s Storyteller’s Theatre Company1
Atlanta Broadway Series1
Holly Theatre1
Liberal Eye Productions1
The Legacy Theatre1
Troubadours of Daytime1
The New Depot Players1
Theatre 52301
Open Minds Theatre Company1
Kudzu Children's Theater1
The Lyceum Project1
Company J at the MJCCA1
Theatre Emory1
Dominion Entertainment Group, LLC1
Zero Circle Theatre Company1
Upper East Side Theatre Company1
Average Rating Given : 3.73830
Reviews in Last 6 months : 63

God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton
Scads of Spillage
Sunday, October 14, 2018
"God of Carnage" can be played pretty seriously, with the brittle politeness of two married couples meeting to discuss an incident between their children turning into open hostility. There’s inherent humor in the play, but often of the uncomfortable kind that has the audience laughing at antagonistically unacceptable behavior. In Open Minds’ production, a sunnier, broader type of comedy comes to the forefront.

Director Maddie Auchter has cast the play with two mixed-race couples. Race doesn’t really factor into the play, except when the white husband (Brandon Engelskirchen) uses a racial epithet when speaking to (but not of) his wife (Toya M. Nelson). The muted reaction onstage lets us know that this is race-blind casting rather than an attempt to insert racial politics into a plot that already is rife with gender politics and the politics of economic disparity.

The unacknowledged set design is simple: a sofa, flanked by end tables, and two armchairs surrounding a coffee table, with a coat rack far stage right and a pitifully small abstract painting on the upstage wall. Mr. Engelskirchen’s props give the feel of a lived-in house and provide everything needed to fulfill the requirements of the plot, including a gag-inducing vomit effect, which alone is worth the price of admission. Blocking makes good use of the set, although sightlines of action occurring on the floor can be obscured when additional chairs are brought in to accommodate an overflow audience. Lighting is basic, and costumes are functional, if not terribly indicative of the disparate economic status of the two couples.

Performances are of mixed quality, which prevents the cast from functioning as a true ensemble. E. Emmanuel Peeples is appropriately abrasive as a high-powered lawyer, but he seems a tad uncomfortable being onstage in such close proximity to the audience. Audrey Moore, on the other hand, is simply spectacular as his wife, anchoring her every line and reaction in reality, getting laughs from the truthfulness of her performance rather than from any comedic tricks. Mr. Engelskirchen is a natural comedian, and his performance mines his lines for comedy, getting laughs from his delivery and physicality. Ms. Nelson dives into her role, but gives the impression that she could have dived in much deeper. The four actors seem to be in four different places in terms of their talent, skill, and acting styles, so there’s little feeling of cohesiveness in the marriages.

Even so, Ms. Auchter has created a production that shows the play off to advantage and that wrings comedy from the uncomfortable interplay of four people discussing the behavior of their children, then branching off to attack one another’s behavior. It’s a generally talky play (the original version is French, after all), and Ms. Auchter’s choice to have characters rise and move to different positions to sit again doesn’t ring particularly true in terms of guest-host interactions, but adds some movement until the moments of true physical activity, which hit with brutal force.

Yasmina Reza’s "God of Carnage" is done fairly frequently on area stages. The Open Minds production may not be the most polished one in memory, but it certainly is one of the funniest. Overflow crowds are evidence that the Open Minds Theatre Company is headed for a bright future, and "God of Carnage" is an auspicious inaugural offering.

Lysistrata , by Aristophanes
Bawdy B.C.
Saturday, October 13, 2018
Aristophanes’ "Lysistrata" concerns a sex strike by the women of Greece, withholding their favors from their husbands until the men pledge to bring about peace. As such, you might expect a certain amount of sexy content. But you might not expect the amount of blatant double entendres, bawdy body language, and faux nudity that is being paraded about in Impulse Repertory Company’s production. Those ancient Greeks sure liked things primal and carnal and animalistic!

Ibi Owolabi has directed the show to highlight these qualities. In the action of the piece, the women of Athens have taken over the Acropolis (which includes the city-state’s treasury) and occasionally descend to bargain with and/or berate the men. Ms. Owolabi nicely stages this by using the center aisle of the audience risers to represent the slope up to the Acropolis. A lot of movement up and down the stairs brings the actors within inches of the audience. A certain amount of comical interaction occurs, as the audience (or specific audience members) are addressed as part of the script. Sam Ross’ lighting design makes sure the actors on the stairs are nicely lit during their scenes.

The set proper (designed by Kara Cantrell) consists just of a few low, stacked platforms skewed near the up right section of the stage, with the floor painted in a sinuous, vaguely sandy pattern of wide bands. It’s spare and elegant, and Mr. Ross’ lighting of it and of the upstage screen gives a classic feel to the proceedings.

Clint Horne’s costumes initially invoke the 1950’s. That seems contradictory to the bawdy content of the play, since the 1950’s were known for wholesomeness. Later, when the old men and women disrobe, we see the women in lingerie and the old men with exposed privates consisting of stuffed socks (one for a phallus and another hanging down with round lumps inside to represent testicles). When virile men show up later, their yard-long erections and bulbous testes use the same technique on steroids.

Performances are all good. Elizabeth Ann Miller makes for a statuesque, fiery Lysistrata, sparking the action. Iniki Roberts, as her friend Calonice, and Emily Nedvidek, as Myrrhine from Sparta, make their sexual passions clear before finally agreeing to Lysistrata’s plan. Renee Skibinski (Lampito) and Jessica McGuire (Ismenia) fill out the ensemble of wives, and there’s lots of fun in Ismenia constantly being overlooked and interrupted before she even has a chance to speak. Ms. McGuire also plays the undulating figure of Reconciliation at the end, and Betty Mitchell rounds out the female cast as the tart-tongued leader of the Old Women’s Chorus.

The cast’s male members (oops! bad choice of words) all take on chorus roles at some point. Robert Bryan Davis is the leader of the Old Man’s Chorus, accompanied by Tamil Periasamy and Kenneth Wigley. All are comic and stooped and basically stupid. Messrs. Pariasamy and Wigley make nice transitions to other characters, with Mr. Wigley’s transformations being especially virtuosic. Andre Eaton Jr. plays a supercilious Magistrate, apart from acting as a general chorus member, and gives a nice smug edge to his character. All project well vocally.

The production falls down a bit on Dolph Amick’s sound design. The accompaniment to a song sung by Mr. Davis and Ms. Mitchell gives them little support, and overall the dances fall a bit flat, largely due to a modern audience’s indifference to the conventions of ancient Greek drama. The dances are well-enough performed, with Mr. Eaton giving his steps a little extra flair, but they seem peripheral to the story. The script itself mixes together occasional modern references with Aristophanes’ references to ancient Greek military history, goddesses, clothing, habits, and traditions to such a degree that it seems that the play is neither here nor there.

Ms. Owolabi has pulled together a production with many admirable components, and she is certainly a director to be reckoned with. That this production of "Lysistrata" doesn’t quite work is a disappointment, but it still contains tons of humor and a feminist message that has echoed through the ages. It would benefit from a longer run, with fewer line slip-ups and an audience primed for the style of the show.

A Red Plaid Shirt, by Michael G. Wilmot
Post-Retirement Blues in Red Plaid
Monday, October 8, 2018
Marty (Michael Strauss) has been retired for six months and feels at loose ends, with no real purpose in life. He decides he wants to buy a motorcycle. His more practical wife, Deb (Suzanne Jordan Roush), convinces him to take woodworking lessons instead. He enlists his hypochondriac retired friend Fred (Steve Hudson) to join the class too, and they accomplish their initial project, creating one misshapen salad bowl each, and make plans for another project. That’s the first act.

In the second act, we see this new project (something everyone eventually needs), see a flashback to a live modeling art class newly retired Deb took with Fred’s wife Gladys (Eileen Koteles), and glide slowly toward a happy ending. It has the feel of two episodes of a sitcom stitched together and stretched to the length of a full-length play.

Robert Egizio has not directed the show with the frenetic pacing and over-the-top performances of a laugh-track-filled sitcom. The pace is good (at least of onstage action, if not of the script itself), and the performances are anchored in reality, although Mr. Strauss is given plenty of opportunity to make use of his amazing skills in vocal impressions. These are all fine performances that get plenty of laughs, but the material lets them down time and time again.

Where does the red plaid shirt come in? Well, Marty believes all woodworkers wear them, so he buys one along with a carpenter’s apron to look the part. That and the woodworking projects have given costumer Jim Alford and props designer Kathy Ellsworth plenty to do.

Lighting design by J.D. Williams uses nice gobo effects on the side sets of a coffeehouse stage right and a woodworking shop stage left, but otherwise uses general lighting on the central set of Marty and Deb’s living room. Chuck Welcome’s set design is as attractive and functional as ever, with the woodworking shop converted to an art classroom at the act break.

Rial Ellsworth’s sound effects consist primarily of an approaching car and the closing of car doors. There’s also music played between each of the many scenes, and I got thoroughly sick of portions of "When I’m Sixty-Four" being played during each and every one of the scene changes.

"A Red Plaid Shirt" was written by a Canadian, and we get some north-of-the-border terminology like "pensioner" and "chartered accountant" (Fred’s pre-retirement profession), but most of the show plays as pleasantly all-American. It obviously has been chosen by Stage Door Players to appeal to its largely retired audience population. Maybe they enjoy the husband-and-wife interplay of an existence that has added "24/7" to the vows of "till death do us part," but I found it pretty dull. A good, professional production of a sub-par play can’t rise to the heights of truly engaging entertainment.

Merrily We Roll Along, by George Furth (book) and Stephen Sondheim (songs)
The Hills of Tomorrow
Sunday, October 7, 2018
The original Broadway production of "Merrily We Roll Along" was a flop, due to the youth of its cast, its underwhelming physical production, and book problems. The failure was not due to Stephen Sondheim’s score (although I would suggest that the number "Bobby and Jackie and Jack" is inappropriate to suggest the promise of a composer, since the lyrics are what make the song). With revisions over the years, "Merrily We Roll Along" is finally in shape to work as a book musical whose scenes flow backward in time.

Actor’s Express is presenting the show in concert, with only a bare minimum of staging by Freddie Ashley, consisting primarily of cast members moving from one music stand to another. Costumes don’t change; lighting doesn’t change; the set (consisting of assemblages of rectangles on the upstage wall) doesn’t change. The only change is in projections on the main rectangle that give the year in which action is about to occur. It’s basic staging, but it’s adequate for the needs of the concert production. There’s even a tiny bit of dance choreography, in the number "Bobby and Jackie and Jack."

Sound design, by James Cash, uses seven upright microphones at the music stands to amplify the 14 voices of the cast and electronic hookups to broadcast music emanating from the two keyboards (played by music director Kevin Robison and by David G. Artadi-Beno) and the upright bass (played by Gabriel Monticello). There’s also drum playing by Dennis Durrett-Smith, and that comes through loud and clear. In fact, everything comes through loud and clear. When a musical number consists of a solo vocal line with contrasting ensemble interjections, it can be hard to pick out individual words. Not all singers are equidistant from their microphones, so loudness and softness can vary. All in all, though, sound levels are pretty good without being painfully loud.

Actor’s Express has assembled a number of first-rate singer/actors to present the material. They all have strong voices, and all make a good stab at appropriate characterization. There’s not a shred of a New York City feel, though, although that’s where the action is ostensibly taking place. The ensemble (Andy Stanesic, Brandy Sexton, Mary Saville, Amy Reynolds, Trevor Perry, Chase Davidson, Taylor Bahin, and Curtis Lipsey III) all take on various small roles with verve, and the principals often act as chorus members too.

Our lead, composer Franklin Shepard, is played by the powerfully voiced Craig Waldrip, ensonced in a suit throughout. His lyricist, Charley Kringas, is played by sweet-voiced Juan Carlos Unzueta. Jessica Miesel plays their long-time pal Mary Flynn, and her portrayal of the character’s arc is the most affecting of all. Joe Josephson, a big-time producer, is played by strong-voiced Skyler Brown. His Broadway star wife (and eventually Franklin’s wife) is played by Natasha Drena with a diva’s flair. Laura Floyd plays Franklin’s first wife with sweet appeal. The performances are all successful (especially Ms. Miesel’s), but the non-stop belting of the musical numbers gets a bit tiring.

Mr. Ashley has assembled a cast and production hurriedly, and it shows in occasional word slip-ups, even though cast members have access to printed scripts and music. Sondheim’s word-heavy lyrics are given their due, though, and his music is played and sung wonderfully. "Merrily We Roll Along" has what I consider to be Sondheim’s most accessible score, and Actor’s Express is letting it be heard loud and clear over just a few days.

Nell Gwynn, by Jessica Swale
Regal Entanglements
Friday, October 5, 2018
Nell Gwynn was an historical personage, an orange-girl turned actress turned king’s mistress to Charles II of England. Jessica Swale’s biographical play is hardly a dry, fact-filled treatise, however; the characters of the king and of John Dryden, England’s first poet laureate, are portrayed as being a bit buffoonish, while Nell is a comic force whose story stays resolutely in the foreground. All the supporting characters are nicely etched, letting double-cast actors impress with their range.

Synchronicity’s physical production is also impressive. Kat Conley’s scenic design includes a curtained proscenium in back of and between two hall-like wings leading offstage, whose walls are resplendent in elegant patterned fabric and trimmed with white, gray, red, and green faux marble. When the crimson curtain is parted, we see back to a painted backdrop that represents a theatre auditorium, but the backdrop can be pulled aside to reveal another representing the interior of a palace room and, for one second-act scene, a third backdrop representing a croquet green, with a bolt of green fabric unfurled on the floor to suggest grass. Above it all is a frieze of gamboling naked women. A couple of upholstered benches positioned in front of the hall-like wings are repositioned for various scenes, with chairs and tables occasionally brought in to flesh out various locations. Scene changes occur swiftly, with actors moving items off and on in dim light and always in character.

D. Connor McVey’s lighting design suggests 17th century stage lighting with footlights near the lip of the stage, but otherwise uses general lighting without intrusive effects. It’s all to enhance our views of the lovely set and the astounding costumes designed by Landi McAdams. Jillian Haughey’s props are also good, and Bonnie Harris’ choreography sparks the many musical intervals. Altogether, the visual aspects of the production are stunning.

Sound is also good. Jess Wells has provided orchestral music for the scene changes and songs, with smooth transitions from one set of instruments to another. Brandon Partrick augments the orchestral score with live lute and drum playing. Singing is good, with some fine voices harmonizing, although the inclusion of so many songs drags out the length of the show to nearly three hours, including intermission.

Richard Garner has done a terrific job directing his troupe of actors. Characterizations are delightful, pacing is energetic, and blocking is smooth and flowing. The arm gestures used in scenes representing 17th century stage performances are often broad to the point of laughability, but that provides much of the humor of those scenes. Posture and leg position aren’t always all they need to be to suggest the formality of the times, with Rob Shaw-Smith appearing a bit louche as the king, but that’s a bit of nit-picking.

The show starts before curtain time with Nell (Courtney Moors) and her sister Rose (Anastasia Wilson) circulating in the audience with baskets of cuties, selling their wares in the bawdy manner of 17th-century orange-girls. Ms. Moors gives the curtain speech in character, warning us to silence our devices and instructing us where to exit in an emergency. The show then begins with a stage production in which J.L. Reed as actor Ned Spigget attempts to speak the play’s prologue amidst heckling from the audience. Nell’s defense of him leads to lead actor Charles Hart (Eugene H. Russell IV) inviting Nell onstage after the performance to take acting lessons. And thus the tale begins.

Messrs. Reed and Russell are both wonderful, but they’re matched by Jeff Hathcoat as Edward Kynaston, an actor specializing in female roles who feels threatened by the introduction of actual female actor-esses to the King’s Company. His fey posture and pronouncements never fail to get laughs. Hannah Church plays Nancy, wardrobe mistress of the company, and her sprightly, impish manner gets heaps of laughs too, especially when she is pressed into service as an actress in the troupe. Brandon Partrick does a very nice job as playwright John Dryden, and Doyle Reynolds impresses as Thomas Killigrew, head of the King’s Company.

Mr. Reynolds also plays Lord Arlington, a key figure in the court of King Charles II, and delineates his two characters with skill. Jasmine Thomas also plays two characters, both mistresses of King Charles II (the predecessor and successor of Nell Gwynn), and her posture in carrying her divine costumes and her English and her French are sublime. Amanda Cucher gets two smaller roles, Charles’ Portuguese Queen Catherine and Old Ma Gwynn (Nell’s mother). She does well in the roles, but doesn’t have enough stage time to make as much of an impression as the others.

"Nell Gwynn" may emphasize comedy over complete historical accuracy, but entertainment needs to be a primary component of any theatrical endeavor, and "Nell Gwynn" is nothing if not entertaining. Watching the effervescently charismatic Ms. Moors take the stage makes the time fly. She’s the brash heroine, speaking her mind to one and all, and grabbing at life with two greedy hands. Mr. Garner’s direction, Ms. Moors’ performance, and the physical production all are first-rate, and with surrounding performances that are also of sterling quality, "Nell Gwynn" triumphs almost as much as the real Nell Gwynn did on the London stage during the Restoration.

Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett
God, Oh God
Monday, October 1, 2018
A classic play. A classic production. A must-see.

‌In the most recent 7Stages production of "Waiting for Godot," as in 1992 and 2004, Del Hamilton plays Vladimir (sometimes called "Didi") and Don Finney plays Estragon (more frequently called "Gogo"). They are vagabonds waiting for the arrival of a man named "Godot." Vladimir remembers that they have been waiting this way for seemingly ages; Estragon’s memory seems to reset each day. Their interplay is that of two old pros who can mine all the comedy and pathos of the situation.

In this production, they are joined by Bart Hansard as Pozzo, an overbearing slave master, and Matt Baum as Lucky, his stooped and aged slave. They are both splendid. In act one, we see Pozzo abusing Lucky, instructing him to satisfy his every mindless whim, and Lucky eventually "thinking" out loud. In act two, Pozzo is blind and Lucky is mute. But in both acts a boy (Ezra Haslam or Pace Willis) arrives to tell Vladimir and Estragon that Godot is postponing his arrival for another day.

The visuals of the production are excellent. Faye Allen’s scenography consists of a mountain-studded horizon low on the upstage wall, accompanied by a skeletal tree up left and a squarish rock down right. Dirt and detritus cover the floor near the horizon. What provides visual interest is primarily the lighting design of Katherine Neslund, which suggests the coming dusk beautifully and includes a neat moon effect against the upstage screen. L. Nyrobi Moss’s costumes perfectly suit each character.

The entire production has been directed (or "dircted," according to the program) by Heidi S. Howard, assisted by Park Krausen and no doubt influenced by the 1992 direction by the celebrated Joe Chaikin and the 2004 direction by accomplished international director Walter Asmus. Wherever all the pieces of the production came from, they come together beautifully. This is a classic production of Samuel Beckett’s most famous work.

4.48 Psychosis, by Sarah Kane
Guts and Insides
Friday, September 28, 2018
Sarah Kane’s "4.48 Psychosis" is more of a poem or meditation than a play. Written shortly before the playwright committed suicide at age 28, it seems to explore the journey from depression to attempted suicide to treatment to successful suicide. In the Vernal and Sere production, four actresses take on the words. Oftentimes, they’re paired onstage, with the text alternating between the pairs. It’s splendidly staged by director Sawyer Estes and acted with devastating conviction by Kathrine Barnes, Erin Boswell, Erin O’Connor, and Madelyn Wall.

The set consists of two four-paned plate glass windows on wheels and four metal office chairs. The floor and walls of the playing space are painted gray. The windows, floor, and walls are scrawled on during the course of the play. Projections (designed by Michael Frederick) display on the back wall, with an LED clock display of "4:48" shown at the start of each scene. (4:48 AM to 6:00 AM is the time during which Ms. Kane believed she saw things most clearly.) Between scenes, the LED display cycles rapidly through numerals, accompanied by a soundtrack that gets less raucous and more soothing as the show goes on.

Before the play proper starts, the audience trickles in as the four actresses move to a percussive musical soundtrack and the LED display ticks up to 4:48. Their movements at times suggest a marching band, at times the scurrying of a mouse, and at times the stamping of a horse’s hoof. At intervals, they gather in a clump as one of them wails, then they writhe and recite in unison the numbers two and seven. Why two and seven? If you count backwards from 100 by sevens, you end up at two. We see the actresses do this later in the play, with no apparent explanation. (Maybe a concentration exercise?)

Another somewhat baffling element is what starts the text of the play: one actress (a doctor, apparently) asking another (a patient, apparently) what she has done to make her friends so supportive. This same sequence is repeated near the end of the play, after the women have bemoaned the fact that they feel friendless and alone and long for any human connection. Is it irony? Is it the doctor projecting her own circle of supportive friends onto the patient? Is it referring to unseen friends who have committed the patient to a medical institution? To some audience members, the whole thing will seem baffling.

Sawyer Estes has blocked the show with a lot of action (even pills dropping from the ceiling!), and Lindsey Sharpless’ lighting design heightens that action. The chairs and the two window wagons get moved frequently. Costumes start out as white sneakers, light pants with tears near the knees, and darker, long-sleeved tops. Tops get removed during the show, leaving two actresses bare-breasted for one scene, before having their breasts bound for the remainder of the show (useful for a scene of simulated rape).

This is experimental theatre, rehearsed for five months before being presented to the public. I was fully prepared to find it pretentious and overwrought, but the intense sincerity of the actresses won me over. Vernal & Sere seems to have found its wheelhouse with a plotless production that relies on atmosphere and acting skill to make its impact.

Independence, by Lee Blessing
A Blessing
Friday, September 28, 2018
An aging, demanding, possibly demented parent deals with three ungrateful daughters. Shakespeare’s "King Lear?" No, this takes place in Iowa. Jane Smiley’s novel "A Thousand Acres?" No, this is a play and the parent is the mother, not the father. Ah, then this is Lee Blessing’s "Independence." Chronicle Collective is presenting it for one weekend at the Windmill Arts Center in East Point.

The set features the projected background of a rural house with a wrap-around porch. The set itself consists of a dining table and four chairs stage left and an angled sofa and Oriental rug stage right. There are no doors in the set (even though one of the lines in the play is "help me with the door"). The outside entry to the house is from audience left, the kitchen is up left, and bedrooms are up right (with unfortunate shadows of people waiting to make an entrance there during scene changes).

Director Cathy Reinking has blocked the show to make these exit and entry points clear and to keep the action flowing. One interesting choice is to have one character’s back to the audience as a game of Scrabble is being played. Given the high rise of the auditorium seats, that’s probably a good idea, to keep audience members from seeing that the tiles being played don’t match what the script says they are.

The play lets the family secrets out slowly. We first see the oldest daughter, Kess (Hannah Pniewski), returning home after a few years away, coming at the request of middle daughter Jo (Alicia Kelly), eight years her junior. A lot of the subsequent exposition comes from Sherry (Kimberly Maxwell), a 19-year-old high school student who is the youngest of the family, before we meet their mother Evelyn (Lucia Scarano). We learn bits and pieces of the family dynamic as the conversation flows, and it becomes clearer and clearer that the mother has created a toxic environment for all involved. There’s no happy resolution bringing the family together; at the end, all achieve a measure of independence.

Ms. Reinking has molded the actresses into a believable ensemble. Ms. Scarano is alternately loving and vengeful as the mother, while Ms. Maxwell makes Sherry consistently blithe and cynical and sunny. Ms. Kelly pulls the heartstrings as the middle daughter who feels responsible for the well-being of all the rest, and Ms. Pniewski adds a rational perspective that acts as a counterbalance to the more wacky elements present in the family. All are excellent. My only reservation is that Ms. Maxwell’s projection isn’t always strong enough to reach the ears of all audience members.

"Independence" has its fair share of humor, but most of the humor comes from the way the characters express pain of one sort or another. This is a sobering play, if not a somber one. The uncredited technical elements (sound, lighting, costumes, props, set) all support the flow of the show, giving it a sense of reality that is only bolstered by the fine acting on display. This is a fine production of a little-known, but intriguing script.

Nomad Motel, by Carla Ching
The Motel Kid and the Parachute Kid
Friday, September 28, 2018
I’m not sure Carla Ching remembers what it was like to be a child. In both Aurora’s "The Two Kids..." and in Horizon’s "Nomad Motel," we have children portrayed as talking like and acting like 20-something adults. Since the plays seem targeted at that sort of audience, perhaps that’s not a bad thing, in terms of theatre financials. In terms of believability, well, that’s stretching things.

The action of "Nomad Motel" takes place in what supposedly is a good school district in Anaheim, California. Mason (Kevin Gian) is a "parachute kid" -- a Chinese boy left alone in America by his father to obtain a quality U.S. education. Alix (Ashley Anderson) is a "motel kid" -- a white American girl whose father has left the family, causing them to lose their house and stay in a motel. Another student, Oscar (Marcellis Cutler), is a black kid squatting in an abandoned storefront. All these kids are left pretty much alone to raise themselves, while at least Alix and Mason do well enough in school to aspire to first-class colleges.

The action takes place while they’re high school seniors. Mason has a passion for music, in opposition to his Chinese father’s desire for him to major in business. Alix’s mother is more involved with her boyfriend than with Alix or Alix’s two (unseen) younger brothers. Alix and Mason are partners in a school project concerning Shakespeare’s "King Henry IV, Part 2" (opening, by a happy coincidence, at the Shakespeare Tavern in early October), and that’s how they come together in a tentative relationship that drives the action of the play.

The ponderously massive set by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay is a brooding presence, crowding the playing space and adding another layer of unbelievability to the show. Stage right, we have a motel room on a platform that transforms into an abandoned storefront in act two. Stairs lead up and down from it just right of center. The rest of the set portrays the house in which Mason resides, with heavy marble accents and a cheap door and a kitchen pass-through with cheap folding shutters. The ground floor is the house’s living room, which Mason uses as his sole living space, with a sleeping bag down center and a music/computer set-up up center in front of the hearth, along with a few mismatched chairs. The second story of the house is above, with an elevator door above the fireplace opening to show us Mason’s father overseas during phone conversations. It’s far too heavy and clumsy for the content of the show, trying to force everyday reality onto a script that seems to be imagining a reality of its own.

Otherwise, the physical production is acceptable. Mary Parker’s lighting design goes a little heavy on effects, but works overall. Costumes by Dr. L. Nyrobi Moss aren’t very flattering and seem a tad varied for people living on the financial edge of penury, but don’t detract significantly from the play. Kathryn Muse’s props are good for a show that requires a number of food items, and David Sterritt’s fight choreography gets across the points that it needs to get across.

Sound design by Thom Jenkins is impressive, with Mr. Qian using a violin, his voice, and a loop pedal to make music at the start of the show. The only problem is that the music by composers Okorie Johnson and Mr. Qian tends toward the repetitious (a necessary side effect of looping), and the repetitious music amplifies the length of the scene changes. When a show lasts closer to three hours than the advertised two and a quarter hours, slow scene changes aren’t welcome. Director Melissa Foulger’s decision to stage the show with lots of real-world detritus slows down the show’s forward momentum.

What sells the show is the plot and the acting. Ms. Ching has created characters whose sad lives we become invested in. Kevin Qian has the tentative quality of a socially awkward teen, while Marcellis Cutler is all bad-boy bluster and crudeness. Liza Jaine does well enough as Alix’s mother, although the character of a superficially devoted mother who abandons her children doesn’t really ring true. Wai Yim is terrific as Mason’s father, his stern fatherly humorlessness creating humor of its own. Ashley Anderson is just plain wonderful as Alix, her street-wise bravado masking inner uncertainty. The riding-off-into-the-sunset ending of the story seems unnecessarily pat and artificial, especially given that the play seems to have been coming to a sweet conclusion before the parents re-enter and redirect things to extend the denouement.

"Nomad Motel" attempts to create a world of its own, with its teen protagonists inhabiting a world slightly removed from everyday reality. Horizon’s production, which relentlessly pushes the story back into the mundane, does the play no favors. Ms. Anderson, though, transcends the production, and she and Mr. Qian make the story of Alix and Mason come to life. We care about these two kids, unlike the two kids in Ms. Ching’s "The Two Kids..."

A Woman Killed with Kindness, by Thomas Heywood
Kindness Upon Kindness
Friday, September 28, 2018
Thomas Heywood’s "A Woman Killed with Kindness" is his most renowned work. Resurgens Theatre Company is presenting it at the Shakespeare Tavern in "original practice" (which in effect means that a fairly even wash of lighting illuminates both stage and audience, with no special effects). Music is part of the proceedings, as composed and played by Matthew Trautwein on lute, with singing by the women of the cast and a nice opening dance choreographed by Sims Lamason and performed by her and most of the men as her partners, one by one.

At the wedding celebration of John Frankford (Thom Gillott) to Anne (Sims Lamason), Anne’s brother Sir Francis Acton (Brent Griffin) makes a wager with Sir Charles Mountford (Jim Wall) about whose hawks and dogs do a better job of hunting. The wager leads to an argument and then to a duel challenge. In the duel, Acton’s falconer (Eric Brooks) is accidentally killed. Mountford is arrested, and Acton does all he can to bankrupt him before he’s released from jail. Even after that, he plans to ruin Mountford, with the assistance of his friend Malby (Tamil Periasamy). But when Acton sees Mountford’s sister Susan (Caitlyn Trautwein), he falls madly in love with her and offers to marry her and in return kindly restore her brother to his former position.

Meanwhile, Frankford’s friend Wendoll (Stuart McDaniel) has fallen on hard times and Frankford offers to let him stay at his place. Servant Nicholas (Joseph Kelly) doesn’t trust Wendoll, and his suspicions bear fruit when Wendoll declares his love for Anne and uses his silken words to entice her into adultery. When Frankford discovers them in bed, he does not kill them outright; instead, he runs Wendoll off and in his kindness banishes Anne to another of his properties, never to see her again.

So who is the woman killed with kindness? Anne, who starves herself to death at being abandoned by her husband (although he comes to her on her deathbed)? Or Susan, who is unwillingly married to Acton in response to his kind offer to call off his vendetta on her brother? Director Brent Griffin inserts a little ambiguity.

The play has been condensed to less than two hours by Mr. Griffin, and it flows pretty well, despite a few line stumbles. Mr. Gillott impresses as John Frankford, and Sims Lamason is as charismatic as ever, with Caitlyn Trautwein nearly her equal in terms of onstage charm. Brent Griffon has a strong stage presence, as does Tamil Periasamy. Eric Brooks performs his multiple roles with a fair amount of facility, and Joseph Kelly and Matthew Trautwein make strong impressions as the servants. Stuart McDaniel starts out a bit tentative, but gains confidence and intensity as the play goes on. Jim Wall does well, although his diction doesn’t seem to be quite the equal of others in the cast.

Catherine Thomas’ costumes make the production lovely to look at, and the usually empty stage is filled with a table and chairs for a card-playing scene and with a portable bed for the final scene, adding to the visual appeal. This is not a sumptuous production by any means, but it’s as good looking as anything the Shakespeare Tavern presents. The acting may not be as assured, and the text is less poetic than Shakespeare’s, but "A Woman Killed with Kindness" is a welcome addition to the Shakespeare Tavern stage.

Be Here Now, by Deborah Zoe Laufer
Been There, Done That
Friday, September 28, 2018
First we’re confronted by Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay’s massive set, all brick columns and wood beams, with a large wooden structure center, initially decked out with a hanging suggesting a yoga studio. Concurrently, we’re confronted by pre-show music of classic rock songs, set at an extreme volume in Kacie Willis’ sound design that causes some audience members to bounce in their seats, singing along, and others to cover their ears. When the show starts, we hear the ringing of a bell and the soothing voice of a yogi, all amplified to a volume that is anything but calm and restful. At least, after this inauspicious start, we can see that Bari (Cynthia Barrett), on a yoga mat center, is totally not buying into this meditation and exercise crap.

The next scene emphasizes the massive scale of the Curley-Clay’s set by rolling in two floor-to-ceiling sets of shelves, representing the warehouse of a fulfillment center. Later scenes roll the shelves off to reveal the center wooden structure revolved and/or covered to represent a restaurant front, a cluttered residence, and a hospital. When a rain scene comes, we see water spilling down black mesh or plastic screens positioned at the top of the set. When spring arrives in the last scene, we see massive projections of trees on the screens at the sides of the set. And through it all, we see two desiccating trees propped up in the back corners of the set, completely belying any semblance of the burgeoning promise of spring.

The BIG but deficient design elements extend to Cody Russell’s props. For the warehouse scenes, the actresses are boxing orders to be shipped out. But when they are using pre-made boxes and the boxes have obviously had tape torn off them, it’s clear that they are being re-used from previous performances. I only hope that by the end of the run they don’t run out of the gift wrapping paper that is installed on rolls on the stage left side of the shelves. Wrapping and boxing isn’t being done very professionally, so there’s a lot of unnecessary waste.

Other technical elements are better. Nicole Clockel’s costumes are fine, and Maranda Debusk’s lighting design is excellent, letting us know when Bari is experiencing heightened mental states (although the wonderful performance by Ms. Barrett would let us know on its own). Aside from the oppressively monumental scale, the visuals of the production are impressive.

Performances are another matter. Ms. Barrett is spot-on perfect throughout, and Travis Smith gives another one of his wonderful performances as a would-be suitor. Director Rachel Parish, though, has made Falashay Pearson and Joselin Reyes act like buffoons as Bari’s Prozac-ingesting warehouse buddies. One is black and one is Hispanic (in ethnicity and accent) and they’re both supposed to be cousins of the white Mr. Smith, and in conjunction with the buffoonish acting it screams "We’re being inclusive in our casting!" It’s another example of Aurora patting itself on the back for being on the forefront of diversity while forgetting that its foremost mission should be to present excellent theatrical productions.

The core story of the script shows how a medical condition can turn a sour nihilist into a person embracing a joy for life, and how that joy can help another person overcome long-seated mistrust. That part of the show is fine. But the action is padded with warehouse scenes that extend the intermissionless running time to the point that audience members start leaving before the end. When an audience leaves at intermission, that’s a bad sign, but when they leave during the show itself, it’s a worse sign.

Go see the show for the wonderful performances by Cynthia Barrett and Travis Smith, or if you like BIG production elements and LOVE to sit for extended periods of time. Otherwise, this is one to stay away from.

Godspell, by John-Michael Tebelak, with songs by Stephen Schwartz
Friday, September 28, 2018
Act3’s production of "Godspell" is the epitome of why I dislike this show. The first act is a series of lame parables interspersed with tuneful songs. In order to make the parables "fun," the cast is encouraged to mug and ad lib as they roleplay the characters in the parables. The artificiality of it all sets my teeth on edge. Some people love the audience involvement and off-the-cuff throw-ins; I don’t.

That said, the Act3 production is certainly acceptable. It has some wonderful singers, several good dancers, and energetic, arm-waving choreography by Janie Young (with additional choreography by Erin Hamilton Marx). Mary Sorrel has provided props that flesh out the humor of the show. Music director John-Michael d’Haviland and the four-piece band furnish a fine musical background, and Ben Sterling’s sound design subtly shifts the balance from on-stage voices to amplified solo voices.

Will Brooks’ set design places two small platforms upstage, reached by a ladder up center and by stairs on either side, with the stage left stairs continuing up onto a large platform above the band. The upstage wall has a large wood gridwork obscured by an expanse of purple fabric pleated in the center that resembles a pair of angel wings spread out. There’s graffiti on some of the stairs and platform woodwork, but it’s not prominent. Ben Sterling’s lighting design illuminates sections of the stage where action is occurring, although with this large cast oftentimes the lighting is general.

Mari Miller’s costumes are the usual mish-mash of styles and fabrics for the disciples, with a white linen look for Jesus (Stephen DeVillers). There are occasional changes of costumes, primarily for dance numbers. Red ribbons are used to represent restraints on Jesus’ wrists as he is taken captive, then the blood flowing from him as he is crucified in the somber second act.

Staging by director Johnna Barrett Mitchell utilizes a trap door center stage that opens to reveal a basin of water with which John the Baptist (Aaron Hancock, who also plays Judas) baptizes the cast (and perhaps a few unlucky audience members down front). The staging is lively and does a good job of managing crowd scenes without making the stage look cluttered.

The performances are the reason to attend this show. Messrs. DeVillers and Hancock have glorious voices that they use to effect in the songs associated with their characters. The songs that aren’t associated with specific characters have been pretty evenly parceled out to individual singers ("Day by Day" to Riley Taylor; "Learn Your Lessons Well" to Jillian Melko; "O Bless the Lord My Soul" to Roan Denton; "All Good Gifts" to Jonathan Goff; "Light of the World" to Julie Ferguson; the reprise of "Learn Your Lessons" to Matt Alea and Natalie Wolff; "Turn Back, O Man" to Michelle Davis; "By My Side" to Alexandria McMath; and "We Beseech Thee" to PJ Mitchell). Jason Meinhardt, in a welcome return to Atlanta theatre, doesn’t sing lead for a full song, but is featured in "On the Willows."

This is pretty much an ensemble show, with Mr. DeVillers obviously at the center, as Jesus. He gives a heartfelt performance. Everyone else gamely joins in the fun, with Ms. Melko the undisputed standout of ad libbed vocal reactions. I was also taken with the performance of high schooler Natalie Wolff, whose sweet and true voice is matched by a sweet and true performance that never goes over the top.

Some people will enjoy the silly fun of act one; others will be emotionally affected by the second act’s betrayal and crucifixion sequence, featuring fine acting by Messrs. DeVillers and Hancock. (There were audible sobs from the audience at the performance I attended.) And others, like me, will remain detached from the onstage action, while admiring the talent and hard work that’s obviously been poured into this production.

The Electric Baby, by Stefanie Zadravec
Tuesday, September 18, 2018
You can tell by the title "The Electric Baby" that something unusual is afoot. When you enter the theatre and view the absolutely gorgeous set by Kristina Adler, your suspicions are confirmed. There, on a platform built out to extend the second story ledge of the 7Stages black box, you see a bassinet that glows with tubes and lights, twenty strands of small white lights reaching out in all directions from it, with sheer white fabric gathered above the bassinet in a canopy and extending onto the black wall of the space like an ethereal butterfly.

The ledge snugly fits a table and chair in the upstage corner and positions a door at the downstage side. Aside from the diaphanous canopy, the walls are covered with pleated fabric panels (upstage wall) and rugs and runners (stage left wall). The effect is of a decoration style other than all-American. Since the platform and ledge represent the apartment of a Romanian woman, this is altogether fitting.

The floor level of the playing space contains a counter that serves various purposes, with a hospital bed and seating moved on and off to represent multiple locations. The set changes are accomplished neatly, but not unnecessarily speedily. This is the kind of play that rewards a little "breathing space" after a scene to let its impact sink in.

The technical elements are all good. Nicole Clockel’s costumes befit each character, Aaron Gotlieb’s props do a fine job of indicating various locations, and Mary Ruth Ralston’s lighting design and Cody Evins’ sound design help create the semi-magical world of the story.

Director Ibi Owolabi has gotten the best out of her cast. Caitlin Hargraves, the Romanian woman, starts the show by dispensing folk wisdom to her baby and to the audience. It’s a charming performance, even if her accent seems a bit hit-and-miss. Anthony Goolsby does better with his accent as a Nigerian driver, Ambimbola. Both tell folk tales from their native lands, with the stories merging as the play comes to a close.

The play is fleshed out by Charles Green (Reed) and Ann Wilson (Helen) as a married couple who are involved as pedestrians in a car accident and by Allie Ficken (Rozie) and Greg Hernandez (Dan), who are riding in the back seat of Ambimbola’s car when the accident occurs. Mr. Hernandez also plays other roles, but all tie back to his role in the accident.

Each character is distinctly etched, with Rozie’s foul language nicely contrasted with Ambimbola’s signs requesting passengers to watch their language. There’s a connection between Reed and Rozie that complicates his marriage, and Helen’s near-meddling helpfulness provides additional complications. Everything ties together by the end, but not in a purely rational, down-to-earth fashion. There’s a bit of magic in the electric baby and in the folktales told by his parents.

The Weird Sisters’ "The Electric Baby" is a beautifully realized production of Stefanie Zadravec’s script, highlighting superb acting and above-par production values to create a magical world in which folktales and reality merge. Ibi Owolabi has assembled a cast and crew that bring Ms. Zadravec’s words to life. This is one not to be missed.

The Two Kids That Blow $h*t Up, by Carla Ching
Acute and Obtuse
Monday, September 17, 2018
Aurora Theatre is patting itself on its back for presenting its first show by an Asian-American writer, with an Asian-American cast and Asian-American production personnel. Its first duty, however, should be to present quality, professional entertainment, and this show falls far short in that department.

Judging by the profanity in the title and the hype of a prototypical Asian-American voice, you’d expect that all Asian-Americans are as foul-mouthed and emotionally disturbed as the characters in this play. That, of course, is ridiculous. And the Asian-American component of the plot is paper-thin. The kids go to Chinese language class in one scene and Di wears a Chinese-style sheath in another. That’s about it. The cliché that Asian faces don’t age is expressed, but since an Asian-American speaks it, this racial stereotype is supposed to be self-referential and funny.

Other points in the story are equally paper-thin. Di has epilepsy, we’re told at a couple of points, but maybe she outgrew it, since there’s no mention of it after her childhood. Max blows up a snowman at age nine, and we’re told he blew up a trash can at school before that, and we’re told that as an adult teacher he has a penchant for flashy experiments, but the "blow [things] up" of the title turns metaphorical all too soon, with Di and Max’s self-sabotaging relationship (and possibly that of their parents) being what gets "blown up."

The story is told in segments that go forward and back in time. It’s confusing. There are so many fights and reconciliations in the story of Di and Max and their parents that it becomes nearly impossible to figure out what the true arc of the relationships is. The show starts with the characters at 38, meeting after a break of a few years. This scene ends with Di telling Max that she has to show him something. When we see this scene again later in the show (verbatim), we’re led to believe that something important is about to be revealed. No such luck. It’s a letdown, as the show overall is.

Pam Joyce has directed the play to heighten the emotions at each conceivable point, and it comes across as utterly false in the performance of Jack Ha as Max, who nevertheless has great projection in his voice. His performance seems that of a high school drama star in his first semester at college. Vivi Thai is wonderful as Diana, but her subtlety and variety of expression is in such contrast to Mr. Ha’s performance that she seems to exist in a different universe from him. It’s hard to feel much connection to characters that Ms. Ching has speak in adult cadences and vocabulary when nine years old and who seem so mismatched.

The production team seems to have pulled out all the stops to disguise the disjointed flimsiness of the script. Eric Chamness’ in-the-round scenic design is all acute and obtuse angles in the central vaguely octagonal platform and the square set of rhomboids suspended from the ceiling above it. Matthew Peddie’s lighting design illuminates the rhomboids both inside and out, changing color to provide interest in scenes where the onstage action doesn’t provide it. Anna Lee’s sound design gets a workout during the many scene changes, with a trapezoidal, seat-high platform in the center rotating from scene to scene (and even during one restaurant scene), with concrete block-shaped units rearranged as seating, bleachers, and tables. Sherry Zhao’s projections, displayed on screens with rhomboid shapes on all four audience walls, do their best to set scenes and indicate character ages for the many, many scenes jumping forward and backward in time and, for the important nine-year-old scene, displaying the unstageable action that Ms. Ching has written into her script.

Jae Hee Kim’s costume design provides a lot of changes, especially for Ms. Thai, but the costumes tend to look pretty costume-y. Jillian Haughey’s props are fine, and the running crew of Amy Duffy and Monique Gillis implement the many scene changes with precision. Ms. Joyce has blocked the show adequately for the in-the-round setting, although face-to-face conversations between the characters sometimes present only the back of one character to opposite sides of the audience. Acoustics aren’t always great when characters are facing away from the audience.

Carla Ching is a celebrated new playwright. Why is a mystery to me, based on this incoherent, uninteresting two-hander. Perhaps Horizon’s upcoming production of her "Nomad Motel" will produce a more favorable impression. Aurora should perhaps wait to pat itself on the back for its embrace of Asian-American racial diversity until it can produce a truly sterling piece of work. This show ain’t it.

42nd Street, by Michael Stewart & Mark Bramble (book), Harry Warren (music), Al Dubin (lyrics)
Those Dancing Feet
Monday, September 17, 2018
The Byers Theatre at City Springs is a lovely theatre, a bit like the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on a smaller scale. And the production of "42nd Street" playing there seems similar to the Broadway staging, only on a smaller scale. The Broadway elements are there (the Mercury dime platforms for "We’re in the Money;" the railway station dual staircase for "Lullaby of Broadway;" the curtained train compartments for "Shuffle Off to Buffalo"), but in Bruce Brockman’s scenic design, they seem a little smaller and a little cheaper.

Costumes, coordinated by Betty Johnson and Amanda Edgerton West, give the production a sumptuous feel, and Mike Wood’s lighting design adds excitement during the musical numbers, with illuminated patterns on the stage floor swirling and converging. George Deavours’ wigs look pretty wiggy overall, and probably won’t improve over the run, but they do add to the period feel. What really adds visual excitement, though, is the choreography by Cindy Mora Reiser. The opening sequence and the post-bows dance number absolutely "wow," and the dancing that goes on between those two moments is pretty terrific as well.

Choreography sets up the dance numbers, but the ensemble is what really sells them. Unison movements are quite uniform, and the variety gained by having one person start a step and another (or a group) then mimicking it makes for visceral excitement. The ensemble can’t be praised enough. Lauren Brooke Tatum, as Anytime Annie, is the unofficial head chorine, and she excels both in her song & dance and in her book scenes.

The principals are good too. Shuler Hensley gives Julian Marsh an authoritative air with kindness lurking underneath. Leigh Ellen Jones invests Peggy Sawyer with innocence and drive. Deborah Bowman lets diva-driven venom spill as her sweet voice trills, setting up the plot in which star Dorothy Brock is injured and director Julian Marsh gives Peggy Sawyer her big break as replacement star.

There’s a nifty set of secondary leads too. Benjamin Taylor Davis does very nice work as tenor Billy Lawlor, giving a truly stagey 1930’s feel to his rehearsal scene. Googie Uterhardt and Marcie Millard do their usual above-par work as a songwriting team, and Steven Hornibrook is all he needs to be as investor Abner Dillon. Judy Woodruff is all All-American Dreamboat in his appearance and movements as Pat Denning, the man Dorothy Brock truly loves, although she is currently being bankrolled by Abner Dillon, but his singing falls a bit short.

Other than that, music director Judy Cole has gotten superb vocals out of the cast, which is particularly noteworthy considering how short-winded the ensemble must get during its energetic numbers. The live orchestra, conducted by director Brandt Blocker, usually sounds superb. (I thought I detected a horn playing out of sync with the rest of the brass in one sequence, however.) On-stage piano playing by Barbara Macko as MaryAnn is excellent. Musically, this is a blockbuster of a show.

"42nd Street" is a triumph of an initial production by the City Springs Theatre Company. It remains to be seen, though, how it will fare in competition with the more established Atlanta Lyric Theatre, which employs many of the same actors, singers, and dancers, and which performs the same sort of second-run Broadway shows with largely local professional talent.

Henry IV Part 1, by William Shakespeare
Comedy Leavening History
Monday, September 17, 2018
Shakespeare’s history plays tend to be talky, setting up political factions and rebellious tensions, with a little swordplay thrown in for good measure. "Henry IV, Part 1" is no exception, but it has plenty of comedy too, in the shenanigans of Sir John Falstaff, a vainglorious, cowardly buffoon and boon companion to Prince Hal. That helps make the history go down easy.

Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern’s production is enlivened by a number of excellent performances. J. Tony Brown is terrific as Falstaff, his boundless good humor and portly stature bringing the character to life. Jonathan Horne is equally terrific as Prince Hal, his youthful bad-boy character deepening into a warrior over the course of the play. Chris Hecke plays his nemesis Henry Percy, AKA Hotspur, with tremendous spirit and conviction, underlining the plot point that King Henry IV (Maurice Ralston) admires that Henry more than his own son Henry (Hal). Another standout in the cast is Mary Ruth Ralston, indelibly pitch perfect in all of her roles, male or female, speaking or singing, English or Welsh.

Fine impressions are also made by Sean Kelley, who plays companions to Prince Hal, and by Jeffrey Zwartjes, who is excellent as one of Falstaff’s companions. Mary Russell does nice work in minor male and female roles, but impresses most as the bloodthirsty Douglas, part of the rebellion against Henry IV. The Tavern regulars like Drew Reeves and Troy Willis, who fill the other major roles, do their usual standard of work.

The plot, aside from the Falstaff shenanigans, revolves around a concerted rebellion with three fronts (Wales, Scotland, England). The rebellion is put down at the end of the play, but enough of the rebels (minus Hotspur) are left alive that Part 2 promises additional complications in the reign of King Henry IV.

The physical production is typical of the Shakespeare Tavern’s work. Anné Carole Butler’s costumes invoke period and status, and the lighting design of Greg Hanthorn, Jr. keeps things visible, while still suggesting night or day, as appropriate. The fight choreography by Drew Reeves (assisted by Mary Ruth Ralston) is impressive, and the sound design and direction by Jeff Watkins do more than what is needed to convey the story.

The Shakespeare Tavern expects smaller crowds for its history plays than for the Shakespearean "standards," so it fills a portion of the audience space with a platform that provides additional playing space. At the start of "Henry IV, Part 1," it hosts a table and benches suggesting the tavern at which Falstaff is deep in his cups. The opening tableau gives a clue as to the comedy to come. And fine comedy it is, blending into the martial action that’s a necessary ingredient of a history play. A cut above, this.

Aladdin, by Alan Menken (music), Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (lyrics), and Chad Beguelin (book and lyrics)
The Magic of Production Values
Friday, September 14, 2018
The Broadway Across America touring production of "Aladdin" pulls out all the stops. The scenic design by Bob Crowley, costumes by Gregg Barnes, lighting by Natasha Katz, hair design by Josh Marquette, makeup design by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira, and illusion design by Jim Steinmeyer combine with Casey Nicholaw’s choreography and direction to make the production spark, sparkle, and dazzle. The wondrously colorful action is a constant delight for the eyes.

The sound is also mighty good. Ken Travis’ sound design may be a bit loud overall, but Danny Troob’s orchestrations, Glen Kelly’s dance music arrangements, and the cast’s voices under the supervision of Michael Kosarin make the score by Alan Menken and a serial group of lyricists sound great. Spoken voices in the most intimate scenes drop perhaps too low in volume, but it’s not difficult to follow things, even from the last row of the Fox’s gallery.

The original animated movie contained mostly human characters, so translation to the stage didn’t require extensive changes. The parrot Iago has been changed to a parroting toady, and while the Genie (Trevor Dion Nicholas from the West End production) can’t shape-shift the way Robin Williams’ avatar did in the movie, some of the same off-the-cuff riffing is in evidence, such as when he pulls a Braves cap from a pocket at the start of the show.

The production moves along swiftly, and the principals and ensemble are all up to the task of putting across the endlessly energetic action. All roles are filled more than adequately, with no particular standouts (although Mr. Nicholas is certainly an audience favorite). What can you say? Disney Theatricals strikes again, and we’re talking bowling here, not baseball.

9 to 5 the Musical, by Patricia Resnick (book) and Dolly Parton (songs)
Friday, September 14, 2018
"9 to 5" isn’t that good a musical. Georgia Ensemble’s production makes that all too clear. Match a sub-standard book and score with sub-standard production values and you end up with a sub-standard show, despite the casting of some top-rate Atlanta talent.

Stephanie Polhemus’ set design is bland verging on the ugly. A grid upstage appears in front of a screen on which Preston Goodson’s projections occasionally appear, looking very bleached out under Connor McVey’s lighting design. Four trapezoidal flats painted in dull brown move back and forth to suggest various locations, with revolving trapezoidal wagons used to flesh out the locations. Desks and chairs are rolled on for the office scenes, then rolled off when not necessary. Unattractive.

Emmie Tuttle’s costumes are similarly bland, generally resembling generic office wear, with no particular sense of an underlying stylistic concept. Preston Goodson’s sound is loud. Jennifer Smiles’ choreography falls flat, with only ensemble member Josh Brook having the movements of a true dancer (not that JD Myers and Daniel Burns don’t try valiantly). The overall feeling of movement is that of awkwardness.

Shelly McCook seems to have directed her cast to play the show for realism. Wendy Melkonian, Jill Hames, and Alyssa Flowers all have good comic delivery and timing as the trio at the center of the story, but the comedy tends to be understated. Paige Mattox is the only cast member who seems to be slightly larger than life as Roz Keith, the boss’ devoted acolyte, and the way she sells her numbers shows the rest of the cast how it should be done.

Blocking detracts from the performance of Brian Kurlander as the boss, not allowing him to be leering enough in his initial interactions with Doralee (Ms. Flowers). His performance sits in the uneasy ground between actual creepiness and musical comedy broadness. Ms. McCook seems to have made a serious misstep in not emphasizing the musical comedy component of the show, marrying S. Renee Clark’s generally fine musical direction to merely life-sized performances. Where’s the splash and sparkle of American Musical Comedy?

Daddy Long Legs, by John Caird (book) and Paul Gordon (songs)
Epistolary Satisfaction
Monday, September 10, 2018
Don’t go expecting a dance-filled, Broadway extravaganza. Don’t go expecting any dancing or scene changes at all. "Daddy Long Legs" is played on a unit set, with just two actors and a three-piece band.

The set, though, is lovely. Phil Male’s design places a long, straight staircase up center, leading to a series of platforms that portray Jervis Pendleton’s offices up left and a platform above the band stage right that functions as a hilltop. Four tall, paneled screens are placed at different levels across the stage, featuring lovely projections by Bradley Bergeron that set the scene from time to time. The downstage area contains a variety of vintage trunks that are filled with costumes and properties designed by David Farley (provided from the New York off-Broadway production) and that help set the time period of 1908-1912. Atop the stage a series of sheets of paper are strung, suggesting the structure of the show, which consists primarily of letters from the orphan Jerusha Abbott to an unknown benefactor who is paying for her college education.

Travis Eason’s lighting design illuminates various portions of the stage as action moves from one suggested location to another. Spotlighted areas don’t always mesh with the actors’ exact locations, but that isn’t much of a distraction. The initial lighting, which places Jervis Pendleton (Chase Peacock) in silhouetted darkness, seems odd at first, but helps reinforce that Jerusha Abbott (Kaitlyn Sage) has no idea of the identity of her benefactor.

The three-piece band consists of piano (Joanna Li), acoustic guitar (Randy Underwood), and cello (Katie Truex), which gives a clue as to the tenor of the score, which might be described as accessible art songs with subtle pop/folk influences. There’s not a lot of dialogue, with songs blending into the action seamlessly. Music director Jodi Cotton has honed the musicality to a professional polish, and everything sounds great under Jason Polhemus’ sound design.

Direction is by Mark Smith, with credit to recently deceased Sara Morgan. For a two-person show, there’s a lot of action, with rearrangement of the trunks on the stage floor providing visual variety and with movement up and down the staircase adding additional variety. It’s a beautifully flowing production.

With only two cast members, the success of the show depends on the individual excellence of the performers and on their onstage chemistry. Here, the Legacy Theatre has two ideally cast pros. Ms. Sage has an energetic innocence with an underlying sage wisdom that contrasts with Mr. Peacock’s peacock-like preening and upper-class bearing, at least until Jerusha’s unbridled exuberance for life melts the heart of Jervis Pendleton and relaxes the starchiness of his upbringing. These are two wondrous, wonderfully meshing performances, with unparalleled voices and acting skills.

"Daddy Long Legs" is best known these days from the Fred Astaire/Leslie Caron movie musical, but this musical stage version seems far closer in spirit to the original Jean Webster novel. It’s a charming, romantic, entirely delightful show being given an excellent production by the Legacy Theatre.

It’s Only a Play, by Terrence McNally
For the Theatre "In" Crowd
Monday, September 10, 2018
Terrence McNally’s "It’s Only a Play" is a twisted love letter to the contemporary Broadway stage. It takes place at the party after opening of a new, widely anticipated Broadway play. The setting (designed by Harley Gould) is the elegantly appointed bedroom of producer Julia Budder (Liane LeMaster), with a chaise down left, a pair of chairs down right, and a bed up center upon which coats of the party guests are being piled. A door up right leads to the rest of the house; a door up left leads to a bathroom used to contain a sometimes vicious dog. Wall art, carpet, and a rug all add to the upscale feel of the room, although seams in the flats are noticeable under Mr. Gould’s brightest lighting. Thankfully, the action is busy enough under DeWayne Morgan’s direction to keep attention focused on the actors.

And what a band of actors they are! Ms. LeMaster is a sheer delight as a cliché-mangling first-time solo producer, and Frankie Asher brings tons of wide-eyed, star-struck verve to coat wrangler Gus. Barbara Cole Uterhardt plays a foul-mouthed movie-to-Broadway has-been with her usual pizzazz and spot-on comic timing. Bob Smith invests critic Ira Drew with an oversized personality, and Pat Young makes Brit director Sir Frank Finger a twitching mass of neuroses. Larry Davis anchors the action as playwright Peter Austin, and Zip Rampy is absolute perfection as his limp-wristed best friend and TV star, for whom the just-opened play was intended, but who passed on it after reading it.

The plot introduces us to the characters and their relationships in act one, leading up to (but not including) the reading of the New York Times’ review. In act two, when the reviews aren’t all that might be hoped, plans are hatched to keep the theatre in use, to prevent it from being the venue for "Riverdance 11." (Yes, that’s the sort of humor the play indulges in.)

The egos on display are as big as all outdoors, and the fake compliments and name-dropping give a brittle sheen to the proceedings. There are all sorts of references to Broadway celebrities, and Mr. Davis reels off a delightfully long list of up-and-coming playwrights whose names may be familiar only to theatre cognoscenti. The play is definitely targeted to the Broadway "in" crowd, but its non-stop silliness and larger-than-life characters make it a treat for any theatre fan.

The physical production adds to the fun. Mr. Gould’s lighting helps to delineate the act ends, and Charlie Miller’s sound design is a true delight, letting us hear party sounds whenever the bedroom door is opened. Frankie Earle’s props do absolutely everything they need to, and Nancye Quarles Hilley’s costumes impress with their opening night glamor.

Director DeWayne Morgan has obviously inspired his cast to come up with characterizations that invest their characters’ idiosyncratic quirks with the deep-seated sincerity that makes comic acting all the more comic. This show may not be for everyone, but the only audiences it’s not intended for are drama snob curmudgeons and sour-faced critics of the sublimely ridiculous.

The Rainmaker, by N. Richard Nash
Let the Rain Come
Monday, September 10, 2018
N. Richard Nash’s "The Rainmaker" is a perennial standard for community theatres. It’s not done to death, but it frequently pops up in the seasons of local theatres. (This is the second production of it for Lionheart, and Centerstage North presented it last fall; Theatrical Outfit presented the musical version, "110 in the Shade" earlier this year.) It’s an affecting story of a lonely woman making tentative connections with a lonely deputy and a lonely traveling con man, with lots of heart and humor.

The Lionheart production directed by Joanie McElroy shows the stamp of the director, with clearly defined characters interacting in viscerally exciting ways. The Lizzie of Gabrielle Stephenson has the bearing of a woman who has convinced herself that she is plain and unmarriageable, when it’s more her straight-shooting honesty that gives her that veneer. Joe McLaughlin plays her father with a combination of the practical and the aspirational that gives him a truly three-dimensional feel. Chandler Lane makes her brother Jimmy an exuberant, hot-headed, joy-loving young man feeling his oats under the guidance of his supportive father and his antagonistically unsupportive older brother, played by Ben Humphrey with a humorless glare that gives way to wordless support by the end.

This family interacts with the local sheriff (Jerry Jobe) and deputy (Jackson Trent) both in attempts to get the deputy to woo Lizzie and in investigations into a con man traveling through these parts. Mr. Jobe invests Sheriff Thomas with the calm and easy-going manner of a popular, level-headed official, while Mr. Trent gives deputy File a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas. Mr. Trent’s performance meshes beautifully with that of Ms. Stephenson, with their mutual attraction overwhelmed by the unflinching, brutal honesty that keeps them at loggerheads until nearly the end.

The con man Starbuck is played by Brock Kercher. He plays his role with volume and conviction, but little nuance. Starbuck claims to be a rainmaker, and his spiel is more like that of a carnival barker than an evangelical preacher. He may excite, but he doesn’t beguile, and the role requires that with Lizzie his grandiose imaginings need to make a connection with her underlying yearnings, changing both of them slightly. In this production, it’s far clearer to see the connection between File and Lizzie than between Starbuck and Lizzie.

The set, designed by Tanya Moore, consists of three distinct areas: the Curry kitchen, which takes up two thirds of the stage; the sheriff’s office, which takes up the remaining third at stage right; and a tack room with bales of hay in front of the stage proper at stage left. All are well-appointed, with Nancy Keener’s props and the costumes (Catherine Thomas, consultant) giving the unmistakable feel of Texas. Gary White’s lighting design includes a nice starry sky element for the tack room scenes, and assists in scene transitions where action overlaps on the Curry side of the stage (with dark wood floors) and on the Sheriff Thomas side of the stage (with lighter wood floors), with the diagonal split of the floor planking giving additional room for the Currys.

Bob Peterson’s sound design helps to suggest the Southwest feel, and dialect coaching by Nancy Keener and Alan Lankford solidifies the Texas location. As is typical in productions directed by Ms. McElroy, a consistent sense of quality predominates, despite the anachronistic long hair and high-fiving of Mr. Lane. This rendition of "The Rainmaker" is a cut above most, needing only a more mesmerizingly charismatic Starbuck to propel it to true excellence.

Dead Movement and Liner Notes, by John Patrick Bray
The Gasping Song of a Dying Swan
Monday, September 10, 2018
It’s probably not a good idea to pair two one-act plays for an evening’s entertainment when each of the plays runs nearly 1.5 hours. It makes for a very long evening. When you have long scene changes and scripts that don’t uniformly hold attention, the evening tends to drag.

John Patrick Bray’s first play, "Liner Notes," has an indie film quality. It involves a young woman, daughter of a recently dead rock semi-star, who travels from Montreal to South Carolina to confront her "Uncle" George, her father’s bandmate, who didn’t attend the funeral. They end up making a trip up north, stopping in upstate New York to perform at an open mic night, then on to Montreal. After a time lapse, we see them back in South Carolina to tie up loose ends. The plot seems vaguely familiar from several movies of recent years, and the road trip element doesn’t work particularly well in a stage presentation.

The man is played by Reed Sellers, who is a fine actor, guitarist, and singer. The young woman is played by Hattie Smith, whose singing leaves much to be desired, making the open mic night sequence fall flat, when it should be a highlight. Her opening monologue is basically a non-stop screeching attack, making her character unpleasant from the start. The non-biological relationship with her "uncle" isn’t as clear as it could be in the script, complicating the sexual tension between the two. All in all, it’s a mildly interesting two-character story that doesn’t seem well-suited to the stage.

The second play, "Dead Movement," has much more comedy. It’s sort of "Hot L Baltimore" meets Goth and the mythic, with a little bit of a murder-heist plot thrown in. We’re in the lobby of a hotel, where Patrick (Max Goodhart) has come to rent a room for an extended stay from the Goth concierge/front desk clerk Rachel (Amber Neukum). First he meets Joe Joe (Matthew Easter), a back-slapping auto mechanic with dreams of becoming a car salesman. We eventually meet another resident (Parris Sarter), whose alcoholic lesbian lover runs the hippie restaurant next door, and a bicycle guy (Jonathan McCullum), who is checking out to bike to North Carolina. Once a defenestration takes place, we have single scenes featuring a private investigator (Paul Spadafora) and a policewoman (Veronica Burman).

This play goes all over the place, seemingly unfocused until it veers into the supernatural at the end. It features excellent performances by the super-energetic Mr. Easter and the lithe and lithesome Ms. Neukum. Mr. Goodhart underplays his role, using a speaking voice that barely carries to the first row. Ms. Sarter has an extended drunken monologue that adds very little to the action of the play, and the others have roles that are basically cameos. The play acts more as a showcase for the performers than as a coherent piece of theatre.

For this final production at the Onion Man Productions venue in Chamblee, the auditorium has been expanded to have seating on both sides of the playing space. Gregory Fitzgerald’s set design is consequently oriented so that seating presents the actors primarily in profile. For the second act, though, there’s a bench positioned so that only those in the audience proper can see Joe Joe seated on it. At least "Dead Movement" uses a unit set; "Liner Notes" requires frequent set changes that have a cabinet next to the ever-present centerstage square pillar representing a stove, a table, and a gravestone, with furnishings moved on and off the stage or uncovered for one scene, then covered again for the next.

Kurt Hansen’s lighting design works well for "Dead Movement," but has some problems delineating the different locations represented in "Liner Notes." Shadows associated with the pillar and with movement near the pillar mar some sequences. Props, provided by Courtney Loner, Gregory Fitzgerald, and Veronica Burman, generally work well, although fabricated album covers in "Liner Notes" seem to be pasted onto real record albums with the supposed liner notes side left unaltered, and a cat in "Dead Movement" isn’t very realistic. Costumes, by Courtney Loner and the cast, generally work well.

Sound has some impressive moments. Gregory Fitzgerald’s and Courtney Loner’s design includes sounds of a scuffle upstairs in the hotel of "Dead Movement" that works quite well, and other sound effects in this play come off well too. "Liner Notes" uses a live amp and guitar and microphone for the open mic sequence, giving it a raw edge that works to the scene’s advantage.

Gregory Fitzgerald has directed two dissimilar plays in a way that lets the performers shine, but only when the performers step up to the task and deliver the goods. Blocking tends to favor the audience proper side, but the auditorium set-up ensures that all audience members will get backside views from time to time. The two plays each have problems, and the direction and acting can’t overcome them. It’s a noble effort, but a failed one.

Newsies, by Harvey Fierstein (book), Alan Menken (music), Jack Feldman (lyrics)
Dance Fever
Monday, September 3, 2018
Luke Badura. Aaron Carter. Atarius Armstrong. Joseph Pendergrast. Peyton McDaniel. Zach Gamet. All these young men have mad dancing skills that are on full display in Aurora’s "Newsies." And it’s the dancing that truly makes the show. Ricardo Aponte showcases the talent of the dancers in his choreography, giving lots of chances for individual expression while also providing lots of synchronized movement. This is a dance show, front and center.

The story is adequately performed by the principals -- Greg Kamp as brash newsie Jack Kelly, Adrianna Trachell as ambitious reporter Katherine Plumber, and Stephan Jones as self-absorbed newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer. All have terrific voices, but none are sufficiently charismatic to carry the show. There are some very good performances in the more minor roles, though. Marcello Audino is very empathetic as Davey, forced into being a newsie to support his family, and Al Stilo, Robert Mitchel Owenby, and Randall Taylor impress in each of their two speaking roles (although Mr. Owenby doesn’t fit in particularly well when pressed into service as a newsie).

Justin Anderson has directed the show to make good use of the triple-level set designed by Shannon Roberts, with its view of a bridge in the distance flanked by tall brick buildings. Projections, designed by Milton M. Cordero, don’t always display well against the background, but do a good job showing headlines and ads on portions of the buildings reserved for projections. The set uses movable scaffolding and stairs, in what is becoming a standard practice for Aurora musicals, and the movement of these pieces and of María Cristina Fusté’s lights adds extra pizzazz to musical numbers.

Daniel Terry’s sound design is a tad on the loud side, allowing occasional trumpet anomalies to be evident, and it can be difficult to decipher words when the entire cast is singing at once. Nevertheless, Ann-Carol Pence’s musical direction is excellent overall.

Alan Yeong’s costumes work well to set the time period, as do Robert Miller-Navarre’s hair designs. Christopher Dills’ props run heavy on the side of newspapers and bags, but also work well. Bundles of newspapers being tossed livens several moments in the show.

Galen Crawley’s dialect coaching gives the proceedings a very New Yawk feel, and Anthony Rodriguez’s fight direction works relatively well in a strike-breaking sequence, although bringing in females dressed as newsie scabs doesn’t work particularly well in the intimate confines of the Aurora Theater.

"Newsies" is a thoroughly professional production, which is to be expected at Aurora, and the show is moving on to Marietta as a joint production with Atlanta Lyric Theatre. In terms of cast, direction, and production team, though, this is a quintessential Aurora show. Only above-par dancing gives an inkling of Atlanta Lyric’s involvement.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, by Edward Albee
Who’s Afraid of Cast 1?
Sunday, September 2, 2018
Pinch ’n’ Ouch Theatre is presenting Edward Albee’s "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" in a two-month run, with a different cast and director for each month. Cast 1 has certainly set the bar high for its successor.

The set, designed by Grant McGowan, with props and set dressing by Nick Battaglia, is quite impressive. A floor-to-molding bookcase dominates the stage left wall, with paintings by Pam Wetzel on either side of it, extending up the audience right wall. A more eclectic collection of paintings, photographs, and diplomas is found on the stage right wall, surrounding the door, doorbell chimes, and opening through which actors and audience enter. The upstage wall contains three draped windows, the unhemmed white sheers slightly longer than the olive green drapes themselves. A love seat and two armchairs (one coming apart at the seams) surround a coffee table and Oriental rug. A small bar up left gets a lot of use; a phonograph and record album holder down left get less.

Sound and lighting, both designed by Mr. McGowan, are effective. Mr. Battaglia’s costumes are great for George and Honey, while being a little preppy for Nick and a little unsexy for Martha. The time period represented by the costumes is as fuzzy as the time period suggested by the bookcase, with its 1962 yearbook and novels by Ken Follett and Tom Clancy.

Brian Ashton Smith has blocked the action to make good use of the relatively small playing space. This is a talky play, but Mr. Smith prevents it from being static. He lets some quiet moments play out in their own time, without rushing them, making them quite effective. The third act is a little slow, due primarily to the writing as the evening wears down, but it’s a quite satisfying production overall.

Jeffrey Charles Morgan, as George, is splendid throughout, with every word and reaction totally in character. Jennifer R. Lee has the braying quality of Martha down pat, and shows vulnerability in the last act, but doesn’t give as nuanced a performance as Mr. Morgan’s. They both hold their liquor well as the stage fills with half-finished glasses of booze.

The characters of Nick and Honey start out relatively sober and get more drunk as the evening progresses. Lucas Scott is most effective when sober; his drunken behavior is pretty much one-note and maintains the same level of drunkenness through the end of the play. Michelle Pokopac is most effective when drunk, being totally believable as someone slurring and nearly passing out.

The play gets plenty of laughs, in spite of the spite and venom issuing forth from George and Martha’s mouths. It’s an American classic, and the production at Pinch ’n’ Ouch Theatre gives evidence of its staying power. Let’s hope Cast 2 does as creditable a job.

Blackbird, by David Harrower
Sunday, August 26, 2018
"Blackbird" takes place in the grimy break room of a dental supply warehouse. In Bret Brammer’s scenic design, there’s a full kitchenette upstage center, with interestingly angled walls to the sides, the one at stage right containing a door with frosted glass, through which silhouettes of figures outside can be seen in Tom Gillespie’s effective lighting design. The set takes up nearly the full width of the playing space, which gives more than enough room for the action.

Director Marc Gowan uses the space well in the show’s blocking, although most of the play is what could be (and sometimes is) stationary conversation. Even so, Tyler Buckingham’s fight direction gets a chance to shine in one of the most active bits. Bennett Walton’s original compositions enhance the dramatic mood in the story of a young woman confronting the man who seduced her when she was 12 (or was the seduction the other way around?).

The centerpiece of the story is sequential monologues from the woman (Una) and then from the man (Ray) about the events of the night when the police were called and their inappropriate relationship was discovered and severed. Each learns from the other that their assumptions about the night were incorrect. It leads to a sort of resolution, interrupted when his stepdaughter arrives to announce that her mother has come to collect her husband. The play ends abruptly with a blackout, when a slower fadeout would allow greater resonance in how the moment parallels the events of the fateful night.

The performances of Jayson Warner Smith and Heather Rule as the two principal characters are splendid. Their emotions and utterances all ring true, instantaneously involving the audience in their drama-filled interactions. Tai Valdés is also excellent in the tiny role of the stepdaughter (alternating in the role with Molly McInturff).

The after-hours conversation between Ray and Una starts out fairly civil and quiet, then explodes when everyone else leaves the building. The dynamics of the piece are, well, dynamic. Give a strong script strong performances and fine direction and you end up with an engrossing production.

The Canterbury Tales, by John Stephens
Silly Fun
Sunday, August 26, 2018
The theatre of Geoffrey Chaucer’s day was mostly performed as outdoor liturgical dramas or by traveling players. John Stephens’ adaptation updates the concept by having seven pilgrims to Canterbury being driven in a modern-day (imaginary) bus by a guide (Rivka Levin). Mary Ruth Ralston’s active lighting scheme immediately makes it clear that this is no "original practices" production.

Action takes place downstage of a wall on which is painted "Canterbury Tales." The set design by Jeffrey Zwartjes, John Stephens, and Troy Willis cuts out two sections of the wall to act as windows. Black curtains behind cover backstage action when the windows are opened, which happens frequently in the near-frenetic blocking of director Kati Grace Brown. The top of the wall is used as a puppet stage at various points, as 2D puppets on sticks are bobbed about to represent actions that are being described.

Jeffrey Zwartjes’ and John Stephens’ puppets get quite a workout in this production, as do Anné Carole Butler’s costumes, Rivka Levin’s music, and Sean Kelley’s sound design. It’s a delightfully kinetic production in which all elements work together. It can be a bit of sensory overload, though, especially when music is played under dialogue. While the words have been updated from Chaucer’s antiquated original, the rhyming verse can sometimes be a bit dense, and the competition from loud underscoring doesn’t aid understandability.

Six of Chaucer’s tales are told during the course of the show, each narrated by one of the pilgrims, while the others embody characters in the tales. This certainly gives the actors a chance to let their versatility shine. Most of the tales are done in one accent or another, though, which doesn’t aid understandability, and not all actors succeed equally in all accents.

Adam King does well in all his roles, transitioning between comic buffoons and the slimy Pardoner with clear distinctions. Kirsten Chervenak is also a delight, vamping and camping it up in role after role, although her role as the Merchant’s wife doesn’t give her a tale of her own. Nicholas Faircloth, as the Merchant, and Laura Cole, as the Wife of Bath, gamely take on character after character, and Kirstin Calvert has sly, humorous takes on a number of her roles, principally the Nun. Rivka Levin doesn’t have a tale of her own, but does have the prologue and lots of small roles throughout that show off her many talents. I often found Enoch King difficult to understand as the Miller and as the cock in the Nun’s Priest’s tale, but found his take on old man January in the Merchant’s Tale to be quite successful.

Kati Grace Brown has injected the Shakespeare Tavern’s wacky sense of humor into a non-Shakespearean work in "The Canterbury Tales." The jokey take on Chaucer is fun enough, but the tales themselves tend to get less interesting as the evening goes on. The gussying up of Chaucer with puppets and costumes and accents adds a veneer of silliness that tends to overwhelm the source material. Fun, yes. Silly, yes. Totally successful? Not quite.

Woke, by Avery Sharpe
Hip, Hep, Hooray
Thursday, August 23, 2018
Avery Sharpe’s "Woke" is a sharp, insightful play with incisive commentary about racial reactions to police shootings of blacks, along with romance, sentimentality, and a large measure of laughter. Essential Theatre’s production gets it just about all right, under the brilliant direction of Ellen McQueen.

Josh Oberlander-Denny’s set shows us a tasteful, lived-in basement rec room with a door to the garage up right, stairs to the main level up left, and a closet down left. The main portion of the room has a big leather sofa and recliner around an Oriental rug. There’s a dartboard stage right, which gets removed when that portion of the stage morphs into a dining room, complete with descending chandelier and drapery over the stage right door.

Courtney Loner’s props feature family and sports memorabilia, in addition to the food used in the dining room scene. The props are fine and fill up the walls nicely, but there were a couple of issues at the performance I attended. Just as the show was beginning, an Alfred E. Newman figure fell off a side table, and in the middle of the second act a large family collage fell from the upstage wall. The cast didn’t miss a beat.

The first scene (and also the last) show friends Adrian (Derrick Robertson) and Jesse (Paul Danner) having a rap smackdown. Jesse is white and Adrian is black. Adrian is definitely the better rapper, but the conception of the characters is that Adrian acts pretty white and that Jesse is definitely attracted to blacks. The smackdown stops when Jesse’s mother (Kathleen Wattis Kettrey) arrives home. His father (Fred Galyean) eventually arrives too, at an inopportune time when the boys have invited over two girls -- Tanisha (DeShon Green), whom Jesse is romancing, and Natasha (Karina Simmons), whom Adrian recently took to senior prom.

We follow the story of these people through graduation, the summer, and then to Christmas break, when the friends come home from their various colleges (Dartmouth for Jesse, NYU for Tanisha, Morehouse for Adrian, and Spelman for Tanisha). It’s all very teen-oriented and light at the start, showing interactions with a totally unhip Mom and a winkingly supportive Dad. When discussion eventually rolls around to Philando Castile, we see racial divides based on skin color, and the play drops into serious drama for the dining room scene.

The rifts caused by the discussion ripple through the rest of the play, with a little extra drama when gunshots are heard on a phone call. The resolution of the play paints an optimistic picture, with Jesse well on his way to becoming as "woke" as Adrian. All in all, this is a polished and satisfying play, one that can spark a lot of after-show conversation.

Alexia Mooney’s costumes show a nice sense of style, with changes to set each new scene. Harley Gould’s lighting design illuminates each scene deftly, and Kacie Willis’ sound design keeps a hip-hop/rap flavor going through scene changes.

Acting is excellent across the board. I was particularly impressed by the facial expressions of Karina Simmons and Fred Galyean. The only moment that didn’t ring true was when mother Martha offered to go "make" brownies from scratch and then returned with them in the time it would take to cut them. This may have been a line bobble ("make" instead of "get"), since Ms. Kettrey seemed to have a few line slip-ups at the performance I attended.

A strong script helps. Strong acting helps. But when a production is as good as "Woke" is, much of the credit needs to go to the director. Ellen McQueen has put together a show that brings out the best of script and cast. The positive hype about "Woke" is well-deserved.

Built to Float, by Rachel Graf Evans
Barely Buoyant
Thursday, August 23, 2018
Nervous, mousey Tess (Rachel Wansker) works in a clinic as a phlebotomist after dropping out of pre-med to care for her ailing mother (Suzanne Roush). One day, in walks William (Alex Van), the spitting image of her abusive father, asking for information on child health care for his two nephews, who are about to come live with him. Thus Rachel Graf Evans sets up the dynamic of "Built to Float."

The first scene is of Tess in a pool of dappled blue light, under Harley Gould’s effective lighting design and Dan Bauman’s environmental sound design. She appears to be floating mid-water as she speaks a short monologue. The final monologue of the play shows her in the same position, giving full explanation of the title of the work.

Josh Oberlander-Denny’s set design consists of four separate areas: a clinic front desk and waiting room stage right; a kitchen with sink and counter, refrigerator, table and chairs center; a stairway entry up left; and (initially) a park bench down left. For the opening of the second act, a couple of folding garden chairs are set up on the down center lip of the playing area to provide a fifth location. The floor of the space is painted as if wood, blending into black and white tiles in the kitchen area. Walls contain only the barest decorations. Director Peter Hardy makes full use of the space in his blocking, although there may be limited sightlines of what happens on the floor for people seated in the back rows.

Jane Kroessig’s costumes are unremarkable, which is unremarkable and perfectly fine for a modern-day play that takes place in the workaday world. Courtney Loner’s props are extensive and get quite a workout.

The play takes quite a while to get going. Tess and William’s initial encounter is painfully awkward, and the following scene of Tess’ testy conversation with her mother is chock-a-block full of exposition. With the arrival of Tess’ sister Roz (Heather Schroeder), things pick up a bit. Roz is a recovering addict, come to mend fences, but Tess is having none of it. The mother’s actions during this scene have an "off" feel to them, letting us know that not everything is as it may appear on the surface. The ending of the first act is explosive, making an intermission essential to reset the stage.

The second act starts with an energetic scene between William and Roz that fills in a lot of back story. Subsequent action veers into the surreal, as Tess starts coming apart at the seams. While the first act was slow to start, the second act flies along.

Performances are all good, although Ms. Wansker’s hang-dog demeanor gets a bit wearying (from the script and direction more than from the actress). Mr. Van distinguishes two dissimilar characters with good acting choices, and Ms. Roush gives a nice edge to her character. Ms. Schroeder is engaging and natural throughout. After a slow, inauspicious beginning, the play finally catches fire, with the watery final scene leaving it smoldering with an ember of glimmering hope.

The Book of Will, by Lauren Gunderson
To Will or Not to Will
Sunday, August 19, 2018
Lauren Gunderson’s "The Book of Will" documents the creation of the first folio of Shakespeare’s collected plays, following his death and that of Richard Burbage, the most renowned actor in the plays of Shakespeare. The scripts have to be cobbled together from various sources, and the play takes us from the initial idea of the collected works to the completion of printing.

As in all of Ms. Gunderson’s historical works, there’s a lot of factual underpinning that supports the workings of the plot. There’s some speculation too, as in the identification of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. With liberal quotations from Shakespeare’s plays and sometimes dense dialogue, it’s a play that requires attention, but rewards it with rich entertainment.

The massive set by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay features three levels: the floor, where most of the action takes place; small platforms stage left (office) and right (pub entrance) and a stage with curtains up center, all raised up about three feet; and a full top level filled with props and lanterns. The floor of the stage is painted with wood planks, overlaid with a parchment-colored section containing blurred handwritten text. With Mary Parker’s lighting design that has illumination coming from all sorts of different directions and that casts shadows and bright spots, the floor of the stage doesn’t really "read."

The physical production is impressive, starting with that massive set. Emmie Tuttle’s costumes reflect the time period beautifully, and Dan Bauman’s sound design adds period-sounding music for some scene changes (probably to accommodate costume changes; the changing of set pieces is done with alacrity). Kathryn Muse’s props add to the sumptuous yet rustic charm of the visuals.

David Crowe’s staging keeps the action moving along, but doesn’t always make the script come to life. There are two scenes in the script that cut back and forth quickly between two simultaneous sets of action -- in one case, between shadows of a stage production of the start of "Hamlet" and dialogue that mimics some of its speech; in the other, when two different people are approached for funding of the publication. These moments appear to be stylization for the sake of stylization and come across as awkward. It’s also awkward when the stage with curtains is used to represent a bedroom. The final moments of the play, however, are magical, as recorded snippets of Shakespeare’s lines are mirrored in shadows on the stage curtains and actors on the top level pantomiming iconic moments from the plays.

Performances are fine throughout. Ryan Vo does a nice job of delineating the different characters he plays, and Paul Hester succeeds in playing a character well beyond his years and making it entirely different from more age-appropriate characters. Doyle Reynolds and Tom Key, as the two main characters in the story, both make strong impressions, as do Suehyla El-Attar and Elisa Carlson as their wives (and as other characters). William S. Murphey makes Ben Jonson a memorable personality, and Jeff McKerley (a last-minute cast addition) does splendid work in two dissimilar roles. Kyle Brumley enchants as the smitten Isaac Jaggard, and Eliana Marianes is spell-binding as the object of his attentions, making her every movement and reaction noteworthy for being entirely in character and yet fresh and unexpected.

Theatrical Outfit’s "The Book of Will" will attract Gunderson fans as well as Shakespeare fans, so it’s likely in for a successful run. With impressive production values and thoroughly professional onstage talent, it’s a worthy addition to Ms. Gunderson’s canon of work produced in Atlanta. Is it my favorite? No. But it might be yours.

Nunsense, by Dan Goggin
Tried and True
Sunday, August 19, 2018
True, "Nunsense" is supposed to be played on a set created for a school production of "Grease," but the set designed by Will Brooks for Marietta Theatre Company is crude even by middle school standards. Add in uneven lighting designed by Brad Rudy that has the actors moving in and out of shadows, if not playing completely in penumbral shade, and you have a production that isn’t terribly appealing to the sense of sight. Even Caroline Marshbanks’ perfectly fine-looking nun costumes seem to have wimple-veil connection issues that have the nuns frequently checking the tops of their heads. Low marks so far.

The musicality under Shane Simmons’ musical direction, the choreography by Zac Phelps, and the well-balanced sound design by L. Gamble start to redeem things. Add in good performances all around and "Nunsense" starts to become a pleasure. Layer in absolutely fabulous audience interaction that elevates ad libs to become the highlights of the show, and you have a pretty terrific production all ’round.

Stephanie Earle has directed five youngish women to create a cohesive ensemble. Rosy-cheeked Kelsey South as the Reverend Mother and fresh-faced Hannah Marie Craton as second-in-command Sister Mary Hubert seem no older than the others, which lessens their authority somewhat, but they do well enough. Megan Wartell excels in her solo dances (although the venue doesn’t allow viewing of feet for people beyond the front rows), and Kate Metroka shines in her solo number, as well as adding a New Joisey accent to the proceedings. Sophia Decker is absolutely wonderful as Sister Mary Amnesia, combining a great legit voice with rubber-faced comedic chops that sometimes border on mugging, but which always delight.

Ms. Earle and Mr. Phelps have done a pretty good job of ensuring that the side audiences get their share of faces. They certainly get more than their share of attention during audience interaction (which begins shortly before the show proper commences). The closer you sit to the action, the more you are likely to enjoy this production.

Aida, by Elton John (music), Tim Rice (lyrics), and Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, David Henry Hwang (book)
Sunday, August 19, 2018
The story of "Aida" is a very dramatic and tragic one. At Atlanta Lyric Theatre, director Taylor Buice lets us know this from the start, with strident intensity in almost every song and every line. It ends up sounding very much like a one-note production. Bubba Carr’s choreography doesn’t help, with dances seemingly styled after "So You Think You Can Dance," with a lot of stomps and spins, but with a notable lack of unison movement in execution.

Emmie Phelps Thompson’s costume design certainly has a style, but it’s neither Egyptian nor modern, tending toward the modern in an over-the-top catwalk scene and toward Egyptian inspiration in most of the court costumes. Lee Shiver-Cerone’s set design has a more consistent Egyptian styling, with some nice curtain work to suggest the closing of a tomb (although at a different point a curtain got stuck on a descending woven wood screen at the performance I attended). The show starts with an Eye of Horus symbol hanging in front of the curtain; when the curtain is raised, the same symbol is echoed in the stone back wall, although the top portion lifts to reveal a lovely palm-filled skyline.

Ben Rawson’s lighting design is what really brings sparkle and excitement to the production. A combination of pools of light on the stage and spotlights is frequently used, sometimes augmented by spinning lights and moving pools. It’s visually stunning.

Sound design by Bobby Johnston certainly makes everything audible (except for a few instances of late microphone turn-on), but the massed sound of pre-recorded tracks and all-out belting tends to make understandability a bit of an issue. Luckily, Tim Rice’s lyrics are often repetitive enough to let the flavor of each song come through, even if every word is not crystal clear under Christian Magby’s pop-inspired music direction.

Performances tend to be serviceable. Lauren Hill makes the best impression, as Amneris, transitioning nicely from a power ballad belt at the start to fine comedic timing and delivery in her initial scenes and to understated regality at the end. George P. Roberts also comes across well as loyal servant Mereb, with a terrific voice and empathetic performance. Leads Haden Rider (Radames, or "Ramades" in one program reference) and India Tyree (Aida) fall into the one-note stridency that underlies the entire production, although each has a powerful voice.

Ensemble work is okay. Joe Arnotti and J. Koby Parker, who play similar roles (and, being of similar stature, often do lifts in tandem) are representative of some of the problems with the production. Mr. Arnotti never fails to add a flourish that draws attention to him, while Mr. Parker tends to try to fade into the background. It typifies the unevenness of the production. Taylor Buice has directed a show that lacks nuance, although it seems to be wowing crowds with its non-stop power ballads and energetic lighting scheme.

The Fairy Hoax, by Tom Diggs (words) and Jay D’Amico (music)
Utterly Charming
Wednesday, August 15, 2018
"The Fairy Hoax" is based on the true story of a girl during WWI who took photos of fairy cut-outs in the woods and passed them off as true pictures of actual fairies, under the imprimatur of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Book writer Tom Diggs has taken some liberties with the facts and has changed names a bit, altered a younger female cousin to a teenaged male neighbor, and added his older brother for a bit of romantic interest. It all works very well.

The musical was originally written as a play, with Jay D’Amico composing some preludes to underscore various points in the script, with a view towards a movie adaptation. The preludes have now morphed into songs, with lyrical melodies and folk touches that evoke the Yorkshire setting of the story. The orchestral beginnings of the score peek through a bit with the scansion of lyrics being sometimes a tiny bit off and with the score appearing to be fairly difficult to sing. This is a full-fledged score, though, with reprises nicely emphasizing points in the story. You’d never know it wasn’t a musical to begin with.

Nichole Palmietto has staged the show nicely, using four downstage music stands for the action, with some narration delivered from the five actors seated in upstage chairs. This is a staged reading, with books ever-present and with stage direction narration taking the place of true onstage kisses and slaps. It’s all very fluid and engaging.

The cast consists of Brandy Bell as young Dulcie Somerset, Mary Saville as her mother (and also as the adult Dulcie), David Wells as friend Francis Crawley, Truman Griffin as Francis’ hunky brother Henry, and Lamont Hill as reporter Elliot Butterfield (and also as the adult Francis). All have good voices, and Ms. Bell gives an entrancing, thoroughly natural performance, besides possessing the best voice of the lot. Ms. Saville also gives an excellent, nuanced performance. The men acquit themselves well too.

Piano accompaniment is provided by musical director Cristina Dinella, who holds forth with the serious demeanor and swaying emphases of a concert pianist downstage left. It would be distracting except for the fact that the story and songs thoroughly capture the attention.

"The Fairy Hoax" could be taken in many directions. With a full ensemble of townspeople and expansive scenery, it could become a West End-type production in the mold of "Finding Neverland." With condensation of the plot and toning down of the titter-producing references to puberty, it could become a streamlined school/family production. Or it could remain a small-cast, full-length musical that entrances with its quiet charm and atmospheric score and script.

Sundays at Four, by Brittani Minnieweather (book) and Talitha Gabrielle, Christian Magby, Jonathan Peacock, Jamie Walker, Quentin Brown (songs)
Not a True Musical
Wednesday, August 15, 2018
"Sundays at Four" started out as a play, and its origins show in the musical presented at the Atlanta Musical Theatre Festival. The songs are not well-integrated into the plot, so the production seems more of a play with songs than a full-fledged musical. Music supervisor/arranger Christian Magby, however, has done a marvelous job of giving the score a cohesive, rhythm-and-blues feel, tinged with a lot of gospel. Singing is first-rate throughout.

