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Companies Reviewed#
Aurora Theatre60
Lionheart Theatre Company38
Stage Door Players38
Out of Box Theatre 34
Actor's Express34
Georgia Ensemble Theatre33
Onstage Atlanta, Inc.28
Centerstage North Theatre23
Onion Man Productions21
Atlanta Lyric Theatre19
Act 3 Productions17
Georgia Shakespeare17
The New American Shakespeare Tavern16
ACT116
ART Station Theatre14
Horizon Theatre Company13
Theatrical Outfit11
Broadway Across America10
Rosewater Theatre Company10
New London Theatre9
Theatre in the Square8
Alliance Theatre Company8
Kudzu Playhouse8
Essential Theatre8
The Process Theatre Company8
Synchronicity Performance Group7
Gypsy Theatre Company7
7 Stages6
Fabrefaction Theater Company6
Live Arts Theatre6
New Dawn Theater5
Performing Arts North5
Aris5
North Fulton Drama Club4
The Weird Sisters Theatre Project4
The Magari Theatre Company4
Theatre Arts Guild4
Southside Theatre Guild4
Next Stage Theatre Company4
Academy Theatre4
Agape Players, Inc.4
Button Theatre4
New Origins Theatre Company3
The Underground Theatre3
Resurgens Theatre Company3
Theater of the Stars3
Oglethorpe University Theatre Department3
Cherokee Theatre Company3
Merely Players Presents2
Staged Right Theatre2
Epidemic Theatre Group2
Bozarts Little Theater2
Pinch n' Ouch Theatre2
Théâtre du Ręve 2
Out Front Theatre Company2
Capitol City Opera Company2
Vernal & Sere Theatre2
Main Street Theatre Tucker2
The Fern Theatre Company2
Serenbe Playhouse2
Actors Theatre of Atlanta2
Holly Theatre1
Liberal Eye Productions1
Acting UP1
Kudzu Children's Theater1
The Lyceum Project1
Troubadours of Daytime1
The New Depot Players1
arts@tech1
Theatre 52301
Upper East Side Theatre Company1
Company J at the MJCCA1
Theatre Emory1
Dominion Entertainment Group, LLC1
Chattahoochee Community Players1
The Renaissance Project1
MelloDrama Productions1
Elm Street Cultural Arts Village1
The Kudzu Players1
Catalyst Arts Atlanta1
Stage Two Productions1
Peachtree Players1
Johns Creek Players1
Dorsey Theatre1
2 Fat Farmers Productions1
Northside Church1
Atlanta Musical Theatre Festival1
Mixed Revues1
True Colors Theatre Company1
Red Phoenix Theatre Company1
Folding Chair Classical Theatre1
The Performer’s Warehouse1
Atlanta Broadway Series1
Polk Street Players1
Newnan Community Theatre Company1
Ouroboros Theatre Productions1
Rising Sage Theatre Company1
City of the South Theatricals1
Impulse Repertory Co.1
Average Rating Given : 3.76940
Reviews in Last 6 months : 64
REVIEWS

Vivian: A Musical Ghost Story, by Chase Peacock and Jessica DeMaria
An Unresolved Cord
Saturday, October 14, 2017
3.5
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
3.5
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
3.5
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
4.0
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
Intolerance
Thursday, October 5, 2017
4.5
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
4.0
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
2.5
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
4.0
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
3.5
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
3.5
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
2.0
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
4.5
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
4.5
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
3.0
"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
3.0
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
4.0
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
4.5
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
4.0
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
4.0
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
3.0
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
4.5
"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
4.0
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
3.0
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
4.0
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
4.5
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
4.0
"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
4.0
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
Gone
Thursday, August 17, 2017
4.0
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
3.5
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
4.0
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
Featherweights
Saturday, August 5, 2017
3.5
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
3.5
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
4.0
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
4.5
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
3.0
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
3.5
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
4.0
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
2.5
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
3.5
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
4.5
"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
Reconfigurations
Sunday, June 25, 2017
3.0
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
Miraculous
Tuesday, June 20, 2017
5.0
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
4.0
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
5.0
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
4.0
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
3.5
"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
3.5
"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
4.0
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
3.0
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
2.5
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
4.0
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
4.5
"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
3.0
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
3.5
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
4.0
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
3.0
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
2.5
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
5.0
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
4.0
"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
4.5
"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
Neoclassy
Saturday, April 22, 2017
4.5
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
Stagey
Saturday, April 22, 2017
3.0
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
3.0
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
Pacing
Saturday, April 22, 2017
2.5
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
5.0
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
3.0
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
1.5
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
4.0
"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
4.5
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
4.5
"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
3.5
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
4.5
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
3.0
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
3.5
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
4.0
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
4.0
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
3.5
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
2.5
"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
3.5
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
4.5
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
4.0
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
2.0
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
2.0
"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
4.0
"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
5.0
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
4.5
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
3.5
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
3.0
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
3.5
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
4.0
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
Deathtrap
Sunday, January 15, 2017
4.0
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
3.5
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
4.0
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
2.0
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
4.5
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
4.0
"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
2.5
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
2.5
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
5.0
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
4.0
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
3.5
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
2.5
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
2.5
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
4.5
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
5.0
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
Logophilia
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
4.0
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
Comedy/Thriller
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
3.5
"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
4.5
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
NĂ©e Karola Siegel
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
4.0
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
3.0
"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
3.5
"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 surroundings. At least the place seems structurally sound, with a curved staircase up center containing a sturdy banister (even though the baluster spindles seem off the vertical); large, undamaged windows stage left; and transoms over the outside and kitchen doors.

Mary Parker’s lighting design has a lot of effects, many of dim night illumination, but (at least in a preview performance) the kitchen transom isn’t shielded properly from backstage light, showing shadows whenever anyone ascends the stairs and waits for an entrance. Preston Goodson’s sound design also has a lot of effects, with cicada sounds changing volume nicely with the opening and closing of the outside door, but the effects are overblown at the opening and closing of the show. Katy Munroe’s costumes fit the characters without drawing undue attention to themselves. Kimberly Townsend’s props, on the other hand, are varied and copious. Kudos to her.

I don’t envy the stage crew of the show. At the start, the stage is messy and crowded, but with sufficient room for the cast to move around. At the act break, the room needs to be tidied up in preparation for the auction. By the end of the play, parts of the set are in worse shape than at the beginning. And it all has to be reset for the next performance.

While the acting is good throughout, there’s an air of artificiality about the whole plot, as if the playwright is too young and inexperienced in life to capture the cultural underpinnings of the characters he has written. Director Freddie Ashley hasn’t gotten the cast to make these characters seem totally real. Bryan Brendle and Alexandra Ficken seem to be miscast as a couple of recovering substance abusers, with little sense of fragility, although real tears are shed. Jan Wikstrom is given the unenviable task of portraying older sister Toni, whose monstrous behavior overwhelms the play and whose second-act moments of softness consequently don’t ring true. The three children’s roles (played by Dylan Moore, John Osorio, and Devon Hales) seem caricatures in some ways and don’t truly come to life. The most realistic pair are Kevin Stillwell and Cynthia Barrett as husband and wife, with Ms. Barrett’s reactions throughout beautifully calibrated to capture the truth of her character.

Unless things improve drastically from previews, Mr. Ashley’s direction produces a play a full half hour longer than previous productions of the play. There’s a lot of action in the first act and near the end of the second act, but most of the second act is two-character scenes that probe more deeply into the character traits we’ve been introduced to. It’s a standard playwriting convention, but can make for some slow going.

Things will improve during the run. There will be fewer line stumbles. David Sterritt’s fight choreography will appear more realistic. The pace will improve. (And I hope Mr. Osorio’s scene-ending business will be shaped to have some meaning.) But the play itself will remain a construct rather than slice of true, human life. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is obviously talented and has written a play that will entertain many and cause discussion among playgoers, but during the performance I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was seeing a variation on "August: Osage County," with the spiritually sensitive River (Ms. Ficken) failing to bring any sage to purify the toxic environment whose fumes pervade the show from start to finish.

Doctor Faust, by Aaron Gotlieb, adapted from Marlowe and Goethe
Trippingly on the Tongue
Sunday, November 6, 2016
-1.0
I don’t know how to rate Theatre Arts Guild’s production of "Doctor Faust." How do you rate something when it is thoroughly professional in technical terms, concept, and direction, but is performed by an ensemble obviously in over their heads? In this dialogue-rich play, everyone manages to speed through their lines apace, but only the three leads and one ensemble member can reliably be understood. The other ensemble members lack either the volume or enunciation to consistently get their lines across clearly. Their zombie-like poses are terrific, but the poses too often take the place of reactions to the dialogue or situations. It’s a shame.

Lizz Dorsey’s set is stunning, consisting of a raked stage with a circular platform up left and four wide pillars, the middle two forming a "V." The pillars are subtly textured and used occasionally for projections that complement Ben Rawson’s excellent and atmospheric lighting design. The whole thing is backed by a partially obscured backdrop that appears to have been recycled from the 2011 production of "Ghosts." Adding to the visual appeal are Nancye Quarles Hilley’s costumes and Sara Lynn Herman’s props, impressive both in their quality and quantity.

In auditory terms, the design elements are also totally professional. Kevin MacLeod’s music sounds fantastic in the sound system designed by Jillian Haughey and director Aaron Gotlieb. No personal microphones are used in the large auditorium. This may not be strictly professional, since over-amplification seems to be the trend in professional productions, but I find it highly laudable. The ensemble may not be up to the demands of projection in a large auditorium, but they obviously have been coached to come as close as they are currently able.

Four people in the cast are distinctly audible at all times: Kirill Sheynerman as Doctor Faust, Parris Sarter as Mephistopheles, Jillian Haughey as Gretchen/Helen of Troy, and Anna Spencer as Lust. (The seven ensemble members are named after the seven deadly sins and play various roles; for Ms. Spencer, the main role is as the pope). The only person I could almost never understand is Breana Jarrells (Sloth), probably due to the tremendous speed of her speech. All the ensemble are given choreographed movements, particularly during scene transitions, and they excel at the physical aspects of the roles. Aside from Ms. Spencer and Ms. Jarrells, they are Naheem Mitchell (Pride), Daniel Moody (Greed), Daniel Castro (Wrath), Kendra Gilbert (Envy), and Jamaica N. Owens (Gluttony). Most cross gender at one point or another to play their roles, many of which are quite brief.

Acting of the principals is vocally quite good, but only Parris Sarter seems to be fully committed to her role throughout the course of the evening. Ms. Haughey is perhaps not physically suited to embody Helen of Troy, and she seems somewhat reserved as Gretchen until she gets to her mad/death scene in prison, when she blows away any reserve with an intense performance. Mr. Sheynerman never seems to feel fully comfortable in Doctor Faust’s shoes, seeming to be preoccupied by remembering his lines and uneasy in his interactions with the non-professional student performers of the ensemble. He underplays most moments of his character’s arc, when a large, theatrical performance would be more in keeping with the sensibility of the director’s conception.

This production is stunning in conception, but somewhat overlong and dry in its action. The man directly behind me in the audience was sleeping and close to snoring as the first act extended past an hour. Action picks up greatly in the second act, and a couple of coups-de-théâtre really spark the proceedings. The ending tableau is theatrical and chilling.

With a crackerjack cast, this "Doctor Faust" could quite conceivably be stunning. As it is, it provides a wonderful training experience for the students in the cast. Director Aaron Gotlieb has integrated dance movement into a complex staging that creates memorable stage pictures, and he has challenged his ensemble with the variety of roles each is tasked with portraying. His work as a director is on the scale of a 5 out of 5; the overall production is far less successful than that.

Violet, by Brian Crawley (words) & Jeanine Tesori (music)
Transformation Through Disfigurement
Saturday, November 5, 2016
4.0
Violet was disfigured by an axe head as an adolescent and is now embarking on a bus trip to a television faith healer in the hopes of having the scar miraculously removed. She encounters two servicemen on her journey, and through them she finds types of redemption she had not anticipated. Do we see the scar? No; only in the reactions of the actors looking at Violet. And we sense it in her worldview and her actions.

Laura Gronek’s performance as Violet is a revelation. She doesn’t have much opportunity to showcase her excellent skills as a dancer in the minimal, yet effective choreography of Johnna Barrett Mitchell, but -- boy! -- does she get a chance to show off her beautiful singing voice and achingly relatable acting. She’s the heart of the show, and it’s a vibrant, beating, truthful heart.

A younger version of Violet is played by a pig-tailed Dorey Casey. Her voice too is wonderful, as is her acting. The power of her role as the Young Vi is diminished a bit, however, by having Ms. Casey also fill in as a member of the ensemble, which initially dims the clarity of some scenes.

The two servicemen are the other two major roles in the largely through-sung show. Tyree Jones may be too young, short, and doughy for his role as an army sergeant, but he has a glorious singing voice that brings down the house in his solos. Jeremy Cooper is more stereotypically appropriate for his role as a handsome and callow army man, and he admirably fills the part of a lothario with unadmirable qualities.

The cast is augmented by seven actors who play various roles. All are good, with Weston Slaton a particular standout as a high-powered televangelist. Michelle Davis, Nylsa Smallwood, and Jonathan Goff have terrific singing voices that help to make their various characters memorable. The others hold their own and occasionally shine.

The orchestra, led by music director John-Michael d’Haviland, provides more than adequate accompaniment, with occasional, isolated sour violin notes the only thing detracting from the string-heavy beauty of the near-constant music. The simple, effective set design, by Theresa Dean and Danny Mitchell, arrays four brick-bottomed window units across the stage, with a low brick platform center stage. Taylor Sorrel’s light design adds color to the windows occasionally and nicely highlights the action on the stage. Ben Sterling’s sound design makes everything audible, but it is sometimes disconcerting to hear audio from a speaker at one side of the stage when the character to whom the voice belongs is making an entrance from the other side. Mary Sorrel’s props are fine.

When a show works as well as this "Violet" does, the director deserves a large portion of praise. Taylor Sorrel has created a show with fluid movement, a satisfying arc, and a memorable sound and look. Like the character Violet herself, the show does not show blemishes to the audience.

As You Like It, by William Shakespeare
Seven Women, Six Chairs
Sunday, October 30, 2016
4.5
A set consisting of a few props and six folding chairs in a black box theatre. The show starting with the cast sitting in a circle, reviewing their scripts. A cast of all women in a play whose characters are mostly men. Should it work? A likely "no." Does it work? An unqualified "yes."

Credit director Marcus Geduld for shaping the play to flow seamlessly from actor prep into the story itself. Credit Harley Gould for creating lighting that suggests a dappled forest when appropriate, while never casting distracting shadows. Credit Alexis Thomason for setting Shakespeare’s songs to charming music. Credit Jake Guinn for effective fight direction. And credit the cast for bringing over 20 characters to theatrical life.

Everyone plays multiple roles. Betty Mitchell gets the older roles; the delightfully goofy Rachel Wansker gets the lion’s share of comic roles. Judy Thomas gets a few small roles, functioning primarily as a musician. The fiery Erin Greenway plays the main male romantic role of Orlando; the matronly Lisa Blankenship plays her female counterpart, Rosalind. Natalie Karp plays a variety of roles in a serious vein, while Jenni McCarthy plays an even greater variety, mostly in a comic vein. All impress.

Certain moments have greater resonance in this production than in previous productions of "As You Like It" that I’ve seen. Ms. Karp’s melancholy Jaques has several, with her delivery of the "all the world’s a stage" speech followed movingly by the death of Ms. McCarthy’s Old Adam. Her Oliver nicely morphs from unpleasant at the start to sympathetic at the end. Ms. McCarthy is terrific in all her roles, with her giddy Celia a particular favorite of mine. Ms. Wansker is funny in so many ways in so many of her characters, yet glides into seriousness when the role calls for it. Ms. Greenway’s voice is clear as a bell throughout, her diction excellent and her emotions filling her speech. Ms. McCarthy does well in her role, particularly in trousers and in the epilogue, when she is somewhat unexpectedly garbed in an Elizabethan gown. Costumes otherwise are casual and modern.

The show is long, at nearly three hours, but moves well. Mr. Geduld has created a show that gives us the script of Shakespeare’s play writ large in the unadorned trappings of a bare-bones, wonderfully acted and gloriously directed production. Even the blocking is inventive, with one character or another exiting into the audience for a brief time before making their next entrance, letting only six chairs work for seven actors. The space is used beautifully, with a cleverness that imbues the entire production.

Does the show work? An unqualified "yes."

Clarifications: this production plays at the black box theatre at 7 Stages and runs throughout October 2016. It appears a few defaults were used in creating the entry for this play, preventing it from appearing in the listings of current plays.

Evil Dead: The Musical, by George Reinblatt et. al.
Kandarian Fundead
Sunday, October 30, 2016
4.5
Okay, the set by Morgan & Will Brooks is kind of cheesy, with a cellar door stage right, a kitchen bar up center, and a window and loveseat stage left, the walls an odd mix-and-match collection of wood planks and fake faux painting. The acting is very broad across the board. Blood spurts in copious amounts onstage and on the first row of spectators. And the cheesiness is all the fun.

The plot is a spoof of horror films, with everyone in the cast succumbing to one thing or another during the course of the show. Of course, the Kandarian Evil Dead return as undead killing machines, so death doesn’t prevent the reappearance of a character. (The only thing that can do that is the double-casting of Kristin Storla as both tramp Shelly and professor’s daughter Annie.)

Julianne Whitehead’s costumes and Stevie Roushdi’s lighting design do all they need to do and do it with style. Roy Wooley’s makeup design and special effects add to the fun and gore. Lauren Rosenzweig’s choreography can’t be expansive in the tiny playing space, but the dance moves add delightful movement to the songs by a variety of composers and lyricists. Face it, the whole thing is cheesy fun.

Director Zip Rampy has staged the action to use the space particularly well and has given laugh-out-loud bits to the cast (although some of them were undoubtedly created or embellished by the cast members, who seem to be having a whale of a good time throughout). Jack Allison is sturdy and heroic as Ash, while Lisa Hatt is all good cheer as his girlfriend Linda and MK Penley undergoes a wondrous transformation as his sister Cheryl. Jim Dailey, although a bit old for the role of college student Scott, throws himself into that role and chews the scenery (okay, just a flashlight) as the professor. Kristin Storla nails her two roles, although I would have preferred her Shelly as a blonde, and Daniel Pino nearly brings the house down as the oft-interrupted Ed. As for Ali Olhausen and Julianne Whitehead as the ensemble, they fulfill their duties with distinct personalities that double the fun that might be expected from them.

"Evil Dead: the Musical" has a cheery score that goes down easy and sounds great under Annie Cook’s musical direction. The only negative is that the show seems to go on a tad too long, although clocking in at only two hours. The cast (particularly the rubber-limbed Jack Allison) invest so much energy in their roles that their resources show incipient signs of depletion by the end. And seeing actors give so much of themselves that they have little left at the end of the show is inspiringly delightful. This is not high art, but it’s foul-mouthed, irreverent pop art that makes an audience laugh and cheer and stand at the end of the show.

Dog Sees God, by Bert V. Royal
You’re a Gooed Man, Charlie Brown
Sunday, October 30, 2016
3.0
Take the characters from Charles Schulz’s "Peanuts," age them to current-day high school students, and have them deal with death, drugs, alcohol, arson, bullying, and homosexuality. It makes for a very grim, profane play.

Michael Harrison has directed the play with a fair degree of fluidity, with simple set pieces of his set design moved on and off swiftly, with the exception of a stationary faux (but nicely realized) grand piano stage left. Becca Parker’s lighting design does a nice job of highlighting certain portions of the playing space for certain scenes. Matt Reizsl’s sound design neatly blends recordings with live piano playing. Victoria Trotti’s costume design hints at our familiarity with the characters, while not being slavish imitations, and the props by Sarah Struck and Becca Parker impress with their variety and applicability.

Performances are good throughout, although a somber tone of sincerity prevails. This sincerity imbues the performances of all the males: Anthony J. James as lead character CB; Ryan Lambert as tortured homosexual Beethoven; Michael Howell as the bullying Matt; and even Tyler Hayes as stoner Van, whose comic moments are devoid of levity. The female roles allow more variety: Katie Huntington’s changing costumes and viewpoints as CB’s sister give her a bit of character; Teresa Bayo’s second-banana, wallflower traits as Marcy evoke some comic sympathy; Diana Riley’s raucous jailhouse humor sparks her scene as Van’s sister; and Lindsay Lohan lookalike Jennifer Studnicki provides a little drunken humor, while exuding sarcastic sincerity. Even the scenes with the most comedy have serious underpinnings as the teenagers engage in "bad" behavior.

The ending of the show is memorable, with Charlie Brown under a symbolic black rain cloud, reading a reassuring letter from his pen pal as the other cast members stand onstage in their undergarments, labels in bullying language scrawled on their skin. It’s memorable, but not ultimately meaningful. The play appears to have an anti-bullying message that seems directed at youth, but the language and situations of the play make it suitable only for adult audiences. I’m not sure whom the play is expected to have the most impact on. Certainly not a profanity-hating fuddy-duddy like me.

Women in Jeopardy, by Wendy Macleod
Female Fantasy
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
3.0
Aurora Theatre’s "Women in Jeopardy" is written by a female and produced by a largely female production team. The female focus shows. The storyline features middle-aged female protagonists, two of whom are treated as desirable sexual objects. When a 20-year-old male rips off his shirt to display his buff body to an older woman he expresses interest in, it’s clear that there’s a bit of female fantasy involved.

Overall, the production has more to admire than to enjoy. The set, designed by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, deftly converts to the four locales called for in the script, but the main locale (Mary’s kitchen) isn’t terribly attractive, centered as it is by an immense island and painted a uniform blue. The costumes by the Curley-Clay sisters range from the attractive to the shapeless, but always conform to the needs of the character. Mary Parker’s lighting design fulfills the needs of the script, as do the contributions of a couple of males (Thom Jenkins’ sound design and Ryan Bradburn’s props).

Acting is fine across the board. LaLa Cochran (Liz) gives her usual gutsy performance as a woman at her sexual peak. Kate Kneeland (Jo) plays a more humdrum sort with great humanity. Kerrie Seymour (Mary) is terrific as a plain Jane who sparks interest in multiple men. These three are the principal players.

They are supported by three others. Justin Walker (Trenner) is absolutely spot-on as a slacker snowboarder with the face and body of a male model. Caroline Arapoglou (Amanda) is good as his well-endowed girlfriend, but could stand to be a bit ditzier. Andrew Benator plays dual roles, Liz’s dentist boyfriend Jackson and police sergeant Kirk Sponsüllar. Both are supposed to look alike and to resemble Woody Allen. Mr. Benator has the Woody Allen resemblance down pat, but his presence isn’t sufficiently different between the two roles, although Wendy Macleod’s writing makes the distinction clear.

The chemistry among the three principal players is wonderful and forms the heart of the show as the women contend with the implications of a news story that Jackson’s dental hygienist has gone missing after Jackson has been the last to see her alive. That ties into the main problem in the show, though, which is that the first act is stuffed with set-up and little payoff. The second act picks up some steam, but the plot is abruptly resolved in about two lines at the very end of the show. The relationships are fun to observe, but the storyline is a bit flaccid. And that’s the last thing a woman wants in a man or a storyline.

I Hate Hamlet, by Paul Rudnick
No Pace
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
3.0
The Magari Theatre Company’s inaugural production is "I Hate Hamlet," concurrently being performed by The Gypsy Theatre Company in Buford and performed within the past couple of years by Stage Door Players in Dunwoody and Lionheart Theatre in Norcross. The Magari Theatre Company production suffers in comparison.

Amanda Jewell is credited both with the direction and the design of the show. The design is uninspiring, if workable. Plain walls with an obscured fireplace are most of what is seen in the first act, with openings stage right and stage left (up a three-step stair). It’s hardly the impressive and dated residence people aah and ooh about. It looks much better in the second act, when set dressing adds class and style. A few effective lighting effects are used, but in general the light is a bit uneven, with shadows predominating at the edges of the stage. Sound is fine, although the opening of the show could use some underscoring. The costume plot is ambitious and largely successful, but doesn’t really show evidence of a consistent design sensibility.

The actors all seem talented. Halley Tiefert has good New York energy as realtor/psychic Felicia Dantine, and Jeremy Crawford brings an equal amount of L.A. showbiz energy to the stage. Erin Gathercoal does a nice job as Lillian Troy, despite a bad wig and being too young for the role. Tamika Shannon makes for a delightfully enthusiastic Deirdre McDavey, although her soft voice could use more power behind it. The lead actors, Keary McCutchen (John Barrymore) and Austin Chunn (Andrew Rally), show real acting chops, particularly in moments when they advance to the lip of the stage to deliver monologues, their faces clearly visible in the bright light.

But a production requiring close-ups isn’t well-suited to the stage. And this production is also harmed by its lackadaisical pace. Cue pick-ups are slow, and there doesn’t seem to be much shape in the flow of the show. Mr. McCutchen projects low energy, and there are only a couple of moments when the action really sparks, as during Liam McDermott’s fine fight choreography. Blocking too frequently places people directly downstage of others on the chaise at center stage or entering from stage right.

This production is frustrating. Good talent has been placed onstage, but Ms. Jewell’s direction doesn’t take full advantage of it. Vocal projection isn’t consistent, saved only by the fine acoustics of the auditorium. The show has an under-rehearsed feel to it, without the fluidity of speech and cue pick-up that a spot-on show would exhibit. There’s promise in this initial production of the Magari Theatre Company, but it’s mostly promise unfulfilled.

Tartuffe, by Moliere, translated by Christopher Hampton
La Comédie Française
Sunday, October 23, 2016
3.0
Productions of comic masterworks from a previous age need to straddle the line between respect for the original text and respect for the comic sensibilities of a modern audience. CenterStage North does a generally good job of this, but the wordiness of the text tends to bog down the initial scene of the story.

Moliere’s storyline delays the entrance of the title character until the play is well underway, which provides a lot of build-up and the potential for a big let-down if the skills of the actor don’t measure up to the role. Here, Freddy Lynn Wilson is equal to the challenge, but that’s not to say that the play is ideally cast. Both he and Dax Lyle (who plays Valere) seem to have been cast for their slender physiques as much as anything, providing a great contrast to the robust physique of Jeffrey Bigger as Orgon.

Mr. Bigger’s portrayal gives Orgon lots of bluster and bile, but it doesn’t seem calibrated to explain at all why he has been taken in by the pious spell of Tartuffe. Mr. Bigger has the evil laugh of a stock melodrama villain and doesn’t seem to be subservient to his mother (played by Nancy Jensen), who is the only one also under Tartuffe’s spell. We have Mr. Bigger in what is targeted as a star farewell turn on the boards of CenterStage North, but his performance does nothing to illuminate the situation at the core of the story.

Everyone else in the cast seems to be playing their roles to point up Moliere’s plot. LeeAnna Lambert is particularly adept in her highly comic role as the upstart servant Dorine. Directors Jenifer and Kevin Renshaw have filled the play with comic touches that in the hands of a top-notch cast would spark the comedy into the stratosphere. Here, much of the cast isn’t quite up to the task. Even when a portrayal is as absolutely fine as is Karen Worrall’s as Elmire, the casting provides an age disparity that doesn’t reinforce the comedy.

The physical production is also a bit disappointing, although much of it is fine. Gabrielle Hainey’s props are impressive, and Erica Overhulser Gehring’s costumes are a visual feast (although Dorine’s seems to come from a different century than the others). Brenda Orchard’s sound design features appropriate Gallic selections for pre-show music and scene-changing interludes, and Brad Rudy’s lighting is inventive, although upstage shadowplay of Tartuffe before his entrance is a bit easy to miss on the backstage wall (especially since there’s a totally unused, shuttered window in the set right in front of it).

What’s really lacking is in the dressing of David Shelton’s set. The bare bones of the set are okay, but the stark white walls, crude painting, and clumps of flowers on fence and trellises give the feel of a middle school production at best. The design is inventive, with green lawn sections at left and right and a lovely garden view up center, and it certainly uses the full width of the space, but both sides of the set have what look like the exteriors of medieval buildings, although centerstage right acts more as an interior location. Blocking gives the action a nice flow and good sightlines, but there’s a flatness to the visual aspects of the show that prevent it from being all it could be.

CenterStage North deserves credit for presenting a comic masterpiece from another age that isn’t often performed. The comedy picks up as the play goes along, so the final impression audiences will have is likely to be favorable. There’s a lot to like in the production, but it seems grasp has exceeded reach in trying to bring the story to life. Yet with sell-out crowds, boffo box office receipts should be well within reach for CenterStage North.

Autumn Leaves, by Steven D. Miller, David Fisher, Nick Boretz, Daniel Guyton
Falling Leaves, Rising Action
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
4.0
The set for "Autumn Leaves" (designed/built by David Fisher, Nick Boretz, Patrick Young, James Beck, and Paige Steadman) provides no doorways, just panels behind which entrances and exits can be made. One panel is decorated with autumn colors at the top, suggesting fall foliage. It’s simple and practicable. Limited set pieces come on and go off between each of the seven short plays.

Sound design by Curt Shannon provides appropriate music selections to introduce each play and to transition to the next. Otherwise, sound effects are at a minimum. Lighting design, by Paige Steadman and James Beck, provides bright pools of light stage right and left at the height of people standing and another center stage at the height of people sitting.

In the first play, "Lunée Bin" by Steven D. Miller, director Nick Boretz’s fluid blocking requires a fair amount of movement across the stage, with the unfortunate result that the actors’ faces move in and out of illumination. Otherwise, the production moves smoothly, with Deborah Childs’ performance as a newly admitted mental hospital patient everything a playwright might wish. She is ably supported by Annie Jacob and Rick Perera as a nurse and doctor. Costuming and props are excellent, evoking the time period of the late 1940’s.

The tone changes to a comic vein in the second play, David Fisher’s "Truly." Reprising their roles from an Atlanta Theatre-to-Go production, Stephen Pryor and Diane Dicker play a man who utters "I love you" and a woman who requires a series of clarifications in order to construct the appropriate response. It’s funny and to the point, with not much movement in the blocking. The self-directed Mr. Pryor and Ms. Dicker each are delightful.

The third and fourth plays are both by Nick Boretz, and both seem to have set-ups that come to a conclusion just as the action appears to be on the verge of getting really interesting. "War Eagle," directed by the playwright, involves a young woman (Erika Ragsdale) insisting that a young man (Patrick Young) assist her with a cyber-bullying problem she is having. The play ends somewhat abruptly with a revelation from the young man’s past. "French Actress," directed by Lee Buechele and Heather Lyda, pits an aging and eccentric mother (Sallye Hooks) against an exasperated daughter (Stacy Sheets) who has been summoned on false pretenses. I was a bit confused by the storyline, which has the daughter indicate that she had been interrupted while studying, then state later that the college term has not yet started. Blocking for both these shows pretty much takes advantage of the pools of light on the stage.

After intermission, David Fisher’s "Dinner Party" comes along. The set consists of a couple of chairs center stage with the steering column of a car in front. As the play begins, a couple (the charismatic pair of Erika Ragsdale and Patrick Young) enter the car and start a discussion of the fabulous dinner party they’ve just attended. The shifts in tone and viewpoint provide a lot of hilarity, and the play goes on just long enough to get its point across and leave the audience fully satisfied. David Fisher has done a fine job of directing his own play.

Second up in the second act is David Fisher’s "Uxoricide," in which a husband (Allen Stone) and wife (Katy Clarke) trade cutesy endearments and veiled threats as they read the newspaper. J. Michael Carroll has directed it with enough movement to keep it from being static. At the performance I attended, though, there seemed to be line problems of the sort that make a playwright’s heart sink, knowing that his or her work is not being presented to its best advantage. Aside from the line problems, the performances are enjoyable.

Last is Daniel Guyton’s "The Sins of Rebethany Chastain." Reprising her role in this monologue from last year’s Atlanta Fringe Festival is the fantastic Kate Guyton, in a tour-de-force performance of a white-trashy young woman whose actions represent the "sins" of the title. It’s brash and profane and energetic and given lively direction by the playwright, ending the night on a high note of hilarity.

"Autumn Leaves" presents the works of four playwrights, each of whom appears to have a distinctive style that shines through in the productions. This is truly an "eclectic collection of short plays by local playwrights," with a nice flow that makes for an entertaining evening (or afternoon) of theatre.

Freed Spirits, by Daryl Lisa Fazio
Scooby Doo Does Oakland Cemetery
Friday, October 14, 2016
3.0
Daryl Lisa Fazio’s "Freed Spirits" has all the hallmarks of a Scooby Doo mystery. Four characters (and, boy, are they characters!) visit Oakland Cemetery after a tornado and piece together clues to solve the mystery of ghostly sightings. They all have backgrounds that uniquely suit them for the task. Dr. Netta Finch (Marguerite Hannah) is a pathologist and a medium. Byron White (Jonathan Horne) investigates paranormal behavior. M.J. Bell (Bryn Striepe) has finely tuned skills of deduction. And Susan Dickey (Suehyla El-Attar) has an eidetic (photographic) memory and the personality of a sloppily affectionate large dog. All the others have personality quirks of their own.

Lisa Adler has directed the first act in something approaching the broad style of TV comedy for kids. It’s pleasant, but not very realistic. The second act slows down a little to have the requisite heart-to-heart scenes where we learn more about the deep personal lives of the characters, then throws in a twist or two in the explanation of the ghostly sightings. This act is a little more real in emotional terms, but still reeks of the playwright’s manipulations. It’s all very cleverly wrapped up, but it has all the lasting impact of a half-hour TV show.

Moriah Curley-Clay and Isabel Curley-Clay have designed an impressive set with revolving components that seem intended to invoke different spots within the cemetery. It doesn’t really work that way, with the pathways and background remaining the same. Scenic painting of aged stone is good near the audience and less realistic upstage. Bradley Bergeron’s projections give a feel for the Atlanta skyline, for the tornado, and for gravestones, but often appear washed out when stage lights are full. Mary Parker’s lighting design and Thom Jenkins’ sound design neatly handle all the effects required of them.

Costumes, by the Curley-Clay sisters with associate designer Jordan Jaked Carrier, also do all the script requires of them. Kate Bidwell LaFoy’s props do that and more. This is a good-looking production, but without the cinematic flexibility that the script seems to suggest. That student Keisha (Jimmica Collins) is attempting to make a documentary of Oakland Cemetery reinforces this lack of flexibility.

Acting is consistent in style across the board. Quirks and comedy are concentrated on the core four. Spencer Kolbe Miller plays a spectral Confederate soldier and Ms. Collins doubles as a ghostly slave, with less dimension to those characters than to the core four (at least until the play begins to wrap up). It’s just so unbelievable that each of the characters suddenly reveals a new talent or skill at the exact moment it’s needed to advance the plot.

"Freed Spirits" has a slightly bloated feel to it, as if an hour-long plot has been expanded to twice that length to make a full evening of theatre. The formulaic nature of that plot keeps things moving, but it bogs down a bit without the occasional break of commercial interruptions. Lisa Adler doesn’t go all out camping it up; nor does she ground all the characters in quotidian reality. There doesn’t seem to be a good meshing of styles in the playwriting, direction, acting, and technical aspects. The material requires a special kind of approach, and the approach taken in this production seems not sufficiently imaginative.

Second Samuel, by Pamela Paker
Stage Presence
Monday, October 10, 2016
3.5
The production of Pamela Parker’s "Second Samuel" by Main Street Theatre Tucker is loaded with actors who exude stage presence. Director Jan Jensen has gotten them to make strong choices that enable them all to create indelible characters. These actors, with the possible exception of understated Brent Mason as U.S., seem quite comfortable onstage, but have suppressed any urges to take the spotlight alone and have instead used their performances to support the production as a whole.

That’s not to say that this is a professional-level production. Far from it. Cue pickup is often slow, and not all actors in a scene are working at the same level, vocally or emotionally. The big problems, though, are at the technical level, under the supervision of technical directors Randy Davison and Charles Wasmer. The rather complicated lighting scheme was poorly operated at the performance I attended, with the wrong side of the stage illuminated many times during scenes that alternated action on both sides. Spotlighted sections of the stage didn’t always match an actor’s location exactly. Amplified sound was far better than the lighting, but sound levels were not always equivalent for all actors onstage, with tweaks in sound level apparent after a line was started.

The set is no more than serviceable. The beauty shop stage right and the bar/bait shop stage left are nicely furnished, but the right angles of their walls prevent the decorations on one or the other of the side walls from being seen from the sides of the audience. The brick stoop center stage is wider than it needs to be, and a lot of blocking involves people sitting, even on the lip of the three-foot-high stage, which causes sightline problems for audience members, who all sit on the same level.

Carrie McGuffin’s costumes are fine, helping to define character. But it’s the acting that makes the characters individual and indelible. Zach Roe, in the central role of B Flat, is as beautifully at ease in talking to the audience as he is awkward in interactions with the town folk. John McDaniel, John Lukens, Bill Hines, and Jim Nelson all come across strong in the bar interactions, as do Sabrina Chambers, Merle Halliday Westbrook (a replacement Marcela at the performance I attended), Denise Payton, and Christa Sfameni in the beauty shop. All the others make positive impressions in their smaller roles.

In "Second Samuel," the collection of characters is used to tell a story with a terrific first act ending and a heartwarming conclusion of the second act. Jan Jensen has directed the show to bring out the story, emphasizing comedy when it’s called for (which is a lot of the time) and sincerity when it’s needed. The entertaining script is allowed to exhibit its merits, which is really all one can ask of a production. The audience was quite involved at the performance I attended, chattering with eagerness after the first act-ending revelation and applauding lines that support cultural inclusiveness. And when the show ends with a finely-sung hymn led by the sweet-voiced Christa Sfameni, the entertainment ends on a tender note and with a standing ovation.

The Spoon River Project, by Tom Andolora
Edgar Lee Masters
Monday, October 10, 2016
3.0
Tom Andolora’s "The Spoon River Project" mixes dramatic monologues with musical interludes consisting of nineteenth-century popular songs and hymns. It’s rather choppy, with the monologues coming across as short vignettes that don’t really build in dramatic impact. They manage to give a portrait of fictional Spoon River, Illinois, but they don’t allow the audience to become fully immersed in the culture of the town.

Live Arts Theatre’s production makes use of the talents of 11 actors. The singing of Barbara Macko, Marty Snowden, Lee Jones, and Peggy Marx is lovely, starting and ending the show with somber beauty. All the actors and actresses are given a chance to shine as multiple characters. Peggy Marx, Barbara Macko, and Joanna Meyer make strong impressions in all their distinct roles; the others are more successful in portraying one character or another, with some (such as Andre Eaton’s opening character) making indelible impressions. The interaction of characters is always honest and believable, with the two-character scenes always effective.

Becca Parker has blocked the show in the round, with groupings of the performers facing in different directions, and with the audience consciously arranged to include people on all four sides. It works well, with some performances occurring right in your face, but with none totally obscured as they play to another portion of the audience. The gravestones, statuary, and hand-held lights all add to the atmosphere. Cal Jones’ set design, Dawn Burke’s props, and Andrea Hermitt’s costumes provide the flexibility and style to allow quick changes from character to character.

I prefer the Charles Aidman adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’ "Spoon River Anthology" that played Broadway decades ago. To me, it seems more cohesive and dramatic than Tom Andolora’s adaptation. The adaptation used by Live Arts Theatre gives an abbreviated taste of Edgar Lee Masters’ work that seems designed for short attention spans, although the intermissionless production goes on a bit long without a break. There’s much to admire in this production, but it doesn’t thrum with intensity throughout or provide a carefully sculpted emotional arc. It may be Edgar Lee Masters, but it’s not masterful.

Henry the Sixth Part Two, by William Shakespeare
The Protracted History of Henry VI
Friday, October 7, 2016
3.0
"King Henry the Sixth Part 2" is being presented in three acts at the Shakespeare Tavern. The first and third acts have a lot of activity and energy and keep interest throughout. The second act, in which three erstwhile threats to King Henry’s reign meet death, is deadly dull. The second act sparks briefly here and there, such as when Peter Hardy enters and delivers a few lines, but overall it’s a lot of time spent waiting for the next domino to fall. If that act had been condensed to the equivalent of a montage, the play would speed along. As it is, the second act plods.

The first act introduces the pious and bloodless King Henry (Mary Ruth Ralston) to his conniving, stronger-blooded wife Margaret (Amee Vyas), brought to him with the over-solicitous protection of the Duke of Suffolk (Trey York, threat #3). Humphrey, the Lord Protector (Doug Kaye, threat #1), and Cardinal Beaufort (J. Tony Brown, threat #2) both set their sights on increased power, but Humphrey’s wife Eleanor (Tetrianna Silas) oversteps bounds in enlisting the aid of a conjurer and witch, causing her own banishment and casting suspicion on her husband.

The third act dramatizes the homeland rebellion of Jack Cade (Drew Reeves), whose downfall brings back the Duke of York (Maurice Ralston) from fighting a rebellion in Ireland, his sights on the crown. Both claim parentage through the royal line of succession, and believe their claims trump those of Henry VI. The play ends with the House of York on the ascendant, but without any resolution of the plight of King Henry VI.

The stage set-up is the same as for part one of the Henry VI saga, with a square platform set diamond-like in front of the stage proper. Costumes (Anné Carole Butler), sound (Clark Weigle), and fight direction (Drew Reeves, with the assistance of Mary Ruth Ralston and David Sterritt) are up to the high standards of the Tavern. Lighting design, by Greg Hanthorn Jr., has several special effects, but has a tendency to use spotlighted areas on the stage that don’t match the actors’ positions exactly, resulting in murky surroundings for some primary action.

Acting, projection, and diction are good across the board, but some lower voices don’t resonate well in the space for those speaking a little more softly (Doug Kaye) or for those shouting (Troy Willis). The Ralstons (Mary Ruth and Maurice) both have a tendency to rush through their distinctly-spoken lines, as if trying to get them out of the way, and Matt Nitchie doesn’t move his mouth much when speaking, requiring extra attention. Amee Vyas uses a French accent, but that doesn’t unduly get in the way of her understandability. Peter Hardy, Sean Kelley, and Drew Reeves are clarion-clear throughout.

The serious parts of the plot are directed by Jeffrey Watkins with directness and sincerity. It’s the comedy, though, that really stands out. Drew Reeves is a delight as Jack Cade, a transparently ambitious rabble-rouser whose comedy comes directly from his character. Adam King and David Sterritt are also comic highlights, with shtick enhancing their performances as various characters.

Without the protracted second act, "King Henry the Sixth Part 2" would clock in at a respectable two hours, instead of the three plus the whole play takes. The play ostensibly portrays the early phases of the War of the Roses, but it’s mostly political posturing and influence-grabbing attempts gone awry. Bloodiness comes primarily from a number of severed heads (a couple of which star in their own comedy bit). But the ending fight scene gives the promise of more armed conflict in the conclusion of the saga.

Anatomy of a Hug, by Kat Ramsburg
Grey’s Anatomy of a Hug
Monday, October 3, 2016
4.5
Kat Ramsburg’s "Anatomy of a Hug" is on its way to taking the nation by storm. New Origins’ production is one of several planned around the country in the near future. And the play is definitely worthy of being seen.

The play requires three separate playing areas -- Amelia’s apartment, her workstation and adjacent table (which could be considered a separate location), and outside her apartment -- so it does not seem well-suited to the intimate Onion Man space. Set designer Emily Sams has managed to cram all the locations in, though, and done it in a pretty attractive way. Lighting designer Daniel Carter Brown does a terrific job of illuminating the various locations, even adding in a window effect for the apartment when the imaginary curtains on an imaginary window are parted. The set is cramped, but eminently workable.

Costumes, designed by director Emily Sams, work exceedingly well too. Her sound design is fine, used to effect in wordless sequences that separate a few of the scenes. But it is her direction that really shines. Her blocking allows the actors to navigate the set with a minimum of difficulty, which is a prime duty of a director. But it is their acting that really takes this show to a higher level. Ms. Sams has shaped the show to build in intensity in a very natural and effective way.

Each of the four actors does superb work. Barbara A. Washington invests Iris with wise good will, providing the glue that initially allows Sonia (Mary Claire Klooster) to coexist with Amelia (Sarah Hitzel). Ms. Klooster plays age and illness exceedingly well as Sonia, while Ms. Hitzel harnesses her emotions beautifully as the withdrawn, resentful Amelia, making us care greatly about her despite her sometimes sullen behavior. Eric Lang rounds out the cast as Ben, Amelia’s co-worker whose goofy charm attempts to make inroads on her reserve. They work together in ways that feel real and heartfelt.

The script makes LOTS of references to TV shows, since Amelia basically does nothing but work (at a charity attempting to find sponsors for poor children from Burundi) and watch television. Some TV references slide past if you’re not familiar with the show being referenced, but the main point of the references is eventually made clear.

"Eventually" is a good word to describe how the plot unfolds. We first see Sonia being left off at Amelia’s apartment by Iris, but we don’t know why she has arrived and what the connection is between Sonia and Amelia. We’re pulled into the story, observing compelling characters as relationships clarify over time. There’s a past murder at the center of things, but that is one point that Kat Ramsburg’s script doesn’t really spell out. We know we’re hearing about it from two different perspectives, but there’s not enough detail on either side to make sense of what happened to cause the death and why it was prosecuted as a murder.

Caring for family members (biological or chosen) and the power of physical contact are themes that run throughout the play. There’s a sweetness at the heart of the story, but it’s a damaged heart that takes the full length of the play to let the sweetness in (or is it to let the sweetness out?). We care about these characters, and we care about their relationships. Emily Sams and the cast are doing a bang-up job of bringing this affecting story to life.

Singles in Agriculture, by Abby Rosebrock
Snuggles in Agriculture
Monday, October 3, 2016
4.5
Aurora Theatre’s black box theatre has an odd configuration, with two steel doors flanking an alcove with a non-working window on one side and a waist-level door on the other. For "Singles in Agriculture," the stage isn’t placed smack-dab in the middle of the space; instead, it’s built into a corner, with one of the steel doors exposed to audience members passing through to the seating and the other used for the actors to move to and from the dressing rooms. It’s as if you’re walking into a totally new space.

And the set is a stunner. Trevor Carrier has designed a beachy hotel room, complete with ceiling and bath, furnished with bed and chairs and artwork perfectly suiting the location. No costume designer is credited in the program, but the single outfits worn by each of the cast members work just as well as could be hoped. Ben Rawson’s lighting design has very natural effects, although the lighting operator was VERY late on an early cue in the show, when a switch was flicked and the person who flicked it was halfway across the room before the light came on. (It might have been a nice effect if there had been a flicker before the light came on fully, but that wasn’t the case.)

Rob Brooksher’s sound design consists mostly of radio playing and gunshots during the play, and it works quite well. The intro to the show is Jeremy Aggers getting dressed for a date (and spraying cologne), then exiting to the bathroom while pre-show announcements are made. Once the announcer leaves the stage, out comes Mr. Aggers from the bathroom to the sound of the toilet flushing. It’s a cute start to the action.

The action concerns Joel (Mr. Aggers), a struggling dairy cattle farmer, who has invited Priscilla (Lauren Boyd), a successful artisanal goat milk farmer, up to his room on the last night of a Singles in Agriculture convention. She is expecting a booty call; he declares he simply wants to talk in a quieter environment than the hotel lobby. His unease is palpable. As they talk and argue and apologize, we learn more and more about each of them. The accidental discharge of a gun brings security guard Lois (Vallea E. Woodbury) into the picture, and only then do we grasp the full import of Joel’s unease. One ending twist makes us question if this is really the comedy promised us; the final twist makes us happily conclude that it is.

The acting is top-rate across the board. Ms. Boyd is sweet and sexy and forward as Priscilla, while Mr. Aggers lets Joel’s true emotion show through his every action. Ms. Woodbury comes in as a breath of fresh Texas air to wind up the play, and the easy interplay between her and Mr. Aggers works beautifully, as does Ms. Boyd’s reaction to them hitting it off. There’s a lot of heart in the show, hidden under the guarded interactions that make up most of the play. Director Justin Anderson needs to be congratulated on putting together a production that works this well and that uses the black box space so successfully.

Anne Boleyn, by Howard Brenton
Love, Perseverance, and Religion
Monday, October 3, 2016
4.0
In his play "Anne Boleyn," Howard Brenton focuses on how William Tyndale’s Bible translation and book-length tract influenced Anne Boleyn, and through her King Henry VIII and the split of the Anglican Church from the Roman Catholic Church. The framing story concerns James I (James VI of Scotland) and the influence of this earlier work on the King James translation of the Bible. Anne’s persevering love for Henry underlies it all.

The action takes place on a lovely set designed by Barrett Doyle. Arched colonnades left from stage right toward upstage left, aiming toward a low set of stairs that are topped by an elegant door whose use is delayed until the penultimate moments of the show. More rustic wooden doors stage left and tapestry-like arrases stage right provide room for downstage exits and entrances. The bare bones of an arch and a half spill into the audience area.

Abby Parker’s costumes (with Susan Carter her assistant) add to the visual appeal of the production. There’s a mix of Elizabethan and Jacobean styles, but only Doyle Reynolds’ costume in the court of King James gives a real feel of difference. The costumes for Brian Hatch as both King Henry and King James do the worst job of providing a distinction. There’s the classic King Henry Hans Holbein-style coat appearing in the second act, probably as an attempt to suggest a body’s broadening with age, but it comes late enough that we’ve already come to tell the difference between the characters. It’s only the first switch in the first act that lacks real distinction.

The casting of a limited number of actors in a large number of roles doesn’t work particularly well in the production. Most actors try to use different accents for their different roles, and Doyle Reynolds comes up with the weirdest semi-continental speech patterns for William Tyndale. Allan Edwards and Kerwin Thompson manage to give distinct speech patterns to their main characters, but the characters themselves are so similar and so notable that we are quite cognizant that these are the same actors. Josh Brook does the best at delineating his characters with posture and demeanor, aided by the fact that the characters are generally minor.

D. Connor McVey’s lighting design has some nice dim, shadowy effects for the outdoors night scenes, but these unfortunately affect the general wash across the stage for indoor scenes. I found it very distracting to watch faces move through bright light, shadow, and obscured light as Richard Garner’s blocking had actors stride across the downstage area of the stage.

Rob Brooksher’s sound design uses music appropriate for the period to set our expectations pre-show and adds good effects as needed to underline dramatic moments in the script. The set and sound together provide a nice period background for the costumed actors to populate.

The acting is good across all the major roles. Particular standouts are Brian Hatch, whose King James is energetic and cheeky and profane, and the open-faced Brooke Owens as Anne Boleyn, whose impish smile and expressive face and voice instantly let us know that she is a force to be reckoned with. (And I’ll leave it up to you to determine if the "she" I mean is Anne Boleyn or Ms. Owens herself.)

The play itself bogs down a little in its religious discussions, and the shift from King James’ time to King Henry’s time occurs pretty abruptly in the first act, not returning to King James until after the intermission. The generally chronological flow works in terms of storytelling, but isn’t very inventive or compelling. The many asides, from many characters, also help to move the storytelling along, but make the action less compelling, giving it the feel at times of a pageant rather than a play.

Richard Garner’s direction is fine, making good use of the stage and showing his actors to advantage (and the interns to less advantage, although Brittany L. Smith is good as Lady Rochford). With a more compelling script and a less distracting lighting design, this production would reach even greater heights.

Barefoot in the Park, by Neil Simon
Flat, Five Flights Up
Sunday, September 25, 2016
3.0
At the early performance of Stage Door Players’ "Barefoot in the Park" that I attended, a woman stood up shortly after the audience started clapping at the end of the show. When no one joined her, she slid back into her seat by the time the last cast members came onstage. That summarizes the production; worthy of a non-standing ovation.

Neil Simon’s script is sure-fire, and it manages to carry the show, aided by the secondary performances. Evan Weisman is all winded exhaustion as the delivery man, and Rial Ellsworth invests the telephone repairman with jocular bonhomie. James Donadio is all suavity and innocent menace as Victor Velasco (with a charming accent that seems nine tenths Spanish, with hardly a hint of the Hungarian his character supposedly is), while Ann Wilson makes Ethel Banks an appealingly open-minded matron. The chemistry between Mr. Donadio and Ms. Wilson works delightfully.

Unfortunately, the Corie and Paul Bratter of Alyssa Caputo and Edward McCreary don’t seem to share much chemistry, even though director Robert Egizio has her leaping into his arms at every whipstitch. Ms. Caputo had numerous line stumbles in this early performance, which hampered the free-wheeling approach of her Corie Bratter. That probably will improve during the run. Mr. McCreary’s Paul has the stuffed shirt quality of his character down pat, but doesn’t have a sense of well-timed sarcastic expression when upset, which makes most of his laugh lines fall flat.

Chuck Welcome’s set design is pretty ugly. A kitchenette platform up right is echoed by an entryway platform up left, with skylight panels up center. A wood stove and radiator are tucked in next to the entryway/bedroom/bathroom platform. When furniture is brought in for the second act, it has the appearance of hand-me-downs, which contradicts the script’s assertion that furniture delivery is coming from Bloomingdale’s. In the cramped mish-mash of furniture that results, one gets no sense that Corie has performed magic in transforming the space.

Lighting design, by J.D. Williams, doesn’t help much. There’s a cloud effect through the skylight at the start, but the sky itself is an unnatural rose color. There are no city lights visible through the skylight in the night scenes. There’s an oversized moon effect at the very end of the show, but it seems a rather blatant attempt to end the show on a romantic note. Otherwise, the lights go on and off nicely as switches are flicked.

