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Companies Reviewed#
Aurora Theatre76
Lionheart Theatre Company47
Actor's Express47
Out of Box Theatre 46
Stage Door Players44
Georgia Ensemble Theatre43
Onstage Atlanta, Inc.39
Centerstage North Theatre30
Onion Man Productions29
Atlanta Lyric Theatre26
The New American Shakespeare Tavern24
Act 3 Productions24
Horizon Theatre Company21
ART Station Theatre21
Theatrical Outfit19
Georgia Shakespeare17
Alliance Theatre Company14
Live Arts Theatre13
Synchronicity Performance Group13
Essential Theatre12
Broadway Across America11
Rosewater Theatre Company10
Theatre in the Square10
New London Theatre9
The Process Theatre Company9
Kudzu Playhouse8
7 Stages8
Staged Right Theatre8
Marietta Theatre Company8
Out Front Theatre Company7
Gypsy Theatre Company7
Resurgens Theatre Company7
Fabrefaction Theater Company6
Academy Theatre6
New Dawn Theater6
Pinch n' Ouch Theatre6
Atlanta Musical Theatre Festival5
Main Street Theatre Tucker5
Serenbe Playhouse5
Performing Arts North5
The Weird Sisters Theatre Project5
Theatre Arts Guild4
Elm Street Cultural Arts Village4
Southside Theatre Guild4
Vernal & Sere Theatre4
Next Stage Theatre Company4
Oglethorpe University Theatre Department4
Agape Players, Inc.4
Button Theatre4
Actors Theatre of Atlanta4
North Fulton Drama Club4
The Magari Theatre Company4
Theatre Buford4
Théâtre du Rêve 3
New Origins Theatre Company3
The Underground Theatre3
Theater of the Stars3
Cherokee Theatre Company3
Players Guild @ Sugar Hill3
Merely Players Presents3
Capitol City Opera Company2
Catalyst Arts Atlanta2
Wallace Buice Theatre Company2
City Springs Theatre Company2
Peachtree Players2
The Fern Theatre Company2
Folding Chair Classical Theatre2
The Performer’s Warehouse2
Impulse Repertory Co.2
Acting UP2
Cumming Playhouse2
Epidemic Theatre Group2
Bozarts Little Theater2
Upper East Side Theatre Company1
Company J at the MJCCA1
Theatre Emory1
Dominion Entertainment Group, LLC1
Zero Circle Theatre Company1
KKP Atlanta Productions1
The Flying Carpet Theatre Company1
Chattahoochee Community Players1
The Renaissance Project1
MelloDrama Productions1
The Kudzu Players1
Milton Community Theatre1
Stage Two Productions1
Johns Creek Players1
Dorsey Theatre1
2 Fat Farmers Productions1
Northside Church1
Orange Box Theater1
Atlanta Theatre Club1
Gwinnett Classic Theatre1
Mixed Revues1
True Colors Theatre Company1
New African Grove Theatre Company1
Right On Productions1
The Vertigo Players1
Red Phoenix Theatre Company1
Independent Artists’ Playhouse1
Chronicle Collective1
Independant Producer1
Atlanta Broadway Series1
Polk Street Players1
Newnan Community Theatre Company1
Ouroboros Theatre Productions1
Rising Sage Theatre Company1
City of the South Theatricals1
Lolek’s Storyteller’s Theatre Company1
Yard Dogs Ensemble1
Holly Theatre1
Liberal Eye Productions1
The Legacy Theatre1
Kudzu Children's Theater1
The Lyceum Project1
Troubadours of Daytime1
The New Depot Players1
Theatre 52301
Open Minds Theatre Company1
Average Rating Given : 3.71882
Reviews in Last 6 months :

Spring Awakening, by Music by Duncan Sheik, Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater
Rude Awakening
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
Onstage Atlanta is presenting an attractive production of "Spring Awakening," with splendid period costumes by Nancye Quarles Hilley, effectively evocative lighting by Harley Gould, and quirky, energetic choreography by Janie Young (apparently a replacement since the time initial posters were printed). The visual design elements provided by director Charlie Miller also contribute to the production. His large upstage tree trunk is perhaps too rustic a backdrop for the action, but its spreading roots painted on the stage floor are intriguing, and his props are incorporated well into the action and choreography.

Mr. Miller’s sound design is a bit of a problem, though. The original Broadway production featured actors springing up with hand mikes to perform the ensemble numbers. Here, the singers have no amplification. When one ensemble member has a solo line underscored by the rest of the ensemble singing something else, the solo often gets lost. Balance between the excellent seven-piece orchestra and the singers tends to favor the orchestra, so words are sometimes lost in the mix.

Performances are all good. The actors have thrown themselves into their roles, and under Paul Tate’s musical direction all show evidence of fine voices, although of different powers. Suzanne Stroup’s belt is powerful; Jacob Valleroy’s falsetto is soft. Luckily, they’re featured at different times.

Mr. Valleroy (Melchior) and Shane Murphy (Moritz) give heartfelt performances as the male leads. Emily Winchell is somewhat colorless as Wendla, the female lead, but blends in well with the female ensemble. All the ensemble roles are filled well, but the general inexperience of the talented and youthful cast results in no standout performances.

All adult roles are played by one male (Darrell Wofford) and one female (Liane LeMaster). Costumes, bearing, and speech patterns help distinguish their roles, but there’s an artificial feel to the concept of them playing all the adult roles. In a small house like Onstage Atlanta’s, there’s not the possibility of having them unrecognizable from one role to another. Their extensive experience also tilts the balance of the show a bit; their acting tends to overwhelm the less nuanced performances of the younger cast. Ms. LeMaster in particular comes across as the most compelling performer in the production.

"Spring Awakening" will not be to everyone’s taste, with its odd admixture of foul-mouthed rock songs to a plot of teenaged sexual repression in 19th-century Germany. The company at Onstage Atlanta is performing the show with purpose and conviction, and their efforts are above the level of typical community theatre, but the show really needs a thoroughly professional production to have the fullest possible impact.

Motherhood Out Loud, by Leslie Ayvazian, Brooke Berman, David Cale, Jessica Goldberg, Beth Henley, Lameece Issaq, Claire LaZebnik, Lisa Loomer, Michele Lowe, Marco Pennette
Motherhood With Tears
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
"Motherhood Out Loud" is a series of monologues and short scenes involving different aspects of motherhood, from childbirth to grandparenthood. The material resonates deeply with women who have encountered similar experiences, bringing a few laughs and a lot of tears. Even non-mothers can appreciate the material, although some men may have the attitude expressed in the play that, not having had a particular experience, they never really thought about it.

On a purely acting level, there is some fine work on the boards at Onstage Atlanta. Everyone makes the material work that they have been given, but Melissa Maute and Phyllis Giller both make indelible impressions with their monologues. They make fine use of their glances and gestures and reactions to the words they are speaking (sometimes as multiple characters). Directors Cathe Hall Payne and Brandon Mitchell (who gives one of the two male monologues) have shaped the material for maximum impact, given the various capabilities of their performers. When a generally comic actress like Lory Cox gets teary-eyed at the end of her monologue, the impact has a wallop far greater than if her entire delivery had been weepy. Rylee Bunton triumphs playing the youngest characters.

The set uses the background of concurrently running "Spring Awakening," with chairs and seating on either side of the stage, along with buckets of flowers, a crib, a bloom-festooned stepladder, and other details that give a Mother’s Day feel. For much of the show, the focus is on center stage where the action occurs, but other cast members populate the sides of the stage as silent observers. It’s a nice touch that gives a bit of cohesion to material that is essential a sequence of unrelated pieces by a variety of playwrights.

As a fundraiser, "Motherhood Out Loud" did not have an extensive rehearsal period or grand technical resources. Even so, it comes across as a polished production, with light and sound doing a wonderful job of transitioning from one independent moment to the next. The show may not have the overall impact of Centerstage North’s production of a couple of years ago, but it certainly provides a showcase for some fine Atlanta talent. The fact that two of the three men in the cast are husbands of two of the women adds to a feeling of community in the production, a feeling that draws the audience in to experience the various comedic and dramatic aspects of motherhood.

Entertaining Lesbians, by Topher Payne
Entertaining Silliness
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
NOTE: This show is part of the "Beta Test" series at Out of Box, with script changes expected from week to week. The comments that follow are based on the first weekend of the show.

"Entertaining Lesbians" starts promisingly, if with a premise that has been a frequent topic at Out of Box: parents wishing to get their youngster into the best possible school. The first scene introduces us to social-climbing Rowena Tuttle (the totally delightful Emily Sams Brown), her more laid-back husband (the stalwart Daniel Carter Brown), and Rowena’s black assistant Mrs. Kelley (the sardonic Parris Sarter). When Mrs. Kelley is forced to change from her maid-like dress and use her B.F.A. to invent a personality as the black friend of the Tuttles, the comic possibilities seem rife. The Tuttles are white and heterosexual, you see, and intend to cultivate a friendship with a lesbian power couple by embracing diversity in an attempt to make their daughter seem to be a better fit for the tony school they have their eye on.

Then the second scene comes, and we’re introduced to redneck Ethelene. This character falls fairly flat, although Carolyn Choe is perfectly fine in the role. Ethelene occasionally comes out with pungent sayings that seem totally out of left field for her character, and she comes saddled with a mutant farm animal and a faux German vocabulary that seem to exist only for cheap laughs. The third scene introduces us to a tennis instructor (the toned and tanned Matthew Busch), and it’s only close to the act break that we get to meet the two lesbians of the title -- supposed Brit Christi (the versatile Amanda Cucher) and tech-savvy Arlette (the elegant Kait Rivas).

Complications pile up: matching over-sized purses are mistaken one for another, pills are switched, truths slip out as lies abound, and romantic/sexual entanglements are hinted at. It’s vaguely satisfying, but with silly elements like made-up gender-non-specific pronouns giving a sophomoric feel to the proceedings.

Topher Payne has directed his play to give all the actors nice comic moments, and his production design is lovely, with a wall of flowers stage right and trees stage left flanking the back patio (or veranda!) of the Tuttle’s house, all pinks that contrast with the colorful costumes of the cast. Bradley Rudy’s lighting design and Zip Rampy’s sound editing fill out the design elements capably. (Rayme Brown is credited as "Joy Coach," but heaven knows what that is.)

With some rejiggering of the character of Ethelene, "Entertaining Lesbians" might be more successful. Why is the possible Native American heritage of Rowena brought up, then dropped when Ethelene could give some clarity? Why make up a mutant farm animal when a pit-digging pit bull would fulfill the needs of the script? Why have one character seem totally artificial when the others, although often extreme in their idiosyncrasies, seem rooted in reality? These are questions only playwright Topher Payne can answer, and he may, in his own way, in the succeeding weekends of the run.

Babyshower for the Antichrist, by Ben Thorpe
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
First there was local playwright Topher Payne’s "Morningside," about a baby shower in a dysfunctional Atlanta community. Now there’s local playwright Ben Thorpe’s "Babyshower for the Antichrist," about a quite different baby shower. It acts more as an extended skit than a full-fledged play. The title pretty much gives the joke away.

Gabrielle Stephenson’s scenic design for the show is lovely, showing a lakeside cottage with wood and leather furniture, stone fireplace stage left and a stone-based bookcase stage right. The wood floor and four columns featured in "Slaying Holofernes" are here too, with the columns in fixed positions. The white fabric backdrop here has only the muted shadow of a Palladian window, which does not alter as the action moves from day to night. Otherwise, Harley Gould’s lighting design is full of special effects, many in conjunction with the sound design by Kacie Willis. Pre-show music is a kooky mix of baby- and devil-related songs. Kathy Manning’s props and Alexia Mooney’s costumes add to the visual appeal of the production.

The cast consists primarily of four devil-worshippers, one of whom is pregnant. To the babyshower/consecration of the baby to the Dark Lord, a former friend of the pregnant woman has been invited. The interactions between the pregnant woman and her friend are the low spots of the show. There’s conflict in their past concerning a man, and the glib way it’s handled is in stark contrast to the nuanced handling of similar situations in the script of "Slaying Holofernes."

The interactions of the three principal devil-worshippers provide all the highlights of the show. Suzanne Roush is appropriately assertive as the leader. Gina Rickicki is a marvelously expressive underling with underlying longings, and Taylor Bahin is a delightfully wacky, spaced-out devil-worshipper cadet. The comedy among these three charms throughout. Madison Welch is also quite good as friend Julie, but Sarina Montgomery is pretty much a cipher as pregnant Monica.

Director Shannon Eubanks has done a fine job of blocking the show and inspiring her cast to create comic moments whenever possible. The production falters only when the script does. The initial situation is funny; the plot, on the other hand, is not very engaging. The show provides an opportunity for the comic stylings of Gina Rickicki and Taylor Bahin to shine, but doesn’t offer much else.

South Pacific, by Richard Rodgers (music), Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics, book), Joshua Logan (book)
A Bowl of Jell-O
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
"South Pacific" is a classic musical, featuring a score and script so strong that the show can withstand substandard productions, as long as they attempt to honor the material. MGBaker Productions’ version of "South Pacific" in Cumming is not substandard, but doesn’t add pleasures beyond those present in the raw material. It’s a perfectly acceptable rendition of the show with pleasant performances by an attractive cast with pleasant voices.

The situation seen at the start of the show is a bit of a misfire. Instead of two half-Polynesian children, we see the two actual children of the male lead, Emile de Becque (Joe Goode). That makes a later moment fall flat, when Nellie Forbush (Taylor Cassell) sarcastically states that the children look just like their father. They do. And when the actor playing Captain George Brackett (Don Weldon) messes up and says that Emile de Becque was married to a French woman, rather than to a Polynesian woman, it calls into question if the production has decided to eviscerate the racial component of the story to justify a nearly all-white cast. That’s not the case, but it does come across as an odd aspect of the production.

The physical production is fine. Cheryl Rogers’ costumes are quite good, and the set designed by David McDonald and Glenda Gray is functional, with blown-up photos of Polynesian vistas on flats that open on the sides of the stage to show Emile’s terrace stage left and the Captain’s office stage right. Joel Noles’ lighting and sound design keeps things visible and audible.

Performances are good across the board. Ms. Cassell is perky and spunky as Nellie, Mr. Goode is tall and elegant as Emile, Gary Heffelfinger is energetic as Luther Billis, and Carla Selden is brash and loud as Bloody Mary. All have good voices, as does Josh Agri as Lt. Joseph Cable. The minor roles are filled by capable individuals who don’t outshine the principals.

Glenda Gray has directed the show to keep the action flowing. Her choreography is nothing to write home about, but her blocking makes imaginative use of the audience aisles for entrances and exits. Her musical direction has gotten good vocal performances out of her cast, and the acting and singing are on a par, with neither overwhelming the other.

Musical accompaniment is provided by two pianists, Annie Cook and David Stephens. There’s some roughness when both pianos are in use, such as in the overture, but when single-piano accompaniment is in effect, it sounds darn good. You don’t get the lushness a full orchestra would give, but the sound is balanced between vocals and accompaniment.

"South Pacific" has a terrific story and score, and the production at Cumming’s School Street Playhouse lets the quality of the material shine through. There are no transcendent moments, but the production maintains interest throughout. It’s a solid community theatre effort that will please anyone unfamiliar with the show.

Slaying Holofernes, by Emily McClain
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
A woman tries to be agreeable with a man in power, not saying anything when he first makes moves that could be considered crossing the line. Then, when the line is definitively crossed, her defense appears shaky to the world at large. Such is the situation in "Slaying Holofernes," Emily McClain’s play that juxtaposes the accusations made by Renaissance painter Artemesia Gentileschi against her teacher with the situations faced by fictional modern-day Amanda, who is faced with workplace sexual harassment. The only solution available to these women is to cut their losses and move on.

The physical production is nicely realized in Essential Theatre’s production. Gabrielle Stephenson’s scenic design places four square columns on a wood-painted floor. For modern-day scenes, projections against the columns indicate the settings, which are mostly various office locations. For Renaissance scenes, the columns are moved to the sides and scene-setting projections are displayed on the white curtain upstage. Furniture fills out the scenes nicely, with Courtney Loner’s props working with Kimberly Binns’ projections and Jane Kroessig’s costumes to create two equally realized time periods. Kacie Willis’ sound design does a terrific job of suggesting the time, with music from one period changing to music from the other time period as scene changes occur. Under Peter Hardy’s direction, the many scene changes are accomplished with a minimum of fuss.

Perhaps the least successful technical element is Harley Gould’s lighting. In many instances, the stage moves into dimness except for one highlighted area of the stage in which the main character of the scene emotes. This happens often enough and intrusively enough that it draws attention to itself, particularly when color changes accompany the change in lighting intensity. Something more subtle would be more successful.

Acting in all the main roles is excellent. Sasha Hatfield makes Artemesia a likeably heroic figure, while Fred Galyean plays her nemesis with all the masculine snark the role requires. Erika Miranda is sweetly approachable as the sometimes tentative Amanda, making her interactions with the confidently masculine Anthony (Jeff Hathcoat) ring true to life. Mr. Hathcoat also impresses favorably as a louche Renaissance paint vendor.

The rest of the actors are also double cast as modern and Renaissance characters. Tamil Periasamy and Joey Davila impress both as Renaissance lawyers and as corporate HR personnel. Sarah Wallace also plays an HR person in a modern-day scene, while otherwise acting as a disreputable servant to Artemesia and her father Orazio (Brad Brooks). Mr. Brooks plays a modern-day manager with a more limited emotional range than that of Orazio, while Dan Reichard and Jim Nelson are silent modern-day figures while acting as court officials in the second act Renaissance scenes, which primarily depict the trial of Artemesia as accuser of rape against her teacher Agostino.

The two timelines come together in two instances at the ends of the two acts. The first act ends with a barista (Ms. Hatfield) reading a book about Artemesia Gentileschi. The second act ends with a slide show of Artemesia Gentileschi’s works morphing into a museum painting that is viewed by both Artemesia and Amanda. It’s a powerful ending to a sobering work.

Mr. Hardy’s direction brings Ms. McClain’s script to vibrant life. A couple of scenes in the first act may go on a tad longer than they need to, but the show never drags. Particularly in the second act courtroom episodes, the drama is palpable. No truly happy ending is possible, but tenacity in the face of adversity lends a note of hopefulness to the proceedings. "Slaying Holofernes" (a reference to one of Artemesia Gentileschi’s most famous works, "Judith Slaying Holofernes," in which the face of Holofernes is the visage of Artemesia’s rapist) enters the ranks of Essential Theatre’s most successful recent offerings.

Children of Eden, by John Caird (book) and Stephen Schwartz (songs)
A Religious Experience
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
I can almost see a photo of "Children of Eden" as a glossy two-page spread in American Theatre magazine, with Shannon Robert’s scenic design, Maria Cristina Fusté’s lighting design, Milton Cordero’s projection design, Alan Yeong’s costume design, Lindsey Ewin’s wig/hair design, and Cody Russell’s properties design featured in almost any scene. On a purely visual level, the production is stunning. A slide show of photos of each scene, accompanied by a soundtrack of one of the many choral numbers musically directed by Ann-Carol Pence, would be breathtaking. But when the slide show verges on three hours, you’d probably be past your breaking point. That’s approximately the experience of attending this production.

"Children of Eden" is more of a song cycle than a musical play. Act one gives us the story of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and Seth. Act two relates the Biblical story of Noah. It’s all very ponderous and self-important, with a bit more of an involving and focused plot in the second act. As I overheard at intermission, this is a production that should be advertised at churches.

Justin Anderson’s direction and Ricardo Aponte’s choreography make full use of the large cast, with lots of motion and lots of choral speech and song. "Children of Eden" is a show that gives its ensemble a great deal to do. Ms. Pence has ensured that the band and voices are of equal excellence, and Daniel Terry’s sound design blends the sounds without muddying the massed choral voices.

It’s possible that the complicated technical requirements of the production are beyond the capabilities of the team running the show. At the performance I attended, there were two apparent technical errors: a lack of lighting change on the first approach of Adam and Eve to the Tree of Knowledge, although the script explicitly states that something notable should have happened; and a crescent moon projection obvious during the second act when song lyrics are explicitly referring to the sun appearing. It’s just another indication that the production values, while high, do not always enhance the script.

The cast has no true standouts, although some cast members have larger roles than others. Brad Raymond, as Father, certainly is costumed and wigged differently than the others, looking almost like a baroque black Bach. Maxim Gukhman, as Adam and Noah, presents a chiseled torso. Russell Alexander II, as Cain and Japheth (or "Japeth," as the poorly proofread program has it), has lots of fire. Haden Rider, as Abel and Ham, lets his golden voice shine. Naima Carter Russell, as Eve and Mrs. Noah, holds her own. Briana Young, as Yonah in the second act, adds some heart to the show. Leslie Bellair impresses in her glorified ensemble role.

Aurora’s "Children of Eden" is easier to admire than to like. Its religious content is highlighted by Father making priestly gestures (of multiple religions), and it definitely creates the aura that this is a show that is Good For You. You may well find yourself praying during it, if only praying that the interminable first act will come to an end soon.

I would consider "Children of Eden" to be a succès d’estime rather than a truly popular production. At the performance I attended, there were a few people who consistently started applause, with the rest of the audience joining in a bit grudgingly. It’s certainly a professional production on which all sorts of money and talent have been lavished, but a sense of joy is completely lacking in it. It’s beautiful, but ponderous.

Little Women, by Marisha Chamberlain
Swimmin’ in Women
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
Louisa May Alcott’s "Little Women" takes place during and after the Civil War. Main Street Theatre has decided to re-jigger the timeline to something more modern. When is not clear. Carrie Harris’ costumes suggest the 1940s, while some of Lisa Temples’ props suggest more recent times. John Williams’ set design resembles the 19th century in its overall look, although the stairway platforms stage right that lead up to the garret have a modernist feel. The racial diversity of the cast is meant to invoke the modern day, but the gothic melodramas that Jo writes harken back clearly to Louisa May Alcott’s day. It all gives a bit of the feel that the production decided to make do with whatever was at hand.

The set contains a sofa center, a piano down left, a dining table up left, and a fireplace far left. Stage right is taken up by the stairs and garret, with a birdhouse down right. There’s a wall unit upstage. A semi-circular addition to the front center of the stage adds a little playing space, but the blocking by director Merle Halliday Westbrook often seems cramped. Furniture is rearranged now and again, but the action seems to take place primarily in the March household.

The finest technical element in the show is Preston Cross’ lighting design. The upstage wall of the set is fabric that basks in the glow of different colors during scene changes. This adds immeasurable visual interest to the production. During scenes, the illumination of the fabric fades into the background, just as it should.

Ms. Westbrook has ensured that her actors speak clearly and distinctly. Charlie Wasmer’s sound design amplifies the voices so that every word is clear. A few of the actors have speech patterns that have the stilted rhythm of someone concentrating more on projection than on naturalism, but speech is consistently fluid. Ms. Westbrook has obviously drilled her troupe so that they have an excellent command of their lines.

Erin Eben is full of vocal and physical energy as Jo, and Keegan McDaniel matches her energy as Laurie. Fine performances come from Matt Hiltman and Evan Greene in the small roles respectively of Brooke and Father. Pat Smith also makes a strong impression as Aunt March, and Carrie Harris has a natural ease onstage as Hannah. The four sisters at the center of the story are quite distinct in character and demeanor, letting the story of them and their mother shine through.

The adaptation by Marisha Chamberlain does not give us all of Alcott’s "Little Women." The play starts as the book does, on a Christmas where Father is away at war. It ends on another Christmas, when Father has returned home. The feminism of protagonist Jo is reiterated again and again, and the resolution of the play seems to reinforce this as the play’s message. It’s perhaps a little thin as an adaptation, but plays relatively well and does not overstay its welcome.

Head Over Heels, by Jeff Whitty, the Go-Go’s
Another Junkbox Musical
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
"Head Over Heels" marries songs by the Go-Go’s with the basic plotline of Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th century poem "The Arcadia," altered to present a modern embracing of all sorts of human sexuality. It’s a non-sensical mash-up, with the songs shoe-horned in willy-nilly, and with a couple of songs given to Philoclea (Emily Whitley) seemingly at odds with what we know of her character. But the random sprinkling of songs is sort of the point: the vacuous, repetitive songs act as a contrast to the sometimes dense language and antiquated tropes of Sidney’s original.

Freddie Ashley has directed a production that integrates all technical material into a superior product. Isaac Ramsey’s scenic design places classic pediments at either end of the long central playing space, surrounded by stylized clouds and foliage. Similar clouds appear behind each half of the audience. The stage floor is painted in a gouache-style wash simulating an ornate sundial. Ben Rawson’s lighting design lights the set to perfection and adds just the right amount of effects to enhance the production without overwhelming it.

April Andrew’s costumes use a generally Renaissance style for the protagonists, with gender-swapped outfits for the ensemble in a generally modern style The mish-mash works, particularly in conjunction with Kari Twyman’s splendid choreography, full of angular arm movements and non-stop activity. It helps that Actor’s Express has hired as ensemble members two of Atlanta’s finest dancers (Joseph Pendergrast and Peyton McDaniel) who rose to prominence at the Aurora Theatre, and a couple of additional fine dancers from Georgia Ensemble’s "Bullets Over Broadway" (Patrick Coleman and Paige McCormick).

Actor’s Express has pretty much raided Atlanta’s store of unabashed belt singers for the cast. Music director Alli Lingenfelter has the cast singing at full volume for most of the show. Jeremiah Davison’s sound design keeps the balance with the rock band pretty good throughout, although the pre-show recording of Freddie Ashley’s introduction has a tinny, echoey quality that augurs poorly for the show itself. Luckily, auguries don’t always turn out to be as dire as they might first appear (which sort of goes for the plot of the show itself).

Nick Battaglia’s props are fine and mirror the style of the production as a whole. Mr. Ashley is to be complimented for getting all elements of the show to work together so delightfully.

The cast really sell the show. This is a world in which any racial admixture of parents can produce a child of a dissimilar race, in which fat-shaming doesn’t exist, and in which sexuality is as fluid as the River Styx. Kevin Harry is his stentorian best as King Basilius and Jennifer Alice Acker is magnificent as his wife Gynecia. Abby Holland, as elder daughter Pamela, is a hoot of self-possession, while Emily Whitley, as her younger sister Philoclea, is sweet and endearing. Danny Crowe is the epitome of doing-anything-the-director-asks-of-him abandon as Philoclea’s suitor, and Trevor Perry uses his androgyny to full effect as Pythio. Jeff McKerley invests Dametas with his usual old-pro charm, and like the others has a powerful, true voice. Niki Badua, as his daughter, gets a little pitchy as she travels up to her big notes, but those she nails.

The most any production can do is to create a world of its own and keep the audience captive within that world for the running time of the show. "Head Over Heels" does that in spades.

Sweet Water Taste, by Gloria Bond CLunie
The Well’s Dry and Something Dead Is in It
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
Gloria Bond Clunie’s "Sweet Water Taste" involves the history of two branches of the fictional Beckford family -- the white branch, represented by a redneck with airs who has happened to acquire the family manse; and the black branch, represented by a funeral director with an eye on a spot in the Beckford’s private cemetery. Conflict and death result. It’s a comedy.

Thomas W. Jones II has directed the show with lots of motion, much of it unnecessary and much of it in unison. The sitcom-like pace and broadness of the acting will not be to everyone’s taste. For a play where death is a centerpiece, there is a tremendous lack of human emotion. When wailing and mourning as fake as Jen Harper’s is on display, you begin to suspect that there’s a reason -- that a supposed death has been staged. Nope. It’s just that the human and the comic have been completely divorced from one another in Mr. Jones’ direction of the piece. It’s all played for cheap laughs.

Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay have created a massive set, as would be expected given their track history. At the start of the show, we see parachute silk covering a hospital bed in a tent from the ceiling, with a wrinkled sky blue curtain behind it. Walls on either side look very rough and unfinished. After the first scene, the curtains are whisked away and we see an elegant, multi-level living room. Mary Parker’s ambitious lighting design adds atmosphere to the scenes and illuminates the aisleways of the audience area when action spills into them. It’s still obvious, though, that the backdrop of the living room is a curtain behind french doors rather than a walkway to the fabled gardens in the backyard.

Perhaps the most successful technical element of the production is Dr. L. Nyrobi Moss’s costumes. There’s a couple of stunners for Brittani Minnieweather in after-life sequences at the start and end, and the costumes for the live folk work quite well too. The costumes add to the colorful nature of the production. Chris Lane’s sound design and Alexis McKay’s props are fine.

Performances are all over the board. LaParee Young, as the funeral director, has the broadest acting style, with Enoch King amping up his game to inject energy that stops just short of being over-the-top. Chris Kayser and Justin Walker are fine as father and son, and LaLa Cochran gets the "big speech" that is supposed to tie things up with its symbolism. Ms. Minnieweather is quite good, while Ms. Harper seems slightly detached from the proceedings.

It’s clear that Mr. Jones has had a tight reign over the production, and he has gotten his actors to do all the comic bits that he knows will get laughs from his target audience. It doesn’t seem that all the actors are completely invested in his vision, though, and the blatant comic shtick doesn’t mix well with the deaths in the show. The phrase "anything for a laugh" might have been devised to describe this less-than-satisfactory show.

Tenderly, the Rosemary Clooney Musical, by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman
The Flip Side of Success
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
"This Old House" and "Come On-a My House" were two of Rosemary Clooney’s big hit songs. But you wouldn’t want to go-a to the dysfunctional homes she was raised in. She had a fairly miserable childhood, a fairly miserable marriage to José Ferrer, and a fairly miserable time kicking a pill addiction. "Tenderly" charts the course of her life, framed by her visits to a rehabilitation doctor’s office in which she spills memories and sings the songs for which she’s known. It’s pretty depressing material.

The script tries to leaven the tone by having the doctor play all the other people in Rosemary’s life, from her little sister Betty to Frank Sinatra to Bing Crosby, to other important (if lesser-known) figures in her life. It’s fun to see Luis R. Hernandez slip from one to another, using slight costume changes by Kim Bacastow to augment his posture and voice changes that bring the characters to life, but it’s telling that the most enjoyable moment in the performance I attended was when one of his costume pieces slipped off for a moment, and the marvelous Wendy Melkonian ad-libbed "I almost didn’t recognize you."

Ms. Melkonian is a totally engaging stage personality who plumbs the depths of the role of Rosemary Clooney, but her voice does not have the plummy, throaty quality of the real Ms. Clooney. She sings very well, but only occasionally hits on a tone that is reminiscent of the original. If this were a brighter story, it might not matter as much, since no one can put across a song better than Ms. Melkonian, but the material keeps dragging things down.

Patrick Hutchison’s music direction and his three-piece band keep the songs tuneful throughout, although microphone sound levels didn’t seem consistent throughout the performance I attended, with Mr. Hernandez’s off for a while, it seemed. Karen Beyer’s direction tells the story fluidly, with a minimum of choreography. It’s a pleasant enough production of unpleasant material.

Michael Hidalgo’s sceneography paints an elegant picture, with the band upstage behind a scrim, next to a big blown-up photo of Rosemary Clooney’s face (with Ms. Melkonian’s wig generally mimicking its style). Stage right there’s a dressing room table and stool; stage left there’s the doctor’s desk and a couple of chairs. Center stage is a performance platform. There’s also a foray into the audience as Rosemary loses her marbles during a later-life performance.

It’s a good-looking set, but there seemed to be lighting problems at the performance I attended. The house lights started coming up with one song still left to go in the first act, and the changing colored lights flashing across the stage during that song ("Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair") seemed wildly inappropriate. In the second act, when the lights did the same thing for "Pretty Little Pills," the lighting scheme finally made sense. That doesn’t forgive the technical glitch, however.

"Tenderly" is a generally unpleasant show, and technical foul-ups with sound and lights do nothing to enhance the experience. For fans of Ms. Melkonian and Mr. Hernandez (who were both so wonderful in the MJCCA’s production of "Funny Girl" years ago), or for fans of Rosemary Clooney’s music, the show is worth seeing. Otherwise, taking your memories of Rosemary Clooney from movies and the record player will leave you in a much happier state of mind.

The Book Club Play, by Karen Zacarias
Soon to Be Last Year’s Non-Related Movie
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
"Book Club" was released last year as a movie starring actresses of a certain age reading "50 Shades of Grey." "The Book Club Play" is something quite different. It does mention "50 Shades of Grey" at one point, though, so who’s to say it didn’t help inspire the movie? My warning: don’t see "Book Club" the movie and try to pretend you’ve seen "The Book Club Play." That would be worse than a book club member watching the movie instead of reading the related book!

"The Book Club Play" was done six years ago at Horizon Theatre in an overblown production. Live Arts’ production is necessarily more modest, given the small size of the black box Belfrey Theatre, but that tends to make the action more focused. The fact that Becca Parker’s projections all show up in the same place helps to ground the action. That doesn’t mean that this is a static show in the least. Bookcases swivel and doors slide open in Ms. Parker’s set design to host the little monologue segments that are sprinkled throughout the play.

The monologue segments feature viewpoints on book clubs by a variety of characters -- an FBI agent, a Wal-Mart employee, an inmate, and others. They’re entertaining and give five of the actors a chance to show their acting range, but they seem devised primarily to allow the other actors to change costumes between scenes. That, of course, puts a burden on the monologist to get theirs changed in a split-second. On opening night, Dawn Davridge’s costumes didn’t always allow split-second changes, but Jeffrey Liu’s sound design covers scene changes very nicely, so a slight delay in the entrance of the cast wouldn’t have been unappreciated. The costumes are character-appropriate, varied, and appealing.

Other technical productions of the show are good, if not superb. Scene changes can seem a bit clunky. Props designer Blair Sanders is to be lauded for finding so many versions of the books read by and dishes tasted by the book club, but photocopies of the double-page script in a supposedly typewritten manuscript are glaringly obvious in the tiny playing space. André Eaton Jr.’s lighting design has only subtle variations, but they are effective.

Mr. Eaton’s contribution to the play come mostly from his direction. He has encouraged his actors to find distinctive characteristics for their characters that are expressed in deportment and physicality in addition to the words they speak. Reactions are priceless, so you may find your eye wandering around the stage to gauge the effect of a line on various book club members.

The cast members are all good or better in their roles. Rick Chandler Bragg plays a prissy history buff and a distinctly different FBI agent, nailing both roles. Alison Lee has a generally deadpan delivery that sparks a good deal of comedy, although her secondary character doesn’t seem altogether different. Jordan Hermitt clearly traces the arc of her main character, a newbie at the start who becomes an established member. She’s fun and bright as her secondary character too. Justtyn Hutcheson does a fine job of differentiating his main character, a newer newbie, from a prison inmate. Scott Starkweather is hilarious throughout as the husband of the book club founder, played by Cat Rondeau. Ms. Rondeau controls a lot of the action, and her secure command of her lines sometimes contrasted with opening night missteps by a couple of the other actors. She really comes into her own in the second act, when the perky faux-cheerfulness of her initial scenes gives way to darker moods. But this is a comedy, so her emotional instability leads to many laughs.

I didn’t have particularly fond memories of Horizon’s production of "The Book Club Play," so I thought I didn’t like play itself. Not true! This is a funny script that works remarkably well in an intimate venue. André Eaton Jr.’s direction and the talents of the cast make this a truly fun evening of theatre. It’s always great to be pleasantly surprised by a show you’re giving a second chance to.

Rising to the Tap, by Adam Koplan & Andrew Nemr, music by Or Matias
Tapping In
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
"Rising to the Tap" is a one-man autobiographical show giving the highlights of Andrew Nemr’s life. The only child of Lebanese immigrants, he experienced bullying in his youth and took to tap-dancing, with the movie "Tap" acting as his main inspiration to make a career out of it. As a young teen, he was taken into the fold of well-known tap dancers, including Savion Glover, and performed with them up until the time he was excluded from the all-black "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk." Since then, he has worked with various troupes (including one founded by Savion Glover) and now tours his one-man show.

We learn about his youth and about his parents and get the biographical run-down of his life through the death of Gregory Hines, but we don’t get to learn much about him as a person in the current day. He gets to showcase his amazing tap-dancing skills and tell interesting stories, but we’re left with the impression that the loner he was as a child may also be a loner today.

Mr. Nemr is a fine public speaker, and it’s very impressive that he manages to talk so much and so well in a performance filled with strenuous dance solos. He may not be an actor in the classical sense, but in this autobiographical show he is himself, and that’s all that’s really necessary. His dancing is what wows. We know it’s the end of the show when his last dance pulls out all the stops, leaving him too winded for us to expect a spoken coda.

The story and the dances aren’t terribly well-integrated. There are a couple of early sections where dialogue before the dance number sets up a situation, and then the dance interprets the situation in non-verbal form. It’s a bit clunky in the section where he reads a list of his personal characteristics as a child, then dances the list and crosses items off it, but for the most part the dramatic sequences and the dances co-exist nicely.

The physical production is what one would expect of a small-scale touring show. There are two barstools and four 4’x8’ wooden platforms on the stage, with a projection screen behind. Matt Oliner’s lighting design generally follows Mr. Nemr as he travels around the playing area. Music, composed by Or Matias, accompanies the dances, and Jaz Dixon’s sound board operation pumps up the volume of the pre-recorded tracks to sometimes distressing levels. The music should be the background for Mr. Nemr’s tap rhythms; here, it’s more of a foreground sound.

"Rising to the Tap" feeds on the strength of The Flying Carpet Theatre, which specializes in collaborations, such as one-man autobiographical shows. The production is tweaked in each new run, so what has been seen at Theatrical Outfit may not be what audiences see in the future.

There’s a troubling racial dynamic in the story. Tap dancing developed as a black art form, and a white dancer (even a Middle Eastern one) cannot be fully integrated into its traditions. "Rising to the Tap" shows the struggles of someone who has only sporadically felt part of a group, and who has had to resort to dancing out his feelings to make his way through life. Let the dance continue!

Hair, by Gerome Ragni & James Rado (words), Galt MacDermot (music)
Haze Days
Saturday, July 6, 2019
Lots of stage fog. A fabric sling for acrobatics. An American flag touching the ground. All are elements seen in Serenbe’s recent "Ragtime," and they are also elements in Serenbe’s "Hair." You might call this a signature style. You might also call it a lack of variety in production values.

"Hair" doesn’t have the strongest plot in musical theatre, and Serenbe’s production does nothing to clarify it. The show is done largely as a rock concert, with microphone stands brought out center stage for most solo numbers. A drag queen (Mimi Imfurst/Braden Chapman) comes out for one scene, but otherwise only Jessica DeMaria seems to be past the first bloom of youth. Having her play a mother figure alongside younger people also portraying authority figures comes across as odd. She’s very good, as always, but seems out of place in this cast.

Josafath Reynoso’s scenic design emphasizes the rock concert aspect of this production. A raised stage contains scaffolding around the sides and back, with the second level of the scaffolding used occasionally. The band is visible in the back, with a portion brought forward for one of the numbers. Kevin Fraizer’s lighting design makes ample use of strips of LED lights on the back scaffolding that give a rock concert feel and that notably change colors in synchronization with the lyrics in a couple of the songs. A ramp leading down to the ground from the front of the stage is used frequently to bring the cast into the audience, but is used most effectively in Bubba Carr’s choreography for "Three-Five-Zero-Zero."

The choreography and Brian Clowdus’ direction keep the show active, and Bobby Johnston’s sound design that makes use of speakers scattered around the stage and the audience also adds to the sense of activity. With solo lines bouncing among cast members, it can sometimes be difficult to spot who’s singing what, and the combination of sound effects and singing can also contribute to less than ideal understandability. The pervasive use of echo effects during the songs, like the overuse of stage fog, seems to be part and parcel of a show that wants to rely more on creating an atmosphere than on telling a story.

Before the show, actors mingle with the audience. Many audience members sport hippie-inspired outfits, so it isn’t always easy to tell the players from the attendees before the show starts. Erik Teague’s costumes fit right in with the home-grown outfits. Chris Moneymaker’s props tend heavily toward fake joints. It all seems to be a tribute to an era that the production personnel didn’t experience first-hand. The pre-show and intermission sound clips from the Woodstock festival make it clear that Mr. Clowdus and crew are trying to recreate that sort of experience.

Music director Ed Thrower has done a fine job with the band. With singers, it’s more of a mixed bag. Shannon McCarren (as Jeanie) and Terrence J. Smith (as Hud) luckily have little solo singing to perform, because they’re pretty pitch-averse. Adante Carter (as Berger) has everything going for him in terms of looks, singing, and stage presence, and Casey Shuler (as Sheila) has a terrific voice, although she tends to vocally embellish her solos a little more than I would prefer. Some ensemble members make quite favorable impressions -- Leo Thomasian (as Woof), Stephanie Ronny (as Ronny), Brooke Bradley (as Crissy), and Jeremy Gee. Unfortunately, the central character of Claude is played by Zane Phillips, who has buff good looks and a fine voice, but doesn’t really capture the audience the way his character needs to. It doesn’t help that he, like many of the male cast members, is encumbered with a wig that looks pretty artificial.

Serenbe’s "Hair" isn’t musical theatre; it’s rock concert flash and smoke (without the mirrors). As always, Serenbe has created an environment that reflects the totality of the concept, in this case with a graffiti-covered picket fence around the stage and alongside the ramp, and with a graffiti-covered bus as the concession stand. It all has the feel of a Disney-esque Woodstock amusement park ride -- "It’s a Small World" for the adult crowd.

Driving Miss Daisy, by Alfred Uhry
After the Ball
Sunday, June 30, 2019
Alfred Uhry’s "Driving Miss Daisy" is a perennial favorite in the Atlanta theatre scene. Its small cast, non-representational scenic requirements, and affecting story make it an easily-produced, familiar offering. Georgia Ensemble Theatre is attempting to make a go of a month-long run at Oglethorpe University, in the auditorium previously used by the Georgia Shakespeare ensemble of blessed memory. The significant drive from GET’s usual home base in Roswell and the over-familiarity of the script might make this a challenge.

Stephanie Polhemus’ scenic design is a tad more elaborate than it need be. Stage right we have a few steps of a staircase leading up to an impossibly long landing. In front of that there’s a love seat and easy chair and table, in the approximation of a living room. Stage left there’s a low platform with a bookcase, hall tree, and door frame, with a pay phone suggested behind them. A desk and two chairs in front of the platform suggest Boolie’s office, although the door, hall tree, and bookcase are also used as part of Miss Daisy’s house. Up center a large window frame is suspended. Down center there’s two stools used for the car scenes. At least from certain angles, it looks like the larger elements are slightly off-level, including two large light fixtures on either side of the stage.