Staging goes far above and beyond the bare-bones necessities of a staged reading. This is a flat-out full production, just without a set (although with plenty of set pieces and props). The action all takes place around the dining table of Grandma Washington’s house, mostly on Sundays around 4 P.M. for the big Sunday meal, although this construct of the weekly meal tends to weaken as the show goes along.

Director Kevin Harry and the cast all deserve great credit for putting together such a polished presentation of the script and score, with nary a script in sight onstage. Each character is deftly defined, but most of them are unlikeable. Grandma Washington (Terry Henry) is the dictatorial head of the household whose word is law, and who treats various members of her family with disdain. Her son Benson (Darrell Grant), the sole male member of the cast, is repeatedly told he’s an idiot. Her daughter Diana (Nzinga Noel), who admittedly makes many shallow, bad decisions in life, is cut off entirely. By-the-book daughter Lillian (Cheley Cutwright) is tolerated, but her mother mocks her religious devotion while simultaneously touting her own faith. Granddaughters Kenley (T’Arica Crawford) and Whitley (Kiona Reese) get more affection, but Grandma clearly favors put-upon, sometimes sullen Kenley, around whom the plot circles. Whitley, who has a big bratty streak, takes at face value Grandma’s assertion that she loves them equally, but gives attention where it is most needed.

The one character with no unredeemable characteristics is the child Lee (Leiloni Pharms) who shows up in the final scene. This final scene is extremely reminiscent of the ending of August Wilson’s "Fences," which had a recent production at this same venue, also directed by Mr. Harry and also featuring Ms. Pharms as the child. As in "Fences," we have preparations for a funeral, the child singing a song associated with the dead person, the child "introduced" to a newly-returned person, and the child sent out to collect footwear. This strong resemblance to August Wilson’s work weakens the originality of the piece, which otherwise has some nice plot twists in Brittani Minnieweather’s script.

Performances are all good, but the shallowness and inconsistencies in Ms. Minnieweather’s characters are on full display. The problems are emphasized by the staging of the act one closer, a gospel faith number sung by Ms. Henry. We’ve just had a big, emotional confrontation, but in the number all the characters come out and act as backup singers for Ms. Henry, as if nothing had just happened. The emotion of the scene is undercut by the choral requirements of the "big" number.

The five-piece band plays beautifully, but the sound mix is heavy on the band and light on the vocals. Luckily for comprehension, but unluckily for dramatic resonance, a lot of the lyrics are extremely repetitious. Mr. Magby confesses that he rushed off some lyrics during the development of the musical, and the score still has an unpolished veneer. The uneasy mixture of songs and drama doesn’t quite work in the current iteration of the show, but it was rapturously received by a sold-out audience at the one-night-only performance.

See Rock City, by Arlene Hutton
G.I. Bill Blues
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Arlene Hutton’s "See Rock City" is a quiet play that shows us the home side of World War II, where seemingly able-bodied men are shunned if they’re not in the service and where women are given career opportunities that abruptly end when returning servicemen replace them. Raleigh (Chris Harding) has epilepsy and his new bride May (Amelia Fischer) is supporting them as a school principal while they live with her parents (LaLa Cochran as Mrs. Gill and an unseen Mr. Gill). His mother (Gay H. Hammond as Mrs. Brummett) is the fourth character in the play, bringing a sour, redneck perspective that sees Raleigh as a lazy dreamer rather than as an epileptic struggling writer.

Theatre Buford has created a lovely physical production, featuring a set designed by Lee Maples that includes a full porch and house at an angle stage left, a two-seater lawn chair stage right, and various stumps and foliage to fill out the stage. It all works very well, with Ben Rawson’s lighting design nicely following the flow of light throughout the day and Adam Howarth’s sound design giving us all the motor sounds we need as cars pass by on the unseen road or park within an unseen portion of the yard. The stereophonic sound adds to the appeal of the production.

Julie Skrzypek’s props generally work well, although a yellowed period newspaper would probably be more effective as a modern facsimile. The featured prop is a birdhouse with "See Rock City" painted on top. It’s a souvenir for Mrs. Brummett from Raleigh and May’s honeymoon, which was supposed to take place south of Kentucky in Chattanooga but which actually ended up being north of Kentucky in Cincinnati, not that Raleigh ever lets his mother know that he and May never saw Rock City.

Jessica Snyder’s costumes allow for frequent costume changes that delineate one scene from the next, but tend to feature dropped hems or showing slips. The styles very nicely reflect the time period, though, and also the rural nature of the setting, while letting us know that May’s fashion sense transcends her surroundings.

Performances are all at a truly professional level. Ms. Hammond is a hoot as the largely unfiltered Mrs. Brummett, and Ms. Cochran provides a contrasting warmth and wisdom as Mrs. Gill, while using a well-timed "ain’t" to show that the Gills are at a social level above that of the Brummetts. Ms. Fischer makes for an engaging May, and Mr. Harding truly inhabits Raleigh, letting the audience feel all his pain and love and confusion. Justin Walker has done a great job of directing his actors to make their journeys seem real and heartfelt.

The play itself, however, tends to drag on a bit as it draws to its conclusion. The intermissionless play extends well past 90 minutes, and the sobering conclusion of the story doesn’t provide a warm feeling of conclusiveness. Perhaps it’s the nature of the play, as the second play in Ms. Hutton’s Nibroc trilogy, but the play leaves you wanting both more (in the nature of a happy ending) and less (in terms of length). In terms of production values, however, this is a top-notch, thoroughly professional offering featuring fine talent both onstage and off.

Thus Spoke the Mockingbird, by Joanie McElroy
Young and Old
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Onion Man has been invaded by Onstage Atlanta! But it’s a good invasion. Director Cathe Hall Payne has brought in set designer Angie Short and sound designer Charlie Miller to create a version of "Thus Spoke the Mockingbird" that eclipses most Onion Man offerings in terms of production values.

Ms. Short’s set makes brilliant use of the small Onion Man stage. Stage left is covered by a house porch skewed at an angle that lets its downstage corner peek out over the edge of the stage. The wooden post at center stage is neatly disguised as a tree and treehouse. Up right there’s room for a birdhouse and a lot of plants and foliage. A chair and small table down center are the focus of most action. Kurt Hansen’s lighting design has tons of effects that heighten the action, including a skyline projection on the side wall to suggest New York City. Mr. Miller’s sound design has less to do, but does all it needs to and does it ably.

The play shows us Harper Lee at two stages in her life -- in act one as she brings "To Kill a Mockingbird" to completion, reminiscing about her childhood and childhood friend Truman Capote along the way; and in act two as an old woman. Kate Guyton does a fine job throughout, especially as the younger Ms. Lee portraying herself as a child, although her body language as an old woman isn’t convincing. The set dressing changes for act two, with foliage proliferating as Ms. Lee takes up gardening and with the chair of act one replaced by a rocking chair. It all flows very nicely.

Joanie McElroy’s play has been brought to life by Ms. Payne and Ms. Guyton. Ms. Guyton has an engaging stage presence that lets us see a twinkle behind Harper Lee’s sometimes curmudgeonly pronouncements, and Ms. Payne has blocked the one-woman show to maintain visual interest. This is another fine production of an always entertaining (and informative!) play.

On Golden Pond, by Ernest Thompson
Southern Waterways
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Ernest Thompson’s "On Golden Pond" is a perennial community theatre favorite, with a storyline combining equal amounts of comedy and heart and with a cast featuring two meaty roles for thespians of a certain age. Centerstage North’s production puts the nearly-foolproof script on its feet and sets it doddering along to a satisfying conclusion.

Steve Worrall’s set design features a screen upstage fronted by a walkway representing a porch and three separate room segments. The fireplace is the feature of the stage right segment; a bookcase is the feature of the stage left one. Up center is the door unit, with an unhinged screen door that miraculously gets fixed during the act break. David Reingold’s lighting design occasionally plays colors on the upstage screen, adding to the atmospheric effects the lighting ably produces. Brenda Orchard’s sound design consists primarily of loon sounds, phone rings, offstage motor sounds, and scene-setting music. Like the lighting, it works well and blends in beautifully with the entire production. This is an attractive physical production.

All roles are filled with competence by the cast, although Jim Wilgus had frequent line hiccups as Norman at the performance I attended. Cheryl Baer’s pleasant perkiness as Ethel contrasts nicely with Mr. Wilgus’ stodginess as her husband. Philippe McCanham invests mailman Charlie with lots of personality, as does Kirk Renshaw as teenager Billy Ray. Shannon Lindsay makes for a heartfelt Chelsea, Norman and Ethel’s daughter, and Kevin Renshaw is pitch-perfect as Chelsea’s intended, Bill Ray.

Karen Worrall has directed the show to get the story across, but the pace often seems slow. It all seems pretty straightforward, without the special directorial touches that can make a production truly memorable. This "On Golden Pond" is a perfectly acceptable offering, but doesn’t truly catch fire to become the thoroughly entertaining production for which the script provides the basis.

Titanic, by Peter Stone (book) and Maury Yeston (songs)
Friday, August 10, 2018
Don’t be surprised if in the middle of "Titanic" the iceberg instantaneously evaporates, coalesces into a dark cloud overhead, and comes pouring down on you. It’s all part of the experience in getting the audience as drenched as the cast members who throw themselves into the water as the ship sinks. But, if you’re lucky, both you and the show will be survivors that go on to complete the evening’s journey, although the journey may not end before midnight.

Adam Koch’s set design consists of massive scaffolding with four playing levels and extensions fore and aft that mimic the outline of a ship. Four smokestacks on top complete the picture of a ship, and docking that unmoors from the shore and moves to the ship after passengers have boarded provides additional playing space. With a cast of forty, a lot of playing space is needed.

Early on, we’re led to believe that the top level contains the captain’s wheelhouse, the next level down is first class, and the next two levels down are second class and third class respectively. Director Brian Clowdus violates this schema occasionally, placing some action inappropriately on the first class level, perhaps to take advantage of "hot spots" in Kevin Frazier’s lighting design.

The lighting design is excellent, making great use of spotlights to focus attention on the primary singing characters in ensemble numbers. Bobby Johnson’s sound design is equally excellent, letting everything possible be heard (although massed singing and counterpoint in ensemble numbers inevitably results in a bit of muddiness). The sound effect of the Titanic hitting the iceberg is awe-inspiring.

In a cast of forty, it’s hard for an actor to stand out. All are fine singers and acquit themselves nicely, but some are given very little opportunity to shine. Many, given the opportunity, prefer to blend in rather than to stand out. The performances I found most noteworthy were Robert Hindsman as J. Bruce Ismay, the closest thing to a villain in the plot; Shannon McCarren as social-climbing Alice Beane; Chase Peacock as stoker Frederick Barrett; and sweet-voiced Chris Saltalamacchio as Lt. William Murdoch. Also notable are Chase Davidson as junior wireless officer Harold Bride and Ben Thorpe as first-class steward Henry Etches, who both make the most of their roles.

Given the age-blind, race-blind casting of the show, not everything rings true. That’s particularly the case with the first-class men, who are supposed to be wealthy titans of the business world, but who appear to have the age and talent of acting apprentices. When John Jacob Astor (Charles Fowler) is introduced as being decades older than his 19-year-old bride Madeleine (Erin Burnett), the age discrepancy seems to be in the opposite direction. It’s an unfortunate casting misstep in the production, reinforced by the decision to have the men light up cigars whose smoke wafts into the audience.

This production of "Titanic" is as much a spectacle as a musical. Chris Brent Davis’ music direction is excellent, with the orchestra sounding true and lush throughout, and Bubba Carr’s choreography works well for a structure floating on the water, with not a lot of wide-open spaces to make use of. From the start, Alan Yeong’s costumes tend toward the white and diaphanous, foreshadowing the nightgowns worn by the passengers on the Titanic as the iceberg is struck.

The second act covers the time period after the iceberg is hit. While the full scaffolding structure doesn’t submerge, a chandelier and a couple of window washer-like platforms do. With two lifeboats being loaded and rowed off before we see passengers hurling themselves from the scaffolding into the water, the effects are breath-taking. Add in the occasional thunderstorm, and Serenbe’s "Titanic" is truly an immersive experience.

Red - a Crayon’s Musical, by Ben Thorpe (book) and John Burke (songs)
Red State or Blue State?
Wednesday, August 8, 2018
In the world of "Red - a Crayon’s Musical," each crayon is defined by the name on its wrapper. But when your wrapper says "red" and all your wax is blue, how are you supposed to cope in a world that expects you to conform to the expectations on your wrapper? The drawings you produce of red objects just aren’t right. How can you possibly make them right? That’s the dilemma of our hero, played by sweet-voiced Trevor Perry in a red sweatshirt over a blue T-shirt.

Red is a child in this story, surrounded by other crayon children - his eventually supportive brother Yellow (played by gawky Jacob Jones), the class bully Green (played by stocky Juan Carolos Unzueta), self-obsessed Amber (played by voluptuous Hannah Craton), ditzy Fuchsia (played by diminutive Hannah Lake), quiet taupe (played by curly-topped Elliot Folds), and supportive and equally ostracized Berry (played by sweet-faced Abby Holland). Adult characters are played by ethereal Gia Nappo as Red’s mother, by authoritative Brittani Minnieweather as teacher Ms. Scarlet and as Coach Scissors, by Mr. Folds and Ms. Lake doubling as Red’s grandparents, and by Mr. Unzueta and Ms. Craton doubling as the Sonny-and-Cher-inspired hippie couple of Mr. Tape and Ms. Glue. The actors provide neatly differentiated characterizations for the doubling, and costuming is appropriate all around for the color-inspired names.

The cast is highly talented; so talented, in fact, that I wonder what direction Jacob Demlow needed to provide for their performances more than giving them a one-word description of their character(s). Their infectious energy seems boundless, and they all inhabit their roles completely. Add in spectacular voices all around, and you have a show that seems close to running, let alone finding its legs.

This is a staged reading, so seven music stands are arranged at the front of the stage to allow actors to refer to their scripts. There are certain design elements for the production, though. A handmade sign with the show’s title hangs high on the back curtain, and drawings are frequently extracted from the script binders and displayed to the audience as the crayon’s drawings. There are even some props -- scissors, masking tape, a container of glue, and a couple of plastic plates. The finest design element, however, is in the upstage row of ten chairs in a spectrum of colors ranging from white on audience left to black on audience right. In a brilliantly subtle design choice, all the folding metal chairs are of the same design except the one in bright blue. It doesn’t quite fit in. Nice touch, right?

The musical is based on an existing children’s book, but the musical’s book writer, Ben Thorpe, takes some liberties with it. The verbally-challenged character of Taupe has been invented for the musical, and it’s a terrific invention that makes Elliot Folds an audience favorite. There’s a hint of incipient romance between him and Fuchsia, but it’s not solidified by him giving her back a ribbon she lost that he has found and danced with, and the relationship doesn’t go anywhere.

The show’s a little long for what’s intended to be an hour-long TYA (theatre for young audiences) production. The Tape/Glue Sonny/Cher sequence is where the production seems to stall a bit. Red’s wrapper has been torn and they come in, sing an extended song that seems aimed more at parents than children, and patch up the wrapper. What the audience is longing for is that they’ll remove the wrapper for repair and it will finally be noticed and acknowledged that Red is actually Blue. It could actually work to minimize the Tape and Glue characters and simply have Red remove his jacket to be handed to them for repair; the next scene shows intelligent, perceptive Berry asking Red to draw an ocean, and it would be appropriate for her to be the first to see the truth when the obfuscating wrapper is gone.

John Burke’s score for the show is mostly kiddie pop rock, backed by pre-recorded orchestral tracks heavy on acoustic guitar. There’s musical variety in the score, with bouncy melodies and power ballads interspersed with songs of more unique styles. The lyrics are full of near-rhymes (a singular rhymed with a plural, for instance) and sometimes seem almost stream-of-conscious in their lists of colors and rhymes. There’s a bit of a slap-dash quality in the lyrics that isn’t up to the level of the rest of the show.

With solid source material, entertaining performances, and blocking that adds lots of movement to what could be a static reading, "Red - a Crayon’s Musical" packs a lot of punch in the AMTF production. With a little tweaking, a fully staged TYA production (and maybe many more across the country) seems all but inevitable.

Wonder Women, by Gregory Becker
The Lassitude of Truth
Tuesday, August 7, 2018
Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. A musical about a man obsessed with domination/submission who invented the lie detector and cohabitated with three women who triggered him to create the character of Wonder Woman? Titter, titter, tee-hee. Nashville songwriter Gregory Becker’s "Wonder Women" treats the subject basically for humor, bringing in feminist icon Margaret Sanger (aunt of one of the young women) as an over-the-top comic character.

"Wonder Women" takes on the same subject matter as Carson Kreitzer’s "Lasso of Truth," and like it it attempts to wed the biography of William Marston with a more modern-day story. In this case, the bookending concept is having the aged Sadie Holloway (Marston’s wife) appear to the editorial board of "Ms." magazine, arguing for the inclusion of an image of Wonder Woman on its initial cover. There’s also an unnecessary initial set-up song by three Greek goddesses. In other words, it takes a while for the story itself to get going.

The show is nicely staged by Jennifer Acker with lots more movement than usual for a staged reading, plus some rudimentary choreography. All nine actors are off book for large portions of the show, particularly in the songs. The accompaniment (Will Barrow on keyboard, Matt Mackenzie on bass, and Jennie Hoeft on drums) is thoroughly professional, if a bit loud. All told, this is more a production with books in hand than a mere reading, the point being to give the playwright a more complete view of the producibility of the show in its current state. There’s even a bit of costuming, with clever sunglass/hat/mustache accessories used to represent policemen.

The show is long and not terribly well focused. William Marston is played by Bradley D. Gale as a Boston-accented buffoon, with fresh-faced ingenue Hatty King as his childhood friend and eventual wife Sadie Holloway. She is smarter than he is, but is held back from opportunities by her gender, while he is showered with opportunity due to his patrician lineage. They make a deal to let her be the brains behind his ideas, which gain some acclaim. But his propensity for engaging in masochistic relationships gets him fired from job after job.

Brooke Bucher gives a smiling lewdness to Marjorie Huntley, a dominatrix librarian who becomes Marston’s mistress when he opens his Cherry Hill residence in Rye, New York. But by then he has invited student assistant Olive Byrne, played by the enchanting Briana Middleton, to live with him as well and act as a housekeeper and nanny for the children he and Sadie (and Olive) have. All the women are sexually involved with one another and with Marston. Olive’s aunt Margaret Sanger, played with scene-stealing confidence by Jocelyn Kasper, gives her approval to the living arrangements when she finally visits.

The cast is rounded out by Garris Wimmer as all the male secondary characters and by Regan Holmberg, Pauline "PJ" McGowan, and Holly Constant as a trio who comment and observe and sometimes interact. Like the principals, they have powerful, true singing voices.

The play seems at times like a lecture, with Margaret Sanger’s views and historical conditions described; at times like a topical farce, with sly references to Trump and silly comic shtick; and at times like a conventional musical. The first act is almost fully light-hearted, with true heart shown only in the second act, starting with Olive’s number "Invisible." From that point on, heartfelt emotion alternates with comedy, using a stirring eleven-o’clock number to help bring the show to a conclusion with Marston’s death and a return to the bookending Ms. magazine scene.

The tonal shifts in the play are reflected in the eclectic score. There are comedy novelty songs, lovely ballads, rock-inspired anthems heavy on memorable handles, and even a rap number late in the show. The music is solid throughout, but the lyrics are heavy on imperfect rhymes and sometimes feature iffy scansion. The catchy score seems as unfocused as the play’s emphases.

The story covers the time period from 1911 to 1947, and there’s a couple of anachronisms (aside from musical styles and dialogue that reflect a modern sensibility). A reference is made to the open relationship between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at a time in the early 20th century when they were still children. A story is concocted that the father of Olive’s children was killed in "the war," but what war is murky, given that the children were born in the 1930’s.

The purported point of the show is a feminist one, showing the power and inventiveness of the women behind the man. But when the man Marston is portrayed as a buffoon, his belief that women are socially superior to men loses some of its oomph. He becomes less of an ally to the women and more of a stooge. Feminism needn’t rely on the denigration of men. When you dig out the high end of an uneven playing field to equal the low end, you don’t make the field even; you create a playing field with a big dividing ridge in the middle. Showing the capability and strength of females can be accomplished when they eclipse males at their own game, not when the game is rigged in their favor.

The AMTF staging of "Wonder Women" shows evidence of great talent throughout, with fine direction, assured performances, and top-notch musicality throughout. Now it needs a shaking-out period before traveling to the 2019 Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, with perhaps some dramaturgical input to focus first-time playwright Becker’s vision.

Smokey Joe’s Café, by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Coffee Black
Sunday, August 5, 2018
"Smokey Joe’s Café" is the quintessential jukebox musical. It consists of a bunch of Leiber/Stoller songs strung together to make two acts of entertainment. With no overriding plot to move things along, success of a production depends entirely on the skill of the singers and on production values.

The Stage Door Players production has assembled a lot of talent, both onstage and behind the scenes. Chuck Welcome has, as always, provided an excellent set, in this case consisting of a worn street scene with Smokey Joe’s Café up center, with the six-piece band visible through a picture window, and two two-story tenements on either side. J.D. Williams’ lighting design adds a lot of excitement to the proceedings, although moving lights on the two tenements can be a bit distracting. Jim Alford’s costumes add to the visual appeal of the production, and David Rossetti’s inventive choreography often wows, especially in the first act. (Choreography in the second act tends to be inspired by the song title "Stand by Me.")

The energy is palpable in the first act. Strong singing, excellent dancing, and a nice pace keeps things lively. The second act is a let-down. The actors’ energy seems to flag a little, and song reprises lose the sense of novelty. The opening of the second act is a precursor of what is to come. The actors sing a few bars, then Nick Silvestri’s six-piece band plays, spotlighting individual players in the band, although the lights behind the picture window scrim don’t illuminate the players brightly. Since the band has overwhelmed the singers in most numbers in Rial Ellsworth’s sound design, ceding the show to them magnifies the sound problems in the show. When a solo singer is backed by the band and an ensemble of voices not singing words in unison with the soloist, the only hope for distinguishing the lyrics is when they’re repetitive (which is often the case).

Performances are good across the board. Xylina Cassandra and Brian Wesley Turner are particularly good at playing to the audience and milking the comedy out of moments. Fenner Eaddy and George P. Roberts shine in dances, and Solita Parrish has a sly, easy way of communicating what seem to be ad libs. Kiona D. Reese and Kendrick Taj Stephens have strong voices, but don’t stand out from the others. Shimmying soprano Lyndsay Ricketson and hip-swiveling Trey Getz add racial diversity to the cast. Voices blend nicely throughout, although even Xylina Cassandra’s rafter-raising solo voice can’t compete with the band and with background vocals.

"Smokey Joe’s Café" depends on the familiarity of pop songs from the 50’s and 60’s. (Building addresses on the set are "1952," "67," and "2018," to underline the time differential.) It’s enjoyable enough for those familiar with the songs, but the whole thing tends to go on a bit too long. Robert Egizio has directed a thoroughly professional production, but it smacks more of a coffee bar on a Sunday afternoon than of a smoky bar serving liquor.

The Last Five Years, by Jason Robert Brown
A Star Is Born
Sunday, August 5, 2018
"The Last Five Years" can be a problematic musical. Its two characters take reverse chronological journeys, with Jamie’s story going from the start to the end of their relationship, while Cathy’s story goes from the end to the start. To prevent undue confusion, directorial touches are needed that create touchstones of specific moments that both experience, but which the audience sees them experience at different points in the evening. Director Michael Vine does a good job of this in The Performer’s Warehouse production. Simple things like miming of dancing with a partner or removal of a wedding ring create telling images that bind the two timelines together.

Stephanie McDonald’s set shows a lovely room with a single gray wall above deep teal wainscoting, with white trim. New York skyline and abstract paintings adorn the wall, with hooks and a shelf stage right behind a platform that doubles as a bed and a pier. Two upholstered chairs and a table balance it at stage left. It gives the impression of being the apartment of the couple at the end of their relationship, when the man is a successful author. It acts as a unit set, with no modifications to indicate which timeline is being followed.

Visual variety is added by Cathy’s costumes, which frequently change from scene to scene, and to a lesser extent by Jamie’s costumes, which morph from casual clothes at the start to a suit when he becomes more successful. Philip Wray’s lighting design does a beautifully subtle job of differentiating scenes and highlighting tonal shifts in the script.

Sound is another story. The black box theatre has only three rows of seats, so no audience member is more than about ten feet from the stage, but the actors are miked. Perhaps this is intended to allow them to sing at low volumes to save their voices, but it can be disconcerting to see lips moving onstage when sound comes primarily from a speaker at the edge of the stage. There is a wonderful balance between the pre-recorded orchestral tracks and the singers’ voices, but the stereophonic tracks work against the monophonic voices to make Gamble’s sound design seem artificial and distancing.

There’s mighty little dancing in the show, but Jen MacQueen’s choreography makes it all effective. The focus is on acting and singing, and music director Camiah Mignorance has gotten good vocal performances out of Jess Berzack (as Cathy) and Jacob Valleroy (as Jamie). At the performance I attended, Mr. Valleroy’s voice seemed to get tired as the show progressed, but Ms. Berzack’s was fresh and exciting from start to finish.

Ms. Berzack is the true star of this production. Her expressive face, her beauty (sort of a prettier Sarah Jessica Parker), and her voice all help to chart the journey of an actress whose primary credits seem to be second-rate Ohio summer stock. Since we see her story in reverse, we’re left with the image of her giddy with first love and starry-eyed about her future.

Jamie’s journey paints him as more of a villain, a hot-shot author winning early acclaim and embarking on a self-involved life that takes him progressively farther from his wife Cathy. Jacob Valleroy is a handsome guy and plays the part well, but he has a bland stage presence that makes it hard for him to win audience sympathy. Still, the final image of him broken down emotionally is telling in contrast to Cathy’s joyous optimism.

The Performer’s Warehouse is putting on a more-than-creditable production of Jason Robert Brown’s "The Last Five Years." It’s more of a song cycle than a play, with very little dialogue, but Michael Vine and the cast create an affecting story out of it. And Jess Berzack’s stellar performance is likely to linger on in memory long after the production has closed.

Annie, by Thomas Meehan (Book), Charles Strouse (Music), and Martin Charnin (Lyrics)
You’re Gonna Like It Here
Monday, July 30, 2018
"Annie" has become a mainstay of community musical theatre. As evidence, we have a single-weekend production of Agape Player’s "Annie" in Duluth playing head-to-head against Acting UP’s single-weekend "Annie" in Roswell. Both no doubt feature excellent physical productions, with sets and costumes galore. (Not having seen the Agape production, I can only judge based on their previous productions at the Infinite Energy Theater at Gwinnett Civic Center.)

Acting UP’s production has been created through the efforts of a whole slew of onstage and backstage staff. The massive set, designed by Julie Resh, uses an upstage platform with a curtained front to hide some set pieces (primarily the beds of the orphanage) and a background with three-sided panels that revolve to represent the orphanage office, a New York skyline, and Daddy Warbucks’ residence. Movable set pieces come on and go off in somewhat long scene changes that are covered by music from the full orchestra conducted by T. Dwayne Wright. It’s all very fluid and impressive.

Costumes, coordinated by Bonnie Roder, are as impressive as the set, and props, acquired by Cheryl Funsten, help fill out the production. Lighting (Mike Young) and sound (Tharen Debold) are also first-rate. Choreography, by Ashley Cahill and her assistants, is not overly complex, but provides fluid stage pictures that maintain visual interest.

Producing artistic director Rhnea Wright Ausmus has honed the action to emphasize the plot, so the story comes through loud and clear. Performances are a bit uneven, as to be expected in a community theatre production featuring a host of children, but the main roles are all filled competently. Addison Albrecht is a strong-voiced Annie (although blonde rather than red-headed), and Cecilia Harrington provides her nemesis Miss Hannigan with tons of inebriated energy. Bess Yunek is a sweet-voiced Grace, playing well against Mark Taylor’s tycoon-with-a-marshmallow-center Oliver Warbucks. Loren Collins’ Rooster Hannigan has a sly charm, and Jeff Hayes’ Franklin D. Roosevelt adds presidential mock-authority to a fine voice. All the principals, in fact, have fine voices.

Ensemble performances range from Jon Bauer’s look-at-me showboating to expressionless supernumerary dancers. Most everyone seems confident in his or her role(s), so this is a production that appears to have been well-rehearsed. The set changes alone must have taken some serious practice.

What sets a production above the average are touches that add entertainment value without distracting from the overall focus of a scene. Acting UP’s "Annie" has a couple of excellent examples. Julie Resh has a terrific bit with gum as Connie Boylan, and Cecilia Harrington does wonders with a chair at Daddy Warbucks’ house, having Ms. Hannigan snuggle into the chair as if it’s the luxuriousness she has always deserved, then checking beside the cushion for spare change. It’s moments like that that make a production truly memorable.

The Bikinis, by Ray Roderick and James Hindman
A Journey through Pop Music
Sunday, July 29, 2018
"The Bikinis" uses a fairly trite storyline to create a jukebox musical tracing female-oriented pop music from 1964 to the year 2000, when the story ostensibly takes place. Four teenagers won a beach singing contest with an impromptu performance in their bikinis in 1964 and formed a pop quartet. The first act traces their career as a singing group, culminating in a "Beach Blanket Bingo" parody; the second act brings them from hippie times up to the current day (2000), when the Sandy Shores Mobile Home Beach Resort faces a vote to determine if the residents will sell out to a developer. It’s a serviceable storyline that provides a framework on which to pin covers of a lot of popular songs from the do-wop period through disco.

There is also some original music. The Bikinis released one 45 in their career, and we get to hear both the A side ("In My Bikini") and the B side ("Sandy Shores"), along with a failed update of the A side music to fit in with later musical trends. The inclusion of these original songs gives the show a bit of weight that a pure jukebox musical wouldn’t have.

That’s not to say that the musical is anything more than mindless fluff. It trades on the familiarity of the songs it uses to maintain audience involvement. Patrick Hutchison’s music direction gets the band/voice balance right, so the show sounds good from beginning to end. There are a lot of harmonies in the songs, but each of the four cast members also gets to sing lead from time to time. Adena Brumer (Jodi) and Janelle Lannan (Barbara) have strong voices that impress in solos, while also blending in nicely in the harmonies. Wendy Bennett (Karla) has a lovely solo voice, but doesn’t blend particularly well in some choral moments, while Aretta Baumgartner (Annie) seems somewhat underpowered in solo moments, while excelling in harmonies.

The physical production is fine. Michael Hidalgo’s set design has the band upstage, behind a platform, with a stair unit stage left. Signs upstage indicate "Sandy Shores" and the year 2000, with additional decorations indicating a Jersey shore location. Direction and choreography by Karen Beyer use the space well, with lots of variety of movement. Kim Basacow’s costumes do a good job of hinting at the bikini-clad past of these now middle-aged women.

The four characters are given distinct personalities. Jodi (Adena Brumer) is a lawyer who has organized the evening, and Ms. Brumer plays her with a bit of reserve that makes her seem a tad colorless in comparison to the others. Her sister Annie (Aretta Baumgartner), on the other hand, is a bit of a spitfire, and Ms. Baumgartner’s joy at being onstage translates directly to audience enjoyment. Their cousin Karla (Wendy Bennett) gets to impersonate the wackiest individuals in the story of their career, and she pulls them off, although they do not seem a particularly natural fit for her. Best friend Barbara from Staten Island (Janelle Lannan) is brash and loud, and Ms. Lannan triumphs in the role, adding spark and sparkle to every line.

The chronological history of female-related pop songs tends to get a bit dry in the second act, but the final disco sequence is a marvel of stagecraft, with sparkly costumes and a laser light show playing over the audience. It brings the plot to a point where the conclusion of the vote can play out with just enough schmaltz and suspense to wrap things up quickly and neatly. A final "encore" (with the cast warning the audience not to leave yet!) puts a button on the show. "The Bikinis" may not rival more successful jukebox musicals, but it’s perfect breezy summer entertainment.

A Southern Exposure, by Kelley Kingston-Strayer
Time Lapse
Tuesday, July 24, 2018
Kelley Kingston-Strayer’s "A Southern Exposure" follows a small-town Southern girl as she makes a move to the big city of New York and then returns home years later, as the cycles of death and life play out. Her family consists of her grandmother and two eccentric elderly "aunts," who provide most of the humor of this play, which follows the pattern of a raucously funny first act succeeded by a more poignant and serious second act.

The action plays out on a set designed by Tanya Moore that contains two wall segments against a black background. The stage right segment is on wheels, allowing one side to represent a New York apartment and the other side to represent a bedroom in the house containing the kitchen indicated by the stage left segment. This other segment contains a window looking out into the yard of the house, with the painted scenery behind the window frame nicely swapped out at intermission as the season changes from fall to winter. Furniture fills out the kitchen and bedroom, with slight alterations made to the set and to Tanya Moore’s props during the scene changes.

Bob Peterson’s sound design covers the scene changes with appropriate song selections. Gary White’s lighting design highlights action occurring on either half of the stage. Brandi Kilgore’s blocking occasionally causes slight sightline issues for people at the extreme sides of the audience, but the flow is active enough that no scene becomes static. Tanya Caldwell’s costumes suit each individual character and scene, adding to the visual interest of the show.

Director Brandi Kilgore has gotten outstanding performances out of all her actresses, and has added in comic bits that underscore their quirks. There are lots of emotional levels in the production, a sure mark of hands-on direction. In the comic roles of Mattie (Marla Krohn) and Ida Mae (Glory Hanna), Ms. Kilgore has cast women ideally suited to the dotty, ditzy optimism of Mattie and the suspicious sarcasm of Ida Mae. As Callie Belle, the young woman who moves to New York, she has cast Katherine Waddell, an actress with nice range and an appealing stage presence who admirably fills the role of a Kentucky native (dialect coaching by Cat Roche). Merle Halliday Westbrook plays Hattie, the grandmother, and her heartfelt emotion and energy help carry the play to its conclusion.

The final moment of the play, however, is probably the least successful moment of the show. The play has started with Mattie watching a baseball game on TV, and the final moment is of a group hug accompanied by a sound clip of a baseball game. Since baseball is entirely tangential to the story, this sound clip seems to come out of the blue. It’s the sort of touch a playwright might think provides a nice "bookend" for the play, but that doesn’t work in practice.

"A Southern Exposure" is a delightful production that solidifies Lionheart’s reputation of presenting quality community theatre. I wish I cared more about Callie Belle’s twenty-something growing pains and romantic involvements, but the reactions of her family to the vicissitudes of her big-city life more than make up for the banality of her life’s journey. When she returns home at the age of thirty, we’re left with the feeling that she’s grown as a human being in the time she’s been away, having been lifted up by life rather than having been ground down. And an audience member will feel a bit uplifted when leaving the theater too.

The One Mintue Play Festival 2018, by Various
Tiny Wastes of Time
Tuesday, July 17, 2018
When you have sixty plays presented in a short (75-minute) production, none of them is going to have an overwhelming impact. And unless a play has a title very evocative of its content, it may be well-nigh impossible to remember it after leaving the theatre and reviewing the program. This year’s selection of plays do pretty well on the memorability scale.

Each play tends to gravitate to some point on the scale between stylized seriousness and off-the-cuff satire. A few plays are so idiosyncratic that you would probably have to tunnel into the playwright’s brain to make much sense of them. With a different director and cast for each "clump" of six plays, the constant variety will either be energizing or wearying, depending on how quickly your brain adapts to sudden tonal shifts.

Since the plays are performed on the "Color Purple" set, which seats audience on two sides of the playing space, facing one another, the directors were faced with some blocking challenges. Some choose to play most action in profile to both sides of the audience; others use constant circular movements to ensure even visibility. The only true blocking misstep I noticed was in Grant McGowen’s clump 8 (I believe in Chris Schulz’s "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit Of"), where a central figure declaimed on the central platform while two men appeared to be mimicking his speech on either side of the platform. With both men’s backs to the same side of the audience for the entire time, the intended effect was lost.

Damian Lockhart has staged the first clump around the ever-present use of cellphones. The entire cast swarms around the playing space with great fluidity, making this a terrific introduction to the energy that will be on display throughout the evening. Ocean surfing poses as the actors surf the web give a little extra spark to the first playlet ("A little Light Surfing" by Nicole B. Adkins), but the most pointed selection I found to be Daniel Guyton’s "Offensive," in which a woman rails against a Facebook friend for not deleting a post she finds offensive. This first clump emphasizes how social media can tend to increase the alienation of groups of people with opposite points of view. None of the other clumps seem to have such a clear-cut thematic association among the plays in the clump.

The second clump has nice staging by Carolyn Choe of the elegiac "Love You Miss You" by Michael Henry Harris, in which Betty Mitchell stands on the central platform, turning to face speakers at the four corners of the platform as they address her. "Swingers Party of the Future" by Mike Schatz is cutely realized, as humans and sex robots mix and mingle. Another memorable play in this clump shows a somewhat pedantic father and a petulant daughter at a restaurant prior to attending a production of "Hamilton." Unfortunately, this play does not have a sufficiently memorable title (I’d guess it’s either "Homewrecker" or "The Interloper").

Kiernan Matts puts his directorial stamp on clump 3 by using picture frames that actors hold up to their faces to indicate artworks. Not all the plays are museum-related, though; the first is Jacob York’s shamelessly self-promoting "Exposure" and the second is Grant McGowen’s rather obvious NPR parody "United Public Radio." The third is Sloka Krishnan’s weirdly surreal "Is It in Your Hands," in which singing voices are presumed to be possessions kept in tightly clasped hands or satchels. The rest of the plays have more of the museum feel.

Clump 4, directed by Mathew Busch, is not terribly memorable overall. Sarah Beth Hester’s "The Busy" is nicely realized, with a couple receiving the dread diagnosis of being "busy" and being told that the cure is the word "no," each time intoned with the same comic solemnity. This is one of the few selections that actually comes across as a true play, with a beginning, middle, and clear end. Seth Langer’s "Rules of the Game" rather lamely presents us with people explaining the "simple" rules of a shape/color matching game. I have only vague memories of the other selections in this clump.

The fifth clump, directed by Julie Skrzypek, is very well-acted throughout. Mia Kristen Smith’s "Me Too" has some true bite and poignancy in presenting reactions of people in the "me too" movement. Matthew Myers’ "Crucibled" and Nedra Pezold Roberts’ "Miss America 2.0" are both rather obvious commentaries, but come across extremely well in the acting. Jill Patrick’s distasteful "Mother Theresa" is a low point of the evening, but only because of content, not because of acting or direction.

The sixth clump is probably the least memorable of the clumps, with un-evocative titles the norm. "Be a Man" and "Let’s Play Monster" are exceptions, and the titles pretty much tell the entire content of these plays. Rebekah Suellau’s "it goes like" is the most entertaining, as singing-challenged Matthew Myers is coerced into attempting to warble a tune. Mary Saville’s direction is fine throughout, making good use of the playing space.

Clump 7, directed by Justin Kalin, just might be the most successful of the clumps. Dani Herd’s "The Mass Extinction Club" shows us a couple of conversing dinosaurs (one sporting a feather boa), and it starts the clump off winningly. "Hands Off Mr. Rogers," by Pamela Turner, has a sourness in comparing Mr. Rogers to a pedophile, but the closing "Temp Job" by Sherri d. Sutton takes a delightful view at the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse when Death is replaced by a temp worker.

The eighth clump has some of the weakest material (and acting) in the show. Grant McGowan’s direction can’t make Hannah Church’s gun-rights-inspired "Australia" or Laura King’s silly "Order Up!" come to life. Only Laura Meyers’ final play in this clump, "Nursery Rhymes" has real impact, as it shows children reacting to a school lockdown.

Brian Ashton Smith has directed the ninth clump with barely a touch of humor. Even Andy Fleming’s "Line Breaker," which shows a person who has cut line being berated by another person, who then cuts in line, ends on a flat note. Amina McIntyre’s "Mask Off" and Hank Kimmel’s "The .2% Solution" emphasize the bleak tone of these selections.

The last clump has excellent direction by Hillary R. Heath. None of the material is terribly engaging, but the actors are engaging and elevate the material. The gobstopper-vs.-jawbreaker argument of Steven Yockey’s "Hard Candy" is far more a sketch than a play, and Nicole Kemper’s "My Favorite Thing" has a vagueness that keeps the material from catching fire. This tenth clump moves seamlessly into Topher Payne’s "When They Ask," a finale that asserts the primacy of the artist before devolving into a cacophony of seventy-plus shouting actors trooping onto the stage.

One-minute play festivals aren’t for everyone. If you go to the theater to get caught up in a fictional world that will keep you transfixed for a couple of hours, you’ll be sadly disappointed. On the other hand, if you have the attention span of a flea, you might delight in the ever-changing theatrical landscape. The 2018 festival showcases good, fluid direction above all else. Acting is generally fine, and there are enough nuggets of insight in some of the one-minute plays to provide a good impression overall.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, by Michael Friedman (songs) and Alex Timbers (adaptation from Shakespeare)
Rewarding Labour
Monday, July 9, 2018
The musical "Love’s Labour’s Lost" is based on the "Spring Awakening" model of marrying a classic text with songs reflecting a modern sensibility. Alex Timbers has adapted Shakespeare to strip the story to its basics, and Michael Friedman has added songs that increase the female perspective in Shakespeare’s story of four post-college men who vow to spend years in solitude, study, and sexual abstinence, then immediately abandon their vows when in the presence of four women.

Music director, pianist, flautist, and cheerily off-hand cast member Daniel Hilton adds the credit of set designer, providing a lovely set consisting of an astroturf-covered platform containing a tiny pool, backed by a lattice and vine-covered wall, and augmented by a bar and cantina set-up stage right. The large number of band instruments is housed in the alcove present in the upstage area of the Aurora black box space. As for the band members, they all do double duty as cast members. Triple threats of actor/singer/musician individuals abound, and while the small space and large cast preclude extensive choreography, everyone moves well.

Director Patrick Schweigert starts the production with an informal introduction of cast members as they wander across the playing space in character. His curtain speech then gives way to completion of the curtain speech by the cast. It all gives the feel of a poolside party, and the subsequent action keeps up the buoyant energy.

The cast is pretty evenly balanced. Voices are good throughout. As might be expected, Juan Carlos Unzueta’s singing is unparalleled, and he is wonderfully cast as the Hispanic-inflected Don Armado. Jacob Valleroy presents a sweet-voiced, forthright King, and Ashley Prince is full of sass and sparkle as the Princess. Rose Alexander (Rosaline), Isabella Martinez (Katherine), and Laura Spears (Maria) back her up with their individual charms and bright personalities. Jeofry Wages gives an idiosyncratic spin to Longaville, one of the King’s cohorts, while Jovahn Burroughs doesn’t provide much added spark as Dumaine, another cohort. Elliott Folds’ singing voice is a bit thin as Berowne, the King’s main friend, but his engaging personality and trombone/tuba skills more than make up for a lack of vocal resonance. Choral singing is all first-rate.

The minor characters ably fill out the cast. Andrew David Harrison is a weak actor as Costard, but plays guitar and banjo in the band. Lizzy Liu has little to do in the plot, but impresses in what she does, which is mostly in playing bowed string instruments. Brandy Bell (Mercadé), Shelby Folks (Jaquenetta), Caty Bergmark (Nathaniel), and Mary Saville (Holofernes) play their roles with lighthearted conviction, and Michael Dotson does a very nice job as obsequious go-between Boyet. Megan Poole has a Denny Dillon-like presence as a blonde sparkplug whose enthusiasm is equaled only by her Dull-ness ("Dull" being the name of her character).

Nicole Clockel’s costumes do a wonderful job of indicating character, and Landon Robinson’s lighting enhances the spirit of every scene. While the intermissionless production clocks in at close to two hours, the time passes quickly. Shakespeare’s plot doesn’t have a particularly happy ending, but the production as a whole provides more than adequate satisfaction. And Zero Circle Theatre is providing great stage time for talented young Atlanta performers starting out on promising careers.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (songs), Jeremy Sams (adaptation)
A Bang-Up Job
Sunday, July 8, 2018
When "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" played the Fox a few years ago, the Broadway tour production was a disappointment. It attempted to replicate the movie onstage, and its obvious theatrical trickery and reduced scale made the show seem like a pale (and over-loud) imitation. Lolek’s Storytellers’ production lets the audience’s imagination do much of the work of filling out the action, and so is much more successful at telling the story. We don’t have a handful of trained dogs crossing the stage to indicate mayhem; instead, we have no dogs at all, letting the cast’s reactions indicate mayhem.

The set/props design team has hit upon a neat concept for realizing all the many locations indicated in the script. Upstage center is a pair of large wooden doors, flanked on both sides by wood-paneled hidey holes below and scrim-covered areas above. A movable outhouse and various set pieces readily move on and off the downstage playing space. Lighting helps delineate the various locations. Extensive costumes, managed by Angie Hagen, and Therese Dickinson’s makeup add to the visual appeal of the production.

In audio terms, the show is less successful. There are no stellar voices in the cast, although nearly everyone handles the vocal demands of their role(s) with aplomb, and everyone sings in character. Amplification is used, and sometimes the musical backing tracks are louder than voices, particularly when music underscores dialogue. Very nice transitions occur, however, when one piece of music gives way to another.

Dani Dickinson has directed the show to keep the flow of action moving, and the choreographers (Ms. Dickinson, along with assistant director Erika Fasselt, and actress Rachel Fasselt) have added tons of entertaining movement. This is a smoothly flowing production, with deftly etched characters throughout.

Daniel Ware plays the lead role of Caractacus Potts, and he is a handsome and charming hero with a look reminiscent of Will Forte. His voice is pleasant and his dancing skills are just up to the demands of the choreography. Erika Szatmary, as his love interest Truly Scrumptious, has an appealing presence too. His children Jeremy and Jemima (Hector Rolan and Addy C. at the performance I attended) are also engaging, and Ms. Addy C. has a powerful voice and cheery presence that delight. Youngster John Paul Dickinson does a fine job as Grandpa Potts, although his heavy muttonchops and mustache hide his lips in some dialogue. These "good" characters all come across as suitably good-hearted.

The villains tend to be even more fun. John Brooks brings tons of energy to Baron Bomburst, and Haley Hartl matches his energy as the Baroness, adding what is probably the best singing (and wigs) in the cast. Samuel Ginn does a nice job as spy Boris, and Rachel Fasselt is an absolute delight as his sidekick Goran (and as a few assorted ensemble/dance characters). The ensemble come across well, with one standout being Alex Fasselt as the devilish Child Catcher. Erika Fasselt, of the talented Fasselt clan, also impresses as a dancer.

"Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is a beloved movie that was fashioned into a less-than-stellar Broadway musical. In the Lalek’s Storytellers production, though, the story and songs come through strong, with a special charm that will delight children and adults alike. It’s a lot of fun, and the special effect of a flying automobile at the end of the first act is perfectly in scale with the production, using inventiveness and limited technical capabilities to suggest what the audience’s imagination will complete.

The Life and Death of King John, by William Shakespeare
The Lifeless King John
Sunday, June 24, 2018
As laid out in Shakespeare’s history play, the reign of King John was not particularly dramatic or tragic. He seems to have spent a great deal of time bickering with the French king over England’s continental possessions and bickering with the pope’s representative, and his death was by poisoning carried out by a nameless, unseen monk. Dramatic oomph is added by younger characters – Philip, the bastard son of John’s eldest brother, Richard the Lionheart; Arthur, the legitimate son of John’s older brother Geoffrey; and Lewis, the Dauphin of France.

Troy Willis plays King John, and his underpowered projection gives the quiet intensity of his performance a feeling of ponderousness. His performance (and makeup) as the dying king is splendid, but it doesn’t redeem what has gone before. When he shares the stage with Maurice Ralston, whose performance as the French king seems primarily a measured recitation of Shakespeare’s lines, the play seems dull and bloodless. Excitement is added from the start by Sean Kelley, as Philip the Bastard, whose strong presence and powerful voice breathe life into every moment he is onstage. Tamil Periasamy, as the Earl of Salisbury, comes across with equal power and vitality in his smaller role.

Joshua Goodridge plays the youthful Arthur with sweet sincerity, and the scene of his death by an accidental fall is deftly staged by director Jeff Watkins, with the aid of Greg Hanthorn Jr.’s impressive lighting design. Adam King, playing the Dauphin Lewis, is mostly silent when sharing scenes with his father, the French king, but comes into his own as King John’s reign is coming to an end, laying the ground for a possibly exciting, but unrealized sequel showing Lewis’ resistance to the English.

Other good performances come from Mary Ruth Ralston, as the aged Elinor of Aquitaine (King John’s mother); Jake West as the comically nebbishy Robert Faulconbridge and later as the sturdily handsome Crown Prince Henry; and J. Tony Brown in dual roles. A highlight of the show is a scene in which Mr. Brown and assistant stage manager Lilly Baxley stand on the balcony of the stage as citizens of a besieged city, trying to neutrally mediate between the French and English kings. Their choreographed, mirrored reactions bring sparkle to the scene.

Most performances aid nicely in the telling of the story. Najah Ali, though, isn’t up to the task of selling her roles, with a flat delivery and lack of nuance throughout. Amee Vyas does well enough as Constance, widow of Geoffrey and mother of Arthur, but the role calls for a transcendent performance to truly come to life. It’s a missed opportunity for a breathtaking turn as a tragic figure.

Sound is sometimes a bit distracting, as offstage noises intrude on the dialogue being spoken onstage, and Anné Carole Butler’s costumes don’t "wow," with some of King John’s costumes looking more like nightgowns than regal garb. A red-hot poker effect is accompanied by a strong, sneeze-inducing odor. Still, this is a decent production in technical terms.

"The Life and Death of King John" isn’t a very active play. For much of it, director Jeff Watkins has positioned the cast in stationary positions around the stage while one speaking character pivots and speaks downstage to the audience. It can seem very static and artificial. There’s only one battle scene, at the start of act two, and Drew Reeve’s fight choreography gives a blast of much-needed energy to the play. Palpable excitement is evident as the cast ably performs the necessary swordplay. When Philip the Bastard slays an Austrian Duke (Glenn Lorandeau) in the battle, prepare for a gruesomely comic bit that follows that solidifies Mr. Kelley’s position as a new actor to be reckoned with.

For anyone familiar with "The Lion in Winter," Shakespeare’s "King John" will seem both oddly unfamiliar in the world being portrayed and oddly familiar in the interplay between Queen Elinor and her somewhat weaselly son John. Viewing the play might be compared to attending an anticipated sequel and coming out disappointed in the way things turn out. The reign of King John was considered a failure in his own time, and although focusing on his resistance to the control of the pope may have had some resonance in the time period immediately after the Church of England broke from Rome, King John was not a hero in any sense. Giving him his own play may make him the central figure, but it doesn’t make him the most interesting or likeable character.

Tarzan, by David Henry Hwang (book) and Phil Collins (songs)
Sunday, June 24, 2018
Atlanta Lyric’s "Tarzan" is a perfectly competent production of a less-than-stellar work. Daniel Pattillo’s scenic design uses a unit set consisting of a frond-filled backdrop fronted stage right by a two-story rock cliff with ground-level arch and second-story tree trunk and stage left by a platform (invisible to audience right) with a ramp leading up to it from up center. Two movable (but climbable) sections of cage-like fencing start out at the downstage corners of the stage, but get moved frequently. A scrim is used in front of the set to establish scenes not occurring at this jungle location. The start of the play is very effective, as sails are whipped to and fro behind the scrim, and then Tarzan’s parents are lifted up as if swimming before being lowered as the scrim is raised, revealing them beached at this jungle location.

Ropes hanging from the flies and draped to the sides get frequent workouts as the jungle vines on which Tarzan and his family of acrobatic apes swing. Cindy Mora Reiser’s choreography tends not to emphasize ape-like qualities, though; there’s a lot a tumbling and energetically leaping dance in direct contrast to the ape-like stances the ensemble take when lurking around the edges of the set. The most consistently ape-like movements come from Vinny Montague, playing Young Tarzan. His arms hang down and swing from the shoulders. He hasn’t been choreographed like the ensemble to fling his arms up frequently in wild abandon. Leslie Bellair and Marcus Hopkins-Turner, as Tarzan’s gorilla parents, are directed by Robert Adams to stand like humans much of the time, emphasizing the awkwardness of having human actors portray non-humans throughout the show.

Mary Parker’s lighting design does a good job of highlighting action and setting mood. Preston Goodson’s sound design, while nicely balancing vocals with the orchestral tracks, pumps up the volume to what must be painful levels for audience members seated directly in front of the stacked speakers far left and right. Amanda Edgerton West’s costumes and George Deavours’ wigs work well for the humans, and ultraviolet fabrics work well in black light to establish the otherworldly experience of Jane encountering jungle creatures, but the animal and ape costumes tend to be garish more than evocative. Suzanne Cooper Morris’ props work well.

Music director Chris Brent Davis has gotten good vocal performances out of everyone. This is a well-sung show, even though most of what is sung is instantly forgettable. I’ve seen the Disney movie, listened to the Broadway cast CD, seen another production of the musical, and played vocal selections of the Phil Collins songs, but I can’t say I recognized a moment of the score. That’s almost the definition of "forgettable."

Performances are fine across the board. Steve Hudson, as always, makes the most of his every line as Jane’s father, but his scenes often end with him walking silently offstage as the scene goes on with other characters. Commodore Prious is terrific as Terk, with tons of energy and explosive dancing skills adding to his fine singing and joyous characterization. He just doesn’t seem to get very much to do. Alison Brannon Wilhoit is well-cast as Jane and has nice chemistry with Stanley Allyn Owen as a ripped and toned Tarzan with a surfeit of eyeliner. Ms. Bellair and Mr. Hopkins-Turner fill their roles ably, as do the ensemble. Even Hayden Rowe comes off well with his broad and brash characterization of the villainous Clayton.

Robert Adams has helmed a production that continues Atlanta Lyric’s tradition of locally-cast, professional-level musicals with broad public appeal. "Tarzan" may not be anyone’s favorite Broadway show, but it’s got name recognition and the Disney imprimatur, so it was bound to show up sooner or later in the Lyric’s repertoire. Welcome, and now, goodbye.

The Color Purple, by book - Marsha Norman; songs - Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray
The Royal Hue
Monday, June 18, 2018
To begin with, Julie Allardyce Ray’s set design is far from original. You might call it "Father Comes Home from ‘The Crucible’" for its resemblance to two recent Actor’s Express set designs. Barn wood structures anchor the two ends of the playing space, with additional rooflines behind the two halves of the audience. In a blatant tribute to the recent Broadway revival, chairs hang from nails on the end walls. Shallow triangular platforms exist at the base of the anchor walls, with a diamond-shaped platform in the middle. It’s a handsome design with a nicely rustic feel, and it suits the largely rural locations of the script.

While house lights are almost dangerously dim, André C. Allen’s lighting design provides nice illumination for the action of the play, although moving lights can occasionally shine into the eyes of the audience. Elisabeth Cooper’s props are fine, but not extensive. The chairs are used in place of props in some instances, and actions that could conceivably use props are often mimed as part of the choreography.

Dr. L. Nyrobi N. Moss’s costumes overlap with props in the Africa segment of the script at the start of act two. Actresses dressed in costumes perfectly suited to the rural South of act one enter with baskets, and as part of the choreography strips of kente cloth are pulled from the baskets and, after being waved around, are twisted by the actresses into costume pieces. It doesn’t work. Men entering with bandoliers of kente cloth over their act one costumes look even more ridiculous. Then, when Celie starts making and selling pants, we are subjected to ill-tailored, unflattering trousers in a variety of garish colors. The final scene introduces Nettie (Jeanette Illidge), Adam (Michael Champion), and Olivia (Precious West) in African costumes, and since we didn’t see them in African costumes when they were in Africa, the sudden inconsistency in look is jarring.

What the production lacks in visual power it more than makes up for in vocal power. At least in previews, though, Angie Bryant’s sound design seems at odds with Amanda Wansa Morgan’s musical direction, with singing at the top of the actors’ lungs turned into echo-y mud. There are a lot of choral numbers, and the combined raw vocal power and amplification can become almost painfully loud.

So what redeeming qualities does the production have to justify a high rating? Quite simply, the performances. Latrice Pace is splendid as Celie, with a hangdog expression and gapped teeth that make her utterly believable as a put-upon, unattractive teen mother, yet as her character matures so does her physicality. She is totally believable at each moment in the plot, getting the audience fully behind her from the very beginning. Add in a terrific voice, and you have what is sure to be an award-winning performance.

The ensemble all do fine work, and the trio of busybodies (Stephanie Zandra, Lydia Eku, and Tetrianna Beasley) come off extremely well in the staging of director David Koté and choreographer Meredith A. Moore, as they circle the center platform and speak directly to the audience when passing by. Delightful performances also come from Kayce Grogan-Wallace as strong-willed Sofia, Lamont Hill as her weak-willed husband Harpo, Jeanette Illidge as Celie’s pretty younger sister Nettie, and Danyé Brown as squeaky-voiced Squeak.

Aside from her sister, the most important people in Celie’s life are Mister (Kevin Harry), her abusive husband, and Shug Avery (Jasmyne Hinson), a much-admired saloon singer. Mr. Harry does extremely well in his role, starting out as a handsome monster and transitioning to a more understanding man by the end. His terrific voice is suited well to his role. Ms. Hinson is merely adequate in her role, not seeming to bring as much to Shug as all the others do to their characters.

"The Color Purple" has a strong story, and with fine performances and good pacing in the Actor’s Express production, the show becomes a triumph, in spite of a less-than-perfect physical production. Chalk it up mostly to Ms. Pace, whose incandescent performance lights the stage from start to finish. She is true stage royalty.

Tapas III, The Reckoning, by Guilford Blake, Steadman, Walsh, Lupo, Hoke, Schinderworf, Staryk, Kaplan, Rubin, Carabatsos
A La Carte Menu
Monday, June 18, 2018
Academy Theatre’s "Tapas III" production is, as are all short play festivals, slightly variable in quality. Sometimes an actor can let down a script; sometimes the script can let down the actors. Directors can do their best to mitigate shortcomings in talent or material, but the results are still likely to be sub-par. Quality does not vary as much in this production as in many short play festivals.

The ten plays in "Tapas III" start with Steffi Ruben’s "Upright and Blameless." This is a retelling of the biblical story of Job, with stentorian Erick Jackson reading the Bible verses as a modern-day Job (the delightfully expressive Ian Geary) comments and reacts. Two demons (Sidney Joines and Leica Wilde) torment Job as God’s favor leaves him. Margi Reed’s excellent costume design gets a workout in this play, with tutus for the demons, a biblical garment for Mr. Jackson, and a suit whose shirt color brings out the blue in Mr. Geary’s eyes. Erica French’s lighting design and Robert Drake’s sound design also get a workout, with special effects highlighting appropriate portions of the script. Barbara Washington’s direction gets the most out of the script, with Mr. Geary’s performance sparking this play’s success.

Second up is the best play of the lot -- Paige Steadman’s "That Woman." Robert Drake has directed this longer-than-average play to get emotive performances from Ashe Kazanjian as a grieving widow, Zach Roe as her dead husband (appearing only to read a letter he has left to his wife), Taryn Spires as their daughter, and Mala Bhattacharya as a visitor lingering after the memorial service for the husband. This play starts to show the range of Elisabeth Allen’s fine props, which didn’t get much of a workout in the first play, but which will have plenty to offer in this and succeeding plays. The title has a double meaning -- Ms. Bhattacharya is "that woman" at the service, but there is another, unseen "that woman" in the plot. Things tie up nicely and satisfyingly.

The third play continues the serious tone set by "That Woman." G.M. Lupo’s "A Debt to Pay" introduces us to a wheelchair-bound woman (Alison Ramsay) who is visited by the man who crippled her in a car accident 15 years earlier. Fred Galyean gives a heartfelt performance as the man, and Jennifer McCurdy has blocked the play with simple movements that don’t attempt to goose up the somber material.

Stephen Kaplan’s "Death Defying," which comes next, has a premise that sounds like fun: dead circus performers are put in a waiting room until they can remember their given name, as opposed to the stage name they’ve gone by for years. Under Fracena Byrd’s direction, the play takes on a serious, sentimental tone. Costumes are once again notable, and Ashe Kazajian and Leica Wilde give notable performances as, respectively, an older resident of the waiting room and a new one.

The first act ends with a purely comic play, Connie Schinderwolf’s "The Grout Fairy." A housewife (Taryn Spires) is expecting a visit from her finicky mother-in-law and declares she would do anything to get the grout in her kitchen floor sparkling clean. Presto! In comes Andrés Salgado as the title character. Zach Roe has directed this silly show with lots of action, and it shows off Juana Harper’s set design to advantage, as the grout fairy enters awkwardly through one of the three upstage pairs of shutter-like windows.

The second act takes an historical event -- the publication of Shirley Jackson’s story "The Lottery" in The New Yorker magazine -- and stylizes its writing and aftermath. Playwright Donna Hoke and director Mary Saville have populated the story with Ms. Jackson (Pearl Oppenheimer), her publisher (Fred Galyean), two publishing employees (Martin Charles and Dharma Jackson), a baby (a plastic doll), and two stage hands who toss paper-covered rocks onto the stage. Ms. Saville has directed it nicely to punctuate the reading of comments on the papers with the thump of rocks on desk surfaces. It’s stylish and interesting, but seems a bit derivative in its quoting of Ms. Jackson’s actual story.

"Recalculating" comes next. This generally comic play by Eugenie Carabatsos takes place in an automobile, in which a Garmin GPS (Sidney Joines) guides a long-married couple (Ashe Kazanjian and Laura Meyers) on a road trip. Gabrielle Young has staged the play simply but effectively, and gets good performances out of the full cast, especially when the GPS breaks down and the couple actually have to talk to one another. A satisfying ending ties it all together.

Jim Walsh’s "Broom Closet" brings a dark note to the evening. Ian Geary plays a lonely gas station attendant who is approached by a homeless woman (Leica Wilde) for directions to a nearby shelter. When it comes out that he has found a wallet stuffed with cash, their daydreams of an easy life turn dark when the owner of the wallet shows up to reclaim it. Andrés Salgado’s turn as the irate owner shows his range as an actor under John Sennett Lee’s fine direction. Ms. Allen’s props impress too.

Next-to-last is Evan Guilford-Blake’s poetic "The Parrots of Heaven," in which an Iranian immigrant (Darrick Wilson) quotes the poet Rumi to his friend Joaquin (Martin Charles). This dimly-lit, subtle play with a gay theme is well-enough acted under Paige Steadman’s direction, but it seems like a slender offering in comparison to some of the other plays.

Last up is Joe Starzyk’s satirical comedy "For the Love of Noodles." The situation is that a husband (Rob Raissle) and wife (Angela R. Van Tassel) are awaiting the visit of their daughter (Mala Bhattacharya) and her new love interest (Erick Jackson). These are ultra-liberal parents who are fully prepared to embrace the love interest, especially if they turn out to be a minority and/or disabled and/or a lesbian. When it turns out to be Noodles, they are thrown for a loop. Costumes are terrific in this play, and Rob Raissle has blocked it well, although as an actor he doesn’t always seem fully sure of his lines. Performances are all above par, but the play doesn’t quite jell.

"Tapas III" is a well-produced series of plays, with above-average technical elements. Extensive scene changes are done quickly and with precision, with the cast assisting stage manager Rebecca Schibler and her assistant Cecilly Allen. The plays are an interesting mix of comedies and dramas, although they rely perhaps a bit heavily on better-known previous works (the Book of Job, Shirley Jackson’s "The Lottery," the poet Rumi). I could only wish that the evening were sequenced a bit better, to have more of a flow than an alternation of serious and light productions.

[title of show], by Hunter Bell (book) and Jeff Bowen (songs)
Trite, Dull, and Slow
Monday, June 18, 2018
On the submission form for a festival of new musicals, in the space marked "[title of show]," write "[title of show]." For its dialogue, start transcribing verbatim the words you’re using to discuss creating its dialogue. Add songs. Get it all done, start to finish, in the three weeks before the submission is due. Cap off the first act with the musical being accepted. And once the show moves on to off-Broadway and Broadway, devise a second act. That’s pretty much the show. Oh, and add in lots of obscure theatre and musical esoterica that only the cognoscenti will "get." Such is the show.

The musical has dated somewhat since its creation in 2004 and its Broadway debut in 2008, although Marietta Theatre Company updates the material slightly by throwing in projections of current Broadway musicals in its montage of playbills. The show is meant to be silly, self-referential fun, but I find it tending more to the egotistical and pretentious, especially in the first act. The second act, following the progress of the show after its creation, holds more interest.

The two main characters, Jeff (Jeff Cooper) and Hunter (Blaine Clotfelter) are supposed to be young, gay New Yorkers. Here, the men appear to be straight, middle-aged Southerners attempting to soften the boundaries of their Southern accents. Their two female friends, Heidi (Gina-Ann Riggs) and Susan (Becky Ittner) ably support them. Piano player Larry (Shane Simmons) seemed to have a claque in the audience at the performance I attended, so got raucous reactions to his few lines (one of which he bobbled). The musical quality of the show is quite high, although some vocal fatigue seemed to have afflicted Mr. Cooper as the show stretched on long past its stated 90-minute run time.

Zac Phelps has directed and choreographed the show to keep things moving along, but Brad Rudy’s busy lighting design can’t always keep up. When you can’t get uniform illumination across the stage, perhaps it would have been wise not to try so many spotlighted moments on different sections of the stage. It can be quite annoying to see actors’ faces flit in and out of shadows as they cross the stage.

The show doesn’t require much technical sophistication. The set, after all, is described as consisting of four chairs and a keyboard. Here, the four rolling chairs are of different styles, and they’re augmented by small bookcases and file cabinets on either side of the stage. Rolling door units left and right are occasionally used. The actors are miked in Laura Gamble’s sound design, although their voices are powerful enough to project in the small space. The microphones are used for special effects in a couple of spots, but that violates the spirit of a show in which an obvious echo effect is done strictly by the actresses’ voices in an early musical number.

"[title of show]" isn’t for everyone. You’d think theatre geeks and Broadway musical trivia nuts would love it, but this one doesn’t. The board of Marietta Theatre Company obviously does, since nearly all the creatives are on the company’s board. The one exception, Ms. Ittner, seems to have gotten her role through sheer talent. That’s not to say the others are untalented; quite the opposite. But they’re a bit old for their roles, and the material doesn’t seem fresh and true in their hands. This is a well-done production that seems intended for an appreciative audience of the cast’s theatre friends.

Grace, or the Art of Climbing, by Lauren Feldman
Falling from Grace
Monday, June 18, 2018
Emm is depressed. She has just broken up with her boyfriend in Boston and moved back home, right into a family medical crisis. She’s not coping well. She starts improving only when she begins working out on the rock climbing equipment her father installed in their garage when she was a child. She transitions to a local climbing class (for children), and eventually we see her setting her sights even higher.

The story isn’t told clearly and sequentially. We are given guideposts of "day one," "day two," and so forth, but memories and imagined conversations swirl in and out of the story. The nature of the family medical crisis is hinted at early on, but becomes clear only much later on. The story is told in fragments, like flakes chipping off rocks.

No set designer is credited in the program. The Aurora black box theatre is set up with yellow-and-black caution tape on the floor in a rectangle, segmented into four triangles painted in primary colors. A bureau anchors the upstage right corner of the rectangle; a bookcase anchors the upstage left corner. Two rope ends hang down on either side, and a bench and ladders complete the set visible at the start. Later, a black curtain is pulled aside to reveal a climbing wall upstage. The design is hardly what one would call graceful, but it works well for the action. Action is highlighted nicely by Cody Evins’ light design and Seun Soyemi’s sound design.

Jasmine Renee Ellis has directed the play to keep its pace slow and steady, using the assistance of movement coach Suzanne Zoller to flesh out the moments when people are supposed to be working out on the gym equipment or climbing in ways not involving the upstage wall. It’s all pretty fluid, but more viscous in movement than freely gliding.

Performances are good. Laura Spears is appropriately downbeat as the self-defeated Emm, and Joey Florez Jr. is engaging and upbeat as coach Sims. Kenneth Wigley gives a fine performance as Abe, Emm’s father, but his speech patterns tend to be rushed at the start, causing some words to be swallowed, and to be covered somewhat by the background music at the end. The four-person ensemble (Chris Schulz, Jessie Cordell, Johnathan Taylor, and Suzanne Zoller) each play multiple roles ably, showing clear distinction between their adult characters and their child characters. Costumes (design uncredited) work well to distinguish character.

Lauren Feldman’s script veers into the poetic at times, and uses lots of climbing terms that aren’t clearly explained to neophytes to the climbing world. While Ms. Ellis’ curtain speech might relate the storyline to depression, the script seems to be more about female empowerment, using event-induced depression as a starting point. It’s a quiet, reflective play, giving the impression of a memory play welded onto what is supposed to be an uplifting story of an ascent from depression into full mental health. All in all, though, this production is a downer.

The Taming, by Lauren Gunderson
Tuesday, June 12, 2018
Lauren Gunderson’s highly political comedy "The Taming" borrows two character names from Shakespeare’s "The Taming of the Shrew" and includes a speech paralleling its "I am ashamed that women are so simple," but with the point that congress must swear fealty to the constitution (instead of women swearing fealty to men). Otherwise, Ms. Gunderson’s play has next to nothing to do with Shakespeare (although its female cast take on pants roles in the second act).

Suehyla El-Attar has done a terrific job directing her three actresses to give delightful performances in all their roles: Caroline Arapoglou as a perky Miss Georgia, a blustery George Washington, a bossy Martha Washington, and a boozy Dolley Madison; Jimmica Collins as a liberal blogger, her identical twin Republican intern, and slave-owning Continental Congress delegate Charles Pinckney; and Kelly Criss as an aide to a powerful Republican senator and as James Madison. Their characters are all distinct in bearing and posture and speech, and terrific wigs and costumes by Cole Spivia aid spectacularly in delineating these different personas.

Shannon Robert’s scene design is nifty, starting out in front of a gauzy curtain that is parted to reveal a hotel room that is then converted into a Continental Congress workroom for part of act two before reverting to a hotel room. A simple panel downstage functions both as a projection screen and as a White House office background for the final scenes. Elisabeth Cooper’s lighting design and Dan Bauman’s sound design cover the extended scene changes nicely, although both can be a tad overwhelming (lighting in terms of flashing laser-like beams and sound in terms of volume). One outstanding feature of the set is a pair of hotel room windows with a lovely city view that revolve in act two. Jillian A. Haughey’s props add to the visual appeal of the production.

The first act of the show is a pure delight. Ms. Criss is a riot as a repressed Republican, playing off against the beauty queen steel-disguised-as-sweetness of Ms. Arapoglou and the fiery rants of Ms. Collins. The second act, which features a fantasy sequence in which the women become personalities involved in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, comes across as a history lesson tricked out with modern-day jargon and attitudes. It’s Ms. Gunderson being clever and silly, and it dilutes the impact of the play. It becomes clear that these characters are mouthpieces in a political debate rather than flesh-and-blood individuals. When the plot plays out with standard-issue comic devices, it’s clear that this play wants both to be thought-provoking and to work as mindless entertainment. It doesn’t quite come off.

Ms. El-Attar does splendid work as a director, and the three actresses are all given numerous chances to shine. But they don’t just shine; Ms. Arapoglou lights up the stage like a spectacular fireworks display, and Ms. Criss provides the smoldering, slow-burning fuse that sets it ablaze. Ms. Collins? I guess she’d be the flame that ignites the fuse. All-in-all, this is a terrific production of a second-rate play.

Summer Harvest 2018, The Street Corner Plays, by Gregory Fitzgerald, Amanda Vick, Jane and Jim Jeffries, Steven Korbar, Tom Slot, Brett Hursey, Evan Baughfman, John Patrick Bray
Monday, June 11, 2018
For several years now, Onion Man Productions has presented an evening of ten-minute plays entitled "Summer Harvest." This year’s rendition, "The Street Corner Plays," takes place at the corner of Magnolia and Pine, as evidenced by the street sign at stage right. The center of the set, designed by Greg Fitzgerald and James Beck, consists of a narrow brick building with a door and the number "131" above it. 131 is the number of original plays Onion Man has produced over the years.

This year, eight plays have been selected by Gregory Fitzgerald and Brandi Kilgore for production. They run the gamut from comedy to drama and from light-hearted fantasy to heartfelt emotion.

The first play, Gregory Fitzgerald’s "Love Struck," is split into four parts performed throughout the evening. It shows a woman hit by her fiancé’s car on the night he is scheduled to meet her parents. The first two segments are short and end with nice cliff-hanger moments, while the second-act segments fall more into the category of a relationship discussion. Vera Varlamov gives a splendid performance, and Samuel Gresham’s expressive face gets plenty of opportunity to react to the changing situations. I only wish the show didn’t set the tone of the evening with repeated profanities, echoed in many of the succeeding plays.

Amanda Vick’s "Gravity" shows us people gazing across the street at a woman standing on top of a building, ready to jump. We have her sister (Cat Roche), her husband (Matthew Easter), and a policeman (Jerry Jobe). Considering that marriages and/or affairs link all these people, there’s plenty of comic drama to go around. William Thurmond has directed the action to keep things easily visible and to keep the pace going. Good performances all around help this play maintain interest throughout.

The third play explores somewhat unusual territory for Onion Man, as a young woman (the reserved Autumn Norris) awaits a bus to take her to become a nun, while her friend (the vivid Amanda Peclat-Begin) attempts to ferret out her sexual history and discourage her decision. The religiously affirmative nature of the script by Jane & Jim Jeffries makes the overly long "At a Crossroad" a rather quiet, sincere play, unrelieved by the static blocking by director Jim Nelson and the somewhat uneven performance levels of the actresses.

The first act ends with the most thoroughly comic play of the evening, Steven Korbar’s "Old Aquatics" (a drunken mispronunciation of the first words of "Auld Lang Syne"). Tanya Caldwell has directed Brandi Kilgore in a tour-de-force New Year’s Eve drunken rant, and gets a wonderful performance from Paul Milliken as the driver who has come to pick her up and take her home. There’s heart along with the comedy, so "Old Aquatics" ends the first end on a high note.

The second act starts with the unimaginatively titled "Magnolia & Pine" by Tom Slot. This is the most successful play of the evening. The plot is intriguing, as John Lennon (Emily McClain), JFK (David Allan Dodson), and Abraham Lincoln (Joseph McLaughlin) intervene in the life of a woman (Melanie Kiran) who is about to make a scientific breakthrough that will transform the planet. The acting is uniformly top-notch in this play, and Jim Nelson’s blocking makes terrific use of the small stage.

Brett Hursey’s "Riding Lessons" is also a very successful play. A man (the dependable Bob Smith) who is carrying a clown (the sweetly expressive Charles Bohanan) encounters a woman (the delightful Courtney Loner) who also sees the supposedly imaginary clown. Is this a match made in some mythic-inflected heaven? Sadye Elizabeth directs the show to get the most out of her cast, and costumes and props are excellent.

"Lollipop Lady" comes next, introducing us to two crossing guards (Jeffrey Liu and Sofia Palermo) who discuss a recent traffic accident (or was it an accident?). Melissa Simmons hasn’t done a great job of giving Evan Baughfman’s script its due, with uninventive blocking and uneven performances. The play requires a bravura performance by Mr. Liu, which he can’t quite pull off. This dark script throws a pall over the evening, echoed by the somewhat melancholy ending of "Love Struck" that follows.

The evening ends with John Patrick Bray’s "Blue Lantern," which can’t shake the somber mood that has taken over the production. The slow pace of Amber Brown’s direction detracts from the fine performance by Corynne Wagener, and the play isn’t helped by the sub-par diction of Brock Kercher. The storyline, of two former lovers meeting to exchange possessions, should have what is probably intended to be a positive ending, but comes across as bittersweet at best.

Mr. Fitzgerald’s sound design ably provides the necessary sound effects, and also covers scene changes, which never amount to more than re-positioning of a bench and positioning of actors. James Beck’s lighting design does a good job of individualizing the settings for each play, although there is a slightly dim spot near the stage left wall in some plays that have actors moving through that area. Costumes are well above par, particularly for the policeman and the clown. Technically, the show is more consistent than in its selection of plays.

Third, by Wendy Wasserstein
Monday, June 11, 2018
Set designer (and director) Zip Rampy has done a very clever thing with Wendy Wasserstein’s "Third." The script calls for a variety of locations, but Mr. Rampy uses fixed furniture locations to suggest them all -- a kneehole desk center right, a tiny bar stand stage right, and a bench up left. The only change is swapping out a desk chair for a bar chair for one scene at the start of the second act. The stage floor has been expanded for this production, all the way to the audience left bank of seats. A row of audience chairs is also placed on either side of the stage, which does a fine job of suggesting the lecture hall setting of the first scene. The stage and walls are all painted black, with a green projection of the word "Third" on the back wall before the play starts and also at intermission and at the end of the play. Each scene starts with a blackout and a projection that suggests the location of the scene. The projections fade as Bradley Rudy’s lights come up to illuminate the scene, but the purpose of the projections has been served by that point. It’s a spare, simple set design that works beautifully in this production. Mr. Rampy’s sound design is equally impressive, with upstairs sounds actually appearing to emanate from above the stage.

Technical elements are not the only things Zip Rampy has done right. He has gotten fine performances out of his actors, and has blocked the minimal action on the large playing space to keep interest throughout. Ms. Wasserstein’s script introduces us to a somewhat prickly liberal feminist English professor (played by Mary Claire Klooster) and a self-professed jock student (Michael Sanders) who are at loggerheads throughout most of the show. The cast is rounded out by the professor’s college-age daughter (Ellie Styron), her Alzheimer’s-affected father (Rial Ellsworth), and a fellow professor (Mia Kristin Smith) who is battling health issues. Our sympathies are initially with the student, Woodson Bull III, but we eventually come to appreciate the lessons Professor Laurie Jameson learns about herself. It’s a strong script, and it’s played uncommonly well by this group of actors.

Ms. Klooster is a revelation as Laurie Jameson, thoroughly convincing at each moment in her journey from blind assurance to self-questioning doubt. Ms. Smith is equally convincing, especially in the physical aspects of her role, as her character experiences relapses and recoveries. Stick-thin Mr. Ellsworth makes Laurie’s father a sympathetic, heart-breaking character, and Mr. Sanders invests his role with all the qualities that make up the complicated character of a brilliant student whose life goals do not mesh with the liberal arts ethos of the college he attends. Ms. Styron does fine as the daughter, but doesn’t give her character the extra spark that the others do to transform their on-the-page characters into living, breathing embodiments of Ms. Wasserstein’s imagination.

The play centers on the time period at the start of the Iraq War, with liberal antagonism toward the Republican administration in full force. The times have changed, but this antagonism has, if anything, strengthened. That gives "Third" a bit of unexpected power in its well-balanced examination of antagonistic factions in U.S. politics and American society.

My only complaint about this production is that Mr. Sanders’ projection and diction leave something to be desired. His words tend to blend together, which can make some of his lines difficult to decipher, requiring close reflection on the collection of sounds he has just uttered. Nothing essential is missed, but it’s an element that keeps this production just this side of perfection.

110 in the Shade, by N. Richard Nash (book), Harvey Schmidt (music), Tom Jones (lyrics)
Casting Shade
Monday, June 11, 2018
The charm of N. Richard Nash’s "The Rainmaker" (and of its musical version) rests on the audience’s appreciation of Lizzie, a woman who believes herself plain, and her chemistry with two possible suitors. In Theatrical Outfit’s production of "110 in the Shade," there’s darn little chemistry and darn little to like about Lizzie. Ayana Reed has been directed to give Lizzie a voice full of hard R’s and a lumbering posture and movement that make her unnecessarily unappealing. Jeremy Wood’s Starbuck has no apparent trace of a con man’s slipperiness about him, so there’s no sense of Starbuck opening up Lizzie and in the process opening himself up a little. Eugene H. Russell IV’s File has more depth and layers, but there’s still mighty little chemistry there with Lizzie.

Thomas Brown’s set is minimal -- three wide expanses of flats, one up center and two angled on the sides, with the upper edges curved to suggest perspective and painted with a low horizon line and plenty of sky, rendered in what appears to be blown-up watercolor pointillism; a floor painted with cracks suggesting parched ground; and tiny two-step platforms downstage on either side. André C. Allen’s overactive lighting design paints the playing space with various colors that heighten the artificiality of the environment. Minimal set pieces are placed onstage to indicate interior locations.

This minimal set compromises the quality of the production. Starbuck is supposed to enter with a wagon; instead, he enters on foot, carrying a large footlocker by his side in a fairly ridiculous manner. Some of the script references to his "wagon" (but not all) have been replaced by references to an offstage "pickup truck." In the intimate post-coital "Is It Really Me?" scene, we don’t get any scenery at all, and having the action occur in the middle of an empty stage robs it of all the quiet power it can have. At least director Tom Key uses the ensemble nicely to aid in scene transitions that require use of set pieces and Maclare Park’s excellent props.

Samantha P. McDaniel’s costumes are adequate, but do not impress, and Lizzie’s supposedly "nice" dress is plain almost to the point of being severe. Starbuck’s bright red pants add to the sense of ridiculousness about his character, as does Angela Harris’ choreography of his "Melisande" number, which leaves him winded for the last portion of the song. Choreography is mostly coordinated movement rather than true "dancing," and the person next to me in the audience praised it. I’d put it more on a par with the fight choreography by Amelia Fisher and Connor Hammond, which has convincing thumps when people are supposedly socked in the jaw, but seems only adequate otherwise.

Sound designer Daniel Terry uses amplification to such an extent that you get the uncomfortable sensation of watching a person’s lips move onstage and hearing sound emanating from speakers overhead. S. Renee Clark’s six-piece band is always balanced with the vocals, which tend to be on the overpowering side, but with soprano melody lines sometimes lost in the mix on choral numbers.

This production has a racially mixed cast, apparently in tribute to the 2007 Broadway revival starring Audra McDonald. We have a black daughter (Ayana Reed) and a black father (usually LaParee Young; Robert John Connor in the performance I attended, with Chaz Duffy covering his role of George), along with two white sons (Edward McCreary and Lowrey Brown). One of the suitors is black (Eugene H. Russell IV as File) and one is white (Jeremy Wood as Starbuck). You’d think that this casting would result in a color-blind production, but music director S. Renee Clark has Mr. Russell give a bluesy feel to many of the notes in his opening number and has Ms. Reed add a bluesy a cappella coda to hers. And then this apparent acknowledgement of the actors’ ethnicity disappears completely. A partially color-blind production doesn’t necessarily work very well.

Director Tom Key starts the show with the cast slowly trickling onto the stage and taking up positions as if they’re starting their days in their own individual homes, as the lights slowly come up. It’s a languid start, befitting another hot day in a hot spell, and there are other nice stage pictures throughout the show, but blocking is not the only responsibility of a director. Performances by the actors are uneven. The ensemble are all good, although they don’t have a lot to do. Secondary characters are also good. Edward McCreary is a delight as younger brother Jimmy, and Lowrey Brown gives a nice reading to abrasive older brother Noah, although he seems to have been given permission to alter notes in his songs to fit his range. Robert John Connor’s take on H.C. is effective, and Galen Crawley has lots of spirit and spunk as Snookie, although she’s not particularly well-cast in the role. (She’d make a terrific Lizzie, I think.)

The three leads are all able actors and singers (and, in Mr. Wood’s case, an able guitar player), but they don’t bring the story to believable life. Ms. Reed seems so focused on the external physicality of Lizzie that her inner life suffers, and Mr. Wood seems to add nothing special to his always-engaging stage presence. Mr. Russell puts more into his character, but he is directed to deliver many of his lines directly out to the audience with a glum expression, making him seem disconnected to the rest of the cast. Perhaps this is intentional, since File is a stand-offish guy, but it emphasizes the lack of romantic chemistry at the heart of this production.

"110 in the Shade" is one of my favorite musicals, but if Theatrical Outfit’s version were my introduction to it, I assure you it would not be. Lionheart Theatre is producing "The Rainmaker," the non-musical version of the story, in September. Perhaps that will be a better introduction to this well-beloved story for those unfamiliar with it.

Citizens Market, by Cori Thomas
Super Union
Monday, June 4, 2018
El Salvadoran Jesus (Cristian Gonzalez) runs Super Union, a small supermarket in NYC. He carefully verifies the documented status of all his employees -- Ciata (Cynthia D. Barker) from Sierra Leone, Akosua (Jasmine Thomas) from Ghana, Bogdan (Allan Edwards) and Morfina (Carolyn Cook) from Romania, and eventually Juliana (Carolyn Cook again) from Ireland. From this set-up, we know that INS troubles will figure into the plot, and it’s also clear that cultural differences will also play a part. At its heart, though, the play is about the personal relationships that these characters forge as human beings.

Cori Thomas’ script creates well-defined characters, generally charting the path of new immigrant and new employee Akosua, but giving all characters (except Juliana) substantial parts to play. We come to care about all these characters and the troubles they face. The seven-years-later final scene, in which the Super Union has become Citizens Market, gives us a happy ending unanticipated from the conditions in effect seven years before. "Citizens Market" engages the audience’s attention and entertains throughout, while shining a sometimes rose-colored light on the immigrant experience.

The physical production at Horizon Theatre Company features a monolithic set by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay, representing the interior of part of a small supermarket, with goods for sale on the ground level. A break room is a few steps up stage left, and a manager’s office is higher up, up center. Three tiny cashier stations take up the foreground. Kathryn Muse’s props (including a LOT of donated packaged goods) fill up the space. Some of the action takes place in the street in front of the supermarket, but the tiny band of gray surrounding the linoleum floor of the interior does not do a good job of representing this, especially when action spills back nearly into the cashier stations.

Mary Parker’s lighting design works well to highlight the action, but could lose the blue special effect used late in the intermissionless show. Amy L. Levin’s sound design does a fine job with phone rings, but other sounds are played at too subtle a level. Is that someone’s cell phone playing endlessly in the audience, or some sort of extraneous background music effect? Is that thunder outside we hear, or a thunder sound effect accompanied by the nearly inaudible sound of raindrops? The volume of actors’ speech is also problematic at times, with directors Jeff Adler, Jennifer Alice Acker, and Lisa Adler apparently not emphasizing projection to the actors involved in quiet conversations.

Costumes by Dr. L. Nyrobi Moss work well enough to insert a bit of ethnic flavor into the proceedings without going overboard. Dialect coaching by Ibi Owalabi and Cara Reid also gives that ethnic flavor. No accents are impenetrable, although at low volumes some speech can be a bit difficult to hear, let alone understand.

Performances are at a high level of competence throughout. Ms. Barker, Mr. Gonzalez, and especially Mr. Edwards give believable, nuanced performances. Ms. Thomas grows nicely as central character Akosua ("Sunday" in her native language), but the artificiality of the script in having her unable to shout what registers are free diminishes the believability of her character somewhat. Ms. Cook does a wonderful job (as always) of distinguishing the two characters she plays, but the actor-y infirmity she gives to the character of Morfina doesn’t ring particularly true. She’s totally competent as Morfina, but doesn’t seem to inhabit the role. As Juliana, she’s a delight.

Having three directors usually indicates trouble in a production, especially when only one director is ultimately given credit in the program. Here, all three are credited, making it appear that co-founders Jeff and Lisa Adler were keeping a close watch on Jennifer Alice Acker in her inaugural Horizon directing job. The only directorial missteps in evidence are lack of projection by some actors and in establishing the outside wall boundary of the store (due perhaps to the Curley-Clay sisters’ installation of shelves in front of the manager’s office instead of partially under it).

"Citizens Market" is an enjoyable evening of theatre, devoid of the preachy quality of some of Horizon’s offerings. Cori Thomas’ script perhaps veers into silliness at times, but there’s plenty of heart in the story, with foreshadowing nicely setting up what will later occur. After experiencing multiple box office issues in attempting to attend this production, I enjoyed "Citizens Market" a great deal more than I was anticipating.

Breath and Imagination, by Daniel Beaty
Not Breathtakingly Imaginative
Monday, June 4, 2018
The life of Roland Hayes (1887-1977) has built-in drama. The sweet-voiced son of former slaves eking out a living in Georgia, he took voice lessons against his mother’s wishes, traveled with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, embarked on a solo career that took him to Europe as a lyric tenor celebrated by the crowned heads of Europe, then returned to Georgia and experienced racial discrimination and police violence. Daniel Beaty’s script simplifies his life story, emphasizing race and family to create an uplifting story. The dream of an integrated music school in Georgia and the history of a legacy pocket watch from his father are driving forces in the story; left out are his affair with and impregnation of a married countess in Europe and his leaving of Georgia in 1948 due to its Jim Crow conditions.

Act one starts with an address in 1942 to the integrated music school he has just founded, shortly after his wife and daughter were arrested and imprisoned for sitting in the whites-only section of a shoe store and he was beaten when he went to the police station to inquire after them. The action then flashes back to follow him from age 11, when his father was killed in a machinery accident, to the age of 18, when he disobeyed his mother’s wishes (that he become a preacher) to attend Fisk University as a voice student.

Act two takes Roland Hayes up to the age of 55, culminating in the conclusion of his 1942 address to the students at his school, reiterating and wrapping up the snippets of 1942 action we have seen throughout the play. Reconciliation with his mother plays a large part in this act, as does her eventual death. Since the only substantial characters in the play are Roland (Marcellis Cutler) and his mother (Theresa Hightower), the mother-son bond is at the center. In minor roles, Tony Hayes plays Roland’s first voice teacher and a racist cop, while Patrick Hutchison plays a Frenchman in addition to playing the piano. Bill Leavell and the cast do voiceovers as other characters.

The play is full of song, starting with Negro folk spirituals and eventually adding in German art songs and opera. After the play, I heard one playgoer compare the show’s structure to a high school production, with songs stuck in after every few lines of dialogue. At least applause isn’t requested after each number; the lighting design nicely dims lights when applause is appropriate.

The physical production is effective rather than impressive. Michael Hidalgo’s scenography places faux-wood-plank platforms stage right (with the piano and a gramophone) and stage left (with a bench in act one and a rocking chair in act two). Upstage are three black mesh scrims in front of a cyclorama on which a minimum of projections occur, with another rocking chair up left, where the mother sits before she joins the story and after she dies. Dr. L. Nyrobi N. Moss’s costumes are adequate for the handful of characters portrayed onstage, nicely disguising the microphones worn by Mr. Hayes and Ms. Hightower (which can make for an odd, but audible mixture of on-stage sound and speaker sound in Kacie Willi’s sound design).