Jim Alford’s costumes are fine, as are Kathy Ellsworth’s props. Rial Ellsworth’s sound design is excellent, with nice kitchen sounds and remarkably realistic muffled conversation from the floors below. George Deavours’ wig design appears to be very basic, with no indication of a tired tinge in Ethel Banks’ hair.

"Barefoot in the Park" is an old chestnut of a play at this point, but there is no reason why it should come across as second-rate entertainment. Neil Simon’s script is still terrific, but it needs two charismatic leads to bring life to the emotional heart of the show. This production seems largely to be going through the motions. We’ve come to expect more from Robert Egizio in his productions. If the pace and timing pick up during the run, "Barefoot in the Park" may come closer to the sweet and funny comedy it should be.

Ghost the Musical, by Bruce Joel Rubin (book/lyrics), Dave Stewart & Glen Ballard (music/lyrics)
ZZZZZ
Sunday, September 25, 2016
3.0
Take the "gh" sound from "bough." Take the "o" sound from "people." Take and extend the "s" sound from "choose." Then take the "t" sound from "bidet." Put them all together, and what happens? You change "ghost" to "zzzzz." With the soothing background of a string quartet and lack of perceptible chemistry onstage, that’s about what happens to the stage musical "Ghost" at Georgia Ensemble Theatre.

This is not a horrible production, but it lacks any hint of the stage magic that was the highlight of the Broadway tour of "Ghost." Here, we have a unit set of three doors on top of a couple of platforms, a scrim behind them on which wan projections sometimes appear, and several suspended doors above the orchestra that is ensconced upstage (behind the scrim). The suspended doors are interesting visually when they are illuminated, but they don’t resonate within the play. Lighting and movable set pieces indicate various locations, but in a fairly obvious way. Jamie Bullins’ scenic design and Bryan Rosengrant’s lighting design get the job done, but little more.

Preston Goodson’s sound design, Emmie Tuttle’s costume design, and Ricardo Aponte’s choreography show evidence of similar workmanlike achievement. Jonathan Horne’s fight choreography is sub-standard, with some obvious misses, while Bethany Irby’s music direction is no more than fine. Overall direction, by Robert J. Farley, shares this overall lack of stage magic.

Ensemble performances range from barely acceptable to occasionally entertaining. Matt Lewis does a nice job as a soft-shoeing ghost, T’Arica Crawford puts lots of sparkle into a couple of roles, and Shelli Delgado shows professionalism and stage presence in her roles. In supporting roles, Jeremy Wood and Skyler Brown play villains eventually getting their just (but rather violent) desserts. Mr. Wood has a lovely singing voice, but comes across more as bland than as charmingly malevolent. Mr. Brown has the menace down, but doesn’t have much to do other than to appear menacing.

The lovers at the center of the story are the earnest Chase Peacock and the earnest Kylie Brown. There’s a lot of sadness in the story, which might explain their somewhat one-note expressiveness, but it doesn’t work to involve the audience deeply in their relationship. Both have powerful, true voices, but I found the many long-held notes in Ms. Brown’s songs to have a piercing quality. We don’t fall in love with their voices or their personalities.

The true standout in the show is Kandice Arrington as the unwilling psychic Oda Mae Brown. She nails the comedy of the role, combining that with a fine voice and the most colorful costumes in evidence. The show sparks up every moment she is onstage, which unfortunately isn’t enough, but which fortunately occurs in most of the second act. Kudos to her.

"Ghost the Musical" was revised from its original U.K. form for Broadway, for its national tour, and now for a chamber version requiring only a cast of ten and musical accompaniment of a string quartet, piano, and guitar. To judge from Georgia Ensemble’s production, the authors still haven’t gotten it right.

Wrestling With Life: Atlanta-Born Short Plays, by Chris Rushing, Natasha Patel, Daniel Guyton, James Beck, Dani Herd, Autoutr Du Lit
On and On and On
Sunday, September 25, 2016
2.0
I suppose that commissioning plays is a laudable effort, but when presenting an evening of commissioned plays, it would appear to be a good idea to have set a time limit for the plays and to have requested simple staging demands. In the case of "Wrestling With Life," all the plays go on too long and require very specific sets that stretch out the scene-changing time between them. These are not ten-minute plays; the entire evening of six plays lasts almost three hours.

First up is "Jon and Thom" by Chris Rushing, directed, designed, and choreographed by Hayley Platt. In it, we see a woman (Chris Kontopidis) converse with her toy stuffed cat (Luke Georgecink) and dance, with each dance segment ending with a mysterious figure in white (Allison Simmons) who touches her, symbolizing another embolism in her brain bursting and progressively paralyzing (and killing) her. It’s grim stuff, with some lofty conversations that don’t sound particularly natural. Aside from the dancing, the blocking is fairly static. A number of trees, a bench, and a bunch of props fill up the stage.

Second is Natasha Patel’s "Spin, the Drain." In this play, a man in a master’s degree program (Tamil Periasamy) and his partner (Hannah Pniewski) meet a would-be religious mystic (Stephanie McFarlane) in a laundromat (which is not convincingly portrayed in the set pieces). The man has stalled doing research on religious pilgrimages, and the mystic just happens to have a multi-denominational shrine in the laundromat’s back room that he longs to visit. Daniel Carter Brown has directed Mr. Periasamy and Ms. McFarlane to act with such broadness, volume, and intensity that it appears to be an attempt to inform the audience that this sketchy sketch is a comedy.

The third play in sequence, Daniel Guyton’s "Brittle," is the only one that sustained my interest from the beginning. In it, a museum curator (Jillian Walzer) has to contend with two possibly deranged museum denizens, one with shattered illusions (Sadye Elizabeth) and one plagued by ennui (Allison Simmons). It’s not clear at the start what the situation is, but it’s clear that the highly unusual and comical behavior we are seeing will be explained. The situation comes into focus at just about the right pace. This is the most successful of the pieces.

After intermission, we first have James Beck’s "Naked Things." Three alcoholics (Stephanie McFarlane, Luke Georgecink, and Hannah Pniewski) are attending a driving class mandated by their drunk driving convictions. The instructor (Abra L. Thurmond) has intestinal troubles, so she leaves and returns multiple times, leaving Ms. McFarlane’s character to brow-beat Ms. Pniewski’s into admitting she’s an alcoholic, while Mr. Georgecink’s character responds to each F-bomb as if it were a sexual come-on. The supposedly gender-neutral writing cheats a little with his character, with male-centric comments not really negated by a "maybe not" in the next line. The play is generally comic, but it concentrates on rather depressing behavior.

Dani Herd’s "SSH" takes place in a movie theatre, with a LOT of previews playing on the audio track while a woman (Sadye Elizabeth) watches, silently disturbed by the glow of a phone being used by another theatre patron (Tamil Perisamy). The situation turns into a movie plot cliché after she rails and rants at him. It’s got several inventive twists, but takes a long time getting to them.

"Autour Du Lit" (French for "around the bed") is the last play, and it ends the evening on a very protracted note. In it, we see two lovers (Jillian Walzer and Abra L. Thurmond) from the moment of their first orgasmic exchange of "I love you’s" through their entire decades-long relationship. Nearly all scenes start with the annoying buzz of an alarm clock that takes a while to silence. That’s bad enough, but then the dialogue stops when the bed is unmade and then re-made. When it’s not done neatly, a line in the script indicates that the bed will need to be re-made again. I had to refrain myself from shouting out "NO!" at that possibility. I suppose Laura King’s script is sweet and insightful and tender, but it’s also slow-paced, which is deadly at the tail end of an evening of bloated, only mildly interesting short plays.

Staging and direction, by Daniel Carter Brown for all but "Jon and Thom," is perfectly adequate, and sound design throughout is splendid. The actors are all very talented and give fine performances across the board. Newcomers Hannah Pniewski, Sadye Elizabeth, and Allison Simmons particularly impress in their debuts with New Origins, and the returning performers are all good, although Mr. Georgecink’s diction could be sharper.

"Wrestling With Life" is a case of the performers and the production outshining the writing. Lumping together six longish short plays that have a generally somber theme makes for a tediously long evening. Upon exiting, I saw staff yawning. I’m yawning myself as I write this. Commissioned plays are fine in theory, but they need to be programmed into entertaining evenings. The entertainment factor is low in "Wrestling With Life," with the intriguing excellence of "Brittle" and the high quality of acting not able to carry the full evening.

Run for Your Wife, by Ray Cooney
Fun for Your Wives
Sunday, September 25, 2016
3.5
Ray Cooney’s "Run for Your Wife" may not be his best-known or funniest British farce, but it maintains its situation of a taxi driver hiding his bigamy from both of his wives from start to finish, with LOTS of mistaken identities and humorous situations along the way. Like any farce, it requires full commitment from its actors and a breakneck pace. At Lionheart, the commitment is there, but the pace occasionally lags.

The action takes place on a lovely bifurcated set designed by Tanya Moore and director Marla Krohn, with appropriate set decoration (and props) selected by Ms. Moore and terrific artistic scenic painting by Rick Thompson. Each half of the set represents the home of one of the two wives, with nicely realized signs above the walls indicating the location. Furnishings and kitchen/bedroom doorways are shared between the two locations, with separate front door entryways up left (Mary’s) and up right (Barbara’s). The blocking can lead to occasional confusion, with action not firmly concentrated on one side to establish the location before moving to cover the full stage.

The action takes place in London, and accents are pretty good overall, although Joseph McLaughlin’s accent does not convince at all as policeman Porterhouse and Jeremy Reid’s accent fades in and out a little as John Smith. All the others do very good accent work, and everyone’s character is clearly delineated.

Costumes, by Linda Hughes and Lola Jones, generally work quite well. Emily McClain (Barbara) and Bob Smith (Bobby Franklyn) have the most attractive outfits, with the others generally being more nondescript (with one of the jokes being how unremarkable John Smith is). The only costume choice I disagree with is a fairly elegant smoking jacket for the character of unemployed upstairs neighbor Stanley Gardner (Jerry Jobe). It doesn’t seem to immediately telegraph the situation of his character the way that’s done by the costumes of Ms. McClain and Mr. Smith (whose outfits vary delightfully in response to a paint emergency in the second act).

Much of the humor of "Run for Your Wife" comes from a character’s confused reactions to the mayhem occurring around him or her. Mr. McLaughlin is wonderful at even-tempered befuddlement, while Marty Snowden (Detective Sergeant Troughton) has reactions that reveal a sharper, more suspicious mind. Bob Smith shows impish delight at his misunderstandings, while Mr. Jobe goes into frantic paroxysms as he tries to keep straight all the lies he tells to help John Smith hide the truth from his two wives and from the police. The two wives have very different reactions to situations, with Sarah Fechter (Mary) short-tempered and Ms. McClain innocently surprised in their responses to the crossed wires shooting figurative sparks all over the stage. Even Michelle Reid, in the tiny role of a news reporter, creates a distinct character. Jeremy Reid’s grounded John Smith acts as the center around which all the mayhem circulates.

What’s missing is a sense of endless momentum. Ms. McClain does the best job of keeping things moving along in her scenes, while occasional line stumbles elsewhere slow action unnecessarily, particularly in a stammering phone conversation by Ms. Snowden in the performance I attended. More sharpness is needed to make the farce really come to life.

Gary White’s lighting design is fine, although it probably could do more to distinguish the two locations (spotlights on the appropriate location sign as a scene starts, perhaps?). Bob Peterson’s sound design works well, with bookending musical selections at the start and end of the play helping greatly in bringing completion to a show whose scripted ending is probably too open-ended (although it provides the opening for the play’s years-later sequel, "Caught in the Net").

What Lionheart’s "Run for Your Wife" has going for it is well-defined characterizations, fine technical elements, and a script with lots of inherent farcical humor. All those elements add up to fine entertainment. If the production could speed up to the clockwork timing needed for a fully realized farce, it would be side-splittingly funny.

Volpone, by Ben Jonson
The Fox Outfoxed
Friday, September 23, 2016
3.5
Ben Jonson’s "Volpone" is a classic 17th century comedy, done by the Resurgens Theatre Company in "original practice" (which means that there are no lighting effects or lighting changes and no pre-recorded sound effects or backing tracks for the musical numbers). It concerns a miserly man who has pretended to be near death so that he can obtain gifts from a collection of people who each are angling to be his sole heir. Volpone is aided and abetted by his servant Mosca as he pits one against the other, until at the end all get their just desserts. And it’s talky.

The set for the show is the standard set-up for the Shakespeare Tavern, with curtains under the portico to serve as an alcove for Volpone’s bed, which is occasionally carried downstage for specific scenes. The blocking uses the space nicely. The judge’s bench on the balcony above the portico and scenes within the audience spread out the action to spill off the stage proper.

Costumes, designed and constructed by Catherine Thomas and Anné Carole Butler, add great visual appeal to the show. Ms. Thomas, who plays the role of Lady Would-be in the show, wears a full-length, full skirt as part of her outfit, with fan, mirror, and book attached by ribbons to the waistband. It’s a blast. The costume for Mosca (Hayley Platt) is a terrific collection of colors in the tan and pink range, with subtly different colors in the two legs of her tights. Everyone else is costumed nicely as well.

Acting is generally good, but there were a lot of semi-apparent line flubs on opening night that caused bumps and sputters in the pace. Brent Griffin’s direction provides lots of energy otherwise, and certainly gets the story across. Projection is great across the board.

Hayley Platt is a standout in the cast, with wonderful physicality in her role as a (male) servant. Hannah Lake Chatham works well with her as another servant, although her role is pretty much extraneous to the plot. Her rendition of Jonson’s famous song "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes" is very nice, but comes out of the blue.

The would-be heirs to Volpone all do nice work (line flubs aside). Bryan Davis is forceful as Voltore, a lawyer, and gets belly laughs with the physicality of his fake demonic possession. Joe Kelly is dodderingly perfect as Corbaccio, and Joe Falocco has stage presence times 1,000 as merchant Corvino. Catherine Thomas’ non-stop chatter makes her role a laugh fest.

Janine DeMichele Baggett and Ty Autry play the roles of the young would-be lovers (who are falsely accused of being that before the fact). Ms. Baggett is dark-haired, expressive loveliness in a lovely yellow dress, while Mr. Autry is pretty colorless, both in costume and in performance.

Thom Gillott, in the central role of Volpone, is weak in the singing department and doesn’t really command the stage as perhaps he should, but he gives a perfectly acceptable performance. Eric Brooks, reading his lines as the judge, gives an assured performance (line flub aside).

Brent Griffin has put together a fine production of a classic text, which clocks in at just about two intermissionless hours. Its wordiness works against it, particularly when the line load doesn’t seem to be fully under the command of the actors, but the direction is sparkling and direct and humorous. "Volpone" is well-regarded as a classic comedy, but I find that Jonson’s somewhat rarefied literary bent keeps it just this side of being a rollicking good time.

The Women, by Clare Boothe Luce
Les Femmes Fideles
Sunday, September 18, 2016
4.0
Clare Boothe Luce’s "The Women" tells the story of Mary Haynes’ marital problems through a large cast of women and numerous settings. Act3 has made the logistics manageable by having half the actresses double (or triple or quadruple) roles and by using a unit set in which the same furniture is adjusted slightly to suggest different locales. It works well, although Ben Sterling’s sound design uses non-period scene change music that is suggested by the contents of the previous or next scene, but that detracts from the period atmosphere the costumes and hairstyles attempt to create.

The costumes, designed by Jared Wright, are a highlight of the show in their elegance and variety. Hairstyles are a different story. Wigs give distinct looks to some of the actresses playing multiple roles, such as Jackie Estafan, Jessica McGuire, and Barbara Rudy (although Ms. Rudy’s wigs look pretty fake), and these actresses also use distinct accents to distinguish their roles. The hilarious Jennifer Waldman Gross, on the other hand, has an unruly mop of brown hair that, while styled differently for each of her different characters, doesn’t delineate them as distinctly as her demeanor and accent do. The worst hairstyle, though, belongs to Janie Young in the central role of Mary. Her rat’s nest of a hairdo looks nothing like any hairstyle from any period of historical time.

This hairdo is one of the elements preventing Ms. Young from being the charismatic center of the story. She and Gisele Frame are perfectly cast as daughter and mother in terms of looks and bearing, but Ms. Young does not emanate the warmth and sincerity that the role requires. Her scenes with Little Mary (Liza Fagin in ill-fitting costumes at the opening night performance) should be the tender heart of the story, but here come across as tedious.

Otherwise, Johnna Barrett Mitchell has done a delightful job of directing the show. Blocking uses the full extent of the set, and she has encouraged her actresses to create indelible characters. The central group of Mary’s friends (played by Sarah Humphrey, Eileen Magee Hilling, Caty Bergmark, and Olivia Dean) work beautifully together, and each has created a character that balances humor and personality perfectly, bringing the roles in the script to full life. Phyllis Giller takes her character of the Countess De Lage to the tip-top of comic heights, without going over the top, and Judy Seaman underplays a couple of plain-spoken characters, with the contrast working nicely. Jessie Kuipers has the blonde good looks for femme fatale Crystal Allen and plays her convincingly, notably in a cleverly staged bath/shower scene that makes use of a curtained doorway that doubles as a shower curtain.

The set itself, designed by Sterling Bowman, is lovely. Art deco brass wall decorations flank the two doors, coordinating with an open brass screen stage right. The staircase stage right is finished in dark wood with slender wrought iron railings. Up center on the back wall is a period print. The furniture consists mainly of a fainting couch center stage, with other furnishings lightweight and movable and coordinating. Lighting, designed by David Reingold, adjusts subtly to illuminate scenes in various areas of the stage.

Johnna Barrett Mitchell has put together a production that does justice to Clare Boothe Luce’s script and that makes use of some of the premier female acting talent in metro community theatres. If only a hairdressing consultant had been acquired and more focus had been placed on the heart of the show, "The Women" would be a blockbuster.

November, by David Mamet
SNL + the F word x 2 hours = ?
Sunday, September 18, 2016
3.0
David Mamet’s "November" is a dated play, taking place in the time period when gay marriage was legal only in Massachusetts. Its premise is that there’s a clueless and corrupt president whose fund-raising committee has abandoned him as he seeks a second term and which doesn’t even have money set aside for a post-term presidential library. The president attempts to blackmail a turkey lobbyist to raise funds, while at the same time being blackmailed morally by his lesbian speechwriter. It’s a comedy.

The set-up is that of a skit, and there is no character development in the play. The president (Larry Davis) fulminates and blusters and swears a blue streak from start to end. His lawyer (Adam Bailey) counsels him and coddles him, and his sleep-deprived, flu-suffering speechwriter (Barbara Cole Uterhardt in the performance I attended; Amanda Cucher normally) waits and writes and argues and acquiesces. The turkey lobbyist (Scott F. Rousseau) comes in periodically, and an Indian chief (Al Dollar) makes a late entrance to precipitate the farcical ending. There are lots of laugh-out-loud lines.

Barry N. West’s set is a lovely representation of the Oval Office, with a presidential seal on the floor, flanked by a couple of sofas, and a presidential desk and U.S. flag up center. Nancye Quarles Hilley’s costumes look good, although Mr. Davis’ jacket seemed to have a split seam where a gusset should be. Harley Gould’s lighting design has the common problem at OnStage Atlanta of uneven lighting across the stage, with a dim spot center left that is continually passed through in the second act. Jarrett Heatherly’s sound design is adequate for most of the many phone rings, but execution of musical interludes was pretty messy at the performance I attended.

DeWayne Morgan has done a great job of directing, giving Mr. Davis lots of vocal levels to play, all to comic effect, and inspiring his other actors to react in comically appropriate ways. This is more an extended skit than a full-fledged play, but it’s played in an agreeable fashion (other than the four-letter words) and will no doubt give pleasure to many audience members. Did I mention that it’s a comedy?

The Threepenny Opera, by Bertolt Brecht (words), Kurt Weill (music), Marcc Blitzstein (translation)
Grotesquerie
Friday, September 16, 2016
4.0
Bertolt Brecht is famous for his concept of the alienation effect, in which performances are consciously created to prevent an audience from identifying with the characters. The 7 Stages production of "The Threepenny Opera" is clearly in this tradition. It borrows elements from expressionist cinema and vaudeville shtick to present the action in an overtly theatrical way. For the most part, it works as entertainment.

The uncredited set design consists of a number of separately movable pieces with unusually shaped ingress/egress openings, painted in strong black-and-white designs by scenic artist Courtney Earl. The pieces of the set (including the three-piece orchestra, consisting of piano, percussion, and cello) are reconfigured at the start of each of the three acts. Costumes, designed by DeeDee Chmielewski, continue this black-and-white color scheme with great panache. Some of Melisa DuBois’ props fit in with this color scheme, but not enough to create the impression of a consistent design sensibility extending to the props.

The true stars of the show’s visual appeal are the lights (designed by Rebecca Makus), animations (designed by Kristin Haverty), and video (designed by Michael Haverty). Effects with a video camera are used at the start to introduce the actors in a fashion resembling silent films, and these effects combine throughout the production with projections on a screen in the back and on a tablecloth to have a humorous and/or atmospheric impact.

Sound design also works well, with pre-recorded music, ostensibly coming from a Victrola, alternating with live instrumentals (including an accordion played by Nicolette Emanuelle and a guitar played by Aaron Strand). The pianist and percussionist are also cast members, and their entrance into the action during musical numbers is seamless. Music director Bryan Mercer had good voices to work with, but he has encouraged the actors to over-project, letting the raw edges of their voices often come to the forefront. A microphone at the lip of the stage tends to distort voices, making "Mack the Knife," sung by the Street Singer (Nicolette Emanuelle), almost ugly in sound. This is probably intended as part of the alienation effect.

Accents in the show are totally inconsistent. Kevin Stillwell (playing Mr. Peachum) has a nice, understandable English accent. Adam Lowe (playing Tiger Brown) has a hard-to-understand Irish accent. Dorothy V. Bell-Polk (playing Jenny) has a flat American accent. Bryan Mercer (playing Matt) has a New Yawk accent. Others have accents along the American-English axis. The broadness of performances is more consistent, with the exception of Ms. Bell-Polk, who doesn’t seem to have the acting chops to elevate her performance to the level of the others.

Directors Michael Haverty and Bryan Mercer have created a fluid movement for the show, adding occasional choreographic touches that work well in the context of the ensemble nature of the show. Nevertheless, some performances stand out from the ensemble. Aaron Strand is a powerful Macheath, equaled by Stephanie Lloyd’s more femininely powerful Lucy Brown. Kevin Stillwell and Don Finney, as Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, also give strong and assured performances. Jessica DeMaria does fine work as Lucy Brown, but I think I would have preferred more of a stereotypical ingénue in the role.

The feeling of the show is of the grotesque rather than of the grittiness that might be expected in a story that takes place in the dregs of the London populace. Makeup is garish rather than grimy, with lots of rosy cheeks, and costumes don’t seem distressed (although Ms. Emanuelle’s bodice had distressing slippage at the end of the performance I attended). The sensibility is that of a silent German expressionist film, with loudness rather than silence accompanying the visuals. It’s not an emotionally affecting work when done in this Brechtian style, and its agit-prop components don’t have the resonance they did in the 1930’s, but this "Threepenny Opera" has a big, grotesque pile of entertainment value.

Henry the Sixth, Part 1, by William Shakespeare
Wordy & Worthy
Friday, September 16, 2016
4.0
Shakespeare’s "Henry the Sixth, Part 1" covers the historical intersection of the War of the Roses and the battle against the French led by Joan of Arc, during the ascension of Henry VI to the throne as a boy. There’s a lot of content (three hours’ worth, including two intermissions), but also a lot of interest. Jeffrey Watkins has directed it with a sense of urgency and with a lot of activity, including splendid fight choreography by Drew Reeves.

The set includes the standard two-story raised stage used for all productions, but adds a square platform positioned diamond-like against the front edge of the stage, taking away a substantial portion of the audience. The upper balcony is also closed for this show, further restricting audience seating. This is understandable, given that Shakespeare’s history plays aren’t the draw the comedies and dramas are, but this one is certainly the equal of some of the lesser tragedies.

Banners on the walls and mirrored white and red rose medallions give the stage a bit of color and flair. Greg Hanthorn, Jr.’s lighting design adds more than usual to the visual appeal, being used to good effect to suggest Joan of Arc’s interplay with the divine. Anné Carole Butler’s costumes nicely delineate the French (blue backgrounds and white fleur-de-lys) from the English (maroon tunics), adding some very nice costumes for the Bishop of Winchester (J. Tony Brown, with a menacing air). This is a good-looking show.

Clarke Weigle’s sound design works well, featuring his trombone skills at various points. Vocally, projection is good across the board, but French accents often make rapid-fire dialogue difficult to take in. The French characters use French accents (some to comic effect), while the English characters use the actors’ own American accents. I found the inconsistency of accents jarring, with Mr. Weigle’s hard American r’s grating on my ear.

There are so many actors playing so many roles that it’s difficult to name standouts. I found Peter Hardy, Adam King, Mary Bridget McCarthy, Nicholas Faircloth, and Vinnie Mascola all convincing in each of their multiple roles, and loved Mary Ruth Ralston in her tiny role of son to the master gunner, while also respecting her performance as the young Henry VI. Kristin Storla is terrific as Joan of Arc (called Joan la Pucelle in the script), and the supporting players all do creditable work.

Mr. Watkins has directed an action-filled and personage-filled installment of the three-part Henry VI saga. It’s a remarkably effective presentation of history, sparked by Shakespeare’s dramatic sense and with hints of comedy. And two more installments to go!

Don’t Dress for Dinner, by Marc Camoletti
Dress and Redress for Dinner
Sunday, September 4, 2016
4.5
Marc Camoletti’s "Don’t Dress for Dinner" contains some elements of classic French farce, such as extramarital affairs and mistaken identities, but sets the play in 1971. In the Gypsy Theatre Company production, director/sound designer Mercury starts the show with a big nod to the time period, with roving psychedelic lights playing over the stage as the female numbers of the cast frug and watusi to a musical score. It’s when the stage lights come up, however, that the real fun begins.

The plot, almost too convoluted to describe, involves a husband and wife whose secret extramarital lovers are coming to spend the weekend at their converted barn in the French countryside, along with a hired cook. They all have to hide their true identity and/or true romantic relationships, leading to multiple levels of mistaken identity. Things run out at breakneck speed and with tons of physical comedy, which is just what this type of farce needs.

The physical production is handsome. The near-symmetrical set, designed by Mercury, has the feel of a converted barn, with raw wood, a barn door, and Dutch doors. A long vintage couch and custom coffee table (being auctioned off after the run) fill the center of the space. Scenic designer Danielle Gustaveson doesn’t seem to have supplied a lot of props to fill up the space, but the ones that are there do all they need to do and more. The same can be said of her colorful costumes.

Performances are terrific across the board. Gifted physical comedians Davin Allen Grindstaff and Aaron Gotlieb play the husband and his best friend, and they get tons of laughs in a phone call near the start, as the cord tangles and twists around them. As the wife, Julie Trammel is strong and statuesque and lovely (especially if you like colorful eye shadow), and she drives the action through many of its convolutions. These three all have standard American accents.

Rachael Endrizzi, as a cook named Suzi who is bribed into all sorts of role playing, starts out with a bit of a Cockney accent, poshing it up as necessary to inhabit other personages she undertakes to impersonate. Her role packs bunches of comedy into the plot. Benjamin Mitchell, in the second-act role of her burly husband, has a similar Cockney accent.

Alessandra Scarcia, on the other hand, has a lovely French accent in her role as another Suzi, an elegant paramour forced into cooking dinner for the party. The accents don’t necessarily make sense for the locale, but they work just fine in dramatic terms. The fact that the accents are so good and consistent helps sell them.

This production just plain works. It’s a bit long in the first act as the tangled relationships are set up, but it all makes sense without exceptions in the topsy-turvy world of deceptions and misconceptions that makes up "Don’t Dress for Dinner." Mr. Gotlieb may not be as hunky as the script suggests his character is, and the wife is taller than the husband, but in a production as good as this one, minor discrepancies like that don’t amount to a hill of beans. (And a hill of beans might be tastier and more appetizing than the meal prepared by the "wrong" Suzi!)

The Daisy Princess, by Meredith Kisgen
A New Fairytale
Sunday, September 4, 2016
4.0
Meredith Kisgen’s "The Daisy Princess," like most fairy tales, shares similarities with other stories. The relationship of the wizard Psyche (Emma Greene) to kidnapped Christabel (Nicole Convis) contains hints of the Prospero-Miranda relationship in Shakespeare’s "The Tempest." The mistaking of Christabel for Princess Isabella (Ahsha Daniels) and of Prophyro (Buster Shadwick) for Prince Keswick (John Bonds) bears a resemblance to the plot of A. A. Milne’s "The Ugly Duckling." The internal rebellion of the princess against her demanding mother the Queen (Erika Ragsdale) is a convention as old as time itself. There are enough original elements to keep interest, though, and the symbol of the daisy ties the story up neatly.

At one point, Christabel relates the story of a male nymph (a contradiction in terms: nymphs are female spirits; perhaps "imp" was intended) who uses a thorn dipped in honey to paint freckles on people as they sleep. It’s a nice idea, reminiscent of Jack Frost and the Sandman, and it reveals Ms. Kisgen’s virtuosity in creating original elements that follow the traditions of beloved children’s stories. This particular story has little relevance to the overall plot, but it’s a delightful touch.

We are ushered through the story by a pair of mischievous elves, Tintern (Tali Higgins) and Corydon (Bella Westwood), who are servants of the wizard Psyche. It’s another lively, theatrical touch that works well. If Ms. Westwood works on her diction and enunciation and projection, this element of the production will come through even stronger.

Patrick S. Young has directed the cast to perform in an elevated, stylized fashion with lots of stock movements and tons of energy. It’s just the sort of acting that can delight children and adults alike. He has also designed the set (hanging fabric panels, tree flats and a wooden chest left over from the Lakeside plays, and a couple of chair/table settings), the lights (along with James Beck), and the sound (full of shimmering fairy tale music, with one detour into modern dance music). His sensibility can be seen throughout the production. The performance of Mr. Shadwick, in particular, seems to be a carbon copy of the type of performance Mr. Young himself would have created onstage.

Costumes, by Patrick Young (again), Paige Steadman, and Dogwood Studios (Erin Bushko) definitely have a medieval flair, but have a bit of a haphazard feel. The elves and wizard are very nicely costumed, but some of the others wear clothing that doesn’t fit particularly well. Nevertheless, the costumes definitely add color to the production.

"The Daisy Princess" may not be an indelible new fairy tale and it may not be stunningly designed, but it is a charming entertainment for the whole family. The cast puts its all into the production, and the production elements cohere enough to let the entertainment value come sparkling through. Patrick S. Young and his cast have whipped this new work into wonderful shape.

The Prom, by Bob Martin (book), Matthew Sklar (music), Chad Beguelin (lyrics & book)
This Is a Very Bad Review
Thursday, September 1, 2016
3.0
The heading above is a quote from an initial scene in "The Prom," in which Broadway star Dee Dee Allen hears excerpts from a review that has closed her new show on opening night. To reclaim acclaim, she and a few other performers decide to become activists in support of a newsworthy cause. In this case, it’s a prom in Heaven, Indiana that has been canceled due to a lesbian student’s professed intention to bring a female date. The resulting musical is an uncomfortable combination of two duck-out-of-water stories: a sweet one concerning a pair of high school lesbians and a brassy, smarmy one concerning New York-centric Broadway performers forced to experience life in Middle America. Smarm predominates.

Songwriters Chad Beguelin (nifty lyrics) and Matthew Sklar (bouncy music) have created an upbeat score that generally works well (although starting the show with an instrumental version of the repetitive "Love Thy Neighbor" is a misstep by music arranger Glen Kelly). Particularly in the second act, I found myself thinking "this is working" during the musical numbers, with a competing thought of "this isn’t" during book portions.

The book is a collaboration between Bob Martin of "The Drowsy Chaperone" fame and Mr. Beguelin. The second-act number "The Lady’s Improving" is extremely reminiscent of "The Drowsy Chaperone," and it features Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel) and high school principal Mr. Hawkins (Martin Moran), both of whom give broad performances verging on the grotesque. Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw hasn’t created a consistent tone for the show, and an overriding lack of sincerity seriously damages it.

Brooks Ashmanskas (as fey performer Barry Glickman) and Caitlin Kinnunen (as lesbian Emma) embody what is right about the show. Mr. Ashmanskas gives a sharply etched comic performance, but there’s an underlying sincerity that shines through all his shtick. Ms. Kinnunen is sincerity personified. They create characters we care about.

Barry Glickman and Dee Dee Allen are joined in their activist quest by two other Broadway performers: long-time chorus gypsy Angie (Angie Schworer) and waiter/touring "Godspell" star Trent Oliver (Christopher Sieber). They seem to be included in the plot merely as conveniences to have transportation to Indiana (on the "Godspell" tour bus) and to have a female dancing lead. Both performers are fine, I suppose, but their joining of the activist quest doesn’t seem well-motivated.

Choreography is a mixed bag. Ensemble movement is generally quite good, but I found the big dance numbers at the end of both acts to be blandly generic. It doesn’t help that Mr. Sieber and Ms. Leavel aren’t talented hoofers, which is all too glaringly obvious when the lyrics force Dee Dee Allen go into a "dance break," which consists of a couple of poses before the chorus sweeps in to finish the number. Mr. Ashmanskas is a gifted dancer, putting the other leads to shame in group numbers. Ms. Schworer shines choreographically only in her big number, "Zazz."

Singing voices are terrific across the board, except for Anna Grace Barlow as closeted lesbian girlfriend Alyssa, whose small voice is not well-suited to the range of her big number (which is staged, perhaps consciously, to avoid applause at the end). Music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell gives a nice, big, Broadway sound to the musical, which Peter Hylenski’s sound design over-amplifies.

Production elements are good. Scott Pask’s set design accomplishes scene changes deftly, although the final prom scene decorations are overblown and not very attractive. Costumes, by Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman, work well, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting design uses just the right level of effects to add interest without drawing unwanted attention. Josh Marquette’s hair design likewise doesn’t draw unwanted attention to itself.

In its current form, "The Prom" doesn’t really work, although audiences seem to be eating it up. There are elements of the artifice of conception that made "The Drowsy Chaperone" a sheer delight, but here it’s joined like Frankenstein’s monster to a smaller-scale story that has its own problems, particularly in its schematic representation of small-town bigotry. Courtenay Collins is very good as Alyssa’s mother, but she’s forced into the role of the villain of the piece. A little subtlety and a lot of sincerity in the storylines would help the show, but at heart it wants to tell a story of acceptance of diversity similar to "Zanna Don’t," which created a consistent tone on an off-Broadway scale and which worked much better as a piece of theatre. Keep working on it, guys.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield
Completely Working
Thursday, August 25, 2016
5.0
No two productions of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" are the same. Given the audience interaction involved, no two performances are the same. But one thing remains immutable -- this is a hilarious show when put in the hands of talented comic performers. That’s certainly the case in the current Shakespeare Tavern production.

In many productions, each of the three actors would be successful in only one of the roles: the leading man type, the reluctant female, or the introducer. With this cast, I could envision any of the actors in any of the roles. Vinnie Mascola doesn’t have leading man looks, but he pulls off Hamlet here. Jeremiah Parker Hobbs doesn’t use much of a falsetto, but he manages to make the female roles funny. Adam King has the charm and projection to be the introducer, as here, but I easily could see him in either of the other two roles.

The standard tavern set is in place, and works quite well, with stairs, balcony, columns, and trap door all used to effect. Anné Carole Butler’s costumes are pretty much run-of-the-mill for the tavern, but Mary Ruth Ralston’s lighting design and the sound design are more ambitious than usually seen. It all adds to the fun.

Nicholas Faircloth has directed the show to have lots of humorous bits and numerous pop culture references (not all of which I got). A spirit of raucous joy permeates the show from start to finish (and encore finish and faster encore finish and backwards encore finish). It may not be Shakespeare pure and simple, but it’s Shakespeare adulterated and simple-minded. And abridged!

Shrek the Musical, by Jeanine Tesori (music) & David Lindsay-Abaire (words)
Shrek the Soundtrack
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
4.0
I understand why "Shrek the Musical" requires vocals to go through a sound system: there are recorded roars and sounds of bodily functions that need to blend seamlessly with the onstage dialogue. Still, it’s a bit disconcerting to see live action occurring across the stage while hearing the entire score amplified through a set of stationary speakers. At the Jennie T. Anderson Theatre, sound designer Daniel Patillo blends the sounds nicely, but the resulting over-amplification tends to muddy snappy speech patterns, such as those of Quentin Avery Brown as the sassy Donkey.

Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s production looks good, as it should with scenery (designed by Tom Buderwitz) and costumes (designed by Kate Bergh) that appear to have been rented from previous West Coast productions. George Deavours’ wigs add to the visual appeal of the production. Choreography by director Chase Todd keeps the action flowing in delightful ways.

The cast onstage is filled with triple threats whose singing voices do full justice to the songs (with the exception of Bonnie Harris as the Fairy Godmother, whose duties as dance captain perhaps make up for the weakness of her voice). Everyone dances well, including lead players Ryan Everett Wood (Shrek) and Randi Garza (Fiona), with special kudos to Vatican Lokey (Lord Farquaad), who dances primarily on his knees. Fine acting performances are found across the board, with the cast jumping with both feet into their oversized (or undersized) fairy tale characters. Every audience member is likely to have his or her favorite(s) in the ensemble; my favorite was Randi Garza, who shows the true sparkle of a star.

Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s production of "Shrek the Musical" is thoroughly professional. David Lindsay-Abaire’s script and lyrics tell an irreverent fairy tale story, and this production puts it across with all its qualities on full display. Jeanine Tesori’s music puts a sprightly spin on the action, and this production gives it its full due. Is it unexpectedly wonderful? No. But it packs a wallop of fun into its two and a half tune-filled hours.

The Credeaux Canvas, by Keith Bunin
Paint by Numbers
Friday, August 19, 2016
4.5
Keith Bunin’s "The Credeaux Canvas" mixes art appreciation, forgery, nudity, and relationships into an intriguing drama. The apparently bi-polar Jamie (Matthew Busch), son of an art dealer, and the emotionally remote art student Winston (Daniel Carter Brown) are roommates. Together with Jamie’s girlfriend Amelia (Emily Sams), they concoct a plan involving undiscovered nudes painted by little-known artist Jean-Paul Credeaux, trying to interest rich dilettante Tess (Mary K. Shaw) in purchasing one for her collection. Very little goes as planned.

The set, designed by Morgan Brooks and director Topher Payne, has a padlocked door up center, with a bead-curtained entry to a bedroom up right and a door to the bathroom up left. Winston’s bed is on the floor down right, with an easel stage left. A couple of chairs provide seating. Walls left and right are covered with collages of artwork reproductions. Kitchen appliances are scattered around, nicely suggesting a small one-bedroom NYC apartment in which the other room has to serve multiple purposes.

Bradley Rudy’s lighting gives a distinct atmospheric feel to each of the four scenes, and to moments within the scenes. It’s a nice lighting scheme, working even when the director has blocked action in the bed or on the floor, which creates obstructed sightlines for audience members with any bodies in front of them.

Mr. Payne has pulled excellent performances out of his cast and has shaped the action to keep things moving, at least until the somewhat extended denouement in the final scene. Emily Sams is wondrous throughout, her expressive face and voice striking just the right notes. Mary K. Shaw is also a delight, ably creating a character who is both an astute art critic and an emotionally-driven dupe. The men don’t fare quite as well. Matthew Busch is powerful in his manic phase, but doesn’t fully convey an underlying depression. Daniel Carter Brown is very natural in his low-key moments, but takes on a slightly unnatural tone in his more emotional moments, suggesting a person with Asperger’s without fully confirming that diagnosis.

Keith Bunin has written a play that balances discussions of art neatly with the universal themes of money and sex. Full male and female nudity are not as distracting as one might assume, and costumes are fully appropriate otherwise. Topher Payne’s sound design doesn’t add a lot to the production, but acts as a background soundscape for extended scene change transitions. His direction in these transitions, and in the scenes themselves, maintains a flow and consistency of mood that enhances the production.

August Summer Harvest 2016, The Lakeside Plays, by jpbeck
A Mixed Bag
Friday, August 19, 2016
3.0
Onion Man Productions’ third set of Lakeside Plays completes the "Dead or Alive" serial and introduces seven new short plays. As usual, the plays are a mixed bag, with some working well and others working not so well. Still, it’s a pretty nice mixture of plays.

"Dead or Alive 3" is split into three parts (the first VERY brief), and sports four authors: David Fisher, James Beck, Laura King, and Natasha Patel. The cast consists of two police officers (Erika Ragsdale and Scott Gassman) and Paranormal Patty (Cat Roche). It doesn’t so much tie up the serial sequence of plays as introduce a new character and end with a semi-sentimental tableau. Cat Roche does terrific work as a psychic whacko, and Erika Ragsdale keeps things moving under James Beck’s direction. I found it difficult, however, to understand Scott Gassman.

"Lake Do-Away," by Gary Wadley, sets up a sly storyline and follows it through to its logical conclusion without a bit of fat. Jacobi Hollingshed and Caitlynn Silvius pair well (and humorously) as a redneck husband and his disappointed wife. Lory Cox plays the wife’s mother with her usual flair, overshadowing John Damico as the owner of the lakeside cabin at which the action takes place. James Beck has directed the action with an eye toward comedy, and this comedy just clicks.

The same can’t quite be said of Rick Perera’s "Age of Aquarius." Nicole Convis and Eric Lang are a delight as a Wiccan and a skeptic who share a palpable romantic chemistry. The addition of Buster Shadwick and Casey Cudmore as a bickering engaged couple doesn’t add much to the storyline. The romance in the story works beautifully under Patrick Young’s direction, but Mr. Shadwick’s somewhat stilted performance doesn’t allow the secondary storyline to come to life.

The first act ends with "Lake Luvly," written and directed by James Beck. It’s not a very cogent or well-wrought comedy, but it is full of props (supplied by James Beck, Cathy Seith, Patrick Young, Janie Young, and the cast). Jillian Walzer gives a giggle-inducing comic portrayal of her character, playing off Gregory Fitzgerald well. Jacobi Hollingshed and Caitlynn Silvius play another couple, quite unlike the characters they played in "Lake Do-Away," but their relationship doesn’t jell. Janie Young plays a fifth wheel type of character and adds no interest to the proceedings.

If the first act doesn’t end with a bang, the second act starts in torpor. Rhea MacCallum’s "Ashes to Ashes" shows us two sisters at a lakeside, preparing to strew their mother’s cremated remains. Patrick Young’s blocking is fairly static, and Chris Kontopidis’ performance as the older sister has an inherent stiffness, not allowing us to care much about her or her sister (Caitlynn Silvius).

Natasha Patel’s "Porch Party" has a nice flow under James Beck’s direction. Jillian Walzer is truly a wonder as a job-hopping catering company employee. Patrick Young’s character has to do some psychologizing that makes the ending a bit pat, but this is a sweet and heart-warming play that goes down very easily.

"Front From Juneau" is much less successful. Karen Howes’ writing is talky and a bit literary, not sounding entirely natural in Casey Cudmore’s rapid-fire delivery or in Adam Jaffe’s more terse dialogue. It sets up an unrealistic situation, in which Captain Fields’ plane has crashed on a passenger-less trip that was supposed to be delivering a web matched man to his intended. Melissa Rainey’s direction keeps the fairly static situation moving, but Ms. Howes’ set-up points toward the pilot perhaps being the cagey intended bridegroom, but that possibility seems to fizzle out with a sudden kiss and a sudden ending.

The final play, "Fresh Fish" by Michael Weems, is the comic highlight of the evening. Patrick Young adds to his list of indelible anthropomorphized performances, playing off Greg Fitzgerald’s fisherman in true comic fashion. Janie Young has directed one of the most successful plays of this summer’s Lakeside Plays, ending the series on a high note.

The Fantasticks, by Tom Jones (words) & Harvey Schmidt (music)
60’s TV Comedy Special
Friday, August 19, 2016
2.5
Director Zip Rampy’s professed intention in presenting "The Fantasticks" is to show why it has withstood the test of time to become the longest-running off-Broadway musical in history. Instead, he tends more to reinforce Brooks Atkinson’s 1960 opinion that it’s "the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures."

"The Fantasticks" is a poetic little show about adolescent love and its aftermath when the real world intrudes. It works best when done with lightness and sincerity. Mr. Rampy has instead chosen to weigh it down with comic schtick and asides. Consequently, it falls flat.

The only complete sincerity comes from Aaron Hancock as The Boy. He inserts a lot of comedy into his performance, but it’s comedy arising internally from his character, not comedy imposed on it through direction or self-indulgent actor choices. His thrillingly splendid voice only adds to the success of his performance.

Meg Harkins also shows great sincerity as The Girl, although there are a couple of moments when she seems to have been directed to take an insincere approach that rings false. Her voice is thinner than Mr. Hancock’s, but blends beautifully with his. Together, The Boy and The Girl provide the heart of the story, but you need more than a naked, thumping heart plopped onstage to create a successful show.

The fathers, Joel Rose and Chris Davis, have fine voices, do their dances well, but are caricatures rather than people. Evan Hussey and Sarah Carroll, as Mortimer and The Mute, are school age, and give competent school-type performances. Mickey Vincent, as The Old Actor, portrays a grotesque caricature of age without a shred of pathos.

That leaves Jody Woodruff, as El Gallo. He’s handsome and dashing and has a very fine voice, but his eye makeup gives him an androgynous look, and his portrayal shifts uncomfortably from poetic and sincere to comic, with no touch of underlying slyness.

Costumes, designed by Alyssa Jackson, help to give character to the actors, but there doesn’t seem to be any design consistency in the costumes, aside from both fathers wearing bow ties and straw hats. The various sizes of pink gingham check in Ms. Harkins’ costume are an interesting idea, but it doesn’t read particularly well from the audience. The stark black and scarlet of El Gallo’s outfit is certainly striking, but if it makes him stand out, it’s as a sore thumb.

The uncredited set design is simple, consisting of a square platform up center, a prop box (nicely filled by props master Mary Sorrel) stage right, and a few moveable boxes starting at stage left. Its uniform blackness acts as a background for the constantly changing lights designed by David Reingold, in a somewhat over-ambitious lighting scheme that sometimes draws attention to itself.

Kate O’Neill’s choreography is greatly hampered by the small expanse of stage in front of the square platform, but it and Mr. Rampy’s staging generally do a good job of keeping the action flowing. There are no sightline issues with this small cast.

With fine voices overall and competent accompaniment by Harris Wheeler and music director Laura Gamble, the sound is good throughout. Sound designer Paige Crawford has saddled the speaking/singing cast with body mics, but I didn’t notice amplification at any point when it could have enhanced the vocal balance. The voices I heard seemed to be coming from the people onstage, not from a disembodied speaker located elsewhere.

"The Fantasticks" can be a sweet and magical show. To weave its spell, however, it needs consistency of direction. Here, Mr. Rampy has chosen to surround the heart of the show with a skeletal comic framework that exposes it rather than giving the show flesh and life. The show and its music are still good, but this production has all the impact of a forgettable 1960’s comedy variety special.

Company, by Stephen Sondheim (songs) & George Furth (book)
Don’t Look at My (Nonexistent) Charisma
Friday, August 19, 2016
3.5
Actor’s Express is advertising its new "Company" as "a modern makeover." What that means is that it is using the script from a recent revival and that Bobby listens to voice mail on a cell phone. Otherwise, it’s the same script and songs that have been around for years (with "Tick-Tock" omitted and "Marry Me a Little" interpolated).

Seamus M. Bourne’s scenic design clads three sides of the playing space with window-like panels, through the assistance of André C. Allen’s lighting design. The thrust space has a couple of lounging sofas closest to the audience, backed by a series of elegant wood platforms and an industrial steel-and-wood staircase and platform. A couple of Lucite chairs upstage provide the only seating on the set proper. The set and lighting are simple and elegant, not drawing undue attention to themselves, but enhancing the production.

Costumes, designed by Deyah Brenner, do not enhance the production. There’s a preponderance of black to begin with, I suppose to suggest elegance, but none of the black dresses or the subsequent costume pieces really flatter any of the actresses. Men are in pretty generic suits throughout.

Angie Bryant’s sound design gets the sound balance right, but that doesn’t mean the show sounds good throughout. At the performance I attended, there was wincingly sour flute accompaniment early on. I saw the musician fiddling with the flute during an interlude, and afterwards it was more in tune. But the musicians are visible at the back of the playing space, and their facial expressions are of complete disinterest, verging on sullenness. Music director/pianist Alli Lingenfelter sets aggressively quick tempos for the up-tempo numbers and lets the ballads slip into indulgent rubato.

The cast is competent, with no real standouts throughout, although many solos (like "Getting Married Today" and "Ladies Who Lunch") garner significant audience applause. Daniel Burns and Jill Hames make for a very pleasant Peter and Susan. Both have lovely voices. Craig Waldrip and Rhyn Saver have equally fine voices as Harry and Sarah, but the fight choreography supplied for them by David Sterritt hardly impresses. Laura Floyd and Phillip Lynch add wonderful voices and fine acting to the mix as Jenny and David. Dan Ford and Jessica Miesel are a bit physically mismatched as Paul and Amy, both giving fine performances, although Ms. Miesel sometimes turns her charm off when carrying a cake, turning it back on when she gets into position and realizes she needs to be in character. Libbey Whittemore excels in her role as Joanne, but flubbed a musical entrance at the performance I saw. I did not see Steve Hudson in his role as Joanne’s husband Larry, and his understudy appeared nervous, especially in the first act.

Lowrey Brown does not play Bobby as a particularly charismatic bachelor, which leaves a hole at the center of the show. The show consists largely of a number of vignettes involving the various married couples in Bobby’s social circle, and Mr. Brown seems to be playing a different character in each. There’s not enough core commonality in the Bobby we see to make him a character worth caring much about.

Three of Bobby’s girlfriends also appear in the show. Jimmica Collins and Emily Stembridge are weak as Marta and Kathy. Kelly Chapin Martin puts much more into her April, scoring in most moments. Director Freddie Ashley has chosen to block the "Barcelona" scene in a static fashion, however, meaning that half the audience can’t see much of her face for long stretches of time. You know there are blocking problems when half the audience erupts in laughter at something the other half of the audience can’t see, and consequently doesn’t respond to.

Mr. Ashley and choreographer Sarah Turner otherwise keep the action moving and equally visible to all three portions of the audience. There’s very little that could be called "dancing," but the choreographed movement works just fine. Like the rest of the show, it gets the job done, but doesn’t contain the spark of greatness.

Kiss Me Kate, by Cole Porter (songs) & Sam and Bella Spewack (book)
Kudos, Kate
Monday, August 8, 2016
5.0
Mix together inventive choreography (by Jen MacQueen), spot-on direction (by Alan Kilpatrick), a versatile set (by Chuck Welcome), and a cast filled with triple threats, and what do you get? Stage Door Players’ magnificently entertaining "Kiss Me Kate."

Mr. Welcome’s corner set uses a proscenium opening that at times is covered by a drop of an Italian vineyard, at other times by alley or backstage flats, and that otherwise reveals the twin dressing rooms of contentious stars Lilli Vanessi (Paige Mattox) and Fred Graham (Bryant Smith). J.D. Williams’ lighting design keeps the action in focus, and Jim Alford’s costumes generally add to the color and fun (although I thought Kate’s purple wedding dress seemed an unfortunate choice). George Deavours’ wigs work well, although more are used than are strictly necessary (and at least one of which should have come off during the "Too Darn Hot" number to be used as a fan).

Sound, designed by Rial Ellsworth, is more problematic. There are a lot of powerful voices in the cast, but everyone sports a microphone, and the amplification is too obviously turned up as musical numbers start (although not always for all the actors at the same time). Nick Silvestri’s five piece band is backstage, and it feeds through the same sound system as the actors’ microphones, which does it no favors. It’s not bad, but it suffers from some of the same over-amplified qualities as the voices.

Don’t get me wrong; the songs sound fabulous. No one has a voice less than wonderful. Paige Mattox’s voice may not have the thrilling tonal quality of Bryant Smith’s, but her range, power, and expression work thoroughly in support of her character. Lyndsay Ricketson proves the dictionary definition of "triple threat," with tremendous singing and dancing, along with an endearingly comic presence in her acting. Jessica DeMaria shines in her every moment onstage, ably assisted by Luis Hernandez in performing the delightful comic shtick Alan Kilpatrick has given them.

Aside from the fabulous singing, we have fabulous dancing. Tyler Sarkis and Brittany Ellis have a breathtaking pas de deux, and the choreography of "Tom, Dick, or Harry" has Ms. Ricketson airborne as much as she is on the ground. Staging of less dance-filled numbers, like "I Hate Men" and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," proves equally clever and joy-inspiring.

Are there negatives to the show? Mighty few. The only performance I found lacking was that of AJ Klopach as Bill Calhoun, who seemed to invest little in his role, although his singing and dancing were perfectly fine. Microphone problems and balky unrolling of the Italian drop were momentary glitches, easily and swiftly corrected. The biggest negative, of course, is that the show comes to an end, giving the audience just the opportunity to jump up for a standing ovation before being sent on their way back to their comparatively hum-drum, unmusical lives.