Under Laurel Crowe’s direction, there are a lot of wordless moments in the show. Sometimes they’re underscored by music, mostly variations on the 1890’s hit song "After the Ball." The song makes sense only in the context of it being a popular hit from the girlhood of Daisy Werthan (Ellen McQueen). The sentiments of the song are antithetical to Miss Daisy’s history as a Jewish widow who bristles at the hint of any pretentiousness, although it could be considered to make an oblique inside-joke reference to Uhry’s "The Last Night of Ballyhoo." A couple of Christmas selections in Preston Goodson’s sound design set the scene for a holiday segment, but otherwise it’s pretty much all "After the Ball."

Connor McVey’s lighting design highlights the various locations in which scenes are played and provides pleasing colors on the cyclorama that backs the set. Emmie Tuttle’s costumes do all they need to, although they’re a bit basic, and hats tend to mess up the white wig that Ms. McQueen wears.

Performances are all good. Ms. McQueen has the scrawny looks of a woman who has denied herself luxuries in life, and her pinched-mouth scowl is perfect for the character. Rob Cleveland, playing her chauffeur Hoke, and William S. Murphey, as her son Boolie, have both been in multiple previous productions of "Driving Miss Daisy," and their comic timing is priceless. They come close to stealing the show, but Ms. McQueen definitely holds her own.

"Driving Miss Daisy" has long been a staple in the Atlanta market, but GET’s current production is one of the better presentations of the script. Its thoroughly professional production values ensure that the strengths of the story come through, although the extended wordless sections and 90-minute, intermissionless runtime combine to make it seem a bit insubstantial. Let’s hope that audiences don’t let it pass them by.

The Complete History of America (Abridged), by Adam Long, Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor
Standing Up in a Hammock
Sunday, June 30, 2019
You may want to love "The Complete History of America (Abridged)" in the worst way. After all, the same authors (Adam Long, Reed Martin, and Austin Tichenor) tackled William Shakespeare with huge success. Their take on American history is less successful, although equally silly and more musical. Elm Street Cultural Art Village’s production does it justice.

The set is simple. The stage curtains are parted slightly to allow a view to whiteness upstage. Flats on either side of the stage show comic-style illustrations by Siobhan Brumbelow of iconic American moments. For the first act, there’s a prop station and keyboard center stage. For the second act, four folding chairs appear instead. Props, wigs, and costumes come on and go off with wild abandon. Brian Gamel’s lighting enhances the action, with frequent projections on a screen above the playing space and on the television monitors on either side of the stage (also used for pre-show and intermission entertainment).

Director Joshua Robinson has set a frantic pace for the production, and his three actors throw themselves into their roles. They’re all fine vocalists and good musicians, tackling the keyboard (Kate Johnson), the saxophone (Daniel Sickbert), and the harmonica (Jim Dailey). The musical segments are some of the most successful moments of the show.

The script gives the actors general personalities: Kate Johnson is the head honcho, trying to keep things on track; Jim Dailey is the wacky, off-the-wall one; Daniel Sickbert is the straight man, with the most successful impressions. All get their fair share of comedy.

Don’t go to "The Complete History of America (Abridged)" expecting to learn anything. Do expect a Trump segment and off-color humor. Come prepared to get wet if you sit in the first few rows. But most of all, just come expecting to have silly fun.

Bonnie and Clyde, the Musical, by Ivan Henchell (book), Frank Wildhorn (music), Don Black (lyrics)
Killing It
Saturday, June 29, 2019
"Bonnie and Clyde" has a simple set at the School Street Playhouse in Cumming -- flats with a recycled barn lumber look flanking a platform made from pallets. At the start of the show, there’s a representation of a car atop the platform. Other set pieces are moved on and off as needed. Music covers set changes when needed, but there’s not a lot of time wasted during the changes.

Lighting is more complex, illuminating different parts of the stage during scenes in which focus rapidly changes from one spot to another and then back. Actors don’t always remain squarely within the limits of a spotlight, but there are no glaring missteps in lighting. Together with period costumes and props, this is a fairly good-looking production.

Sound is a bit more problematic. The pre-recorded tracks of the musical score vary in style and in the type of accompaniment, but the volume is kept at a high level throughout. To allow voices to be heard, the volume on the singers’ microphones is pumped up to the point of muddiness. It’s a bit problematic in a musical when dialogue can be pretty readily understood and songs cannot be.

Peachtree Players’ production is definitely a community theatre production, with the consequent inconsistencies in talent. The two leads are terrific. Dane Croxton, as Clyde Barrow, has leading man good looks and a strong, true voice. Kealy Ford, as Bonnie Parker, has the looks and stage presence of a star-struck teenager, with a terrific voice. Sarah Serena Thompson, as the child version of Bonnie, is also terrific. The rest of the cast supports them ably, with Brian Slayton equaling their vocal talent as Ted, a lawman with feelings for Bonnie. Generally, the larger the role, the better the performance.

Director Alicia Lane Dutton has put together a creditable production of a dramatic musical. The choreography is pretty basic, but both dramatic and comic moments get the expected reactions. The show may not have been a success on Broadway, but Cumming is enjoying a production that gives the show its due. With a varied score and a clear storyline, it’s entertaining, if not transcendent.

Dutchman, by Amiri Baraka
Bitter Chocolate
Saturday, June 29, 2019
LeRoi Jones wrote "Dutchman" in the early 1960’s, soon before changing his name to Amiri Baraka. It was a sensation at the time, but partly due to the short running time (45 minutes in the Appco Alumni production), it is rarely produced. Its incendiary views on racial politics also contribute to its limited production history.

In the Aurora black box space, Keith Kennard’s set design consists of a low rectangular platform, covered in graffiti, on which rest two park benches, two wooden cubes, and five steel poles. The poles lean at various shallow angles from the upright, and their purpose becomes clear only when the play begins. The setting is intended to be a subway car. It’s very much a make-do set design.

Hakeem Frazier’s sound design gives us subway sounds that help set the locale, and Jeremiah Davison’s subtle lighting design does a very nice job at the outset to indicate both the interior of the subway car and a view of a woman on a platform outside. As the play progresses, action is restricted to the subway car. Lighting helps shape the action.

The audience space is configured as seats surrounding a shallow thrust playing space, with four café tables up front. At times, the audience is addressed as if we’re also travelers in the subway car. For the most part, though, this is a two-person show. A third person, a young black man (Johnathan T. Anderson) is napping on a subway bench before the show starts, enters and exits another time to comic effect, then enters again at the ominous end of the show.

The main action consists of white Lula (Jordyn Cavros) attempting to seduce black Clay (Markell Williams), who is on his way to a friend’s party, dressed in a three-piece suit. She seems to know a lot about him, but punctuates her informed guesses with the warning that she lies a lot. He’s intrigued, and it seems they may be headed to a hook-up, but then things take a nasty turn. Lula has been monopolizing the conversation, but when she goes too far in her mocking of Clay, he erupts in anger and takes control. It ends badly for him.

Director Daisean Garrett has blocked the show with a nice variety of movement, and he has gotten spirited performances out of his actors. Ms. Cavros portrays the type of over-the-top personality that can be fascinating upon an initial interaction, but that quickly wears thin; so much so that at the performance I attended one person started clapping when she was slapped. Mr. Williams is an actor with quicksilver emotions playing over his face, going through a true journey as Clay, from quiet observer to incensed black man. Despite apparent line bobbles on opening night, the power of the play comes through clearly.

This Aurora AppCo Alumni production is a lot lighter on alumni contributions than previous shows. Of the people whose biographies appear in the program, only Mr. Garrett is a former member of the Aurora apprentice company. Still, it’s laudable that a rarely-performed modern American classic is being brought to the stage. It’s a difficult play, but one that deserves to be seen from time to time, particularly since racial harmony is no more a feature of our times than it was in the 1960’s.

Altar Boyz, by Kevin Del Agulia (book), Michael Patrick Walker and Gay Adler (songs)
Rock Camp
Saturday, June 29, 2019
Imagine the cast of "Forever Plaid" finding religion and wanting to do a gender-reversed production of "Nunsense," but finding that they don’t have the rights, but DO have the set for "Godspell." That pretty much gives you the flavor of Marietta Theatre Company’s "Altar Boyz." There’s plenty of religion, plenty of choral harmonies, and plenty of generally lame humor.

Choreographer Zac Phelps seems finally to have realized that he can’t do a good job of choreographing in the alley black box space with audience on multiple sides of the room. The solution is a set that features an angled chain link fence between the entrance to the black box space and the graffitied back brick wall, leaving audience just on two sides. That allows the choreography to be angled toward the corner of the room between the two halves of the audience. It’s basically choreography for a proscenium stage, but it works to give the entire audience good sightlines of the dance moves.

And, boy, is there a lot of dancing! The five members of the cast seem almost continually to be in motion. This is a very active show, and the movement makes for a visually exciting show. Add in Brad Rudy’s lighting design, which includes LED lights on and behind the chain link fence, an illuminated "Altar Boyz" sign, and a countdown LED, and you have a viscerally stunning show. With tons of lighting cues, there’s very little that goes wrong. True, there’s a small dim spot down front during general illumination and lack of a special effect when each portion of the Altar Boyz’ origin story ends, but the complicated lighting scheme goes off without a hitch.

John Michael d’Haviland fronts an excellent four-piece band that sits in the area behind the chain link fence. As music director, he has gotten the cast to produce an overall fine sound, but the constant activity of the show has a toll on the voices, with the penultimate number, "Number 918," sounding very ragged. Gamble’s sound design has its issues too, with the microphone levels inconsistent among the cast members. I could hear every word Nicholas Anthony spoke or said, but I missed most of the lyrics sung by David Wells and Jared D. Howard. Landon Ebuna’s Hispanic accent, while working very well, can add to the difficulty of distinguishing words.

The cast is well-balanced in terms of dance skills, but the performances are a bit of a mixed bag. Mr. Anthony is wonderful as closeted gay Mark, reacting beautifully to each moment in the show. Sully Brown is bright and energetic as Matthew, but has low volume on his low notes. David Wells has a resting face that seems to have a bored expression, and his acting as Luke can seem a bit stilted, making him appear a bit out of his depth (although he is the flashiest dancer of the bunch). Landon Ebuna is full of energy and pizzazz as Juan, making a terrific impression throughout. Jared B. Howard is more understated as the black, Jewish Abraham (particularly in his sweet vocals), but his performance acts as a nice counterweight to the Catholic boys’ frequent frenzy.

Jeff Cooper has directed a show that is more flash than substance. The songs have their clever moments, but are generally unmemorable. The title number is particularly weak and repetitive. The plot, such as it is, is paper-thin. The success of the production depends on the talent and energy of the cast members. Marietta Theatre Company has assembled a group that fulfills the needs of the script, but they don’t transcend the material. The show is sheer, mindless entertainment with a sometimes uncomfortably religious aspect.

Never Too Late, by Sumner Arthur Long
Edith and Archie ... whoops, Harry!
Saturday, June 29, 2019
"Never Too Late" is being advertised by the Players Guild @ Sugar Hill as the inspiration for TV’s "All in the Family." There’s certainly some similarity in the core cast -- a curmudgeonly husband, a put-upon wife, a live-at-home married daughter, and a ne’er-do-well son-in-law. The family conditions are different, though: the husband runs a successful lumberyard in a two-lumberyard town; the wife is newly pregnant, requiring the daughter to take over her household duties; and the son-in-law is an unappreciated employee of his father-in-law’s. There’s definitely a 1962 feel to the script, with a housewife suddenly discovering she can write checks, and not just rely on her husband’s weekly household allowance. Don’t expect edgy political debates, or anything very topical at all until the end, when a veiled allusion to JFK occurs.

The production in Sugar Hill boasts a set designed by Terry Mulligan and Tom Heagy and dressed by Ane Mulligan. There’s a window down right, the front door to the house to its left, a staircase up center left with a landing at center and a closet below, and a passageway up left leading to the unseen kitchen. A chair rail around the room is topped with a wallpaper border, in a design choice that seems to have little to do with the time period of the play. For furnishings, we have a sofa, a couple of upholstered chairs, a record player, and a small dining set. Special props of a toilet and a bathtub make an appearance too. Costumes aren’t always well-fitting, but give a feel for each person’s station in life.

Director Alan Hyma has assembled a fine group of actors to bring the play to (dated) life. Joe McLaughlin and Karin Goss are confident and consistent in their roles as the husband and wife, mining the comedy present in the script. Alyssa Brooke is a delight as the daughter, and Michael Crocker brings wonderful physical comedy to his role as the son-in-law. Next-door neighbor Mayor Crane is played with assurance by the golden-voiced Paul Ryden, and John Byers invests a contractor and a policeman with authority. John Zimmermann is perhaps too young for his role as Dr. Kimbrough, and Windi Key doesn’t always have sufficient volume as his wife, but they fill their roles ably.

Mr. Hyma’s blocking keeps the show active, starting with Mr. McLaughlin running around the room a few times before having his pulse checked. This is the kind of show that requires momentum to carry the audience through, and it certainly has that in the speech and performances of the actors. There are often tiny pauses between lines, though, that slow the momentum a bit. With a breakneck pace, the show could become a laugh-riot. As it is, it’s a pleasant comedy harkening back to yesteryear.

Tapas IV, The Great Divide, by Benedict, Bray, Bruna, Freeman, Martin, Shima, Steadman, Whitehorn, Wang,
A Congeries
Saturday, June 29, 2019
Any collection of short plays is bound to have weak and strong entries, especially one with plays by different playwrights and directed by different directors. "Tapas IV" is no exception. At least the order of the plays grows gradually stronger as the evening progresses.

The set, constructed by Jim Walsh, consists of a back wall containing a window stage right and narrow double doors up center. Most entrances and exits, though, are from/to the curtained area off stage left that serves as a backstage area for the actors. Erica French’s lighting design illuminates each play nicely, with a fine special effect at the end of the evening. Robert Drake’s sound design enhances several of the plays. Ladisa Banks’ costumes and Fiona Leonard’s props also add to the impact of the individual plays. Paige Steadman’s fight choreography and Rebecca Botter’s intimacy choreography get less of a workout, but fulfill their needs with aplomb.

The evening starts with a radio play podcast episode from the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, in which David Benedict (the playwright and director) and two females read from a script involving the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. The script may change daily; the episode I heard had to do with the Guinness Book of World Records needing to be updated with post-zombie apocalypse records. As a radio play, it’s pretty dull visually to start the show.

Second up is Martha Patterson’s "Hamlet’s Revenge," in which Hamlet’s reactions to demands for revenge from his father’s ghost are supposed to be funny. Under the direction of Robert Drake, this play falls completely flat. It requires fairly detailed knowledge of Shakespeare’s "Hamlet," and could work only with a bravura performance from the Hamlet. Marcus Tabb falls well short of being able to pull it off. Kenneth Nance, Jr. is marvelous as the ghost, and he’s the only redeeming quality of this dreadful selection.

"153" follows, in which Steven Martin’s characters are named 18 (Faina Annabella Khibkin), 45 (Scott Ward), and 90 (Natalie W. Baker). These numbers add up to 153, and that’s about the only thing that ultimately adds up in this baffling play. The acting is terrific under Paige Steadman’s direction, but the reason for these people having to move on from their current location without leaving a mess goes unexplained. Ms. Khibkin is cast as a boy in this show, which throws the sexual dynamic way off and adds to the bafflement.

"Two Artists Trying to Pay Their Bill," by Lucy Wang, is one of those short plays that takes an interesting concept and beats it to death. A restaurant’s owner (the terrific Ryan Cunningham) decides to hike his prices after a five-star review, and musician Chen (Dharma Moreau) and playwright Wang (Kirstin Popper) can’t afford to play their bill, so they propose paying the owner with art. Variations on the proposal seem to go on forever. Director Janine Leslie has gotten dynamic performances out of her cast, but the energy can’t disguise the fact that the play goes on too long.

The first act ends with the first truly effective play of the evening. Frank Shima’s "The Love of the Game" involves baseball. Long-time fans (Allen Stone, Rocia Terry, and Brittany Nicole Timmons) interact in the stands with a newcomer (John Doyle) who has misread his seat ticket. The interactions are interesting and nicely acted, and the script ends on a note that is equally comic and poignant. Director Keith Franklin and the cast hit this one out of the ballpark.

Things look up in the second act, starting with Paige Steadman’s "Amicable." Wedded partners Leda (Natalie W. Baker) and Wati (Natelege el-Shair) are at a government office seeking a divorce, with Katie Wickline as the official attending to them. The twist is that the two are truly in love and committed to one another, but Wati’s mother insists on a church wedding for them, which her church will recognize only if the two people being joined are legally single. The discussions take interesting turns until a satisfactory solution is found. Director Lynn Hosking’s blocking is a little static at times and Ms. el-Shair could use better diction and volume, but the play as a whole works, and works very well.

The delightful "Press Pray" by Seth Freeman follows. A man (John Doyle, as charismatic and natural here as he is in "The Love of the Game") has come to a chapel to pray. But what he gets is menu lists of selections from a voice on high (the unseen Bert Lyons). It’s funny and relatable, wonderfully directed by Fracena Byrd and wonderfully acted. The play could use a bit more heart -- after all, the man has come in with a troubled mind -- but the comedy fires on all cylinders.

John Patrick Bray’s "Buckle" shows a couple of schoolgirls (Faina Annabella Khibkin and Katie Wickline) breaking into a schoolroom to sneak a peak at an upcoming test. It doesn’t start out promisingly, with fingers gripping the muntins that supposedly contain panes of glass, but the acting is quite good, and the script’s analysis of a superficially sweet and cheery poem has some real depth. Nancy Riggs has directed a show that adds to the strength of the second act.

Chloe Whitehorn’s "Vintages" suffers a bit from miscasting and an overall sourness of tone. Catherine Thomas plays an older sister with wrinkles who is trying to convince her younger sister (Elisabeth Allen) not to get plastic surgery. Ms. Thomas fits her role well (although it’s not particularly flattering for a playwright to denigrate a character’s appearance), but Ms. Allen is young -- far from a fading middle-aged beauty with a teenage daughter (Rebecca Botter). As a consequence, the play’s bitter view of divorce and the use of a single male actor (Michael Jackson III) playing both the daughter’s boyfriend and the ex-husband lead to a somewhat muddled perspective. Director Madeline McCanless has gotten generally good performances out of the actors, but the show leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

The final play, Lisa Bruna’s "Shaming Ava," is entertaining throughout, but goes on a bit long nevertheless. Ava (Ms. Khibkin again) has come to a TV show promising to shame her for her horrible actions. The problem is that the host (Bert Lyons) and his sidekick (Kenneth Nance, Jr.) don’t consider her actions horrible at all. Bringing soup to a homeless girl -- what’s horrible about that? We get some answers in the course of the play, but they don’t come very quickly. Rob Raissle has directed the host and sidekick to use very believable British accents, and the use of "boo" and "applause" signs involves the audience in an engaging fashion. Acting is top-notch, with the nearly silent Mr. Nance coming close to stealing the show with his perfectly in-character reactions, and the show ends on a sweet, poignant note.

"Tapas IV: The Great Divide" is a mixed bag, with half the plays disappointing and the other half good. Unfortunately, the disappointment of the first couple of plays lingers throughout the evening, not ever being fully redeemed. There’s some terrific work onstage, but it has to be taken along with less admirable efforts that drag down the overall quality of the show.

Friel Deal Two Plays After Anton Chekhov, by Brian Friel
Wednesday, June 19, 2019
"The Friel Deal" consists of two Chekhovian one-act plays written by Irish playwright Brian Friel. The first, "The Bear," is pretty much a translation of Chekhov’s comic play. The second, "The Yalta Game," is adapted from a Chekhov short story. The moods of the two are quite different, but both succeed as fine theatrical works.

In "The Bear," widow Elena (Erin Greenway) is visited by boorish Gregory Smirnov (Tamil Periasamy). He has come to collect a debt incurred by her late husband; his estate is in jeopardy of repossession if he can’t get the money right away. His insistence and her intransigence lead to a challenge to a duel before things take an unexpected turn. The extreme behaviors of both rise to comic heights, and the attempts by a feeble servant (Chris Schulz) to accommodate them both adds additional comedy. This is a wet play, with water splashed with abandon and vodka swilled and used for a splendid spit take. The fun builds and builds.

"The Yalta Game" is a two-hander. Dmitry (Eric Lang) introduces us to the game he plays while sitting in the square in downtown Yalta: he makes up semi-fantastical stories about the people he sees about him, inventing backstories and secret liaisons. Then he meets Anna (Christina Leidel), and a secret liaison of their own begins. Both are married, but are unaccompanied by their spouses in the city. The course of their relationship plays out over the course of the production. The sweetness of desire and fulfillment battles against social propriety, leading to a bittersweet ending. This is a tender, affecting story.

There is no scenery in the production; the walls are of the black box space. A red fainting couch and rug are accompanied by a red-tableclothed round table in the first play; the second play removes the tablecloth and moves the set pieces, adding three folding chairs. Elisabeth Cooper’s lighting design uses a window pane gobo for the first play that does a nice job of setting the scene, but becomes a bit problematic when action moves in and out of the shadows caused by the muntins between the panes. Lighting effects are far more varied and effective in "The Yalta Game." Joan Cooper’s costumes are lovely.

As for sound, Robert Drake’s design helps to set the mood for each play. The actors are not amplified, but project well. Dialect coach Kathleen McManus (also the director of "The Bear") hasn’t done a particularly good job of getting authentic Irish accents out of the cast, though; slips into American speech patterns seem to be fairly frequent. The necessity of Irish accents can be questioned, since these are Russian people and Friel’s language doesn’t depend on Irish dialectical expressions. Ignore the accents and the acting is first-rate.

The casts seem to be uniformly thirtyish. Each play has one older character, and in "The Bear" we have Chris Schulz in age makeup and an obvious bald cap. In "The Yalta Game," Eric Lang has gray on his temples and in his goatee. The obvious artificiality in the first act immediately signals that we’re about to see an over-the-top comedy; the subtlety of the makeup in "The Yalta Game" likewise signals the subtlety of the piece that is beginning.

Directors Kathleen McManus ("The Bear") and Tim McDonough ("The Yalta Game") have done fine jobs of encouraging their actors to dig into their roles and give memorable performances. Mr. Periasamy is a force of nature onstage, balanced by Ms. Greenway’s quiet fire. Mr. Schulz’s movements are often comic shtick, but his performance flavors them with authenticity. Mr. Lang and Ms. Leidel are transcendent in their roles, making us truly care about them both.

"The Friel Deal" isn’t particularly Irish, but it does give us a chance to see some Chekhov onstage, which is a rare event in Atlanta these days. The production isn’t perfect by any means, but Mr. Periasamy and Ms. Leidel in particular give standout performances that should be seen and savored. Arís has once again created a production that deserves viewing.

Working, by Adapted by Nina Faso, Stephen Schwartz, Gordon Greenberg; Songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, James Taylor, Micki Grant, etc.
No Shirking
Saturday, June 15, 2019
Based on Studs Terkel’s interviews with "the common working (wo)man" and updated with the participation of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical "Working" combines monologues and songs to limn the work experiences of a variety of people. Out of Box’s production sets the audience on either side of a long central platform, with the surrounding floor used as auxiliary playing spaces. The three-piece band is housed at the upstage wall. In the set design by Carolyn Choe and director Kristin Storla, this is very much a black-box space, with just painted girders on the walls and an exhaust fan as permanent set decorations. A small square rolling platform gets lots of use in the staging, and chairs and tables and a chalkboard frame are brought on to populate specific scenes.

Monica Malone’s energetic choreography gives all the actors a workout. Great care has been given to ensure that all audience members get good views. Particularly at the beginning and end, actors stand side-by-side down the middle of the platform, half facing toward one side of the audience and half facing toward the other side, with frequent shifts. Ms. Storla’s blocking of the non-musical movements is similarly cognizant of audience sightlines.

Annie Cook’s music direction is as fine as ever, but the great amount of movement in the show does affect vocal quality. The show is a workout for the performers in terms of singing, dancing, and acting, but the emphasis is on acting. Everyone gets a chance to deliver an extended monologue and to lead the vocals in at least one number. All impress.

Andrew Andersen and Mala Bhattacharya have lovely voices that are allowed to shine in musical numbers that aren’t preceded by breath-robbing exertions. Patrick Hill’s voice is also terrific, but he’s asked to employ it mostly in conjunction with dance movements. Everyone else has a voice that blends nicely into a rousing choral sound.

The solo moments allow the actors to show off their acting chops. Kevin Qian, Amy Levin, Hannah Chiclana, Brandon Deen, Lakytra Hamilton, and Kait Rivas all have solo spots that truly impress. Lauren Tully, Mary Ruth Ralston, and Dylan Parker Singletary provide constant support throughout the show, gamely chiming in with whatever lines or dance moves the production requires. Ms. Ralston in particular invests her moments with quiet dignity, which is sort of the point of the show -- anyone in any profession can take pride in their work, no matter how invisible it might be to the rest of the world.

Carolyn Choe’s costumes consist primarily of gray work jumpsuits and yellow bandanas, employed variously for various effects, and augmented by occasional overgarments in the yellow family. A fireman’s outfit for Mr. Hill is the most impressive costume. Mostly, the costumes could be described as workaday.

Nina Gooch’s lighting design has some difficulties evenly illuminating the entire length of the playing space, but the more localized scenes are nicely lit. Projections on the upstage wall often give character names and occupations, but since no audience seats are aimed in that direction, they’re easy to miss.

Sydney Tolbert’s sound design keeps the band’s sound level uniform and at a volume that doesn’t overpower the singers. Because of the staging, though, there are moments when you may lose occasional words from an actor facing away from you. The need to project solo lines in a choral number can also take a toll on voices.

Out of Box’s "Working" isn’t a visually exciting show. The black box space and uniform costumes lend a sameness to the look that is only enhanced by Ms. Gooch’s generally subdued lighting. But the show isn’t a fun and frothy musical extravaganza, and the kinetic energy of the movement keeps it visually interesting. It’s the material that comes shining through. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s two new songs don’t hold a candle to the ones from the original production, in my opinion, but the whole production works well to provide insights into a cross-section of U.S. employment.

Out of Box’s "Working" has created a creditable production under Kristin Storla’s excellent direction. It may not be the musical of your dreams, but it’s a production that blends musical contributions from a number of songwriters into a cohesive whole. Talk about an ensemble show! There’s no shirking in this "Working."

Jump, by Charly Evon Simpson
Friday, June 14, 2019
"Jump" is a well-constructed, intriguing new play by Charly Evon Simpson that is being produced at Actor’s Express as part of a rolling world premiere. Given that the set is primarily a bridge and the title is "Jump," you’d be correct in assuming that the play involves a suicide due to a person jumping from the bridge. But your assumptions should extend only that far.

Emmie Finckel’s scenic design is a wow-er. Symmetrical on the diagonal, it runs through the middle of the black box space, with audience on either side. The main part of the set represents a bridge, with steel-appearing girders undergirding the raised structure and "W" shaped supports at either end. Steel cable railings peter out toward the middle of the bridge. Water pools beneath it. Wider sections of the stage at either end support furnishings: a bed and hope chest on the lobby side, on a braided oval rug; and an easy chair and ottoman on the far side, on a rectangular orange shag rug.

The other technical elements of the production are fine, if less impressive. Costumes by Dr. L. Nyrobi N. Moss are contemporary, so there’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary, and Christopher Dills’ props fulfill all the specific requirements of the script (although using a cigarette-looking device to represent a real cigarette softens the viewpoint of the character that vaping isn’t "real" smoking). Lighting by André C. Allen illuminates the stage, but at times seems a little clunky. Chris Lane’s sound design does a very nice job of playing environmental sounds for the bridge that enhance the atmosphere without becoming distracting.

The structure of the play moves between time periods, but the movement is consciously fuzzy. Almost at the outset, we see the lights dim and brighten (somewhat clunkily) as the main character, Fay (Cyrah Hill), experiences déjà vu. We also are introduced to magical realism elements at the outset; we see Fay vaping, then dropping her vape pen in the water before catching apparently the same vape pen falling from the sky. (Is this a new trend? "Hands of Color" at synchronicity also has objects dropping from the sky.) This opening effect is echoed at the end of the play, in a wonderfully affecting moment.

Lydia Fort has directed the play with an eye toward sightlines for the split audience, but not always effectively. One early moment has two characters standing side by side in conversation, one facing in one direction and one facing in the opposite, in what seems to be a very artificial manner. Some later scenes seem to be played with faces toward just one side of the audience (luckily, the side I chose). Still, she has directed an effective production.

The main performances are terrific. Ms. Hill is wonderful throughout, and is nearly matched by Gil Eplan-Frankel as a troubled stranger she meets on the bridge. The other two actors are less impressive. Brittani Minnieweather is bright and personable as Fay’s sister Judy, but, as I overhead a patron saying on leaving the theater, "she doesn’t add much." Gerard Catus plays their father, and his performance seems a tad actor-y, with lots of wordless gestures and "acting moments" that make him seem very adept as an actor, but not quite in fitting with the rest of the production.

Mr. Catus’ performance helps add to the sensation of diffuseness in the play. The opening of the show repeats the same action over and over for both sides of the audience. There are two extended music sequences in which people dance, and they both go on far past the point of making their point. Watching people vape also adds silent moments to the show that give the feeling that things are being stretched out to fill a full 90 minutes. As we watch the vape vapors diffuse into the air, our interest wanes until the engrossing action starts up again.

"Jump" is a first-rate script being given a professional production at Actor’s Express, but one that slightly misses the mark in Lydia Fort’s direction. Ms. Hill’s performance is definitely worth the price of admission, and Mr. Eplan-Frankel adds to his list of recent, well-received performances, while Ms. Finckel’s set design impresses. If all elements of the production were up to those standards, this would be a five-star event.

Hands of Color, by Kimberly Monks
Walk a Mile in His Shoes
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
Kimberly Monks’ "Hands of Color" merges magical realism with the racial divide between whites and black to tell a story with a murky moral. We first see a fractured representation of a black man being gunned down by the police, witnessed by his ten-year-old daughter. We then see the white couple of Thomas (Justin Walker) and his girlfriend (Emily Kleypas) discussing the "n" word in the current time, while a candle-and-photo memorial to the month-ago murder still remains outside his house. When Robert (Enoch King) leaves his shoes at the memorial, things start getting weird. When Thomas picks them up, tosses them in the trash, and then sees them dropping from his ceiling, things get weirder. And when he puts them on and can’t take them off, he finds himself walking in another man’s shoes through the last period of that other man’s life. Think "Freaky Friday" meets "Ghost" meets racism redeemed.

Thomas W. Jones II has directed a pretty fluid representation of the script, but it’s not aesthetically pleasing. Derrick Vanmeter’s set consists of various white clapboard and white brick wall segments plus a similarly painted bar that revolves to reveal a sofa. The constant movement of the revolving portions of the set often leaves the stage looking cluttered. Mr. Vanmeter’s projections, mostly appearing on two fixed clapboard sections at the edges of the stage, do a nice job of setting scene, but rarely last for long as the script skips from location to location. Maranda DeBusk’s lighting has a dim area down right (at least at the performance I attended) and that detracts from the visual appeal of the production too. Mr. Vanmeter’s costumes and Samantha Eubanks’ props are fine.

Sound design and music composition are by Chris Lane. This sets up some scenes of the play, but isn’t distracting. The vocal projection of the actors is excellent, so the dialogue can easily be heard.

Acting is fine across the board. Justin Walker is forceful and commanding as Thomas, while Enoch King is more subdued as his counterpart Robert. Wendy Fox Williams plays two roles nicely, one a fairly stereotypical wife and the other a stereotypically sassy, back-talking black secretary. College student Therecia Lang gives a winning performance as magic-endowed ten-year-old Stephanie. Emily Kleypas plays four characters acceptably, with costuming and wigs helping to differentiate her roles.

"Hands of Color" involves hot-button issues of race in a way that is likely to give the career of newbie playwright Kimberly Monks a big boost. The feel-good ending may not heal the racial divide in our society, but it hints at the possibility of healing on an individual basis. Thomas W. Jones II and the cast imbue the proceedings with heartfelt sincerity, so the script is certainly being given its due at Synchronicity.

Red, by John Logan
Seeing Red
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
John Logan’s "Red" depicts artist Mark Rothko’s two-year journey to fulfill a commission to create a mural wall for the Four Seasons Restaurant in Philip Johnson’s new Seagrams Building. This is a two-man show, pairing Rothko with a new assistant, Ken, who is an aspiring artist himself. During the play, we see Ken develop his own artistic sensibilities and Rothko pronounce, and then question his own. In the right hands, the show can become a powerhouse display of emotions and artistic philosophy. In the Yard Dogs Ensemble production, the show doesn’t seem to be in ideal hands.

Director Melissa Simmons tries to make a feature out of scene changes by playing music (mostly classical), as Robert Mello (Rothko) and Jase Wingate (Ken) make stylized movements in dim pools of light (lighting design by Lindsey Sharpless). This pseudo-choreography is almost laughable in execution, spoiling any effect the preceding scene might have had. The only one of these sequences having some useful impact is when Rothko paints his wrist with a slash of red, foreshadowing his ultimate suicide, and the following scene undercuts that impact.

The actors are certainly invested in their roles, but their performances don’t capture the imagination. Mr. Mello has great diction, but suffers from an intrinsically inexpressive, flat delivery of the sort usually associated with newbie actors trying overly hard to project. He has lots of levels of vocal projection, but the overwhelming sense of his performance is of his mouth chewing out the words while his eyes seem impassive behind his glasses.

The character of Ken starts the play as a fairly unsophisticated individual, his artistic sensibilities honed under the tutelage of Rothko as the play proceeds. There’s no sense of uncertainty in this development, though; he just suddenly seems to be spouting arcane philosophical views when the lines require it. There’s a scene in which he remembers sad events from the past, and this scene seems to be done as a monologue in acting class, with no appreciable transition from the previous dialogue, and consequently feeling false as a result.

The set is fine, consisting of some large canvases, sawhorses, ladders and a couple of surfaces for paints and for coffee, in addition to a record player and an Adirondack chair stage left. It looks very much like an artist’s studio, and Lillian Johnson’s props flesh this out admirably. Lucas Scott has constructed one movable wall for hanging canvases, but otherwise the walls and doors of the black box theatre define the space.

"Red" is a little high-blown in its discussions of the modern art world, as filtered through the eyes of the curmudgeonly Rothko. In the wrong hands, this could become a tediously pretentious disquisition on "Art" with a capital "A." The Yard Dogs production has enough variety of action, volume, and emotional levels that tedium isn’t an issue, but the production as a whole misses the mark. Two luminously engaging performances are needed, and this production doesn’t have that.

The Antipodes, by Annie Baker
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
Annie Baker likes to give actors challenges. In "The Antipodes," she has half the cast members recite long lists of the number of distinct types of stories, and that’s not counting an actor who spins a convoluted creation myth story after chugging two cans of sparkling water. There’s a lot of memorization required, and not of the type that mimics naturally flowing conversation. The ultimate goal of the brain-storming session that forms the heart of the play is never fully explicated, so it’s as if Ms. Baker intends to challenge both actors and audience with pointless story-telling.

That said, director Grant McGowen and his talented cast have put together a production that holds interest throughout the first act. The brainstorming sessions peter out as the second act unfolds, and with the absence of Alex Van as the group’s leader, the script starts to wander before ending. The show has an intriguing concept, but it’s one that defies conventional resolution. The play replaces plot with an extended series of interrelated character studies.

Mr. Van is forceful as Sandy, the wealthy leader of a group of brainstormers. Michael Weldon is sour as long-time team member Dave, while Jeff Morgan has a gentler presence as an equally-long-time member. Britt Douyon plays the ever-snacking newbie Eleanor with great charm (although she hardly looks half-Icelandic), and Keith Douglas is a nerdy bundle of nerves as another new team member. Thien Vuong, as Josh, is pretty expressionless, and Will Redwood, as Adam, has a pretty dull demeanor too. James Cogswell has a couple of nice turns as note-taker Brian, and Jayson Warner Smith creates an effective performance in a videotaped segment. Holly A. Johnson is a sheer delight as assistant Sarah, all perkiness and wide-eyed enthusiasm.

Mr. McGowan wears several hats in the production. In addition to directing, he has designed the costumes, lights, and sound, all of which enhance the show. The glitchy videotaped segment is particularly fine, beautifully edited for maximum comic effect. While the supposed Skype session is occurring, a projection screen descends to cover the back wall, a grid of twelve window panels whose colors mimic the saturated pastels of the LaCroix sparkling water boxes that are stacked in front of them. A half-oval conference desk uses up most of the real estate on the raised stage, with six office chairs around it, plus a higher stool for Sandy. Another chair sits in the up left corner for the note-taker. It’s all very corporate-looking, but with a color-coordinated feel that extends to the Post-It notes on the table and on the whiteboard on the stage left wall.

"The Antipodes" looks at mythic storytelling from various perspectives, bringing in the individual characters’ backstories through the excuse that Sandy’s brainstorming style is to draw from the personal lives of the brainstormers. It’s entertaining to start with, but wears thin after a while. Still, the brilliance of the acting and the taut direction make this a show definitely worth seeing.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare
A Dream
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
When you go to see a production by a new company, you’re never quite sure what to expect. If you’re familiar with cast members or design team members, you have some idea of the typical quality of their work. If you’re familiar with the venue they’re using, you have some idea of the scope of production to expect. But if you go in not knowing what to expect, your expectations generally are low. With Gwinnett Classic Theatre’s inaugural production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," you can raise those expectations.

From the first moments, it’s clear that director Robbie Summerour has instilled in his actors a clear understanding of the text and has encouraged them to create distinct, unique characters, aided by Jordan Hermitt’s inventive costume design. That’s not all, though; he has also ensured that they speak clearly and fluidly, giving a momentum to the production that falters only as the show moves towards its conclusion.

Given the restrictions of the venue, this is a small-scale production. Becca Parker’s set design consists of four rotating panels behind a narrow platform that tapers on either side. Furniture moves on and off as needed for individual scenes. The panels show faux marble for the start and end of the show; for the middle portion, they show the trees of a forest. André Eaton’s lighting design includes flickers of colored lights in pools on the stage to represent magical effects. It’s all simple, but effective. The only improvement might be a headband in Darci Wells’ prop design to represent Bottom’s donkey ears; the pigtails that powerhouse Nicole Convis sports almost look like they could be propped up to look like donkey ears.

The pairs of lovers populating the main portion of the plot make the biggest impact. Alex Barrella makes for a dynamically romantic Lysander, while Jimmy O’Connor’s Demetrius has a sturdy presence that melts into delightful romanticism when under a spell. Madison Cook gives a delightful valley girl spin to Helena, while Chandler Smith imparts a wry individuality to Hermia, although she could work on her diction and projection. The blocking for these characters keeps the action flowing in visually interesting ways.

Oberon (Jacob Segura) and Titania (Grace Keller Scotch), in contrast, have fairly static blocking (partly, I’m sure, due to Ms. Scotch’s scintillatingly jangly costume), with the main movement of the fairy scenes provided by the minor fairies (scuffling Jess Ford as Cobweb, graceful Marita McKee as Peaseblossom, and diminutive Ember Webb as Mustardseed), who all play double roles. Becca Twiggs, as Puck, introduces the directorial concept of drug use as a possible explanation for the more mystical elements of the story.

The enveloping storyline of the wedding of Theseus (a commanding uncredited actor) and Hippolyta (Ms. Ford again), is sparked by Lee Jones’ aggrieved Egeus and by the director’s concept of having Hippolyta played as a sullen drunk, a concept that doesn’t really work. Servants (Blair Sanders and Jeffrey Liu) add atmosphere to the opening scene, and the rude mechanicals drive the completion of the play, with Andrew Percher narrating their entertainment of "Pyramus and Thisbe." Nicole Convis as Bottom and Maddy Mclay as Flute join the double-cast fairies to enact the entertainment, with Ms. Convis giving her all as the scene-stealing Bottom.

Robbie Summerour’s sound design adds mood music, orchestrated by R. Chandler Bragg, that enhances the early scenes. While the production itself uses mobile devices in a modern-day fashion, the music has more of a traditional feel. The absence of a full, cohesive musical score for the show makes the production seem slightly incomplete. While Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" is an auspicious debut for Gwinnett Classic Theatre, featuring an array of delightful performances and concepts, the company has a ways to go to equal the pinnacle of local community theatre productions.

Morningside, by Topher Payne
A Total Payne
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
Topher Payne’s "Morningside" was given a resoundingly successful professional premiere at Georgia Ensemble Theatre a couple of years ago. Onstage Atlanta’s version is a scaled-down community theatre production that works nearly as well under Cathe Hall Payne’s direction. In a break from GET’s example of having an all-female production team, a few men have contributed to Onstage’s production: Barry N. West, who designed the functional, if not overwhelmingly upscale set; Charlie Miller, who designed the sound, which is minimal, except for mysteriously adding background music to a couple of silent scenes; and Tom Gillespie, whose lighting design mimics that of the previous Onstage space, where dim spots exist at the far downstage center of the stage. Women provide the excellent props (director Cathe Hall Payne and stage manager Angie Short) and appropriate costumes (Jane B. Kroessig).

The play itself has an uproarious first act in which nine nicely delineated women are introduced, followed by a 180-degree turn in the second act where more serious topics are raised. It all goes on longer than one might wish.

Ms. Payne has made use of the natural comic talents of her actresses to get laughs when needed, but all the comedy derives from character. The more serious second act shows off acting skills more than comic timing. There are still enough laughs to keep the show from dragging unacceptably.

Performances are strong across the board. Kate Ash may not come across as particularly likeable as pregnant Devyn, for whom a baby shower is being given, but that is a character trait written into the script. Rylee Bunton, as her late-arriving younger sister Clancy, nails her character of a jealous rebel. Patty Mosley Nelson is all tightly-controlled jollity as their mother Grace, in whose house the action takes place, while Marquelle Young adds a barbed sardonic quality as black neighbor Felicia.