The biographical story of an acclaimed singer calls, of course, for an actor with an extraordinary voice. In Mr. Cutler, we have a very good voice. The main problem in his portrayal of Roland Hayes, however, is that the age range from 11 to 55 is beyond his skills as an actor. He is very good as the callow youth of his late teens, but doesn’t convince either as a child or as a mature man. His emotions are deep and he throws himself into the role, but his performance is eclipsed by that of Ms. Hightower, whose strong voice and impeccable acting truly impress.

Marguerite Hannah has directed the show to bring the script to life and to keep the action moving. The mother-son interactions are believable and engaging, but the constant interruptions of songs become a bit tiresome. "Breath and Imagination" is valuable in drawing attention to an African-American singer who was acclaimed more in Europe than in his own home state, but the script structures his story for racially affirmative and sentimental ends that tend to give the show a "good for you" feel rather than revealing the story of a man, warts and all. It’s grits and gravy followed by grit and determination, and yet not very gritty.

First Date, by Austin Winsberg (book) and Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (songs)
Loud and Brash
Sunday, May 27, 2018
For Onstage Atlanta’s production of "First Date," Will Brooks has designed a clever little set that consists of four rotating panels and a rotating bar unit. To start (and end) with, the panels show a nighttime cityscape and the bar unit shows a Brooklyn subway sign. When they’re rotated, we’re brought into a bar with blackboard signs above and wood wainscoting below that matches the piano enclosure up stage right. Tables and chairs are moved on smoothly for the bar set, in which most of the action takes place, and panels are rotated as part of Lauren Rosenzweig’s cheery, inventive choreography.

Liane LeMaster has directed the show to keep the movement lively and the performances broad and entertaining. Excellent sightlines in the 7 Stages black box theatre help visibility, even when action occurs briefly on the floor. The visual aspects of the show are enhanced by Tom Priester’s lighting, A. Julian Verner’s edible/drinkable props, and Melissa Gouinlock’s accessories-driven costumes.

In terms of sound, everything is audible. Too audible, in fact. Music director Kathy Buraczynski seems to have encouraged the actors to blast out the music near the top of their lungs. Vocal beauty is sacrificed to vocal volume. In the ensemble, the powerful voices of Jeffery Brown, Michael Pugh, and Jamie Perniciaro sometimes overwhelm the softer, sweeter voices of Lauren Rosenzweig and Keenan Rogers. Eric Lang, as the man on a blind date, has some nice vocal moments in his big act two tour-de-force number, but Suzanne Stroup, as his blind date, tends to blast away in her numbers. Voices are good, but the over-emphasis on volume becomes a bit grating.

In terms of acting, the style also tends to be a bit over-emphatic, but performances are all good. The chemistry between Mr. Lang and Ms. Stroup makes the central story come to life, and the ensemble all have multiple moments to shine as various characters. Ms. Rosenzweig in particular does a wonderful job in creating in-character reactions that add to moments in the script without drawing attention in a "look at me!" manner.

"First Date" tells the story of a blind date’s up and downs, sparked by interruptions from a flamboyant waiter (Mr. Brown) and a flamboyant bailout call friend (Mr. Pugh), imagined advice from the girl’s happily-married sister (Ms. Rosenzweig) and the boy’s playa friend (Mr. Rogers), and memories of the boy’s last love (Ms. Perniciaro). It’s glib and entertaining, with just enough heart to provide a satisfyingly happy ending.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, by William Shakespeare
Cozening Wives
Monday, May 21, 2018
When you think of Shakespeare and Falstaff and "The Merry Wives of Windsor," do you think of 1950’s television? If you’re director Alyssa Jackson, you do. The plot has been described as the first sit-com, and Ms. Jackson places the action in a set designed by Brian Clements that is 2/3 1950’s turquoise kitchen and 1/3 tavern, with "On the Air" illuminated signs over each portion. Costumes designed by Nikki Thomas echo the 1950’s time period, and Paige Crawford’s delightful sound design fills scene changes with TV theme songs from the period.

Ms. Jackson has directed Mistress Page (Hannah Morris) and Mistress Ford (Madelayne Shammas) to have a Lucy-Ethel sort of vibe as they plot to give Falstaff (Neil Ramsay) his comeuppance for presuming to attempt affairs with these two married women. There’s only so far the 1950’s connection can take us, though; Shakespeare’s language is tied to his own Elizabethan times, and much of the wordplay can be lost on a 21st century audience, especially when first act exposition is spoken in the thick Welch accent of Sir Hugh Evans (Freddy Lynn Wilson) or the thick French accent of Doctor Caius (Calvin Wickham). The accents are good, but much of the initial plot can remain murky to a modern audience on first hearing, and the Act3 program fails to include a synopsis.

Ms. Jackson has directed her actors to speak fluidly and quickly, which keeps the long show moving along, but her blocking sometimes devolves into a line of actors when the stage is fully populated. There are plenty of comic bits, though, most of which land. Mary Sorrel’s props add to the fun onstage, and Ben Sterling’s lighting design keeps everything visible, with a bit of flair for the final woodland scene.

One huge distraction, however, is the squeakiness of the stage floor. There are several heavily-traveled locations where smallish platforms meet and a squeak is heard every time someone steps there or shifts weight when standing there. Distracting squeaks, thick accents, and Elizabethan language combine to obscure clarity of the plot, but as the action becomes more physical, things become clearer and funnier. I overheard one audience member say that she enjoyed (and understood) the second act far better than the first. Even so, one confusing spot in the second act occurs when we are told that the much-admired Anne Page (Hannah Hyde) has been described as wearing white to one suitor and as wearing green to another suitor. Uniformly white tops and skirts of various colors confuse the issue of who the false Anne Pages are, with non-unique mask colors apparently indicating the white and green mentioned in the script.

Performances vary only slightly in quality. Jessie Kuipers uses her tremendous stage presence to advantage as Host of the Garter Inn, Chris Davis delights as the shy, oafish Slender, and Caitlyn Raye Keller makes the meddling Mistress Quickly an entertaining, impish presence, but all the minor characters are filled ably. Ms. Shammas and especially Ms. Morris drive the show along with their machinations as the two main females, and Jeffrey Allen Sneed inhabits the role of Ford with both deep emotion and deep comic sense. Even his emptying of a laundry basket is done with amazing skill.

The only major performance that is a bit of a disappointment is that of Neil Ramsay as Falstaff. His blustering, English-accented voice has a lot of power, but he doesn’t invest the character with either the menace of a mob boss (which would have fit in with the 1950’s theme) or the braggadocio of a self-important buffoon. He seems to be the only actor who hasn’t received the note that "The Merry Wives of Windsor" is a rollicking comedy in which characters either have to take themselves too seriously or not seriously at all.

Overall, "The Merry Wives of Windsor" entertains as a visual comedy, with performances nicely honed by director Alyssa Jackson to give each character an individual stamp. There’s a lot to like in this production, but deficiencies like a squeaking stage and hideous wigs for Rugby/Robin (Alli Noto) combine with occasional impenetrability of language to lessen its positive impact. Even so, confident performances from most of the cast give the production the air of a smash hit.

Living on Love, by Joe DiPietro
Lend Me "Lend Me a Tenor"
Monday, May 21, 2018
Think Ken Ludwig has a lock on opera-based comedies like "Lend Me a Tenor" and "A Comedy of Tenors?" Nope. Joe DiPietro has horned in on this territory with "Living on Love," which uses a situation and a selection of characters reminiscent of Ludwig’s farces, but produces something far less rollicking and entertaining.

The action takes place in a Manhattan penthouse in 1957, and the physical production is glorious. Chuck Welcome’s set design drips with elegance from two lovely light fixtures, the arches and columns and furnishings all bespeaking a refined taste. Jim Alford’s costumes continue the upscale look, and J.D. Williams’ lighting design makes every moment look ravishing. The contributions of the Ellsworths are equally fine, with Rial’s sound design combining music and crash noises with flawless precision and Kathy’s collection of a hundred or so snow globes impressing as much as the foodstuffs that the script requires to be used on hair and body (but luckily not on the wigs provided by George Deavours!).

Robert Egizio has directed the play with lots of comic bits that would probably fare better in a larger theater than Stage Door Players’ intimate space in Dunwoody. The play starts with the procrastinating Maestro (Michael Strauss) battling the ghostwriter of his autobiography (Roger Payano), and both performances seem artificially big. George Deavours and Stuart Schleuse, as a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of servants, give deadpan unison responses that also smack of theatrical artificiality. It’s only when the women appear that the action gains a veneer of believable human behavior. Denise Whelan is superb as the Diva, wife of the Maestro, whose operatic career is on the downswing, and Lauren Boyd Lane makes her junior assistant editor-turned-ghostwriter character a lovable innocent with decidedly surprising quirks.

The plot sets up a battling pair of spouses and a battling pair of ghostwriters, with romantic attractions inside and between the two pairs at the heart of the plot, with a little same-sex discovery thrown in at the end. It all ends as it should, of course, with the married couple rediscovering their love. For a fairly straightforward plot like this, it’s the journey rather than the plot that has to maintain interest, and the characters’ journeys just aren’t that interesting.

For a show centered on opera, it’s a bit disconcerting that "Mio babbino caro" comes across as "Mio bambino caro" and that the wrong syllables are stressed when "che gelida manina" is spoken. Marianne Fraulo is thanked by Mr. Strauss in his biography for help with Italian pronunciation, and Stuart Schleuse is credited as "Opera Consultant," but Mr. Strauss’ good Italian accent doesn’t seem to have propagated itself to all the Italian used in the show.

Joe DiPietro has written a number of widely popular plays and musicals. This isn’t one of them. "Living on Love" played on Broadway a few years ago, opening just before the Tony nominations and closing just after, empty-handed. The highly derivative nature of the plot seems aimed at the lowest common denominator of entertainment, and as palatably mindless fare it succeeds. As an engrossing evening of theatrical thrills, chills, and spills, it doesn’t.

The Curious Savage, by John Patrick
One Flew into the Cuckoo’s Nest
Monday, May 21, 2018
For "The Curious Savage," Main Street Theatre in Tucker has filled the stage with enough items to give an effect just this side of being cluttered. Randy Davison has constructed a set with doors on either side and a barred window upstage, with a view of a walled garden painted by Aaron Witmoyer. Christina Crim has dressed the set with over 30 paintings and prints on the walls, and Lisa Temples has provided props that add to the lived-in look of The Cloisters, to which wealthy Ethel P. Savage is being committed by her stepchildren.

The residents of The Cloisters are a collection of eccentric characters whose skewed perspectives on reality are much more endearing than the money-obsessed rantings of the stepchildren. The plot pits the stepchildren against Ethel and her new friends in a fight for the family fortune. There’s plenty of comedy in the behaviors of all involved, but plenty of heart too. The show ends with a charming tableau of the residents living the lives of which they’ve dreamed.

Carrie McGuffin has directed the show so that all the actors have clearly defined characters. The residents of The Cloisters all come off extremely well. Fairy May (Chelsea Dinegan Davis) is an insecure gadabout that Ms. Davis invests with tons of energy and on-the-sleeve emotions that bring a rueful smile to one’s face. Florence (Amanda Vick) seems sweet and normal, and Ms. Vick plays up these qualities in an endearing performance. Jeffrey (Evan Greene) displays a military bearing in Mr. Greene’s portrayal, and Hannibal (Jonn McDaniel) comes across as a functioning autistic man in Mr. McDaniel’s performance. The mostly silent Mrs. Paddy (Celeste Campbell) is a troubled, angry soul, but Ms. Campbell uses posture and expression to limn an individual whose heart merely needs to be opened up by kindness.

The staff at The Cloisters also come off well. Thaddeus Nifong invests Dr. Emmett with equal amounts of logic and compassion, letting us know that The Cloisters is a safe hideaway for its residents. Samantha Bain, as Miss Wilhelmina, plays every moment with sweet concern, letting the late revelation of her status at The Cloister come as a heartwarming surprise. Her 1940’s hairstyle also grounds the action in the post-WWII era.

Sharon Bower’s costumes also suggest the time period, with a nice variety of outfits from scene to scene. One standout is a pinned-together frock in which the pins stand out beautifully once the pins have been mentioned in the script. Lights (Walter Stark) and sound (Ginny Mauldin) are excellent. The only technical deficiency is some blocking issues when the stage is fully populated; a standing character in the foreground can obscure speaking characters behind him or her, especially for those seated on the edges of the audience. Audience sightlines are not good for those in rows after the first when tall audience members are in the row immediately in front.

Dawn Hines plays Ethel P. Savage, and her fine stage presence and excellent command of her lines keeps the show on track throughout. Whenever her domineering stepson Titus (Jeff LeCraw) appears, though, pacing seems to slow appreciably. A mostly silent second stepson (played by John Lukens) and a much-married stepdaughter (Ellen Clay) pipe up from time to time, but Titus drives the dialogue of the stepchildren’s scenes, which appear less rehearsed than the rest of the action. The stepchildren seem somewhat one-dimensional in comparison to the others (both in the script and on the stage).

This longish three-act play maintains interest throughout and does full justice to John Patrick’s script. This may not be edgy theatrical fare, but it’s a fine choice for community theatre, providing juicy acting opportunities for all concerned. Carrie McGuffin and the technical crew have created a wonderful environment in which the actors can display their thespian gifts for appreciative audiences in Tucker.

Ripcord, by David Lindsay-Abaire
Monday, May 14, 2018
David Lindsay-Abaire’s "Ripcord" would seem to be best suited as a made-for-TV movie functioning as the pilot for a TV series. We have two contentious residents in a retirement home who are forced to share a room. It’s a female "Odd Couple," with ever-cheery Marilyn (Jill Jane Clements) horning in on what has usually been an empty space in the room occupied for four years by the cantankerous Abby (Donna Biscoe). It’s a situation tailor-made for a situation comedy.

For episode one (this play), Marilyn has made a bet with Abby that she can make Abby scared before Abby can make her angry. Their plotting takes them from their shared room (the main set of the episode) to a Halloween haunted house, into the skies for a sky-diving expedition, and to a bench in a nearby park. Lizz Dorsey’s set accommodates these various locations, aided by Mary Parker’s lighting design, but it’s only the unit set of the shared room that truly comes across well on the stage. Sarah Thompson’s scenic painting impresses, particularly in the impressionistic fall foliage to the sides of the stage, on proscenium-high panels that hide the red stage curtains, and the painting makes a nice frame for the overall stage picture. It’s an elegant, tasteful unit set suited to a filmed-before-a-live-studio-audience production. Amanda Edgerton West’s costumes and A. Julian Verner’s props complete the stage pictures nicely.

The major plot (the bet) is accompanied by sub-plots concerning Abby’s loss of taste and retirement home employee Scott (Russell Alexander II), an amateur actor who generally tries to keep the peace, while Marilyn’s daughter and son-in-law (Megan Rose and Jacob York) aid and abet Marilyn in her machinations. The plot and sub-plots resolve nicely by the end, with the requisite second-act descent into seriousness with the introduction of Abby’s estranged son (played by Seun Soyami). It’s all polished and formulaic and glibly entertaining.

Jaclyn Hoffman has directed the show to get terrific performances out of her leading ladies and nicely shaded performances from the two young men in the cast; Mr. York and Ms. Rose come off less well. All these minor players are double- or triple-cast in the production, making for less-than-optimal casting for some roles. A TV production, of course, would have the budget to hire distinct actors for each distinct role. A TV production could also splice together sequences that take place in various locations, rather than having Marc Gwinn’s overly loud music sequences cover extended set changes.

"Ripcord" goes down easily, marrying fine performances of nicely distinct characters with an entertaining, if somewhat artificial plot. Aurora’s production does the play justice, but it also shows up the theatrical deficiencies of a storyline that begs to be extended by weekly installments on the small screen.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, by Joe DiPietro (words) and JImmy Roberts (music)
Deepening Love
Monday, May 14, 2018
"I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change" chronicles the lifecycle of male-female relationships, from initial attraction and dating to marriage and children to old age. The light subject matter slowly deepens, but never truly darkens. A production relies more on the acting and singing chops of the cast than on any production values.

In Centerstage North’s rendition, production values are minimal. Karen Worrall’s set design consists of a red platform flanked by right-angled red flats, four movable cubes painted red, and two sets of cabaret tables. Props are good, although not numerous. Costumes add visual interest to the production. Lights seem intended to light each scene differently in Beth DiYenno’s design, but at least on opening night there seemed to be some fiddling around with light levels in the middle of scenes.

The nine-person cast are of a variety of ages. For the early scenes, we have Lillian Shaw and JR McCall pairing off as the young lovers. Ms. Shaw has a glorious voice and fine comic timing, and Mr. McCall plays his parts with supreme energy. McKenzie McCart ably portrays an unpaired female, scoring particularly well in her solo "Always a Bridesmaid."

As the focus moves to middle-aged couples, we have Nylsa Smallwood and David Stephens paired up, as are real-life married couple Carrie and Philippe McCanham (although there are some variations in the pairings). Mr. and Mrs. McCanham have a few notable moments, while Mr. Stephens impresses with his strong voice and energy, and Ms. Smallwood triumphs in scenes portraying a family car trip (comic) and a dating site videotaping (bittersweet).

The oldest couple is played by Evan Weisman and Anita Stratton. Their duet "I Can Live With That" is a highlight of the show and helps the show end on a high note. The silliness of the first act has transitioned into a light, romantic tone with tinges of sorrow and regret. The increasing heart of the numbers and monologues moves the show from a forgettable comic revue to something more memorable.

Nancy Jensen’s direction (including musical direction) gets performances out of the cast conforming to their abilities, and Annie Cook’s piano playing adds a professional note to the proceedings. Centerstage North’s production of "I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change" is hardly a definitive version, but it contains enough pleasures to make for a worthwhile evening of entertainment.

Triassic Parq, by Marshall Pailet, Bryce Norbitz, and Steve Wargo
Monday, May 14, 2018
Dinosaurs on a "Jurassic Park"-type island off Costa Rica have been cloned from DNA that contains a portion from frogs that can alter their sex in response to environmental conditions. When one of the all-female dinosaurs starts growing a penis, the enclosure is thrown into a panic. Add in an exiled dinosaur with secrets of their origin, a religious leader who worships the lab that created them as the god Lab, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a hair-trigger temper, and you have the makings of a bawdy musical with some pseudo-intellectual points to make.

The set, designed by director Kiernan Matts, consists of a green-painted floor with a crude cut-out depiction of saw grass near the upstage wall (where ten chairs for audience members are located). Projections are used briefly for one musical number, but projected on a side wall not easily visible to some audience members. Visual appeal has to come from Ali Olhausen’s inventive costumes, featuring an eclectic selection of leggings, and from Nina Gooch’s overactive, ultraviolet-obsessed lighting scheme.

The dim ultraviolet scenes point out the huge deficiencies in Kiernan Matts’ sound design. Most musical numbers are choral in nature, with actors singing at the top of their lungs to a pre-recorded accompaniment that sometimes drowns out their words (when they’re not garbled by the echo chamber that the bare playing space has become). It’s hard to decipher a singer’s words when you can’t see their lips, and lips are not visible in dim lighting or when an actor is facing the other side of the audience. Luckily, the lyrics of the songs are usually repetitive, so you can usually catch the crucial words on the third or fourth iteration. Sound effects are good and beautifully timed to onstage action.

Music director Annie Cook has ensured that the singers are well prepared and mesh wonderfully with the pre-recorded tracks, but the sheer volume of the voices quickly becomes wearing. True, this is a rock score, but there is so little variety in volume that the show becomes more of an assault than an entertainment.

Mr. Matts has created winning choreography and fight choreography, but he has encouraged his actors to develop over-the-top "look at me! look at me!" performances that draw focus in all sorts of directions that don’t necessarily support the overriding plot of the show. Consequently, the directorial style seems unfocused. The contrast between the spotlight-loving main actors and the minor put-upon ones (Christopher Carpenter as Deborah and Audrae Peterson as Pianosaurus) becomes glaring.

Perhaps the show is tons of fun for those who choose to play the drinking game handed out on slips of paper with the programs. Perhaps the show is a delight for people who love campy cross-dressing and fuzzy, ever-growing penises. Perhaps the show is a triumph for those who love overly loud music screeched in an overly loud manner and pine to be sprinkled with liquid as a character pees into the audience. As for me, I most liked the performance of Savannah Jones, as the mostly mute Mime-a-saurus.

"Triassic Parq" is the sort of show that one might say sounds cute, based on its concept. But the concept has not been fleshed out by the authors in a particularly clever way, and Out of Box’s production does little to highlight the meager pleasures of the score or story. A grumpy old curmudgeon might say that it’s silly, stupid fun for silly, stupid people.

Candide, by Leonard Bernstein (music), Hugh Wheeler (book), various lyricists
Pick a Picaresque Risk
Friday, May 11, 2018
As a youth, illegitimate Candide was instructed alongside a serving girl and a noble brother and sister that this is the best of all possible worlds. All he longs for is a simple farm life, but he and the three others, plus their instructor Pangloss, are tossed and tormented by fate, torn asunder and flung to far-flung locations before being reunited (and parted again and reunited again, etc.). Finally, Candide ends the show by sharing his vision of a simple farm life. He’s gone through a lot of adventure and heartache, but ends up basically in the same mindset he started out in.

Alliance’s production of "Candide" emphasizes this lack of growth by having a puppet master (Matt Acheson) control the initial action. He introduces the narrator (Christopher Sieber) and conductor (Robert Spano) in a surprising, theatrical manner, then ascends to the top of the false proscenium to manipulate a tiny puppet theater that projects non-stageable catastrophes to screens on either side of the false proscenium, nicely melding live action with video projections by Sven Ortel. It’s all fine and fun until the screens show static and the puppet master gives up trying to manipulate any of the action. It’s as if the book writer (Hugh Wheeler, after Voltaire) has just thrown up his hands in despair in trying to make some sense of all that has just occurred. It ends the show on somewhat of a "down" note.

The music, of course, soars from start to finish. Leonard Bernstein’s score is tuneful, varied, and lush, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus do it full justice. Danny Pelzig has created musical staging that provides varied stage pictures to accompany the music (even the overture and entr’acte), and Lex Liang’s costumes use lots of stagey accessories to allow quick transformations of the ensemble from one character to another in full view of the audience. Todd Rosenthal’s set design, with its blown-up photos of columns and a central walkway through the orchestra leading to the false proscenium, flares out near the lip of the stage to accommodate chairs seating the ensemble. Ken Yunker’s lighting design emphasizes the action without slighting peripheral movement, and Clay Benning’s sound design keeps voices and orchestra in good balance. Visually and acoustically, the production is impressive.

Performances all emphasize a comic lightness, although director Susan V. Booth seems to have encouraged overly broad bits of comedy that don’t always land. The ensemble have lots to do, and their musical theatre backgrounds and fantastic voices ensure that they make the most of their time onstage. Kathleen Farrar Buccleugh and Bradley Dean particularly impress with their stirring vocals, but there’s not a weak performance among the ensemble members.

The five principals don’t all fare so well. Three come from the world of musical comedy. Christopher Sieber does fine work as Pangloss, but (at least on opening night) stumbles when it comes to narration. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka succeeds at portraying the preening nature of noble Maximilian, but is saddled by multiple cross-dressing moments in the script that he can’t prevent from starting to feel tedious. Janine DiVita, on the other hand, sparkles throughout as the ever-accommodating serving girl Paquette, in a role that could make feminists wince and male chauvinists leer.

The other two principals come from the world of opera. Aaron Blake, as Candide, has an engaging, open-faced, youthful look perfectly suited to the role, and his acting skills make him totally believable as innocent, good-hearted Candide, letting him blend in seamlessly with the musical theatre veterans surrounding him. It’s only when the music starts and his glorious voice emerges that it’s evident his vocal training is at the operatic level. Alexandra Schoeny, on the other hand, clearly belongs to the world of opera from start to finish, with her sturdy frame and lack of subtlety in acting combining with her excellent voice to trumpet "opera singer" to the back of the auditorium. Director Susan V. Booth seems to see her in an Amy Schumer "I Feel Pretty" way, in which her confidence in that she’s a stunning beauty is supposed to convince us that she is. She’s game, but the concept doesn’t really work. The role of Cunegonde is equal parts venal and innocent, making it pretty near impossible to play, and Ms. Schoeny doesn’t accomplish the impossible task of making Cundegonde come vibrantly to life.

There’s one additional cast member who isn’t part of the ensemble, yet isn’t one of the five principals. Terry Burrell plays the Old Lady, who joins Cunegonde’s journey partway through the tale. It’s a role that calls for comic and vocal virtuosity, and Ms. Burrell isn’t quite up to the task on either hand. Sometimes her voice sounds great in duets; sometimes it pales in comparison to the opera-quality voice it’s paired with. She has a long monologue describing her past life, and Ms. Burrell doesn’t have the comic chops to keep it entertaining throughout.

"Candide" has had a troubled history, with its initial Broadway production a flop. A pared-down, reworked revival garnered praise in the 1970’s (with some new lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), but subsequent operatic productions have continued fiddling with the script and score. The Alliance’s production has lots of theatrical elements, but the fact that it’s running in the Atlanta Symphony Hall emphasizes the fact that "Candide" is a supreme musical achievement saddled to a problematic story. Go to it to enjoy the music, but don’t expect the picaresque adventures of Candide and crew to carry much emotional weight.

Leaving Iowa, by Tim Clue and Spike Manton
Monday, May 7, 2018
"Leaving Iowa" tells stories of family car journeys in two major time periods: a family vacation to Hannibal, Missouri at some time in the past and a journey years later of the son finding a spot for his father’s ashes. The play is told in short segments that change from one time period to another. It can be confusing, especially when the son (Daniel Carter Brown) narrates and we hear offstage voices or see unfamiliar characters enter the scene. The main threads of the stories still come through clearly.

The plot consists mostly of a series of encounters that reflect the peripatetic nature of semi-planned road trips. Family dynamics are easily and comically relatable in the earlier time period, with a never-admit-you’re-wrong father, a bickering adolescent son and daughter, and a peacekeeper mother. We see less of the family in the later time period, as the son takes a solo journey with the urn of his father’s ashes. For this later time period, the comedy comes primarily from the interaction of the son with a variety of people he meets along the way, all played by Pat Young and Julianne Whitehead. It’s funny, but not overly memorable.

The technical designers got a workout designing this production. Scott Rousseau’s set is not complex, with Iowa map segments on the back wall and tourist trap photos on wings on either side of the stage, furnishings consisting simply of benches and a steering wheel representing a car and, in the second act, a tiny café table with chair. The set also includes a projection screen, and Mr. Rousseau has created a series of slides that mesh beautifully with the action. Elisabeth Cooper’s lighting design also complements the action, switching back and forth with split-second accuracy between general lighting and pinlights on our narrator, often accompanied by terrific sound effects from sound designer Abra Thurmond. Nancye Hilley’s costumes show amazing variety for Mr. Young and Ms. Whitehead, and excellent props are provided by Cathe Hall Payne and Angie Short.

Barry N. West has directed the show to keep things moving, both in terms of pace and in terms of blocking. Car scenes would seem to be necessarily static, but don’t count on it here. With kids bouncing up and down and everyone leaning in response to turns, there’s plenty of activity throughout.

Acting is good. Darrell Wofford is the quintessential father and Courtney Loner scores mightily as the put-upon mother. Madelayne Shammas and Mr. Brown work together delightfully as children, and mature nicely into their more modern-day scenes. Mr. Young and Ms. Whitehead may not show a dazzling variety of voices and postures as their various characters, but they definitely sell each of their scenes with a deadpan comic sensibility.

"Leaving Iowa" is filled with laughs up until its sentimental ending. A little like a journey with unexpected side trips, it takes its time getting to its final destination and features unanticipated delights along the way. Technical excellence and winning performances make this a delightful production from start to finish.

Lazybed, by Ian Crichton Smith
Absurdist European Comedy
Monday, May 7, 2018
The set doesn’t scream "Scotland;" instead, it suggests the American Southwest, with broad, wide, off-white fabric strips forming the background and simple pottery shapes adorning stage left. Two long sheer curtains just stage left of center seem left over from "Il Etait Une Fois," which played at the same theatre in March. It’s only the plaid blanket on the rolling bed stage right that gives a hint that the play will be Scottish. When the dialogue starts, though, there’s no doubt, under the expert dialect coaching of Kathleen McManus. Scottish brogues trip convincingly off the tongues of all the actors.

Robert Drake’s sound design covers scene changes with music, adding other effects as needed. Harley Gould’s lighting design gets more of a workout. Projections between the upper portion of the two curtains suggest views out a window (although sequencing got muddled in the performance I attended). A blue light on the curtains is used to suggest a change of curtains on the window, which comes across as slightly addled, just like the pretend liquids and construction paper watch worn by one character. Mary Saville’s costumes are successful, with a nice variety of style and color.

Acting is good across the board, although the absurdist premise and scene structure won’t be to everyone’s liking. Nor will the broad performances of Edwin Ashurst as an insurance salesman and a physician (although I found his over-the-top portrayals of two wacky professionals very entertaining). William Webber plays the lead role of Murdo with a lot of direct address to the audience, and he comes across as disturbed, but charming. Karina Balfour is a delight as his would-be girlfriend, and Lisa Blankenship makes a strong presence as a nosy neighbor. Ryan LaMotte is the fourth cast member essaying a single role, that of Death, who in the world of this play is a cheery, chatty, frequent visitor.

The actors playing multiple roles are Mr. Ashurst, Natalie Karp, and Jon Ragan. Ms. Karp shows her range as Murdo’s mother and as the German-accented Immanuel Kant, being as believable with her accents as she was recently in "Il Etait Une Fois." Mr. Ragan plays a pious minister and Murdo’s unsympathizing brother, giving each a nice spin. The scenes with these characters are often set-pieces that seem plopped into the plot to make philosophical points. It’s all very European in character.

Director Kyle Crew has given the blocking a lot of movement and has encouraged his actors to give confident performances. The front-of-house staff encourage imbibing before the performance, and I can see why: the absurdist comedy of the show requires a mindset that this show is going to be laugh-out-loud funny. If you don’t go in expecting that, enjoyment is likely to suffer as you try to figure out what the heck this pseudo-philosophical play is trying to get at. Ultimately, it’s a slightly sentimental, uplifting tale, but the journey there is a weird one and not one tailored to American tastes. But isn’t that the point of Arís, to introduce American audiences to uniquely Celtic theatre pieces?

Night, Mother, by Marsha Norman
Good Night
Saturday, May 5, 2018
Marsha Norman’s "Night, Mother" is a strong play that has held up well over the past 35 years. Given its rural location and reclusive cast, even the use of a dialed landline phone doesn’t seem out of place in the modern world. Only a reference or two to old TV shows dates it at all.

In Staged Right’s production, Spencer Estes’ set has the worn look of a residence that has been lived in for years with few updates. Stage left we have a small eat-in kitchen; stage right we have a sitting room. Up center we have a hall opening with a bedroom door. The scenic painting and construction have some rough edges, but the set works well in Brian Jones’ blocking. Janet Conant’s extensive props give the impression of an actual residence, and the linoleum tiles on the floor of the playing space tie in with the overall look.

Lighting and sound get little workout in this play. Other than fade up and down of the lights, few special effects of any kind are called for. Backstage sound does, however, give a nice indication of attic access, not to mention the final, long-anticipated gunshot.

Brian Jones has directed the play with a wonderful variety of levels of emotion. While Linda Place (as the mother) and Abra Thurmond (as the daughter) may not speak every line with complete fluidity and perfect intonation, and while name mix-ups of the offstage characters seem to pop up every now and then, the overall flow and variety of these performances impresses mightily. It doesn’t matter that the two actresses seem to be much of the same age in actuality; in performance, the mother-daughter dynamic is clear and vibrant and heart-breaking.

"Night, Mother" continues the string of Staged Right productions that stray off the well-trod path of typical community theatre fare to present challenging, worthwhile works in a peripatetic production environment that is challenging, to say the least. The emotional truth of "Night, Mother" packs a wallop that remains undiminished decades after its initial production. It’s well worth a trip to Lilburn and 90 minutes on hard metal folding chairs to experience.

The Wedding Singer, by Chad Beguelin (book and lyrics), Matthew Sklar (music), Tim Herlihy (book)
Wedding Zing
Monday, April 30, 2018
"The Wedding Singer" marries Adam Sandler’s off-beat brand of humor and ditties to a musical score by Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar. The result is light-hearted, bouncy entertainment.

In Act3’s production, a unit set is used in the newly reconfigured space (with the stage at the far end of the black box space). The upstage wall represents a giant boom box flanked by lists of the names of popular 80’s bands and pop performers. The central tape deck of the boom box folds down to represent a bed (which is firm enough to also function as a platform). Stage left there’s a balcony and, tucked into the corner of the audience aisle, a bar that carries on the 80’s theme with a VCR graphic. Lettering is fairly crude on the boom box, but otherwise Will Brooks’ set design suits the production very well.

Costumes, designed by Ali Olhausen, carry on the 80’s theme. There’s a beautiful wedding gown for Karlen Wilson in the initial wedding scene and a less wonderful one for heroine Julia (played by Emma Banze) later in the show, but otherwise the outfits tend toward the trendy and delightful. Hairstyles also suggest the 80’s, without becoming laughable stereotypes. Mary Sorrel’s props also tend to suggest the 80’s.

Jody Woodruff’s choreography adds to the bright, energetic feel of the show. There’s a lot of movement, and the ensemble sells every moment of it. Taylor Sorrel’s lighting design emphasizes the movement, highlighting different sections of the stage as action transitions from one spot to another. Gamble’s sound design keeps voices and backing tracks in balance. All the technical elements support the boundless enthusiasm shown by the cast.

Acting is good across the board. Sophia Decker is obviously too young to play grandmother Rosie, and Jesse McWhorter doesn’t have the vocal chops as Glen Guglia to equal the rest of the major players, but they carry their own in the show with full commitment to their roles. Kristin Storla has a small part in the proceedings as Linda, but triumphs in her songs and moments (and also does fine work as fight choreographer). Evan McLean takes on the title role with fine acting, guitar-playing, and singing skills, easily roping in the audience to be on his side in his search for true love. Dylan Parker Singletary is a consistent delight as sidekick Sammy, while rubber-limbed Kiernan Matts goes overboard with fey poses and mannerisms as bandmate George. Ms. Banze brings sweetness to our heroine Julia, contrasting with Janah Merlin’s more brash personality as her friend Holly, and both sell their songs with flair. The ensemble flesh out the show with deft characterizations, sparked by some fine dancing by Ms. Wilson and Richard Puscas and particularly strong vocals from Skyler Brown.

Director Michael Rostek and music director John-Michael d’Haviland have done a first-rate job in whipping their cast into shape and providing a fluid, tuneful journey from start to finish. "The Wedding Singer" may not have the dramatic heft of "Hamlet," but it’s guaranteed to affix a grin to the face of every audience member. Act3 continues on in its tradition of presenting well-crafted productions of recent musicals.

Damn Yankees, by Jerry Ross, Richard Adler, George Abbott, and Douglas Wallop
Washington Senators Win the Pennant!
Monday, April 30, 2018
"Damn Yankees," the tuneful musical about the devil and a baseball player, always entertains. Theatre Buford’s production is no exception, although its quality is no match for the Gypsy Theatre productions that previously graced the stage of the Sylvia Beard Theater in Buford.

Karl Dickey’s set design uses a bleacher-like set-up as the background for the entire show, complete with painted advertisements on the walls and a row of stadium-like lights up top, with a big "W" logo for the Washington Senators dominating the upmost playing level. A stairway center and doorways on either side of it allow the stage to represent additional settings, as indicated by rolling flats that represent the walls of the Boyd living room on one side and lockers of the Senators on the other side. It’s visually busy and generally looks cluttered.

Ben Rawson’s lighting design delineates the different playing spaces adequately for group scenes, but has a tendency to over-use spotlights that don’t quite illuminate the faces of individuals, especially in smaller musical moments. John Lafontaine’s sound design has problems too, primarily in that it amplifies the sour string and brass notes emanating from Nick Silvestri’s six-piece band. The balance between band and voices is pretty good, but of the soloists only Erin Burnett as Meg Boyd comes across as being in fine voice throughout. I have seen many of the other cast members in previous productions in which their voices soared, but here their solo voices occasionally seem strained. Group numbers are more impressive. It’s impossible for me to tell if the sound design could have improved the sound of solo voices, if Mr. Silvestri fell down a bit on his job, or if people were cast in roles whose vocal requirements don’t match their strengths.

Costumes, designed by Derrick Vanmeter, and choreography, by Kari Twyman, are far more impressive and delightful than the other technical elements. Cody Russell’s props are fine too. Director Julie Skrzypek keeps the action moving briskly and seems to have encouraged her actors to have fun in their roles, as evidenced by the frequent ad libs and comic moments cast members seem to have come up with on their own.

This sense of fun harms the story of "Damn Yankees" in one specific way. Middle-aged couple Joe Boyd (Brandon Partrick) and his wife Meg (Ms. Burnett) are at the heart of the story, parting at the start and reuniting at the end. Both roles are cast far too young, and the two actors are double-cast as the decrepitly aged Mr. and Mrs. Welch, whose roles are played strictly for laughs. The poignancy of the Boyd’s relationship evaporates when steeped in the buffoonish clowning of Mr. Partrick and Ms. Burnett in their secondary roles.

The other major roles are nicely played by a trio of talented actors. Blake Burgess makes for a buff, sincere Joe Hardy. Asia Howard adds sizzle and depth as temptress Lola, impressing with her dancing as well as her acting. Chris Mayers plays Mephistopholean Mr. Applegate with wry humor, great timing, and terrific delivery. At scene ends, his finger snaps to extinguish the lights never fail to bring a smile. His descent into Hell at the end of the show is nicely staged too.

Supporting players Maggie Birgel, as an investigative sports reporter, and Stuart Schleuse, as the ball team manager, play their roles believably, with Ms. Birgel’s energy coming across the footlights undimmed. The ensemble also impress. Margaret Holtkamp and Leah Keelan have small recurring roles as Doris Miller and Sister, but also join Jaymyria Etienne in populating the female ensemble parts. The other male parts, notably the baseball team, are filled by the male ensemble (sturdy Hayden Rowe, boyish Elliot Folds, athletic Sterling Baker-McClary, spunky Anthony Campbell, sweet-voiced Corey Bryant, and fun-loving Robert Hindsman). Everyone is given a chance to shine, with several of the ensemble portraying children near the start of act two.

Theatre Buford’s production of "Damn Yankees" seems to aim for brash enjoyment, sometimes as much for the actors as for the audience. It seems to be of two minds -- telling the tender story at its center and layering on comedy with little relation to the main story. As such, it doesn’t come across as a cohesive evening of entertainment. There are lots of things to like about this production, but too many deficiencies to make it a sterling example of what theatre in Buford can be.

Born Yesterday, by Garson Kanin
...and Still Pertinent Today
Monday, April 30, 2018
Garson Kanin’s "Born Yesterday" was written just after World War II, but its subject matter of an unscrupulous capitalist attempting to buy government support for his business practices still rings true. The cohabitation of the domineering capitalist junk magnate (played by Ashton Murphy-Brown) and his live-in chorine girlfriend (played by Cathy Seith) may have struck audiences of the time as the most scandalous feature of the plot, but nowadays his brow-beating treatment of her as his near-possession raises one’s hackles more. The play still resonates. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

New Dawn’s production features a lovely set designed and painted by director Rick Thompson. Faux marble and a U.S. Capital painting behind the stage left window immediately give the feel of an upscale Washington, D.C. hotel room. Set dressing and furnishings are elegant enough without being over-the-top. Costumes reinforce the upscale look, with Ms. Seith and Launa Kowalski, as a senator’s wife, wearing elegant fashions made of luxurious fabrics. The uniforms worn by hotel staff (the ever-engaging Ciarra Logan, the sprightly Marvin Gibson, the cheery Darci Wells, and the dependable Chuck Mason) also give the impression of a production that has taken its visual aspect seriously.

Lighting design is not complicated, with a need for general lighting throughout, plus dimming of lights called for a couple of times. Unfortunately, at the performance I attended, lights dimmed a couple of times when no lighting effect was called for. Sound design doesn’t call for much more than a doorbell ringing, and sound operation was smooth at the performance I attended.

Acting is good throughout, with standout performances by Mr. Murphy-Brown, Ms. Seith, Ms. Kowalski, and Craig Coleman as the junk magnate’s cousin/flunky. David Allen plays a tutor for Billie Dawn (Ms. Seith’s character), and their age difference works against the romantic relationship that develops. Mike Stevens ably plays an embittered, alcholic lawyer, while Charles Hannum uses his resonant voice to advantage as an oddly chipper senator.

Director Rick Thompson has gotten splendid performances out of his two leads and has blocked the show to keep movement fluid and visible. Sparkling turns by some of the bit players add dash to the proceedings, adding comedy to a script that contains equal amounts of bite and heart. "Born Yesterday" may not have been written yesterday, but New Dawn’s production shows it as being as fresh as today’s news.

Noises Off, by Michael Frayn
Nothing’s On
Monday, April 30, 2018
The set is serviceable, consisting of a two-story upstage unit with three doors and two single-level scene wagons left and right with two doors each. For the door-slamming farce "Noises Off" (which shows us three different views of the first act of touring farce "Nothing’s On"), these doors are all needed. The play also requires the scenery to revolve during the two act breaks, and the set is constructed to allow that. Set decoration with afro-centric design underscores the fact that the cast members are predominantly black.

References to locations in England and to Inland Revenue have been converted to Georgia/IRS references in Orange Box Theater’s production, but English accents are still in use by Cheveyo Madu Abayomi, playing the director of the farce "Nothing’s On," and by Emily Peiffer as the star of "Nothing’s On" (but only when playing her character of Mrs. Clackett; not when speaking as the actress Dotty Otley). Director Tiffany Roberts has let the other actors speak with American accents. This inconsistency reinforces the impression that the production has not quite jelled.

Michael Frayn’s script is a sure-fire laugh-fest as it transitions to backstage shenanigans in act two and onstage disasters in act three. Act one, however, sets up the situation with an oft-interrupted dress rehearsal of "Nothing’s On" that moves a little slowly in Orange Box’s production. For those who have never seen "Noises Off" before, this might not be much of a problem (although several audience members left after act two in the three-hour performance I attended). For those of us who have seen excellent productions of "Noises Off," the lack of speed and of spot-on characterization starts the show stumbling over a hurdle that the faster, more fluid remaining acts can’t overcome.

Mr. Aboyomi’s characterization is forceful and energetic, but comes across as more stagey than the characters who are supposed to be professional actors. Miles Triplett, as actor Gary Lejeune, doesn’t have a natural way of trailing off as the script requires, diminishing any difference between Gary the actor and Roger, the character he’s playing. The engaging Christiana Renee similarly shows little distinction between Vicki, the character of Roger’s girlfriend she’s playing, and Brooke Ashton, the ditzy actress. Eddie Oliver doesn’t show much gravitas as aged, alcoholic actor Selsdon Mowbray, and Jeremy Crawford shows us handsome leading man Phillip more than sensitive actor Frederick Fellowes. It doesn’t help that romantic entanglements among the actors, as required in the script, aren’t reflected in any onstage chemistry.

Joia Carter, as actress Belinda Blair, may not show a huge difference when acting in the role of Flavia in "Nothing’s On," but her delivery throughout is a delight. She adds sparkle to the proceedings with her attempts to keep the collapsing production of "Nothing’s On" from imploding completely. Jeremy Skidmore doesn’t make much of an impression in act one, as sleep-deprived jack-of-all-trades Tim Allgood, but he sparks the play to life in act two with his opening scene, then continues to impress with his attempts to fill in for missing actors in the rest of the show. Yasmein Ziyad, playing stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor, has less fill-in work, but carries on with conviction throughout. Ms. Peiffer may not have the age her role as star Dotty Otley would suggest, but she has as much comedic ability as anyone onstage.

Director Tiffany Roberts has added some nice comic bits in act two and has staged the show so blocking provides relatively good sightlines (although audience seating of multiple rows on the same level can result in audience member’s heads obstructing some views). Acts two and three work well, but the slow pace of act one and the lack of distinction between onstage and backstage personas prove a fatal flaw in Orange Box Theater’s production. Michael Frayn’s script is largely foolproof, but this production emphasizes that pace and characterization are needed to turn a pleasantly slapstick comedy into a full-fledged, laughing-out-loud triumph of a farce.

The Flower Room, by Daryl Lisa Fazio
Gender-Fluid Porn
Sunday, April 22, 2018
At least in previews, "The Flower Room" starts with a supertitle announcing "Today," followed by a scene that seems melodramatic, with an overwrought woman trying to prevent the entry of a young black man into her house. It becomes obvious that she is (or was) a professor and that he is a student, but the reason for the heightened emotions is unclear. The supertitle would lead us to believe that we will see flashbacks explaining the situation. Wrong. The scenes play out sequentially, with the situation clarified in the next scene, but with new complications following that bring us into the warm, sticky waters of gender fluidity and repressed sexuality.

Professor Ingrid Alvin (Stacy Melich) has quit her job after the whiff of scandal. Her brother Anthony (Matthew Busch) tips her off to a website that peddles feminist porn with academic, sociological underpinnings. Ingrid recruits a student (Joshua Quinn) and an omnisexual Barnes & Noble employee (Eliana Marianes) as subjects to interview about their sexual encounters to add spice to her "narratives."

Her first attempt at a narrative is dry as dust, comically acted out and lip-synced by Ms. Marianes and Mr. Quinn in vaguely oriental costumes as Ingrid narrates. The encounter takes place in a "flower room," a Mosuo Chinese custom of providing a young woman with a bedroom containing an outside door to allow the entry and departure of nighttime male guests. We don’t get full narratives of the spicier fare, but are told it’s quite popular with the web crowd. Trick it out with a sociological background, but porn is still porn.

Daryl Lisa Fazio’s play is populated by two bisexual individuals and two sexually confused individuals who find satisfaction by the end of the show. It’s a bit schematic, and seems calculated to titillate audiences with a variety of possible couplings. It doesn’t always ring true, particularly in the meeting of toned student Miles and schlubby brother Anthony, when each praises the other’s physique, but it all fits in with the sex-drenched atmosphere of the comedy.

Action takes place on a set designed by Kristina White. Downstage we have the entry, living room, and tiny kitchen of Ingrid’s house, all done in the clean lines of prairie craftsman style, with a wonderful collection of props by Suzanne Cooper Morris. Upstage, we have the "flower room," a bedroom decorated in faux wallpaper with massive blooms. Draped French doors to the outside are bafflingly unused, although Mary Parker’s lighting scheme nicely backlights them and otherwise illuminates the action as needed. Samantha P. McDaniel’s modern day costumes clothe (and unclothe) the actors as needed, with thrown-together Mosuo garb for the lip-synched narrative scene.

Melissa Foulger has directed the show with lots of impassioned, overlapping dialogue and clunky stage business (especially making ice cream sundaes). Courtney Greever-Fries’ sound design doesn’t help, with cat and phone ring sounds coming obviously from a backstage area unrelated to the position from which the sound supposedly is coming. Performances vary in quality. Ms. Marianes is always a delight onstage, and Mr. Busch acquits himself well. Mr. Quinn seems a bit callow as an actor, and Ms. Melich has a somewhat grating quality in her over-the-top behavior that competes with the script’s requirement that she be sexually alluring (if unconsciously so).

"The Flower Room" is one of those plays designed to exploit current social trends (gender fluidity, in this case), gussying it up with some faux-scientific chatter and ethnocultural references to give it some supposed dramatic heft. It’s entertainment for those who enjoy partial nudity (male backside; female breasts) and titteringly suggestive situations. Maybe it’s your cup of steamy, mouth-watering tea, but it isn’t everyone’s.

The Jew Catcher, by David L. Fisher
Jewish People
Sunday, April 22, 2018
David L. Fisher’s "The Jew Catcher" has a powerful, compelling story to tell. It doesn’t start promisingly, however; the first scene features a strong seafood smell and has the feel of an educational lecture concerning WWII Germany, marred by the shambling performance of Hannah Hyde as a waitress with the posture, attitude, and vocabulary of the present day in a scene supposedly taking place in 1961. The first scene ends with a twist that explains that the informal meeting we just viewed was not what it seemed, and things only get better from there.

The action takes place on a set designed by Tanya Moore and James Beck. The tiny Onion Man stage doesn’t suit itself to realistic backgrounds for the many locations the script calls for or to lush, realistic furniture for these locations. Instead, we get a collection of simple pieces that are rearranged to suggest different places and a wall covering that depicts a Los Angeles scene initially, but is stripped away as scenes go by to reveal an image more in line with the subject matter of the play.

Sound and lighting, by James Beck and director Tanya Caldwell, work in tandem to set scenes. Instrumental music covering the scene changes underlines the tone of the play, and lighting shifts to illuminate the section of stage in use or the area in front of the stage, where a fair amount of action takes place. It’s all very fluid and in keeping with the steady pace of the revelations that build and build to the play’s sobering conclusion.

Costumes work well enough for the 1960s time period, with even better costumes for flashbacks to WWII Germany. Props are a mixed bag, with vintage newspapers and magazines sharing the stage with modern-day Coke cans. It’s not the physical production that most impresses (although the wall covering is a pretty nifty design choice); it’s the story itself.

Tanya Caldwell has gotten wonderful performances out of the actors in the most dramatic moments of the play. Phyllis Giller, as a Holocaust survivor, has a couple of compelling scenes, and Robert Stevens Wayne impresses throughout, culminating in a scene of mea culpa that can bring tears to the eyes of the audience, not just to his. Hannah Hyde, so unimpressive as the waitress, shines as WWII wife Golda, in a transcendent performance that is pure and sweet and heartbreaking.

The more mundane sections of the script are accompanied by competent, but less compelling performances. Lory Cox is pretty much wasted in the small role of a wife. Lee Buechele and Alex Parkinson portray two Jewish elders with divergent views, with Mr. Parkinson’s intensity impressive in his darker moments. Sofia Palmero and Joseph Edward Johnson seem a bit young for their roles, but handle the love interest that complicates their mutual investigation into the past. All the performances feed into the driving force that leads the play to its sobering conclusion.

There seem to be a couple of loose ends in the story. A shooting and name are mentioned at the time Lindental was imprisoned near the end of WWII, but the mentions don’t seem to go anywhere. The condition of "human pets" -- Jewish prisoners who were kept alive and on hand in concentration camps due to special skills, like piano tuning -- comes into the plot a couple of times, but not in a way that consciously ties the references together. But the main thrust of the story comes through with depth and clarity, bringing into question just who in the play is innocent of being a "Jew catcher" (one who informed on secreted Jews to the Gestapo). Are cowardice and complicity one and the same thing? Mr. Fisher’s play gets us to question that equivalence.

Freaky Friday, by Bridget Carpenter (book) and Tom Kitt & Brian Yorkey (songs)
Geeky Guy Day
Wednesday, April 11, 2018
The latest version of "Freaky Friday" (soon to be a TV movie) purports to be an updated version to connect to today’s youth. Its plot certainly doesn’t seem much updated, with an old-fashioned treasure hunt right at the center of the story, even though cellphones are used to transmit clues. It’s the rock music score that updates it, but in a way that seems aimed to be wholesome and palatable for the whole family. The Disney touch is definitely there.

For Horizon’s production, Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay have created one of their monumental sets, backed by the suggestion of a Chicago skyline and a huge, non-operational clock. A revolving section up center contains kitchen items on one side that, when augmented by a trio of rolling counters arranged in a "V," portrays a kitchen. When the section revolves, other locations are indicated. The counters are also rearranged to portray various other places. A pull-out stairway up right allows access to a second level of locations (as does a fixed, steep stair ladder stage left). Kathryn Muse’s extensive props help populate these varied locations.

Cole Spivia’s costumes set the time period as today, while George Deavours’ wigs underline the fact that this is a theatrical production, not real life. André Allen’s lighting design illuminates portions of the stage as needed and provides special effects to accompany the magical elements of the plot. Alan Kirkland’s sound design keeps Alli Lingenfelter’s four-piece band in balance with the powerful vocals. It all combines to create a sprightly, swift-moving show.

Heidi Cline McKerley keeps the pace up, both as director and as co-choreographer with her husband Jeff. She has cast the show with an Ellie (Abby Holland) who looks older than a teen and a Katherine (Jennifer Alice Acker) who doesn’t look old enough to be her mother. Rather than working as a detriment in the show, though, this casting works wonderfully well to accommodate the body-switching that forms the basis of the story. Ms. Holland’s powerhouse voice works well both as a teen and as a more mature woman, while Ms. Acker’s body language as an adult becomes delightfully free and slouchy as a teen.

Supporting players in the cast also impress. Christian Magby uses his good looks and marvelous voice to full effect as a teen idol, and Randi Garza makes near-instantaneous transitions in look and demeanor between her two characters. Brittani Minnieweather also creates two distinct and distinctly memorable characters. Jeff McKerly and Jill Hames seem underused, even though they each take on five separate roles. Juan Carlos Unzueta takes on three, and does his usual good work in all of them.

The only cast member putting in a disappointing performance is Frank Faucette, as Katherine’s fiancé. His strong, impassive presence comes across as a human buzzkill, and it’s hard to root for the marriage that provides the ending of the show. His voice sometimes impresses and sometimes disappoints.

Overall, "Freaky Friday" makes for an enjoyable evening of entertainment showcasing some of Atlanta’s finest musical comedy talent. It’s not high art, but the performances of Ms. Holland and Ms. Acker will reverberate in memory long after the show is over. It’s geeky, freaky fun.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, by William Shakespeare
An Extended Labor
Monday, April 2, 2018
The action of "Love’s Labour’s Lost" languishes leisurely as the show proceeds, running about three hours in preview (including intermission) in the Shakespeare Tavern’s current production. That’s not to say it’s a tedious experience that must be endured, but the many pleasures present pre-intermission fade gradually after intermission. Once the plot has been set up and we’re invested in the romances between four young men and four young ladies, interruptions by minor characters just postpone the ultimate resolution. That it’s a bittersweet resolution leaves a taste of melancholy incompleteness.

Director Jaclyn Hoffman has pulled out all the stops in adding comic lazzi to the script. The sublime silliness carries the early scenes of the play, adding verve and giggle-inducing slapstick turns at every turn. Anné Carole Butler’s costumes get a workout in the show, ranging from faux Muscovite get-ups to Anthony Rodriguez’s Spanish cavalier outfit, in addition to the expected Elizabethan garb. Mary Ruth Ralston’s lighting is also effective, illuminating hanging miniature lights for the final scene for a sweetly melancholy effect.

Performances are good all around. Chris Hecke excels in audience interaction as Berowne, and Kelly Criss’ Rosaline equals him in tongue-in-cheek charm. Anthony Rodriguez and Adam King bring tons of energy to the roles of a Spanish don and his servant, and Mary Ruth Ralston and Vinnie Mascola elicit smiles in their flirting interaction as a serious-minded schoolmaster and curate. Seun Soyemi and Sarah Newby Halicks lead the male and female romantic contingents, in which Cory Phelps, J.L. Reed, and Mr. Hecke play the persistent wooers and Tatyana Arrington, Jasmine Ellis, and Ms. Criss play the not-easily-swayed wooed. Ms. Halicks isn’t always easy to understand with her underpowered projection, but otherwise the lovers impress with their jump-in-with-both-feet commitment to the comic demands of their roles.

In minor roles, Matt Nitchie brings faux-elegant insouciance to his role, while Drew Reeves plays his role of Dull as deadpan as possible. Additional color is provided by Kirstin Calvert, as a well-loved country wench; Nicholas Faircloth, as a peasant; and Najah Ali, as an attendant.

"Love’s Labour’s Lost" extends its denouement with a procession of worthies from ancient history, in a pageant devised by the schoolmaster. While there’s some enjoyable silliness in the impersonations of these ancient heroes (particularly in a juvenile Hercules strangling a puppet snake), the pageant comes across as extraneous filler making fun of a type of classical education that has faded in modern society. Perhaps some streamlining has occurred following previews. In any case, the Shakespeare Tavern’s production of "Love’s Labour’s Lost" gooses up Shakespeare’s text with a never-ceasing variety of juvenile jokes and interpolations to make the play just about as enjoyable as it can be for a general audience.

Il Etait Une Fois, by Carolyn Cook
Thrice Upon a Time
Sunday, March 25, 2018
"Il Etait Une Fois," while depicting historical French female writers from the time of King Louis XIV, primarily splices together versions of three well-known fairytales ("Hansel and Gretel," "Jack and the Beanstalk," and "Cinderella") tinged with a proto-feminist viewpoint. It’s all done with great theatricality, using the three cast members to impersonate all the characters in the tales. The joy of the telling permeates the piece, with a bit of poignancy at the end, as Madame de St.-Aignan (Natalie Karp) heads off to exile due to the king’s displeasure, leaving an old friend (Eliana Marianes as Madame D’Aulnoy) and a new one (Jennifer Schottstaedt as Elisabeth Bernard) to carry on her literary salon.

While Barrett Doyle’s scenic design and/or Bennett Walton’s set construction has a bit of a slapdash quality about it, with a lot of crudely draped fabric panels over architectural elements featuring modern hardware, Jennifer Schottstaedt’s costume design is colorful and delightful and is complemented by Josh Marsh’s excellent craft design. Alex Riviere’s lighting design illuminates the action nicely without a lot of superfluous effects, and Ed Thrower’s sound design does all it needs to do to enhance the production.

The performances are what really sell the show. Ms. Karp combines sharp humor and a bit of gravitas to characterize a woman whose life of spinning semi-subversive tales in the court of the king will soon be coming to an end. Ms. Schottstaedt captures the spirit of a shy woman, faced with the choice of an arranged marriage or the convent, whose imagination blooms as the women devise a fairytale. Eliana Marianes adds a flavor of silliness and unbridled joy that sparks the proceedings.

Carolyn Cook has adapted an actual French fairytale by Countess Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, "Finette Cendron," with the collaboration of her actresses and has staged it to create an engaging piece of theatre for francophones of all ages. Strike that. Since English supertitles are displayed throughout, for general American audiences of all ages.

Visitors, by Barney Norris
Sunday, March 25, 2018
Barney Norris’ "Visitors" is a very English play, with lots of British terms and references, although in Jeff LeCraw’s dialect coaching, the speech patterns sounded fairly Irish to my ears. At least the accents are pretty consistent and convincing. There’s always the danger in staging British plays that failed attempts at an accent can harm a production.

Staged Right’s production takes place on a postage-stamp sized set not much larger than 12’ x 15’, but it’s well-appointed. Katy Clarke’s set design features a lovely faux stacked stone fireplace and back wall, with two armchairs and a sofa providing seating. Small tables and a bookcase complete the furnishing, with the rug on the floor echoing the green and deep rose tones of the chairs and sofa. On initial examination, the books and photographs and kerosene lamp suggest an earlier time period, but the play is set in the modern day, just in a farmhouse that has been held in the Wakeling family for generations. Lisa Croteau’s costumes and Mary Susan Moore’s props reflect the modern-day setting.

The lighting design by Jim Nelson doesn’t enhance the set. Its rather harsh illumination emphasizes the artificiality of the set painting, which looks delightfully real under dimmer lights. At least at the performance I attended, one scene of rumination started under dim light that bafflingly underwent a variety of color changes that eventually turned to the general illumination used for most of the play. A spotlight is used to effect for a brief dance segment, although Brian Jones’ sound design with a pop song blaring doesn’t mesh with his staging of the initial dancing character wearing earphones, when another character joins in the singing and dancing as if the music is equally audible to her.

Otherwise, Mr. Jones’ direction is excellent, if a bit static in blocking (understandable in a tiny space, with two elderly characters most comfortable in a sitting position). The emotions in this drama come through clearly, with tears welling in most of the cast members’ eyes in the most emotional moments. The only thing I could wish is that the earlier hints of dementia in Edie (Betty Mitchell) were accompanied by a bit of a glaze in her eyes, as we see in her later ramblings.

"Visitors" is a generally quiet play, more of a mood piece than a rollicking adventure. We see a caregiver coming into a house, interactions between the elderly couple and their semi-estranged son, and a final departure to assisted care. Betty Mitchell does a nice job with Edie, and Gene Paulsson is totally convincing as her devoted farmer husband. Amanda Peclat-Began adds a perky note as the caregiver, and Nick Elliot comes across beautifully as a glad-handing sales manager whose unresolved issues with his parents supply much of the drama of the piece.

"Visitors" has a somber sincerity that comes across clearly in Staged Right’s production. It’s a well-directed and well-acted piece, but its slow, steady pace makes for an audience challenge on the unyielding seating surfaces of folding metal chairs. Here’s hoping that Staged Right’s search for a permanent home comes to fruition, where its interesting roster of both little-known and classic plays can be presented in an environment more comfortable for actors and audience alike.

Boys Next Door at Act1 Theater, by
Group Home
Monday, March 19, 2018
Tom Griffin’s "The Boys Next Door" concerns a group of four men with mental challenges who share a group home under the supervision of Jack Palmer (played by Adam Darby). Norman Bulanski (Jeremy Choate) works at a donut shop; Arnold (James Thompson) has odd obsessions; Lucien (Chris Voss) has the intellect of a child; Barry (Loren Collins) thinks he’s a golf professional. The play doesn’t have much of a through-story; particularly in the first act we’re presented with a series of humorous situations that invite the audience to laugh at the foibles of the men. It can be a bit uncomfortable to hear audience members laugh at behavior over which the characters have no control.

In the second act, the tone turns more serious. A few threads culminate in dramatic fashion, and we see more of the romance between Norman and his equally challenged and quirky girlfriend, Sheila (Carla Seldon). The second act also introduces us to Barry’s abusive father, Mr. Klemper (Brian Bascle). Smaller roles are played by Joe Baxter and Shannon Kraiger. All give fine performances, under the direction of Jim Dailey.

Bob Cookson’s set design covers the entire main stage with the interior of the group home. Stage left we have a small kitchen with island and a hallway to other rooms; upstage we have the bathroom door; stage right we have a similar door that leads from the apartment. There’s a chair and sofa and a single painting on the wall. It’s a very workable set, but a bit overwhelming. Several scenes take place in other locations, most of which are based on stage extensions left and right, but Murray Mann’s lighting usually bleeds onto the apartment set and doesn’t always match the playing area of the scene.

Costumes, by Suzanne Thornett and Anne Voller, don’t get much of a workout, but work well, featuring custom embroidery by Jessica Wardrup. Props by Melody Cookson and Emily Voller are fine, if a little light on the Wheaties, and Murray Mann’s sound design does what it needs to.

Mr. Dailey’s direction is best in his assistance in getting each of the actors to create a distinct, consistent character. This direction results in a production in which the relationships among the characters reinforce these characterizations. By the end of the evening, the audience feels they have truly come to know these four special men and their burned-out supervisor. With sterling performances all around, "The Boys Next Door" succeeds in creating a satisfying theatrical experience.

The Flick, by Annie Baker
Monday, March 19, 2018
You’ve been taken to a movie you’re not much interested in seeing, are bored by it, but are forced to stay and watch it through to the end of the credits. Then you stay and watch the staff clean up the theatre -- for nearly three hours. Welcome to Out of Box Theatre’s production of Annie Baker’s "The Flick."

The action supposedly takes place in an outmoded movie theatre in Worcester, Massachusetts, although "Worcester" is mispronounced horribly in this production. The set itself is a terrific representation of the back three rows of a small movie theatre, although the theater seats from Wally Hinds are in better condition than might be expected in a run-down place. The set design by Matthew Busch and Carolyn Choe indicates some grime and makes fine use of the space, with one door stage right and a plexiglass window up center. Lots of 35MM projection equipment appears as props.

Bradley Rudy’s lighting design is featured right from the start, when subtly changing lights play over the movie theater seats, simulating the reflections from a movie screen. During this extended sequence, we hear movie soundtrack music playing in Matthew Busch’s sound design. It’s a long sequence with nothing happening except for the subtly changing lights, and it’s not the only time this occurs in the show. This opening sequence is a warning to the audience that the show is going to move s-l-o-w-l-y.

Annie Baker’s writing style aims for super-realism, with lots of "likes" and "ums" and unfinished sentences in the dialogue of the millennials who make up the cast. The primary characters are Sam (Ben Barlow), a sweetly burly employee who has twice the seniority of projectionist Rose (Julia Weeks), and new trainee Avery (Jacobi Hollingshed). Jeffrey Allen Sneed takes on a couple of minor roles, first as a snoozing patron and then as a replacement trainee. All do terrific work, although the show takes a l-o-n-g time to catch fire.

Matthew Busch has brought Ms. Baker’s work to life, but watching people play six degrees of separation or list favorite movies can be pretty lifeless in a theatrical sense. Watching people sweep and mop also lacks dramatic tension (unless you have OCD and obsess about when those pieces of popcorn under the first row chairs are going to be swept up). Attending "The Flick" has its rewards, but it requires a great deal of patience. There are wonderful, heartfelt performances in Out of Box’s production, but this show is definitely not for everyone. There’s more to admire than to actually enjoy.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Not Absolute Zero
Monday, March 19, 2018
Ray Bradbury’s theatrical adaptation of "Fahrenheit 451" is not as theatrical as it might be. Much of the action is described, rather than seen, and a couple of scenes with interactive TV interchanges consist of people sitting and viewing an unseen screen and responding to voiceover prompts. A production could be much more exciting with a fully realized television wall and with projections of TV/screen versions of the described action, but that would require technical capabilities beyond the means of community theatre and would turn the production into more of a multimedia event than a play.

Live Arts Theatre’s production of "Fahrenheit 451" does well on the technical level. The extensive sound design by Scott Piehler provides all the varied sounds and voices needed to convey the offstage events. The whole would benefit from an original musical score to cover scene transitions with atmospheric music, but that would once again tilt the production towards a multimedia event. Cal Jones’ lighting design is atmospheric, highlighting the action that occurs in a primarily dark, menacing space. Green light effects for the offstage robotic dog are particularly effective. Mere Jones’ set design is spare, with just a bunk and bookshelves on one side and a set of five cubes on the other that can function as a poker table or, when rearranged, as a couch. Lots of books provide the bulk of the props.

Costumes are impressive. Andrea Hermitt has created believable future fireman outfits, and her fashions for Alison Lee Brady as Mildred are stunning in style and variety, with Ms. Brady’s hairstyles enhancing the various looks. Costumes for the outliers of this future dystopian society also work very well.

Mere Jones, assisted by Scott Piehler, has directed the show to keep the action flowing and to drive the dark play to its semi-hopeful conclusion, but the direction can’t overcome the limits of the script and the cast. This is the sort of show that almost demands perfection in all elements, and community theatre can’t supply that. André Eaton gives a stunning performance as Fire Chief Beatty, and Karina Balfour makes Clarisse an intriguing, empathetic figure, but when others deliver lines with flat expression or lose track of them altogether, the play suffers. Peggy Marx does a nice job in both her roles (Mrs. Hudson and Aristotle) and Evan Weisman is nicely cast as an aged professor, but the main role of Guy Montag is filled by Donté Jenkins, who has neither the diction nor the acting chops to carry off the role. He’s not bad; it’s just another instance of pure professionalism needed in every aspect of the production that just isn’t there.

"Fahrenheit 451" is an impressive effort by Live Arts Theatre, but not an impressive achievement. The technical and directorial sides of the production are above average, and Mr. Eaton’s performance and Ms. Hermitt’s costumes are truly memorable, as is the overall atmosphere of the play, but the weaker elements in the production prove a fatal flaw. Mr. Bradbury hasn’t done his well-known story a great favor in dramatizing it, and Live Arts’ production shows up the deficiencies of this theatrical adaptation.

Mamma Mia!, by Catherine Johnson (book) and Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Stig Anderson (songs)
Great Big Stuff
Monday, March 12, 2018
It’s loud. So loud that when an actor’s body microphone isn’t turned on in time, their words are totally inaudible. So loud that when an actor’s body microphone isn’t turned off in time, their stray cough can cover up someone else’s line. Sound designer Rob Brooksher hasn’t amped the sound levels up to eardrum-bursting levels, but certainly up to body-thumping level.

It’s busy. Ricardo Aponte’s choreography is full of motion to the point of appearing frenzied. Justin Anderson’s blocking fills the stage with ensemble activity that draws the eye in all sorts of directions. Kevin Frazier’s lighting design seems to delight in flashing brilliant colors across the set just to increase the sense of busy visual excess.

Julie Ray’s unit set nicely portrays a plaza outside a Greek island taverna, all stone and cream and Aegean blue, with lots of exits to the wings. When the set is used for interior scenes, though, the transformations are a bit clunky and the atmosphere is still all open-air. Alan Yeong’s never-ending costume parade also has a few clunkers. Marcie Millard is dressed in dowdy fashions throughout, and the 70’s fashions for "Super Trouper" are laughably tacky. Of these three outfits, two have a single long silver sleeve, but on opposite sides. Perfect for choreography that shows a lead singer flanked by two backup singers making mirrored movements. So what sort of choreography do we have for "Super Trouper?" Unison movements. It’s like the whole production has been thrown in a blender, and all we can see is the elements rotating in an endless, mindless blur. When, at the performance I attended, a mask fell off in the ineffective black light nightmare sequence at the start of act two, seeing it kicked around the stage seemed as random as the show as a whole.

The story of "Mamma Mia!" is not the most original, being more of a situation (which of three men is the father of the bride?) than an affecting plot. Director Justin Anderson doesn’t seem to have given his actors much in the way of motivation to make the story ring true. We have some actors relying primarily on their innate charm (Marcie Millard, Terry Henry, Greg Frey, Nick Arapoglou) while only a couple of others give what can be termed actual performances. Kristin Markiton is a marvel as Donna Sheridan, the mother of the bride, using her splendid voice and lovely, expressive face to erase any memory of Meryl Streep from the movie. Travis Smith has some nice moments as one of her suitors, but the memory of their chemistry from "The Bridges of Madison County" throws off the direction of the plot. The suitor Donna eventually chooses is played by Chris Kayser, whose performance is characterized primarily by the pained expression in his eyes as he sings that seems to be questioning "will I be able to hit these notes?" The answer is more often "almost" than "yes."

Aside from Donna, the other main character is her daughter Sophie, played by Hannah Church. Ms. Church has a wonderful voice, but she can’t escape the grating quality of the character she plays. Sophie has secretly invited her mother’s three former lovers to her wedding, in the hopes of determining which of them is her biological father, and her machinations and resulting discomfort overwhelm the role.

The ensemble all give fine performances, with true dance moves given only to a select group. Joseph Pendergrast unsurprisingly impresses with his break dancing, and Joe Arnotti’s crisp moves attract special attention. Everyone adds to the frenetic throngs of activity on the stage.

"Mamma Mia!" is a jukebox musical, with ABBA’s songs hung on the thin plot. There are lots of aging ABBA fans who will likely delight in this show. Ann-Carol Pence has done her usual fine job as music director, so the songs (minus Mr. Kayser’s) all sound great. But, as far as I’m concerned, Aurora’s production of "Mamma Mia!" is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Decision Height, by Meredith Dayna Levy
Landing Safely
Monday, March 12, 2018
The term "decision height" refers to the altitude at which a pilot must determine whether or not to go in for a landing. "Decision Height" the play tells the stories of six women training for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program in World War II, using a cappella songs of the period to establish mood, along with pre-show photos of actual WASPs assembled by dramaturg Marjorie Boeshans and presented as a slide show. The period mood is enhanced by the wonderful costume design of Cindy Flanders, period hairstyles, and Beth Diyenno’s props.

Siobhan Brumbelow’s scenic design is functional rather than attractive. A screen upstage is used for projections that help to establish location. Four-foot cubes right and left, covered in collages of period photos, are used for scenes indicating elevation. The upstage stairs leading to the top of the cubes are cleverly used for cot storage. A three-part round structure center stage at first represents a fountain and later is broken apart to provide seating or walls for other locations. Scene transitions are speedily accomplished. Savannah Lee’s sound design makes all the goings-on nicely audible and Beth Tate’s lighting design does the same for visibility.

Director Nicole B. Adkins’ blocking, on the other hand, sometimes obscures visibility for those at the sides of the audience. The cubes on the side and the arrangement of six cots creates a fairly shallow V of good sightlines, and cast members on the sides of the V can obscure views of cast members upstage of them. The blocking isn’t static at all, though, so sightline problems are transitory.

The show is introduced (and concluded) by recruit Virginia Hascall (Lydia Booth) reciting what she is writing in letters. Ms. Booth is extremely well-spoken, but focus doesn’t stay on her for long. We have five other recruits (Chloe Bayles as a scrawny scrapper, Kaisha Marlow as a brash rule-breaker, Marah McEntyre as a sweet songbird, Julie Robyn Turner as a good-humored mother hen, and Stephanie Willis as a high-spirited amateur photographer). All of them turn in good performances, with their impact pretty much proportional to their stage time. Authority figures played by Madeline Auchter and Joanne Geiger also come across extremely well, and the ensemble (Abby Brake, Madelynne Dunlop, Emmie Smith, and Miranda Stodola) do a fine job in keeping things moving along smoothly.

"Decision Height" is as educational as it is theatrical. It certainly shines a light on a largely forgotten population of empowered females supporting the war effort in World War II. Elm Street Cultural Arts Village is presenting the Southeastern premiere of the show in a creditable production that director Nicole B. Adkins has shaped to allow the impact of the storylines to come shining through.

A Comedy of Tenors, by Ken Ludwig
Tenor Veneration
Sunday, March 11, 2018
Ken Ludwig’s "A Comedy of Tenors" may not match his "Lend Me a Tenor" in silly fun, but it sure comes close. Some of the same characters are recycled, but there are a whole new series of mistaken identities and complications, this time involving famous tenors slated to perform at the Paris Olympic Stadium. The aging Tito Morelli (Brian Kurlander) is threatened by up-and-comer Carlo Nucci (Haden Rider), who it seems has romantic entanglements both with Tito’s daughter Mimi (Lyndsay Ricketson) and Tito’s wife Maria (Courtenay Collins). A third tenor is Max (John Markowski), son-in-law of Cleveland opera impressario Henry Saunders (Robert Egizio), whose daughter (Max’s wife) is back in the U.S., about to give birth. Add in a look-alike fourth tenor and a Russian soprano (Lane Carlock) and the permutations of mistaken identity proliferate.

Georgia Ensemble Theatre is presenting a delightfully comic production of this play, which takes place on an elegant set designed by Stephanie Polhemus. The symmetrical set has an entryway and chandelier up center, flanked by French doors to two balconies and, at the sides, doors to two bedrooms. Furniture consists of a sofa, chair, and ottoman for sitting, plus a couple of tables and a console radio to the sides. Sightlines are good, given that the entire upstage section is raised up a few steps. The main set deficiency seems to be that bedroom door walls aren’t anchored well enough to prevent wobbling when doors are slammed (which is sort of a given in a door-slamming farce). The backdrops for the balconies are a bit confusing too, with the Eiffel tower clearly visible stage left, while the stage right one seems to have wallpaper in the background.

Dustin Brown’s lighting design is more problematic. Distracting shadows are created by the chandelier upstage, and light spills obviously onto the Eiffel tower backdrop. A rose-colored lighting effect is used for some moments when opera is invoked, but the effect generally falls flat. The general lighting used for the majority of the action is fine.

Props (Maclare Park, props master, and Kate Bidwell LaFoy, props mistress) are not up to the usual Georgia Ensemble standard, but aside from a tongue and a telephone they don’t play much of a part in the action. Emmie Tuttle’s costumes, on the other hand, are a delight. It helps that the female cast members carry them so well, but it’s also a delight to see Tito Morelli enter in a sharkskin jacket that pulls tightly over the actor’s belly, as if it’s a favorite outfit that probably fit better a few years (and pounds) ago.

Performances are generally top-notch. Brian Kurlander triumphs in two roles with Italian accents, and Courtenay Collins is his match in Italian fire, investing Maria with all a diva’s elegance and passion. Robert Egizio and John Markowski show their old Stage Door Players’ chemistry with a sort of Laurel and Hardy relationship that delights in every capacity. Haden Rider and Lyndsay Ricketson play young lovers whose over-the-top antics challenge the supremacy of their elders (and, boy, do they get a nifty entrance). The only weak spot is Lane Carlock as Tatiana Racon, whose dialogue is written with the syntax of a Russian native, but whose accent hints at French as much as anything. Her wig doesn’t help. Otherwise, her performance is fine, if not up to the level set by the rest of the cast.

Sparkling performances predominate in this show, but sparkling performances don’t just happen all by themselves. Director Shelly McCook has encouraged her actors to create indelible, deftly characterized performances, and has supplied the show with tons of comic touches. There’s a sense of heightened silliness throughout, letting the full flavor of the farce shine through. Kudos to Ms. McCook, and bouquets of fabulous flowers to the cast. "A Comedy of Tenors" is a comedy through and through.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, by Jeffrey Lane (book) and David Yazbek (songs)
A Clean Sweep
Sunday, March 11, 2018
"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" the movie was successfully transformed into a Broadway musical a few years back. Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s production of the musical continues that streak of success. Tremendous vocals, fluid choreography, atmospheric lighting, and clever staging all contribute to the success.

Christopher Dills’ scenic design makes use of a unit set consisting of a backdrop frequently featuring palm silhouettes, a stepped platform across the entire upstage, and two-story units on either side of the stage, with various set pieces moved on for individual scenes. It all works very fluidly. Ben Rawson’s lighting design enhances the mood of the scenes delightfully. Amanda Edgerton West’s costumes and George Deavours’ wigs make the cast look colorful and stylish on the generally monochromatic stage. John McKenzie’s sound design keeps vocals and backing tracks in perfect balance, and Lauren Brooke Tatum’s choreography adds movement throughout. The technical elements all aid the overall show without attempting to draw individual attention to themselves.

The actors, on the other hand, almost fall over one another in attempting to draw attention to themselves, just as the script demands that they do. Bryant Davis makes for a commanding Lawrence Jameson, even if his pseudo-British accent is far more pseudo than British. Chase Peacock enlivens every moment in the onstage life of his less cultured character, Freddy Benson. Galen Crawley comes across as a spitfire firecracker as Christine Colgate, and Allison McDowell goes over-the-top Okie as Jolene Oakes. Jessica DeMaria invests Muriel Eubanks with sass and sweetness in equal measure, and Steve Hudson lands every blessed moment in his scene-stealing turn as impeccably comic-French-accented Andre Thibault. Every single one of these principals has a voice that, with a single exception, surpasses the demands of their role. (Ms. Crawley’s opening number isn’t a great match for her vocal range or style, but she acquits herself well in performing it and impresses mightily in her more soaring numbers.)

Director Rick Lombardo has invested the show with energy from start to finish, making good use of the ensemble in small roles and encouraging his leads to give standout performances. Fun is the overriding aim of the production, and in that it succeeds admirably. A light, tuneful comedy, the show ratchets up the pleasure quotient with each new number and leaves smiles plastered on the faces of audience members leaving the theatre in high spirits after glorying in the shenanigans of a glorious band of dirty rotten scoundrels.

Perfect Arrangement, by Topher Payne
Imperfect Rearrangement
Sunday, March 11, 2018
The set doesn’t scream "1950." True, there are an easy chair and a matching set of console and end tables that appear mid-century modern, but mostly the space is spacious and elegant, in tones of blue and dusky rose. There’s a bit of the feel of a circus, with a scalloped valence topping the walls and continuing on in an oval over the playing space in Nadia Morgan’s set design. The real 1950’s flavor comes from Linda Patterson’s extensive costume parade of dresses and gowns for the ladies. If the costume design has any fault it’s that the females’ clothes are all so enchanting that the supposedly super-elegant design style of character Barbara Grant (Stacy Melich) comes across as barely more put-together than anyone else’s.

The action at first seems to be purely comic. Ann Wilson is delightfully ditzy as Kitty Sunderson, and the product endorsements from Millie Martindale (played by Ann Marie Gideon) and Norma Baxter (Courtney Patterson) strike a note of farcical silliness. Even when Theodore Sunderson (the poised and impressive Kevin Stillwell) leaves with his wife and we learn the true relationships behind the sham marriages of Jimmy Baxter (played by Clifton Guterman) and Bob Martindale (Joe Knezevich), the situation is primed for comic complications.

What happens under Adam Koplan’s direction, though, is that the tone becomes more and more serious as the play progresses. At the end, we see everyone in the combined Martindale/Baxter household except Bob leaving to fight for social justice. We aren’t left with a hopeful feeling that these people are battling for future good, though; we’re left with the image of Bob having been deserted by all those he held most dear. It’s an unnecessarily bleak ending for a comic play with serious undertones. The serious acting chops of the four principals ground the characters’ actions in such emotional truth that lightness boils away over the course of the play.

A. Julian Verner’s props are fine, if a little skimpy on the hors d’oeuvres, and Dan Bauman’s sound design certainly sets the time period with overly loud pre-show pop songs, radio ads, and jingles from the 1950’s. James Aitken’s lighting design does all it needs to illuminate the action, adding some notes of color on the back drop seen through the arched windows. George Deavours wigs work fairly well, with Ms. Gideon’s a trifle unruly and Ms. Wilson’s a bit frothy, while the others help establish more grounded characters.

Theatrical Outfit’s production of Topher Payne’s "Perfect Arrangement" is certainly professional, although a few line bobbles could be noted in the opening performances. It’s a strong play (despite the anachronistic mention of frozen pie crusts, which were not commercially available in 1950), and it’s being given an attractive production. If only its ending weren’t directed to be so somber, the play could be a lot of thought-provoking fun.

It Shoulda Been You, by Barbara Anselmi (music and concept), Brian Hargrove (book and most lyrics)
Monday, February 19, 2018
First off, the set design by Carolyn Choe and Kiernan Matts screams "wedding reception," with its curtained walls in shades of white and pearl gray and its two skirted conference tables angled as if for seating at the head table. There are two curtained doors upstage and white string lights diffusing through the white fabric surrounding the doors. It’s lovely.

Not all scenes take place at the wedding reception, of course, and Mr. Matts’ inventive blocking makes use not only of the unit set but also of all parts of the theatre (including in front of the stage, in the center aisle in the audience, and in the audience itself). Even those angled tables get quite a workout as platforms on which a good percentage of the action is staged. Action flows beautifully under Mr. Matts’ direction, making the show a joy from start to finish.

Ali Olhausen’s costumes impress, including two wedding gowns and a series of color-coordinated outfits for the wedding party. Nina Gooch’s lighting scheme adds to the visual appeal of the production. There aren’t a lot of props, but they blend in well with the production and add to the wedding feel.

Music direction by Annie Cook gets fine vocal performances out of everyone in the cast, even if the accompaniment in Kiernan Matts’ sound design comes across as a little synth-y and tinny. The accompaniment and vocals are beautifully in sync throughout. The score, with lyrics by an assortment of lyricists, is bouncy and enjoyable in the moment, if not indelibly memorable. All elements combine to create an atmosphere of supreme theatrical fun.

All the performers deserve accolades. Zip Rampy and Carolyn Choe, as the bride’s parents, use New York-inflected accents to underline their Jewishness, but combine them with performances imbued with tons of relatable human character. Bob Smith and Emily T. Kalat, as the groom’s parents, turn WASP-y stereotypes into sheer delights, with Ms. Kalat’s ever-present drink a gag that never fails to please. Hannah Marie Craton and Jacob Jones, as the bride and groom, have an easy chemistry and inherent sweetness that charms. Eric Lang and Eileen Howard, double-cast as workers at the wedding venue and as quirky relatives of the bride, add gobs and gobs of comedy to both sets of roles. Trevor Perry runs things as a fabulously gay wedding planner, starting the show off with an in-character curtain speech that gets the action started immediately. Taryn McFarthing brings a sassy earthiness to her role as bridesmaid, and Dylan Parker Singletary inhabits the role of best man with the quirky charm of a born comedian. Kelsey South owns the stage in the central role of the bride’s sister, a chunky gal seemingly always in the shadows as the light of love shines around her. Sweet-voiced Bryan Montemayor rounds out the cast as the Jewish young man the bride’s parents wish shoulda been the groom.

I haven’t always appreciated Kiernan Matts’ near-manic energy as a performer, but he has channeled it as a director and choreographer into a production of "It Shoulda Been You" that delights continually as it moves in its breathless pace through the lead-up to a wedding that never should have been and into its aftermath. The first act is a little long, but ends with a twist that sets up the course of the shorter second act, sending the plot in an unexpected direction that wraps things up in a sweet, romantic bow. Kudos, accolades, and plaudits to all involved!

CROSSING DELANCY, by Susan Sandler
Charm Offensive
Monday, February 19, 2018
Susan Sandler’s "Crossing Delancey" tells a slight story, concerning a young Jewish woman who has romantic fantasies about a famous writer and yet who is confronted by her grandmother and a matchmaker with attempts to link her to a steadfast pickle vendor. The success of a production depends on the skill and charisma of the actors playing these five deftly delineated characters. In this, Lionheart’s production is only partly successful.

Marla Krohn and Shelley Barnett are cast to perfection as the grandmother and matchmaker, respectively. Their natural charm comes through in spades, tinged with just the right amount of character-driven humor, at which they’re both masters. Davin Allen Grindstaff is also magnificent, imbuing suitor Sam with deep sincerity and true, sweet emotion that make us want to root for him. Kit Vaupel and Adam Vann are attractive, personable, and very well-spoken as the young woman and the famous writer, but director Raleigh Wade hasn’t inspired them to break through as their characters. That’s particularly true in a fantasy sequence that should be bright and heightened, but instead is played as low-key in dim red light.

The physical production is fine. Gary White’s lighting design, aside from that dim red scene, creates warm areas of light in which action takes place. Brooke Bishop Wade’s costumes work well, with an oversized overcoat for Izzy foreshadowing the oversized suit Sam will later appear in. Props, by Amy Szymanski and Teresita Edwards, give a lived-in quality to the set designed by Raleigh Wade, Ms. Szymanski, and Tanya Caldwell. The set itself delineates three separate spaces: Bubbie’s kitchen stage right, the bookstore stage left, and a park bench down center in front of the stage. Other locations are indicated subtly. Scene changes aren’t typically very long, perhaps accounting for the inconsistent use of scene-change music in Bob Peterson’s sound design.

"Crossing Delancey" contains a fair amount of narration by the main character of Isabelle (or Izzy). Director Raleigh Wade hasn’t blocked the narration sequences in a consistent style that makes them pop out as separate from the action of the play. That keeps Izzy a bit distant from us and doesn’t provide the character with a strong audience connection. Otherwise, blocking allows the action to be clearly visible throughout.

Without a strong, plot-driven through-line, "Crossing Delancey" depends on charm alone to carry it from start to finish. It’s a short two-act play, and Lionheart’s production does nothing to stretch it out with extraneous bits or moments. There doesn’t appear to be a strong directorial touch to the production, relying instead on the natural charm and ability of its actors to sell the story. It’s pleasant enough, in its own way, but not fully engaging. "Crossing Delancey" has the feel of a memory play, and the memory of this production may fade over time.

Ontario Was Here, by Darren Canady
Rot and Overwrought
Sunday, February 18, 2018
"Ontario Was Here" pits two social workers against one another concerning the care of a child named Ontario. Penni (Brittany L. Smith) wants him placed in foster care; Nathan (Seun Soyemi) wants him to stay with his recovering drug addict mother. Plug in the complications: Penni and Nathan are former lovers; Nathan is now carrying on with Ontario’s mother; Penni’s white husband pens a newspaper article critical of Nathan. An unhappy ending is assured.

Darren Canady’s play intersperses fairly realistic two-person scenes with more stylized, theatrical scenes addressing the audience as potential interns or addressing unseen persons, often with speech that moves in and out of unison. Cynthia D. Barker has directed the show with almost manic intensity and nearly non-stop speed. With audience on opposite sides of the stage, she has blocked some of the stylized scenes with the two actors standing in the audience aisles across from one another, so only one actor’s face is visible to half the audience. This works well with rapid, semi-unison back-and-forth, but she also blocks Penni’s big monologue about a "conjure woman" with Penni in the audience, invisible to at least half of that side of the audience. It’s a baffling blocking choice that only highlights the tonal dissonance of this scene’s appearance in the play.

Daniella Ampudia’s set design makes use of six opaque glass panels on wheels, plus office and park furniture that wheels on and off across the muted carpeting for various scenes. It works well enough, especially with Maximo Grano de Oro’s expressive lighting design and Andrew Cleveland’s music choices for covering scene changes. Nicole Clockel’s costume changes mesh seamlessly with the scene changes, and Cody Russell’s extensive props work well within the story.

The claustrophobic nature of the story is emphasized by recorded speech in occasional scenes. We see only two actors, and the story is bigger than just the two of them. The actors both do fine work with their overwrought characters as the rot of the social justice system infects their lives, but the non-stop onslaught of their bickering and the infernal pace of the action can be off-putting. It’s hard to really like either character, even though they’re both portrayed as martyrs to the cause of Life-Altering Social Work. As the intermissionless play slowly draws to a close, it becomes more and more depressing and less and less interesting. Social work is hard, yes, but sitting through this play shouldn’t be.

First Date, by Austin Winsberg (book) and Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (songs)
First and Worst
Sunday, February 18, 2018
Zac Phelps has taken a note from the playbook of directors of Georgia Shakespeare’s productions at Oglethorphe University and has choreographed Marietta Theatre Company’s production of "First Date" to ensure good stage pictures for those seated in the center of the audience area and rotten stage pictures for those seated on the fringes of the audience area. Lighting designer Brad Rudy has taken an additional note from Live Arts Theatre’s production of "Fiorello" and positioned lights to shine directly in audience members’ eyes if they are seated in the "bad" section of the audience. These factors can conspire to turn what should be an enjoyable show into a sub-par experience. Sit in the reserved seats center or expect a disappointing physical production.

The story itself concerns a blind date between nerdy Jewish Aaron (Chris Saltalamacchio) and edgy shiksa Casey (Ashley Prince). Five others populate the story as denizens of the restaurant bar where they meet and as figures from their internal life. Zac Phelps, as director, has gotten good performances out of everyone. Michael Vine and Abi Sneathen in particular provide some wonderful characterizations, and Brian Brooks makes a concerted effort to play to all members of the audience in his crowd-pleasing portrayal of a waiter.

Music director Laura Gamble has provided nicely orchestrated backing tracks and has gotten good vocal performances out of everyone, although sound levels sometimes make vocals unintelligible unless the singer is facing your section of the audience. Mr. Phelps’ inventive choreography can sometimes contribute to vocal strain and a winded quality in the most active numbers.