Farming Beauty, by Kevin Renshaw
War Haul
Saturday, August 6, 2016
3.0
Kevin Renshaw’s "Farming Beauty" is a fairly ponderous drama being given a handsome production at Center Stage North. The set, designed by John Parker, uses artwork strung on wires to delineate the back walls of the 1963 artist’s kitchen stage right and of the 2000 renovated farmhouse stage left. The platforms on which the action take place mirror one another, with a nice angled feel to them. Between and above them is a small platform housing the easel of the 1963 artist’s studio. Lighting, also by Mr. Parker, deftly illuminates the scenes occurring in each location, along with a modern-day scene occurring downstage of the platforms (to accommodate a wheelchair) and opening/closing sequences in which the actors appear spotlighted in stationary locations (although when one character moves at the end, no illumination follows her). With Erica Overhulser Gehring’s costumes added to the mix, this is a good-looking production.

Original music has been scored by Chip Salerno, and Brenda Orchard’s sound design starts the show with a montage of news clip headline sound bites moving forward from 1963 to 2000. The sound bites help to establish the time periods of the show (1963 and 2000). Mr. Salerno’s music doesn’t seem tailored to the script, though, so we have it playing at a low volume under a number of scenes. It distracts more than it enhances.

The timeline of the story didn’t ring quite true to me. Mona is said to have been Miss Harvest Festival in 1959, with what I believe was a reference in the script to it being her senior year in high school. It’s also established that she was in New York City from the ages of 17 to 19, corresponding to years 1961 to 1963 and presumably to her first two years in college. No mention is made of her graduating early from high school or being a particularly young winner of the Miss Harvest Festival pageant, so I remained confused about this point throughout the evening.

Director Julie Taliaferro has coaxed fine performances out of her cast. Emotions and interactions work, and will probably jell even more as the run of the show progresses. Lauren Coleman particularly impresses as the young Mona, suppressing her natural comedic skills to give a nicely rounded and grounded performance.

I have some reservations about the play itself, though. I found the dialogue too often to be stilted and not naturalistic, as if the words had been carefully composed beforehand rather than being spoken as natural thoughts. Some of that has been disguised by the actor’s delivery, with a slightly mocking tone to indicate that the speaker realizes he/she is being a bit ponderous. Even so, there’s too much of it.

Two plots are running in the two time periods: Mona is carrying on an affair with her art professor in 1963, and they have jointly created a painting that is a hit at Andy Warhol’s Factory; in 2000, Mona is attempting to facilitate the success of her grandson and his fiancée as they start professional art-related careers. The grandson’s story isn’t particularly interesting, and the resolution of the two storylines requires our "heroine" to behave in as unsavory manner in 2000 as her two-timing professor boyfriend did in 1963. There’s a lot of drama in the 1963 section, but more is needed in the story of grandson Raymond and his intended, Becca. The overall effect is that the show is moving slowly.

Another shortcoming is the artwork that Mona and her professor have created (although we only see Mona working on it). The painting is plainly visible to audience left for most of the show (and to audience right for a substantial subset of time), and it really isn’t very good. A simple, almost anime girls’ face sits in the middle of the canvas, a stylized city skyline behind her. It seems thoroughly amateurish, hardly likely to cause a stir in Andy Warhol’s circle and propel a career to art stardom. Mr. Renshaw has created a script requiring a prop that needs to be either splendid or not seen at all. The middle ground, as seen at Center Stage North, strikes a false note.

There’s the basis for a compelling piece of theatre in "Farming Beauty." There’s a thorough grounding in art movements and interesting discussions of and parallels between water spirits Ondine (European) and Net (Egyptian). If the dialogue can be streamlined and the 2000 storyline amped up a bit, "Farming Beauty" has real possibilities to become a spellbinding drama. As it stands, Julie Taliaferro and her cast have done justice and more to the script they were presented with.

When Things Are Lost, by Derek Dixon
Too Much Lost
Saturday, August 6, 2016
2.5
Essential Theatre is doing no favors to Derek Dixon in its production of his "When Things Are Lost." This is a dream/memory play, but director Amber Bradshaw has chosen to do it in a very realistic manner. Danyale Taylor has been tasked with supplying rooms and rooms of furniture and a wide variety of props. Each scene takes place in a new locale (with a few repeats late in the show), and action basically stops as one set of furniture is struck and another bunch of stuff is brought onstage. This realism extends to Jane B. Kroessig’s various costumes (with one costume change also halting the show). Harley Gould’s lighting design and Nathan Brown’s sound design use sounds and dimming/brightening lights to help establish some of the more surreal action, but it’s not enough. This is a show that calls for a fluid, abstract design philosophy, and Essential is not equipped to provide that.

The stage set-up is the same as for "Dispossessed," with platforms in opposite corners of the performance space, resulting in some very awkward viewing angles for front-row audience members. Four windows placed high up near the lights are the only permanent furnishings; an refrigerated supermarket case and a door are revealed by parting black curtains, but otherwise the set elements need to be brought on and taken off.

Barrett Doyle plays Andrew, a young man thrown into dream-like experiences that at first he doesn’t understand. Eventually, it comes out that his friend Michael is not a missing person, as Andrew initially believes in his foggy mental state; Michael has committed suicide. As the play proceeds, Andrew finds himself in situations that Michael faced in his life, with others treating him as if he were Michael. Mr. Doyle is called upon to be morose throughout, and his sorrowful presence counteracts much of what would otherwise appear purely silly.

The other cast members play multiple parts. Gina Rickicki impresses most with her often vivid characterizations, but everyone is merely all right in some scenes. Ms. Bradshaw doesn’t seem to have inspired her cast to their best possible work.

The script is long, with a foray into France that really doesn’t add much to the story (except bad accents). The surreal quality of the initial scenes generally falls flat. These first scenes go on a little too long, with no pay-off until near the end of the play. On initial viewing, they seem chaotic, episodic, opaque, and intentionally perplexing. Once we know that Michael is at the center of the story, pieces start to fall in place. Still, there’s a sudden leap of insight that something must have happened in Michael’s childhood that seems to come out of left field and seems intended to drive the play to its conclusion (which is itself a bit extended).

With some paring and tightening, and with a design aesthetic better suited to the material, "When Things Are Lost" could be a fascinating, affecting play. As it stands, Essential Theatre has taken a unique theatrical voice and muffled it with a wrong-headed production.

Dispossessed, by Karen Wurl
The Dybbuk Redux
Tuesday, August 2, 2016
4.0
Karen Wurl’s "Dispossessed" starts out with a rehearsal of S. Ansky’s Yiddish drama "The Dybbuk." Things go wrong in a minor fashion. It’s not a terribly original start for a play, but it introduces all the characters in the story. There’s Rivka (Amelia Fischer), playing the lead character of Leah, a bride possessed by the dybbuk of her dead lover on her wedding day to another man. There are her theatre owner parents Chavelle and Chaim (played by Kathleen McManus and Scott Rousseau), her pretty backstage cousin Tsilah (Christie Vozniak), the dashing leading man (Jake Krakovsky), and three other actors in the troupe (Tyler Hayes, Marc Gowan, and Chris Schulz). A line in the script indicates that the cast doesn’t constitute a minyan (a quorum of ten Jews), and that’s the case even when you add in the ninth character of Leah (Alyssa Caputo), who shows up later in the show, in the imagination of Rivka.

The set design by Danyale Taylor contains a costume shop far audience left in the corner of the playing space, with a wall unit and narrow platform adjoining it, upstage. The main playing area is the empty floor. A secondary playing space is on a higher platform between and primarily behind the two portions of the audience, making for neck-craning viewing. There are no walls to the set; black curtains are used to enclose the space. The props and set dressing (also by Mr. Taylor) give some life to the space, hinting that the play takes place in various portions of a theatre. Jane B. Kroessig’s costumes also add life, with a couple of lovely wedding gowns for Rivka and Leah. The men’s costumes are more basic, but give a definite feel of the play’s time period (1928).

Harley Gould’s lighting design is not complex, lighting areas of the stage as needed, with one circular vortex effect in one of the replays of the scene from "The Dybbuk." Dan Bauman’s sound design uses nice klezmer-inflected music pre-show and to signal act ends, and also provides an echo effect in the same replay scene, as the unseen dybbuk speaks to Rivka/Leah, who is trapped within that circle of light. I found the replay scene a bit confusing. It seemed to be approximating a live performance (perhaps at a tech run-through?), although the show hadn’t opened and a subsequent replay of the scene used none of the technical trickery of lights and sound.

Part of that scene from "The Dybbuk" (really, the dullest portion) also starts the second act. It’s clear that Ms. Wurl has researched the play and the time period, mentioning its premiere in Vilner, Poland and adding a reference to the real-life Thomashefsky Yiddish theatre troupe as a rival company in New York City. There may also be a reference at the end to a real-life crossover from the Yiddish theatre to the Broadway "legitimate" theatre, but not one I recognized. (It could possibly have been an anachronistic reference to Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle, although I heard what sounded to me like "Morris" and "Catherine;" Catherine Conn was Kitty Carlisle’s birth name. The play’s program could benefit by an essay by dramaturg Kyra Cohen to describe the true-life underpinnings of the world of the play.)

Acting is fine throughout, with Ms. Fischer doing wonderful physical and vocal work as the possessed bride in the initial scene we see from "The Dybbuk." Ms. McManus does her usual dynamic job of bringing her character to life, and Christie Vozniak is an engaging presence throughout. Jake Krakovsky has just the right look and behavior for a handsome, slyly salacious leading man, balanced by Chris Schulz’s somewhat ungainly and sincere presence as another suitor for Rivka’s hand. Alyssa Caputo gets several hearty laughs as a fictional character come to life, amazed at the freedom of women in 1920’s America. All the others do good work too, although the characters played by Messrs. Gowan and Hayes don’t have much to do. Mr. Hayes’ playing of the shofar in the initial scene is spot-on, though.

There’s an unusual resolution to the romantic dilemma of Rivka, torn between two suitors, one who has been a platonic friend since childhood and one whose swoon-worthy charismatic presence is a shot in the arm for the acting troupe he hopes to take over. It’s perhaps a bit contrived of a resolution, but it lets us see that a 1920’s woman could live life on her own terms without alienating friends or family. It’s a sweet ending that lands the play firmly in the territory of heartwarming comedy.

Director Peter Hardy has gotten acceptable (or better) Yiddish accents out of his cast and has staged the action so that the audience isn’t overly inconvenienced by the problematic sightlines created by the disjointed, opposite-corner set-up of the playing area. "Dispossessed" is a thoroughly Jewish show, but one with universal appeal.

Driving Miss Daisy, by Alfred Uhry
A Most Delightful Drive
Sunday, July 31, 2016
4.5
The cast assembled by The Kudzu Players for Alfred Uhry’s "Driving Miss Daisy" is one not easily equaled. Brian Bascle beautifully portrays Boolie Worthan, making for a totally believable businessman exasperated by his difficult mother. Gloria Szokoly, as that difficult mother, hits every note the role requires, investing the character with a stubborn streak a mile wide and appearing totally believable in every moment. Spencer G. Stephens invests Hoke with an unquenchable spirit, making several unexpected moments his own by his sheer skill of acting. As a group, they work wonderfully together. Credit director Wally Hinds with whipping the show into delightful shape.

David Shelton’s technical direction and lighting design nicely delineate the three performance spaces of the set: Boolie’s office stage right, Daisy’s home stage left, and two benches representing a car center stage. The intimate performance space on the Bulloch Hall estate is perfectly suited to this play, with different wall decorations stage left and right, and a maroon curtain up center providing a backstage area.

Wally Hinds’ sound design cleverly starts the show with the screeches of a car accident and provides piano music to cover the numerous scene changes. If any fault exists in this production, it’s that the scene changes sometimes seem overly long (perhaps to allow time for the numerous and appropriate costume changes). But when the play otherwise hits on all cylinders, that’s a minor quibble. This "Driving Miss Daisy" is definitely worth seeing.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) & Tim Rice (lyrics)
Joseph with the New Testament
Sunday, July 31, 2016
3.0
Agape Players’ production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" starts with a stool and an oversized Bible onstage. Considering the organization’s description of itself as a "group of like-minded Christians" and music director John V. Glover’s pre-curtain exhortations for the audience to bring Jesus into their lives, you can assume that the Bible contains the full New Testament. The figure we see emerging from its pages, though, is the Old Testament Joseph of coat fame.

There are several clever moments in the set design by Ben Crider and the direction by Barbara Hall. Both are on the minimal side, though, with the sand-colored ramps and platform walls almost looking like raw wood from a distance and with little cohesion of effect in large group scenes. Joy Walters’ choreography keeps the actors grouped and moving with a good degree of synchronicity, but the performers seem to have been left to their own devices as to how they react to plot points. Consequently, some reactions are understated and some are broad.

There is a wonderful performance by Clay Mote as Joseph, with his splendid voice and acrobatic movements impressing from first to last. What revolves around him, though, is more lackluster. The tempos of the songs all seem slow, dragging down the energy of the show. The songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice are largely meant as showcases for one character or another, and most of the performers, aside from Mr. Mote, aren’t quite up the challenge. Melanie Barnes, as the Narrator, has an almost operatic voice and zaftig presence, lacking the dynamism the role can benefit from. The show is filled with performances that don’t quite work.

At the performance I saw, it didn’t help that a number of technical problems occurred. One long (but simple) set change, accompanied by silence, brought the show to an unnecessary halt. A wheeled sheep came onstage dragging a plastic coat hanger under it, and certainly not in tribute to the show’s logo (multi-colored words forming the title, draped on a coat hanger). Microphones were not turned on in time on many occasions. Still, the most impressive set transformation, involving a pyramid, seemed to work flawlessly.

Agape’s production lets the show come through just fine, but it drags some in the second act, with the Joseph Megamix that ends the show a totally unnecessary re-introduction of the actors shorn of costume colors and wigs. "Joseph" has worn out its welcome by that point. The cast of about 60 and the orchestra of 15 (plus conductor) have overstuffed the show, resulting in an overall impression of mediocrity.

Mary Poppins, by Julian Fellowes (book), Robert M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (original songs), George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (new songs)
Practically Perfect
Sunday, July 31, 2016
4.5
The Acting UP company at Roswell United Methodist Church is putting on a bang-up production of "Mary Poppins." The talent, sets, music, and costumes rival any other community theatre in the area. The venue itself isn’t too great for shorter audience members, though, since seating on the level can easily create sightline issues, even for the raised stage on which the action takes place.

The set, designed by Cathy Denner and the late David Ledbetter, contains a LOT of pieces that move on and off with frequent set changes between scenes. This might be expected to sap momentum from the show, but each change is fully covered by music from the orchestra, led by T. Dwayne Wright, and featuring fine keyboard work from Allen Baston. The set changes are, consequently, a pleasant diversion. The main drawback of them is that many cast members are involved in the set changes, with the surprise of their costumes given away before their first entrance.

With a huge cast like this, you’d expect some very amateurish performances. There really aren’t any. Movements may not always be in total sync in the motion-filled choreography of Ashley Cahill, Cayla Franzman, Jamie Schuette, and T. Dwayne Wright, but director Rhnea Wright Ausmus has ensured that things move smoothly and that the special effects work. Mike Young’s lighting design seems to have a few too many flickering instruments in play, but the sound balance provided by Josh LeBlanc and the sound pack specialists is perfectly fine for the large auditorium. Technical aspects of the show are nicely done, including flying of Mary Poppins at a few crucial points.

The story works quite well in Acting UP’s production. The main characters all inhabit their roles with ease, with especially excellent work coming from Jennifer Hutcheson as a beautifully-voiced Mary Poppins, Evan Bauer as a mischievous and sweet-voiced Michael Banks, and Cecilia Harrington as the nefarious and golden-voiced Miss Andrew. All the Banks family (including Jon Bauer as father George, Jessica Halpin as mother Winifred, and Anna Swierski as daughter Jan) invest their characters with sufficient warmth and spirit to make them thoroughly sympathetic.

"Mary Poppins" is an ambitious undertaking for any theatre, but Acting UP proves itself more than equal to the challenge. Theatre of this quality isn’t typical of community theatre, and it’s a delight when a show exceeds expectations as completely as this one does.

In the Heights, by Lin-Manuel Miranda (songs) & Quiara Alegria Hudes (book)
Not Morningside
Friday, July 29, 2016
4.5
Aurora Theatre is staging a dynamic, kinetic production of "In the Heights." Shannon Robert’s triple-decker set shows a Washington Heights street with two buildings, shops on the first floor (bodega in the stage right building and hair salon and taxi service in the stage left building) and apartments with balconies above. The background upstage has a screen for sky projections fronted by two George Washington Bridge towers in perspective. The nicely realized set is populated to overflowing in every other number, it seems, with María Cristine Fusté’s overactive lighting playing across the faces of the large cast to add to the energy. The activity continues almost to the point of overload.

Director Justin Anderson and choreographer Ricardo Aponte have staged the show to keep visual interest throughout. The salsa-inflected music and movements keep the burner set on high for most of the show. There are quiet solo and duo moments that are more of a simmer, but once they’re over, a full boil once again erupts. It’s exciting, with the excitement taking the place of an engagingly plot-filled story. Especially fine dance work comes from Joseph J. Pendergrast, who starts the show with a wow of a solo dance, and from Robert Mason II and Pytron Parker in the ensemble, using sharp moves, grace, and a charismatic presence to excel in the group numbers.

The cast is filled with excellent performers who make Courtney Flores’ costumes look great and who keep the show flowing throughout. All the local performers are terrific, as expected, and are not overshadowed in the least by the imported performers (Diego Klock-Perez as a very engaging and sympathetic Usnavi; Juan Carlos Unzueta as a glorious-voiced Piragua Guy). The only performance I really don’t feel is on the mark is that of Christian Magby as Sonny. The character of Sonny is written to be optimistic and naïve, with a bit of a streetwise swagger. With Mr. Magby, the swagger predominates, with Mr. Klock-Perez seeming the sweeter and more wide-eyed of the two cousins.

That’s not the only problem in the content of the show. The plot has several threads, one of which is Usnavi’s attempts to connect romantically with Vanessa (Julissa Sabino) and another of which is the interracial romance between college dropout Nina (Diany Rodriguez) and her father’s employee Benny (Garret Turner). The problem is that there is next to no chemistry between the would-be lovers. When Nina encounters Usnavi, however, there are sparks aplenty, largely due to the superb acting skills of Ms. Rodriguez and Mr. Klock-Perez. The two are meant to be just friends, but their interaction makes the audience want more. Consequently, the "happy" ending of the couples paired off is less than satisfying.

Another unsatisfying moment occurs in Ms. Fusté’s lighting scheme. A blackout occurs in the show just before halfway. The character of Abuela (the powerful Felicia Hernandez) has noted that light pollution prevents her from seeing the stars in Queens. In the blackout, she can. She can, but we can’t. An opportunity for a magical lighting moment passes by unfulfilled.

Aurora’s "In the Heights" goes heavy on the glitz and light on the heart. There are engaging performances throughout, but the show’s structure of having every other number a full-cast showstopper-wannabe wears thin after a while. It’s enjoyable to sit through in a way that rewards short attention spans, but it misses the mark of being a truly terrific production.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, by
Soiled, Spoiled Rascals
Sunday, July 24, 2016
3.5
David Yazbek’s songs for "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" are bouncy and engaging, and Jeffrey Lane’s book has lots of laugh lines. The plot, based on the film, takes a long time to introduce us to the leading lady and tacks on what seem to be added endings after the big reveal of the dirtiest, rottenest scoundrel of the pack. Still, it’s an entertaining show.

Southside Theatre Guild’s production has great possibilities from the technical side of things. The set, designed by Jared Wright, makes great use of the large stage and orchestra pit area in front of it. Lighting is designed by Chris Shellnutt and Paula Byram to illuminate the various playing areas nicely. Jared Wright’s sound design supplies musical tracks, sound effects, and body mics to allow everything to be heard. In execution, though, the production falls down. Stage hands are frequently visible moving a staircase unit. Lights and microphones don’t go on and off as expected. And in the second act, scene changes seem to get progressively longer, sapping energy from the show.

The same problems affect the groundwork laid by directors Jared Wright and Monique Hache (with Ms. Hache also choreographing the show). The show is nicely blocked, with lots of business supplied for the ensemble to fill out the larger scenes. The choreography is also delightful. In general, though, the performances don’t fulfill the promise of the underlying directorial vision. The ensemble generally dance well, but there doesn’t seem to be much spirit in many of the ensemble members. Melissa Clipp and McKel Terry are exceptions; it’s hard to take your eyes off them during the group numbers.

The major players all have their strong points. Eileen Baldwin is nicely cast as Muriel Eubanks, with a voice that blends well with the lovely voice of Joshua Parrott as the French-inflected Andre Thibault. Casey Hofmann invests Jolene Oakes with tons of personality, and Lauran Wilkerson does glorious work on the song "Nothing Is Too Wonderful to Be True" as Christine Colgate. Jonny May and Christopher Gansel have nice chemistry as slubbish Freddy Benson and elegant Lawrence Jameson, and Mr. Gansel does a nice job of differentiating his multiple accents. All the principals inhabit their characters nicely.

There are deficiencies in the performances, though. Ms. Baldwin seemed to stumble on a number of lines at the performance I saw, and Joshua Parrott’s stoic Teutonic bearing doesn’t exactly scream "French" (although his accent is fine, as is the case with the French spoken by the ensemble). Ms. Hofmann’s physical presence makes a joke about a dress not fitting fall flat, and Ms. Wilkerson’s singing voice seems unnecessarily thin in all but her signature number. Mr. May doesn’t have quite the self-confident spark that would make Freddy Benson come fully to life (although kudos for a great fall down the stairs). Mr. Gansel’s German accent is fine, but he pronounces fräulein as "frowline" instead of the proper "froyline." Still, all the performances hit all the right notes (with a few minor exceptions in some of the songs).

Southside Theatre Guild’s "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" is a good production, but not a great one. All the elements are there to allow it to improve during the run, which hopefully it will do. Costumes, coordinated by Heather May, and the various settings arrayed across the stage give a nice, upscale feel to the proceedings, and David Stephens’ musical direction keeps the music sounding good throughout. More of a sense of urgency and more of a sense of joy throughout would help immeasurably.

July Summer Harvest 2016, The Lakeside Plays, by jpbeck
Diminishing Returns
Friday, July 22, 2016
4.0
Onion Man Productions’ second edition of "Harvest 2016, The Lakeside Plays" has some strong material and some weaker material, structured so that the peak arrives just before the act break. Since all the pieces are well-acted and well-directed, the cumulative effect is overwhelmingly positive.

The evening starts with the four-part "Dead or Alive 2" by James Beck, Laura King, and Natasha Patel. James Beck’s direction gets nice performances out of Tracey Egan, Paul Milliken, and Stephanie McFarlane as two cops investigating a rash of suicide drownings at a lakeside and a resident on the lake suffering from stress-induced cataplexy. Sexual tension runs high in one episode, with a twist ending before the blackout, paying big dividends in this middle portion of the "Dead or Alive" plays, to be concluded next month.

"One Word" by Constance Marse involves a marital spat over a missed anniversary. It’s cleverly constructed, building nicely to its happy ending. An energetic performance by Jenish Joseph sparks the action, and James Beck has directed the dialogue nimbly, so that Carmen Hijar’s word association game points out the reason for the squabble. Nice, active blocking also helps the show move along, although it seems just a tad leisurely in its middle portion.

Jeremy Clark’s "A Raven’s Roots" is nicely blocked by Gregory Fitzgerald, giving lots to do for Tyree Jones as an escaped convict and for Melissa Rainey and Casey Cudmore as former TV host Mena the Ballerina and her niece. The focus is on the relationship between Mud (Mr. Jones) and his lowlife girlfriend, previously known as "Raven" (the delightful Ms. Cudmore). The situation is a bit schematic, a bit absurdist, and involves the underbelly of society, but it all goes down very easily, helped by casting that doesn’t dwell on the unsavory.

The first act ends with Joe Starzyk’s "The Golden Years." Tanya Caldwell has pulled stellar performances out of Mike Stevens and Debbie McLaughlin as a long-married couple whose casually-mentioned split turns into a comic revelation of nefarious past activities. The play is sharp, funny, and to the point, leaving the audience laughing with delight.

"SodaPop," by Arika Larson, starts the second act on a more serious note. A Pomeranian named SodaPop has died, and its foul-mouthed drunkard of an owner (Jerry Jobe) is visited by his daughter (Crystal Robertson), bringing up issues involving her daddy’s girl of a sister, who died in childhood and left SodaPop in his care. The writing is somewhat muddled, initially giving the impression that an animal smaller than a dog has died and that a wife’s death or departure is at the crux of the father-daughter dysfunction. Janie Young’s direction coaxes a lovely performance out of Ms. Robertson, with a nice contrast to the unlovable character of her father.

Janie Young, director of "SodaPop," has written the next play in sequence, "Summervale," about a woman committing her mother to a lakeside institution. The mother has visions of a dead friend, which director James Beck presages by having the friend lurk around the edges of the set before finally speaking. It’s all pretty melodramatic and foreboding, but Marianne Geyer, Chris Kontopidis, and Caitlynn Silvius give nuanced performances.

Suzanne Bailie’s "The Birthday Present" is another play that teases a bit too much about the situation we’re seeing before revealing much about it. Even by the end, it’s not crystal-clear as to all of what has happened. Even so, Patrick Young has created a good-looking, smoothly-moving production with an assured performance by Melissa Rainey and a brave one by Kelly Roarke.

The evening ends with Emmy Dixon’s silly "Cruise Director Samson." Samson (Patrick Young) is a long-haired redneck competing with ecology-conscious Delilah (Chris Kontopidis) to give swamp tours to Okefenokee visitors (Jerry Jobe as the quintessential camera-toting tourist and Carmen Hijar as his lesbian daughter). The verbal play between this Samson and Delilah quickly becomes tiresome, and the ending has a deus ex machina feel that doesn’t ring true under Gregory Fitzgerald’s direction. It’s a lively ending to the evening, but not a particularly satisfying one.

Set design by J. Beck, Patrick Young, and Cathy Seith is a holdover from last month’s production and still works well in this intimate venue. James Beck’s and Gregory Fitzgerald’s sound design is pleasing and effective. Costumes and props, by a bevy of contributors, show an impressive variety. Lighting design, however (by James Beck, Patrick Young, and Paige Steadman), pits a hot area center right with moonlike shading up center that frequently has actors moving in and out of the light. None of the plays require special lighting effects, so an even wash of light across the stage might have been a better choice.

The evening is enjoyable as a whole, although not all of its short plays are ones I’m likely to remember. Joe Starzyk’s "The Golden Years" will stick in my mind, though, and I’m eager to see some resolution of the "Dead or Alive" saga next month. Kudos to all the actors and directors for putting together an entertaining series of productions.

Seussical the Musical, by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
Whoville Express
Monday, July 18, 2016
3.5
ACT1’s production of "Seussical The Musical" combines colorful costumes, colorful scenery, and colorful characters in a mélange of crayon-colored theatricality. The energy quotient is high, with stage presence trumping vocal beauty in most of the performances. Aside from sour violin notes from the band, this is a relatively good-sounding show.

The show looks good too. Set design by Bob Cookson and Chris Cookson makes use of a Cat in the Hat-themed book stage right that opens to reveal a Whoville setting. A Seussian mountain stage left and a colorful Seussian background, revealed when the curtain is opened, add to the visual appeal. Costumes, designed by Suzanne Thornett and Anne Voller, are a riot of colors and feathers, giving the production a true storybook feel. Murray Mann’s lighting design, however, leaves significant shadows downstage, muting the impact of the scenes closest to the audience.

This is truly an ensemble show, and director Emily Voller has encouraged her cast to express their individuality. Lots of unique touches spark the proceedings, but movements are relatively uniform in the simple but effective choreography of Pamela Smith. No musical director is credited, but the cast has obviously been put through its paces to keep the musical numbers snappy and well-executed.

The four major roles are ably filled. Jonathan Goff combines a pleasing voice and personality to make Horton the Elephant sympathetic and likeable. Emma Rose Wagner, while having a smaller voice than most of the cast, gives a winning, sweet performance as Gertrude McFuzz. Jessica McGuire sparkles as the Cat in the Hat, proving an audience favorite with her ad libs and energetic presence. What anchors the show is Amauriah Davis as a girl to whom the story is being told, pressed into the role of Jojo by the Cat in the Hat. Her quiet sincerity tugs at the heartstrings. And when she opens her mouth to sing, out comes the voice of an angel.

In a cast so full of children, there is remarkably little awkwardness or mugging (or at least that was the case at the start of the run). Ms. Voller seems to have run a tight ship, keeping the cast focused on a common goal, while allowing individuality to shine through in assured performances like that of Marshall Lee Smith Junior as the Mayor of Whoville and Amanii McCray as a black-clad Wickersham. But there’s plenty enough praise to go around. See the show, and choose your own favorites!

Children of Eden, by John Caird (book) & Stephen Schwartz (songs)
Genesis 1 - 9
Monday, July 18, 2016
3.5
"Children of Eden" is less a musical than an oratorio covering the first nine books of the first book of the Bible. Act one covers Adam & Eve and Cain & Abel; act two covers Noah and his family. There are huge vocal demands in the show, and it’s usually done by a cast of dozens. Live Arts Theatre is doing it with ten people (nine adults and one child).

Scott Piehler’s direction makes good use of the church sanctuary setting, using just one screen as its backstage area. There are a fair number of props and costume pieces (props by Chitralekha Sampath; costumes by Andrea Hermitt), but the flow is good. D. Norris’ choreography is not always flawlessly performed, but adds welcome movement to many choral numbers. Cal Jones’ lighting, while necessarily on the simple side, adds some rotating color effects. John Morris’ sound gives a pretty good balance between the vocals and the three-keyboard orchestra (augmented by other live musicians).

Each act pins the major vocal demands on three characters: in the first, Father, Adam, and Eve; in the second, Father, Noah, and Noah’s wife. Live Arts’ production uses the same three actors for each grouping. Michael Parker is Father throughout, lounging ever-present on a sofa far upstage when not taking an active part in the proceedings. John King plays Adam and Noah; Jordan Hermitt plays Eve and Noah’s wife. All have wonderful voices. When Messrs. Parker and King duet, the sound is lush and luscious ear candy.

The other members of the cast may not have obviously trained voices, but they all acquit themselves well. Bethany Bing (Seth’s wife/Aphra) has a pleasant presence, balanced by the more dynamic John Bates (Seth/Shem). Blair Varney (Aysha) and Jordan DeMoss (Abel/Ham) also work well together, with Mr. DeMoss the most able dancer of the group. JJ Jones, as Young Abel and a variety of other parts, adds youthful energy to the production. Shani Hawes (Yonah) has a quiet elegance that pairs wonderfully with the dramatic intensity of James H. Burke (Cain/Japheth).

I’m not terribly fond of "Children of God" as a show. Its emphasis on semi-operatic music is relieved by only one sprightly number, giving a serious Biblical veneer to the proceedings. The storytelling isn’t always particularly clear, presupposing foreknowledge of the Genesis story on the audience’s part. But, given any shortcomings in the material, Live Arts Theatre’s production is giving the show its due, with some moments of vocal magic. Becca Parker’s musical direction has produced a remarkably effective production of a musically complex undertaking.

GRITS: The Musical, by Erica Allen McGee
Girls Raised in the South = GRITS
Monday, July 18, 2016
3.0
"GRITS: The Musical" takes its acronym to heart: its four characters are named after Southern states or cities, and its content leans heavily on Southern stereotypes. Its structure is a uniform series of sequences starting with a quotation, followed by a monologue, and ending with a song. The first three songs cover exactly the same material as the subsequent song, and all of the other sequences tie the two together in a pretty straightforward manner. It’s like saying in depth "this is the content of what I’m going to sing," then singing it. It makes for a very thin evening of entertainment. It doesn’t help that most of the song have repetitious lyrics.

ART Station has assembled a fine cast, and they do their best to sell the material. All have good voices and great stage presence, with Liza Jaine particularly having a sparkle in her eye as she reacts to unexpected stage mishaps and audience responses. Karen Beyer has staged the show with enough variety and movement to keep things moving. Patrick Hutchison’s piano accompaniment is splendid, but as music director he hasn’t achieved a good balance of voices in some ensemble numbers. These aren’t the Andrews Sisters.

Technically, the show has some problems (or did at the performance I attended). Jeanne Fore’s costume design is fine, and Michael Hidalgo’s set and sound design are pleasing. Lighting, however, is occasionally lacking behind the scrim that backs the porch set, making movements back there murky. This was particularly disturbing during "Mama," with the dance accompanying the song hardly visible.

Songs in the show are a mixture of original songs (most of the first act) and cover versions of well-known songs and melodies, often with custom lyrics (most of the second act). This isn’t a long show, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. There are some big laughs in the show (particularly the ending of the monologue preceding the song "Sweet Tea"), and it’s pleasant throughout. But pleasant and bland doesn’t add up to powerhouse entertainment.

Assassins, by Stephen Sondheim & John Weidman
Something, Just Broke
Monday, July 18, 2016
2.0
The songs Stephen Sondheim has written for "Assassins" require strong, true voices. When sung by tone-challenged community theatre performers, as is largely the case at New London Theatre, the songs suffer. John Weidman’s book scenes, although ably performed in large part, cannot compensate for the lackluster vocals in the songs. Songs and scenes tend to be intermixed, so even the strongest acting can be undone by underpowered singing.

Dawn Berlo has directed a production that doesn’t make full advantage of her set design. There’s a substantial platform stage right, which is great for sightlines for an audience on the flat, but the platform is woefully underused. The majority of scenes take place on chairs or on the floor at the lowest level of the stage, meaning blocked views for anyone with heads in the rows ahead of them. Action is fairly fluid, though. There’s a string of bunting on the back wall that is clearly not on the level, sloping down to audience right, but there’s no indication that this is intentional (which it may be). It just seems carelessly strung. The whole production seems haphazard and yet carefully rehearsed.

Lighting and sound by John Berlo (who also collaborated on the set design) are fine. Lighting clearly illuminates each scene, and there’s an interesting effect of the Zapruder footage of JFK’s assassination projected on the white tile ceiling of the playing space. The pre-recorded accompaniment tracks are played at an optimal volume. I particularly liked the chronological presidential campaign songs that played pre-show and at intermission.

Costumes are generally good, with nice period-appropriate touches in Robert Winstead’s John Wilkes Booth outfit and Chris Freeman’s Charles Guiteau outfit. Colonial-era dresses on some of the ensemble don’t really fit any of the time periods covered in the show, but otherwise an attempt has been made to match costume with the historical time period of the lifetime of each assassin (five of them) or attempted assassin (four of them). The disheveled Santa suit worn by Lee Brewer Jones as Samuel Byck adds greatly to his character, contrasting as it does with his hang-dog expression.

The only weak acting among the principals is from Kendra Gilbert as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, and that’s as much a lack of projection as anything. The ensemble doesn’t fare so well, with only Jean Ann Bongiorno having the singing voice and expressiveness to make her few moments come to life.

The brightest spot in the production is Chris Freeman’s performance as Charles Guiteau. He may have the look of an impish leprechaun, but he has a terrific voice and moves very well, doing the closest to what could be called dance steps in the entire show. Teenager Casey Schuerman (as Leon Czolgosz) shows promise, and his trio with Messrs. Freeman and Winstead produces the only really good-sounding music in the show (aside from Mr. Freeman’s big solo, which is great-sounding).

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, by David Yazbek (songs) and Jeffrey Lane (book)
Great Big Show
Saturday, July 9, 2016
4.0
"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" is a very entertaining musical based on the popular movie. David Yazbek’s songs enhance the story, but the story takes a while to introduce us to the leading lady. We meet the two male leads, who have multiple possible romances (not to mention flirtations with the ensemble), first with the secondary female lead, then with another female who has one song, before we get to meet the true female lead. Still, Jeffrey Lane’s script covers the ground adroitly and with touches of audience-acknowledging humor.

DeWayne Morgan has directed the show with a nice flow, aided by Darrell Wofford’s set design, which uses two revolving units, with occasional set pieces (props by Teresa Bayo), that help to speed frequent set changes. Jarrett Heatherly and Amy L. Levin’s sound design and the band led by Paul Tate make the set changes seem seamless.

Alex LaVelle’s lighting design accomplishes nimble on/off effects, but leaves shadows on either side of the downstage area when general lighting is in effect. The most impressive technical elements are Jane Kroessig’s numerous costumes and Janie Young’s kinetic choreography. They combine to let the audience know that this is a big, flashy musical.

On opening night, all the leads seemed to have occasional vocal issues, mostly a few "off" notes here and there. Nevertheless, this is a pretty good-sounding show. The rather intimate venue allows the songs to be heard, even when it’s the relatively thin voice of Abra Thurmond soloing. Proximity to the audience also helps in scenes involving disguises or differing accents, since in a larger theatre visual identification of individual actors might not be as easy.

Performances are good, with some splendid moments from the brash and wise-cracking Daniel Pino (as Freddy) and the fresh-faced, sweet-voiced Misty Barber (as Christine, the "soap queen"). Darrell Wofford (as Lawrence) does solid work too, ably supported by Adam Bailey (as corrupt policeman André). Hannah Lake Chatham makes a strong impression as the one-song Jolene, and Ty Autry stands out for his dancing in the ensemble. French dialogue is pretty poor in the ensemble, but Adam Bailey’s accent comes across as authentic. Darrell Wofford’s accent is pure American as Lawrence (except when he’s portraying an occasionally hard-to-understand Austrian doctor), so Freddy’s line near the end of the play that assumes Lawrence is British falls flat.

What comes through most clearly in Onstage Atlanta’s production is the show itself. DeWayne Morgan has shaped the piece to let the music and situations shine. The actors all get a chance to shine too, and will probably grow into their roles more completely as the run continues. This promises to be a sold-out show, and it provides a huge dose of entertainment from start to finish.

The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare
Untamed
Sunday, July 3, 2016
4.5
Shakespeare’s "The Taming of the Shrew" has a lot going on in it aside from the taming of the tempestuous Kate. Kate, after all, only has one suitor; her sister Bianca has three. In the current Shakespeare Tavern production, focus is spread across the full range of characters, with great comic set pieces for just about all the actors. Director Jeff Watkins has assembled a collection of fine comic actors and character actors, seemingly giving them free reign to elicit audience laughter at every opportunity. But when the laughs are this consistent, it’s the director who deserves the lion’s share of credit for inspiring and shaping performances that jell into a jocular whole.

Costumes and set are par for the course for the Shakespeare Tavern; lighting (by Mary Ruth Ralston) is a bit more atmospheric than in many productions, with a nice approximation of dawn at the start of the play. Accompanied music plays less of a role in the proceedings than is usual, but unaccompanied vocal "stylings" are used to comic effect (although the anachronistic use of the theme from "I Dream of Jeanie" is jarringly used for a cheap laugh). The production is thoroughly professional from top to bottom.

Listing the highlights of the production necessitates going through the cast list, one by one. Patrick Galletta, in the minor role of Biondello, gets laughs through his physical comedy; Adam King, as servant Tranio, combines physical exaggeration and an overbearingly regal bearing to get more laughs. Clarke Weigle inspires giggles through his befuddlement as a pedant pressed into service as the counterfeit father to a counterfeit son, and Nathan Hesse gets belly laughs as a bearded, belligerent widow. Troy Willis has audience members barely able to contain non-stop laughter as his Vincentio affects a mobster accent. Drew Reeves steals focus as servant Grumio at every opportunity, matching his master’s comedy at every step.

Matt Nitchie, as that master, invests Petruchio with such confident comic bravado that he practically becomes a force of nature. Non-stop movement keeps twitchy Nitchie at the center of every scene he’s in. Dani Herd’s Kate, in contrast, relies on a quiet, threatening presence to earn her shrewish reputation, although she’s perfectly capable of vocal fireworks when provoked. Even so, this production emphasizes the romance between these two, with a love-at-first-sight undercurrent that softens the edges of their relationship. It works to drive the action to the end point of "they’re going to get together," but deflates some of the contentiousness in the first part of the second act, where Kate is supposedly being tamed by Petruchio, when we have already seen that it’s only a matter of time before she submits.

Kate’s "I am ashamed that women are so simple" speech doesn’t bring the show to a close the way it can. In fact, in this production, it could easily have been cut. The audience is ready to applaud an ending when Petruchio exits, victorious and in love, and the lights dim. When the lights immediately come up again for the final scene, it’s a bit of a let-down.

Now to get back to the rundown of the cast... Doug Kaye gives a nice performance as tippling Baptista, although his projection isn’t quite equal to the rest of the cast. Trey York and Paul Hester perhaps resemble one another too much as Lucentio and Hortensio, but both give fine performances as suitors to Baptista’s younger daughter, Bianca. J. Tony Brown plays a more over-the-top suitor, punctuating his raptures with squeaky sighs that never fail to get a laugh. Kristin Storla, as Bianca, adds so much comic depth to her character that she is hardly the bland, blonde, simpering trophy wife that the script can paint her as. She has the demure and lovely looks, for sure, but there’s a randy spirit inside her that she cannot keep contained. Consequently, the audience can’t keep their laughter contained.

Jeff Watkins has utilized the talents of his cast superbly. This "Taming of the Shrew" is hardly the two-character tour-de-force for Petruchio and Kate that is sometimes is. Every role is filled (or overfilled) with tacky tics and tongue-tripping turns of phrase that amp up the comedy coefficient to the level of hilarity. Productions hardly get better at the Shakespeare Tavern.

June Summer Harvest, The Lakeside Plays, by jpbeck
Overstaying a Welcome
Sunday, June 26, 2016
3.0
Onion Man Productions’ June Summer Harvest 2016 plays are a grab bag of short plays in various styles, ranging from silly comedies to cryptic dramas. Most go on a touch too long, taking a while to set up their premise and/or continuing on after they make their point. If you stay through the end of the evening, though, you’ll be able to enjoy the perfectly calibrated entertainment of David Allan Dodson’s "Of Wenches, Baloney, and Beer," which goes on just the right amount of time to leave an impression of sheer delight.

The playing space contains a wooden support beam near center stage, but that doesn’t prove to be an impediment. Set design, by J. Beck, Patrick Young, Cathy Seith, and David Fisher, uses tree-like flats on this section of stage, with a porch door at stage left. A step along the edge of the stage approximates the shore of a lake adequately. Lighting design, by James Beck and Patrick Young, and sound design, by James Beck, help to set the tone for each piece.

The show starts with "Dead or Alive," by Natasha Patel, Laura King, and James Beck, directed by the ever-present Mr. Beck. This play is split into four parts that play throughout the evening. The language in this piece is jarringly, gratuitously foul, and the piece is neither comedy nor ghost story, falling into a no man’s land somewhere between the two. The blocking is fine and the performances by Daniel Carter Brown and Natasha Patel are adequate, but the play doesn’t conclude with the resonance it apparently wishes it had.

"Crossing the Delaware," by Matt Hanf, takes the second spot, with General George Washington (Allen Stone) and a Molly Pitcher soldier (Isabel de La Cruz) meeting a trio of shivering, starving soldiers (Patrick Young, Greg Fitzgerald, and Lory Cox) in preparation of Washington crossing the Delaware River on a frigid Christmas Eve. Mr. Beck has staged the piece nicely, but the comedy of the piece falls flat. Costumes, however, are quite good.

Next up is Anne-Sophie Marie’s "Couch Potato," which has at best a tenuous connection to its lakeside setting. The script implies an indoor setting. The play is a conversation between mother and daughter (Marianne Geyer and Casey Cudmore) concerning the replacement of a sofa clawed by a pet cat. The rather tedious script lists the daughter’s memories of her deceased father that revolve around the old sofa. Anna Fontaine’s direction doesn’t make the script catch fire.

To end the first act, following another installment of "Dead or Alive," is David Fisher’s "Lakefront Lot." The play starts out fairly slowly, with a husband (Patrick Young) trying to convince his wife (Paige Steadman) that they should buy a lakefront property, despite her reservations. Once the plot introduces Cat Roche, as a real estate agent, and Joe McLaughlin, as a tippling neighbor, the story flips into hyperdrive, moving to a quick, satisfying conclusion.

The second act starts with Suzanne Bailie’s "Music of Love." Like "Lakefront Lot," it is directed by Linda Place, who coaxes fine performances out of Paige Steadman, as a concerned daughter, and Allen Stone, as her mentally disturbed father. This is a sobering drama, but its blocking and light cues make for a somewhat ineffective ending, with flatness replacing the intended poetry of the final lines.

The third portion of "Dead or Alive" introduces a new character (Alexis Seith), but doesn’t clarify the direction of the plot. Wayne Paul Mattingly’s "The Plowman" follows, and it is equally opaque. The script concerns a non-swimming farmer (Greg Fitzgerald) and a swimming neighbor (Zoe Stephens), both of whom apparently have suffered losses and make tuna fish lunches. Mr. Beck’s direction has them both eating onstage (a sure-fire means of slowing the action) and the script requires them to gaze offstage multiple times, so it isn’t very effective as a theatre piece.

Laura King’s "To the Rescue" takes a cute idea about a person falling in love with their rescuer and drags it out to stultifying length. Patrick Young’s direction makes actors Carmen Hijar and Buster Shadwick appear to be rank amateurs, and the prop life preserver threatens to steal the show by flaking and disintegrating onstage as it is roughly used.

After the final installment of "Dead or Alive," we come to Mr. Dodson’s play. It’s nicely staged by James Beck, and delightfully performed by Patrick Young (as a Lake Lanier pirate), Crystal Robertson (as his more-than-understanding wife), and Joe McLaughlin and Lory Cox (as a bored retiree and his wife). The spot-on performances combine with the broad comedy of the script to end the show on a high note.

Rapture, Blister, Burn, by Gina Gionfriddo
Feminism 101
Sunday, June 26, 2016
3.5
Gina Gionfriddo’s "Rapture, Blister, Burn" concerns a New York professor returning to her college town roots, ostensibly in order to take care of her ailing mother and teach feminism classes. Instead, she hooks up with a former flame and throws both of their lives into turmoil. We start with feminism seminar discussions, move over to life-swapping, and end with an acceptance of the previous status quo.

Director Kristin Kalbli has assembled an excellent cast. Laura Cole makes for a dynamic feminist professor, and Jill Hames Graham provides an intellectual counterweight as a superficially contented housewife. Bryn Striepe adds a millennial viewpoint, while Dianne Butler, playing the professor’s mother, adds an older viewpoint. It all makes for a multi-sided discussion of feminism and its history. Zip Rampy is given the impossible role of being a lazy pot-head drunkard who is desired at different times by both his wife and the professor, but his performance is as professional as the others.

Technical aspects of the show are whole-heartedly amateurish. Morgan Brooks’ set design lacks style, aiming instead for the functional. Hinged wall units at either side of the stage are used for outside scenes, while the full stage is used for interior scenes, with the hinged units folded back against the wall. The numerous set changes, multiplied by relatively short scenes, add to the length of an already-too-long show. Will Brooks’ lighting design I found terribly distracting, with actors moving through zones of light and shadow when following Ms. Kalbli’s fairly active blocking.

The script careens from academic discussion to unconventional sexual situations and back again. Its focus on giving equal weight to all sides of the issue of feminism creates a flaccid flip-flop of a plot. The actors do a bang-up job of bringing their characters to life, but the life Ms. Gionfriddo has defined for them seems more schematic than realistic. The acting and directing make the show; technical aspects and the script itself are a letdown.

Love/Sick, by John Cariani
Love/Joy
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
4.0
John Cariani is best known for "Almost, Maine," a collection of vaguely interrelated short plays. The same playwright’s "Love/Sick" takes on another collection that provides a general chronology of falling in love, courtship, marriage, parenthood, divorce, and reconnecting. A troupe of eight actors take on different roles in each play, with some relationships more gender-neutral than others. All have a connection to shopping at the Super Center warehouse store, most notably in the initial play, where shopping carts, emblazoned with a Super Center logo, form an important part of the action.

Props are first-rate across the board. Costumes aren’t as impressive, but Cate Lightburn’s fluid direction and varied lighting make the show move in a delightful fashion. The stage configuration at the Aurora black box theatre is problematic, with heads of audience members in the front rows tending to block the view of wide swaths of the stage, but Ms. Lightburn has staged most of the action far enough from the first row and with a variety of sightline angles to ensure that everyone in the audience gets a generally equivalent experience, even though the most visible portion of the stage (against the back wall) is used as storage for the many set pieces.

Acting is generally terrific, and interactions among actors tend to be honed for effect. These actors haven’t been left to their own devices to create an engaging evening of entertainment. Lots of segments have delightful moments, but for me (and for many audience members), the highlight of the show is Brooke Owens’ turn as a wife who feels her relationship with her husband of a year and a half has grown stale. How she expresses her boredom and what she does to spark a non-boring conversation cause smiles of delight and a few gasps in the audience. That’s the highlight, but the evening as a whole is a charming, increasingly sobering look at how love changes over time. Or is it the people who change, with love still remaining behind, like a discarded item on a rarely-viewed shelf?

Dani Girl, by Michael Kooman (music) and Christopher Dimond (lyrics)
Gone Girl
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
2.5
The musical "Dani Girl" tells the story of a girl (Ansley Frickey) whose childhood leukemia has returned full-blown following remission. Her imagination, fellow cancer victim Marty (Evan Jones), and a hospital worker (Skyler Brown, who also plays a variety of other characters) help her get by during her final hospital stay. Her mother (Kathleen O’Hara) acts more as an emotional anchor, dragging us down into the depths of her despair.

Musical director Donna Bunn James provides fine keyboard accompaniment, but the cast is not blessed with pleasant voices, as a general rule. Evan Jones’ probably has the best tonal quality, and everyone goes all out in their songs, but the end result is not pretty.

Director Jacob McKee has done a generally incompetent job of staging the action in the black box space at Aurora Theatre. With audience on three sides, and with the gentle angle of the risers, the stage floor can’t be seen from upper rows until several feet back from the edge. In Mr. McKee’s staging, we get to see Ms. James and the keyboard in full view at all times against the back wall, but most of the action is staged on massed pillows and blankets right at the feet of the first row of the audience. Sightlines are consequently abysmal for the rest of the audience.

Costumes, props, and lighting are sometimes inventive and usually effective. But with sub-par voices, blocking, and characterizations, the depressing arc of the show is not sufficiently livened to make for an enjoyable entertainment. The intermissionless evening drags on.

The Wisdom of Eve, by Mary Orr
All a Bout, Eve
Monday, June 13, 2016
4.0
"The Wisdom of Eve" is not a theatrical version of the movie "All About Eve," although they do tell the same story. Famous lines from the movie are missing; names are changed; the cast size is limited. Still, the overall production is enjoyable.

The physical production reflects some of the stage practices of the time period of the play (the early 1950s). Drops fly down for stage alley, picnic, and country home exterior scenes. Mercury’s set design pairs these fairly crudely painted drops with fixed sets upstage for Margo’s dressing room (stage right) and the living room of Lloyd and Karen (stage left), each of which contains windows allowing views of the New York skyline on a backing flat that towers above the room walls. The play starts and ends, though, with a blank stage. (Hint: arrive before starting time, since there is stagehand business involving the orchestra pit at five minutes before start, and other business before that.)

Joel Coady’s light design pools illumination appropriately for scenes and narration monologues that use only portions of the stage. Scott Rousseau’s costume design helps set the time period, as does Mercury’s sound design, which uses jazzy music to cover scene changes. There is some background music playing in a couple of early scenes that borders on being distracting, however.

The story, of course, revolves around established star Margo (Eileen Koteles) and the ambitious starlet, Eve Harrington (Bekah Medford), who weasels her way into Margo’s life and career. The two actresses filling these roles do splendid work. They are supported ably by Davin Allen Grindstaff and Erin Greenway, playing a playwright and his wife who are in Margo’s inner ring. The other roles are fairly minor, and are filled acceptably by a variety of new and established area actors.

Mercury’s direction uses blocking that occasionally appears a bit unrealistic, with the main actor in living room scenes often prowling face-front downstage, back to the other people in the room. That may be another homage to 1950s production style, but it appears a bit jarring. Of course, the numerous bits of spotlighted narration also stick out as interrupting the dramatic flow of the story.

This is not as handsome and polished a production as Gypsy Theatre Company has been known to present in the past, but it tells an engaging story that holds interest throughout. A classic like the movie "All About Eve" it may not be, but the interactions of Margo and Eve work beautifully, and Ms. Koteles in particular nails her role. The play is longish, at about 2.5 hours, but moves along briskly and entertains throughout.

Enchanted April, by Matthew Barber
Aprile nel Paradiso
Monday, June 13, 2016
3.0
Onstage Atlanta is putting on a lackluster production of "Enchanted April." English accents are not believable; I was more impressed by the imperfect Italian from a couple of actors than by the faux British most actors use. Emotional arcs seem rather to be tiny line segments. Even technical elements seem deficient.

For the first act, Angie Short’s set design consists of a black-curtained space with table/chair settings scattered around the stage. It works for the fluid scene transitions the script requires, with the entire first-act cast remaining onstage throughout. Tom Gillespie’s lighting design nicely highlights these transitions. Director Jeffery Brown has bafflingly omitted a train sequence, though, which minimizes the impact of the reveal of the Italian villa set at the start of the second act.

The second act’s set is backed by Katy Clarke’s beautiful rendition of a stone wall and stage right archway (with a Madonna shrine upstage left). A superfluity of various flowers adorn the wall and arch. A plain black screen is stretched across stage left, which is so obviously stagey that the illusion of a beautiful Italian vista is fatally compromised. A supposed moonlight effect in the final scene is so unevenly lit that it resembles moonlight not in the least.