Grace’s sisters are played by Lynn Grace, making Louise a matter-of-fact pragmatist, and by Bobbie Elzey, who invests ailing Roxanne with quiet dignity and an unfiltered tongue. Devyn’s best friend Mackenzie is played by the delightful Laurie Winkel as the token lesbian, and Devyn’s co-workers Sophie (Jillian Walzer) and Elinor (Lory Cox) join in the proceedings. Sophie is a serious, career-minded mediator in Ms. Walzer’s performance, while Ms. Cox invests Elinor with all the wacky, socially inappropriate lack of grace the character requires.

Ms. Payne has taken pains to turn Mr. Payne’s words into believable onstage action. There’s a bit of farce in the staging, with entrances and exits through four doorways: a kitchen opening up right to perhaps a pantry and bathroom; double doors up center leading to a patio; a hallway up left to the front door; and a door leading to the bedrooms stage left. The seating of a sofa and easy chair stage left and barstools stage right is used sparingly, with no static sit-and-talk scenes to slacken the pace in the first act.

"Morningside" certainly gives nine actresses plenty of material to work with, and the script brings up all sorts of social issues and varied perspectives. It’s an entertaining show that aims to amuse in the first act and comes close to preaching in the second act. People can’t wait to see what will happen in the second act, given the hilarity of the first, but not everyone will be delighted by the abrupt change of tone and the transition from ensemble work to two-person scene after scene. It’s a show that entertains and attempts to make audiences think, but not all audiences go to comedies wanting to think too hard.

Songs for a New World, by Jason Robert Brown
Power Ballad Overload
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
Song cycles without a through-line of plot tend to come across as concerts or cabarets. Jason Robert Brown’s "Songs for a New World" is no exception. No matter how much you admire the songs or performances, there’s the missing element of plot that makes for an incomplete evening of theatre.

That’s not to say that director/choreographer Ricardo Aponte hasn’t done his best to keep the material fluid and kinetic. While the opening number seems a bit over-choreographed as pseudo-shipboard movements accompany the words, it soon becomes clear that he has done a bang-up job of directing the show in the round. There’s not a corner of the four-sided audience that gets cheated for more than a beat or two. Never has the Alley Stage seen such a professional job of playing to all parts of the audience (even the empty section at the performance I attended).

The songs are generally power ballads that the powerful voices of the cast blast out. Musical director Amanda Wansa-Morgan has gotten great sound out of both the cast and the six-piece band, the members of which are spread around the edges of the playing area. While all the songs are generally serious in tone, two of them are played for laughs -- one about a woman threatening suicide and another about the dissatisfaction of Santa Claus’ wife. The amazing Adrianna Trachell performs both numbers, and she triumphs in them, letting the tiniest movement speak comic volumes.

The rest of the cast has only serious numbers. Juan Carlos Unzueta tends to have the chip-on-the-shoulder numbers, Jared Bradshaw the energetically macho ones, and Maggie Salley the poignant ones. They all excel, although the scale of Mr. Bradshaw’s performance is gauged for a larger auditorium than the intimate setting of the Alley Stage.

Zack Vandever’s set consists of a three-level set of rounded wood platforms in the center, with carpets and runners on the floor leading to seating at four equidistant spots in the rectangular playing area. Mike Moran’s lighting delineates the various portions of the playing space in which action occurs, although transitions from one spot to another are sometimes a bit dim. Paul Glaze’s sound design keeps voices and orchestra pretty well in balance, although the massed choral sound in many numbers can become a wall of sound more than a distinguishable set of lyrics.

"Songs for a New World" combines a bunch of heartfelt songs performed by a top-notch set of singer-dancers into a production that is visually appealing, with interesting angles in the central platform, occasional videos accompanying parts of songs, and small costume adjustments bringing life to individual numbers. What is likely to impress most, though, is the sound. Mr. Aponte and Ms. Wansa-Morgan have created a production that gets the very most out of the material that Jason Robert Brown’s songs provide. Four very talented performers turn the show into a showcase for their many talents.

Wiesenthal (Nazi Hunter), by Tom Dugan
Capturing Audiences, Not Just Nazis
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
Tom Dugan’s tour-de-force performance as Simon Wiesenthal wouldn’t be half as effective if the one-man play he wrote weren’t so neatly constructed. This is not a "then I did this" biography. Bits of narration are interspersed with anecdotes, recognition of the audience, and ongoing storylines.

The play takes place on Wiesenthal’s last day of work at the Jewish Documentation Center in Austria, in 2003 (two years before Wiesenthal’s death). He needs to wrap things up before retirement, and speaks to us as if we’re one last group of visitors. He interrupts himself occasionally to make or take phone calls, either from his wife, who’s expecting him home soon, or to contacts who may be able to help him locate a Nazi torturer purportedly in Syria. He relates his triumphs and his disappointments. His role in bringing 1,100 Nazi criminals to justice sounds impressive, but to him it’s just five percent of the 22,000 names he has on file.

Wiesenthal’s experiences in concentration camps are mentioned, but the focus is on his work following the end of World War II. Vengeance on all former Nazis was not his driving force; bringing individuals to justice was. It’s the individual stories that capture the heart and the imagination and that kept Wiesenthal going, not some wrong-headed concept of collective guilt.

The touring production is professionally mounted, with nice lighting and sound effects, and a set that approximates the look of Wiesenthal’s actual office (minus any actual walls), with a desk, chairs, and boxes scattered about. Mr. Dugan’s performance makes use of an Austrian Jewish accent that may be difficult for some American ears to distinguish, but it’s consistently done and enhances the character. Mr. Dugan gets to show off some acting range as Wiesenthal impersonates various individuals in his stories, and in the talk-back session after the performance audiences get to see the real Tom Dugan, an Irish Roman Catholic whose father helped liberate concentration camps in WWII.

The show ends on a poignant note, as Wiesenthal asks the final question he has hinted at since the beginning. The answer will reverberate in the memories of the audience members, keeping alive the documentation of the Holocaust that Simon Wiesenthal spent his adult life researching.

Anne of the Thousand Days, by Maxwell Anderson
Anne of the 10,000 Seconds
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
Maxwell Anderson’s "Anne of the Thousand Days" provides a non-Shakespearean perspective on the courtship and marriage of Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII. Being performed on the Shakespeare Tavern’s stage and using its stable of Anné Carole Butler’s costumes gives the production a pseudo-Shakespearean look, but Greg Hanthorn Jr.’s lighting design gives it a more modern feel, with some dappled effects and tight illumination of isolated locations. Sound, though, approximates what would have been available in Elizabethan times, with music and babble offstage augmented by onstage music (composed by Bo Gaiason and J. Tony Brown; music directed by Rivka Levin; accompanied variously by Ms. Levin, Adam King, and Sean Kelley; and beautifully sung by a young chorus consisting of Avery Michael, Charlotte Evans, and Elizabeth Romig).

What really separates this work from Shakespeare, of course, is the language. While Maxwell Anderson wrote the play in blank verse, it comes across as prose. The vocabulary is fully understandable to a modern audience, which is perhaps why director Jeff Watkins has chosen counterintuitively to slow down the pace of speech from what is normal in a modern production of an Elizabethan work. Flying through passages of unfamiliar Elizabethan terminology lets meaning come through without unduly antagonizing the audience; without the need to worry about an audience’s grasp of individual words, nothing needs to be rushed over. And that’s the biggest problem in the production -- some passages drag, with King Henry’s speeches right after intermission and at the end of the show becoming soporifically tedious.

Production values are good, although Anne’s "new" dress meant to impress the king looks much like a satin-edged, quilted bedspread turned into a gown. It photographs well in the publicity shot on the cover of the program; it looks a bit like fabric armor onstage. The regal garb for Henry and Anne following her coronation is splendid, though, and the simple white gown she wears at the start and end of the play is also quite effective. Props are simple, but appropriate.

Performances are heartfelt and thoroughly professional. True, Troy Willis as King Henry VIII sometimes lets his volume drop, and Doug Kaye as Norfolk can sometimes sound mush-mouthed, but everyone else projects beautifully. Matt Nitchie gives a very nice, subdued performance as Anne’s father, and Charlie Thomas has an assured, slightly ominous manner as Cromwell that is quite effective. J. Tony Brown creates another indelible performance as Cardinal Wolsey that is sly and quietly powerful. Mr. Willis is pompous and pampered as King Henry VIII, and Kirstin Calvert is sturdily independent as Anne Boleyn. They carry the show, but are ably supported by everyone else in the cast.

"Anne of the Thousand Days" is a worthy contribution to the Shakespeare Tavern’s "Tudor Rep," in which it will run in repertory with Shakespeare’s propagandistic history play of Henry VIII and Robert Bolt’s "A Man for All Seasons." But why not lighten things up with the Richard Rodgers/Sheldon Harnick flop musical "Rex?" Serious dramas of over 2.5 hours aren’t the only perspective on the reign of King Henry VIII!

A View from the Bridge, by Arthur Miller
A View from the Bridge Table
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
An angled back wall, with an opening to the kitchen up right, a bedroom door at stage right, and door to the hallway that leads to the apartment just left of center. The brick entry to the apartment building far left, with a pay phone on the audience right wall. Across the stage, in the far stage right corner of the playing area, a cramped lawyer’s office with desk, two chairs, and a cabinet and typewriter. Above the stage, an indication of the Brooklyn Bridge that is meant to be looming, but appears more to be an unintentionally lit glimpse of backstage pipes and wires. The uncredited set design for Theatre in the Square’s "A View from the Bridge" is workable, but spare. The few hangings on the walls are either religious or under-scaled for the wall space available, combining with the worn furniture (dining table and chairs, record player, armchair, and side table) to indicate a working-class Catholic living space. Lighting isolates the action taking place at the edges of the stage, while the apartment scenes are warmly lit.

The show starts with booming, ominous music that is also used to close the show. When the lights come up on the apartment building’s stoop, a dumb show plays out with continued underscoring. Record player music (principally the pop hit "Paper Doll") also figures as an accompaniment to other action in the show. The effect is sometimes that of a wanna-be movie.

Arthur Miller’s play hinges on a battle for the affections of Catherine (the engaging Gabrielle Stephenson), principally between her uncle/guardian Eddie (the booming-voiced Kyle Crew) and recent immigrant Rodolpho (the diminutive red-head Kevin Lombard). Bystanders who are powerless to oppose Eddie include his wife Beatrice (Alli Noto, in age makeup), Rodolpho’s brother Marco (the intense Michael Maglio), and lawyer/narrator Alfieri (the confident Steve Pryor). Minor figures in the play are two longshoremen (played by brawny Douglas Goodien and jokester Ivan Logvinov) and an immigration officer (powerfully played by Jeremy Crawford). Director Prodan Dimov has only the recent immigrants speak with accents, which are well done and pretty believable.

The major roles in "A View from the Bridge" are challenges to any actor. Here, the dynamics work exceedingly well, although layers of nuance often seem to be missing. Mr. Dimov has put together a creditable production of an American classic that moves with fluidity and oozes with intensity, but whose verisimilitude to real life is marred by questionable physical casting choices (a Beatrice who is too young; a Rodolpho who is too short and not blond). While the costuming for the two male leads features low-waisted pants of modern style, the play seems dated, with an influx of Italian immigrants a thing of the past and references to homosexuality restricted to the euphemism "he’s not right." This is a play that calls out for a modern-day update with an Hispanic spin and more up-to-date language, but decades will elapse before Miller’s work comes out of copyright protection, and cultural immigration conditions will have changed by then.

Marietta’s New Theatre in the Square has chosen to present a second-tier work by an American playwriting legend. It’s a welcome addition to the Atlanta theatre scene, which tends to focus on new works or overdone standards, but it’s more an historical curiosity than must-see theatre. There is visceral excitement in the performances and flow, but not the pitch-perfect professionalism that is needed to bring a show like this to life.

The Cake, by Bekah Brunstetter
Buttercream Pasties
Monday, June 10, 2019
In a play about a Christian baker reluctant to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple, you might not expect strong language and nudity. In Horizon’s production of Bekah Brunstetter’s "The Cake," you had better expect both. The nudity is played for laughs; the language is intended to reinforce a crude sense of seriousness in sexual politics.

The oppressively detailed set design is by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay. At the start, it’s a pink-and-blue bakery with over 30 cakes on display. The display cases and bookcases provide clutter enough, but the black-and-white tile floor is filled with several small café tables and chairs. It’s hard enough to make your way through them on the way to your seat, but when cake is offered to the audience at the end of the show, it’s gridlock trying to get out.

Since this is a Curley-Clay set, there are surprise hidden elements: the central portion revolves to show one bedroom, and a pair of bookshelves open to allow the arrival of another bed. Mary Parker’s lighting design does its best to isolate these bedroom scenes and a final wedding dress reveal, but the ever-present café tables tend to intrude. Many segments of the show involve baker Della (Marcie Millard) fantasizing about her upcoming stint on "The Great American Baking Show," and Ms. Parker’s lighting zooms in on Della in these sequences. These sequences underline Della’s sexual frustrations and her near-obsession with its host George (an uncredited voice, but with a god-awful faux-British accent).

The production team, playwright, and cast are all female, with the exception of Allan Edwards, who plays Della’s husband. This ties in to the sexual objectification of males in this play. The reactions of females in the audience make it clear that this role-reversal of paternalistic sexual politics hits a chord, but there’s an underlying bitterness in its treatment of males. Add in the lesbian element, and the play comes close to male-bashing.

Cole Spivia’s costume design gives various fashions to the various cast members, with numerous buttons on a dress Della needs to shed quickly. A matching silk nightgown and robe for Della also seems a bit of a misstep. Wedding fashions are more successful. Alexis McKay’s props are more successful still, although slices of supposed bakery cakes look more like slices of homemade layer cakes. Amy L. Levin’s sound design is fine.

Performances are also fine. Parris Sarter is sort of straitjacketed in her role of The Angry Black Woman, but plays the role with conviction. Rhyn McLemore Saver, in the role of her lesbian fiancée returning home to North Carolina for their wedding, gives as delightful a performance as ever, full of little touches that make the character come to life. Mr. Edwards plays the cardboard-cutout, paper-thin role of conservative, God-fearing Tim with more nuance than the writing deserves, and Ms. Millard makes great use of her inimitable stage presence in the central role of Della. Lauren Morris’ direction doesn’t always suit Ms. Millard’s natural style, though. Particularly in the opening lines of "follow ... the ... directions," the rhythm seems stagey and artificial. With a performer as gifted as Ms. Millard in embodying an engagingly charismatic persona, bits of heavy-handed direction can be stultifying.

"The Cake" is more of a female fantasy inspired by a recent court case than a commentary on it. It’s far more sexual than would be seemly in polite society, perhaps in an attempt to "humanize" a conservative Christian worldview, and it ties things up with a pretty wedding bow. Any incipient political discussion is subsumed by the interpersonal relationships portrayed. It’s titillating and fun and full of sugar and fat. Not for the socially conscious.

A Public Education, by Jeff Talbott
An A for the Teachers
Monday, May 20, 2019
Is Out of Box’s "Public Education" a perfect production? Perhaps not. Some of Bradley Rudy’s area lighting is too broad or too narrow for the action taking place. The plot revolves around the mystery of who is posting caustic reviews of the teachers at a public high school to an anonymous website, and the mystery is never resolved. But the excellence of every other bit of the production is overwhelming.

No set designer is credited, so director Zip Rampy must have decided to go with bare walls painted black. Furnishings are a conference table and coffee station stage right, a desk stage left, and a bench on the low platform up center. Six chairs provide other seating. Since the script calls for a variety of locations, the simple scenic set-up works remarkably well. Entrances and exits are made either through an opening up right or through the exit door at audience right.

Zip Rampy’s sound design uses environmental sounds at selected points, most notably at the start and end of the show and when a taciturn student (Zach Kuebler) is playing games on his tablet. It’s very effective. Costumes and props (many edible) add some visual interest to the production. Kristin Storla’s intimacy choreography highlights the most physically dramatic moments.

It’s the acting that makes the show, though. Besides the student, who mostly makes silent appearances while acting sullen and aloof, we have four teachers and a vice principal. There’s the new math teacher (Shaun Maclean), who tries to connect with the kids, and in the process alienates the other, more cynical teachers. There’s Pam (Amanda Cucher), whose hair-trigger temper and foul mouth go hand-in-hand (or foot-in-mouth, as the case may be). There’s Doug (Bob Smith), who is slower to anger, but explodes when he reaches his breaking point. And there’s the young, sympathetic English teacher (Bryn Striepe) who offers to lend a friendly shoulder (and other body parts). Vice Principal Dr. Mills (Mia Kristin Smith) tries to keep this dysfunctional group under control as they react to negative website posts and target the student as a suspect in posting them.

Zip Rampy has directed the show with quiet moments at the start and finish, and with emotional fireworks in-between. There’s lots of overlapping dialogue and half-finished sentences in Jeff Talbott’s script, mimicking real-life speech. Everyone is wonderful. Mr. Maclean has a lean and distant-yet-friendly demeanor that is perfect for his role, and Ms. Cucher ping-pongs from livid to conciliatory and back again from scene to scene in a breathtakingly effective manner. Mr. Smith lets an understated cynicism burst into physical action in a viscerally exciting way, and Ms. Striepe, always excellent, is as charismatic here as she has ever been. Ms. Smith and Mr. Kuebler make use of tightly controlled performances that contrast wonderfully with the rare moments when they let it all out. Actors don’t create performances and relationships like these all on their own, so Mr. Rampy deserves boatloads of accolades and kudos for casting them, guiding them, and letting them shine.

The plot is not as strong as the performances that support it. There’s no true resolution to any situation, just truces and laboriously considered inaction. This is more a slice-of-life insight into the life of a new teacher and the political and emotional battlegrounds present in a public high school. But it’s not the plot you’ll remember; it’s the magnificent ensemble of performances that will stick in your mind. This is the most satisfying production I’ve seen in a while.

Love & Money, by A.R. Gurney
Perfect Posture
Monday, May 20, 2019
Remove the charming eccentricity from "The Curious Savage." Remove the physical menace from "Six Degrees of Separation." Smoosh the results together and you might end up with something like A.R. Gurney’s "Love & Money." In this show, a wealthy white woman (Janet Metzger) has decided to dispose of her belongings and bequeath her fortune to charity, but her plans hit a snag with the entrance of a charismatic young black man (Brandon Smith) who spins stories that contain tantalizing bits of truth. Will the young man be exposed as a con man, or will his assertions prove to be factual? The plot answers the question, but not in a particularly novel fashion. At least the play is short.

Michael Hidalgo’s set design is of a Victorian parlor jam-packed with books and oddities. There’s a working player piano, suits of armor, and an elephant foot wastebasket, among an ornate desk and other furnishings. There are variously colored tags on most of the items, marking them for donation or consignment. It’s a visual feast, and Jeanne Fore’s costumes and Mr. Hidalgo’s lighting design add to the banquet.

Pre-show music consists of recordings of Cole Porter songs. Then the show starts with a spotlight on an antique radio, a Cole Porter tune playing on it. More Cole Porter figures into the action, with a lawyer (Elliott Folds) and the young man (Brandon Smith) singing excerpts of a couple of his songs, plus a full rendition of "Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please" by a Juilliard student (Caty Bergmark). The Cole Porter soundtrack emphasizes the WASP-y background of the story.

The secondary cast is perfectly fine. Mr. Smith has the requisite smoothness and charm for his character, along with lithe, loose-limbed movements. Ms. Bergmark has a tiny role, but lands her song and all her laugh lines, showing great timing. Mr. Folds has a nice dynamic range as the lawyer, letting his natural ease onstage support his dynamic performance. Perhaps best of all is Theresa O’Shea as the person who runs the household. Her prickly deference sparks the proceedings with lots of bits of smile-inducing humor.

The problem with the show is the performance of Janet Metzger. Her background is mostly in film and audiobooks, and this background shows far too evidently, to the detriment of the production. Her nicely modulated voice, perfect posture, careful hair, and guarded expressions certainly indicate wealth and privilege, but they also make her bland to the point of boredom. This is a woman who is regarded by others as slightly off her rocker, and who questions at times if her mind is becoming vague, but she comes across as perfectly sane and balanced (and bland). Director Paul Conroy has failed in helping her find the core of the character while simultaneously layering on theatrically interesting behaviors that would immediately engage the sympathies of the audience. The uninteresting performance of the central character in "Love & Money" proves to be a fatal flaw.

At least the two-act play is short.

The Secretaries, by The Five Lesbian Brothers
An Assault
Monday, May 20, 2019
Patty (Hannah-Rose Broom) is a new hire at the Cooney Lumber Mill in Big Bone, Oregon. She is set to work alongside overweight Peaches (Jennifer Alice Acker), lesbian Dawn (Isake Akanke), and Ashley (Casey Gardner), a fawning sycophant to the office manager, Susan (Rachel Frawley). Will Patty learn to fit in? Will she advance from being a receptionist to becoming a full-fledged secretary? Will she attain the coveted pink cashmere sweater of employee of the month? Will she be able to obtain a warm lumberjack jacket like the other women have? Such is the situation of "The Secretaries."

This play by the Five Lesbian Brothers is a campy delight, set in 1994, as indicated in the little songlet that starts the show. Little touches and cultural references reinforce the time period, in which a woman’s figure is required to be no more than a size 12 for continued employment and in which cat-calling lumberjacks have to deal with female empowerment, in a sort of gory, retro fantasy world. As might be expected in an all-female production by Out Front Theatre, there are more than a few hints of lesbian activity.

The set, designed by Vii Kelley, is functional, but pretty ugly. The most attractive feature is the floor, painted (by scenic painter Shay Vickery) in a black and brown checkerboard pattern at stage left that elongates and eventually peters out at stage right. Upstage there’s a rustic wood platform with logs stored under it and ratty curtains atop it. The stage right curtain is used for shadow effects until it is opened at the conclusion of the play for a bloody sequence. Between the two sides of the upstage curtain there’s a peaked door with a round window. The stage is populated with four distressed turquoise desks that get moved about for various scenes. A wheeled unit up left rotates to function as a lumber mill sign, a video store, and a restroom stall. Other units represent a car and a vibrating motel bed.

Katherine Neslund’s lighting design is pretty involved, with spotlights on individual desks and on various locations where action occurs. Like the set, the lighting is functional, but not particularly artistic or aesthetic. At least it’s far more effective than Kacie Willis’ dreadful sound design, in which background music nearly overwhelms the voices of the actresses and in which the pre-recorded lines spoken by men are played back with so much reverb and scratchiness that they’re essentially unintelligible.

Costumes, designed by DeeDee Chmielewski, give a real visual flair to the production. There are more costume changes than the plot would necessarily require, but they impress. Ms. Frawley is given outfit after outfit that is form-fitting and stylish and glamorous. The secretaries have a variety of more modest styles, from outerwear to underwear. While the garbled male lines are playing, one of the females dons a plaid lumberjack jacket and a mask to mime the gestures of the supposed man who is speaking.

Heidi S. Howard has directed the show to have a lot of sequences as stylized as the male mime, featuring silhouettes behind the curtain, choral intonation, exaggerated poses, and delightful body vibrations on the Magic Fingers bed. She has gotten fine performances out of all her performers, who indicate character with looks and quirks that are sometimes more indicative than the lines they speak. Ms. Acker plumbs the shallow depths of her comedic character, and Ms. Gardner’s smoldering deadpan highlights her jealousy of the new girl in the office. Ms. Akanke has an earthy energy as Dawn, and Ms. Frawley is menace and glamor personified. Perhaps best of all is Ms. Broom, who invests newcomer Patty with innocent enthusiasm and raging hormones as the central figure of the story.

The script pretty early on hints as to what will happen over the course of the show, but the anticipation that is set up in the first act falls apart somewhat in the second act when what we’ve expected occurs. The second act also contains unexpected elements that may not be welcome: a throw-away cigarette-smoking sequence that fouls the air for the rest of the show, and messy items propelled into the audience. The quirky camp that defines the show starts to dissipate before it’s sparked by the bloody climax, and the climax itself, which occurs far upstage, is marred by underscoring that competes with the unamplified voices of the actors.

Heidi S. Howard and the cast have put on a production of "The Secretaries" that gives the script its full due. The costumes even elevate the script, while other technical elements alternately enhance and detract from it. For audiences eager for a campy, all-female equivalent of Charles Busch-like entertainment, "The Secretaries" is tailor-made. Just don’t go to it expecting a moral.

Pump Boys and Dinettes, by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, Jim Wann
Bifurcated Entertainment
Monday, May 20, 2019
"Oh, what a pretty set!" That’s what I heard from the people behind me when they first sat down. Others, apparently, have inquired if the set is part of a touring production. It certainly is impressive, half service station signs and license plates and half dinette gingham and teal and red and black and white checks. A dotted yellow line on the floor separates the two halves of the set. It gives the eye a lot to look at, yet seems more cluttered than cohesive as a set. But the set isn’t what you’re looking at once the action starts; it’s the actor/singer/dancers.

Scott Rousseau has put together a splendid production of "Pump Boys and Dinettes." The show is a perennial favorite, presented at Lionheart with an expanded cast. In the original, six people both performed and played instruments; here, there are ten performers and a separate three-piece band. While no music director is credited, the flawless a cappella harmonies make it clear that a great deal of musical work has been done to whip the cast into shape. I can only assume that Mr. Rousseau’s duties encompassed all aspects of the production, since he is credited as director, choreographer, and set designer.

Others help in the success of the production, of course. Props (by Mia Fantaci, Rick Fantaci, and Tanya Caldwell) add a lot of color (and percussion!) to the proceedings, and costumes (and wigs!) by Linda Demaris give a nice, finished feel to the whole. Bob Peterson’s sound and Gary White’s lighting subsume themselves to the production, enhancing things without reveling in their own flash, as might be the case in another production. The lighted logo sign above the set is a very nice, professional-looking touch, though.

There’s next to no plot in "Pump Boys and Dinettes," so the performances are what count. There’s not a weak link in the cast Mr. Rousseau has assembled, and the band is pretty darn good too. We have five red-headed women at the dinette and five workers at the service station (one female). The dinette women range from sharp-tongued Mama Cupp (twinkling-eyed Tanya Caldwell) to meekly assertive Bea (guitar-playing powerhouse Lisa Gordon) to lovesick Dixie (perfectly in-character Nancy Lowery Powell) and the duo of Rhetta (sweet-voiced Rachel O’Dell) and Prudie (feisty Courtney Loner). The service station workers include boss LM (hip-waggling deadpan comic John B. Connel), narrator Jim (strong-voiced Gregory Fitzgerald), terse Eddie (stoic Mark Hyde), heartthrob Jackson (the phenomenal Paul Milliken), and female Dee-Dee (the subtly charismatic Jen Smith).

The songs in "Pump Boys and Dinettes" are mostly upbeat country tunes, most with a lot of choral support. Engaging fun is the aim of most of them, and they succeed wildly in that respect. There are a few more serious moments, though. The most affecting is a duet between estranged sisters Rhetta and Dee-Dee; their two voices blend beautifully. At other times, there is sometimes a discrepancy of unamplified volume between voices. But I’ll take that over muddy, over-amplified sound any day!

"Pump Boys and Dinettes" is pretty mindless entertainment, but ad libs in performance make it worth your while to pay close attention to everything going on. Scott Rousseau has created a smorgasbord of theatrical delights, and every single one of the cast is destined to be someone’s favorite. The easy, confident grace of solo performers, the bickeringly believable interplay of the women, the testosterone-heavy camaraderie of the men -- they all add up to a hootin’ hootenanny of down-home fun.

Things My Mother Taught Me, by Katherine DiSavino
Lightly Shod in the Park
Monday, May 20, 2019
Gabe and Olivia are just moving in together, taking an upper-floor apartment in the city. Parental disapproval and/or disappointment in their living conditions is a real possibility. Sound like Neil Simon’s "Barefoot in the Park?" There are echoes, but it’s Chicago instead of New York City, the couple isn’t married yet, both sets of parents show up instead of just one mother, and a foreign building manager rounds out the cast instead of an exotic neighbor and a couple of worn-out delivery/repairmen. Most notably, playwright Katherine DiSavino is no Neil Simon.

Jeff Costello’s set shows a room with a window up right, through which we see a high-rise building across the way. A door upstage center leads to the hall outside the apartment, while a door and a hallway stage right lead to bedrooms. There’s an efficiency kitchen just stage left of center, and the only furnishings are boxes along the walls and an armchair wedged into the entry door. The first part of the action revolves around the dilemma of getting this oversized armchair into the apartment. The rest of the plot concerns the theft of the U-Haul moving van containing the rest of their possessions.

Ms. DiSavino’s script has a lot of bits of physical comedy, ably brought to life by director Jerry Jobe and the energetic cast. This is a well-directed show, keeping the action moving along from start to finish and creating distinct comic personages for all the characters. The show itself isn’t terribly engaging, since it traffics in a lot of stereotypes, but it is certainly entertaining. Blocking is perhaps not as varied as it might be, with all the cast members arranged in a near-straight line at one point, but costumes, props, David Reingold’s lights, and Winston Johnson’s sound make the show look and sound good.

Performances are better than fine across the board, with Mr. Jobe encouraging his actors to make distinct, consistent character choices. Haley Masenthin is a hoot as the Polish building manager, and Sorsha Masters and Alex Doriot bring the young couple to life. The parents are played in one couple by Jim Wilgus and Gisele Frame and in the other couple by Marge Krengel and James Connor. Mr. Wilgus has a scene-stealing turn with a whipped cream can, while Ms. Frame garners laughs sleeping in a chair. Ms. Krengel plays a downer of a mother with an underlying sweetness, and Mr. Connor drunks it up delightfully. This is a well-matched cast, with all the actors seeming to be working at the top of their games.

The title "Things My Mother Taught Me" isn’t very descriptive of the play. True, there are two mothers in it who love to give advice, but that’s not the focus of the play. Mother doesn’t always know best, and the young couple at the center of the story take Dad’s advice as often as Mom’s. But the title is an apt one for a Mother’s Day show, and anyone attending is in for a comic treat that won’t make them think too hard (although it may make them laugh a whole bunch!).

A Round-Heeled Woman, by Jane Prowse
Monday, May 20, 2019
The action of "A Round-Heeled Woman" starts with Jane (Angela Van Tassel) touching herself during phone sex. She whispers to her phone partner that she’s alone; would she be doing what she’s doing if she had an audience? Then she turns and sees the audience attending the play, causing her to switch rapidly to narration. It’s the perfect introduction to this unabashedly sexual memoir, in which 66-year-old Jane meets man after man in response to a newspaper ad she has placed.

Upstage center is a double bed, fronted by a loveseat and flanked by end tables and bookcases. Stage right, there’s a round table with two chairs. Stage left, there’s a desk. Jeremy Beck’s set design in cluttered, but relatively functional to accommodate the wide-ranging action of the play. Kelsey Chapman’s props help populate the stage, with a lot of paper on hand to represent ad copy, letters, and a manuscript. Lea Herring’s sound design provides background sounds or music for a number of scenes, which can be just this side of distracting, while Spencer Estes’ lighting design does a splendid job of helping to set the scenes, as do the varied costumes.

Aside from Ms. Van Tassel, the other five cast members take on a variety of roles. Under Starshine Stanfield’s direction, all do well in distinguishing their various characters, although Jane’s string of male partners eventually becomes a somewhat unmanageable list. A major underpinning to Jane’s story is her admiration for lesser-known Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, particularly his novel "Miss Mackenzie." Jane is visited by Miss Mackenzie (Toneal Alford) throughout the show, contrasting spinster Miss Mackenzie’s search for a mate with her own search for sexual fulfillment. As in "Miss Mackenzie," we get a happy ending, although it comes about in Jane’s reconciliation with her estranged son rather than in some lurid way.

"A Round-Heeled Woman" contains strong sexual content, including several rude and crude words along the way. That alone might limit the audience for this production. The biggest challenge facing audiences, though, might be the pacing of the show. Ms. Van Tassel is a splendid actress, but the line load and the many short scenes call for split-second precision, which wasn’t there on opening night. Jane’s story loses impact as the production heads on to the 2.5 hour mark.

Staged Right Theatre has a history of presenting little-known works, and "A Round-Heeled Woman" fits firmly into that category. Its next season promises more productions that will be new to most Atlanta-area audiences. Let’s hope that the new season’s productions will have broader appeal and better-paced flows.

Amplifest, by Boretz, McClain, Roberts, Beecroft, Dakutis, Walzer, Lupo, Mintz
A Mixed Bag
Monday, May 20, 2019
After the first act of the Amplifest short play festival, you’d be justified in thinking that the material doesn’t rise up to the usual standard of local short play festivals. After the second act, your opinion will rise considerably. The evening of eight plays being presented by Merely Players Presents has been arranged in general order of increasing quality.

First up is Nick Boretz’s "Guru of Peachtree Vista," directed by Daniel Guyton. The stage is set with a throne, on which Ron (Louis Alfred, garbed with necklaces and beads galore) reposes as the curtain speech occurs, and which is surrounded by various detritus associated with a homeless man who has put out a hat to collect donations. Green-haired Amanda Szymczak arrives as Rima to serve him with papers requiring him to move from the vacant lot he inhabits. As the action proceeds, we find that Ron and Rima have crossed paths in the past. In a comic interlude, Daphne (Hema Shilpa Uppala) shows up to share with Ron her gratitude for his guru-like wisdom. It’s a show with a generally interesting flow that simply goes on too long.

"The Best Mother in Law Ever" follows. This play by Peter Dakutis introduces us to a gay couple at a restaurant. Tim (Thomas von Dohlen) is comforting David (Chris Mayers), who dreads the arrival of his mother Sylvia (Debbie McLaughlin), who’s a leather-clad bad influence and seems ashamed of how staid and colorless her son is. Waiter Brian (Torreke Evans) knows Tim, so there are introductions to be made and samples of Brian’s acting to be endured. David doesn’t know how his mother will react to the news that he and Tim are getting married, and the resolution of his dilemma forms the backbone of the plot. Melissa Simmons has directed the show with some nice movement and has guided her actors to their most effective performances, making this selection the highlight of the first act.

Third up is Jillian Walzer’s "Hit or Miss," directed by Allan Dodson. This is a very talky play, as 20-something Will (Chris Mayers) and 40-something Megan (Kirstin Popper) meet at a coffee bar. Their life situations have incredible similarities, which they hash out, and they start what seems to be a very tentative flirtation. The play starts somewhat bafflingly, as the two strangers start playing Battleship on their laptops out of the blue. Apparently the environment supports electronic connections, which Megan uses to gain access to Will’s phone as part of their incipient relationship. This is more of a character study than a play.

The first act ends with Emily McClain’s "The Great Suburban Outback," which shows a typical suburban American family (Daniel Carter Brown as the father, Amanda Szymczak as the mother, Lincoln Doyle as the teen son, and Lucy Thurmond as the pre-teen daughter) who are visited by a purported foreign exchange student (Amber Brown) and her videographer (Ambruce Carter). The interaction doesn’t go as might be expected, with a moral that simply doesn’t hit home. Abra Thurmond and Courtney Loner have directed the show to get energetic performances out of all their actors, but blocking often seems cluttered, and there’s a peculiar array of accents used by one character that adds to the confusion of what the show is trying to say.

The second act starts out promisingly with Daphne Mintz’s "Music Alone," in which a son (Brock Kercher) makes an unannounced afternoon visit to his unemployed mother (Linda Marie Johnson) and home-for-a-nooner father (Joe McLaughlin). The parents are ready to let loose and follow their dreams of youth, shocking their straitlaced son. Melissa Simmons does another fine job of directing her actors, and the play does not overstay its welcome by a moment.

"Opposites Detract" by G.M. Lupo shows us a seemingly mismatched lesbian couple at a restaurant. Constance (Maggie Beker) is very orderly and reserved; Laura (Liz Dooley) is uninhibited and a bit flashy. Under Jim Nelson’s direction, they give very detailed performances. This is another play that seems to be just the right length.

Third in the second act is Mary Beecroft’s "Living Dead and Fully," which introduces us to a waiting room in the afterlife, where clerk Claudius (Gene Paulsson) and his helper Mildred (Lory Cox) process a number of recently deceased people, most notably Sarah (Maggie Beker) and Alicia (Kirsten Krehbiel), who were friends in childhood. Their reconnection in the afterlife is the centerpiece of the action, giving the play the most satisfying emotional arc of the evening. William Thurmond has directed the action effectively and blocked the large cast to maintain appropriate focus.

The evening ends with "Performance Review" by Nedra Pezold Roberts. This is the best of the plays, beautifully acted by Jessica Wise and Stuart Schleuse under the direction of Jillian Walzer. We start with a monologue by Ms. Wise concerning the Greek tragedy "Antigone" that leads to the performance review her character is undergoing. There’s plenty of humor, a little shock value, and a barbed message that drives its point home with great effectiveness while not lasting a second longer than necessary.

Several of the actors play multiple roles, sometimes in back-to-back selections. It’s a tribute to their skill and to the guidance of their directors that there is no bleed-over from one character to the next. Each play creates its own world, and these actors subscribe fully to that world, modulating their performances to conform to that world.

The technical aspects of the show are fine. The basic set, designed and painted by Gabrielle Stephenson, consists of wings and back wall painted as red brick, with a transition to solid black downstage. Kurt Hansen’s lighting design is more sophisticated than might be expected, and Louis Alfred III’s sound design accomplishes everything it needs to. Scene changes are accomplished with alacrity and accuracy. Costumes are varied and appropriate, showing much more of a range than might be expected in a modest production.

Merely Players Presents and its Merely Writers adjunct group are dedicated to providing opportunities for Atlanta-area theatre artists and playwrights. Amplifest is a notable showcase for the work of a number of these people. Not all the plays succeed equally, but they provide a sampling of viewpoints and styles that make for a generally satisfying evening of entertainment.

Ragtime, by Terrence McNally (book), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), Stephen Flaherty (music)
Monday, May 20, 2019
Serenbe’s "Ragtime" is hard on the eyes. It’s not that Clare Parker’s costumes are unnecessarily drab or garish, although nylon mesh net skirts for chorus girls look pretty odd, especially under a maid’s apron. It’s not that Ryan Howell’s set design is hideous, although the long, narrow stage with audience and support beams on either side can result in inauspicious sightlines. No, the problems are two-fold:
1) Maranda Debusk’s lighting design positions some lights just above the heads of people on one side of the audience, and they shine into the eyes of audience members on the opposite side.
2) Stage fog fills the performance tent whenever a trap door is opened, and the over-reliance on stage fog becomes oppressive.
Add in iffy spotlight operation and the show seems under-lit to the point of murkiness.

Director Brian Clowdus has imposed a concept on "Ragtime," setting it in a supposed vaudeville tent in Atlantic City, with Harry Houdini (Ethan Hall) and Evelyn Nesbit (Niki Badua) as purported hosts. The concept doesn’t really work. "Ragtime" is a pretty serious show, and the vaudeville concept doesn’t add any fun to the proceedings. Having Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit appear in scenes of which they’re not essentially a part just underlines that this is a "concept" show. Neither gives a particularly spectacular performance. Mr. Hall has an accent that seems to come and go, and Ms. Badua does most of her singing while swinging on a trapeze, which does nothing good for the quality of her voice. They do have nice costumes, however.

Mr. Clowdus seems to have directed his actors to focus on the grimness and grit of the piece. Father (Daniel Burns) is a fairly humorless character, so that makes sense for him, but the balance of the piece is thrown off when Mother (Courtney Chappelle) has a stolid hardness that makes her unapproachable and unlikeable. Marcus Terrell Smith is basically expressionless as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., although he has a velvety smooth voice, making Nicole Vanessa Ortiz do all the work as Sarah to develop a relationship with him. Tateh (Jacob S. Louchheim) has some comic flourishes to his character, but Mr. Clowdus has him trample a U.S. flag to the ground in one scene, making it hard to feel too much compassion for him. Chase Davidson has the requisite earnestness for his role as Younger Brother, and Lilliangina Quiñones, as Emma Goldman, has the requisite fire for her role and comes across as the most fully realized character in the piece. Everyone else is adequate in their roles and/or has little chance to shine.

The script of "Ragtime" relies on narration to set time and place, so it’s not essential that representational sets be used, but having characters hop on blocks or on the central round platform makes them look too much like trained elephants in the big top. There’s a drastic disparity between scenes played center stage, with actors basically contorting themselves to present their faces to each side of the audience in rapid succession, and scenes played at either end of the stage, while the actors remain basically motionless. Some audience members will see only backs or support posts as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. plays the piano at the far end of the stage that hosts the orchestra or when actors clump together at the trapeze at the near end of the long stage. When not onstage, the actors lounge on seats intermingled with the audience, so close-up views of the cast are possible, just not necessarily when they are actively performing.

Musical director Chris Brent Davis gets great sound out of the orchestra and lush vocals from the cast, with Rob Brooksher’s sound design keeping things pretty well in balance. Early in the run, though, some choral entrances and harmonies were deficient. Ms. Chappelle’s voice doesn’t blend well with her duet partners, diminishing the impact of those numbers.

As for Bubba Carr’s choreography, he doesn’t have much to work with. There’s only one impressive dancer in the bunch (CJ Babb, whose non-period hairstyle makes him stand out like a contemporary time traveler to 1906), so most of the choreography is massed movements on the very narrow stage. Action director Jake Guinn has created a nice fight scene, and trapeze and block-and-tackle work adds some movement to the show, but in a fashion that is more likely to elicit "ehs" and "ohs" rather than "oohs" and "aahs."

Christopher S. Dills’ props are pretty minimal, with the most notable being oversized paper currency that comes into play as J.P. Morgan describes his wealth. For Coalhouse’s Model T, suitcases provide the body and doors, four white lace parasols provide the wheels, two hand-held lighting cans represent the headlights, and seating is on the round central platform that is just big enough for two people (although it sometimes hosts three in other scenes, in vertiginous fashion). It’s the sort of staging in which we get the point, but feel somewhat cheated in the production values.

Evelyn Nesbit’s career led her from the heights of fame to third-rate vaudeville and burlesque houses. Serenbe’s "Ragtime" has the feel of a powerful show being reduced to being performed in a temporary tent to audiences of gnats and mosquitoes. Is the show still powerful? Yes. Does the production give the material its full due? No.

Ride the Cyclone, by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, with additional material by Alan Schmuckler
Resurrection of the Headless
Monday, May 20, 2019
"Ride the Cyclone" is touted as a musical loved by people who hate musicals. Is the converse true -- that it will be hated by people who love musicals? No. It’s entertaining, if slight in terms of plot, and contains a pastiche score, with songs in many musical styles. There’s some wonderful stagecraft at work in Leora Morris’ production, which has been brought to the Alliance after playing Chicago and Off-Broadway under Rachel Rockwell’s original direction. The production has seemingly had very little Atlanta involvement, with a handful of Atlanta-based artists: music director Greg Matteson (a 2018 returnee), sound designer Clay Benning, actor Chaz Duffy, and some understudies and assistant personnel.