Will Brooks’ simple set consists of a bar on a platform upstage and a couple of table/chair configurations to suggest a restaurant, augmented by a storage shelf stage right and a blackboard sign stage left. Brad Rudy’s lighting scheme includes illumination on the face of the bar. It’s a small set, but serviceable. Costumes and props are fine, with telling little touches that indicate forethought in their appearance.

Bouncy songs punctuate an awkward date between two fairly unlikable characters. Mr. Saltalamacchio invests Aaron with a ton of personality and terrific timing and line readings, but his performance seems sized for a larger playing space than the intimate Alley Stage. Ms. Prince’s performance is smaller and better suited to the size of the venue, but the contrast between the two performances doesn’t allow for the sentimental moments of the second act to really jell. The comedy of the first act comes through loud and strong, but the lower-key second act deflates the fun, aiming for a feel-good ending.

Is "First Date" the best choice for entertainment on a blind first date? Probably not, but it seems to be wowing audiences that have moved past that awkward initial stage into a more stable relationship and can look back on the woes of a dating life with something approaching nostalgia.

Clark Gable Slept Here, by Michael McKeever
Clark Howard Slept Here
Sunday, February 11, 2018
More male nudity. We’ve had it recently in "Silence! The Musical," in both parts of "Angels in America," in "The Mystery of Love and Sex," and now in "Clark Gable Slept Here." At least this time it isn’t full frontal. But it does last for a long time, as Spencer Kolbe Miller lies tastefully posed on a chaise longue as a corpse for the first half of the intermissionless play.

The lovely art deco-inspired set by Michael Hidalgo represents an upscale penthouse in a hotel with a long Hollywood history. We see the door to the room up center, with a foyer leading to a bathroom. In the room itself, a big bed is angled from the up left corner toward center stage, with a matching chest of drawers on the upstage wall. A table stage right acts as the bar, and seating is scattered around. A flat-screen TV is perched in the down right corner of the stage, and is ostensibly turned on to view the Golden Globe awards, with delightful voiceovers by Carl & Carrie Christie.

The hotel room is that of a major action star nominated for a Golden Globe, and the corpse in the room is of a gay hustler he has spent the last few days with, as evidenced in part by the clothing tossed around and a number of empty liquor bottles. The hotel manager (Ben Thorpe) has called the star’s manager (Bryan Brendle) after a Hispanic maid (Jess Arcelay) has discovered the body. Morgan Wright (Wendy Melkonian) has been called in to handle the situation, using whatever means are necessary to keep the secret life of the action star just that – secret.

The plot concerns the sordid gay underbelly of the Hollywood film industry, and it isn’t that engaging. None of the characters are people we can really root for, and the murky morality at play infects just about every one of them. There are some funny moments and situations, but none that rise to the level of satisfying farce. The denouement feels extended, as if the playwright felt that some sort of moral was required to counter the amorality of the play as a whole. It all leaves a fairly sour taste in the mouth.

Costumes are a highlight of the show, under Jeanne Fore’s stewardship. Mr. Miller doesn’t have much to wear, obviously, but the others are garbed appropriately. Ms. Melkonian’s gown is absolutely gorgeous, its elegant black bodice fading into a sunset-tinged ombré in the skirt and train. Props are good too.

Paul Conroy has directed the show with a lot of action, but has included a few moments when actors go downstage center to deliver monologues in what feels a very artificial way. Mr. Hidalgo’s general lighting is fine, but the spotlighted moments (including the one at the tail end of the play) fall a little flat. The show is professionally directed, but doesn’t seem inspired.

Performances are all good, with Ms. Melkonian a standout delight, as always. Ms. Arcelay and Mr. Miller also do good work with their roles. Mr. Brendle and Mr. Thorpe are adequate, but haven’t given their characters endearing quirks that would help them engage audience sympathy. "Clark Gable Slept Here" is a less-than-stellar piece of entertainment that doesn’t seem targeted at a general audience, and with its old-fashioned feel and vulgar language doesn’t seem suited either to ART Station or to Out Front Theatre Company (of which director Paul Conroy is the founder).

Looking, by Norm Foster
Looking for Entertainment? Look No More!
Sunday, February 11, 2018
Norm Foster’s "Looking" involves two male friends and two female friends. One of the men writes a classified ad seeking a woman; one of the women replies. At their initial date, each of them brings along their friend to act as a buffer. And wouldn’t you know – the friends are the ones who hit it off. After a couple more double dates that send the relationships in rocky directions, they all pair off happily. And, boy, are there a lot of funny lines and funny situations in between!

Director Linda Place has cleverly staged the show to make the best use of the tiny Onion Man stage with its post near center stage. The set (designed by James Beck and James Nelson) is simple as can be, with a plain flat up center with exits on either side. Furniture consists solely of four chairs (the same style as those seating the audience), a tiny table, and a small bench. Furniture is rearranged for various scenes, with the lighting design (also by James Beck and James Nelson) illuminating the sections of the stage used for each scene. The post figures neatly into the blocking, being used to hold an office phone in one scene (with nice sound effects designed by James Beck) and also used for a split-screen effect when we see (and hear) two sides of phone conversations. Blocking nicely keeps faces front and center for gym scenes, with enough motion and movement to keep the show visually interesting from start to finish.

What really makes the set work, though, are the projections. For restaurant scenes, we see a projection of the restaurant front in reverse, as if the characters are sitting inside. For radio studio scenes, we see an "On Air" sign (and a nifty microphone on the table). Projections are even used during intermission, when posters of the next few Onion Man productions display in sequence. It’s the perfect solution for scenery in the tiny Onion Man space.

Norm Foster’s script is strong, and four strong performances put it across in a delightful manner. Gregory Fitzgerald is sincere and frazzled as the man writing the personal ad, and Bob Winstead is sardonic and energetic as his friend. Sharon Wilson makes the woman answering the ad insecure but heart-warming, and Kerri Hansen-Doty is a powerhouse Earth Mother as her friend. The interactions in all directions are delightful, with reactions oftentimes as entertaining as the lines being spoken.

"Looking" isn’t as Canadian as some of Norm Foster’s work, with a stray reference to Calgary being the extent of geographic references, although Canadian jazz singer Holly Cole does figure into the plot. With American accents and universal situations, this work can appeal to any audience, as long as they don’t have medical syndromes triggered by an over-abundance of hearty belly laughs. Be forewarned that your sides may hurt from non-stop laughing if you attend!

Good People, by David Lindsay-Abaire
Good Gracious!
Sunday, February 11, 2018

When you come into the 7 Stages mainstage space, the play doesn’t look very promising. Barry West’s set design has four playing spaces that are more splayed than arrayed across the playing space. The furniture and flooring are appropriate for the settings (a bingo parlor far down right, a modest kitchen center, an office up left, and an alley down left that features an industrial trash bin painted nicely by Katy Clarke), but the overhead lighting for the last three locations looks jury-rigged, and the white curtain forming the back of the playing space makes the whole stage look shabby and incomplete under the house lights. And then the show starts and the stage lights come up.

Tom Priester’s lighting design creates pools of light for each distinct location that make the rest of the stage melt away from view. That’s true of the first act and also for the second act, when the office and kitchen sets are removed and replaced with an elegant living room that extends across the full width of the stage. The overhead lights from act one are pulled up out of sight and a lovely chandelier descends. The wonderful lighting design is complemented by a nice sound design by Charlie Miller, consisting largely of bingo calls (Nat Martin as the voice) and music playing between scenes.

Joan Cooper’s costumes and Angie Short’s props do all they need to do to support the script, giving the production a naturalistic feel that mirrors the naturalism of the acting, which is superb across the board. Melissa Rainey conveys the prickly nature of Margie, the main character, with great skill and a terrific South Boston accent. Cathe Hall Payne and Bobbie Elzey play her Southie friends with loads of personality. Michael Sanders does a wonderful job portraying Margie’s young supervisor, and Alan Phelps gives a powerful performance as a childhood boyfriend of Margie’s who has made good as a physician. Marquelle Young is fabulous as his wife, conveying a range of emotions that bring their troubled relationship into full focus. There’s lots of humor in the show, but it all comes directly from character, with not a hint of mugging or pandering.

When a production is as good as this one is, the director deserves lots of credit. Jeffery Brown has elicited performances from all his actors that show them at the top of their game. True, there are a couple of scenes where Ms. Rainey plays with her back to much of the audience, but Mr. Brown has shaped the scenes for maximum impact. The humor and the power and the pathos of the story come through strong and clear in this production, showing that the theatre diaspora of this year’s season, with the Alliance, Onstage Atlanta, and Staged Right moving from spot to spot, has not negatively affected the quality of productions produced by these companies.

The Ballad of Klook and Vinette, by Che Walker (book) and Anoushka Lucas and Omar Lyefook (songs)
Poetic Ballad
Sunday, February 11, 2018
Has "ballad" in the name of a play become synonymous with "sad ending?" That’s certainly the case with "The Ballad of Klook and Vinette." We know from the start that the story will end with bloodshed and gunfire, as Klook (Amari Chéatom) sings of his memories of the story that is about to unfold. Then we go through his meeting and life with Vinette (Brittany Inge), leading up to that fatal moment.

Klook and Vinette are odd creatures, speaking with Ebonic grammar and an erudite vocabulary. Klook is a drifter and grifter with multiple jail stints who works as the maintenance man at a pool. Vinette is a single mother who has left her child with her mother and gone off on her own with no apparent plan. She meets Klook at a health bar and they move in together. Through song and dialogue, we learn about them and about Howard, the creepy pool manager. Vinette eventually becomes a successful writer of short stories through the sacrifices of Klook.

This is a bare-bones telling of their story, with only two stools as props, two actors in the roles of Klook and Vinette, and two musicians (Christian Magby on piano and Maurice Figgins on bass and guitar). The set, designed by the ubiquitous Curley-Clay sisters, consists of two wall segments that look a bit like skewed stacks of planks, one stage left with a doorway and one stage right behind the band, plus a huge Venetian blind construction center stage that arches downward. (The script tells us that gunshots were fired through Venetian blinds.) What provides the most visual interest is Mary Parker’s splendid lighting design, which combines Bobby Johnston’s projections with effects that heighten the action.

Rob Brooksher’s sound design keeps everything audible, and music director Christian Magby has ensured that we have a good-sounding soundscape, which consists of vamp-like musical figures and song snippets as much as full songs in a jazz vein. There’s not complete consistency of speech patterns between the almost-rhyming song lyrics of Anoushka Lucas & Omar Lyefook and the high-falutin’ words of Ché Walker’s poetic script that uses "firestick" as the term for a gun. It’s the type of show that requires that it cast its unique spell over the audience to keep them involved throughout, and it largely succeeds in that task.

Costumes by Dr. L. Nyrobi Moss are fine, with little variety until the end of the play. Ché Walker’s direction includes blocking that goes up the center aisle into the audience and occasionally involves the band members. Nicole Johnson’s choreography consists primary of the two actors circling around each other on the carpeted floor or lying in provocative positions, with a few bumps and grinds in one of Vinette’s numbers. The movement is active, but can be a bit repetitious.

Kathryn Muse is listed as props master, but the script specifically states that the only props are two stools. This seems to be the case of a staff position being filled unnecessarily for this production. Horizon Theatre Company has brought the artistic team from England and L.A. to work on this show, so it seems the money saved on cast salaries has been spent in different directions. "The Ballad of Klook and Vinette" is a small show with modest production values, but it fills the intimate space at Horizon Theatre nicely, highlighting fine performances by its two stars and an amazing lighting design by Mary Parker.

Picnic, by William Inge
Hot September
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
William Inge’s "Picnic" takes place in the backyards of two neighboring houses. It’s a realistic play, but at Stage Door Players, Chuck Welcome’s set shows only the framework and porches of the two houses. The Owens house, stage right, has some Victorian gingerbread; the Potts house at stage left is plainer. Suggestions of the rooflines appear at the back, but all entrances from the house occur through black curtains. The Owens home has a second-floor window suspended from the auditorium’s ceiling, so the iconic scene of Madge being seen through it has to be imagined. A picket fence joins the two houses, with a cyclorama behind it, on which J.D. William’s lighting design shows blue to indicate day, orange to indicate sunset, and displays a moon to indicate night. It all gives the impression of a dreary spot on the Great American Plain, an impression emphasized by the dirty cream paint on the fence and house frames and the sandy tan of most of the floor, but somewhat lessened by the lush patches of artificial flowers outside both houses.

The time period of the play is set primarily by Jim Alford’s costume design, which works well in the context of the play. Kathy Ellsworth’s props underline the time period, although they aren’t given much of a workout. George Deavours wigs look too much like wigs to really succeed in emphasizing the time period. Rial Ellsworth’s sound design, however, is impressive, with motor sounds and offstage music coming from distinct offstage directions.

The true pleasure of the play comes from its performances, as honed by the expert direction of Tess Malis Kincaid. All eleven members of the cast have distinct personalities that mesh just as they should, with lots of little character details that charm. Reactions are all in character, giving a cohesive feel to the production and engendering laughs from the tiniest pause or smallest gesture. It’s not all laughs, though; the drama of the story also comes through. We feel for Madge (Shannon McCarren), the pretty girl who feels she is judged solely on her looks; for Millie (the dynamic Shelby Folks), her younger sister, who feels constrained by her role as the "smart" one; and for all the other characters whose dreams and desires can come true only when tinged with bittersweetness.

Kara Cantrell gives a standout performance as neighbor Helen Potts, a man-crazy middle-aged woman whose current behavior mirrors the urges that caused her to run away and marry a man briefly before her mother rounded her up and annulled the marriage, and now keeps her held hostage as her caretaker. Larry Davis is also excellent as Howard Bevans, a shopkeeper whose mixed intentions toward schoolteacher Rosemary (Rachel Frawley) also keep him hostage. Suzanne Roush, in the small role of a schoolteacher new to town, is a marvel of gesture and expression, with Liane LeMaster also succeeding as her chatterbox friend. Blake Burgess (Hal Carter), Vickie Ellis Gray (mother Flo Owens), and Rachel Frawley (Rosemary) don’t seem to have brought the depth to their characters as much as some other cast members, but they acquit themselves well. JD Myers (Alan Seymour) and Jonathan Wierenga (Bomber) both do fine work as young men for whom fulfilling romance isn’t in the cards.

The play itself is constrained by its unit set, in contrast to the grand scope of the excellent motion picture. Nothing of the town seen onstage but two backyards and two back porches. But Tess Malis Kincaid has filled "Picnic" with the kind of character detail that breathes life into a play and makes the audience feel as if they have entered this town for a couple of highly enjoyable hours.

The Savannah Disputation, by Evan Smith
No Disputin’ It
Sunday, February 4, 2018
"The Savannah Disputation" pits a perky evangelical Protestant missionary against three Roman Catholics – two sisters (one sweet and simple; the other neither) and a priest. There’s some real theological content in their discussions, but a fair amount of humor too. Add in good performances, and the intellectual challenges become downright entertaining.

CenterStage North’s production takes place on a set designed by John Parker. Stage right we have the dining room table and a door to the kitchen; stage left we have a sofa, with a bookcase and stairway behind. A swivel chair (put to good use in one memorable scene) sits center stage. Behind it we have the outside door, surrounded by glass panels, with a brick backing outside. The light chartreuse walls, curtains, fake foliage, and eclectic wood furniture make this a believable home for two elderly sisters. I’m not sure that the elegant selection of books in the bookcase does so, though; this would seem to be the perfect opportunity to fill shelves with Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, which too often show up on sets when elegant books are called for. We also see crosses in evidence, but no crucifixes (at least no obvious ones).

David Reingold’s nice lighting design has a couple of subtle effects, aside from general lighting that shows up the seams in the walls of the set. Brenda Orchard’s sound design makes wonderful use of ringtones from a real cellphone onstage, but otherwise seems a bit off-kilter. Music selections for scene changes seem inappropriate for the tone and subject matter of the play. Costumes are good, and props are excellent. Technically, the production is likely to improve as the run continues.

The program lists four scenes in the play, but "The Savannah Disputation" is performed more as two vignette-like scenes followed by one long scene that contains the meat of the intermissionless play. It’s almost two hours long, but Julie Taliaferro’s brilliantly active staging keeps the show from dragging. We have four sharply defined characters whose interactions are a delight to watch.

Performances are all well above par. Stephanie Dennard is Disney-princess pretty as Melissa, the missionary, and ably portrays a perky, lonely woman slightly out of her depth in discussing Bible exegesis. Jerry Jobe, who is charged with providing the bulk of the serious theological content, reacts wonderfully throughout the play and also adds real fire to the more serious moments. Cheryl Baer gives Mary a sour, domineering nature that comes across strong, but seems to be masking some inner doubt. She could be more forceful in the rant that precedes Mary’s storming upstairs, but hers is a powerful performance. Karen Worrall, as the submissive sister Margaret, conveys a sweetness that warms the heart of every member of the audience. Hers too is a performance to remember.

"The Savannah Disputation" is bound to elicit discussion among audience members as they leave the theatre. With an audience that is likely to be composed primarily of mainstream Protestants, both Roman Catholicism and off-the-center evangelical beliefs are likely to appear slightly exotic (and even more exotic, perhaps, to non-Christians). Catholics too will find things to talk about, in the strict adherence to church doctrine that the priest insists upon. "The Savannah Disputation" raises lots of issues, even hinting at a significant medical problem, but leaves it to the audience to make up their own minds what the takeaway of the play should be. But that takeaway will include enjoyment for any lover of top-flight community theatre.

The Mystery of Love and Sex, by Bathsheba Doran
The Tedium of Gratuitously Naked Non-Sexual Love
Sunday, February 4, 2018
Here’s a young black man. Here’s a young Jewish woman, his best friend since childhood and now his girlfriend in college. Here are her contentious parents, the father born Jewish and the mother converted. The father is unconsciously racist and all of them have conflicted feelings concerning homosexuality. Mix together and throw onstage as a play. Such is Bathsheba Doran’s "The Mystery of Love & Sex."

The action purportedly takes place in the South, but there’s not a hint of Southern accents except in a single line when Charlotte (the young woman) mocks one from her mother’s side of the family, and not a jot of costuming or props that suggest the South. It’s one of many directorial missteps taken by Amber Bradshaw in mounting this unsatisfying play.

Set designer Cody Russell has also fallen down on the job, creating a wall of stucco with pasted-on brick accents that is satisfactory neither for the living room scenes nor the backyard scenes. The first scene takes place in a dorm room, with black curtains drawn in front of the wall. A scene in the second act takes place in a hotel room, with no curtain drawn to obscure the wall. Charles Swift’s lighting design creates pools of light for each scene, but the pools don’t always match the stage area in which action takes place. Paul Conroy’s sound design and Troy Meyers’ props are more acceptable, and Eric Griffis’ costumes are fine, if unremarkable.

There isn’t a likeable character in the cast. Charlotte (played by Rachel Wasker) is needy and annoying. Her friend Jonny (played by Terrance Smith) is withholding and passive. Lucinda, the mother (played by the charming Tiffany Morgan), tends to be sour and dismissive. Howard, the father (played by the gratingly actor-y Donald McManus), is just unpleasant all around, but with a good heart underneath, we’re led to believe. When you don’t like or care about the characters in a play, it’s difficult to enjoy.

The first and second acts take five years apart. Ms. Bradshaw has gotten distinct performances out of the two younger performers portraying two different ages, with the five-year-older versions definitely more mature. But by the time we meet them, we’ve already been turned off by their immaturity in the first act, topped by a stereotypical drunk scene. Twenty-year-olds struggling with homosexuality takes up most of the action of the play, and it just isn’t that interesting to hear about. We don’t see any of it; lots of romantic partners are discussed in the dialogue, but never seen. A play where the most interesting action occurs offstage isn’t that engrossing. Add in Max Mattox’s obviously fake fight choreography, and even the onstage action isn’t exciting.

Bathsheba Doran has thrown together a lot of hot-button LGBT, racial, and religious issues and has tried to make a play out of them. She’s certainly chosen topics that resonate with play-choosing committees. But when a play is so clearly constructed to jump on the bandwagon of current trends, it feels manipulative. The mystery of this play is how love and sex and gratuitous nudity can seem so blah onstage.

Old Love, by Norm Foster
Everything Old Is New Again
Tuesday, January 30, 2018
Production values can’t be expected to be top-notch when performances need to be split between two venues for the two weeks of a run. Nevertheless, Staged Right Theatre is performing Norm Foster’s Canadian rom-com "Old Love" on a well-constructed set designed by David Huenergardt that uses black curtains for a backdrop, but features multiple levels of platforms, a table and chairs stage left, a sofa center stage, and a two-story housefront stage right with a patch of grass in front. When the housefront is covered by black curtains in the first act, the patch of grass doubles believably as a gravesite. Add in a fairly complex lighting scheme designed by Thomas Huenergardt, nice costumes designed by Lisa Croteau, and workable props by Lea Herring and this is a good-looking production. It also sounds good, with special thanks to sound designer Thomas Huenergardt for choosing non-distracting soft jazz as the background for multiple Christmas party scenes.

The plot concerns Bud Mitchell (Allen Stone), a "road warrior" salesman who was smitten years ago by his boss’s wife Molly (Angela Van Tassel), and who is now courting her, following his divorce and the death of her husband. Younger people in the cast (Ilene Miller and Nick Fressell) fill in the plot, often in flashback. There are lots of monologues to narrate the history of their relationship, and director Paul Franklin has ensured that the monologues hold as much interest as the dialogue scenes. The transition of lighting from spotlights for the monologues to general lighting for the scenes clearly marks the scene transitions.

Actors also do a splendid job of using voice, expression, and body language to delineate their different characters. The same younger actors play both married couples (boss & wife and "road warrior" & wife), and there’s no question as to which couple is onstage after a line or two is delivered (although wigs would help the delineation). Ms. Van Tassel plays multiple characters only at the top of the play, when she portrays a couple of dates and a secretary, but she clearly shows her skill as an actress in those roles, a skill that becomes abundantly clear as she takes on her major role as Molly Graham.

Mr. Stone plays only one role, that of the older Bud, but he creates a likable character we root for as he attempts to light a spark with Molly. His Southern accent doesn’t suggest Canada at all, but thankfully there’s no attempt in the production to make things stereotypically Canadian. He has the largest share of monologues, and he performs them fluidly at the start, with some minor stumbles cropping up as the show proceeds.

"Old Love" tells a charming story of two older individuals connecting romantically after a shared history only one of them (Bud) remembers, but that the audience gets to see playing out in flashback. Staged Right Theatre’s production brings the story to life under the capable direction of Paul Franklin, sparked by a particularly memorable performance by Angela Van Tassel (although all the cast has memorable moments). It’s worth a visit during their second week of performances, wherever their Facebook page says that will be.

Tenderly, the Rosemary Clooney Musical, by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman
An Unhappy Life
Tuesday, January 30, 2018
"Tenderly" presents the life story of singer Rosemary Clooney, interspersed with renditions of her song hits, and centered around a breakdown she suffered in Reno, Nevada and her treatment in a psychiatric hospital. Rachel Sorsa portrays Ms. Clooney, sounding a lot like her and, in wigs, resembling her sufficiently. Mark Cabus plays her psychiatrist and every other person with whom we see her interact. Both roles require bravura performances, and Ms. Sorsa and Mr. Cabus are both clearly up to the challenge.

Jamie Bullins’ scenic design includes red walls with sconces upstage and archways and curtains on the sides to suggest elegant supper clubs and performance venues. The three-piece band is stationed just in front of the wall. Stage left we have a table and chair suggesting a dressing room, and center stage, on an angled rectangular platform, we have the psychiatrist’s office furnished in mid-century style. Scenes that don’t occur in these specific locations make use of the open downstage lip of the stage. It works well.

Connor McVey’s lighting design does a pretty good job of illuminating the action, although the actors sometimes seem to be playing right at the edge of a pool of light. John McKenzie’s sound design lets things be heard clearly. Costuming and choreography are nearly as successful, but not quite. Amanda Edgerton West’s costumes work well enough except for a blouse/skirt combo Ms. Sorsa wears at the start of the second act that isn’t very stylish and uses a skirt with an obvious, substantial hem. Arielle Gellar’s choreography is generally delightful until the final number, when "Mambo Italiano" has dance moves that, quite frankly, look ridiculous.

Director James Donadio has shaped the show to emphasize the dramatic elements of the story, causing the production to seem long. Mr. Cabus does a wonderful job of leavening the mood when he portrays Rosemary’s sister Betty in early memories, but this is the story of an unhappy life with only a glimpse of true happiness at the end. Songs tend to lighten the mood, since many of Ms. Clooney’s hits were light-hearted novelty tunes, but they just tend to underline the darkness of the life being lived behind the microphone.

Mr. Cabus does some marvelous instantaneous transformations from one character to another, using voice and body language to do a creditable Bing Crosby and transforming his face and voice to become Jose Ferrer. Ms. Sorsa centers the show with a heartfelt performance. That’s where the enjoyment of "Tenderly" resides. This is a show to see for the performances, which outshine the material.

Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika, by Tony Kushner
Quantity Over Quality
Tuesday, January 30, 2018
Actor’s Express’s production of part two of Tony Kushner’s "Angels in America" uses the same lovely set designed by James Ogden as used for part one. Ed Thrower’s compositions are once again played at a too-loud volume (although ambient sounds during scenes, if any, are indistinguishable from distracting audience noise). Ivan Ingermann’s costumes are once again a mixed bag, featuring a lovely tailored outfit for Carolyn Cook’s Hannah on one hand and, on the other, head-on-a-skirted-table angel costumes that would seem more at home in an SNL skit. At least the flagpole wings for the main Angel (Parris Sarter) that looked so chintzy in part one flutter in a lovely way in the wrestling scene (although they tend to tangle). Joseph P. Monaghan III’s lighting doesn’t get quite the workout it got in part one, but is still effective.

Blocking is worse in part two, if anything, in terms of stationing actors with their backs to large swaths of the audience. Directors Freddie Ashley and Martin Damien Wilkins seem to have taken perverse pleasure in placing chairs and bodies that block their actors’ faces from view in this staging that has audience on three sides. There is little attempt at fluidity of movement to ensure maximum visibility. Emphasis is also placed on slow, steady pacing that makes this four-hour show as much a slog as an entertainment.

Acting is still on a high level, although Grant Chapman is forced into a stance of Complete Earnestness as Prior that robs his role of most of the fun and surprise his role had in part one. The standouts, for me, are Cara Mantella as Harper and Carolyn Cook as Hannah (and others), both of whom bring incandescent nuance to their roles. The others are more than fine, and hospital gowns and stripping give us more instances of exposed male genitals than in part one, although words still heavily predominate over nudity in this production.

"Angels in America" was a sensation in its time, and although its 1980’s AIDs-centric plot now appears dated and the text is filled with florid speeches that seem to put Mr. Kushner’s voice into the mouths of every character, it still has power. But is it the power of theatre, or Stockholm Syndrome at being trapped in a room with all these characters for four hours? You decide.

Beauty and the Beast, by William Glennon
Beauty on a Beastly Budget
Tuesday, January 30, 2018
"Beauty and the Beast" is a problematic story for a children’s show. Seeing a young woman held captive by a monster isn’t a cheery experience, and some leavening agent is needed. In the Disney musical version, that leavening is provided by a buffoonish romantic rival and talking/singing/dancing household objects. In William Glennon’s version, the leavening comes with the introduction of the boisterous family of Beauty’s (father, two sisters, and two brothers) and their servant. Unfortunately, this family is absent for all but the tail end of the second act, darkening the spirit of the second half.

The storyline posits an enchanted spot in the forest inhabited by a spirit with the power to make dreams come true -- and also to turn an uncaring prince into a beast, until released by the power of love. The first part of the first act takes place in this spot, as Beauty’s family prepares to have a picnic.

Bethany Bing has done a good job of directing The Spirit (Syanna Bailey) to have fluid movement and speech in the opening lines. That’s followed by sparkling interplay between Beauty’s sisters (Gwen Samford as Paulette and understudy Gabby Gordillo as Henriette in the performance I attended). Performances of some of the other minor characters don’t match up to this early promise, but the production flows on smoothly, with scene changes in Andrea Hermitt’s set design readily accomplished by rotating three-sided painted columns. Costumes by Dawn Davridge are impressive, if not always well-fitted, and Becca Parker’s props, lighting, and sound design do all they need to, with style.

Blocking in the playing space, in which audience can sit on three sides, isn’t always designed to give good views to those sitting on the sides, but works well in the more sparsely-populated scenes. The second act is primarily a series of scenes between Beauty (Stephanie Rinzler) and the Beast (Khalil Barnett), and in these scenes the action is easily visible to all, featuring a wonderful look for the Beast.

"Beauty and the Beast" is a somewhat darker tale than the usual fare for children, at least in the adaptation being performed by Live Arts Theatre. Still, it has its charms. Despite the distracting busy-ness of the youngest member of the cast and the uneven talent pool in evidence, the story comes through strong and clear.

Falling off the Edge, by Paul Donnelly
Falling for a Hunk
Sunday, January 21, 2018
Paul Donnelly’s charming romantic comedy "Falling off the Edge" is being given a delightful world premiere by Onion Man Productions. Two female AA members are vacationing in Costa Rica, where they ogle a swimmer, a man who turns out to be a pretty straitlaced Mormon. One of the females is going out of her comfort zone by throwing herself at him, and of course he falls for the other one.

Director Scott King has gotten wonderful performances out of his cast. Becca Carrico (as Carly) and Ben Lamm (as Matt) have tremendous chemistry and bring their characters fully to life. The third-wheel character of Belinda (played by Morgan Colburn) isn’t as developed in the script, but Ms. Colburn provides a fine contrast to Ms. Carrico in personality while simultaneously seeming believably to be Carly’s best friend. The action of the script is shaped nicely and is studded with theatrical moments.

The set on which the play takes place, designed by James Beck, paints floor and walls a sandy tan. The back wall features small signs and a grass thatched fringe that indicate a resort. Scenes take place alternately around the pool and on the beach, using the same lounge chairs. This can cause some momentary confusion at the start of scenes that switch from one to another. A minor change, like a fence segment to indicate the pool area or removal of signs to indicate the beach, would clarify the settings a bit. Sound and lighting design, also by Mr. Beck, work well to support the production.

The breezy script fits a lot of entertaining dialogue into its 90-minute runtime (including intermission). The contrast between an ex-alcoholic former slut and an almost severely moral Mormon provokes a lot of discussion that follows organically through the span of a short vacation relationship. The bittersweet ending seems a bit abrupt, though. I would have preferred a little coda, along the lines of Carly reiterating to Belinda that she needs to complete her 12-step program before committing to a relationship, and Belinda replying something like "As step 13, call him!" A rom-com needs at least the promise of a happy ending.

Silence! the Musical, by Hunter Bell (book) and Jon & Al Kaplan (songs)
Un-Silence of the Hams
Sunday, January 21, 2018
Okay, so Angie Short’s functional set design is bland, except for a stone well, and Charlie Miller’s sound design lets the three-piece band overwhelm the solo singers in the finale. Minor quibbles. Jeff Costello’s props are fine, Harley Gould’s lighting design is good, and Jane Kroessig’s costumes are delightful. But what makes the show really shine are the performances created under Zip Rampy’s direction.

There’s a hammy quality to the whole production, and that’s not a bad thing at all when the hamminess is built into the script and presented with such assurance. The plot of "Silence of the Lambs" is pretty much there, but mixed up with so much profanity, wit, and zaniness (there’s even full-tuckal male nudity!) that laughter predominates, but does not erase the sinister twists of the story.

Music director Nick Silvestri has done a good job of whipping the voices into shape and navigating the difficult score that provides minimal vocal support in Bryan J. Nash’s orchestrations. Zac Phelps’ choreography is long on coordinated movement and short on classic dance steps, but it’s perfectly suited to the show and the capabilities of the cast. "Silence! the Musical" is fun to watch and to hear in OnStage Atlanta’s production.

Everyone is given a chance to shine in the production. There seems to be a twinkle in the eye of every performer (though less in Bob Smith’s), letting us know that they’re not taking things too seriously and intend to have a whale of a time, as should the audience. There are several instances of actors causing Barbara Cole Uterhardt to break character as Clarice and stifle laughter, which delights the audience. I have a suspicion that this is Zip Rampy’s doing rather than spontaneous actorly shenanigans, but it works to engage the audience in the spirit of the show.

With sold-out houses, "Silence! the Musical" is adding to the coffers of the Metropolitan Atlanta Theatre Awards. It’s just as well that the show itself isn’t MAT-eligible; otherwise, Ms. Uterhardt and Russ Ivey might be adding to their collections of awards, along with others of the cast and production crew. Kudos to Zip Rampy for putting together such an entertaining show!

Dearly Beloved, by Jesse Jones, Nicholas Hope, Jamie Wooten
Dearly Belabored
Sunday, January 21, 2018
Director Pete Borden has done a great job in the Marietta’s New Theatre in the Square production of "Dearly Beloved" in terms of getting his actors to develop distinct characters and commit to them. Every member of the cast knows precisely who he or she is in the plot, and the line deliveries emphasize character at every turn. Unfortunately, aiding in character development is only part of a director’s job; blocking and pacing are equally important, and in both of these areas there are significant deficiencies. When ten actors are arranged onstage in a semi-circle, blocking has failed to deliver an interesting stage picture. When there is a lack of fluidity in scene after scene, pacing seems not to have been a prime consideration in getting the show ready for performance.

Set and props also disappoint. The set consists of disjoint pieces, none of which are particularly attractive, but which allow scene transitions to occur quickly. The script calls for food props to be cut and served, but the whole versions and the cut versions are obviously two different props that are switched with absolutely no subtlety (although actors might have loused this up at the performance I saw).

Costumes are good overall. Not all are flattering, and there are obviously no hoops in a hoop skirt, but they help to delineate character and are fairly attractive to view. Lighting is adequate, except for the too-bright light used for scene transitions, and sound is fine. This appears to be a production on a budget, given that a plastic cup is dashed to the floor instead of the glass one expected in the script, and the lack of budget shows throughout.

The talent displayed onstage is pretty even across the board. One standout is Anjil Jeter as identical twins Tina Jo and Gina Jo Dubberly. She makes the two entirely distinct, and her sweetness as Gina Jo captures the heart and hits the funnybone simultaneously. Barbara Rudy, as oldest Futrelle sister Honey Raye (although she looks the youngest), and Lynda Palmer, as Miss Geneva Musgrave, play their roles with assurance, which isn’t the case for all cast members. Most problematic is Marsha Fennel as youngest Futrelle sister Frankie (although she looks the oldest), who delivers her lines as if having to dredge them up from a depth of memory that prevents fluidity. Other audience members are likely to have other favorites.

The Jones-Hope-Wooten script of "Dearly Beloved" packs in a lot of entertainment, and in a first-rate production the show would fly past in a flurry of laughs. Here, the laughs are frequent enough, but don’t come fast. Perhaps the production will jell a bit more as the run continues.

Maytag Virgin, by Audrey Cefaly
Dryer Venting
Monday, January 15, 2018
Jack Key has moved in next door to Lizzy Nash. She uses a clothesline. He installs a Maytag dryer on his back porch. That infuriates her. Cue the rom-com complications, with a little of "The Rainmaker" thrown in, as Lizzy learns to come into her own as a desirable woman.

Aurora’s production is fully professional. Kevin Frazier’s lighting design is impressive, transitioning from day to night without ever impacting visibility. Daniel Terry’s sound design nicely covers the long scene changes with country music. Kathryn Muse’s props fill the scenes with impressive detail. The two-story set by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay is massive, giving us two back porches and backyards of distinct styles. When a thunderstorm approaches at the end of the first act, all these elements come together in thrilling style, with cracks of thunder, flashes of lightning, jangling of wind chimes, and shaking of tree branches.

Costume design, by Jordan Jaked Carrier, doesn’t call for anything out of the ordinary, but reinforces the complete naturalism in the acting of Courtney Patterson and Brad Brinkley. Mr. Brinkley plays a man of few words, a widowed physics teacher at the local high school. Ms. Patterson plays a woman of many words, a recently widowed English teacher on leave from the high school. The contrast and conflict between the two transitions from awkwardness into closeness over nearly two and a half hours.

Melissa Foulger’s direction keeps things moving in the first act, but the pace slows perceptibly in the second act. Audrey Cefaly’s script follows the usual formula of meet-cute banter in the first act and more serious, emotional interplay in the second. The predictability of the plot is of the variety that anticipates a happy ending and delivers on the anticipation. Factor in a marvelous performance from Courtney Patterson and this results in a satisfying, if overly long production.

Women’s Shorts, by Marki Shalloe,Suzanne Bailie,Chris Shaw Swanson,Mary Steelsmith,Keely L. Herrick,Sherry Camp Paulson,Starina Johnson,Suehyla El-Attar,Kate Leslie
Including a Red Thong
Sunday, January 14, 2018
"Women’s Shorts" presents nine short plays by nine female writers and directed by three women, featuring a cast of eight women (each of whom appear in at least two of the plays) and two men. While everything is from a mature female perspective, the show can be enjoyed by anyone.

Here’s a pre-show game: try to locate the 11 images on the program cover from among the 80 8"x10" photos arrayed on the walls of Carolyn Choe’s set. Some of the images are headshots; some are action shots from past productions. Photos of the late Jo Howarth are featured. (The Jo Howarth Noonan Foundation for the Performing Arts receives special thanks in the program.) Once you’ve succeeded in the game, let the show begin!

The set consists of the photo-strewn walls noted above, with a kitchen peninsula center and a doorway stage right. Five black boxes are used for seating, with a couple of other set pieces brought on for individual plays, plus a pretty extensive array of props. Sound design (by Carolyn Choe) isn’t as extensive as it could be; lighting design (by Bradley Rudy) is a little more active than it need be.

First up is Marki Shalloe’s "Without Issue," which comically pits a bartender (the delightfully breezy Annie Cook) against a woman (the delightfully defensive Stacy King) whose doctor has just informed her that she is menopausal. The script is full of funny lines, and Kayleigh Mikell has directed the action and actors to point up all the funny bits. This starts the evening off on a very promising note.

The promising start is followed by probably the least successful of the short plays. Suzanne Bailie’s "Mel and Mona" shows us two sisters (Jennifer Lee and Kate Guyton) cleaning up after some murky activity the previous night. Carolyn Choe’s direction doesn’t bring the play to life, and the production doesn’t fully dispel the murk of the script. This is a fairly sour show, and most of its attempted comedy falls flat.

Chris Shaw Swanson’s "Something about Tex" comes next. This is a memory play narrated by a woman (Emily Kalat) who recreates moments from her history with high school BFF Tex (Bryn Striepe), including flirtation with a boy (Erik Burleson). Kayleigh Mikell’s direction doesn’t succeed in having Ms. Striepe truly capture the behavior of a high school rebel, but Ms. Kalat carries the show deftly, leading to a bittersweet ending.

Mary Steelsmith’s "Happy and Gay" shows two church ladies of a certain age (Betty Mitchell and Eileen Howard) decorating the fellowship hall after a gay wedding. We think they’re clueless and/or disdainful about the liberal changes to their church, but the ending supplies a twist. Carolyn Choe’s direction gets fine performances out of both actresses. The script combines humor and sentimentality, but seems a little clunky in getting to its final moment.

Keely L. Herrick’s "Surprise" ends the first act. This prop-heavy show introduces us to two friends (Emily Kalat and Jennifer Lee) decorating the apartment of their friend Melissa (Stacy King) for a surprise birthday party. When it comes out that Melissa has arranged for a surprise of her own (Erik Burleson), comedy explodes. Kayleigh Mikell has directed her talented cast brilliantly to capture the comedy with movement-filled blocking.

Sherry Camp Paulson’s "TMI" starts the second act by placing together two middle-aged friends (Annie Cook and Betty Mitchell) in a lingerie store along with a young home-wrecker (Bryn Striepe). Director Holly Tatem gets spot-on performances from each cast member, letting the charmingly obvious plot flow naturally, delivering on every bit of set-up in a satisfying final moment.

Starina Johnson’s "Vice" wraps a disquisition on infidelity in a dialogue between a married woman (Jennifer Lee) and her one-night stand (Rial Ellsworth). This seems less a play than a treatise, and Holly Tatem’s direction can’t salvage much sympathy for the female lead in a fairly static staging.

Suehyla El-Attar’s "Getting There" shows us a mother (Eileen Howard) being driven to a doctor’s appointment by her contentious daughter (Stacy King), whose conversation with her mother is interspersed with inner monologues. Bradley Rudy’s lighting shifts between dim and brighter lighting to distinguish between the dialogue and monologues, but the rapid alternation becomes distracting. Sound design could have enhanced the show by adding sound effects associated with the miming of car operation, but Carolyn Choe has directed the show to mine its emotional depths while not slighting the script’s comedic aspects. Eileen Howard shines in this play, her demeanor and wig making her a totally different character from her role in "Happy and Gay."

Kate Leslie’s "Ashes to Dust" also takes place in a car, as a mother (Emily Kalat) and her daughters (Kate Guyton and Bryn Striepe) depart from a wake for the mother’s father. The ages of the actresses don’t make a lot of sense in terms of the script, but lines and line readings readily make it clear that Ms. Kalat is the mother, Ms. Striepe is the free-wheeling daughter, and Ms. Guyton is the more straitlaced daughter. Director Holly Tatem has blocked the show to have one daughter (Ms. Guyton) in the back seat of the car with the other two actresses up front, resulting in obstructed views of Ms. Guyton to some members of the audience. Nevertheless, she has gotten terrific performances out of all the cast, allowing the sentiment and comedy to flow freely from a script that accurately reflects family dynamics at the time of a patriarch’s passing. It’s a delightful way to end a satisfying evening of theatre.

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, by Tony Kushner
Date(d) with an Angel
Saturday, January 13, 2018
"Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches" is centered squarely on a time in America when gays were closeted, AIDS was a fatal scourge, and Reagan was president. It all seems dated now. Tony Kushner’s play is an important one, but one whose impact is lessening over time. Even its three-act structure seems terribly antiquated in these days when long one-acters are the fashion.

The production at Actor’s Express takes place on a wondrous set designed by James Ogden, with audience on three sides. The non-audience wall features two huge ovals that, with the curved arches jutting out from the adjoining audience sides, gives the impression of being inside the rib cage of a whale, an impression strengthened by the chalky white of the ovals and arches. Three sides of the auditorium feature an undulating horizon line with black above and below. The maritime blue of the lighting suggests both the sky and the sea. A line of blue lighting above and an equally broad line of gray paint on the floor emanate from the wall with the ovals, balancing one another beautifully with their off-center symmetry.

Staging on the set, however, is less wondrous. With audience on three sides, actors’ backs are going to be in evidence at some times, but placing a bed upstage and Harper’s chair in a downstage corner ensure that some moments will be entirely lost on sections of the audience. The use of a raised platform on the ovals’ wall, with set piece storage below, is practical in terms of letting the full audience view the scenes there, but in a show with supposedly magical and other-worldly moments, the practicality stomps the magical into submission.

Joseph P. Monaghan III’s lighting design does what it can to provide magical moments, and some are very effective, especially with sudden bursts of intensity or sudden blackouts. Others, in which colors on the sky scrim flash from one color to another in sequence, are more active than imaginative. The general lighting is intentionally blotchy, which can result in faces moving in and out of the light during movement-filled scenes.

Composer Ed Thrower has created nicely subtle musical transitions between scenes, but his sound designer has chosen to play them at a volume that destroys any hint of subtlety. Unfortunately, the sound designer is also Ed Thrower. He has chosen to add environmental background noises to several scenes that can make one wonder "is a truck backing up outside the theater?" or "is there a loud party going on somewhere in the King Plow Arts Center?" Since the staging of the scenes is so generic, background noises act as a distraction, doing nothing to help the audience enter and remain in the scene.

Kathryn Muse’s props fulfill the needs of the script without drawing attention to themselves.

Ivan Ingermann’s costumes shine most brightly in the specialty wardrobe moments that take place in dreams and hallucinations, but fail most spectacularly in the flagpole wings of the angel in the final moments of the play. The everyday costumes and hairstyles don’t "scream" 1980’s America, opting instead for a generic look. The actors generally take on multiple roles, and the oversized garb worn by Cara Mantella as a man and by Grant Chapman as a gay hustler make them look ridiculous.

In Actor’s Express’ small space, where there are four rows of audience members, the double-casting is all too obvious. It doesn’t add a "fun" element to the proceedings; instead, it’s an actor-y distraction from the story. The actors generally do well, but it’s a far cry from the TV production in which the rabbi’s performance resulted in an exclamation of "THAT was Meryl Streep??!?" "Angels in America" requires stellar performances, and they just aren’t in evidence here.

Grant Chapman does a terrific job as AIDS victim Prior, and Joe Sykes makes for a believably conflicted Joe, but most of the others give the type of performances we’ve come to expect of them. They’re all good actors, but they are not transcending their previous roles to give revelatory performances. Directors Freddie Ashley and Martin Damien Wilkins haven’t galvanized them into surpassing, or even equaling, their finest previous work. Only Mr. Chapman makes an indelible impression.

Enjoy the initial impression of walking into the theater in which "Angels in America" will take place. It’s a lovely space. But with sub-par fight choreography by Amelia Fischer and Connor Hammond, pedestrian staging by the directors, and workmanlike performances the norm, "Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches" comes across as an affecting story weighed down by literary monologues verging on the flowery and a ponderous pace that sparks to excitement at only two points: 1) in a cross-cut argument scene between the couples of Joe (Joe Sykes) and his wife Harper (Cara Mantella) and of Prior (Grant Chapman) and his boyfriend Louis (Louis Greggory), and 2) in Mr. Chapman’s spotlighted scene where he mouths words emanating from the sound system. Two moments of excitement in 3.5 hours of performance isn’t a great return on investment.

Striking 12, by Brendan Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin, and Varleie Vigoda
It’s Loud
Monday, January 1, 2018
I hate amplified voices in small theaters. Too many sound designers and soundboard operators amp up the sound to the point of distortion, perhaps in the mistaken belief that the only way to balance levels is to use the loudest instrument as the highest common denominator and make all voices and instrumental sounds battle it out at that level. "Striking 12" falls firmly into that category, with tinny, overblown sounds blasting into the auditorium. The first comment I overheard during intermission was "it’s loud."

From previous productions, I know that the cast members have excellent voices. I couldn’t tell from this production, though. All I could tell is that their pitches are true. At a couple of points, Robert Hindsman delivered lines away from a microphone with excellent projection, and my ears perked up with pleasure. Then his mouth nearly engulfed the microphone and the tinniness returned.

In this concert production, there are no scenic elements. (The show is played against the set of "Heidi.") Cast and band members are ranged across the stage, with microphones front and center and chairs on either side. The musicians (including male lead Daniel Burns) have stands from which they can read their parts; all actors besides Mr. Burns have memorized their roles completely. Most of the musicians have lines to deliver too, and that they do well.

The story of "Striking 12" is a combination of a modern-day tale of a grump on New Year’s Eve who prefers reading to partying and of Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Little Match Girl." Mr. Burns plays the grump and Emma Palmer McVey plays the Little Match Girl, both with rather colorless sincerity. The color in the show comes from the ensemble playing multiple roles. Paige Mattox winningly portrays a door-to-door salesperson for Seasonal Affective Disorder lightbulbs and takes on other roles with similar charm. Robert Hindsman has a couple of terrific numbers, one lamenting the tiny part his characters play in the overall story, and he delivers on all the possible entertainment the material provides. Kara Noel Harrington, the keyboardist, also scores in a repeated bit with ringtones, and D. Connor McVey, the drummer, gives a powerhouse performance both on the drums and in his interplay with the actors.

Ignoring the sound levels, the musicianship in evidence is of very high quality. There are a few sour notes from the violinist, Cale Brandon, which he acknowledges with a brief, sour expression, but he delivers the virtuosity required by the score with amazing facility. Music played on the bass, by Ian Palmer, and on the guitar, by Mr. Burns, is more straightforward. Keyboard and drums drive much of the score, with excellence throughout.

GrooveLily’s "Striking 12" combines catchy pop-rock songs with a slight, entertaining story. The production playing at Synchronicity Theatre lets the story and charm come through, with excellent music peeking through from the overly loud and distorting amplification.

A Christmas Carol (2017), by Tony Brown
Standup Scrooge
Monday, December 25, 2017
Aurora’s "A Christmas Carol" is billed as a one-man show. Don’t believe it. Stage manager Anna Lee is called upon at various points to respond as various Dickens characters, and Jacob Marley is portrayed on video as an animated spectral figure. It’s true that Anthony Rodriguez takes on the lion’s share of characters, using a variety of American-tinged accents, but one isn’t amazed by his transformations from one character to the next. It’s part improvised standup and part scripted storytelling.

The flavor of the 75-minute production is of a reading of selections taken directly from Dickens’ text. Some segments, such as Scrooge’s school career, are omitted entirely. Others appear in edited form. The outline of Scrooge’s full story is told, with enough detail to give the impression that the full text is being given its due.

The set, modified slightly from Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay’s original design, features a wing back chair stage left, a gothic-style desk and chair stage right, and a gothic-style fireplace and mantle up center, with a mirror/projection screen above. Additional projection screens are above the audience as if windows, and greenery and lamp posts help fill the room with Christmas cheer. Projections start with falling snow and progress through a variety of scene-setting images. The bough and ornaments image shown at the introduction of the Ghost of Christmas Present seems weak, but otherwise the projections are impressive.

Dylan Whitfield’s lighting design accommodates the requirements of the script nicely, as does Daniel Pope’s sound design. Stage manager Anna Lee augments sounds at times, ringing a hand bell as the soundtrack joins in with pealing chimes. Ms. Lee also operates the falling snow effect. With Mr. Rodriguez throwing out glitter at one point, first-row audience members are advised to be prepared for the necessity of some post-show grooming.

Tony Brown’s direction has Mr. Rodriguez portraying two people in a conversation by having one face in one direction and the other in the opposite direction, notably when Fred is addressing his Uncle Scrooge, ostensibly sitting at his desk upstage. This can force Mr. Rodriguez to have his back to a segment of the audience as one of the characters for the entire scene, as if Mr. Rodriguez is upstaging himself. Mr. Brown also has Mr. Rodriguez use the British pronunciation of "clerk" ("clark" to American ears) during narrative segments when Mr. Rodriguez is clearly using his own American pronunciation for every other word.

Having audience on three sides can make performances awkward in Aurora’s black box space. Mr. Rodriguez’s forays into the audience attempt to minimize this awkwardness, replacing it with intimacy. His innate stage presence and ease with audience interaction have made this a sold-out production over more than a decade. Personally, I find endless reiterations of "A Christmas Carol" tiresome, but this one seems to be holding its own, eleven years on and counting.

Heidi the Musical, by Martha King de Silva (book) and Joan Cushing (songs)
Wednesday, December 20, 2017
"Heidi the Musical" translates Johanna Spyri’s beloved story to the musical stage, simplifying it in the process and removing the overt Christian moralizing in the original. The emphasis is on Heidi’s sunny personality and how she brings joy to all she encounters (with the exception of Julie Trammel’s delightfully sour Frau Rottenmeier).

Elizabeth Jarrett’s set design features two mountains that double as houses, with one rotating to show the interior of Heidi’s grandfather’s cottage and the other opening up to show Clara’s house. The backdrop is fairly crudely drawn with color blocks of other mountains, and the edges of the proscenium are painted with Swiss floral folk art patterns. There’s a city-like segment on a flat up stage right that may be meant to complement Clara’s house, but which is pretty much wasted. The set definitely gives the flavor of Switzerland, as do Derrick Vanmeter’s colorful costumes.

Elisabeth Cooper’s lighting design nicely transitions between day and night, lowering a round lantern to represent the moon. Other visual technical elements are also attractive, especially Cody Russell’s props and Derrick Vanmeter goat puppets. Ricardo Aponte’s choreography isn’t extensive, but adds sprightly energy to group numbers.

Sound, however, is another story. Either sound designer Rob Brooksher or sound engineer Preston Goodson has decided to pump up the volume on musical numbers to ground-thumping levels. Christopher Cannon’s orchestrations come through loud and clear, but the voices blended in with this overpowering music get distorted, especially for the singers like Julie Trammel and Jessenia Ingram (Heidi) who project strongly. The sound is, quite frankly, dreadful and a blot on this otherwise pleasant production.

Joan Cushing’s score is bright, tuneful, and nicely sung. I found it much more appealing than her songs for "Miss Nelson Is Missing!" The book, by Martha King de Silva, plucks memorable moments from the novel, with sometimes abrupt emotional transitions from one to the next. The outlines of the story come across, but not the subtleties. Puppet characters Dusty and Daisy give the goats a bit of extra personality and provide some of the most charming movement in the show.

Director Julie Skrzypek has blended her cast into a smooth-working ensemble. Jessenia Ingram gives us a cheery, apple-cheeked Heidi, while Emily Parrish Stembridge imbues Clara with a sweet sadness that Heidi’s presence turns to unbridled joy. Patrick Wade charms as sturdy Peter, while Robert Owenby impresses as Mayor Strasser and Clara’s father, his wonderful singing voice among the best of the cast. Julie Trammel is a delight in whatever character she is portraying, and Taryn Janelle and Jake Krakovsky fill their ensemble roles with strong stage presence and terrific vocals. Alex Van has to contend with a storyline that makes his character of Heidi’s grandfather alternately mean and sweet, rather than transitioning between them with any subtlety, but comes across relatively well.

One rather unsuccessful directorial choice is to have the actors try Swiss/German accents, using the assistance of dialect coach, Jan Wilkstrom. Only Mr. Owenby has a consistent, believable accent, and even he fails to take the umlaut in "fräulein" into account. Everyone else puts a little stilted spin on an occasional phrase or two with a vaguely German accent. Given the obviously Swiss scenery and costumes, the use of any accents at all seems unnecessary.

Ms. Skrzypek has created a swiftly-moving show that barely pauses for applause after the frequent musical numbers. The energy and commitment of the cast join with the charm of the staging to provide a delightful hour and a half of entertainment. This production of "Heidi the Musical" speeds through Johanna Spyri’s story and leaves a happy feeling in the heart, with cheerful memories of the songs and dances and performances.

Dickens Christmas Carol: A Traveling Travesty in Two Tumultuous Acts, by Mark Landon Smith
Noises Off
Sunday, December 17, 2017
There’s a danger with shows in which things are supposed to go wrong. If things look too rehearsed, the fun is reduced. If the timing is off, the fun is reduced. If things that AREN’T supposed to go wrong go obviously wrong, the fun can be gone altogether. Luckily, ACT1’s production of "A Dickens Christmas Carol: A Traveling Travesty in Two Tumultuous Acts" avoids most of these problems.

The set design by Bob and Chris Cookson helps all aspects of this production. It’s a lovely set to look at, with glorious scenic painting on the wall stage right, the mirror on the wall stage left, and the storefront up center. It’s also designed so that stagehands can be seen above the storefront and costume racks can be seen around behind it. This adds to the spirit of improvisation that imbues the whole production. The rickety nature of the stage right wall is delightful in a running gag, not to mention the trick nature of the storefront.

The lighting and sound by Murray Mann also add to the fun, being obviously wrong when they’re supposed to be, and otherwise fulfilling their jobs winningly. Meaghan Graham’s costumes and Emily Voller’s props fulfill similar purposes. The cast members change costumes frequently, and the best ones change accent and posture too to indicate their different characters.

In this regard, Jeremy Choate is most impressive. Although Bob Cratchit is his main character, he also makes indelible impressions as spooky Jacob Marley and the Scottish-inflected Ghost of Christmas Present. Hailey Carroll is impressive in exactly the opposite way: she plays an understudy, and in every role she is the same, stumbling through lines she is obviously reading from ill-concealed script pages. Tons of fun also come from Abigail Ellis and Alyssa Davis, who play two actresses attempting to cover the same role at the same time. (Ms. Davis’ character arrived late for the performance, and Ms. Ellis’ character had already gone on for her.) Adam Darby is remarkably well-spoken in his roles.

Accents are a bit of a mixed bag. Memorized lines are generally good. But given the nature of the show, with cast members at the start walking back and forth behind a partially open curtain, improvised lines are also heard. When I heard the American "trash can" instead of the British "dust bin" during this portion of the show, my heart sank a bit. Then when I heard Benjamin Roper’s curtain speech, with only occasional British-inspired notes in his American speech patterns, I prepared myself for an abysmal set of accents. After that, though, things are pretty close to fine.

Jonathan Goff deserves a lot of credit for his direction of the show. The manic energy infecting the cast translates directly into audience enjoyment. Staging makes full use of the space. Scrooge’s story may slide a bit into the background, and pacing of the final moment seems off, but the show is a lot more fun than the only previous production of this show I had seen (years ago) that had turned me off this adaptation until now.

Miracle on South Division Street, by Tom Dudzick
A Christmas Miracle
Sunday, December 17, 2017
"Miracle on South Division Street" centers around the story of a very Polish Catholic Christmas Eve miracle in Buffalo, New York. It ends up being neither very Catholic nor very miraculous, but it’s entertaining throughout. Tom Dudzik’s play throws in lots of laugh-out-loud lines along with a lot of heart and a number of plot twists that bend the play in different directions as it goes along.

Live Arts’ production takes place on a very nice set designed by director Becca Parker. The refrigerator and stove and sink and counter and cabinets make it clear that this is a slightly old kitchen, reinforced by the presence of a round table with matching, worn chairs around it. An archway up center leads to the rest of the house, with a closet stage right of it and a decorated Christmas tree between the closet and a door. Aside from the area above the cabinets and at the sink, the kitchen wall is stenciled beautifully with a multi-colored floral pattern. A curtain far stage left at the sink represents a window. It’s a lovely, workable set.

It can be difficult to block action in a space that has audience on three sides. I can’t truly judge how successfully Ms. Parker has navigated the challenges, since I had wonderful views of the action at all times from my seat in the center section. With a lot of dialogue occurring with four people seated around the kitchen table, I imagine some others might have had obstructed views or views of backsides for portions of the show. The last moment of the play has a joke coming from the printed title on the cover of a book, and that moment is clearly blocked to ensure the entire audience can see the title, so blocking has definitely taken the audience configuration into account.

All four cast members play their roles with intense concentration on their characters. There are a lot of funny lines, but they’re all delivered in character, with no self-consciousness "winks" at the audience. This is an ensemble show, and the actors are pretty evenly matched, although André Eaton, as son Jimmy, is a little louder and broader than his siblings, and pacing often seems a bit off around dialogue involving Minnie Tee, as the mother. Alyson Rubin plays Ruth with more low-key, self-effacing sincerity than might be expected of a young woman eager for a career in the theatre, and Alison Brady, as her bowling sister Beverly, is less crude than the character can be played, but all the performances work.

The racial mix of the cast adds an interesting spin to the play. (We have a black son, a white mother, and white sisters.) Since a strong underpinning of the mother’s character is Catholic devoutness whose intolerance for other religions borders on anti-Semitism, it’s interesting that religion is a bone of contention in this family, while race is not. It also turns out that sexual orientation is not, so the unorthodox mix of conservative and liberal views in this one family is almost refreshing.

Ms. Parker’s lighting design doesn’t call for much other than general lighting, and Bethany Bing’s costume design doesn’t call for anything out of the ordinary, but both designs work well within the context of this production. Sound design, by Ms. Parker and Mr. Eaton, also works well, although the sounds of cell phone ringing seem to come from the audience more than from the stage, leading to a momentary sinking feeling that some audience member has ignored the pre-show request to turn off noise-making devices. LaDonna Allison’s props are impressive.

"Miracle on South Division Street" is not the world’s most stereotypically Christmas-y show, with only a couple of lines indicating that the action is occurring at this time of the year. But its message of family togetherness and a merging of religious traditions warms the heart, which is just the sort of thing a successful holiday show should do.

Frosty!, by Catherine Bush (words) and Dax Dupuy (music)
NOT "Frosty the Snow Man"
Friday, December 15, 2017
Don’t expect to hear the classic holiday song "Frosty the Snow Man" in "Frosty!" the musical. Some elements of the song are included -- the coal eyes, the button nose, the magic hat, the dancing, the hollering cop -- but Catherine Bush has developed an original plot that adds some heart to the story of a snowman come to life. The songs, with music by Dax Dupuy, add to the show, but don’t overpower it. In Michael Vine’s delightful staging, only one number ends with a pose that demands applause. There’s just enough audience interaction to make the 70-minute runtime seem perfectly right.

N. Emil Thomas’ set design features an effective, if somewhat fantastical New York City skyline on the back wall, with the Statue of Liberty looming over skyscrapers. Six flats flank the stage, each painted fairly crudely with images or wording to add to the New York feel. A few platforms upstage center and a park bench down left round out the set, with a small fire and rolling pawn cart adding detail for a couple of scenes. Mr. Thomas’ light design lets everything be seen clearly.

Sound design is more problematic. Only two actors appear to be miked, and their amplification seems to fade over time. The electronic-sounding music track is played on loudspeakers whose volume often seems to be almost at the point of overwhelming the singers. At the performance I attended, crackles as if from microphones were heard at times when neither of the miked actors were onstage.

The entire cast of six take on multiple roles. Michael Vine’s costumes help greatly in helping to distinguish the roles, but Karine Simonis’ choreography also helps when mute actors portray wind and snow. Primarily, though, it’s the actors themselves who make each of their characters distinct and memorable.

Grace Haupert plays the central role of Billy, a young boy, and immediately captures the audience’s attention. Alexandra Karr, playing her social worker and, in flashback, her mother, drives the plot, as she searches in NYC for the runaway orphan Billy. Rodney Witherspoon II, as Frosty, keeps the action lively.

The other three actors excel in their multiple roles, while still impressing in their main one. Hayley Brown is great as by-the-book Officer Jones, but also garners great laughs as a Russian immigrant pawnbroker (and others). Patrick Croce has great stage presence and empathy as pushcart hotdog vendor Jack, but slips seamlessly into other roles. Cory Phelps commands the stage as homeless Irishman Paddy, but disappears into other characters in a heartbeat. Their various accents are great. They all have terrific singing voices too.

Music director Alejandro Gutierrez has honed the vocal performances to show the actors at their best, and overall director Michael Vine seems to have inspired them to sell this heartwarming story with charm, verve, and energy. I have never much cared for the song "Frosty the Snow Man." "Frosty!" is a different story, though. Its simple, effective plot and constant forward motion make it a delight for all audiences, young or old.

Another Night Before Christmas, by Sean Grennan, with music by Leah Okimoto
Miracle on Peachtree Street
Monday, December 11, 2017
Sean Grennan’s "Another Night Before Christmas" introduces us to Karol (Liza Jaine), a somewhat disgruntled social worker, as she meets a homeless man (Jeff LeCraw) on the street and offers him the leftovers from her company holiday party. He accepts, but that’s not the last she sees of him. He says he’s Santa Claus, and she attempts to get him the help he obviously needs. But is the holiday cheer-deficient Karol the one who really needs help?

ART Station’s production of this two-person play with songs has a slightly anemic feel. While the two people onstage are augmented by a talking security system and phone messages (voiceovers by Carl & Carrie Christie), there’s a thinness of the material and a lack of appeal in the songs in the first act that don’t give much promise of ultimate holiday cheer. Things get brighter in the second act, when holiday decorations overflow on Michael Hidalgo’s set and Jeanne Fore’s costumes reach their Christmas-y best. With a couple of affecting ballads ("Christmas Moon" and "Please Send Me Christmas," with music by Leah Okimoto), the second act tugs at the heartstrings and shows true holiday spirit by the final moment.

There are parallels to "Miracle on 34th Street," with a skeptical woman and a magical Santa look-alike crossing paths and crossing (figurative) swords. Since these are the only two characters, stellar performances are needed from each to make this play truly come to life. Here, Ms. Jaine and Mr. LeCraw give thoroughly acceptable performances, but there’s not a sense of them transcending the material. Nor can Patrick Hutchison’s musical direction transcend the marginal quality of the songs. Director David Thomas has done a nice job of shaping the performances and keeping the action moving, but the direction can’t transcend the material either. The proportion is a lot of set-up to a smaller amount of pay-off.

Each act starts with an outdoors scene, indicated by a bench in front of the closed red stage curtains. The curtains then open to reveal Karol’s modest apartment, with a small living room and tinier kitchen, whose track lighting above doesn’t seem to be effective except as a track. Lighting and sound effects are spot-on, with the initial reveal in the second act giving a hint of the holiday decorations soon to be seen.

This is a pleasant enough holiday show that isn’t a rehash of Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" or of a popular holiday movie. With magical performances and more appealing songs, it could be a delight. Its two-person form targets it toward smaller theaters, and that’s its primary appeal. ART Station is presenting it with a couple of Atlanta-specific references, but it’s a story that properly belongs in a more northerly climate, where -10 degree temperatures at Christmas would be more of a possibility. Still, the story has a universally American appeal for the holiday season.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart (book), Stephen Sondheim (songs)
Putting the "Ew" in "Amateur"
Monday, December 11, 2017
"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is pretty much a foolproof comedy. The songs don’t further the action, but act more as a respite from the non-stop foolishness. So even with less-than-optimal singing voices, the comedy can still come across. But, in the case of CenterStage North’s production, just barely.

The set design by Neil and Nancy Jensen is attractive, with lots of skewed angles, but doesn’t do a real good job of masking actors awaiting entrances. Jeff Costello’s lighting design illuminates the show without any real flair, with its effect of flickering LED lights drawing attention up to the ceiling instead of enhancing the action. Jonathan Liles’ sound design balances microphones and an electronic soundtrack, with the head mikes occasionally firing up a little late. Nancy Jensen’s choice as musical director to use pre-recorded tracks doesn’t work well with the majority of the soloists, who would be much more comfortable with an accompaniment that followed them than one that requires them to come in on time.

Julie Resh’s costumes are one of the highlights of the show, although the tunic for Pseudolus (Max Flick) doesn’t accommodate the objects he needs to carry in pockets or any sort of disguise when he impersonates a soothsayer. Few characters have costume changes, but the ones that occur work well in the context of the show. Carlye McLaughlin’s choreography adds movement to the production, but sometimes in odd ways, particularly in the basic ballroom dancing of Hero (John Parker) and Philia (Karina Simonis).

Nancy Jensen’s direction seems to be gauged to a level of performers far above the abilities of most of her actors. The ideas are there, but not always the execution. The most off-kilter performance comes from Mr. Parker, whose conception of his character seems to be more "Buffoon" than "Hero." It’s a shame, because the best performance comes from his love interest, played by Karina Simonis with sweetness both of character and of voice. Generally good performances also come from McKenzie McCart as Domina, Janine Myers as a Protean, and Evan Weisman as Lycus. But seeing Jeff Bennett’s lips moving to echo his cue lines as Hysterium makes it clear that this is an amateur production, through and through.

Audiences always enjoy "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" because of the comedy inherent in the script. CenterStage North isn’t doing much to enhance the script other than to add a couple of forays into the audience that delight those few audience members singled out for special attention. You have to enjoy the show, but it’s because of the show itself, not this particular production.

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Tried and Treasure Dissed
Thursday, December 7, 2017
Theatrical Outfit’s "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley" looks like it takes place in a brand-new, upscale house somewhere in Atlanta. Seamus M. Bourne’s set design has a few neoclassical elements, but none that wouldn’t look at home in a luxurious subdivision. And it all looks brand-new, with nary a sign of age to let us know this is an ancestral country estate. The grounds of Pemberley, so warmly described in "Pride and Prejudice," here are reduced to a large window looking out on a blue scrim.

The main scenic element is a Christmas tree, ostensibly taken from German tradition, but rather blatantly introduced to make this a "Christmas" show to which American audiences will relate. Other elements are doors at either side and a raised library up stage right. It works rather well, although it is a bit jarring that the first scene takes place in a different location, but using the same desk we see when the unchanged set suddenly represents Pemberley. Carolyn Cook has blocked the play to use the full stage to effect, although her scene-setting mute scenes become a bit repetitious in their constant flow of action.

Aside from the elements targeted at a modern American audiences, the show works well as a sequel to "Pride and Prejudice." The language and plot misunderstandings clearly mirror Jane Austen’s style, and characters mesh well with the ones we know from Austen’s novel (although Julissa Sabino makes for a more bubbly and frothy Elizabeth than we might be used to). The romantic complications and resolutions flow smoothly, without the jarring stylistics of Kate Hamill’s "Sense and Sensibility." Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have created a play that pays tribute to Jane Austen, but also works on its own.

Vocal coach Grant Chapman has ensured that all cast members speak in an appropriately plummy upper-class accent. With Rob Brooksher’s sound design, this is a good-sounding show, with one exception. In the performance I saw, Lee Osorio, as Darcy, at one point used a phrase like "to [name] and I." Grammatically, of course, this is incorrect. It should be "to [name] and me." If Ms. Gunderson and Ms. Melcon wrote it this way, they should be horsewhipped and driven from stages in abject shame. If Mr. Osorio decided to speak it that way (as I suspect), he should go back to the words as written in the script.

All performances work well, aided by the costumes designed by Elizabeth Rasmusson that help to delineate character. We clearly see costume distinctions in the two semi-villainesses of the piece, Lydia (Devon Hales) and Anne de Bourgh (Galen Crawley). Lydia’s first costume is as bright and cheery and rosy as she tries to be, and Anne’s is as sumptuously elegant as her airs imply. The pregnancy of Jane (the sweetly spoken Maria Rodriguez-Sager) is also clearly and stylishly shown in her costumes. Men’s costumes are their equal.

A. Julian Verner’s props impress with their period feel, and Alex Riviere’s lighting design adds atmosphere to the action. This is an elegantly stylish production, and one as brightly burnished as a sparkling Christmas ornament. Ms. Cook has inspired her cast to provide the audience with a lovely ensemble performance.

The main story involves the bookish romance of middle sister Mary (Amelia Fischer) and Arthur de Bourgh (Jonathan Horne). Ms. Fischer gives Mary lots of backbone and spunk, so we are immediately drawn to her. Mr. Horne imbues Arthur with a beautifully tentative approach to life, inhabiting the character completely and captivating the audience with equal skill. Juan Carlos Unzueta adds some comic flair as Charles Bingley, Jane’s husband. The whole production leaves a warm, holiday feel in the hearts of the audience. With the Latinx-heavy cast, though, you almost expect to see Lucy and Ricky Ricardo enter through the doors as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet arriving at Pemberley at the end of the show.

Merry Little Holiday Shorts 2017, by Daniel Guyton, Steven Kobar, Mark Harvey Levine, Greg Freier, Ron Burch, Stephen Kaplan, James C. Ferguson
Very Little Merry
Monday, December 4, 2017
You can’t blame opening-night jitters for the pacing problems in this year’s edition of "Merry Little Holiday Shorts." Maybe the fact that all the selections are retreads from previous years led complacent directors to assume short rehearsal periods would suffice. In any case, most performances pale in comparison to the original Onstage productions.

The first play, Daniel Guyton’s "Last of the Tannenbaums," is an exception, with Laura Schirmer’s performance as Bird a delight and Bobbie Elzy and Aaron Gotlieb making the play come alive as a tree and a lumberjack respectively. Director William Thurmond has staged the action to make use of a few tree stumps and evocative costumes, so the play comes off well. It seems to be just the right length.

Second is Steven Kobar’s "Regifting," which is another strong script. Charlie Miller has directed Tali Higgins and Erin Trapaga to give energetic performances as a couple of sisters confronted with the situation of needing to find a spur-of-the-moment gift for an unexpected guest, but there’s a rather stilted feel to the whole thing.

Third comes "Three Elves Sitting Around Playing Poker" by Ron Burch. Elisabeth Cooper has staged the show with nice costumes and acceptable props, but the pacing is uneven and the elf voices chosen by the three actors become grating after a while. Barry West has the lion’s share of the lines, and while he has ample stage presence, his pacing is so measured as to become plodding. Kate Guyton and Nat Martin fill their roles adequately, but give the feel of having had to come up with their performances without the aid of strong direction.

"Oh, Tannenbaum" comes fourth. Mark Harvey Levine’s script has its charms, and Aaron Gotlieb and Jack Allison give good performances, but having a second play with a talking tree gives a sameness to the proceedings. Last year, Davin Allen Grindstaff’s performance as Liebowitz lifted the bar high enough to make this show work in conjunction with "Last of the Tannenbaums." Here, with the two plays in the same act, it’s a let-down.

Last in the first act is Greg Freier’s "To Grandmother’s House We Go." DeWayne Morgan has staged the darkly quirky script nicely to evoke a car journey, aided by Charlie Miller’s sound design, but the show itself is a bit of a shambles. The cast doesn’t seem to have jelled, and the play falls flat without a consistent sense of black humor throughout.

The second act starts with Mark Harvey Levine’s "Oy Vey Maria." It’s a cute concept, with Mary’s mother visiting the stable in Bethlehem to bring a brisket and becoming miffed at seeing three wise men as guests. The show belongs to the mother (Ann), but Bobbie Elzey’s mildly funny performance just brings back memories of Shelley Barnett’s triumph in the role years ago. It’s a funny script, but the biggest laugh comes from Katy Clarke’s reading of a farewell line as the third wise man. What the show needs is spot-on comic acting in all the roles, and it isn’t getting it here.

"Deck Your Own Friggin’ Halls" is probably the best-directed show of the bunch. Googie Uterhardt has cast two sisters, Emily and Dani Toma-Harrold, in the single role of Gwendolyn. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of the script, but their rapid-fire lines and journeys into and out of perfect unison prove a highlight of the production. Blake Buhler is too young for his role, but he and the carolers don’t detract from the show. Ron Burch’s script has inappropriate profanity to get the audience laughing, but seems fairly thin overall.

Stephen Kaplan’s meandering "For Unto Us" is the next-to-last selection of the evening. Engaging performances by Katy Clarke and Barry West are marred by pacing issues and a script that takes too long to get where it’s going. Director Clay Randal’s contribution to the show is utterly invisible.

James C. Ferguson’s "Jingle Ball Rock" ends the evening. The individual performances by John King, Kate Guyton, Mike Carroll, Lory Cox, and Brian Jones are all very good, as are the costumes. Katy Clarke’s direction doesn’t seem to have driven the cast to coalesce into a true ensemble, but the cute, slight script comes through.

Mike Carroll’s lighting is fine throughout, as is Bryant Keaton’s sound operation. Charlie Miller’s sound design relies a bit heavily on abrupt transitions between songs between plays, but they clearly mark the division between one play and the next.

"Merry Little Holiday Shorts" has been a treat over the years, allowing glimpses of new works with a holiday theme. Even when not all selections have truly succeeded, the audience has had the opportunity of experiencing something brand-new. Bringing back favorites from the past might seem like a good idea, but when you’re missing the elements that made the plays favorites in the first place, it becomes a very bad idea. Better to build a time machine and go back to see the original productions.

Holiday Punch, by Katelin Wilcox, Martha Bolton, Barbara Lindsay, Steven Miller, Ron Burch, Daniel Guyton
No Punch, But Liquor Tickets Provided
Monday, December 4, 2017
On opening night, there’s bound to be a few jitters in the cast and a lack of fluidity in performance, as actors respond to their cues with momentary delays that affect the flow of the production. This was in full evidence at Lionheart Theatre’s "Holiday Punch," a collection of seven short, holiday-themed plays split by two intermissions, during which crostini from Sizzling Peach and then desserts (by Amy Szymanski and Pinching Loaves Bakery) are served. The food and the plays can supply equal amounts of enjoyment.

First up is "Hot Air" by Katelin Wilcox. Three Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade elf balloons gossip and kvetch on the day before the parade. It’s a cute concept, a bit long in execution, and leads to a sentimental ending. Director Nancy Caldwell has assembled terrific costumes and set pieces for this play, and gets good performances out of quirky Jason Bernardo and married couple Alan and Laura Lankford.

The second piece is the only one in which momentary delays in lines weren’t in evidence on opening night. That may be in part due to the structure of Martha Bolton’s "The Great Parking Space," in which a husband drives his wife around a mall parking lot in search of the perfect parking spot. Speaking while driving, of course, cannot be as fluid as a typical conversation. But then again married couple Joseph and Debbie McLaughlin elevate any material they perform. Marla Krohn has directed them to let this breezy, quirkily charming script come to sparkling life. Good costumes and props too!

After crostini, Martha Bolton’s "Store Wars" starts with a bang as Millie (Tanya Caldwell) comes to the customer complaint counter of a department store to complain about, well, a customer. Add in Sarah (Erik Dillard) coming in as a cross-complainer and Cat Roche trying to smooth the situation as a store clerk, and the entertainment factor jumps off the charts. Nona Johnson has directed the sharp script with equal sharpness, and the wigs and costumes add to the heightened enjoyability of this selection.

Next in the second act is Barbara Lindsay’s "Santa’s Little Mrs." Carla Scruggs has directed her husband Tim as Santa Claus, as he struggles to comprehend the dissatisfaction of Mrs. Claus (Holli Majors). The script goes on a bit long before the two come to an understanding. The good costuming continues in this play.

Last in the second act is Steven Miller’s "My Dad’s Advent Story." Under Doug Isbecque’s direction, youngster James Wood steals the show with his embarrassed reactions during Justin Isbecque’s narration of the time his drunken father (Paul Franchak) gave an inappropriate advent sex lecture to him when he was a boy. Props and costumes also impress in this selection.

After dessert, Ron Burch’s "Santa the Claus" takes us to a corporate office where a toy executive (Steven Cooper) is threatened by Santa (Toby Smallwood) and his hench-elf (Heather Kapp). Paul Milliken has directed it to have lots of energy, although blocking around the office desk can get a bit crowded. Ms. Kapp’s elf costume is a wonder to behold.

Last up is Daniel Guyton’s "Rosie, the Retired Rockette," in which a nursing home resident (Glory Hanna) relives her heyday as a Rockette, mistaking her daughter (Tina Barnhill) and granddaughters (Kendra Gilbert and Anna Leigh Spencer) as fellow dancers with whom she shares spicy gossip. Robert Winstead has directed Ms. Hanna to start the show with seated dance movements that clearly evoke the Rockettes, and the play moves toward its sentimental conclusion with numerous laughs along the way.

Carla Scruggs’ lights and Bob Peterson’s sound enhance the action. With a set decorated by giant candy canes and primitive Christmas tree cut-outs, there’s a holiday feel from start to finish. And when Martha Bolton’s strong scripts are enhanced by excellent direction and sterling performances, Lionheart’s "Holiday Punch" hits its heights of entertainment.

Christmas Canteen 2017, by Brandon O’Dell
Can’t E’en Complain
Friday, December 1, 2017
I shouldn’t complain. This year’s edition of Aurora’s "Christmas Canteen" has possibly the best collection of voices they’ve ever had. And yet somehow the spirit seems to have been extracted from "Christmas spirit."

Part of the problem is the hosting of the show. The married couple of Nick and Caroline Arapoglou take on the duties this year. They are both attractive, genial, personable, and talented. The banter that has been scripted for them, however, doesn’t seem to provide much opportunity for true personality to shine through. There are a few attempts at humor early on by having Nick horn in on others’ moments, in the way Brandon O’Dell has so successfully done in the past few years, but here the attempts seem half-hearted and fall flat. We have pleasant-enough hosts, but the show doesn’t seem to have been devised to show off their truly unique, individual talents. Where, for instance, is Mrs. Arapoglou’s break-out dance moment? She outshines everyone else technically in the group numbers, but that just puts a spotlight on wasted talent.

Another dispiriting part of this year’s conception is the inclusion of TV theme songs that feature video clips of show intros. The cast sings the songs well, but seeing so many now-dead icons of television history casts a pall over the whole thing. The inclusion of a Donny and Marie Osmond segment may work for fans of their lame TV variety show, but comes across as just plain lame in this rendition.

The frequent videos by Bradley Bergeron are displayed on a collection of nine large-screen TV monitors in the center of Julie Allardice Ray’s set. The videos are professionally curated, but all too frequent. And when we get to the military anthem medley near the end of the show, we’re shown faces of veterans with the borders of the nine screens forming bars across their eyes and mouths, leaving just noses to behold.

Otherwise, the set is lovely, with a collection of wood circles that suggest both snowflakes and gears. The band is up center, so they can be seen without being too much in view. Stair segments allow a variety of set-ups for various numbers. There’s plenty of bare stage to allow dancing, and the circular design is enhanced by a painting on the stage floor, balanced by a large wooden circle hanging above the stage that almost looks like a reflection of the large circle upstage in which the video screens reside.

Music director Ann-Carol Pence has done her usual fine job, giving us excellent accompaniment and splendid and splendidly balanced harmonies. The vocals are superb in the a cappella selections that start the second act, although they are justified lamely in the script by having a mock power failure interrupt the show to end the first act. Jen MacQueen’s choreography is lively and certainly not beyond the capabilities of the cast. She reserves the big dance solo for her own tap number. My favorite bit was the rousing "Deck the Halls a Plenty" in the first act.

Bradley Bergeron’s lighting is fine, as is Rob Brooksher’s sound design. Alan Yeong’s costumes are more of a mixed bag. Some of the holiday-themed costumes are terrific, but the less festive ones are less remarkable. Many show off what looks like a disfiguring tattoo on the left shoulder of Ms. MacQueen. But while many jokes are made about her age (older than the rest of the cast), no mention is made of the tattoo.

There’s another significant omission in the show. Video clips are presented of several performers from previous Aurora shows, wishing all a happy holiday. These clips are targeted toward regular Aurora attendees, who will remember these actors, and would probably be of little interest to out-of-town guests. But where is a clip from Brandon O’Dell? He is credited as writer of this year’s show and has hosted the past several iterations, but his absence this year is not remarked upon.

There’s a cute bit in the video clips where the sound is faded out by sound board operator Andrew Cleveland as his parents (Mary Lynn Owen and Rob Cleveland) tell an embarrassing story about him. At the performance I attended, though, the clip also started with the volume muted. The joke fell flat when the sound volume was obviously turned up, then down. There were also several instances of a mike’s sound level being adjusted upward after the first few words of an actor’s song or line.

There’s tons of talent on stage. Christian Magby gets to play the piano, which he does as expertly as he sings. Lyndsay Ricketson Brown shows off her acrobatic skills on the silks (although somewhat incongruously to a rendition of West Side Story’s "Somewhere" by the immensely charismatic Chani Maisonet). Cecil Washington, Jr. gets to do a gender-reversed version of "Don’t Rain on My Parade" (as Mr. Magby does with "And I Am Telling You"). The ensemble (Daisean Garrett, Cheyanne Osoria, and Benjamin Strickland) also come off well, although Mr. Strickland’s excellent singing and fine dancing aren’t accompanied by the easy stage presence all the others possess.

Co-directors Anthony P. Rodriguez and Jen MacQueen have created a version of "Christmas Canteen" that revisits many of the tried-and-true elements of past revisions, while adding new bits that in general fall flat. There’s tremendous talent and fine performances, but the whole thing has a slick professional veneer that covers a lack of heart and true Christmas spirit.

The Gift of the Magi 2.0, by N. Emil Thomas
Close Enough
Friday, November 17, 2017
N. Emil Thomas’ "The Gift of the Magi 2.0" expands O. Henry’s short story and sets it following the Atlanta transit strike of 1950. In order to support this expansion, it invents the characters of Robert Harvey (N. Emil Thomas), the proprietor of a vintage jewelry store, and his wife Millie Harvey (Karnia Lake), whose beauty salon advertises that it buys hair. It also concludes the story with Jim (Dee Jordan) and Della Dillingham (Noelle Strong) being rewarded monetarily for the sacrifices they have made for one another. To stretch the show to two acts, we are also shown vintage television commercials and listen to the females sing a couple of holiday songs in character. It all works remarkably well.

The set by director/playwright/actor N. Emil Thomas takes pains to duplicate a 1950 feeling. The Dillingham kitchen at stage right contains a vintage stove and features an old-fashioned ironing board and flatiron. The Harvey living room at stage left contains a lovely antique mantle and chic décor. Upstage in the center a three-sided platform can be rotated to show a projection screen, the Harvey jewelry store, or Millie’s beauty salon. Downstage center the stage is painted with multi-colored rectangles that act as a counterpart to the brick walls of the Dillingham residence. It’s a very nice set that works well to support the action, and Mr. Thomas’ lighting design deftly illuminates the portions of the stage on which action is taking place.

There are some visual elements, however, that break the illusion of 1950, such as the hairstyles of Mr. Thomas and Ms. Lake and a Corning Ware dish (first introduced in 1958, with a design probably from the 70’s). More anachronisms occur in Kathryn Allen’s sound design. Many of the holiday recordings played are of songs written after 1950, and not necessarily in their original arrangements. Some are close enough to give a period feel (such as 1951’s "Silver Bells" and 1953’s "Santa Baby"), but there is one dance tune that seems wildly out of period, and Ms. Strong’s rendition of "Mary, Did You Know?," while lovely, is of a song from 1991. Sound quality sometimes is poor, particularly in an early faux radio broadcast, and the television video is obviously being streamed on a computer, complete with navigation bars and lag indicators.

Direction by N. Emil Thomas and Cydnei Prather gets the story across, although there is one mime scene between Harvey and Jim that seems baffling on first view. Jim, a streetcar driver, appears to be trying a starter switch, opening an engine compartment, and twisting wires together. The dialogue that follows suggests that there was a traffic jam. Other slightly off elements stem from the script, with the chance meeting between wealthy Millie and laundress Della somewhat unbelievably leading to a dinner invitation, and with the relationship between Jim and Harvey veering from contentious to harmonious with little transition. Still, give the directors credit for telling the story in an innovative way.

Acting is adequate all around, with Ms. Strong giving perhaps the most assured performance. The storyline nicely intertwines the stories of the Dillinghams and Harveys, and holiday spirit imbues the whole production. You could do far worse than attending "The Gift of the Magi 2.0" to get into the holiday spirit.

Arden of Faversham, by Anonymous & William Shakespeare
True Crime
Friday, November 17, 2017
"Arden of Faversham" is perhaps the first true crime drama, based on a 1551 murder in which an unfaithful wife and her lover conspired to have her husband killed. The play was written 40 years later, probably with William Shakespeare participating as one of the writers.

In Resurgens’ production, with a script edited by Brent Griffin, based on the 1592 quarto edition, we get right down to business. We see the virtuous Arden (Robert Bryan Davis) and his friend Franklin (Joseph Kelly) discussing Arden’s wife Alice (Sims Lamason) and the groomsman Mosby (Stuart McDaniel) with whom she is inordinately friendly. The illicit lovers and Greene (Tamil Periasamy), whose lands were deeded to Arden by an act of the king, all want him dead. Michael (Matthew Trautwein), Arden’s servant, is in love with Mosby’s sister (Mary Abbott), and is promised to her by the lovers if he assists in a plot to murder Arden. Two ruffians, Black Will (Brent Griffin) and Shakebag (Jim Wall) are hired to carry out the killing.

The two main characteristics of the play are pretense and black comedy. Alice pretends her kisses are just a ploy to test the loyalty of her husband or lover (depending on who sees her kissing whom), and Mosby harbors secret plans to take over all of Arden’s property. The comedy comes from the ruffians’ botched attempts to kill Arden, which result in pratfalls as they make attempt after attempt, following Arden from Faversham to London and back. When the murder finally succeeds, it’s only with the participation of Alice and Mosby. The late arrival of the Mayor (Eric Brooks, although he made a premature entrance on opening night) resolves the plot with all the evil-doers punished.

Lighting is a steady candle glow, as called for by the original practices of the company, and the set is the standard New Shakespeare Tavern set-up, with a couple of sets of stairs truncated to allow access to doors. One modern touch is the use of stage fog, which is used to fine effect, snaking out across the floor to conceal an open trapdoor into which the ruffians fall on one of their murder attempts. Another modern touch is Matthew Trautwein’s original music, but it is performed in period style, with a delightful comic interlude using recorder, oboe, and tambour to punctuate a verse.

One aspect of original practice missing in this production is vocal projection. While dialogue is usually understandable, volume in intimate scenes sometimes falls to a near-whisper. Costumes, by Catherine Thomas and Anné Carole Butler, give a true feel for the period, although the actors tend not to have legs of their knickers pulled to an even length on both legs. Props are good, and Tamil Periasamy’s fight choreography is effective.

Brent Griffin’s blocking keeps the actors visible most of the time, although a couple of forays into the audience late in the two-hour running time may hide them from front-row audience members. His direction gives a nice flow to the show, but the ruffians aren’t broadly comic enough for my taste.

Performances are good, although Eric Brooks was not off book on opening night and it appeared that Matthew Trautwein was hesitating on his lines more than the nervousness of his character would warrant. Tamil Periasamy is as well-spoken as ever, and Sims Lamason certainly captures the qualities of an attractive female who can twist men around her little finger. Robert Bryan Davis is too stolid a presence to be totally believable as the passive victim of cuckoldry, and Stuart McDaniel is not quite passionate enough to score as the lover. This play definitively belongs to the female lead, and Ms. Lamason makes every moment count.

"Arden of Faversham" is easier to follow than many of Shakespeare’s works (likely due in part to Mr. Griffin’s editing), although the frequent pretenses tend to act as a form of misdirection. The feeling is Elizabethan, but more of the pulp fiction variety than of Shakespearean poetry. A scene between Alice and Mosby in the middle of the play, though, suddenly rings with the cadences of Shakespeare’s voice. The play may not be Shakespeare’s alone, but it’s a worthy production making its Atlanta debut several centuries after it was written.

Morningside, by Topher Payne
Not Morningside Heights
Monday, November 13, 2017
In a Topher Payne formula that harkens back to "Beached Wails," "Morningside" starts with an uproariously funny first act that introduces us to a quasi-dysfunctional group of women, then devolves in the second act to more serious discussions, primarily in two-person scenes. It’s not a bad formula at all, but tends to stretch out the proceedings a little longer than one might wish.

A gimmick in this male-written production is that the creative team and cast are all women. Kat Conley has created a lovely, upscale home centered around the kitchen, albeit with an odd angle in the upscale wall and with a valence of foliage and tree branches that Piper Kirchhofer’s lighting design illuminates too clearly (illuminating all the action nicely too). Kacie Willis’ sound design doesn’t have a lot to do, but does it well. Emmie Tuttle’s costumes are appropriate for all the characters, inappropriate as they might be for attendance at a baby shower.