Nancye Quarles Hilley’s costumes are meant to reflect the time period of the 1920’s, but do so without a great deal of appeal. Most of the cast appear dowdy, and when compliments are given for particular pieces of apparel, the compliments appear undeserved.

The acting is acceptable across the board, but changes in interaction vary little from the start of the play to the end. Mr. Brown does not seem to have helped the cast delve into the character changes and growth that the plot would seem to require. Standouts are Rebecca Lilak Sorrells, as the Italian-speaking maid, and Emma Greene, as a particularly appealing Rose Arnott. Barbara Cole Uterhardt, in the central role of Lotty Wilton, invests her role with energy, but not a lot of depth.

Charlie Miller’s sound design is generally delightful, although musical interludes tend to be a little long and rain sounds occasionally increase in volume almost to the point of drowning out dialogue. Piano music indicated in the script at the end of the show is omitted (perhaps because the character supposedly playing the piano remains on stage in Mr. Brown’s blocking). And boy! are the ramshackle stage crew noisy preparing for the second act transition.

This production of "Enchanted April" gets the point of the story across, but does not invest the story with a great deal of heart. It’s all played as a light-hearted romp involving paper-thin characters, with Charlie Miller’s turn as author Frederick Arnott particularly grating. The laughs are there, but in general these are not characters one is allowed to get too close to or care too much about. The talent is there in the cast, but the director hasn’t molded the action and portrayals to maximum dramatic effect.

Significant Other, by Joshua Harmon
Insignificant Bother
Thursday, June 9, 2016
2.0
Joshua Harmon’s "Significant Other" tells the story of Jordan, a gay man whose female friends are all getting married and who himself can’t find a man to settle down with, or even date, although he does not seem at a loss to find men to obsess over and fantasize about. The first act sets up the situation for comic impact; the second act devolves into a pity party Jordan throws for himself. It’s fairly long, with a lot of filler, particularly people onstage looking out into the audience and pretending to watch couples dance to a complete song.

Jessica Holt has directed the show with a veneer of artificiality during the set-up. Lee Osorio, as Jordan, is all fey body language and stereotypical gay speech patterns; Cara Mantella, as Jewish-American Princess Kiki, is non-stop, over-the-top, overbearing chattiness. Brittany Inge, as Vanessa, is the sassy black friend, and Diany Rodriguez is Laura, the mousy schoolteacher. Edward McCreary, as an object of Jordan’s obsession, is all chiseled good looks; Jeremy Aggers, as a gay co-worker, is a caricature, plain and simple.

The men play other characters, but they all tend to the colorless and bland, bringing undue attention to the stunt casting. Judy Leavell, as Jordan’s grandmother Helene, comes across about as Jewish as a glazed doughnut masquerading as a bagel. Her character’s discussion of suicide comes out of the blue, and her repeated scenes, all starting with her grandson putting away new medications, get repetitious very quickly.

Ms. Rodriguez manages to create a fully developed, believable character, but she’s the only one in the cast to do so. Even she is directed to do cheesy dance moves that have been created strictly for comedic effect. Mr. Osorio suddenly attains affecting sincerity in the second act, but the damage has been done already in a first-act performance that is theatrical rather than believable. The self-pity in his second-act monologues (emphasis on the plural) is as off-putting as his sincerity is engaging.

The set has to accommodate a variety of locales. Shannon Robert’s design certainly does that, but not in particularly creative ways. Helene’s apartment is self-contained on a stage left platform above Jordan’s apartment stage center/left, which contains an upper-story window laughably close to the apartment’s door. Stage right is taken up by a counter under which Suzanne Cooper Morris’ everyday props are stored and by a series of steps and three semi-circular shells. Downstage is a bench, with a lit cutout on top (as on the counter and shells), surrounded by an oval dance floor. The floors are all a lovely golden oak; otherwise, a mottled green predominates.

D. Connor McVey’s lighting design makes use of six hanging light cylinders, hanging at various angles approximating the vertical, that change color frequently. Preston Goodson’s sound design is just about as busy, cluttering the soundscape of many scenes with almost-distracting background noise that gives the effect, as often as not, of a loud event occurring elsewhere in the King’s Plow Arts Center. Abby Parker’s myriad costumes include some nice wedding dresses, but garb the males in a variety of unflattering outfits. The females get their share of unflattering outfits too (and not only the ones that are supposed to be unattractive).

Jessica Holt’s direction does nothing to hide the deficiencies in Joshua Harmon’s script, which seems a couple of rewrites away from what the playwright probably intended. The tedium of the repeated script points is partly compensated for by the laughs that punctuate the script, but the tedium is enhanced by blocking that gives highly limited sightlines in many scenes for anyone not sitting dead center in the audience. The show is probably most appreciated by those whose age approximates that of the lead characters (late twenties) and who have used alcohol to lubricate the laugh box in their larynxes beforehand.

The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare
The Mere Chant of Venice
Wednesday, June 8, 2016
3.0
Laura Cole’s 2016 production of "The Merchant of Venice" at the Shakespeare Tavern focuses on the somber. There’s plenty of comedy, but it’s as unbalanced as the scales of justice spotlighted at the start of the show. A lot of the comedy is given to actors who aren’t naturally comic actors, at least in the styles requested of them. Consequently, the whole enterprise falls a little flat.

It doesn’t help that the lead players from last year’s production, Amee Vyas (Portia) and Doug Kaye (Shylock), had noticeable line bobbles in the early performance I attended. Their performances are fine, but don’t seem yet to have hit their stride. The performances of the supporting players are more fluid, but tend to be on the lackluster side.

One exception is Doug Graham, as Gratiano. His bio indicates that this is his final performance on the tavern stage (just as his Fern Theatre Company has finished its final run). He has decided to go out with a bang. His performance is broad and explosive and a touch on the modern side, throwing off the balance of every scene he is in by shamelessly stealing focus. His character is paired romantically with Nerissa, and the performance of Kirstin Calvert is perfection, with a rounded, believable, engaging characterization.

The balding Chris Rushing gives a straightforward performance as the male romantic lead, Bassiano, while Matt Nitchie is a dour and near-mumbling Antonio, whose glum expression in the final spotlighted moment lets the audience assume that glumness is the intended impression for the show as a whole. Ms. Cole doesn’t seem to have inspired her cast with a unified vision, making this seem more a grab bag of performances than a targeted, focused approach. Last year’s production was a delight; this year’s is a bit of a mess.

The 39 Steps, by Patrick Barlow
7.0 on the Richter Scale of Ground-Shaking Laughter
Thursday, June 2, 2016
4.5
"The 39 Steps" is a comic riff on the novel by John Buchan and its film version, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The Stage Door Players’ production takes the film concept very much to heart, with Chuck Welcome’s set design resembling an art deco movie theatre, replete with red curtains and flanking box seats, the walls sporting the well-known Hitchcock profile caricature from his TV series.

Before the scheduled start time, the curtains part to reveal a screen on which cartoons are projected. Two uniformed ushers (Jillian Walzer and Ryan Stillings) greet the audience. As show time is reached, the feature movie begins. After credits, we see Jacob York on screen, introducing the story. Before long, the screen is raised and we get to the live-action portion of the show. And lively and action-filled it is! It all ties up with a final filmed sequence giving us our happy ending.

The joy of "The 39 Steps" comes largely from the rapid role-changing by the two clowns (Tony Larkin and John Markowski). The rest of the joy comes from the performances of Jacob York, as (innocent) murder suspect Richard Hannay and Stephanie Friedman, as three women in his life. Director George Contini runs them through their paces in a series of stylized and overblown moments, all designed to amp up the comedy (just as Rial Ellsworth excellent sound is amped up at one point to nearly drown out the dialogue, giving Mr. York and Ms. Friedman ample opportunity to shoot peeved glances at the sound booth). If it will get a laugh, these actors and this director will go for it.

The production is fairly handsome, with George Deavours’ wigs and Jim Alford’s costumes centering the action in 1930’s England and Scotland. J.D. Williams’ lighting design is as complicated as the sound and costume plots, with action highlighted hither and yon by spotlights as Mr. Welcome’s set deconstructs into ladders and doors for chase scenes. Kathy Ellsworth sturdy props impress too, especially a couple of impossibly thick sandwiches. Fight choreography, by Matthew and Brianna Bass, is laughably fake at most points, adding to the anything-for-a-laugh comedy style.

The actors go all-in to make the jokey script come to life. Hitchcock film titles are snuck into the dialogue, with obvious lip-smacking relish, and bits are repeated, usually adhering to the rule of three. The show is filled with belly laughs and chuckles of delight and chortles of unexpected glee. If you feel the ground moving, it must be the combined effect of all audience members at Stage Door Players laughing with abandon at the silly hijinks of this super-talented cast of four (plus two talented ushers who do most of the heavy lifting in scene changes).

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, by William Shakespeare
Two Liberated Gentlewomen of Verona
Saturday, May 28, 2016
4.0
Drew Reeves has done a fabulous job of directing "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" at the Shakespeare Tavern. The show is filled with comic bits and comic situations that cannot all have come from the individual sensibilities of the talented cast. Mr. Reeves has given spark and drive to all the situations inherent in the plot, and has added an ending twist that is satisfying to the more feminist sensibilities of the present age. It’s the type of show that keeps a smile on your face from beginning to end.

Technical aspects (Mary Ruth Ralston’s lighting, Anné Carole Butler’s costumes, Rivka Levin’s music direction, Drew Reeves’ fight choreography) all contribute to the quality of the production. The performances keep the quality up for most of the running time (although the 90-minute first act does get a bit long). The flow of action is extremely smooth, but the first act could use some editing.

Songs extend the running time, and each act starts with a choral song. The sound is lovely, but the only song the action really calls for is "Who Is Silvia?," which is probably the weakest in execution. The opening number does little but set up the gender animosity that underlies the director’s conception of the show and highlights the female performances.

The females all score in this production. Amanda Lindsey is a riot as Crab, the dog. Rivka Levin has a funny bit as an outlaw in a fight sequence. Both also acquit themselves well in their other roles. Mandi Lee is all preposterous petulance as Julia, and Sarah Newby Halicks makes Silvia an indelible comic highlight of the show. Shakespeare’s words have been altered to match their hair colors, underlining their suitability to their respective roles in the world of this production.

The men don’t come off quite as well. Troy Willis and J. Tony Brown seem to be walking through their roles, not investing them with a great deal of energy. Stephen Ruffin, Patrick Galletta, and Kevin Roost don’t seem to have a native comic sensibility that would help them to sell all of their funny moments. On the other hand, Andrew Houchins is a marvel of comedic quirks as Speed, and Nicholas Faircloth fills the other comic servant role of Launce with sprightly humor. Adam King does a fine job in the central role of Proteus, whose character arc is problematic on paper, since he betrays both his friend Valentine and his beloved Julia in his pursuit of the beauteous Silvia. His combination of natural sweetness, deft comic timing, and self-doubting sincerity make his actions palatable.

The show really belongs to Drew Reeves. The direction is the star of the production, with the comic bits that punctuate the action all helping to move the plot or characterizations forward. Kudos to Mr. Reeves and to the females in the cast for making an unabashedly chauvinistic script work for a modern-day audience.

Stones in His Pockets, by Marie Jones
Rockin’ the Pockets
Sunday, May 22, 2016
4.0
"Stones in His Pockets" involves the filming of a movie in Ireland, with a concentration on a couple of extras on the set. The title refers to a suicide by drowning of a local druggie who is denied a role as an extra. The second act concentrates on the repercussions of this suicide, while still retaining some of the comedy of the first act.

Two actors portray the two extras, along with the other eleven movie people and townspeople with whom they interact. Most of the joy of Arís’ production comes from the rapid transformation of the actors from one character to another. RJ Allen is a marvel at this, using his posture, facial expressions, vocal quality, and accent to make each individual an indelible archetype. His is truly a tour-de-force performance.

Unfortunately, "Stones in His Pockets" calls for two tour-de-force performances. Matthew Welch is fine in switching from accent to accent for his characters, but he doesn’t capture each as a totally unique entity. His vocal range doesn’t match Mr. Allen’s; neither does his physical flexibility. His least successful character is American film star Caroline Giovanni, who is identified primarily by accent and a variety of scarves; his others show more range. He does play significantly more characters than Mr. Allen, though, so his job in delineating characters was more difficult.

The set, by Harley Gould, is not too impressive, consisting of a series of stacked, skewed platforms edged unevenly in canvas, with canvas draped in the back upon which photographs are projected (mostly of Irish landscapes). Lighting, also by Mr. Gould, does a fine job of focusing the action. Music, in Robert Drake’s sound design, doesn’t mesh terribly well with the projections. Anna Jenny’s costume design works well enough, but has to rely on hats and scarves to distinguish characters.

Director Kyle Crew has ensured that funny moments pop with comic impact, adjusting to a more serious mood when appropriate. But throughout there’s a sense of energy and momentum. The directorial touches add a lot to the presentation. If only Mr. Crew had been able to mold Caroline Giovanni into a more compelling character, this show would have been remarkable, instead of just very good.

You Can’t Take It With You, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman
You Can Take the Memory With You
Sunday, May 22, 2016
4.0
Old favorites are favorites for a reason. Kaufman and Hart’s "You Can’t Take It With You" is one such. Its combination of eccentric characters and zany action can fizz and effervesce and explode into theatrical fireworks. Lionheart’s production comes close to that.

Tanya Moore’s prop-filled set is a delightful concoction of Victorian architecture and a congeries of memorabilia, perfectly matching the eclectic personalities and costumes (by Rebecca Spring) of the large cast. Gary White’s lighting design and special effects complement the production, and although the lighting isn’t even across the stage during a dimly lit scene, it otherwise draws attention to itself only when intended. Sound design by Scott King and Bob Peterson similarly complements the production.

Scott King’s direction keeps things moving and adds delightful touches here and there, besides ably blocking the large cast on the relatively small set to keep sightlines relatively clean. The pacing of the show makes it sparkle for long stretches, but there are lapses, particularly in the section right after intermission, when line pickup isn’t all it could be. When the lines snap along, the show does too.

In a community theatre production with a large cast, there’s always the danger of a few clunky performances. That’s not the case here. Some performances are more successful than others, but Mr. King has directed all the cast members to bring out their strongest theatrical qualities. Laughs abound, coming equally from laugh-out-loud lines by the playwrights and from character choices made by the director and actors. I was particularly fond of the performances of Tanya Caldwell (as Penny Sycamore) and Nylsa Smallwood (as Rheba), but every audience member is likely to have his or her own favorite actors. There are lots of sterling performances from which to choose.

One element that I feel doesn’t work particularly well is the romance between Alice Sycamore (Sarah Zuk), the daughter of the eccentric family, and Tony Kirby (Jeremy King), the son of wealthy, straitlaced parents. Both actors are charming and likeable, but there doesn’t seem to be real chemistry between them. Ms. Zuk doesn’t seem to have delved much beyond the surface of her character, not convincingly conveying Alice’s conflicting love and embarrassment concerning her family and its household. Still, she’s lovely and vivacious.

The screwball aspects of the script all work. Moving snakes, Donald’s rushing and leaping, Gay Wellington’s drunken postures on the sofa, and Essie’s energetic dance moves all contribute to the physical comedy. Add in the delightful xylophone playing of Paul Milliken as Ed and the costume get-ups called for by the script, and you end up with a raucous celebration of theatricality. Mr. King, with the contributions of his technical team and actors, has created a production of which Lionheart Theatre can be proud.

Buyer and Cellar, by Jonathan Tolins
Babs Gabs
Saturday, May 21, 2016
4.0
"Buyer and Cellar" tells the fictional story of Alex Moore, a gay L.A. actor hired to work as the sole employee in the basement of a building on Barbra Streisand’s estate in which she has installed a mall with a variety of small shops. (Her basement mall actually exists, and is documented in a coffee table book authored by Ms. Streisand.) The one-man show covers his entire stint there, interspersing anecdotes about Barbra’s life and her fictional interactions in the basement mall with details about Alex’s relationship with his boyfriend Barry. Nick Cearley portrays all the characters.

The production in the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams showroom in Buckhead uses a tiny, makeshift stage and seats the audience on showroom furniture, but there are plenty of forays down cramped aisles into the audience. Mr. Cearley’s audience interaction is nearly as delightful as his energetic, personable narrative. His portrayals of various characters in the story bring in a lot of comedy too. (He indicates Barbra rather than doing a full-on impersonation, but it works just fine.)

Production values aren’t great, as would be expected in a non-theatre environment. Music is quite good, but lighting is a bit intrusive, changing color occasionally as the scene changes. Mr. Cearley has just one unremarkable costume with a sweater he takes off for a brief sequence, tying it around his shoulders to portray James Brolin. The cramped playing space and audience seating is part of the charm, but the intermissionless running time of over 90 minutes can feel long if the luck of the first-come seating doesn’t suit the seat of your britches.

The show is aimed at Babs fans, expecting a familiarity with her love life and career, with a lot of content that could be considered inside jokes by people not familiar enough with the Streisand mythology. (You need to know that Jason Gould is her gay son by Elliott Gould.) There are a lot of California references too. Still, enough is explained that only the most Streisand-oblivious audience would be hopelessly lost.

Mr. Cearley is a charming and attractive performer, carrying the show ably on his sweater-clad shoulders. There’s not a lot of plot in Jonathan Tolins’ script, with the relationship between Alex and Barry driving most of it. (Barry is delighted at first with Alex rubbing shoulders with Babs, but later becomes resentful.) The color of Alex’s hair drives another important thread of the plot, but mostly it’s just a lot of dishing about his life interacting with a cultural icon who also happens to be a real person. It’s fluff, but entertaining fluff.

Steal My Heart, by Daniel Carter Brown
Consider Your Heart Stolen
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
4.0
"Steal My Heart" is a rom-com thriller -- a romance commingled with a thriller. What starts out as a one-nighter turns into a longer-term relationship, with the man (Chris Schulz) using his computer hacking skills and other means to entrap the woman (Danielle Thorsen). The comic implications of their relationship predominate in the beginning, turning more serious as the play goes along.

Director Rebekah Suellau has done a wonderful job of using the small black box space to stage the action. The space represents a plainly furnished apartment, with just a sofa and coffee table to begin with. An outside door at the back of the audience is used for access to the apartment; doors upstage right and left, which in reality open onto a church hallway, are used as access points to the bedroom/bathroom and to the kitchen. There is no set other than the black walls of the playing space and the furnishings carried on by the actors as the woman, Alexis, moves in with the man, Kyle.

Daniel Carter Brown’s lighting scheme works hand-in-hand with Emily Sams’ sound to create a believable environment, at its most impressive when the effect is that of a television playing, with the screen where the audience is. Costumes are a major means of conveying the progress of time, and they do a good job of it. Technically, this is a superb use of the black box theatre.

The acting is also first-rate. Chris Schulz and Danielle Thorsen disappear completely into their characters, with the fun-loving Alexis contrasting with the more reserved Kyle. Their interactions morph believably throughout the show, with the theatricality of this two-person show keeping interest nearly to the end, when a theatrical approach gives way to a more cinematic approach: Alexis has a one-way conversation with a lawyer, attempts on her own to figure out a secret four-digit combination, and struggles with Kyle (nice fight choreography from Matthew Bass). This sequence could be much more theatrical if the information from the lawyer’s call and the secret combination were revealed by Kyle in a sarcastic, sadistic scene. As it is, his transformation from an unsettling presence to a physical threat comes late, and follows Alexis’ descent into fear of Kyle. It doesn’t feel quite right, and doesn’t deliver on the promise of all that has led up to the ending.

Playwright Daniel Carter Brown has done impressive research into the world of cyber security, and his computer jargon has the ring of truth (although guessing at the secret combination has more of the scent of research). "Steal My Heart" is definitely worth seeing. The acting is wonderful, the direction is superb, and the technical aspects are terrific. If the ending isn’t all it could be, the journey up to that point is all one could wish.

My Fair Lady, by Lerner & Loewe
My Fair Costumes
Sunday, May 15, 2016
4.0
In a Tony Smithey production, you can count on the costumes being something special. The Cumming Playhouse’s "My Fair Lady" is no exception. Where else would you see Eliza Doolittle completely change outfits between each verse of "The Rain in Spain?"

Mr. Smithey is playing triple duty in this production. Besides being the costumer, he is also the director and the male star, playing Henry Higgins. His Higgins is the most genial I have seen, full of laughs and smiles, although he transitions to true emotion at the end of the show. As a director, he has wisely chosen to offload some of Higgins’ moments to Colonel Pickering (the handsome and talented Jody Woodruff).

When a show has Annie Cook as musical director and piano accompanist, you can depend on the musical aspects of the show being first-rate. "My Fair Lady" is no exception. Some small alterations in the script have been made to allow her to also play Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s mother, and she does that with great comic timing and panache.

Comedy is also in the forefront in the performance of Glenda Gray as Eliza Doolittle. That’s not to say there are any vocal shortcomings in her performance of the songs; on the contrary, she has a lovely, pure voice. She’s not a wan ingénue in the role, but a strong woman attempting to make her own way in life, with lovely comic reactions to some of the hiccups in her journey.

The chorus members all do fine work, and the female-heavy ensemble is used to terrific effect throughout. Ms. Gray is credited as musical staging director rather than as choreographer, and there’s not a lot of what could be called all-out dancing. Movement during the songs incorporates dance steps, but they are perfectly suited to the capabilities of the cast. There’s visual liveliness in the group numbers, but just enough to keep things from seeming static. "The Embassy Waltz" is omitted, replaced by a reprise of "I Could Have Danced All Night, sung by Mrs. Pearce (the sweet-voiced Kelsey South), but it’s not really missed.

Mr. Smithey’s staging makes wonderful use of the stage and the wide center aisle in the auditorium. A flower stall is a permanent fixture far stage right, and Ms. Cook’s piano is far left. Near each of them are white garden tables and chairs, used for various scenes. The main portion of the stage is backed either by the bookcases of Henry Higgins’ library or by a view of London buildings. Curtains are drawn or distracting action occurs elsewhere to make scene transitions seamless. Gabe Russo’s set design and Mr. Smithey’s blocking work hand-in-hand to pleasing effect.

Kyle Johnson’s sound design is lovely, matching live piano and recorded piano music perfectly. His lighting design works well too, with just a touch of uneven lighting at the edges of the stage when a scene uses its full width. The panoply of costumes sparkles in the bright light, amazing with its variety and range, not to mention the quickness of changes. The only costume problem, as it were, is that the flower vendors’ costumes at the start of the show are so colorful and charming that there’s no distinction between the flower vendors and opera-goers outside Covent Garden.

The supporting players generally do fine work, although I did seem to detect a bit of a lack of energy in the performance of TJ Johns as Alfred P. Doolittle. That’s more than compensated for by the vocal brilliance of Orlando Carbajal Rebollar as Freddy Eynsford-Hill. It’s difficult to imagine "On the Street Where You Live" sounding any better than it does at the Cumming Playhouse. Mr. Rebollar and Ms. Gray may not be matched well in age, but the problem of unrealistic age differentials doesn’t really matter in a production where the emotions are true and the action keeps moving, as at the Cumming Playhouse.

The Kitchen Witches, by Caroline Smith
Watered-Down Soup
Sunday, May 15, 2016
3.0
"The Kitchen Witches" is one of those plays that sound very entertaining on paper. Two women, past rivals for the same man and current rivals for the same TV cooking show time slot, are compelled to join forces in a bickering-filled new TV show. In performance, the situation quickly becomes tiresome. The structure of the play doesn’t help, with a sudden revelation coming out of the blue at the end of the first act, driving the second act into more serious territory. It’s pretty much a by-the-book attempt at standard entertainment.

The production at Out of Box Theatre goes all-out on costumes, designed by Julie Resh, but skimps on the set, designed by Wally Hinds with what looks like leftover pieces from other sets. The set is functional, however, with a long counter center stage, bisected by a stovetop, and a tech stand down right and dressing room doors up right. A red refrigerator, food storage bookcase, and prep table upstage add to the slapdash quality of the set. Jeffrey Bigger’s sound design has some of the same quality, with the same Sinatra music played multiple times between scenes. Jeff Costello’s lighting design is fine, but unremarkable.

The acting is capable, but comes off as a bit flat. Jeffrey Bigger, the director, hasn’t shaped the play with many ups and downs of emotion, with one confrontation in the second act coming across as extremely awkward. Betty Mitchell and Pat Bell are adequate as the "Kitchen Witches," as is Dylan Parker Singletary as the show producer. Ryan LaMotte scores in a generally silent role, with most scenes ending just as he is about to utter words for the first time. It’s all a little broad and flat.

Audience participation is part of the show. An applause sign is raised (inconsistently) when audience applause for the TV show is expected, and there are a couple of other instances where audience reaction is solicited. One unlucky (pre-selected) audience member is introduced as a celebrity guest judge for one short segment, and that falls about as flat as the rest of the show.

Place references in the script have all been turned into local metro Atlanta references. Rather than making the play seem more timely and relevant, this tends to make it seem pandering. This is middle-of-the-road entertainment with the entertainment quotient diluted, like watered-down soup.

I’m Not Rappaport, by Herb Gardner
I’m Not Impressed
Sunday, May 8, 2016
3.0
"I’m Not Rappaport" gets its title from an old vaudeville routine. That should give a clue that this is a dated play. It concerns two octogenarians and it was first produced in 1985. The math will tell you that the men would be dead by now. So is the play, pretty much.

One of the men (Nat), played by Kenny Raskin, is an unreformed socialist with a penchant for spinning self-aggrandizing tales. The other (Midge), played by Rob Cleveland, is a night super for an apartment building who spends his time at work avoiding all human contact, for fear that his significantly degraded eyesight will get him fired. Neither one is inherently likeable, but Herb Gardner’s script gives them funny lines and interactions that are supposed to make them endearing. David de Vries’ direction doesn’t succeed in making these two men appear to be real people.

The setting of the play is a park, with benches below and a bridge arching above, a rock outcropping stage left descending from the side of the bridge to the stage level. The view from the benches and bridge is supposedly a pretty view of a lake and lamp post. The view the audience gets, though, is full of litter and graffiti, with a view of two pixelated skyscrapers upstage. Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have provided the set (and the generally unremarkable costumes). It’s a substantial set, but with some cut-rate components, such as live saplings killed and dessicating onstage, simplified cut-outs in the bridge railings, and a foliage-woven fence upstage that serves no purpose except blocking a view of the fabric backdrop. The set is on the depressing side, just like the play.

Joseph A. Futral’s lighting design is fine, its dappled effect at the start not affecting the illumination of the actors. Bob Brooksher’s sound design is a bit of a mixed bag, using atmospheric, elegiac piano music before the first and last scenes, while inserting rock music elsewhere. Music heard in the distance in the first scene seems to have been triggered by a line in the script, with no particular attempt to have the music make sense in the context of a day in a New York park. The by-the-book quality of the production doesn’t seem to have been deeply thought out.

Five other characters help to populate the story and bring some life to it. Marcus Hopkins-Turner and Benjamin Davis play thugs of different varieties, but aren’t called on to do much more than be menacing. Brooke Owens plays an art student and supposed drug user, but comes across as a pretty generic sweet young thing. The best supporting performances come from Dan Triandiflou, as a tenants’ association member for Midge’s building, and Wendy Melkonian, as Nat’s daughter. Both make their characters come to life, and Ms. Melkonian in particular gives some emotional depth to a show that otherwise depends on facile comic situations and melodramatic confrontations.

Director David de Vries has blocked the show with a fair amount of movement, but there are large stretches with two men sitting on a park bench. Christen Orr’s fight choreography is quite good, making the moments of true violence highlights of the action. Mr. Cleveland’s phony boxing movements, however, are purely a comic convention that cheapens the texture of the piece. It doesn’t seem that the director has inspired the actors to do their best work. And that doesn’t inspire an audience to reward them with acclaim.

Equivocation , by Bill Cain
Eloquence Vocation
Sunday, May 8, 2016
3.5
Bill Cain’s "Equivocation" posits that Shakespeare was hired by Robert Cecil, the first Earl of Salisbury and King James I’s de facto head of state, to write a play about 1605’s Gunpowder Plot that intended to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The king’s only requirement: that it include witches. After Shakespeare’s multiple attempts at telling the malleable "facts" of the Gunpowder Plot, Bill Cain supposes that the Scott-ish play was provided instead. "Macbeth," after all, lauds King James’ ancestry. Mr. Cain makes parallels between Banquo and the real-life Robert Cecil, whose descendants have held significant government posts.

Cain’s mixture of historical facts, suppositions, and inventions drags in a lot of material, making for an over-long play. The title comes from the work of Jesuit priest Henry Garnet, who was involved with the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. Consequently, there’s a lot of discussion about equivocation, the art of giving answers that straddle the line between moral truth and absolute truth. The character of Judith, twin to Shakespeare’s deceased son, also figures prominently, dragging in more discussion, about the use of twins in Shakespeare’s work and about mistreated daughters in Shakespeare’s later plays. The alternately cooperative and combative nature of Shakespeare’s acting company, led by Richard Burbage, also figures heavily.

Six actors play all the roles in "Equivocation." Anné Carole Butler’s impressive costumes do a good job of letting them morph from role to role, but the double-casting becomes a stunt at times, such as when the versatile Matt Felten simultaneously portrays the comic King James and Sharpe, a member of the acting troupe, with each profile showing a different costume. Clark Taylor is impressively distinct in his two major roles as Cecil and troupe member Nate. Robin Bloodworth is powerful as Burbage and Garnet; Jeff Watkins embodies "Shagspeare." Nicholas Faircloth does perfectly acceptable work, and Elizabeth Diane Wells conveys great inner strength as Judith. The acting is fine, and Jaclyn Hofmann’s blocking keeps the action flowing nicely throughout. Matt Felten’s fight choreography comes across as realistic in most instances, with one obvious wide swing in the performance I saw.

The technical elements are somewhat constrained by the use of the standard Shakespeare Tavern set, but bright banners around the periphery of the stage give the décor some color. Mary Parker’s lighting design is more inventive than is usually the case at the Tavern, using subtly changing area lighting to highlight the action. Clarke Weigle’s sound design impresses (except for an overuse of thunder during lines), but Bo Gaiason’s musical score doesn’t do much to set the scene in the years between 1605 (the Gunpowder Plot) and 1616 (Shakespeare’s death).

"Equivocation" is well-researched and makes moments in history come alive, but goes on too long in both acts, packing in more information than is really needed to get the point across. Adding in excerpts from "Macbeth" in performance emphasizes the length of the material. Furnishing "Macbeth" would seem to be the solution to the main problem raised in the play -- how is Shakespeare going to provide a play about the Gunpowder Plot that will neither act as shameless propaganda for King James I nor be considered treasonous? But after that solution has been arrived at, we need to slog through the justifications of "Equivocation" as the title of the play. The play follows a viscerally satisfying ending with a rather dry philosophical/biographical summing-up. That makes the play easier to appreciate than to love.

Sugar, by Peter Stone (book), Jule Style (music), Bob Merrill (lyrics)
Doin’ It for Diabetes
Sunday, May 8, 2016
2.0
They say that a rocky dress rehearsal means a great opening night performance. What do they say about a rocky opening night performance? That it means a terrific closing weekend? Let’s hope so, for the sake of CenterStage North’s "Sugar."

Most of the elements are in place for a sparklingly good production of this admittedly less-than-stellar show. Alyssa Davis’ choreography is active and cheery, but the dancers weren’t terribly synchronized on opening night. Brad Rudy’s lighting has some inventive moments for romantic kisses, but the spotlight used for solo moments was generally jerky and late on opening night. Mark Schroeder’s musical direction has the singers doing nice work on all the musical numbers, but the mushy piano accompaniment was joined on opening night by the unsubtle drumming of a last-minute replacement percussionist. The costumes designed by Chris Ikner and Karen Worrall add visual appeal to the show, but the drab brick panel set designed by David Shelton and Kevin Renshaw adds none, although it does obviate the need for set changes.

The lead performers all do fine work. Joe Arnotti and Zachary Stutts combine great voices and winning comic panache to create charming portrayals of Joe/Josephine and Jerry/Daphne. Mary Beth Morrison sparks across the stage like a human sparkplug as Sweet Sue. Joel Rose is well-cast as Sir Osgood Fielding, using his fine voice to advantage in what are unfortunately the weakest musical numbers in the show. Emily Decker plays Sugar Kane as too much of a Marilyn Monroe tribute, but conveys a sweet, winning personality.

The minor roles have more of a minor impact, although Paige Crawford scores as a gangster sidekick. One of the conventions of the show is to use tap-dancing to represent machine gun shots, and it works remarkably well. Mr. Ikner has blocked the ensemble to populate the periphery of the show during much of the action, giving them a chance to act as a surrogate audience, their reactions underlining their (evolving) characters.

While "Sugar" has several catchy musical numbers, it’s not the finest of Jule Styne’s scores. Peter Stone’s book hews closely to the "Some Like It Hot" film script for its most memorable lines and situations, but doesn’t always shoehorn the musical numbers into the flow in a successful fashion. Nevertheless, there’s the possibility for a lot of audience satisfaction, particularly in the cross-dressing performances of Messrs. Arnotti and Stutts. The opening night performance may have been a bit of a shambles, but the promise is there for the show to improve in each subsequent performance.

Me and Jezebel, by Elizabeth L. Fuller
Mean Jezebel
Sunday, May 1, 2016
4.5
Consider the comic possibilities of a sharp-tongued, chain-smoking, and profane Bette Davis spending a month in the home of an ordinary family that includes an impressionable toddler. Then cast a male (Googie Uterhardt) in the role of Bette Davis and have the real-life woman whose story this is be portrayed by an actress (Aretta Baumgartner) who also portrays every other character in the plot. Now reconsider the comic possibilities, and you’ll see that they have increased exponentially.

David Thomas has directed a splendid production of Elizabeth Fuller’s "Me and Jezebel." The set by Michael Hidalgo uses the full width of the stage to portray the Fuller house, ranging from a kitchen stage left to the guest bedroom stage right, and shoe-horning a cafe table and chairs far down right. The furnishings are eclectic, combining mid-century Colonial, Mission, and other styles in an invisible framework of wood paneling and somehow making it all seem a prototypical semi-outdated mid-1980’s house. Mr. Hidalgo’s sound and light design use varied effects to sharpen moments in the script, and that too makes things seem just right. Add in the versatile and elegant costumes by Jeanne Fore, and you have a mighty good-looking production.

Production values rarely make a show on their own, of course. And here we have two splendid acting talents at the top of their games who DO make the show. Ms. Baumgartner is a delight as Elizabeth, speaking directly to the audience during narration sequences and morphing seamlessly from character to character, even doing a piece of purposefully bad acting in imitating the eminently imitable Bette Davis. Googie Uterhardt is far too tall and hale to physically approximate the frail frame of the aged star, but he has wonderful makeup and nails the Davis style, if not every single intonation. Together, they make every moment of the script come to vibrant life. Voice talents Carl Kristie and Reay Kaplan, heard only in recordings, also do very nice work.

The script hews closely to the real-life, month-long encounter between Bette Davis and the Fullers, sharpening the chosen situations for comic/dramatic impact and sprinkling in lots of Ms. Davis’ famous movie quotes. It all goes down easily. This may not be ground-breaking work, but it provides a surfeit of joyous entertainment (along with clouds of water vapor counterfeiting as cigarette smoke). For any fan of Bette Davis, the show is a must-see; for any non-fan, it’s an oughta-see at the least.

Oliver!, by Lionel Bart
Consider Yourself Forewarned
Sunday, May 1, 2016
2.0
Director Christina Hoff has added a framing device to Fabrefaction’s production of "Oliver!" At the start, we see Oliver being bullied and pushed to the ground, with the children then singing "Food, Glorious Food" to Oliver. At the end, we see Oliver in the same position on the ground, then arising as if from a dream and hugging his attackers to a cappella renditions of song snippets from the show.

This concept doesn’t work, particularly since the bulk of the show is treated more as a nightmare than as a dream. The electronic-based musical tracks (by Matthew Greenia), the detritus-based set (by Nadia Morgan), and the tattered costumes (by Anna Jenny) all suggest a bleak dystopian future. Ms. Hoff has encouraged grotesquely overblown performances from Widow Corney (Blair Godshall), Mr. Bumble (John Fletcher), the Sowerberrys (Jed Drummond and Jimmica Collins), and Bill Sykes (Andrew McGill), making the nightmare continue. Then, when Dr. Grimwig (Chase Alford) shows up, his performance is flat instead of overblown, emphasizing the tonal inconsistency of this production.

True, there is an inherent inconsistency in the material, with Lionel Bart’s cheery, lighthearted score contrasting with the action occurring in the underbelly of Dickens’ London. But doing the whole show as if it were "Sweeney Todd" robs the joy from the show. It doesn’t help that the vocals in the show never rise above the acceptable. Leads Nancy (Erin Burnett) and Fagin (Adam LeBow) have their moments, but hardly come to the rescue of the show. The best voices on display come from random solo lines sung by the likes of ensemble members Alex Tischer and Sara Cox.

What works in the show is the sincerity of the story involving Oliver (Maya Curnow in the performance I saw) and Mr. Brownlow (Steve Pryor). Removing the sincerity from the rest of the plot is the fatal flaw of Ms. Hoff’s concept.

Amy Levin is credited with the sound design, but I didn’t notice any amplification when it was needed, even though several of the youngsters in the cast wore headset microphones. Ben Rawson’s lighting design tends to be on the murky side, except when it’s flashing lights for effect (and the effect in the "chase scene" at the end of the first act is uninspired, to say the least). Christen Orr’s fight choreography is quite effective, and Lauren Rosenzweig’s choreography is full of movement to start with, but deteriorates to singing people walking in a circle in act two.

It’s great that so many children are getting exposed to the demands of professional production, even though the professionals involved in this production haven’t helped to create a production with professional quality. It says a lot that I walked away most impressed by Hao Feng’s bearing and dancing as a militaristic Bow Street Runner and by Jed Drummond’s physicality as Mr. Sowerberry. That’s taking minor components of the director’s concept and blowing them out of proportion. I would have preferred seeing the time-tested entertainment values of a straightforward production of "Oliver!"

The Tribute Artist, by Charles Busch
The Tribute Caricaturist
Saturday, April 30, 2016
3.5
The characters in the script consist of four biological females and two biological males. The actors playing the roles are four males and two females. Add in a variety of sexual orientations and you end up with gender confusion on a large scale. This is a Charles Busch play, after all.

Suehyla El-Attar has directed "The Tribute Artist" to bring out its comedy, adding lots of humorous stage pictures and keeping things moving in this longish play. Her work goes hand-in-hand with that of lighting designer Elisabeth Cooper, with lighting changes telegraphing characters’ revelatory monologues. Add in Nancye Quarles Hilley’s impressive costumes and George Deavours’ varied wigs and you have good-looking activity on the stage. Dan Bauman’s sound design works in tandem with lighting effects to underscore "moments" and to cover cleverly blocked scene transitions.

The big disappointment in the show is Ms. Cooper’s set. According to the script, this is an elegant house in the West Village of New York City with valuable possessions on display. What the set looks like is a lower-middle class apartment furnished primarily from Goodwill. There is very little sense of style on display. The paintings on the walls are on the elegant side, but nothing else is.

The members of the cast are all fine. Cathe Hall Payne does a nice job as European Adrianna, bearing enough resemblance to DeWayne Morgan’s drag to make the premise of the show feasible. Mr. Morgan is no world-class female celebrity impersonator, but he hits enough of the right notes to get the point across, and provides an amiable center for the action. Nicholas Tecosky is terrific as beau Rodney, hitting lots of notes (menace, romance, comedy) in a tour-de-force performance. Topher Payne is unequivocally the scene-stealing best of the performers, making every moment and line and reaction count. Amanda Cucher and Pat Young are not well-cast in terms of age as a mother/trans-son team, but they acquit themselves well, without providing indelible performances.

The script clearly sets things up in the first act, then seems to lose its way in the second act, padding things so that each act lasts over an hour. It all ties up neatly in the end, with a moment of seriousness capped by a huge laugh. It’s fun throughout, but wanders a bit in the second act until we arrive at the denouement. Ms. El-Attar has generated a terrific production, papering over the deficiencies in the script with comic brio and populating it with a cast for which chewing the scenery barely counts as an appetizer.

Moonlight and Magnolias, by Ron Hutchinson
Side-Splitting a Banana
Sunday, April 24, 2016
4.0
How do you go about making a hundred banana splits? Take the ice cream out of the freezer to soften? Gather a bunch of glass bowls? Make sure you have plenty of nuts and whipped cream and cherries? Split the bananas? However you decide to proceed, first shell the nuts and peel the bananas. And then take the nuts and shells and banana skins to the Sylvia Beard Theatre and spread them across the stage. It’ll save the stage crew a lot of time!

"Moonlight and Magnolias" contains plenty of visual comedy, including the sight of Danielle Gustaveson and Mercury’s lovely, two-level set being covered in the detritus of five solid days of three men subsisting on a diet of only bananas and peanuts. There are series of slaps, men being lifted and moved from spot to spot, and men impersonating women as they attempt to act out the plot of "Gone with the Wind." Funny stuff.

Playwright Ron Hutchinson adds some discussion of race and religion, as introduced by script doctor Ben Hecht (Jon Wierenga), but comedy predominates. Imposing producer David O. Selznick (R. Scott Cantrell) and irascible film director Victor Fleming (Joel Coady) go over the top in impersonating all the characters in "Gone with the Wind," and Miss Poppenghul (Diane Dicker) pops in now and again to do the thankless bidding of Selznick, accompanied by the repeated phrases "Yes, Mr. Selznick" and "No, Mr. Selznick." There aren’t a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but enough humor to keep a broad smile on the face.

Suzanne Holtkamp’s costumes and Ms. Gustaveson’s props and set dressing set the time period of 1939. Chelsea Martin’s lighting design, with its cyclorama that deepens in hue at various moments, helps to shape certain beats of the script, and Mercury’s sound design adds imposing film music at just the right times. Technically, this is a professionally assembled production.

Director Rachael Endrizzi has shaped the flow to keep interest throughout, and her blocking is superb. (Of course, it helps to have two levels to the set and only four people in the cast.) Her main achievement, though, is getting top-notch performances out of her cast. Mr. Coady in particular lands all the physical comedy of his role. But everyone pulls together to put the play across, leaving delighted audiences in their wake.

S.T.E.A.M. Team, by Topher Payne
S.L.E.A.M Team
Sunday, April 24, 2016
4.5
The acronym "STEAM" typically stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. In the title of Topher Payne’s new play, it stands more for the initials of the five characters: Scout, Taylor, Elliot, Aubrey, and Misha. The character names generally correspond to the associated acronym field (e.g., Scout for Science, Misha for Math), except for Taylor, whose main trait is Leadership rather than Technology.

The storyline brings Aubrey into an already established group (much as "Arts" has been added to the "STEM" acronym to make "STEAM"). A cat needs to be rescued from a tree, and it takes the help of all five characters to achieve their goal. As the kids grow up from fourth grade on, they grow apart until they are reunited to solve the mystery of how Misha’s winning science fair project was damaged. All ends well, with lessons learned by all.

Dusty Brown’s scenic design combines three tri-part screens, a backing curtain, and a couple of cubes. The cubes and all the screens are painted with blackboard paint, except for the main panel of the middle screen, which shows sprightly cartoon projections illustrated by Jacob Jones. The action involves a LOT of sketching with chalk, followed by erasures. It all works charmingly, with Dusty Brown’s sound design meshing seamlessly with the projections and the action. Teresa Bayo’s nifty props and Erin Bushko’s delightful costumes help to make this a visually appealing show.

Laurel Crowe’s direction keeps things popping. This is a very active show. All the actors create energetic characters, and they work together wonderfully well. Maggie Birgel imbues Taylor with all the good and bad traits of self-professed leadership, much as Robert Lee Hindsman combines science nerdiness with inner integrity. Alejandro Gutierrez does a bang-up job providing narration as Aubrey, and Ty Autry makes for as charming a sports jock as one could wish. Shelli Delgado geeks up her innate charm as Misha, and they all take turns playing the peanut butter-obsessed worst girl in class.

The laughs keep coming, the morals are as sugar-coated as breakfast cereal, and it all goes down easily. While this production is performed by adults for an audience of children, it’s well-suited for performance by children too. Given that the character names are all gender-neutral, it’s an easy show to cast. Expect a long future life.

Sotto Voce, by Nilo Cruz
Literary
Saturday, April 23, 2016
3.0
Nilo Cruz’s "Sotto Voce" is not an action-packed play. The two main characters communicate solely through phone calls and computer messages. Director Justin Anderson attempts to alleviate the static nature of the story by frequent shifts in blocking, as Ben Rawson’s lighting design spotlights various specific areas of the stage that vary from scene to scene. Still, he can’t disguise the fact that the communication of Bemadette Kahn (Marianne Fraulo), a German-born writer, is pretty formal and literary, giving a dry, cerebral veneer to a story that keeps its emotions very tightly held, close to the chest.

Trevor Carrier’s set makes good use of the black box space, placing a half-circle, flat stage in front of a raked platform that extends to the back wall. Bookcases flank all three doorways in the set, with artistically arranged objects on the shelves (although with mighty few books for an author). The floor is a good-looking light wood, with diagonal cut-out vents on the raked portion through which light can show. The only furniture is a sleek desk with chair and two stools. It’s extremely functional.

The back wall contains a large rectangular projection screen that shows a somewhat pixelated, impressionistic New York skyline before the show begins. During the show, projections often cover the whole back wall, with the projection screen sometimes showing a different image. It doesn’t work particularly well at doing anything other than providing visual variety for a statically-conceived play. The screen is particularly ineffective when its blank whiteness stands in for a curtained window, when shortly thereafter a projection of a curtained window appears on the screen.

The actors attempt to make sense of the script, but can’t make it convincing. Louis Gregory, with impeccable Cuban and German accents, plays a young man who has creepy stalker tendencies, while Denise Arribas, comic timing as sharp as ever, plays a woman attracted to him in an equally creepy way. Marianne Fraulo, ostensibly playing a German-born woman, uses an undefinable accent that sounded German to me in only one isolated speech. Her cool demeanor may be appropriate for an agoraphobic woman, but the only heat she registers seems to be intellectual, casting a shadow over the human story that should be at the center of the production.

The story concerns the plight of Jews on the St. Louis, a WWII-era ship that was denied entry to Cuba or the U.S., returning most of its passengers to Europe and death in Nazi concentration camps. Late in the play, a parallel is drawn to Hispanics who are not allowed into the U.S. due to visa violations. That parallel cheapens the tragedy of the St. Louis, and the play seems to fall apart as much as come to an end.

Mr. Anderson has directed a highly professional production, with Jordan Jaked Carrier’s costume design and all other technical elements giving the show a professional sheen. None of that, however, can disguise the limitations of the script. Bemadette refers to Saquiel as being "sotto voce," when in actuality he’s pretty vocal and persistent; she’s the quiet one. Or perhaps she’s referring to her lover Ariel Strauss, a passenger on the St. Louis, with whom Saquiel becomes conflated in her memory. In any case, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but supplies the play with an ostensibly evocative title.

Hot L Baltimore, by Lanford Wilson
Hotel Baltimore
Saturday, April 23, 2016
3.5
Lanford Wilson’s "Hot L Baltimore" takes place in the lobby of a run-down extended-stay hotel. Eviction notices have just been sent out, and all the residents are scrambling to find new accommodations. A large cast of residents and a rotating set of front desk personnel trek across the stage as the action plays out over a couple of days.

Spencer Estes has done a wonderful job of designing a set that indicates the location with a perhaps once-stylish wall pattern and a front desk and broom closet squeezed into the very limited stage space. His lighting design can’t do much more than illuminate the wide playing area, but it does so evenly and effectively. Costume design by Andrea Hermitt and Becca Parker adds visual appeal, while also helping to delineate character. Paul Franklin’s sound design covers scene changes with period appropriateness.

Community theatre requiring such a large cast is bound to include performances of various skill levels. Director Starshine Stanfield has done a very nice job, though, of whipping the cast into shape, keeping the pace going and ensuring that various emotional levels help drive the action. Consequently, no one looks bad. Sure, there are characters and moments that could have more depth, but the complex script is brought to vibrant life, overlapping dialogue and all.

In a big ensemble cast, not everyone gets a chance to shine. Even so, everyone inhabits his or her role fully. Some standouts, in my estimation, are Rick Bragg as put-upon hotel manager Mr. Katz; Linda Place as Mrs. Bellotti, downtrodden mother of an evicted tenant; and especially Heather Murray as Jackie, a young woman of indeterminate sex, strong knowledge of geography, and an invincible sense of self. Kendal Franklin is bright and energetic in the central role of the Girl, playing off nicely against the desk clerk played by Rob Frisina. Interactions are also effective between Branden Parisi, as a man searching for his grandfather, and Sharon Wilson, as another desk clerk. Ladies of the evening (Ilene Miller and Cat Roche) add spark to their scenes too.

"Hot L Baltimore" is light on plot and heavy on character-driven activity. We don’t find out what will happen to most of the characters, but we get enough hints from their behavior and personalities to have a chance at guessing. But in the case of this play, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. Under Starshine Stanfield’s expert direction, the lobby of the hotel comes to life for a brief couple of days before it is scheduled to be reduced to rubble and oblivion.

Inside I, by Michael Haverty and Erwin Maas
Interminable
Saturday, April 23, 2016
2.0
"Inside I" purports to show the experience of autism for a single individual. Ben has problems processing contradictory sensory input, is obsessed with video cameras, and gets bullied. We see various experiences as his life progresses through three progressively (slightly) larger puppets, each of which is equipped with a video camera. The video feed is shown to the audience variously on three video screens and projections on the wall (and on a giant brain-like blob of wrinkled paper that occasionally descends from the ceiling). It’s all very clever and well-coordinated with Ben Coleman’s generally somber score and the actions of the actors, but it’s also very boring. The experiences are fairly ordinary, everyday events, all performed at a glacial pace.

Russ Vick’s puppets (Ben and his school "friend" Sophia) are nicely constructed and articulated, allowing fairly natural movements as teams of actors move them. They’re puppets, though, so they have fixed facial expressions. Matt Baum (as Ben’s voice) and Tera Buerkle (as Sophia’s) do nice jobs of providing a variety of vocal expressions, but there’s not a lot of dialogue in the piece. It’s mostly musical soundscape or silence.

Reay Kaplan, as Ben’s mother, and Jeffrey Zwartjes, as Sophia’s father, interact as humans with their puppet children. They do nice work too. Luis Hernandez, who appears briefly in human form as a highly stylized grocery clerk, is otherwise relegated to puppet movement and voice work as Ben’s father. The cast can’t be faulted in any way.

Michael Haverty and Erwin Maas, the creators and directors of the show, have obviously put a lot of work into coordinating the technical aspects of the production, from Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s ever-present video design to Jamie Bullins’ unobtrusive costume design to Melisa DuBois’ nifty puppet-sized props to Rebecca Makus’ lighting design, which makes use of handheld lights for its most impressive effects. It’s technically complex, but hardly effective as a piece of theatre.

Much better, in comparison, is the companion piece, Samuel Joseph Gross’ "I Direct Myself." Mr. Gross is a young man on the autism spectrum, and he presents his life story through anecdote and song, ably assisted by the musically gifted Anna G. Richardson and Jeff Drummond. Drawings, animated by Jessica Caldas and unfortunately not designed to show up brightly when projected on a black wall, accompany most portions of the story. It goes by in a breezy 15 minutes. ("Inside I" covers an equivalent time period in Ben’s life story, but takes 90 intermissionless minutes to do so.)

"Inside I" and "I Direct Myself" provide two perspectives on life with autism. As the director’s note states, autistic symptoms "are completely different for everyone on the Spectrum." Boring us with Ben’s story doesn’t prove much. The bullying Ben experiences is the dramatic highpoint of his story, but it’s not different from the bullying anyone "different" might experience in school. Maybe the reactions of Ben to the bullying are intended to show a uniquely autistic perspective, but they’re so stylized that they don’t clarify anything about the autistic experience.

Everybody with autism is different. There, I said it in five words. "Inside I" takes an hour and a half to show us the experiences of a single autistic individual, completely contradicting the warning in the director’s note and showing us a single, tightly focused perspective. Only the inclusion of "I Direct Myself" provides an alternate view. Without it, "Inside I" would be a meaningless exploration of puppetry and video techniques.

The Light in the Piazza, by Craig Lucas (book), Adam Guettel (songs)
Vedere la Luce
Sunday, April 17, 2016
4.5
"The Light in the Piazza" combines a lush score by Adam Guettel with an affecting storyline dramatized by Craig Lucas. When you add in the voices and performances in Theatrical Outfit’s production, the result is intoxicating magic, as conjured by director Richard Garner.

The production isn’t perfect, marred in terms of audio by subtly sour violin accompaniment and by an unsophisticated sound system that amplifies without modifying extremes. Visually, the production suffers from Kat Conley’s uninspired set design, which uses sliding half-arch panels to suggest different locations. The panels and stage are painted ochre, to evoke Florence, Italy, and this dull color is washed over by the pallid projections designed by Rob Dillard. Pre-show and at intermission, the projections spill over from panel to panel in vertigo-inspiring fashion; at other times, the projections are soft-focused in a static spot on the panels, looking as visually underwhelming as the two-dimensional "sculptures" featured in museum scenes.

Joseph A. Futral’s lighting design frequently backlights the panels, revealing their diagonal support framing, which at least is more appealing than the ochre paint. The lighting attempts to be atmospheric, changing frequently from scene to scene, but not always lighting all the action occurring on the stage. Linda Patterson’s costumes are the visual highlight of the show, firmly setting the action in 1953.