Chicago-based scenic designer Scott Davis and lighting designer Greg Hormann have created a theatrical environment that is supposed to be a carnival warehouse, with dusty detritus rimming the playing area. There’s a curtained light-up proscenium upstage and an off-kilter light-up "Cyclone" sign above the stage, and lots of lighting effects enhance the show greatly. A whirling white light effect behind the open curtains does a wonderful job of evoking the afterlife, which is where the entire action takes place. Mike Tutaj has provided a dizzying area of projections that show up on the proscenium, on the curtain, and even on Theresa Ham’s varied costumes. The basic costumes are augmented by outfits worn briefly by the actors as they portray minor figures in memory and fantasy sequences. The show is a visual feast.

The show’s concept is that six young members of the Saint Cassian Chamber Choir have died in a roller coaster accident, and are informed by a mechanical fortune teller that one of them can return to life after each gives a presentation and they all vote. This is a flimsy framework, with the rules of the contest being changed without notice, and with the presentations sometimes acting more as an excuse to throw in cabaret numbers than to illuminate character. There’s a loopy sense of humor at play in the script and score by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, with additional material by Alan Schmuckler.

The mechanical fortune teller is played by Karl Hamilton in a mask with glowing eyes. He sits in a booth stage left, making mechanical movements from time to time as he speaks. His vocal patterns aren’t particularly those of an automaton, though; he sounds pretty human.

We get to know the other characters through their interplay and their presentations, which occur in the following order:
1) Ocean Rosenberg (Tiffany Tatreau) is a high achiever who likes to control things, denigrating the others in the hopes of being the one chosen to live, until she realizes a vote will be taken and becomes all apologetic.
2) Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell) is a gay student with a weird, cross-dressing sexual fantasy.
3) Mischa Bachinski (Chaz Duffy) is a Ukrainian rapper with a hard exterior who pines for his fiancée in the Ukraine.
4) Ricky Potts (Scott Redmond) was a severely disabled person in real life who suddenly can talk and walk and play the accordion in the afterlife. His presentation is a weird outer space fantasy.
5) Jane Doe (Emily Rohm) is an unidentified victim whose (literally) soaring number humanizes her creepy, doll-like behavior. She carries a headless doll upon her entrance, but the script certainly makes it sound like Jane herself was decapitated in the accident.
6) Constance Blackwood (Lillian Castillo), the most comedic character, whose catch phrase is "Sorry," sings about the sensations of being hurled from the roller coaster and hurtling through the air.

As each character pulls a lever on The Amazing Karnak’s booth to start their turn in the spotlight, the proscenium lights up with pictures of the actor from infancy to the present day. It’s a nice touch, and the final projection plays on this idea, showing the one survivor’s life from the time of their recovery to their death far in the future. It’s a feel-good ending to the show, but one that seems just about as random as much of the material that’s gone on before. Canada is known for its sketch comedy, and "Ride the Cyclone" seems to fall clearly in that category.

Acting and singing is terrific under Greg Matteson’s music direction, and choreography by Ericka Mac and David Dorfman is nimbly performed by the energetic cast. The entire show seems to be of a piece, with all technical elements combining to create a show more pleasurable than the sum of its parts.

The cast is well-balanced, with most of its members veterans of one or more previous productions of "Ride the Cyclone." Ms. Tatreau is perky and fun, while Ms. Rohm is dark and mysterious, but both have wonderful voices. Messrs. Wardell and Redmond have the oddest numbers to perform, but do so well. Mr. Duffy truly impresses, following a rap number with a song highlighting his legit voice, all while keeping up a believable Ukrainian accent. Ms. Castillo gives an indelible performance, with lots of comic bits mixed in with a layered backstory that deepens as the show progresses.

The Alliance is less a company that produces musicals on its own than one that brings in outsiders to mount their shows at the Alliance in what they hope will be a journey to the big time. "Ride the Cyclone" has already conquered Canada and made a splash at a few venues across the U.S. (Seattle, Chicago, and now Atlanta). What’s next? Widespread release to regional and community theatres? It’s a funny, quirky, and sometimes profane show featuring a young cast, and there are a number of theatre companies in the area that cater to a demographic that would eat this show up, even in a production less flashy and professional than what is appearing on the Alliance’s mainstage.

Native Gardens, by Karen Zacarías
The Maytag Ex-Virgin
Monday, May 20, 2019
At a theatre usually presenting two-act shows, you should inform the audience when you’re presenting a one-act production lasting an hour and three quarters, at least in the program, if not also in the curtain speech. You certainly shouldn’t make a point of mentioning that you have an intermission sponsor when there’s no intermission. On opening weekend, Aurora ignored those simple rules. During their production of "Native Gardens," you could feel the palpable tension in the audience after the first hour or so, as one scene after another terminated without an act-ending finish. Then, when one comes, it’s not the end of the act at all; there’s another scene following it, tying things up and letting the audience escape to the restrooms to relieve their bladders.

For "Native Gardens," Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have designed another massive set, this one reminiscent of last year’s "Maytag Virgin" at Aurora that similarly showed a view of two houses, one nicely appointed at stage right and one a bit deteriorated at stage left. Here, the two-story house at stage right belongs to Virginia and Frank Butley (Carolyn Cook and Bart Hansard, reunited as husband and wife, as they were in "Lombardi"). The window-filled, two-story brick house at stage left belongs to Pablo and Tania Del Valle (Cristian Gonzalez and Fedra Ramírez-Olivares). We see the backyards of both houses. The Butleys’ is manicured, with a polished stone patio and stacked stone flower beds simply brimming with colorful artificial flowers. The Del Valles’ backyard is all dirt and dead plants, except for the enormous oak tree far stage left.

The two yards are separated by a ramshackle chain-link fence. The plot hinges on the fact that the fence is not strictly on the legal boundary between the two yards. Urgency is supplied by the Del Valles’ need to get their yard in shape for an office party at the end of the week. Racial, cultural, and ageist animosity sparks the discussions between the well-established Butleys and the latinx new-comers, the Del Valles. It’s all very up-to-date in political references and hot-button cultural issues. The sociological content battles with the plot for supremacy in Karen Zacarías’ script.

Daniel Jáquez has staged the show with a distinctive flair. Two gardeners (Sharon Estela and Joey Florez Jr., who really should be given better billing) come out at the start of each scene and do various bits of yardwork at one house or the other, often breaking into dance moves to the Latino music playing in Kevin Frazier’s sound design. As part of their duties, they display placards indicating the day and time of each scene, as the action moves from Monday of the week toward the party planned for Saturday and the garden show judging scheduled for Sunday. The placards are often revealed as the underside or backside of one of Cody Russell’s numerous gardening-related props. It’s a clever touch.

Courtney Flores’ costumes help underline each character’s economic position, and they change from day to day, but not in a way that is overly noticeable. The costumes aid the play rather than trying to become a superfluous point of focus.

Ben Rawson’s lighting design is similarly subtle, raising or lowering general illumination to reflect time of day. There’s one scene in which the two couples carry on separate conversations unheard by the other couple, while sharing the stage and sometimes speaking phrases in unison. The lighting does nothing to help delineate the dual nature of the lines, and it looks a bit odd to see both couples in general lighting, just as they are in scenes in which the couples converse across the chain-link fence.

The script is sometimes heavy on the side of polemics, with Ms. Del Valle extolling the benefits of gardening with indigenous plants (i.e., "native gardens"), while Mr. Butley comes down on the side of pesticides and non-native flowers. The two couples are clearly designed to reflect opposite views on almost every topic that is broached. Even gender stereotypes come into play. Ms. Zacarías finally creates a détente between the couples to end the play, but it’s pretty schematic in execution, reflecting the see-sawing tone of the overall script.

Performances are all good. Mr. Hansard has a true flair for putting a comic spin on lines and actions, and fellow old pro Carolyn Cook does a terrific job of disguising line flubs with in-character ad libs. Ms. Ramírez-Olivares gives a strong, heartfelt performance that perhaps overshadows the performance of Mr. Gonzalez as her more strait-laced stage husband, but all the actors are somewhat hampered by the necessities of the script to spout party-line views on the topics that drive the play’s conversations.

Is the play a masterpiece? No. Does it hit on a lot of current-day issues? Yes. Does it make the issues arise organically from the personalities of the characters populating the piece? Not really. Is it entertaining? Yes, to begin with, but the entertainment value fades the longer the play stretches past the expected midway point at which an intermission would normally occur. Pee before the play begins and you’ll be prepared for this butt-numbing marathon of a show.

Billy Elliot, by Elton John (music) and Lee Hall (words)
Boy from the North Country
Monday, May 20, 2019
If you’ve never seen the musical "Billy Elliot" and want an introduction to it, the City Springs production is a great place for that introduction. If you have seen the Broadway or touring version, though, what you see at City Springs may disappoint you. Campbell Baird’s set design is a near-carbon copy of the Broadway original, and Brandt Blocker’s direction and Cindy Mora Reiser’s choreography do not always serve the script well. Mr. Blocker seems to have encouraged his actors to be so extreme in comic physical movements that they seem overblown even from the balcony. Ms. Reiser’s choreography, while being highly effective in numbers involving the policemen, makes the scene of Billy’s introduction to ballet a baffling puzzlement: Billy attempts no dance moves and shows no interest in dancing, so the teacher requesting him to return makes next to no sense. Most of the dance numbers are flavored greatly by the original Broadway choreography, although Mike Wood’s effective lighting design makes them more visible in the City Springs version.

Even so, there’s plenty of talent to watch. Much of the talent is new to Atlanta, but there are plenty of area favorites too. Karen Howell does her usual fine job as Grandma, and Haden Rider brings a lot of unbridled anger to Billy’s older brother Tony. George Deavours adds perhaps a bit too much fey charm to boxing coach George, but sings well, as does Bethany Irby in her smallish role as Billy’s Mum. Jeremy Wood, wasted in the ensemble, has a small part as a posh ballet dad that affords him his only chance to shine. Sarah Charles Lewis is a little tall as the daughter of powerhouse Pamela Gold, who plays dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, but acquits herself well. Ms. Gold herself is the standout of the show, marrying great singing, acting, and dancing to make her role the central pivot of the show.

Drew McVety, recently from Broadway, does a creditable job as Billy’s father, and Seth Black-Diamond becomes an audience favorite as cross-dressing kid Michael (although the loud orchestra in Stephen Kraack’s sound design for his big number, "Expressing Yourself," basically drowns out all lyrics). Liam Redford is perfectly fine in the title role, having played it three previous times, and the rest of cast step up to their roles with enthusiasm.

Thick accents and dialectical speech patterns can make the dialogue difficult to follow for American ears. Dialect coach Cara Reid has done a good job of balancing understandability with authenticity, so only Matt Bonaker’s speech is unintelligible. Lee Hall’s script is heavy on repetition, particularly of the frequent foul language, so that helps understandability too.

The show does not start out promisingly. Newsreel footage is projected to ground the story in Thatcher-era British mining history, and the red curtain background of the footage makes it look unsubstantial and cheap. The impression of third-rate production values is enhanced when sound board operator Grace Randall is then late in turning up microphones for the start of the opening number (which may not occur at all performances, but certainly occurred in glaring fashion at the matinee I attended). The mix of live music for the song-and-dance portions of the show and canned orchestral music for transitions and dance sequences also helps create an impression that not all technical effort is being put forth.

Amanda Edgerton West’s costumes work well enough for the grim, grimy scenes of mining town life, but tend to get a bit garish for the ballet class sequences (where dancing is far more show-biz-y than balletic). Costuming for the extended curtain call adds a clever touch to tie up the show.

Music director Judy Cole has gotten good vocals out of the ensemble and adult singers. The children also acquit themselves well, with tiny vocal warbles evident only in solo moments. The orchestra plays well, although brass can be overpowering in the sound mix. Overall, this is a nicely professional production that pales only in comparison to the superior Broadway touring company that introduced the show to Atlanta audiences.

Spirits to Enforce, by Mickle Maher
An Audience of Nobody
Monday, May 20, 2019
In what has become a Vernal & Sere signature move, you enter the auditorium to see the cast onstage, making repetitive movements to a musical soundtrack. On the upstage drop, projections by Vivian Nguyen and Michael Frederick show three portholes that function as ship’s clocks, the audience left one reading 9, the audience right one reading 5, and the middle one flickering as the clock hands rotate rapidly. The images in the portholes change occasionally. That’s our clue that the action takes place on a submarine, reinforced in later scenes by water bubble-like projections in the portholes.

The set itself consists of three rows of plastic school chairs with attached writing surfaces. Risers painted pink and rose ensure good visibility of the 12 actors onstage, five in the back row, four in the middle row, and three in front on the stage floor. Each of the chairs is a different color and/or style. Rotary phones on the writing surfaces are similarly varied, with some color coordination with the chairs. Costumes, designed by director Erin O’Connor, give pops of color. Set a PBS televised fund raiser in a universe where superheroes sit among us, and you might get exactly what the audience sees at the Windmill Arts Center.

There’s lots of overlapping dialogue as the 12 fundraisers make cold calls looking for funds to finance a superhero-produced/directed/acted production of William Shakespeare’s "The Tempest." The show takes us through the process of requesting funds, rehearsing, hawking ticket sales, and performing. In the process, it’s revealed [spoiler alert!] that the ordinary people making the phone calls are actually the alter egos of the superheroes themselves. The story is told in very fractured terms, but it becomes murkily clear that the action is taking place in the polluted waters outside the island of "The Tempest’s" action, 400 years after Prospero and the humans have departed, leaving the island to the warring factions of Caliban (the supervillain) and Ariel’s band of spirits (the superheroes). It’s all very comic, with interspersed bits of Shakespeare’s text. Lindsey Sharpless’ lighting design does a very nice job of highlighting individual actors when their lines are supposed to be the focus, since interjections or overlapping lines from other actors would otherwise compete for audience focus.

Ms. O’Connor has acted sometimes more as a choreographer than a director, interjecting unison movements into the text to create a kinetically and visually arresting series of stage pictures. That’s not to downplay the acting, for that’s on a high level overall, and each character is nicely etched in the performances. Each actor plays three roles (the alter ego, the superhero identity, and a role in "The Tempest"), with more or less contrast between the roles depending on the importance (focused stage time) of the character.

The actors are onstage the whole time, mostly positioned at their individual seats. In the top row, Sofia Palmero is stage right, giving a nice comic spin to her roles as Diana Blake, superhero The Bad Map, and Trinculo. She doesn’t have much to do, but she ably provides comic relief. To her left is Kellen Boyle, who provides the romantic heart of the plot, shy and insecure as Randell James, confident and full-voiced as The Tune, and coming into his own as Ferdinand. Center in the top row is Jason-Jamal Ligon as Wayne Simon, knot-obsessed superhero The Untangler, and most notably as Caliban, the stage equivalent of The Cannibal, an escaped supervillain who is wreaking havoc on the island as the superheroes are sidetracked by their play production. To his left is yellow-costumed Kasey O’Barr as Dale Clark, The Intoxicator, and Stephano. His roles aren’t large, but he has some nice comic lines. Leftmost in the top row is Megan Poole as annoying Rebecca Lloyd, overbearing The Ocean, and Gonzalo. She makes a big impression, tempering the general unlikability of her characters with personal charisma.

The middle row is populated with Katerina Eichenberger, Nicholas Blue, Kathrine Barnes, and Spencer Mumford from stage right to stage left. Ms. Eichenberger is the central figure, her alter ego identity of Emory Lawson soon giving way to her true identity of Ariel, the spirit who helped Prospero rule the island in the days of "The Tempest." The inability of Ariel to act convincingly as herself in their production of "The Tempest" provides the closest thing to a personal crisis in the play. Ms. Barnes does a very nice job of distinguishing her roles of Cecily Grey, The Page, and Prospero, while Mr. Blue is basically a non-entity as Brad Allen, The Snow Heavy Branch (who at least figures into a nice visual image, as he blows and blusters, the portholes filling with frost), and Alonso. Mr. Mumford plays Craig Cale as a more subdued version of his silly superhero identity The Pleaser, and takes on nice Shakespearean tones as Antonio, Prospero’s usurping brother.

The front row has Hailey Swartwout stage right, with an incandescent smile as Donna Adams and expressive hand movements as The Silhouette, who puts shadows into play as masque characters in "The Tempest," in one of the most intriguing elements in Mickle Maher’s script. Center in front is Onye Eme-Akwari, as Oliver Kendell, sweetly silly superhero Fragrance Fellow, and Sebastian. His part is a small one, but he does his roles up proud. Madelyn Wall has a larger set of roles as Susan Tanner, Memory Lass, and Miranda, which she plays from the downstage left position. Her interplay with Mr. Boyle is a delight, as Memory Lass finds it impossible to remember Randell James, while being enamored of his superhero identity of The Tune, and having to interact with him onstage as love interests Miranda and Ferdinand.

Overall, "Spirits to Enforce" could be seen as a triumph of style over substance. Wacky superpowers and Marvel-worthy supervillains provide the life force of the plot, and Ms. O’Connor’s direction ensures that the visuals of the production will stick in the mind of playgoers. But Mr. Maher’s gloss on "The Tempest" has more depth than might appear on its comic book surface. Vernal & Sere has produced a production that is as strange as any the company has done before, but with tons of entertainment value.

Bullets Over Broadway, by Woody Allen
Four with a Bullet
Monday, May 20, 2019
"Bullets Over Broadway" is yet another jukebox musical and yet another musical based on a recent popular movie. It deals in stereotypes (gangsters, a gangster’s no-talent moll, an aging dipsomaniac diva), all filtered through Woody Allen’s comic perspective. But somehow the magic isn’t quite there, and it’s all the fault of the show itself. Georgia Ensemble’s production is a first-class interpretation of a second-class show.

The score is a collection -- more a grab-bag than a cornucopia -- of period tunes. The finale allows the theatre to re-use leftover banana peel props from "Moonlight and Magnolias," but that’s about all it has going for it. The silliness of the plot isn’t enhanced by the songs, most of which seem to have been shoe-horned into the script. The familiarity of the songs lets the mind wander during the musical numbers rather than reinforcing the dramatic flow. It doesn’t help that the generally fine orchestra led by music director S. Renee Clark uses synth sounds for strings, giving the accompaniment of the more lyrical numbers a diluted feel.

Lighting is also problematic in the show. For a couple of group numbers, Mike Post’s design uses dim light with moving gobos on the downstage floor, not giving Lauren Brooke Tatum’s choreography its due. The two spotlights used, particularly for musical duets, seem to be of different intensities, creating an unevenness of illumination that is quite distracting. The decision to pop the spotlights on at the start of number after number becomes stale. Projections are used a couple of times, cleverly at the start of the show as the title appears on the curtain in rhythm with machine gun blasts, but later with star Helen Sinclair’s name above the proscenium with animation that seems jerky and peculiarly colored.

Aside from that, the show is terrific. Stephanie Polhemus’ set design uses a permanent brick façade behind the proscenium curtain, with the orchestra seated almost invisibly behind a scrim in back of it. Two mirror-image staircase units are moved and rotated to suggest a variety of locales, and other set pieces are moved on and off with alacrity. Emmie Tuttle’s costumes add lots of color to the proceedings. There’s a nice, active flow to the action in James Donadio’s direction.

Ms. Tatum’s choreography is beautifully realized by the cast, with lots of chorine numbers and tap routines that let the ensemble shine. It seems that everyone can sing and everyone can act and everyone can dance. The energy provided by the chorus keeps the show motoring along smoothly.

All the major roles are filled with overflowing talent. Blake Fountain makes for a comically believable over-eating matinee idol, and Byron Hays gives gang boss Nick Valenti an ominous edge. LaLa Cochran lends secondary lead Eden Brent her standard off-kilter humor, and Megan Wheeler plays an often-overlooked love interest with both sweet vulnerability and unyielding backbone. Patrick Coleman does well enough as Julian Marx, although the Jewish content of his role falls flat, and Rachel Sorsa has all the grand manners of a self-impressed fading star. Maggie Birgel plays Olive Neal with all the platinum blonde air-headedness the role requires, proving herself an audience favorite in her every moment onstage.

"Bullets Over Broadway" is a bit unusual in that it has the equivalent of two male leads: playwright David Shayne (Chase Peacock) and gangster/play doctor Cheech (Hayden Rowe). Each has his flaws -- Shayne is a bit self-aggrandizing and Cheech kills for a living -- but they are played by men who have the looks and talent of Broadway leading men. Mr. Peacock has a singing voice like an undulating sea of honey in which one would gladly drown, and he gives the character of David Shayne a nice arc from narcissism to self-knowledge. Mr. Rowe has a more comic arc, from stereotypical gang muscle to budding playwright, but he plays the role straight from start to finish, letting his creamy baritone soften the edges of his macho persona.

James Donadio has put together a show that lets Atlanta musical comedy talent shine brilliantly. The material may not be up to the level of the cast, but the silly plot goes down easily and the terrific singing and dancing make up for just about any shortcoming in lighting and material. In my opinion, the movie of "Bullets Over Broadway" is better than the stage musical, but Georgia Ensemble’s first-rate production may sway your opinion in the opposite direction.

Bright Star, by Book by Steven Martin; songs and story by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
Shining Bright
Monday, May 20, 2019
The Steve Martin/Edie Brickell musical "Bright Star" is being given a handsome production at the Elm Street Cultural Arts Village in Woodstock. In Brad Leak’s scenic design, the band is seated up center, against a backdrop painted (but only visibly on the sides) with a mountain view vista. Wood framing in vaguely architectural form is present upstage and on either side of the stage. Set pieces are rolled in and out as needed, and brown-painted wooden cubes are used for general seating. There are also a couple of desks and an actual chair to set interior scenes. Scene transitions are accomplished smoothly.

Costumes, designed by Cindy Flanders, don’t do a particularly good job in distinguishing the 1920’s scenes from the 1940’s scenes, but there are a couple of nifty quick-change outfits, and the script does a good job of letting us know what timeframe we’re in. Brian Gamel’s lighting design, while seeming a bit dim in the initial moments of the show, soon does a fine job of highlighting the action. Sound design is also good, with a nice balance of band and vocals, although not all microphone levels seem to be the same.

The band consists of four permanent members (Annie Cook on piano and Alex Lipsky on fiddle, with Mason Stokes principally on cello and Barry Arnell on banjo and other stringed instruments), with four cast members joining in at times (Jillian Seibert on drums, McKenzie McCart on guitar, Matthew Weeks on bass, and Joshua Robinson on mandolin). The playing is superb and the Martin/Brickell bluegrass score is engaging. There’s even some choreography by Lauren Rosenweitz (Rosenschweig?) that adds percussion sounds, most notably in a stunning set-up sequence of the boxes to resemble seats in a train.

Of course, an excellent orchestra needs to be accompanied by accomplished singing to have its greatest impact. Elm Street’s production has been blessed with a great selection of voices to sing the score. Female lead Kate Jackson is in marvelous voice as Alice Murphy, and she and male lead Stephen Spainhour-Roth as Jimmy Ray Dobbs create indelible performances, both in terms of singing and of acting. Lesser roles are also filled with good singers, with a couple seemingly being more comfortable singing than acting. There are some fine dancers too, principally Ms. Seibert and Carolyn Oursler (who is also quite good as secondary lead Margo), and Mr. Weeks has some nice dance moves too. It’s a talented cast.

Director Annie Cook has put together a terrific production of a story with North Carolina roots. Dramatic performances come from Byron Harvey and Joel Rose, as the fathers of the two leads, and a more comical, but equally effective performance comes from Joshua Robinson as the father of the male secondary lead (played by Jason Fussell). McKenzie McCart also adds some nice comic notes. There’s even some technological wizardry in play, as sleight of hand propels a prop into a digital image on a projection screen at the edge of the stage.

The staging is fluid and pacing is excellent, although the running time of 2.5 hours seems a tad long, with some songs having less of an impact than the book scenes. Still, the sentimental ending works on all levels. "Bright Star" is one of those recent Broadway shows that hasn’t come through Atlanta on tour, so it’s a treat to be able to see it in Woodstock in a production that is far above the standard of most local community theatres.

The Big Meal, by Dan LeFranc
Acid Flash Reflux
Monday, May 20, 2019
It takes a while to get used to the theatrical conventions in Dan LeFranc’s "The Big Meal." Two characters say a few lines, then they make a subtle movement and suddenly they’re in another scene at a later time. Then those two actors are replaced by two older actors to represent the characters at an older age, while the younger actors start playing different characters, often children of the older actors. There are three sets of actors playing the same couple (Sam and Nicole) over a lifetime, so it sometimes takes a conscious effort to remember who’s playing what when. Extended wordless death scenes accompanied by special lighting and droning music occur more and more frequently as the play goes on. Naturalistic overlapping dialogue and multiple ongoing conversations ensure that the audience will miss some of what’s going on.

Onstage Atlanta’s set in its lovely new building was designed by Barry N. West. It’s not a wow-er -- just walls with tile wainscoting below and restaurant collages above, two benches to either side and three restaurant tables with chairs in the center. Openings up left and up right allow entry and egress. The scenes take place at the tables, with adult actors sitting to the sides or upstage when they are not participating in a particular scene. Tom Gillespie’s lighting design is pretty much general illumination except for the death scenes and a dance scene. Charlie Miller’s sound design really comes into play only during those lighting changes. Joan Cooper’s costumes don’t attempt to alter actors’ appearances in their split-second transitions from one to another.

Since the show takes place in a restaurant, most of the props from designers Cathe Hall Payne and Angie Short are food and drink-related, although there are a few gifts handed out. Ms. Short acts as a server, bringing out glasses and dishes and clearing things away before leaving. The food props are garishly colored, looking like pink meat and mint green mashed potatoes. At least they’re edible, as we watch people clean their plates at leisure.

Director Jeffery Brown has done a splendid job of getting the actors to behave and speak in a very realistic way for a family ranged round a restaurant table, with lots of interruptions from children (Elsie Johnson and Jackson Doyle, both quite good) and lots of dynamic levels. His blocking keeps everything visible, with a minimum of table rearrangement between scenes. Pacing is superb, except for the interminable death scenes.

All the actors are quite capable, but there’s not always a great deal of difference between one of their characters and the next, and no apparent attempt to have characters played by different actors at different ages to have specific identifying idiosyncrasies. Jon Vertullo does a very good job transitioning from his role as a son to the roles of a series of boyfriends, but the differences tend to blur as one boyfriend transitions to the next in just a couple of lines. Jackson Doyle does a nice job distinguishing a bratty brother near the start from a more polite grandson near the end. Everyone else makes changes too, but the vocal and physical alterations are generally subtle.

"The Big Meal" uses a contemporary vocabulary throughout, with a lot of four-letter words. As such, the time line from the start of the relationship to old age seems a bit compressed. There’s an attempt in the script to show a change in attitude over time to culturally insensitive jokes, but it seems more an obvious ploy than an organic part of the plot.

All in all, Onstage Atlanta is inaugurating its new space with a play that is more style than substance, and not necessarily a style that creates theatrical magic. We see the journey of a couple from initial meeting to commitment to marital problems that instantly seem to heal themselves to allow a transition into an old age together. It’s a bunch of tiny scenes that are equivalent to flipping through a family photo album in a room full of competing conversations. Interesting enough when the family is your own; less so when the family is a fictional bunch whose identities blur into one another.

Sir Thomas More, by Anthony Munday, Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, William Shakespeare
More on More
Monday, May 20, 2019
The script of "Sir Thomas More" was originally written by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, but was banned by censors under Elizabeth I (perhaps understandable in that More was executed by order of her father, Henry VIII). The script was revised in multiple iterations by Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, and William Shakespeare, but none of the revisions were approved for public performance. Resurgens’ production is the Southeastern premiere of the play.

While the script covers the same territory as "A Man for All Seasons," the thrust of the play is entirely different in Brent Griffin’s adaptation. We have three portions of More’s life dramatized: his eloquence as sheriff quelling xenophobic riots in London, which elevated him to the position of Lord Chancellor; a comic meeting with Erasmus, involving an entertainment concerning the marriage of Wit and Wisdom; and the tragic aftermath of his refusal to accede to Henry VIII’s first divorce, resulting in his execution. There is barely the hint of any discussion involving religion. We get the portrait of a man who in his life was known as being both witty and accomplished. He comes across as very likeable.

Brent Griffin’s direction makes good use of the Shakespeare Tavern stage, utilizing the balcony as More is addressing rioters on the stage floor below him and using the trapdoor to represent a gallows. Catherine Thomas’ costumes give a real visual flair to the production, and Matthew Trautwein’s music adds brightness to the start of the production and somberness to the end. Since Resurgens prides itself on "original practice," there are no lighting effects to add visual variety. They’re not missed.

Performances are very good overall, as 12 actors portray 25 different characters. Four play only one character apiece: Winslow Thomas as Sir Thomas More, Judy Thomas as his wife, Robert Bryan Davis as the Earl of Shrewsbury, and Tamil Periasamy as the Earl of Surrey. All do fine work. Thom Gillott, Kathleen McManus, Thomas J. Thomas, Bob Lanoue, Brent Griffin, Trey Harrison, and Erin Greenway play two roles apiece, with Mr. Trautwein picking up the remaining seven roles. Not unexpectedly, old pro Ms. McManus makes the strongest impression of the minor characters, investing her roles with deep individuality. Mr. Thomas’ clenched mouth movements sometimes make his words difficult to distinguish, but all the others speak clearly and distinctly. Characterizations maintain the clarity of the script.

"Sir Thomas More" may not soar with poetry or act as an action-filled history play, but it’s supremely interesting. The More we seen onstage interacts as a human being with common people, his family, and friends. This is a fully human portrait, not one schematized by political or religious agendas. Quintessential Shakespeare it’s not, but good theatre it is.

Singin’ in the Rain, by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (book) and Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed (songs)
Lucky Star
Monday, May 20, 2019
"Singin’ in the Rain" is considered by some to be the quintessential MGM movie musical. In Atlanta Lyric’s production of the stage adaptation, the strengths of the story and score come through loud and clear. Lee Shiver-Cerone’s scenic design is more functional than attractive, and George Deavours’ wigs and Amanda Edgerton West’s costumes aim more for period accuracy than for inherent beauty, but Mary Nye Bennett’s direction, Jennifer Smiles Plumley’s choreography, and Paul Tate’s music direction make sure that the cast are shown off to great advantage.

Mike Sal’s sound design is the most problematic technical element in the show. The live orchestra is loud, especially when brass is playing, and the initial sequence featuring Kayce Grogan-Wallace as a gossip columnist has her dialogue nearly drowned out by the music playing under it. Thereafter, sound levels seem more appropriate, with singing voices blending well with the orchestra.

The major roles are all filled well. Beth Beyer is a terrific Lina Lamont, marrying a grating voice with bleached blonde ditziness in a winning fashion. J Koby Parker lends lots of comedic flair to his role as Cosmo Brown, although the choreography for his big number, "Make ’Em Laugh," doesn’t hold a candle to the dance done by Donald O’Connor in the movie. Leigh Ellen Jones does a bang-up job as Kathy Seldon, although her wig and costumes make her look unnecessarily nondescript. Jeremy Benton’s extremely white teeth make him stand out as much as his acting, dancing, and singing, which are unsurpassed, although the rain and choreography for the title number don’t hold a candle to the movie version featuring Gene Kelly.

That’s not to say that the whole production is a pale imitation of the movie. Bit players Christy Baggett, as a movie director, and Kara Noel Harrington, in a variety of roles, do wonderful character work. Aaron Carter’s tap-dancing skills spark what is probably the most spectacular number in the show ("Moses Supposes"), and add a lot to an act two fantasy sequence. Messrs. Parker and Benton and Ms. Jones perform "Good Morning" in a fashion that pays tribute to the movie without slavishly reproducing it. The apparent high spirits of the ensemble make the show a joy to watch.

Ms. Bennett has put together a production that makes fine use of a lot of talent new to Atlanta, while still featuring many familiar faces. Is there too much of an effort in the staging to evoke memories of the movie? Perhaps. But the unique talents of the cast make many moments theirs alone. Mr. Benton in particular is the "lucky star" whose performance makes the production rise above the level of mere competence to something far more impressive and enjoyable.

Rumors, by Neil Simon
A Rumor of Comedy
Monday, May 20, 2019
Milton Community Theatre’s inaugural production of Neil Simon’s "Rumors" shows great promise for the new company. Director Jonathan Goff has created a production that lets the comedy of Simon’s script shine brightly. Pacing is perhaps not all it could be for a farce, put it comes together at all the right points to keep the action rolling.

The set, designed by the director and Bill Purdie, represents an elegant living room, bar at far stage right, table and chairs center right, and sofa and chair stage left. The cream walls with maroon wainscoting are interrupted by doors and openings -- kitchen opening at stage right, powder room door up right, front door up left (although it is indistinguishable from the other doors), and basement door down left. A staircase up center leads to openings on either side of a platform. It’s all tasteful and understated, if a bit bland, with standard-issue artwork on the walls. Costumes, designed by Julie Resh, add a bit more flair, and Jessica Williams’ props help populate the play.

Performances by the ten actors build on the eccentricities implicit in Simon’s script. Loren Collins’ lawyerly demeanor ricochets into a series of non-stop hard-of-hearing jokes. Sanika Harris, as his statuesque wife, lives on the edge of a nervous breakdown until resuming her smoking habit. Jeremy N. Choate’s deadpan delivery underlines the humor of his lines, while Carla Selden’s expressive face and barbed comments add a humor of their own. Chris Carrollton and Lauren Wall, as another married couple, get the lion’s share of physical comedy, while the tension in the married couple played by Jesse McWhorter and Alyssa Davis sparks a different kind of comedy altogether. The police officers played by Devin Ellery and Amanii McCray don’t appear until the second act, but they hold their own.

What doesn’t work in this production is the sound design. Performances are held in a cavernous middle school gymnasium with echo-y acoustics. The actors sport head mics, but don’t all project at the same level, so sound levels are very inconsistent. Add in missed and ill-timed sound cues, and the sound component of the show is well below par. Lighting, on the other hand, adds in nice headlight effects through a window to augment what is otherwise a fairly basic lighting scheme.

Jonathan Goff has blocked the show to keep sightlines good on the actor-filled stage. It helps that the stage is raised and wide. It doesn’t help that the uncomfortable plastic seats in the audience are all on the same level. Still, the show moves along on Simon’s one-liners and the character-specific delivery of the actors. Rumors of a promising new theatre company in town are true.

Four Weddings and an Elvis, by Nancy Frick
Four Out of Five
Monday, May 20, 2019
Nancy Frick’s "Four Weddings and an Elvis" is a crowd-pleasing comedy. The action takes place in a Las Vegas wedding chapel run by Sandy (Pamela Parry). In the first three scenes, three different couples arrive to get hitched: Stan (Vincent Samuels) and Bev (Rhonda Mitchell), who want revenge on their exes by getting married; TV has-beens Bryce (Thaddeus Nifong) and Vanessa (Camille Mahdi), who are staging a sham marriage as a publicity stunt; and Fiona (Ellen Clay) and Marvin (Jeffrey Liu), a seemingly mismatched hot-headed convict and nerdy postal worker. In the first act, things don’t go as expected. In the second act, which concludes with a fourth scene in which Sandy gets married for the fifth time, things are rosier. But it’s funny throughout.

The proceeding are sparked by four additional characters: an Elvis-impersonating minister (Will Hiltman), a would-be replacement minister (Charles Bohanan), a jail-breaking ex of Fiona’s (Jonn McDaniel), and a TV producer (Mr. Samuels in a case of double casting). They add excitement of their own. When all the characters gather for Sandy’s marriage, everything wraps up nicely, with just the right amount of twist in the ending.

The Main Street Theatre’s set, designed by David Conley, presents us with a nicely appointed chapel, centered by a festive gazebo upstage, fronted by an altar and featuring beams above that support a chandelier. Seating exists on either side of the stage, and doors upstage right and left lead respectively to the outside and to the backroom changing area. Carrie Harris’ costumes add a lot of glamor when needed, and help express character throughout. Lisa Temples’ props are perhaps a tad less glamorous than called for, but get the job done. Walter Stark’s lighting design is capable of illuminating the full stage, and showcases pink-lit plant stands on either side of the gazebo, but chooses dimmer lighting for many scenes, with no apparent reason. Even so, this is a good-looking production.

Sound design, by Ginny Mauldin-Kinney, doesn’t get a huge workout in the script, but provides a nice background for the scene in which police surround the chapel. The actors wear microphones to amplify their voices, but all do a good enough job of projecting that dialogue is clear throughout.

Director D. Norris’ blocking seems pretty basic overall, but he has encouraged his actors to create indelible characters. The character-driven antics of the cast drive the show from start to finish. Messrs. Nifong and Bohanan triumph in the scene they share, and Ms. Clay and Messrs. Liu and McDaniel make their shared scene a delight from start to finish. Mr. Hiltman’s Elvis impression may not be world-class, but he has a nice singing voice to ground the impression, and Ms. Parry provides a pleasant continuity to the proceedings.

"Four Weddings and an Elvis" may not be a sophisticated comedy, but it is well-suited for modern community theatre, with strong characters, lots of action and variety, and only a moderate amount of character-specific foul language. Mr. Norris has created a Las Vegas microcosm onstage in Tucker in which "What happens in Vegas gets turned into ... comedy" (to quote Ms. Parry’s biography).

Footloose, by Dean Pitchford and others
Monday, May 20, 2019
"Footloose" isn’t the best stage musical, featuring a dance-heavy jukebox score in a story about a town that has banned dancing. The movie it is based on was highly popular, and the musical attempts to profit from the name recognition. In the Theatre Buford production, we fully see the weakness of the script (uncredited in the program, as is Rodgers & Hammerstein Theatricals, although detailed song credits are given). The plot seems paper-thin. Thin plots can sometimes be redeemed by stellar performances and palpable chemistry between the leads, but that is not the case here.

The set (constructed by carpenters Spencer Estes and Greg Hunter) is unattractive, but functional. A two-story structure upstage is a permanent fixture, with three columns that cleverly have segments that swing out to suggest locker doors for one brief high school scene. Other set pieces (pews, a corner door unit, chairs and tables) are brought on for various scenes, and other set elements descend from the flies. Julie Skrzypek’s blocking keeps the action moving along, so the set changes don’t interrupt the flow.

Genny Wynn’s lighting design is a little heavy on gobos, but generally works to keep actors lit and to highlight the action. Natalie Parker’s props work just fine, with some incorporated into Kari Twyman’s kinetic choreography. Chris Lane’s sound design nicely combines sound effects with the pre-recorded musical tracks. Rachael Ottinger Karas’ costumes aren’t terribly flattering, but blend in well with the nondescript set.

While voices of the cast are good, the show doesn’t sound particularly good under Nick Silvestri’s musical direction. The blend of voices never seems quite right. Ms. Twyman’s choreography is very active, which might impact vocal quality in group numbers, but even solos have a certain something lacking.

A casting choice was made to have newcomer Ren’s family be black. That’s all fine and dandy, but nothing is made of the racial disparity between Ren (Sterling McMlary) and preacher’s daughter Ariel (Rosa K. Campos). Given the narrow-minded mindset of the community to which Ren moves, some hostility might be expected. It’s not in the script, though, and Ms. Skrzypek hasn’t made anything of it. That gives the whole production a sunny PC perspective that doesn’t really jibe with the plot point of Ariel being a rebel.

The chemistry between Ariel and Ren is non-existent in this production. Mr. McMlary comes across as a corny comic with mad dancing skills. Ms. Campos looks as old as her supposed mother (Erin Burnett) and gives Ariel a sullen, slutty persona that makes her unlikeable from the start. The innocence/experience quotient of the Ariel-Ren relationship is unbalanced in this production, making their supposed mutual attraction baffling.

Other couples fare better. Bryant Smith and Ms. Burnett have a believable dynamic as Ariel’s parents, and ensemble couplings generally ring true. Best of all are triple-threat Corey Bryant as tongue-tied Willard and engaging Maggie Salley as Rusty. Their relationship is sweet and comic and bright. Without them, the show would be dreary indeed.

There’s a lot of talent onstage in Theatre Buford’s "Footloose," but the talent doesn’t translate into theatrical magic. Latrice Pace and Stephanie Zandra, so good in Actor’s Express’ "The Color Purple," barely make an impression in "Footloose." Joseph Pendergrast and Anthony Campbell are given chances to show off some of their impressive dance moves, but that just underlines the fact that the show seems to really come to life only in the choreography.

Theatre Buford’s productions are attracting first-rate Atlanta actors, but so far haven’t been showing them off to advantage. Sets have been disappointing, particularly in comparison to Gypsy Theatre Company’s stylish designs in the same space, and the company doesn’t seem yet to have hit its stride. "Footloose" is just another example of this.

Big Fish, by John August (book) and Andrew Lippa (songs)
Bigger Fish to Fry
Monday, May 20, 2019
You enter into an auditorium whose walls are covered audience left with forsythia branches and audience right with netting and streamers suggesting a cave. The stage itself has a cave-like space stage left under a raised platform to which steps lead up. A lower platform flanks the upstage side of the set, with stairs center and 16 picture frames arranged on the back wall. More forsythia branches are affixed to the wall and banister. These little blotches of yellow flowers suggest that this production of "Big Fish," whose poster image shows endless daffodils, will be somewhat scaled down. The picture frames, filled with fuzzy cloud-like images, have an odd glow under general lighting. Are these LED screens that will change images to set scenes? No. They’re just a choice by the co-designers of the set (Sophie Harmon and the co-directors, Andrew Berardi and Michelle Davis).

That’s not to say that ACT3’s production is technically crude. Jeff Costello’s lighting design and Spencer G. Stephens’ sound design supply all the special effects needed, lending the show a nice variety of moods. Mari Miller’s costumes are impressive, especially in matching witch costumes, circus garb, and clothes for the giant Karl (audience favorite John Coombs). Props by the co-directors also impress. Johnna Barrett Mitchell’s choreography doesn’t seem terribly inspired, but it is ably performed by the cast, sparked by acrobatics from Elisabeth Clements and Lucas Pollitzer and showcasing Brian Slayton’s juggling skills.