Shannon Eubanks has blocked the action to keep everyone in the large cast clearly in view at all times, aided by the multi-level set design. Her greater achievement, though, is assembling nine phenomenal comic actresses into a cohesive ensemble. Not everyone is cast according to her typical strengths, with Gina Rickicki, capable of supremely idiosyncratic silliness, giving as constrained a performance as I’ve ever seen from her, and with naturally elegant Kate Donadio playing her wackily contentious sister. I could easily imagine those two swapping roles in an equally successful production. Then too I could imagine LaLa Cochran and Shelly McCook swapping roles, Kelly Criss and Stacy Melich swapping, and Ellen McQueen and Ann Wilson swapping, with no diminution of quality. Keena Redding Hunt, as the sole black in the cast, couldn’t swap roles without affecting the relationships described in the script.

Act one sets up the situation of a baby shower, hosted by the baby’s future grandmother, that is occurring in the immediate aftermath of the grandmother splitting from her husband. We get introduced to all the characters with tons of funny lines that inspire laugh after laugh. It is only when the last character is introduced (the wacky sister played by Ms. Donadio) that a true plot conflict is introduced. We get to a highpoint of contention, and then the act ends.

Act two continues from the same spot, but trades barbs and gags for humor-tinged, serious discussion of issues like abortion, failed IVF procedures, debilitating disease, suicide, racism, and failures of friendship, motherhood, career, and marriage. It’s a litany of heavy stuff that seems intended to give the play some heft and contemporary relevance. It’s a bit too much of a contrast to the situation comedy fluff of the first act, but all relationships are resolved satisfactorily. Enough funny lines are sprinkled in to lighten the heaviest moments, and enough emotional resonance is invested in the characters’ relationships to keep their interactions engaging. It’s a deftly written comedy that has been packing in the audiences in another Topher Payne/Shannon Eubanks triumph.

Into the Woods, by James Lapine (book), Stephen Sondheim (songs)
Into the Stratosphere
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Sondheim’s score for "Into the Woods" is full of intricate choral numbers for the ensemble. Under John-Michael d’Haviland’s musical direction, these are the vocal highlights of Act3’s production. Under the joint direction of Michelle Davis and Johnna Barrett Mitchell, comedy is the highlight of James Lapine’s book. The whole creates a delightful production that is entrancing audiences.

The structure of the show leads to a "happily ever after" ending for the first act, intertwining a number of well-known fairytales into the new tale of a baker and his wife. The second act turns darker, as a giantess enters the realm of the story and spreads death and destruction, leaving just a small band of survivors to carry on. Given the emphasis on comedy in this production, the first act fares better than the second.

The set design by Will Brooks and Morgan McCrary Brooks expands the playing space to the full width of the Act3 auditorium, making room for the nine-piece orchestra to the left side of the audience, high above the action. The back wall of the set is a series of bookshelves with slender vines growing across them. Three enormous, misshapen trees are spread across the playing space, with the middle one containing a large knothole through which spectral figures can be seen and heard (with Ben Sterling’s sound design adding an echo to produce a ghostly effect). Far left is a painted bookshelf that reveals itself in one scene to be a Murphy bed, which is used to great effect in that scene. Otherwise, the bookshelves are extraneous set dressing, only coming into play when the giantess’ footsteps cause reverberations that result in a few shelves falling and spilling books.

Choreography, presumably by the directors, is pretty basic, but works well for the larger numbers. The choreography seems artificial in smaller numbers, though, although it is well-executed, particularly by Summer McCusker and Lauren Rosenzweig as Little Red Riding Hood and the Baker’s Wife, respectively.

Mari Braswell’s costumes are generally good, but Cinderella’s well-fitting gowns have a tendency to look like thrift store prom dresses, while the other gowns seem rather shapeless, and there’s not an overall design sensibility that comes through. Wigs are only so-so, with the exception of Ms. McCusker’s blonde ringlets that bob along delightfully as she skips across the stage. Lynn Taylor’s hairstyle as Cinderella’s Mother is totally modern and consequently totally out of step with all other hairstyles. Mary Sorrel’s props fill the bill, with the prop animals (two cows and a hen) adding special bits of charm.

David Reingold’s lighting design is ambitious, with green lights illuminating the trees and red lights highlighting elements of danger. In the opening scenes, action takes place across a number of settings, and the lighting follows the action, illuminating one section of the stage or another, as appropriate. Later, as action moves across the stage, the sequential illumination of one section after another becomes clunky, simulating the effect of a spotlight, but not altogether successfully.

The directors have tailored the production to make the best use of actors’ talents. Hannah Marie Craton’s voice as Rapunzel is a bit shrill and unpleasant, and other characters’ reactions to it let us know it’s not only the audience that finds it that way. Ms. Rosenzweig and Sophie Decker (the Witch) throw in seeming ad libs that mesh beautifully with their characters, and that have been integrated into the action to highlight them, with one delightful, oft-repeated bit showing no one helping Ms. Rosenzweig up after she curtseys.

The show is filled with fine performances. Ms. Rosenzweig and Ms. Decker, in her half-mask as the ugly witch, spark each scene in the first act in which they appear. Ms. McCusker makes for a charming Little Red Ridinghood who also draws full attention when she’s onstage. Aaron Hancock is endearingly inept as Jack, and Reese Witherspoon look-alike Maggie Taylor enchants as Cinderella, really coming into her own in the more dramatic moments of the second act as her silken voice soars in song.

There are no horrible performances, although Stephen DeVillers (Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf) and Scott Christopher (Rapunzel’s Prince) are directed to play more broadly than I would prefer and Stephen Spainhour-Roth mugs outrageously with a flask and doesn’t project in the tiny role of Cinderella’s father (although his costume may be the best in the show).

Sound is problematic, with distracting crackles in the amplification and uneven sound levels among actors’ headsets. Particularly in the second act, when the dwindling cast size results in more solos than ensemble numbers, some vocal strain can be detected that might have been avoided if more balanced sound levels had been used. The orchestra generally sounds good, although some sickly reed sounds were in evidence late in the production I attended. Particularly in Ms. Rosenzweig’s songs, the accompaniment tended to lag a bit from the pace in which she started.

Act3 consistently puts on fine productions, and "Into the Woods" is no exception. There’s a lot of sparkle and verve in the performances, some excellent singing, and a lot of effort has been put into the technical elements. Expect multiple MAT nominations for this show in the 2017/8 season.

Cardboard Piano, by Hansol Jung
Pika, Paul, and Marry
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Hansol Jung’s "Cardboard Piano" covers some of the same ground as Danai Gurira’s "Eclipsed," showing us the effects of civil war on African child soldiers. Whereas Ms. Gurira’s play focuses on the wives of a rebel commander, Ms. Jung’s play focuses on the interaction between a white Christian missionaries’ daughter and an African child soldier who has been physically assaulted by a rebel commander. It has more of the feel of fiction than does "Eclipsed," relying as it does on the symbol of a cardboard piano.

The introduction of the idea of a miniature cardboard piano occurs at a quiet spot in the action-filled first act. At first, it seems like a fairly pallid emblem for humankind’s ability to fix things. Its repetition (with variation) in the second act has more power, reinforced by the physical manifestation of a cardboard piano late in the act. But it all has the artificial feel of a well-told story, with a bit of LGBT moralizing to top it off.

The play takes place in two acts, 14 and a half years apart. The three main characters of the first act (Chris, Adiel, and Pika) are supposed to be teenagers. In the second act, the same three actors appear, but as older individuals. Casting for this sort of show is problematic, and Actor’s Express hasn’t successfully navigated the problem. The actors are obviously older than teenagers in the first act, yet aren’t quite old enough in the second act.

Nor does Kat Conley’s set navigate the 14.5 year gap well. In the first act, we’re supposedly inside a church with a hole blasted in its roof. That’s not what we see. The brick back wall has windows with prison bars and a door. It looks like we’re in a courtyard, an effect strengthened by the sideways benches and blanket on the ground at the start, as if for a refugee’s shelter or a nighttime picnic. The "hole" in the roof is clearly an empty window frame inside a suspended structure resembling roof trusses and a skylight. It’s functional, but that’s about it. Rebecca Makus’ dim lighting suggests an outside setting.

In the second act, the prison bars have been replaced with windows, a skylight has been installed in the roof, and the lockable door has been replaced with louvered folding doors. With a pulpit and with benches and with brighter lighting, it looks more like the inside of a church. Still, the louvered doors give the impression of an entrance from one room to another, while the windows in the same wall suggest the door is to the outside. Architecturally, the set doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The thrust stage, with audience on three sides, also presents blocking problems. Director Karen Robinson has staged most scenes with a stationary actor whose back is toward one section of the audience almost the whole time. I assume Ashley Anderson (playing Chris, the missionaries’ daughter) has a face, but I could hardly tell in the first act from my position in the audience. It’s jarring that only the curtain call has been staged to take the full audience into account. Actors bow on the diagonal to one side of the audience (but pretty clearly visible to everyone), then cross the stage to bow in the opposite direction. If only the entire play had been blocked with the same considerations!

Sydney Lenoir Roberts’ costumes are fine, lending a more youthful air to the actors in the first act than in the second, but costumes can’t take the place of age-appropriate actors inhabiting them. David Sterrit’s fight choreography is more than fine, adding real excitement to the first act. Jan Wikstrom’s dialect coaching has helped create believable African-inflected speech patterns that aren’t difficult for American ears to understand (although Rob Demery’s consistent pronunciation of "soldier" as three syllables in both acts doesn’t make enough of a distinction between the two roles he is playing). Ryan Bradburn’s special make-up, on the other hand, isn’t altogether successful. Ms. Jung’s script calls for two actors to show the effects of having had an ear cut off, and that’s just not possible in any realistic manner.

Performances are generally good, taking into account that only one actor (Mr. Demery) is an appropriate age for his characters in the two acts. Ashley Anderson has gamine-like coltishness in the first act as Chris, transitioning to a more somber 30-year-old in the second. Isake Akanke is a charming presence in both acts, and Stephen Ruffin plays teens in both acts with innocence and heartbreaking emotion. Rob Demery is a commanding presence, as a rebel commander in the first act and a preacher in the second act, but fails to seem believable in his big emotional breakdown in act two. That adds to the impression that this story is a playwright’s fiction.

Hymn singing starts both acts and ends the show. Dr. Oral Moses, the musical director, has gotten fairly good balance among the four voices, but has the singers take a unison breath in the middle of a phrase that throws off the syntax. It’s another touch of artificiality that firmly grounds this production in the realm of neatly tied-up fiction.

Midsummer Nights’ Spell , by J.K. Winters
Casting a Spell and Coming Up Empty
Sunday, November 12, 2017
J.K. Winters’ "Midsummer Nights’ Spell" pays homage to Shakespeare’s similarly-titled comedy in little ways -- the rhymed couplets that start and end each act, a reference to "mustardseed" -- but the play itself is hardly Shakesperean in scope or quality. We are introduced to a mother (Anna House), her son (John Zincone), her daughter-in-law (Paige Steadman), her daughter (Lory Cox), and her son-in-law (Edward Davis) as they relax at the daughter’s house following the wedding of a grandson. Costumes suggest that they’ve changed following the wedding.

We are presented with five contrasting personalities. The mother is a word-perfect type, with wide-ranging knowledge and an unswerving Christian faith. Her daughter is a new age shaman, while the daughter’s husband is skeptical of all religion. Her son is a man of few words, and her daughter-in-law is an uneducated woman who becomes confused by the religious conversation that it is obvious will eventually ensue.

First, though, we have to watch the family members play the Scrabble-like game Upwords and discuss going to the touring "Bodies" exhibit, which shows flayed human bodies, preserved with resin, posed in artistic ways. It’s not terribly interesting, and feels like being trapped in a house where other people are playing games and relaying their impressions of a museum visit while you sit helplessly by, mute but polite. The main takeaway from the first act, aside from the general situation and the different personality traits, is that the daughter-in-law misuses words egregiously while the mother is a stickler for correct usage and spelling.

The set, designed by James Beck and Cathy Seith, with construction help from James Nelson, portrays a cozy living room in the first act. There are dream-catcher touches to the décor and it has a lived-in look. For the second act, the set is redone as a funeral parlor, complete with coffin, flowers, and institutional stackable chairs. Before the act starts, it’s unclear who might be dead. We see a portrait of the daughter on the upstage wall. Has she died? We see an Upwords board filled with the interlocked phrase "I will always misspell." That suggests the daughter-in-law. When the act starts, we learn that it is the mother who has died, from a stroke, and that the portrait of the daughter is the mother’s favorite of all the paintings she’s done (although it’s pretty clearly a photograph in this staging). The black costumes reinforce the idea that this is a funeral, but it becomes obvious that this is a family meeting and informal rehearsal before the actual funeral service.

The second act requires some technical magic as the dead mother appears onstage, invisible to the others, and causes poltergeist-like activity. The effects are nicely handled, but don’t really go anywhere. We have the daughter feeling the presence of spirits in the room and the son-in-law seeing a visual manifestation of the mother in the parking lot, but it’s all wrapped up with a speech from the daughter-in-law about the bonds of family. It’s a rather abrupt ending to a short play.

The biggest unresolved issue in the play, though, is why the mother, so punctilious when alive in the first act, starts misusing words in the second act, while the daughter-in-law’s speech pattern undergo the opposite transformation. Have mini-strokes in the interval between the two acts altered the mother’s faculties? Has there been some sort of transference between life and after-life? There’s no explicit explanation, and I found it baffling and consequently unsatisfying.

James Beck’s lighting design and his sound design (with assistant director Brandi Kilgore) are fine, but his direction leaves a lot to be desired. The cast doesn’t seem as if it has jelled, and frequent line bobbles are covered up adequately, but give a choppy rhythm to the flow. Blocking is constrained by the small size of the stage and the large amount of furniture, and also by a script that requires actors to sit and play a board game onstage.

"Midsummer Nights’ Spell" combines a weak script with a weak production. Actors are well-cast and have great stage presence individually, but the whole production seems imbued with flop sweat, as if the actors know this isn’t a strong script and they aren’t giving their most intensely satisfying performances. All the pieces seem to be there, but sometimes in a production the pieces don’t all come together. Compare it to a game of Upwords, where the playwright keeps attempting to force incorrect words onto the board, and the actors and director are forced to make it all seem right.

Fences, by August Wilson
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Troy Maxson is one hard-nosed S.O.B. After leaving his cotton-picking family at 14, he was a tomcat with the women and a petty thief in his youth, then spent 15 years in prison for murder during a botched hold-up. He played baseball in the Negro leagues; fathered a couple of sons, before and after his stint in prison; then married, settled down, and now works as what is today called a sanitation engineer. The first act shows him attempting to get his union to allow blacks to be drivers, not just manual laborers. This is not a plot-driven play, though, and we don’t see how he has become a driver, despite his lack of reading skills and a driver’s license.

What the play focuses on is his family relations. He has a loving relationship with his wife, although his catting-around days may not be fully behind him, but his relations with the males in his family are far less loving. His brother Gabriel was brain damaged in World War II, and Troy’s arms-length caring for him tends to be more self-serving than careful. He has no truck with his sons’ ambitions. Older son Lyons dreams of making a living as a musician, but Troy sees him as nothing but a payday mooch, even when Lyons attempts to repay a loan, and ignores Lyons’ requests for his father to come hear him play at a respected nightclub. Younger son Cory, still in high school, wants to play football, for which he has been offered a college scholarship, but Troy insists he quit the team and get a job, then throws him out altogether. Troy is not anyone’s ideal of a father; he’s not much of a husband either, taking years to make any progress on building the fence his wife wants to surround their property.

The action plays out over several years, with the first act occurring during the 16th year of his marriage to Rose. The second act starts a few years later, and carries us through several more years, with a six-year gap before the final scene. As a play, it’s on the long side. Subtle age make-up (mostly graying of hair) helps establish the timeline, although one orange dress worn by Rose in both the first act and the second act tends to counteract the timeline.

The set of the Independent Artists’ Playhouse production is simple, but functional. Center stage is taken up by the porch of a modest house, a couple of chairs on the porch itself and a couple more on the ground in front of it. Sawhorses and pieces of wood for the fence are stage right; a clothesline is stage left. The lighting scheme clearly illuminates the area in front of the porch and the center of the porch itself. The sides of the porch, though, including the doorway, are in shadow. Steps backstage from the porch down to the stage floor are directly behind the door, although they would better have been placed to descend behind the façade. The floorboards on the porch are just loose enough to suggest age, and the post by the stairs is a bit rickety too. This is a house that has been cared for, but on which no money has been lavished.

Director Kevin Harry has done a wonderful job of shaping the play to bring out the story, and also a wonderful job of blocking the action to seem natural, yet to allow the audience to see reactions flickering on the faces of everyone onstage. And the performances verge on the phenomenal. Leiloni Arrie Pharms is a self-assured, well-spoken child in the final scene. Charlie T. Thomas pulls at the heartstrings with his sensitive portrayal of child-like Gabriel. Darrell Grant grounds the action as Troy’s pal Jim Bono, and Jared Brodie adds a street-smooth vibe as older son Lyons.

The central relationships in the play are of Troy with his wife Rose and his younger son, Cory. Marcus Hopkins-Turner brings a scorching intensity to Troy, raging and battling against all obstacles he encounters, including death. Britny Horton is a marvel as Rose, her incandescent smile in the first act slowly disappearing as life wears down on her, her reactions to what is happening onstage often as eloquent as her words. Jael Pettigrew does the most profoundly satisfying job of aging in the show, being totally believable both as a petulant, defiant teen in the early sections and as a disciplined six-year Marines veteran in the final scene. It’s his journey that is the most moving.

"Fences" showcases the supreme talents of August Wilson as a writer, of Kevin Harry as a director, and of the entire cast as actors. The Independent Artists’ Playhouse production clearly shows us the emotional fences Troy Maxson has thrown up as a defense against what he perceives as external threats, but that wall him off from the love his family offers that could be his inside a simple, picket-fenced cottage.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor, by Neil Simon
Laughter in Every Seat of the House
Monday, November 6, 2017
Neil Simon’s "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is inspired by his time working as a writer for Sid Caesar’s "Show of Shows" alongside Mel Brooks and other top-notch comedy writers. It’s a tremendously funny play, with a cast of wacky characters and with jokes and funny lines abounding. When the cast is filled with as fine a set of actors as at Lionheart, the comedy comes through with flying colors and the laughs are pretty much non-stop.

Richard Diaz’s set design makes full use of the width of the Lionheart stage, with doors down stage right and up left. The furniture includes a weighty desk, a bookcase, a coffee station, and a round table surrounded by matching chairs that may not be period (1953), but that certainly have a mid-century feel. The walls are partitioned with vertical black stripes, with one center section that has a non-working clock protruding a tiny bit. Since breaking a hole in the wall is an important action in the play, and since the hole must be repaired for each performance, my initial thought was that this protruding section was where the hole would be. It’s not. Instead, the hole is on one side of the set, where the right-angled wall can’t be seen clearly by all sections of the audience.

Gary White’s lighting design isn’t complex, with general lighting the norm. We do, however, have spotlight effects for narration monologues and a light-up Christmas tree. Rebecca Spring’s costumes do a wonderful job of setting the period and adding visual interest. Carla Scruggs’ props too add to the visual appeal.

Bob Peterson’s sound design isn’t complex either, but starts the show off with a news recording about Joseph McCarthy and the blacklist, the NBC theme, and some music from blacklisted artists. Although the soundscape isn’t complex, it’s effective. All technical elements are designed to support the play itself, without drawing unnecessary attention to themselves.

Jeremy King has done a terrific job of blocking the large cast on the relatively small stage and of eliciting fine performances all around. Some are funnier than others, with Hannah Musall as Helen being the least funny of all (which is sorta the whole point of her character). A few are over the top, but in ways driven by character and not by oversized actorly egos. This is a true ensemble piece, and everyone gets a chance to shine.

Accents are wonderful throughout. Not everyone has one, and some of the New York inflections are slight, but they are consistent from start to finish. Grant Carden has a glorious Russian-Yiddish accent as head writer Val Slotsky, and Alex Parkinson delights with his Irish brogue. Face it, everyone delights.

Loren Collins’ gives us a hypochondriac Ira Stone who demands attention at every turn. Paul Milliken makes Milt Fields a natural funnyman who has to convert everyone else’s comments into a straight line for his punch lines (quantity over quality!), but shows humorous vulnerability after making a wardrobe faux pas. Bridger Trent centers the play as new hire Lucas Brickman, and his real-life father, Jackson Trent, brings a cool California vibe as Kenny Franks. Brittany Walker may not be a rubber-faced comedienne as Carol Wyman, but she ably fills the role of den mother to this group of foul-mouthed jokesters.

The plot revolves around Max Prince (Jerry Knoff), the Sid Caesar of the comedy show the writers work for. We don’t get to see much of his on-screen behavior other than rehearsal for a Marlon Brando "Julius Caesar" parody. His off-screen behavior, though, screams "dysfunction." Mr. Knoff’s portrayal leans more to the ponderous than the manic, but he definitely gives the impression of a boisterous boss who makes others tremble in his presence, yet inspires tremendous loyalty.

"Laughter on the 23rd Floor" may have can’t-miss comic lines, but that doesn’t mean it’s a can’t-miss comedy. Without distinct, powerful performances all around, it could easily fade into mediocrity. And Lionheart’s production is not mediocre at all. It’s a funny, funny show being given a fine production that results in laughs, laughs, laughs.

Miss Nelson Is Missing!, by Joan Cushing
Confusing Miss Nelson
Monday, November 6, 2017
The children’s musical "Miss Nelson Is Missing!" tells the story of a sweet teacher who is cursed with a class of misbehaving children (a.k.a. brats). When substitute teacher Viola Swamp shows up in place of Miss Nelson, the children are forced into obedience that continues once Miss Nelson returns. The musical score starts and ends with a paean to the children’s school (Horace B. Smedley Elementary School), with a number of sprightly numbers in between.

The twist in the show is that Viola Swamp is really Miss Nelson (Angelica K. Spence) in disguise. That’s not entirely clear in the script, as evidenced by a talk-back session after the show in which multiple children in the audience seemed confused by this plot point. Part of the problem is that one actor (JD Myers) plays multiple distinct roles, so the theatrical assumption would be that even if one actress is playing two roles, they are meant to be distinct individuals. With distinct wigs and with Mariana Wegener’s astounding costume for Viola Swamp, there is so little similarity between Miss Nelson and Viola Swamp that sung words about a "secret" as Miss Nelson shows Viola Swamp’s blouse on a hanger comes across as much too subtle.

Joan Cushing’s script shows us four bratty children (the perky, talented ensemble of Erik Poger Abrahamsen, Shelli Delgado, Robert Lee Hindsman, and Asia Howard) and threatening or ineffective authority figures. It’s not exactly filled with upstanding role models. As such, it’s got a fairly muddled message.

Erin Bushko has directed a lively production on a fairly simple set. Jon Nooner’s set design consists of fabric screens upstage, two multi-sided columns, a rolling desk chair, and gray oblong boxes that serve as desks and seating. The boxes are repositioned and the columns rotated for various scenes, as cast members clear or set Julian Verner’s varied collection of props. The action flows smoothly.

Performances are good across the board, although the antic misbehavior of the four children can become a bit grating, and Shelli Delgado’s harmonies sometimes sound a trifle off. JD Myers gets to show the most range as a series of male adult figures, which he does with energetic brio and a terrific voice. Ms. Spence creates two entirely different characters as sweet Miss Nelson and buffoonishly evil Viola Swamp, perhaps too successfully, given the confusion of some children that they are meant to be the same person in two disguises.

Arielle Geller’s choreography nicely shows off the performers’ abilities, and Spencer Stephens’ music direction gets good sound out of the actors, although song accompaniments have a bit too much of a synth sound. There’s enough noise and activity onstage to keep children’s attention, but the optimal viewer is probably someone already familiar with Harry Allard’s book, upon which the musical is based.

Verdict, by Agatha Christie
Accents All Over the Place
Sunday, November 5, 2017
"Verdict" is not one of Agatha Christie’s most-produced plays, and with good reason. It’s not a murder mystery; we see the murder taking place at the end of the first act, but the perpetrator tries to frame it as a suicide. After confessing to a single person in the second act, the perpetrator is killed in a traffic accident. When the death is ruled a murder, an innocent person is arrested and brought to trial. What will the jury’s verdict be?

The action all takes place in the apartment of Professor Karl Hendryk (Rick Perera). Elisabeth Cooper’s set design gives us a large room with arched openings up right and down left, a picture window up left center. The walls are brown, blemished with darker blotches in no particular pattern on the open sections of wall. Shabby-elegant furnishings include several bookcases, a sofa center stage, and a desk up left. Liane LeMaster’s excellent props fill up the bookcases and spill onto the furniture. The view from the picture window just shows us a blue background with shadows of the muntins separating the panes of the window rather than anything evocative of the location.

David Reingold’s lighting provides the brightest illumination for people seated on the sofa. That works pretty well for the first act, where people tend to sit on the sofa, but creates bands of bright and dim light that people are constantly walking through in the second act. The few lighting effects in the show seem clumsy. Lights dim as the first act is approaching a close, then brighten and dim again, accompanied by portentous music.

Amy Morrow’s sound design goes for the loud. Music selections are appropriate, if a bit campy, but fill up scene changes with such volume that it robs scene endings of applause. There also seemed to be an extraneous gunshot sound at the performance I attended, when no one is shot in the play.

Lauren Sakryd has supplied some nice costumes, but the time period of the play is unclear. Agatha Christie wrote "Verdict" in 1958, and the women’s costumes would suggest the 1950’s, but the hairstyle and clothing of Lester Cole (Taylor Ballard) would suggest the late 1960’s or beyond.

The technical elements all suggest a light directorial touch by Elisabeth Cooper that has failed to correct less-than-optimal design features. The same applies to performances, and especially the welter of accents with which the cast attempts to contend, with very limited success. Rick Perera has a wonderful, consistent German accent as Professor Hendryk. His cousin Lisa Koletzky (Karina Balfour), on the other hand, has a nicely consistent Polish-tinged accent. His sickly wife Anya (Courtney Loner) has American speech patterns tinged with occasional words in a vaguely Eastern European accent. What country have these refugees come from? We’re never told, and we certainly can’t tell from the accents we hear.

Other cast members have American speech patterns with occasional British pronunciations, such as Stephen Banks’ English as Sir William Rollander, Adam Bailey’s Scottish as Dr. Stoner, and Victoria Wilson’s weirdly enunciating and hard-to-understand Mrs. Roper. Taylor Ballard’s lower middle class English as Lester Cole and Samuel David Gresham’s upper middle class English as Detective Inspector Ogden are more consistent and therefore more successful. Hannah Morris, as the ritzy Helen Rollander, pulls off the most successful British accent. Horace Ceasar’s lines are so few and his volume so low as Police Sergeant Pearce that it’s difficult to judge the accuracy of his accent.

Volume is also an issue for Mr. Perera, who in addition seems to have been blocked to deliver many lines upstage during conversations with others onstage. It’s a fine performance in all other respects, but would benefit from a little extra volume.

Performances are good all around, with the exception of Ms. Wilson, whose self-assured playing to the audience sticks out like a sore thumb. Mr. Ballard is directed to play for comedy, which also falls a bit flat, as do Mr. Bailey’s frequent attempts at dry humor. Roles that are played straight are more successful, and Ms. Loner’s makeup works exceedingly well at making her look sickly.

The heart of the play is the relationship between the professor and his cousin. Mr. Perera and Ms. Balfour are both excellent in their roles, as is Ms. Morris in the most villainous role in the play. Her attraction to the professor doesn’t seem well-motivated, though, which is a common problem in Agatha Christie scripts. Ms. Christie is so concerned with plot that plot-advancing actions take precedence over more human concerns. "Verdict" has a mediocre plot, avoiding any riveting courtroom drama in order to play on a single unit set, and the human relationships at the forefront appear a bit pallid. Under Elisabeth Cooper’s direction, the lackluster script is reflected by a lackluster production.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, by Edward Albee
Straight Up, Undiluted
Saturday, November 4, 2017
Edward Albee’s "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" has entered the pantheon of great American plays. Live Arts’ production shows why. Fine performances and fluid movement let the play’s emotional resonance reverberate in the small playing space.

Becca Parker has designed a set that dresses up the space beautifully. The oft-used bar is stage right, near the front door and hall tree. A record player is up center with an abstract painting above it, and downstage of it are a sofa and coffee table and chair. Up left is a bookcase, in front of an arched exit to the rest of the house. Down left, on an angle mimicking that of the sofa, and also sitting on an oriental rug, are a desk and chair. The pale walls and the eclectic vintage furnishings give the space a charming look.

Ms. Parker has also provided the fight choreography, and that too is first-rate. Technical elements work well, with door chimes the primary sound effect, but beautifully associated with movement at the physical door bell chimes we see on the wall next to the front door. Lighting is basic general illumination and is blessedly free of unnecessary adjustments to heighten mood.

Technical elements, of course, do not make a show. Acting can, and in this case does. Jamie Link FitzStephens has the least to do as Honey, but manages to make an impression with her cheery smile transitioning to sleepy half-closed eyes as the play progresses. Joshua Howe has more to do as her husband Nick, but betrays some community theatre lack of nuance in his performance. Nuance, however, is not lacking in the performances of Angela Van Tassel and Edwin Ashurst as the battling Martha and George. Ms. Van Tassel doesn’t have outsized charisma, but plays her role with spiteful venom blended with great heart. Mr. Ashurst is a genuine marvel onstage, distilling all the comedy and passion and ruefulness of George into a 200-proof performance.

The uncredited direction of the show is wonderful, mixing inventive blocking with ever-changing emotional levels. The running time is well over three hours, but the action is riveting throughout. This production brings Albee’s words and characters to life and puts them right in the faces of the two rows of the audience. It’s an unforgettable theatrical experience, sparked by an amazing performance by Edwin Ashurst.

The Way We Get By, by Neil LaBute
An Unmemorable Title
Saturday, November 4, 2017
Beth (Jackie Costello) and Doug (Grant McGowen) have obviously just had sex. It’s in her place, to judge by the tasteful off-white and pale blue furnishings we see in the living and dining rooms and by the fact that we see Doug entering first, looking around at unfamiliar surroundings and turning the TV on/off. We learn pretty early on that these two consider their relationship problematic, in that friends and family would not approve. It takes a while before we learn how family has brought them together and yet kept them from hooking up until now.

The play is almost all talk, but Grant McGowen, in his role of director (in addition to his roles as actor, costume designer, lighting designer, sound designer and projection artist) has blocked the show with lots of movement. We get to know these characters as time goes by, and we also get to know Beth’s roommate Kim through a lot of the initial dialogue, as Beth and Doug discuss Kim’s maddening foibles before circling around to more personal matters. Even so, the subject of Kim comes up again at the end of the play, in a satisfyingly humorous way.

Neil LaBute’s script has frequent references to Star Wars (beginning with the film sequence that starts the show, projected on the white drapes that back the set) and also features a retro American Apparel ad as a focal point of discussion and wardrobe. The costumes reflect these references. The props and set dressing by Courtney Lakin combine the dated (a record player) with the more modern (a flat screen TV). That gives a slightly amorphous feel to the time period of the play, not that the time period is of major concern to the plot.

In two-person romantic comedy like this, it’s as important that the audience connect with each character as that the actors connect with one another. Jackie Costello has no problem with this; she’s an incandescent performer, totally natural and totally expressive. Grant McGowen, on the other hand, naturally has an impassively cool persona and sometimes seems more calculated than fluid in the back-and-forth dialogue in which the characters almost talk over one another in their alternation of lines. There’s a nerdiness and giddiness that Doug needs to display from time to time, and pretty boy Mr. McGowen only approaches giddiness as the play is reaching its ending.

Mr. LaBute’s play is filled with indirect and fractured speech patterns, full of "whatevers" and half-formed thoughts. That gives a natural feel to the dialogue, but dilutes the content. We have fast-moving dialogue and a slow-moving plot that requires some patience on the audience’s part. Pinch ’n’ Ouch’s production does the play credit, putting two immensely attractive performers front and center and shaping the action for maximum interest. It’s not a mind-blowing play and has an immensely unsatisfying title, but it fills the bill for a romantic date night comedy with heart.

Things That Go Bump, by conceived by Daniel Guyton
The Past, Tense
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
"Things That Go Bump" has turned into "Things That Went Bump." In a one-time-only performance, any review needs to use the past tense to describe that performance. And in this case the performance was indeed a bit bumpy.

The two acts each contained a selection of five plays/monologues and three songs. In general, the songs were the low points of the evening. Bennett Walton showed great guitar-playing skills in the first couple, but only Dan Bauman’s rendition of "Re: Your Brains" really scored in the sense of true Halloween entertainment. Teenager Alice Reed showed great vocal promise in "Pulled" from "The Addams Family Musical," but the song is only tangentially related to Halloween. In some songs, notably "Bleed It Out," Angie Short’s sound levels let the musical accompaniment overpower the vocals. Musical interludes between segments were also on the loud side, and didn’t always fade out appropriately as segments began.

The plays were a mixed bag. None of the three monologues landed particularly well. John Courtney’s recitation of a story from Daniel Guyton’s "Three Ladies of Orpington" was gory and suffered from its lack of context. Jana Cummiskey’s performance of Joseph Arnone’s "That’s Classy" was so highly choreographed by Cathe Payne that it came across as all style and no substance. Ankita Sen Dasgupta’s "Did I Ever Tell You I am Afraid of the Dark?" was fairly flatly spoken by Kathy Buraczynski and didn’t seem to have much substance beyond what the title states. Elisabeth Cooper’s sound design, however, meshed echoing party sounds beautifully with the text of this final monologue. The sound design overall (as considered separately from sound levels) was highly impressive for a one-time production.

After an opening song, the first act continued with Laura King’s "Liquid Courage." This is a slight piece about a love potion that works on two couples. It starts with ballet movements of Lurlene (Dacey Geary) tossing items like teddy bears and cologne into a cauldron. Mabel Ann (Sharon Zinger) then enters with a rifle and a jug of moonshine, twanging her skepticism of Lurlene’s intentions toward the skittish Bobby Ray. When Bobby Ray (the delightfully energetic Lucas Scott) enters with Mabel Ann’s monosyllabic man, Cyrus (Ian Geary), he is convinced to chug the love potion. He immediately quivers and twirls and then runs off with Lurlene, obviously in the throes of romantic passion. The same then happens with Cyrus and Mabel Ann. Barbara Hawkins-Scot directed the play with a fair amount of movement, but only the performances of Mr. Scott and Ms. Geary impressed.

The next play up (following Mr. Courtney’s monologue) was "Another Use for Toilet Paper," written and directed by Nick Boretz. His cast seemed stilted and under-rehearsed, and the stage set-up didn’t accommodate itself well to the need of Harvey (Gene Paulsson) to skulk around and hide. Costumes were good, though, and there was a nice toilet paper binocular effect in the blocking. The anti-bullying message of the story was nicely balanced with sarcastic interplay between Harvey and his wife Doris (Kathy Buraczynski).

"Spells 1.0" by Daphne Mintz was another slight piece. Two tech-savvy app designers (Eric Hosford as Seth and Jami Terracino as Vanka) try to reduce a spell spoken by Olga (Annie Cook) to its component parts, using computer programmer terminology to determine how the parts should be coded. Old-school sorceress Olga wants none of this and eventually uses her spell against the meddlesome duo. William Warren’s direction made use of a whiteboard and a spell book and had fairly fluid blocking, enhanced by a spotlight effect (light operator Katy Clarke) during speaking of the Gaelic(?) spell. Despite a commanding performance by Annie Cook, this play seemed to be one rehearsal away from truly catching fire.

The last play in the first act was the act’s best. GM Lupo’s "Devil’s Due" had the largest cast, with the playwright himself and the director, Brian Jones, taking part in minor roles. Ruthless CEO John Jones (the forceful Gene Paulsson) is being led into his personal hell by Satan (the sleazily charming John Daniel King). It doesn’t seem more than annoying at first -- a receptionist (the deadpan Kendal Franklin) who endlessly repeats "please have a seat;" a huckster (the cheery Brian Jones) who endlessly promotes worthless, "can’t miss" opportunities for investment; a talentless, Bob Dylan-inspired musician (the sunglasses-attired Matt Lupo) whose recording career is one of these opportunities; and a cat lady (Celeste Campbell) whose one purpose in death seems to be to drone on about her large collection of feline children as she shows their pictures in a photo album. The tormenting ratchets up a notch when John Jones is confronted with his not-yet-dead ex-wife Barbara (the strident Kathy Buraczynski) and is given a crown by the head demon (the black-shrouded Bryant Keaton). It’s not the most trenchant or comical view of Hell ever devised, but director Brian Jones blocked the large cast nicely and got good, confident performances out of everyone. Apart from John Courtney’s monologue (from a play that just finished its run at Onion Man), this was the one item in the first act that seemed ready for prime time.

After a delightful opening song, the second act gave us Kate Guyton’s "Blood Doll," another highlight of the evening. Although the sexually charged script could use some judicious pruning, Stephen Banks’ direction made the situation come alive of two vampires (Courtney Loner and Samuel Gresham) and the human "blood doll" (Sharon Zinger) that they have made use of for the past three years for their games of pursuit and blood-sucking pleasure. The reversals of role that pepper the script gave it sparkling life throughout, aided by Ms. Loner’s expressive, masterful performance and the ambivalent charm of Mr. Gresham. Mr. Banks’ fluid, active direction also made sure Ms. Zinger held her own against these powerhouse performers.

Benjamin Carr’s "Ground Chuck" followed an unmemorable monologue and an uncomfortably stilted song, showing a school lunch lady (Celeste Campbell) instructing her daughter (Kushaiah Lee) in her new duties as a janitor in the school, primarily in cleaning up the mother’s messy, bloody work area after the sudden disappearance of the principal ... and of a few previous school personnel who rubbed the mother the wrong way. The costumes and set (including a meat grinder!) were impressive in this selection, and the racially charged message didn’t veer into the uncomfortable under Melissa Simmons’ direction.

Another monologue, another song, and then the final selection: Daniel Guyton’s "Bedford’s Sty," directed by the playwright. Think of it as a short, punchy gloss on "Hamlet," with Matthew Carter Jones as the nefarious Claudius (here named Lucas); Josh Vining as his conflicted nephew (here named Bedford instead of Hamlet, and coming across as dim and childish, in a sort of comical take on Hamlet’s scenes of feigned craziness, although Bedford doesn’t seem to be feigning much); and Mike Carroll as the voice of the living room, here standing in for the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father. It was wacky and comic in performance, and included bits of audience participation that truly captured the imaginations of all viewers. With memorable performances all around, it was a satisfying finish to an evening of uneven entertainment.

The Thing about Men, by Joe DiPietro (words) and JImmy Roberts (music)
For Adult(erer)s Only
Sunday, October 29, 2017
What a way to start a new theatre company! "The Thing about Men" produced by the Wallace Buice Theatre Company is a pleasure to behold. The story and songs are little more than cute, but they’re performed with such aplomb that you can’t help but leave with a broad smile on your face.

Zack Vandever’s ingenious set uses three flat gray walls (center, left, and right) with jigsaw cutout sections that get removed, pulled out, or rotated to function as set pieces or set dressing for the various locations in which the action takes place. The cast and the stage crew of Susan Hiltner, Taylor Coley, and Raine Hess speedily change the set between scenes, keeping the momentum moving throughout the show. D. Connor McVey’s lighting design nicely delineates the sections of the stage on which action is occurring.

George Deavours’ wigs and the cast’s costumes add visual appeal to the production. Two cast members (J. Koby Parker and Bonnie Harris) play numerous roles, and their various get-ups work together with their different voices and body language stances to bring hilarity to the forefront whenever they’re onstage. Their work is superb.

The three main characters are advertising art director Tom (Matthew Sidney Morris), the philandering husband of Lucy (Bethany Irby), who in turn has recently taken up with bohemian artist Sebastian (Haden Rider). All have costume changes that also impress. Mr. Morris has the most to do and Ms. Irby the least, but they all sing beautifully (as do Mr. Parker and Ms. Harris). Musical director Ed Thrower and his four-piece band create a thoroughly professional soundscape to accompany the singers. Somewhat unfortunately, Preston Goodson’s sound design over-amplifies the band, requiring the powerful singers to be miked.

Director Taylor Buice has created a production that brings Joe DiPietro’s story to vibrant life. Mr. DiPietro’s lyrics are clever and clear, and the cast gets them across cleverly and clearly. Mr. Morris does the most impressive job, showing real emotion as he realizes he wants to reunite with his wife and has actually bonded with his wife’s lover. Mr. Rider has the good looks and charisma for Sebastian, but Ms. Irby doesn’t have much chemistry with either of her leading men. Hers is a curiously detached performance, contrasting with the heartfelt sincerity of Mr. Morris and the cheery energy of Mr. Rider.

"The Thing about Men" speeds along, filled with song and action. The inaugural production of the Wallace Buice Theatre Company pays fine tribute to a man who loved performing and whose grandson, Taylor Buice, carries on the family tradition of delighting receptive audiences. What a way to start a new theatre company!

Three Ladies of Orpington, by Daniel Guyton
For the Ladies
Sunday, October 29, 2017
It’s always delightful when the last moment of a play ties up everything that’s only been hinted at before. Daniel Guyton’s "Three Ladies of Orpington" is such a play. The final sound effect of a glass jar being shattered explains why window panes are broken to gain entry to a house and why a character appears wet on the driest of days. There’s a supernatural element to it all that may seem a bit out there to some folks, but it all ties together with a satisfying spookiness.

Amy Levin’s sound design works quite well, with surround sound effects adding to the sense of impending dread in the material. Musical interludes cover the frequent set changes, with the music getting spookier and more insistent as the play proceeds.

The play takes place in 1853, to judge by a date and a year span mentioned in the text. There’s an anachronistic reference to Mason jars, which were patented in 1858, but Nancye Hilley’s costumes do a good job of setting the time period. This is a handsome production, including Chris Franken’s props; fine makeup all around, particularly for Sadye Elizabeth and Lisa Gordon; fine blood effects in Tyler Buckingham’s kinetic fight choreography; James Beck’s charming lighting design, which includes an evocative fireplace effect; and Scott Rousseau’s set that uses a minimum of set pieces to portray various locations within a house.

The first three scenes of the play all take place in the sitting room of the home shared by the three ladies of Orpington (daughter, mother, and grandmother). The set pieces are rotated 90 degrees between each of these scenes. It’s a totally unnecessary change, but hints that the story will be more skewed than straightforward, and it allows director Scott Rousseau to invent interesting blocking for each of the scenes. The blocking is first-rate throughout, although actors lying on the floor may not be totally visible to all members of the audience.

Blocking does not make a play, though; performances do, and here we have fine performances all around. Lisa Gordon gives grandmother Maude a sly, comic edge that plays off against Kate Guyton’s Henrietta, whose flights of dramatic fancy are overlaid with humorlessness, which in itself becomes funny. Sadye Elizabeth, as Henrietta’s daughter Elenore, gets more emotional moments, giving a touching portrayal that even so contains moments of teen-aged giddiness. John Courtney gives stolid Mr. Fennimore a pleasing presence onstage, and Tyler Buckingham has the swooningly good looks that will make his scene of full-frontal nudity a highlight of the show for the ladies, along with acting skills that lead his character from the charming to the menacing. Director Scott Rousseau has helped the actors shape their roles to emphasize comic moments inherent in the script and to end scenes with business that puts a button on the scenes.

Is the production all it could be? Ms. Guyton and Ms. Elizabeth appear to be too close in age to be mother and daughter, and Ms. Guyton doesn’t add all the layers that the character of Henrietta could have. The script doesn’t satisfactorily explain why the death of the family’s patriarch came about. (We know he finds out the truth about something sinister, but we don’t learn what he planned to do with the information.) The transition from the comic to the spooky seems to come a bit late. But overall, this is a terrific production that makes wonderful use of the tiny Onion Man stage and tells an intriguing tale audiences are lapping up.

Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play, by Anne Washburn, score by Michael Friedman
A Most Eclectic Play
Sunday, October 29, 2017
Anne Washburn’s "Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play" is a strange beast. I’m not sure who would find it more frustrating: those who do not know "The Simpsons" at all or those who know it well. In the first act, we see a bunch of post-semi-apocalyptic campers trying to reassemble the plot of the "Cape Feare" episode of "The Simpsons" from their memories, getting about halfway through. In the second act, seven years later, these people and a couple of others are rehearsing a play version of this episode, but spend most of their time on extended musical ads they are alternating with a tiny bit of the middle of the "Cape Feare" plot. In the third act, 75 years later, we get a musicalized version of the remainder of the episode with an altered, tragedy-tinged plot and a bleakly hopeful ending. If you know the episode well, the first act could be an excruciating experience of characters learning what you already know; if you’re not a "Simpsons" fan, the same act one exposition could amount to "who cares?"

We never learn what conditions resulted in people trekking cross-country, passing through deserted cities and bypassing blockades as nuclear plant after nuclear plant implodes after the collapse of the electrical grid. The people seem to join together in informal bands for various amounts of time. In the first act, we meet a stranger encountering a group that’s been together for at least a couple of weeks. The people trade alphabetical lists of names and ages of people whose fates they would like to determine.

In the second act, these people and a couple of others have formed a touring acting troupe that performs snippets of "The Simpsons" and other works, paying for individual lines. A competing troupe is more successful and has rights to more of the episodes. The ending of the act suggests that an unfriendly takeover may be about to occur.

The third act shows actors in half-masks performing a nightmare version of the portion of "Cape Feare" that most closely echoes the movie "Cape Fear." It’s mostly sung, using snippets of Gilbert & Sullivan and TV theme music in addition to rap and a LOT of choral exposition. In Oglethorpe University’s production, the masks and solo voices competing with massed choral sounds prevent clear understanding of what is being sung. The action is very serious and ends with a hint of the return of human-powered electricity.

Matt Huff has directed the play effectively, adding a brooding, menacing tone to the first act before moving on to more active blocking in the next two acts. Musical director Michael Monroe has also done a fine job, with some wonderful a cappella singing in the second act. Singing in the third act isn’t as good, primarily because the largely different cast members in this act don’t have voices as strong and have to contend with a lot of distracting sounds, including foot stomps in Bubba Carr’s somewhat basic choreography.

Jon Nooner’s set design has a bit of a cobbled-together look, possibly in keeping with the premise that civilization has largely disintegrated. The first act has just a ratty sofa, a log segment, a folding metal chair, and a barstool for seating, around a realistic-looking campfire. The second act backs the set with what looks like a leftover wall of windows from the "Arcadia" set, with a revolving unit in front of it functioning as a set for "The Simpsons." A car front end used for a commercial is the most impressive part of this set, although a candle-lit TV chassis is also pretty nifty (props by the group of Lindsey Thomaston, D’Zerrea Richarte, and Kaylee Rice). In the third act, a curtain showing "Simpsons" silhouettes opens to reveal a set representing the prow and cabin of a boat. Candles are spread at the lip of the stage and blue fabric is waved to represent the waters of a rapid. The final reveal shows a contraption above the stage that is the most impressive set piece of this act.

D. Connor McVey’s lighting design ably represents an electricity-free society for most of the show. The campfire effect in the first act is lovely, with subtle changes to illuminate action. Lighting is more general in the second act, but with some dappled areas that would suggest the outdoors if the set weren’t backed by what is obviously a building. Lighting is very dim for most of the third act, working with the half masks to help obscure what is being sung. A shadow sequence in the cabin of the boat is nicely implemented, and the final reveal is just this side of stunning. But prior to this, there have been a few times when lights suddenly illuminate previously dim sections of the stage, ruining the effect of candlelight being the sole means of illumination.

Katy Monroe’s costume design and Timothy Harland’s mask design both work, with the second act Simpsons costumes especially effective with their bright colors and bugged-out eyeglasses to represent cartoon characters. The third act’s masks give a nod to Greek tragedy as much as to "The Simpsons" artwork, helping to dampen the comedic expectations one might have of a "Simpsons"-inspired work.

The sound design by Tabatha Mele and Jon Nooner is wonderful in terms of its sound effects. The first act’s soundscape is filled with evening forest sounds. The second act has a nice offstage effect of water running in a bath, augmented by steam blown onstage. Sound in the third act is consequently a disappointment, with musical accompaniment and a miked offstage chorus member adding to the unbalanced sound mix that leaves lyrics stuck in aural mud.

Performances are very good in the first act. Clarence Atsma has tons of energy as Matt, the main recounter of the "Cape Feare" plot, and Alex Ray equals him in energy as the sweet-voiced stranger Gibson. Marissa Williams and Sydney Stanley add distinct portrayals on the distaff side, and Ethan Weathersbee holds his own. In the second act, these actors continue their strong portrayals, with Marissa Williams’ performance particularly impressive in her "Simpsons" costume. The cast is augmented by Kaitlyn Turner as a diminutive but forceful director and Taylor Roberts as a somewhat bland and indistinctly enunciating actress in a commercial. In act three, things pretty much fall apart. Alex Ray still has lots of energy as Mr. Burns, but the Simpson family doesn’t. Since we can’t hear anyone distinctly for large portions of the time, it’s difficult to get involved in this act.

"Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play" takes as its springboard Jon Vitti’s 1993 teleplay for the "Cape Feare" episode of "The Simpsons." It’s not funny and fast-moving like the teleplay, though. It’s slow-going, with extraneous commercial segments in act two that drag on more than any snappy commercial on TV, with the mash-up of popular songs from the recent past perhaps intended to illustrate how memory conflates bits and pieces of the past to create inaccurate recreations of reality. The third act just goes off the deep end.

Anne Washburn’s play takes an interesting concept and mauls it almost beyond recognition. Oglethorpe University’s production is well-intentioned, but doesn’t ultimately transcend the problematic material. The target audience seems to be intellectual hipsters who watched "The Simpsons" in their formative years and delight in speculative fan fiction, while simultaneously enjoying ponderous musicalizations of familiar material. Sure sounds like a tiny target audience to me.

Crossing Delancey, by Susan Sandler
Crossing Atlanta
Monday, October 23, 2017
In its trek across the theaters of metro Atlanta, the Alliance has chosen the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta as the venue for its Jewish selection of the season, Susan Sandler’s "Crossing Delancey." It’s a good choice in terms of gaining audience, but the stage feels a bit cramped in Kat Conley’s set design. The main portion of the stage represents the worn kitchen of a Lower East Side apartment in New York, with an easy chair to stage right and a window and perfunctorily used stool stage left. Up right on the stage is a boutique bookstore. Down left is a park bench. An area up left, above the kitchen storage, is used for various other locations. The whole thing is framed and backed by huge picture frame-like assemblages that hint at a New York skyline. Joseph A. Futral’s lighting design nicely illuminates these areas for different scenes, and spotlights areas downstage for bits of narration by our leading character, Izzy (Sochi Fried).

In the first act, Izzy wears the same nondescript, unflattering top and skirt throughout. In the second act, Sydney Roberts’ costume design gets more of a workout. It’s only that first act outfit for Izzy that is a disappointment. Others are dressed in perfectly delightful garb for their distinct characters, although a suit for stick-thin Andrew Benator (Sam) is perhaps more swimmingly large than it need be.

Kate Marvin’s sound design doesn’t get too much of a workout, with some phone and doorbell rings augmented by actual door knocks. Music between scenes is brief and vaguely atmospheric, with a rousing hora-like tune adding some joyousness to the ending.

Leora Morris has directed the play to keep the action relatively fluid, and uses entrances through the auditorium to good effect (especially for those mid-audience). She gets good, textured performances out of all the cast, with Joanna Daniels (not to be confused with Atlanta’s stalwart Joanna Daniel, recently of "King Lear") being an audience favorite and downright hoot as matchmaker Hannah. Sochi Fried makes Izzy a dizzy romantic whose heart opens wide and whose face shines with her emotions. Daniel Thomas May plays heartthrob author Tyler with just the right rakishness, and Andrew Benator gives pickle purveyor Sam an easy, good-humored sweetness that endears him to the audience more quickly than he endears himself to Izzy. Dialect coach Elisa Carlson gets a variety of appropriate New York-inflected accents from the cast.

Mary Lynn Owen gives a fine performance as Izzy’s grandmother (Bubbie), but it strikes me as more a performance than an embodiment of the character. Bubbie rattles on about how she was a sweet-voiced beauty in her youth, but the singing we hear from Ms. Owen is unmusical, and there’s no sense of nostalgia or bending of the truth in her reminiscences. She acts the part as if the audience can’t detect the discrepancy between what they are seeing and hearing and what Bubbie is claiming, while the others around her become the characters they are playing.

Susan Sandler’s play tells a sweet story of a young New York Jewish woman finding love as instigated by the machinations of her grandmother and against her initial instincts and liberated views. But is a matchmaker that different from a dating app and a gaggle of girlfriends offering their opinions that "you ought to give this one a chance?" "Crossing Delancey" is very Jewish and equal parts old-fashioned and timeless, although it takes place in 1985 (at least according to Bubbie’s kitchen calendar). It’s a wonderful fit for the venue, and should do nothing to alienate Alliance Theatre patrons who are being forced to traverse the metro region to catch this season’s shows.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe, by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Talent X 8
Monday, October 23, 2017
What do you need to produce a revue of popular songs? A cast with good voices. Good production values (costumes, lighting, choreography). Good accompaniment, appropriately balanced with the voices. The production of "Smokey Joe’s Cafe" by Marietta’s New Theatre in the Square and the New African Grove Theatre Company has all of these. Sound was a bit of an issue at the performance I attended, with crackling of microphones and uneven sound levels for the singers at the start and with some distortion in the second act as the singers blasted out their signature solos, but the issues were minor and not pervasive.

The set, designed by Michael Snoddy, is a pretty simple affair. Five individual brick-painted panels are arranged on the stage, with a porch and stoop stage right and a bar on a circular platform up left. The main portion of the stage is left clear, with chairs occasionally brought in for individual numbers. Emil Thomas’ lighting design uses a variety of schemes to light the stage uniquely for each number, with an emphasis on a red spotlight.

Costumes, uncredited in the program, vary from cast member to cast member. Only in "Jailhouse Rock" do all the singers wear matching striped T-shirts. Winnie Mae Washington (B.J.) has the largest selection of outfits, most quite fetching, followed by Karnia Lake (Brenda), who looks smashing in all hers. Everyone has a variety of looks that work for their various songs.

Choreography, by Indya Bussey-Starr and Kendrick Love, Sr., features a lot of three-man backup dancers for all-male numbers. There are also a few numbers that show off the tap/ballet dancing skills of Janna Koffman (Delee) and the silkily smooth movements of Ms. Lake. All the men do a good job dancing: strong tenor Bryan Perez (Ken), basso profundo Jonathan Blanchard (Fred), lithe George P. Roberts (Victor), and sweet-voiced Terry M. Pendleton (Michael). Full-cast numbers tend to have synchronized movement rather than dancing per se, but are pleasing to view.

In a revue, of course, the voices are what really count. Princess Starr, vocal coach, has formed the singers into an ensemble whose harmonies always ring true. Solos are excellent too, although Messrs. Perez and Roberts and Ms. Washington show a little vocal strain in their big act two solos. The biggest voice of all, though, belongs to Noelle Strong (Pattie) whose voice blasts into sound barrier-breaking territory in several numbers, in contrast to the sweet, true soprano of her voice that is featured in more restrained moments.

Director Nic Starr has worked hand-in-hand with the choreographers to add lots of interplay that sheds light on different types of relationships. Comic moments abound. This is an audience-pleasing show in which actors take on different personas for different numbers, sometimes with a complete change of costume, and sometimes with just the simple removal or donning of a pair of glasses. Mr. Starr has done well by his cast, showing them all off to advantage.

The distinction between a musical revue and a cabaret act can blend a bit, with the size of the revue cast being the most notable distinction. Most cabaret acts have live accompaniment, but here we have pre-recorded instrumental tracks from Edward C. Wright and Sheldon Beasley that work beautifully to keep singers on track in perfect synchronization. Cabaret acts require outsize personalities, and this production features one performer, Karnia Lake, who connects wonderfully with the audience in the way that the best cabaret performers do. The whole cast is good, but she’s the one I’ll be most eager to see again.

The Last Five Years, by Jason Robert Brown
A Green Musical?
Monday, October 23, 2017
The glossy, nicely laid-out program nevertheless has a comic aspect. A couple of sentences are cut off mid-way. The leading actor’s last name is spelled variously. And apparently the score belongs in a garbage heap, since the first page clearly states that "The Last Five Years" was "written and composted" by Jason Robert Brown. (At least the cover gets "composed" right.) It’s the first hint of a show that seems to have rushed some things at the last moment, with insufficient attention to detail.

Mike Clotfelter’s set design uses a single flat wall with doors on either side and a surprise feature in the middle. Boxes are piled against the wall, as of a room either having been packed up or not yet having been unpacked. It’s a nice indication of the backward/forward timeline of the show. An easy chair and a desk and chairs complete the set, with a couple of stools moved on and off for individual scenes. It’s hardly edgy or artistic, but it’s eminently workable.

Brad Rudy’s busy lighting scheme seems to be less a design than a by-the-seat series of adjustments to illuminate actors wherever they happen to land in the playing area. The constant adjustments become intrusive, although gradual dimming signals the ends of songs and scenes. The lighting changes may become more fluid as the run continues.

Director Zac Phelps has blocked the show so that sometimes the actors sing directly to the audience and sometimes stare off into space as they sing. The best bits of blocking add variety to this, such as using a cellphone or notepad to accompany the words being sung. Each of the actors uses the full extent of the stage, without one door or section of the stage being used exclusively by Cathy (Stephanie Earle) or Jamie (J D Myers).

Cathy’s story is told in reverse, starting with the dissolution of her marriage to Jamie and moving backward in time to the start of their relationship. Ms. Earle starts out distraught and dramatic, and never fully captures the giddy joy of a new relationship taking bloom. Her singing voice is strong, but not particularly pretty. That’s especially evident in Cathy’s audition song. The audition sequences themselves are funny, as the accompanist works at cross-purposes with the singer, but our initial introduction to the lovely song is not lovely at all.

Jamie’s story is told chronologically, as he transitions from a college student with a promising manuscript to a philandering, successful author. Mr. Myers is wonderful in the role, never more so than in "The Shmuel Song," in which the Aryan-looking Mr. Myers regales the invisible Cathy with a Yiddish-inflected tale in which he plays all the parts. His voice is strong and pure and his diction wonderful. It’s a fine, fine performance throughout.

The songs are accompanied by a five-piece band, led by music director Laura Gamble on the keyboard. Due to its loudness, the singers are miked. The sound balance is usually good, although Ms. Earle is sometimes too soft and indistinct in diction for all her words to come across. On opening night, the band sounded good up until the last couple of numbers, when stray bad notes crept in, just as indications of strain affected the voices of the two actors.

"The Last Five Years" is being given a creditable production by Marietta Theatre Company, but not one that illuminates the material in any special way. Zac Phelps presents Jason Robert Brown’s story in a straightforward way, with only a few touches that anchor the reversely told stories to specific moments in the relationship. It’s definitely a production that merits an audience member having some familiarity with the material before attending.

The World Goes ’Round, by Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb; Conceived by Susan Stroman, David Thompson & Scott Ellis
A Failing Grade in Chemistry
Monday, October 23, 2017
In addition to good songs, good voices, and good production values, a musical revue needs to have some cohesiveness in the cast. Even if songs are mostly solos, as in "The World Goes ’Round," the cast members need to make some connections as the show goes on. Otherwise, the whole thing becomes an extended song recital. And that’s what Atlanta Lyric’s production of "The World Goes ’Round" becomes under Ricardo Aponte’s direction.

Kander and Ebb wrote a lot of ballads, and their placement in "The World Goes ’Round" is primarily as sequential solos that are supposed to comment subtly on one another. This backfires in a sequence that follows Brad Raymond’s rich, operatic voice in "I Don’t Remember You" with Jeff McKerley’s comparatively thin and second-rate voice in "Sometimes a Day Goes By." By contrast, Mr. McKerley’s voice blends nicely with Deborah Bowman’s in the overlap between her "Only Love" and his "Marry Me." The only duets in the show, "Class" and "The Grass Is Always Greener," show nice interplay between Mary Nye Bennett and Ms. Bowman, in the only evidence of chemistry in the show.

The best up-tempo numbers in the first act feature Matthew Peddie’s excellent props: cardboard cups in "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup," Sara Lee boxes in "Sara Lee," bottle and glasses in "Class," and a baby stroller and toys in "Me and My Baby." In the second act, the special elements added to numbers seem cheap and cheesy: jangling bracelet and anklet bells in "Ring Them Bells" (which is performed phenomenally well by Mary Nye Bennett, the only cast member not encumbered by bells, and features delightful lip-syncing by the others as Ms. Bennett’s voice imitates people in the song’s story), and trench coats with a few currency bills inside and light-up hats in "Money, Money." The roller-skating sequence also falls flat.

Mr. Aponte has cast four ensemble members to do the heavy lifting in the choreography, while the singers mostly sing and move, rather than dance. In the opening number, we see some actual lifts, as the graceful Grace Joo goes skyward. Mr. Aponte has highlighted the chunkiness of fellow dancer Chloe Cordle, though, as her partner studiously avoids anything approaching a lift. Cansler McGhee and Brian Jordan, as the male dance partners, do excellent work all around.

S. Renee Clark has done her usual good work in music direction, although the soprano melody line occasionally gets lost in some of the more massive choral numbers. Sound balance between the six-piece band and the singers is usually good, although some amplification distortion occurs. At the performance I attended, sound for the opening number seemed to come primarily from a speaker at the side of the stage; the amplification was toned down subsequently. The band sounds good overall, but I thought I detected a few iffy notes from the reeds from time to time.

Lee Shiver-Cerone’s set is serviceable, no more. Red platforms and steps descend to the stage floor, with the band behind. Brick-style walls with large sconce insets flank the stage. Hanging above it all is a conglomeration of logos from 12 of the 13 shows whose songs are featured in "The World Goes ’Round." For some unknown reason, "Zorba" is omitted. These logos fly away at the end for a reveal at the finale. Bradley Bergeron’s lighting design illuminates various sections of the stage for various scenes, frequently changing the color of the sconce insets to add visual pizzazz. During the entr’acte, when these insets start cycling through their colors and lights start flickering around the band, it’s distracting and unpleasant. At the performance I attended, the whole cast was left briefly in the dark in the middle of the closing number, "New York, New York."

Amanda Edgerton West’s costumes are unremarkable on the whole. There’s a nice filigreed black cape for the dancer in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," but the dance sequence itself is distracting. There’s a lack of cohesiveness in the costume design that mirrors the lack of cohesiveness in the cast. Jeff McKerley adds his trademarked comic shtick, with hard-edged Deborah Bowman gamely trying to add some of her own. Brad Raymond and Mary Nye Bennett both impress with their tremendous voices, and Mr. Raymond shows occasional touches of vocal comedy, but they barely seem to be on speaking terms to judge from their lack of interaction onstage. Adrianna Trachell, who is given practically nothing to do in the first act, seems to have good musical comedy chops, but isn’t really given a chance to shine. Even her second-act numbers seem to keep her removed from the rest of the principals, although she does interact well with the ensemble.

Kander and Ebb’s songs have highlighted a number of movies and Broadway shows, including many after "The World Goes Round" was first devised. These are good, professional songs, but the revue’s over-reliance on pining love ballads gives it a down-tempo feel that the lack of chemistry among cast members underlines. There is some excellent work to be seen (and especially heard), but Ricardo Aponte’s production seems to be mired in the unremarkable. "How lucky can you get" in attending this show? Not very.

The Rocky Horror Show, by Richard O’Brien
No Virgins Permitted
Monday, October 23, 2017
"The Rocky Horror Show" is best known for midnight, participatory showings of its movie version, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Out Front Theatre Company is attempting to capitalize on this cult status by selling prop bags stocked with a subset of the items thrown in movie theatres. It’s a pretty lame selection, and the audience seems to lose interest in participating after the first couple of items.

Out Front is also attempting to capitalize on the phenomenon of rock concerts in which the sound levels deafen and flashy effects predominate over understandable lyrics. Here, the effects aren’t all that special, with occasional puffs of stage smoke that immediately ascend to the ceiling, and Daniel Pope’s incompetent sound design distorts almost every word that is sung and hides the vocals under Nick Silvestri’s first-rate musical accompaniment. Consequently, important plot points are indecipherable, and Matthew Busch’s direction does nothing to clarify visually what is happening in the story.

Spoken dialogue can be heard more clearly, but that isn’t an unalloyed benefit to this production. The role of the narrator is filled at each performance by a different guest, and the result can be narration that is amateurish in quality and does not flow naturally. It’s just another gimmick thrown willy-nilly at a script that is not allowed to tell its story unencumbered by an intrusive directorial concept.

Charles Swift’s set design consists of scaffolding and a few set pieces on wheels. The prop car is cute (props by Troy Meyers), and a laboratory console shows some promise, but otherwise the set indicates a bare-bones budget. Mr. Swift’s lighting design has a nice set of zap effects near the end, but often relies on general lighting that doesn’t illuminate much of anything onstage. With sound coming primarily from speakers on the edges of the stage, it can be difficult to pick out the person onstage whose lips are moving in semi-murkiness.

Jay Reynold’s costume design, on the other hand, suggests an enormous budget. The outfits are stunning in design and execution, getting more and more elaborate as the show goes on. The shoe budget alone, for men’s size stilettos, would appear to be mind-boggling. Brightly colored boas for every cast member show up by the finale, making for a stunning visual spectacle, enhanced by Edward Holifield’s hair and makeup design. The costumes are definitely the highlight of the show.

Performances are generally over the top, and not always in a good way. Kiona Reese in particular, as Frank N. Furter, emotes like a third-rate community theatre performer. Tim Curry made this role a star vehicle, but Ms. Reese didn’t even get applause for her first number at the performance I attended until drag queen extraordinaire Joe Arnotti prompted it. Mr. Arnotti’s ease onstage and in drag contrasts with Kendrick Taj Stephens’ apparent uneasiness in heels and dominatrix attire. Mr. Stephens’ fellow Phantom, Patrick Coleman, on the other hand, laps up drag like an eager greyhound. The unevenness of the cast adds to the impression that the show lacks a strong directorial touch in its details.

The one person in the cast I could understand in almost all conditions was Jacob Jones as Brad Majors. His performance is tuned to just the right frequency, marrying sincerity with slightly buffoonish heroism in a delightful mixture. Ally Duncan, as Janet Weiss, also does well, but tends to overact a tad, accompanying that with powerful vocals that overwhelm the sound system and muddy her lyrics. Everyone in the cast seems to have a good voice, but sound levels and late body mike cues make it difficult to judge.

Aside from Frank N. Furter, actors seem to be cast relatively well for their roles. Max Mattox is a buff, endowed Rocky Horror with a pleasing personality. Josh Robinson is suitably doughy as Eddie and Dr. Scott. Emily Duke throws herself into the role of Columbia, while Caty Bergmark underplays Riff-Raff until the final scene. All move well, including female Phantoms Megan Poole and Megan Wartell, although Jordan Keyon Smith’s choreography seems to leave a lot of room for personal expression, adding to the uneven feel of the production.

"The Rocky Horror Show" doesn’t have the clearest plotline and relies on its frequent musical numbers to maintain its forward momentum. In Out Front’s production, the muddiness of the lyrics and fuzziness of direction make this a horrible introduction to the musical. It seems intended only for die-hard film fans who want a wan reproduction of the cultish movie-going experience, not "virgins" who have never attended the movie, unless that virgin wants his/her first time to swear them off Rocky Horror sex for good.

Vivian: A Musical Ghost Story, by Chase Peacock and Jessica DeMaria
An Unresolved Cord
Saturday, October 14, 2017
Let’s start with the set for "Vivian: A Ghost Story." It represents a house that has stood unoccupied for at most 15 years. Center stage we have a room with peeling wallpaper and a dining room table and three chairs, with a doorway upstage, just left of center. Stage right we have the bedroom of Vivian (Mabel Tyler), the younger daughter of Cliff (Travis Smith). Stage left we have the bedroom of elder daughter Chrissy (Brittany Ellis). Sheets cover much of the furniture at the start. While renovations are supposedly occurring during the course of the play, all we see are the sheets being removed and a shelf and a mirror being hung. Nevertheless, it’s all very functional, with splendid special effects, enhanced or created by Anna Eck’s atmospheric lighting design.

Bobby Johnston’s sound design balances voices and accompaniment beautifully, so everything can be heard clearly. The Alley Stage doesn’t allow the full stage to be seen by all members of the audience, though, so seated action at the table or at the beds isn’t always clearly visible to everyone. Julie Skrzypek’s blocking is static enough that actors are either clearly visible or entirely blocked for large portions of scenes.

The acting is first-rate across the board. Travis Smith plays a concerned father with empathy and power in equal amounts. Brittany Ellis’s bratty demeanor as Chrissy at the start transitions nicely into her romantic involvement with neighbor James (the sweetly engaging Austin Taylor). Mabel Tyler gets a real acting workout as an even-tempered child with night terrors who becomes possessed with spirits that dwell in the house.

Singing is also first-rate, with the exception of renditions of the initial phrases of "I Wanna Be Loved by You," which are supposedly being sung by a second-rate singer. What drove me wild is that the melody of this copyrighted tune has been altered to get rid of the low notes in the phrase "else but you." It sounds like the writers, actors, and musical director didn’t research the sheet music, relying instead on some range-restricted cover version of the song.

Otherwise, Alli Lingenfelter’s music direction makes sure all voices are strong and pure. The score by Chase Peacock and Jessica DeMaria leans heavily on folk/rock power ballads that aren’t immediately "catchy," but drive the story along and improve on subsequent hearing. The music sounds its best when multiple people are singing in sweet harmony. When the three family members are ranged across the stage to sing "The Tides," the wave of stereophonic sound is pure rapture. All duets dive into rapturous territory too, with glorious vocal harmonies abounding.

Not all parts of all songs work in a dramatic sense. Dad Cliff’s singing selections from a psychology textbook in "Diagnose" bookends the number, but seems a bit forced. James’ rendition of the house’s history in "The Story" uses "she" to refer both to a mother and her suicidal daughter, which can be confusing.

This same sort of confusion harms the plot. There’s some equivalent of a spectral umbilical cord connecting that dead mother and daughter with Cliff’s two daughters, and it’s not always clear which of the dead spirits is directing Vivian’s actions. Nothing is resolved, with the show ending abruptly with an ominous vignette. There’s also a lack of clarity in the character of Chrissy. She’s supposedly upset at moving and losing a boyfriend, but falls right into a relationship with James. She sees a spectral face that terrifies her at the moment, but which seems to be immediately forgotten, to judge by her subsequent behavior.

"Vivian: A Ghost Story" has many promising elements, but its love subplot isn’t well integrated into the story, and some of the storytelling seems to be rushed. There are jarring, scary moments, but the show does not build up to a sense of all-encompassing dread that its ending appears to be aiming for. It’s an intimate, four-character, one-act show that seems to cry out for expansion.

The Rainmaker, by N. Richard Nash
N. Richard Gnashed
Saturday, October 14, 2017
N. Richard Nash’s "The Rainmaker" tells the story of a lonely woman living on a ranch with her father and brothers. An equally lonely deputy in town and a solitary con man passing through the area seem to be her only hopes for life as anything other than a spinster. It’s usually played with the loneliness emphasized, highlighted with streaks of character-driven humor. In CenterStage North’s production, comedy gets more of an emphasis.

John Parker’s set design is stunning. Walls in pallet form appear equal parts rustic and elegant, with a trellis-fenced walkway and a blue cyclorama visible behind. The far stage right of the wide playing space represents a tack room, complete with hayloft. The far stage left represents the sheriff’s office. The central part represents the Curry house, with dining table stage right and living room sofa stage left, a screen door behind it. Period-appropriate props give the spaces a feel of being lived in. John Kovacks’s costumes also give a period feel, although not quite as successfully.

John Lisle’s lighting design enhances the set design, with lovely gobos dappling the living room floor with shadows of foliage and spreading starlight across the hayloft. Brenda Orchard’s sound covers prop-clearing set changes with soothing music. This is a good-looking, good-sounding production.

Julie Taliaferro has blocked the production to make use of the full width of the stage. For scenes at the far left and far right, this can induce neck strain in audience members on the opposite ends of the space. Most of the action, though, takes place in the center, with movement keeping most actors visible at all times.

Performances are assured throughout the cast. Jerry Jobe plays a warm-hearted, easy-going father, with Nate Gutoski his eager, life-loving, slightly goofy younger son. Ian Gibson plays the older son with flat, deadpan delivery that gets some of the biggest laughs in the show, and he also gets to show some unrepressed passion late in the play. Freddy Lynn Wilson and James Connor are perfectly in tune as File and the sheriff, and their scenes together are everything a playgoer could wish. R. Clay Johnson has an impish glint as con man Starbuck, with sincerity winning out over slickness. LeeAnna Lambert Sweatt, however, plays the central role of Lizzie with off-putting stridency, making it difficult to relate to Lizzie’s plight as an unmarried woman approaching middle age. Her volume and animation make it seem as if she were playing in a light comedy in a large auditorium, in contrast to everyone else in the cast. There are levels in her performance, but levels without nuance result in laughs.

Most elements of CenterStage North’s "The Rainmaker" point toward a notable, or perhaps an excellent production. It’s primarily the imbalance between the cohesive male performances and the outlying single female performance that drive the poignancy out of the story. Playing for laughs can’t compare to playing the audience’s heartstrings, at which "The Rainmaker" usually excels.

The Sunshine Boys, by Neil Simon
The Vaud Couple
Monday, October 9, 2017
Neil Simon’s "The Sunshine Boys" shows a contentious vaudeville team, Lewis and Clark, reuniting for a TV special. In the first act, we see them meeting at the urging of Clark’s nephew after 11 years apart. In the second act, we see a rehearsal and its aftermath. Since this is Neil Simon, we have a lot of comic conflict and a lot of funny lines.

The production at Main Street Theatre Tucker makes use of a unit set, designed by Sharon Bower, that represents a New York City hotel room. We see a bed stage right, a chair center stage, and a table and chairs stage left. Posters and photographs adorn the walls. Up left we see a hint of a kitchen counter and cabinets. The highlight, for me, is a window giving a 3D effect of a view towards the St. James Theatre. There are also bands of squiggles on the wall giving the impression of flocked wallpaper. Scenery art is by Aaron Whitmoyer and Christina Crim.

Lisa Temples’ props and Carrie McGuffin’s costumes hint at the time period of the 1970s, and they really get a workout at the start of the second act, when a set of painted canvas flats, with folding chairs at the sides, represents a TV soundstage set for the prop-heavy sketch comedy of Lewis and Clark. There’s a flair to the scenery, costumes, and props that give real zing to the show.

Walter Stark’s lighting design doesn’t get much of a workout in Simon’s script, but lets all the action be seen. Similarly, Charles Wasmer’s amplified sound design lets things be heard. Television sounds, both at the start of the show and after the rehearsal, are done beautifully. Within the TV rehearsal scene, though, the voice of the director doesn’t sound very authoritative or professional.

Director Jim Nelson has cast the show appropriately and blocked the action so that only a modicum of head shifting is needed to view the essential action from an audience in which all members sit on the same level. Jason Garrett and Jonathan McCullum don’t make much of an impression in their small roles in the TV rehearsal scene, but Ellen Wynn is a "wow" as the sketch nurse, and Saundra Davis Forrest does a good job as a real nurse. Both of their performances owe something to being shaped by the director, with moments of choreographed movement. Evan Greene does well as Clark’s nephew Ben Silverman, although his animated performance doesn’t have a lot of nuance and depth.

The real stars, appropriately enough, are the Sunshine Boys themselves -- Charles Bohanan as the irascible Willie Clark and Lee Finocchio as the more amenable Al Lewis. Both sport utterly believable New York accents and have tremendous stage presence. Their interplay contains the ring of truth, bringing Neil Simon’s characters to boisterous life. Only an occasional insecurity in lines mars their performances, and that would go away in a long run of this always entertaining show. Unfortunately, there’s only a couple of weeks to enjoy their vaudeville shtick and love-hate relationship as it lights up the stage in Tucker.

Sense and Sensibility, by Kate Hamill
Nonsense and Sensibility
Saturday, October 7, 2017
There are a lot of silly touches in Synchronicity’s production of Kate Hamill’s "Sense and Sensibility" -- actors playing dogs, actors slyly moving set pieces as a scene proceeds, actors picking up other actors to move them, a basket of yarn turning into a puppet. These touches don’t detract from the production; they add a light-hearted tone and insert movement into what could easily be a talky rendition of Jane Austen’s plot. The ever-changing stage pictures designed by co-movement designers Ashley Anderson and Aricka Austin keep things moving, culminating in a beautiful effect of Marianne (Jennifer Schottstaedt) climbing a human pyramid and then falling backward into the arms of the actors making up that dissolving pyramid.

The scenic design by Trevor Carrier and Jordan Jaked Carrier uses a unit set consisting of neo-classical pillars and a building facade’s double door with painted paned windows, leaving the center of the stage bare. Trellises flank the stage, and the wings are disguised by hanging fabric panels, subtly painted with the suggestion of the tree branches that are suspended above them. Set pieces roll on and off, including a chaise on wheels, a table with a fold-up section that approximates a piano, and many chairs. Everything, including the floor of the stage, is painted nicely to blend together. The effect can be quite lovely under D. Connor McVey’s atmospheric lights. Cody Russell’s props and Jordan Jaked Carrier’s costumes add to the visual appeal, with the basic Empire-style white costumes worn by all the ensemble augmented by colorful additions as the actors morph into specific characters.

Rob Brooksher’s sound design is good, featuring scene-changing music composed by Haddon Kime that is beautifully coordinated with the length of the scene changes. The music sounds great when the piano predominates; orchestral voices, however, smack of a synthesizer (not that it detracts from the play itself). Underscored piano, which occurs in a couple of scenes, is balanced beautifully with the dialogue being spoken.

Director Rachel May has encouraged her actors to do wonderful work in delineating characters. Eight of the actors play multiple roles; only Shelli Delgado and Jennifer Schottstaedt, as sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, play single roles and have non-white costumes. They do wonderful work as sensible Elinor and the more flighty Marianne, investing them with emotion and charm befitting the characters. Marcie Millard and Michelle Pokopac create beautifully distinct characters for their non-ensemble roles; Justin Walker does so even with his ensemble roles, transforming his body language and speech patterns to suit whatever role he is currently playing. The only casting that didn’t work for me was Robert Lee Hindsman as Mrs. Jennings. Information in the lobby indicates that Ms. Hamill started writing plays because of the lack of good roles for women onstage. Giving one of the prime female roles to a male seems gimmicky.

Dialect consultant Jan Wikstrom has done a generally fine job in getting realistic English accents out of the actors, despite a few hard r’s and an occasional "thot" instead of "that." A few more lower-class accents for servants would have been welcomed, but the play sounds good overall.

Rachel May has created a production of "Sense and Sensibility" that does honor both to Jane Austen’s plot and characters and to Kate Hamill’s quirky dramatization. Certain plot contrivances seem a bit clunky in terms of the jokiness of the concept, with late revelations that cause a reversal of previous preconceptions of characters requiring a seriousness of intent at odds with the overall tone up to that point. It works in Jane Austen’s staid, but sprightly style, but not quite so well here. Ms. Hamill’s style entertains, but does not engross. Still, Ms. May and her actors and design team can all be proud of their work at Synchronicity in this production of "Sense and Sensibility."

The Christians, by Lucas Hnath
Thursday, October 5, 2017
Hallelujah! Finally an Actor’s Express show in which the audience all sits together in one group, and doesn’t have to peer across at other audience members or attempt to peer around the corner of a set. And even more amazing, a show advertised as lasting 90 minutes actually lasts only 90 minutes!

Just after announcing that debt has been paid off for the construction of their megachurch, Pastor Paul preaches a sermon espousing an inclusive, hell-free, humanistic theology rather than one based on fire and brimstone. He tells an objecting member of the flock to either conform to this new approach or leave the church. This causes a schism in the church and an immediate defection of 50 members. When a choir member then asks the pastor how she should address questions raised by the pastor’s sermon, he doubles down and asserts that everyone, even murderers, go to heaven. This results in a mass exodus of members. A man who is trying to teach tolerance for others finds that his intolerance in demanding allegiance to this view results in his views not being tolerated. How can it end happily?

Actor’s Express has recruited a team of regulars to create the visual aspects of the production, which is a bit of a shame. The set, lighting, and costumes all have fairly simple requirements and could have provided opportunities for new designers to break into the stable of professionals working regularly in Atlanta. The set by Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay has lovely wood flooring and frosted blue, plush carpet that looks just like the front of a church, along with furniture and woodwork molding that give an upscale look. The whole thing is backed by a beautifully colored wall of near-symmetric "stained glass" that for all the world looks like magic marker on backlit paper, with a cheap, but elegantly stained plywood cross in the center. Elizabeth Rasmusson’s costumes consist of Sunday best apparel and choir robes, with the garish suit for Enoch King attempting rather unsuccessfully to single him out as a poorer member of the congregation. Joseph P. Monaghan III’s lighting design features beautifully designed, but somewhat poorly delimited projections that simply scream "church."

The sound requirements of the show are very specific, and Actor’s Express newcomer Rob Brooksher does a splendid job of accomplishing them. The organ accompaniment sounds just like a church organ, and the microphones the script demands work flawlessly. Lucas Hnath’s script calls for these microphones to be used throughout, not just for the church service that starts the show, and it’s a bit off-putting in a small theatre, but no more than the small, unison-singing choir we see (musical direction by Allie Lingenfelter) that screams the opposite of a megachurch.

Freddie Ashley has blocked the show without a lot of movement, which makes a bedroom scene between the pastor and his wife stand out for its excess of movement. It can’t be realistic, given the demands of the script that all action take place using microphones on a set representing the front of the megachurch, but it seems odd.

Mr. Ashley has gotten outstanding performances from all his actors, the choir included. Brian Kurlander has the looks, bearing, and voice of a successful pastor, and expresses the pastor’s convictions convincingly. Kathleen Wattis Kettrey sits silently onstage for much of the show as his supportive wife, reacting with startling naturalism. When she gets to speak, she adds power to this naturalism. Greta M. Glenn reacts nearly as well, and carries off her role with elegant, well-spoken grace. Sarah Newby Halicks triumphs as the Congregant in a single-scene role, but Enoch King, as the Associate, gets to express the most emotion. At the performance I attended, there was applause on Mr. King’s exit, led by a vocal black woman in the audience who seemed to be fervently in favor of the views his character expresses. It was interesting to see the schism in the audience between those cheering him and those sitting silently, in tacit support of the Pastor.

"The Christians" is a strong play that raises pertinent theological questions in the context of a human drama. As a springboard for discussion, it succeeds admirably. The human drama, however, is left with an ambiguous ending. That may lead to additional discussion, but it robs the play of some emotional power it could have had.

Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris
Slipping Out of Park into Drive
Monday, October 2, 2017
Let’s start with the set. Will Brooks’ design takes up the full width of the Act3 stage, with a basement door far right, a kitchen door left, a staircase with landing up right, and an outside door up left center, flanked by two windows. All we see through the windows is blue fabric, with a little foliage visible when the door is open. The walls are painted a mottled green and gold, with reddish trim and doors that seem intended to match the cherry telephone table on the set in the first act. It’s not a very good match. Even with faux wood grain painting that looks very authentic in shape, the entire look is very artificial in terms of color. The painted floor with parallel black lines leading to the lip of the stage also seems a bit "off," since there are no perpendicular lines to mimic floorboards of typical lengths.

In the first act, the room is set up with paintings and furnishings that might be at home in 1959, with boxes and a rolled-up rug against a couple of the walls, suggesting that a move is in progress. For the second act, 50 years later, the paintings, rug, boxes, and most of the furniture are removed, revealing graffiti painted on the walls and a section of missing drywall. The kitchen door is also replaced with hanging plastic, and the basement door is covered with plywood. In concept, this is a fine set for the requirements of the script. If only that reddish trim were more lifelike, this would be a thoroughly acceptable set.

Bradley Rudy’s lighting design, Meghan B. Zern’s sound design, and Julianne Whitehead’s costumes do their jobs, and Julian Verner’s props impress. Director Liane LeMaster adds nice business with props at the start of the show, with Russ (Joel W. Rose) entering with a very lifelike 1959 carton of ice cream and searching to find a spoon through silverware prepped for the household’s imminent displacement.

The first act essentially belongs to Mr. Rose. While others fill their roles with energy and/or clarity, Mr. Rose adds levels and nuances to his performance that really flesh out the character of Russ. He’s dismissive with his wife, brightens when talking about things that really interest him, and builds slowly to an explosion that powers the dramatics of the act. It’s a marvelous performance, marred only at the show I saw by him calling one character by the actor’s act two name.

Act two puts Mr. Rose into a minor role. This act belongs to Dionna D. Davis, as Lena, and Madelayne Shammas, as Lindsey. Ms. Davis transitions from an overly polite and accommodating black neighbor to a force to be reckoned with. Ms. Shammas garners laughs throughout with just the tiniest changes of expression or bits of business. Mary Gagliardi does perhaps the best job of differentiating her characters in the two acts (although her first act character doesn’t quite feel natural), and all others in dual roles do well enough while playing essentially the same characters in the two acts.

The final scene introduces an actor who here is not double cast. At the performance I saw, Blake Buhler played Kenneth, a troubled Korean War veteran. This scene should be the emotional conclusion of the play, but it falls completely flat in this staging, in strong contrast to Raleigh Wade’s powerful turn in the role of Kenneth in the recent production of "Clybourne Park" at Lionheart Theatre.

Liane LeMaster does a good job of blocking the show and getting the emotional dynamics right (other than in the last scene). One other directorial misstep is having a stagehand curl up in a hoodie on a loveseat at the start of the second act after she has rearranged the stage. She is dismissed in dim light at the start of the second act, as characters enter to take their positions onstage. This isn’t a bad concept, since the room certainly has the look of a place vandals and squatters have frequented, but the director hasn’t committed to it. Either have the squatter dismissed as part of the action of the scene, or have her complete an intermission dumb show and exit before lights go down.

Act3’s production certainly gets the points of "Clybourne Park" across, and in an entertaining way. This may not be my favorite play, but there’s a freshness in Ms. LeMaster’s approach that makes it engaging, particularly in light of Joel Rose’s standout performance as Russ.

Boy, by Anna Ziegler
Boy, Oh Boy!
Monday, October 2, 2017
Anna Ziegler’s "Boy" tells the story of an identical male twin whose botched circumcision resulted in his penis being completely removed and who, under a doctor’s supervision, was surgically altered (partially) and raised as a girl. The story is told with a lot of jumping about in time, accompanied by projections of the year (often duplicated in voiceover) and the sound of a tape recorder being rewound or of a film projector sputtering as it unspools. Sound design is by Dan Bauman.

The set, by Barrett Doyle and Joel Coady, features walls and the suggestion of vaulted ceilings that consist of 2x4s ranged in two rows a couple of feet apart, their ends beveled at the top. Panels with abstract paintings are positioned here and there to give the walls some heft, with more realistic set dressing in the four playing areas (the doctor’s office up center, Adam’s apartment down center, his parents’ home at right, and a car interior down right). Two framed doorways are featured, along with undifferentiated openings that allow entrances and exits. It all works fairly well, although one late sequence seems almost laughably odd, with the doctor knocking at a large painting upstage right that suddenly represents a closed door, ostensibly to the apartment whose interior is downstage left of it, with its door frame far left.

Lauren Robinson’s lighting design highlights different areas of the stage to help represent individual locations. Even an aisleway in the audience is lit at the start, as Adam (Clifton Guterman) and Jenny (Annie York) enter at a Halloween party, with the rest of the scene played at the intersection of the two platforms that make up the floors of the main playing areas. Samantha P. McDaniel’s costumes get their biggest workout in the Halloween scenes, but her minimally midriff-baring sweater for Jenny hardly seems revealing enough to warrant Adam’s scandalized reaction. Adam’s initial outfit of a long T-shirt for his costume as Frankenstein’s monster soon gets recycled as a girl’s shift for the next scene. Other costumes attempt the same sort of transition, with less success. A. Julian Verner’s props consist mostly of cans of beer and, at the start, red plastic party cups that obviously are empty of the liquid supposedly being imbibed.

Melissa Foulger has blocked the show with little movement within individual scenes, although the frequent scene changes from location to location and from time to time give the illusion of movement. The overall production doesn’t show evidence of a strong director’s touch. There are a few outbursts and strong dramatic moments in the equivalent of a second act in this long intermissionless show, but otherwise the action plods along.

Performances and characters are not compelling. Adam’s doctor (Tom Key) speaks largely in the measured, falsely cheerful tones used by a teacher in instructing small children, and Jenny seems to be partying white trash that Adam is essentially stalking. Adam’s mother (Daryl Lisa Fazio) is weakly accommodating, and his father (Matt Lewis) is a go-along type of guy who finally gets an outburst late in the show and ends up being the most compelling figure in the story.

Adam himself (Clifton Guterman) is the biggest problem. Like Mr. Key, he is on the staff of Theatrical Outfit. His character is described as having effeminate characteristics (a residue of the years Adam spent learning to be a girl), and Mr. Guterman ably embodies that. He does not do a good job, however, of showing the malleable, innocent side of Samantha (as Adam was called in childhood). Samantha soon starts acting out, and comes across more as a brat than as a conflicted child. His stalking of Jenny and his fixation on reading to her four-year-old son come across as creepy more than caring. We get a feel-good ending with resolution of Adam’s relationships with his doctor, father, and girlfriend, but there’s a dramatic hollowness to the feeling.

Ms. Ziegler’s script takes a long time to get moving and throws in unnecessary literary references. Leigh Hunt’s poem "Jenny Kissed Me" plays a crucial role in the plot, but it’s not a poem that suits itself to reading aloud. Its introduction as the doctor’s favorite poem seems to be a blatant way to position it for a tender moment at the end of the play, just as Adam being an identical twin seems to be a blatant way to introduce a moment of mistaken identity late in the play (even though that’s a fact in the life of David Reimer, the real-life person on whom Adam is based and who committed suicide at 38). Taking real-life incidents as a basis for fiction or drama is fine in and of itself, but "Boy" seems to revel in trivializing the ordeals of David Reimer to leave audiences with a uplift.

Abigail/1702, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
The Devil Made Me Do It
Monday, September 25, 2017
One of the oldest trends in theatrical production is to give audiences what they’ve experienced before, only translated to dramatic form. The ancient Greeks did it with their myths, turned into plays by Sophocles, Euripides, and others. Medieval Europe did it with Bible stories. Shakespeare and his contemporaries did it with historical narratives. In the nineteenth century, popular novels became popular theatre pieces that could run for years on tour. More recently, we’ve seen popular plays musicalized, movies turned into Broadway shows, and now popular plays used as grounds for imagined sequels. Take as evidence Bruce Norris’ "Clybourne Park," derived from Lorraine Hansberry’s "A Raisin in the Sun" (which had already experienced musicalization in 1973’s Tony-winning "Raisin"); Lucas Hnath’s "A Doll’s House, Part 2," derived from Henrik Ibsen’s "A Doll’s House" (which had already received a musicalized sequel in 1982’s flop Comden & Green musical "A Doll’s Life"); and now Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s "Abigail/1702," focusing on events following the conclusion of Arthur Miller’s "The Crucible."