Performances across the board are superb, from ensemble to leads, and the action moves smoothly with Mr. Garner’s fluid blocking. The entire Naccarelli family shines, from suave father Michael Strauss to salt-of-the-earth Italian mother Carolyn Dorff to unappreciated son Joe Knezevich to love-starved daughter-in-law Randi Garza to golden-voiced bachelor son Tim Quartier. They are more than matched by the North Carolina mother-daughter pair traveling in Italy – the statuesque and expressive Christy Baggett and the enchanting, silvery-voiced Devon Hales. All are expertly cast and add touches that show their commitment to their well-defined roles.

Marianne Fraulo deserves copious praise too, for her consultation on the Italian language. Along with dialect coach Elisa Carlson, she has provided the Naccarellis and minor Italian characters with totally believable (and understandable) vocabulary and accents. It’s rare that an American cast can so convincingly portray foreigners without tell-tale mispronunciations.

The precision of the direction, acting, and singing outweigh the lackluster set and disappointing musical accompaniment. "The Light in the Piazza" may not have a hummable score, but the spell of its sweeping music lasts long after the final moments of the show. It transports the audience to Italy through the magic of musical theatre and lets the memory of the trip linger in the imagination.

A Walk in the Woods, by Lee Blessing
A Talk in the Woods
Saturday, April 16, 2016
4.0
Lee Blessing’s "A Walk in the Woods" involves two arms treaty negotiators, one American (Stephen Banks) and one Russian (Lee Buechele), who take occasional walks in the woods outside Geneva as a break from the negotiating table. The American is new to his job; the Russian is an old hand. Across four seasons (starting in the summer and ending in the spring), the two men talk and bicker and skirt around negotiations, mixing the personal and the professional.

The production at Northside United Methodist Church uses a park bench (wrangled by Tom Dykes) as the only scenery, with audience on three sides. A scattering of autumn leaves are the only props that aren’t carried by the actors. Costumes (supervised by Helen Brown) provide the primary visual interest, although Allen Morrison’s lighting design dapples the stage floor with a nice approximation of a sunny clearing in the woods. Director David Buice’s blocking relies largely on static seated positions, but varies movement enough to ensure that all audience members get a good view of the action, limited though it may be.

In a two-character play, the performances of the two actors are of paramount importance. Messrs. Buechele and Banks craft totally believable characters and maintain audience interest throughout. The friendship that develops slowly between the two men creates a human bond that their jobs as implacable negotiators would seem to discourage. No treaty may result from their negotiations, but their personal détente becomes a triumph of its own. The powerfully understated performances of these two actors make the triumph, and the moments leading up to it, a palpable victory in the theatrical sense.

Moon Over Buffalo, by Ken Ludwig
Half Buffalo Moon
Saturday, April 16, 2016
3.5
Ken Ludwig’s script for "Moon Over Buffalo" is filled with non-stop slamming doors and laugh-out-loud moments. At ACT3, Patrick Hill has directed the show to bring out all its comedy, with lots of little unexpected comic touches that add to the comedy. This is a comedy that’s impossible not to enjoy.

Of course, comedy comes across best when all performances mesh. Here, not everyone seems to be on board with the broad, physical brand of comedy Mr. Hill intends. Stephen DeVillers (Howard), Jason Burkey (Paul), and Jessie Kuipers (Eileen) nail it, setting the tone for the show. Mary Sittler (Ethel) seems to have been directed to perform a number of comic bits, but they don’t seem to come naturally to her, reducing the comic potential. More straightforward performances come from Alyssa Jackson (Charlotte Hay), Rob Glidden (Richard), and Katie O’Neill (Rosalind), and the contrast to the more over-the-top characters works well, particularly since these actors seem to have pretty good comic timing and a nice feel for the script.

The lead role is played by Snapper Morgan as George Hay, a hack actor with movie ambitions. Mr. Morgan plays the entire show at pretty much the same level throughout (aside from getting drunk), with no distinction between George Hay the person and George Hay the actor. His rather slovenly physical presence and lack of (over)dramatic fire when he is "on" make his movie ambitions ring false. That leaves a bit of a hole at the center of the show.

William Joel Coady’s set design contains all the requisite doors for the main green room set, making full use of the lower level of the set. An elegant "Private Lives" set appears stage right atop a platform. Both those sets work fine. The initial scene, for "Cyrano de Bergerac," is played in front of the stage proper, with David Reingold’s lighting and some stage fog setting the scene. This makes the double-casting of actors unfortunately very evident to the audience. The end of act II, scene 2 is also played largely in front of the stage, and it doesn’t work particularly well in terms of what has supposedly occurred.

The furniture on the set is just a fainting couch stage right and a wingback chair stage left, and they work just fine. The stated year in the published script is 1953, yet a wall displays sheet music from "The Music Man," which opened in 1957. A dummy poster from the fictional movie "Apache Woman" is not displayed in a prominent position. Telephone rings, supplied by Zip Rampy’s sound design, seemed to change in volume during the performance I attended, although some of the early ones may have been nearly covered by raucous audience laughter.

Nikki Thomas’ costume design provides period clothing and stage costumes, with both looking good. The only costume deficiency, if you can call it that, is not much of a ripping sound when a pair of pants are repeatedly torn during the show. Chelsea Steverson’s fight choreography, while not complex, gets the point across, and the movements make the "Cyrano" costumes look great.

ACT3’s production of "Moon Over Buffalo" is hardly definitive, but it delivers on the promise of the farcical script. There are priceless moments from Jessie Kuypers and Stephen DeVillers, garnering them exit applause individually and when together, and a delightful performance from Jason Burkey. If the other cast members can sharpen their performances to approach the finely honed level of those three, this show (already a hit, it seems) will turn out to be a gut-buster as well as a blockbuster.

Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, by Thaddeus Phillips, Wilhelm Bros., Geoff Sobelle, Sophie Bortolussi
Grace in Motion
Friday, April 15, 2016
3.0
"Red-Eye to Havre de Grace" covers the period of time from Edgar Allan Poe’s last reading in Philadelphia to his death in Baltimore, where he was found lying face down, dressed in unfamiliar clothes, after having taken a train south from Philadelphia, even though his ticket was for north to New York. The play combines dialogue, readings, dance, and music to give an impressionistic recounting of this time period. The storytelling is atmospheric rather than being linear and dense with detail.

The set design of director Thaddeus Phillips consists primarily of a number of doors that can be tipped to turn into tables. Curtains and a mirror add other effects, aided by the often atmospherically murky lighting design of Drew Billiau and the eclectic costumes of Rosemarie McKelvey. The staging is complex and inventive. Robert Kaplowitz’s sound design lets everything be heard, although the balance tends to be a little heavy on the side of the musical score.

All four cast members sing, and three of them play instruments (grand piano, tinny piano, bowed piano, clarinet, flamenco guitar). The fourth, Ean Sheehy, plays Poe, and is the primary dance partner of Alessandra L. Larson, who appears as the ghost of Poe’s wife. The song writers, Jeremy Wilhelm (singer/clarinetist) and David Wilhelm (pianist/guitarist), also appear onstage, with Jeremy Wilhelm acting as a jack-of-all-trades in telling the story. All are excellent.

The production sets several of Poe’s poems and letters to music, occasionally in translation (French and Spanish), and returns to "Eldorado" and "Eureka" as touchstones in the storytelling. It’s at times informative, but doesn’t attempt to offer a definitive explanation of Poe’s behavior. The dance segments and music comment on his psyche, suggesting that he was haunted by the memory of his dead wife, but offer no solutions to the mystery of Poe’s final days, offering instead an empathetic, highly theatrical experience.

Good People, by David Linsay-Abaire
Nice and Not Nice
Sunday, April 10, 2016
4.5
"Good People," by David Lindsay-Abaire, places its focus on Margie (Amanda Cucher), a Southie from Boston who reunites with an old boyfriend who has made good. It’s good timing, she thinks, since she’s fresh out of a job and he might have connections to a new job for her. But are the connections she makes with the people around her the connections of a person who is truly good at heart? With the way Margie stirs things up, you begin to wonder...

With five separate settings for the six scenes of the play, the script does not seem well-suited to the tiny Out of Box playing space. Set designer Maya Hublikar has done a remarkable job of squeezing them all in. The first act stage is split in two, with Margie’s kitchen stage left and the office of Dr. Michael Dillon (Will Brooks) stage right, their floors (tile and wood, respectively) nicely painted and clearly demarking the spaces. For act two, the stage becomes the elegant home of Dr. Michael Dillon and his wife Kate (Mystie D. Smith), with some furniture repurposed and with rugs covering the tile floor. Scenes using the other two settings (the back room or alley of a store and a bingo parlor table) play in front of the stage.

Nina Gooch’s lighting design illuminates these various areas well, and Carolyn Choe’s sound design does a wonderful job of making television noise, bingo announcements, and a child’s voice all appear to come from the appropriate offstage locations. What can’t be helped, though, is that the scenes in front of the stage are so close to the audience that audience members’ heads can easily block the view of others beside or behind them. Director Matthew Busch has also directed some of the first-act scenes with two characters on one side of the stage speaking face-to-face with one another, which may be fine for audience members on that side, but which tends to give back-of-head views to people on the other side of the audience.

Blocking issues aside, Mr. Busch has done a wonderful job of shaping the material. Performances are excellent across the board, and the ebb and flow of activity and emotional levels never flags or goes off the rails. Accents are a good approximation of the Southie accent too, if not totally consistent from character to character. It’s especially impressive how Dr. Dillon slips into and out of a Southie accent as he gets engrossed in or distances himself from his past.

Amanda Cucher is wonderful in the central role of Margie, with her snappy comedic timing never interfering with the believability of her character. Liane LeMaster and LeeAnna Lambert, as her friends Dottie and Jean, are more completely comic characters, and they each give their characters just the right intonations and expressions to make the comedy fly. Will Brooks, as Michael, has wonderful reactions, getting belly laughs just from his responses to the situations his wife and Margie put him in. Mystie D. Smith, as Michael’s wife, is splendid in the role of a privileged doctor’s wife. Jeffrey Sneed, as the boss who fires Margie and then sits at the bingo table with her and her friends, gives a nice put-upon performance, with a core of true concern shining through.

The only thing less than optimal in the casting is the age of the actors. There’s a script reference to most of them being about 30 years out of high school, and only Liane LeMaster seems of an age to pull that off. Kate is also referred to as being considerably younger than Michael, which doesn’t seem to be the case here. The lack of much age difference between Mr. Sneed and Ms. Cucher also allows a hint of romance between their characters that probably isn’t intended by the script.

Aside from the actors playing characters of ages different from their own, the script works marvelously, letting us sympathize with Margie’s plight while simultaneously wincing at her abrasive behavior. Ms. Cucher gives an indelible performance, cementing her reputation as the go-to-gal for quirky, one-of-a-kind roles, and she is surrounded by able actors and technicians, and supported by a promising director in Matthew Busch.

The Two Noble Kinsmen, by William Shakespeare?
As Pleasurable As Any
Sunday, April 3, 2016
3.5
"The Two Noble Kinsmen" is not pure Shakespeare; John Fletcher collaborated on the script. Still, the Shakespeare Tavern’s production provides as much pleasure as any of Shakespeare’s B-list plays. That’s not because of extraneous, slapped-on comedy, although there are some modern touches (a fist pump, for instance) used to comic effect. It’s not because of exciting staging, since director Troy Willis’ blocking is unrelievedly static in large group scenes. It’s because the storyline and characters are interesting in their own right.

The political underpinnings of the story aren’t terribly clear-cut. The play takes place primarily in the Athens dukedom of Theseus, starting with three widowed queens begging the duke to wreak vengeance on the murderous King Creon of Thebes. The two kinsmen of the title fight on the side of Creon, but there doesn’t seem to be any sort of undying loyalty to their uncle king; they seem perfectly happy to be imprisoned by Theseus, particularly when they get a glimpse of Theseus’ sister-in-law, the beauteous Emilia. It’s the romantic pursuit of Emilia that drives the plot.

The main sub-plot concerns the daughter of the two kinsmen’s jailer, who falls in love with the captive Palamon and then goes mad with lovesickness after she helps him escape. Her predicament provides some of the lighter moments (although with real heart in Amee Vyas’ performance), and there’s also an interlude with countryfolk performing a comically rough-hewn morris dance. There’s comedy too in the relationship of the two kinsmen, which swings from good-humored camaraderie to sworn enmity upon each being instantaneously smitten with Emilia.

The two kinsmen (Daniel Parvis as Palamon and Matt Nitchie as Arcite) play their roles with verve and gusto, Mr. Nitchie in particularly finding comic bits of business to lighten the mood. Kathryn Lawson Woodall, as Emilia, looks the part, has good projection, and conveys emotions well, but has a chirpy contemporaneity of speech patterns that I had trouble accepting as Shakespearean. Kevin Roost, as Theseus, I found to be a little stiff and not commandingly regal at all.

The supporting cast all acquit themselves well. J. Tony Brown gives a sweetly empathetic performance as the jailer. Dani Herd is wonderfully cast as the Amazonian Hippolyta, and is wonderfully costumed too (unlike the rest of the cast, who seem to be garbed in stock costumes dragged out of the tavern closet). The musical interludes feature the pleasing singing voices and the instrumental talents of the majority of the cast.

"The Two Noble Kinsmen" is not often produced, and its emotional impact certainly does not equal that of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies; nor does its comedy rise to the heights of Shakespeare’s finest. Still, this production is an enjoyable and briskly paced (although long) entertainment of which director Troy Willis can be proud.

Serial Black Face, by Janine Nabers
Heightened Unreality
Sunday, April 3, 2016
2.5
In "Serial Black Face," playwright Janine Nabers takes the situation of the Atlanta child murders of 1979-1981 and builds a somewhat sordid story around it. Her choices to heighten the reality of life in the projects go so far as to make situations and characters somewhat less than realistic. She starts with shockers – a woman auditioning unknowingly for a gentleman’s club, but so desperate for money she is willing to bare her middle-aged body in the audition; her school-age daughter displaying her naked body to fellow students for cash – and throws in pulse-pounding emotions with abandon. It just doesn’t feel real; it’s making points rather than showing a living, breathing family.

The actors are asked to combine so many contradictions into a single being that they can’t succeed in creating believable characters. Dréa Lewis (Gladys) and Kelli Winans (Damita) have the most limited stage time and thus succeed best. Gilbert Glenn Brown, as the less-than-forthcoming leading man, does a pretty good job of creating a man with hidden sleazy tendencies that become all too evident as the action proceeds. Brian Hatch’s casting as multiple characters, one supposedly high school-aged and others older, lessens the impact that could have been achieved with two separate actors. Tinashe Kajese-Bolden (Vivian) puts a lot of emotion into her role as the mother of a murdered child, but is constrained by the script that gives her the impossible task of embodying so many different traits. Imani Guy Duckette (as daughter Latoya) seems to put little energy into her portrayal, making her performance somewhat lifeless.

Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay have created a set that neatly squeezes the bedroom, kitchen, and living room of an apartment into a corner set configuration that also includes two levels of playing areas on the sides that suggest a number of additional locations. Their costume scheme seems unbalanced, though – the two main characters (Vivian and the Man with the Face) stay in the same costumes throughout, while everyone else bops in and out of costume after costume. The use of stage fog before the show starts is baffling, since it obscures the view of childhood objects (teddy bears, a tricycle, a swing) that float above the scene in a way that could be effective if it were the focal point of the pre-show light scheme.

Rebecca M.K. Makus’ lighting design does a nice job of delineating the various locations in which action takes place, and Joel Abbott’s sound design works well to set scenes. Kimberly Townsend’s props impressively bring the various locations to life, but the electronic cigarettes used frequently in the show are obviously sturdy tubes that produce realistic smoke, and are handled as such, rather than as the more fragile cigarettes of the time period.

Director Freddie Ashley has blocked the action for good sightlines throughout, aided to great extent by the corner stage configuration. The flow is remarkably good for a show in which extremely short scenes follow one another. There’s a lot of over-the-top situations packed into the show, making the rather pat resolution of the mother-daughter antagonism a bit of a let-down. "Serial Black Face" has some power in it, but it’s diluted with enough false notes to give the lie to the desperation of a mother unable to face any departures in her life following the disappearance of her son. It’s a play that doesn’t come fully to life on the stage.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, by Clark Gesner; revision by Michael Mayer (dialogue) & Andrew Lippa (songs)
You’re a Good Show, Charlie Brown
Sunday, April 3, 2016
3.5
"You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown" is more of a revue than a plotted show, with a number of blackout scenes giving bits of Charles Schulz’s philosophy, interspersed with upbeat songs. Six characters from the "Peanuts" comic strip get all the scenes and lines, but Agape Players fills out their production with four additional characters (Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Pigpen, and Woodstock). The cast of ten gets a workout, with all scenes and songs working delightfully under the direction of Barbara Hall and the musical direction of John Glover.

The physical production is stunning. The set, constructed by Ben Crider and Tom Coker, uses cartoon-inspired set pieces that read beautifully well in the large auditorium. A school bus segment, with conveyer-belt scenery whizzing by in the background, is a stunner, but all the set pieces are wonderful. Details are well worked out, with Snoopy’s dog house even showing bullet holes in the middle of the Red Baron sequence.

Lighting is impressive too, starting (and ending) with a silhouette of Charlie Brown and Snoopy projected on the back screen, which otherwise displays a blue sky with stylized clouds for most of the show, with a colorful field of stars for one brief scene. Costumes, by Barbara Hall and Simon Fowler, garb all the characters in instantly recognizable clothing. Props, devised by Tracey Schipper, Janet Glover, and Ruth Fowler, are terrific too, consisting mostly of everyday items in oversized form to accentuate the supposed child-size scale of the action. Only normal-sized pennant banners for the baseball game scene seem out of place.

Audio, by Richard Clark, Christen Clark, and Becky Jones, does a fine job of amplifying the orchestra and voices to be easily heard. There were no microphone glitches in the performance I saw. The clarity of the sound does, however, have a downside – it makes easily apparent any pitchiness in singing voices or in the instrumentals. Unfortunately, pitchiness affected all the solo numbers to some extent.

Performances are all good. Robert Mitchel Owenby creates an empathetic, optimistic sad sack of Charlie Brown. Joy Walters makes Charlie’s sister Sally a sassy, big-voiced charmer. Erika Bowman, as Lucy Van Pelt, punches up each scene in which she appears. Weston Slaton, as Lucy’s brother Linus, displays a cuddly charm. Richard Puscas gives Snoopy an infectious energy, and Matthew Thornton does excellent work as Schroeder, with his fingering on the toy piano matching beautifully with the instrumental accompaniment. In minor roles, Dana Gardner and Abigail Ellis display tons of energy and stage presence as Marcie and Woodstock respectively.

Director Barbara Hall has designed blocking for scenes that blends seamlessly with Joy Walters’ choreography. This is a terrific-looking production. The conception of the show is professional, and the physical aspects of the show are professional in execution (except for the too-obvious stage crew presence onstage during scene changes). It’s just vocally and instrumentally that this show comes up short. And, of course, in John Glover’s near-proselytizing curtain speech.

Carousel, by Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics), Richard Rodgers (music)
Summer Stock
Monday, March 28, 2016
4.0
Performing the musical "Carousel" outdoors in a carnival setting makes for some lovely stage pictures, with an illuminated carousel and Ferris wheel spinning in the background and strings of light bulbs twinkling above. Having a fairway with games and refreshments adds to the carnival spirit before the show and at intermission. This light-hearted environment helps temper the underlying darkness of the show itself.

The entire action doesn’t take place at an amusement park and sideshow, of course. Adam Koch’s scenic design, consisting primarily of a circular wooden platform with a pole center stage, against which a rough-hewn ladder rests, is flexible enough in concept to accommodate the various settings of the script. The steps surrounding the stage are used to good effect too, although two-person scenes on the lip of the stage tend to put an actor’s back to portions of the audience.

Brian Frey’s lighting design relies on general lighting and spotlights, making for some uneven stage pictures, but it is generally effective. Much more damaging for visibility is director Brian Clowdus’ overuse of stage fog, which occasionally engulfs entire sections of the audience in a miasma of scented vapor. A couple of limited uses of the fog, when the script mentions it, would have been fine.

This "Carousel" is as much an event as a performance. Musically, it suffers from Adam Howarth’s sound design, which over-amplifies (except when microphones cut out), and from Chris Brent Davis’ orchestra, which doesn’t sound particularly good playing Richard Rodgers’ iconic score. Most voices aren’t quite equal to the demands of the score either.

The show doesn’t start well, with the tinny orchestra playing the opening notes of the Carousel Waltz to unremarkable dance steps from Kelly Chapin Martin as female lead Julie Jordan. Bubba Carr’s choreography soon kicks into full gear, though, taking us into a sideshow of the imagination. The movement in the show is quite good, with dance particularly impressive in the "Blow High, Blow Low" number led by Austin Tijerina as Jigger Craigin. The movement soon reduces the pedestrian orchestral accompaniment to the background, where it remains firmly ensconced for the rest of the show.

Costumes, designed by Abby Parker, work relatively well, although they’re generally unremarkable except when a petticoat droops to laughable lengths. Rachel Hamilton’s props are serviceable, but baskets of clams seem pretty static, and untouched pies seem an unusual choice after the conclusion of a clambake. Lindsey Ewing’s wig stylings are effective from a distance, but blocking allows the actors, particularly Brittany Ellis as Louise, to come close enough to the audience for the forehead bonding of the wig to be obvious.

Despite any deficiencies in staging or design, the story of this "Carousel" comes through strong and clear. Acting is fine throughout. Kelly Chapin Martin makes Julie Jordan come to life, with a nuanced and beautifully sung performance. Edward McCreary’s performance captures the hair-trigger temper of Billy Bigelow and makes the character believable. Jessica Miesel adds some nice comic touches to the character of Carrie Pipperidge. Her ample size and Mr. Tijerina’s diminutive stature makes their scene together a bit unbalanced, but each impresses as an individual performance. LaLa Cochran scores as the Starkeeper and Dr. Seldon, although there’s little coarseness or over-aged coquettishness in her Mrs. Mullin. The ensemble tends to give the show the feeling of a summer stock production, hurriedly rehearsed and filled with types chosen to work for a variety of roles in a variety of shows. Still, some impress, such as AJ Klopach with his dancing skills and Hayley Platt with her act two opening patter.

Director Brian Clowdus has created a "Carousel" with some indelible visuals and an infectious atmosphere that carries the audience to a New England town (absent New England accents and the scent of salt air). If the musical aspects of the show were more successful, and if some of the secondary leads created more memorable characters, this would be a blockbuster. As it is, it’s a "Carousel" that does the dramatic material justice. And with the power of the story in full display, the show has all the impact it needs to be a success.

Hail Mary!, by Tom Dudzick
Hail Mary Pass
Monday, March 28, 2016
4.0
Tom Dudzick’s "Miracle on South Division Street" was a big success for Stage Door Players last season. Is it surprising, then, that they would choose the same playwright and same director (Dina Shadwell) to bring his earlier play, "Hail Mary," to their stage? The production is equally as fine as last year’s, but the script isn’t as strong. It’s a bit dated, referencing legal same-sex marriage as something implausible, and has a more piously religious storyline.

Sara Rue look-alike Suzannne Zoller plays the lead role of Mary, a parochial school teacher and would-be nun chafing under the by-the-book leadership of Sister Regina (Ann Wilson). Complicating her life are a priest who believes she has greatness within (Theo Harness), a nun who dabbles in Mary’s inventive teaching practices (Eliana Marianes), and a returning schooldays boyfriend (Jeff K. Lester). The conflicting draws of educating children, of educating mankind, and the lure of romance require her to make difficult choices. The play doesn’t result in a resolution of her conflicts, leaving the possibility open of different choices in the future.

Chuck Welcome’s set is, as always, a delight to view. Its blackboard, student desks, teacher’s desk, and glimpses of the hallway outside scream "school," and the statue of the Virgin Mary, the photographs of (male) church leaders, and the kneeling bench scream "parochial school." Costumes, designed by Jim Alford, have a wider range than might be expected, with two different nun’s habits in use and with Mary’s clothes changing for the final scene. Rial Ellsworth’s sound design has little to do during the play except for a phone ring, and I found the scene-setting music much less appropriate than the pre-show music that leaned heavily on the Polish-American polka repertoire. J.D. Williams’ lighting design is equally straightforward, although I love the inclusion of globe lights above the stage that look exactly like miniature versions of the light fixtures in an older school.

The performances are all delightful, and there are a lot of crisp reactions that are as telling of character as are the lines being spoken. That’s usually a sign of fine direction. The only thing I found odd in the performances was the presumably Irish accent used by Theo Harness as Father Stan. He speaks a phrase or two in Polish and refers to his childhood nickname as "Stash," which would suggest he is of Polish extraction himself (a "Stanisław" rather than a "Stanley," which isn’t a prototypically Irish name anyhow). That’s a fairly minor quibble, though, since the performance works overall, gaining exit applause after a particularly vivid scene.

Ms. Zoller gives an earnest, heartfelt performance, matched in intensity by Ms. Wilson. Ms. Marianes provides much of the comic relief, using a Latina New Yawk accent to fine advantage. Mr. Lester plays perhaps the least fleshed-out character, but makes Joe suitably charming. And Dina Shadwell puts it all together in the eminently workmanlike fashion that has become her habit, to use a nun-inspired pun. And who says a workman can’t be a master craftsman, or its less gender-specific equivalent?

The Revolutionaists, by Lauren Gunderson
4-7-5
Sunday, March 20, 2016
5.0
Four stunning actresses treading the boards at 7 Stages in Little Five Points – ah, what a delight! Add in a terrific script by Lauren Gunderson, fluid direction by Heidi S. Howard, a splendid set by Vii Kelly, impressive costumes by DeeDee Chmielewski, evocative lighting by Katherine Neslund, and spare, effective sound design by Dan Bauman and the number of accolades approaches infinity.

The corner stage set-up for "The Revolutionists" is beautifully realized, with a gallows-like platform in back reached by a set of plain wooden stairs, books and papers perched on their ends of the treads. The walls of the stage contain banners of revolutionary feminist declarations in a mixture of French and English. The ceiling contains a few chandeliers, echoed in the crystals hanging from chains under the platform. The floor is beautifully painted in cobblestones, with a brick border. And surrounding the audience are enormous pencil-like sketches representing a French public gathering place. The space quite simply transports one to 1793’s France.

Costumes and wigs set the time and place too. Marie Antoinette’s wig towers and her costume holds never-ending streams of ribbons and even a trinket. Olympe de Gouge’s wig is less flamboyant (but not by much), and her outfit pairs a period top with a pantaloon-like bottom, showing her as something close to a liberated woman. Marianne’s iconic dress with sash marks her as a free black woman of revolutionary ideals. Charlotte Corday is garbed more simply, but with a cascade of curls and décolletage that make her perhaps more stunning in her simplicity.

For all the period setting, Ms. Gunderson’s script unabashedly throws in modern touches. The mixture of period and modern sensibilities creates a frisson of intellectual and visceral excitement. With sound and lighting emphasizing the underlying terror of the Reign of Terror, we are simultaneously drawn into the ultimately tragic story of historical figures and allowed to appreciate the comedy of those figures consciously trying to rewrite their lives using the conventions of drama.

The direction and performances can’t be faulted. Rachel Frawley and Park Krausen actually play two roles apiece, with their vocal talents, a dark scrim, and an echoing sound system allowing them to impersonate male interrogators as the women are brought to trial and sentenced to the guillotine. Parris Sarter and Stacy Melich may play only one role apiece, but they impress equally much. As Olympe de Gouges might say (using a turn of phrase that works only in English), they turn history into a breezy, welcoming "hi, story!"

Adams Eve, by Matthew Carlin
And God Said "Let’s Start Over"
Sunday, March 20, 2016
3.0
"Adam’s Eve" is a pretty charmless script. The show’s success depends on the charm of a newborn, full-grown Eve being thrown into the middle of bachelor Adam’s life, but it doesn’t give the cast a lot to work with. Eve (Kate Mullaney) is sweet and naïve; Adam (Loren Collins) is skeptical. Those points get repeated endlessly. Throw in a caricature of a hen-pecked friend, his dominating wife, a couple of humorless psychologists, and a couple of well-meaning relatives, and you get a situation of less-than-three-dimensional characters playing a fairly dull game of tug-of-war.

Director Charles Hannum has attempted to goose up the material with musical interludes, choreographed at the start and finish by Maddie Larsen. He has also directed some snappy ensemble reactions, and seems to have encouraged all his actors to play with great energy. It all goes down easy, but isn’t very substantial. Nothing could disguise the script’s deficiencies.

The physical production is a bit disappointing. Bob Cookson’s set design, with its raked stage and simple furniture, is attractive in a fairly generic way. The rounded effect of the side panels of the sky-blue backing flat gives the set a bit of flair, and the large painting up center, presumably by Amy Finkel, does too. It seems to be hung at an angle, however, for no apparent reason. The most attractive element of the set is a window seat down center.

Murray Mann’s lighting design does not always work well with the blocking of the show. There are noticeable shadows at the edges of the stage, at least for people of certain heights, with anyone sitting in the stage left chair gliding into half-shadow, then emerging into full light when they stand. Lights focused on the center stage coffee table are perhaps too narrowly focused when cast members step up onto it (somewhat bafflingly) to get the equivalent of psychic readings from Eve. The lovely Maddie Larsen, who delivers the curtain speech, dances beautifully, but mostly in dim, uneven lighting.

Costumes, usually a highlight of ACT1 shows, also disappoint. Anne Voller’s initial, sports jersey-inspired costumes work just fine. When people dress up for the second act, though, some unusual choices are made. Mark (Benjamin Roper) has a shirt collar with points that flip up. Katie (Ariel Kristen Kasten) and Eve (Kate Mullaney) are given somewhat gaudy and unflattering outfits. Only Marla (Rebecca Sorrells) has a get-up that really looks like something a well-dressed person would wear.

The actors all throw themselves into their roles. Their styles don’t always mesh, with Benjamin Roper’s rapid-fire banter working at cross-purposes with Loren Collins’ measured, more leisurely approach. Mr. Roper’s reactions mesh more smoothly with Ariel Kasten’s as his powerful, empathetic wife, with a lot of humorous interplay. Ellen Smith is a delight as Adam’s mother, and Sandy Woodman puts a lot of spunk into Aunt Laurie. Rebecca Sorrells creates perhaps the most believable character as Adam’s psychologist girlfriend, contrasting with John Damico as a caricature of a self-important psychologist guru.

Speaking of caricatures, Jim Gray plays his tiny role of Dr. Wagner with an Elmer Fudd speech impediment and a fuddy-duddy set of mannerisms. It’s as funny as the show gets, although the plot point he is brought in to provide is something that could be guessed from the first moments of the show.

The heart of the show has to be provided by the actors playing Adam and Eve. While both Mr. Collins and Ms. Mullaney are personable and attractive and competent in their roles, they don’t elevate the material. We know from the conventions of romantic comedy that the two will end up together, but there doesn’t seem to be an instant connection that Adam denies to himself until the very end. The schematics of the plot require them to come together, but it’s only in the final dance sequence and tableau that we get an inkling that Adam has any feelings for Eve. Up till then, it’s more a case of him challenging her to prove that God sent her, with a sense of grudging acquiescence if she can.

The director and cast have expended a lot of energy in turning a turgid script into an enjoyable evening of theatre. They succeed in large part because of their exuberance. The script on its own needs all the help it can get, and Mr. Hannum and crew have valiantly thrown themselves into the effort.

Into the Woods, by Stephen Sondheim (songs), James Lapine (book)
Into the Stacks
Monday, March 14, 2016
4.5
Aurora Theatre’s production of "Into the Woods" takes the oft-used concept of using a fairytale book as the major set component and turns it into a full library. Jason Sherwood’s set design creates towering stacks of books on sliding panels that can be retracted to allow a central two-story gallery to rotate. Behind the stacks and gallery are an illuminated pendant that moves side to side and a backdrop that appears to be metal tiles, but that holds a big surprise for the end of the show.

Director Justin Anderson takes this library concept a step further, having his actors perform pre-show activities in street clothes as if they are workers and patrons in a library approaching its closing time. A boy (Evan Jones) is trapped in the library as it closes, and the action of the play occurs as he removes a magical book from the shelves and reads from it. The actors, who moments before were in street clothes, now appear as characters from the fairytales in the book.

Elizabeth Rasmusson’s costumes combine elements of traditional fairytale clothing with more modern fashions. The traditional elements work. The modern touches don’t. Cinderella’s stepmother (Kristin Markiton) and stepsisters (India Sada Tyree, Laura Spears) are dressed in slinky 60’s sheath dresses over which skeletal panniers are draped, while Cinderella (Diany Rodriguez) gets the full fairytale treatment. The Wolf (Googie Uterhardt) gets a biker’s leather outfit and a cigarette, with the fairytale-garbed princes (Brody Wellmaker, Christopher L. Morgan) smoking cigarettes as his backup duo. The modern touches seem totally out of place.

Sarah Turner Sechelski’s choreography consists of mass movement rather than dance steps, and it works quite well. The show doesn’t lend itself choreographically to much other than full-cast numbers. Fine dancer Caroline Arapoglou, cast as Rapunzel, mostly gets to stand nearly motionless in her tower. The Baker (Brandon O’Dell) and his wife (Wendy Melkonian) share a moment of a dance, but "Into the Woods" hardly has the prince’s ball as a centerpiece of the action; instead, we see Cinderella fleeing after each evening of the ball.

Daniel Pope’s sound design has a bit of a heavy hand with effects. There’s an echo effect on some vocals (not just the giantess’), and sheer volume sometimes tends to muddy the sound. Voices are generally well-balanced with the orchestra, but the lyric-heavy songs by Stephen Sondheim are too dense to take in every word. Ann-Carol Pence’s musical direction is excellent as always in terms of vocal performance, but the orchestra disappoints. At the performance I attended, brass bleats and sour strings were heard, albeit in isolated moments.

Ryan Bradburn’s props are effective, with the most notable prop elements (the milky cow and book-based birds) blending well with the set and costume design concepts. Mary Parker’s lighting design relies perhaps too much on shadowy forest effects and spotlights, but makes good use of lighting emanating from a book and bookshelf and from a trap door.

As in any production, the performances are what make or break the show. All are adequate or better. Ms. Arapoglou does very nice work, particularly in her comic post-tower moments. Brian Walker (as Jack) and Bernardine Mitchell (as Jack’s mother) shine, their acting and singing both hitting the mark and adding a little extra. Speaking of a little extra, the "Agony" numbers shared by Messrs. Wellmaker and Morgan are an over-the-top highlight of magnificent singing and play-to-the-rafters comic broadness.

Ms. Rodriguez’s Cinderella is a delight in every way, as is Ms. Melkonian’s Baker’s Wife, particularly in her wry comic delivery. Both have stunningly beautiful voices. Shelli Delgado’s Little Red Riding Hood may not have a voice to equal theirs, but her spirit and verve and vim allow her to capture the character completely. The only performances that disappoint are Mr. Uterhardt as the Wolf, who sounds a bit strained vocally and whose comic sensibility removes all sense of danger from the role, and Natasha Drena as the Witch, whose blasting voice and affected delivery don’t display any nuance whatsoever.

Director Justin Anderson and his creative team have put together a technically inventive production with a lot of visual and vocal beauty. Most effective of all is the framing story, ending with the boy being reunited with his father and singing the ultimate "I wish" of the score. Mr. Jones’ performance as the boy is natural and accomplished, and Mr. O’Dell transforms nicely from the Baker, who approaches fatherhood with a tentative fear of his squalling bundle of a baby son, into the loving and embracing father of the boy.

The Library, by Scott Z. Burns
A Witness to the Persecution
Monday, March 14, 2016
4.0
Caitlin is a victim of a school shooting, perpetrated by a young adult she knew slightly. Rumors swirl after she survives that she tipped the shooter off as to the location of additional victims. Despite her protestations, the world at large (including her parents) seems to put more credence in the rumors than in her recollections. "The Library" follows her story from the time of the shooting through the release of a thorough police report.

The set design is credited to Joel Coady, but it seems to be the audience-splitting center stage configuration left over from the last production, with the addition of a table and four chairs in the middle of the stage. It’s not a particularly good design for this show, although the Out of Box website states that "The Library will be presented in the round, a nod to the way that these stories and events become central to our experience." It would be more accurate to say that the truth of events is obscured from our sight for extended periods. Zip Rampy’s blocking places actors’ back to various portions of the audience for entire scenes.

Jim Poteete’s lighting design is generally fine for illumination, but there are segments near the start and end that flash lights on various sides of the stage in fairly rapid succession as lines are alternated, almost to the point of inducing motion sickness. Zip Rampy’s sound design is more effective, starting with realistic-sounding TV broadcasts, but the swelling music in the final scene caused me to be unable to comprehend a few lines.

Acting is quite good throughout. I was particularly impressed by Mary Saville as hard-nosed Detective Washburn, but everyone does a good job. Part of my favorable impression of Ms. Saville was due to the blocking that had her circling the table, presenting her expressive face to my direction much of the time. In her role as the Nurse, however, I saw nothing but a side view of the back of her head. I’m sure the performances would be better received in a configuration that would allow a more comprehensive view of the action.

"The Library" is performed as a long one-act play, and the denouement becomes a bit tiresome. After the police report’s contents are revealed, we are subjected to read selections from "Winesburg, Ohio" and "Cold Mountain." This may be an attempt by playwright Scott Z. Burns to emphasize the lessons of his story, but it seems a bit of a cheap trick. The play could stand on its own without any need to ride on the coattails of other authors.

Love, Loss and What I Wore, by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron
Ladies’ Wear
Monday, March 14, 2016
4.0
"Love, Loss and What I Wore" is less a play than a dramatized reading. Five chairs and script stands are lined up across the stage, and each of the five black-clad actresses sits in her assigned chair for the duration of the presentation. A small screen just left of the last chair is used for projections of hand-drawn pictures of clothing. Pretty simple staging, right?

What gives the show visual appeal is a stunning backdrop by Katy Clarke. The muted blue-grays of the painting suggest a city skyline, echoing the script’s emphasis on New York City life. Gary White’s light design illuminates the backdrop and the actresses to advantage. While the projections used are pretty crude in execution, the backdrop is masterfully artistic.

The script consists of three components: the life story of Gingy (Glory Hanna), as accompanied by her drawings of outfits important to her life; monologues, telling individual stories; and rapid-fire lists in which most of the actresses contribute one line at a time. Director Dot Reilley has chosen to introduce each segment with a sound clip (sound design by Bob Peterson), consisting of a musical snippet and a spoken caption. The various musical selections don’t add much to the show (except time), but the segments themselves move at a nice clip.

All the actresses do creditable work. Glory Hanna mines the humor of Gingy. Nicole Littlejohn Jackson uses her thousand-watt smile to make the audience at ease and receptive to her charmingly delivered monologues. Debbie McLaughlin plays her parts with skill, impressing particularly in a monologue about purses that contains the most activity of any blocking – she moves her script stand to the side at the start and lifts up a bag at the end. Shannon Varner Alexander and Holli Majors do nice work too, most effectively in an alternated sequence of recollections about their bridal outfits ending with the second most active blocking – they turn to one another in their chairs at the end.

Ms. Reilley gives a nice shape to the show, allowing humor to percolate to the forefront whenever possible. This is a show definitely targeted to a female audience, but it contains enough universality that everyone can relate to something. I found myself least interested by Gingy’s story, which is written to accompany the slide show of her drawings of dresses. Her story is split into several segments, which gives a bit of a through-story to the whole show, but also acts as a tacit admission that her story wouldn’t hold up well on its own without interruption. Gingy’s story couldn’t be omitted, though; it’s drawn directly from the source book by Ilene Beckerman. Can I help it if I prefer the interpolations by the Ephron sisters?

Prelude to a Kiss, by Craig Lucas
A Badly Scored Movie
Saturday, March 5, 2016
3.5
Craig Lucas’ "Prelude to a Kiss" takes place in a number of short scenes taking place in a variety of locations. It’s almost cinematic in that respect. Onstage Atlanta’s production attempts to attain a cinematic flow in its numerous scene changes, with Abra Thurmond’s sound design making use of song clips to cover them. Unfortunately, at least on opening weekend, the music also tended to cover the first couple of lines of the following scene. The music selections tend to comment on what has gone on before and don’t really point the way to the next scene. I found them clunky and distracting.

Barry N. West’s set design pairs an arbor-and-rock wall upstage section with white flats acting as leg curtains. The look is fairly disjointed, and the motley collection of furniture pieces repurposed for scene after scene don’t add any visual panache. Nancye Quarles Hilley’s costumes and Tom Priester’s lighting design add color and style to the proceedings.

The story is billed as "a contemporary fairy tale," but "contemporary" seems to be the timeframe when the play was written (1988) rather than the present day. When newlywed Rita (Sara Lynn Herman) body-swaps with an Old Man (Scott F. Rousseau), the Old Man’s idea of femininity seems to be a 1940’s pin-up girl. The telephones in the show (and lack of social media) also tie the production to an earlier time.

What really works are the performances. Chris Schulz is nerdy but empathetic as Peter, the bridegroom confronted with a honeymooning wife who is nothing like the woman he married. Sara Lynn Herman is wonderful as that woman, forming an instant bond with her co-star in the early scenes, although her honeymoon scenes don’t quite capture the insecurity of a man’s soul trying to control a woman’s body in what he thinks is a natural way. Her transitions to and from being body-swapped are terrific, though. Nancy Powell is sheer perfection as Rita’s mother, and Rial Ellsworth does his usual fine work as Rita’s father. Scott F. Rousseau exudes a nice sweetness as the body-swapped Rita, although his initial scene as the Old Man doesn’t really reflect his mindset as explained later in the play.

Barry N. West has given his ensemble a lot of bit parts to play (and a lot of wigs to wear). They acquit themselves well, particularly Jillian Walzer in the role of Leah, the Old Man’s concerned daughter. Alex Towers, as Peter’s friend Taylor, adds some nice, quirky touches to his character, but doesn’t get much stage time. Mr. West has blocked the show to keep things moving and active, and the ensemble gives the feeling of a populated world. But at its core, "Prelude to a Kiss" is the affecting story of Peter and his love for Rita, in whatever body she might inhabit.

Peter and the Starcatcher, by Rick Elice
Peter and Pre-Wendy
Monday, February 29, 2016
3.0
I’ve had my fill recently of Peter Pan stories. We’ve had the musical "Peter Pan" on NBC-TV and then at Atlanta Lyric; we’ve had "Finding Neverland" on film and Broadway. And now we have "Peter and the Starcatcher" at Georgia Ensemble.

I’ve also about had my fill of Heidi Cline/Jeff McKerley productions recently. Her brand of high-energy, comic bit-filled productions and his brand of zany improvisational winking at the audience come on strong. There’s a lot of fun to be had, but it’s fun best suited to audiences new to this production team, such as the kids I heard giggling happily at some of Mr. McKerley’s over-the-top shenanigans as the show was drawing to a close.

"Peter and the Starcatcher" is hyped as family-friendly, but to me it seems primarily a children’s show. The main characters are written as teens (although played here by young adult actors), and the broadness of the other characters reduces them to the level of cartoons. I’m sure the show is plenty of high-powered fun for the actors, but that fun does not necessarily relate directly to the pleasure an adult audience experiences.

The heart of the story works. Molly Coyne is charming and able as Molly, a sort of pre-Wendy character, and Jeremiah Parker Hobbs’ sincerity impresses mightily as the Boy who develops into Peter Pan. The two Lost Boys, played by Brandon Partrick and Nicholas Faircloth, also provide charm and sincerity that make the major relationships of the story work.

Everyone in the cast is put to double duty (or triple or quadruple), particularly since Heidi Cline McKerley’s blocking makes extensive use of the actors as scenic elements, holding ropes to delineate specific areas. Costumes, by the team of Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay, layer appropriate base outfits with character-defining additions as actors morph into new roles. The set design, also by Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay, has a ship deck far downstage, with a stylized ship upstage in the first act. The proscenium is festooned with canvas and wood and a giant illuminated compass, like a deconstructed ship, and light bulbs hang above the stage to represent stars. Andre Allen’s lighting design has plenty of effective effects, but the hanging light bulbs don’t really contribute much. Jason Polhemus’ sound design primarily plays Bryan Mercer’s music tracks as accompaniment to the show’s handful of songs (music by Wayne Barker), choreographed by Jeff McKerley.

Playwright Rick Elice identifies "star stuff" as the material that transforms creatures into some of the inhabitants of Neverland, and provides back stories for Peter Pan, Wendy, and Captain Hook. He invents a Mrs. Bumbrake (Steve Hudson) who acts as a Nana for Molly (with some nice flirtation with Vinnie Mascola’s Alf), but he never provides an explanation for how Nana, the dog of "Peter Pan," might have come into being.

I highly recommend the show for children with the patience to sit through a two-hour-plus production. The show is advertised as "best for ages 10 and up," but the giggles of delight I heard came from children a little younger than that. With its non-stop action and inventive elements, like a giant crocodile tail dropping above the audience and lightning bolts projected on the wall of the auditorium, it’s a sensory feast and delightful introduction to the magic of theatre.

The Miser, by Molière, adapted by Martin Sherman
Commedia dell’Party
Friday, February 26, 2016
4.0
Oglethorpe University’s production of "The Miser" uses the masks of commedia dell’arte for all its older characters and for the clowns who introduce both acts with wordless (but not silent!) physical gags, notably mimed instructions to turn off cellphones and to refrain from texting. Lindsey Wills and Meredith Myers do a delightful job as these clowns, with director Matt Huff giving them lots of comic bits (lazzi), although I thought their shenanigans went on a tad too long.

Jon Nooner’s scenic design style might be termed "cirque du roi soleil," as it combines circus-like colors and patterns on the proscenium with motifs reminiscent of Louis XIV, the Sun King. A simple cloud/sky backdrop is revealed when the curtain is opened (in one of those lazzi), and the set is furnished with only an ottoman stage right and a simple chaise stage left. Joseph Monoghan III’s lighting design focuses the action neatly, using footlights and a follow spot for effect. What really gives the show visual "pow," though, are the colorful period costumes, designed by Katy Munroe.

Jon Nooner’s sound design has a few comic effects, but mostly consists of French accordion music pre-show and during intermission and recorded tracks to accompany the musical sequences that bookend the acts, using popular songs associated with money. Like the lazzi, the musical numbers are extraneous to the action of the play itself, but truly set the irreverent mood of the overall show. Bubba Carr’s choreography keeps the numbers bubbly and energetic.

The lovably grotesque masks do a nice job by themselves of delineating different characters played by the same actor, but Mr. Huff has had the actors create different vocal and physical characteristics too. Tucker Hammonds gets three roles, adding comic brio to each. Ali Zeigler gets two, with expressive gestures as Frosiné and a portly presence as the magistrate. Lindsey Wills does a bang-up job as La Fleche, adding vocal charm to the physical charm she displays as La Merluche.

The four young lovers don’t wear masks, giving them a feel that is more romantic than comic, although they have plenty of funny moments. Maital Gottfried is perfectly in character as Élise throughout, with most of her laughs coming from her expressive reactions. (She has a terrific singing voice too.) John Carter, as her brother Cléante, brings heroic intensity to his role, with his over-dramatic posturing taking his characterization firmly over the line of romance into pure comic territory. Meredith Myers, in the smaller role of Mariane, brings a sweetness to her role that warms the heart and tickles the funny bone. Only Byron Napier, as Valère, fails to build a credible character, showing the coltish, unfocused energy of a neophyte actor challenged by his director to give a stylized performance that he can’t quite master.

That leaves one actor with a single mask to wear. Alex Oakley, in the title role as Harpagon, does marvelous physical work as the 60-year-old miser, with strong vocal delivery and terrific comic patter. It’s truly a star turn, and it makes the play work wonderfully well. He truly embodies the spirit of commedia dell’arte, and makes "The Miser" a two-hour-plus party of manic fun. Kudos to Matt Huff for putting together a production that pays tribute to the traditions of commedia dell’arte while mining comic gold from a myriad of inspirations.

The Savannnah Sipping Society, by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, Jamie Wooten
On a Savannah Veranda with Randa
Monday, February 22, 2016
4.0
"The Savannah Sipping Society" is chock-full of nuts, and I don’t mean that coffee is the beverage of choice! Four unattached ladies, each with her own eccentricities, meet by chance as a result of their shared hatred of a hot yoga class, and spend the next six months building a deep friendship as they sip various alcoholic drinks on Randa’s Savannah veranda. There’s an abundance of laugh-out-loud lines and enough plot complications to ensure that the sentimentality of the heartwarming conclusion is earned.

Visually, this is a stunning production. Mercury’s set design hangs a couple of gables above an elegantly designed multi-level veranda for a sophisticated, cheery look. Spanish moss hangs above, echoing the woodsy, muted backdrop. Danielle Gustaveson’s costumes show a wide range of character-appropriate and plot-appropriate looks, with some exceptionally lovely looks for Eileen Koteles (Randa). (Ms. Gustaveson also had a workout providing the numerous props.) Joel Coady’s lighting design illuminates the veranda as appropriate for the script’s time of day or night and also provides pools of light downstage for narration and other small scenes. Mercury’s sound design provides scene-transition music and some nice nighttime insect sounds.

Performances also impress, even during the many holds for laughter. Judith Beasley gets the lion’s share of one-liners as Texan divorcée Marlafaye, and she plays them expertly. Eileen Koteles somehow plays Randa with both an edge and a vulnerability that coexist in a coherent character, and her impressions of others wow with their range. Bobbie Elzey has a sweetness as Dot that immediately puts the audience on her side, with a sly delivery that imparts an added zing to her humorous lines. Lory Cox plays Jinx with a bit too much of a face-front presentational style, especially in her initial scenes, but eventually blends in with the others, and her 11 o’clock soliloquy has real power (with "11 o’clock" being a theatrical term usually indicating a big solo number near the end of a musical; the show itself clocks in at little more than two hours). Danielle Gustaveson’s role as Randa’s grandmother is brief and comic, so it doesn’t matter much that she bears little resemblance to a 91-year-old, especially with those long, shapely legs.

There’s not a lot of new ground tilled in this play; it depends on easily-recognized characters and man-bashing jokes to make its points. There’s a sweet heart and a jokey exterior, which makes for a very enjoyable evening, targeted toward a middle-aged female audience (although the man next to me couldn’t help himself from uttering a hearty "that’s funny!" in the wake of one particular joke, and male laughter joined female laughter throughout). "The Savannah Sipping Society" is another Jones Hope Wooten delight in this world premiere production.

Next to Normal, by Brian Yorkey(Book/Lyrics) and Tom Kitt (Music)
Too Many Cooks
Monday, February 22, 2016
2.5
The disappointments with "Next to Normal" at Elm Street Cultural Arts Village start with the poorly designed, poorly proofread program that omits character names and band credits and is printed primarily in lavender on purple in a tiny font. The focus of this company for this production is hinted by the only easily readable portion of the program: a tear-out form for joining and donating. The focus on local involvement is emphasized by extended speeches before the show, during intermission, and in the post-show talkback.

Community involvement extends to most of the production credits. The unremarkable costumes are credited to 11 people (for a cast size of six). The workable set is credited to nine, and has the disjointed hallmarks of design by committee. The nearly incompetent (although ambitious) lighting and amplified sound schemes are credited to five. The Hospitality Team (ushers and box office people, perhaps?) outnumber all the rest, at 12. Getting people involved seems to be the goal, with production values themselves a seemingly secondary concern.

Director Shelly McCook adds to the problems by blocking numerous scenes with characters sitting on the lip of the stage. With the gently sloping floor of the auditorium, this tends to create obstructed views when other audience members are sitting between you and the stage. Luckily, this type of blocking tends to last long enough for you to crane your neck to get a relatively unobstructed view for that particular scene. Otherwise, the blocking contains a great deal of movement, but nothing that could be called choreography.

Chris Nanny’s musical direction is quite good, with voices across the board encouraged to sound their best. The band generally sounds good too, aside from a few sour notes from the string section, but the sound balance between cast and band is too heavy on the band side when one factors in the inconsistent microphone levels for various cast members.

The acting talents of the cast don’t tend to match their vocal prowess. This was brought to the fore for me in the slightly optimistic finale, where only Claire Pappas had an expression on her face consistent with the lyrics. All the others had either no expression or one that read as "I’m singing as loud as I can." No one is bad in the least, but only Claire Pappas, as the daughter, and Brody Grant, as the son, seem truly to inhabit their characters (although the lack of amplification of Mr. Grant’s voice negatively affected his impact at the performance I saw). I could listen to the voice of Scott Simmons (the husband) all day, but I found it was his bio’s listing of Uncle Fester as a credit that colored my impression of him, and I found the physical appearance of Mary Hayes Ernst (the wife) so reminiscent of director Shelly McCook that I couldn’t help comparing her performance unfavorably to what Ms. McCook could do with the acting demands of the role.

"Next to Normal" addresses mental illness with measures of humor and vulgarity and an abundance of vocal melody. The story has an undeniable impact, but I find the echoes of Nora’s leaving home in "A Doll’s House" a bit off-putting, as it is followed by a sequence hinting that maybe the wife isn’t the most mentally ill person in her family. I find the ending both unsatisfying and pat, but I guess that mental illness as a topic doesn’t lend itself to any sort of resolution other than acceptance and ongoing treatment. The post-show talkback allows in-depth discussion of the topic.