Blocking nicely uses the open space of the playing area, with occasional set pieces moved on to set various scenes. No part of the audience is given short shrift, with singers of a duet changing position on stage in a natural fashion to ensure that audience members have equal experience of both singers.

Musical director Michael d’Haviland gets fine vocal performances out of the cast, who are perfectly in sync with the pre-recorded tracks that accompany the songs. Male lead Stephen DeVillers has a powerful voice whose power remains undiminished through the course of the show, bringing the house down with his final number. Suzanne Stroup, as his wife, nearly equals him in power and trueness of voice, and Jacob Valleroy, as their adult son Will, adds a lighter tone that blends in beautifully. All solo lines are well-sung, with John Coombs’ bass adding to the "wow" factor of his terrific performance on stilts. Ensemble voices are also quite good.

Acting gives appropriate weight to each role, with every ensemble member getting a chance to shine. Elisabeth Clements’ smiling face brightens every scene she’s in, and Golbanoo Setayesh’s facial expressions in the "Alabama Lamb" number delight. The major roles are all played with conviction, letting the story of the show come through strong and clear. Kat Altman, as Will’s pregnant wife Josephine, adds subtle humor and touching affection to her scenes.

This "Big Fish" is on a smaller scale than the show calls for. The arrival of daffodils at the end of the first act is a let-down, and the unvaried nature of the set provides a black-box scale to what could be an expansive production. The show seems more earth-bound and limited than the imagination of Edward Bloom, whose tall tales form the backbone of the story. The heart of the show is there; the glitz is there only in limited scope.

I Love to Eat, by James Still
I Love to Watch "I Love to Eat"
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
I do hope James Beard’s apartment has an elevator. In the set design for "I Love to Eat" at Theatrical Outfit, Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have designed a first-floor kitchen with an impossibly high ceiling, huge windows in the back and copper pots and pans suspended on tracks far above reach. Chandeliers made from kitchen implements provide lighting, and tables and counters abound. If the physical James Beard is sleeping upstairs and near death, as the play leads us to believe, the climb up the stairs to his bedroom would surely have done him in.

The metaphysical James Beard is who we see onstage, entering "Drowsy Chaperone"-style after a lengthy montage of kitchen sounds while a kitchen timer is spotlit on the countertop center stage. Jeff Cone’s costume for Beard (William S. Murphey) is a striped Chinese-style set of silk pajamas and a brightly-lined silk robe, together with a monogrammed apron donned at various points. Mr. Cone has also designed the magnificent Elsie the Cow puppet that Mr. Murphey manipulates and provides the voice for.

Technically, this is a glorious production. The set and costumes are magnificent, and Adam Howarth’s sound and Rob Dillard’s lighting highlight the action beautifully. Nick Battaglia’s props overflow the counter space and spill onto the floor, making the elevated stage look incredibly lived-in. And would this be a Curley-Clay set if parts of it didn’t pull out or rotate?

James Beard was a renowned chef, but in the play he brags that he’s not a snob about cuisine. That’s bragging nevertheless. Mr. Murphey doesn’t seem particularly adept in the kitchen, but he handles the cooking section well enough, as he makes mayonnaise and assembles round onion sandwiches that are served to first-row patrons, a couple of whom are invited onstage to eat and imbibe.

The play lets us know about Beard, largely through telephone calls on various phones scattered about the set. His thirst for fame, initially as an opera singer, infused his life, and sometimes makes him seem more conceited and curmudgeonly than likeable. In Mr. Murphey’s capable hands, however, he’s a presence we don’t want to take our eyes off of.

Is this production of "I Love to Eat" a triumph of design and performance over material? Definitely. Clifton Guterman has directed a show that is destined to be an audience favorite, starring an Atlanta favorite whose portly profile provides a good approximation of James Beard’s. Is this a man I would have liked to meet in person? Probably not. But at Theatrical Outfit, we’re treated to a 90-minute monologue that makes the man a spell-binding presence, moving around a set that is a wonder to behold.

The Hero’s Wife, by Aline Lathrop
Vignette Overload
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Aline Lathrop’s "The Hero’s Wife" shows us the interactions between a husband recently retired from the military and his newish wife. They were happily married before his last deployment, but he’s come back a changed man, prone to violent night terrors of which he has no memory in the morning. Ms. Lathrop’s script shows us repeated short scenes of these nightmares, through which the wife begins to piece together what really happened to her husband overseas.

Sara W. Culpepper has designed a lovely set at Synchronicity, all pale blue, with skewed and tilted walls and shelves, the floor painted in the same overwhelming blue. Stage right we have the bedroom; stage left we have a living room. Up center there’s a galley kitchen, of which we see primarily a high counter. Beams angle across the ceiling. It’s modern and almost austere, with a certain dreamlike quality. Allen Hahn’s lighting enhances the mood of each scene, with Kimberly Binns’ video projections playing across the walls during many scene transitions in a fractured, fragmentary way that is as highly evocative as sound designer Dan Bauman’s accompanying music.

Cole Spivia’s costumes and Courtney Loner’s props add a bit of reality to the proceedings. There are a lot of bed scenes, so a lot of PJs and underwear are on display, but no total nudity. Makeup is effective, showing the bruises resulting from nighttime violence.

Rachel May has directed the play with a lethargic pulse that emphasizes the briefness of dialogue in scene after scene. It seems that three lines are spoken, then we have a wordless scene, often as motionless as a vignette. After a while, it becomes enervating. Yes, there seems to be an affecting story underlying the static action of the play, but it’s so boring in the telling that attention wanders. By the time we get to an equivocally happy vignette at the end, it’s too little too late.

With pulse-quickening performances, the play might work better. Here, we have Joe Sykes showing us a standard strong-and-silent brute whose machismo overwhelms any underlying sensitivity and Rebecca Robles, acting more like a young college newlywed than the hard-scrabble yoga instructor of the script. There’s a sanitized feeling to the whole thing. Raw sexual chemistry between the two is lacking. With more of a blue collar feel to the performances, the script might come to life. As it is, Synchronicity’s "The Hero’s Wife" seems like an academic study, lifeless and more than a little bland.

Women’s Shorts, by Palmer, Henry, McClain, Herrick,Striepe, Swanson, Fornarola, Styron
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
"Women’s Shorts" returns to Out of Box in 2019 with a new slate of short plays written by women, directed by women, and performed by women. The plays are written in a variety of styles, from fluffy silliness to more serious fare. A cast of eight actresses and three directors fill all the acting and directing duties for the eight plays, with a total of 21 female roles.

The production is played on the set used for "Tokens of Affection," with blessedly little stage rearrangement between plays. During intermission, an extra chair is placed around the round dining table stage right and a filing cabinet is moved from one side of an upstage bar to the other. A sofa and triangular coffee table remain in place throughout. A few props are placed here and there, but nothing impedes the flow from one play to the next.

First up is "Lunch with Yaya," written by Mimi "Mimosa" Palmer and directed by Amy Levin. In it, Angela (Jillian Walzer) visits her aged relative Joan (Betty Mitchell) and learns from Nurse Mary (Kate Guyton) that STIs have been affecting the residents of the assisted living home. Joan is unrepentant and determined to enjoy life. Angela is scandalized. It’s silly and fun and bawdy, with memorable props.

Second is Jordan Elizabeth Henry’s "Conditions," starring Bryn Striepe and Lauren Coleman as a lesbian pair battling when Tris (Ms. Coleman) smells her expensive hair conditioner on a very private place on the body of Harley (Ms. Striepe). It’s tightly written, nicely directed by Kayleigh Mikell, and well-acted. There’s a light breeziness to the interaction, but a strain of seriousness that leads to a sadly satisfying ending.

Emily McClain’s loopy "Secret Family Recipes" comes third. In this piece, psychic Madam Christie (Betty Mitchell) is visited by Suzanne (Abra Thurmond) in an attempt to contact her dead sister Irene (Stacy King) to determine the location of a hidden file of heirloom family recipes. Savannah Jones directs the show with a deft touch, letting the light comedy shine.

The first act ends with "Litter-ally Love," a funereal comedy by Keely L. Herrick. Leigh (Lauren Coleman), Bitsy (Kate Guyton), and Georgina (Bryn Striepe) have come together to pay their respects. It becomes clear all too quickly that they are mourning a cat. Director Kayleigh Mikell has obtained a terrific prop for the show, but the material feels slight. Still, the performances are all good.

Bryn Striepe’s "Swans" starts act two on a serious note. Jane (Jillian Walzer) has been given swan mementoes for years, although she has never wanted them, and commiserates with Alison (Stacy King) about the supposed monogamy of swans and human males. Kayleigh Mikell directs the show to highlight both humor and sincerity, revealing this as the strongest writing of the evening.

"Out from Under Mary" follows. This play by Chris Shaw Swanson has homeless Mary (Abra Thurmond) meeting Diane (Bryn Striepe) at a free clinic. Mary is there to escape the rain; Diane has come for a mandated drug test and almost immediately regrets her decision. Ms. Thurmond and director Savannah Jones can’t make Mary’s ramblings ring perfectly true, filled as they are with esoteric words, but the time passes quickly enough.

Third in the second act is Drew Fornarola’s "Family Politics," the most topical of the pieces. Carol (Abra Thurmond), Amanda (Jillian Walzer), and Jane (Kate Guyton) complain about the recent voting selection of sister Cindy (Stacy King) that has driven them apart. This is a fairly grim piece leavened by Ms. Guyton’s inebriated behavior. Director Amy Levin has blocked it believably, but it still leaves a bitter taste.

Last comes Ellie Styron’s "I’m a Bad Bea." The title is a "Golden Girls" reference to the character played by Bea Arthur on TV, and there doesn’t seem to be much more to the piece than these references. Kate Guyton (as Grace) and Lauren Coleman (as Lillian, a vengeful demon) give nice performances under Savannah Jones’ direction, but this counts as the least memorable of the pieces.

This edition of "Women’s Shorts" is certainly varied in style and tone, and it gives actresses ample opportunities to show their range. Ms. Striepe comes across best, but everyone has a chance to shine. As short play festivals go, it’s par for the course, if a bit bawdier than some.

Secrets of a Soccer Mom, by Kathleen Clark
Secrets Revealed
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Kathleen Clark’s "Secrets of a Soccer Mom" isn’t the most compelling play. We see three mothers on breaks from mother-son soccer matches as they reveal bits and pieces of their life stories and lay out their game plans. We have a laid-back mother (Brittani Minnieweather), a fitness-obsessed mother (Hannah Morris), and an acerbic mother (Adena Brumer). Their stated intention of letting the boys win slowly changes into self-empowerment, bringing a happy ending for all.

The theatrical nature of the play is emphasized again and again as the women pretend to hear voices from offstage, then run off to interact with unseen children and adults. Rial Ellsworth’s sound design fills the pre-show with the sounds of children playing, but there’s deafening silence during the intervals when the women hear offstage voices. The silence breaks up the momentum of the play, and the absence of a world outside the stage gives a feeling of emptiness.

Chuck Welcome’s set design shows us a grass lawn flanked by brick and stone and metal walls. A curved cyclorama behind it all shows stylized trees on either side and slowly-moving clouds on a sweet blue sky in Bradley Bergeron’s projections. Jim Alford’s costumes and Kathy Ellsworth’s props all revolve around what one might see on a normal soccer field where women come prepared to occupy themselves during downtime. Nothing exciting, but all appropriate.

Suehyla El-Attar’s direction has its highpoints. Near the end, we have J.D. Williams’ lighting design showing red on the cyclorama as the three women appear in separate spotlights, very effectively. Overall, though, the production doesn’t ever really cohere. Ms. Brumer’s acidic acerbity is pretty low-key. Ms. Minnieweather has a very expressive face, so some of her expressions get nice audience reactions, but her performance otherwise is low-key. Ms. Morris ably portrays a woman who keeps eternally active, but her quiet determination is similarly low-key. The production never really catches fire.

Approval Junkie, by Faith Salie
Self-Approval Junk
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
This woman is a Rhodes scholar?!? In the one-woman show "Approval Junkie," Faith Salie concentrates on the non-academic portions of her life story, involving anorexia, a tissue-paper-thin acting career, a bad marriage, a good marriage, and children. She makes fun of stereotypical Buckhead mothers, but she seems to be one herself, although she moved to Los Angeles and New York to further her media career. Maybe the intention in dumbing down her life was to make the material more relatable to ordinary audiences, but for me it had the opposite effect -- it made the wealth and privilege of her life all the more glaring.

Faith Salie was coerced by Susan V. Booth into creating her one-woman show based on Salie’s same-titled book. There are several funny lines and phrases (such as "wasband" for ex-husband), so there are frequent chuckles, but I imagine the material makes for a better read than 90 minutes of theater time. It’s definitely targeted to middle-aged female audiences.

Alliance’s production on the Hertz Stage is highly professional on a technical level. Jack Magraw’s scenic design shows a wall of triangular and trapezoidal panels of various shapes and sizes, which Amanda Zieve’s lighting design paint with different colors (purple and blue with stars to start). The largest panel up center displays crude animated projections by Alex Basco Koch that start and end the show. Some of the panels move, a couple of which rotate to show mirrors, and couple of others that allow entry or exit of set pieces on a revolving track that circles the central low platform. There’s even an elegant porcelain tub that moves center stage and then turns circles. Amanda Watkins’ blocking keeps the action fairly fluid.

The set and lighting are all bells and whistles, but Ivan Ingerman’s costume design is simple: an elegant fuchsia silk blouse, plum slacks, and beige pumps that Ms. Salie wears throughout. Brandon Bush’s somewhat cacophonous musical score also emphasizes the one-dimensionality of a one-woman show.

Ms. Salie’s performance doesn’t exude the charm of a person thirsting for audience approval. There’s almost good-humored disdain in her audience interview segment drily intended to show good and bad interviewing techniques. It doesn’t really work as theatrical entertainment. The whole thing comes across as a highlights infomercial for sales of the book.

Angry Fags, by Topher Payne
An Apologia for Terrorism
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
The action takes place on Kat Conley’s massive set, consisting of three high platforms with steps down to the stage floor (eight steps for the ones at left and right; six steps for the one in the middle). The whole thing is backed by a city skyline covered in what seems to be overlapping squares of metallic material. The middle platform is set up as the foyer/living room/kitchen/dining area of the apartment shared by Bennett Riggs (Gregory Hernandez) and Cooper Harlow (Cody Russell), all modern and sleek and teal. The platform stage right houses the elegant office of lesbian senator Allison Haines (Gina Rickicki) with desk and leather chairs. The platform stage left is changed up occasionally, but initially portrays a rooftop or greenspace on which a picnic blanket has been spread. The floor of the stage is used for a variety of scenes, a couple of which have furniture lugged on.

Katherine "Katya" Neslund’s lighting design sets the appropriate mood for each scene and illuminates the sections of the stage on which action will occur. In conjunction with Dan Bauman’s sound design, some fine special effects occur. Dr. L. Nyrobi N. Moss’s nice variety of costumes and Devi Wells’ restrained collection of props and set dressing might lead you to believe that this is a visually impressive production. The let-down, however, comes with Maranda DeBusk’s projection design. The surface of the set is so ill-suited to displaying projections that the 13 video-only actors listed in the program are barely recognizable at best. There’s also movement in some of the projections that aren’t accompanied by sound. For a dappled, woodsy look at the start of the show, fluttering leaves are a nice touch. For the amorphous shapes flickering over the dark portions of the backdrop in the final scenes, it’s a huge distraction. Insufficient design consideration has been given to the multi-media component of this three-hour work (including intermission).

Otherwise, Kate Donadio MacQueen (director) and Ibi Owalabi (co-director) have created a production that makes good use of the playing space and gets strong performances out of all the actors, but not necessarily indelible portrayals. Topher Payne’s script contains nicely individualized characters, so they’re relatively straightforward to play. The best overall performance may be by Kelly Criss, who runs Senator Haines’ office. She lands all the comedy in her role and also excels as the play becomes more serious. Brandon Partrick, playing another worker in the senator’s office, also makes a good impression. Gina Rickicki has her moments; Parris Sarter, as her political opponent, has even more. Messrs. Hernandez and Russell manage the emotional arcs of their central characters with skill. Carolyn Cook, rounding out the cast as a TV reporter, underplays her role.

The script is filled with Topher Payne’s trademark comedy, with lots of 1980’s movie and TV references. Things get political early on, with occasional references to the current national political scene, but the instigating incident of a gay-bashing death doesn’t seem very current. The script has been updated since its 2013 premiere, but it still traces a spiraling downturn as LGBT activism turns to extremism turns to terrorism. There are viscerally exciting twists as the plot comes to a close, but there’s a lot of play beforehand.

The first scene is problematic. Chronologically, it would occur midway through the second act. Placing it in the first act balances out the playing times of the two acts a bit better and lets us know early on that terrorism will play a big role in the show, but the scene drags. We get to know swishy Cooper and hunky Bennett, but the play doesn’t really feel like it has begun until the second scene. Portions of the play fly by and others plod. There’s a lot of interesting and entertaining material, but perhaps too much of it. Still, all in all, "Angry Fags" has audiences cheering.

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
You enter into the pre-show with the five male members of the cast onstage. Blood-red lighting saturates the screen forming the upstage wall. Stools and tables and various percussion instruments surround the playing area. An infant-sized coffin sits downstage center. Two men are at either side of the stage, playing percussion instruments that blend into the ominous sound design. The other three men, wearing burgundy red hooded cloaks, crouch and move with deformed gaits, occasionally letting out with "when" and "where." This blends into the show’s opening (and closing) of "When shall we three meet again?"

Mary Saville’s costumes feature burgundy for jackets and cloaks and black for shirts and dresses. The men wear camouflage fatigue pants and combat boots. This gives a nice cohesive feel to the design. As actors move from role to role, slight modifications indicate the change -- a crown for King Duncan, an eye patch for Banquo, glasses and a white jacket for the doctor. Vocal changes accompany many of the varied role assignments, but not so stark in nature as to become jarring.

Marcus Geduld has directed the show to move smoothly through its 1 hour 50 minute uninterrupted runtime. Many moments are highly stylized, as when an actor about to be killed moves downstage and reacts, face to audience, as knife strokes stab at the position he recently was on stage. There’s no blood, but it’s highly effective. Forays into the audience area make fine use of the center aisle in the Windmill Arts Center space.

While "Macbeth" is the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, cutting of the script has occurred. This is usually pretty seamless, with the glaring exception being the murder of Lady Macduff and her children, which is symbolized by having the female cast member (Lisa Blankenship) carry the coffin upstage and mourn over it. Since she has previously mourned at the coffin downstage as Lady Macbeth, indicating that she has "given suck," we have been led to believe the coffin contains the body of a dead Macbeth scion. This scene is followed by a longish one between Malcolm (Ryan LaMotte) and Macduff (Stuart McDaniel) that stymies the headlong pace of the script. Once the final battle scene arrives, however, things move quickly to a conclusion.

Performances are all good or better. Andre Eaton Jr. doesn’t have a lot to do, but provides a threatening presence in many of his scenes. Stuart McDaniel has fabulous diction in all his roles, contrasting with Alan Phelps, whose generally modern American speech patterns don’t mesh well with Shakespeare’s verse. Mr. Phelps’ physicality, though, is unrivaled. Ryan LaMotte adds some tiny bits of humor as the Doctor, and Robert Bryan Davis has all the manly power Macbeth should have. Lisa Blankenship, whose perky blonde beauty doesn’t immediately suggest "Lady Macbeth," nevertheless triumphs in the role, using facial expressions, physicality, and vocal power to become the cold-blooded usurper the role demands.

"Macbeth" is done frequently at the Shakespeare Tavern with a more literal Elizabethan flavor and a more extensive cast. Doing a stripped-down version like this from Folding Chair Classical Theatre allows the power of the piece to come through more directly. It’s viscerally exciting. When technical elements, direction, and acting all occur at a consistently high level of quality, it creates theatre that demands to be seen.

Tokens of Affection, by Topher Payne
Tokens of Love
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Topher Payne’s "Tokens of Affection" has made the rounds in Atlanta from GET to CenterStage North and now to Out of Box. In its previous two iterations, the set encompassed two separate locations -- the New York City apartment of Charlie (Matthew Busch) and the kitchen of the Connecticut home occupied by Charlie’s sister Claire (Emily Sams Brown) and her husband Bruce Burnham (Daniel Carter Brown). At Out of Box, set designer Carolyn Choe has wisely chosen to omit the kitchen set, allowing the kitchen telephone conversations to occur next to the side exit door, with furtive glances out the door to suggest the presence of others. That allows the small stage to represent Charlie’s apartment, with front door up right and hallway to bedroom and bathroom up left. There’s a sofa down right, an efficiency kitchen and window centerstage, and a computer workstation down left. Open shelving scattered about gives the place a truly lived-in look. It’s a good-looking set and beautifully workable.

Bradley Rudy’s lighting design and Zip Rampy’s sound design don’t get much of a workout, but they still manage to impress -- the lighting with a TV effect at the end of the show and the sound design with "You Don’t Bring Me Flowers" on a scene transition. Costumes add to the visual appeal of the play.

Zip Rampy has directed the action to occur at a giddy pace, with tiny touches here and there that reverberate to increase the entertainment potential of the piece. He has coaxed delightful performances out of all six actors in the cast. Bob Smith and Mary Claire Klooster, as the parents of Charlie and Claire, show all the cluelessness a long-married couple can have to the dynamics of their relationship. The Browns (a real-life married couple) play oversized characters that would be caricatures in less skilled hands. Mr. Busch is unsurpassed in his slow burns as interruptions clutter his day as a work deadline looms. Emily Kalat is wondrous as neighbor Rita, a breezily friendly helpmeet to Charlie. They are nicely matched, with just enough of an age difference to be believable, without straining credulity in the last moments of the show.

When an entertaining comedy is performed in such an extraordinarily entertaining manner, ripples of laughter fill the audience from start to finish. Out of Box may be presenting what is the definitive version of "Tokens of Affection." It certainly is a joy to behold. Kudos to all!

Barrymore, by William Luce
The Great Pro
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
John Barrymore led a fascinating life as the youngest of the Barrymore siblings (Ethel, Lionel, and John). In William Luce’s "Barrymore," we’re fed a lot of stories about his life as he attempts to stage a comeback in "Richard III" in 1942, shortly before his death. We’re given mighty little Shakespeare, mostly lines fed from a prompter (Nicholas Faircloth). The bulk of the show is Barrymore (Jeff Watkins) going off on tangents as he swigs liquor.

To make the show truly work, we need to see Barrymore as a self-mocking showman. He starts off the show, after all, reciting dirty limericks and singing "I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" (although the popular Glenn Miller recording was made just nine days before Barrymore’s death and didn’t hit number one on the Billboard charts until later in 1942). There needs to be a twinkle in Barrymore’s eye and a charm that outweighs his rants. Here, Mr. Watkins’ Barrymore seems more to show contempt for himself and for his audience. He’s generally unlikeable.

Director Andrew Houchins’ notes describe his introduction to the play through Christopher Plummer’s Tony-winning performance on Broadway. Mr. Plummer apparently pulled off the role with just the right balance of charm and arrogance. Mr. Watkins doesn’t seem to have the balance down. Blocking, however, is fine. Kathryn Lawson’s set dressing puts a liquor cart, wardrobe rack, trunk, record player, mirror, and various chairs and tables on the stage. In act one, they’re scattered about, with additional detritus-like pieces on the balcony, as if it’s an unused theater. In act two, things are straightened out, although it’s unclear if the set is for a movie or for an upcoming evening performance. Ms. Lawson’s lighting design highlights the action nicely.

For costuming, Anné Carole Butler has provided Barrymore with a 1940’s suit for act one and a typical Elizabethan tights-and-coat costume with long wig for act two. Nicholas Faircloth’s costume seems more Elizabethan than 1940’s. The show has visual appeal, with Mr. Watkins having a fair approximation of John Barrymore’s mature look.

William Luce’s "Barrymore" isn’t a long play (1.5 hours including intermission), so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. In the Shakespeare Tavern’s production, though, it’s not the spell-binding 90 minutes of entertainment it’s intended to be. We learn about Barrymore’s life, but we don’t learn to like him.

Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous, by Pearl Cleage
Talky, Tame, and Gloriously Glamorous
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Pearl Cleage’s "Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous" is a curiously undramatic play. The first part is all exposition, rehashing the events of years past among people who were all present during the events and shamelessly foreshadowing the future accommodations of our two "heroines" (actress Anna Campbell and her enabler Betty Samson). Then we transition into narration of offstage events, principally one captured in a video we barely get a soundbite of. So the play is all talk.

Director Susan V. Booth has encouraged a broadly theatrical and artificial performance from Terry Burrell as Anna. Maybe her grand gestures play to the last row of the balcony, but they ring totally false from closer seats. Marva Hicks, as Betty, also starts out in the same near-mugging style, but tempers her performance to come across as much more believable. Je Nie Fleming, as producer Kate Hughes, has big reactions that read well without being artificial in the least. Best of all is Ericka Ratcliff as "Pete" Watson, a stripper with goals. Oddly enough for a 70-year-old playwright, only the words coming from the mouth of this 20-something character have the ring of authenticity.

The production values are stunning at the Alliance. Collette Pollard’s set design shows us an elegant hotel room (bedrooms stage right, dining area and coffee bar stage left, sitting area down center right, and entryway up center right), with ceiling beams above and a cyclorama of scudding clouds. Michelle Habeck’s lighting design and Clay Benning’s sound design nicely indicate the thunderstorms raging outside. The icing on the cake is the costume design by Kara Harmon, who dresses all four females with stylish over-statement. The only problem in the design is that an entryway column, the dining room table, and an L-shaped sofa are all angled toward audience left, obstructing views at times for patrons seated on the far side of audience right.

Ms. Cleage’s script depends on other writers for much of its power. The reputation of August Wilson is front and center, since Anna’s "Naked Wilson" performance of male monologues drove her and Betty to Amsterdam, and a revival of it is what has drawn them back to Atlanta. The legacy of Mr. Wilson forms the centerpiece of the play. Langston Hughes’ "When Sue [Susanna] Wears Red" is recited in full, and Stephen Foster’s "Oh! Susanna" is sung after curtain call (with a melody far removed from Foster’s original). The play is as much a derivative tribute as an original work.

The relationship between Anna and Betty forms a glaring hole at the center of the play. We know these women have been together for decades, but we don’t know why. Anna is the diva and Betty is the hanger-on in one interpretation; in another, they are lovers whose passion has dried up over the years. Their relationship is unexplored in the production, which seems to be a failing both on the part of Ms. Cleage and of Ms. Booth. "Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous" is an intriguing consideration of August Wilson and feminism, but it fails as drama.

Falsettos, by William Finn (songs, book) & James Lapine (book)
Min Headroom
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
James V. Ogden’s set design for Actor’s Express’s "Falsettos" uses a corner stage configuration with two tiers, a staircase stage left leading up to the second level. Ceiling heights are low, especially in the openings on both levels at stage right, with actors stooping to appear on the balcony level on stage right. With the fabric panels of the walls lit by Joseph P. Monaghan III’s lighting design in a variety of colors, it’s clear that the visual elements of the unpopulated stage have taken precedence over human usability.

Costume designer Alan Yeong also seems to buy into visual design overload, with extraneous "fun" costumes used in the opening number and far more costume changes than the script suggests. Christopher Dills’ props, mostly of obviously untouched food, seem to have been supplied in a blasé "you wanted it; here it is" fashion. Even Sarah Turner Sechelski’s dance choreography and David Sterritt’s fight choreography seem to exist in worlds of their own. It’s as if director Freddie Ashley has let his designers run free, to the detriment of the production.

This lax directorial oversight extends to the performances of the highly talented cast. Jessica De Maria is magnificent in her moments of interplay with other characters, but seems lost in her solos. Kylie Brown wears an ever-present smile, as if her native charm can take the place of a fully-formed character. Kandice Arrington has as little chemistry with Ms. Brown as Ms. De Maria has with boyish Ben Thorpe as therapist Mendel. Jordan Dell Harris brings little but good looks to the role of Whizzer, and Craig Waldrip comes across as intensely unlikeable except in a couple of affecting act two ballads. The child role of Jason, played by Vinny Montague in the performance I attended, is the only role that shows true signs of directorial oversight. Everyone else seems to have been let loose to invest what they can naturally supply to their roles.

This is a good-sounding musical, with strong voices across the board and good musical direction by Alli Lingenfelter. The range of Trina doesn’t seem to suit Ms. De Maria’s voice particularly well, but she is as professional in her vocal performance as everyone else. There’s a lot of power in the voices, particularly Mr. Waldrip’s. Since "Falsettos" is far more of a song cycle than a plotted musical, this musical power is immensely important to the success of the production.

"Falsettos" is chock-full of tuneful melodies and complex vocal lines, requiring a gifted set of musicians to put across, but the show requires more than just vocal dexterity. There needs to be heart in the relationships portrayed onstage, and the Actor’s Express production is sorely lacking in heart. Ms. De Maria does her best to create palpable relationships in ensemble moments, but her efforts fail to come to fruition in the production as a whole. Perhaps the show will continue to jell as its run continues.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile, by Steve Martin
Verbal Agility
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
"Picasso at the Lapin Agile" is full of Steve Martin’s wacky sense of humor. The story takes place in 1904 in a French bar, but we have characters predicting the future of the twentieth century (two spot-on, one off-the-wall; the rule of three). The two main characters, Pablo Picasso (Daniel Cutts) and Albert Einstein (Grant Carden), are world-renowned geniuses, but another character claiming to be their equal is a delusional braggart (once again using the rule of three). Gags abound, with many of them invented by director E. Scott King in the absence of detailed stage directions in the script.

Many aspects of the production are absolutely first-rate. Tanya Moore’s set and props are a delight, showing us a Chinese wood-carved bar in the center of a room filled with period bric-a-brac, featuring artwork by Kudzu Art Zone and custom paintings by Cheryl Young to reflect the requirements of the script and the name of the bar ("The Agile Rabbit" in French). Eclectic café tables and chairs add to the set’s charm. Gary White’s lighting design lets the full, glorious set be seen, with some nice special effects, designed in participation with Bill Brown and Tanya Caldwell, occurring late in the show. Bob Peterson’s sound design has little to do but provide French pre-show music and the sounds of a toilet being flushed, but it excels in both respects.

The first act is sheer perfection. The seven actors appearing in it are all working at the same manic level. The energy of the cast is palpable. Mr. Carden is a complete look-alike to the young Einstein, and his mannerisms and shtick combine with his German accent to create an indelible character. Mr. Cutts has very little stage time in act one as Picasso, but his Spanish inflections and charismatic presence hint at the excellence of his performance to come. The only criticism that can be leveled at him is that he is far more handsome and hunky than the historical Pablo Picasso, and that works in favor of Picasso’s woman-attracting persona in the play.

The bar is run by Freddy (Aaron Sherry), who acts as a narrator of sorts, and his wife Germaine (Jamie Goss). Regular customers are a Frenchman with a pea-sized bladder (Doug Isbecque) and a stylish art impresario (Gregory Nassif St. John), and they are joined by a woman (Jessie Kuipers) expecting to meet Picasso. All create one-of-a-kind characters. Messrs. Isbecque and St. John take every second of stage time they are offered and wring every bit of overblown, comic sincerity from it. Misses Goss and Kuipers are totally in character throughout, and their reactions to others on stage add immense enjoyability to moments when they are not the primary focus. And when they are the primary focus, world watch out as the incandescence of their performances blazes across the stage! All sport French accents, with Mr. Isbecque’s being the most authentic, but all being effective in their own way.

We are introduced to other characters in act two (played by Colton Combs, Cat Rondeau, Veronica Burman, and Briana Murray), but their roles tend to stretch the show out rather than adding new sparks. Every character needs to steal focus outrageously, and the new performances in act two don’t quite equal the heightened level of the continuing performances from act one. Ms. Burman has a funny little one-gag bit and Ms. Murray does a nice celebrity impersonation, but some of the steam seems to leak out as the show goes along. The fact that Mr. Martin’s script goes in a surreal time-travel direction near the end disrupts the momentum that has led to that point.

The ending moments are visually arresting, due to lighting effects and to Tanya Caldwell’s period costumes, but not intellectually or comically arresting. Things don’t tie up neatly or satisfactorily. Mr. King’s direction injects a lot of movement into the action of the show, adding to the kinetic pace of the proceedings, but the gradual slowing in the second act prevents the final tableau from being a sudden moment of calm, insightful introspection.

Overall, Lionheart’s "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" is a far more accomplished piece of comic theatre than run-of-the-mill community theatre. Mr. King has obviously inspired his cast to work at the top of their game, and it’s a joy to watch them run through their paces. Fans of Steve Martin’s stand-up comedy or "wild and crazy guy" shenanigans are bound to appreciate this show most of all, but anyone attending with the intentions of having a good time will not be disappointed.

Six Degrees of Separation, by John Guare
Giving the Fifth Degree
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
"Six Degrees of Separation" seems like a risky choice for church-based community theatre, with a script featuring nudity, homosexuality, and profanity. ACT1 has toned down the language, omitted the nudity, and sanitized the homosexuality to barely venture beyond a guy’s arm draped over a buddy’s shoulder. That removes some of the power of the story, but also prevents sensationalism from overwhelming it. All in all, it’s an approach that works.

Director Pam Duncan has put a definite stamp on the production. Phone conversations may start with a telephone receiver brought to an actor’s ear, but generally the actor’s hand drops and the conversation continues with the actor on the other side of the conversation appearing on the opposite side of the stage (sans phone). Scene changes are accomplished with blazing speed, often accompanied by on-stage costume changes as Ouisa (Phyllis H. Giller) and Flan (Jim Gray) go to their respective coat racks to swap out jackets, shoes, and accessories. Direct address to the audience fills in narration during these times. It all flows very smoothly.

Bob Cookson’s set shows us the elegant living room of Flan and Ouisa Kittredge, all ivory fabric and mahogany wood. Up center is the double-sided Kandinsky referenced in the script. It’s in a spotlight and slowly revolves before the show and during intermission, stopping to show one side as each act proceeds. It’s a nice touch.

Costumes (by Meagan Graham, Caroline Kuzel, and Jessica Williams) do a nice job of clothing the large cast, although the pink shirt the script refers to is the very palest of pinks, appearing near-white under stage lights. Costumes reflect the social status of the various characters, with some very nice outfits for the upper-class females.

Chris Voss’ props and Murray Mann’s lighting and sound design do all they need to. One nice prop touch is having two actors (siblings Nicholas and Meagan Graham) appear in the background holding objects as they are described. Lighting helps distinguish scenes in the living room center stage from scenes in a dorm room (stage right, with a bed pushed out for the scene) and in a shabby apartment (stage left, with a big trunk in place all the time). Phone conversation action in the stage right area (minus bed) is nicely lit, but actors moving from there to center go through a shadowed area.

Acting is good overall, with no performance detracting from the production. Ms. Giller is terrific as Ouisa, and exceptionally fine performances also come from Joshua Dover as a homosexual college student, Stephanie Escorza as an aspiring actress from Utah, and Tibor Szenti as a hoodwinked doctor. Mark Krohn adds a comic spin as a detective, and Alex Parkinson exudes elegance as a South African mine owner. Maya Garner equals Ms. Giller’s elegance as a friend of equal social standing, and Justin McCoy makes an amazing theatrical debut as Paul, the young con-man whose exploits fuel the trajectory of the play. There’s a true ensemble feel to the show.

Pam Duncan has directed a fluid production of a fairly talky play, keeping the running time down to a reasonable two hours (including intermission). The racy subject matter has been toned down from what it could be, making it more palatable for audiences entering a church building to view the entertainment, and the production is well-rehearsed. "Six Degrees of Separation" tells the tale of a society woman initially taken in by a con-man, then attempting to discover the truth about him, and the play itself has a bit of the same effect on audiences, taking them in with a theatrical flourish, then letting them ponder the ramifications of initial gullibility. It’s an interesting play, and ACT1 is giving it an interesting production.

Men with Money, by Bill Nelson and Joseph Trefler
How to Marry an American Guy on the Town
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
An opening extolling New York in song and ballet. "On the Town?" Ballet, and Eiffel Tower replicas onstage. "An American in Paris?" A second-act foray into Havana. "Guys and Dolls?" A locker room scene. "Damn Yankees?" People entering through supposedly enclosed spaces. "The Drowsy Chaperone?" No, all these elements are in the "old-fashioned brand new" musical "Men with Money." With a plot extremely reminiscent of a gender-swapped "How to Marry a Millionaire," the show marries the musical styles of the golden age of American musicals with a gay sensibility, and does it in a winning fashion.

Louis (Tom Key look-alike Sean Doherty) convinces his equally-poor roommates, gay Sonny (diminutive Kenny Tran) and heterosexual Max (hirsute Marcello Audino), that they need to borrow money from their landlady (audience favorite Candy McLellan) to dress up and find millionaires to marry. And they do. But is it only money they’re after, or will love play a role in their choices? You know the answer. A happy, love-affirming ending is foreordained.

Aurora’s production presents the musical in bang-up fashion. Ricardo Aponte has filled the show with energetic choreography that is matched by the energy of the performances shaped by director Justin Anderson. Ann-Carol Pence’s musical direction gets splendid vocals out of everyone, as well as doing Matthew Aument’s orchestrations proud. The alternate America of 1952, in which Eleanor Roosevelt is president and gay marriage is thoroughly accepted, comes across largely in the costumes by Elizabeth Rasmusson, although the initial blue-jean fashions of the leading men seem a lot more modern than 1952. The score, though, fits thoroughly in the musical idioms of that time.

The action takes place on a set designed by Julie Ray that features dizzyingly skewed perspectives of buildings in saturated pastel colors, with the floor painted in false perspective to seem to be receding into the distance. Various set pieces are brought on for various scenes, along with Kathy Ellsworth’s period-appropriate props, and it all works very smoothly. Mike Post’s lighting design adds some excitement, particularly in the opening moments and in the illumination of windows and ledges on the crazily-angled buildings framing the stage. The show is a visual feast.

That the show bursts with unbridled energy may be due in part to Mr. Anderson’s direction, but the performers deserve tons of credit. The three male leads drive the action, and never let the momentum lapse. The love interests for the men also turn in fine performances -- golden-voiced Daniel Misniewski and maturely handsome Brian Robinson for Louis; elegant Cecil Washington, Jr. and luminous Adrianna Trachell for Max; and limber-limbed Jimi Kocina for Sonny. The large ensemble fills in any gaps on the stage with cheerful athleticism, led by dance captain Brooke Morrison. The show is a delight.

The musical score is tuneful, with "The Star I Named for You" seeming to come directly from popular songs of the 1930’s. Lyrics aren’t always on a par with the melodies, but they aren’t full of the imperfect rhymes endemic in rock musicals. The one true misstep in the music is starting the score with a melodic phrase that sounds for all the world like the tune to the Caisson Song ("Over hill, over dale, as we hit the dusty trail"). With the plot concerning three post-WWII men and the first musical number extolling New York, it makes the opening much too reminiscent of "On the Town" and "An American in Paris."

Aurora has hosted other new musicals with an eye toward Broadway ("Clyde and Bonnie," "Academy the Musical"). These haven’t gone on to acclaim, but I have to say that I think "Men with Money" in its current form is in better shape than "The Prom" was during its Alliance premiere and is certainly the equal of the Alliance’s recent "Ever After." "Men with Money" is breezy fun that is poised to entertain all those with a taste for musicals of the 1950’s, but with a gay-accepting modern sensibility.

A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams
The Varsouviana of Broken Dreams
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Where’s the shabby, claustrophobic quarters of Stanley and Stella Kowalski in Theatre Buford’s production of "A Streetcar Named Desire?" In Jamie Bullins’ scene design, the set is massive, with impossibly high and airy ceilings in the two rooms of their apartment. The staircase stage left leading to the upstairs neighbors’ features an outside balcony several feet below the level of this imaginary ceiling. While there is some faux-painted grime in the kitchen, the soaring walls of wide lath (painted in the bedroom stage right; wallpapered in the kitchen center left) almost give the feeling of a cathedral. An interesting angle in the raised floor extends over the downstage area, which is a step down, representing the wide-open street outside the apartment.

Ben Rawson’s lighting design is much more evocative than the set, even using an effect late in the play that finally makes some sense of the interstices between boards in the lath walls. Cody Evins’ sound design is almost ever-present, with background music wafting in almost non-stop from the French Quarter in New Orleans, with a mix heavy on "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and on the "Varsouviana" of Blanche’s memories. Chase Peacock and Jessica DeMaria are given composing credits, and their contribution (whatever it is) blends in smoothly. Sound effects of early-morning birdsong and of trains passing by are worked in nicely.

Costumes, designed by Linda Patterson, evoke the late 1940’s period of the piece, but can’t make trim Stephanie Friedman the "plump" Stella defined by the script or give Eric Lang any burliness as Mitch. The highlight of the costuming is perhaps the heavily embroidered Mexican outfit for the "flores para los muertos" character. Blanche’s outfits have variety and elegance.

Daniel May’s blocking uses the stage well, but his direction doesn’t add a lot to the script. The most telling directorial touch is having Stanley enter the apartment as a train passes by, overhear discussion about him, then make his way out silently to make an announced entrance after another train passes by. The look on Justin Walker’s face of hurt and sadness suggests a tenderness in Stanley that goes absolutely nowhere. The accents Mr. May has characters use can be distracting, and the overall impression is of actors having been forced to rely on their own resources to create their performances. Faux cigarette smoking (lighters hidden by hands as the unlit cigarettes stay unlit) doesn’t help the impression the production gives of being "off.

Courtney Patterson is quite good in her role (Blanche), as she is in everything, it seems. Stephanie Friedman too is terrific as Stella. Justin Walker is physically right for Stanley, but doesn’t have a lot of chemistry with either of his leading ladies. Eric Lang tries valiantly to play against type as Mitch, but doesn’t fully succeed in the attempt. The rest of the ensemble are fine, if generally unremarkable, with Emily McClain being a standout in the tiny role of the nurse. The fight choreography by Amelia Fischer and Connor Hammond seems a bit wan for the nurse, though, concentrating instead on a concurrent kitchen brawl among the poker players.

"A Streetcard Named Desire" (as it’s referred to at one point in the poorly-edited program) is a classic of the modern American stage. In Theatre Buford’s production, a lot of effort has been put into transitory design elements (sound and lighting), but their effectiveness is blunted by pedestrian direction and a giant white elephant of a set. Oh, for the days of Georgia Shakespeare, when Ms. Patterson would have been surrounded by a cohesive ensemble of actors (as in 2009’s "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," co-starring Daniel May).