The program lists characters only by gender and age -- Young Woman (Diany Rodriguez), Young Man (Lee Osorio), Older Woman (Olivia D. Dawson), Older Man (Peter Hardy), and Little Boy (Joshua Pagan). This is a bit disingenuous of the playwright, even though some aliases are used and some players take on a limited number of multiple parts. We know almost from the start that the Young Woman is Abigail Williams from "The Crucible" (and history), wracked with guilt from her role in condemning 20 innocent people to death for witchcraft. She seeks a path to redemption by running a pox house and leading a virtuous life. We see her interacting primarily with a smallpox-afflicted seaman she nurses back to health (the Young Man) and the Little Boy who is housed in an orphanage. Flashbacks introduce additional characters that help flesh out her history following the Salem witch trials of 1692.

The Aurora stage features another massive set from Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay. The central section contains a revolving stage that shows a wattle of twigs at the start, but later revolves to show the interior of the pox house dwelling. Vegetation surrounds this revolving stage -- a tiny garden down right, a forest location down left, and leafless trees upstage along ramps that lead uphill from either side of the stage. There’s also a massive fake tree just right of center with limbs crudely covered in fabric, as if to allow flexibility as the branches move. They don’t. It’s just an ugly tree.

Ben Rawson’s lighting design goes for dimness in the spookier sections, adding backlighting of the cyclorama for shadow effects and letting light seep upward from the floor of the pox house. There’s a lovely moon projection too. Marc Gwinn’s sound design goes in for aural effects that mirror the lighting effects. Cathleen O’Neal’s costumes seem period-appropriate (although featuring white elements works against character movement in the dark, which happens fairly frequently). Kathryn Muse’s props add to the period feel and include appropriately ooky leeches.

Galen Crawley seems to have gotten a workout as dialect coach. All the characters seem to have slightly different accents, although none of the New England characters speak with accents reminiscent of modern-day New England accents. Dialectically, it all seems to be a bit of a grab bag.

Performances are good throughout. The plot comes through clearly, and Ms. Rodriguez shows real emotion as she goes through the agony of her struggles. The true standout, though, is Olivia D. Dawson as three very different women, all of whom are characterized by specific traits and speech patterns and emotional truth.

"Abigail/1702" is advertised as being a 90-minute, intermissionless show, but things really start popping after the hour-and-a-half mark. There are a number of revelations that cause reexamination of previous events or put them in a new perspective. There’s also a foray into the supernatural that raises the stakes higher and higher as Abigail seeks forgiveness while simultaneously facing her fate. Justin Anderson has done a creditable job in directing this show, but hasn’t created a production that truly transfixes and amazes.

Once on this Island, by Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty
A Feast for the Eyes; an Assault on the Ears
Monday, September 25, 2017
Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s production of "Once on This Island" takes place on a formidable set by Isabel and Mariah Curley-Clay. It represents a cave, and the concept is that the cast members are taking shelter during a storm that ends as the show does. The set allows nice stage pictures, with lots of levels for people to pose on, but it’s a fairly brooding presence throughout, which works against the brightness of the music.

Alex Riviere’s lighting design generally highlights the ongoing action, but has a few effects that don’t work particularly well. The hole in the back wall shows pretty much the same blue as the storm is brewing and after it has ended. Patterns of lights appear on the cave walls a couple of times, for no apparent reason. The band area stage left is lit brightly when music is largely percussion. These effects add to the visual interest of stage pictures, but draw unnecessary attention to themselves. One effect that does work is green tree foliage suddenly appearing above the stage, on top of roots that have been hanging in the cave all along.

Preston Goodson’s sound design is on the loud side. The balance between band and voices is such that singers have to soldier on through sheer lung power, which does nothing to enhance the vocal quality of the performances. There are a lot of good voices onstage, but no one is allowed to show his or her voice off to advantage, at least not consistently. They’re all blasting away in order to be heard. Musical director S. Renee Clark and overall director Ricardo Aponte have to share responsibility for the almost unrelieved fortissimo at which the score is sung.

Mr. Aponte’s background is in dance, and his choreography and staging are splendid. I often found myself thinking that the look of the show was ravishing, but that I might prefer to see it lipsynced to the original cast recording. Dance moves are gauged to the capabilities of the cast, allowing Brian Walker to leap to superhuman heights and Adrianna Trachell to glide gracefully and expressively, while others perform more manageable moves. Emmie Tuttle’s costumes employ bright colors only for the women’s dresses, seeming somewhat costume-y as a result, but they add to the visual appeal.

For my taste, performances are too reminiscent of theatre for children. There’s a broadness and pedagogic quality in the portrayal of some characters. There’s an actual child in the cast too, but Myshay Pretty is one of the highlights of the show. Her biography in the program states that she "always strives for excellence," and I believe it. She’s a powerhouse dancer, a good singer, and projects with clear diction. Marcus Hopkins-Turner deserves part of the credit for her performance, since she rests on his shoulders for large segments of the choreography.

Acting is adequate throughout, but the show emphasizes vocal power and stage pictures over emotional depth, and no performance captures the heart of the audience. This is the sort of production it’s easy to admire, but difficult to love.

The Reign of King Edward the Third , by William Shakespeare
A Romantical History
Monday, September 25, 2017
The king of France has died, leaving no direct descendants. A new king, John II (J. Tony Brown), has been installed, but the rightful heir, to some minds, is Edward III of England (Drew Reeves), son of the late king’s sister. Edward crosses the channel to challenge the combined armies of France, Bohemia, and Poland and claim the French crown. But first he has to handle a Scottish border incursion, led by Scotland’s King David II (Chris Rushing). In military terms, this is done quickly; in dramatic terms, not. Much of the first act is devoted to the married Edward attempting to woo and romantically conquer the married Countess of Salisbury (Kati Grace Brown), who had faced the same sort of attempts from the Scots who had overtaken her territory.

Edward III is not the most likable of monarchs. His attempted adultery is one strike against him, and his refusal in battle to aid his son, Prince Edward (David Sterritt), also smacks of a character deficiency, although his stated aim is to toughen his son and make him a man. He also has a tendency to welsh on promises, although he is usually persuaded by others to take the more charitable path. He’s a king and successful conqueror, but not necessarily a hero.

Mary Ruth Ralston has directed a production that makes use of the standard Shakespeare Tavern elements (Anné Carole Butler’s appropriate costumes, action-packed battle sequences captained by David Sterritt, fairly basic lighting by Greg Hanthorn, Jr., and a musical interlude that in this case ends the first act). The only directorial misstep is having ambient sounds (wind, what I guess was intended to be water, and battle sounds) play throughout scenes instead of just being used to establish atmosphere and location. It’s distracting to have extraneous noise when attempting to attend to important dialogue.

Performances are good throughout, with the only true standout moment being when the Scots (Chris Rushing and Kenneth Wigley) enter in their kilts and converse in brogues thick as heather before dashing off in cowardly flight. Its the one true comic section of the play, enhanced by blocking that has Mr. Rushing pose with bared thigh. Messrs. Rushing and Wigley also impress in their other, more serious roles. Kati Grace Brown has the most impassioned speech as the Countess of Salisbury, and she delivers it with power befitting a queen, not the mere consort Edward is trying to convince her to be. Mr. Reeves holds his own as Edward III and J. Tony Brown has his moments as the French king, but it’s pretty much par-for-the-course performances we see.

"The Reign of King Edward III" is rarely performed, so it’s a treat to see it at the Shakespeare Tavern. However, as with most of Shakespeare’s "minor" plays, production reveals why the work is not among the most treasured in Shakespeare’s canon. Other works do history better; other works do romance better. This one combines them in a not wholly satisfactory mélange.

The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee WIlliams
Played for Laughs
Monday, September 25, 2017
Tennessee Williams’ poetic memory play "The Glass Menagerie" isn’t usually considered fertile grounds for laugh-out-loud comedy. Don’t tell Emil Thomas that. He has directed "The Glass Menagerie" to point up all the funny bits and to add unexpected ones, particularly in having Laura react to situations with mugging reminiscent of an over-the-top sitcom.

The set at the New Theatre in the Square, designed by the single-named Carlos, contains a central low platform with a round table, four chairs, a typewriter, and a record player. It’s surrounded on three sides by higher platforms, the matching ones right and left with railings. Up center in an arch and on the near sides of the right and left platforms are partial shelves that contain votive candles and glass animals. The platforms are all in white. A stylized set of fire escape stairs in black appears at far stage left. It all looks very modern, with the men’s beards and Tom’s shaved head pointing directly at the modern day, while costumes give the feel that the time period is the 1980s. The script, of course, is very specific about its time period fifty years before that.

The script is also very specific about the ethnicity of Jim O’Connor, the gentleman caller, indicating that he is Irish on both sides and has (or had) freckles. Here, the role is played by a rail-thin black man, Esosa Idahosa. Like the actors playing Tom (Michael Vine) and Laura (Abigale Mitchell), he has been directed to play his role with overly precise diction and the type of projection that flattens out any emotion in the person’s voice. It’s a very strange effect.

Mr. Thomas’ blocking has characters lurking around the stage in odd ways, such as having Laura upstage polishing imaginary apples and picking up invisible grocery items when she has been sent off to the store, or flying her glass animals through the air and playing with them like a developmentally delayed child. All aspects of the production seem to be aimed at making Laura a buffoon. Her lurch with a turned-in foot is so marked that Jim’s assurances to her that her limp was hardly noticeable in high school seem risible. It does allow, though, for a nice touch with Laura placing that foot on top of Jim’s to dance more fluidly.

Lighting effects highlight different sections of the stage as the action moves, although not always in strictly coordinated fashion. The "dim light" mentioned in Tom’s initial speech predominates, with the candlelight of act one doubled in act two, to give Laura an extended sequence of blowing out candles before Tom gets to his line about Laura blowing out her candle.

The one shining triumph of this production is the performance of Lynn Grace as Amanda Wingfield. True, she gets lots of laughs in her performance, but they all derive from her character’s line readings, which are all utterly true to the character she has created. If the other actors had been directed to mesh more smoothly with the example she provides, this would be a much more successful production. As it is, the play comes through only through the power and poetry of Williams’ language and Ms. Grace’s performance.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, by Rajiv Joseph
Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Rajiv Joseph’s "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" transports the audience to war-torn Baghdad, starting at the zoo being guarded by a couple of U.S. soldiers. One soldier taunts the caged tiger and has a hand ripped off; the other shoots and kills the tiger. The tiger is the first ghost we see. Soon we see many more. By the end of the show, that’s almost all we see.

In Joseph’s vision of the afterlife, the dead gain knowledge they never had in life. This leads to many ruminations on mortality, God, and one’s place in the grand scheme of things. The affecting plot lines carry most of the show, but the ruminations preponderate as the show winds down.

There are three major story lines, concerning the tiger (Kevin Stillwell); two American G.I.’s (Markell Williams and Joe Sykes); and Uday Hussein (Sam Younis) and his gardener (Rudy Roushdi), who has become a translator for the Americans following Uday’s killing. Their stories are fleshed out with the addition of two females, Marium Khalid (playing a prostitute and the gardener’s sister) and Paris Benjamin (playing an Iraqi woman and a leper). Several of the cast members speak in Arabic -- some exclusively; some in alternation with English. The translator lets us understand whatever is important.

This is a good, solid play, and director Michael Haverty has shaped it for maximum impact. He is aided by Vii Kelly’s tremendous effects, Paul Mercer’s evocative stereophonic music, Alice Neff’s creative costume design, and A. Julian Verner’s effective props. Lito Tamez’s set design mostly uses movable set pieces to establish location, but also utilizes a scrim that separates the downstage area from an upstage area that is dominated by a huge setting sun painted on the back wall. This scrim nicely allows lighting to snap out the ending of scenes, especially when one character is behind it and another in front. Otherwise, Stevie Roushdi’s lighting design tends toward the dim, with some pools of light slightly smaller than the space on stage in which the actors move.

Performances are all splendid. Kevin Stillwell invests the tiger with power and rage and introspection. Markell Williams sparks the scenes he’s in with quirky intensity, while Joe Sykes plays his role humorlessly, getting laughs with his deadly seriousness and total commitment to his character. Sam Younis gives Uday the ruthless charm of a tyrant, and Rudy Roushdi plays the gardener with tremendous heart and pain. The women impress too, in their far smaller roles. The acting couldn’t be better.

The only drawback to the show is its length. The first act keeps interest throughout, but the second act drags out the resolution of its three story lines by dedicating an extended scene to each. It’s interesting and thought-provoking, but not as compelling as the lead-up to the resolution has been. All in all, this is a terrific production of a play by an important contemporary playwright.

Buyer & Cellar, by Jonathan Tolins
Bought and Sold
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Jonathan Tolins’ "Buyer & Cellar" was inspired by Barbra Streisand’s coffee table book of photographs of her Malibu home, which includes a replica shopping mall in a basement on the property. Mr. Tolins imagines that a struggling L.A. actor with some retail experience is hired to man this mall. The play tells the fictional story of how he was hired and ultimately fired from this position.

The actor (Alex) has a boyfriend (Barry) and interacts with Babs, her husband James Brolin, and various people involved in his employment. Elliott Folds portrays all of them with subtle vocal, positional, and posture changes (although his difference between Alex and Barry is so subtle it’s scarcely apparent). It all works very well. Mr. Folds’ easy audience rapport and command of the material keep things moving at a brisk pace, with humor abounding.

Michael Hidalgo’s scenography gives us an elegant room with wainscoted walls, a sofa and a desk. Barbra’s book is prominently spotlighted on the side, resting on a stool. Paul Conroy’s sound design is neatly coordinated with projections of the grand stairway leading down to the basement, adding to the simple, elegant effect. Mr. Conroy’s blocking makes good use of the stage, turning this show into a delight from start to finish.

Mr. Folds’ one-man performance has been greeted with raucous applause at ART Station, where the typical audience tends toward well-heeled retirees. One can only imagine the reception in March when the same production moves to Out Front, with its largely gay-based audience.

The Dixie Swim Club, by Jesse Jones, Nicholas Hope, Jamie Wooten
Dixie Chicks Live
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
"The Dixie Swim Club" takes place in a rental cottage on the outer banks of North Carolina. In Onstage Atlanta’s production, though, Angela Short’s set doesn’t look very beachy. Sure, there are a lot of sea-related knickknacks on the walls and a big picture window, but the somber colors of the wall and the blue-lit sheet outside the window don’t suggest the beach at all. A big, uncluttered space in the center with a doorway on either side screams "suburban home" much more than "beach house." Charlie Miller’s sound design gives us some flavor of beach sounds, although bird calls don’t much resemble those of sea gulls. Elisabeth Cooper’s lighting design is plagued by the persistent Onstage Atlanta problem of uneven lighting along the lip of the stage, with actors gliding through alternating bands of light and shadow as they move across the far downstage area.

These mediocre technical aspects of the show are almost made up for by the splendid costume design by Scott Rousseau. There are terrific costumes (and wigs) for everyone, ranging from the schlubby outfits for Vernadette (Lory Cox) to the elegant outfits for Lexie (Phyllis H. Giller). Ms. Cox and Ms. Giller seem to be of an age, and Lateefah D. Mosley as Dinah does a fine job of aging in tandem with them, but Cat Roche (Jeri Neal) seems to be half the age of Sheree (Bobbie Elzey), which ruins the illusion that these women all swam on the same college swim team at the same time. Ms. Elzey in particular fails at portraying a believably aging health food nut proud of her figure. The first three scenes each take place five years apart, starting in 1983; the last scene is close to the modern day. Costumes don’t "scream" a particular year or decade, but transition believably as the women age.

Aside from casting too wide a variety of ages, director Cathe Hall Payne has done a fine job. Blocking is good (minus those times when an actress traverses the lip of the stage, highlighting the deficiencies in lighting), but a lot of the time women are sitting (mostly on the sofa center, but occasionally on chairs at either side of the stage). Given the low rise between rows in the audience, this can lead to sightline issues for some audience members.

The most important parts of the play -- the acting and the plot -- are given their full due. Jones, Hope, and Wooten always pepper their plays with tons of funny lines and situations, and Ms. Payne’s direction ensures that all of them get hearty laughs. Particularly stunning performances come from Ms. Giller, elegant and delightfully self-centered throughout, and from Ms. Cox, whose accident-prone white trash persona transitions movingly in the final scene. Ms. Payne has honed the performances into a cohesive ensemble with palpable chemistry, providing a nice introduction to the work of Jones, Hope, and Wooten for any audience members unfamiliar with their body of work.

August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts
Taking the "Fun" out of "Dysfunctional"
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Director Myrna Feldman’s director’s notes in the program for Lionheart’s "August: Osage County" state that the dysfunctional family dynamics in view are "infinitely relatable." I take issue with that statement. To some people, they are relatable. Take in evidence the man in tears after the first act of this three-act play. Things obviously were resonating for him. Not for me, though. The people we see tend to the grotesque and monstrous, so it’s not surprising that the three sisters of Tracy Letts’ Weston family are eager to complete their escape from Osage County, unlike Chekhov’s three sisters who yearn for an idealized Moscow they’ll never see. About the only relatability I experienced was in the assumption of somewhat clueless sister Karen (Emily McClain) that her parents loved all three girls equally. With the scarcity of love in evidence in the Weston clan, that may not be far from the unpleasant truth.

Tanya Moore’s set reuses the basic bones of the design that has been used for the past several Lionheart productions: we have the same staircase, two of the same doorways, and even what appears to be the chafing dish recently used in "Clybourne Park." The only structural changes are stage left, where we have an angled wall containing a window and the suggestion of a porch. It all works very well, though. The set has been decorated to suggest different portions of the house, and air mattresses brought downstage work just fine for bedroom scenes. Gary White’s lighting design helps delineate different acting spaces, and Bob Peterson’s sound design meshes seamlessly into the action.

Myrna Feldman has blocked the action so that sightlines are uniformly good. The second act takes place around a dining table seating nine people (with two others at the children’s table), so there are inevitably some backs to some sections of the audience, but there is enough spacing between backs to allow viewing of plenty of faces. Scene changes flow smoothly, and there’s enough variety of movement to maintain visual interest. Fine costumes, assembled by the cast, add to the visual appeal.

Ms. Feldman has gotten the most out of her cast. Performances have been molded to mesh believably, allowing the unsavory plot to unfold before us in all its horrifyingly destructive dysfunction. For the actors I’ve seen before, their performances in this production rate among their best. That’s one of the hallmarks of superior direction. Rebecca Knoff does a splendid job with Violet’s slurred, almost indecipherable (except to her) utterings, and Brian Jones’s impassioned speech as Charlie hits home with all its intended force. Even newcomers make a good impression. Grace Jones, in her Lionheart debut, makes teenager Jean a totally natural, believable person.

Otherwise, casting is a little off in terms of ages. Outside of the prologue, the men seem to be about the ages referenced in the script, but the supposedly middle-aged women appear far younger. That gives a slightly "off" feeling to the proceedings. There are also some other "off" elements: the facts that Katie Bates’ Ivy seems to have downcast eyes consistently when facing the audience and that the four-letter filth issuing forth from Barbara’s mouth doesn’t sound altogether natural in Sarah Tracy’s speech patterns. (Blame Tracy Letts for that; not the expressive Ms. Tracy.)

The play doesn’t start altogether well, with Allan Dodson’s turn as Beverly not the boozy tour-de-force it needs to be. Christina Simms’ nearly silent Johnna shares the prologue, bringing quiet dignity to the role and adding subtle movement to underline certain moments. After the prologue, things start sparking along, with Amy Szymanski’s Maddie Fae bursting onto the scene with unbridled energy and venom. The laughs come frequently in the early sections of the play, with the tone darkening and souring as the action proceeds. These aren’t people we’d like to encounter in real life, but they can be tolerated for three hours. And most people, I daresay, will embrace the production rather than merely tolerate it.

Throw Me on the Burnpile and Light Me Up, by Lucy Alibar
Lights Indeed
Friday, September 15, 2017
For a one-woman show, Aurora’s "Thrown Me on the Burnpile and Light Me Up" goes all out on technical elements. Elizabeth Jarrett’s set contains a huge, steel-bound pile of junk in the upstage recess of the black box space, with circular decking in two tiers in front of it, encircled by marsh grass. Telegraph poles appear on either side of the stage and audience, with strings of mismatched lights strung between them. Maranda Debusk’s lighting scheme throws in all sorts of effects, often accompanied by snippets of Jake K. Harbour’s sound design to set a scene and/or set a mood.

That’s not to say that this technical overload is all for the good. Cody Russell’s props don’t make for a very convincing burnpile, with electronics as evident as wood in the steel-bound burnpile upstage. And the circular decking intrudes into the three-sided audience space, with little space for audience members to squeeze past attendees in the front row. Even the immediacy of the action has its drawbacks, with Taylor M. Dooley’s teeth-baring grin and energetic intensity at the start coming across like a performance gauged for a far larger auditorium.

It doesn’t take long for Ms. Dooley to win us over, though. Aside from her narration, she portrays a fourth-grader who works as a secretary for her father, a pro bono defense attorney in capital cases for the local trash and crackers who commit crimes along the Florida-Georgia-Alabama state line. With terrific changes of expression, gesture, and stance, she also portrays everyone else in the anecdotes that make up the play. Her energy and commitment are a joy to behold.

Rachel Parish has directed the show to be split into eight sections, and at the culmination of each Ms. Dooley lights one of a group of eight cylinder candles and lanterns that are grouped on the upper tier at the start. She places the lanterns on the telegraph poles and the candles in various positions on the decking and burnpile. This movement, of course, is accompanied by music and dimmed lighting. It’s atmospheric and gives Ms. Dooley a little break from emoting, but it’s a little artificial in effect.

When Ms. Dooley nearly dissolves into tears at the end, it also seems artificial. Not the acting; Ms. Dooley is splendid in that regard. It’s that the dramatic movement hasn’t led sufficiently in that direction. The content of the play is profane and funny and sometimes disturbing, but the resilience that the father of Ms. Dooley’s character has instilled in her would suggest a more stoic outlook at the conclusion. Still and all, Taylor M. Dooley, in her T-shirt and shredded jeans designed by Cole Spivia, makes this play an affecting tour de force.

Silent Sky, by Lauren Gunderson
A Galaxy of Stars
Monday, September 11, 2017
Theatrical Outfit’s production of "Silent Sky" a couple of years ago featured a massive, magnificent set by the Curley-Clay sisters. Staged Right’s production goes for a simpler set design that suits Lauren Gunderson’s play equally well. The collective set design team of Karl Dickey and the female cast members sets the action on an elliptical playing space, painted with two orbs swirling with subtle colors and a band of white that gloriously suggests a map of the Milky Way. Simple set furnishings are moved on and off for individual scenes: stanchions suggest seaboard scenes, table and chair suggest house scenes, and three standing desks at one end and two sides of the ellipse create the Harvard Observatory workplace scenes.

The costume design by Joseph Edward Johnson (the sole male cast member) does a fine job of suggesting the early years of the twentieth century, albeit without corsets. Props (Lea Herring) work well, without trying to duplicate historical accuracy to the nth degree. The lighting design (lighting consultation by Bryan Mitchell), hampered by the need for two stands of lighting instruments on opposite sides of the room, does a very nice job of illuminating the action without blinding audience members sitting directly across from a bank of lights, and also provides some subtle effects. Sound is beautifully synchronized with action, particularly in a scene with piano playing in the background. In a temporary venue like this (an empty storefront space), technical complexity can’t be expected, and the play does not require it. Nevertheless, the technical components of this production impress.

Director Starshine Stanfield has done a fabulous job of blocking a production in the round (or ellipse, in this case). Movement is fluid and frequent, ensuring that all parts of the audience get to see more faces than backs. There’s an energy to the blocking that mirrors the swirling gasses of a nebula that the floor painting also suggests. But it’s the shaping of the play’s emotions and beats that really shows Ms. Stanfield’s skill as a director.

The cast are all capable. Ilene Miller gives us a Williamina Fleming with a hint of a Scottish accent and a boundless outpouring of good nature that endears. Christen Orr’s Annie Cannon balances Williamina with a level-headed flintiness that covers the warm heart of a woman whose goals and ideals drive her life. Kendra Gilbert, while a little young to successfully manage the transition of years called for in the script, provides a real-life perspective to action that is otherwise firmly planted in the stars of astronomical science. Joseph Edward Johnson, as supervisor Peter Shaw, is shorter than the typical leading man, but builds believability with every interaction he has onstage.

The standout is Adelle Drahos in the central role of Henrietta Leavitt. Here is a woman driven by the need to explore and comprehend, yet hampered by the sexist conventions of society. Ms. Drahos gives Henrietta tremendous dignity, showing us how life’s circumstances affect a single-minded individual in unexpected ways. It’s not a showy, powerhouse performance in any way, but is as deeply affecting as could be wished. In her portrayal, Lauren Gunderson’s protagonist is brought stunningly to life.

Shakespeare in Love, by Lee Hall, based on work by Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard
The Movie Onstage
Monday, September 11, 2017
The plot of "Shakespeare in Love" is largely cribbed from Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet," with a little "Cyrano de Bergerac" thrown in, and adding a bit of "Twelfth Night" from time to time. The premise is that young Will Shakespeare, with the help of Christopher Marlowe, devises the plot of "Romeo and Juliet" from happenings in his own life. Already married to Anne Hathaway, Will is smitten by the betrothed Viola, who disguises herself as a man to appear onstage. It ends with more of a bittersweet note than the tragic note "Romeo and Juliet" ends on.

The Alliance Theatre has pretty much handed the reins on this one to the defunct Georgia Shakespeare Festival, using its director (Richard Garner) and a number of its regular troupe, and performing in their old space at Oglethorpe University. If they hadn’t farmed out their wardrobe holdings upon disbanding, I imagine some of the costumes might have a familiar ring to them too. As it is, Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes are a visual delight of Elizabethan apparel. Ken Yunker’s lighting design adds to the visual appeal, although some of the murkier moments tend to throw unanticipated shadows.

Ms. Calin’s set design is no match for her costumes. There’s an enormous wooden wall backing the set, with a couple of huge shadow-box-looking structures in front. The upper level functions for some balcony scenes, but the decorations on it are cluttered and unappealing. A couple of other structures move on and off to stand in for a curtained bed and various other locations. The most effective scenic element is brown fabric stretched around a couple of benches to resemble a rowboat, with blue fabric rippling alongside. It’s a well-worn and always welcome Georgia Shakespeare touch. A modern metal stepladder on wheels is a jarringly unwelcome touch, although its movement blends seamlessly into the action.

Clay Benning’s sound design is fine, but the music we hear is live (under Brandon Bush’s music direction). There’s a bit too much of it, but the sound is splendid and thoroughly Elizabethan in effect, as is McCree O’Kelly’s choreography that accompanies much of the music. Scot J. Mann’s fight choreography adds exciting movement to fight sequences. It’s all thoroughly professional in tone.

The play’s the thing here, and all but two actors essay multiple roles. Most have one standout individual role, but blend into other scenes as needed. Allan Edwards and Devon Hales impress in multiple roles, but they too blend in when their character is not a focal point. Director Richard Garner has experience in corralling large Shakespearean casts, and his touch is seen throughout. There are too many sweet character touches to count, with the old Georgia Shakespeare regulars making the most of their time onstage. Tinashe Kajese-Bolden fits in splendidly as Queen Elizabeth, and Richard Garner himself has a heyday onstage as Henslowe. There’s hardly enough praise to go around in terms of acting and direction.

The major roles of Viola and Will are played by Bethany Anne Lind, the Laura of Georgia Shakespeare’s splendid "Glass Menagerie," and Thomas Azar, a face unfamiliar to Atlanta audiences. Both acquit themselves well, managing to provide the romantic heart of the story while also being delightful in cross-dressing moments. But this is an ensemble show, and they don’t eclipse the firmament of Atlanta stars with whom they share a stage. This isn’t a movie, and peripheral action is as much a part of the production as the actors speaking lines.

"Shakespeare in Love" is part of the (relatively) recent trend of turning popular movies into sellable theatre pieces. In this case, it hasn’t been turned into a musical, although music and dance are a part of the show. There’s a lot to like, but the whole thing is so reminiscent of the movie that it’s hard to love. What’s easy to love is seeing the Georgia Shakespeare Festival ensemble onstage again in an unexpected last hurrah.

"Fallout" , by Laura King
All In
Monday, September 11, 2017
Laura King’s "Fallout" starts with the wailing of a siren and the sounds of footsteps hurrying down the stairs to a basement bomb shelter. In come David (Fred Galyean) and Anna (Markia Chappelle). It’s Anna’s bomb shelter, built by her father and re-stocked on a regular basis by Anna to have several months’ supplies at the ready. David is the guy who mows her lawn and who happens to have been at her front door when the siren started. Anna is going to save David from whatever is happening outside the secure bomb shelter. But is some saving within also called for?

The set designed by Tony Pearson is a bit of a disappointment, more in execution than in concept. The door, stage right, is surrounded by faux cinder block; the walls are faux concrete. Both are more "faux" than might be hoped. There’s a toilet in a nook by the door, a table and chairs center, a day bed up center left, and shelving units around the perimeter. Although the shelves are stocked, there obviously is not the months’ worth of goods the script describes. A perspective painting of shelves reaching into the distance might have been more effective than the conglomeration of unused props surrounding the stage. One touch I really like, though, is the stacking of the games "Life" and "Risk" up left. What two words better describe being holed up in a fallout shelter?

Both David and Anna have secrets that are gradually revealed in the course of the play. David’s big story involves a rescue attempt for a child trapped in a well too narrow for an adult to fit in. There’s a detail or two missing from the story, since a parallel hole and sideways tunnel breaching the well don’t immediately allow access to the child. Does the well open up into a wider cistern at the bottom? Is the breaching tunnel feet above the child? Since we’re not told, the logistics of the story don’t seem to add up.

Celeste Campbell has done a fine job of blocking the action to allow the action to be seen, although there’s a fair amount of lying on the floor when lying on the daybed would seem to be a more natural activity (but one distancing the audience from the action). Paige Steadman has created fantastic fight choreography that adds true excitement and believability to the show.

Ms. Campbell has gotten good performances out of her actors and has shaped the action to highlight its dramatic outbursts. Mr. Galyean has great ease and power on the stage, although the script has him popping Valiums that seem to have limited effect except in isolated moments. Ms. Chappelle doesn’t have the ease onstage of Mr. Galyean, but acquits herself well. There’s one line reading, though, that bothered me on opening night. Anna’s big secret involves her father, who has been established to have died after military service. When David comments "I thought he died in a blaze of glory," it comes across as a sincere question, with no hint of sarcasm. That makes the moment seem like a case of the playwright having forgotten the flow of the story across multiple revisions, while a more skeptical line reading would flow smoothly.

James Beck’s lighting and sound design work well, allowing the script to come alive onstage. Ms. King may make some revisions to improve "Fallout" as a result of having seen the play brought to life, but there’s a good story, good characters, and a good flow already in place. As a long one act two-hander, it’s eminently producible.

Glengarry Glen Ross, by David Mamet
Glengarry Glen Flaws
Friday, September 1, 2017
The first act of David Mamet’s "Glengarry Glen Ross" consists of three two-person scenes in which one person speaks a near-monologue while the other listens and occasionally tries to break in. The success or failure of these scenes depends primarily on the actor delivering the monologue. Plot points and character traits need to come across strongly.

The first scene is between salesman Shelly Levene (John Schmedes), desperate to get good leads on prospective real estate buyers, and John Williamson (Jeff Morgan), the by-the-book office manager. Mr. Schmedes makes this scene a tour-de-force of desperation, wheedling and cajoling and lashing out in turn. Mr. Morgan is strong in his quiet resistance. Their interplay sparkles, although on opening night there may have been some professionally covered line bobbles. The intensity and rhythm were there no matter what.

The second scene introduces us to two more salesmen. Dave Moss (Chip Powell) rails and rants about work conditions and suggests staging a robbery of their office, while George Aaronow (Ethan Smith) attempts to fathom what Dave is really proposing. Mr. Powell drives through the scene like a Mack truck, exploding with power. Mr. Smith’s lack of experience in scripted theatre shows, primarily in his lack of projection and a lack of rhythm in his attempted interruptions. His facial expressions, though, and his delivery of uninterrupted lines is beautifully comic.

These first two scenes work well, although I believe on opening night there might have been some dialogue dropped that clarifies the sales contest going on. The third scene is another matter. In this scene, salesman Richard Roma (Grant McGowen) pitches a sale to James Lingk (Nigel Marson). There is nothing of the slick salesman in Mr. McGowen’s performance, and Mr. Marson has an almost transparent stage presence. The scene is almost boring as Mr. McGowen smokes leisurely and makes his points in a plodding manner.

While the first act all takes place in a Chinese restaurant, the second act takes place in the burgled sales office the next day. There is much more interplay, with a policeman (TJ Jackson) periodically entering and summoning one individual or another for questioning about the overnight break-in. Triumphs turn into failures in the course of the act, with Mr. Schmedes’ character as the centerpiece. He makes the act his own, although all the actors acquit themselves fairly well.

The set works extremely well for the small space. Three sets of Venetian blinds hang down to suggest walls, with a door and a green chalkboard on opposite walls. A shadow box of a city skyline behind two of the blinds does a lovely job of suggesting the urban location. A rectangular table and gray stools fill the center section of the stage for both acts, with an orange print tablecloth (and great food props) in the first act nicely suggesting a Chinese restaurant. Courtney Lakin’s costumes work well to suggest the business environment, and Mr. McGowen’s lighting and sound design enhance the action (despite one lighting flub on opening night).

Pinch ’n’ Ouch’s "Glengarry Glen Ross" is an uneven production with its second cast in place. (The first cast appeared in a run from August 3-26.) Mr. McGowen the director has let Mr. McGowen the actor down. The characters of Levene and Roma are supposed to have had a long history together, but Mr. McGowen appears to be so much younger than others with a supposedly shorter history that the relationship doesn’t ring true. We have a couple of powerhouse performances from Messrs. Schmedes and Powell, a solid performance from Mr. Morgan, and lackluster performances otherwise. The power of Mamet’s script comes through, but diluted.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Peter Parnell (book), Stephen Schwartz (lyrics) & Alan Menken (music)
Less Miserables
Tuesday, August 29, 2017
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame," like "Les Misérables," is one of Victor Hugo’s hit novels of the nineteenth century, set in the historical past. It has been brought to the stage via a detour through a Disney animated movie with a score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. The stage production, though, has more of the sober tone of "Les Misérables" than the cheeriness of an animated feature. Librettist Peter Parnell has devised a storyline that hews closely to the book, with the score of the film broadened and darkened to create an atmospheric musical world.

Shannon Robert’s set design uses a unit set as its basis, with gothic cathedral windows, stonework, and statues populating the fringes of the stage. Ladders and two moving staircases allow access to a second story. Occasional set pieces are brought onstage for certain scenes, and massive bells and doors sometimes appear upstage. Maria Cristina Fusté’s lighting design keeps the fringes of the set murky most of the time, with a delightful array of effects lighting the action on the stage. While the set is impressive, it’s the lighting that truly makes the show a visual spectacle.

Alan Yeong’s costumes give the show some visual pop, although they appear to be costume designs rather than clothing anyone in any historical period might have worn, let alone the "Dark" end of the Middle Ages. In such a dark show, the vibrant colors of the costumes stand out. It’s the lighting, though, that adds the most visual excitement. Even Ricardo Aponte’s active dance choreography and Drew Reeves’ exciting fight choreography can’t outshine it.

One of the aspects of the story is that the Hunchback, isolated in the bell tower of Notre Dame de Paris, converses with the statues and gargoyles that surround him. Ryan Bradburn’s props include a collection of these gargoyles, although a few of them appear to be more appropriate to "The Lion King" than to a medieval church. Most of them have points of articulation, which Reay Kaplan’s puppet choreography makes use of, but a few of them stand out (in a bad way) by being static sculptural figures. Having cast members in their costumes operate these puppets isn’t terribly effective at bringing the audience into the Hunchback’s world. The statue of Saint Aphrodesius (Steve Hudson), however, provides one of the highlights of the show.

Acting is good across the board, but vocals are stunning. Haden Rider has a beautiful singing voice as Quasimodo, even if the comic edge of his acting never blends into a heartbreaking one. Kevin Harry is ideally suited to the role of Clopin, with his powerful voice and stage presence obviating the need for any subtlety. Lowrey Brown’s sweet voice as Phoebus soars purely, while Julissa Sabino’s blasts with power as Esmeralda. Choral work, which predominates in the score, is magnificent. Ann-Carol Pence’s musical direction and band are superb.

Kudos in acting go to David DeVries as Dom Claude Frollo. His singing may not be the equal of others in the cast, but he holds his own in choral numbers. He brings the audience in with his quiet power and conflicted morality, and drives the story along. Ms. Sabino doesn’t fully embody the object of desire Esmeralda needs to be, but Mr. DeVries makes us believe she is to him.

Director Justin Anderson has created a production that has the technical trappings of a Broadway show, even though "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" has not played on that famous thoroughfare in New York City. Some of the cream of Atlanta’s talent is onstage, and the production serves the story and score with power and precision. While the ensemble may be a trifle young on the whole and more adept at dancing than moving as if the clothes they wear belong to them, the impression the show leaves is that of a dark, entrancing tale as old as time.

A Lesson Before Dying, by Romulus Linney
Less ’n’ Then More
Saturday, August 26, 2017
Romulus Linney’s "A Lesson Before Dying" starts out slow. We’re introduced to the godmother (Elisabeth Omilami) and former teacher (E.A. King) of a young black man (Simeon Daise) sentenced to death for the killing of a white bar owner. We also meet the white sheriff (Lee Buechele) and prison guard (Trevor Goble) who allow them to meet in a storeroom. The godmother wants the young man to learn to die with dignity, and hopes the teacher will help him to do so. The first scenes make it clear that the young man does not wish to cooperate. He was called a "hog" during the trial and has taken it to heart. We’re shown his hog-like recalcitrance repeatedly.

Things begin to click only when the teacher gets the young man to discuss what happened during the crime that got him sentenced to the electric chair. He’s innocent, but this isn’t a crime procedural where the case is reopened and the young man is exonerated through courtroom and forensic heroics. This is Louisiana in the late 1940’s, and a white jury has convicted a black man. Innocent or not, he will be executed.

The education of Jefferson, the young man, is complicated by the interference of Reverend Ambrose (Kerwin Thompson), who believes that only God should be on the mind of the convicted, and encouraged by the interference of Vivian Baptiste (Brittany L. Smith), the girlfriend of the teacher, who convinces the teacher to continue his efforts in the face of difficulties. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Jefferson will eventually head to his death with dignity, but that’s not the only point of the story. Grant Wiggins, the teacher, finds the cynical, anti-religious, disaffected views he has of his community altered through the community’s support for Jefferson. Both Jefferson and Grant are affected by their joint journey. So is Paul Bonin, the white guard who believes in Jefferson’s innocence. It all leads to a sobering, but uplifting ending.

Kat Conley’s set is backed by angled brick walls that primarily suggest the storeroom in which most of the action takes place. Two doors, center right and center left, lead from the storeroom. The storeroom floor is on a raised platform; a lower platform and the stage floor contain furniture to suggest other locations, principally a schoolroom and a restaurant for some of Grant’s scenes. Mary Parker’s lighting design ably suggests all these locations, and uses a nice dappled effect across the stage before the show begins. Her lighting and Michael Salvatorio’s sound design work in tandem for an effective electric chair scene. Nyrobi Moss’ costume design and Cynthia McCoy’s props and set dressing suggest the time period, helping to give the show an authentic feel.

David Koté has directed the show with nicely restrained movements to suggest the limitations of space imposed on Jefferson and his visitors. Mostly, though, he has shaped the show to let its emotional impact come through. The final moments, with Messrs. Daise, Goble, and King, drive the point home that all these men have changed for the better during the course of Jefferson’s imprisonment and execution. The other characters aren’t given as much of an emotional arc, but Ms. Smith impresses with her portrayal of Vivian, bringing a touch of sweetness into the bitter circumstances of Jefferson’s life in prison. All the acting is fine, gaining power as the play proceeds.

The venue, the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts & Community Center, provides fine theater facilities, but Dominion Entertainment Group could improve its ticketing operations. The box office line stretched in an undulating curve across the immense lobby before the show started, getting longer and longer as showtime approached, resulting in the show starting significantly later than the stated time of 8 PM. That can make for a discouraging start to what ultimately becomes a satisfying evening of theatre.

My Fair Lady, by Alan Jay Lerner (words) & Frederick Loewe (music)
Only Fair
Friday, August 25, 2017
Atlanta Lyric’s "My Fair Lady" is a curiously mixed bag. Nothing is downright horrible about the production, but several elements under par for the organization -- set, costumes, and choreography, to name a few. On the other hand, there are some magnificent elements, particularly the performances of Galen Crawley as a spirited, independent Eliza Doolittle; George Deavours as her cheerily bankrupt father (bankrupt both monetarily and morally); and Chris Saltalamacchio as an angel-voiced, quirkily endearing Freddy Eynsford-Hill.

Physically, the production is merely okay. The base set, designed by Lee Shiver-Cerone, is a stepped platform upstage with the twin pianos half-surrounded by rotating birdcage-like structures. The one on stage left is lovely. The stage right one, using a different pattern, seems a bit more ramshackle, with leaning support posts. Drops and set pieces in front of this platform suggest different locations. Most work well, despite a picture frame way off the level in Higgins’ study and a backdrop for the Ascot scene that resembles the Japanese Imperial flag.

Ben Rawson’s lighting design is no better, with odd brightening at times and distracting dim spots on the stage at others. Spotlight operation seems a bit of a ragtag operation. Most of the action is visible, and that’s about all you can say.

Susan McCluskey’s props and George Deavours’ wigs are all fine, but Amanda Edgerton West’s costumes impress less and less as the show goes on. Buskers’ costumes are impressive in the initial scene, and the black-and-white dresses of the Ascot scene are just what one would expect. At the Embassy ball, however, the costumes are bland. Eliza’s costume is particularly bad, with its slightly puffed shoulders and a fairly tight necklace giving the impression that she has no neck. Ms. Crawley is a lovely woman, if not statuesque, but that costume makes her look squat. Costumes for the men seem to be well-fitting.

John McKenzie’s sound design works well, with dialogue and songs clearly audible. The twin pianos never overpower the singers. Music director Paul Tate gets sterling vocals from the entire cast, and there’s hardly an "off" note in the piano playing done by him and Bob Amar.

Director Scott Seidl has blocked the show adequately, although some exits from Higgins’ studio don’t use the stair unit, to facilitate its movement at the end of scenes. His main failing as a director, though, is in the shape of the character relationships. We have a sweetly strong Colonel Pickering in the performance of Rob Roper and a spot-on performance by Karen Howell as Mrs. Higgins, so Eliza has strong support from her allies. Ms. Crawley’s character has a feistiness that contrasts nicely with Mr. Saltalamacchio’s fawning deference as Freddy. But Mark Bradley Miller, as Henry Higgins, projects a distasteful colorlessness, making his derogatory statements toward Eliza seem willfully malicious rather than the unfiltered comments of a socially inept gentleman. His fine singing can’t make up for that, and the final moment of the musical falls flat.

The ensemble is mostly very young, which means that several of the minor roles are played by people decades from the appropriate age. That throws things a bit off. Barbara Macko is age-appropriate as Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, but none of her supposed social equals are. The ensemble in general does a workmanlike job of getting through the show, but without a lot of finesse. The exception is Lauren Brooke Tatum, whose spirit and energy shine from the stage in every tiny role she takes on. Choreographer Ashley Chasteen has raw talent to work with in the young ensemble, but seems to have targeted most of the movement to the least nimble of the dancers. That turns dance breaks into lackluster time-fillers.

"My Fair Lady" is a time-tested triumph of a musical, with a strong storyline from George Bernard Shaw’s "Pygmalion" and a strong score from Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner. Those elements come through in Atlanta Lyric’s production, but the heart at the center of the show seems hollow. Without a Higgins we come to care about, the story lacks an uplifting quality. We care so much about Eliza in Galen Crawley’s sweet and comic portrayal that we want more for her than any male in the story can offer.

Another Mother, by G.M. Lupo
Another Essential Summer
Tuesday, August 22, 2017
There’s some clunky exposition: a character in Washington state happening to know where Johns Creek, Georgia is; references to the Old Testament and the lineage of Jacob and sons (and daughter). There are some hanging threads: a hinted-at romance between teenager Genevieve and lawyer Steven; references to unfamiliar additional siblings of Rosalind; lack of a cogent explanation of why mother Rosalind cut all ties and moved around so frequently following her husband’s death. But mostly there’s an intriguing storyline, blessedly free from four-letter language, and a whole lot of entertainment.

G.M. Lupo’s "Another Mother" tells the story of Genevieve Duchard (Rylee Bunton) attempting to sort out her genealogy following the death of her mother (Nina Jones). She’s assisted by known relatives (played by Kristin Storla and Sarah Falkenburg Wallace), an unknown relative discovered through a DNA genealogy website (Christine Vozniak), and her professor mother’s former lab assistant (Kelly Quinn). Male roles are played by Trey York, along with some voice-overs that cleverly explain why only the principal females are shown onstage at a legal meeting.

Chris "Lito" Tamez’s set, with its basics shared with concurrently-playing "Ada and the Memory Engine," consists of a paneled projection screen and painted floor, whose colors are echoed in large blocks that represent various configurations of furniture, and also in a Rubik’s cube that Genevieve plays with in childhood flashback scenes. Matthew Mammola’s projections show computer screen contents and help to set location, and Harley Gould’s lighting illuminates the portions of the stage used for individual scenes. Kathy Manning’s props and Jane Kroessig’s costumes add to the visual appeal.

Dan Bauman’s sound design makes use of somewhat mechanized music during some scene changes, which I don’t feel really suits the mood of the play, but has a subtle clock chime effect that sweetly echoes a reference in the script. Little touches like that elevate a production.

Peter Hardy has directed a smooth flow across a number of scenes in a number of disparate locations, with seamless transitions to and from momentary flashback scenes. He has elicited good performances out of all his actors, three of whom play multiple roles and many of whom portray characters ten or twenty years apart. Sarah Falkenburg Wallace in particular makes her two characters stand apart, with her New England-accented Aunt Barbara striking in her humorless severity, erasing memories of her more easy-going Aunt Rhiannon. Kelly Quinn does a remarkable job distinguishing Leah Walker the college-age lab assistant from Leah Walker the older security firm CEO.

The two-act structure of "Another Mother" results in some duplication of exposition, as characters introduced later in the story need to be caught up on what others have already discovered in act one. Mr. Lupo adds a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in the second act, though, and they help to make the duplication of information easy to swallow. The character of Alyssa Caine, a schoolteacher with a side business of running princess parties, introduces a lot of the comedy. Christine Vozniak hams up the role just the right amount, endearing herself to every audience member without ever becoming cloying.

The story centers on Genevieve (Rylee Bunton) and her cousin Abigail (Kristin Storla), who is running a family genealogical study. The two actresses filling these roles do capable work as the more eccentric characters in the story revolve around them. They drive the solution to the mystery that is Genevieve’s genealogical provenance. The mystery provides the backbone of the play, but Mr. Lupo (aided by director Peter Hardy) has provided plenty of material that fleshes out the story into a full evening of entertainment.

Matt & Ben, by Mindy Kaling & Brenda Withers
Jessie & Kylene
Sunday, August 20, 2017
There’s an "Odd Couple" dynamic to OFF Centerstage North’s "Matt & Ben," with Kylene Compaan the schlubby Oscar/Ben and Jessie Kuipers the uptight Felix/Matt. The storyline concerns Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s writing of the Oscar-winning screenplay for "Good Will Hunting," after having worked unsuccessfully on a screen adaptation of "Catcher in the Rye." It’s all very comedic, with cameos by Gwyneth Paltrow and J.D. Salinger and some rather dated references to the post-1995 "future" love lives of these two movie icons.

The program credits Ms. Kuipers and Ms. Compaan for "Everything Else" (everything but Lindsey Sharpless’ effective lighting design, Denise Denson’s behind-the-scenes stage management, and Kiernan Matts’ adequate fight consultation). So they get credit for the milk crate and keg apartment design (walls courtesy of Centerstage North’s "Motherhood Out Loud"), the Boston-specific props, and the spot-on direction. Pacing is snappy, characterizations are detailed, and the interplay of these two actors is a sheer delight. Altogether, it’s 60 minutes of unadulterated fun.

The Robber Bridegroom, by Alfred Uhry (words) and Robert Waldman (music)
The Ensemble Rules
Sunday, August 20, 2017
"The Robber Bridegroom" marries a Eudora Welty novella with the country-inflected songs of Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman (one of which, "Love Stolen," became a minor country hit). There’s a hoe-down flavor to the whole proceedings, with square dance calls starting and ending the show. The ensemble populates the periphery of the stage for most of the show, acting as different characters and even as squeaking doors. In Act3’s production, the major players differentiate themselves from the ensemble only by their amount of lines and solo stage time.

Brian Clements’ set design clads the upstage wall of the playing space with what looks like reclaimed barn wood in a generally symmetrical pattern. Barrels and boxes and pallets provide seating, with a foldable futon-like bed brought out upon occasion. Generally, the majority of the stage is left empty to allow room for the energetic choreography of Johnna Barret Mitchell and her assistant, Janie Young. David Reingold’s ambitious lighting design has a lot of effects, some of which enhance the action and others of which just draw attention to themselves.

Sound design by Ben Sterling uses miked actors, which can lead to voices coming out of a speaker far removed from where the actor is onstage, although balance between voices and the four-piece band is generally good. Ali Olhausen’s costumes show a similar sort of disconnect, with styles from different periods mixed about with no apparent reason. Mary Sorrel’s props are workable, although male lead Jeremy Cooper often has difficulty locating his knife inside the jacket of his costume.

Performances are energetic throughout the ensemble, which makes for a generally exciting production. Music director John-Michael d’Haviland has created a wonderful choral sound. The vocal performances of the leads are more of a mixed bag. Jeremy Cooper has a marvelous voice as Jamie Lockhart, but his lackluster acting leaves a bit of a hole at the center of the story. Lindsey Koch, as love interest Rosamund, has a voice that tends to land on the sour side of a note before becoming true as the note is held, although she throws herself into the role. Jillian Melko, as evil stepmother Salome, gives a beautifully comic performance, but her idiosyncratic diction in singing means that sung words are often lost on the audience. Joel Rose, as Salome’s husband and Rosamund’s father, gives the dependable sort of performance we’re used to from him in musical comedy.

The true standout in the show is Stephen DeVillers as Little Harp. He makes every moment of his performance count with delightful comic shtick and timing, and his terrific voice is ably supported in duets by Andrew Berardi’s loose-limbed Goat and PJ Mitchell’s no-limbed Big Harp.

Director Chris Davis has put together a rip-roaring production of "The Robber Bridegroom" that lands in all minor respects and in many major respects as well. The choreography helps keep things moving (despite one uncalled-for tap number), and it’s best when the dance moves help to delineate character. If only there were a truly engaging pair of lovers at the core, this production would transcend the category of "good" to become "excellent."

The Summer of Our Discontent , by various
Old and New Favorites
Sunday, August 20, 2017
Onion Man Productions’ summer offering, this year entitled "The Summer of Our Discontent," is a little different from past years, in that most of the short plays have received previous productions and consequently have a track record of success. The majority of these plays are enjoyable, even upon multiple viewings of multiple productions.

First up is a monologue, "How We Became Americans," written by David Fisher and acted by Kate Guyton. Daniel Guyton’s direction adds a lot of movement to the story, with a set representing a horse-drawn carriage. The clever script and Ms. Guyton’s wry delivery bring the story to vibrant life. It’s an auspicious start to the evening.

The second offering wastes much of the good will engendered by the opening monologue. Nick Boretz’s "Worldmart" is quirky and overlong, concerning a store greeter’s revenge on a childhood bully. Director Scott King has gotten fairly good performances out of Bob Winstead and James Beck, but there’s a lack of fluidity in the blocking. The voice Mr. Winstead uses for his puppet tends to get lost in the small space.

Third up is Shemetra Carter-Fair’s "Dear Bruh," in which two sharecropper brothers (Jimez Alexander and Armanio Vincent-Cole, both proving themselves capable actors) argue over the advantages and disadvantages of staying put or moving north. There’s little action, but a fair amount of movement in James Beck’s direction. The foul language and "twist" ending can leave a bad taste in the mouth.

The first act ends with David Fisher’s time-proven "Jubilee Catalog Sales." Scott Rousseau has directed a crackerjack cast that mines every bit of comedy from the script. Katy Clarke is a hoot as a catalog phone representative, with Kate Guyton as a sweetly timid caller and Lisa Gordon as her brash, take-charge neighbor. Curt Shannon’s sound design impresses in this show, with a voice-over from Charlie Miller and squeaks from an unseen model windmill.

Daphne Mintz’s "Junk to Junk" starts the second act. Jerry Jobe and Scott King portray two jewel thieves snagged in an air conditioning vent following a robbery. Linda Place’s blocking is consequently minimal, with the game actors atop one another following an introduction in the intermission blackout that shows the robbery taking place. Hand placement doesn’t always match the script’s description, and the play stops just as a connection is being made between the thieves.

"You Are Not the Guardian Angel I Was Expecting" appears in the middle of the second act. The intriguing story by Kate Guyton shows us a cancer-ridden man (Brian Jones) begging for death as his unseen granddaughter (voice-over by Jacy Lecraw) prays to God for a kitten to replace him. The events that follow his death involve a guardian angel (Katy Clarke) attempting to guide him to Heaven. There’s poignancy and comedy and a satisfying dramatic arc that make this world premiere likely to receive repeat productions in the future. Starshine Stanfield’s direction keeps the show moving briskly (despite some well-disguised but obvious line bobbles on opening night).

The evening ends with David Allan Dodson’s "One Beer," another holdover from previous Onion Man festivals. Mr. Dodson has directed it ably, and also appears in a small role. Raleigh Wade and Jillian Walzer have a nice chemistry as a pair of strangers brought together briefly by their individual and then shared intentions to take the last beer in a cooler. It ends the evening on a breezy note.

"The Summer of Our Discontent" does not break any new ground for Onion Man Productions and is far less ambitious than the offerings of the past couple of years, but it trades quantity for quality. James Beck’s lighting design keeps the action visible throughout, and there are some very nice set and costume touches. The cast and crew are a collection of Onion Man stalwarts, building on the strengths of this company. A better introduction to Onion Man Productions couldn’t be conceived for newcomers to this tiny Chamblee theater.

Antigone, by Sophocles, translated by Owen McCafferty
Thursday, August 17, 2017
A spare set (Jamie Bullins, consultant), consisting of a sculptural assemblage of chairs and benches just stage left of center and a few chairs up right. On the stage floor, an abstract red blotch resembling a spreading pool of blood. Vaguely militaristic, layered costumes (by Clint Horne) with a consistent design aesthetic. A brooding, ever-present soundscape by Dolph Amick. Dim lighting (by Damien Zane Helms) that brightens into spots where activity is expected to take place. All hallmarks of a production that places an emphasis on atmosphere.

Owen McCafferty’s translation of Sophocles’ "Antigone" is on the foul-mouthed side, perhaps unnecessarily so. It is well-spoken by the cast, with only Renee Skibinski’s Messenger failing to project adequately in spots. The somber tone is leavened by the performance of Jacob McKee as a comic soldier, although he seems to have little in the way of natural comedic rhythms. Marcie Millard, on the other hand, is a superb comedic actor, but here subsumes her comedic gifts to the overall tone that director Kara Cantrell has established. The young lovers Antigone (Jessica McGuire) and Haemon W. Williams) come across as strong and sincere and committed, and the King Creon of Robert Bryan Davis marries equal commitment with the power-mad intensity of a dictator.

The other roles are filled capably, although a number of the cast are given little to do. Mary Saville, a presence onstage throughout as Eurydice, knits silently away in a chair upstage facing away from the audience until nearly the end of the play, when she speaks movingly. Jason Louder’s Teiresias has just one scene, which he plays with subtle power. Others remain silent throughout.

Ms. Cantrell has succeeded in creating a production in which an overall atmosphere permeates the proceedings. The lighting doesn’t always mesh with actors’ positions onstage and sometimes makes obtrusive transitions, but it aids in establishing atmosphere. Only a couple of moments aren’t as effective as they might be: Mr. Davis’s last scene doesn’t show Creon’s voice patterns changing to show the effect of his son’s death, and the final "body" dragged to the stage by Ms. Millard seems to be missing limbs, which draws focus away from the tragedy of the final moments. But the power of Sophocles’ play comes through strong and clear.

Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris
A Raisin in the Park
Monday, August 14, 2017
Bruce Norris’ "Clybourne Park" doesn’t hold up as well as Lorraine Hansberry’s "A Raisin in the Sun." There’s a cleverness to his perspective on Hansberry’s work, seeing things from a white perspective at the time of Hansberry’s play (when the first black family is moving into the neighborhood) and in the modern day (as a white family moves in to gentrify the neighborhood). But the repeated discussions on geographical issues and the series of off-color jokes pale on repeated hearing. I’ve seen the play before (at Aurora), and having seen the play once robs subsequent productions of their power.

That’s not to say that the Merely Players Presents production fails the play in any way. Director Joanie McElroy has gotten good performances out of all her actors, all of whom play at least two separate roles. Character choices make the distinctions clear between roles. Gregory Fitzgerald, who plays the "villain" in both acts, doesn’t delineate two particularly different characters, and Raleigh Wade’s first act character doesn’t ring as particularly true, but clarity of action is never a problem. Mr. Wade’s obviously deep-felt emotion as his final character rings strong and true. All the others do fine work throughout.

Technically, the show is not overwhelming. The stage set-up seems to have been inherited from Lionheart’s "The Foreigner" and "The Children’s Hour," just painted black with wood-style trim (Katy Clarke, set painter). Nancy Keener’s props nicely set up the two time periods of the show, enhanced by Rose Bianco’s costumes and Brooke Wade’s wigs and hairstyles. Rial Ellsworth’s sound design and Gary White’s lighting design provide perfectly adequate support for the action. The play itself does the heavy lifting; the technical aspects serve the play, rather than being a delight in and of themselves.

There’s some nice work onstage in "Clybourne Park," highlighted by the always-impressive work of Parris Sarter. Ms. McElroy also creates a consistently superior product, and this one is no exception. It’s just not a play that I find riveting, or even particularly entertaining, on repeated viewing.

Rabbit Hole, by David Lindsay-Abaire
Unmitigated Drama
Monday, August 7, 2017
When the same person acts as the director and star of a play, red flags are raised. When that director casts a spouse as the other lead, up goes another red flag. The possibility exists of a vanity project in which people unsuited for their roles are given the opportunity to take the stage and display their incompetence to the world. Thankfully, CenterStage North’s production of "Rabbit Hole" stays largely free of these issues.

That’s not to say the production is flawless. Director Keith Kraft hasn’t encouraged his cast to project over the air conditioning sounds in the auditorium, and he is the worst offender as Howie. Benja Petty as Jason tends to swallow the final words of his sentences. Sorsha Masters’ performance shows her inexperience onstage in subtle ways, although as a whole her stage debut is very promising. Mr. Kraft also seems a bit overwrought at times as Howie, which could have been tempered by an independent director’s eye.

The physical production is fine. John Parker’s set makes good use of the wide playing space, placing a kitchen stage left, a child’s bedroom up center, and the outside door up right. A few pieces of furniture downstage provide seating for the characters. Mr. Parker’s lighting and Amanda Leigh Kraft’s sound design provide appropriate transitions from one scene to the next. Heidi Botzong’s props populate the stage effectively, although this production (as in others I’ve seen) features rather aimless sorting of children’s toys in a pivotal scene.

The somber nature of Mr. Lindsay-Abaire’s script comes through strong and clear in this production. Some comedy is provided, primarily by Ms. Masters and by the warm and wonderful Shelly Barnett, but the whole proceedings are imbued with mournful tension. Mr. Petty’s tentative sweetness as the teenaged Jason balances Amanda Leigh Kraft’s quiet bitterness as Becca. Mr. Kraft’s rather unpleasant Howie tilts the production in favor of Becca as the central figure in the story. And Amanda Leigh Kraft holds the center beautifully as a Becca whose emotions play across her face with each phrase and turn of meaning.

Heathers The Musical, by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe
Saturday, August 5, 2017
I’m a bit worn out on high school-centered musicals. "Bring It On" was featherweight fluff, and although "Heathers" brings a dark edge to the material, it’s got a similar sensibility. Young adult audiences seem to eat up its foul-mouthed, sex-driven plot line and jaunty rock score, but I saw one older couple leave the theatre as actors stripped in anticipation of three-way sexual action. This is NOT a family musical.

Onstage Atlanta is presenting an energetic production of "Heathers The Musical." Lauren Rosenzweig’s choreography is the unabashed highlight, adding excitement to the numerous musical numbers. Anna Jenny’s costumes also add to the visual appeal, although Veronica’s makeover from frumpish nerd to style icon doesn’t impress. Ben Rawson’s ambitious lighting design tends to isolate musical solos a bit too obviously, compounded by director Charlie Miller’s active blocking causing movement in and out of spotlit areas.

The flow of the show is enhanced by the unit set, designed by the team of Charlie Miller, Angie Short, and Barbara Uterhardt. Four panels of high school architecture are interspersed with brick walls (stage right), concrete block walls (stage left), a fence, and a raised stage-like area up center. Very little furniture is moved on and off to set scenes; director Charlie Miller assumes his audience is bright enough to translate the unlocalized blocking to specific locations in the story. Props (by Mr. Miller and Courtney Loner) don’t help the localization, with school lunch trays handed out at the beginning of the show looking from a distance much like thin black laptops. It’s only when a line is spoken about the cafeteria and the trays are raised in choreography that the location of the number becomes clear.

Musically, the choral singing is strong, under Paul Tate’s musical direction, and the band sounds great. The sound design of director Charlie Miller and stage manager Amy L. Levin works well. Solo voices, however, tend to be on the weak side. That’s particularly true of Liane LeMaster, who has a raise-the-roof number in which she can barely be heard, despite the presence of a microphone in her hand. Hannah Lake, as protagonist Veronica Sawyer, manages to be audible in some of her songs only through the grace of muffled accompaniment.

Acting is good across the board, and all the actors throw themselves into their roles. Googie Uterhardt, as is typical for him, manages to find a few bits of unexpected physical comedy that tap his performance into a level above that of the rest of the cast. Everyone else acquits themselves well, with their performances geared toward telling the story Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe have devised, based on the cult film. The actors can’t be faulted for the shallowness of the material.

"Heathers The Musical" is another sold-out hit for Onstage Atlanta, which consistently produces musicals far above the quality of standard-issue community theatre fare. This production has all the verve and flair the thin script can support. While it didn’t whelm me, let alone overwhelm me, audiences are flocking to it and rising to their feet in appreciation during curtain call. It’s a well-done production of a distasteful story.

Little Shop of Horrors, by Howard Ashman (words) & Alan Menken (music)
Little Flop of Horrors
Saturday, August 5, 2017
Actor’s Express doesn’t put on bad shows. Misguided sometimes, but never incompetently unprofessional. "Little Shop of Horrors" fits the run-of-the-mill bill for Actor’s Express. There are good elements and so-so elements, not adding up to anything special.

Let’s start with the set, designed by Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay. It’s impressive, with lots of nice touches -- a "free electricity" sign near an outlet, a clock that moves to the times mentioned in the play, window coverings that roll up as the Mushnik florist shop opens for the day. But the shop is a big square with audience on two sides, and the right angle at the downstage corner presents severe sightline challenges for scenes taking place when the florist shop is closed. A curved corner would have allowed at least three precious feet of additional room for these scenes (but would have complicated the window covering mechanism).

Heather Schroeder’s props don’t include any particularly good-looking flowers, and the trick hand for Seymour’s pot is glaringly obvious in the close quarters of Actor’s Express. Erik Teague’s jacket to hide Seymour’s arm in this scene is likewise clumsy. Otherwise, costumes work well for the major characters. For the three "urchin" backup singers, though, the outfits are equal parts glamorous and tacky.

Ryan Bradburn, the puppet designer, has an easier job than in most productions, with the big Audrey II plant capped by a visible Kandice Arrington. The puppet itself flaps runners like floppy legs and occasionally widens its labia dentata opening, but its growth is represented only by Ms. Arrington standing up taller. She has a terrific costume, and being able to see her lips moving helps the understandability of her lyrics, but the explicit anthropomorphizing lessens the impact of the ending.

Rick Lombardo has directed his major actors to give somewhat mannered performances and hasn’t inspired his ensemble and trio players to give very involved performances. Of the minor players, only Abby Holland impresses with her acting choices. Juan Carlos Unzueta’s performance as Seymour is broader than it need be, and his hairstyle is more modern than the supposed time period of the show. He has a lovely tenor voice; unfortunately, Seymour’s song are too much in the baritone range to show his voice off to advantage. William S. Murphey invests Mr. Mushnik with a lot of energy, but is directed to give animated cartoon villain sounds on one exit. Clint Clark works hard as Orin, but doesn’t have a naturally charismatic comic presence that would really make his performance succeed. Kylie Brown shines. She uses a mannered style of singing for Audrey, but she lets the sweetness of her character shine through every word and reaction.

Amanda Wansa Morgan has gotten good vocal performances out of everyone, and Angela Harris does about as much with choreography as the right-angled alley playing space allows. Joseph P. Monaghan III’s lighting design keeps things visible (despite an over-use of stage fog), and the sound design by Angie Bryant and Adam Howarth keeps things audible and balanced. It’s all professional, but it’s not inspired.

The lauded twists in this production -- casting a cross-dressing male as one of the trio and having a visible female human portray Audrey II -- work just fine, but don’t add anything special to the production. There’s a lot of professional effort and money pumped into this production, but it doesn’t create a "Little Shop of Horrors" that is significantly better than most school or community theatre productions of this off-Broadway musical.

Ada and the Memory Engine, by Lauren Gunderson
"A" for "Ada"
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, was raised without knowing her father, except by his reputation as a Romantic rake. In "Ada and the Memory Engine," Lauren Gunderson humanizes the scientific nature of Ada’s work by having her ache to know her father and by suggesting an unfulfilled romance between her and her mentor, Charles Babbage. Mr. Babbage invented a theoretical mechanism for performing calculations, and Ada created the first proto-computer program to make use of its capabilities. Babbage and Ada Lovelace are considered progenitors of the modern computer.

To add some dramatic conflict, Ms. Gunderson has Ada’s mother adamantly opposed to anything that hints of impropriety and casts Lord Lovelace as a fairly conventional romantic match Ada’s mother urges her to accept. Mary Sommerville, another historical figure, bridges the gap between propriety and scientific inquiry. A sixth historical personage, described as "Man" in the playbill, rounds out the cast.

The action takes place on a stage that represents various localities, with seating moved on and off to suggest them and with projections designed by Matthew Mammola showing approximation of the locales. Chris "Lito" Tamez’s set design has drafting desks stationed stage left and right for the entirety of the action, with the center section open. A painted design on the floor stylizes the blueprint of Babbage’s machine that is projected on the upstage screen before the show begins. Two mismatched but similar chandeliers hang high above the center section, but Harley Gould’s lighting design makes use of more modern effects to create the pools of light in which action occurs. The simple design works well, although the projections of interior scenes in act one tend to feature electrical lights that are glaringly out of period for the mid-nineteenth century. (One background reused in act two seems to have been cropped to remove the non-period ceiling fans.)

What really sets the period are the costumes and wigs. Jane Kroessig has created sumptuous period apparel that impresses with its authenticity and style. This is a lovely show, on the visual level. It’s also lovely in other ways.

Performances are fine across the board. Ashley Anderson embodies the exuberant joy for life of an 18-year-old at the start, but matures convincingly into motherhood and illness by the end. Holly Stevenson’s stern Lady Byron has beautiful speech patterns and ramrod-stiff bearing that echoes her no-nonsense approach to motherhood. Kathleen McManus fills her small role with grace and charm, and Brandon Partrick creates a Lord Lovelace whose palpable appreciation for all Ada can offer him as his wife melds beautifully with his bewildered expectations of appropriate behavior. Mark Cosby plays an intellectually obsessed genius with perhaps too much quivering of the lips, but with a pained soul that aches for something he can’t express. Evan Alex Cole, as the Man, appears only in the final scene, impressing with his singing skills.

It’s the final scene that causes the play to veer from perfection, in my view. Having Ada suddenly gain an insight into the power of binary arithmetic on her deathbed seems a stretch, and ending the show with a sub-par musical number takes us from the sublime to the unsatisfying. We know that Ada’s work has had an impact on the modern world; it’s not necessary to underline the advances in computer technology since her day, and tacking on an after-life encounter may complete Ada’s journey for parental acceptance, but it smacks of a dramatist’s desire to provide a tidy ending that is intended to be emotionally satisfying. It could be done much more subtly and enigmatically, while still allowing adequate closure.

Still and all, Ellen McQueen has directed a splendidly effective production of Ms. Gunderson’s flawed script. The action moves nicely, and performances work well individually and in conjunction with one another. Add another historical female scientist to the roster of figures Lauren Gunderson has brought to life on the stage.

Thoroughly Modern Millie, by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan (book), Jeanine Tesori (new music), Dick Scanlon (new lyrics)
Thoroughly Thrilling Millie
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
Agape Players has produced a "Thoroughly Modern Millie" that does the show proud. The large orchestra, under the direction of John Glover, sounds magnificent from start to finish. The costumes, by JoyMichelle Green, Simon Fowler, and Kathie Williams, set the time period of the Roaring 20’s. The choreography, by Mary Beth Stinson, keeps things moving and tapping along. But most of all the actors, under the direction of Barbara Hall, bring the story to life with verve and energy and terrific vocals.

The set isn’t all that impressive. There are a few rented backdrops that help fill out the enormous upstage area of the theatre, but mostly scenes are set by a few movable pieces. Most work well, with an array of typists’ desks playing delightfully into the choreography, but there are a couple of missteps. The elevator at the Hotel Priscilla appears to be more of a Juliet balcony, and the LED light effect of the elevator rising is marred by the presence of two stationary potted plants at either side. The window ledge in the second act is too wide to be believable, although I’m sure that added some safety to the choreography.

While I noted community theatre-level line readings in one isolated scene, the cast as a whole comes awfully close to professional quality. Mary Beth Morrison taps like a pro as Miss Flannery while also projecting authority as Millie’s supervisor. Michael Swearingen and Blake Bumgardner, as two Chinese workers, navigate their Chinese dialogue with aplomb. Alisha Boley is a sweet-voiced delight as Miss Dorothy, and Erika Bowman blows off the roof as chanteuse Muzzy. Tommy Heaton may be more stolidly middle-aged as Trevor Graydon than the role is usually played, but the pleasures of his vocals outweigh any objections to his casting. Robbin Fowler is a comic delight as Mrs. Meers, and Alex Fowler (as Jimmy Smith) and Caitlin Roe (as Millie Dillmount) prove to be the definition of triple-threat musical comedy leads. The ensemble take on minor roles with assurance, handling vocals and choreography with well-rehearsed ease.

As in almost any miked show, sound levels can be problematic at times, although there was little electronic squeaking and squawking at the performance I attended. The balance of sound tended to favor the orchestra, making deciphering lyrics occasionally difficult. Luckily, the main performers have powerful voices that are more than up to the task of making themselves heard in a large auditorium. And what a delight they are to hear!

Cakewalk, by Beverly Trader Austin (words) & Bryan Mercer (music)
A Modern 1917 Musical
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
The cakewalk as a style of music is closely related to ragtime, but with more of a genteel syncopation than jaggedy ragtime rhythms. When ragtime made its way into the American musical theatre in the early twentieth century, it was with its jagged edges smoothed out, and with the influence of operetta still heavy, especially when it came to ballads. Bryan Mercer’s music for "Cakewalk" beautifully mimics the style of these early musicals. The opening number and most of the first act land on the ragtime side of the scale; the second act numbers tend to reflect more of an operetta sensibility.

Beverly Trader Austin’s book also reflects an earlier sensibility, with its paper-thin characters serving a farcical plot that has a fruitcake tycoon (David Huenergardt) running for mayor in a scandal-filled town, with his platform of respectability undermined by the scandals that erupt in his own family. His wife (the raucous Kathy Halenda) has a hankering for liquor and inappropriate men, plus a secret past. Elder daughter Charlotte (Wendy Melkonian) has a bun of uncertain lineage in her oven, and younger daughter Estelle (Amber Hamilton) has been expelled from school. Son Percy (Trevor Goble) is a ne’er-do-well, and chauffeur Charles (Ben Thorpe, with an abysmal faux-British accent) has romantic entanglements all over the family tree. In contrast to the Clugston family dysfunction, we have a multi-disguised stranger (Holly Stevenson) and a pragmatic maid (the endearing India S. Tyree) to set things up and bring the story to a conclusion.

For a staged reading, you don’t expect a lot of production values. Michael Hidalgo has supplied a variety of black boxes that act as seating and pairs of stanchions to act as doorways. At the start, they’re gathered together into a clump center stage. Director David Thomas has the actors arrange the set as the introduction proceeds. Props are usually (but not consistently) mimed. Movement is fluid, with a window frame held up at various points as various cast members mime climbing through it, often with delightful mouth-created sound effects.

You don’t expect choreography in a staged reading, but Mr. Thomas has the actors perform cakewalk movements in the opening number and there’s a limited amount of dancing later on. Mostly, we see the frenetic movement of a farce, hampered at times by actors having to find their place in the script (although Mr. Huenergardt appears to have memorized his role start to finish in the week in which the show was put together).

Performances are generally good, and music director Patrick Hutchison has gotten fine vocal performances out of everyone. His keyboard playing, accompanied by bassist Billy Gewin, is fully professional. Vocal harmonies sound great throughout. The musical numbers tend to be short, partly due to the fact that dance breaks make no sense in a staged reading.

While the sensibility of the music and plot harken back to 1917, the lyrics and situations sometimes aim for the risqué (from maybe a couple of decades after 1917). It doesn’t all work, with the sexuality of chauffeur Charles perhaps most problematic, as it seems to shift to accommodate plot points. Lyrics can be pedestrian, and some numbers (particularly one about proper grammar) fall flat. The plot takes too much time to get going, and it’s not until the introduction of younger daughter Estelle that the action seems to pick up the pace a farce needs. Even then, the storyline doesn’t have a lot of bumps along the way that would raise and dash expectations of the characters in a satisfyingly theatrical way. Clear arcs for the characters and a frenetic pace could make "Cakewalk" the sort of hit Broadway would embrace in 1917. It’s already got the musical score of the times; now it needs lyrics to match them and a book that will speed action along with clarity and drive.

Bring It On The Musical, by Jeff Whitty (book) and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tom Kitt & Amanda Green (songs)
Bring a Ton of Talent
Monday, July 24, 2017
Plot is not the reason to go see "Bring It On The Musical." The story is a simple one, of a cheerleader captain being moved to a new school district and having to start a new cheerleading squad from scratch that (surprise of surprises!) makes it to the national cheerleading finals against the girl’s previous school.

Lily Kren makes for a very engaging Campbell, the girl moved to a new school district. Alexis Yard, as former protegée and new rival Eva, also makes the most of her role. They’re the only two roles with significant acting opportunities; since this is pretty much a song-and-dance show, the other roles don’t have much dimension. That’s not to say the other actors don’t make an impression. All are good. Evie Lawson and Carlie Maze, as the ever-connected pair of Skylar and Kylar, have nice comedic bits, and Roberto Mendez plays his role of Twig with sweet charm, stopping the show with his rapid-fire rap. Chase Colson (as Randall) and Desiree Wilkins (as Danielle) both impress with their impeccable vocals. The only performance that didn’t ring quite true to me was that of crowd-pleasing Austin Branks, as transgender La Cienega, who played shamelessly to the audience and had a couple of clunky drop-into-a-split moments that looked like complete choreographic disasters.

Otherwise, the dance elements are a highlight of this show. Choreographer Allison Polaski has given the young cast lots of movement, and the inclusion of three legitimate female gymnasts adds a "wow" factor to the cheerleading routines. The hip-hop flavor of the dances at Campbell’s new school doesn’t come through as strongly as the cheerleading elements do, but those dances are equally energetic. Musical director Shannon O’Dowd has made sure that the vocals of these strenuously dancing actors are as strong as the dancing.

Technically, the show is not as impressive. The fixed set consists of upstage bleachers covered in translucent plastic with colored lights underneath. A few set pieces (a bed, lockers, and a wall) are rolled on and off for occasional scenes. Lighting (under the direction of Ireland McCreadie) is ambitious, but doesn’t always illuminate enough of the stage for scenes playing across its entire extent. Projections (under the direction of Dionte Mercado) are often extraneous, but use curved screens at either side of the stage, one of which is repositioned briefly for an effective shadowplay effect. Sound (under the direction of Nia Snow) has all the advantages and disadvantages of a miked show, with muddy moments, squawks, and late microphone turn-ons marring the general clarity of the vocals.

The show moves with sprightly verve. Ashton Pickering, assistant director (assistant to whom? the web site doesn’t clarify, and the QR scan code provided instead of a program wasn’t of any help to me), aside from blithely ignoring posted warnings of not bringing food into the auditorium, runs the show with competence, although the act openings are a little tricky, with music at low volume not capturing the audience’s attention immediately.

This is a thoroughly engaging production of a minor show that seems targeted at high schools, considering its near-total lack of adult characters. Theatre 5230 has put together an amazing array of talent and has energized the triple-threat performers into an impressive ensemble. Lily Kren is the unabashed star, and does a wonderful job of carrying the show, but she is helped by a troupe of supporting players that seem willing and able to carry one another on their shoulders (which is something many of them do in cheering segments).

She Kills Monsters, by Qui Nguyen
She Slays
Monday, July 10, 2017
Qui Nguyen’s "She Kills Monsters" tells the story of Agnes, a young schoolteacher, who finds a Dungeons & Dragons notebook created by her dead teenage sister and attempts to decipher its contents, recruiting the aid of various highschoolers involved in Dungeons & Dragons gameplaying. It seems Agnes’ sister Tilly was quite a phenomenon in the local D&D community, and the fantasies laid out in the notebook reveal secrets about her personal life. Since the storyline follows a D&D quest, there’s lots of action, swordplay, costumes, and masks. It’s quite lively.

Director Will Brooks has gotten confident performances out of all his actors, and costumes (Julianne Whitehead), props (Morgan Brooks), masks/makeup (Ian Gibson and Sarah Hanus), and fight choreography (Kiernan Matts and Kristin Storla) make the D&D elements come to sparkling life. Morgan Brooks’ set cleverly uses a trio of three-sided revolving set pieces to suggest the various settings, with cubes decorated as packing boxes working as furniture pieces and elevated platforms. Will Brooks’ sound design and Stevie Roushdi’s lighting design are complex (the complexity possibly implicated in an electrical failure on opening night) and effectively set the mood for the many scenes.

Many of the actors play two roles: a D&D character and its real-life equivalent. All do well in portraying the two sides of the same personality, with none more impressive than Sarah Beth Moseley, whose militantly evil Lilith is balanced by sweet Lilly. Nick Cothran, Ryan Lamotte, Hayden Bishop, Sarah Williams, and Suzanne Stroup ably play characters with less of a disparity in real/roleplay personalities. Their ages don’t all ring true, with few actors except Ali Olhausen (Tilly) convincingly playing high school age. Kristin Storla, as Agnes, is age-appropriate and gives a lovely performance, integrating humor, drama, and mad fighting skills. Lauren Coleman, playing high school guidance counselor Vera, and Shaun Maclean, playing Agnes’ boyfriend Miles, also get into the D&D play, although their real-life characters get most stage time. All these actors target their performances toward advancing the story, as does faux-Brit narrator Laurel Ann Lowe. Only Kiernan Matts, as the nebbishy Steve, seems to calibrate his performance more toward impressing the audience.

Mr. Nguyen’s play has some depth under its D&D exterior, with Ms. Storla and Ms. Olhausen interacting as sisters separated by death. The Dungeons & Dragons aspects of the story are amply explicated by the script, so the play is not targeted specifically at the audience of D&D enthusiasts, although its references to 1995 might make it resonate most meaningfully to highschoolers of that time period. Will Brooks and Out of Box Theatre have started the 2017 season with a lively, energetic show that entertains in a uniquely D&D fashion.

Medea Unborn, by Sawyer Estes
Medea Stillborn
Monday, July 10, 2017
Vernal & Sere Theatre has a developing aesthetic that involves making its audiences wait in the lobby until curtain time and denies them the release of an evening-ending curtain call. At the performance of "Medea Unborn" I attended, the audience sat in the semi-darkness that masquerades as "house lights on" for an extended period of time after the play ended, people sporadically restarting applause in the hopes of getting the actors onstage to receive well-deserved accolades of appreciation. But Vernal & Sere seems more interested in its artistic integrity than in stooping to make its audiences comfortable (even with its assortment of chairs).

To start the show, the audience is ushered into a space in which shadows of the three Greek chorus members (Chelsea Christopher, Mary Kathryn Martin, and Simone Monet) make synchronized dance movements on the two fabric panels that flank a projection screen playing a loop of film in which Medea (Erin Boswell) gazes on with displeasure as her ex-husband Jason (Spencer Kolbe Miller) dallies with Creusa (Madelyn Wall) at a party apparently hosted by Creusa’s father, Creon (Reed Sellers). The film and dance movements loop to a repetitive score as Medea lies motionless on the floor at the feet of the audience. A rumpled bed stage left is the only set piece onstage at the start.

Lindsey Sharpless’s lighting changes subtly as the play begins, the film segment playing yet again, but this time with a more strident accompanying soundtrack. Then lights come up on the stage as the film ends, and Medea rises to give the first of her many monologues. Ms. Boswell is a fantastic actress, whose expressiveness easily floats across to the audience and whose intensity and projection impress with every syllable.

When she is joined onstage by a hospital bed and cart and nurse (Kathrine Barnes), the tone changes, and Ms. Barnes’ lack of projection in the small theater makes her words sometimes difficult to hear. Ms. Barnes is called upon to act naturalistically, then to indicate "I’m being stylized now" before returning to her normal self. The shifts don’t ring true, although they add a bit of intended humor to the unrelievedly grim tone of the classical story of Medea. This adaptation does not take place in antiquity, however; the nurse is giving Medea a sonogram, with video of a moving fetus projected on the center screen (after it showed a Norton Anti-virus pop-up in the performance I attended, in a bit of probably unintended humor).

In this adaptation, Medea is visibly pregnant with twins, rather than having had two small children with Jason already. This doesn’t change the classical plot much. Other things do. In a twist owing in part to the myth of Creon’s sister Jocasta and her son Oedipus, the relationship between Creon and his daughter Creusa is sexually charged and perverted, with Mr. Sellers appearing most often onstage with his pants down, and in shadow form miming masturbation. It’s a pretty thankless role, and Mr. Sellers doesn’t succeed in being more than a caricature.

Madelyn Wall is given a couple of nice passages as Creusa that allow her to show her acting chops and give insights into Creusa’s troubled soul. Mr. Miller, though, as two-timing Jason, has less opportunity to emote, having to share his scenes with others. Director Erin Colleen O’Connor has made sure the monologues land in this ponderously paced production, but they slow down the storyline. The intermittent scenes of action can’t budge the glacial movement of the story.

Act two starts with the stage right fabric panel pulled aside, revealing Medea nude in her bathtub (but in G-rated fashion). This leads to musings on self-cutting (another "let’s make this modern and relevant" touch), and a scene with Jason in which both end up in the tub. It’s far less titillating than might be expected.

The second act progresses as in the classical myth up to Creusa’s death, which, as we’re told, has had to be modernized, since the magical poisons and potions of myth are discredited by Medea herself. Things really go off track when Jason Louder appears as Tyler Perry’s Madea, in an obvious parallel to the entry of Jesus H. Christ in Mac Wellman’s "Sincerity Forever" (the first Vernal & Sere production). The storyline then veers into a discussion of abortion that seems totally jarring and modern.

Sawyer Estes has written a play that Erin Colleen O’Connor’s direction has brought to life, but it’s a curiously misshapen life. Ms. Boswell and Ms. Wall are given heartfelt monologues that they deliver with power and boundless sincerity, but others in the cast are given far less to do. The Greek Chorus in particular dance and sing a lullaby, but are otherwise mute, acting as stagehands as much as anything. Stage pictures and monologues are given prime consideration, with the arc of the play muddled by the desire to raise modern issues. The striking similarities to "Sincerity Forever" suggest that Vernal & Sere may have fallen into a rut in a span of just two productions.

Legally Blonde The Musical, by Heather Hach (book) and Laurence O’Keefe & Nell Benjamin (songs)
Illegally Bland?
Thursday, July 6, 2017
No, The Performer’s Warehouse production of "Legally Blonde the Musical" is not bland. It’s full of spirit and energy, with its young cast filling a variety of roles with style. (The one older cast member doesn’t make as good an impression.) Its main problem is that it is loud and shrill. The sound levels are uneven, and leading lady Hannah Garmon has a piercing voice in louder numbers. Producer Holly Garmon and technical director Todd Garmon (related to her?) haven’t done her any favors in the amplification of this production.

Costumes (designed by Rachel Serra) are also a bit problematic. The lead character of Elle Woods is supposedly obsessed with pink clothing, but her outfits never do more than hint at pink, with most of her wardrobe featuring rose accents rather than pink. Maybe it’s Phillip Wray’s somewhat uneven lighting design that throws off the color scheme, but the ill fit of some of the men’s suits aren’t caused by lighting.

Pam Nitzkin’s scenic design uses rolling pieces to good effect to suggest the numerous scenes required by the script. Adam Petty has blocked the show to use the space well, making good use of the audience aisles for entrances and exits, with actors sitting in the aisle to prevent obscured sightlines. The choreography by Mr. Petty and guest choreographer Nikki Snelson is bouncy and energetic and does a lot to keep the show moving briskly along. Musical director Camiah Mingorance has honed the cast’s vocals to keep them in perfect sync with the pre-recorded tracks.

First and foremost, a show needs to tell its story clearly. This production definitely does that, and it is a true ensemble effort. No one performance clearly stands out, although I loved the spirit displayed by Melissa Materesse as Margot every moment she was onstage. Michael Barthel has wonderful vocals and stage presence as Professor Callahan, and Rachel Green does a bang-up job as butch Enid. No one is downright bad in their role(s), although some roles are meant to be played by older actors.

It’s not saying much, but this is the best production I’ve seen at Marietta’s New Theatre in the Square since the old, professional Theatre in the Square bit the dust. To see a lot of young talent on display, it’s definitely worth attending. The energy onstage alone will carry you from the opening notes to the closing moments.

A New Brain, by William Finn (songs, book) & James Lapine (book)
The Sorcerer Apprentices
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
"A New Brain" is William Finn’s semi-autobiographical musical about his encounter with a brain anomaly and surgery. To add "oomph" to the plot, we have Gordon, the main character, under schedule pressure to produce a song for a children’s show starring a human-sized frog. He’s stuck producing it before the brain problem, has hallucinations during it, and completes the song afterwards. His relations with his mother, lover, and medical staff fill out the story.

This is a through-sung musical, so there’s a LOT of singing in the 90-minute run time. There obviously also has to be a lot of musical accompaniment, and in this production, it’s provided by percussionist Brooks Payne and a rotating band made up of the multi-talented cast members. Talk about tour-de-force performances! There’s not a weak performance in the bunch.

Daniel Hilton (also the music director) plays Gordon Schwinn, our hero, with nerdy charisma. Rose Alexander plays friend Rhoda, while Caty Bergmark takes on Gordon’s mother, Mimi. Hayden Rowe portrays sailing-obsessed lover Roger. Both Mimi and Roger have meaty songs and excel in their dramatics. Tad Cameron invests Mr. Bungee, the frog character, with tons of energy and stirring vocals. Jimmica Collins has nearly equal energy as a homeless lady, while Ashley Prince plays Dr. Berensteiner (and the piano!) with sardonic virtuosity. Elliott Folds and Laura Spears both excel at comic audience interaction and also impress with their playing of brass instruments. Robert Lee Hindsman and Abi Sneathen make strong impressions in their small roles.

Director Patrick Schweigert has the unenviable task of blocking a show in the thrust space of Aurora’s black box theatre. The set, such as it is, consists of a wooden chest, percussion set, and music stands behind a black curtain that is slid aside at the top of the show to reveal the alcove. The centerpiece of the stage is a vaguely grand piano-shaped platform with an electronic piano behind it. Too many scenes place actors’ backs to one side of the audience or the other, as if the show were blocked assuming that the audience would be viewing only from the middle section. Sean Nguyen-Hilton’s enjoyable choreography does a much better job of using the thrust space to feature good sightlines to everyone in the audience. A lot of the hospital action takes place on the piano-shaped platform, with an array of paperback books acting as a pillow. Books scattered here and there decorate the set, which was designed by star Daniel Hilton and director Patrick Schweigert. Ben Rawson’s lighting and Nicole Clockel’s costumes add visual appeal, although Mimi’s black hat and dress are the opposite of the flattering styles the script calls for.

One strong scene has Mimi throwing books into the wooden chest, and a later scene has the homeless lady selling the books, as if they had been retrieved from the trash. Mr. Schweigert’s staging misses the opportunity to highlight the homeless lady pillaging the books from the chest, which would reinforce the plot. Otherwise, opportunities are not missed to point up the action the plot requires.

"A New Brain" features a difficult enough score to sing, let alone accompany. The cast, most of whom are members of the Aurora Apprentice Company, have thrown themselves into their roles and the music with open hearts and open vocal chords. They’ve brought the musical to sparkling life with verve and professionalism. Bright futures beckon for these young performers and for the director and choreographer who have honed their performances.

Summer Harvest - The Corporate Collection, by various
Sunday, June 25, 2017
2017’s "Summer Harvest" short play festival at Onion Man Productions collects eight plays that take place in a corporate setting. As is usual in these collections, some are good and/or intriguing and others start with an intriguing concept that doesn’t go much of anywhere. With different playwrights, directors, and actors in each play, the quality can vary markedly.