Bringing representatives from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to the underserved population of Cherokee County is admirable as community outreach. Having the outreach take precedence over the Tony-winning, Pulitzer-winning script and score of "Next to Normal" makes, however, for a less-than-satisfying theatrical experience.

Two Rooms, by Lee Blessing
Time Elapsed
Saturday, February 20, 2016
4.0
The two rooms of Lee Blessing’s play are the barebones cell holding captive Michael Wells in Lebanon (actually, multiple cells, but they all seem the same to a blindfolded man) and his home office back in the U.S., which his wife Lainie has stripped clean of furniture and completely repainted. The tiny stage at Out of Box Theatre represents the two rooms in a single space, bounded on either side by projection screens and represented by a rectangle of wood flooring on which a blood-spattered pallet rests. The audience is split into two sections, with the stage between them.

Pre-show video shows time lapse photography of nature (clouds, flowers, etc.) on the two screens. Video segments throughout the play show similar time lapse sequences, along with memory scenes of Michael and Lainie’s marriage (filmed by Wesley Channell) and documentary footage. This adds some visual interest to a pretty static play, but it doesn’t always resonate. There are times when it seems that the script and the images are supposed to be synchronized, but aren’t quite. In general, the video tends to extend the running time of a longish show. John Cerreta’s score can’t compensate for this, as somber as it is.

Director/set & lighting designer Joel Coady has blocked the show so that most scenes are done in profile, allowing both sides of the audience to get at least a partial view of the action. Most sequences are monologue or dialogue, so stage clutter isn’t often an issue.

The acting is superb. Olubajo Sonubi plays Michael with blindfold and tied hands throughout the first act, making his words and his motions throb with intensity. Aaron Sedrick Goodson plays a reporter and Aretta Baumgartner plays a State Department official, both of whom play tug-of-war for the cooperation of Lainie (Candace Mabry). Each inhabits his/her character completely, with Ms. Baumgartner adding a few comic touches that are dearly welcome in this rather dour play. Ms. Mabry’s character is morose and melancholy throughout most of the play, limiting the range she gets to show, but she ends the show with a splendid monologue about the African hornbill. Up until that point, I found "Two Rooms" to be a depressing slog through a years-long hostage situation. That final monologue put a bit of a spin on her actions throughout the play, making the evening worthwhile.

The Full Monty, by Terrence McNally (book), David Yazbek (songs)
Is the Monty Half-Full or Half-Empty?
Monday, February 15, 2016
3.5
In Atlanta Lyric’s production, "The Full Monty" feels like a slick Broadway product that has been brought to the boards with no passion and little spirit, expecting the score and book to carry the show. The whole thing has a hollow, shallow feel.

The main problem, to my mind, was that I didn’t care for, and consequently did not care about Jeff Juday in the lead role of Jerry Lukowski. A secondary problem, one perhaps not widely shared, was that I found the loud, pounding pre-show and intermission music an unpleasant assault on the ears. Mark Smith’s sound design also tends to let the orchestra overpower the voices.

Kelly Tighe’s scenic design has an industrial, geometric feel that seems generally appropriate for the setting of layoff-plagued Buffalo, New York. André C. Allen’s lighting design tends to be murky, with an over-dependence on spotlights for the musical numbers. The two design elements appear to be at odds with one another, with the lighting trying for a gritty feel that the scenic elements don’t really have. Scene changes are neatly accomplished, but a segment near the end that plays a backstage scene directly in front of the dimly lit performance stage doesn’t fit in with the attempted scenic realism of all the scenes that have preceded it.

At least at the performance I attended, there was a lot of roughness in a number of voices. Music director Paul Tate hasn’t inspired uniformly excellent vocal performances. Director Alan Kilpatrick hasn’t inspired deeply felt performances either. There’s not a lot of nuance in them. It seems to be all text and little sub-text.

Amanda Edgerton West’s costumes and George Deavours’ wigs do their job. Given that they’re for characters in economically depressed Buffalo, it may be understandable that they don’t impress. The show is just "okay" in most categories. That includes Karen Hebert’s choreography. Given that it’s primarily for men who are not supposed to be dancers, a lack of overall grace is to be expected. In the introduction of Harold and Vicki Nichols (Matt Lewis and Marcie Millard), though, the men look at a group of dancing couples and note "he’s good." It’s only the subsequent action and a subsequent spotlight that make it clear that they’re talking about Harold. It’s a choreographic slip-up to let the background dancers outshine the principals.

Especially nice performances come from Nick Caruso, as the overweight Dave Bukatinsky, and J. Koby Parker as Malcolm MacGregor. Mr. Parker in particular puts an extra bit of energy into his performance. In combination with his glorious voice, that makes him a standout in the cast. Nobody’s downright bad, but most blend in with the lackluster feel of the entire production.

Five Course Love, by Greg Coffin
One Coarse Love, Four More Tender
Saturday, February 6, 2016
3.5
"Five Course Love" is, much as the title implies, a musical taking place in a restaurant in which five love stories play out. The first four end unhappily for at least one person longing for love; the last ends happily. It’s a generally cheery proceeding, with the same trio of actors playing the characters in each segment.

All the segments are in different styles, including musical styles: the first is Country-Western, the second is Italian-American, the third is German, the fourth is Mexican, and the last is 1950’s rock. This places a lot of vocal demands on the cast. Only Daniel Pino really scores in all the segments; Zip Rampy and Hannah Lake Chatham have voices that don’t suit all the material they’re required to sing (although they do all their numbers ably). Still, Googie Uterhardt has directed the cast to sell the material, with lots of comic touches that nearly all land squarely. It’s a fun show.

Katy Clarke has designed a lovely, workable set that has the look of a rustic Italian restaurant with an Eros graphic on the wall, with the terrific touch of a pair of swinging doors shaped like a heart. A pass-through to the kitchen in back has silhouettes of cooking utensils to start, then has locale-appropriate props pulled in on a clothesline to set each scene. A table and chair set downstage right and another up left are occasionally joined by a booth rolling in from stage left. It works well, although Elisabeth Cooper’s lighting design is perhaps too ambitious, since the actors’ faces are inconsistently lit in several sections.

Trey Harrison’s costumes set each scene and define each character with humor and clarity. Numerous props, by Bobbie Elzey and Sara Lynn Herman, add greatly to the hilarity of many moments. Two hobby horses almost become characters of their own, thanks to their design and to the touches of movement that Mr. Uterhardt and choreographer Misty Barber have invented for them. The dances are uniformly entertaining, and the band, led by music director Patrick Hutchison, always sounds great.

The first act ends in a somewhat baffling manner. The German segment involves S&M, highly suggestive props and lyrics, and bisexuality. The ménage à trois ends badly for the female, who laments in a fairly forgettable downbeat ballad. That seems to be the end of the act, then the initial line of the Mexican segment is given. The start of the second act plays off this unsatisfying first-act ending in a playful manner, which only partially redeems the let-down we were left with.

Googie Uterhardt has added a lot of inventive touches to the script, and his actors have given their all to make his fun-house vision of the show come to life. Mr. Piro is a delight to view in all the segments; Ms. Chatham creates a variety of characters, with the final one truly touching the heart; and Mr. Rampy becomes the human embodiment of the Cupid figure that floats across the pass-through opening each time love enters the room. Could a date night-inspired show be more perfect for a date night?

Dogfight, by Peter Duchan (book), Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (songs)
Howlin’ Dogs
Saturday, February 6, 2016
4.0
"Dogfight" is a tuneful, foul-mouthed musical concerning U.S. Marine buddies having a last-night blowout in San Francisco before shipping out to Okinawa and Viet Nam. Their plans for commitment-free fun run into a wrinkle when Birdlace falls for Rose, a plump, plain waitress he has asked out as a kind of goof. There’s an underlying sweetness, with a veneer of jarhead bravado and camaraderie. And there’s a lot of singing.

The set, designed by Wally Hinds and Brandli Mullcoombs, uses the standard stage set-up at ACT3, with platforms upstage, augmented by a couple of roll-on features (a bed stage right and a rotating platform center). While there is a painted portico stage right, the most attractive stage elements are a Golden Gate bridge-like element far up right and black-and-white painted tiles on the floor. It’s all very functional, although a few opening night glitches were evident in scene changes.

Taylor Sorrel’s lighting design highlights the action nicely, especially in a very effective battle scene near the end of the play. Arielle Geller’s vital, virile choreography adds to the testosterone-filled atmosphere. Alyssa Jackson’s costumes work for the various characters the ensemble plays, and M. Kathryn Allen’s sound design makes sure the four-piece band can be heard at all times. The design elements support the production, but hardly overwhelm it.

Director Liane LeMaster has blocked the action so that the best seats in the audience are on the side nearest the entry. There’s enough movement, though, that sightlines are generally fine. Music director Chris Brent Davis has gotten good vocal performances out of the cast, and the massed voices of choral numbers are quite powerful. The ensemble performances are varied, and mostly effective, especially by the females. They’ve been directed well to allow them to shine at individual moments, while still supporting the overall effect of the production.

Of the principal male performers, Austin Taylor probably comes off best as Bernstein, a young, inexperienced recruit. His wide smile and ringing tenor never fail to impress. Robert Lee Hindsman, in the lead role of Eddie Birdlace, lacks variety in his facial expressions, with an earnestness throughout that masks his character’s journey from callousness to romance. He does have a powerful, true voice, even so.

As for the female lead, played by Abby Holland, there’s nothing but praise to be showered on her performance. Her emotional journey is clearly spelled out in her face and body, coming to glorious life in her lovely voice. She provides the heart of the piece. Her performance resonates with the emotional yearning of an insecure young woman coming into her own. She and the choreography are what make "Dogfight" memorable.

The Toxic Avenger, by Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics), David Bryan (music and lyrics)
Do the Hokey-Jokey
Friday, February 5, 2016
4.0
Under Heidi McKerley’s direction, "The Toxic Avenger" is a broad, loud mess of a musical. There’s sensory overload, with Mary Parker’s lights hitting the audience in the eyes and Rob Brooksher’s sound design making the bass line thump and muddying vocals when voices are at full volume. There’s brilliant color, in both the visible and ultraviolet spectra, in the scenic and costume design of Moriah & Isabel Curley-Clay. And there are performances that pop off the stage into the stratosphere.

The score is rock-inflected and the book is jokey. It’s a pretty silly affair, really, with a blind heroine stumbling all over the stage, a male lead in a monster costume, and three other actors taking on role after role after role (when they’re not playing two roles at once). Ms. McKerley has directed them to blow through the show with unbounded energy, leaving subtlety in the dust. The choreography, by Heidi and Jeff McKerley, is similarly un-subtle, with heavy emphasis on air guitar and other stereotypical moves.

One misstep in the show, at least in early performances, is having electric guitars actually played in one number by the Toxic Avenger and his blind girlfriend. Her supposed blindness is compromised by her having to look at her fingering. It’s a cute idea, but backfires a bit.

There’s some shtick that sticks to the wall and some that doesn’t. So much of it is flung around that the percentage doesn’t need to be all that high to entertain. It’s all over-the-top fun.

Nick Arapoglou plays the male lead, and he is in glorious voice throughout, whether as nerdy Melvin Ferd at the start of the show or as the grotesque Toxic Avenger. He adds a couple of comic bits, but his character is primarily the center of the show, around which mayhem revolves. Julissa Sabino, as his blind librarian girlfriend, doesn’t have a voice to equal his in quality, but it’s powerful and generally pleasing. The other three actors have fine voices, but they’re required to vary their vocal quality for their various roles, letting character dictate the sounds they produce.

Leslie Bellair takes on three roles, scoring in all three (although her tour-de-force song that ends the first act is staged in a way that could truly work only on a proscenium stage, and doesn’t show off her voice to its best advantage). Austin Tijerina ably takes on a number of roles, with little of his trademark acrobatics, and Michael Stiggers impresses with vocal, acting, and dancing skills. His dance with Ms. Bellair is the choreographic highlight of the show, in my opinion.

S. Renée Clark provides excellent musical direction. The five-person band plays loudly and with great vigor. The score may not be ringingly memorable, but it is lively. Unfortunately, the final number is one of the weakest, with alternating phrases "Bollywood" and "New Jersey" not making a whole lot of sense. It’s as if the silliness of the story got to be too much for the authors, and they just threw something together to end the show. Or perhaps "Bollywood" is a baffling interpolation by the director, since I find no trace of it in the published vocal selections. Some shtick sticks, and some doesn’t.

I Hate Hamlet, by Paul Rudnick
Ham-a-Lot
Monday, February 1, 2016
4.5
Paul Rudnick’s "I Hate Hamlet" populates the cast with a bunch of over-the-top characters. Under the expert direction of Roberts Egizio, Stage Door Players’ production gives free reign to the actors to make these characters come to chuckle-inducing life. It all revolves around TV star Andrew Rally (a personable Dan Ford), who is taking a chance on playing Hamlet in Central Park. Kathryn David plays his semi-talented actress girlfriend Deidre, with the emphasis on "semi" when she displays her character’s acting skills and the emphasis on "talented" otherwise. Gina Rickicki plays a psychic real estate agent with New York zeal, getting laughs out of her line readings of some of the most innocuous lines. Holly Stevenson plays Andrew’s aged German agent, interacting with the larger-than-life ghost of John Barrymore (Robin Bloodworth) with an almost girlish flirtatiousness. And Jonathan David Williams plays a movie/TV producer/director/writer as if hopped up on a near-fatal dose of testosterone and energy drinks.

The action (including some very effective stage combat (choreographed by Matthew and Brianna Bass) takes place on Chuck Welcome’s set, all wood paneling, stained glass windows, and elegant touches, including red velvet curtains and a period-appropriate light switch and intercom. More color is added by Jim Alford’s costumes, which add to the characters’ idiosyncrasies in delightful ways. J.D. Williams’ lighting and George Deavours’ wigs (particularly those for Ms. David) add to the visual appeal of the production, and Rial Ellsworth’s sound design appropriately evokes previous ages when memory takes to the forefront. The only design element I didn’t care for was the furniture, with characterless furnishings in the first act and stagey pieces in the second act, with a cobbled-together sofa skirt being particularly unappealing.

The comedy of "I Hate Hamlet" comes through loud and clear in the production. Blocking keeps the action moving, and Mr. Egizio’s familiarity with the corner-stage configuration of the theatre keeps sightlines mostly unimpeded for all audience members. The only aspect I found slightly off-putting in the production was the choice to give lead character Andrew a New Yawk accent. The TV character he played for years doesn’t seem to have been of the Seinfeld stamp, so I would have expected a more generic American accent from him, even though one line does mention his coming "back" to New York. It adds a slightly off note to a production where the acting is otherwise pitch-perfect.

I and You, by Lauren Gunderson
Aye and Yay
Saturday, January 30, 2016
5.0
Lauren Gunderson’s "I and You" bears some resemblance to Margaret Edson’s "Wit," concurrently playing at the Aurora Theatre on the main stage. ("I and You" is in the black box theatre.) Both involve a female with an unpromising medical diagnosis and both deal with syntactical analysis of poetry (Donne’s punctuation in the case of "Wit;" Walt Whitman’s pronouns here). They also share another similarity: both are excellent productions, beautifully brought to life by wonderful performances.

The set, designed by Lee Maples, is a raised platform in the middle of the black box theatre, with audience on all four sides. The platform represents the bedroom of Caroline, complete with bed, desk, and beanbag chair. The walls of the room are exploded outward and downward, so each quadrant of the audience gets to see an upside-down, angled view of one wall. Jordan Wardach’s lighting scheme has a few special effects, but mostly allows the action to be seen clearly. For theatre in the round, sightlines are generally good.

Andrew Hobson’s costumes give Anthony a simple high-schooler’s garb and dress Caroline in pajamas, with a couple of different tops. The costuming looks natural, with a hint of colorful variety. Kristen Hunsicker’s props are impressive and also add some colorful touches.

Jaclyn Hofmann has directed the action to have a lot of movement. No backs are to one portion of the audience for an extended period of time. That’s the least of her achievements, though. She has coaxed marvelous performances out of her actors, orchestrating their interactions with great pacing and variety. Both Devon Hales and J.L. Reed impress with their facial, vocal, and physical actions and reactions. Ms. Hales even has the slightly flushed look of a shut-in whose cabin fever sometimes seems the equal of her disability.

The arc of "I and You" seems to play like an after-school special, with one schoolmate breaking through the wall of snarkiness the other has constructed for herself. And then there’s a twist that makes the audience reevaluate all they’ve seen before and emphasizes the similarities to "Wit." It’s a lovely ending to an affecting production, elevating the show far above what one’s expectations might have been for a show about a couple of high school students working on a presentation about Walt Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass."

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, by Hugh Wheeler (book) & Stephen Sondheim (songs)
Greasepunk
Friday, January 29, 2016
3.0
One thing can be said about "Sweeney Todd" at Actor’s Express – there’s not a good seat in the house. Shannon Robert’s set splits the audience in half and uses lofty platforms at either end of the playing space, so any action occurring at floor level around the platforms will be obscured or hidden to some audience members. Add in railings and tableaux of two actors in close proximity to one another, and you have the possibility of a lot of blocked views.

The set itself is fairly attractive, with nice wood effects for the floors and a variety of window types. The platform dedicated to Sweeney’s barber shop has a door for exits, but the other platform does not. It’s awkward for scenes at Judge Turpin’s to end with the actors trying unobtrusively to exit the platform in full sight of the audience, in the afterglow of Joseph P. Monaghan III’s lighting as it shifts focus to another section of the stage. It all depends on where one sits, of course, as to how obtrusive the exits are.

Sweeney’s barber shop nicely accommodates a special chair and trap door. Elisabeth Cooper’s props provide minimal, but functional furnishings for the barber shop and pie shop. There’s no blood in this production (if one discounts the red lighting occasionally used), but the blood isn’t missed. The menacing atmosphere and razor slashes provide all the effect needed.

Erik Teague’s costumes are generally somber in color, and in style are what one might term "greasepunk" – a cross between steampunk and 1950’s fashions. The most obvious 1950’s influences make a couple of ensemble members seem like demented refugees from "Bye Bye Birdie." I found the effect very off-putting.

There is nothing one would really term "dancing" in the show. Nevertheless, Freddie Ashley and/or choreographer Bubba Carr have created some very nice ensemble movement that gives a choreographic feel to certain segments, particularly the memory scenes with Lucy (Benjamin Barker’s wife, before Barker took on the alias of "Sweeney Todd"). The director has blocked the show to minimize the sightline deficiencies of the set design, but the deficiencies are too evident not to be noticed.

Music director Alli Lingenfelter gets good vocal performances out of all the cast, and sound designer Angie Bryant does a thoroughly acceptable job of balancing vocals and the orchestra. Even so, Sondheim’s score is so dense and word-heavy, often with multiple vocal lines and lyrics competing with one another, that it’s inevitable that some lines will be lost in the shuffle. The adult principals generally have very good diction, with particular kudos to soprano Kelly Chapin Martin.

Performances are all acceptable, although no one blew me away. Deborah Bowman is a very good actress as Mrs. Lovett, but she plays against the Sweeney Todd of Kevin Harry, who lets his magnificent voice do most of the work of creating a performance, with very little nuance in his brooding, menacing look. He has a couple of comic moments that work well, but do not seem integrated into his performance. Ms. Bowman has lots of comic moments, but they all arise from character and direction rather than from an inborn comedic sensibility.

I liked Ms. Martin’s work as Johanna, but Jessica de Maria’s performance as the beggar woman did nothing for me. Glenn Rainey is perfectly suited to the role of Beadle Bamford; I only wish I had been able to see more of his facial expressions that cracked up the other half of the audience. Stuart Schleuse impresses as Pirelli, and Michael Strauss looks great as Judge Turpin, but his voice, while quite fine, doesn’t have a quality to equal that of Mr. Harry in their duet of "Pretty Women."

In this production, the role of Tobias is taken by a child (Joseph Masson). I prefer a damaged young man in the role, who can provide more nuance in the difficult acting challenges of the character. Nuance is what the production lacks. Ms. Martin and Ms. Bowman have plenty, but others in the cast seem to have little or none. The audience is bludgeoned with the menacing mood of the show, which provides effect, but insufficient heart.

Of course, the true horror of attending this production at Actor’s Express might come when trying to exit the parking garage, with its highly temperamental devices that seem all too often to require manual intervention from an eventually arriving box office representative.

The Spins, by Sara Crawford; music by Bennett Walton
Lady in the Dark
Saturday, January 23, 2016
2.5
All drinking! All smoking! All music! All self-pity! "The Spins" is the depressing story of Lynn, who dreads her upcoming 27th birthday, since she fancies herself a musician (even though she refuses to touch the piano), and many of her idolized rock musicians (Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, et al.) died at 27. The action takes place primarily in the dreams of her alcohol-addled brain.

This is very similar in concept to the 1941 Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin musical "Lady in the Dark," down to the ending that revolves around the heroine’s facing up to the memory of a musical phrase. In the musical, though, the dream sequences are production numbers and provide the only music in the show. Here, the music underscores much of the action, and it’s low-key indie rock in spirit.

The music is provided primarily by Bennett Walton, a virtuoso on the electric guitar, accompanied sometimes by Jessie Kuipers on piano and Barrett Doyle on a variety of instruments. Mr. Walton plays a character seemingly inspired by guitarist/songwriter Jeff Buckley, who drowned in the Mississippi River in 1997. This character haunts Lynn’s dreams. While the script makes some reference to singing, the score provided by Mr. Walton is strictly instrumental. There are a handful of recurring melodies, but they tend to blend in with the improv-sounding music played before the show and during the intermission.

A. Julian Verner has staged the show on a reduced-size stage, with two rows of audience seats taking up stage right. The booze-cluttered bedroom of Lynn (set and props by Maya Hublikar) provides the primary playing area, although action spills off the stage at various times. A lot of action occurs with actors sitting or lying on the floor of the stage, which can cause sightline problems for anyone not sitting in the front row. There’s a lot of movement in the blocking, but it tends to be cluttered when the full cast is onstage.

Performances are wonderful. Jessie Kuipers and Barrett Doyle play sister and brother in dream/memory sequences with delightful chemistry and compelling character choices. Chelsea Steverson adds a lot of spirit to her role as Lynn’s lesbian friend, making a remarkably effective quick change from high school age to late twenties at one point. Jeremy Crawford has wonderful stage presence as Lynn’s boyfriend, and Bennett Walton interacts with real-life Lynn and dream Lynn in a natural fashion.

The lighting design by Nina Gooch highlights action nicely as it moves around the stage and into the aisle. Colored lights sometimes glow on the backdrop behind the window onstage, drawing unnecessary attention to the artificiality of the background. Her job at intermission is complicated by the continuous music, which requires light onstage, while simultaneously requiring light for the audience. At the performance I attended, many audience members seemed uncertain if they had permission to get up and move around. Once they realized it was okay, some didn’t return after intermission. Sara Crawford’s "The Spins" does not speak to everyone.

Wit, by Margaret Edson
Beautifully Donne
Monday, January 18, 2016
5.0
"Wit" is a fairly dense play, involving syntactical analysis of the metaphysical poems of John Donne. And it is also just plain involving, taking us on the final journey of professor and stage four cancer victim Vivian Bearing. She’s not a sympathetic character at first, since she values mind above emotion, but her journey eventually results in her finding the need for human connection.

The central role of Vivian calls for an excellent actress who is willing to shave her head and to appear naked in the final moment of the play. And the emotions must ring true too. Talk about stripping oneself bare!

At Aurora, Mary Lynn Owen is up to the challenge. She appears frail at the start, then seems to waste away before our eyes, all through the magic of acting. Not a moment of her performance rings false. She takes us through her journey with the unsentimental immediacy of impending death, simultaneously engaging us and challenging us to find anything engaging about Vivian Bearing. It’s a powerhouse performance.

Director Tlaloc Rivas has surrounded Ms. Owen with all the elements needed to make her performance and the production as a whole succeed admirably. Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay (also costume designers) provide a spare set with a soaring arc of lights and a series of ramps that allow set pieces to roll on and off effortlessly. Bravo to Trevor Carrier for props that create a fully believable hospital environment. And double bravos to sound designer Thom Jenkins and lighting designer Kevin Frazier for creating a hospital atmosphere that beautifully captures the effects of scanning machinery and hospital elevators. This is a stunning production to experience.

Acting is terrific across the board. Chris Kayser shows professional distance as Dr. Kelekian and personal distance as Vivian’s father. Marianne Fraulo uses her distinctive, breathy voice to great advantage as Vivian’s mentor. Justin Walker captures the mindset of a dedicated research physician forced to interact with patients. And Tiffany Mitchenor embodies the human heart as nurse Susie. If there’s any deficiency in the casting, it’s only that the four interns who double as students and lab technicians appear much more believable as college students than as medical professionals, and that’s primarily due to their age.

Mr. Rivas has created a production that is among the best Aurora Theatre has produced. And when you follow such a fine production with a talkback with the self-deprecating and charming Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, you end up with an unforgettable afternoon of entertainment and enlightenment. (Sorry to anyone who missed it; only one such talkback was scheduled.)

An Evening with Mark Twain, by Mark Twain, Kurt H. Sutton
A Rambling, Shambling Treat
Sunday, January 17, 2016
3.0
Kurt H. Sutton’s "An Evening with Mark Twain" provides the audience with a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes Mark Twain. It’s structured as an impromptu talk to an intimate audience, with diversions into the sort of the music with which he entertained guests at his home. (The music was too home-spun to be included in his public appearances at lofty venues.) There is just enough audience interaction to keep things interesting, and just enough of Twain’s shambling delivery to give a taste of the real man.

There are no readings from Twain’s literary works, and in fact, no mention of them until the question-and-answer session at the end of the performance. Instead, we are presented with the character Samuel Clemens created for public appearances. The centerpiece of the action is a recreation of Jim Blaine’s story of his grandfather’s old ram (from "Roughing It") – a story so filled with tangents that the point of the story is never reached. Mr. Sutton invests the story with enough of Blaine’s personality to distinguish this segment from the personal reminiscences of Twain/Clemens. It works nicely up to the end, when snoring goes on a tad too long to make the punch line work as well as it could.

Mr. Sutton is approximately as old as Samuel Clemens was at the end of his life, and his embodiment of age comes across as pretty natural. He’s a fine guitar and banjo picker, and the perkiness of his musical interludes picks up the pace that otherwise is languorous (but not as glacially paced as Twain’s actual personal appearances actually were, from all reports). A nice rapport builds with the audience, peaking in the question-and-answer session that reveals the true Kurt Sutton and provides all the factual information about Mark Twain that one might wish.

Mark Twain, Live!, by Mark Twain, Bill Oberst, Jr.
Mark Twain, Lite
Sunday, January 17, 2016
2.5
Bill Oberst, Jr. portrays a septuagenarian Mark Twain in ART Station’s "Mark Twain, Live!" His aged stoop and his sentences come with the same halting pace, which makes the evening seem long. It doesn’t help that one of the set pieces of the first act is a rambling anecdote of a storyteller who goes off on unrelated tangents, which seems to parallel the structure of the show as a whole.

The best parts of Mr. Oberst’s one-man show are when he performs excerpts from Twain’s works. A ghost story in the second act is remarkably well-told. An excerpt from "Huckleberry Finn" in the first act also holds interest. Aspects of Mark Twain’s biography are told in a rather slapdash manner, however, not giving a very full portrayal of the man. This is more "Mark Twain, Lite" than "Mark Twain, Live."

The action takes place on an attractive set that encompasses three areas: a table stage right, a bookcase stage left, and a columned white porch upstage, complete with rocking chair. Lighting highlights one area or another, depending on how the action flows. With the trim Mr. Oberst dressed all in white, this is a fairly elegant-looking production.

While Mr. Oberst is a fine actor, his Twain doesn’t have a twinkle in his eye. The humor is dry, and he doesn’t seem to have much rapport with the audience. It doesn’t help that the audience is much of Twain’s age when he’s doling out advice to a supposed group of young people. The show might work better pared down to an hour-long presentation for school audiences.

God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza
God! The Carnage!
Saturday, January 9, 2016
4.5
Yasmina Reza’s "God of Carnage," Americanized by Christopher Hampton, is being presented by Merely Players Presents at two venues in the month of January. And what a terrific start to the new year this production is!

Director Joanie McElroy has emphasized the black comedy in the script, which shows four adults behaving with ferocity (both verbal and physical) when addressing the issue of their two children having had a fight. It helps greatly that four excellent comedic actors are cast. The script allies them in all possible permutations during the course of the action, starting with two married couples each working as a unit, their unity breaking down as recriminations fly.

Barbara Cole Uterhardt starts out as all gracious smiles, but during the course of the play travels through a myriad of emotions, nailing every one. Jacquelyn Wyer goes through an equivalent range, doing excellent work in her spot-on reactions, particularly memorable in a bit that presages her getting sick to her stomach by having her choke down one piece of clafouti before exchanging her plate for the one her husband has cleared. James Beck doesn’t quite register as repressing his Neanderthal instincts at the start, but inhabits his role fully. Googie Uterhardt’s character has probably the smallest emotional arc of any, but he handles his role with professional aplomb, adding deft comic touches.

The action takes place on an attractive set designed by Katy Clarke. The background is a drop painted with abstract swatches of muted colors, looking much like a drop cloth that happened to be spilled on and brushed in a fashion that turned out to be unexpectedly artistic. In front of that, red tulips pop as a touch of color. Books and furniture fill the stage, but still leave plenty of room for action on the tiny stage. William Joel Coady’s lighting illuminates the set, with pre-show back-lighting of the drop and dimming red at the end being the only notable effects. It all works.

Rose Bianco’s costumes nicely delineate the differing economic conditions of the two couples, with Jacquelyn Wyer and Googie Uterhardt appearing elegant as the Raleighs and James Beck and Barbara Cole Uterhardt appearing more homespun as the Novaks. Nancy Keener’s props provide the specialized art books the script calls for, along with everything needed to address a water-logged cell phone and a stunningly effective vomit scene.

Ms. McElroy’s blocking keeps the action flowing nicely throughout, although sightlines in the theatre don’t necessarily work well with action that occurs on the floor or in reclining positions on the furniture, at least when the audience is packed. It was packed on opening night, and the quality of the production makes it likely that audiences will continue to attend in droves.

Charley’s Aunt, by Brandon Thomas
Charmless
Friday, January 8, 2016
2.0
"Charley’s Aunt" has been a beloved comedy for well over a hundred years. But David Crowe and his design team have apparently decided that it needs gussying up. Let’s throw in a sly reference to "West Side Story!" Let’s make a reference to 60’s music when choosing a selection of piano music, and let’s go even further by using that period’s music for all the musical interludes! Let’s pump up the 1890’s costume color scheme with 1960’s influences! As to why this has been done, the answer can only be to put an indelible director’s stamp on the production at the expense of the material.

This is not a very good-looking production. Seamus M. Bourne’s three sets (one for each act) place furniture in front of the closed curtains, which are then drawn open as the act starts to reveal drably uninteresting upstage walls. The whole thing is fronted by a crudely drawn hewn stone effect at the lip of the stage. The first act is done mostly in stained plywood (a cheap-looking facsimile of wood paneling); the second act uses green panels that seem to be covered in plush carpeting to represent greenery, adding a lovely iron gate in an inappropriate blue hue; the third act uses a spare, Mod-ish architectural style. Bryan Rosengrant’s lighting scheme seems to do its job, although there may be a slight foliage effect in the second act that comes across more as a couple of poorly-lit areas center stage.

Emmie Childers’ costume design matches the set design in terms of being generally unattractive. The color scheme doesn’t seem to have any cohesiveness, drawing attention to the 1960’s touches that are sprinkled about with no apparent pattern. The biggest distraction, though, is Joanna Daniel’s bustle, which had the people in front of me in the audience tittering and whispering throughout her initial scene.

Maclare "MC" Park’s props are good, although a hookah used in the first act is totally extraneous and draws attention only in an extended room straightening sequence that falls flat. Jason Polhemus’ sound design for this sequence is the first jarring instance of non-1890’s music, with the last instance being after the last line of the play. It managed to turn a smile on my face to a frown of disgust as the show ended. Perhaps the inspiration was Benny Hill’s TV shows, but the inspiration is so diluted by the performances and other design elements that it does less than not work; it substantially detracts from the production.

Performances are about as much of a jumble as the design elements are. Joe Syke’s performance as Jack starts the show and dominates the first act, and it is deadly. His artificial energy has no sincerity and is totally charmless. William Webber is far better as Charley, showing a sensitivity and giddiness in love that gets the audience on his side right away. The only really spot-on performance, though, comes from Stephanie Friedman as Ela Delahay, who takes the stage in winsome, unforgettable fashion and tugs gently at the heartstrings throughout.

Other members of the cast have their moments, but David Crowe’s direction overuses direct address to the audience, which I found only Scott DePoy could make work. Otherwise, the addresses tend to disrupt the action. Most of the actors play their roles relatively straight, without the quirks and charm that can make a comedy like this sparkle. The lack of a firm directorial touch (which is far different from an obvious directorial stamp) seems to have left the cast a bit adrift or left to their own devices.

Brandon Thomas’ script centers on three college friends, who presumably would be much of an age. Here, we have an age-appropriate Charley, a thirtyish Jack, and a Fancourt Babberly who appears to be middle-aged. It throws off the dynamic of the piece, although Hugh Adams’ doughy look makes his disguise as an old lady fairly believable. Mr. Adams has a lot of physical comedy bits, and they work, by and large (especially his being trapped in a chair when attempting to curtsey). The physical shtick of the production is probably its most successful element (although the tea-in-a-hat bit was perhaps the least inspired version I’ve ever seen). The show only takes off when Mr. Adams shows up in his old-lady disguise, and he carries the show, as sorry as it turns out to be.

My judgments are based on the final preview performance. Things may change on or after opening night, but the basic concepts of the production are so deficient that it’s difficult to conceive that Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s "Charley’s Aunt" will rise to the level of adequate entertainment.

Deep in the Heart of Tuna, by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard
Slap-Dashing through the Show
Sunday, December 27, 2015
1.5
No programs, and no apology for not having them. Pre-show music blasted at a level painful to the ears. A halting, low-energy curtain speech. A set that appears to have been cobbled together from a previous Tuna production on the Alley Stage, with a raw wood 2x4 shim in plain sight. And then the show starts, and it gets worse.

Marietta’s New Theatre in the Square is presenting a version of the Tuna Christmas show that is a slap in the face to the memory of Tuna productions at the Old Theatre in the Square. Costumes are pretty good; sound and light effects are good, and well integrated with perfectly acceptable miming; but the energy level is so low and the pace is so slow that the whole thing plods along. The script is still full of eccentric characters and their hoot-out-loud sayings, but the actors don’t disappear into the characters. They put on costumes and make subtle changes to their voices and postures, but they don’t make the characters come to life. The audience seems to be split into those who will laugh with deep appreciation at the funny lines as they come along and those who leave at intermission.

With no programs and little publicity, it’s difficult to assign blame for the show’s deficiencies. There doesn’t even seem to be a stage manager who cleans up the stage during intermission, even though tree tinsel litters the stage. Maybe there was a director; maybe not. There’s definitely a light/sound technician and two actors (one who seemed to be battling a cold and line memory problems at the performance I attended), and it certainly seems that this is a minimally produced show -- a penny-ante production, if you will. Maybe with the sold-out audiences that have blessed "Deep in the Heart of Tuna" there’ll be enough profit to up the ante on future productions.

Let Nothing You Dismay, by Topher Payne
Dismay-less
Sunday, December 20, 2015
5.0
Topher Payne’s brand-new holiday play, "Let Nothing You Dismay," gives eight comic actors a workout and a half, all while giving the audience an equally excessive amount of entertainment. The situation, concerning birth parents about to give their child up to adoptive parents, becomes comic mayhem when relatives of the adoptive parents (and their hangers-on) show up in waves in a hospital’s maternity wing waiting room. Each actor takes on two or three roles, all neatly delineated by Mr. Payne and brought to side-splitting life under Shannon Eubanks’ direction.

Chuck Welcome’s set shows us the waiting room, minimally decorated for the holidays, with a kitchenette stage left, seating center stage and stage right, and a pair of elevators and hallways upstage. As always, it’s nicely proportioned and professionally finished, down to the faux linoleum floor. J.D. Williams’ lighting lets everything be seen clearly, and Rial Ellsworth’s sound design mixes appropriate sound effects with delightful music selections.

The design elements that take this show to the next level are the myriad props (by Kathy Ellsworth), costumes (by Jim Alford), and wigs (by George Deavours). The costumes and wigs and props define characters almost as much as the performances do. All combine to make this show a rocking and rollicking frolic.

It would be hard to praise the performances enough. Everyone succeeds in creating obvious distinctions between (or among) their characters, down to the level of accents and body language. The most naturally comic performers are most successful in creating indelible characters. Shelly McCook and Gina Rickicki are particularly noteworthy in over-stuffing their roles with comic charisma. Kudos to Ms. Rickicki for speaking with her Botox-frozen face as Tawny! Amanda Cucher, Emily Sams, and Mark Gray also succeed admirably in filling multiple roles that showcase their immense acting skills.

A lot of credit has to go to Shannon Eubanks for inspiring her cast to create these splendid comic performances. Her blocking is also quite good, keeping sightlines pretty clear for most of the audience for most of the time, which could not have been an easy task with the stage filled with furniture and actors for much of the running time. Even when a speaking character’s face might not be visible to those at the edges of the audience, the reactions of other actors onstage keep interest on their own. This is a finely honed troupe under the direction of a highly skilled director.

All this would be meaningless, of course, unless the director and actors had good material to work with. Topher Payne has provided that quality material. The first act is a comic tour-de-force. I was expecting the second act to get even crazier, with actors running in and out as a revolving set of characters. Instead, the second act moves to a quieter place, with sincerity and moral lessons leading to a fairly sweet ending.

I can’t really complain about the direction the play takes, but I can complain about a couple of details that contradict reality. New York and Columbus, Ohio are both in the Eastern time zone, so a comment from New Yorkers about a time difference to the play’s setting of a Columbus hospital makes little sense. And grizzly bears are not native to Bulgaria. It’s okay having a fanciful story about a bear in Bulgaria, but at least make it a species native to the area!

Despite this couple of factual discrepancies, "Let Nothing You Dismay" succeeds admirably in its intention to keep audiences in stitches. And even though the setting is a hospital, Mr. Payne and this cast and director provide better stitches than any doctor could!

Miracle on South Division Street, by Tom Dudzick
A Slightly Sanctified Event on South Division Street
Sunday, December 20, 2015
3.5
Stage Door Players produced "Miracle on South Division Street" in the spring of 2014 in an absolutely splendid production. A community theatre production can’t hope to compete with the memory of that production, but Centerstage North’s production is not bad at all. It also has a Christmas orientation that makes it marginally a seasonal offering.

David Shelton’s set design is tidy, functional, and (intentionally) dated, with wood paneling on the living room side of the set and a full kitchen on the other side. We see all this on an angle, with a hallway upstage, but the kitchen table at which most of the action is set is arranged straight-on. Director Cheryl Baer’s blocking doesn’t always allow all faces to be seen by all members of the audience, but the set generally works quite well. Brad Rudy’s lighting design lets everything be seen, and Brenda Orchard’s sound design provides appropriate effects, with a nice selection of seasonal music on scene transitions. Kathy Ellsworth’s props work very well, with a toaster more appropriate than the one I saw at Stage Door.

The story comes through loud and clear in this production, with good pacing and levels of emotion. This is largely due to the glorious performance of Phyllis Giller as the mother of the clan. She makes every moment ring true. Audra Lopez, as the bowling-obsessed daughter, is also quite good, although her cue pickup is not always what it might be. Daniel Phelps gives a good community theatre performance as the son, while Laura Dietrich has the stilted stance of a high schooler who has been instructed to plant her feet and act with her arms. Ms. Baer has cast the show well and gets performances that are probably the best they could be. This may not be the quality of show seen at Stage Door Players, but it does Tom Dudzick’s script proud.

Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas, by Ernest Zulia and David Caldwell
Uh-Oh with a Thud
Sunday, December 20, 2015
3.0
"Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas" is based on books by Robert Fulghum and has a slightly dated feel. The show has been devised as a series of anecdotes and stories, with a handful of original songs thrown in. It gives the cast a bunch of monologues to perform, which director Ty Autry has staged with a great deal of fluidity. Other than a sequence of bits involving a poinsettia, there is little continuity or connection among the monologues.

Given the nature of the piece, the success of a production depends almost entirely on the talent of the performers. If a performer doesn’t have a lot of stage presence or has a labored delivery, the show suffers. No one is downright bad in this production, but only Jennie Blevins has the instant audience connection (and singing voice) to carry it off.

Costumes aren’t a highlight of this show, as they often are at ACT1. But the set, designed by Amy Finkel, and the lighting, designed by Murray Mann, more than make up for this. The set consists of six folding chairs and a painted set of flats in the background. The flats show a wintry village scene, with a nice distance perspective and a cheery style. A splendid starlight effect appears near the end of the show, adding a glow to the proceedings. This is a good-looking show.

I don’t much care for "Uh-Oh, Here Comes Christmas" as a play. Its selections provide neither a wide variety nor a cohesive thread to make the production seem more than the sum of its parts. It’s mildly entertaining and gives seven actors a fine opportunity to hone their skills. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but nothing particularly right either.

The Harmony Baptist Church Ladies Auxiliary Christmas Jubilee, by Laura King
A Mouthful of Icing
Sunday, December 20, 2015
3.0
How’s "The Harmony Baptist Church Ladies Auxiliary Christmas Jubilee" for a mouthful of a title? Laura King’s title gives a hint at the play itself, overstuffed as it is with over-the-top characters. We have two warring children (played by Aaron D. Mitchell and Bella Westwood), their warring mothers (Kelly Jo Roarke and Jillian Walzer), two warring sisters (Ann Mitchell and Melissa Rainey), one of their sons (Jeremy Clark) and his over-attentive girlfriend (Brooke Spivey), a fruitcake-obsessed fruitcake (Lory Cox), and the new preacher (Patrick S. Young) who is about to upset their longstanding church Christmas Jubilee traditions.

There’s a lot of comedy in their anger-filled interactions, along with a bunch of funny lines and running gags. "Finding Jesus" comes up a lot, as the infant Jesus from the nativity scene repeatedly goes missing. The joke lands each time. The act one closing line builds upon the set-up from the start of the show to add icing to the cake in a rousing conclusion. It’s only in the second act that the kinder, gentler lessons of Christmas come into play, with a fairly sentimental ending.

Lionheart Theatre’s production has a nice, workable set designed by director James Beck that shoehorns a pageant stage into the upstage left corner and includes two doorways, a substantial tree, and lots of furniture (set dressing by Cathy Seith) and props (by Chris Pritts and Lory Cox). Lighting design, by Gary White and James Beck, has a few wonky moments, but nicely delineates outside scenes, on the theatre floor, from scenes on the indoor set. Chris Pritts’ costumes work well for the various personas they garb and the various levels of Christmas spirit they exude, while Bob Peterson’s sound design doesn’t have much to do other than playing some scene-setting seasonal music.

While the show is entertaining, the pieces don’t cohere particularly well in this production. We have a low-key performance from Patrick S. Young and a broad performance from Lory Cox that would each work well in the proper context, but in this context appear to be from distinctly different worlds. We have great projection from most of the adult cast, contrasted with muddled diction from the younger cast members. Melissa Rainey’s performance is subtle and nicely played, but comes at a different energy level from most of the rest of the cast. The whole thing seems to lack a firm directorial hand or vision. Individual performances make sense in and of themselves, but not always in conjunction with the performances of everyone else onstage.

There are real Harmony Baptist churches in Georgia and a real Floyd County too, which the play implies is distinct, but fairly close by, and it appears there once was a Harmony Baptist Church in Silver Creek, within Floyd County itself. While the state in which the action occurs is not stated, the coincidence of real places nearly matching the play’s locale implies a roman à clef situation, which I don’t believe was intended. The play is in the tradition of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" and the Futrelle sister plays like "Christmas Belles," with church holiday activities going awry. It’s meant as sheer holiday entertainment, and as that it succeeds.

A Little Princess, by Andrew Lippa (music) and Brian Crawley (book and lyrics)
Eine Kleine Prinzessin
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
4.0
Bah, humbug, Emerson Steele! Her performance in the leading role of Sarah Crewe in "A Little Princess" has been widely lauded, but I didn’t see it. She had jetted off to do a New York concert at the performance I attended. Mary Caroline Owens took on the role of Sarah Crewe and did a perfectly fine job, thank you very much.

Theatrical Outfit has created a compelling production of this family-friendly musical. Although it contains a song about approaching Christmas and features the holiday in the second half of the second act, this is hardly your standard end-of-year fare. It’s a musical for all seasons that happened to land in the December slot at Theatrical Outfit.

In terms of design, the production isn’t particularly handsome. There are a couple of Palladian windows stage right, above a nice fireplace, but stage left features a squalid attic room, and the two sides of the stage are joined by a set of arches in front of a brick wall. Above the arches there is a painting that looked to me like part of the background from Edvard Munch’s "The Scream." It was lit differently for different scenes, so I guess it was intended to convey some sense of setting, but it didn’t do a very good job of it. I give higher marks to Chris Crawford’s lighting design than to Jon Nooner’s set design, and even higher marks to Elizabeth Rasmusson’s varied period costumes, which are not particularly enhanced by Paula Renee’s wig designs. Maclare Park’s props are the equal of the costumes.

Choreography, by Ricardo Aponte, is quite effective, especially in the African segments. The dancing adds excitement that the synth-sounding brass of the music tracks lacks. The tracks are cleverly combined with live strings and percussion to give a lush sound much of the time. Musical direction by Gregory Van Sudmeier makes all the songs sound good, but sound design (uncredited) doesn’t always allow lyrics to be clearly understood. Director Mira Hirsch’s blocking exacerbates this problem by having actors oftentimes face away from large portions of the audience and by creating stage pictures that work only for the center section of the audience.

The performances are what sell this production, and they’re all fine, from largest to smallest role. Particular standouts, to my mind, are Brenna McConnell, as winsome, downtrodden Becky; Allison Gann as eager-to-please Lottie; and Christy Baggett, as wicked Miss Minchin. Vocally, excellent singing is also heard from Molly Coyne, Jeanette Illidge, and Bryant Smith. There’s not a clunker in the cast. All the younger members of the cast are excellent in terms of their skills, but they can’t always be heard distinctly (not that the sound amplification deficiencies are limited to the younger cast members).

As for Mary Caroline Owens, she performed like a pro. There was no indication of hesitancy or unfamiliarity with the score or script at any point in her performance. She was Sarah Crewe, plain and simple. And that’s what the show revolves around. Perhaps it’s a tad maudlin of a tale, replacing the Yorkshire/India charm of "The Secret Garden" a bit too consciously with London/Africa settings, but the overall show works. As an alternative to more unabashedly seasonal offerings, it’s a winner.

It’s a Wonderful Life: a Live Radio Play, by Joe Landry
It’s a Wonderful Show
Monday, December 14, 2015
4.0
Joe Landry’s "It’s a Wonderful Life: a Live Radio Play" is being given a crackerjack production by Live Arts Theatre, under the direction of Becca Parker. While a cast of five can present the show, doing all the voices, here we have a cast four times that large, including a contingent of children playing the younger roles. It’s a bit of a challenge fitting them all in the tiny playing space in the Belfry Playhouse at Norcross Presbyterian Church, but Spencer Estes has designed a red-and-green set of Art Deco microphone stands and Foley tables that take up next to no space, and Ms. Parker has blocked the action so there’s a constant flow of actors going to and from the microphones. It’s snug, but gives a nice feel of a compact radio studio.

The story is well-known from the beloved movie, and the large cast helps differentiate the various characters. A couple of cast members were absent at the performance I saw, and the others taking on their parts weren’t necessarily successful providing distinct voices. But Rick Chandler Bragg does a wonderful job giving us both Clarence the angel and Uncle Billy, and Paul Kamm sells all his various New York and Italian accents. No one in the cast is deficient in conveying their characters, and some are quite delightful (Meredith and JJ Jones among them). James H. Burke’s Southern accent doesn’t seem quite right for George Bailey, but his pacing keeps the show moving right along. Katie Bates, as Mary, matches his pace and energy.

Costumes, designed by Dawn Burke, and hair/makeup, by Stephanie Steele, give a true flavor of the 1940’s, and the pre-show interaction of some cast members sets the scene in New York City. It all creates a welcoming atmosphere of holiday fun. Scene transition music by Michael Parker and Foley/sound design by Scott Piehler add to the spirit. All in all, it’s a wonderful show.

Merry Little Holiday Shorts 2015, by various
From Stupid to Stupid
Sunday, December 13, 2015
2.5
The 2015 edition of Onstage Atlanta’s "Merry Little Holiday Shorts" starts with a fairly stupid little skit and ends with another. In between, there’s a mixture of affecting, humorous, and, yes, other stupid little plays. The acting quality is high throughout, but it can’t always rescue the material. With the variety of playwrights and directors involved, a certain unevenness is to be expected. In this year’s production, the substandard predominates.

First up is Rob Britt’s "Shelf on an Elf," which is pretty much summed up by the title, with an Elf on the Shelf trapped on the floor under a fallen shelf. Nat Martin does a fine job as the elf, and Barry West attempts to mine the humor of the elf version of an EMT, but the whole thing tends to fall flat. It doesn’t help that voiceovers start and end the piece, giving the audience just blackness to look at as the show starts.

Next up is "The Hint" by William Thurmond. This play is short and to the point, splendidly acted by Lory Cox and Darrell Wofford. The situation is easy to relate to, and ends with a nice twist. Director Abra Thurmond makes sure it lasts just the right amount of time.

"Christmas Slice," by Elisabeth Cooper, shows us a lonely woman (Sarah Fechter) and a pizza delivery man (Markell Williams) making a connection at Christmastime. Nat Martin has cleverly used a door of the set from "The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical" to act as the apartment door. It’s a fairly obvious piece, but pleases nevertheless.

For me, the highlight is the fourth play in sequence, Steven Kobar’s "Regifting." Charlie Miller has directed Cristina deVallescar and Abra Thurmond to play the clever script with huge energy and cynical holiday relish. It’s a situation anyone can relate to -- an unexpected guest bringing an unexpected gift that needs to be reciprocated on the fly. The comic complications build up until they explode in a tidy ending.

The first act ends with "A Very Queer Christmas," which seems slightly unfocused and is marred by a lack of projection from the cast until the late arrival of a sparklingly effervescent Lisa Gordon. Director Barry West has produced a somewhat awkward play that doesn’t hold together very well.

"First Christmas," by Evan Guildford-Blake, starts the second act with is what is basically a monologue shared by the clear-spoken J. Michael Carroll and the hard-to-understand Linzmarie Schulz. It’s a fairly static retelling of an anecdote that attempts to be affecting, but the static nature overwhelms the material under Elisabeth Cooper’s direction.

Laura King’s "Christmas Wrap-Up" features wonderful performances by Lory Cox, Cristina deVallescar, and Markell Williams, under the direction of Richard J. Diaz. The situation of department store wrappers wrapping gifts just before the store opens doesn’t make a lot of sense, and the ending continues that lack of sense. It’s entertaining, but feels contrived.

"The Light," by Mark Harvey Levine, tells the story of Hanukkah with a quirky humor that includes the arrival of the (not) awaited Godot (played nicely by Rob Jerome), and a kilt-wearing Angus MacCabee (authentically Scottish in the accent of J. Michael Carroll). Erica Frene and Linzmarie Schulz nicely portray two women tasked with watching a lamp whose oil supply is expected to last only a day. One woman is a true believer; the other is more questioning. I’m not quite sure what the point of the play is supposed to be.

"For Unto Us," the next play in sequence, also brings in the topic of Hanukkah, with a Christian girl (Katy Clarke) and a Jewish boy (Robert Wayne) discussing religious matters on a playground. Stephen Kaplan’s script meanders a little, making the nice performances of Ms. Clarke and Mr. Wayne seem a little pointless. Judith Beasley has blocked it with a variety of child-like action, but there’s not enough of a spark and sparkle in the script to make it really catch fire.

The last piece is "Les Miserabelves," a shameless mash-up of the 60’s claymation "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" special and the musical "Les Misérables." Director/actor Darrell Wofford has filled the show with wonderful costumes and props and facial hair, but it’s all in the service of a one-joke idea. Given that the voices of the cast aren’t really up to the task of singing Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music, the whole thing comes across as exceedingly cheesy.

Sound and lighting design are fine, especially given the constraint of performing on a set designed for another show, and between-show music gives an additional taste of holiday cheer. If only more of the show were like the middle three plays of the first act, this would be a consistently entertaining show, instead of an only intermittently entertaining one.

Christmas Canteen 2015, by Brandon O’Dell
Just About Ideal
Thursday, December 10, 2015
4.5
The twentieth annual rendition of "Christmas Canteen" at Aurora Theatre is just about the ideal version. The hokeyness quotient is not overpowering, as it has been in some past years, and the cast is nicely balanced. Jen MacQueen’s choreography is excellent and allows for a couple of rousing tap numbers. The set, designed by Julie Allardice Ray, is a lovely evocation of wintertime, with tree silhouettes and elegant arches, all in subtle silver (actually, white-splashed gray) and gold. Mary Parker’s lighting design is season-appropriate, marred only by snowflake pre-show gobos that bleed over from the tree silhouettes onto the walls of the theatre. Daniel Pope’s projections are straightforward, but effective, and Alan Yeong’s costumes and Ryan Bradburn’s props amaze with their workmanship, variety, and beauty.