Spit Like a Big Girl, by Clarinda Ross
Home Movies
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
"Spit Like a Big Girl" is an autobiographical work. In it, Clarinda Ross traces the journey of her life from childhood to the independence of her developmentally delayed daughter. Her father’s death occurred shortly before the birth of her daughter, and a search for his will turned up his journals. The first act revolves around this period of her life, relating memories triggered by journal entries written by her "educated redneck" father and filling in her early family life. Angelica Spence portrays Clarinda in this act, and her tremendous energy and vocal gifts bring a lot of spark into what is basically an actress trapping you in a corner and spilling out her life story.

In the second act, Ms. Ross portrays herself, and the story’s focus moves from the deaths of her father and boyfriend to the birth of her daughter, who is discovered to be developmentally challenged at her third birthday. The struggles of a mother attempting to get proper medical and therapeutic care for her child has the most emotional resonance in the show. Ms. Ross had a lot of support in raising her daughter, including a second husband (the alcoholic first husband having been divorced), various live-in help, and an older Chinese woman. The privileged life of Ms. Ross in L.A. counteracts some of the trauma of dealing with uncooperative health care personnel. The transition of her daughter to a group home ends the show.

David Thomas has directed the show to have lots of variety and movement. The set by Michael Hidalgo consists of a couple of low platforms, three alphabet blocks, and four chairs configured as automobile seating. When the actress is seated, sightlines are not necessarily good for all members of the audience. Lighting, though, does a nice job of heightening special moments. A projection screen upstage is used minimally to illustrate various moments.

The title of "Spit Like a Big Girl" derives from the routine Ms. Ross used to help her daughter Clara learn to brush her teeth. It suggests a storyline with an optimistic arc, but this storyline has more than its share of deaths and sorrow. "Spit Like a Girl" is definitely more bittersweet than sunny. It’s nicely acted, but filled a bit too full with the actor-y ego of the author.

Almost, Maine, by John Cariani
Mainly, I Do Like Maine
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
"Almost, Maine" takes us to an unincorporated township in upstate Maine and lets us eavesdrop on the love lives of various pairs of residents on a clear, cold Friday night. At Centerstage North, the set (designed by Jeff Costello) shows us three general locations: a restaurant alcove stage left, an outdoor park bench up center, and a house front stage right. Cotton batting around the outdoor locations suggests snow; panels painted to suggest thick stands of birches partially fill in the gaps between the three locations. Benches are sometimes brought out and placed down center for various scenes.

Under house lights, the set isn’t particularly attractive. But when the show starts, the magical lighting design by Jonathan Liles (with assistance from Nina Gooch) turns the stage into a winter wonderland, with stars and shadows of trees and the shimmering effect of the Northern Lights. Together with the acoustic guitar music of John Mistretta that sets each scene in Brenda Orchard’s sound design, we’re instantly transported to the Maine countryside.

The show begins with a prologue featuring Pete (James Connor) and Ginette (Linda Place) that continues in an interlogue to start the second act and an epilogue that ends the show. It sets the warm yet wacky tone of the show, as two shy lovers part in an attempt to get closer to one another.

"Her Heart" has hiker Glory (Leigh-Ann Campbell) showing up uninvited at the homestead of East (Kirk Campbell) to view the Northern Lights. She has a back story that is both weird and touching, and this real-life married couple brings the story to vibrant life. It contributes to the strong start of the show.

"Sad and Glad" has Jimmy (Michael Rostek) encountering former flame Sandrine (Courtney Loner) at a restaurant. It becomes clear that the couple won’t be getting back together again, but there’s a waitress (Hayley Haas) and a misspelled tattoo that hint at a possibly happy future. This section keeps up the promise of the show.

In "This Hurts," there’s some all-too-real violence between innocent Steve (John Coombs) and already-spoken-for Marvalyn (Katie Wickline) as they meet in the laundry room of a boarding house. There’s quirky fun too, but the violence brings an unpleasant edge to this almost-romance.

The first act ends with "Getting It Back," as Gayle (Stephanie MacFarlane Dennard) shows up at the home of Lendall (Greg Fitzgerald) to demand the return of all the love she’s given him. And in the magical strangeness of this play, she hauls out bags and bags of the love he’s given her. The play ends on a strong, romantic note, but the initial histrionics of Ms. Dennard don’t quite hit home as much as they could.

After the interlogue, "They Fell" shows buddies Shelly (LeeAnna Lambert) and Deena (Amy Cain Lucas) commiserating about their bad luck with men as they sit and eat ice cream. This is perhaps the most charming of the scenes, acted beautifully by both women, with just enough slapstick to make the silly premise produce smiles.

"Where It Went" takes on a more sour note, as married couple Phil (Jerry Jobe) and Marci (Lisa Clark) bicker after ice skating while they search for her missing shoe. The marriage seems to be in trouble, and we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is more of a skit than a play, nicely acted, but relying on a physical gag for its payoff.

"Story of Hope" brings Hope (Amy Tallmadge) to the house owned by Danny (Kevin Kreissl). She left town years before, without answering a marriage proposal, and has come back to give her answer to him, assuming that he still lives in the same house. This is a bittersweet story, since he never will hear her answer.

The last playlet before the epilogue is "Seeing the Thing," in which Dave (Toby Smallwood) gives long-time snowmobiling friend Rhonda (Nylsa Smallwood) a painting he’s done. It’s a gesture of love, but it takes Rhonda forever to see it as such. The terrific chemistry between these real-life spouses brings satisfaction as "Almost, Maine" moves back into optimistic territory.

Director Julie Taliaferro wisely chose married couples to play many of the couples in the show, and this casting choice pays off nicely in the romantic connections we see. Blocking makes good use of the wide playing space, and tableaux at the ends of scenes work with dimming lights to give a cohesive feeling of completion to each little story. I’d be happy to see anything featuring the splendid acting of Ms. Campbell, Ms. Lucas, Ms. Clark, Mr. Connor, and the Smallwoods, but the whole ensemble contribute mightily to the success of this production. Props and costumes are very good too. Ms. Taliaferro has put together a winning production of one of community theatre’s favorite plays.

Next to Normal, by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (words)
A Wall of Sound
Monday, February 18, 2019
Let’s face facts: this production of "Next to Normal" is a vanity production. It has been underwritten by Lisa Reich, who plays the female lead, and her husband Adam LeBow, who plays a couple of doctors. That’s not to say that this is a worthless production -- neither is without talent, and they have surrounded themselves with some wonderful performers. Taylor Buice has directed a creditable production of "Next to Normal" for his new theatre company.

The set, designed by Zack Vandever, is on the massive side, with a second-story platform reaching completely across the playing space. While there are staircases at either side, there are no walls; instead, raw framing suggests the transition between different rooms. On the first floor, props and rolling chairs are recessed on stage left and the six-piece band is housed stage right. The second floor features a tiny side piece that pulls out to suggest a keyboard, very effectively used in a college piano practice room scene. Blocking makes good use of the space, with action moving fluidly from location to location. Unfortunately, Tara O’Neill’s lighting doesn’t illuminate all these locations clearly, with actors speaking or singing lines in semi-gloom before sometimes having a little light thrown on them.

Harry N. Haines’ music direction gets good vocal performances out of the cast and excellent orchestral sounds from the band, but Amy Levin’s sound blends them together into a wall of sound. When the band is playing at full blast and all the singers are blasting out individual vocal lines, it’s near cacophony. This is a complicated score, but the cast navigates it with virtuosity.

The storyline concerns a family dealing with mental illness and its pharmacological implications. We have a mother (Ms. Reich), a father (Bryant Smith), a daughter (Maggie Salley), and a son (Haden Rider). Secondary characters consist of two doctors (both ably played by Mr. LeBow) and the daughter’s boyfriend (played engagingly by Ben Fierke).

Messrs. Smith and Rider have sterling credentials in professional Atlanta theatre, and their performances here bolster their reputations. Ms. Salley is equally excellent. All three do fine work when their character is in the focus, but do equally well in reacting to others. Ms. Reich, on the other hand, has a resting expression on her face that is a semi-sneer, and that resolves into a full-fledged sneer when her character gets worked up. There’s a lack of nuance in her performance that makes it clear that she’s not up to the acting demands of her role, although vocally she’s fine. This is made crystal-clear in the scene where she leaves her husband, which seems to come from out of the blue. When this is almost immediately followed by a very touching scene between father and son, the lack of balance in the cast is underscored. The musical depends upon the main female character being someone we care about, and that’s not the case here.

Wallace Buice Theatre Company is making a bit of noise on the Atlanta theatre scene. It’s put on a couple of well-received productions of relatively recent musicals and may be poised to do others in the future. This one, though, tends to be a disappointment, despite some fine, professional elements. Staging is good. Music is well-played and well-sung. With a different female lead front and center, "Next to Normal" could have been wonderful.

The Wedding Singer, by Chad Beguelin (book and lyrics), Matthew Sklar (music), Tim Herlihy (book)
A Wedding Band
Monday, February 18, 2019
Atlanta Lyric Theatre is positioning "The Wedding Singer" to be a tribute to the 1980’s. Does it succeed? Partially. Some of Emmie Phelps Thompson’s costumes are quite good. Others are stodgy or ill-fitting or just plain unattractive, regardless of period. Elisa Bierschenk’s wigs are largely poofy and permed, conforming to the period, but lead Chase Peacock is given mullet extensions that look obviously like extensions, and CJ Babb in the ensemble is allowed to wear a man bun, totally bringing his ensemble character out of period.

Jessica DeMaria has directed the show to have a good flow, letting the many pieces of Lee Shiver-Cerone’s set design move about with brisk efficiency. Sections of the back wall, with its squiggled, lighted squares giving a period "pop," open to allow a bandstand to move on and off and to show various second floor locales. Ricardo Aponte’s choreography also helps to keep the eye moving with lots of activity. Ben Rawson’s lighting design, however, tends to use murky illumination and lots of swirling, color-changing effects that obscure the choreography going on in the semi-darkness.

Performances are good throughout. Chase Peacock gets to show off his guitar-playing skills and deliciously potent vocals as Robbie Hart, while Rosa K. Campos provides a sweet voice and good energy as Julia Sullivan, the girl we know he’ll eventually end up with. Alison Brannon Wilhoit is also excellent as his Madonna-esque girlfriend Linda, who leaves him at the altar, and Katherine Michelle Tanner is a delight as his grandmother Rosie. Maxim Gukhman gives an appropriately sleazy edge to Glen Guglia, Julia’s boyfriend at the start of the show. As Robbie’s band mates, the unrecognizable J. Koby Parker is terrific as George, and Skye Passmore is more than passable as Sammy. Of the principals, only Audrey Layne Crocker disappoints as Julia’s girlfriend Holly. She plays the role as if she’s a standard musical comedy lead instead of a quirky sidekick.

Music director Paul Tate gets good vocals out of the cast, although sound tends toward the loud. This is supposed to be the 1980’s, after all, and the music is all rock-inflected. There is palpable energy throughout, although some of the ladies’ high kicks seem more effortful than effortless. There is some fine ensemble work, with Avery Gillham and Fenner Eaddy killing their dance moves, and the cast members playing Las Vegas celebrity look-alikes get a special opportunity to impress.

"The Wedding Singer" isn’t the best musical out there, but it ably translates the popular movie into a tuneful stage musical. Chad Beguelin’s lyrics move things along on top of Matthew Sklar’s catchy music, and the songs mesh nicely with the book, co-written by Tim Herlihy and Mr. Beguilin. Jessica DeMaria and the resources of Atlanta Lyric Theatre have created a production that conveys the songs and story with clarity and energy. It’s not the best-looking musical the company has produced, but it certainly holds its own in comparison to previous Atlanta Lyric productions.

Peter and the Starcatcher, by Rick Elice
Monday, February 18, 2019
A truly successful children’s show takes ample advantage of the imagination of the audience. Elements like floating cats and crocodiles don’t actually need to exist on stage; a cat puppet above a floor-length piece of fabric or white gloves as teeth and two red lights as eyes can suggest these elements. And when the members of the cast take on a variety of roles in the telling of the tale, imagination and acting skill let split-second changes ring totally true. In Act3’s production of "Peter and the Starcatcher," an environment has been created that embraces the theatricality of storytelling.

You enter into an auditorium decorated with rope and nets and chests. The set (designed by Theresa Dean) amplifies this nautical theme with furled sails and ladders on the walls, barrels and chests and boxes beneath. Ben Sterling’s lighting design is pretty basic, with not all action clearly lit as it moves about the stage, but his sound design is excellent, both in terms of effects and in terms of John-Michael d’Haviland’s accompaniment to the several songs that populate the script. Dawn Zachariah’s props and Jillian Melko’s costumes do more than any other technical elements to make the show come to life. It’s a delight to see costume pieces swapped about, with new ones appearing every whipstitch.

Director Spencer G. Stephens has inspired his cast to create indelible characters that skate the line of being over the top. The intimate confines of the theatre let each nuance be seen, while the near-constant activity takes the eye in all sorts of directions. The show has been delightfully cast. Liane LeMaster is terrific as ruthless ship’s captain Bill Slank, and Shane Murphy and Brock Kercher exude energy as the pirate Black Stache and his sidekick Smee. Tiffany Jarman Jansen is a delight as governess Mrs. Bumbrake, and Stuart Schleuse gives two very different spins to his two characters. Summer McCusker triumphs as Ted, despite the fact that she is anything but the tubby boy the script suggests. The rest of the ensemble (Audrae Peterson, Carson Seabolt, Jim Dailey, Kate Johnson, Andrew Andersen, Sofia Palmero, and Paul Danner) each get their moments to shine too. Kyndal Jackson as Molly and Jon Vertullo as Peter give us a heroine and hero we care about.

"Peter and the Starcatcher" loses steam in the last few minutes, as moments accumulate to make this play an obvious prequel to James Barrie’s "Peter Pan." The fun of the adventures we’ve seen leads to a somewhat dry and somber ending that denies us the happy resolution of a hero and heroine finally joining forces to go on to live a life of utter joy. That’s all in the script, though, targeting the show to a non-child-filled audience. Even so, Spencer G. Stephens has assembled all sorts of elements that will appeal to audiences of all ages in Act3’s production.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo, by Alfred Uhry
Much Ballyhooed
Monday, February 18, 2019
Alfred Uhry’s "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" is populated by an Atlanta Jewish extended family -- two widowed sisters living with their brother, the head of the family business, who provides for them and their daughters, one of whom has dropped out of college to come back home and the other of whom will be at home for the Christmas holidays. That’s when "Ballyhoo," a days-long festival for Southern Jews, will be in full swing. Into the mix comes a New York Jewish employee of the business whose more intense devotion to Judaism subtly affects the family.

Chuck Welcome has designed a lovely set for the Freitag home. There are three sets of flats rather than a unified structure, with views of blue billowy curtains behind. Stage left we have a staircase unit next to a star-topped Christmas tree. Stage right we have the entry to the front door. Up center we have the dining room, and in front of it we have living room furniture. Far down right there’s a desk. It’s all elegant, with columns and period props (by Kathy Ellsworth). This is, after all, 1939, and the premiere of the movie "Gone with the Wind" is just about to occur downtown.

Lala Levy, played with boisterous enthusiasm and unalloyed sassiness by Lucy Rose Gross, is all agog with the possibility of seeing Clark Gable in person. She’s the college dropout, in need of a date for the dance on the last night of Ballyhoo. Her somewhat scatterbrained mother, played by the delightfully sweet Ann Wilson, urges her to ask a nice young man from the finest Jewish family in Louisiana (the brashly raucous Elliott Folds). But Lala has her sights set on Joe Farkas (the charming Shaun MacLean), a new employee of her uncle’s. Before she can lasso him, though, he meets her pretty cousin Sunny Freitag (the luminous Maggie Birgel) and invites her instead. Sunny’s mother (played as a somewhat pinched snob by Pamela Gold) doesn’t approve. Uncle Adolph (the laid-back Jared Simon) is oblivious to the dramas playing out under his nose, even failing to note to Joe (a Jew of Russian-Polish extraction) that the Ballyhoo dance is held at a club catering exclusively to German Jews.

Not a lot is asked of J.D. Williams’ lighting design or of Rial Ellsworth’s sound design, but they both make scenes and scene changes flow nicely. Jim Alford’s costumes get more of a workout, with a couple of ballgowns needed that provoke totally opposite reactions. George Deavours has provided a lovely wig for Ms. Wilson and a much less attractive one for Ms. Gold. All in all, the technical elements are thoroughly professional.

Mira Hirsch has directed the show to make all relationships ring true. True, Ms. Gold is not as loud a person as the script indicates, and Mr. Simon made one doozy of a line slip-up at the performance I attended, but the people we see onstage have the ring of truth, with just enough theatricality to let the humor of the piece shine through. This production of "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" impresses in all regards, making for a very entertaining evening (or afternoon).

I Love You Because, by Ryan Cunningham (words) and Joshua Salzman (music)
First Date Redux
Monday, February 18, 2019
Marietta Theatre Company’s "I Love You Because" is awfully similar to last year’s "First Date." Both are modern, rockish musicals that depict mismatched individuals dating, with adversity eventually turning into affection. "I Love You Because" is purportedly based on Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice," but the inspiration seems to have been restricted solely to the last names of characters and to the general situation of two individuals initially at loggerheads eventually falling in love. The tone of the musical is anything but genteel and refined.

Zac Phelps’ set design reuses the New York skyline backdrop from "The Toxic Avenger," allowing it to be seen through the 2x4 framing that forms the back wall of the set, with cross pieces used as shelves for books and knick-knacks. Three levels of platforms provide some variety of playing levels, with a pull-out bed under the highest platform that gets a workout here and there. A two-sided bar gets wheeled out for several scenes, with a small round table and some chairs positioned downstage on the level floor of the playing space. The design allows for distinction between the scenes in the Bennet brothers’ apartment (the platforms) and in other locations.

The audience is split into two sections: one (about 2/3 of the audience) directly facing the stage and another (at least a third) on the stage right side of the playing area. In Mr. Phelps’ choreography and blocking, actors lined up across the stage are fully visible to a slim majority of the audience, while those sitting on the side get a profile view of one actor and obstructed views of everyone else. Only in the number "We’re Just Friends" does a concerted effort seem to have been made to ensure that all members of the audience get pleasing views throughout the song.

Modern day costumes are used, so they’re nothing special except for the effective get-ups used by Katrina Stroup and Tony Glass as they take on various roles. Lighting design (by Brad Rudy) draws unnecessary attention to itself at times, but generally sets the audience up to know when a musical number is coming to a close. Visually, the show is okay, but not abundantly stylish.

L Gamble’s music direction gets good vocal performances out of everyone. Lillian Shaw, as our heroine, has a beautiful voice and an acting range that extends from comedy to true emotion. Stephanie Earle, as her friend, is a little more bawdy, but equally delightful. Ms. Stroup and Mr. Glass invest their many roles with energy and good voices.

The main problem in the show is in the performances of the Bennet brothers -- Austin (Jacob McKee), paired romantically with Ms. Shaw’s Marcy, and Jeff (Blake Fountain), paired with Ms. Earle’s Diana. Both play their roles very broadly. Austin is the prototypical nerd, and Mr. McKee plays him with an unpleasant edge. Jeff mangles phrases with a frequency in the script that becomes tiresome, and Mr. Fountain plays him with a vocal volume that had the ladies behind me grumbling each time he sang. When the audience can’t root for half of each romantic couple, the show becomes less and less engaging as it goes by. It doesn’t help that the overly long first act sets up the relationships, then abruptly breaks them, while the second act is basically a bunch of songs killing time until the couples get together again.

"I Love You Because" is a nice vehicle for the actresses cast in the show, letting them show some acting range as well as vocal chops. Mr. Glass also gets a chance to show some versatility. Messrs. McKee and Fountain also get the chance, but director Zac Phelps has chosen to let them play their roles on a single, basically distasteful note. "First Date" was better. "I Love You Because" isn’t perfect, and not a worthwhile change from last year’s Valentine’s offering from Marietta Theatre Company.

Fun Home, by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics)
Monday, February 18, 2019
How do you fit a funeral parlor onto the tiny Out of Box stage? If you’re Cathe Hall Payne (props and scenic design) and Angie Short (set design), you place a couple of hinged curtained flats upstage center, just deep enough to hide a full-sized coffin. The curtains blend in nicely with the deep red and gold of the walls in the symmetrical set design. It certainly seems befitting of a funeral home. And there’s plenty of room downstage to accommodate scenes taking place in other locations. There’s even a fold-up bed platform that takes absolutely no floor space when folded up against the wall. A small add-on section of the stage down right permanently houses the drafting table used by cartoonist Alison, in whose memory the action of the play takes place. Props help to flesh out the scenes, although the shrub being "planted" in one scene hardly seems of a flowering variety.

Charlie Miller’s sound design is terrific. The musical tracks have a strong synth feel to them, but the volume is just right. Telephone rings and TV sounds are beautifully localized on the stage. Not all technical elements are excellent, though; on opening night the implementation of Nina Gooch’s lighting design showed evidence of late transitions and questionable illumination of the main action. Nicole Clockel’s costumes are fine, if fairly unremarkable, reflecting that this is a modern-day tale.

Performances mesh well. The script requires three ages of cast members: children (the magnificent Celia Reed as Small Alison, the infectiously energetic Micah Parness as her brother John, and deep-voiced Alex Huff as her brother Christian); young adults (the somewhat tentative Ashley Prince as Medium Alison, the breezily confident Abby Holland as her girlfriend Joan, and versatile Jacob Valleroy in a variety of roles); and adults (sweet-voiced Stephen Devillers as the father of the family, empathetic MK Penley as the mother, and ever-present Emily Kalat as the grown-up Alison).

"Fun Home" doesn’t have a lot of dancing, but Jordan K. Smith’s choreography adds brightness to the few numbers in which dancing is an element. Annie Cook’s music direction gets good vocal performances out of the entire cast. Matthew Busch’s blocking makes great use of the stage. The visual and aural qualities of the musical are of a high standard, although Ms. Prince and Ms. Kalat seemed to show some signs of vocal strain on opening night, with vocal highlights being Ms. Penley’s "Days" and everything sung by the astounding Ms. Reed.

The story of "Fun Home" is a generally sad one, as Alison Bechdel (a real-life cartoonist) comes to grips with her homosexuality and that of her father at about the same time in her college years. She is writing a graphic novel describing her past, using a box of her father’s belongings as triggers for some of her memories, and attempting to caption the images she is drawing. It’s a sweet, sad story, being given an effective production at Out of Box.

Porcelain, by Chay Yew
Chinese Origami
Monday, February 18, 2019
An auditorium with comfortable theatre seats and a proscenium stage. So where is the audience seated? Uncomfortable folding metal chairs on the stage, on three sides of a white square painted in the middle of the stage. In Paul Conroy’s scenic design, the white square has blue splotches on it (why?) and has red origami cranes scattered on it (to be augmented near the end of the play). Five straight-backed black chairs are on the lip of the stage, facing the spectators.

Matt Huff’s direction makes wonderful use of this black box set. Action flows nicely, with inventive use of the chairs and with actor placement ensuring interesting sightlines for all members of the audience. Charles Swift’s lighting design makes subtle changes to emphasize the action, contributing to the kinetic excitement of the piece. Eric Griffis’ costumes are nothing special -- casual clothes, sometimes topped with suit jackets -- but they allow the four "voices" to morph from character to character. Sound is supplied solely by the actors, which is a bit of a disappointment when reference is made to operatic arias playing under the action.

The story concerns "cottaging" -- the British term for men hooking up in public bathrooms. John Lee, the 19-year-old, college-bound son of Singapore Chinese immigrants, frequents them to orally service the men he meets there. When one, Tom Lane, invites him out for a drink and then invites him home for the night, a months-long affair starts. As the play begins, we hear broadcasters reporting on a murder at a public bathroom. As the action continues, we see John (Kevin Qian) being interviewed by a psychiatric investigator (Michael Short). Through the process of his investigation, we slowly learn the trajectory of the relationship between John and Tom (Tom Fish).

The title, "Porcelain," seems to relate to the main character’s Chinese heritage, to the materials used in bathroom fixtures, and to the blending together of two materials (clay and stone powder) to create something fragile but beautiful. The Japanese tradition of folding 1,000 origami cranes also enters into the symbolism of the play, along with a Chinese folk tale of a raven attempting to join a flock of sparrows. With Gil Eplan-Frankel portraying the crow, there’s a bit of unintended deja-vu, since Mr. Eplan-Frankel recently appeared in Steve Yockey’s "Reykjavik," which also featured crow characters. The sparrow-crow scenes are beautifully staged here.

Performances are all good. Joseph Johnson, as the fifth member of the cast, does some very nice character work, switching from role to role with ease and getting good laughs along the way. Mr. Fish is at his best as Tom, but switches to other roles as needed. Mr. Eplan-Frankel excels as a broadcaster and the crow, but also fills other roles. Mr. Short’s American accent, while explained in the script for the psychiatric investigator, seems to pop up at other times for other roles. Mr. Qian has a single role to play, and he’s adequate in the role, if perhaps less engaging in complexity than the role deserves.

Chay Yew’s play makes good use of the four "voices" to give movement and variety to the story-telling. The most exciting moments of the play are when lines leap from actor to actor, such as near the end when the final scene of John and Tom’s relationship is juxtaposed with the final scene of the opera "Carmen." The story-telling is perhaps more compelling than the grim story itself.

Out Front’s production of "Porcelain" moves briskly, with a finely honed ensemble and inventive staging tailor-made for a black box space. It’s not being performed in a black box space, though, and that harms the production. Audience members in hard metal chairs are no more comfortable than sitting on the closed lids of toilets, while they gaze longingly across the playing space to the rows of comfortable theatre seats just out of reach.

K2, by Patrick Meyers
Asphyxia, Hypoxia, Dysphoria
Monday, February 18, 2019
You enter into "base camp," a patchouli-scented geodesic dome tent filled with mountaineering gear and with U.S., Nepalese, and Tibetan prayer flags. When the show is about to start, the stage manager (Shelby Mays) gives a brief rundown about K2, the second-tallest mountain in the world, and about mountaineering on K2. We’re then invited through a flap into the theatre space, after being advised to bring in supplied blankets for added warmth. The space is not heated (although "base camp" is).

Stage fog and dim blue light fill the playing space at the start, obscuring views of the magnificent set by director Barrett Doyle. It’s a cross between a geodesic dome and a jungle gym, constructed of tubular metal welded together in odd angles and featuring frosty plastic and sheet metal triangles. The face of the set and the ledge on which most of the action takes place are white simulated snow. The whole construction arches up toward the audience. Bennett Walton’s eerie musical score and sounds of wintry winds reverberate in the space. Then Maranda Debusk’s subtly colorful lighting design comes into play and we see two figures motionless on the ledge, covered by metallic blankets.

Taylor (Joel Coady) is an unmarried district attorney. Harold (Dan Ford) is a married physicist. Both are serious mountain climbers, having just summitted K2, although their history of mountain climbing is not mentioned in Patrick Meyers’ script. Their discussions are more of life in general and of the predicament they’re in: Harold has broken his leg in a fall, and they’re stuck on the ledge with their spare rope left behind above them. Seeing Mr. Coady make repeated attempts to scale the set and retrieve the rope is the highlight of physical activity in the play; Mr. Ford is pretty much glued to one spot.

The set, lighting, and sound are terrific, but so are the props by Liz Schad and the costumes by Mallory Champlin. The mountaineering gear gives a very realistic representation of life on a mountainside (although the amount of time gloves are off stretches credibility a bit, while at the same time ensuring the safety of the actors).

Barrett Doyle has directed the two actors to give heartfelt performances. Mr. Ford in particular is given chances to lighten the mood with accents and stories, and his portrayal of Harold touches the heart. Mr. Coady plays Taylor with a lot of anger and rage, the emotion sometimes making him difficult to understand, but he forms a believable bond with his fellow actor. The bond resonates with the ending metaphor of two quarks remaining entangled no matter the distance between them.

The show ends with the stage manager inviting us to reflect on what we’ve seen, then return to "base camp." There’s no curtain call, although the cast (and the entire production team) thoroughly deserve one.

"K2" has a script that is perhaps more cerebral than engaging in a biographical sense for the two characters, but Catalyst Arts Atlanta has created an immersive production that turns the play into an experience. The venue is not ideal, with warehouse noises outside the playing space intruding on what is supposed to be the icy vastness of an isolated mountain, but everything possible has been done to give the theatre-goer a memorable two hours that brings to life the story of two men facing imminent death.

A Southern Exposure, by Kelley Kingston-Strayer
Double Exposure
Monday, February 18, 2019
"A Southern Exposure," recently performed by Lionheart Theatre Company in Norcross, is being given another production in Cumming with one of the same cast members (Glory Hanna, as Ida Mae). My feelings about the play remain the same -- I don’t find the character of Callie Belle (Samantha Bain) to be terribly interesting, and the final moment of a hug accompanied by TV baseball sounds doesn’t work -- but the production is entertaining.

The set consists of four elements: a rocking chair far stage left, representing a porch; a kitchen sink wall stage left, backed by a door to the house; a kitchen counter wall up center, with a table and chairs in front of it; and an angled wall unit stage right that functions as a New York apartment in the first act and as a bedroom in the second act. The three wall units are not connected, giving a nice theatrical feel to the set. Props and set decoration are very good, giving the impression that the New York apartment is shared with a man and that the Kentucky house where the bulk of the action takes place is truly lived in.

Other technical elements are fine. Brenda Orchard’s sound design and Joel Noles’ light/sound operation fulfill the minimal requirements of the script and add a few special touches. Costumes and wigs are effective (although an inadvertently inside-out skirt at the performance I attended took a bit away from the intentionally inside-out blouse another character wears).

Mary Claire Klooster’s direction is excellent. The script consists almost entirely of conversations (some on the phone; some face-to-face), so seated talking heads would be a definite possibility, but Ms. Klooster’s blocking has just the right amount of action. Natural kitchen activities punctuate the dialogue, and movement keeps the stage pictures changing at a pleasant rate.

Performances blend together well as an ensemble, so Ms. Klooster deserves praise there too. Nancy Jensen invests grandmother Hattie with lots of often-negative energy, while Gloria Szokoly plays her addled sister Mattie with great sweetness. Ms. Hanna’s sharp-spoken Ida Mae gets lots of laughs, and Ms. Bain’s Callie Belle delivers her lines with great projection, aging subtly over the time span of the script.

The play starts in a comic vein, getting more serious as time goes by, and ends on a sentimental note. The sweetness and humor of an estrogen-fueled Kentucky household comes through clearly, and if Callie Belle’s journey to New York and back isn’t very compelling, the characters all have the ring of truth.

"A Southern Exposure" requires an all-female cast, with the majority of them being "of a certain age," so it fits in well with the requirements of most Atlanta-area community theatres. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it again before long in another area venue.

The Wolves, by Sarah DeLappe
Soccer Pitch
Sunday, January 27, 2019
First, the set. Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have placed an Astroturf rectangle in the playing space that pitches up into a ramp at the far side. Audience seating is on three sides of the rectangle, with plexiglass barriers in front of the audience sections and advertising signs behind. Tables are tucked in up left to contain the belongings of players practicing on the field. Other than that, there’s just the white and blue padded gymnasium wall in back and three overhead lights hanging down. It all represents an indoor soccer field.

The scenes show us pre-show stretches and exercises across several weeks. Lighting, designed by Mary Parker, uses the three overhead lights and general lighting for most scenes, getting a bit more atmospheric as the play deepens over its 1.75 hour running time. Cole Spivia’s costume design consists of the numbered uniforms of the players, along with some outdoor winter garments. (This is a soccer league playing indoors in winter.) MC Park’s props all relate to the soccer team -- backpacks, soccer balls, orange slices. It’s all very realistic in looks except for a supposed "buzz cut" haircut that is actually just a short wig.

Amy L. Levin’s sound design covers the scene changes and accompanies some of the action. Sarah Stoffle is the soccer choreographer, and the movements she has designed accompany almost all of the dialogue. The girls (high school juniors) are almost always stretching or running or practicing skills in unison. It makes for very kinetic blocking.

It’s also a little confusing to start. Small clumps of girls are carrying on conversations, and we hear snippets of each. The main thread seems to be a recent news story about an aged Cambodian Khmer Rouge official being brought to justice. The girls don’t all go to the same school, and while the clumps are generally of longer-term friends, there’s a lot of interplay.

We have the captain, #25 (Jasmine Thomas), who embodies the leadership qualities of her coach father. We have wisecracker #13 (Shelby Folks), taciturn goalie #00 (Katie Causey), and skinny devout Christian #2 (Anna Williford). There’s slightly dimwitted #8 (Ebony Jerry), contrasted with sweetly know-it-all #11 (Michelle Pokopac). Then there’s foul-mouthed, sexually active #7 (Rebeca Robles) and her slightly ethnic sidekick, #14 (Shannon McCarren). Rounding out the team is a newcomer, #46 (Erika Miranda), who is initially ignored by the other girls, but eventually makes her way into their hearts.

There’s also one adult in the cast, Megan Cramer, appearing in the final scene. She plays the mother of one of the girls. The last two scenes let us know something saddening has occurred, but it isn’t until just before the entrance of the mother that we realize who it has happened to. The details of what has happened are left slightly fuzzy. It suffices that the incident brings them closer together as they huddle up to chant the name of their soccer team, the Wolves.

Heidi Cline McKerley deserves a lot of credit for whipping the cast into shape. This is a physically demanding show for the girls, with most dialogue accompanied by physical action. That it’s pulled off so well can’t be due entirely to the individual talents of the actresses (talented though they are), most of whom are alumnae of apprentice/intern programs at local theatres. The teamwork of sports is mirrored in the teamwork of the acting ensemble, and Ms. McKerley has done a splendid job of making this challenging play come to life before our eyes.

An Octoroon, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Boo for Boucicault
Sunday, January 27, 2019
We start out with a mini lecture on Dion Boucicault, a 19th-century playwright and impresario. Well, actually there’s first some pre-show dumb show comedy from Br’er Rabbit (the engaging Curtis Lipsey), but the play proper starts with the white jockey-clad Black Playwright (Neal A. Ghant) coming out and discussing Boucicault and his smash play, "The Octoroon" as a result of a session with his psychiatrist (also portrayed by Mr. Ghant). He’s soon joined by the similarly dressed Mr. Boucicault himself (Kyle Brumley). They introduce the goings-on while they put on white face (Mr. Ghant) and red face (Mr. Brumley) as an assistant sharing the dressing room (Ryan Vo) puts on black face; the explanation being that contemporary white actors refused to participate in such a racially incorrect piece.

In the re-creation of "The Octoroon" that follows, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins populates his cast with these men playing multiple roles and with five females. We have a trio of black slaves (Isake Akanke, Candy McLellan, and Parris Sarter) who speak and interact in contemporary fashion and a duo of more privileged women (Brandy Sexton and Kylie Brown) who perform in more of the stylized fashion of 19th-century melodrama. It’s all done for laughs.

We get the basics of the plot, except for the details of the ending of "The Octoroon." In 19th century America, the one-sixteenth black heroine (Ms. Brown) died at the end of the play, to prevent the suggestion of miscegenation with her marrying a white man, while in Europe a happier ending was allowed. In "An Octoroon," the last we see of her is spiriting off a bottle of poison. In Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’ retelling, we get the projected photograph of a lynching before going off in more humorous directions, leaving the fate of our heroine up in the air while (semi-spoiler alert) something else comes down from the air.

Donya K. Washington has staged the show effectively on Leslie Taylor’s set, although columns on the plantation house that forms the back part of the set may briefly block an actor from certain vantage points in the audience. A curtained proscenium has been built downstage, suggesting an old-timey theatre with the lights around it, the footlight cans, and the placard frames to the side that indicate act numbers. April Andrew’s costumes range from the pink bunny ears and dropped-crotch, cotton-tailed pants of Br’er Rabbit to antebellum fashions. Zach Murphy’s lighting uses more effects than were available in the 19th century, but they support the mood of each scene. Kate Bidwell LaFoy’s props, while not extensive, are very effective. The visual aspects of the show are good, if not overwhelmingly so.

Sound is another matter. Pre-show music consists of selections that would be right at home in a minstrel show. Part of the pre-show dumb show and the early part of the play involves actors using a remote control to click the music to a different selection. Those selections are very loud. At least in one occasion, the volume is dialed down with the remote control. But the loudness is an assault on the senses.

The fight choreography by Amelia Fischer and Connor Hammond is terrific. There’s one fight in which Neil A. Ghant is portraying both the hero and the villain as they’re engaged in hand-to-hand combat, and it’s one of the delights of the show. A slap is beautifully staged at a more serious point in the script.

Performances don’t have an ensemble feel. Ms. Brown is superb at melodramatic gestures and stances, and her speech patterns ring as utterly sincere while at the same time containing a touch of send-up comedy. Ms. Sexton has more of a contemporary delivery, and her performance smacks of parody. Mr. Ghant triumphs as the villain of "An Octoroon," while his hero seems wanly stagey and his distinctions between the playwright and the psychiatrist aren’t clear-cut. Mr. Brumley is quite good with his accents, but doesn’t seem well-suited to his role as a drunken native American. Of the others, only Ms. Sarter really lands her performance, getting some big laughs as she misses a slave escape due to oversleeping.

The varying levels of performance suggest that Ms. Washington may have been more of a blocker and editor than a director, telling people where to move and approving or editing their individual choices in performance rather than enforcing a cohesive production style. But the way the show is written, it could be argued that a by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach is appropriate, since the white actors intended for many roles had to be filled by less-than-ideal replacements. In any case, "An Octoroon" is an entertaining contemporary revision of one othe most popular 19th-century melodramas. Sure, issues of race are raised, but the light-hearted tone makes it all go down easy.

Moonlight and Magnolias, by Ron Hutchinson
Utterly Nuts, Utterly Bananas
Sunday, January 27, 2019
The genesis of the movie script for "Gone with the Wind" may not have occurred exactly as envisioned in Ron Hutchinson’s "Moonlight and Magnolias," but the story is based in historical fact. Filming was suspended while the script was tweaked and a new director was brought in. The play shows us producer David O. Selznick (William S. Murphey) locking script doctor Ben Hecht (Googie Uterhardt) and new director Victor Fleming (Bart Hansard) in his office for a work week to get a workable scenario pounded out. Comedy is ensured when it’s revealed that Hecht hasn’t read the book, and that Selznick and Fleming have to act it out for him. More comedy comes with the intrusions of Miss Poppenghul (Mahalia Jackson), Selznick’s put-upon secretary.

This seems to be a show in which directors like to put their personal stamp by staging the comedy in idiosyncratic ways. Georgia Ensemble’s production is no exception. Director James Donadio has added touches I haven’t seen before. Between the first two scenes of the first act, there’s a time lapse in which the office shows the ravages of sleep-deprived enactors subsisting on peanuts and bananas (Selznick’s idea of brain food). Mr. Donadio accomplishes this by having antebellum-dressed stage hands (two male, two female) take over the stage, spreading papers and banana peels and turning over furniture. It’s a cute touch, with Kacie Willis’ sound design accompanying the stage-changing action in sprightly fashion and with Emmie Tuttle’s costume design getting an unexpected chance to shine.

Another unique comic touch is inventing a simmering hatred by Miss Poppenghul for Victor Fleming. This allows for a lot of unscripted interplay between the two. There’s also some extra entrances by Miss Poppenghul, notably one when she delivers rolls of toilet paper to a stink-filled restroom. Overall, I find Ms. Jackson’s performance too broad for my taste, but Mr. Hansard inhabits the role of Victor Fleming beautifully. Mr. Murphey and Mr. Uterhardt play their roles ably, but don’t seem to be breaking new ground in their performances. They’ve come across as much the same in many other shows they’ve been in.

Stephanie Polhemus’ set uses the full width of the stage to portray a tasteful, symmetrical, neoclassical office, with Connor McVey’s lighting most notable in the colored washes visible on the cyclorama behind the upstage bank of windows and above the ceiling line of the set. The furniture doesn’t scream the 1930’s, but it doesn’t stay in an office-like configuration of sofa, chair, and coffee table for long. What Mr. Donadio has his cast do with the furniture is nothing less than inspired.

"Moonlight and Magnolias" is a pretty sure-fire script. Georgia Ensemble may not be putting on the definitive version of it, but it certainly gets the comedy across. Mr. Hansard uses character to get comedy across; the others pretty much stick to shtick and what’s worked for them before. If you haven’t seen the play before and you haven’t seen the actors before, this production may very well "wow" you. Even if you’ve seen previous productions, Georgia Ensemble’s staging is fun.

Ever After, by Marcy Heisler (words) and Zina Goldrich (music)
Clever Laughter
Sunday, January 27, 2019
A feisty heroine who loves books and a quirky old man who invents contraptions. "Beauty and the Beast?" No.

Tambourine-wielding, colorfully-dressed peasant types dancing wildly. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame?" No.

A quirky female leading a comic dance at the palace ball. "Once Upon a Mattress?" No.

A feisty heroine lifting a rifle and shooting a partridge. "Annie Get Your Gun?" No.

All these familiar elements (and more) appear in the new musical "Ever After," adapted from the Cinderella-based movie. Actually, the Cinderella aspects of the story don’t invite direct comparisons with other versions except in the extraneous mention of the name "Cinderella" and in the losing of a sparkling slipper that has no plot implications whatever. Remove these two elements and the musical would have a more independent life. Sure, there’s an evil stepmother and two stepsisters, but they have sufficiently unique backstories to function as entities separate from the stock Cinderella fairytale.

The Alliance production sports an amazing scenic design by Anna Louizos, with lots of set pieces flying or sliding on and off to set each scene. Projected backgrounds by Sven Ortel give true depth and locality to these settings. In combination with Linda Cho’s colorful costumes just this side of gaudy and with Robert Wierzel’s effective lighting, "Ever After" is a delightful visual feast. True, some of Charles G. LaPointe’s wigs are so extreme that one fell off during the performance I attended, but even they add to the visual appeal.

Ken Travis’ sound design works well in the new Coca-Cola auditorium, letting everything be heard without blasting off the ears of audience members or introducing muddiness through unpleasant echoes. It helps that most of the cast have good, strong voices. Massed choral numbers let the vocal power flow over the audience.