The set features a conference room table that seems to have been constructed for lightness rather than sturdiness. The remainder of the set (constructed by James Beck, Greg Fitzgerald, Melissa Rainey, and Sarah Patterson) consists of a back wall, chairs, and a couple of other pieces of office furniture. Lighting, designed by James Beck, features a nice backlit effect initially and otherwise illuminates the action nicely, with some fadeout effects to put the button on scenes. The configuration of the set pieces changes for each play, adding setup time that gives phone-addicted audience members time to check their cell phones during the scene changes.

The show starts with a play that has been split into four portions. Bruce Shearer’s "Beautiful Balloons" introduces us to a balloon artist and his manager, both of whom have dreams of a bright future. It’s a slight piece without much of a payoff, and director Kathryn O’Shea uses a number of blackouts to separate monologues from dialogue. Spencer Rich and Brooke Schlosser give fine performances, but no favors are done by the splitting of the show (both by the blackouts and by the segmentation).

Judd Lear Silverman’s "The Boss Is Out" follows, with Akia Sembly playing an office worker who has knocked out her boss following an incident of sexual harassment. Most of the action shows her interplay with a co-worker played by Bridget Shepard, as they try to determine the implications of the situation. Jeffrey Liu also has a tiny part as another co-worker. Erika Ragsdale has directed the play with a nice variety of motion and emotion, leading to a pleasing twist ending.

James Beck’s "Europa" is next. A boss and two underlings (Linzmarie Schulz, Julia Weeks, and Cat Roche) discuss the boss’s upcoming vacation trip to outer space. There’s too much exposition giving facts about Jupiter’s moon Europa, and some very clunky double entendres that relate to the plot point of the boss’s ex-husband having a competing business. It has all the hallmarks of an underdeveloped sketch, and director James Beck doesn’t create a consistent tone, letting it vary between lame comedy and dramedy. The performances are thoroughly acceptable, but the actors aren’t given compelling characters to portray.

Ron Frankel’s "Retirement Party" ends the first act. Corey-Jan Albert’s blocking creates a cramped-looking environment as the prophet Abraham (James Connor) and saints Joan (Merle Westbrook) and Nicholas (David Hanna) are ushered into a conference room (by Abby Christophel) for a meeting with God (Celeste Campbell). The situation is that God has decided to retire, and that’s about as far as the plot takes us. Costumes and performances are good, but James Beck’s sound design doesn’t immediately suggest a heavenly chorale. The first act doesn’t leave much of an impression.

Things improve in the second act. The first piece, Gregory Fitzgerald’s "One Last Try," is beautifully acted by Erik Dillard and Amanda Vick as a divorcing couple. Robert Winstead has directed them in a dramatic interplay of differing viewpoints. The strong character arc for the female leaves a lasting impression. It’s thoroughly professional in tone and execution.

David Allan Dodson’s "A Firing Affair" also features wonderful performances under Gregory Fitzgerald’s direction. Sadye Elizabeth portrays a businesslike human resources director who is confronted by an uncontrollable employee (Fred Galyean) she must fire. They have wonderful chemistry, and the comedy of the piece is enhanced by Erik Dillard’s performance as an officious underling (a performance entirely different from his performance in the previous play, but equally noteworthy). The play has a plot with a pleasing beginning, middle, and end, leaving a sweet hint of romantic optimism.

Michael Diprima’s "Life’s a Bitch" shows us an agent (Nikki Greenfield) who must deal with an animal client and his human owner (Robert Drake and Nick Suwalski in the program, although understudy replacement may have occurred at the performance I saw). Director Paige Steadman has given the animal character a lot of dog-like characteristics, as suggested in the script, which makes for some fun physical comedy. The action of the play, though, requires awkward moments in which the agent alternately seems to treat the dog as a dog and then to understand the dog’s speech completely.

"Slick Puppies" by Corey-Jan Albert ends the evening. Director Brandi Kilgore puts a lot of movement into the sitcom-like action, which involves a young couple (Abby Christophel and Ryan Stillings) canoodling semi-dressed in an empty conference room, until interrupted by the big boss (James Connor) and then by the big new prospective client (Gregory Fitzgerald), who manages to appear pants-less. There’s a plot twist involving blackmail for a sexual indiscretion that precipitates the ending and leaves a bit of a bitter taste, although the playwright’s intention seems to be for us to root for the blackmailers. It’s a cute skit with attractive, assured performances, but it doesn’t end the evening strongly.

2017’s short evening of short plays gives local directors and actors a chance to shine, and also highlights the work of several local playwrights. The ultimate star of the evening is Gregory Fitzgerald, whose writing and direction are unsurpassed in the selections, and who also performs in the final play. There’s a lot of talent in evidence, but Mr. Fitzgerald’s triple-threat contributions are what stick in the mind when the evening is over.

The Miracle Worker, by William Gibson
Tuesday, June 20, 2017
William Gibson’s "The Miracle Worker" takes place primarily at the home of Captain Keller and his family. The set Mercury has designed for Gypsy Theatre Company’s production places all the locations on a unit set with a couple of movable portions. Far stage right are a fixed porch and, above it, a bedroom. Far stage left is the exterior of a garden shed that unfolds near the end to show its interior. A functioning water pump in the yard is down center, with the facade of the house behind it. For scenes within the dining room, the facade lifts up into the flyspace to reveal the room. It’s a highly functional set, enhanced by Joel Coady’s lighting design and by Mercury’s evocative sound design that covers scene changes and provides underscoring from time to time. A very nice set of props accommodates the action, notably a step stool on the porch that converts to an ironing board for one brief segment. This is a handsome production.

Costumes, by Danielle Gustaveson, add to the visual appeal of the production. They set the time period of the 1880s and have enough variety to suggest the wealth of the Keller family. Pat Bell’s wig as Aunt Ev is a bit wiggy in look, but otherwise the hairstyles reinforce the time period. The actors carry their costumes well.

Of course, a production needs more than its outer trappings. And in this case, Mercury’s direction and the performances of the actors bring this biography of Helen Keller’s early years to sparkling life. Douglas Miles is fine in the roles of the Doctor and of teacher Anagnos, although his carrying of a pipe as both characters blurs the clear distinction his vocal accents make. Pat Bell isn’t quite loud enough as Aunt Ev, although her character comes across clearly. Ahsha M. Daniels is a delight as the servant Viney, and Dane Croxton makes Helen’s half-brother James a sympathetic, inwardly steadfast character. Julie Trammel and Dan Reichard, as Helen’s parents, both make strong impressions, and Kealy Ford is a marvel as Helen. The play rests on the shoulders of Helen’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, and Christina Leidel inhabits the character with a lilt and an iron backbone that make the audience admire and adore her.

The production takes its time; it has two intermissions. But this is a production that takes us into its world, holds us there, and releases us only as the play concludes, with tears filling the eyes of many audience members. This is an affecting, effective production that is closing out Gypsy Theatre Company in a magnificent manner that is likewise bringing tears to the eyes of audience members grateful for its fine productions over the ten years of its operation.

Incorruptible, by Michael Hollinger
Funny Bones
Tuesday, June 20, 2017
Michael Hollinger’s "Incorruptible" takes us to a struggling monastery in medieval France that desperately needs a miracle and a visit from the Pope to restore its repute. Let’s just say that it finds another way to gain a financial footing; one that transforms skeletons into pricey relics of saints. The four monks that live there are joined in the action by a peasant woman, by her daughter and son-in-law, and (eventually) by the abbot’s harridan of a sister. Physical comedy and sight gags abound, providing a crunchy sugar coating for all the goofily nefarious goings-on going on.

The four monks have distinct personalities. Abbot Charles (J. Michael Carroll) is a serious, deeply religious man. Martin (Darrell Wofford) has a streak of larcenous proclivities a mile wide, and the cynicism to go with it. Olf (O’Neil Delapenha) is dim-witted and enthusiastic. Felix (Chris Schulz) is pious and conflicted, grieving for the peasant girl his family forbade him from marrying. They all have comic moments that they play to the hilt. Only Mr. Schulz seems to lack a natural comic gift that makes him look a bit stiff in comparison to the others.

Katy Clarke, as the peasant woman, is a laugh riot, and LeeAnna Lambert is even more comically over the top in the second-act role of Sister Agatha. Rounding out the cast are Jef Holbrook and Sara Lynn Herman as a minstrel team whose physical comedy often results in belly laughs for the audience.

Lizz Dorsey’s set is a lovely depiction of a medieval chapel, with Ben Rawson’s lighting including some wonderful window effects. The only questionable lighting decision is brightening the lights for a minstrel routine, then noticeably dimming the lights afterwards. Dan Bauman’s sound design conveys offstage noises nicely, but isn’t called on to do much. Jane Kroessig’s costumes seem to be period-appropriate, with the motley of the peasants and the burgundy brocade of Sister Agatha contrasting with the burlap-like garb of the monks. Kathy Ellsworth’s props are impressive in their quantity of bones, but the 30 pieces of gold referenced in the script don’t seem to have realistic weight.

Aaron Gotlieb has directed the show with great pace and with fine blocking, although some of the on-floor activity will be missed by audience members seated behind others who sport large hairdos (as was my fate). When a show has this many spot-on comic bits (and there are PLENTY), it’s obvious the director has done far more than just given his actors free rein to mug and romp. The controlled chaos that is "Incorruptible" can be attributed to Mr. Gotlieb’s terrific direction. Terrific shows don’t just happen by themselves!

Eclipsed, by Danai Gurira
Shining Brighter Than a Supernova
Thursday, June 8, 2017
Danai Gurira’s play "Eclipsed" takes us into the world of a Liberian civil war, focusing on the four wives of a rebel commanding officer. He has only three when the play starts. The first (Shayla Love) is harboring a stray girl (Asha Duniani) and dealing with the materialistic wife #3 (Charity Purvis Jordan). Wife #2 (Isake Akanke) is not seen right away; she has taken up arms and is fighting as a rebel soldier. Parris Sarter, portraying a representative of a peace initiative in search of her missing daughter rounds out the cast.

This is a grim environment, in which the wives (eventually including the girl) are sexual slaves. Although pregnant wife #3 and loyal wife #1 have formed some sort of emotional connection with their "husband," it’s clear by the end that he has no attachment to them. Still, grim though the environment may be, the women find small pleasures as they pass their mostly uneventful days.

The plot revolves around the impressionable girl. She is faced with a number of decisions. Each new argument seems to sway her a bit, but her choices are rarely what the audience is rooting for. Even at the end, when peace seems at hand, we’re left with a final image of her weighing her beloved book and her firearm as symbols of the futures she might choose.

Acting is excellent across the board. Liberian accents are used, which takes a little getting used to, but voices are strong and clear. We care about these characters, but feel as powerless as they do to improve their lot in any meaningful way. Either they embrace their humanity and suffer or close off their heart and become a mindless killing machine. There is no way out that does not include lasting damage.

The physical production is nearly as good as the acting. Kathy A. Perkins’ lighting design and Kay Richardson’s sound design immerse the audience in the atmosphere of war-torn Liberia. Gunshots in sync with actors’ movements and Amelia Fischer’s fight choreography are superb. Elisabeth Cooper’s props reinforce the environment of mingled penury and looted luxuries. Nyrobi Moss’ costumes are bright and varied and suggest an approximation of passing time. Scenic design by Moriah & Isabel Curley-Clay creates an appropriately squalid and bullet-shattered residence for the women, but the carpeting in front of the stage proper doesn’t work particularly well for scenes outside the residence. A pile of sticks on the carpet is a pretty lame way to accommodate a firewood-gathering scene, and the scenes at the start of act two look odd with the unlit residence looming in the background.

Director Tinashe Kajesse-Bolden has pulled together a riveting production that, like the Broadway production, emphasizes a female production team (with males involved only in technical direction and fight direction assistantship). That’s a bit paradoxical, considering that the storyline shows women whose entire world has been defined, directed, and constrained by men. But when the end result is this good, who cares about the gender of the people bringing the production to life?

Gruesome Playground Injuries, by Rajiv Joseph
Accidental Love
Friday, June 2, 2017
Rajiv Joseph’s "Gruesome Playground Injuries" shows vignettes from the lives of Kayleen (Emily Kleypas) and Doug (Justin Walker), starting with an encounter in a school nurse’s office where Kayleen is recovering from a sensitive stomach and Doug has gotten patched up after an Evel Knievel-inspired stunt. In subsequent years (not shown in chronological order), they meet under similar accident-al circumstances. There’s definitely a spark between them; a sense of being kindred spirits. But however much we may root for them as a romantic couple, their relationship seems confined to these encounters.

The playing space designed and lit by Joel Coady resembles a boxing ring, with its canvas floor and audience on all four sides. The seating platforms are arranged in two rows, one and two feet off the floor, with no steps leading to them and rickety railings on the front. The space is not intended for anyone with mobility issues.

Six matching Parsons tables in white are stacked to suggest a jungle gym before the play starts. For the first scene, they’re rearranged into two bed-like structures. Subsequent scenes have them reconfigured as various seating areas. The lighting changes for each scene too, as does the blocking by Rebekah Suellau, sometimes putting backs to one section of the audience for almost the full running time of the scene.

Scene changes are relatively long, given that Mr. Walker and Ms. Kleypas have to reconfigure the stage, change costumes, and apply new injury makeup each time. John Cerreta’s piano music nicely covers the time. It’s gently melodic, repetitive, and sweetly dissonant. The injury effects (designed by A. Julian Verner) are inventive, but use a blood color more orange than red.

The performances and pacing are sparkling to begin with, slowing perceptibly over time as the play moves from comedy to poignancy. Mr. Walker does a nice job of conveying youth in the first scene, but the effect is dampened in subsequent scenes that would seem to be chronologically close to the first. Ms. Kleypas becomes less flighty over (chronological) time, but doesn’t have striking vocal changes. The acting, though, is first-rate and keeps interest throughout.

The intensity crackles in this production. Ms. Suellau has directed two fine actors in what is more a character study than a play per se. We become invested in these characters, up to the point where they part in the bright illumination that (somewhat bafflingly) ends the play. Catalyst Arts Atlanta hasn’t found a particularly amenable venue for its production, but it has poured its resources into making "Gruesome Playground Injuries" a memorable theatrical event.

Always a Bridesmaid, by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten
Often a Bride
Friday, June 2, 2017
"Always a Bridesmaid" tells the story of four friends who vowed in childhood to be a part of one another’s weddings, and who have held to that promise over many years and several marriages. The play takes place in a wedding venue run by Sedalia Ellicot (Caroline King). In addition to her and the four friends, we also have Kari (Halley Tiefert), the younger sister of happily married Libby Ruth (Meg Biddle). Kari starts the show with a wedding toast monologue spoken to the side of the proscenium, and her increasingly drunken monologue continues between the other scenes to set them up, with Kari taking the stage proper only in the final scene.

Aside from the ever-romantic Libby Ruth, we have never-married Charlie (Ashley Powers), hastily and frequently married Monette (Malikah McHerrin-Cobb), and caustic judge Deedra (Jessica Wise), whose marriage runs into trouble during the course of the play. The bride varies from scene to scene, and having matching bridesmaid outfits seems an unattainable dream up until the final scene. Costumes (not credited in the program) make the show, and they are appropriately elegant or inventively comic.

The set works well, with two dressing room alcoves up left and right, a main entrance stage right, and an oval full-length mirror on a platform stage left. A sofa center serves for seating, but the blocking by director Amanda Jewell keeps things moving so fast that no one stays seated for long. Lights (Corey Giessen) and sound (Shalom Aberle) don’t have a lot to accomplish, but nicely convey a thunderstorm and offstage party activity.

Lines are not a problem with any of the cast; the words come out speedily and with appropriate inflection. This type of comedy requires a broadness that not all the actresses accomplish, however. Ms. Biddle is perfection as Libby Ruth, injecting tons of energy, vim, and verve into her portrayal. Ms. McHerrin-Cobb, on the other hand, is understated as Monette and doesn’t seem to have much of an innate comic sense. Ms. King and Ms. Wise do the fine comic bits the director has created for them, but have timing that’s a little off. Ms. Tiefert and Ms. Powers do fine jobs with their roles, balancing the acting demands and the comedy demands nicely.

The ages of the actresses don’t mesh particularly well with the requirements of the script; the script, which spans several years, suggests that the four friends should be at least approaching middle age, since it’s established that they’re 39 in the first scene. Instead, they all look younger than the 29 one of the characters claims as her age. Kari, who is supposedly Libby Ruth’s younger sister (young enough to have been a flower girl at one of the friends’ weddings), is played by an actress who appears to be far older than the one playing Libby Ruth. That’s not much of a problem, though, when the comedy starts flying fast and furiously.

Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten are known for their mass-produced comedies featuring women in near-farcical situations. "Always a Bridesmaid" is another in the series, and an entertaining one. It’s not high art and makes no pretense to be so. It’s entertainment, pure and simple, and the Magari Theatre Company’s production lets that entertainment soar.

Act a Lady, by Jordan Harrison
The Art of Being a Lady
Sunday, May 21, 2017
"Act a Lady" is a strange play, showing 1920’s rural townfolk putting on a cross-dressed production of what seems to be a melodrama set in the 18th century. Dorothy (Nancy Powell) thinks it’s a bad, ungodly idea, but her husband (David Huenergardt) convinces her not only to agree to the production, but to play the accordion in it. An out-of-town female director in pants (Marie Violette) and a make-up artist with Hollywood credits (Jenny Titshaw) help ready the production, which features local men True (Dalton Titshaw), a tanner, and Casper (JR McCall), a photographer. The gender-bending isn’t restricted to the play-within-a-play; segments within "Act a Lady" have a trouser-dressed female encountering a dress-wearing male, with both of them portraying the same male character confronting the different sides of his personality.

Director Starshine Stanfield has elicited good performances from all the actors, with many of them as strong in this production as they have ever been in previous productions I’ve seen. The play-within-a-play scenes are played far upstage in fairly dim light, with postures and vocal volume compensating for the lack of nearness to the audience. Other scenes are played in front of the false proscenium, close to the audience, with good general lighting abruptly switching to a spotlight as individual characters speak their monologues.

For a make-shift performance space (the band room of a middle school), the production values are quite high. Spencer Estes has designed a simple, yet evocative set that contains a fully operational curtain in the proscenium. Philip Wray’s lighting design takes limited resources and takes every advantage of their capabilities, aided by Scott Piehler’s sound design that plays a mechanical switch effect when the spotlight suddenly goes on. Accordion music plays during scene transitions. Costumes, designed by Marie Walker, do a wonderful job of evoking both time periods of the play and indicate the status of each character, be it as a small-town rube or a big-city director. Women’s hairstyles intensify this effect (and that includes the elaborate wigs worn by men in the play-within-a-play).

Staged Right Theatre takes on challenging plays that do not necessarily have a guaranteed audience due to name recognition of the play and/or playwright. This could be a recipe for disaster in community theatre. But when the production is as capably produced and directed as "Act a Lady," it can only augur good word of mouth and (hopefully) audiences willing to take a chance on a new company filled with talent.

Ages of the Moon, by Sam Shepard
The Dark of the Moon
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Sam Shepard’s hour-long "Ages of the Moon" suggests a storyline rather than presenting one. Ames (Rial Ellsworth) is hiding out in a remote location after a sexual indiscretion his wife has found out about; he has summoned his friend Byron (John Courtney) for emotional support, not knowing that Byron has unpleasant news of his own marriage. Or at least we assume these are marriages; a lot is left unsaid.

The time is specifically August, 2007, as the two friends await a total lunar eclipse. The timeline is a bit compressed, though; a point is made early in the script that Ames is unlikely to wake up at 5 AM to view the eclipse, yet the action ends less than an hour later with no apparent time lapses, and the eclipse in full force.

In a two-character play like this with no driving plot, you’d expect the biggest impact to come from the performances of the two men essaying the roles. In the Onion Man production, however, these performances are given a good run for the money by the technical aspects. Morgan McCrary Brooks’ set makes perfect use of the small stage, with scenic painting adding just the right amount of grime to the porch and screen door and metal patio furniture. James Beck’s lighting design illuminates the porch with interesting shadows and transitions nicely to the ending eclipse. Rial Ellsworth’s sound design establishes the rural setting and even manages to suggest the sound of a (sometimes) working ceiling fan. There’s a special effect involving the fan that is undoubtedly something very special.

Rial Ellsworth invests Ames with tons of energy and bile, driving most of the action. John Courtney is basically an amiable sounding board in the first part of the show, but does some very nice solo work later on. Both men succeed at suggesting increasing inebriation as they drink the night away.

Director Joanie McElroy has created a production equally impressive for its physical production and for its performances. The script is evocative rather than clear-cut, so a director’s touch is needed to bring it to life. Ms. McElroy does a fine job of this, providing shape for Shepard’s spare night of boozy reminiscences and recriminations.

The Children’s Hour, by Lillian Hellman
"The Crucible" at a Boarding School
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Like Arthur Miller’s later "The Crucible," Lillian Hellman’s "The Children’s Hour" tells the story of lives ruined by the lies told by a group of girls. In this case, the ringleader is Mary (Hunter Lanius), who has all the girls in her boarding school under her thumb, and who has her grandmother Mrs. Tilford (Kathleen Seconder) wrapped around her little finger. When the owners of the school (Brittany Walker as Martha Dobie and Jillian Walzer as Karen Wright) attempt to punish her for one of her many lies, she makes up a story to get them into trouble. Her plan works, and their lives are destroyed.

This is a fairly talky play, with a lot of serious one-on-one conversations. Director Allan Dodson has blocked the show to have a fair amount of movement in these scenes, but his pacing is glacial. Consequently, the feeling is that of static discussion, and the show seems to drag more and more as the plot wears on. Yes, there are a lot of strong emotions on display, and the actors make them seem real, but deeply felt emotions do not automatically translate into drama.

The set, designed by Tanya Caldwell, contains a base layout with a staircase stage right and a fireplace stage left. At the start and end, this functions as the school. In the middle section of the play, with one wall panel reversed stage left and with a change of furniture, it functions as the living room of Mrs. Tilford’s house. Set decoration is artistic, but too distinct to really work as two separate locations. A stationary wall panel stage left with wallpaper matching only the reversed panel gives a slightly "off" look at the start of the play. The set is fully functional, though, and Gary White’s lighting design keeps all the action easily visible.

The time period of the 1930’s is suggested through the sound design by Bob Peterson, the props by Tosha Andrews, the hairstyling of Brooke Wade, and the costumes by Catherine Thomas. The matching school uniforms worn by the seven schoolgirls are particularly impressive. Visual appeal is enhanced by the swankier outfits for Ms. Seconder and for Christine Trent (playing actress-turned-teacher-turned-actress Lily Mortar).

Performances are all good or better, and thoroughly heartfelt. Jillian Walzer and Raleigh Wade make for a handsome romantic couple, and Brittany Walker and Christine Trent make the sparks fly as a battling niece and aunt. Kathleen Seconder impresses both with her barbs and her sincerity, and Hunter Lanius makes the audience despise the duplicitous Mary she plays while admiring her skill as an actress. The minor parts don’t give the actors playing them all that much to do, but they all acquit themselves well.

"The Children’s Hour" can be a riveting play, but it needs an ebb and flow of actions and emotions that is lacking in Lionheart’s production. Making an audience endure a play by sitting for over two hours is not the same as having them riveted to their seats. Of course, not all audience members may stay for the entire show; at the performance I attended, a married couple stormed out with the epithet "disgusting!" as the hints of lesbianism in the plot came to the foreground near the end of the second act. Controversial material from the 1930’s can still be controversial today!

Cut, by Crystal Skillman
Millenial ADHD
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Crystal Skillman’s "Cut" starts out with a sequence of monologues from its three characters. The action that follows is liberally sprinkled with additional monologues, in some of which the actor plays both sides of a conversation. With a skilled actor (skilled in both drama and comedy), this is spellbinding. With a less-skilled actor, it’s confusing and/or lackluster.

In the case of Bryn Striepe, playing Colette, we have an actor with all the skills needed to create a bravura performance. Next to her, Melissa Rainey (Rene) and Brian Smith (Danno) seem non-dimensional, with adequate dramatic chops, but not a drop of comedy sense. Matthew Busch has directed them to speak with alarming speed and energy, which at the start of the show (and through much of it) gives a manic feel to the proceedings. When Ms. Rainey gives a quiet, heartfelt monologue in the middle of the 70-minute show, it consequently feels totally out of place.

On the technical side, the production also falls down. Will Brooks’ unlovely set design contains a V-shaped multi-computer station desk center, backed by a TV storyboard cluttered with Post-It notes and flanked by platforms on either side, a mixture of metal railings and metallic-painted wood, that function as a variety of locations. Bradley Rudy’s lighting design illuminates a variety of areas, not all of which mesh with the locations of actors in Mr. Busch’s blocking. The blocking contains one baffling sequence in which two of the three actors, who are apparently exiting the building after a firing, return in the same direction they entered in at the start of the scene.

Above the set hang a clock, only the second hand of which seems to work, and two video screens. Since the play concerns the editing of footage for a reality show, the screens are a suggestion that we’ll see some mock footage. No such luck. The screens display content (stock video clips) only during scene changes, accompanied by music from Matthew Busch’s sound design. When the script calls for the actors to view a video sequence, they gather at the lip of the stage and peer out toward the audience, flickering lights and a low-volume soundtrack doing a wonderful job of suggesting the viewing, but making the inclusion of video screens in the set design meaningless.

The storyline isn’t terribly realistic. We don’t get to know these characters in depth, and the need for a firing that sets up the end moments of the play seems to have been preordained before the characters finish work on their TV segment, which appears to be a success, if behind schedule. So why fire anybody? Everyone has unlikeable qualities, so it’s hard to care about the characters. Ms. Striepe gives a stupendous performance, but otherwise the play isn’t compelling.

Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), by Suzan-Lori Parks
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Hours 1, 2 & 3)
Monday, May 15, 2017
First off, it’s LONG. Each of the three acts lasts about an hour, and there are two intermissions. Second off, its story makes parallels to the story of Odysseus, but, like parallel lines, the two stories never intersect. It’s a supremely ambitious work, marred by anachronisms and direct audience address, but rescued by some wonderful performances.

The first act revolves around the choice Hero (Evan Cleaver), a slave, has been given by his master -- to stay on the plantation and toil or to join his master fighting in the Civil War and, as his master has promised, gain his freedom. Other slaves wager on what his decision will be. He is swayed most by Penny (Brittany Inge), his common-law wife, and by his father figure (Rob Cleveland). Important input also comes from Homer (Marcus Hopkins-Turner), a fellow slave whose foot Hero chopped off after an escape attempt. The act consists of Hero being pulled one way or the other in making his decision. Given the title of the play, it’s obvious what his final choice will be.

The second act depicts a day at war in which Hero guards a captured Yankee soldier (Richard McDonald) under the supervision of Hero’s master, the Colonel (Bryan Davis). This is the most dramatic of the acts, with Hero’s subservience to his blustering master masking inner turmoil, and with a sudden revelation about the identity of the soldier upping the stakes in determining if Hero will attempt an escape.

The third act brings Hero back home, to where Penny and Homer are harboring three runaway slaves (Seun Soyemi, Damian Lockhart, and Meagan Dilworth). Hero’s faithful dog (Jason-Jamal Ligon), absent in the first act after running away, shows up in this act, in a display of magical realism. It’s not a happy ending, as once again Hero has made what seems to be a random or cowardly life decision.

The play discusses the issues of fidelity and freedom and seems to indicate that the choice to seek them is not as clear-cut as standard-issue morality might indicate. It’s a long slog to a depressing conclusion, and it’s not easy for all theatre-goers to follow.

The set design by James Ogden resembles that of Actor’s Express’s recent "The Crucible." The two halves of the audience face one another across a playing space with tree branches suspended above. Panels behind the audience and tree trunks at either end of the auditorium add to the bosky feel. The porch of a ramshackle shack appears at the end of the playing area for the first and third acts; in the second act, a crude cage of small branches replaces it. Three stumps and an ever-present campfire are permanent fixtures of the set. André C. Allen’s lighting nicely suggests different times of day, albeit with some odd streaks of light on the drop behind the shack.

Suzanne Cooper Morris’ props and Elizabeth Rasmusson’s costumes do a good job of suggesting the Civil War time period, although some shoes are wildly out of period. Since a couple of pairs of shoes are taken off during the course of the play, it’s disconcerting when they have modern soles, styling, and laces. Of course, the script tosses in modern expressions here and there, so perhaps this is part of an overall aesthetic mandated by the playwright.

Jake K. Harbour’s sound design works well, although the songs that start and end most of the acts are very repetitious in melody and act mostly as bookends to let the audience know when an act is complete. Anything adding to the length of an already-long performance needs to be carefully considered.

Director Martin Damien Wilkins has blocked the action to make good use of the stage, with neither side of the audience unfairly deprived of good sightlines for long periods of time. He has also elicited good performances out of all the actors, although some performances are more successful than others. Meagan Dilworth can’t make all her expository dialogue sound totally natural, while Brittany Inge’s Penny hits true notes throughout her performance. Rob Cleveland puts forth a strong performance, as expected, and Evan Cleaver fills the lead role with stolid dependability. Bryan Davis and Richard McDonald both shine in the second act, and Jason-Jamal Ligon brings a bit of goofy brightness to the third act. Best of all, though, is Marcus Hopkins-Turner, whose physicality, vocal power, line readings, and facial expressions deftly limn a character who has been woefully mistreated by life, but whose resentments have fueled his determination to achieve some sort of happiness.

Suzan-Lori Parks is an important contemporary American playwright, and her play attempts to address big issues of race and self-determination. It’s just so all-fired BIG, though, that it tends to come across as a big lump of "theatre that is good for you." The entertainment factor diminishes as the play goes on and on. The play is worthwhile to see, but an abbreviated version of it might be more successful, much as Ms. Parks’ diffuse and lengthy "The America Play" morphed into the more focused "Topdog/Underdog."

Motherhood Out Loud, by various; conceived by Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein
Shout Praises Out Loud
Monday, May 15, 2017
"Motherhood Out Loud" is a series of 19 monologues and scenes from a variety of playwrights, all on themes relating to motherhood. Directors Judith Beasley and Karen Worrall have gotten splendid performances out of their cast of 19. No scene goes on longer than welcome, and the variety of characters and situations ensures that interest never wanes.

The set design by the directors is simple, with three platforms arrayed onstage, each backed by a folding flat with artistically splattered paint on a neutral background. A stool sits on each of the two side platforms; the double-size middle platform holds a bench. This simple scenic set-up is all that is needed to convey a number of locations. Each "chapter" starts with a "fugue" in which three actresses (and occasionally others) stand on the three platforms and speak their interrelated stories. Actors restrict themselves to a single platform for each scene, up until the final one ("My Baby"), where Jessie Kuipers moves from one platform to the next. It’s a subtle, nicely conceived instance of blocking that signals the end of the show.

Brad Rudy’s lighting design adds greatly to the visual appeal of the production, using colored lights to turn the folding flats blue, chartreuse, and hot pink initially, then varying the lighting for each individual scene, with sweet narrowing spotlight effects signaling the end of many scenes. It’s the sort of subtle, masterful work that makes a production just seem right.

Ann Patterson’s props and the costumes provided by the cast also add to the visual appeal. Matching plaid shirts for the fugue segments in particular give the feel of a curated costume design, although all the costumes work well for their individual segments. Brenda Orchard’s sound design goes a little overboard on introductory music, since scenes flow smoothly and quickly and don’t require much to cover them, and there are a couple of times when music playing under a scene is distracting, although in one instance that’s the whole point, when its sudden absence underlines a son’s departure for college.

There’s such good work going on across the board that it’s impossible to state definitively that one performance is better than another; each viewer is likely to have a different set of favorite scenes. I particularly liked the work of the core "fugue" group (Kelly Moynes Sklare, Whitney Umstead Sinkule, and Jacquelyn Wyer), all of whom score in other segments too. Stephanie Dennard does a splendid job with "Squeeze, Hold, Release," and Amy L. Levin is spellbinding in "Queen Esther." Nylsa Smallwood brings a Muslim mother to light-hearted life in "Nooha’s List," and Alan Phelps brings real poignancy to the final moments of "Elizabeth."

It’s rare that a single director can create such a cohesive set of performances in a production; the fact that two directors split the duties on this one makes the cohesiveness even more impressive. Judith Beasley and Karen Worrall are to be commended for bringing this work to life with such a fine group of actors, in a season slot perfectly positioned for Mother’s Day.

Split in Three, by Daryl Lisa Fazio
A Calculated Split
Wednesday, May 10, 2017
A play about the last court-mandated school integration in Mississippi in 1969. Hmm... Let’s populate the cast with two white sisters, one on the conservative, religious, segregationist side and one on the liberal, integrationist side. To add spice, let’s add in a previously unknown half-sister who’s a half-black Yankee! We have to throw in a high school student too, to get a young person’s perspective, and why not throw in a love interest too, a police officer whose eyes can be opened to the possibilities of a harmonious future?

Yes, the cast and plot of Daryl Lisa Fazio’s "Split in Three" are very calculated. The characters tend to act as mouthpieces for their various viewpoints rather than as embodiments of actual people. Thus, we have a mousy milquetoast (half-sister Penny, played by Falashay Pearson) suddenly turn loud and strident without a whole lot of motivation. And when there’s an attempt at broadening a character’s emotional range, in having staid Nell (Rhyn Saver) dress up and attempt a booty call with her ex-husband, it comes across as something out of left field.

Jamie Bullins’ set shares the overall sensibility of trying to make things look like what they obviously aren’t. The shack-like house he has constructed has perfect right angles, sturdy floorboards, and strong hinges, with only Sarah Thomson’s scenic painting to give it a weathered look. A perfectly solid Ford pick-up in the up left corner of the stage is given the same sort of paint treatment, and the little piles of dirt around its wheels and around the pilings under the house look obviously stagey. Add in Courtney Patterson’s totally un-period rat’s nest of a white trash hairdo and it’s clear that factual accuracy has not been high on director Justin Anderson’s list of priorities.

Mr. Anderson’s blocking generally uses the stage well, but his blocking for neighbor boy Clifford (Elijah Marcano) is a bit puzzling. The boy bicycles by and drops in from time to time, but he occasionally seems to leave in random directions. Part of the problem is with the script, which has him appearing willy-nilly, but it makes him appear directionless.

The performances, however, are what redeem the production. Ms. Patterson and Travis Smith give the professional level of performance we have come to expect of them. Ms. Pearson and Mr. Marcano aren’t as seasoned as performers, but acquit themselves well. Best of all is Ms. Saver, whose expressive face and spot-on reactions do all they can to make her constructed character come to life.

There are a lot of scene changes in the show, and multiple instances of someone reading in the middle of a twilight yard. Kevin Frazier’s lighting design attempts to suggest the various times of day, but it’s a bit jarring in a twilight scene when the porch light is switched on and suddenly the entire yard is bathed in light. The sound design by Justin Anderson and Daniel Pope relies largely on music that is supposed to be emanating from a radio. It’s a bit jarring (if fairly impressive) when a scene starts and the music playing on the overall sound system suddenly switches to sound just from the portable radio onstage.

As for costumes (designed by Kendra Johnson) and props (designed by Trevor Carrier), I found they served the play and the characters well. I wonder, though, if someone intimately aware of 1969 styles would find the type of slip-ups that seem to plague this production. "Split in Three" is not bad, but it is so blatantly composed to bring up BIG ISSUES that it starts to become a tedious exercise that drags on the farther along it gets. Give credit to the actors in bringing as much life to the play as they do. But that’s about as far as the praise can go.

A Few Good Men, by Aaron Sorkin
More Than a Few; More Than a Few Good
Wednesday, May 10, 2017
Aaron Sorkin’s military courtroom drama "A Few Good Men" requires a large cast, with only one role specifically written as a female. With a community theatre production, this inevitably results in uneven performances. Luckily for this production, the three major roles are filled ably. Robert McMullen gives Lt. Daniel Kaffee a light, brash air that deepens as the play proceeds and he becomes invested in his lawyerly role. Brandy Carlton gives Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway a no-nonsense air that doesn’t change much during the course of the play, but she delivers her lines with promptness and sincerity, keeping the action moving. Perhaps best of all is Bob Coker as Col. Nathan Jessep, who functions as the villain of the piece. His weaselly demeanor and sarcastic delivery definitely get the audience rooting against him.

There are several other good performances. Loren Collins and Don Walters are quite believable as lawyers for the prosecution, as is Blake Panton as one of the accused (and also Robbie Summerour as the other at the performance I attended). Many of the roles are quite small, and only line bobbles detract from some of the performances. There are only a few instances of questionable casting, most notably Arvelle Draper being cast against type as a wisecracking Jewish lawyer.

As is typical at New Dawn, the wide playing space portrays several locations in fixed positions, with action ricocheting around from one to the next. Far stage right is a prison conference room. Next to it is a sniper’s station, and center stage is the courtroom proper, with the tables and chairs used by the defense and prosecution rearranged to indicate other indoor locations. Far stage left is an office, and between it and the courtroom is a raised bedroom platform. The prison conference room, bedroom, and office are rearranged slightly to portray different locations as required by the script. Lights, not always a highlight of New Dawn productions, work well to delineate the various locations.

The most impressive technical element is the costumes. Sherry Ingbritsen, Celeste Campbell, and Brandy Carlton have pulled together a collection of uniforms that give the production a crispness and style. Almost all characters wear their uniforms well and carry themselves with an appropriately military bearing. Director Sherry Ingbritsen has blocked several scene transitions to have troops marching and calling as they circle around the back of the audience, with a dimly lit sniper looking out over a net-covered wall with binoculars to give some visual activity. The overall feeling is that of having dropped into a military installation and being a fly on the wall as courtroom arguments proceed.

Spring Shorts, by Amy Cuomo, Carol Winters, Tom Coash, Christine Weems, Chris Shaw Swanson, Robin Pond, Susan Middaugh, Dave Fisher
Short; Not Always Sweet
Sunday, May 7, 2017
Something to make you think. Something to make you feel. Something to make you laugh. Onstage Atlanta’s 2017 version of "Spring Shorts" provides all of these and more, using simple settings lit by Tom Gillespie and featuring Charlie Miller’s effective sound design.

First up is Amy Cuomo’s "Baby Doll," in which a woman (Lorena Morales) surprises her husband (Brandon Mitchell) by her purchase of a lifelike doll and accompanying bassinette and nanny (Kate Guyton). It’s more of a situation set-up than anything else, with no resolution. Its Twilight Zone-like vibe (emphasized by sound clips) makes it mildly interesting, but no more. Kate Guyton gives a nicely creepy and unsettling performance, and J. Michael Carroll has blocked it with more movement than seen in most of the other pieces.

Second comes "Tinder Is the Night," by Carol Winters. This is another selection that is all set-up and no payoff. Abra Thurmond plays a divorcee who claims her life is too busy for men, but who has profiles on nine different dating sites. Lory Cox plays her concerned friend. Nothing of note happens. Clay Randel’s direction has them sitting at a table most of the time, and he hasn’t elicited a compelling performance from Ms. Thurmond.

Olivia Kaye Sloan has blocked Tom Coash’s "Raghead" in much the same manner, with two people sitting at a table for much of the action, but there is so much variety in posture and attitude that the play does not seem static at all. Erin McCulley gives a marvelous performance as a woman wearing a hijab who’s in a bar on a blind date with Nick, played by Peter Perozzi. The play has bite, giving the audience a lot to think about.

"Second Guess," which ends the first act, takes a more comic turn. A runaway bride (Kate Guyton) and her supportive friend (Olivia Kaye Sloan) have entered a theatre to deal with the aftermath of the bride having left the nuptials to her seventh fiancé. The two actresses give very compelling performances. Elisabeth Cooper has directed Christine Weems’ script to hit all the comic highpoints, although her blocking of action in the audience creates horrible sightlines for some members of the audience.

The second act slides into more dramatic territory, starting with Chris Shaw Swanson’s "Out from Under with Mary," in which homeless woman Mary (Carolyn Choe) encounters Diane (Olivia Kaye Sloan) at a drug testing center in a bad section of town. Ms. Choe has directed herself in a lovely performance, ably supported by Ms. Sloan. This is a touching short play, with plenty of laughs, but even more heart.

"Something in Common," by Robin Pond, features fine dramatic performances from two actresses previously seen, this time under Richard J. Diaz’s direction. Kate Guyton and Erin McCulley portray a biological mother and the teenager she give up at birth. Ms. Guyton’s no-nonsense, steely character seems the polar opposite of Ms. McCulley’s twitchy, needy teen. It’s only in the final moments that we see what these two women truly have in common.

"When I Fall in Love..." also takes a conceivably somber situation, in which a woman (Katy Clarke filling in for Tasha Jones at the performance I attended) and a man (Brian Jones) visit their spouses at a memory care facility. The material is shaped by director Katy Clarke to have comic undertones, with a sweetly understated ending.

Scott F. Rousseau directs the final selection, Dave Fisher’s "Jubilee Catalog Sales," which is a comic gem. Jennifer Morse is delightfully single-minded as a telephone order-taker, causing Lory Cox to tremble in fear and befuddlement as a would-be customer. Lisa Gordon comes on as a neighbor near the end, changing the dynamic of the situation, and a final twist brings the play, and the evening, to a close.

With short plays, there’s almost always enough variety to prevent the entire evening from being stale and boring. The 2017 edition of Onstage Atlanta’s "Spring Shorts" starts a little slow, but it hits its stride in the middle of the first act and never lets up. The variety of plays tends toward the serious rather than the silly, but there is a wonderful balance of drama and comedy, sometimes between one selection and the next, but more often within a single selection. This "Spring Shorts" is well worth a viewing.

The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, by Paul Rudnick
The Most Fabulous Costumes Ever Worn
Saturday, May 6, 2017
Paul Rudnick’s "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told" tells the stories of Adam & Steve and Jane & Mabel, original residents of the Garden of Eden in Mr. Rudnick’s gloss on Bible stories. In the first act, we see them navigating through Biblical mythology, up to the birth of Christ. In the second act, these same characters are contemporary New Yorkers celebrating a marriage and birth at Christmastime.

The set pieces designed by Austin Kunis are fairly primitive in execution, and more middle school primitive than fashionably primitive. His props, though, are spiffy, and many of Jay Reynolds’ costumes are absolutely fabulous. Add in Edward Holifield’s wigs and makeup and you have wonderful disguises for the four ensemble members as they morph into different characters. Wigs for the four main characters aren’t as successful, and their first act costumes tend toward the bland (or non-existent for the males for a short segment).

Sound, in Jacob Demlow’s design, nicely covers transitions from segment to segment. Charles Swift’s lighting design lights the wide space adequately for the many individual scenes and has some nice holiday lights in the second act. The creation sequence that starts out the show, though, calls for more spectacular effects.

Ty Autry (Adam), Brian Jordan (Steve), Ellie Styron (Jane), and Jenni McCarthy (Mabel) deftly sketch their characters from the get-go, and that’s perhaps the main problem in this production. Circumstances change, but the characters don’t really grow or change due to them. They respond to them, that’s all. It’s the ensemble characters that really spark the entertainment in this show. Rachel Garbus, Jess McGuire, and Davin Grindstaff all inhabit delightfully wacky personas throughout the play. Alex Burcar isn’t quite so successful in his portrayals, and Nicole Smith doesn’t make a huge impression as the Stage Manager who calls all the sound/light/set changes in the initial creation segment. Still, director Paul Conroy has managed to make the production stronger than the underlying script.

The play has lots of religious discussions, with a search for God underlying most of them. Although the show looks at things from a gay perspective, it is not a godless entertainment. The Holy Book gets treated pretty roughly, with a page torn out and the volume tossed around, and that I consider the most blasphemous element of the show. The play is not making fun of the Judeo-Christian tradition; it’s looking at its concepts and precepts using a gay, comic viewpoint and coming out strongly in favor of the power of love.

Pais de Bicicleta, by Nilo Cruz
Underwrought and Overwrought
Thursday, May 4, 2017
Nilo Cruz’s "Pais de Bicicleta" introduces us to a Cuban stroke victim (Anthony P. Rodriguez) and his two caregivers, who decide mutually to escape Cuba on a raft once physical therapy has returned him to health. After several days at sea, with water having run out, the ending is not happy.

Georgina Escobar has directed her actors to be loud and passionate. A point is made in the script about them being unable to keep their emotions in check like the English and Germans, so there is a rationale for this, but it comes across as a bit extreme when facial expressions are so much more minimal than the volume of speech. Only Juan Carlos Unzueta, as friend Pepe, truly impresses with his expressiveness as the journey on the raft drags on.

Blanca Aurora Forzàn has created a set that resembles a square raft, with a bunch of detritus littering the upstage alcove of the playing space. Portions of the square structure lift up to approximate the shape of a boat. This shape is used as the raft journey begins. Then it gets folded back down and the structure becomes flat again, still representing the raft. Dramatically, this makes no sense. It’s all for the visuals of the production.

Nicole Clockel’s costume design shares some of the visuals-only aesthetic of the set design. Limara Meneses Jiménez, as Inés, sports a huge bedsheet-like skirt overlay during the first part of the show. This bedsheet later is repurposed as a cape for a haircutting scene before being forced into other uses. Once again it’s a visual with little resonance in the words of the script.

At least at the performance I attended, either sound (designed by Andrew Cleveland) or props (designed by Cody Russell) didn’t seem to work as intended. Radio music was indicated in the script, but silence is what was heard. At least Ben Rawson’s lighting design seemed to work as anticipated.

Native Spanish speakers may enjoy the production more than I did. I could hear laughter at some lines as they were spoken, with little audience reaction as the translations appeared on the twin supertitle screens. But the storyline is pretty grim overall, and the impressionistic storytelling leaves a lot of holes. But, as director Georgina Escobar writes in her director’s note, "I invite you to let your imagination fly, take in the sensory elements that surround you, and fill in the gaps of the story with what you wish to see realized." If only wishes could be so easily realized!

Pie in the Sky, by Lawrence Thelen
Apple of My Eye
Thursday, April 27, 2017
The two-hander "Pie in the Sky," receiving its concurrent premieres in Burbank, California and at ART Station, tells the story of an elderly mother who has arisen early on the morning of her live-in daughter’s 65th birthday to make her her favorite apple pie. The daughter ends up doing most of the work for the pie, but the mother has intentions to bring more intangible things than a pie into her daughter’s life. Bickering gives way to secrets being spilled, ending in resolution just as the oven timer dings to indicate readiness of the pie.

The program states that the action takes place in a mobile home, but that isn’t particularly the feel of Michael Hidalgo’s set, which consists of a kitchen stage left and a raised living room space stage right, with a kitchen table downstage of it. A hall stretches into the stage right wings. Fragments of the outside wall frame the playing space. A short refrigerator, a high window, and wood paneling give the suggestion of the layout of an outdated mobile home, but it’s a subtle suggestion. A Texas flag magnet on the refrigerator is the primary visual clue that the action takes place in Texas.

The two women inhabiting the home don’t really seem like mobile home park residents either. Karen Howell, as the daughter, has an inherently elegant bearing, and the salty orneriness of Barbara Bradshaw, as the mother, seems intended more to raise a reaction from her daughter than to pigeonhole the mother as white trash.

Does any of this matter? No. The performances are splendid, and the set is eminently workable. If we view these women as middle-class representatives of an aging generation, it simply means that they come across as more universal than residents of a specific Texas milieu.

Jeanne Fore’s costumes are nightwear and robes consistent with the early-morning time, along with aprons that aren’t intended to coordinate with anything. Michael Hidalgo’s lighting has some nice effects, particularly at the end when the sun is rising and then when the final tableau is achieved. Music at the start sets the mood of the intermissionless action.

David Thomas has directed the action to be fluid and to hit all the dramatic and comic highpoints. The script leaves a couple of things hinted at rather than stated (the paternal parentage of a cousin; why Dory keeps her arms covered), but the contentious love of a mother for her daughter comes through loud and clear. Two splendid performances and a pleasing dramatic arc make this far more than a gimmick production in which a crumb-top apple pie is actually made from scratch (except the crust!) and baked onstage.

Nobody Loves You, by Itamar Moses (book & lyrics), Gaby Alter (music & lyrics)
Everybody Loves Somebody
Sunday, April 23, 2017
"Nobody Loves You" is a laugh-out-loud show with tons of funny lines, lots of funny situations, and a cast of actors who add funny bits of their own. Under Heidi Cline McKerley’s direction, the comedy triumphs. Other elements of the show aren’t so successful.

Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay have designed a workable set, but not an attractive one (and not all that workable in the steep curved steps stage right). It’s primarily supposed to be the set of a schlocky romance reality show in which mixtape CDs are presented by each contestant to another of their choice. The circular form of a CD seems to be an inspiration for parts of the design, but it’s very crudely done. The "o" letters in the title (in cut-out letters on the wall) hardly look like CDs at all, and the circular motif in the center of the floor looks like the remnants of a set design that once incorporated a revolving section. The Curley-Clays’ costumes also miss the mark here and there, with a couple of hideous sundresses briefly appearing on finalist contestants.

Mary Parker’s lighting design is much better, actually making the screen of cut-out hearts that obscures the band look attractive under varying colored lights at the entr’acte. Ryan Bradburn’s props are fine, with the highlight coming in the leather room segment. Even there, though, there’s a certain crudeness of implementation.

Sound, under Rob Brooksher’s design, is on the loud side, but not painfully so. Voices are excellent across the board, proving the excellence of Alli Lingenfelter’s musical direction (and the talent and skill of the cast and the four-piece band). The songs themselves, however, generally feature pedestrian lyrics and melodies that don’t linger. Only the songs sung by Brad Raymond, as Byron, the TV host, really enhance the show. Austin Tijerina has a couple of Twitter commentary songs that also provoke a lot of laughs. The other songs aim for standard musical theatre territory, but don’t quite hit the mark.

Most of the actors play multiple roles, some just cameos of contestants who don’t last long in the competition. What works is actors instantly switching from real-life to supposed video clips with just a change in lighting and having actors portray a Twitter feed (with Jennifer Alice Acker appearing as different kinds of spam entries). Otherwise, having the same characters in multiple roles skews the balance of the show from its storyline to a revue-like sensibility of "look how talented and versatile we actors are."

And the actors are talented! Jennifer Alice Acker shows great physicality as the free-spirited Megan, contrasting with the uptight Christian of Ben Thorpe. Austin Tijerina and Leslie Bellair dance as well as they act and sing, and Wendy Melkonian finds a twist to almost every line that pleases immensely. In the more straightforward roles of the leading romantic couple, Patrick Wade and Jeanette Illidge exude likeability, while still finding character tics to make their characters interesting. Brad Raymond has a voice to raise the rafters, even in as lofty a space as Horizon Theatre.

The writers of the show are tweaking it with the intention of bringing it back to New York. What they have is an immensely entertaining, frothy comedy with music. What they don’t have is a musical that completely lands as a musical. Still, it’s a wonderful showcase for director and cast alike.

Urinetown, by Mark Hollmann (book & lyrics) and Greg Kotis (music & lyrics)
Brechtian Buffoonery
Saturday, April 22, 2017
"Urinetown" is a self-aware musical, poking fun at the genre while telling a story of ecological devastation. In Act3’s production, the comedy is underlined by Liane LeMaster’s direction, full of head snaps to the audience and added comic bits. The entertainment quotient expands exponentially when you add in good voices throughout and amazingly delightful choreography. (Do I sense another MAT award in store for choreographer Misty Barber Tice?)

To accommodate the many locations in the script, Will Brooks’ scenic design makes use of two revolving platforms and scaffolding and a ladder on wheels, backed by a large yellow "Urinetown" banner on the back wall. Elements are rearranged to suggest different locations. Bradley Rudy’s lighting design helps set scene and mood, with a footlight effect somehow managing both to underline the grotesqueness of the less savory characters in town and to highlight the romantic moments of our hero and heroine. Movement from one scene to the next is seamless and never interrupts the flow of the show.

The small band (brass, sometimes-sour woodwind, and percussion in addition to piano) is pretty loud, so head mikes are used on the actors to help balance out the sound. In Ben Sterling’s sound design (as implemented by Ian Gibson’s operation), this makes everything audible. The only audibility issues arise when a song is slightly out of the range of an actor, which happens most often with Russ Ivey as Caldwell B. Cladwell. On the other hand, a voice as powerful as Lilliangina Quiñones’ as Penelope Pennywise can rock the rafters even without amplification.

Nancye Quarles Hilley’s costume design nicely delineates the social status of the characters, with a couple of lovely fitted frocks for the delightfully dewy-eyed and sweet-voiced Leah Parris as heroine Hope Cladwell. Zac Phelps, as our hero Bobby Strong, has a more nondescript look. The ensemble members switch from costume to costume (and often wig to wig) during the show. Costuming works against the double-casting of Charlie Miller, however, who wears the elegant pants of his Mr. McQueen under the shabby coat of his "Old Man" Strong, making the two characters less distinct than they could be.

Acting and physicality is strong throughout for the principals, and often for the ensemble (with Caty Bergmark and Molly Millard perhaps most notable there). Barbara Cole Uterhardt (as Officer Lockstock, a role previously essayed by her husband Googie) and Summer McCusker (as diminutive Little Sally) make the most of their interplay onstage. The only missteps seem to have been on the director’s part, giving Gwydion Calder (Senator Fipp) and Nathan Tyler Hesse (Officer Barrel) some physical bits that cause audience members to look at one another and question "huh?"

This is a strong production throughout, with all elements nicely interlaced. The synergy of direction and technical elements is obvious from the choreography that makes full use of the movable ladder and the lighting that enhances that choreography. When all pieces of a production fall neatly into place, it’s no accident. Director Liane LeMaster has empowered her cast, crew, and musical director (Laura Gamble) to work together to make Act3’s "Urinetown" just about as good a production of this Brechtian treat as could be wished.

Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard
Saturday, April 22, 2017
Tom Stoppard’s "Arcardia" alternates between the early 19th century and the present day at Sidley Park, an English estate whose gardens are redone in the gothic style during the course of the play. What Jon Nooner’s scenic design shows us is an elegant neoclassical room in the house, walls in sea-foam green, columns and moldings in white, and a beautiful wood floor centered on an inlaid geometrical figure. A long table and six chairs in the Chippendale style (or in an approximation that suits the nomenclature "Chippendale" in the script) fill the center of the room.

In the background, we see a blue-lit cyclorama (lighting designed by Hannah Gibbs) fronted by balustrades of an exterior fence, with two large, glass-paneled doors up center leading outside. Large windows on either side of this and interior doors at left and right provide the perfect symmetry of the neoclassic style. The background shows no indication of the formal English garden that exists at the start of the play or of the gothic garden-in-progress that exists at the end. Instead, we have a picture book with fold-out panels that represent the "before" and "after" condition of the garden, although the book is not clearly visible from the audience.

The period feel is reinforced by Katy Munroe’s costumes in the Empire style, both for the 19th century characters and for the modern-day characters who dress up for a costume ball. The costumes impress most initially, with the looks in the final scene sometimes seeming a bit off (short stockings for Augustus; a garish jacket for Bernard).

The plot tells its story from both the 19th century angle (the truth) and from the modern day (suppositions, some of which prove to be spectacularly wrong). It’s a dense script, encompassing mathematics, literature, and Byronic history. It’s also long, at nearly three hours, including intermission. But it’s an absorbing ride, punctuated by gunshots at scene starts in Ebonee Johnson’s sound design.

The show is particularly well-acted, with director Mira Hirsch obviously having drilled the actors in projection, English accents, and character. Maital Gottfried is sweetly diminutive as mathematical prodigy Thomasina, more believable as a 13-year-old at the start than as a nearly 17-year-old at the end (which could have been remedied somewhat by costuming and hairstyle). Karl Dickey is assured and forceful as her tutor Septimus, but appears 20 years beyond his supposed age of 22 at the start, which causes a significant problem at the play’s end, when student and tutor share kisses and a waltz. In the modern day, Katherine Carey is humorously no-nonsense as Hannah, while Joseph Johnson is a dynamic force of nature as Bernard, nailing the character of a narcissistic scholar.

The more minor roles are also well-filled. Meredith Myers is elegant and aristocratic as Lady Croom, and Alex Oakley as Chater and Tucker Hammonds as Brice give assured performances, although all are far younger than their characters. Kevin Dew has little to do as servant Jellaby, but does it well, and Ethan Weathersbee, as architect Mr. Noakes, puts a comic spin on his character (although being too young for the role). In the modern-day segments, Grace Dent is confident as Chloe (although I found her sometimes difficult to understand) and John Carter gives a smooth, engaging performance as scientist Valentine. Luke Evans does well as mute character Gus in the modern-day scenes, but is less successful in the extraneous 19th century role of Augustus.

Direction, acting, and technical elements combine to make "Arcadia" a mostly successful production. It’s only the ending that fails to enchant, with the fates of Thomasina and Septimus not foreshadowed enough, due to a lack of sexual chemistry. The dancing that concludes the show is showy and fluid (in the 19th century) and clumsy and awkward (in the modern day), and it is the contradictory mixture of fluidity and awkwardness that doesn’t work in the final moments of the show.

Stage Kiss, by Sarah Ruhl
Saturday, April 22, 2017
Sarah Ruhl’s "Stage Kiss" is a backstage story in which two former lovers are cast as romantic partners in two consecutive stage productions. Their personal relationship affects their stage relationship and vice versa. The success of "Stage Kiss" depends on the actors being able to navigate the fine line between their stage selves and their real selves. In Onion Man’s production, the line is blurred.

Action takes place in a variety of settings, accomplished in Patrick Young’s set design by having right-angled flats that can be turned with their backs to the audience for backstage scenes, then angled one way for stage scenes and another way for apartment scenes. Ms. Ruhl’s script cleverly accomplishes the transition from a NY apartment to a Detroit stage by having the apartment used as inspiration for the look-alike set. Still, there are a number of scene changes that slow the action a bit.

Janie Young’s direction blocks scenes using the audience area for the director (Rob Glidden) and pianist (Adam Jaffe) to sit in. Stage action keeps everyone visible, even in the most crowded scenes, and the action is relatively fluid. The lighting design by James Beck and Janie Young has a few nicely realized effects, and their sound design covers scene changes with music.

Where the show falls apart is in the performances. Some are excellent. Jessie Kuipers mines every bit of humor out of her two minor roles, and Alyssa Gera fills her two roles with equal vigor and flair. Rob Glidden makes his character the humorously natural epitome of a directionless director. Kelly Jo Roarke, in the central role of an actress, comes across well, but can’t carry the show on her own. Glenn Allen, as her husband, does some nice work, but is understated to the point of invisibility. Adam Jaffe, as an understudy forced to play multiple roles, fulfills the bare needs of the script, but doesn’t capture the insecurity of an actor forced in over his head. Worst of all is Spencer Rich as the actor cast opposite Ms. Roarke. He is too young for the role (with obvious graying of hair at the temples), has iffy pitch as a singer, and seems genuine in only one small segment near the end of the play. Otherwise, he seems stagey in the real-life scenes and barely different in the play-within-a-play scenes. It’s not believable that these actors supposedly have Broadway credits and are appearing in professional stage productions.

The two play-within-a-play works are a brittle 30’s-style comedy and an Irish/prostitute IRA-centered drama, which would seem to place the action sometime in the past. The frequent four-letter words that pepper the dialogue set the real-life action in the current day, though, so things don’t quite ring true. There’s a lot of material for actors to sink their teeth into, but only some of the minor characters really triumph in their portrayals. The play requires technique and commitment in all roles, and Ms. Young hasn’t been able to fill her cast with talent commensurate with the requirements of the script.

Assassins, by John Weidman (book) & Stephen Sondheim (songs)
The Bombast Bursting in Air
Saturday, April 22, 2017
Loud. Nearly every cast member singing (or screeching) at the top of their lungs. Piercing flute lines in the accompaniment. Lines shouted as often as spoken. Does it enhance "Assassins?" Not particularly. The energy is appreciated, but not the overblown, alienating bombast that predominates.

Director Michelle Davis has purportedly chosen a circus theme for Out of Box’s production of "Assassins." We have someone in a ringmaster costume, a few others in garb that marginally suggests denizens of a sideshow, and others that just look odd in Ali Olhausen’s costumes. The set suggests the center ring of a circus by having a painted circle in red, white, and blue containing a border with thirteen stars. Boxes making up most of the rest of the set are nicely painted in similar style, and Morgan McCrary Brooks’ design also includes an electric chair that doubles as a vehicle.

Stevie Roushdi’s lighting design uses red lights for atmosphere, but doesn’t always illuminate the section of the stage where performers are emoting. Most of the show, though, uses adequate general lighting. Sound, designed by Paige Crawford, plugs in frequent gunshots, unaccompanied by any stage magic to show the effects of the shooting.

"Unworthy of Your Love" is often one of the highlights of the show. Here, it’s not. The weak voices and listless performances of Julianne Whitehead and Jack Allison render it forgettable. Charles Guiteau’s solo is often another highlight, and Kiernan Matts certainly makes it memorable here, but not in a good way. His overwrought yelling and look-at-me-do-high-kicks choreography in skin-tight leather pants goes so over the top that the song becomes the nadir of the show.

There are good elements in the show. Emily T. Kalat does wonderful movement work as an articulated doll and hits all the comedy in her role. John Coombs sounds wonderful when he sings and gives a heartfelt (if perhaps overwrought) monologue about work in a bottle factory. Stephen Devillers sounds great and scores dramatically in the climactic scene in the Texas book repository, in which Jeremy Cooper’s acting surpasses any other in the show. Lauren Rosenzweig’s turn in the ensemble can’t dim her star quality.

Annie Cook’s musical direction has gotten the cast to work in splendid harmony in multi-part vocal lines. Her keyboard playing is also spot-on. The accompanying woodwinds occasionally overpower, but the musical numbers sound good when the vocal range of a number matches that of the performer. That doesn’t always occur, with some fine singers (Joel W. Rose, for instance) sounding a little rough around the edges of a song’s range.

Director Michelle Davis hasn’t created a coherent concept that serves the material. A firmer hand might have ensured that the technical elements fully mesh with the concept and that performances all work on a more consistent level. There are things to like in this production, but more things to make one shake one’s head and wonder why. At least sightlines seem to be relatively good for a show with audience members seated on opposing sides of the theatre, but seat weariness arrives during the two intermissionless hours of the show.

Nightfall with Edgar Allan Poe, by Eric Coble
Saturday, April 22, 2017
When people talk about the pacing of a play, they generally refer to the speed with which the action proceeds. In the first act of New London’s production of "Nightfall with Edgar Allan Poe," we get a different kind of pacing, with actors roaming across the stage in a circular stream that comes close to causing nausea. This is particularly pronounced in the initial selection, in which the poem "The Raven" is declaimed primarily by the constantly roaming Amara Alford, Jake Pillsbury, and J. Blair Sanders. Charles Bohanan, as Poe, and Charles Pillsbury, manipulating the red-eyed raven puppet, have less movement and therefore come across as more steady in the narration.

Second up is "The Fall of the House of Usher," and movement increases to surround the audience, with the crypt of Madelaine (Alicia Owens) in back by the sound/light booth. Sound and light effects in Scott Piehler’s design underline the creepy, rainy, dank atmosphere of the piece. Charles Bohanan continues in his role as the Poe surrogate/author, while Robbie Summerour takes on the role of the haunted Roderick Usher.

The two pieces in the short first act are followed by two pieces in the second act. Movement in "The Pit and the Pendulum" is severely limited, as Sante (the scarred and bruised Nathaniel Lilly, in terrific makeup by Ariana Wu) is imprisoned in a dungeon while Poe (Robbie Summerour) narrates his story. The set works wonderfully well in this sequence, with bloody handprints on a wall and light and motion effects suggesting the heat and claustrophobia of Sante’s imprisonment.

Last up is "The Tell-Tale Heart," with Evette Collier-Bell effectively navigating a descent into madness as servant to Charles Pillsbury, whose delivery and word choice suggest a fair amount of improvisation. Two police officers (Jake Pillsbury and Alicia Owens) facilitate the ending of the piece. The set, which has featured three wall panels in scarlet and brown throughout, is particularly appropriate here, with removable wood panels on the side of a bedstead standing in for the floorboards in the original story. Props (by Windi Key) and costumes (by Dawn Berlo) help maintain the period feel in this and the other stories.

New London’s production (its last mainstage adult production, at least in this performance space) adequately conveys the gothic horror of four of Poe’s stories. Director Scott Piehler has done all he can to create a spooky atmosphere and to keep action fluid. The fact that the production doesn’t land more solidly is due partly to the thin script and partly to the inexperience of some cast members. For a Poe fan, though, it’s definitely worth a visit.

The Cemetery Club, by Ivan Menchell
Club Dead
Saturday, April 8, 2017
Laughter through tears. That’s the emotion evoked by Ivan Menchell’s "The Cemetery Club" (at least in the second act; in the first act it’s more tears caused by laughter). Four deftly sketched characters meet at a Jewish cemetery to visit the graves of their dead spouses, and we follow them through a couple of autumn months.

Chuck Welcome’s set is as lovely as ever, with Ida’s living room, featuring a dark wood floor, taking up two-thirds of the stage. The other third is taken up by a portion of the cemetery, with three gravestones, a brick wall, and Astroturf and fallen leaves, backed by projections of trees and autumn leaves. A few branches are suspended above the playing space, completing the look. There’s a bit of sloppiness in the painting of a picture rail in the living room and in the brickwork on one side of the wall, but nothing that detracts from the action.

And the action is consistently entertaining. Sweet Ida (Ann Wilson), no-nonsense Doris (Hannah Lowther), and flirtatious Lucille (Karen Whitaker) have gotten into the habit of monthly visits to the cemetery. Their interplay keeps things hopping. When they encounter Sam (Frank Roberts), hints of romance loom. When he brings Mildred (Kathleen McCook) to a friend’s wedding, the romance seems to fade, then comes back in full force. Add in an unexpected death and the show ends on a bittersweet note.

The production features delightful costumes by Jim Alford, numerous wigs by George Deavours that vary with the demands of the script, and Kathy Ellsworth’s spot-on props. In Rial Ellsworth’s sound design, scene changes feature music selections that cue off the script and underline the emotions evoked by the script. J.D. Williams’ lighting design similarly underlines the needs of the script. When all elements of a production work together so well, it’s the director (Dina Shadwell) who deserves a lion’s share of the credit.

Ms. Shadwell has elicited wonderful performances from her cast, aided by the clear delineation of character present in Mr. Menchell’s script. Ann Wilson’s Ida is vulnerable and kind and immediately captures the audience’s heart, in one of the finest performances of the year. Ms. Whitaker and Ms. Lowther get more of the laugh-out-loud lines, but they also gain the audience’s sympathy as the plot unwinds. Mr. Roberts underplays with a gentle sweetness that contrasts with Ms. McCook’s brassiness, making it clear that the relationship between Sam and Mildred is a match made far from heaven. Blocking keeps things moving (in both the physical and emotional senses), giving the entire audience clear sightlines up until the end (when a flat gravestone marker downstage is obscured to some; but the leaf-covered marker is a brilliant design choice).

"The Cemetery Club" has been around for a number of years, but still seems fresh in Stage Door’s production. Kudos to Dina Shadwell, the cast, and the production team for bringing an old favorite back to vibrant life.

Strait of Gibraltar, by Andrea Lepcio
A Message Play
Saturday, April 8, 2017
Love at first sight between a Jew and a Muslim. A Jewish woman who happens to have written a full-length book in school discussing the Jewish state of Israel. A Muslim man whose soccer connections implicate him in a terrorist cell. The lesbian predicament that involves them in a suspect financial transaction. All point to a playwright who has attempted to overstuff her plot with hot-button issues that will improve its chances of getting produced. Synchronicity’s production of "Strait of Gibraltar" proves that the strategy worked.

The action takes place on Elizabeth Jarrett’s modular set, with screens, bookcases, and window and door units reconfigured to suggest the various locations required by the script, occasionally dressed by Elisabeth Cooper’s props. Long scene changes are covered by Kevin Frazier’s sound selections and Amanda Sachtlieben’s montage-like projections. Kevin Frazier’s lights come up in slightly different configurations for each of the scenes. It’s all professional, but slightly ponderous. The first act starts to drag before its cliffhanger ending.

Rachel May has directed the show with a surfeit of humorless sincerity. The role of a Jewish mother is played by Kathleen Wattis with no hint of the comedy inherent in the writing. Other casting problems exist. Tripp (a lawyer whose nickname derives from the "III" after his name) is played by black actor Brian Smith, which makes little sense when the stereotypically prejudiced mother indicates without irony that her daughter should be romantically involved with him instead of a Muslim. Double-casting of Mr. Smith and Suehyla El-Attar in diametrically opposed roles in back-to-back scenes causes initial confusion as scenes start, with no help from Hollis Smith’s nondescript costumes.

Performances of the leads are quite good. Benjamin Dewitt Sims, as the Muslim Sameer, is completely believable throughout and gives a nicely calibrated performance. Maggie Birgel, as the Jewish Miriam, fills her role with great grace, even knitting as she delivers her lines. The final moment of the play lands with a thud, though, with the optimism of the moment in complete contrast to the bureaucratic terror that has wreaked havoc in the lives of the characters in the second act. Attempting to layer a human love story on top of the polemics the play examines ultimately doesn’t fly.

Changing Tides, by Kathryn May
Get There Early
Saturday, April 8, 2017
The best part of "Changing Tides" occurs before the play begins. Cast members, who all portray Roman gods, are arranged in poses on museum-like pedestals in the lobby, in front of the stage, and outside the entry doors to the theatre. With the colorful costumes and metallic makeup on the actors, it makes for a stunning display. But they are led off their perches ten minutes before curtain. And then the play begins.

The plot, such as it is, starts with Jupiter looking into a basin on Mount Olympus and seeing the world below in the reign of Emperor Constantine, after Constantine has converted the Roman Empire to Christianity. The Roman gods feel their power weakening as sacrifices are no longer made to them. One by one, they deliver monologues discoursing on how Jesus has surpassed them in their realms, then leave the stage. Two self-choreographed dancers (Omari Joseph and Imani Joseph) remove the character’s corresponding chair and faux marble column from their position onstage to musical underscoring.

The impetus for the play stems from director/playwright Kathryn May’s fascination with Greek and Roman mythology that factored into several school projects through the years, culminating in a college production of a previous version of the play for her combined history/theatre majors. The play clearly shows its origins, coming across primarily as a lesson on the Roman gods and the points made in a high school essay comparing those gods to Jesus. There are some confrontations among the gods, but the tone overall is elegiac rather than dramatic.

The middle school-like atmosphere is underlined by the pronunciation of the goddess Ceres’ name as one syllable ("Sears") instead of two. That’s the sort of pronunciation error made by a student whose knowledge comes strictly from books. That the actors themselves didn’t catch this is bad enough, but that the playwright/director didn’t is unforgivable. At least the pronunciation is consistent. But consistently wrong doesn’t equal right.

Ms. May has blocked the show to provide fairly good sightlines, although twelve columns and chairs onstage can sometimes cause seated upstage actors to be obscured to some parts of the audience. All actors rise when giving speeches of significant length, so nothing crucial is missed.

The actors all do creditable jobs, with the men generally more impressive than the women. Jessica Wise (Juno), Ashley Powers (Minerva), and Halley Tiefert (Diana) don’t make much of an impression. Malikah McHerrin-Cobb comes across as weak in a Marilyn Monroe-sort of way initially, but ends her performance with a heartfelt monologue that rings perfectly true. April Singley (Ceres) is strong throughout when speaking, but doesn’t always react facially to the action around her.

Marcus Hopkins-Turner (Jupiter) has the looks and bearing for his role, but tends to be slow and ponderous in giving his lines. Kyle Porter (Mercury) is the opposite, zipping through his lines and providing the small amount of humor and drive present in the performances. Benedetto Robinson (Pluto), Bradlee Kyle (Neptune), and John Grove (Mars) all create strong, consistent characters. Joseph Alexander (Apollo) is perfectly cast, with his handsome aquiline profile, and Cohen Bickley (Vulcan) invests his character with an empathetic depth.

Corey Giessen’s lighting design is fine, with nice hints of illumination inside the central bowl. Chales Bedell’s sound design is similarly subtle and unobtrusive. The simple set consists of a mottled gray backdrop and the aforementioned columns and chairs, which are of various styles. All would make for an above-average church pageant. As a theatre piece, it doesn’t hold sufficient interest.

The Legend of Georgia McBride, by Matthew Lopez
More an Anecdote Than a Legend
Thursday, March 23, 2017
"The Legend of Georgia McBride" tells the story of Casey (Nick Arapoglou), an Elvis impersonator in a failing Florida bar whose owner has decided to turn it into a drag bar. Unwillingly, Casey takes the birth state of his mother (Georgia) and the last name of the first girl he kissed (McBride) to come up with a drag name so that he can continue working. The fun comes from Casey being flung into an unfamiliar world and coming to find his footing as a drag artist. Since he hasn’t told his wife of his change in occupation, there’s a crisis in the making. Once his wife finds out, it’s a long, song-filled dénouement until his wife eventually comes around.

Mr. Arapoglou does a fine job in his role, with director Portia Krieger and choreographer Ricardo Aponte collaborating to make his initial attempts to lip sync an Edith Piaf performance a series of delightful comic moments. Once he gets more confident, the fun subsides a bit. The wigs and Deyah Brenner’s costumes show the same pattern, with some terrific initial looks soon replaced by more formless things that seem designed primarily to be easily slipped into and out of in the numerous costume changes the plot calls for in its montage sequences.

Leslie Taylor’s scenic design provides a small stage surrounded by a few cabaret tables on one half of the playing area and a backstage area of the bar on the other half. When the stage’s curtain is drawn aside, we get to see into the apartment shared by Casey and his wife Jo (Falashay Pearson). There’s also a neat double door stage left that hinges to show first the alley entrance to the bar and then a motel room’s door. One clever touch is the bar shelves around the stage that feature album covers that change when the bar transitions from Elvis to drag.

Joseph P. Monaghan III’s lighting design and Preston Goodson’s sound design do all they need to accompany the "book" scenes, and also the "stage" scenes that feature flashy lip sync routines. Courtney Greever-Fries props likewise fulfill all the needs of the script. The only thing missing is use of the bubble machine that Miss Tracy Mills (Jeff McKerley) orders during the course of the show.

Mr. McKerley inhabits his role completely, wringing every bit of comedy from the role. His initial wig and outfit are very flattering, but his next wig and several of his outfits are pretty much a mess. Costume changes seem to have been programmed in at every possible juncture, even when they don’t further the action in any way.

The supporting performances aren’t as noteworthy as those of Messrs. Arapoglou and McKerley. Al Stilo, as bar owner Eddie, and Ms. Pearson, as Casey’s wife Jo, both give fairly straightforward line readings, although Ms. Pearson gets many of the best laugh-out-loud lines. The final actor, Thandiwe DeShazor, plays both drag diva Rexy and landlord Jason, which I found a bit confusing. These performances are likely to strengthen as the run continues.

"The Legend of Georgia McBride" is one of the "hot" properties these days in regional theatre, and it’s entertaining enough in a predictable sort of way. Jeff McKerley and Nick Arapoglou are well-cast and perform their roles with relish. Portia Krieger has directed a production that is likely to continue the string of hits Actor’s Express has produced this season.

The Foreigner, by Larry Shue
Comedy Tonight
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Lionheart Theatre Company’s production of "The Foreigner" hits all the comic highlights in Larry Shue’s script and adds a few along the way. Director Scott King has formed the talented, well-cast members of his cast into a formidable ensemble that work together beautifully. The action takes place in a lovely set designed by Tanya Moore, complete with windows and stonework that truly give the feel of a backwoods Georgia bed-and-breakfast. Gary White’s lighting and Bob Peterson’s sound design complement the action without being intrusive, fading in lightning and rain sound effects as people enter from outside.

Accents are good across the board, with Billy Woods’ cockney as Froggy LeSueur and Grant Carden’s standard English as Charlie Baker contrasting with the Southern accents used by the rest of the cast. Costumes, by Lyn Farraiolo and Tiffany Broxton, also help to distinguish nationality and social position.

Performances are all strong. Amy Szymanski is a bundle of energy as Betty Meeks, in direct contrast to her complaints that she’s doing poorly. Rebecca Winker Spring is an unbridled force of nature as Catherine Simms, while Bridger Trent is all sweet befuddlement as her brother Ellard Simms. Jackson C. Trent is thoroughly convincing as slick Rev. David Marshall Lee and contrasts nicely with James H. Burke’s superstitious bigot Owen Musser. Billy Woods’ cheery and sometimes sardonic delivery fits Froggy beautifully, and Grant Carden makes Charlie a thoroughly sympathetic character.

Mr. King has blocked the action to keep sightlines clear and to keep things moving right along. A few lines have been changed to reflect set dressing, but mostly the existing lines are turned with an extra comic edge. Even at the climactic scene, when a Ku Klux Klan invasion has taken place, things are played for obvious comedy, draining suspense from the scene. But when there’s this much comedy going on, who needs anything else?

The Bridges of Madison County, by Marsha Norman (book) & Jason Robert Brown (songs)
Superb Singing
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
"The Bridges of Madison County" was an immensely popular book, a less popular movie, and an even less successful Broadway musical. That’s not to say that the quality of the work suffered in each iteration. The book was hastily written, while the movie adaptation starred the meticulously prepared Meryl Streep. And the musical features a lush, romantic score by Jason Robert Brown.

At the Aurora Theatre, the action takes place on a stage whose main set pieces are made of conjoined window and door frames. There’s a fixed house-shaped piece in the background and two sections on wheels that can pivot to form walls and a bridge. Kitchen and bedroom units roll on as needed, as do fence sections to suggest a state fair. Before the start of the show, clotheslines hold fluttering sheets and curtains behind a rolling frame containing strings of photos. Set designer Julie Allardice Ray probably thought the fluttering of the curtains was a nice, outdoorsy touch, but the draft on the necks of audience members is anything but welcome on a chilly day. I also heard an audience member behind me comment that the pivoting of the wheeled sections in Angie Harris’s so-called "choreography" was "distracting," and I can’t disagree. Rocky horizon lines on the side flats and in the background do not evoke Iowa in the least. The set is a disappointment.

On the other side of things, Kevin Frazier’s lighting design is ravishing. There are a lot of sunset colors on display, and they enhance the dreamy, romantic atmosphere of the script. The effects are always subtle and spot-on.

Daniel Pope’s sound design, on the other hand, positions itself for failure. The sound mix is fine (but LOUD) when microphones are turned on, but there were several instances at the performance I attended when mics were turned on late, causing actors’ initial words to disappear into the ether. The band’s performance under the musical direction of Ann-Carol Pence is up to the usual high standards of the theatre, although I think I did detect one isolated clunker note on the piano.

Costumes, designed by Linda Patterson, and props, designed by Suzanne Cooper Morris, do a good job of setting the scene in 1965 Iowa. The character of Robert Kincaid (Travis Smith) is described as a hippie, though, and his hair and costume look too reminiscent of the current day to make that description ring true. One small costuming choice could have made a big difference.

Acting is good across the board, although the apprentice company ensemble members don’t make much of an impression. But, oh!, what an impression Kristin Markiton makes in the central role of Francesca Johnson. Her look and her accent (dialect coaching by Marianne Fraulo) smack of authentic Italian, and her voice is simply gorgeous. When it blends with that of Mr. Smith, the effect is glorious. And the acting is the equal of the voices.

Powerful singing also comes from Matt Lewis as Francesca’s husband and from Rob Cleveland and Valerie Payton as a neighbor couple. Rhyn Mclemore Saver’s voice and dancing skills also impress. All roles are filled capably.

Justin Anderson has directed a show that translates the romance of the late Robert James Waller’s novel into palpable form on the stage. It’s not to everyone’s taste (I heard that lady behind me describe the score as "too operatic"), but the sincerity of the performances and the beauty of the singing must be appreciated. Jason Robert Brown’s score for "The Bridges of Madison County" can be considered a masterpiece, and Aurora is doing it justice.

The Velocity of Autumn, by Eric Coble
Fall Fell Fast
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
The two-hander "The Velocity of Autumn" takes place in the second-floor apartment of elderly Alexandra (Dianne Butler), who has decided to stock up on Molotov cocktails to resist the attempts of her children to remove her to a retirement home. The set, designed by Bob Whaley, has a blocked-off entry door to the apartment at stage left and a window at stage right, flanking what apparently is the door to a fairly narrow kitchen. The apartment number is 2, suggesting that the apartment takes up the entire second floor, but the layout makes sense only if the floor is split into multiple apartments. That said, the set is nicely constructed, with a leafless tree outside the window in full view throughout the show.

Bradley Rudy’s lighting design starts with dappled shadows on the walls of the set, light pouring through the window to paint shadows on the floor. Once the play gets going, there are no lighting effects needed. The design, though, beautifully transitions lighting at the beginning and end to sweeten the initial and final moments.

The longish play takes place without an intermission. The storyline follows the discussions between the elderly woman, an artist, and her long-estranged gay son (John Stanier) as he attempts to persuade her to leave the apartment. There’s a lot of baggage to deal with before the sentimental ending arrives.

Carolyn S. Choe has directed the play to have a variety of movement and to keep the momentum going. The acting is good, with Mr. Stanier showing range and nuance in his reactions. Ms. Butler has created more of a one-note performance, and I found her bouncy ponytail and broad Midwestern vowels a bit grating. Still, Eric Coble’s story comes across strong and clear.

Family dynamics between a recalcitrant mother and her black sheep son are ripe territory for drama, while the fading faculties of the mother provide ground for occasional sparks of comedy. "The Velocity of Autumn" goes by smoothly, its drama leavened by comedy and sentimentality, but it does not leave an indelible memory.

Exit Strategy, by Ike Holter
Exeunt All
Thursday, March 9, 2017
Ike Holter’s "Exit Strategy" examines the dynamics of leadership at a Chicago high school headed for demolition at the end of the school year. There’s a great deal of comedy mixed in with the underlying stress and anguish, and there’s also an awful lot of swearing. All the mouths in the cast seem to belong to potty-mouthed millennials, even those of the older characters. It doesn’t necessarily ring true, but it makes for viscerally exciting entertainment.

John Dillon has directed the actors to speak over one another in rapid-fire rhythm. That means some words get lost in the shuffle, but the emotion comes through strong. The cast is by and large excellent, with Tess Malis Kincaid and Lau’rie Roach particular standouts as a jaded teacher and a motivated student respectively. Among the teachers, William S. Murphey and Diany Rodriguez do their usual fine work, and Tracey N. Bonner proves their equal. Ralph Del Rosario comes across as a bit manic initially, but manages to convey some real emotion as time goes by. Matthew Busch, as a thirtyish administrator, creates a nebbishy character whose arc propels the play to its conclusion.

Technical elements are generally excellent. Sydney Roberts’ costume design meets all the demands of the script, especially for Mr. Roach, and Mary Parker’s lighting design and Johanna Melamed’s sound design enhance the set changes required in the set design of Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay, from administrator’s office to teacher’s lounge to fenced construction zone. The only off element is unrealistically smudged blue paint on door jambs and cabinets in the teacher’s lounge.

True Colors Theatre Company is presenting an excellent production of "Exit Strategy" that papers over some of the thinness of the script with snappy exchanges and fluid stage movement. It’s the type of production that leaves an audience giddy with the joy of having seen a strong theatrical presentation, with little regard to how the sensation may or may not last as time passes.

The Temple Bombing, by Jimmy Maize
"Driving Miss Daisy" + "Parade" + Fact
Thursday, March 9, 2017
The 1958 bombing of The Temple on Peachtree Street in Atlanta is a footnote in history. No one was injured, and similar synagogue bombings occurred in other southern states during the same time period. The author of "The Temple Bombing" (director Jimmy Maize, with input from the ten-person cast) seems to have realized this, so more seminal events are brought into the mix, namely the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank and the civil rights movement. The impacts of the bombing and the lynching are more powerfully portrayed in "Driving Miss Daisy" and the musical "Parade."

That’s not to say that there isn’t any power in the story presented onstage. The dramatic highlight occurs during the testimony of rabbi’s wife Janice Rothschild (Caitlyn O’Connell) at the trial of accused bomber George Bright (Eric Mendenhall), when she is subjected to the over-the-top courtroom shenanigans of defense lawyer Reuben Barland (Ric Reitz). Mostly, though, the play comes across as a fast-moving history lesson.

The production is overblown, which seems to be a hallmark of Alliance productions. Meredith Ries’ two-story set uses scrim walls upstage to allow views of the hole blasted in The Temple’s wall at times and to show Daavid Bengali’s projections of shadows and newspaper headlines at other times. Jake DeGroot’s lighting design puts endless arrays of lights onstage that sometimes shine into the audience’s eyes, and Kendall Simpson’s sound design amplifies lighting effects for the bombing and for photographers’ flashbulbs. It’s all done professionally, although at one point a shaky or flickering spotlight illuminated the splendid Ann Marie Gideon on the second story of the set at the performance I attended.

The acting is professional too, although Minka Wiltz seems to stumble on her lines in many of the characters she portrays. Sydney Roberts’ costume design helps to establish the time periods and to accessorize the ensemble as they briefly take on a variety of personages. Still, the stunt casting of having ensemble members cross gender and racial lines to portray different real-life people becomes tiresome after a while.

"The Temple Bombing" was created in response to an initiative to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of The Temple, and it smacks a bit of a vanity production. The Jewish history of Atlanta is long and varied, but this play’s emphasis on the civil rights agenda of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild (Todd Weeks) focuses the history in a specific direction that attempts to broaden its impact, but has the converse effect of minimizing the contributions of Atlanta’s Jewish community.

9 to 5: The Musical, by Songs by Dolly Parton, Book by Patricia Resnick
Office Drudgery
Thursday, March 9, 2017
The plot of the musical "9 to 5" makes its point of female empowerment through less than admirable means. A group of pot-smoking secretaries gain revenge on their sexist boss by kidnapping and holding him hostage and are ultimately rewarded with love and promotions and respect. The movie was a hit in its time; the musical not so much. Its score by Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick’s book’s general adherence to the movie have given it a continuing life in community theatre.

Onstage Atlanta is presenting a creditable version of this musical. It has engaging performers in its major roles (Jennifer Morse as Violet, Courtney Loner as Judy, Misty Barber Tice as Doralee, and Zip Rampy as Hart), and generally fine performances by the ensemble. Harley Gould’s set makes good use of the stage, using right angles in the walls to allow for the maximum possible playing space and to accommodate a fold-out section representing Hart’s bedroom. Otherwise, the set furnishings and Bobbie Elzey’s excellent props represent office furniture, with non-office scenes mostly just suggested. Good use, however, is made of auditorium doors to suggest entries to an emergency room and to the office stairwell.

Ty Autry’s energetic choreography keeps things active, and Nancye Quarles Hilley’s costumes set the scene in the 1980’s. Paul Tate’s musical direction gets the band and ensemble to work well together, but projection is occasionally a problem with solo singers. Part of this seems due to the vocal ranges of Violet and Judy being lower than the sweet soprano voices of Ms. Morse and Ms. Loner. This is a belt-voice score, so there’s not a lot of vocal loveliness to be had other than in a sweet duet between Ms. Morse and Loren Collins as accountant Joe. Misty Barber Tice, though, sells her numbers beautifully and comes across as the standout of the show.

Elisabeth Cooper has directed things to maintain a nice flow and to get all her performers to create strong characters. Ms. Morse has delightful stage presence as Violet, and Mr. Rampy mixes his chauvinist shenanigans with enough comedy to keep him on the borderline of being endearing. Lisa Gordon gets all the comedy out of her minor role as Margaret the lush, and Laura Gronek mixes superb dance skills and confident characterization in the small role of Kathy. Amy L. Levin impresses with both her dance skills and with her cameo role as a candy striper. John Jenkins’ energy in the opening number sparks the show to a strong start.

I can’t say anything about Tom Gillespie’s lighting design, other than he apparently didn’t make it spill-proof. The performance I attended was lit by unvarying fluorescent lights, since the light board malfunctioned and died just before the show was about to start. This really didn’t affect the reception of the show, and Dolly Parton’s filmed narration at the start and end of the show showed up just fine on an upstage screen.

"9 to 5: the Musical" capitalizes on the popularity of a movie whose appeal has faded somewhat with time. Someone I know who recently watched the movie again said it wasn’t nearly as good as they remembered it being. And something similar could be said for the musical. It relies on nostalgia for a hit movie rather than staking new territory, and suffers as a result.

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
Does Everybody Die?
Monday, February 27, 2017
Act3 Productions is presenting a version of Agatha Christie’s "And Then There Were None" that hews closely to the original story, as opposed to having the "Hollywood ending" usually seen in productions of the otherwise-named "Ten Little Indians." That makes this production a bit longer than most, and adds a bit of uncertainty as to ultimate outcome. Will there be any survivors?

The cast of eleven consists of Fred Narracott, a Devonshire boatman, in addition to the ten people invited to an isolated, rocky island to face their host’s charges of murder. The action takes place in a somewhat bare sitting room and its adjoining patio outside French doors. The set, designed by Brian Clements, is eminently workable, but shows little sense of style and appears somewhat sloppy in its construction, with the large stencils on the wall not lining up on the vertical and with seams between flats fairly obvious. Having just a blue drop outside the patio does not evoke the locale, and Ben Sterling’s sound design does not help, giving us no ocean sounds other than a boat horn. His music selections between scenes, though, are terrific at setting the time period and/or ratcheting up tension.

Lighting design, by David Reingold, has a couple of fairly effective moments with lightning and shadows, but tends toward the murky. This murkiness was pronounced at the performance I attended, when a major light illuminating stage left seemed to blink off early (and permanently) in the first act. This made a costuming choice involving a bath curtain and skein of wool totally invisible to my eyes. Otherwise, costumes (designed by Alyssa Jackson) work relatively well, particularly in setting the time period. One catty line about a dress being tight doesn’t ring true, however, due to the dress in question being just as shapeless as the one worn by the person uttering the line. Younger men wearing hats indoors for extended periods at the start of the show also doesn’t quite ring true for the period, which is likewise true of the unkempt hairstyle of Alex Burcar as Anthony Marston and the stubble on Gwydion Calder’s face as Philip Lombard.

Amy Cain Lucas has blocked the action to keep sightlines clear and to allow steady movement across the stage. Manipulation of the ten statuettes on the fireplace mantle stage left is done masterfully, as statuettes (and characters) meet their end, one by one. One nice pre-show touch is having the servants (Toby Smallwood and Jessica Hiner) enter repeatedly to set out props in preparation for the soon-to-be-arriving guests.