The performances are what really sell the production, though. Ann-Carol Pence’s musical direction and band are perfection, as always, although her solo this year is not as impressive as others have been. The three interns involved in the production (Skyler Brown, T’Arica Crawford, and Benjamin Sims) don’t have quite the stage presence of the rest of the cast in their ensemble moments, but all shine in solo spots. As for the main cast, they’re all excellent in their own ways. Diany Rodriguez’s incandescent smile and powerful voice spark the proceedings with non-stop energy. Jen MacQueen’s physicality and winning personality bring a smile to one’s face. Lyndsay Ricketson’s leading lady looks and character actress skills combine with her sweet singing voice to leave an indelible impression. Brian Walker nails his numbers and bits with unstoppable brio. Travis Smith anchors things with his solid good looks and strong baritone voice, then surprises with tap and Elvis impersonation skills. Brandon O’Dell, while sounding strained in his solo rendition of "I’ll Be Home for Christmas," blends nicely in choral numbers and makes for a winningly comic master of ceremonies.

"Christmas Canteen" recycles segments from previous years as a matter of course. This year, the recycled segments include selections from "hit" non-holiday musicals the Aurora Theatre has produced over the last several years. That adds a familiar note without seeming at all stale. The best recycled bits work as well as they have in the past, sometimes with little tweaks and twists that freshen them up a tad. The special talents of the cast are played up, with a down home section allowing them all to play instruments of one kind or another, often passing them from person to person. The excitement of seeing these individuals expose the layers of their talents builds interest throughout. This just might be the best "Christmas Canteen" yet.

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare
Montague and Capulet
Sunday, November 22, 2015
4.0
David Crowe has directed an engaging production of "Romeo and Juliet" at Georgia Ensemble Theatre. His concept is to frame the story as taking place in the memory of Friar Laurence. We have two versions of the friar – Allan Edwards as the older, in whose memory the action takes place (and who acts as the chorus), and Steve Hudson as the younger, who inhabits the timeframe of the story of Romeo and Juliet. The concept works remarkably well.

The rest of the production doesn’t work quite as well as the concept. Mr. Crowe’s direction keeps things moving and visually interesting, but vocally things are a bit wanting. Jonathan Horne’s delivery as Romeo comes across as pedestrian and rather flat in the first part of the play, improving greatly when outsize emotions come into play. Jennifer Alice Acker has a nice coltish energy as Juliet, but her delivery and presence remind one of Drew Barrymore in a contemporary romantic comedy. Brad Brinkley is understated as the prince, and Lord and Lady Montague (Robert Wayne and Kerrie Hansen Doty) don’t approach the vocal gravitas of Lord and Lady Capulet (Kevin Stillwell and Megan McFarland).

The performances are quite fine in general. Chris Rushing’s Mercutio has enough quirks to make him appealing, and Heidi Cline McKerley’s Nurse is equal parts bawdy and caring. Maggie Birgel’s ensemble role is heavily curtailed from what’s in Shakespeare’s unexpurgated script, but she handles her part quite well. Mr. Crowe has gotten good performances from everyone.

Leslie Taylor’s set is functional, but not terribly appealing. A raked platform skews the perspective of arches upon it, and playing the balcony scene on top of a bookcase looks a bit odd. MC Park’s eclectic collection of props salvages the set, adding visual interest to the shelves of the bookcase and to three downstage areas. Scrims in the set work well for silhouetted moments, but the projections spilling from them onto the cast and set don’t work nearly so well. Dusty Brown’s lighting design adds atmosphere, but doesn’t particularly well illuminate one scene with Romeo and his pals Benvolio (Kirill Sheynerman) and Tybalt (Brandon Partrick).

Alan Yeong’s costume designs are generally based on Elizabethan apparel, and generally they’re quite effective. The pants of Romeo and his pals, however, are tight in the calves and loose everywhere else, resulting in a wrinkled, puffed, unflattering look. Benvolio’s modern sneakers are attention-grabbing in all the wrong ways. Ms. Acker’s initial costume is a bit formless, making her look more matronly than girlish.

Jason Polhemus’ sound design makes use of some very nice surround-sound effects at various points in the production. Songs are sung beautifully by Ms. Acker, but I found the lyrics indecipherable. Still, they add to the atmosphere. And it’s the atmosphere and concept that make this production memorable.

The Changeling, by Middleton and Rowley
Well-Spoken
Sunday, November 22, 2015
3.5
From a psychological viewpoint, "The Changeling" isn’t a very convincing play in Resurgens Theatre Company’s production. Beatrice-Joanna has three men who want to have her, only one of whom she wants in return. She convinces one of the unwanted suitors to kill the other, assuming that she can pay him off and that he will go into exile. Instead, the murderer demands her virtue in return. He starts to take it by force, but then, partway through, she willing gives it. The rest of the plot revolves around her trying to fool her remaining suitor into believing she is a virgin, even going so far as to pay off her loose-acting, but virtuous servant to take her place in the wedding bed, so that her new husband will experience the taking of a maidenhead. Add in her father, who seems to blithely accept one suitor, then the next, and shows little emotion when his daughter is dying, and you have a juicy plot with little believable underpinning in human behavior.

Most of this, of course, is the doing of playwrights Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, as edited by director Brent Griffin. The title may reflect the sudden changing of Beatrice-Joanna’s behavior, but the abrupt change is jarring in production. Mr. Griffin has done little to make the behavior make sense to modern audiences.

Also jarring is the music provided by Esther Morgan-Ellis, played on a cello and sung from the balcony of the stage. It overpowers dialogue, gives no period feel, and starts with a concert piece that shows off her virtuosity to no discernible end. Equally jarring is her smiling visage as she views the portions of the play that do not feature music. Director Brent Griffin has done her no favors by incorporating her contributions in this production.

With the exception of the underpowered voice of Michael Myers as Tomazo de Piracquo, the script is beautifully well-spoken by the cast. A consistent tone comes across, in contrast to the often flat and pedestrian speaking of Shakespeare’s verse in Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s concurrent "Romeo and Juliet." The vocal performances of the cast are excellent, even if the psychological aspects of the roles don’t always make sense.

Visually, the production relies on the costumes of Anné Carole Butler and Catherine Thomas for its beauty. Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern’s set for "The Tempest" is the background; lighting is a consistent candlelight wash. Luckily, the costumes are nicely rendered and consistent with the period. This is a good-looking production, despite the self-imposed limitations of "original practice" (performing the play with the same production values as in its original incarnation, with no modern theatrical effects).

Olivia Kaye Sloan is strong as Beatrice-Joanna, and Thom Gillott is even stronger as the murderous Deflores. Janine DeMichele Baggett is vivacious as servant Diaphanta, and Trey Harrison is as good as I’ve ever seen him as Jasperino, friend to victorious suitor Alsemero (played with quiet intensity by Stuart McDaniel). Joe Kelly, as Beatrice-Joanna’s father Vermandero, and Jim Wall, as unwanted suitor Alonzo de Piracquo, give understated performances that blend well with the rest of the cast.

"The Changeling" has been stripped of its subplot in this version, and seems a bit anemic and choppy as a result. It’s a Jacobean tragedy lite, with the richness of the original script pared down to the elements that expose the bare bones of the plot. It doesn’t give the feel of a full evening of theatre, condensing the five acts of the original into a 90-minute highlights reel. It’s a pleasure to see works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries on the stage, but in this case I would have preferred seeing more of the work on stage and less on the cutting-room floor.

Company, by Stephen Sondheim - songs; George Furth - book (uncredited in the program)
Bobby Schlubby Baby
Sunday, November 22, 2015
3.0
Bobby, the lead character in "Company," is described in the script as thin and attractive and turning 35. Zip Rampy, the Bobby in Out of Box Theatre’s production, is anything but a slim stud of a man. He’s a fine comedian, but has only an adequate voice. His position as associate artistic director on the staff of the theatre makes this seem like a vanity production. Carolyn Choe, the director, has populated the cast with men having the same general level of attractiveness as Mr. Rampy, perhaps in an attempt to make him seem to better fit in, but this just highlights the discrepancy in casting between the men and the women. Bobby’s romantic relationships consequently fall flat.

Ms. Choe, in her director’s notes, states that she wants "to show real people and real marriages that aren’t wrapped up in a pretty show packages [sic]." She doesn’t succeed in this. Emily Tyrybon and Stephen DeVillers do appear to be a true couple as Sarah and Harry, and Jerry Jobe and Annie Cook make an attractive couple as Larry and Joanne, but the other couples seem mismatched in one way or another. Acting and singing are fine across the board, but the New York of this production seems a lot more schlubby than chic. Even the scenic painting by Morgan Brooks seems off-kilter, with the night skyline of skyscrapers having lines off the perpendicular.

The pre-recorded tracks for the songs are of various quality, with a few sounding a bit synthesizer-heavy. Even so, Jim Poteete’s sound design does a good job of balancing the soundtrack with the voices. With the massed voices of the opening number, the effect is just this side of ear-splitting.

Costumes, presumably supplied by the cast, run the gamut from schlubby to stylish. Alessa Walle’s lighting does a fine job of illuminating things on Morgan Brooks’ setting, which consists of a long set of two steps, three backing flats, three black cubes, and a bar. Given the tiny size of the theatre and the large size of the cast (14 people, plus stage manager Brad Rudy), the major requirement of the set design seems to have been to keep things clear for the action.

Carolyn Choe’s blocking keeps things moving, and when Lauren Rosenzweig’s choreography kicks in, it keeps things moving in well-executed, energetic, pleasing patterns. The choreography is one of the highlights of the show, along with Ms. Rosenzweig’s rapid-patter "Getting Married Today" and the well-cast trio of Bobby’s girlfriends (Amanda Shae Benedict, Suzanne Zoller, and Jimmica Collins) performing "You Could Drive a Person Crazy." Mr. DeVillers also sounds pretty darn terrific in his solo lines, particularly in "Sorry-Grateful."

Out of Box Theatre has tried something different in its production of "Company." The things that don’t involve Bobby’s romances work well. The book scenes all come across, and the entire score is well-sung. I applaud Annie Cook for following her terrific "The Ladies Who Lunch" with a well-played come-on scene. If only she had someone more stereotypically attractive and sexually charismatic than Zip Rampy to play against. Blame iffy male casting (not the performers themselves) for the failure of this production to exceed expectations.

The Thrush and the Woodpecker, by Steve Yockey
Not Fabulous; Fabulist
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
3.5
"The Thrush and the Woodpecker" by Steve Yockey starts out as a fairly standard domestic comic drama, with a mother (Stacy Melich) hounding her son (Matthew Busch) about his expulsion from college due to an act of vandalism. Then a visitor arrives (Kathleen Wattis Kettrey) and all laws of nature and logic are thrown to the winds. There’s a lot of hyper-dramatic action, along with some terrific acting, but it doesn’t all hang together particularly well. There’s a sudden shift after the visitor arrives, with not enough foreshadowing to let the audience know the tack things will take.

The act of vandalism performed by the son was to smash light bulbs from outdoor lighting on campus, due to its light pollution at night. Since the title refers to birds, I assumed there would be some connection to scientific studies showing that light pollution affects the nesting and reproduction of birds. Nope. Given the information later revealed about the son, I thought it might have been fitting to point out some connection to "being in the dark." But nope again. The son is studying astronomy and wanted to be able to see constellations. There’s a nice correlation to the stars remaining a constant in the son’s nomadic upbringing, but that’s about it.

The woodpecker of the title is the presumably extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, who has been resurrected by Mr. Yockey for his own fabulist purposes (complete with projected animations by Marisa Ginger Tontaveetong). The thrush gets short shrift, presumably chosen as a bird because a group of thrushes is called a "mutation," and isn’t that neato-keeno? The natural world in which the house of the action takes place doesn’t mesh well with reality. It all seems very artificial.

Kat Conley’s scenic design takes the bones of the "Blackberry Winter" set and adds standard living room furniture and a back wall with an outside door, a frosted window pane that doubles as a projection screen, and openings to other parts of the house. Ben Tilley’s lighting design uses the effect of morning light entering through a paned window, giving a strong dappled effect in some scenes that is just short of being distracting. Costumes, by Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay, don’t have much impact. The repeated "Pluto" printed on the son’s T-shirt seems to act as a misfired joke, since it acts as a reminder of Yockey’s far-superior play "Pluto" from 2013 at Actor’s Express.

The acting is excellent, and director Melissa Foulger has staged the show to minimize the disadvantages of sightlines inherent in the thrust configuration of the stage. Haddon Kime’s sound design is generally effective, but the music signaling the start of the first animated projection sequence comes across as a bit heavy-handed. I tend to blame the construction of the play for this rather than Mr. Kime.

The situations of the play are artificial, as is the language of the dialogue. There’s a level of erudition in the mother’s speech that rings false. Mr. Yockey appears to be showing off his imagination rather than grounding his magical realism in a relatable construct. There’s a sketchiness and lack of resonance to the whole enterprise that makes "The Thrush and the Woodpecker" seem like something less than a finished work.

Blackberry Winter, by Steve Yockey
Alzheimer’s Creation Myth
Sunday, November 8, 2015
3.5
Steve Yockey’s "Blackberry Winter" is essentially the monologue of a woman agonizing over the need to move her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother from an assisted living home of "Residence Inn" quality, which her mother has selected, to a nursing home. This monologue is interrupted by a three-part narrated video of a Alzheimer’s creation myth that the woman has supposedly written.

Carolyn Cook could hardly be better as the woman, Vivienne Avery. She’s engaging, charming, prickly but always polite, and she controls every moment of the action. It’s a lovely performance. Maria Knispel (White Egret) and Joe Sykes (Gray Mole) are burdened with narrating the video, portions of which are written in dense and difficult-to-decipher verse. Director Ariel Fristoe has given them nice movements and vocal changes to perform, but they remain in the background (literally and figuratively).

Kat Conley’s scenic design and Ben Tilley’s lighting design work hand-in-hand to create lovely stage pictures. The wood plank stage has recessed lighting around its lip, and ten illuminated stands hold various items pertinent to the stories Vivienne tells. Burlap-effect projection screens on three sides combine with the white of the stands, a chair, and the soffit-like lighting "U" above to give a clean look. Marisa Ginger Tontaveetong’s animation, using elements from Ashley Love, Ai Zhang, and Shir Wen Sun, gives a storybook feel that the text does not. Costumes by Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay are adequate, but nothing more. Haddon Kime’s sound design and compositions are lovely and effective.

Ms. Cook does her best to keep interest throughout, but the ending is a bit long in coming in this intermissionless play. It doesn’t help that Vivienne has described herself as being known for her breads and desserts (with a coconut cake recipe recited verbatim onstage), yet her last anecdote concerns digging with her mother in a pecan grove for truffles that she says she can use in her cooking. Maybe so, but not in her desserts. That slightly "off" note is echoed in the times when Vivienne dissolves in tears, which don’t seem to follow naturally from the preceding discussions.

"Blackberry Winter" attempts to be an affecting tale of the impact of Alzheimer’s on a caregiver. It succeeds in large part through the talents of Carolyn Cook. There’s not a lot of new ground covered, and the overall somber, elegiac tone keeps the audience at a respectful distance. The play is easier to admire as an effort than to enjoy as a finished product.

Arsenic & Old Lace, by Joseph Kesslring
Entertaining
Monday, November 2, 2015
3.5
"Arsenic and Old Lace" is a proven crowd-pleaser. After a less-than-enthralling production in 2008, in which not all the double-cast leading ladies had the opportunity to nail down their lines, New London Theatre is bringing it back in a more delightful production. This time, the two old ladies are actually actresses far younger than the roles call for, and they have their lines down pat. That includes the lines on their faces, which come from aging makeup that appears pretty obvious in the cozy confines of the current theatre. On a larger stage, the makeup would more successfully mask their youth, although their performances (especially Paula Thompson’s posture as Martha) do a pretty good job of conveying age.

Director Richard Diaz has designed a set, sound, and lighting that work extremely well for the production. The set doesn’t have an imposing staircase, but enough of one to make Teddy’s charges up San Juan Hill effective. The lines of the walls are varied and there are a lot of doors, which help minimize the visual impact of the sub-standard flats making up the walls. The muddy brown color of the walls and various decorations on them also help disguise any deficiencies. A nice touch is a visible brick exterior wall through the window stage left. Scene-setting music is period-appropriate and action-appropriate to a delightful degree. Lighting is inventive, with the body-switching scene done in complete blackness to a series of sound effects, which worked much better than I would have expected.

Mr. Diaz has also directed his actors to achieve a nice flow of action. The two old ladies (Cat Roche and Paula Thompson) and their nephew Mortimer Brewster (John Riggle) anchor the action, and they are standouts. Mr. Riggle’s performance, while vocally heading up an octave a little too frequently for my liking during times of stress, milks all the comic potential out of his role, while never going overboard. That balance isn’t seen in all the rest of the cast.

Randy Reyes, taking on two roles, is distinct in each of them, but plays them as if he were on film, without much facial expression and with too little concern for keeping his face visible to the audience. David Allen, on the other hand, as oldest brother Jonathan Brewster, projects to the rafters of a theatre 20 times the size of New London’s. The fact that he is obviously far younger than the actors playing his brothers doesn’t help his unsubtle performance.

Heidi Siberon, as Mortimer’s love interest Elaine Harper, is quite fetching and natural onstage, but doesn’t seem to have much of a comic flair (not that her role requires much of one). On the other hand, Brian Jones (as Teddy Brewster) and Ashton Murphy-Brown (as Officer O’Hara) give bigger-than-life performances that, while entertaining in their own right, tend to throw off the balance of the production. Everyone else fits nicely into the action, with Justin Thompson a particular delight as Officer Klein and Christopher Heraghty sliding nicely into the role of Dr. Einstein (apart from an earring and long fingernails that he seems to be trying to disguise by clenching his fists a lot).

Costumes, designed by Rebecca Carrico and the multi-talented Richard Diaz, suit the play perfectly. In terms of production values, "Arsenic and Old Lace" shows a lot of quality. Acting isn’t quite of the same caliber across the board, but enough so that the plot comes through clearly. My only directorial complaint is that the elderberry wine is served too generously in this production. The bottle seems to be drained a couple of times, and the first time it is served, two glasses are poured by the old ladies, when only one makes sense for that point in the play. (Having other characters pour from the bottle later would make more sense.)

All-in-all, this is an entertaining production of Joseph Kesselring’s classic comedy "Arsenic and Old Lace." Richard Diaz has obviously put a lot of effort into pulling together the elements of a successful production, aided by producer John Berlo and stage manager Rebecca Carrico, and that effort has paid off handsomely.

A Murder is Announced, by Agatha Christie, adapted by Leslie Darbon
A Hit Is Announced
Sunday, October 25, 2015
4.0
Agatha Christie plays are wordy and have convoluted plots in which suspicion lands on multiple characters in turn. "A Murder Is Announced" is no exception.

In Onstage Atlanta’s production, Tom Gillespie’s lighting design attempts to underline this "everyone is a suspect" theme by ending most scenes with actors freezing in dimmed lighting, except for a brighter light on the person most recently brought under suspicion. Unfortunately, this requires actors to be precise in their placement onstage, and this wasn’t the case at the early performance I attended. There are also unfortunate shadows cast by chandeliers above the stage, but otherwise the stage is well-lit.

The chandeliers themselves are lovely, as is the rest of the set. Set designer Scott Rousseau and props designer Barbara Hawkins-Scott have gone all out to create a modestly elegant English drawing room populated with period items. The lights and furnishings and artwork work together beautifully to create a vaguely Regency look, with updated elements that make it seem that this room is in a house that may have been in use for centuries. All the details are right, with a bit of wall jutting out to indicate that this room was once two rooms, and a table positioned against this bit of wall in a way that looks just a little odd (which is explained by the script). Nancy Quarles-Hilley’s costumes and a variety of wigs reinforce the period feel.

English accents are called for across the board (with one exception), and the actors accomplish them with various levels of success. At the pinnacle are Nancy Powell, who inhabits her role and her accent with complete comfort, and J. Michael Carroll, whose accent is just about as good. All the others acquit themselves generally well, although Chase Alford’s accent (and first costume) don’t seem to fit him very naturally. The worst accent, however, is the Hungarian accent attempted by Abra Thurmond as a histrionic maid/cook. She slowly slipped into it at the performance I saw, and her histrionic performance, while rooted in the character as written, came across as totally false.

Director Scott Rousseau hasn’t balanced the cast particularly well in terms of the "straight" characters and the "comic" characters. Comedy comes mostly from Lisa Gordon’s Mrs. Swettenham (successfully) and from Abra Thurmond’s Mitzi (unsuccessfully). More comic stylization and quirks could have been applied to most of the supporting cast members. Knowing the capabilities of many of the performers from other shows they’ve been in, I’d say this was either a directorial choice or a directorial failing. It seems like somewhat of a missed opportunity to make the play itself as charming and varied as the set and props.

The play belongs to Nancy Powell as Letitia Blacklock, in whose house the action takes place, and it couldn’t be in more capable hands. Her performance is quite without blemish. (Or is it? ...spoiler alert...) The plot revolves around Letitia, and Ms. Powell’s perfectly balanced portrayal provides a glowing center. I only wish that some of the satellite characters in her orbit could have been played with a dash more splash. Still, for any Agatha Christie fan, "A Murder Is Announced" is a fine example of her theatrical oeuvre.

The Crucible, by Arthur Miller
Murky Dynamics
Friday, October 23, 2015
4.0
Arthur Miller’s script for "The Crucible" is acknowledged as a modern classic, although its setting in seventeenth century Salem, Massachusetts puts it closer to Shakespeare’s time than to modern times in terms of costumes and setting. As such, it’s a good fit for the New American Shakespeare Tavern, which uses rustic wood paneling as the background on its standard stage set-up. Anné Carole Butler’s costumes are somber Puritan styles that don’t differ markedly from those used in the company’s Shakespearean productions.

For this production, Mary Ruth Ralston has developed a lighting scheme that relies on dim illumination. This acts less to emphasize the dark aspects of the script than to obscure the action. When you add in iffy diction by major cast members, this results in a show that can neither be seen nor heard well enough to be fully appreciated. Director Jeffrey Watkins’ blocking doesn’t always help, with speaking characters sometimes obscured by actors downstage and sometimes directing their lines directly upstage. There are a lot of dynamics in the sound level of the acting, from low mumbles to shouted exchanges, but things at either end of the spectrum can’t always be understood.

There were times when Matt Nitchie (John Proctor), Rachel Frawley (Abigail), and Doug Kaye (Giles Corey) might as well have been speaking only every other word in English, since that’s all I could make out. There’s a great deal of acting going on, but a lot of the words are lost in the forcefulness of that emoting. The rest of the cast spoke understandably, with Troy Willis (Deputy Governor Danforth) and Paul Hester (Reverend John Hale) perfectly understandable throughout.

All that can be expected of a production is that it brings the playwright’s script to life. Here, the New American Shakespeare Tavern has done just that. It’s not a production that is remarkable for its unique insights or design, but it gets the story across. With such a strong story to tell, that’s enough.

Informed Consent, by Deborah Zoe Laufer
Second-Act Seriousness
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
3.0
Many modern two-act plays set up an intriguing premise in the first act, using a lot of humor, then stuff the second act with serious speeches and somber pronouncements that seem intended to show what a deep-thinking individual has written the play. "Informed Consent" is one of these plays. Basing her story in part on an actual case involving the isolated Havasupai tribe suing Arizona State University to limit blood testing, playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer has inserted a parallel storyline concerning early-onset Alzheimer’s. This overstuffs the play with serious intent.

Horizon Theatre Company’s production takes place on a wonderful set designed by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay, where lighted translucent drawers and file cabinets punctuate a cliff face. A ramp circles around the cliff face, with the center section of the stage painted in a geometric pattern resembling Native American artwork. A secondary cliff stage right is accessed by a circular stairway. With a cyclorama sky behind, on which Dale Adams’ so-so projections are periodically displayed, the effect certainly captures the Arizona setting of the script. Mary Parker’s lighting design gets quite a workout, illuminating different sections of the stage for different scenes, but leaves as little impression as Sydney Roberts’ costumes, Kate Bidwell LaFoy’s props, and Thom Jenkins’ sound design.

Director Lisa Adler’s pre-curtain speech instructs the audience that the play concerns science, family, and faith. Family is certainly the centerpiece of the play. But in my opinion, office politics and cultural beliefs don’t exactly equal "faith," and the genetic anthropologist at the center of the action seems to have a rather naïve belief in the power of science. For a geneticist, she seems oblivious to the power of DNA methylation, and she makes no murmur of correction when her husband-to-be reads a story about Lily the Lemming, which apparently is based on the myth of lemming mass suicide. In an attempt to make the scientist sympathetic to a general theatre-going audience, Ms. Laufer has undermined the scientific underpinnings of the story.

The script requires each of the five actors to consciously acknowledge the fact that their story is being performed, but in general they each portray one major player in the action: Bethany Anne Lind is the geneticist, Jillian; Neal A. Ghant is her husband; Tonia Jackson in the college dean (and also plays the geneticist’s mother); Diany Rodriguez is a Native American (and also plays the geneticist’s daughter); and Carey Curtis Smith is an anthropologist mentor. Ms. Rodriguez is wonderful in every respect, and Ms. Lind and Mr. Ghant are quite appealing in their roles. Mr. Smith and Ms. Jackson, who take on the widest variety of roles, got on my nerves in some of their portrayals.

The need for informed consent in DNA testing is a complex issue, with DNA providing a genetic roadmap for all sorts of studies. Once DNA is extracted and sequenced for one purpose, it can be used for many other purposes, some probably not even currently imagined. It’s certainly a topic worthy of consideration in a popular work of theatre, but "Informed Consent" takes it as a title and shoe-horns its consideration into a story whose main concern is the family of the geneticist. It raises a question as to whether or not "popular science" is science at all.

Southern Comforts, by Kathleen Clark
New Jersey Comfortable
Sunday, October 18, 2015
4.5
Stage Door Players has taken Kathleen Clark’s popular two-character comedy "Southern Comforts" and done it up in pleasing fashion. Taciturn New Jersey resident Gus (Rial Ellsworth) comes up against voluble Tennessee widow Amanda (Karen Howell), giving the audience plenty of comic and heartfelt moments as a romance develops between them.

Chuck Welcome’s set design shows us a fairly drab, brown-heavy living room in Gus’ house. At the start, it’s pretty bare. When Amanda enters the picture, her bright clothes (costumes by Jim Alford) and bright personality bring in added life (and later, added furniture). J.D. Williams’ lighting design and Rial Ellsworth’s sound design do all they need to in making the setting seem real. The only thing lacking in the set is a sense of height, which makes installation of a storm window on the stair landing appear hardly perilous. The script makes a point that the yard slopes down steeply, but having the window next to the door hardly makes it likely that a window a few steps up would be far off the ground. Still, the set has handsome bones.

Mr. Ellsworth and Ms. Howell play off one another nicely. The smallish auditorium allows each look and muttered line to reach each audience member, so no subtleties are lost in bringing the comedy to life. Director Kate Donadio MacQueen’s blocking doesn’t do the play a lot of favors, though. It seems to be based on a proscenium model, with the corner stage’s thrust-like features not taken into account, resulting in actors’ backs to either side of the audience for extended periods. Sightlines may not be perfect, but the comedy nearly is. This is a fine production of a funny, heartwarming play.

In a Forest, Dark and Deep, by Neil LaBute
Fool for (Sibling) Love
Saturday, October 17, 2015
4.5
I’m somewhat at a loss as to why I was so engrossed by Out of Box Theatre’s production of Neil LaBute’s "In a Forest, Dark and Deep." True, the set and lighting by Joel Coady do a wonderful job of suggesting a small, rustic cabin filled with books, and Dolph Amick’s sound design provides a perfect rainy, thunder-y backdrop to the action. True, the performances by Aretta Baumgartner and John Stanier don’t strike any false notes. But the script is filled with foul language, which I’m not generally fond of, and the storyline is pretty slim. Yet somehow the whole thing fascinates from start to finish.

The two characters in the play are Bobby, a moralistic, serial monogamist carpenter and Betty, his adulterous college professor of a sister. She is clearing out the cabin of a former student/lover and has asked him for help. In the course of their bickering spats and reconciliations, we learn more about each of them, their pasts, and the circumstances requiring the cabin to be cleared out. Mr. LaBute has structured the play so that facts slowly spill out, but the interplay of the siblings keeps the action popping at a far quicker pace. There’s not a dull moment.

The fact that a cast replacement occurred at the last moment makes this achievement even more startling. John Stanier, as Bobby, created his performance during the course of little more than a week, and it’s a powerhouse performance. While Kara Cantrell’s blocking is sometimes a little iffy, with one character upstaging the other for entire segments, the flow she has created works remarkably well. But I think it’s Aretta Baumgartner’s performance that’s the key to the success of the production. The apparent sincerity of her character allows the layers of her lies each to appear as a new truth. Not too much is given away too soon.

Out of Box Theatre has created another exemplary production of a tantalizing script by a modern master. It’s only a matter of time before this theatre starts getting more widespread recognition. (Ms. Baumgartner is already quoted in the current issue of nationally distributed "American Theatre" magazine, in her position as a puppeteer performance adjudicator.) Continued kudos!

Knock ’em Dead!, by Tom Oldendick and Will Roberson
DIY Sleuthing
Friday, October 16, 2015
3.0
"Knock ’em Dead!" is one of those interactive comedy murder mysteries that throw together a bunch of kooky, suspicious individuals onstage, reveal a murder at the act one curtain, and then let the audience determine who the murderer is in the second act. In this case, it’s not a predetermined outcome. Multiple endings are possible, with audience votes determining the murderer.

Mercury’s set design and sound design work hand-in-hand with Joel Coady’s lighting design to give the feel of a seedy comedy club’s green room on a stormy night. The design elements are fully professional, including Danielle Gustaveson’s costumes and props. Mercury’s direction, however, emphasizes the script’s slow reveal of character after character in the first act. With jokey moments piled on top of suspicious moments piled on top of repetitious actions (everyone is alone in the back room at one time or another!), it’s a slow build-up. There’s a lot of set-up in the first act, with the pay-offs mostly delayed to the second act.

Once the murder has occurred, all the suspects stream into the audience and try to shift suspicion from themselves and onto others. That’s where the actors truly shine, ad libbing in character and interacting their hearts out. The ad libbing continues when they’re brought to the stage and put in the spotlight for questioning. They don’t really reveal much information in their answers, so it’s pretty clear the script is saving confessions until the audience’s choice of murderer is made. That makes the questioning segment a tad tedious, saved only by the charm of the actors.

Some of the actors shine more in the scripted sections; some of the actors shine more in ad lib sections. Only Ryan Lamotte, as The Great Somnambulo, didn’t impress me much in either. Of course, I didn’t experience any of his interactions with individual audience members, so I might have missed qualities that come into the forefront only then.

I don’t know how good a match the show is to Buford audiences. It strikes me as the kind of show that would work best in a booze-lubricated venue where the slightly off-color content and over-the-top performances would get non-stop whoops and hollers. In Buford, the audience doesn’t really seem to take to the action except in the second act, with the introduction of audience participation (limited though it is by the conservative reticence of the audience members). Basically, you’ll have as much fun at the show as you decide you’ll be having.

In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, by Sarah Ruhl
An Ecdysiast May Strip Striepe
Sunday, October 11, 2015
3.5
"In the Next Room" is a period piece taking place in 1887, with ironic foreshadowing of the effect electricity will have on the world. At its heart, it’s a story of repressed Victorian spouses longing to find connection and sexual release. That primitive electrical stimulation devices are the means of release is both the joke and the centerpiece of the action.

Carter Eastis’ set design (adapted from Michael Halad’s) provides an appropriate background for the action. Stage right is Dr. Givings’ medical treatment room; stage left is the parlor of the Givings’ home. Both halves are nicely furnished, and Elisabeth Cooper’s prop design and M.C. Parks’ "instrument" design are both impressive. Landi McAdams’ costumes (adapted from Jonida Beqo’s designs) set the period appropriately, and Katie McCreary’s lighting design and Rob Brooksher’s sound design enhance the action. The set is a tiny bit flimsy, with wall panels separated by blank space and walls that shudder when doors are closed. Still, it’s a good use of the space, with leafless branches downstage of the stage curtain that frame outdoor action, except for the nicely staged final scene.

Director Rachel May has created effective pacing and blocking of the action, even though the script does tend to slow down as the play is winding up. She hasn’t been able to elicit a consistent level of acting quality in the cast, however. Daniel May is excellent as the scientific-minded Dr. Givings, as is Tony Larkin as a British artist. Wendy Melkonian is stunningly perfect in her role as a frustrated housewife. Maria Sager is quite good as Annie, the doctor’s assistant, although she doesn’t appear to be over 33, as the script indicates.

On the other side of things, Doyle Reynolds is execrable as Mr. Daldry, all clipped, artificial speech, coupled with a total lack of virile masculinity. Danielle Mills is little better as nursemaid Elizabeth, showing little facial expression and giving her lines with a flat, generally listless delivery. Bryn Striepe is okay as the central character of Mrs. Givings, but she’s a bit sturdy for the role of a flighty, generally delicate woman. Instead of a Nora from "A Doll’s House," we get more of a Mrs. Antrobus from "The Skin of Our Teeth." More nuance is needed.

There’s a lot of undressing and dressing in the play, as patients disrobe for the doctor, then slip on their clothes when their session is done, not to mention Elizabeth nursing the Givings’ daughter as she poses. It’s all done in good taste, though, with little bare flesh exposed. There’s quite a bit of prurient action going on, but nothing that goes beyond the bounds of modern good taste for adult audiences. The title and subject matter are meant to titillate, and they do do a good job of attracting audiences, but Synchronicity’s production doesn’t deliver the goods that would make this play fully entertaining on its own merits.

Playboy of the Western World, by J.M. Synge
Boy, Oh Boy!
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
4.0
J.M. Synge’s "The Playboy of the Western World" is a classic Irish comedy, falling well within the bounds of Celtic theatre that is the lifeblood of Arís. Although it caused riots at its 1907 premiere, today it comes across as a bit of a black comedy with a smooth-tongued rascal of an anti-hero. In Arís’ production, the comedy comes through clearly.

Chris Rushing, in the title role as Christy, does a wonderful job of convincing us that he is a boastful coward who eventually comes into his own. Sophie Edwards, as love interest Pegeen Mike, matches him at every turn. Both have fine Irish accents. Nearly everyone does, but I wasn’t convinced of the Irish accents of the Widow Quin (Erin Greenway) and Philly Cullen (Kyle Crew).

Much of the humor of "The Playboy of the Western World" comes from a townful of people heralding a parricide as the small-town version of a media sensation. Strong performances come from Winslow Thomas, as the owner of the pub in which the action takes place; Trevor Winfield Goble, as a milquetoast of a suitor for the strong-willed Pegeen Mike; and Julia Weeks, as a smitten local girl. C.W. Thornton, although appearing to be too young for his fatherly role, does a fine job too. All the roles are filled well.

Harley Gould’s set and lighting designs work well together, making the space a convincing Irish cottage-like pub. The background seen through the door and window, while containing some rocky features, prominently displays the curtains partitioning the playing space. A cyc would have been a lovely addition. Mandi Lee’s costume design and Robert Drake’s sound design both enhance the experience of the play.

While the Irish dialect occasionally makes use of unfamiliar words, the action is easy to follow under John Ammerman’s direction. This is hardly a definitive production of this classic Irish play, but it lets the script shine. Well done!

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang
Chekhovian Overload
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
3.0
"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is filled – nay, over-filled – with references to Chekhov characters and plays. Christopher Durang has mashed them up with Greek tragedy (the unheeded prophetess Cassandra) and Walt Disney ("Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"), then set it in the modern day. It doesn’t work.

To begin with, the exposition is awkward and heavy-handed. Perhaps the stilted language is an homage to bad translations of Chekhov, but the spirit of Chekhov does not lie in the language of his nineteenth century translators. We have the Chekhovian situation of two hangers-on (Vanya and Sonia) who fear they will be turned out of their long-time home, and that’s about all there is to care about. Masha is a self-absorbed actress; Spike is a self-absorbed stud. The other two characters in the play (Cassandra and Nina) act more as plot devices than anything else.

There’s some of Durang’s trademark zany silliness, but it doesn’t mix well with the storyline. The most affecting part of the play, for me, was Sonia’s phone call to a possible suitor. Vanya’s outburst comparing modern conveniences and culture to the equivalents from his heyday is intended to be affecting too, I guess, but I found it pretty obvious (and therefore boring) for someone who’s lived through the same time period as Vanya.

That’s not to say that this is a second-rate production of the play. Quite the opposite is true. All the acting is good, with Tess Malis Kincaid a particular marvel as Masha. The set, by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, is of an elegant stacked stone and clapboard house (although the stone looks pretty fake under the bright lights designed by Mary Parker, and a couple of "paintings" appear more likely to be computer-printed facsimiles). Thom Jenkins’ sound design allows for tuneful scene transitions. Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay’s costumes are visually appealing. Justin Anderson’s direction shows off the actors at their best.

Part of my disappointment with this play comes from its similarities to "Stupid (expletive) Bird," currently playing at Actor’s Express. Both are inspired by Chekhov’s works, and both of them gussy up Chekhov with their own interpolations of new material that the playwrights intend to add interest to the stodgy plots of a long-dead Russian. Both take the situation of Constantin’s amateur reading of a bad original play from "The Seagull" and make it a centerpiece of the action. "Bad" is good? No. Both productions catch fire only when the action lets us enter into the lives of the characters without interruption by quirky playwright add-ons. Modernizing classics is fine; shredding them to make a nicely cushy platform for a playwright to show off his uniqueness is not.

The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster
Slowly Mounting Horror
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
4.0
John Webster’s "The Duchess of Malfi" tells the tale of a headstrong young widow who marries her steward, and of the revenge exacted on her by her controlling brothers (a duke and a cardinal). In Resurgens’ production, the action starts with an eerie trio of madwomen singers who periodically appear throughout the action, adding a spooky air to a dark tale.

Resurgens’ production has full Jacobean dress and, in original practice style, no lighting effects. The choice not to have an intermission in the two-hour-long play is also attributed to original practice. A couple of concessions to modern theatre-going tastes would aid the production. The choice to use unabashedly American accents is one concession; modern haircuts is another; mood lighting and a break mid-way in the action would not adversely affect the mood the play creates.

Performances are good all around, with no particular standouts. Laura Cole plays the title character, but her role peters out to spectral echoes by the end of the show. Bryan Davis, who plays the cardinal who is her brother, lacks the enunciation and projection of most of the rest of the cast, lessening the impact of his role. The strongest performances come from Thom Gillott, as the duchess’ twin, and from Brent Griffin, complicit in most of the deaths that populate the stage with dead bodies by the end.

"The Duchess of Malfi" has its share of gore and murders, but they take a while showing up. The first half of the show is a slow build-up to the first murder. The end of the play piles murder upon murder, littering the stage with body after body. It’s an effective slow build, made particularly effective by the sweet harmonies and dissonances of the madwomen raising their voices in song to weave the spell inherent in John Webster’s words.

Looking for Normal, by Jane Anderson
The Earnestness of Being Important
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
3.0
"Looking for Normal" has an up-to-the-minute feel, with Bruce Jenner’s recent transformation to Caitlyn Jenner so prominently in the news. In this play, Roy decides to transition from a man, married for 26 years and the father of two children, into the woman he feels he has always been internally. Not unexpectedly, his wife and children have a hard time coping with this, and his mother doesn’t even inform his redneck father.

Roy isn’t attracted to men; he loves his wife and wants to stay with her. But he is surrounded by sexual dysfunction – a grandmother who abandoned Roy’s father to run off to France and live a bisexually hedonistic life; a 13-year-old daughter who would rather be a boy; and an impotent 22-year-old son. These three characters interrupt the action from time to time with monologues, the children giving slide shows of sexual instruction and the (dead) grandmother reminiscing about her life experiences. This lays things on a bit thick, with the intended resonances to Roy’s life not really working. Roy is a decent, reserved fellow. The total lack of sensationalism in his journey has been goosed up with sensational details about these other characters. It doesn’t feel cohesive.

The actors generally do good jobs, even the woefully miscast Barry N. West. The casting overall is a little weird, with amazonian Kristin Kalbli towering over her romantic counterparts and Alyssa Caputo coming on awfully strong as a 13-year-old. Bob Smith as a reverend and Dianne Cusack Butler as Roy’s mother are cast well, and director Barbara Cole Uterhardt has blocked the action so that it flows well and allows everyone to be seen and heard (although projection by Larry Davis and Alyssa Caputo is a bit excessive compared to the rest of the cast).

Morgan McCrary Brooks’ set design nicely combines a bedroom stage left and a dining/living room stage right with a screen upstage that starts out as cloudy sky blue and subsequently is used for William Thurmond’s projections. Elisabeth Cooper’s light design helps move the action along, and Nancye Quarles-Hilley’s costumes are fine, although George Deavours’ wig for Kristin Kalbli looks wiggy. Dan Bauman’s sound design is perfectly fine too. Christen Orr’s fight choreography, however, isn’t very convincing, at least from my seat at audience right.

All in all, Jane Anderson’s "Looking for Normal" is a very earnest attempt to examine the issue of gender dysphoria. It gives off the subtle scent of educational theatre, while containing four-letter profanity. It captures a moment in the national conversation concerning sexual reassignment, shedding a little light with only a modicum of entertainment value.

Cymbeline, by William Shakespeare
A Tragedy with a Happy Ending
Monday, September 28, 2015
3.0
"Cymbeline" has the underpinnings of a tragedy, with a king who banishes those who prove most loyal to him and whose sons are stolen as toddlers in retribution, not to mention a faithful wife whose honor is presented as being compromised to her husband. It has elements of comedy too, with a woman disguising herself as a man and happy endings all around. History? Sure; Cymbeline is a legendary Celtic British king. There’s blood too, with a severed head and headless torso featuring prominently in the plot. Basically, it’s everything Shakespeare is known for, tossed into one big p(l)ot and stirred around. There’s even one of Shakespeare’s more famous songs, "Fear No More" (although here it’s given a dull musical setting that plops the notes in a regular rhythm that doesn’t much take breathing into account).

Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern is giving the public a l-o-n-g rendition of the play, replete with two intermissions. The plot isn’t too hard to follow, but the wordiness tends to get in the way. There are multiple instances where the audience is well-aware of what’s going on, but the characters onstage need to be brought up to speed, and that tends to bog the show down. An edited version of the script could have kept all the salient plot points while reducing the thicket of verbiage surrounding them.

Comedy is definitely the emphasis in this production. The villains of the piece, Cloten (Kevin Roost) and Iachimo (Jonathan Horne), are both played for laughs, and they are both entertaining. Nearly all the performances are quite good, down through the ensemble. I thought that Troy Willis, in the title role, was less commanding (and certainly softer-voiced) than I would have liked, and that Anna Fontaine, as Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen, too often had a flatness of voice that made her character less engaging than she should have been. Considering that these two are at the center of the play, that made the ensemble shine the brighter.

"Cymbeline" isn’t one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, but it does have its charms. In Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern’s production, it reminds one of a lean high school athlete who’s gained a little weight and is moving slower than in his heyday, and compensates for his deficiencies by clowning around a bit too much. It’s good, but not great.

Ruthless, by Joel Paley (book and lyrics), Marvin Laird (music)
Definitely Not Toothless
Monday, September 28, 2015
4.5
"Ruthless" is a big, brassy mash-up of "All About Eve," "Gypsy," and "The Bad Seed" (among other inspirations). ACT3 has produced a big, brassy version of the show that hits on almost all cylinders. The mint green, hot pink, and cerulean blue set designed by William Joel Coady is framed by black and white accents that make the colors pop, and contains a staircase to allow grand entrances and dramatic exits. Michelle Davis’ costume design adds to the colorfulness of the production.

William Joel Coady’s lighting design adds flashes of color at times, but there are sections early in both acts where actors are emoting deep in shadow. Rest assured, though, that a little thing like inadequate lighting can’t stop this incandescent cast from catching fire and blazing to the heavens. Almost without exception, they blend the over-the-top antics director Michelle Davis has given them with human shadings that make the audience care about these characters almost as much as they’re delighted by them.

Lisa Hatt gets the juiciest role, morphing from a self-effacing housewife/mother at the start to someone far more vibrant by the end. She handles both ends of the spectrum extremely well, and her vocals shine. Patrick Hill, in the drag role of Sylvia St. Croix, comes across nearly as well, with his songs smack-dab in the strongest part of his vocal range. Sarah Carroll, Tina in the performance I attended, beautifully combines Baby June from "Gypsy" and Rhoda Penmark from "The Bad Seed" to give a charming performance. Liane LeMaster makes everything possible of her role as a third grade teacher, and Paige Crawford, Carly Frates, and Jessie Kuipers all shine in their limited roles. The only weak performance, to my mind, comes from Kimberly Hoover, who emphasizes the bigger-than-life portion of her role to such an extent that any relation to a human life seems to have been sucked out of it.

Musical director Spencer G. Stephens and choreographer Amy Cain have gotten the cast to perform at as high a level as one could wish, and Elise Dotson Gomez’s scenic painting and Mary Sorrel’s props meet an equally high standard. Spencer G. Stephens’ sound design keeps everything audible and balanced, letting Paul Tate’s piano playing take center stage as much as is possible from his perch on high at stage right. Musically and theatrically and comedically, this is a spot-on hit!

Laughing Stock, by Charles Morey
Laughing Stoplessly
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
4.5
When Lionheart Theatre first did "Laughing Stock" in 2007, it struck me as the type of play that’s hilarious on the page and only sporadically entertaining on the stage. Oh, what a difference a new production makes! This season’s production is funny throughout, with several inspired comic bits that easily produce belly laughs.

The big difference, I suppose, is in the cast. There are a couple of holdovers from the previous cast (Larry Jr. as Tyler Taylor and Lee Finocchio as Richfield Hawksley), but they are more assured and comical than I remember. The rest of the cast pull off their performances with comic commitment. There’s not a great deal of depth in most of the characters, but the actors inhabit them. In viewing it, I thought there were moments that might be more effective this way or more comical that way, but the whole thing just works. I was particularly impressed by James Connor’s intensity as Craig and Jillian Walzer’s physical comedy as Mary.

When a production holds together this well, the director deserves a great deal of the credit. Tanya Caldwell has blocked the 14 cast members on the smallish stage to provide consistently good sightlines, and has contributed to the set design (with Rick Thompson) and to the sound design (with Bob Peterson). The faux log cabin walls are enhanced by a barn door and irregularly shaped decorations with more realistic wood planking, and scene-changing music builds nicely on the lines of the previous scene. Gary White’s light design and Linda Hughes costumes enhance the visual appeal.

The storyline concerns a summer stock season in which wrong-headed actors, monetary constraints, and a patroness with specific preferences wreak havoc on the intentions of artistic director Gordon (Bob Winstead). His story provides the heart of the piece, and his chemistry with ex-wife Sarah (Holli Majors) comes across as true. His performance is not as flashy as that of many of the eccentrics surrounding him, but it works extremely well in grounding the action. The story arc of Jack (Jeremy Reid), who is contemplating leaving the field of acting for law school, also has a genuine feel that contrasts with the comic mayhem that flavors much of the action. But it’s the comic bits, from Larry Jr.’s overacting as Dracul to Marla Krohn’s inappropriate hand movements as Dracul’s acolyte, that really flavor "Laughing Stock" and make it a delight to experience.

Other Desert Cities, by Jon Robin Baitz
O. Henry!
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
4.0
"Other Desert Cities" tells the story of the Wyeth family, whose parents are staunch Republicans and whose eldest son, Henry, was involved in a terrorist bombing before leaving a note and jumping off a ferry. The remaining two children attempt to deal with their brother’s suicide as best they can, with the daughter penning a memoir that exposes what she believes to be the truth of Henry’s life. The play follows the repercussions of this memoir on the family dynamic. During the process, long-held secrets are revealed.

The first act introduces the characters: the mother, Polly (Carolyn Choe); the father, Lyman (Rial Ellsworth); the daughter, Brooke (Amanda Cucher); the remaining son, Trip (Matthew Busch); and Polly’s sister Silda Grauman (Rose Bianco). The introductions contain a lot of humor, much of it centering around the mother’s lack of political correctness. Laughs punctuate the first act before things get a lot more serious in the second act, when the daughter’s memoir has been read by her family. Still, laughs or not, the action remains engrossing throughout.

Performances are uniformly good, although Ms. Choe had a lot of obvious line bobbles at the early performance I saw. Due to the cast overlap and the privileged milieu, there are similarities to "The House of Yes" from earlier in the year at Out of Box, and that lessens the impact of this show for people who regularly attend productions at this venue. Ms. Cucher’s performance is all one could wish, but she doesn’t overpower the rest of the cast. Every actor has his or her moment.

There’s another resemblance to "The House of Yes" in terms of set. William Joel Coady’s set design is generally elegant, but it has problems with right angles in the constructed sliding doors at center stage, as if it were built without the use of a level. With elegant, long windows at either side that contain perfectly proportioned panes, the skewed angles in the door are very apparent. There’s also an obviously hand-built table near the hallway entry, but at least it’s painted black to make it blend in with the wall. It’s really a lovely set, but just lacks a couple of touches to make it truly first rate.

Alessa Walle’s lighting and Kirk Harris Seaman’s sound are just fine, although few effects are needed until a spotlighted lectern is used for the final scene. The view out the windows and sliding door, ostensibly to the yard of an upscale house in Palm Springs, California, is to a plain backdrop tinged with purple lighting. It’s perhaps not the most inventive design decision, but it works just fine. This is a good-looking production, costumes and all.

Kirk Harris Seaman has directed "Other Desert Cities" with a nice variety of blocking choices and levels of emotion that let the story come through clearly. Jon Robin Baitz’s script reveals the truth of Henry’s life slowly, with a little bit of an O. Henry twist that points out how the audience has been misled. The last scene acts as a bittersweet wrap-up. Ms. Cucher nails this scene, ending the show on a high note.

Celles d’en Haut, by Olivier Kemeid
The Women on the Upper Floors
Friday, September 11, 2015
3.5
"Celles d’en Haut" has a double meaning in French that isn’t truly captured by the English title, "Women on Top." The story, such as it is, concerns Violet (Carolyn Cook), who has had a minor car accident, can’t get cell reception, and wanders into the woods looking for help. She stumbles across what seems to be an asylum, in which women ("celles d’en haut") scream in pain on the upper floors, and in which she is placed for observation. Her surreally French absurdist time there is sparked by her relationships with Virgilia (Natalie Karp), who acts as a sort of guide, and Mary Jane (Park Krausen), who seems to be reliving the Great Chicago Fire. When Mary Jane’s parents take her home, Virgilia and Violet take a trip to rescue her.

The production is highly visual, probably in part to rise above language barriers. The play takes place on a stage with not-quite-translucent plastic panels upon which videos are projected, almost non-stop. Televisions on either side of the stage play video snippets too, some of which are duplicated on the panels. Live video feed from a hand-held cellphone also appears on the panels. When the panels are raised, another set of projections are seen against the far wall. Mike Tutaj’s video and projection design, Preston Goodson’s sound design, Kat Conley’s set design, Danyale Taylor’s props, and Mike Morin’s lighting design work together to create an immersive environment into which a couple of audience members are drawn for a short segment. At least at the French performances, supertitles add to the visual overload (except during the Italian lines from Dante’s "Inferno").

The show starts with an extended, wordless bunny chase sequence, in which an intern dressed in a pink rabbit suit (Maia Moore) is variously imitated and chased by the other members of the cast. There are a lot of segments like that, with dancing and singing and overall cavorting. Even some dialogue scenes are backed by unrelated activity, such as the sole male in the cast (Kevin McCoy) doing fencing moves while the women converse. Olivier Coyette’s direction often has repetitive movements echoed by multiple people onstage, making the stage picture entertaining purely on a visual level. Kristin Butler’s role in the ensemble is primarily visual, with most of her dialogue repetitions of Mr. McCoy’s.

Summaries of the action are provided three times during the running time. The first is all in French (at least at French performances). The second is a gag, with summaries given of several classic plays by the actors. The last is a summary in English read by the intern, which goes on a little long and seems a little flat. The evening is as understandable as an exercise in French absurdism allows.

The performances are all good. Park Krausen does wonderful work summoning up the Great Chicago Fire, and Carolyn Cook captures the confusion of a sane woman treated as insane. Natalie Karp does fine work in multiple roles, as does the energetic Kevin McCoy (although his strong American accent quickly becomes grating in his French dialogue). The directorial touch of Olivier Coyette is pretty heavy, though, so some of the ever-present action doesn’t necessarily ring true. Still, lots of effort is expended to keep the action moving non-stop, making this an easy show to sit through (once the interminable opening chase concludes).

Calendar Girls, by Tim Firth
Get Yourself a Gimmick
Friday, September 11, 2015
3.5
"Calendar Girls," adapted by Tim Firth from the fact-inspired movie, gives seven women meaty roles to play, and also provides additional roles for seven more actors. Add to this multiple settings and a lot of props and a lot of costumes (some of which might better be described as wearable props), and you end up with a large production. In Georgia Ensemble’s production, you also end up with a long one.