Susan V. Booth has directed the show to keep the action visible (although one moment on the floor downstage left had audience members cocking their heads to be able to see around the heads of people in front of them). Joann M. Hunter’s choreography works very well in the more uninhibited numbers and less so in the more staid ones. There’s lots of movement throughout, and most of the costumes accommodate the kinetic energy of the dances.

The balance of songs and dialogue in the show is just about right. Not all numbers work equally well, though. The opening royal court scenes of both acts are basically throw-away in terms of content, acting more to establish mood. Standout numbers include "Who Needs Love?" and "My Cousin’s Cousin" (although the program lacks a list of musical numbers, so the titles may not be exact). These two songs highlight the delightful comic chops of star Sierra Boggess. There’s a pleasant, if truncated title song in a flashback scene. The finale of "Out of the Darkness" is stirring, but pretty generic in terms of content.

The songs involving covetous neighbor Pierre Malette (Jeff McCarthy) are perhaps the most problematic. His lurking presence in early scenes isn’t terribly well explained, so his declaration of intentions toward Danielle (Ms. Boggess) seems a bit off-kilter, and the song isn’t as tuneful as most others. A reprise section in a later song with the wondrous Rachel York falls equally flat.

The cast is thoroughly professional across the board, with almost all actors Equity. Non-Equity Joseph J. Pendergrast has proven himself to be one of Atlanta’s foremost dancers, although here he mostly appears in a trio of male dancers including the dynamic Kyle Vaughn. Preternaturally perky child Bella Yantis is the other non-Equity actor.

Impossibly handsome Tim Rogan provides a wonderful foil for Ms. Boggess in the romance department, and Rachel Flynn plays up every comic moment as funny stepsister Jacqueline. Ms. York is wonderful as the stepmother, and Jenny Ashman is effective as the nasty stepsister. My favorite non-lead in the cast, though, is Rhyn McLemore Saver as servant Louise. Her commitment to character is extraordinary, giving sincerity and getting laughs in equal measure.

"Ever After" is on a journey that ideally will lead to Broadway. As family-friendly fare that contains only one four-letter word (really eight-letter, when preceded by "bull"), it certainly would seem to have a built-in audience. With some more work, it could be a sure-fire hit. Ms. Goldrich’s music tends to the bright and memorable, and Ms. Heisler’s lyrics enrich the melodies with sly humor and engaging rhymes. With every number honed to its sparkling best, this would be a delight from start to finish.

Psycho: the Musical, by Neil Diamond (music) and Lawrence J. Talbot (book and lyrics)
Campy Fun
Sunday, January 27, 2019
"Psycho: the Musical" is a parody of the Hitchcock movie, using Neil Diamond songs as fodder for parody lyrics interspersed with the dialogue. The production is about 75 minutes long, hitting the highpoints of the movie in campy fashion. It seems to be drawing an audience of dating couples who are in the mood for entertainment that is neither too long nor too taxing.

The stage and seating at PULP bookstore are above par. The stage is elevated and the seats are real theatre seats on risers that give fine sightlines. Lighting is not particularly good, with three lighting instruments and four residential floodlights that don’t give an even wash across the stage. Sound is excellent, although the sound level of the opening number overwhelms the voice of Kat Altman, playing Marion Crane (the Janet Leigh character). Songs are sung to recorded accompaniment, and all scene changes are covered by a spooky vocal track of sung syllables.

Not all five actors are given equal chances to sing. Jake Mercer gets the most songs as Norman Bates. Ms. Altman and Sorrell Sanders, playing Marion’s sister Lila, get a couple. Lucas Scott, who plays boyfriend Sam Loomis, and Max Goodhart, who plays both Milton Arbogast and a psychiatrist, don’t get much of a chance to sing except in the finale. Voices are okay, but not terribly impressive. The parody lyrics by Lawrence J. Talbot aren’t terribly clever, going for obvious laughs.

The set is basic, but effective. Stage left, we have the front desk of the Bates Motel. Upstage, we have a painted window and a bureau, representing the motel room. Stage right, we have a shower enclosure and a pay phone. A folding card table and chairs are used as necessary for individual scenes. Costumes are good, with the comic highlight occurring in the shower scene. Props are good too, with the Chevy cutout used for the first scene very nicely done.

Performances are fine. Mr. Goodhart gets to show off a couple of different accents, and Mr. Scott has a lot of energy in his minor role. Mr. Mercer does nice work with his addresses to the audience, and Misses Sanders and Altman hold their own. It’s just that the slapdash quality of the writing doesn’t particularly impress. If you like the movie "Psycho," are in the mood for comedy, and don’t want to expend too much time or money or brain power, this might be the show for you. Otherwise, maybe it isn’t.

Blues for an Alabama Sky, by Pearl Cleage
Blacks in a Harlem Night
Sunday, January 27, 2019
Pearl Cleage’s "Blues for an Alabama Sky" isn’t a terribly descriptive title. The action takes place in Harlem, during the Harlem Renaissance, and while one character does hail from Alabama, he’s the character with the least stage time. The title is at least evocative of a bygone time and of unfulfilled yearnings. The sound design by Becca Parker and D Norris underlines the time period and the sense of bluesy regret that weaves through the story. Bethany Oliver’s props help establish the time period, despite the use of a non-period stick ballpoint pen.

Live Arts’ set, designed by Ms. Parker, squeezes two side-by-side brick apartments, the hall between them, and the building’s stoop into the small confines of the basement theatre. It’s not all architecturally true-to-life, with the stoop off to one side, and with action in the apartments extending beyond the limits of imaginary walls. One particularly inventive moment has Angel (Sherna Phillips) speaking out a window stage left to Leland (Jonathan McCullum), who is stage right and facing away from her, to simulate a split-screen conversation between Angel in an upstairs apartment and Leland in the street below. With Ms. Parker’s dim lighting design, you definitely get the feeling of a dark Harlem night.

The action takes place over time, and Jordan Hermitt’s costume design gets quite a workout. There’s not only the clothes the actors wear; there’s also the costumes the character Guy (André Eaton) designs for a living. Not everything fits particularly well, but consideration has been given throughout to make the wardrobe give the feel of 1920’s Harlem. The conservative dresses of Delia (Marita McKee) contrast with the Jazz Age garb of Angel, and doctor Sam (Rodney Johnson) has the lived-in look of a man comfortable in his own skin.

D Norris has directed the show to get heartfelt performances out of everyone concerned. There’s not a great variety of pacing, though, and the earnestness of all the portrayals gives a certain sameness to the production. There’s the opportunity for a great deal of comedy in the shy sexual awakening of Delia and the fey sassiness of Guy, but comedy is downplayed in the production. While some characters do have hopeful futures at the end of the play, the overriding mood is of the bleakness faced by Angel and the loss felt by Delia. The blues, indeed.

Bellwether, by Steve Yockey
Abduction Deductions
Friday, January 18, 2019
Steve Yockey’s "Bellwether" is set in a gated subdivision named Bellwether. It’s a friendly place, where nothing bad ever happens ... until it does. Almost-seven-year-old Amy Draft goes missing, and suspicion in the media and the neighborhood falls on her parents. Then other children disappear too, and we head into the almost-supernatural to get an explanation.

In the staged reading at Theatrical Outfit, there’s the normal set-up of a line of folding chairs and music stands to accommodate the cast, who move forward from their chairs to enact scenes, then move back to sit when their character is offstage. This set-up is augmented by a bed stage right. Crayon drawings scattered on the floor upstage of the chairs tie in with the hand-drawn picture by Amy that functions as the only clue to her disappearance. We don’t see Amy (Rachel Mewbron) or a mechanical doll (Eliana Marianes) until the play veers into supernatural territory. It’s a nice distinction from the real world, populated by those onstage all the time.

There’s no scenery, but director Clifton Guterman has blocked the action to make each scene’s setting clear. There are a couple of chairs downstage to indicate living room scenes and the bed at stage right to indicate bedroom scenes. Outdoor scenes take place on the general stage floor, and reporters’ broadcasts are indicated by the reporters standing side-by-side with microphones in hand. It’s very effective staging.

Acting is splendid throughout, and the rhythms of Yockey’s speech patterns come through clearly, with lots of overlapping dialogue. The main characters of Amy’s parents are played by Joe Sykes and Kate Donadio MacQueen, and they bring lots of emotional energy to their roles. So does Stacy Melich, who plays a neighbor and close friend. Her breaking voice at the end of the play underscores the unhappy ending she is experiencing, in direct contrast to the cheery pronouncements of the neighbors following Amy’s return. All the supporting neighbors, who double as reporters (the females) or detectives (the males), contribute mightily to the atmosphere of the piece.

This is what staged readings should be. Scripts in hand ensure the playwright’s words are honored verbatim, but staging brings motion and clarity to the scenes. Sound effects are wonderful, starting with the bird chirps in the pre-show audio and cycling through thumps and screams that mesh beautifully with onstage action. Mr. Guterman deserves great credit for bringing this intriguing, spooky script to life, aided by a cast of first-rate Atlanta actors.

A Good Place to Raise a Boy, by Wes Goodrich
Till Death Did Him Part
Friday, January 18, 2019
The story of Emmett Till is well known. A Chicago teenager, he went to spend time with relatives in Mississippi in 1955. His big-city, carefree ways offended whites in rural Mississippi, and a report of him accosting a white woman resulted in him being beaten and shot to death. Two white half-brothers accused of his murder were acquitted. As Dorothy Parker-Jarrett, Till’s cousin, reports, newspaper coverage of the killing and trial raised racial consciousness in the country and preceded Rosa Park’s bus incident by just a couple of months.

Wes Goodrich has dramatized the story of Emmett Till utilizing a cast of black and white ensemble members. His copious stage directions call for groups of blacks and whites to observe parts of the action and to deconstruct various settings in which scenes occur. This would make for a technically challenging full production, replete with film clips and almost filmic lighting effects. Joanie McElroy has directed a staged reading that reduces the complexity of blocking by having actors move forward to music stands for individual scenes, then move back to a line of seats upstage to sit. Reading of full stage directions gives almost novelistic context for the action.

The play has undeniable emotional impact. A few things don’t quite ring true, though. The sheriff and Emmett’s mother each have a long speech that provides background in perhaps too much of a reportorial style. Emmett’s love of comic books surfaces at the start of the show, but a white boy’s mention of his love of comic books later in the show goes nowhere. The audience is being primed to expect some comic book-related interaction between the two, or at least a neatly realized parallel in their lives, but the expectation is unrealized.

Acting is fine across the board, with Jessica Wise doing terrific work in differentiating Southern teen Willie May from NAACP worker Ruby Hurley. Celeste Campbell brings solid emotion to Emmett’s mother, and Darrell Grant captures the preaching style of Rev. Mose Wright, Emmett’s uncle and host in Mississippi. The whites are appropriately red-necky. Sound effects help create the world of the play, although occasionally lasting a bit long and/or coming in too loud. All in all, "A Good Place to Raise a Boy" is a worthwhile dramatization of a pivotal event in black history by a young playwright.

Gershwin’s America, by Alpin Hong and Adam Kaplan
A Musical Lecture
Friday, January 18, 2019
Classical pianist Alpin Hong and director/scenarist Adam Kaplan mined the biography of Mr. Hong to create the successful touring show "Chasing Chopin." Now they’re trying something similar with "Gershwin’s America." The reading at Theatrical Outfit’s Unexpected Play Festival represents an early, unrehearsed iteration of the script.

The goal seems to be to parallel and contrast the lives of Korean-American Alpin Hong and Ukrainian Jew-American George Gershwin. The problem is that both sides of the comparison are given short shrift. The juiciest material from Mr. Hong’s life as a child prodigy seems to have been used up in "Chasing Chopin," and a conscious attempt has been made to avoid duplication in the new show. The evening seems to be more of a personalized lecture than a theatre piece in its current form. The flip board used to gather descriptive adjectives from the audience at the start of the show emphasizes its educational content.

The draw of the show, aside from Mr. Hong’s engaging personality, is his virtuosic skill at the piano. He repeatedly sits at the stage’s upright piano to play pieces representative of George Gershwin’s popular, operatic, and classical compositions. The finale of the show is the full "Rhapsody in Blue," and it’s stunning in execution. The popular works don’t come across quite as well, since the focus of the arrangements is to show off pianistic skills. Oftentimes, a recognizable musical phrase is followed by a rapid series of notes that bury the melody ten feet under.

The talk back session after the staged reading was actually more engaging than the show itself. When Mr. Hong made a musical point by going to the piano to play just a phrase, it worked remarkably well. Interspersing lecture material with short examples builds up audience anticipation for some full-fledged piano playing. But the wedding of the Hong biography and the Gershwin biography as equals just doesn’t work in the current iteration.

Every Brilliant Thing, by Duncan McMillan with Jonny Donahoe
Things to Consider
Monday, January 14, 2019
"Every Brilliant Thing" contains a lot of audience participation. Most of it consists of reading numbered selections from a master list. Some lucky individuals are brought onstage, and a couple of audience members need to ad lib interactions as the characters they’ve been assigned. In an hour-long, one-person show, the interactions add variety and interest.

Jim Nelson has directed the sole cast member, Amy Serafin, to keep the show both loose (to accommodate audience interaction) and focused (to emphasize the emotional arc of her character). While written for a British male, the role works remarkably well for an American woman, with even a few Atlanta references thrown in for good measure. Ms. Serafin is approachable, funny, and touching all at once.

There isn’t much of a physical production. Spencer Estes’ set design consists just of black curtains and a bench and a small bookcase to accommodate the numerous props by Sharon Bower. The props, not restricted to the numerous slips of paper on which list items are scrawled, flesh out the production nicely.

This is a fine production of a slight, tender story. The one thing it truly needs is AUDIENCES. Go. You’ll have a good time.

A Doll’s House Part 2, by Lucas Hnath
Monday, January 14, 2019
Lucas Hnath’s "A Doll’s House Part 2" is a modern gloss on Henrik Ibsen’s 19th-century original about a dissatisfied housewife leaving her husband and children. The action of this sequel takes place 15 years later, as Nora (Tess Malis Kincaid) comes seeking the finalization of a divorce from her husband Torvald (Rob Cleveland). The cast is fleshed out by their daughter Emmy (Shelli Delgado) and by the family’s long-term nanny (Deadra Moore). The divorce will free Nora from legal troubles, since she has entered into book contracts without the consent of her husband, but will cause legal and societal complications for her husband, which in turn will affect her daughter’s engagement. The plot of the play consists of the discussion of options to resolve the dilemmas of all the characters.

We’re told that Nora has become a successful author in the time she’s been away, with her first book becoming a bit of a sensation for its anti-marriage message. We’re not told that she’s a one-hit wonder, though, which makes her problematic situation a trifle puzzling. If her first book came out several years ago, why have its ramifications suddenly become a crisis?

Aurora’s production emphasizes again and again that this gloss on a 19th-century work is of modern origin. The set, by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, is of an austere neoclassical room with immense double doors up center. Rather timeless. But the stage floor seems to be floating, and the whole set is surrounded by neon ribbons of purple-pink light. The furniture (two chairs and a console) is Danish modern. Costumes, by Elizabeth Rasmusson, are 19th century. When characters sit on the furniture, it’s often in modern poses (sitting on an arm, for instance), that underline the disconnect between the design elements. For me, this makes it very difficult to take the production seriously. When Ms. Kincaid walks upstage, opens the console, and pulls out a filled glass of water to drink from, it’s clear that naturalism has been thrown out the window (not that the set features any windows).

Ed Thrower’s sound design consists of raucous rock music played between the scenes, accompanied by projected supertitles ("Nora," "Torvald," "Anne Marie," "Emmy," and "Nora and Torvald"), and pulling the audience out of the world of the play to proclaim "modern! modern! modern!" in stentorian tones.

Freddie Ashley has directed the play to have actors move the furniture between scenes, in another successful attempt to produce cracks in the 19th century veneer. It all seems rather pointless in terms of blocking. Nevertheless, stage pictures overall are generally good.

Acting is another matter. Ms. Kincaid is wonderful, successfully marrying the 19th century and modern worlds of the expletive-ridden script. Ms. Moore looks ridiculous in a ratty wig. Mr. Cleveland seems to have given no thought to making Torvald a relatable character, instead relying on bluster and cant. Ms. Delgado is better, but her costume is borderline ridiculous, and she appears older than the script would have us believe. Ms. Kincaid is the only reason to go see this play.

The job of a play is to take us into the play’s particular world and keep us there from start to finish. Mr. Hnath and/or Mr. Ashley seem to have preferred a Brechtian approach of alienating the audience with jarring effects. It doesn’t work here. It just seems that the designers and director failed to communicate at all with one another, leaving it up to the actors to make sense of the muddle. Ms. Kincaid does, so props to her (although with props much more impressive than Kathy Manning’s unimaginative physical props). In this talk-filled show, Ms. Kincaid is the only bright spot.

The Odd Couple, by Neil Simon
Full House
Monday, January 14, 2019
Neil Simon’s comedy "The Odd Couple" is an almost foolproof script when the roles of slob Oscar Madison and neatnik Felix Ungar are ideally cast. In the Players Guild@Sugar Hill production, the director’s note hints at casting problems when it’s noted that the original Oscar dropped out and was replaced by David Lawler moving from the role of Felix to that of Oscar. Mr. Lawler isn’t the problem, though; he is thoroughly believable as Oscar. It’s Rick Sutter, the replacement Felix, who’s somewhat of a disappointment. That’s highlighted by his costume in the first scene, which shows ever-present wrinkles both in shirt and pants.

All the men’s costumes are perhaps a bit too modern-day for the time frame of the script, but it doesn’t really mar the production. While there are some nods to the 1960’s in the women’s costumes and in props (a banner and an actual pink Puratron), no extraordinary effort has been expended to marry the production to a specific, prototypical moment in history.

The set, designed by Terry Mulligan and Fred St. Laurent and sturdily constructed with the help of Tom Heagy and Craig Murphy, is a fairly generic room. There’s the door to the apartment up left, French doors to a balcony right, and openings to the kitchen and bedrooms/bathroom up right. A wall air conditioner on the stage left wall is a nice touch, although the cityscape above it looks like a failed attempt at simulating a window. A dining table and chairs down right are used for the poker scenes; a sofa and chair and tables and bookcase fill out the rest of the space. The furniture seems more worn than the walls.

Ane Mulligan, succeeding Fred St. Laurent as director, has created a smoothly-flowing production that highlights the comedy of the script. There are lots of bits of stage business that add touches of hilarity to an already-funny show. Characters are nicely etched, with individual personalities meshing in a believable fashion. Lauren Lawler and Susan Briggs, real-life sisters playing the fictional Pigeon sisters, are an especial delight. The poker gang of Tom Heagy (Speed), Craig S. Murphy (Vinnie), Vince Betro (Roy), and Terry Mulligan (Murray the Cop) go at it like gangbusters, adding to the fun.

This production of "The Odd Couple" is consistently entertaining, although the interplay between Oscar and Felix depends more on Oscar than Felix. With added bits from the director and actors, comedy triumphs. And in the confines of the lush Eagle Theatre, it makes for an enjoyable evening of theatre.

Striking 12, by Brendan Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin, and Valerie Vigoda
A Stroke of Fortune
Sunday, December 30, 2018
Last year at Synchronicity; this year at Actor’s Express. Largely the same group of actors and musicians are presenting the New Year’s Eve GrooveLily musical "Striking 12." The change-up this year comes with the keyboardist. Instead of a female keyboardist with a few bits in the show, we have a male keyboardist (Nicholas Silvestri) and a female vocalist (Shelli Delgado). Given Miss Delgado’s immense stage presence and comic range, the change is overall for the better.

Like last year, the sound levels are loud. Connor McVey’s drums and Ian Palmer’s bass guitar underlie the vocals and come close to drowning them out at times. Cale Brandon’s violin, Nicholas Silvestri’s keyboard, and Daniel Burns’ guitar play at volumes that support the vocals without overwhelming them. Excellent musicianship is on display throughout.

Daniel Burns, battling pneumonia, still makes the central figure of The Man an empathetic loner. Emma Palmer McVey sings the Little Match Girl effectively, but her side trips into ensemble roles dilute the poignance of the Little Match Girl’s plight. Paige Mattox is a joy to behold as the SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) Light Seller and as all her ensemble characters, and Robert Hindsman and Ms. Delgado play the comedy of their small roles to the hilt. Voices are all excellent. The story, a mash-up of Hans Christian Andersen’s sad tale with the situation of a modern man’s self-isolation, takes the tale’s inherent sadness and adds an optimistic twist to create a satisfying ending.

Production elements are minimal. There’s a blue-lit cyclorama behind the band, a few lit-up fake Christmas trees to the sides, some luminaries, and a bank of microphones at the edge of the playing space. Headgear, coats and shawls, and a few collections of Andersen’s tales provide costumes and props. There are a few crowd-pleasing forays into the audience, most notably near the end when SAD light strands are draped around the necks of a few lucky individuals before the final strand brings a glow to The Man, no longer isolated and depressed on New Year’s Eve.

"Striking 12" has an appealing rock score and provides a nice workout for actors and musicians. If it’s becoming an Atlanta New Year’s Eve tradition, it’s a welcome addition to the local theatre scene. Now, if only the sound levels were more bearable...

Waffle Palace Christmas, by Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee
Krampus Kristmas
Monday, December 24, 2018
There’s a big honkin’ set by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay, representing a Waffle Palace greasy spoon restaurant, with cook station upstage, outside door up left (with a glimpse of an illuminated sign), and tables and booths scattered around, with some booth bench seating accommodating first-row audience members. A jukebox wall section revolves for short live-action YouTube video segments, and a platform above stage left represents the roof of the building. It’s massive and a bit grimy, as Curley-Clay sets often are.

Mary Parker lights the set nicely, with red and green filters illuminating a platform next to audience left from which the evil Krampus (Rob Cleveland) launches his attacks on the denizens of the Waffle Palace. His goal is to ruin Christmas for them, and to put the restaurant out of business. Since this is a feel-good holiday show, he ultimately fails.

Costume designer Cole Spivia and sound designer Thom Jenkins help bring the action to life. Acting really is what makes multiple casting work in this show, though. Maria Rodriguez-Sager is brilliant in distinguishing aged waitress Mavis from pregnant Nicaraguan Esperanza, and Allan Edwards uses spot-on accents to particularize his four roles. LaLa Cochran, Jennifer Alice Acker, and Markell Williams also play multiple parts, bringing individuality to each. Rob Cleveland is pretty much a force of nature in his convincingly horned role of Krampus, while Barry Stolze and Marguerite Hannah appear bland in comparison as the co-owners of the Waffle Palace.

Songs spark the action, with ditty-like music composed and music directed by Christian Magby. It’s fun and light, which pretty much sums up the entire show. Lisa Adler has created a holiday confection with a bit of bite, a bit of corn, and lots of heart. It’s not deeply reflective or piercingly contemporary, as many Horizon Theatre offerings seem to be, but it’s fun. And don’t we all need a bit of fun at the holidays?

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
A Holiday Confection
Monday, December 24, 2018
Seamus M. Bourne’s set design is the same as last year, but it doesn’t seem as sparklingly new, which is a benefit. Elizabeth Rasmussen’s costumes are also largely the same, but with cast changes there are differences, and the clothes don’t have quite the impact they did last year. Alex Riviere’s lighting design works well, and Rob Brooksher’s sound design is excellent as it accompanies piano playing and the frequent scene-setting mute action (although one of the cues seems to have been late at the performance I attended).

Carolyn Cook once again directs, so the flow is much the same as last year. A major change, however, occurs at the very top of the show. Instead of Mary Bennet (Amelia Fischer) writing and reviewing a letter at the Pemberley desk, she stands down center to deliver her lines. This more clearly defines that she is at home, before arriving at Pemberley for the Christmas holidays. Blocking still makes good use of the stage, but from my vantage point at far audience right, I could see this year that blocking is oriented toward the center part of the audience. This was underscored at the performance I attended by the people next to me for the first act moving up into empty center section seats for the second act.

"Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley" is a delightful play, and Theatrical Outfit’s reprise production lets the script shine. Amelia Fischer as Mary and Devon Hales as her younger sister Lydia are both as excellent as last year, and Juan Carlos Unzueta once again plays their brother-in-law with charm and humor. Jonathan Horne is still wonderful as Arthur De Bourgh, although his performance this year was colored for me by the recent appearance on TV’s "Survivor" of Christian, another science nerd with a similar stilted manner.

Justin Walker and Jasmine Thomas play Darcy and Elizabeth from "Pride and Prejudice," and they both do fine in their roles, although the script makes it clear that these are not leading roles in this sequel by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon. Jeannette Illidge is a delight as gravid Bennet sister Jane Bingley, and Stephanie Friedman triumphs in the role of self-absorbed and tyrannical Anne De Bourgh, letting us sense the insecurity underlying her behavior. All in all, this is the equal of last year’s production, with the skewing of color-blind casting from Hispanic to black not making a whit of difference.

Your Happy Holiday, by Musical Arrangements by Amanda Wansa Morgan
A Leaking Canteen
Sunday, December 23, 2018
First act: Irving Berlin-era holiday songs and Christmas carols. Second act: more contemporary Christmas songs. Dialogue? Maybe one line. The rest is all music and singing and dancing. It’s all professionally done, but it’s the theatre equivalent of listening to an hour and a half of an all-Christmas radio station.

Mary Nye Bennett has directed the production, which seems to have been pretty much restricted to deciding which numbers have dancing and which don’t. The cast is divided among singers and dancers, with Matthew Peddie’s dim lighting design spotlighting the current solo singer. Stephanie Polhemus’ scenic design consists of Christmas trees left and right with an upstage platform in front of a backdrop of snow and trees. Wide steps lead up to the platform, with the piano stage right of them and the rest of the band to the left of them. Dancing takes over the floor of the stage and occasionally the platform and/or steps. The only scene changes are rolling on of a drink cart and, for act two, huge ornaments descended from the flies.

The costumes by Billie Nye-Muller are done in holiday colors, but tend to have simple lines. They’re fine, but not impressive. George Deavours’ wigs share that same characteristic. Ricardo Aponte’s choreography is better, given that he has a stable of professional dancers at his disposal, but it’s not particularly inspired. A tap number is particularly heavy-footed.

The musical arrangements are by Amanda Wansa Morgan, and they’re the main problem with this production. Musical accompaniment is hardly imaginative, and numbers tend to have a constant thumping rhythm. Attempts to mimic well-known arrangements succeed as imitation being the highest form of flattery, but give the proceedings a been-there, done-that flavor. There are no standout performances, although arrangements that feature Chase Peacock on guitar somehow seem more interesting than the others.

Aurora Theatre has been doing its "Christmas Canteen" for decades, mixing a small cast size with singing, dancing, patter, and skits, not all of which relate directly to the holiday season. Atlanta Lyric has taken the same choreographer and targeted his skills toward a Christmas song recital that contains a small fraction of the entertainment value of "Christmas Canteen." "Your Happy Holiday" pales in comparison. It’s all-singing, all-dancing entertainment that breaks no new ground.

Rose and Walsh, by Neil Simon
Tuesday, December 18, 2018
Neil Simon’s "Rose and Walsh" is a talky play. Most of its action consists of Rose (a thinly disguised Lillian Hellman) communicating with her former lover Walsh (a stand-in for Dashiell Hammett). The cast is rounded out by Rose’s live-in companion Arlene and ghost writer Clancy. There’s a lot of conversation and not a lot of action, although there is a neat special effect in Centerstage North’s production.

The Centerstage North set makes good use of the wide playing space, with a dining room/office stage right, a living room stage left, and French doors to the beach upstage center. It’s nicely appointed, indicating the long-time residence of a financially successful woman with no frou-frou tastes. Costumes suit all characters nicely.

Brenda Orchard’s sound is most notable in the beachside sounds that become audible as the French doors upstage are opened. It’s a nice touch. Owen Ridings’ lighting is generally good, although there is a dim spot center stage that becomes obvious in the second act when director Cheryl Baer’s blocking has characters move into and out of this spot. Otherwise, there’s a pretty even wash across the stage that keeps things nicely visible.

Performances are good, but not transcendent. Diane Dicker invests Rose with prickly humor that suits the role, and real-life husband Steve Pryor adds a genial cynicism to Walsh. Hayley Haas seems a bit colorless as Arlene, but John Coombs, Jr. gives Clancy some wrong-side-of-the-tracks New York backbone. Ms. Baer hasn’t directed the show to have much variety of tone, and the pace tends to be fairly uniform. There are enough Neil Simon funny lines to spark things along, and the play holds interest throughout, but "Rose and Walsh" doesn’t really catch fire. It’s nice to see a little-done Neil Simon play, but it’s clear this isn’t one of his comedy blockbusters. It’s sweet and gentle, but not compelling.

Christmas Canteen 2018, by Brandon O’Dell
Bigger and Slicker
Tuesday, November 27, 2018
In the past, Aurora Theatre’s "Christmas Canteen" has typically featured a core cast of six, augmented by interns joining in on a few large numbers. This year, the core cast numbers eight: Galen Crawley, Jimi Kocina, Christian Magby, Chani Maisonet, Kristin Markiton, Kenny Tran, Cecil Washington Jr., and Briana Young. Interns Peyton McDaniel and Sarah Grace Valleroy also get their chance to shine, amidst their running crew duties. Many of the components of previous seasons are here, just bigger and slicker.

Julie Ray’s set resembles a ski lodge, all mid-century modern rock and wood, with snow banks and paper birches visible outside the wall of windows. Empty hooks on the walls and bannisters hint that the place will be bedecked and begarlanded with greenery and ornaments before too long. The four-piece band is tucked under the second level of the set, flanked by the two grand staircases leading up to the second level. It’s all big and lush and professional.

Jimi Kocina is given the role of comic emcee; Cecil Washington, Jr. is his straitlaced co-host. To start out with, there are a lot of comic interruptions by Mr. Kocina. He also gets a chance to reprise Aurora’s one-minute "Christmas Carol." But the skit components of this edition of "Christmas Canteen" are limited; most of the time is devoted to glorious singing, the highlight being an operatic "Gesù Bambino" by Ms. Markiton and Ms. Maisonet. Most of the music is of the holiday variety; there’s just a brief armed forces medley and Andrews Sisters segment in the second act to remind us that the "Christmas Canteen" concept was originally of 1940’s armed forces entertainment.

Bradley Bergeron’s projections of photos of local veterans and active duty personnel accompany the armed forces medley, but this year the sequences of images are different on the two screens flanking the stage. You’ll get whiplash trying to catch all the photos. Otherwise, Mr. Bergeron’s lighting design fits in nicely with this year’s big, slick concept.

Alan Yeong’s costumes are lush; Cody Russell’s props are festive; Ricardo Aponte’s choreography is an energetic visual feast. Daniel Terry’s sound design pumps up the volume so much that you get the feeling that you’re watching TV, with sound coming almost exclusively from speakers. It’s glaringly obvious when microphones aren’t turned on in time for an actor’s lines.

Aside from the over-amplified volume, the quality of music is high, as always seems to be the case under Ann-Carol Pence’s musical direction. She’d better watch out, though; Christian Magby takes over her piano-playing duties when she sings a solo, and his musicality outshines her vocals.

The script by Brandon O’Dell is reminiscent of those of previous years, with Mr. Kocina taking over Mr. O’Dell’s role (but with a better singing voice). Direction, by Anthony Rodriguez and Mr. Aponte, makes full use of the stage and ample use of the vocal talents of the accomplished cast. Even so, the overall impression is that these actor/singer/dancers are doing a paid gig. Only Ms. Crawley seems truly engaged and happy to be onstage throughout, and Mr. Tran exudes energized stage presence during his solo spots. Otherwise, the cast seems to be doing what they’re being paid to do. It’s big and slick and a bit soulless.

Almost, Maine, by John Cariani
Nearly, Perfect
Saturday, November 24, 2018
The set, designed by Matt Easter, looks like an outdoor Santa’s village. Snow-flocked Christmas trees abound. A raised walkway leads through the snow to the door of a small house, a shuttered window to the side of the door. There’s a bench far stage right. Stage left we have a piano and ukulele for Alex Aldritchm’s incidental music that sets the mood and provides seamless transitions between the scenes.

The scenes are vaguely interrelated, with all action seeming to happen on a Friday night in the hamlet of Almost, Maine. Characters appearing in one scene are mentioned in another scene, so we get the feel of a small town where nearly everyone knows nearly everyone else. Scenes take place in various locations, not all of them outside, so set pieces are moved on as needed to suggest a specific location. Kelley Young’s direction has it all flowing smoothly, and Sophie Adesanya’s lighting aids in the suggestion of locales.

Nearly all the cast play multiple roles. The only exception is the director herself, who plays a single role in one of the less-compelling segments. The play starts out promisingly, with a quiet scene between two would-be lovers (Rachel Lamb and Jonathan McCullum) that continues on and off to the end of the show. This is followed by a very strong scene between a hiker (Amber Miller) and a resident (Don Stallings), where their conversations spill over one another like tiny avalanches of words. Next comes an effective restaurant scene with a guy (James Thomas) encountering his former girlfriend (Blis Savige), the emotions ebbing and flowing and sparked by the spiky performance of Ms. Lamb as a waitress. A fairly silly scene follows, with a woman (Gia Nappo) encountering a neurologically challenged young man (Devin Ellery) in a laundry room. The first act ends with Gayle (played by Ms. Young) challenging Lendal (Joey Simon) to return the love she’s given him. Like all the other scenes, it contains a bit of magical reality where the unexpected occurs in quirky, smile-inducing ways.

The second act is more of the same. We first see Chad (James Thomas) and Randy (Devin Ellery) literally falling in love, with terrific physical comedy from the two men. Next we see Phil (Joey Simon) and his wife Marci (Blis Savige) skirting around an argument, waiting for the other shoe to drop. What follows is the most poignant of the scenes, with the aptly-named Hope (Gia Nappo) hoping to reconnect with a former flame (Jonathan McCullum). Mr. Stallings and Ms. Miller then share another rapidly paced scene of two snowmobile buddies and a budding romance.

John Cariani’s unique sense of off-kilter humor hinges on the metaphorical becoming the literal, which happens time and again in "Almost, Maine." Director Kelley Young has honed the actor pairings to get the most out of each scene, with Ms. Miller and Mr. Stallings most impressive in their interplay. But everyone is good or better, and the show flows smoothly, capturing a mood and prolonging it to the tidy finish of the play.

A Warning for Fair Women, by Anonymous (Thomas Heywood?)
A Wanning and a Waning
Friday, November 23, 2018
"A Warning for Fair Women" starts out promisingly. Tragedy (Catie Osborn), History (Matthew Trautwein), and Comedy (Ash Anderson) enter, with Tragedy banishing the other two from the stage, for the play about to be seen is tragic in nature, albeit based on a recent (1573) incident. The actors playing these now-unnecessary allegorical figures are transformed by minor costume changes in front of the audience into two conspirators, Anne Drurie (Ms. Anderson) and her servant Roger (Mr. Trautwein), who figure in the murder that will occur in the course of the play.

Anne Drurie is next-door neighbor to the married couple of George Sanders (Robert Bryan Davis) and Anne Sanders (Sims Lamason). Mr. Sanders has a debt due, payment of which is complicated by his wife’s insistence on luxuries, but basically their marriage is happy and monogamous. That is, until George Browne (Tamil Periasamy), a recent guest to dinner at their house, becomes enamored of Anne Sanders and uses information about George Sanders’ travels, supplied by Anne Drurie and Roger, first to encounter Anne Sanders alone and then to waylay George Sanders.

The seduction of Anne Sanders is performed in pantomime, narrated by Tragedy and incorporating dance moves from two Furies (Emily Nedvidek and Lauren Brooke Tatum). A similar pantomime occurs later, when Browne convinces Anne Sanders that her husband needs to be dispensed with. That’s when the play starts going downhill.

We are introduced to a seemingly extraneous character, Beane (Bob Lanoue), who meets two even more extraneous characters, Old John (Richard Herren) and his servant Joan (Catherine Thomas). The scene seems to be intended to be comic relief, but falls pretty flat. The need for the scene becomes clear only when Beane becomes an additional victim in the murder of George Sanders by George Browne. An innkeeper (Trey Harrison) and the Sanders’ daughter (Teagan Williams) round out the cast, and are introduced in a more organic fashion.

Once the murder occurs, it’s a long slog of remorse, imprisonment, confession, and execution. Anne Sanders has denied any knowledge of or involvement in her husband’s murder, but finally confesses at her execution. Director Brent Griffin’s staging of this scene is quite nice, showing the judge (Ms. Osborn) and lords on the balcony above, as the curtains below it are parted and we see a tableau of the hanged Browne and the bodies of his victims, George Sanders and Beane. Then the whole cast does a dance and song to finish the production.

The elements of drama, dance, and dumb show are nicely rendered in Resurgens Theatre Company’s production. Sims Lamason’s choreography is elegant and sprightly, Matthew Trautwein’s music is sweetly reminiscent of Elizabethan tunes, and Tamil Periasamy’s fight choreography is effective. Costumes, by Catherine Thomas, beautifully capture the period. These fine technical elements are joined by fine direction and some excellent acting.

Lauren Brooke Tatum and Emily Nedvidek are wonderful dancers and also deliver a few lines with conviction. Teagan Williams graces the stage with good stage presence. Catherine Thomas and Bob Lanoue bring their minor characters to life, and Trey Harrison gives a little fire to his. The players in the love triangle (Ms. Lamason, Mr. Davis, and Mr. Periasamy) all fulfill their roles with appropriate intensity, let down only by the somewhat tedious morality of the script. Matthew Trautwein and Richard Herren seem less comfortable on stage than the others, with Mr. Herren seeming to have line memorization issues at the performance I attended. Catie Oborn is excellent as essentially our mistress of ceremonies, the black smear of makeup on her face giving her a striking appearance. Perhaps best of all is Ash Anderson, sparking her role of Anne Drurie with little glints of unexpected comedy.

Brent Griffin has distilled the anonymous script of "A Warning for Fair Women" to two hours of uninterrupted play time, giving a 400+-year-old play its New World premiere. Since it was originally performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (Shakespeare’s troupe), it’s an interesting historical artifact, and it’s not half bad as entertainment. It’s interesting and informative to see what was playing alongside Shakespeare’s works in London of the late 16th century.

Not About Heroes, by Stephen MacDonald
Specific Density
Monday, November 19, 2018
The production values are excellent, as is the acting. The play, though, includes recitation of several poems, all of which reward individual perusal far more than mere hearing. That, and the subject matter of British poetry-making during WWI, make "Not About Heroes" a bit dry for some tastes.

The set, designed by Harley Gould, uses a fuzzy-edged painted background of a battlefield with sandbags, barbed wire, and a bunker. Two desks sit on opposite sides of the stage. Between them in act one we have a rug on which a parlor table sits, flanked by two armchairs. In the second act, a simple bench resides in the middle of the stage, with a wheelchair to the side. This reflects the structure of the play, where the first act takes place in interior scenes, mostly in the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Nervous Disorders, while the second act includes battlefield action.

Nina Gooch’s lighting design helps delineate the location of the various scenes. One nice feature is the use of projections of battlements on the background. Together with Catherine Thomas’ excellent costumes and Mr. Gould’s set, the lighting makes this a fine-looking production. Robert Drake’s sound design does what it needs to do to enhance the action.

What makes the play, though, are the performances. Eric Lang’s expressive face, excellent British accent, and strong voice bring poet Siegfried Sassoon to life. Chris Harding’s ramrod posture, trim mustache, and expressively shy performance make doomed young poet Wilfred Owen an empathetic figure. Director Frank Miller has shaped their performances to have a quiet power. Hints of repressed Edwardian homosexual attraction remain just hints, with discussions of poetry remaining indelibly in the forefront.

Aris’ production of "Not About Heroes" weaves a dramatic structure around the wartime encounters of two poets, one established (Sassoon) and one a newcomer (Owen) whom Sassoon mentors. Watching two men collaborate on revisions to a poem can elicit only so much interest, and luckily the play has enough biographically human content to give the journey of these two men some emotional impact. It’s hardly what I would consider an engrossing play, but this excellent production consistently maintains interest.

A Man for All Seasons, by Robert Bolt
A Well-Seasoned Man
Sunday, November 18, 2018
Robert Bolt’s "A Man for All Seasons" covers some of the same ground as Shakespeare’s (and John Fletcher’s) "King Henry VIII" and the banned collaborative play "Sir Thomas More," to which Shakespeare contributed. But this is a modern play that allows use of Anné Carole Butler’s costumes, which include a fabulous costume for King Henry (Troy Willis) and more modest and somber costumes for Sir Thomas More (Jeff Watkins). It’s performed primarily with general lighting across the auditorium, although Greg Hanthorn, Jr.’s lighting design does use some dimming and spotlighting for effect.

The set uses the standard stage set-up for the Shakespeare Tavern, with a table stage right present for most of the running time, its tablecloth changed to indicate various locations. The balcony is used for other locations, and the lower downstage platform fills in for waterside scenes. It all works well and, aside from the lack of Elizabethan verse, certainly gives the feel of a Shakespeare Tavern production of a Shakespeare play.

J. Tony Brown has directed the play ably, and also performs as Cardinal Wolsey. Nicholas Faircloth starts the show off as The Common Man, taking on various roles as the play progresses, and his easy charm provides a pleasant welcome to the world of the play. Jeff Watkins invests Sir Thomas More with great sincerity, contrasting with the devious slyness evinced by Glenn Lorandeau as Richard Rich. Janet Metzger and Kirstin Calvert perform convincingly as More’s wife and daughter, and David Sterritt shows the growth of More’s son-in-law from a tentative young man to a member of the family. Charlie T. Thomas and Luis Hernandez do sterling work as shifty men of power who complicate More’s life. Mr. Willis is terrific as King Henry VIII. The acting is fine all around.

"A Man for All Seasons" was an acclaimed hit in its time. The play still maintains its power, but the Shakespeare Tavern production is a generally low-key affair. It’s an interesting change from pure Shakespeare, but lacks the poetic power of the genuine Shakespearean article.

The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde
The Importance of Production Values
Sunday, November 18, 2018
The Players Guild @ Sugar Hill is presenting a sumptuous production of Oscar Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest." The set design, by Terry Mulligan, encompasses three different settings, all lovely. The first act, at Algernon’s flat in London, has white curtain walls with a large opening upstage and is decorated with vintage furniture and hangings. The second and third acts, at Jack’s country home, first show the garden with a bay windowed building segment upstage and then the inside of the bay window and more vintage furniture. Chelsea Floyd Martin’s lighting design illuminates the cyclorama with vibrant colors throughout. It’s a visual delight.