All the actors have clearly defined characters in which they appear confident. Interactions in the first act are sometimes a bit sluggish, but tension builds in the next two acts, with the performances growing stronger by those actors whose characters manage to stay alive the longest. Everyone manages a British accent, all but one to an acceptable degree. Paul Milliken, as William Blore, gives a strong, charismatic performance, but doesn’t seem to have grasped that a British accent requires more than sprinkling British word pronunciations into American speech patterns. Still, this is an excellent ensemble cast who bring Agatha Christie’s characters to life, at least until those lives are snuffed out, one by one.

A Kid Like Jake, by Daniel Pearle
Jakey Script, Good Production
Monday, February 27, 2017
Out Front Theatre Company’s production of "A Kid Like Jake" takes place across multiple locations in New York City -- the apartment of married couple Greg (Justin Dilley) and Alex (Lauren Megan McCarthy), the schoolroom of friend Judy (Lisa Boyd), a doctor’s examination room, and a restaurant. Michael Murphy’s set design fits these all onto the wide stage with style. The apartment’s living room is on a raked platform in the center, with tapered ribs of its supports spilling onto the stage floor. Walls are just suggested by framing (although a couple of real doors exist), with butterfly artwork nicely mirrored in the schoolroom stage left as children’s drawings and in the examination room stage right as a print. Light fixtures of various styles hang above the various locations. Charles Swift’s lighting design delineates the various locations and projects suggestions of a New York City skyline on the cyclorama.

Atmosphere is also provided by John Burke’s incidental music, consisting mostly of solo piano. Sound design by Paul Conroy and Jacob Demlow also enhances the production, with nice phone and restaurant effects. Stephanie Carter’s costume design, while largely restricted to modern-day styles, does a good job of allowing quick changes from scene to scene. Myriad props, controlled by property mistress Allison Bennett, make each suggested location supremely realistic.

Staging and acting are as professional as the physical production is. Lisa Boyd is completely natural as teacher Judy, offering advice in her soothing voice in early scenes, yet holding her own as tensions rise in later scenes. Kasie Marie Slay, in the small roles of a nurse and a dream Snow White, holds her own too. The performances of Ms. McCarthy and Mr. Dilley drive the show, and their interactions are fluid under Paul Conroy’s direction. The conflicting parenting styles they embody emerge organically from their performances, with a riveting dramatic flow rising to hurtful shouting matches as the play heads toward its conclusion.

The conclusion of the play is hardly conclusive. Mr. Pearle’s script seems to lose direction a bit in a Snow White dream sequence, and the only true resolution seems to be that the unseen Jake has entered analysis to help deal with his gender and anger issues. After nearly two intermissionless hours, the ending comes none too soon. Still, the journey up to the dream sequence has been engrossing, bringing us into the lives of two somewhat befuddled parents whose child does not conform to societal gender norms.

Closer, by Patrick Marber
Farther Apart Over Time
Monday, February 27, 2017
Patrick Marber’s "Closer" tells the story across several years of four heterosexual Londoners who take on almost every possible sexual combination and recombination (minus girl-on-girl action). Obviously, the success of a production relies on the sexual chemistry among the cast members. Since one half of the cast is older than the other half, this is a bit tricky, given how society views older woman/younger man relationships as outside the norm. Here, things don’t work in all combinations, even given the casting of real-life husband and wife Patrick Young and Janie Young as the younger couple.

The script sets each new scene in a new location, which poses a challenge to the tiny Onion Man stage, even though the downstage edge of the stage has been extended to create more playing space. Set design by James Beck and Patrick Young meets the challenge by using the entire upstage space for furniture storage, bringing forward the pieces needed for each scene, repurposing many to indicate different locales. The most clever re-use is a square white platform that gets tilted on one edge to serve as a projection screen for a couple of scenes.

James Beck’s lighting and sound design enhance the production. Red lights gently illuminate the upstage section of the stage, making for a nice pre-show effect. Each scene is illuminated more evenly than I have come to expect at Onion Man. Julie Slonecki’s musical score covers the many scene changes, and background noises subtly help to set some of the public locations. Costumes by the cast and crew work well for each character, with Ms. Young’s costumes the most flamboyant.

Director James Beck, assisted by Jennica Hill and Jillian Walzer, has created a nice flow for the production, making good use of the stage and getting the actors to hit all the emotional moments needed. That’s not to say that every moment works. Mr. Marber’s script requires the actors to shift affections multiple times during the course of the show, and it tends to become more schematic than organic as time goes by (and a lot of time goes by in this relatively long production).

Playing a randy dermatologist, Gregory Fitzgerald is a wonder, milking the comedy of his initial scenes, while succeeding equally in the more dramatic scenes that follow. Melissa Rainey projects great sincerity and likeability in her role as a photographer, but doesn’t click the camera like a sure-handed pro and doesn’t exude a sexiness that makes sense of all the plot’s romances. Janie Young is quite good as the damaged stripper Alice, although a few more quirks might have added depth to her portrayal. Patrick Young is a disappointment as an obituary writer and failed novelist, with an iffy English accent and a lack of nuance and range to cover all the wide-ranging behaviors of his character. This four-hander play requires phenomenal performances that Onion Man’s production can’t fully provide.

"Closer" is definitely adult material, but the shock value of some scenes alternates with less viscerally exciting stuff, leading one audience member to marvel that he started drifting off in the midst of all the sexual edginess. The play is longer and less cleverly plotted than would be needed to come across as much more than an extended acting exercise. There’s worthwhile work to be seen onstage, but the play isn’t as mesmerizing as it might be in the hands of world-class actors.

Last Round-Up of the Guacamole Queens, by Jessica Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten
Another Jones-Hope-Wooten Piece of Froth
Monday, February 27, 2017
"Last Round-Up of the Guacamole Queens" takes place as the local high school is about to be demolished. In light of this, the Verdeen cousins are helping to plan a big blow-out reunion for all classes, capped by crowning of an ultimate Guacamole Queen from among all the past winners of the title at the football Guacamole Bowls. Problems ensue, with a comic happy ending ensured.

This is not a particularly memorable entry into the Jones-Hope-Wooten canon, and Actors Theatre of Georgia has matched that with an unremarkable production. The set (design uncredited) works well, with three chairs suggesting a local TV talk show at stage right to start, a café at stage left, and a removable laundry table center left. After the first few scenes, action takes place mainly in the "Wide Bride" store, decorated with a lovely wedding dress (although it does not seem to be in an obviously plus size, as the store’s name would imply). Stephen Reilly’s light design delineates the multiple scenes, although it does so with a fair amount of bleed-over and with shadows on the faces of anyone sitting in the center of the sofa stage right in the bridal shop.

Mr. Reilly’s sound design provides the necessary effects and plays appropriately Texan music during scene changes. Costumes (uncredited) are quite good. On the technical side, the production is a step or two above the acceptable.

As competent as the technical elements is Pete Borden’s direction. Scene endings are nicely calibrated, the stage is used well, and the actors’ blocking lets everyone be seen and heard. The main performers are full of energy, so Mr. Borden has definitely inspired the cast to give their all. The pace is occasionally slow, but since the slowness is associated with certain actors, this is almost assuredly a deficiency in acting, not in direction.

And the deficiencies in acting are insurmountable. No one really surpasses the level of second-rate community theatre, and not all moments play out as the director must have desired. The skills of the minor actors often aren’t up to the challenges presented. The show starts with Marsha Fennell as TV host Cee Cee Windham, and her enthusiasm and energy had me thinking she might be the one truly bright spot in the production, but in act two she sputtered to a stop in the middle of a monologue and walked offstage, with the stage dead for interminable seconds until someone made a perfunctory entrance, then exited to leave the stage empty for additional interminable seconds until lights finally went out on the scene.

The single-sheet program provided for the production shows the fuzziness of images stretched beyond their original size and is littered with spelling and formatting errors. When you can’t get the month or director’s name spelled correctly, there’s a definite lack of attention to detail somewhere along the line. And when the overall production is as lackluster as this one is, it’s not only the proofreading that has been sub-par.

Having Our Say, by Emily Mann
...After We Learn Our Lines
Monday, February 27, 2017
Emily Mann’s "Having Our Say" nicely translates the real-life story of centenarians Sadie and Bessie Delany to the stage. While there are anecdotes that relate to the hardships faced by "coloreds" throughout the twentieth century, the show is far more a celebration of human life than a litany of racial woes. These were two remarkable women for any race or age.

The casting at Georgia Ensemble seems a bit backwards. Donna Biscoe looks older than Brenda Porter, it’s true, but Ms. Porter has an innate sweetness that works against the sourness of Bessie Delany, while Ms. Biscoe has a bit of bite that tempers the stated sweetness of Sadie Delany. Ms. Biscoe’s portrayal is the more successful, largely because the line bobbles that affect both actresses affect her less.

The script by Emily Mann and the direction of Andrea Frye give the sisters lots of stage business, as they perform lots of distracting food preparation. (Kudos, as usual, to McClare Park for her props.) There’s a lot of movement across the tri-level set, with the functional kitchen in the middle level on stage right and a parlor below and a dining room above on stage left. A fireplace in the dining room draws the eye, and projections of family photos appear above it.

Behind the set (designed by Stephanie Polhemus) an illuminated backdrop shows a couple of clouds in a blue, blue sky, with a horizon line of buildings positioned so low that it seems intended to be seen only from the balcony. Dusty Brown’s lighting occasionally dims the backdrop’s blueness for twilight or night effects, with stars twinkling. Unfortunately, a few of these twinkling stars bleed through as bright blips on the daytime clouds and sky. Not everyone will notice this, but I found it quite distracting.

Emmie Tuttle’s costumes are fine, and the wigs the actresses sport look far better on stage than they do in photos. Kaci Willis’ sound design sets the time periods nicely, although the pre-show music is a bit loud. The production shows the same level of professionalism as is usually seen at Georgia Ensemble.

The story of these remarkable ladies will hold more interest for some than for others. The elderly black woman behind me obviously saw parallels to her own life, as indicated by her frequent comments to her shushing daughter, while I noted a white man near me nodding off in the first act. Extended family stories don’t hold everyone’s attention, but the Delany sisters led lives that both reflect and transcend the constraints of the times they lived in. Only frequent stumbling over lines prevents this production from being more successful.

’Night Mother, by Marsha Norman
Suicide Countdown - 90 minutes
Monday, February 13, 2017
When a theatre company chooses to do a two-character show, they had better have two good actors lined up. Out of Box Theatre has that and more in its production of "’Night, Mother."

Will Brooks’ set design makes fine use of the limited space on Out of Box’s stage. A compact and functional kitchen takes up stage right, with bright red refrigerator and table set adding a splash of color. Stage left shows the living room, with a chair, sofa, and coffee table flanked by a few items that add a bit of character to the set. Windows are suggested by curtains on the black walls. A door exists up center.

Nina Gooch’s lighting design doesn’t need to do much except illuminate the set. That it does well, but it adds an effect at the end of the show that intensifies the emotion of the final moment. The soundscape (with sound design by Kiernan Matts) is wonderful for sounds that emanate from the stage, particularly in a heightened moment of silence, when the ticking of a kitchen clock is the only sound to be heard. The gunshot heard near the end of the show is not loud enough, though, to be as viscerally shocking as it needs to be.

Director Kirk S. Campbell has created a beautifully calibrated dramatic flow to the show, with fluid blocking and peaks and valleys of emotion. Leigh-Ann Campbell does a wonderful job of keeping the show moving as she performs a kitchenload of stage business, bringing life to the non-stereotypically suicidal character of Jessie. Carolyn S. Choe is splendid as her mother, mining all the emotions of a mother navigating the minefield of a suicide discussion. It’s a sober, engrossing, supremely theatrical tour-de-force that tears at the heart. Well done by all.

Wedding Secrets, by Joe Starzyk
Farcical Fun Is No Secret
Monday, February 13, 2017
Joe Starzyk’s "Wedding Secrets," the 2012 winner of the McLaren Memorial Playwriting Competition, interweaves five love stories that take place as a young couple arrives at the groom’s parents’ house for an engagement dinner weekend. They’ve had a whirlwind courtship, and the groom’s mother is a bit bent out of shape. She tries to sabotage their relationship. But she and her husband have their own relationship problems, as do the brides’ parents, the bride’s sister, the bride’s mother’s sister, and the groom’s mother’s brother. Since this is a comedy, all the problems work themselves out as they should.

Set design by Tanya Caldwell, Tim Scruggs, Carla Scruggs, and Jason Caldwell makes good use of the space. The pastel green and purple walls flow artistically into various hallways, and the dining table stage right and the living room furniture stage left work nicely to provide seating for the large cast. Ms. Caldwell’s blocking keeps everyone in sight at all times.

Gary White’s lighting design ably suggests the daytime and nighttime scenes, with a nifty lightning effect through the curtained window. Bob Peterson’s sound design fits the play well, although the volume was too low at the performance I attended. Props by Glory Hanna and costumes by Rebecca Knoff and Tina Barnhill populate the play quite naturally.

Performances are what really count in a farce like this. Lionheart regulars fill many of the major roles, and they are all at the top of their game. Joe McLaughlin creates a likeably conflicted father of the groom, while his real-life wife Debbie gives a nice barbed edge to her portrayal of the groom’s mother. Jerry Knoff and Marla Krohn do fine work as the bride’s parents, and Heather Knapp (Mr. Knoff’s real-life daughter) invests her role as the bride’s sister with tons of comic teen-age energy.

Newcomers to the Lionheart stage are more of a mixed bag. Ryan Shepard is stiff as Ms. Knapp’s love interest, and Ryan Ricks and Rebecca Winker Spring certainly look the part of a lanky couple in love, but don’t come across as totally natural in their roles, with Mr. Ricks’ lack of projection a particular problem. Brittany Walker is more successful as the bride’s aunt (even resembling Ms. Spring), and Tina M. Barnhill seems to be having a blast portraying four minor roles. The real standout, though, is Raleigh Wade as Joey, a man who takes on the persona of the lead character of whatever TV show or movie he has just viewed. It’s a role that requires comic timing, leading man looks, and virtuosic command of accents. Mr. Wade delivers on all counts.

"Wedding Secrets" has a lot of plot threads flowing through it, and going gets a little slow in parts of the first act. Some relationships are given relatively short shrift, with the bride’s parents in particular moving from estrangement to rekindled romance in little more than a heartbeat. But the whole show goes down easy, and Ms. Caldwell has directed a comedy that gets plenty of laughs and provides plenty of entertainment.

Coming Apart, by Fred Carmichael
Falling to Pieces
Monday, February 13, 2017
It can only get better. On opening night, Centerstage North’s "Coming Apart" lacked pace and line stumbles predominated. Add in a lack of chemistry and a lack of nuance, factor in distracting music underscoring and late light cues (notably audience lights at intermission), and you end up with a performance everyone might have wished was an initial run-through.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a married pair of two equally successful writers who both blurt out "I want a divorce" at the same time. Neither can believe the other expressed such a sentiment. As they go through a six-month waiting period before proceeding with the divorce, they re-examine salient moments of their relationship. This is a comedy, and a happy ending is assured.

The set is lovely, with a living room stage left, an agent’s office stage right, and a location center stage that is used for bar and picnic scenes. John Lisle’s lighting cues are designed (somewhat clumsily) to follow actors as they transition from one side of the stage to the other, with direct address to the audience the norm as they enter the central space.

Addressing the audience directly is problematic in the production. It’s understandable when lights change for extended monologues or when conversation is peppered with asides. That’s not how they’re introduced in the production. The first couple of times in the show (and several times thereafter), the effect is jarring when lines that would otherwise appear to be part of the conversation are directed straight downstage. With no accompanying light change, it seems very stagey and strange.

The show has scenes repeated from two different perspectives (those of Fran and Colin, the couple headed toward divorce). These repeated scenes are also problematic. The actress playing Fran (Ginny Slifcak) shows different personality traits in the scenes NOT from her perspective, but the actor playing Colin (Brad Rudy) doesn’t manage to do so, or at least not convincingly. That makes the repetition boring rather than charming.

Jerry Jobe and Cheryl Baer play smaller roles that don’t call for much range. Ms. Baer plays a supportive writer’s agent and Mr. Jobe plays a tippling friend. They are thrown together into a largely offstage relationship for purposes of the plot. They’re generally fine in their roles, but on opening night shared the overriding sense of tentativeness that overwhelmed the show.

Director Calvin Wickham has to take major responsibility for the state of the show on opening night. It seemed under-rehearsed, and he doesn’t seem to have inspired his cast to create fully formed characters. Mr. Rudy in particular plays his role of a humor columnist with an unrelievedly over-the-top boisterousness that becomes grating. The cast gives the impression that they have been placed in the hands of a director who has let them down on all counts. Perhaps as the run continues they will get a better feel of their characters and relationships. It can only get better.

Godspell, by John Michael Tebelak (book) & Stephen Schwartz (songs)
Prepare Ye
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
"Godspell" is not my favorite musical. The book’s first act seems to me to be a jumble of parables that inevitably fall flat, even in the face of cast shenanigans to bring them to theatrical life. The second act has a more cogent storyline, but its focus on the last days of Christ’s life tends to the somber. It’s the songs that carry the show. That is, if they’re sung well.

At New London Theatre, the songs don’t help the show at all. "Prepare Ye" and "On the Willows" can be ravishingly beautiful, but not when they’re warbled off-pitch as they are here. Musical director Jean Bongiorno may not have had much raw talent to work with, but the end result is almost uniformly dreadful, with harmonies consistently flat. The exception is the first two numbers in the second act, which sound pretty good overall. No men sing in these selections, which seems to let the better voices in the cast prevail.

Director Scott Piehler sets the action on a trash-strewn stage, with a couple of distressed store sale banners posted on the back wall. Three low platforms are arrayed across the wide playing area, with the trash mostly confined to their perimeters. The ensemble members enter wearing choir robes, but soon discard them to appear in the wild, colorful garb typically associated with "Godspell." Lights occasionally change colors for effect, adding to the visual overload as action spills across the stage.

The generally wacky ensemble members (the effervescent Madi Bhey, the jovial Lucien Lockhart, the animated Jackson Greene, the statuesque Susan Kelsey, the perky Marie Violette, the bouncy Rebecca Rhodes, the sultry Beverly Harvey, and the pretty Catherine Gunn) are joined by Jesus (Joe Simpson) and John the Baptist (Dalton Titshaw, later taking on the role of Judas). Mr. Simpson is very low-key and soft-spoken, which tends to make him fade into the background instead of appearing as a counterpart to the more raucous ensemble. Mr. Titshaw has stage presence and dancing skills, but generally acts as an additional member of the ensemble.

With voices as marginal as many of those in the cast, Alexis Ruby’s energetic choreography is anything but a boon. Even the best voices sound winded after a choreographed number has gone on for a while. There are clever touches in the production, particularly some nice puppets, but they can’t overcome the overall feeling of a show drenched in flop sweat. Name tag lanyards are issued to the ensemble as their cell phones are confiscated at the start of the show (a clever directorial touch in concept, if not in execution). But is it intentional that they usually flip to the blank back side, preventing easy identification of individuals?

Troubadour, by Janece Shaffer (book) & Kristian Bush (songs)
Is It a Musical or a Play with Music?
Saturday, February 4, 2017
"Troubadour" tells the story of how the son of a famous country singer gains self-confidence, with the help of a stage-shy songwriter and a pushy immigrant tailor, in the days leading up to his father’s retirement. Kristian Bush’s catchy songs appear in the script in spots where these musicians are trying out or performing a song. Mr. Bush went to New York on a short trip to become more familiar with mainstream Broadway musical theatre, and decided that "Troubadour" was something different. It was conceived by book-writer Janece Shaffer as a play with a few songs that developed into a play with a LOT of songs.

Does it function as a play in which the songs exist only how they might in real life? No. Some spots feature the well-worn trope of a person picking up a lyric sheet and instantaneously singing and harmonizing with a melody they have never previously heard. Country songs have famously been described as being defined by a limited three-chord harmonic structure, but instant singing from a lyric sheet stretches believability. Add in a final number that clearly functions as the curtain call encore of a piece of musical theatre, and the boundary between "play with music" and "musical" has clearly been breached.

There’s a tension between the music, which does a fine job of reflecting the milieu of 1951 country music, and the book, which attempts to tell its story through the broad strokes of characterization that Ms. Shaffer seems to feel is required of musical theatre. None of the major characters in the plot ring true, with the father a stock, Bible-quoting villain and the leading lady turning from shy wallflower to Grand Old Opry performer in the blink of an eye. There’s a kiss from a pretty woman to the tailor near the end of the first act that functions in the plot only as a way to heighten tension before intermission. The kiss seems unmotivated and goes nowhere, suggesting that the book had been in a state of flux before opening and hasn’t yet reached a satisfying final form.

The physical production is thoroughly professional, with Todd Rosenthal’s revolving set working well for all the locations indicated in the script (although having call letters WFNN on the unmoving sides and back of the set is a bit jarring for a scene taking place in the WGAL radio studio). Ken Yunker’s lighting design perhaps has a bit too much spill, allowing glimpses of action outside the focus of the scene, but it provides all the necessary effects and pulls out all the stops at the end of the show. Clay Benning’s sound design keeps things audible, although there was at least one occasion I noted in which reverb seemed to be added on the transition from speaking to singing, which broke the illusion of real life. Lex Liang’s costumes contain several stunners, easily suggesting the transition in country music production values from homespun clothing to sparkles and spangles and sequins.

Director Susan V. Booth hasn’t managed to resolve the character discrepancies in Ms. Shaffer’s book, and she hasn’t paid attention to all the details of the production. This is most clearly seen in the performances of the members of the onstage band, who obviously were cast based on musical skills rather than acting skills. When they’re in bright light onstage, their lack of expressiveness dampens the effect of dramatic scenes, and the sight of Brandon Bush sitting in a radio station booth to the side of the stage and viewing the action onstage as a spectator breaks the fifth wall (assuming there is an invisible wall between the action onstage and cast members offstage, as well as the invisible fourth wall between actors and audience).

Aside from the band, performances are good. Radney Foster, in the role of Billy Mason, a famous country singer, is obviously not a trained actor, but acquits himself fairly well, albeit with line bobbles and an occasional lack of projection. Zach Seabaugh is attractive, both vocally and physically, as his son, but pales next to the scintillatingly sympathetic and silver-voiced performance of Sylvie Davidson as a shy songwriter. Andrew Benator is agreeable as the tailor, but there’s little sense of an innate drive within his striving character that would explain his actions. The most astounding performances come from Rob Lawhon and Bethany Anne Lind, who each play two different onstage characters and are completely believable (and unrecognizable as the same actor) in each.

"Troubadour" delivers entertainment through its music and its performances. The plot is heavy-handed in its portrayal of a father attempting to quash the dreams of his progeny, and combines the cliché of a shy wallflower turning into a performer with the story of a Russian immigrant whose motivations and romantic life remain a mystery. A far stronger story could be created with these elements, but Susan V. Booth lets the production fizzle into a pallid feel-good comedy.

Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Un Triomphe Extraordinaire
Saturday, February 4, 2017
Théâtre du Rêve’s production of "Le Petit Prince" brings the sweet light-heartedness and philosophical depth of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s story to sparkling life on the contour map of a set designed by Barrett Doyle and under the magical lighting of Alex Riviere’s design. With Jennifer Schottstaedt’s wonderful variety of costumes, Russ Vick’s cleverly simple puppets, and Rob Brooksher’s evocative musical score, the production is a delight for both the eyes and ears.

Carolyn Cook has directed a flow of movement that makes full use of the 7 Stages black box theatre space. Stadium seating for the audience begins to the right of the entrance door and continues across the adjoining wall. The show starts with Chris Kayser on the narrow alcove up high, decorated as a study with an easel and assorted books and maps. After this initial scene, he descends a wooden ladder to the floor, which is drawn with the contour lines of a topographical map. Wooden forms bring some of these contour lines into three dimensions, notably on the central circular platform, where they stand in for the three volcanoes of the Little Prince’s planet. A desert-painted flat obscures the offstage entrance, and a matching horizon line around the stage gives way to sky-blue swooshes above that blend into the blackness that reaches to the sky. Action swirls around this playing area, with the Little Prince (Jasmine Thomas) guiding an illuminated flock of origami birds in circular patterns as the scene shifts from planet to planet (giving Mr. Kayser time to change costumes backstage).

Lighting is most impressive in this flock of birds and in the fiber optic stars above. Multi-colored lighting under the central platform is too subtle to add a lot to the proceedings. Lights are beautifully calibrated, though, to allow supertitles to display clearly on the blank wall between the painted set below and the stars above. At least on opening night, Caitlin Roe’s supertitle operation was a tad slow, requiring non-French-speaking audience members to switch their attention to the supertitles after a character had gotten through half a line.

And these are performances you don’t want to take your eyes off of. Ms. Thomas has a gamine-like quality that perfectly suits the character of the Little Prince, and she looks delightful in her sweetly bright costume and golden-tipped hair. I’d say that Ms. Cook had coaxed a wondrous collection of performances from Mr. Kayser as the various denizens of the universe that the Little Prince comes across, but I don’t think much coaxing was needed to release the panoply of distinct and engaging characters lurking beneath Mr. Kayser’s skin. In a glorious collection of costumes, he embodies each new character to perfection.

When a beloved story is translated to the stage, a balance must be struck between adherence to the original words and the magic of theatrical expression. Here, neither is given short shrift. Carolyn Cook, her technical team, and her expansive, expert, expressive cast of two actors have given us "Le Petit Prince" as we would always have imagined it, if only our imaginations matched the glorious virtuosity of those bringing this production to life.

Death by Design, by Rob Urbinati
Design to Die For
Monday, January 30, 2017
Rob Urbinati’s "Death by Design" is a slightly odd mish-mash of English drawing room comedy, farce, and murder mystery. Act one introduces the characters in the play and, in a choreographed nighttime scene, shows the murder of one. Act two follows the interrogation of the suspects by the maid (Joanna Daniel), who has pretensions of being a sleuth. Everything is tied up neatly in the end, returning the play roundly to the realm of comedy.

The action takes place in the drawing room of an English country home, elegantly appointed through Chuck Welcome’s set architecture and Kathy Ellsworth’s props. There is a fireplace center stage, flanked by stairs to stage left and a window and hall to stage right. The entryway to the house appears far stage right and French doors to the garden are located far stage left. It’s an eminently workable design that accommodates all the action of the play.

Suehyla El-Attar has directed the show with verve and style, encouraging her actors to dive head-first into their roles and never come up for air. There’s just the right amount of broad acting and recognition of the audience to reflect the self-referential tone of the script. This is truly an ensemble effort, with nary a weak spot in the performances.

Joanna Daniel plays a maid whose motto seems to be "surly to bed, surly to rise." Kevin Stillwell and Kelly Criss play her employers, popular veteran playwright Edward Bennett and his wife Sorel, a popular leading lady. Popular, yes, but whose most recent effort has been slammed by the critics. They have arrived without prior notice. Guests arrive one by one in an equally unexpected manner, starting with a conservative politician (Daniel Burns) who isn’t the enticing diplomat Sorel thought she had invited. They are joined by an anarchist (Pat Young), then an interpretive dancer/painter/artiste (Bryn Striepe), and finally by a myopic, timid woman with a secret (Sarah Newby Halicks). Observing all the resulting mayhem is chauffeur Jack (Chase Steven Anderson), who has a few womanizing secrets of his own.

Dialect coach Joanna Daniel has done a good job of showing class and regional differences between characters, aided by Jim Alford’s somewhat exaggerated costume design (but not helped by George Deavours’ unattractive wigs). Rial Ellsworth sound design does a fine job of evoking the time period of 1932, and J.D. Williams’ lighting design features a beautiful streaming daylight effect through the French doors and an equally stunning nighttime effect through an invisible window stage right. The play is a joy to view and to listen to from start to finish.

Ms. El-Attar deserves tons of credit for whipping up this frothy confection into the consistently amusing entertainment that it is. The script isn’t the strongest of farces, but it provides just the framework needed to let sparklingly confident comic actors strut their stuff across the stage in service of the plot. It’s fairly thin material, but it shines with the sheen of Shantung silk.

The Odd Couple, by Neil Simon
1966 Style
Monday, January 30, 2017
Magari Theatre Company has set its production of "The Odd Couple" in the year 1966. Its set (under the charge of Kathryn May), props (by Christopher S. Dills), costumes, and hair design (by Erin Gathercoal) all make strong attempts to set the time period. There are a few small deficiencies: the framing around the doors did not make use of a miter saw; there aren’t ashtrays in the living room; Oscar’s backwards ball cap obviously shows a modern-style adjustable snapback strap. Director Amanda Jewell has nearly all the actors smoke herbal cigarettes, and this leads to some unusual moments, such as when Roy’s complaint of Speed blowing smoke in his direction is followed almost immediately by Roy lighting up and when Gwendolyn Pigeon puts out a cigarette on the floor.

These are minor quibbles, though; the production lets Neil Simon’s strong script shine. Ms. Jewell has blocked some terrific comic moments, and her actors consistently give strong performances. The poker buddies interact believably and have distinct personalities. Cop Murray (Volnerius Rackley) has card dealing and wife issues that he handles with good humor. Nerdy Vinnie (Chase Vasser) plays against his physical type with sweet tentativeness (but not enough vocal projection). Greaser Speed (Kyle Porter) injects a taste of abrasive New York street life into the show. The put-together Roy (Kenneth Trujillo) acts as his counterbalance. Messrs. Porter and Trujillo are obviously talented, as evidenced by the fact that they act as understudies for Felix and Oscar respectively, even though the role of free-wheeling Speed is the opposite of strait-laced Felix and the role of well-pressed Roy is the opposite of sloppy Oscar.

The two women in the cast, the Pigeon sisters Gwendolyn (Halley Tiefert) and Cecily (Hayley Brown), are equally delightful, bursting into coordinated gales of girlish laughter at the start of their double date with Oscar and Felix. Their descent into sobs and tears as they converse with the downbeat Felix is the highlight of the show. Ms. Jewell has gauged the pace of the scene beautifully, and her actors deliver all the fun Mr. Simon has written into the play.

The heart of the show, of course, is the relationship between Oscar Madison (Eli T. Peña) and Felix Ungar (Eric Lang). Mr. Lang’s eyebrows are perfect for the role of downtrodden Felix, and he makes the most of Felix’s moose call-like attempts to clear his sinuses. His comic timing fits the role of Felix like a glove. Mr. Peña invests Oscar with tons of energy, spitting out his lines with power and variety, but he seems to have little comic sense. Some of his insults to Felix seem to cross over from sardonic to nasty. That removes some of the possible fun from the show, but it’s not a fatal flaw.

Magari Theatre Company is giving opportunities to a number of gifted actors who generally are new to the Atlanta theatre scene, with many having focused previously on film and television work. Under the confident and clever direction of Amanda Jewell, their talents are being shown to advantage onstage. Talented people are also at work behind the scenes, with the sound design of Shalom Aberle, as brought to life by sound technicians Matthew Bramlett and Shawn Collins, proving one of the highlights of the show. "The Odd Couple" may not be perfect in this incarnation, but it certainly lets Neil Simon’s script shine through.

Constellations, by Nick Payne
A Failed Acting Exercise
Saturday, January 28, 2017
Nick Payne’s "Constellations" builds itself on the idea of multiverses -- multiple, concurrent universes of infinite possibilities. In it, we see Marianne (Bethany Irby) and Rodney (Enoch King) play out some of the same moments in their lives, with different attitudes and different outcomes. It’s alternately repetitive and confusing.

To have it all make sense, the performers need to show amazing chemistry and flip personas in the blink of an eye. That doesn’t occur here. Ms. Irby shows a variety of personas, but she’s up against Mr. King, who doesn’t change character much or show any chemistry with Ms. Irby up until the point Rodney is successfully proposing to Marianne. (And we see several non-successful attempts first.) The script doesn’t clearly distinguish the linkage between moments, so it isn’t clear if we are supposed to be seeing separate threads of the relationship through sequences of moments (meeting, moving in together, splitting apart, proposing, a health scare, and ballroom dance lessons). There’s too much going on in the almost-repeated, short scenes for the audience to attempt to keep track of which moments would mesh together to form a story with a coherent set of steps.

The physical production is splendid. The set by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay centers on a two-tiered wood hexagon with benches on two sides with a matching hexagon above, strung with wires in a random pattern. Surrounding the hexagon are strands of wire strung with large metal washers and a cyclorama in the background, with a subtly reflective black band around the bottom. Add in Mary Parker’s lovely lighting effects, Bobby Johnston’s subtle projections, and Rob Brooksher’s evocative sound design and the audience is transported to a realm in the middle of a sky of constellations.

Justin Anderson’s blocking on this set is problematic. Many scenes are played as if in the round, with one character’s back to the majority of the audience for long periods. The two aisles in the audience are used as characters start to exit (then return), while the wings are almost never used by the actors. Sightlines are not great for these scenes. There’s a lot of extraneous movement of the actors walking around the perimeter of the hexagon. It all seems meant to be stylish, but it comes across more as stagey.

Costumes, by the Curley-Clay sisters, are remarkable only in their apparent warmth, to judge by the sweat pouring from Mr. King’s face. The layered look would suggest a fall or spring wardrobe, although the script has little reference to season, other than the initial meeting of Marianne and Rodney occurring at a rainy outdoor barbecue.

The play takes place in England, with Brad Brinkley functioning as dialect coach and Ruthanne Garrett functioning as British sign language coach (for one repeated scene done in sign language the second time around). The accents are all right, I suppose, but the frequent F-bombs coming out of Ms. Irby’s mouth do not sound organic to her speech patterns or bearing.

While both characters are meant to age a bit during the show, there’s no suggestion of that in the acting. In fact, I thought Rodney might be regressing to an elementary school show-and-tell presentation during one of his early proposals. There’s little sense of growth in the characters as they navigate through their lives. It’s almost as if the characters are as unchanging as the stars in a night sky, glimmering above in the identical configurations as myriads of alternative timelines take place beneath them.

The Crucible, by Arthur Miller
Scraps and Tittles
Sunday, January 22, 2017
Arthur Miller’s "The Crucible" is dragged out by theatre companies as a commentary on the current American political situation whenever there’s a polarized and possibly threatening environment. That seems to be at least part of the motivation for Actor’s Express presenting it at this juncture in our country’s history. Luckily, this is a play that also works on its own human terms.

Pamela Hickey’s environmental scenic design places a long wooden platform down the middle of the playing space, splitting the audience into two halves that face one another. A smaller platform exists at the far end, and brick and weathered boards surround the auditorium. Sere tree branches are suspended above the audience, while leaded glass windows are suspended above the stage. It’s an elegant, evocative design, spare and severe like the Puritans inhabiting it, although the smoky atmosphere is perhaps a bit of overkill.

Joseph P. Monaghan III’s lighting design sets the scene with murky blue lighting, both above the stage and under the lip of the central platform. Lights change in intensity and color in conjunction with the action of the play, but only in subtle ways except when a specific effect is demanded. The set and lighting are superbly realized, and A. Julian Verner’s props fit in beautifully with this design.

Ed Thrower’s sound design is also effective, with its somber tones and drawn-out musical phrasing. Much of the sound design acts as underscoring during dialogue, which can be a bit distracting when actors are not projecting strongly, even though the sound level of the underlying music is minimal, albeit with reverberating bass.

Not all the technical aspects of the production are targeted at supporting the text, though. Erik Teague’s attention-stealing costumes are laughable in their steampunky variety. Rather than bringing us in to the days of the Salem witch trials, they shout out "Look at this anachronistic flannel shirt! See these form-fitting pants! Marvel at these cloaks I’ve tossed around the shoulders of various men!" The costumes are, to put it simply, dreadful. Singlehandedly, they drag down the production to the level of a college vanity presentation by an overweening would-be costume designer.

Acting is generally good, but director Freddie Ashley hasn’t gotten the best out of everyone. The girls in the cast are fine, but they’re older than they should be. Shelli Delgado does some nice work in act one as their ringleader Abigail, but her performance suffers somewhat in the second act, primarily due to a clumsily blocked night scene with Jonathan Horne, as John Proctor. Mr. Horne goes all-out in his emotional acting, making the audience feel the full weight of Proctor’s pain, but his speech patterns do not mesh with Arthur Miller’s faux-colonial dialogue, sounding flat and rushed in his early scenes (though not as flat as Sundiata Rush’s speech as Thomas Putnam). Intern Sean Alexander shows a lack of theatrical confidence as drunken warden John Willard.

There’s a lot of good work onstage, but few true standouts. Courtney Patterson is exceptional as always, but in the understated role of Elizabeth Proctor. Charles Green is very strong as Reverend Parris, and Vallea E. Woodbury gives a nice spin to the small, but pivotal role of Tituba. Falashay Pearson adds a touching sweetness to Mary Warren. Tamil Periasamy is the most notable, investing Reverend Hale with palpable power and integrity. Bryan Davis also has power and confidence as Judge Danforth, but mispronounced "tittle" at the preview performance I attended, suggesting a lack of preparation for his role.

Actor’s Express’ production of "The Crucible" lets the power of the story shine through, but no one in the cast seems to be working at the top of their abilities. The production has the feel of something thrown together by a director whose attention was focused on the overall production, leaving his large cast of over 20 actors to their own devices in creating characters that follow his blocking. Sometimes casting talented actors can make a director’s job easy; in this case, Mr. Ashley seems to have assumed his actors would step up to the task of populating the production he had in mind. Unfortunately, much of the production seems to be resonating more in Mr. Ashley’s head than onstage.

The Taming, by Lauren Gunderson
The Shaming of the Untrue
Saturday, January 21, 2017
Lauren Gunderson’s "The Taming" is as much an event as a play, being performed as a series of 40 simultaneous readings across the country. The title and the names of two major characters (Katherine and Bianca) pay tribute to Shakespeare, but the only true tie-in to "The Taming of the Shrew" is a reworking of Kate’s "I am ashamed that women are so simple" speech, altering its meaning to indicate that government should be subservient to the people (rather than that women should be subservient to men). This is rather prescient in light of Donald J. Trump’s inauguration speech, in which he promised to deliver America back to the people, but the play can hardly be seen as a ringing endorsement of Trump policy.

The plot concerns a Miss Georgia contestant (Katherine, played by Caroline Aropoglou) who traps a powerful conservative senator’s aide (Patricia, played by Tiffany Morgan) and a liberal blogger (Bianca, played by Rachel Frawley) in a hotel room, attempting to bring them over to her viewpoint that the U.S. constitution needs to be rewritten. There’s a lot of back-and-forth, and after a dream sequence in 1787 in which Katherine becomes George Washington, Patricia becomes James Madison, and Bianca becomes Charles Pinckney of S.C. (with a couple of cameos by Chelcy Cutwright as Martha Washington and Dolley Madison), a resolution is arrived at. It’s a lot of fun, particularly under the superb direction of Kate Donadio MacQueen and with the energetic, exquisite timing of the actresses, but it all feels a little over-long and under-baked. Ms. Gunderson has created strong, indelible characters and tossed them into a situation of philosophical crisis, but it’s being presented as a riff on political factions. Some of the sillier plot elements get self-referential laughs, but they’re silly nevertheless.

I guess when you’re "the most produced living playwright in America in 2016," as the program states, you have the connections to get your work produced as part of a royalty-free, countrywide theatrical happening. And when you’re a playwright as talented and prolific as Lauren Gunderson, what better way to get a minor work disseminated to the theatre-going public? Given the large, appreciative audience at 7 Stages for this one-night event, Ms. Gunderson can consider this play reading a resounding success, at least in Atlanta.

Foreclosure, by jpbeck
Sunday, January 15, 2017
David Fisher’s new play "Foreclosure" is reminiscent of Ira Levin’s "Deathtrap." In both we have an unusual building in which the action takes place, a man and his wife whose relationship is complicated by another man, an eccentric neighbor who makes foreboding pronouncements, a manuscript multiple people want to get their hands on, and there’s death. This is no slavish imitation, though; it’s more a shared sensibility and similar cast list.

Frank Horne (Bob Winstead) and his wife Dorrie (Cat Roche) buy a run-down foreclosed house, previously owned by Andy "Bucky" Knox (Tom FitzStephens). Realtor Alice Guy (Brooke Schlosser) is selling it as-is, with copious forms to be signed. Neighbor Gretta Uxbridge (Judith Beasley) knows the full history of the place, not that she reveals everything to the new neighbors. The story follows Frank from his first viewing of the house throughout its restoration.

The set, constructed and painted by David Fisher and Katy Clarke, cleverly disguises a mid-stage column in a stone fireplace, whose trick mantle hides a secret. A wall to the right of the fireplace and a pair of angled walls stage left show cracks and broken plaster initially, but are covered by pictures once the restoration is complete. Scenes in the Hornes’ kitchen and exterior to the run-down house are presented in front of the stage proper, in director Betty Mitchell’s fluid blocking. James Beck’s lighting design creates hot and cool spots on the stage, distracting only when movement occurs up left that flirts with the edges of a cool spot. Costumes work beautifully to distinguish characters.

The play is constructed of a number of scenes that mostly seem to last about ten minutes, perhaps reflecting Mr. Fisher’s background in writing shorter plays of this length. Curt Shannon’s sound design plays music between each of the many scenes, and props and furnishings are frequently moved on and off. This structure creates a somewhat choppy effect, without a long through-line to intensify the dramatic effect of the plot’s revelations. The act break comes in the middle of things, but without a cliffhanger feel.

The plot proceeds in a fairly straightforward manner, and the dialogue sounds very natural throughout. There are many tinges of the supernatural, with a bit of magical realism relating to a garden on the property, but the final big revelation is cleverly based on a verifiable, factual explanation. There’s a spooky feel throughout, but a lot of character-based humor. The audience’s attention is not given time to wander (except during scene changes).

Betty Mitchell has gotten good performances out of everyone in the cast. Judith Beasley is a standout, shading her line readings for maximum effect, and Brooke Schlosser is comically natural in her small role. On opening night, nerves seemed to flavor the performances of Cat Roche and Tom FitzStephens, but the character traits in their performances were fully developed, and their lines flowed smoothly. Bob Winstead builds his performance up to an explosion in the final scene, which leaves a taste of bitterness that fits in beautifully with the overall tone of the play.

"Foreclosure" may not be a masterpiece, but it provides an engrossing evening of entertainment. There’s darkness, there’s danger, there’s humor, there’s the supernatural, but most of all there’s the pleasure of watching the work of people who certainly know what they’re doing.

The Mountaintop, by Katori Hall
Motel Hell
Sunday, January 15, 2017
Katori Hall’s "The Mountaintop" shows us a tired Martin Luther King, Jr. retiring to his motel room in Memphis. He rings up room service for a late-night cup of coffee, and the delivery person appears at first to be a feisty, star-struck but profane chambermaid. As the long one-act play proceeds, there is a sudden change to the realm of religious magic as Dr. King has a spell of breathing problems. That’s when the play lost me.

The set by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay depicts a worn motel room, far bigger and far less attractive than Trevor Carrier’s recent set for "Singles in Agriculture." There are stage tricks that occur at the end of the show that explain some of the flimsier and rough aspects of the set, but it’s pretty unattractive overall and stagey in terms of Sarah Thompson’s scenic painting. Mr. Carrier’s props are far more impressive. Sound (by Thom Jenkins), costumes (by the Curley-Clay sisters), and lighting (by André C. Allen) do what they need for the show without unduly impressing. Bobby Johnston’s projections aren’t given a reflective background to appear on, and so appear rather muddied.

Eric J. Little’s direction gives the script its full due, and Neal Ghant and Cynthia D. Barker are absolutely splendid in their roles as Dr. King and Camae. The acting and direction can’t be faulted in this show; it’s the script’s foray into the realm of magical realism that strains credibility without the balance of feeling poetically correct. Its final speech detailing black history following the assassination of Dr. King aims for the stars, but barely rises to the height of a reasonably modest mountaintop. The play ably humanizes Dr. King, but the future of his legacy doesn’t resonate in the ending of the play, although it makes a mighty attempt.

Naked Boys Singing!, by Robert Shrock et. al.
Was It a Standing Ovation If the Audience Remained Seated?
Sunday, January 15, 2017
With a title like "Naked Boys Singing!" and an opening number titled "Gratuitous Nudity," it’s fairly obvious that the show is an all-male revue with a lot of skin showing. When you see an actor entering with clothes on, odds are good that the clothes will be removed by the end of the number. The only plot line, such as it is, involves two men who see one another stripping for bedtime through windows in buildings that face one another and who long for a closer connection. The only thing that makes it approach a storyline is that one of the men is the primary singer in "Window to Window" when it first is sung, and the other sings a reprise later in the show.

In between, there are a lot of musical numbers by a lot of different songwriters. There’s next to no dialogue in the show; the only extended spoken segment is largely improvised audience banter by Anthony Massarotto as an introduction to "Perky Little Porn Star." (And, yeah, the content skews heavily toward gay themes.) This is a national tour playing in an intimate space, so the setting is simple, consisting of four trussed metal columns with lights shining upward and a banner emblazoned with the show logo.

At the performance I attended, the lights had severe problems in the middle of the show. The actors were true troupers, though, and didn’t miss a beat as they performed half a number (plus a bit of another) in the glow of the piano light. Otherwise, the lighting scheme adds some nice variety to the show. Andrew Fiacco’s motion-filled choreography provides additional variety.

Director Tim Evanicki has molded his cast into an appealing ensemble. Jonté Jaurel Culpepper gets some of the heaviest dancing duties, partnered ably by bearded heartthrob Stephen Millett. Diminutive charmer Anthony Massarotto has probably the best voice, with a wide range and lovely tone. Charismatic Tim Granham nearly matches his quality of voice, and the understated Charles Walljasper Robinson does wonderful work with vocal harmonies. Danny Burgos, who appears to be the most recent addition, has the least to do, and he doesn’t seem quite as seasoned as the other performers. Still, the music consistently sounds good.

Is this a show for everyone? No. Although a few of the musical numbers are rock-inflected, most are in a musical comedy vein. There’s a fair amount of suggestiveness, but the overall atmosphere is of good clean fun, albeit with a strong gay bent. The novelty of the show is the thing that keeps it touring. And, to judge by the ad content of the show’s playbill, local gay-oriented businesses see great overlap with the audience for this show.

Greetings Friend Your Kind Assistance Is Required, by Topher Payne
Greetings, Audience, Your Kind Attendance after Intermission Is Unexpected
Monday, January 9, 2017
Topher Payne’s plays are sometimes based on historical fact ("Swell Party," "The Only Light in Reno"), sometimes based in reality ("Tokens of Affection," "Perfect Arrangement"), and sometimes take place in a quirky world of their own (the "Lakebottom" plays). "Greetings Friends Your Kind Assistance Is Required" falls firmly into the last category. You either buy into the skewed, comic worldview of the play, or you don’t. I’ll understand if you don’t.

The scenic design by Jamie Bullins features a primitive map of fictional Zardelgnia as a backdrop for the first few scenes, in which Rhonda Charles sets up a website for Very Helpful People, to which the imprisoned Prince Paljor sends a request for help in overcoming the regime of General Mahzuno. When Rhonda drags her roommate Marybeth Mulaney to Zardelgnia in response to this request, the backdrop falls and we see the yurts and mountain background of the fictional land of Zardelgnia, tucked in at the intersection of Russia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan. A castle tower functioning as a prison rotates on stage right as needed for the scenes featuring Prince Paljor. Kevin Frazier’s lighting design, Preston Goodson’s sound design, and Emmie Tuttle’s colorful costumes help define the exotic locale. Maclare Park’s props add finishing touches, including a charming camel puppet.

The plot shows the means by which Rhonda and Marybeth use their pre-retirement skills as a second grade teacher and a human resources professional to resolve the civil conflict in Zardelgnia. There are clever touches, notably in how the deaths foretold in the prologue come to pass in unexpected ways, but things just go on too long, and much of the humor comes across as "in" jokes presupposing a detailed knowledge of popular U.S. culture of the 1980s and 1990s. Once the plot seems to tie up, we are presented with a number of scenes that detail the subsequent lives of the characters, aiming for a sentimental conclusion that is overdue once it arrives.

Acting and direction are as much of a let-down as the plot. With triple-casting of kooky material like this, wildly comic performers with range are called for. Here, only Jef Holbrook seems to have the naturally goofy persona needed, and director Shannon Eubanks treats all characters with too much respect as human beings, when some would work best as pure caricatures. Parris Sarter gets to do some nice work in act two, and Stacy Melich is a hoot in the small role of travel agent Tammy, but their other characters don’t share the same comic spark. Cristian Gonzalez is fine in his roles, but doesn’t stand out the way a more seasoned actor might.

Three of the actors take on only one role apiece. Karen Howell is the true standout here, investing Marybeth with energy and bite, expertly working both the comedy and drama of her role. Skye Passmore has the looks of a Far Eastern prince, but doesn’t quite capture the mixture of wide-eyed innocence and innate heroism that makes up his character. Brenda Porter is simply unremarkable as lead character Rhonda, and stumbled frequently in her lines in the early performance I saw.

Despite the clunky movement of the plot, there’s plenty of activity onstage, and James Donadio’s fight choreography makes a second-act knife fight exciting. Still, the play moves at a leisurely pace, clocking in at two and a half hours. There’s a bit of a slapdash feeling to the whole proceedings, much like the program cover that features a one-hump Dromedary camel for a part of the world populated by the two-hump Bactrian camel (as seen in Jamie Bullins’ backdrop). You either buy in to Topher Payne’s riffs on popular culture and time-worn royalty intrigue or you don’t. At least I returned after intermission; the other parties in my row did not.

Madeline’s Christmas (2016), by Shirley Mier (music) and Jennifer Kirkeby (words)
It’s a Jolly Holiday with Madeline
Sunday, January 1, 2017
Horizon Theatre Company’s production of "Madeline’s Christmas" contains sprightly songs, colorful costumes (coordinated by Aleathia Burns), delightful choreography (by Sims Lamason), a charming set (by Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay), and bright, varied props (by Kate Bidwell LaFoy and Chase Weaver) and puppets (by the Curley-Clay sisters). Add in Mary Parker’s effective lighting design, Keena Redding Hunt’s able music direction, and Spring Mason’s energetic direction, and you end up with a feel-good holiday treat.

Of course, any production’s success depends on the actors as much as on technical elements and design. Here, the show has a terrific adult cast in Maggie Birgel as the sweet-voiced nun Miss Clavel, Lilliangina Quiñones as the vibrant Mrs. Murphy, and the charismatic Chaz Duffy in the dual roles of Monsieur Brun and Harsha, both of which he makes indelible charmers. Two alternating casts of 12 girls appear; I saw the green cast. The girls all have been put through their paces and perform ably. I was most impressed by Lindsey Blackwell as Kate, whose puppetry, lines, and actions consistently present a fully-formed character. Not all the girls are as well-spoken, and Thom Jenkins poor sound balance has music tracks predominating over many of the girls’ vocals.

Although the story takes place in France, the French spoken in the show is a consistent Americanization of the actual pronunciation. Surprisingly, it’s not as jarring as a poor approximation of the French pronunciation would be. The sprightly charm of the production wins an audience over almost immediately. It’s clear from the start that this is a storybook world, not one based in any geographic reality. Très bien!

Plaid Tidings, by Stuart Ross
Tartan It up for Christmas
Saturday, December 24, 2016
"Plaid Tidings" doesn’t have the most compelling storyline in the history of musical theatre. The four deceased crooners from "Forever Plaid" have come back to life again, and can’t quite figure out why. But holiday songs keep creeping into their arrangements. Hmm. Maybe they were brought back to bring a little holiday cheer?

And cheer they do bring. This breezy, music-filled entertainment depends on four excellent singers creating vibrant, distinct characters, nailing comedy bits, and blending vocally. ART Station’s cast members do all of this well, to varying degrees. Googie Uterhardt, as Sparky, has tremendous comic timing, sings well, and blends beautifully. Robert Mitchel Owenby (Frankie) has developed an immensely likeable character and sings lead like an angel, but tends to stand out a tad too much when he should be blending. The hobbled Ritchie Crownfield (Smudge) creates a delightfully prissified character and sings from the bottom to the top of his range with sweetness, if not an excess of power, and blends beautifully. Tony Hayes has stratospheric tenor notes to reach as Jinks, and he seems to be concentrating on that, letting his singing predominate over his underdeveloped character.

Patrick Hutchison plays piano, as well as having provided musical direction for the show. He does this excellently, as always, and also gets the chance to do a spot-on Liberace impression. That’s not to mention the bongo drums and sombrero he gets to utilize in the audience-participation "Matilda" number. Karen Beyer has kept the direction light and cheery, and has managed to keep the choreography flowing in the face of Mr. Crownfield having to remain seated for all of the show except for a couple of steps from one seated position to another.

The technical aspects of the show are fine, but not breathtaking. Michael Hidalgo’s set design consists mainly of an upper platform coming to a point center stage, backed by silver tinsel-like curtains. A rolling steamer trunk disgorges props as needed (and act two has a LOT of over-the-top props, adding immensely to the fun). Mr. Hidalgo’s lighting and sound do all they need to do, and Jeanne Cwiklik Fore’s costumes delight with distinct plaid-heavy matching outfits for acts one and two.

ART Station has produced a show to please the subscribing patrons of the theatre. There’s nothing edgy about it, and the ages of the familiar cast members are probably twice what they should be on average for a struggling "boy" band group. The content isn’t exactly consistent with the supposed time period of 1959 for the group’s lifetime, with references to Kwanzaa and a hip hop-inspired number, but the show overall sit squarely in the zeitgeist of the heyday of Perry Como and Ed Sullivan. For an older audience, it’s familiar stuff. For a younger audience, it’s just plain G-rated fun.

A Very Merry (All-Inclusive) 1MPF Holiday Spectacular, by 22 different playwrights
2 x 22 4 ADHD
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
With festivals of one-minute plays, the title’s the thing when a program lists just title and playwright, not giving a full cast list. So many plays pass by in such a short amount of time that only a descriptive title will allow matching it in hindsight to memorable content. The festival at Actor’s Express sometimes associates memorable plays with generic or non-evocative titles. In many cases, I know I particularly liked a play within one of the seven "clumps" of plays associated with a single director and cast, but I can’t pick out the title from two or three choices.

That said, there is much that resonates in "A Very Merry (All-Inclusive) 1MPF Holiday Spectacular" and much that flies by with little impact. The main impression is that directors make a huge difference in the success of the various clumps. The acting abilities of the various casts seem to be roughly equivalent, but not all clumps are equally effective or enjoyable.

Clump 1, directed by Elin Rose Hill, concentrates on parties, generally with a light, comic tone. "Final Preparations," by Johnny Drago, has people commenting on holiday gifts, starting with typical ones and soon deviating into alarming territory. It’s a great start to the show, although it’s pretty similar to a couple of Sherri D. Sutton gift-swapping plays that show up later. Steve Yockey’s two plays, "Fruitcake" and "Terrible Holiday Sweater Party" have beautifully clear titles that immediately bring back memories of their funny, quirky content. Lee Nowell’s two plays aren’t as sharp or memorable; nor is Daryl Fazio’s within this clump. (All 22 playwrights contributed two plays each, but they often appear in different clumps.) Ms. Hill’s direction throughout points up the comedy and keeps things moving and lively.

Clump 2
is entitled "Spirit" and contains a grab bag of plays directed none too successfully by A. Julian Verner. A couple have religious inspirations for comic content (Annie Harrison Elliott’s "The Virgin & the Whore," about Mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Jesus in heaven and Pat Young’s "Heavy Metal Drummer," about the origin of the Little Drummer Boy). There are a couple commenting on the current condition (Galen and Jacob York’s depressing "...Black Mirror 2016 Christmas Pageant," showing how handheld phone usage alienates us one from another, and Mike Schatz’s "Misfit Board Meeting: 2016," about exploding devices recently in the news). The other two leave less of an impression.

The third clump concentrates on family. To me, the most memorable of these plays, all directed by Hillary R. Heath, are Pat Young’s "I Saw Mommy Kissing Daddy," about a married couple having to explain to their child the costumes in their bedroom closet; Hank Kimmel’s "CVS Christmas," about a divorced couple handoff; and Nicole Kemper’s clever "Christmas Moderator," in which a hired moderator translates the comments of a Republican older generation into terms more amenable to the Democratic sensibilities of a younger generation.

Clump 4 concentrates on family traditions, and it’s all pretty anodyne under Rebekah Suellau’s direction, assisted by Anna Richardson. The highlight is the last piece, Neeley Gossett’s beautifully acted Atlanta-specific "Pink Pig."

Clump 5 moves the focus to Jewish celebrations. Leora Morris’ direction doesn’t generally make the plays sparkle. The most effective is Nicole Kemper’s "Hanukkah, 1934," which recites Jewish reactions to the installation to power of the unnamed Hitler, allowing the audience to draw its own parallels to America’s recent election.

The most sentimental clump of the bunch is clump 6, about gifts. The direction of Nichole Palmietto, assisted by Amina S. McIntyre, oozes truthful sincerity throughout, even in Topher Payne’s "Re-Gift of the Magi," which takes a comic look at the aftermath of O. Henry’s story. Ms. Palmietto’s gets the most out of her talented cast.

The final clump is entitled "Ghosts," but it is in effect a grab bag of what didn’t fit into the other clumps. Pam Joyce’s direction, as assisted by Damian Lockhart, shines most brightly in Rachel Wansker’s performance in the title role of Daryl Lisa Fazio’s "Jingle Dog."

The show is enhanced by its decor, consisting of a short wall of wrapped boxes upstage, oversize ornaments hanging from the ceiling on each side of the stage, wreaths on the back wall, and strings of lights along the front and back. Daniel Burns sits with his guitar and with Paige Mattox at stage right, playing and singing pre-show music and between-clump songs in a semi-rehearsed fashion.

One-minute plays are akin either to Laugh-In-style skits leading to a punchline or to mood pieces. Rapid transitions quickly lead to surfeit. This is the type of show to go to to support friends in the massive cast or playwriting crew, but not the show to go to to get yourself in the holiday spirit. Although I can’t say what your reaction might be if you arrived with spirits already in you...

Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some), by Michael Carleton, Jim FitzGerald, and John K. Alvarez
The Complete Works of Every BHC Author (Abridged)
Monday, December 19, 2016
BHC = Beloved Holiday Classic

"Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some)" mashes together a bunch of Christmas stories and traditions into a holiday show very reminiscent of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)." The first act concentrates on a litany of traditions and well-known TV holiday specials. The second act gives us more in-depth renditions of "A Christmas Story" and "A Christmas Carol," cleverly interspersing the plot of "It’s a Wonderful Life" when Clarence the angel shows up in place of the ghosts that visit Scrooge. It’s breezy and cheery, but it requires familiarity with all the TV specials and other stories being parodied (really summarized more than parodied). The traditions, on the other hand, are intended to be unfamiliar territory.

This is a three-character show, plus brief appearances by the stage manager (Ann Armstrong Patterson) and by Isabelle Renshaw as an iconic "A Christmas Story" prop. As in any small-cast show, the success of the show depends largely on the performances of each member of the cast. The two supernumeraries add very little to the show in their miniscule amount of time onstage. And Steve Worrall (husband of director Karen Worrall) actually detracts from the show with his uninspired and sometimes stumbling line readings and his stodgy stage presence. This is in direct contrast to Kevin Renshaw, who gives his everything to his roles and creates unique postures, voices, and looks for each of his characters. It’s a masterful performance, but it would need to be matched by two others to make the show fully successful. Max Flick, the third member of the trio, has good stage presence and energy, but doesn’t delineate his characters as distinctly as Mr. Renshaw seems able to do effortlessly.

The technical side of the production is laudable. Props and costumes, assembled by the cast and Ann & David Patterson, enliven the proceedings with their colorful variety. The set works beautifully and looks appropriately festive, simple though it is with green folding flats at the sides, wrapped like packages with red ribbon and bows, and a low wood platform center stage. Brenda Orchard’s sound meshes seamlessly into the action, and the delightful lighting by Brad & Barbara Rudy helps many segments come to life. Karen Worrall’s blocking keeps things moving and visible. If only she had been able to coax an acceptable performance out of her husband... But the fabulous performance by Kevin Renshaw almost makes the show worth seeing. Almost.

Big Fish, by John August (book) & Andrew Lippa (songs)
Big Fish, Little Pond
Friday, December 16, 2016
To begin with, the set by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay looks a lot better in person than it does in photographs. The "water" spilling out of the large circular opening center stage left (and the tiny one far stage right) doesn’t look at all realistic, but its sheen and its beautiful blue make it lovely to look at. The scale of the set is huge, but it is humanized by a real-water border along the raised playing area, lined with wild grasses. The larger area stage right contains a revolving section used to morph quickly to bedroom scenes. The bare black floor of the stage is used for the majority of the choreography.

And Ricardo Aponte’s choreography makes wonderful use of the skills of the cast. The luminescent Caroline Arapoglou gets the bulk of the dance moves, and she is radiant and wonderful. Randi Garza and Julissa Sabino also get to show off their skills a bit. When the entire cast is dancing, the movements are gauged to their capabilities. It’s movement-filled choreography, and no one is made to look inadequate doing it.

Tom Key has directed the show to keep its momentum rolling along, and rock skipping sleight-of-hand is admirably done. But what really comes through is the heart of the story. Will (Ben Thorpe) is sick of all the tall tales told by his father Edward (Travis Smith) and attempts to ferret out the truth of Edward’s life. What he finds diminishes his father’s standing in terms of some small truths, but reveals a heroic and selfless side not hinted at by the grandiose tales Edward spins.

Travis Smith is superb in the role, playing Edward from teenage years to his deathbed. The well-cast duo of adult Will and Young Will (Gabriel Bowles) support him admirably, and the ensemble cycles in and out of roles (and costumes by the Curley-Clay sisters) with the colorful energy of a three-ring circus. There’s not a weak performance in the cast, although it is a bit of a shame (except perhaps to their pocketbooks) that the numerous understudies, all highly skilled in their own rights, have been taken out of the metro Atlanta theatre pool of talent available for other holiday shows.

"Big Fish" features fine musical direction and accompaniment by S. Renee Clark, good sound design by Rob Brooksher, effective lighting design by Joseph A. Futral, and nifty props design by Maclare "MC" Park. I don’t agree with all the staging choices (real water falling behind the big circular cut-out is distracting, and circling items like lanterns in the center of the bare floor seems to invite choreographic mishaps). But the whole show works, riding on the broad shoulders of Travis Smith and infecting the audience with Edward Bloom’s joy for life.

Scrooge the Musical, by Leslie Bricusse
Caroling, Caroling
Friday, December 16, 2016
Leslie Bricusse’s adaptation of Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" omits some elements of the original story and enhances others to provide musical moments. It works well, particularly in Cathe Hall Payne’s staging on the lovely London street scene set designed by Angie Short and painted by Katy Clarke (both of whom also appear in the show). Jane Kroessig’s colorful costumes add to the visual appeal of the production, providing distinct looks for each role taken on by the actors of the ensemble (which is pretty much everyone in the cast, aside from Russ Ivey’s Scrooge and Charlie Miller’s Marley).

Music Director Paul Tate has gotten a good choral sound out of the ensemble, but Amy Levin’s sound design sometimes allows the orchestra to overpower individual singers, particularly in Russ Ivey’s early solos. Lighting, designed by Elisabeth Cooper, proves effective throughout, but, as usual at Onstage Atlanta, is a little uneven along the lip of the stage.

Accents are a mixed bag in the show, which supposedly takes place in London. The accents of the Cratchits (Jack Allison and Amy Morrow as the parents; Kate Fredrickson and Dominic Cullen as the two primary children) are all pretty good and pretty consistent. Maddie Arthur, as the Ghost of Christmas Past, is unequalled in her accent, and her performance and singing voice delight. Most of the ensemble do a good facsimile of British accents too. Scrooge (Mr. Ivey), Marley (Charlie Miller), and the Ghost of Christmas Present (Barry N. West), however, use community theatre accents that fade in and out and sound as much American as they do English.

Performances are all good, although Mr. West seemed to be struggling with his lines at the late performance I attended. Mr. Ivey’s physical posture and expressions are a wonder throughout, and he mines the few moments of comedy available to his character. His performance anchors the show, and proves more than the "acceptable, believable and enjoyable" he hopes for in his program bio. Darrell Wofford, whose character functions primarily as lead singer in several songs, also impresses with his stage presence.

The show owes its success in large part to its directors - Cathe Hall Payne for the overall production and Abra Thurmond for the talented children in the cast. The cast give their all, performing Misty Barber Tice’s fairly simple choreography with gusto, but it is the director who has given them permission to create clear-cut characters and has encouraged them to make the London street brim over with life. "Scrooge the Musical" delights in many ways, enlivening Charles Dickens’ story with song and dance performed with professionalism, all while letting the holiday lessons of the story ring through.

2016 Merry Little Holiday Shorts, by Daniel GUyton, Vivian Lermaond, Ken Preuss, Jason Herman, Henry W. Kimmel, Nathan Brandon Gaik, Steven Korbar, Mark Harvey Levine, Peter Dakutis
Little Merry
Monday, December 12, 2016
The 2016 edition of "Merry Little Holiday Shorts" tends toward family-friendly and sentimental rather than bawdy and hilarious, although one totally superfluous "F" bomb takes it out of family-friendly territory. As always in a collection of short plays, some work better than others.

The first play, Daniel Guyton’s "Last of the Tannenbaums," works. In it, the lone tree in a clearing of what was once a grove of evergreens (Sarah Zuk) bemoans her lonely lot. She is titillated and curious when her bird friend (Laura Schirmer) explains the human tradition of Christmas trees, and looks forward to the arrival of a lumberjack (Aaron Gotlieb). There’s a line indicating that the future she anticipates won’t come to pass, but the cheery and slightly off-kilter tone sustains throughout. William Thurmond has directed a terrific start to the evening, aided by fine costumes, a beautifully minimalist set, and endearing performances from all his actors.

Second is "Chet’s Second Chance," in which an elf (Pat Young) shows up in the house of a sheriff (William Thurmond) and convinces him to rekindle a romance. Vivian Lermaond’s script is relatively slight, but J. Michael Carroll’s direction keeps the pace up, and Mr. Young’s performance is quirky and sharp, holding interest throughout.

The third entry in the evening, Ken Preuss’ "The Gift of the Matt-Guy," is a wonderfully plotted short play that has Matt (Joshua Sklare) visited by iterations of his future self (J. Lee Graham) as he tries to decide what Christmas gift to buy for his girlfriend (Tali Higgins; Lory Cox in the future). All his choices seem to lead to dismal futures, but a twist ending (with a nice lighting effect) leaves everything delightfully explained. The writing here is the star, although it does tend somewhat to the literary. Messrs. Sklare and Graham are well-cast in terms of similar looks, but their acting tends toward the stilted. Tom Johnson’s blocking tends toward the static, so the play’s appeal is primarily in its clever plotting.

Fourth up is Jason Herman’s drama "All Our Future Christmases," in which a mother (Kelly Sklare) and her daughter (Lexi Kennerly) prepare to experience their first Christmas without the mother’s mother. Olivia Kaye Sloan has coaxed lovely, heartfelt performances out of the actors, but the low-key drama of the story exudes an air of melancholy that is not at all merry.

The last play in the first act, Henry W. Kimmel’s "Christmas in July," boasts a large cast (adults Davin Allen Grindstaff and Kathleen Seconder as parents, children Noel Wheatley and Ellis Wheatley as their progeny, and Pat Young as a svelte Santa Claus). Misty Barber Tice has directed this slight, over-populated comedy with a good deal of movement, but the play suffers from the ever-present problem of children onstage whose diction and projection leave much to be desired. It’s an okay, but relatively forgettable end to the act.

Nathan Brandon Gaik’s "A Christmas Intervention" starts the second act. There’s a lot of comedy in the story, which has a control freak mother (Abra Thurmond) running roughshod over her husband (William Thurmond) and daughter (Jessica McGuire) until an unconventional therapist (Lory Cox) takes control of the situation. Nat Martin hasn’t created a good flow for the show, and Ms. Thurmond’s performance doesn’t really ring true. The sentimental ending reinforces the overall feeling of the evening.

"World’s Worst Christmas" by Steven Korbar comes next. It’s a pretty funny script, taking place in the waiting area of a Christmas Eve pharmacy, which Clay Randel has blocked by having the two actors (Laura Schirmer and J. Lee Graham) sit nearly motionless for the full run time. This play gets lots of laughs, but Mr. Graham’s projection is sorely lacking, sapping energy from the show. Ms. Schirmer is as delightful as she is in the first play of the evening.

Next-to-last is Mark Harvey Levine’s "Oh, Tannenbaum," which is turned into the highlight of the evening by director Judith Beasley and actors Aaron Gotlieb (a Christmas tree) and Davin Allen Grindstaff (the tree’s Jewish owner). There’s fluid movement for a play in which the well-costumed tree needs to stay put in one spot, and the performances both ring true, projecting all the humor and sincerity of the script across the figurative footlights. There’s a fair amount of similarity to "Last of the Tannenbaums," both of which feature a talking tree, but the tones of the two plays are distinct, making them both worthy components of the evening.

Last is "Waffle Christmas," a slight and sentimental play by Peter Dakutis. Director Elisabeth Cooper has given fairly active blocking to the actors (Abra Thurmond, Sam Gresham, Joshua Sklare, and Liane LeMaster), but the play is pretty forgettable. It ends the shorts with the theatrical equivalent of boring white cotton briefs.

For a production using the doors, backing set, and lights of the concurrently running "Scrooge," the 2016 "Merry Little Holiday Shorts" does a wonderful job of creating the worlds of all the plays. Set changes are often fairly complex, but they are accomplished with a minimum of disruption, and the music covering them is delightfully suitable. There may not be a superfluity of merriness in the production, but it certainly is enjoyable enough.

Sincerity Forever, by Mac Wellman
Pretentious Choreographed Acting Class
Monday, December 5, 2016
Mac Wellman’s "Sincerity Forever" is not targeted to everyone’s taste. Certainly not to mine. The basically incoherent script requires a strong directorial hand to shape it into something resembling a plot. That it has in Vernal & Sere’s production. Sawyer Estes has choreographed an emotive, motion-filled flow that can be admired, even if the overall play itself can’t be loved.

The set, such as it is, consists of random pallets and fencing in the upstage area, along with a screen stage left on which is projected the full moon, except for segments in which live video feed is projected there. Eight pairs of chairs are arranged in the large black box playing area. One leg on each chair contains a pin light that adds tiny spots of illumination to the murky, atmospheric overall lighting by Lindsey Sharpless.

At the start, we enter into the room as gospel-flavored songs are being played. Onstage are three pairs of figures in Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods, subtly moving their heads, arms, fingers, and feet in unison to the music. After that extended pre-show segment, two figures in black, with wild dark hair, slither across the stage and the play itself starts.

Most of the play consists of two-character scenes, with the six KKK characters in various combinations, two in focus in side-by-side chairs center stage and the others (along with the two Furballs) arranged in the background. We see various friendships and romantic relationships, with the Furballs (Kathrine Barnes and JR McCall) apparently pulling invisible strings to control the actions of various humans. Jesus H. Christ (Brittany Inge) shows up early on to indicate that the Furballs have invaded and that only she has the power to subdue them.

Following these two-character scenes (including ones that are repeats of previous dialogue, only assigned to different characters) come overlapping dialogue and scenes involving more characters. It gets more and more frenetic until, after a frenzied dance, Jesus H. Christ takes center stage and spits out a screed against America and the human race, using the members of the audience as exemplars of despicable qualities. It’s all very Old Testament wrath-y. And then it’s over.

Performances are all good, and have obviously been shaped by the director to conform to a consistent vision. Cody Vaughn has a nice sensitivity as Lloyd and Melvin. Lucas Scott also shows an appealing side as George. Erin Colleen O’Connor does a wonderful job flipping between normal conversation and Furball-controlled pronouncements. Kasey O’Barr does well as Tom, although his role is written as a redneck using an erudite vocabulary that has never crossed a redneck’s lips. Gwydion Calder comes across a little better as Tom’s more sensitive friend. The Furballs have wonderful physicality, and Ms. Inge has a lovely singing voice. The standout, though, is Erin Boswell as Judy. She makes every word of her dialogue ring true, and her face is a marvel of subtle expressions.

Sawyer Estes has created a production using the black box space well, with terrific sound and costumes and movement and with perfectly acceptable lighting and set. For a new company, Vernal & Sere Theatre has bitten off a tough piece of writing to chew, and has largely succeeded in masticating the script into something resembling drama. The director’s note indicates that the play features characters inhabiting the underbelly of America, but the inhabitants in this production seem to me to be more a collection of talented young actors itching to show off their ability and range. In that they succeed; in making the shambles of a script come to true dramatic life, who could possibly succeed?

Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical, by Meredith Willson
Not All Life Is Miracles
Monday, December 5, 2016
Meredith Willson’s score for "Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical" is often angular and rangy. Unfortunately, none of the leads of the show at ACT1 Theater have voices that are up to the task of navigating the score successfully, at least not when performing the energetic choreography Marshall Lee Smith, Jr. has devised for several of the numbers. Carlye McLaughlin, as Doris Walker, has a nice voice; it’s just not particularly suited to most of her numbers. The other leads have more significant problems in terms of pitch and vocal quality, although they seem to be striving for their best. Their acting is fine, if not nuanced, but it can’t make up for the deficiencies they display in song.

Some members of the ensemble come across better. In terms of vocal solos, Marshall Lee Smith, Jr. impresses as R.H. Macy in the second act. (He’s also the choreographer and music director.) Alyssa Wright, Lauren Wall, and Hailey Carroll triumph in their small roles, exhibiting stage presence in greater proportion than their stage time. Robert Baldy, appearing in his first musical, has wonderful projection and does a creditable job, and with a little seasoning could become quite a performer. Evan Weisman does very nice work both as sour Sawyer and as the publicity-hungry governor, although not enough is done to distinguish him physically for two dissimilar roles appearing within short order of one another.

The lack of dissimilarity is certainly not due to a limited costume budget. Costumes, managed by Suzanne Thornett, Anne Voller, Lynne Whitener, and Virginia Mann, impress with their range and variety. The set, managed by Bob Cookson, has some variety too, with a number of different backdrops used. The only scene that seems glaringly misplaced (at least on opening night) is a scene in Doris Walker’s home where the snowy street background is strongly lit behind it.

Murray Mann’s sound management and the band (Ian Allison, Robyn Guy, Kelly Lane, Jeff Pullen, and Taylor Rowley) make the non-singing music in the show sound great. Mr. Mann’s lighting scheme isn’t quite so successful, with a dream sequence and the show’s ending falling flat. Much of the blame for that, though, belongs to director LisaKay Matchen, who hasn’t directed those scenes to make their significance immediately evident to the audience. Lighting effects on their own can’t carry a scene. Ms. Matchen and her technical team and cast have, however, done a terrific job portraying four Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon handlers traversing the width of the stage.

ACT1 Theater is presenting a passable version of "Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical" in terms of technical elements, blocking, and overall flow. If only the musical numbers consistently sounded good, this would be slightly more than passable.

The 12 Dates of Christmas, by Ginna Hoben
12 Huzzahs
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Ginna Hoben’s "The 12 Dates of Christmas" follows a year in the life of Mary, a struggling young actress, from her big family Thanksgiving one year through to the next year’s New Year’s Eve closing of "A Christmas Carol" production in which the actress appears. On that Thanksgiving, she has split from her fiancé in a very public and humiliating way. In the course of the following year, she goes through a number of boyfriends, has a big family blow-up, and eventually sees the possibility of a happy future.

Renita James does a wonderful job as Mary, impersonating various friends and relatives with concision and humor and incorporating audience interaction with great aplomb. It’s a very charismatic performance, and carries the entire show, aided by Stephanie McCoy’s numerous props. Megan Houchins has directed the show to have a lively flow

The set, designed by Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay, portrays a fairly generic living room, with a sofa, almost-matching ottoman, and chair. A hall tree stage right and an illuminated Christmas tree stage left are flanked by Victorian street lamps with ornate metalwork arches. A brick wall segment and a couple of frosted windows hang in the background. Larger frosted windows hang on the other three walls of the black box playing space, occasionally acting as projection screens, particularly for a nifty subway effect. Lights hang above, reminiscent of the shape of the Victorian street lamps. It’s a lovely and workable set.

Sound, designed by Daniel Terry, works just fine. The small playing area requires no amplification. James M. Helms’ lighting design has a great variety to set mood for various scenes, but the various levels of illumination across the front of the stage prove distracting in scenes with general lighting in which Ms. James moves back and forth across the stage, in and out of full light.

"The 12 Dates of Christmas" contains language that makes it suitable only for mature audiences, but the rest of the content never gets terribly racy. At heart, this is a wholesome story with a slightly sentimental ending, enlivened by the tang of Renita James’ all-in performance in which she goes all-out to bring the story to life.

Christmas Canteen, by Brandon O’Dell
Upping Their Game
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
The 21st edition of Aurora Theatre’s "Christmas Canteen" borrows elements from previous productions (Brandon O’Dell’s shameless sponsor plugs; the armed services tribute; Ann-Carol Pence singing "Silent Night"), but ups the ante to provide a truly spectacular holiday entertainment. And spectacular it is, with aerial acrobatics, glitter from the flies, and a collection of world-class talent.

Julie Allardice-Ray’s set design screams 1960’s style, with rhomboids in teal and mustard brown on frosted plexiglass sliding screens. Stylized Christmas trees in various wintry blue-green shades back the upstage four-piece band. The screens and a couple of stair units move back and forth across the stage to set up various scenes.

Alan Yeong’s costumes are as spectacular as the set, but far more varied. Mary Parker’s lighting design projects snowflakes on the set at the start, then explodes in variety and intensity. Daniel Pope’s sound design keeps things easily audible and balances and blends the band and voices seamlessly.

Jen MacQueen does triple duty in the show as co-director (with Anthony P. Rodriguez), choreographer, and cast member. She does fine work throughout, culminating in her gymnastic ring routine in the finale. Her choreography fits the talents of the cast like a terpsichorean glove.

And, wow!, is the cast talented. Cecil Washington, Jr. gives the best rendition of "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" that I’ve ever experienced. Lyndsay Ricketson Brown impresses in every song and also in her aerial work. Christian Magby exudes charisma, with a twinkle in his eye and great dancing and singing skills. Apprentice company members Cody Russell and Candice McLellan fill their smaller roles with assurance and charm.

Our host is Brandon O’Dell, who also wrote the show, which includes special lyrics to a number of well-known songs, most notably a take-off on the opening number from "Hamilton." (One section of the show last year was a reprise of numbers from shows Aurora has done in the past; his year, one section is numbers from shows Aurora has NOT done.) As the writer, he has found the balance of giving himself just enough goofy moments to amuse without detracting from the forward momentum of the musical numbers.

Interacting with Brandon is Diany Rodriguez, one of the finest singers and actresses to grace Aurora’s stage. Her reactions to Brandon’s shtick are totally genuine, yet pointed to get audience reaction. It’s a fine line that few actors can navigate successfully. She can, and she’s magnificent.

Ann-Carol Pence’s musical direction is superb, as always, and her band (the cut-up percussionist Mark Biering, the long-haired guitarist Jim Stallings, and the cheery bassist Greg Armijo) are given more of a due than usual, making a calculatedly late entrance in act two, which starts with a gloriously melodic (and funny) a capella rendition of "12 Days of Christmas."

Is there anything to dislike in the show? Let’s think... Oh. Stray pieces of glitter float down occasionally, especially when the screens are moved, and that can be distracting. That’s about it. Aurora’s "Christmas Canteen" just keeps getting better and better. The professionalism of this edition stupefies and entertains and amazes.

On the Verge, or the Geography of Yearning, by Eric Overmyer
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Eric Overmyer’s "On the Verge, or the Geography of Yearning" uses dense, poetic language and arcane, sesquipedalian terms to situate us in the nineteenth century milieu in which the play starts. It’s off-putting to many audience members (the ones who leave at intermission). For those whose eyes don’t glaze over at the language, the play has many pleasures to reveal.

Carolyn Cook’s staging makes splendid use of John Nooner’s inventive scenic design. Flowing curtains spill onto the stage and they, along with a few basic cubes, form the landscape that the three female explorers traverse. MC Park’s many props help to populate the space, and Elizabeth Rasmusson’s costumes do a wonderful job of setting the time period(s). Alex Riviere’s lighting design highlights the action with smooth precision. For the most part, the staging suggests a barebones black box production whose scale has been blown up to fill the large Georgia Ensemble Theatre stage.

The three actresses (Park Krausen, Keena Redding Hunt, and Michelle Pokopac) all do splendid work, speaking their many lines clearly and detailing the characteristics of their roles with equal clarity. Topher Payne has the task of portraying all the other characters of the story. He is perhaps less of a chameleon in looks than the roles might suggest, but he makes them distinct. (Gawky teen Gus was my favorite of his roles.)

Aside from being a tad on the long side, "On the Verge" suffers from a lack of wackiness. The script puts the explorers in unfamiliar situations often bordering on the absurd, but there is a sort of reverence that pervades the production. Near the start of the second act, a collection of assorted objects descend on wires. I found myself thinking that this was the fun element the show needs more of. Then the objects flew back up and disappeared and the near-reverential tone returned.

Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s "On the Verge" presents the script as if it’s something good for us. And it is good, but the slightly intellectual tone doesn’t give it mass appeal. The production is easy to admire, but somewhat more difficult to adore.

Honor the System, by Daniel Carter Brown
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
"Honor the System" centers around the concept of a hotel that runs on the honor system, with punishments mysteriously applied to those who abuse the trust of the establishment. It starts out as a comedy, but the comedy doesn’t really work. We have an earth mother hippie (Karen Ruetz), a reclusive writer (Jeffrey Sneed), and a grammar stickler on the lam (Melissa Rainey) to start with. They’re all rather unpleasant. Then they are joined by the foul-mouthed Ryan (Matthew Busch) and his sister (Ali Olhausen), and the unpleasantness quotient skyrockets. Ryan’s outbursts of profanity are the only comedy that really lands, and they’re pretty raunchy.

At the end of the first act, the show transitions to being a thriller, and that part of the show works quite well. We have learned the secret of the hotel, as have some of the residents, and it’s only a matter of time before justice is dispensed to those who have behaved unethically. There’s double casting, explained in the script by having the characters described as looking like one another, and there’s lots of action. Carolyn Choe has directed the show to keep it moving along.

The set, designed by Will Brooks, places the check-in desk up center, the door to the deluxe suite down right, and hallways to other portions of the hotel stage left and stage right center. The lobby of the hotel is furnished with a loveseat and a few chairs. It’s not terribly attractive, but it works quite well in terms of the staging. Graffiti effects added during the intermission are ably implemented. Lighting (designed by Nina Gooch), sound (designed by Carolyn Choe), and costumes (designed by Julianne Whitehead) do their jobs with equal effectiveness.

Performances are fine, but only Matthew Busch seems to truly inhabit his character. Ali Olhausen is good as his sister, but appears far younger than the thirtyish person she is described as being. Jeffrey Sneed does well as writer Wayne, but is less convincing as trucker Tuck. Karen Ruetz scores as policewoman Barb, but can’t make the dialogue of her hippie sister Marigold truly come to life. Melissa Rainey also has problems making the speech patterns of Zoe seem natural. She displays the menace of her character, but is not believable as a well-educated former teacher.

Daniel Carter Brown has devised a script that works well within the confines of the Out of Box space. It takes a long time gathering steam, but the payoff, well, pays off. Director Carolyn Choe has created a production that doesn’t stun with its inventiveness, but that entertains. It’s a good production, but not great.

A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry
A Plum
Thursday, November 17, 2016
At this point in time, "A Raisin in the Sun" can be considered a classic drama. It’s dated in a few respects, particularly in terms of its characters’ views on African colonialism, but most of it seems very contemporary. Racial discrimination in housing still exists, although not usually in quite so blatant a form as in this play, and striving for a better life is something shared by all people at all times and in all societies.

Lionheart Theatre Company is presenting a terrific production of this classic. The set, designed by Tanya Moore, perfectly captures the neat but worn apartment inhabited by the Younger family. A tiny kitchen is placed stage left. Doors upstage of it lead to the hall and to the shared bedroom of Mama and her daughter Beneatha. The bedroom of son Walter and his wife Ruth is hidden behind hanging sheets stage right, with a loveseat in front of it functioning as the bedroom of their son Travis. Above it all is a clothesline and window and wall fragments suggesting an apartment building. Add in the terrific period props by Nancy Keener, the splendid wigs, and the spot-on costumes by Rose Bianco and the physical production by itself is impressive.

Bob Peterson’s sound design is wonderful, giving us a very natural soundscape, including period music to cover scene transitions. The show starts with a recording of the cast reciting from the Langston Hughes poem from which the play takes its title. Following this, Gary White’s light design uses shadowplay on the stage right sheets, giving us a very atmospheric entry into the world of the play. Lighting otherwise illuminates the stage as necessary for the time of day, with just one unnecessary spotlight effect as Walter climbs on a table for an impassioned speech that holds the stage all on its own.

It’s the acting that enthralls. Rahshaun Cormier is all barely suppressed anger as Walter, watching his dreams thwarted at every turn, and Mr. Cormier does the role up right. Jessica Wise has a much more optimistic role as Beneatha, and she plays the character winningly. Celeste Campbell triumphs as Mama, appearing completely natural in the role and yet hitting all the right dramatic notes. Markia Chappelle doesn’t seem quite so natural as Walter’s wife Ruth, but she also hits all the dramatic moments set out by the script and by Joan McElroy’s taut direction.

The minor roles are also filled by able actors. Darrell Grant (Bobo) and Christian "CJ" Gamble (Travis) don’t have much chance to shine. Bryan Smellie (George) and Esosa Idahosa (Joseph Asagai) believably portray Beneatha’s competing suitors, and both do very creditable work. Jay Croft has only a couple of scenes as Karl Lindner, but mingles natural sweetness with bigotry in a very affecting fashion. Victoria Wilson (Mrs. Johnson) has only one scene, but she comes on like a force of nature and exits to a flurry of admiring applause.

When a production is consistently this good, the handiwork of the director has accomplished this feat. Ms. McElroy consistently creates first-rate productions that rise head and shoulders above typical fare at the theatres she works at. "A Raisin in the Sun" is no exception to this. It’s a plum.

Becoming Dr. Ruth, by Mark St. Germain
Née Karola Siegel
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Dr. Ruth Westheimer has led an eventful life. "Becoming Dr. Ruth" traces that life from Nazi-era Germany to her height of fame, using as its setting the apartment she is preparing to move from following her husband’s death. In packing up, she comes across various items that trigger memories from her past, which she then imparts to the audience (acknowledging them as "company"). It’s an eminently workable playwriting device.

The set at Art Station is a lovely representation of a cluttered New York apartment, designed by Michael Hidalgo. Bookcases and dollhouses fill the periphery of the room, and myriad props fill the bookcases and dollhouses. A special feature is a large-screen computer monitor upstage center that acts as a window except when it displays enlarged images of photos Dr. Ruth is viewing. The technology of the screen and of the sound system are excellent examples of the first-rate work Mr. Hidalgo consistently produces.

David Thomas has directed the show to use the full extent of the stage in a very natural manner. Judy Leavell, speaking in an approximation of Dr. Ruth’s German accent, travels the stage with ease, somehow appearing shorter than she actually is. Her performance is ingratiating and sweet, but at the performance I attended she had several episodes of struggling with transitions into new story segments. It’s only those awkward moments that detract from Art Station’s production.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer had a traumatic childhood and pursued various endeavors in various countries before becoming a sex therapist who achieved media fame. It’s not an overly dramatic life, but it has been dramatized ably by Mark St. Germain. Judy Leavell and David Thomas, along with a crackerjack technical team, have brought it fully to life on the Art Station stage.

The Unexpected Guest, by Agatha Christie
The Protracted Guest
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
"The Unexpected Guest" is a pretty typical mystery by Agatha Christie. We have a murder early on; a collection of people are introduced, all of whom are revealed to have had motive and/or opportunity to commit the murder; and the setting is an English country home.

At Onstage Atlanta, Harley Gould’s set design is a knockout, accompanied by Chris Franken’s props to create a believable facsimile of a big game hunter’s study, taxidermied trophies bedecking the walls. The furnishings and layout accommodate the large cast as detectives interview all the inhabitants of and visitors to the country home. Together with Nancye Quarles Hilley’s costumes and Tom Gillespie’s lighting, this is a very good-looking production (aside from the dim area down center that becomes evident whenever anyone traverses the front of the stage from one side to the other).

Acting is good across the board. The corpse of Richard Warwick (Ian Gibson at the performance I attended) is appropriately still. Edwin Ashurst speaks in a beautiful British accent (unmatched by anyone else in the cast) as Inspector Thomas, and behaves with the authority one would expect from a police officer conducting a murder investigation. Scott Rousseau also gives a winning performance as his bumbling sidekick Sergeant Cadwallader, although he seems to be inserting ad libs that don’t quite fit into the rhythm of Agatha Christie’s dialogue. Brandon Michael Mitchell is fine, if a bit bland, as the unexpected visitor who discovers the body.

The primary suspects are also good. Emma Green, as Richard’s widow Laura, displays all the colors needed to flesh out an unhappy wife. Pat Bell adds an edge as Richard’s none-too-loving mother. John Coombs has the bearing and reserve of a proper servant, and Samuel David Gresham the debonair suavity of a politician next-door neighbor. Lory Cox does a good job of portraying a manipulative caretaker to Richard’s gun-obsessed, mentally defective half-brother, played nicely by Dillion Everett. All have reason to want Richard dead or to want to cover up the real murderer.

And that’s the big problem in the show: the process of putting each character in turn in the spotlight of suspicion becomes tedious. The ending twist is clever, playing off as it does on the "fake" alibi concocted at the start of the show, but the plot takes precedence over character, as it always seems to in Agatha Christie plays. The cleverness of the plot requires behavior that doesn’t always ring true. Add in an over-long running time, and this well-acted, beautifully designed show becomes a mediocre evening of entertainment. Liane LeMaster has directed a perfectly fine production, but hasn’t invested it with enough tension or variety to relieve the mediocrity of the whole.

Appropriate, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
August: No Sage County
Sunday, November 6, 2016
"Appropriate" takes place in a ramshackle plantation house lived in for the past decade by a hoarder. After his death, his three children and their families have descended on the place to get things ready for an auction of the belongings and of the house itself. The set, by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, is a wonderfully mottled blend of mildew, mold, and layers of wallpaper, but it goes perhaps a bit overboard. All the families are staying overnight in the house, and if the upstairs of the house is as moldy as the downstairs is, it’s unlikely that mothers would allow their children to bed down in such sur