Stephanie Polhemus’ scenic design is dominated by a charmingly asymmetrical church hall, two portions of which revolve to suggest other settings and the other two portions of which separate to reveal a view of distant hills. Kevin Frazier’s lighting adds to the design appeal with colorful vistas above the hills and hall walls, and adjusts subtly as action moves about the stage.

Samantha P. McDaniel has provided multiple costumes for the ladies, elegant or dowdy as the occasion and the character suggest. Maclare Park has filled the stage with mounds of props, some of which don’t read particularly well from a distance (especially the first tray). An effect of letters from above results in a stray one falling well after the fact, as always seems to occur with similar effects using snow or leaves. This is a show where props and costumes can litter the floor, giving the actors plenty to keep up with.

The story takes place in Yorkshire, so all the actors have to put on accents, which aren’t always easy for American ears to decipher, particularly in the cacophony when multiple people are chattering onstage at once. Joanna Daniel has the best accent, of course (being British), but all the main characters do a pretty good job. Ty Autry, though, in the minor role of Liam, does an execrable job with his accent. Of the minor characters, Stephanie M. Wilkinson (as Lady Cravenshire) and Maggie Birgel (as Elaine, the make-up girl) impress the most, with nice accents and performances.

Of the seven main characters, six of them have to remove their clothes. Joanna Daniel doesn’t, but she does reveal a good portion of thigh in a delightful comic bit in the second act. Courtenay Collins plays Chris, the ringleader of the ladies, and gets to show the most. The others show various amounts of nudity (not nakedness!) with strategically placed items or back-to-the-audience poses.

The nudity may be the draw of the show, but the script goes to great lengths to flesh out the stories of the six main ladies. Annie (Jennifer Levison) loses her husband to cancer, triggering the ladies’ decision to create a fund-raising calendar. The elegant Celia (Meg Gillentine) has a golf-obsessed husband, while mousy Ruth (Vicki Ellis Gray) has a straying husband. Cora (Bethany Irby) has an estranged daughter, and Jessie (Alex Bond) is facing the challenges of aging (expressed in a wonderful monologue in the first act). The first act introduces us to the ladies and leads up to the photograph shoot for the calendar. The second act shows the after-effects of the photograph shoot, adding in monologues for all the ladies whose stories were given short shrift in the first act.

Book-ending tai chi segments open and close the show, and go on a little too long. Director Heidi Cline McKerley has given the ladies a lot to do, including musical numbers generally led by the splendid piano and vocal stylings of Bethany Irby. It adds a little to the texture of the show, but adds a lot to the running time. The show seems overstuffed. Perhaps some trimming will occur following previews, but the script has so much going on that a single focus isn’t possible. "Calendar Girls" has a lot of enjoyable moments, but it doesn’t add up to a thoroughly engrossing evening of entertainment.

Class Act, by Rich Rubin
Class Clash
Sunday, September 6, 2015
4.0
Rich Rubin’s "Class Act" tells of a college student, Kai (Brittany Inge), who volunteers to role play a prostitute for a sociology class, and examines the repercussions of this choice in her life. She is surrounded by what could be stock, stereotypical characters – a professor who glories in controversy (Judith Beasley), a privileged white airhead of a roommate (Audra Pagano), a jock boyfriend (Terrell Johnson), and a sassy gay friend (Gemayel Thompson). All these characters are given added dimensions, though, so we get a feel for what their viewpoints are. Kai may be at the center of the story, but the focus is more on the ripples surrounding her dive into the role of a prostitute.

All the performances are good. Ms. Inge in particular gives a standout performance. The production itself, however, has some problems. The uncredited set design is pretty simple and drab – a futon and coffee table stage left for the boyfriend scenes, a wooden chair stage right for the college office scenes, and a raw wooden table and padded, stackable chairs for scenes in Kai’s apartment, with one chair moved slightly for classroom scenes. Simple black curtains form the backing for the set. Marcus Emel’s lighting design tends to illuminate from the side, drawing more attention to itself than is perhaps ideal. This is particularly the case near the end of the play, when lights go up on each section of the stage in turn. There’s probably a point intended, but it almost seems like the light board operator is searching for someone onstage who is making an unexpectedly delayed entrance.

That’s not the only problem as the play comes to an end. The sassy gay friend has a cryptic speech repeating the word "class," and the pace of it is unexpectedly slow, probably in part because director Jarrod Walker has made the choice to have Kai return to the stage in her opening costume for a final vignette, and the costume change takes time (even though the costume, as all in the production, is altogether fitting). The intentions of this last scene are muddled. It’s only in a talk-back session after the play is over that the intention becomes clear (that Kai is performing as part of an acting class).

The conclusion of the play is intentionally open-ended, but this production makes it confusingly so. This is a world premiere, and script revisions could make this a stronger play. The scenes are fairly short, and tend to restate people’s positions as much as moving them forward. A sense of urgency comes late, in a second-act revelation as to who has sent letters of complaint to the dean of the college concerning the role-playing. Still, this play does an excellent job of raising questions about race relationships and stereotypes and how good intentions can have negative consequences. In provoking thought and discussion, this play certainly succeeds.

Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie (book), Jule Styne & Moose Charlap (music), Carolyn Leigh and Betty Comden & Adolph Green (lyrics)
They’re Flying
Friday, September 4, 2015
4.5
"Peter Pan," that crowd-pleasing family musical with a score by two different song-writing teams, is providing Marietta with a glimpse into a magical Neverland. Peter, the boy who won’t grow up, is portrayed by the gamine-like Leslie Bellair. With her pixie haircut, loose-fitting jerkin, and high boots, she does a very creditable job of passing for a boy. Her performance is a delight from start to finish, and even her flying, while not rivaling Cathy Rigby’s, is thoroughly captivating.

John Iacovelli’s set design alternates drops and set pieces to portray the various locales called for in the script. The drops aren’t terribly impressive, but the set pieces work very well, taking us from an Edwardian nursery to the Lost Boys’ woodsy home to Captain Hook’s pirate ship. André C. Allen’s lighting design makes sure all the scenes are visible, and that Tinkerbell’s shenanigans have the desired magical effect. Bobby Johnston’s sound design makes sure everyone can be heard, but the voices of the youngest cast members are muddied by the amplification.

Costumes, designed by Amanda Edgerton, and wigs, designed by George Deavours, make this a visually stunning production. Indians, pirates, and Edwardians – what a variety is required! Add in Nana the nanny dog and the crocodile (both performed admirably by Remington Bogdanovich), and you have a costumer’s dream assignment. I only wish that flying harnesses could have been incorporated more smoothly in the costumes, since costumes puffed out noticeably in back where wires were attached.

Performances are very good overall. Devon Hales is a delight as Wendy (and later as Jane), and Debra Stipe makes a very elegant Mrs. Darling. Natalie Rhae Goodwin is chipper and cheery as Tiger Lily, while Candler Budd is full of low comedy as Smee. Only Alan Kilpatrick misses the mark as Captain Hook. He seems to be giving a Jeff McKerley performance – which is perhaps not altogether surprising, since Mr. McKerley directed – but a lot of the flourishes that would work in Mr. McKerley’s hands ring false in Mr. Kilpatrick’s.

The ensemble perform Ricardo Aponte’s energetic choreography with aplomb, and B.J. Brown’s music direction has them all singing loud and clear. The fact that a pre-recorded soundtrack is used doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. With many of the cast being high school age or younger, a perfectly consistent accompaniment probably helped in the rehearsal process.

All in all, this "Peter Pan" is a delight. The timing of the production may not be ideal, with December’s TV production still a fresh memory and with "Finding Neverland" currently playing on Broadway, but it does a splendid job of bringing a well-loved story to life.

Hot Pink, or Ready to Blow, by Johnny Drago
hot, Hot, HOT
Saturday, August 22, 2015
4.5
Johnny Drago’s "Hot Pink, or Ready to Blow" is a silly, spicy romp concerning three virginal high school girls in the town of New Pompeii, where each year a high school senior is sacrificed to the local volcano. Only this year the "virgin" sacrificed apparently wasn’t as pure as she let on, and the volcano is not satisfied. This is the mid-1980’s, and the proportion of true virgins in the senior class is not what it once was. It’s only time before the list narrows to these three girls...

The three girls are an angry rebel (Tatanya, played by Bryn Striepe), a bespectacled nerd (Brichelle, played by Parris Sarter), and the self-professed pretty one (Cadence, played by Casey Gardner). These are all pretty one-note characters, but they are played to the hilt by these actresses. All other characters in the plot are covered by three ensemble members (Bobby Labartino, Gina Rickicki, and Topher Payne). Ms. Rickicki is an absolute hoot and totally distinct in her many roles, which include a TV interviewer, a dentally challenged student, a gay boy, a drunken mother, and a tour guide. The two men in the ensemble also get a chance to show their range in a variety of characters, both male and female.

Veronika Duerr has directed the show with finesse and with broad brushstrokes at the same time. The pleasures of this production extend from the beginning, with its use of Sketch MacQuinor’s cheery animated projections, to the end, with Joel Coady’s dramatic lighting on a final tableau. In between, we have myriad costumes by Abby Parker, myriad wigs by Gina Rickicki, myriad sound effects by Joe Monaghan, and some very nice props by Rachel Hamilton. The set, designed by Lee Maples, consists of a projection screen stage right and a platform with a towering volcano stage left. All the design elements work together, making this a very pleasant experience for all the senses. (Taste, touch, and smell aren’t exactly experienced by the audience, but imagery in the script make them almost palpable.)

The show moves pretty smoothly from start to finish, with a lot of amazingly quick costume/wig changes. The only moment that struck me as forced and unnecessary was a segment just before the false ending when the three girls swapped personalities (pretty to angry, angry to smart, smart to pretty). The false ending, with the empowered girls taking control of their destiny, is satisfying on its own, but then Mr. Drago adds a twist that takes the storytelling to a later time period and gives the play an ending that just feels right.

The Weird Sisters Theatre Project is building quite a reputation for its intriguing, well-acted productions in a variety of venues. "Hot Pink, or Ready to Blow" is their first staging of an original work, and it’s a worthy addition to their roster. Go, see, laugh!

Tradin’ Paint, by Catherine Bush
Givin’ Compliments
Saturday, August 15, 2015
4.0
"Tradin’ Paint" tackles the world of NASCAR fans in a very accessible manner. The focus is on the journey of Darla Frye (Maria Legarda), a young woman with low self-esteem romantically involved with an unapologetic redneck (Freddy Lynn Wilson). With the help of a professor (Marcus Morris) and a pit chief (Jessie Kuipers), Darla comes into her own. The population of the cast is completed by a flagman (Jeffrey Bigger), and three racers (John Coombs, Daniel Phelps, and Francisc Daniel Albu), all of whom take on additional roles to flesh out the story.

Much of the play is presentational, with characters in the play directly addressing the audience in monologues. In less capable hands, this could become dull or stilted. Here, the actors pull it off ably. Ms. Legarda gives a wonderfully calibrated performance, taking us on her journey with gentle tugs on our heartstrings. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Bigger invest their monologues with power and passion, entertaining consistently. Ms. Kuipers handles her role with straightforward good humor, making us believe her as a female mechanic. The only scenes that don’t really work are those involving Daniel Phelps, who gives an exceptionally amateurish spin to his dialogue and reactions.

Kelly David Carr’s set design consists of a set of bleachers stage right, the storefront of an auto shop stage left, and a low platform up center. It’s really more complicated than it needs to be, since unlocalized scenes occurring in the blank center section are as effective as scenes in the physical settings. Still, it’s a good-looking set.

Jonathan Liles’ lighting design is also more complicated than it needs to be. As characters move, lights illuminate different sections of the stage to follow their movement. It’s a nice complement to Julie Taliaferro’s fluid blocking, but seems a little too obvious in execution.

Joe Kovacs’ costume design is probably more complicated than it need be, but it’s very effective. Drivers’ uniforms are nicely done, and white costumes (with one red splash) add a wonderful visual flair to the start of the second act. Costumes for Ms. Legarda and Mr. Wilson mirror the journeys of their characters. All in all, this is a good-looking production. With M. Kathryn Allen’s sound design featuring roaring, racing engines, it’s also a good-sounding production.

Julie Taliaferro has directed a wonderfully accessible production of Catherine Bush’s sweetly imagined blue-collar world. It wears its Southern setting as a badge of honor and celebrates NASCAR fandom with clear-eyed enthusiasm. It’s not a play that requires audiences to know anything about NASCAR; it’s just the background of the story, and very charmingly explicated. I don’t give two hoots for NASCAR personally, but I was delighted by this play and this production and particularly by Ms. Legarda’s performance, which I consider one of the best I’ve seen this year.

Nelle’s Story: The World of Harper Lee, by Melita Easters
Storytime
Monday, August 10, 2015
4.0
"Nelle’s Story: The World of Harper Lee" is an exposition-heavy journey into the life of Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the recently published "Go Set a Watchman." This one-woman show actually gives some background on "Go Set a Watchman," making it seem up-to-the-moment in its content. Like any biography of Harper Lee, it spends a significant amount of time discussing Truman Capote, a friend of Nelle Harper Lee’s from childhood up until the tremendous success of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The spare but effective set design by Spencer Estes carves out three locations on the stage (Harper Lee’s hometown porch, her New York apartment, and a podium at a West Point auditorium, where she spoke in 1965) and sets a vintage typewriter in a table front center. Alex Riviere’s lighting design spotlights the typewriter at the start and end of the show and effectively lights each location. Rob Brooksher’s sound design starts the show with the cricket sounds of a sleepy Southern town and introduces each new scene with sound clips giving a flavor of the new time period.

Mandi Lee portrays Harper Lee from childhood to old age in four scenes, two occurring before the publication of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and two after. Costumes, provided with the assistance of Judilee Fashions, attempt to suggest Harper’s aging. A wig and cane added for the last scene aid in the attempt, but aren’t terribly effective. Joan McElroy’s two-act Harper Lee biography play, "Thus Spoke the Mockingbird," allows a much better sense of time passing, with aging makeup added during the act break. Here, in a one-act structure, the physical suggestions of age are pretty perfunctory.

Harper Lee is quoted as saying "a writer writes for him[her]self," as opposed to an actor or musician, who performs for an audience. Melita Easters, the playwright, has written for an audience, and has done a pretty good job, aided by the able direction of Carolyn Cook. The persona she has created may not be the famously reclusive Ms. Lee herself, but it certainly gives the flavor of her. The oft-extended run of "Nelle’s Story" is evidence of Ms. Easters’ success.

Lillian Likes It, by Joshua Mikel
Style Over Substance
Monday, August 10, 2015
3.5
"Lillian Likes It" sheaths a fairly sweet romantic comedy in a framework of foul-mouthed web posts and like/unfriend requests. The trivial nature of the background noise doesn’t act as a counterbalance to the story; instead, it informs and cheapens the material. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for these shallow millennials, although it’s easy for audiences to be entertained by them under Shannon Eubanks’ energetic direction.

The story builds upon the unlikely premise that an engaged co-worker Lillian once slept with (and then steered clear of) was secretly in love with her, and tasked his widow with telling Lillian after his untimely death. To make things more awkward, Lillian uses the fictional Lazarus website to set up an account for him that will use online data to fill in a profile for him that allows the program to generate texts and conversations in his persona. Lillian then falls in love with this persona, upsetting both the widow and Lillian’s own fiancé.

Director Shannon Eubanks has staged the action nicely on Harley Gould’s set, which uses black cubes and an orange crate as furniture, and supplies crudely painted computer/tablet scrims as background decoration (illuminated from behind for certain computer-related interactions). Some of the action takes place in a yoga studio, though, which forces the actors to lie on the floor, compromising sightlines for much of the audience.

Rial Ellsworth’s sound design and Harley Gould’s lighting design have a lot to do, and have a lot to do with the success of the production. Lighting focuses the action nicely, and the soundscape reverberates with the pesky sounds of cell phone texts. Jane B. Kroessig’s costumes barely register as costumes.

Five of the six actors in the cast (all except Alyssa Caputo, as Lillian) are asked to perform double or triple duty, populating the stage with major and minor supporting characters. They do a fairly good job of delineating their different characters, although the rapid-fire pace of group scenes tends to make things blur together. Especially fine performances are given by Pat Young as Knife, a blackmailing coffee shop employee, and Antonia LaChé, as both the widow and a computer avatar. Ben Silver is charismatic in the dual roles of the dead man and his identical twin brother (yes, it’s that kind of comedy).

The show is bright and bubbly, ending with a laugh, although the second act moves toward the serious, as Lillian’s obsession with a dead man forces her to confront the repercussions in the real world. There’s a little bit of preachifying near the end that I could have done without (and a lot of "Lillian likes it" and "Lillian unfriends" comic filler in the first act that I felt teetered on the brink of becoming tiresome), but the plot unfolds nicely, with just the right amount of foreshadowing. Joshua Mikel has written a crowd-pleasing romantic comedy that the Essential Theatre Play Festival is doing justice to. Most people would probably like it much more than I did.

Steel Magnolias, by Robert Harling
Foolproof
Sunday, August 2, 2015
4.0
"Steel Magnolias" is in the breed of plays that are nearly foolproof if done in a fashion that respects the script. Robert Harling’s play has tons of humor and heart and a cast of six unique females that provide comic and dramatic opportunities for any talented actress. Gypsy Theatre Company has the talented actresses and respect for the script that make this a highly successful production.

As in most larger venues, the set appears far grander than a converted carport. The outside door is modest, though, and the decor isn’t overly extravagant. The imaginary fourth wall is assumed to be a mirror in this production, with actresses facing front to view themselves in it. There’s not much viewing from one station to another through mirrored reflections, though, which is a bit of a lost opportunity in Mercury’s direction. Otherwise, he blocks the action so that the eye goes to all the important movements, whether or not accompanied by dialogue.

Joel Coady’s light design and Mercury’s sound design are effective, as are Danielle Gustaveson’s costumes and props. This is a good-looking production. The onstage hair styling is better than in many productions, but doesn’t get terribly complicated. Still, there’s enough visual differences among the hairdos to ring relatively true.

The cast age range is on the young side for "Steel Magnolias." Kathleen Seconder as Ouiser appears much younger than Clairee (Kirsten Benson), which throws off the balance between their characters. It doesn’t help that Ms. Seconder’s portrayal is much less successful than Ms. Benson’s (who does a wonderful job of suggesting hoarseness in one scene). Suzanne Stroup also appears too young for Truvy, but her sweet and sassy performance makes one forget any objections. Bekah Medford is a scene-stealing hoot as Annelle (but always totally in character), while Elizabeth V. Powell is equally successful in her portrayal of Shelby. Jan Grimshaw makes some unexpected acting choices as M’Lynn, some of which are more effective than others. Still, all in all, this is a cast that does credit to the script.

"Steel Magnolias" is a crowd-pleasing, sure-fire hit for female audiences. Gypsy Theatre Company is packing them in at the well-appointed Sylvia Beard Theatre. It’s a show with pleasures for anyone, but one that women in particular seem to treasure.

The Aliens, by Annie Baker
Dramatic Death
Sunday, August 2, 2015
1.5
I have rarely been so bored in my life. Annie Baker’s play throws together an emotionally disturbed mathematics/philosophy double major dropout (KJ, played by Grant McGowen), his emotionally distant novelist mentor (Jasper, played by Andy Fleming), and an emotionally stunted high school student (Evan, played by Tanner Gill) in the back alley of a Vermont coffee shop where the student has a summer job. Ms. Baker’s "The Aliens" (a reference to a rock band once formed by KJ and Jasper) has them sit and occasionally talk, throwing in songs and readings of novel excerpts. It’s tedious as all get-out, and not very illuminating.

KJ claims to be a genius, and claims that Jasper is one as well. It’s hard to believe this as anything other than the dramatist’s ploy to give some weight to her story, such as it is. KJ acts in highly inappropriate ways, and the only things close to an explanation we get is that his mother is very much into New Age philosophy, that he ingests psychedelic mushrooms, and that he had a breakdown just before dropping out of the University of Vermont. Jasper and KJ take Evan under their wing, trying to corrupt him with drugs and vaping. The script negates any homoerotic subtext by giving all the males not wholly satisfactory past relationships with women. Add in references to poet Charles Bukowski as an idol, and the whole thing comes across as an artificial construct with inflated pretensions. It doesn’t help that Jasper is so much older than KJ in this production, which makes their relationship something entirely different than that of two like-minded misfits and buds.

It also doesn’t help that director Robby Glade has apparently inspired his actors to search deeply and humorlessly for the emotional truth of their characters, no matter how many silences and pauses and awkward moments this may entail. The whole thing moves as slowly as a nightmare in slow motion. Perhaps Ms. Baker and Mr. Glade intend to challenge and possibly offend audiences. The profanities in the recorded pre-curtain speech are certainly intended to offend any except those who adhere to the "hip" and "edgy" artistic sensibility of Pinch ’n’ Ouch Theatre. But challenging audiences with slow-moving boredom is the opposite of entertainment.

The action supposedly takes place in Vermont, but clothes logos and stickers are too Georgia-specific to make this believable. At times, I felt I was trapped in a thrown-together local Meisner acting showcase with actors trying so hard to show "true" emotions that the falsity of their efforts was all I could see.

The set and sound design are serviceable, and Robby Glade’s lighting design is effective. ’Nuff said.

Memphis, by Joe DiPietro (book & lyrics) and David Bryan (music & lyrics)
High-Powered Entertainment
Monday, July 27, 2015
4.5
"Memphis" is a well-written show with a rousing score and an affecting story of interracial love. It may not be the perfect match for Gwinnett County audiences -- I noticed an older white male leaving the auditorium at the time of the first interracial kiss. I’d like to think that was just a coincidence, but the fact that some people did not return after intermission is an indication that the show is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Tom Key has directed the show to keep the action moving. Shannon Roberts’ set facilitates the flow, consisting of a series of proscenium arches with an empty space in the middle, to allow various set pieces to move in and out. A spiral staircase stage left and a recording studio window stage right allow action to move occasionally to a higher second level, which is principally populated by the (as always) terrific band, led by Ann-Carol Pence. Andre Allen’s lighting design is perfectly serviceable, although it tends to make a lot of use of flashing lights embedded in the proscenium arches to goose up the musical numbers.

Daniel Terry’s sound design makes things perfectly audible, without overdoing the volume. MC Park has created some nifty props, in particular a TV camera that provides live video feed for the television show segments. Shilla Benning’s costumes are no more than acceptable, with no particular sense of style. Waverly Lucas’ choreography is equally lackluster, perhaps hampered by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a surfeit of dance skills in the ensemble (although I’ve seen enough of Caroline Freedlund Aropoglou’s work to know she’s capable of far more sophisticated moves than the ones she’s asked to perform here).

What makes the show work so well is the cast. Naima Carter Russell is beauty and talent rolled into one in the lead female role of Felicia Farrell, and Travis Smith equals her in every respect (except beauty) in the lead male role of Huey Calhoun. Those two could make the show by themselves, were they not surrounded by such a talented ensemble. Eric Moore and Eugene H. Russell IV are splendid as Bobby and Gator, two of the denizens of the bar run by Delray Jones (Cecil Washington Jr., who is also very good). Megan McFarland plays Huey’s mother, and she has a voice that impresses as much as that of any of the younger cast members. Vocally, the show is wonderful. There are some very nice acting turns too, one notably being the waif-like Kathleen O’Hara appearing as a white teenager visiting a black church.

"Memphis" is being co-produced by Aurora and Theatrical Outfit, so the same production (perhaps with some scenic changes) will be presented downtown in September. That gives audience members plenty of chances to see the show, which is already selling out. It’s well worth the trip, no matter which venue you choose, to engulf yourself in the immersive experience that is "Memphis."

Annie Get Your Gun, by Irving Berlin (songs) & Herbert and Dorothy Fields (book; revised by Peter Stone)
Sound Ruins Another Show
Monday, July 27, 2015
3.5
"The wages of sin are death." Think that’s a sentence you’d never hear in a pre-curtain speech? Well, you haven’t been to Christian organization Agape Players’ inaugural production of "Annie Get Your Gun," where the pre-curtain speech is more of a sermonette. It’s also pretty incompetent as a pre-curtain speech. Saying "you know what to do" with cellphones is not an adequate warning to today’s audience members, who seem to believe that leaving a cellphone on during a show is acceptable, as long as the phone feature is not actively in use. When the pre-curtain speech is followed by a blackout and the orchestra starting to tune up, you get the feeling that Agape Players doesn’t have the slimmest concept of how to run a show. With sour violin notes marring the over-amplified overture, you wonder how bad things are going to get.

Alas, the sound doesn’t improve. The orchestra remains over-amplified throughout the show. Dialogue with underscoring becomes music accompanied by indecipherable words. Microphone levels pop on and off, and I was pleased at how well I could hear when the microphones went off for a couple of seconds. Then they came back, and male voices were once again muddied to mush. Female voices seem to fare better.

Other than that, the production is pretty good. Joy Walters is a terrific Annie Oakley, and the children playing her siblings (Goldie Hatch, Julia Walters, Anna Grace Green, and Nathan Cross) are also full of talent. Choreography, while often seeming to be inspired by marching band formations, makes good use of the large and deep stage. Rented backdrops and costumes give a finished, professional feel to the proceedings. Sharpshooting special effects using popping balloons are effective, if a bit overused. The story of the show comes through clarion-clear, with Abigail Ellis as the dim-witted villainess Dolly Tate adding just enough fun and complications to keep things rolling.

Most of the performances are thoroughly adequate, and blocking by director Barbara Hall keeps the action front and center most of the time, with royal figures installed in side boxes at the top of the second act adding a whimsical touch for the European tour montage. It helps that Charlie Davenport (Richard Puscas) announces each scene change in Peter Stone’s revision of the book, so the flow is pretty smooth. There’s a lot to like. Visually, it’s entertaining; aurally, too often not.

Cabaret, by book - Joe Masteroff, songs - Kander & Ebb
Raw
Monday, July 27, 2015
3.0
"Cabaret" started out as a Broadway show with seedy elements. Once the movie came along, the story darkened. Then, when the first Alan Cumming revival opened, the seedy elements predominated. Live Arts’ production lies firmly in Alan Cumming territory.

The auditorium in which the show is performed is not an optimal performance space; it’s basically a large room with a serviceable set installed at one end and four-person cabaret tables scattered around to make up the audience area. The orchestra takes up one side; the other side has black curtains to allow the cast to escape into the outside hallway, from which many entrances are made. It’s a somewhat immersive production, with dancing often occurring on the audience floor.

The choreography, by Amber Franek, is one of the highlights of the show. It’s in a raw, edgy style, with a lot of slumping and stomping and inappropriate groping. Many of the cast are fine dancers (particularly the men), and the choreography sparks the proceedings with excitement. Orchestral accompaniment, provided by the Zephyr Instrumental ensemble, as conducted by music director Kerry Fetter, is thoroughly professional and brass-heavy, with none of the blats and bleats often heard when brass-playing amateurs accompany productions. Choreography and accompaniment are at a truly professional level. Costumes, coordinated by Jordan Hermitt, are also at a pretty high level of accomplishment (although many body parts are left naked in this production; does that count as part of costuming?).

Unfortunately, other technical aspects of the production are lacking. I saw only four lighting elements, which did a surprisingly good job of illuminating the stage proper, but couldn’t do much for the walkway above it. On the other hand, video projections of Nazi-era film clips played in that upper area, and were very effective at the end of the show, and provided visual interest before the show and during intermission.

Where the show is really lacking, though, is in sound balance. The orchestra is beside the audience and loud, and the actors are not individually miked. When a singer is in his/her optimal range and is belting, it’s not much of a problem. Big problems occur, however, when dialogue is attempted with underscoring or when portions of a song are outside of a singer’s optimal range. This is particularly the case with Emi Mastey as Sally Bowles, and particularly in the title number. The range of the role is lower than Ms. Mastey’s natural voice, and the solution for the song "Cabaret" has been to have her croak it out as an emotional breakdown. It’s arguably effective from a dramatic standpoint, but a big miss from a vocal standpoint.

Eduardo Paco, as the Emcee, has the fewest problems of the major performers in projecting above the orchestra. He gives a good performance, but it’s pretty standard-issue Alan Cumming. He has the strut of a drag queen, but no spark of delight in his eyes. He confronts us with "Willkommen" rather than inviting us in. The decadence is there, but not the allure of the decadent. Most of the ensemble perform with deadpan expressions, so a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt is at the forefront, giving a chilly feeling to the proceedings.

There are generally good performances in the speaking roles. Marty Snowden and Frank Scozzari pair nicely as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Paul Franklin shows inner conflict well as Cliff Bradshaw, although he has little chemistry with Ms. Mastey. Spencer Estes is highly effective as Ernst, and Heather Murray is absolutely fabulous as Fraulein Kost, impressing more singing in German than anyone else does singing in English.

There are a lot of things to like in this production of "Cabaret." Director Michael Parker has put together a fine approximation of the recent Broadway revivals of this show, but there isn’t enough of a stamp of originality to make this production stand above the pack. With more technical resources at hand (particularly in the sound department), this would be a much better production.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Rupert Holmes
The Misery of Gettin’ Booed
Sunday, July 19, 2015
3.5
"The Mystery of Edwin Drood" presents Dickens’ unfinished final work as an English music hall production, replete with song-and-dance numbers, introductions of the actors as they appear in the plot, and booing of the villain. Charlie Bradshaw appears as the Chairman, our master of ceremonies. He’s not a terribly commanding presence, and his speaking voice often gets lost in musical underscoring, but he does well enough, if you ignore his unconvincing English accent.

Most male English accents in the show are unconvincing, particularly in the pre-show patter, where actors engage the audience in conversation. Female accents are more convincing. Still, the artificiality of the music hall concept and 19th century acting styles is enough, without adding in the artificiality of American actors trying to sound English.

Chuck Welcome has done his usual magic in creating a lovely set. Curtains on the music hall set part to show a number of delightful painted backdrops, along with minimal furniture. Michael Magursky’s lighting design is generally a bit dim, probably to simulate flickering candles in footlights, and there’s a fuzzy stained glass window effect at one point that didn’t make sense to me. Still, with Bubba Carr’s active choreography, Jane Kroessig’s costumes, and George Deavours’ wigs, this is a good-looking production, although the stage appears a bit cluttered when the full cast is onstage.

Voices are all good, indicating that Nick Silvestri has done a fine job as musical director. Rial Ellsworth’s sound design tends to muddy things, though, keeping the orchestra too prominent. With a score filled with rapid-fire notes and rapid-fire lyrics to match, it’s much too easy to miss a lot of the words.

Since Dickens left the story incomplete, the solution of the mystery is left up to audience votes. Consequently, the ending can be different every night. I was happy to see Kelly Chapin Schmidt (Rosa Bud), Daniel Burns (Bazzard), and Jessica De Maria (Helena Landless) voted to portray various roles in the denouement of the performance I attended. They were among the strongest performers. The equal of any, though, is Paige Mattox as Edwin Drood, with a stunning voice and lovely diction, not to mention commanding stage presence. Director Robert Egizio made a fine choice in getting her to play the title role.

Blackpool and Parrish, by David Belke
Apocalypse Not Quite Now
Sunday, July 19, 2015
3.5
"Blackpool & Parrish" introduces us to the corporal conception in human form of Evil (Harry Blackpool, played by Bob Smith) and Good (Rachel Parrish, played by Kristin Kalbli), along with their children/wards (played by Stephen DeVillers and Suzanne Zoller) and the human manager of their private club (played by Patrick Hill). The Apocalypse is scheduled for 3 PM the next day, and Harry and Rachel are retiring at midnight, letting their children/wards actually carry out the battle of Good and Evil. Only thing is, prolonged exposure to humanity has contaminated both Rachel and Harry with certain human tendencies.

Once the situation is laid out to the audience, it’s a long slog waiting for the Apocalypse to arrive. For me, it didn’t help that a "big" plot twist revealed in the last five minutes was something that I had foreseen five minutes into the show. There’s a lot of talking back and forth and not much going on. It’s mildly interesting, but it seems to be more style than substance, starting each act, for instance, with ruminations by one of the two main characters concerning Pompeii, and throwing in a Christian parallel to salvation. It’s an intriguing concept, but not much beyond that.

Morgan Brooks’ scenic design creates an elegant private club room with taxidermy, wallpaper, and wainscoting on the walls. It’s a nice design, but a little sloppy in execution. Brad Rudy’s lighting design is about the same, with rather too obvious dimming and brightening of lights to highlight certain sections of the script. Costumes, apparently furnished by the cast, work well, and Zip Rampy’s sound design chooses clever musical selections.

Director Zip Rampy has kept the action moving and has blocked group scenes so there’s not too much obstruction of one person by another. The performances achieved by the actors under his direction have a nice variety of levels. It’s a thoroughly competent job of mounting a morally ambiguous play, but it can do only so much to create excitement in a script that keeps delaying the inevitable. There are good performances all around, but the play itself did not hold my interest throughout.

Once Upon a Mattress, by Music by Mary Rodgers; Lyrics by Marshall Barer
Muggsy Baloney
Sunday, July 19, 2015
3.0
Melody Cookson, the director of ACT1 Theater’s "Once Upon a Mattress," appears to be under the misapprehension that the church utility room that functions as the theatre is a Broadway-sized house. She has encouraged the cast to mug and overact and use gestures that would read to the back of a theatre seating several hundred people. In an intimate space, this becomes an in-your-face assault of would-be shtick and artificiality.

Any story needs to resonate emotionally with an audience to some degree. Here, the only person showing what seems to be genuine emotion is Charity Hitchcock as Lady Larken. Unfortunately, the contrast of her sometimes guarded demeanor to the rest of the cast makes her appear something of a downer. Even she is directed to do things bigger than subtlety would allow, such as a high kick upward with one leg as she is bent backwards for a kiss. Cheap laughs get laughter, all right, but they tend to cheapen the material.

The cast is a mixture of confident performers (all the leads) and community theatre performers (some of the ensemble). The contrast of some people going all-out and others appearing a bit stiff negates the apparent directorial intention to make this a goof-fest of over-the-top hilarity. I found the approach off-putting in the extreme. Ms. Cookson might have created a hit with an all-pro cast in a bigger venue, but the approach just doesn’t work at ACT1.

Rich Vandever’s set design makes splendid use of the space. A library seating area far stage right is permanent, and a turret far stage left stays in place until near the end, when it revolves to reveal the bed of twenty mattresses. The main playing area is empty space in the middle, with the curtains opened to reveal a number of differently appointed backdrops. Amy Finkel’s set artistry is on display throughout, looking painterly and cheery and delightful. A wonderful addition to the set is three rounded extensions in front of the stage proper, flanking two small sets of steps. The effect is a very subtle suggestion of the crenelated battlement of a castle, perfectly in keeping with the medieval timeframe.

Costumes, almost always a highlight in ACT1 productions, have been designed by Suzanne Thornett, Anne Voller, and Savannah Cookson, with assistance from a whole host of people. They’re quite impressive, with multiple costume changes for much of the cast. Historically, they aren’t terribly accurate, with some Cinderella-era gowns mingled with medieval garb more suitable for the stated time of 1428. Still, they impress.

Darin McKenna, the music director, has gotten good vocal performances out of his leather-lunged cast, although the vocal volume is sometimes as overdone as the overall direction. Musical accompaniment sometimes battled the voices in the early performance I saw, with accelerated tempi the norm. Megan Wartell’s choreography is very effective in group numbers, such as "The Spanish Panic," but sometimes can come across as a little silly in solos. I felt particularly sorry for Savannah Cookson, saddled with an extraneous puppet to share "his" lines and choreography as the Jester.

The cast is full of talent, and Murray Mann’s lighting and sound design work to help the production look and sound its best. Director Melody Cookson has obviously worked at, and largely succeeded at, molding the cast to her vision of "Once Upon a Mattress." I’d be happy to see almost any of the cast in anything else. In this production, they are so intent on doing things their director has arranged that their talent is buried under the burden of BIG! and LOUD! and OVER-THE-TOP!

The Dixie Swim Club, by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten
Forget the Sharks; Go Swimmin’!
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
4.5
Mash together Topher Payne’s "Beached Wails" with Sean Grennan’s "Making God Laugh" on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and you’ll end up with something like "The Dixie Swim Club." Those aren’t the influences of this play by a trio of playwrights, of course; there are plenty of plays reuniting the same set of characters over the years. This one throws tons of belly laughs into the mixture, with a bit of sweet tenderness acting as a chaser. The play itself is entertaining, and when you have a wonderfully matched set of actresses playing all the parts, it becomes a sheer delight.

Michael Hidalgo’s set screams 1980’s beach house, but in a good way. The tiled floor is elegant, and the neutral furniture and wallpaper are casual, but not trendy. A lovely sea-view mural (painted by Nancy Knight) appears as the background through a triple window, which is topped by a 1980’s valance for the first two scenes. For the second act, shades are drawn and the valance is removed. Other little touches distinguish each of the four scenes, which take place at least five years apart. Mr. Hidalgo’s sound and lighting design aren’t given much of a workout in this script, but work beautifully with the set and the direction to make the play spark to life.

Director David Thomas has given his five actresses room to develop their characters, then has molded the action to highlight their actions and character choices. It all flows seamlessly.

Each character has her quirks. Vernadette (Aretta Baumgartner) always shows up with a disability of some sort and an urgent need to pee. Sheree (Suzanne Roush) relishes and reprises her role as swim captain, trying to coordinate all activities. Dinah (Dina Shadwell) drinks. Jeri Neal (Kara Cantrell) takes a journey from nunhood to single motherhood. Lexie (Karen Whitaker) marries and divorces repeatedly, always finding a new piece of man candy when the old piece starts to lose its flavor. These character traits don’t come across as stale when they’re repeated in each new scene; they maintain consistency and quickly give the audience the feeling that they have known these women for a long time.

Aided by Jeanne Fore’s costumes, a nice collection of props, and a wonderful collection of wigs, the women age believably from 44 to 77 over the course of the show. One of the delights is seeing how each actress relates physically to age or, in Vernadette’s case, to various injuries. They all show age a little differently, so this is clearly NOT a case of them getting a one-size-fits-all note from the director.

Aside from a few line bobbles on opening weekend, I encountered nothing in the production that could be construed as a negative. The script, scenic elements, and performances are all of exceptional quality in terms of entertainment value. There’s no one I can point to as a standout; when all the people onstage and off are working at the peak of their abilities, the whole thing combines into one overflowing bowl of enjoyment in which no one element predominates. To sum it all up in one word: "terrific!"

The Addams Family, by Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice, Andrew Lippa
Snap, Snap
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
4.0
"The Addams Family" is a cute musical with a tango-tinged score by Andrew Lippa. Any production has to acknowledge both the visuals of the cartoons and of the TV series (whose musical theme is used to start the show, complete with audience-augmented finger snaps). Onstage Atlanta does a pretty good job of approximating the cartoon looks of the characters, with liberal use of make-up in some cases. Harley Gould’s set provides a pretty good representation of a spooky family mansion, although its fold-out architecture doesn’t much resemble the TV mansion. Overall, the production is true to the source material.

The plot has to do with love. Wednesday (Janine DeMichele Baggett) loves Lucas Beineke (Evan McLean), and is assisted in her pursuit of marriage by Uncle Fester (Googie Uterhardt) and her father Gomez (Russ Ivey), against the wishes of her mother Morticia (Olivia Kaye Sloan), her brother Pugsley (Benjamin Harding), and Lucas’ parents Alice (Courtney Loner) and Mal Beineke (Jody Woodruff). Fester has enlisted the aid of eight ghostly ancestors, whom he has locked out of the Addams’ crypt until true love blooms. These ancestors provide the chorus of the show, and they do a splendid job.

Director/sound designer Charlie Miller has done a good job of balancing sound levels and stage pictures, so the production is pleasing both visually and aurally. Nancye Quarles-Hilley’s costumes are splendid (aside from some less-than-believable padding), but Elisabeth Cooper’s light design doesn’t always illuminate all used parts of the stage equally (particularly at the ends of the dining table used in one scene). Still, this is a very good looking production. Even so, the moon-related sequences are technically lackluster.

Music director Paul Tate has gotten good vocal performances out of the cast, although the balance is off in places simply due to the different power levels of individual voices. Mr. Woodruff’s voice, for instance, is more powerful than Ms. Loner’s. Her lack of power minimizes the impact of her big number ("Waiting"), but her acting allows her to get all out of her part in terms of the character arc. Ms. Baggett’s voice is similarly lacking in powerhouse volume, but she manages to impress nevertheless, with her acting chops the equal of anyone else’s onstage. Jarrett Heatherly (Lurch) doesn’t having the booming bass voice his role calls for, but it’s likely he was the closest physically/vocally to be found to fit the specific demands of his role.

In terms of singing/dancing skills, Ms. Sloan (Morticia) is equalled only by the ancestors. Mr. Uterhardt (Fester) and Cathe Hall Payne (Grandma) have the shtick contingent covered, and Master Harding (Pugsley) has the shriek market cornered. For overall performance, though, the award needs to go to Russ Ivey, whose Spanish-inflected vocal patterns and wonderful expressions and timing bring the character of Gomez Addams to life. He may not have the strongest voice onstage, and he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the more demanding aspects of Misty Barber’s choreography, but he makes the role his own. Kudos.

Damn Yankees, by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop (book); Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (songs)
Out of the Ballpark
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
2.0
Preface:
What would this site be without an occasional snarky review? The following review gives snark full rein. Don’t read it if you’ll be offended. That said, no one involved in this production should be ashamed of their efforts, particularly if their goal was to have a good time putting on a show and they had fun rehearsing and performing. For friends and relatives of the cast, it gives every opportunity to say "hey, there’s so-and-so onstage doing something I didn’t know they could do, and doing it not half bad at that." It’s just a big step from "not half bad" to "good," and the elements brought together by the director haven’t been whipped into that shape.

The review:
Some great shows just hit it out of the ballpark, as the saying goes. Some adequate shows are in the ballpark, so to speak. Others, like New London Theatre’s "Damn Yankees," are barely in the vicinity of the ballpark. For a baseball-themed show, that’s a fatal flaw.

It’s not just that the performances are overwhelmingly amateur on the whole; so is the set, and so is the musical accompaniment. A number of the cast seem to put their all into their performances, but there either isn’t a lot to give or less-than-optimal casting prevents them from making the intended impact. Lackluster direction and laugh- or cringe-inspiring choreography don’t help. It’s pretty much a miss on all marks.

There are two sparkling exceptions: Brandon Smith as Joe Hardy and Rebecca Carrico as Lola. Luckily, these are the two leads; unluckily, they make their entrances well into the first act. Mr. Smith brings youthful sincerity to his role; Ms. Carrico brings spark and spunk to hers. They have a nice chemistry together. Their voices are consistently pleasing too, which can’t be said of all cast members. They are tasked with carrying the entire show, but the burden of two people carrying a cast of twenty is just too much to bear.

This production makes the unusual choice of casting Meg and Joe Boyd, along with Joe’s young alter ego Joe Hardy, as black performers. This works remarkably well, except for one line of dialogue, where the word "boy" takes on the characteristics of a racial slur. Throwing that into the middle of a light-hearted musical is yet one more misstep among many.

I do applaud one clever blocking choice -- having a character with a portable radio lean on the stage left speaker, so the sound nearly seems to be emanating from the radio itself. Sound and lighting, though perhaps hampered by a lack of sophisticated equipment, work well, so it’s possible to see and hear what one generally would wish neither to see nor to hear.

Sondheim on Sondheim, by Stephen Sondheim
Slide by Slide by Sondheim
Saturday, July 4, 2015
4.0
"Sondheim on Sondheim" combines live performance with video, pictures, and voiceover featuring Stephen Sondheim himself. The documentary portions of the evening introduce or relate to many of the musical selections, sometimes in humorous ways, such as when Mala Bhattacharya’s "Do I Hear a Waltz?" is interrupted by recorded footage of Sondheim regretting that he wrote the same-named musical. Ms. Bhattacharya’s peeved reaction makes the number.

There are over twenty performers in this production, and when their massed voices are raised in song, it’s almost overwhelming in beauty. The effect is soured at times by Sam Weiller’s sound design, which filters the vocal performances through the sound system, making it difficult to locate a singer onstage when the sound is emanating most powerfully from a speaker positioned in the wings. Occasional microphone crackle was also heard in the performance I attended.

Theresa Dean’s set design uses staircases at left and right, with a promenade balcony connecting the staircases, a screen positioned in its center. Stage left contains a living room setting, with chair, sofa, coffee table, rug, and massive candlesticks. The elements work well both for choral numbers and for smaller scenes, except in one instance: when Joel Rose is singing "Epiphany" from "Sweeney Todd," he starts the number on the black-painted balcony, which is effective, but comes down the stage left staircase to finish the number backed by a contemporary suburban living room set. It would have been more effective in blackness throughout, as on the stage right portion of the set, which contains plain black walls.

Otherwise, blocking is good throughout, with crowd control effectively filling the stage in ensemble numbers and movement flowing pretty naturally in the smaller-scale numbers. Act one ends with a lovely vignette suggesting Seurat’s "Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la grande jatte," echoing the act one ending of "Sunday in the Park with George." Co-directors Michelle Davis and Chris Ikner have done a fine job in making the show a pleasure to watch. Musical director Laura Gamble has made it a treat to listen to as well. Lighting designer William Joel Coady and choreographer Johnna B. Mitchell have aided in the visual appeal of the production, although their contributions are most successful when they are least ambitious.

The contribution of props master Taylor Sorrel seems to have been primarily in supplying materials for "The Gun Song" sequence from "Assassins." While warned copiously by signs in the lobby and the curtain speech, the audience didn’t experience the expected gunshot at the performance I saw. Let’s hope the effect works as expected in subsequent performances. (It certainly seemed to after the show.) The problem may have been user error; I didn’t notice the gun cocked by the actress I assume was responsible for the shot.

With such a large cast, not everyone is featured equally. Those given solos are provided the best opportunity to shine. Some highlights for me were Erin Jackson’s "Send in the Clowns," Brian Wittenberg’s rapid-fire "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," Zachary Stuffs’ full-voiced "Being Alive," and Lisa Hatt’s sequence of songs from "Passion." Ms. Hatt impressed me most in the production, I’d have to say, with her voice and facial expressions reinforcing one another in number after number (although the sound system did her no favors in the opening number, where her over-miked voice threw off the balance of the ensemble).

For a Sondheim fan, ACT3’s production of "Sondheim on Sondheim" should be catnip and the cat’s meow. For any fan of local musical theatre, it also provides a wonderful showcase of the level of vocal expertise available for non-professional productions. As a fund-raiser for the Metropolitan Atlanta Theater Awards, it’s a tribute to the local talent pool, both onstage and behind the scenes.

As You Like It, by William Shakespeare
As You’ll Ache It
Friday, July 3, 2015
4.5
Shakespeare throws a lot of ingredients into "As You Like It" -- pastoral characters, royalty in exile, cross-dressing, romance, humor, and melancholy. The New American Shakespeare Tavern has scrambled them together with slapstick and served up a messy, runny omelet of enjoyment.

The main story involves Rosalind, daughter of a banished Duke, who is herself banished and disguises herself as a boy, taking along the ruler’s daughter, Celia, with whom she is fast friends. Dani Herd plays Rosalind as a gawky Great Dane puppy of a character, full of boundless, bounding energy. Kirstin Calvert plays Celia as the quirky best friend of a rom-com, supportive and comic in equal measure. Both are excellent.

The other females in the cast are also in fine form. Kristin Storla plays Audrey, a country wench, wringing every possible bit of "country" and "wench" out of her performance. Becky Cormier Finch plays shepherdess Phebe, whose slack-jawed, lovesick expressions for Ganymede (Rosalind’s male disguise) never fail to please. Mary Ruth Ralston sings and plays guitar with charm and grace, and has done some fabulous fight choreography. (The wrassling match near the top of the show is hilarity in physical form.)

None of the men give bad performances, but the balance seems a little off. Part of this is due to the script, which introduces characters in a somewhat haphazard fashion, with some popping up early, some late, some briefly, and some with long intervals between entrances. Multi-casting adds its own complications (with kudos to Troy Willis for a lightning-fast change from the imperiously unpleasant Duke Frederick to the rustic Corin). Sometimes minor characters (Vinnie Mascola as Charles) steal focus, making lead characters (Paul Hester as Oliver and Jonathan Horne as Orlando) appear somewhat bland in comparison. Sometimes multiple characters seem to serve the same purpose in the story, with Jeffrey Stephenson’s Touchstone and Chris Kayser’s Jaques both equal parts clown and philosopher.

For me, the heart of the production was in J. Tony Brown’s underplayed performance. While officially cast in two roles (the servant Adam and Hymen), his sweet, loyal demeanor remained constant throughout, providing a central spot of calmness as plot and comedy raged around him. The soft sincerity of his performance in large measure balanced the over-the-top qualities of the rest of the production.

Director Andrew Houchins has provided pleasing stage pictures through his blocking and has inspired his cast to give energetic, well-spoken performances. (Everyone projected well.) Matt Felten’s lighting design gives an Arden Forest sun-dappled look to the stage, which I found somewhat distracting when an actor would move inches from a brightly lit position to one where shadows played across his face. Costumes, by Anné Carole Butler, work well and don’t draw a great deal of attention to themselves.

This production of "As You Like It" is not a cleanly constructed manifestation of a director’s overriding vision, but it’s a hoot and a half. Credit the actors for giving their all to entertain the patrons of the New Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern. And credit Bo Gaiason for some pretty nifty music that adds to the overall Elizabethan effect.

Barnum, by Mark Bramble (book), Cy Coleman (music), and Michael Stewart (lyrics)
A Total Circus
Monday, June 22, 2015
4.0
"Barnum" contains a sparkling show-biz score by Cy Coleman (music) and Michael Stewart (lyrics). Atlanta Lyric Theatre marries this score to an action-packed, circus-themed production. As always, the production displays excellent musicality (music direction by BJ Brown), energetic choreography (by Jen MacQueen), and a workable set (design by Lee Shiver-Cerone, with scenic artist Edward R. Cox). Overall, though, it’s a bit of a disappointment.

Bobby Johnston’s sound design mixes the orchestra to overpower the voices. I lost the ability to comprehend what the Ringmaster (AJ Klopach) was saying every time the orchestra started up under him. That reduces the enjoyability of the production. While the visual spectacle is certainly appealing, it should be matched by vocal appeal. The blasted sound limits that appeal.

The ensemble seem to have been selected based on circus skills. The tumbling and juggling and acrobatics they do certainly show off their talents. The acting segments, not so much. Of the ensemble, I was most impressed by recent high school graduate Crawford Horton and by choreographer Jen MacQueen (watch for her splendid Cyr wheel spin at the end). Their singing voices are fine, but a lot of their silent slapstick falls a little flat.

The leads seem to have been selected based on their vocal skills. Logan Denninghoff certainly has a splendid voice as P.T. Barnum, but he seems a little young for the role, not really digging deep into the character. His circus skills are only okay at best. Lisa Manuli is appealing as wife Chairy Barnum, nailing her acting scenes, but sounding a bit brassy and belt-y in her musical numbers. Emily Budd, as Jenny Lind, has a soaringly beautiful voice, splendidly attractive looks, and wonderful stage presence, not to mention nailing the comedy of her English lesson as the Swedish Nightingale.

George Deavours’ wigs and Amanda Edgerton’s costumes help ensure that the production looks good from start to finish. Projections work well when showing historical personages and buildings, but fall a little short in "The Colors of My Life," where the screen-saver-like projections don’t coordinate at all with the lyrics.

Director Alan Kilpatrick hasn’t harnessed another Cy Coleman score to create a theatrical triumph like the Lyric’s "The Will Rogers Follies" from a few years back. Blocking is generally fine, although a big opportunity for stage magic is missed when a woman is locked in a trunk, placed on a carriage whose underside can’t really be seen, then emerges later from the same trunk, when a similarly sized trunk is also present on the carriage. A little more emphasis on theatrical sleight-of-hand ("humbug," if you will) might have served the show better than a surfeit of circus skills (with silk work and lighted umbrellas appearing particularly extraneous).

Plaza Suite, by Neil Simon
A Non-Luxury Hotel
Monday, June 22, 2015
3.5
Neil Simon plays are almost always entertaining. With a moderately good cast, any production can garner lots of laughs. New London Theatre’s "Plaza Suite" is no exception. All the action, as the title suggests, takes place in the same room (#719) in New York’s Plaza Hotel.

At New London, the set (designed by the director) has very good bones. The two rooms of the hotel suite are laid out in a logical and attractive manner. Unfortunately, many of the flats making up the walls are wavy or obviously pieced, and they’re painted a fairly unpleasant orangey yellow. The furnishings in the room are threadbare, not at all befitting a luxury hotel, even one that is not brand-new. Props (by Mary Susan Moore) have some nice period details in paper signage, and lighting and sound design (by the director) work well. In particular, music cues nicely inform the audience when a scene is coming to an end.

Casting populates each of the three scenes with couples of inappropriate ages. In two cases, the male seems significantly older than the female; in one case, the female appears to be the older. This is not a fatal flaw, however; the acting makes the audience forget the age discrepancies within moments.

The first couple (Nicole Ojeda-Johns and Lee Jones) portray a long-married pair dealing with marital problems. The second couple (David Huenergardt and Rebecca Carrico) portray high school sweethearts reconnecting after 17 years apart. The third couple (Tina Holder and Gregory Fitzgerald) portray parents of a young woman who refuses to come out of the bathroom on the day of her wedding. There’s a actually a fourth couple in the last scene (Stephen Mitchell and Heidi Siberon), but they have little stage time, and they play different characters in the first two scenes.

Each scene has its own costume plot. Costume