Then you add in the elegant men’s costumes by Kylie Jefferis and Claudia Betro and the jaw-droppingly gorgeous women’s costumes by Valerie Gruner and her firm All-Stitch Atlanta. Layer on charming performances and period wigs and you have a sprightly, giggle-inducing production of this classic comedy that is a pleasure to view from start to finish.

Director Jimmy Spearman has gotten fine performances (and good English accents) from his entire cast, and has added inspired touches of comedy that don’t derive directly from the script, but spring directly from character. Terry Mulligan plays two servants with a tiny bit of attitude. Alan Hyma gives the Reverend Dr. Chasuble a bit of gravity while never venturing into the tedious. Barbara Macko, as Miss Prism, layers girlish flirtation with a teacher’s severity. Martha Wright makes Lady Bracknell a formidable force of comic pronouncements.

The two love couples have most of the stage time. The men are older than usual, but it doesn’t really affect things. Jerry Jobe makes for an earnest Jack Worthing, and Michael Wright’s expressive face captures every mood and whim of Algernon. Their female counterparts are utter delights. Jacquie Bosma is sultry and svelte as Gwendolen Fairfax, contrasting beautifully with the chirpy innocence of Jamie Goss as Cecily Cardew. Their passive-aggressive encounter in act two is a highlight of the production.

Sure, there are a few line bobbles and the pace doesn’t always rise to the point of giddiness, but Oscar Wilde’s bon mots come through loud and clear. Amplification is used, but with no squawks and with even sound levels, it’s not as distracting as it might be. This production sounds fine and is a perfectly stunning visual treat.

Dry Land, by Ruby Rae Spiegel
Sunday, November 18, 2018
The setting is a locker room, designed by Terea Abernathy with banks of lockers, a few benches, and various swim-related items. There’s a large opening upstage and a floor painted with squares and rectangles of tan and white. It’s very attractive and very reminiscent of a girls’ natatorium locker room. Costumes and props by Rebeca Robles reinforce this setting, with swimsuits aplenty, towels, and janitorial equipment.

At the start, we see abrasive Amy (Melissa McGrath) ordering meek Ester (Samantha Bankerd) to hit her in the stomach. Before too long, it becomes obvious that Amy is pregnant and is willing to try any home remedy abortion method she finds on the internet. Ester is so accommodating to Amy that it’s clear she has problems of her own; she’s a serious swimmer who has transferred from a first-rate high school with a rigorous swim program to a school with a mediocre swim program. The play focuses on the evolving relationship between Amy and Ester.

We also see some peripheral characters: Reba (Anna Williford), Amy’s best friend and teammate; Victor (Kevin Qian), a college boy who offers to house Ester when she travels for a swim tryout; and a janitor (Luke Eikens) who cleans up the locker room after a bloody scene (special effects makeup by Emily Pearse). The three-member stage crew (Emily Pearse, Alex Berardi, and Christina Forza) also show up, late in the intermissionless show, as fellow swim team members.

Director Rebeca Robles has gotten marvelous performances out of the entire cast. She has blocked the show with a lot of very natural movement. The only misstep I noted was when Ms. Bankerd seemed to anticipate one of Amy’s requests for a punch to her belly. Other than that, the show flows smoothly, and Ms. Bankerd’s subtle performance grows in power as the show goes on.

Short scenes predominate at the start of the play. Jennifer Silver’s sound design covers the scene transitions until Tara O’Neill’s lighting design brings up general lighting for the next scene. It’s a bit cinematic in structure, with vignettes establishing relationships little by little. Still, it works.

"Dry Land" is the kind of show that grows on you. Its focus on the problems of high school girls doesn’t seem terribly intriguing at first, and there’s a lot of roundabout conversation skirting the issues confronting them. With its slowly growing intensity, it eventually grabs full attention, even holding it during a scene in which the only action is the janitor mopping the floor. Credit the director and every single cast member for bringing Ruby Rae Spiegel’s quiet play to life.

Straight, by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola
Swapping Saliva
Sunday, November 18, 2018
Ben (Jake West) has a long-time girlfriend, Emily (Jessica Claire), who has been hinting strongly that they should move in together, but he wants to keep his own place as a love nest to accommodate his new boyfriend Chris (Dillion Everett). What will happen if they meet? What will Ben do when it comes time to make a choice? "Straight" tells us.

The premise sounds like a farcical comedy, but "Straight" is anything but. It’s full of serious discussions. Ben declares that a person is pigeonholed as gay if an instance of gay sex is revealed, but Ben and Chris have dipped their toes in both ends of the dating pool, and Ben doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. Scenes often end with Ben making out with one or another of his love interests. It’s fairly slow-moving, and its slam against Obamacare and the resolution of Ben’s predicament are likely to raise the hackles of audiences. The play is the epitome of Out of Box Theatre’s theme of "intimate, thought-provoking, unexpected."

The production is excellent. The set, designed by Matthew Busch and Carolyn Choe, shows a nicely appointed Boston apartment, with the outside door up right and an archway up left. Up center is a pair of windows in a brick section of the wall; otherwise the walls are taupe above and cream below. A sofa, armchair, and small coffee table take up center stage. Bar stations (liquor and coffee) are against the right and left walls. Open shelving and artwork break up the expanse of walls, with a plant by the archway. Bradley Rudy’s lighting shows bright blue through the windows at the start of scenes before general illumination comes up. A floor lamp by the outside door blends seamlessly into the overall lighting scheme.

The play starts with a number of short scenes, and scene transitions are filled with rock music in Matthew Busch’s sound design. The longish transitions seem needed for costume changes, but the costumes are pretty unremarkable. Ben is described as dressing well and having perfectly coiffed hair, but we don’t get that impression from what we see. That’s just a minor quibble, though. The words and action are what drive this play, not its design elements.

Direction and acting are phenomenal. Director Matthew Busch has gotten nice emotional levels and naturalistic speech from his highly talented actors. The intermissionless play may seem a tad long, but that’s more a function of the script than of this production. High praise needs to be apportioned to Mr. Busch, Mr. West, Ms. Claire, and Mr. Everett. Their efforts have elevated the script into an intriguing piece of theatre.

I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, by Jacques Lamarre
It Doesn’t Stink
Sunday, November 18, 2018
When you go to see a play, you hope to be impressed by the visuals and the sound. That may not be true of "I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti" at Georgia Ensemble, but the smells are likely to get your salivary glands into overdrive. The odors of sauteed onions and garlic fill the auditorium in the first act as Jenny Levison (playing Giulia Melucci) cooks up meat sauce for the spaghetti she will make from scratch in act two.

Stephanie Polhemus’ scenic design is functional. There’s a projected backdrop of a New York street, and in front of that a kitchen center stage, with an island downstage, a sink up right, and a utensil-filled island and a window up center. The big set change is when the shutters on the window are closed for act two. Chairs and tables on either side of the stage are reserved for the lucky (?) eight audience members who get to eat the antipasto, salad, and spaghetti Ms. Levison makes.

Other technical elements are adequate, although Connor McVey’s lighting changes and Preston Goodson’s sound design seem fairly bland, adding next to nothing to the production. Emmie Tuttle’s costumes are functional, with a red dress used in the final scene just elegant enough to impress. Sarah Elaine’s props are nearly all kitchen-related, so they deserve the bulk of praise for technical achievement in this production.

The play itself seems to be a gimmick to profit off the sales of the same-titled book that Guilia Melucci wrote. It’s a memoir in which she relates her life’s romantic involvements while simultaneously creating, cooking, plating, and serving an Italian meal. She saves mementos of her failed relationships: a jade bracelet from Steve, her first; a beer can from Kitt, her alcoholic second; a Stevie Wonder CD and neck brace from Ethan, her non-committing Jewish soulmate; a framed e-mail from Marcus, an older cartoonist; and an ice cream scoop from wacky Lachlan, a Scottish novelist. Food pervades her reminiscences, since she seems to invite men to her place for meals, and then they rapidly move in with her. It’s a storyline that is more likely to resonate with women than with men.

It’s hard to identify the contributions of Rachel May as director. She may have helped determine the sequence in which Ms. Levison orders her lines and the steps of her food preparation, but the script doesn’t have a lot of emotional ups and downs. Ms. Levison narrates in a fairly even tone throughout, making the performance pretty low-key. Ms. May may have allowed an egregious pronunciation error too. Ms. Melucci comes from an Italian family, and her Italian should be pretty good, at least for speaking, if not reading. But Ms. Levison pronounces "chi sa" (Italian for "who knows?") with an English "ch" sound instead of the "k" sound that Italians use when "ch" precedes an "e" or an "i," as in "chianti." Inexcusable. It’s just one element making this a less-than-stellar production.

The Toxic Avenger, by Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan (songs)
30% Ad Libs
Sunday, November 18, 2018
You don’t take a schlocky horror film and turn it into a musical without camping it up. That’s certainly the case with "The Toxic Avenger." Joe DiPietro’s book and David Bryan’s songs are full of over-the-top theatricality and reward additional "goosing" in performance. Spoofing the genre and adding comic shtick is in full force in Marietta Theatre Company’s production, which surpasses Horizon Theatre’s recent version in entertainment value.

The story starts with Melvin Ferd III (a lovably nerdy and golden-voiced Claudio Pestana) discovering that the town’s mayor (red-wigged Janine DeMichele Baggett) is profiting from toxic waste being dumped in his hometown of Tromaville, New Jersey. With the help of blind librarian and love interest Sarah (the delightfully loopy Sophie Decker), he gets the goods on her. Before he can make use of his evidence, though, he is dumped into a tub of toxic goo by a couple of the mayor’s goons (PJ Woods and John Jenkins) and becomes a green monster. The mayor attempts to destroy the monster, but truth and ecological consciousness prevail.

Ms. Baggett and Messrs. Wood and Jenkins take on a variety of roles, going through a costume shop’s worth of disguises from the Pumphouse Players to portray them all. Their energy and joy at performing pervades every moment of their performances. Mr. Pestana and Ms. Decker share their unbridled theatricality, making for a rollicking good time.

The set, designed by Will Brooks, features a lovely Manhattan skyline backdrop painted by his gravid wife Morgan. In front of this loveliness is a collection of detritus and biohazard containers on a high platform flanked by doorways at floor level. There’s a vat attached to the front of the platform where the transformation of Melvin to Toxie takes place. It’s all sufficiently industrial and trashy to give all of New Jersey a bad name.

Brad Rudy’s lighting plays up the lurid environment with lots of green light. His lighting is better than I’ve seen in previous productions at this venue, with pretty even illumination and few too-obvious transitions. L Gamble’s sound design and tracks are also good, with a good balance between the tracks and vocals. It helps that the voices are all loud and true.

Zac Phelps has directed the show to keep it moving quickly and with lots of gags and comic moments. His choreography suits the talents of the cast superbly, only occasionally putting the cast in a straight line across the stage that creates poor sightlines for audience members on the sides of the theater, which seems to be a persistent problem for this company. The show is definitely blocked to create the best experience for people in the main body of the audience.

The show itself is full of fun, and with terrific vocals the tuneful rock score goes down easy. Everyone gets copious opportunities to shine, and few opportunities are left unexploited. Ad libs (or seeming ad libs) abound. This is a silly, bright, energetic show that Marietta Theatre Company is doing up right. If Ms. Baggett’s turn in the first act closer doesn’t quite live up to Leslie Bellair’s Suzi Bass Award-winning turn at Horizon, it’s still tons of fun. The whole show is. Fun!

Angel Street, by Patrick Hamilton
Intimate Gaslight
Sunday, November 18, 2018
You’re in a room about 25 feet by 12 feet, with a single row of seating along each long wall. Between the rows there’s a chaise longue. At the far end, there’s a fireplace and two curtained windows, with a desk beside a door on the long wall. A small circular table and two chairs are placed between the fireplace and the chaise. It’s very intimate, with entrances from the doorway beside the desk and from the door the audience entered through. You’re mere inches from the action.

Spencer Estes’ set design is intimately related to his lighting design. The two major seating platforms for the audience are backed with upright wood panels that hide the wiring to gas-style lamps positioned near the top of the panels. There’s also a lamp with a glass chimney on the table. It, like the lamps along the wall, can dim and brighten as the script requires. It’s very atmospheric and extremely effective.

Costumes are also extremely effective. Costumer Nancye Quarles has brought 1880 Baltimore to life in the costumes of the ladies and the men of the cast. There are maid outfits, elegant suits, ties of various styles, floor-length dresses, and memorable hats. Along with the historic nature of the 1826 Wynne-Russell House, the props and set decoration (by Sharon Bower), makeup (by Sarah-Jane May), and costumes draw you into a totally believable world of yesteryear.

All this would be meaningless, of course, if the script and acting didn’t also transport you to this world. They do. The script is strong, and director Gene Paulsson has encouraged his cast to dive headlong into their roles, bringing them convincingly to life. The only quibble I have with the direction is that Mr. Paulsson has the maid Elizabeth (Marianne Geyer) mime catlike movements with an obviously sarcastic intent, when it has been established that Elizabeth is the more circumspect of the servants, while Nancy (Sydney Dirigo) is the cheeky one.

Aside from that, the performances are admirable. Ms. Geyer is a delight as Elizabeth, and Ms. Dirigo throws herself into the sassiness of her role. Martin A. Russell is forceful, with a Svengali-like charisma, as Mr. Manningham, and Cat Roche is emotionally fraught and fragile as his put-upon wife. Detective Rough (R. Chandler Bragg at the performance I attended) is played with skill and intensity, and Art Fischer fulfills the small demands of his role as a policeman. It’s a first-rate cast in a first-rate production.

The View Upstairs, by Max Vernon
Smoke and Mirrored Sequins
Sunday, November 18, 2018
In the scenic design of Paul Conroy and Charles Swift for Out Front Theatre Company, "The View Upstairs" shows us a worn-looking ministry outreach/gay club in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Ratty curtains flank the three windows up right, with views to the metal bars outside the windows. "Fire Exit" doors are left and right. Up left is a bar with minimal liquor showing. There’s a purple baby grand piano up right and a collection of tables and chairs down left. The walls are covered with patterned wallpaper and various decorations, with celebrity photos attached to the front of the bar. Above it all is a collection of chandeliers that have seen better days and a poster of the nude Burt Reynolds. It’s not an inviting place, but a place that looks like home to the denizens of the club.

Populating the ministry/club in 1973 are preacher Richard (Justin Dilley), bar owner Henri (Keena Redding Hunt), married/closeted pianist Buddy (Tony Hayes), and a host of regulars. There’s drag queen Freddy (Quinn Xavier Hernandez) and his supportive latina mother Inez (Felicia Hernandez), aged black queen Willie (Trevor Perry, who is far too young and far too heavy for the role, but does wonders with the part), ostracized gay hustler Dale (John Henry Ward), and well-loved hustler Patrick (Byron Wigfall). They’re accosted at one point by a cop (Jamie Smith). That makes up the 1973 cast.

The storyline adds Wes (Kyle Larkins) into the mix. He’s a gay designer from the present day who has bought the burned-out hulk of the building after viewing it with a realtor (Ms. Hernandez in a wig and dim lighting). He takes some cocaine and is then magically transported to the club in 1973. He falls in love with a hustler there, but the dream ends with a fatal fire in the club (based on an actual incident, nicely documented in the program). At the end we see Wes conversing with a kindly cop (also Mr. Smith), emphasizing how treatment of gays has changed between 1973 and now, which seems to be the main point of the show.

The tuneful, if not memorable, rock score by Max Vernon keeps things moving, and Nick Silvestri’s musical direction makes the numbers effective. The musical accompaniment is first-rate (better than the singing in general), but sound levels tend to let the accompaniment drown out solo vocals. Choreography is minimal, blending with director Paul Conroy’s blocking to seem very off-the-cuff.

Jay Reynolds’ costume design is a highlight of the show. Some very-1970’s fashions are on display, and a "Sound of Music"/"Gone with the Wind" curtain transformation takes center stage. Visually, the show is appealing, but Charles I. Swift’s lighting design creates some dim locations that can be distracting when actors enter and then leave them. Lighting for the night and fire scenes is effective.

Even so, Out Front’s production of "The View Upstairs" doesn’t catch fire. The whole thing seems a bit tired and preachy. Performances and vocals are adequate, but they’re generally on the level of Max Mattox’s fight choreography, which seems a tad stagey and uninspired. Gay club life is typically assumed to tend toward the fabulous, but emphasis on the downtrodden state of gays in 1973 overwhelms any incipient fabulousness in the script. It’s not very touching, and far more informative than fun.

Fool for Love, by Sam Shepard
Shepherding Sam
Sunday, November 18, 2018
Sam Shepard’s "Fool for Love" is a modern-day classic, revealing the secrets of a pair of would-be lovers torn apart and brought together through family. Its power depends on the skill of the two actors playing the pair, and Pinch ’n’ Ouch’s production is fortunate to have Candace Brooke and Kasey O’Barr in the roles. Ms. Brooke invests May with tons of energy and Mr. O’Barr finds unexpected comedy in the actions of Eddie. There are hints of Tennessee Williams’ "Sweet Bird of Youth" in the relationship of Eddie with the unseen "Countess," but the western-centric action is all Shepard’s.

Director Grant McGowen has also designed the set, lights, and sound, and he has done a first-rate job with all his duties. The set represents a hunter green motel room with three Venetian-blind covered windows forming its back wall. A bed with matching bed stands and lamps sits stage left, with a rocking chair down right that isn’t actually part of the room. Lighting is terrific, with a wonderful headlight effect, and sound effects are pretty terrific too. Mr. McGowen’s direction makes sure that the play keeps moving and that the action supports the script at every turn.

Besides the main pair of actors, the cast includes an old man (Alex Van) and May’s date (Philip Mertz) who have less to do, and consequently make less of an impression. Both have fairly impassive faces, lessening the impression they make. Luckily, the play doesn’t depend on their contributions. The focus is almost entirely on Ms. Brooke and Mr. O’Barr, and they bring the play to near-manic life. Sam Shepard’s play lives on.

Four Old Broads, by Leslie Kimbell
Titillating Crudeness
Sunday, November 18, 2018
"Four Old Broads" tells the story of four mismatched friends contending with the indignities of life in an assisted living residence -- a residence where administrator Pat (Kelsey South) is shady, new employee Ruby Sue (Taryn McFarthing) is a bit mysterious, and where male resident Sam (Tim Link) is lecherous. We have former burlesque queen Beatrice (Cindy Copeland), devout Southern Baptist lady Eaddy (Lynn Harmon), forgetful new resident Imogene on oxygen (Peggy Marx), and slovenly soap opera addict Maude (Linda Oulton). Their interactions are targeted toward low comedy, with lots of inappropriate words and stories and actions. It’s lots of fun, and certainly not aimed at edification.

The set, designed by Paul Thomason, shows a common area of the assisted living home with a sofa flanked by two chairs at center stage, with other furniture arranged against the seafoam green and rose walls (with a floral wallpaper border separating the two colors). Three openings (upstage, right, and left) allow entrances and exits. It’s a very workable set, and Phillip Wray’s lighting design illuminates it nicely, including effective nighttime lighting and a TV viewing effect.

Playwright and director Leslie Kimbell has staged her play to provide a fair amount of activity for a script that relies on conversation more than action in its opening scenes. She has encouraged her cast to bring energy and verve to their characters, which generally makes up for line bobbles and occasionally slow line pickup.

A lot of the visual charm of the production comes from the costumes, which seem largely to have been lifted from Tony Smithey’s drag wardrobe. The cast have supplied some too, as have Billie Nye-Muller and the playwright/director. Maude’s entry into the "Miss Magnolia" contest at the residence provides an excuse for some of the more -- shall we say -- "colorful" outfits, and Sam’s past as an Elvis impersonator provides another.

Performances are all good, making this truly an ensemble show. Everyone gets a chance to shine, and the audience gets lots of opportunities for laugh upon laugh. There are a couple of false endings before the longish (2.5 hour) play comes to an end, setting the stage for upcoming sequel "Four Old Broads on the High Seas." Given audience reaction from the mostly older female audience at Marietta’s New Theatre in the Square, there will be lots of excitement looking forward to the sequel’s production next year at Winder-Barrow Community Theatre.

Henry IV Part 2, by William Shakespeare
Uneasy Lies
Sunday, November 18, 2018
With "Henry IV" in the title, you’d expect that King Henry IV (Maurice Ralston) would have ample stage time in "Henry IV - Part 2." Not so. He makes a brief appearance in the second of the Shakespeare Tavern’s three acts, then has his most extended scene on his deathbed in the third act. Most of the play is involved with suppressed rebellions against the king, interspersed with scenes involving Falstaff (J. Tony Brown). Even crown prince Hal (Jonathan Horne) doesn’t get a surfeit of stage time. Since the action is populated and driven by a host of secondary characters, this is not a terribly engaging play. Still, the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern is giving it a creditable production.

Anné Carole Butler’s nicely constructed costumes tend toward drab colors, with a few pops of color. Greg Hanthorn, Jr.’s lighting design makes everything look as good as possible, and also provides some atmosphere, as does Jeff Watkins’ sound design. There’s not a lot of swordplay in this production, so the action is a bit more static than is usual in Shakespeare. Director Jeff Watkins nevertheless adds enough movement to keep the storyline active. The playing area includes an additional platform angled at audience right, and the upper level of the stage isn’t used at all.

Performances are all good, with tons of double+ casting. Mr. Ralston actually makes more of an impression as Pistol than as Henry IV, and Mr. Horne gets a comic scene as Peter Bullcalf. That scene, however, is stolen by Mary Ruth Ralston as Thomas Wart, with her makeup and bearing getting her an exit ovation at the end of the scene. She also impresses as the very-quickly-speaking Hostess Quickly and as put-upon Davy. Makeup also helps delineate the characters played by Laura Cole, Jeffrey Zwartjes, and Sean Kelley.

Mr. Brown does fine as Falstaff, although he doesn’t get the comic shenanigans in Part 2 that he got in Part 1. His epilogue promises more Falstaff in the future, and we well may see Mr. Brown again in this role as the Shakespeare Tavern cycles through the Shakespearean canon. So on from this one and on to the next!

Second Samuel, by Pamela Parker
First-Rate "Samuel"
Sunday, November 18, 2018
Pamela Parker’s "Second Samuel" is a perennial favorite with Georgia community theatres. Live Arts Theatre is currently taking it on, with the participation of a number of Onstage Atlanta regulars, along with some Gwinnett community theater regulars and a couple of first-timers. Director Scott Rousseau has melded them into a cohesive ensemble that brings the script to rollicking life.

Mr. Rousseau has designed a set that includes the requisite locations: a bait & booze bar stage right, a hair salon stage left, and the entry to recently deceased Miss Gertrude’s house center. He does this all in a tiny black box theater with the set along the narrow end of the room. Costumes by Mere Jones and props by Becca Parker help identify the location as rural Georgia in the 1940’s without overcrowding the limited set. There’s even room to place a guitarist in a window upstage left to provide mood music for the quieter scenes. André Eaton’s lighting design does a fine job of delineating the various areas of the stage in which action is occurring.

The deftly characterized roles are ably filled by a fine collection of actors. Lisa Gordon triumphs as a talkative, excitable salon owner, and Lory Cox scores as her more tentative employee. Nancy Powell and Bobbie Elzey interact beautifully as Clairee and Ouizer (whoops! wrong show; this isn’t "Steel Magnolias"), and their barbed interactions are highlights of the show.

The men at the bar don’t fare quite so well, particularly due to some act two line stumbles on opening night. Still, their characterizations are terrific. Edwin Ashurst is the quintessential Southern redneck, Barry West plays a delightfully self-doubting man, and Scott Gassman adds a bit of down-to-earth wisdom as the town doctor. Charles Bohanan amps up the silliness as the town undertaker, and Matt Maute more than holds his own as the open-minded bar owner. Nat Martin owns the role of U.S., a role he played in the original production and that he has reprised over the years.

The central role is that of B-Flat, our narrator and the person at the heart of the story of how Miss Gertrude’s death affects the community of Second Samuel, Georgia (the first Samuel having been destroyed by General Sherman’s troops). Benjamin Carr invests the role with more of a physical handicap than a mental handicap and is probably older than the role calls for, but he handles the demands of the role with the requisite heart and charm.

Scott Rousseau has sculpted the action to bring out the comedy and humanity of the residents of Second Samuel. This is a terrific production (or will be once second act line issues get ironed out), marred only by staging that has actors sitting a lot of the time in a theater that has audience seating all on the same level, obscuring sightlines for those in the back rows.

The Graduate, by Terry Johnson
The Grad You Date
Sunday, November 18, 2018
"The Graduate" is an iconic film. Doing a stage play version of it doesn’t make much artistic sense unless the production can erase (or at least enhance) the memory of the movie. In Act3’s version, Michelle Davis’ sound design draws heavily on the film’s score, emphasizing at the start of each new scene that what we will be seeing is a pale imitation of the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry that was brought to the screen by first-rate Hollywood talent. At every instance, we’re reminded that the sole reason for Terry Johnson’s stage adaptation is to profit off the name recognition of the movie that brought Dustin Hoffman to stardom.

Act3’s production uses a unit set designed by Will Brooks that features three windows (covered by Venetian blinds) and three doorways, one stage right with glass panes in the door, one narrow door up center, and an archway up left. A flap stage left can be raised to allow a rolling bed to be brought on for the many scenes taking place in various bedrooms. The unit set doesn’t work particularly well to suggest all the locales specified in the script, with the upstage door blocked by a bed in the initial scene and the glass-paned door not appropriate for any of its uses. In Ben Sterling’s lighting design, general illumination can point up the inadequacy of the set, particularly in a hotel lobby where the bed is glaringly lit. There is nice backlighting on the Venetian blinds, though, and the lobby scene is followed by a deftly lit elevator scene in the first row of the audience.

Jillian Melko’s costumes, Dawn Zachariah’s props, and PJ Mitchell’s hair and makeup all reinforce the time period of the action, as does the relentlessly upbeat selection of classic bubblegum rock songs played before the show and during intermission. Aside from the mention of "plastics," the script is not terribly of a specific period, so the 60’s feel just acts as another reminder that the play is based on the movie.

Acting is fine overall, but hardly erases memories of the movie. Aaron Hancock is personable as Benjamin Braddock, but we don’t get any feel of true sexual chemistry of Benjamin either with the stone-faced Johnna Barrett Mitchell as Mrs. Robinson or the sweetly emotional Madelayne Shammas as Elaine Robinson. Actors in less iconic roles fare better. Gisele Frame is excellent as Benjamin’s mother, and Paul Spadafora does well as his father. Stephen DeVillers is fine in age makeup as Mr. Robinson, and memories of his terrific singing voice feed into the plot point that he used to sing to his wife. Actors in the smaller roles (Kelly Moore, Julie Ferguson, Angel Escobedo, and Paul Danner) don’t have much stage time.

Michelle Davis has done a thoroughly acceptable job of staging the show on the less-than-optimal set. Her decisions to mimic the movie whenever possible make the production less than it might be, however. It’s an okay production, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who has any memories of the movie.

Reykjavik, by Steve Yockey
Gay Surrealism
Sunday, November 18, 2018
Steve Yockey continues his fascination with birds and the supernatural with "Reykjavik." Here we have eight loosely related scenes that take place in Iceland’s capital city. All blend the realistic with the surreal, in various proportions.

First up is "Jawbone," which uses projected dialogue to let us follow the conversation occurring in a late-night club with music blaring. It is interrupted by a lightning-paced monologue concerning the Northern Lights and the discovery of a human jawbone, before the music and subtitles start up again. It’s all a little unsettling, with a "magical" girl blurting out that blood is falling from the sky, simulated fellatio, and hints of a planned murder. Keep that all in mind.

Next is "Twelve Ravens," in which a gay couple in a hotel receives notes from the concierge that purportedly come from an unkindness of twelve ravens outside their window, commenting on their sexual relationship. This is probably the funniest and most off-kilter of the scenes, but it has some serious content about lies in the relationship. Mention is made of a thirteenth raven that has recently left the flock. Keep that in mind.

The third scene is part one of "Bittersweet," in which a gay male prostitute attempts to pleasure a client, using mind games. He tells a story of being imprisoned in the hotel, and we’re not quite sure what kernels of truth might exist in the story. Since this is part one, keep the whole thing in mind.

"Tongues," the fourth scene, starts the payoff of those things we’ve kept in mind. Once again we’re in a hotel room, with two men together in bed, sharing a joint. "Incisor," the fifth scene, continues the payoff, as a different gay couple fights on the street outside a club and then get into an altercation with a gay basher. Blood is involved.

The sixth scene is part two of "Bittersweet," with the same male prostitute and client, now in a basement room with blood on the floor. We hear another story from the prostitute that seems to echo the murder plan from the first scene, but the ending is quite different from the plan.

Seventh is "Wild Game," which finally focuses on a female pair, as they start a flirtation in a club where one is mopping up blood from a bar fight. Magic flits into the scene as the stage is cleaned up for the final scene.

The final scene, "Aurora Borealis," takes place on a rock outcropping as a brother and sister view the Northern Lights, accompanied by Huldufolk, mythical Icelandic beings. This scene contains the strongest connections to the first scene, wrapping things up as much as this surreal collection of scenes can be wrapped up. A feeling of peace pervades the scene, in contrast to the menace and murderousness of what has gone on before.

The action takes place on a unit set designed by Seamus M. Bourne, all interesting angles and starkness. Steps on either side of the stage lead up to a central platform, all painted in faux granite. Upstage, behind a large opening, we see a stockade of vertical logs. Stage right, on a small platform of its own, there’s granite corner seating behind a club table. Stage left, on the next-to-top step, there’s a double bed and stand. Projections, co-designed by Mr. Bourne and Adam Pinney, are shown on either side of the upstage opening. Ben Rawson’s lighting design nicely parallels transitions in the script to highlight the action.

Dan Bauman’s sound design is most notable at the start, as it suggests late night at a club before the show proper starts, then drowns out conversation as the action begins. All necessary sound effects from the script work wonderfully. Abby Parker’s costumes and Melisa A. Dubois’ props help to give an Icelandic feel to the proceedings.

Melissa Foulger has staged the show nicely, and fight choreography by Amelia Fischer and Connor Hammond is quite impressive. All the cast give good performances, although the unrelieved gayness of the multi-casting sometimes makes the scenes blend into one another perhaps more than they should. Stephanie Friedman and Eliana Marianes do excellent unison work as "Ambiance Sisters" in the "Bittersweet" segments, and Gil Eplan-Frankel makes Hank a charismatic figure (although the gray in his hair makes statements about him being younger than others ring false). Michael Vine is quite good as all his characters, and Ben Thorpe and Joe Sykes each have impressive turns as theirs. The production as a whole does full justice to Mr. Yockey’s quirky, dark script.

Murder at Weatherfield, by Joe Starzyk
Not a Spoof
Sunday, November 18, 2018
Joe Starzyk’s "Murder at Weatherfield" is billed as a spoof of Agatha Christie mysteries, but it’s actually more of a pale imitation of a Christie plot tricked out with occasional comic lines and with some racy elements (drug use, pornography, transsexuality, homosexuality). It requires a set with a number of doors (but no furniture) and requires a variety of accents (high-class British, low-class British, standard American, gnarly dude American, Spanish, and one character who can’t settle on a single accent). There are definitely some farcical elements, but the show is not really either a mystery or a farce.

The short (35-minute) first act introduces us to the aged and widowed Lord Winthrop (the perfectly coiffed and perfectly well-spoken Gregory Nassif St. John), who has assembled his far-flung family for an announcement. The family includes a pretentious English son (the mustachioed Jason B. Caldwell as Reginald Winthrop) and Reginald’s sharp-tongued wife Romaine (the delightfully strident Kathleen Seconder), along with a stoner American son (the spot-on Scott Starkweather as Ray) and his slacker companion, Weed (the nearly equally zoned-out Jeremy Reid). There’s also a grandson (the energetic Richard J. Diaz as Casey Winthrop) and a young woman (the soft-spoken Kendra Gilbert as Victoria) who has been treated as a granddaughter, although she’s the daughter of the family lawyer (the businesslike Jim Nelson as Woodhouse). The household is run by majordomo Toby (the elegantly tailored Rick Perera) and quintessentially sexy maid Lucy (the waif-sized Marisa-Clare Hissey in impossibly high heels).

The first act introduces us to these characters, reveals that Lord Winthrop has recently changed his will, and shows three possible causes of death (but no real motives) before it’s revealed at act end that the Lord is dead. The second act brings in two additional characters: a mysterious Spaniard (the delightfully latino Jeff Haynes as Saturnino) and a Scotland Yard inspector (the Columbo-like Richard Dillon Jr. as Foote). The possible murder attempts are explained and loose ends are tied up before the contents of the will are revealed, but we don’t get any real motives for attempted murder. We know that Reginald believed he was the sole heir, but his wife Romaine got wind of changes to the will before the murder attempts, and no possible murderer seems to have known what the changes were. An attempt at framing someone is equally lacking in true motivation. One thing Agatha Christie mysteries are known for is impeccable plotting, and a spoof needs that same deftness to truly land.

Lionheart’s physical production is fine. The set (painted by Gabrielle Stephenson; constructed by Tim Link, Bill Brown, Tanya Caldwell, and Jason Caldwell; and decorated by Gregory Nassif St. John, Tina Barnhill, and Tanya Caldwell) shows a maroon baronial estate’s great room with wood wainscoting, a fireplace stage left and a window stage right, and walls interrupted by a hall, a staircase, and a collection of doors and curtained openings. The only furniture is a table and a couple of chairs up right and a drink cabinet up center. The rest of the stage floor is empty to accommodate Lord Winthrop’s wheelchair. The elegant surroundings are emphasized by Tina Barnhill’s props and by the costumes furnished by Gregory Nassif St. John, Tina Barnhill, and Tanya Caldwell. Gary White’s lighting design illuminates the action nicely, and sound design by Bob Peterson and Bob Winstead sets the mood for the scenes.

The play starts with a lengthy voice-over explaining the premise of the show and ends with a shorter voice-over revealing the future of the main characters. The initial voice-over makes for a slow start, but the final one is sparked by showing us the characters as they’re spoken of. It leads nicely to the curtain call.

Director Bob Winstead’s blocking makes clever use of the central audience aisle as the outside access to Lord Winthrop’s manor. A bell pull descends from the ceiling to function as a doorbell (and gets its own clever little curtain call). Otherwise, Mr. Winstead’s blocking is fairly straightforward, with some clumping of actors that obscures sightlines from the edges of the audience. He has encouraged his actors to create uniquely etched characters that make the most of the script.

"Murder at Weatherfield" is a short show that is fun to watch, but that doesn’t reward deep consideration of the plot. Mindless entertainment it is; Agatha Christie it’s not.

Junie B. Jones Is Not a Crook, by Allison Gregory
Junie B. Jones Is a Nutball
Sunday, November 18, 2018
Junie B. Jones (Dayanari Umaña) is an obnoxious, hyperactive, untruthful kindergartner. She and her friends Lucille (Amy L. Levin) and Grace (Alex Renée Hubbard) are obsessed with their appearance and with boys, particularly new student Handsome Warren (Christopher Holton). Their world is also inhabited by the school’s teacher (Chris E. Ciulla) and principal (Jacob Jones), who also double as fellow kindergartners. It takes half an hour until we get to the point of Junie being accused of being a crook, then another half hour to get things resolved. Let me quote Junie: "Watch me go to sleep."

Stephanie Polhemus’ scenic design includes a colorful arrangement of fabric squares on a metal framework stage left and a projection screen stage right, on which Preston Goodson’s projections are displayed at various points. Industrial-looking small scaffolding and colorful stools are used for furniture. It looks cluttered. The projections, though, are good, if a bit washed-out under the general lighting in the theater. They are very nicely synchronized with the onstage action.

Costumes, by Erin Smith, are fairly extensive, as are Megan Noelle’s props, but they don’t always read well in a large auditorium. The show begins with action timed to a song soundtrack, in which the cast remove items from a prop chest and mime activity that seems intended to convey what has gone on before the play proper starts. It’s long and confusing. Maybe it makes sense if you’ve read the Junie B. Jones books by Barbara Park; it doesn’t otherwise. The sound design plays distracting background music at various points.

The script is lame and is inhabited with unlikable characters, and director Michael hasn’t made the production rise above the material. When silence resounds after supposed laugh lines, it’s obvious that the production isn’t doing its job. Performances are energetic, but none catch fire. It’s all a tedious exercise in profiting off of a successful book, much as is the case with GET’s mainstage show, "I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti." But all this one does is leave a bad taste in the mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Arden of Faversham" is easier to follow than many of Shakespeare’s works (likely due in part to Mr. Griffin’s editing), although the frequent pretenses tend to act as a form of misdirection. The feeling is Elizabethan, but more of the pulp fiction variety than of Shakespearean poetry. A scene between Alice and Mosby in the middle of the play, though, suddenly rings with the cadences of Shakespeare’s voice. The play may not be Shakespeare’s alone, but it’s a worthy production making its Atlanta debut several centuries after it was written.

Morningside, by Topher Payne
Not Morningside Heights
Monday, November 13, 2017
In a Topher Payne formula that harkens back to "Beached Wails," "Morningside" starts with an uproariously funny first act that introduces us to a quasi-dysfunctional group of women, then devolves in the second act to more serious discussions, primarily in two-person scenes. It’s not a bad formula at all, but tends to stretch out the proceedings a little longer than one might wish.

A gimmick in this male-written production is that the creative team and cast are all women. Kat Conley has created a lovely, upscale home centered around the kitchen, albeit with an odd angle in the upscale wall and with a valence of foliage and tree branches that Piper Kirchhofer’s lighting design illuminates too clearly (illuminating all the action nicely too). Kacie Willis’ sound design doesn’t have a lot to do, but does it well. Emmie Tuttle’s costumes are appropriate for all the characters, inappropriate as they might be for attendance at a baby shower.

Shannon Eubanks has blocked the action to keep everyone in the large cast clearly in view at all times, aided by the multi-level set design. Her greater achievement, though, is assembling nine phenomenal comic actresses into a cohesive ensemble. Not everyone is cast according to her typical strengths, with Gina Rickicki, capable of supremely idiosyncratic silliness, giving as constrained a performance as I’ve ever seen from her, and with naturally elegant Kate Donadio playing her wackily contentious sister. I could easily imagine those two swapping roles in an equally successful production. Then too I could imagine LaLa Cochran and Shelly McCook swapping roles, Kelly Criss and Stacy Melich swapping, and Ellen McQueen and Ann Wilson swapping, with no diminution of quality. Keena Redding Hunt, as the sole black in the cast, couldn’t swap roles without affecting the relationships described in the script.

Act one sets up the situation of a baby shower, hosted by the baby’s future grandmother, that is occurring in the immediate aftermath of the grandmother splitting from her husband. We get introduced to all the characters with tons of funny lines that inspire laugh after laugh. It is only when the last character is introduced (the wacky sister played by Ms. Donadio) that a true plot conflict is introduced. We get to a highpoint of contention, and then the act ends.

Act two continues from the same spot, but trades barbs and gags for humor-tinged, serious discussion of issues like abortion, failed IVF procedures, debilitating disease, suicide, racism, and failures of friendship, motherhood, career, and marriage. It’s a litany of heavy stuff that seems intended to give the play some heft and contemporary relevance. It’s a bit too much of a contrast to the situation comedy fluff of the first act, but all relationships are resolved satisfactorily. Enough funny lines are sprinkled in to lighten the heaviest moments, and enough emotional resonance is invested in the characters’ relationships to keep their interactions engaging. It’s a deftly written comedy that has been packing in the audiences in another Topher Payne/Shannon Eubanks triumph.

Into the Woods, by James Lapine (book), Stephen Sondheim (songs)
Into the Stratosphere
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Sondheim’s score for "Into the Woods" is full of intricate choral numbers for the ensemble. Under John-Michael d’Haviland’s musical direction, these are the vocal highlights of Act3’s production. Under the joint direction of Michelle Davis and Johnna Barrett Mitchell, comedy is the highlight of James Lapine’s book. The whole creates a delightful production that is entrancing audiences.

The structure of the show leads to a "happily ever after" ending for the first act, intertwining a number of well-known fairytales into the new tale of a baker and his wife. The second act turns darker, as a giantess enters the realm of the story and spreads death and destruction, leaving just a small band of survivors to carry on. Given the emphasis on comedy in this production, the first act fares better than the second.

The set design by Will Brooks and Morgan McCrary Brooks expands the playing space to the full width of the Act3 auditorium, making room for the nine-piece orchestra to the left side of the audience, high above the action. The back wall of the set is a series of bookshelves with slender vines growing across them. Three enormous, misshapen trees are spread across the playing space, with the middle one containing a large knothole through which spectral figures can be seen and heard (with Ben Sterling’s sound design adding an echo to produce a ghostly effect). Far left is a painted bookshelf that reveals itself in one scene to be a Murphy bed, which is used to great effect in that scene. Otherwise, the bookshelves are extraneous set dressing, only coming into play when the giantess’ footsteps cause reverberations that result in a few shelves falling and spilling books.

Choreography, presumably by the directors, is pretty basic, but works well for the larger numbers. The choreography seems artificial in smaller numbers, though, although it is well-executed, particularly by Summer McCusker and Lauren Rosenzweig as Little Red Riding Hood and the Baker’s Wife, respectively.

Mari Braswell’s costumes are generally good, but Cinderella’s well-fitting gowns have a tendency to look like thrift store prom dresses, while the other gowns seem rather shapeless, and there’s not an overall design sensibility that comes through. Wigs are only so-so, with the exception of Ms. McCusker’s blonde ringlets that bob along delightfully as she skips across the stage. Lynn Taylor’s hairstyle as Cinderella’s Mother is totally modern and consequently totally out of step with all other hairstyles. Mary Sorrel’s props fill the bill, with the prop animals (two cows and a hen) adding special bits of charm.

David Reingold’s lighting design is ambitious, with green lights illuminating the trees and red lights highlighting elements of danger. In the opening scenes, action takes place across a number of settings, and the lighting follows the action, illuminating one section of the stage or another, as appropriate. Later, as action moves across the stage, the sequential illumination of one section after another becomes clunky, simulating the effect of a spotlight, but not altogether successfully.

The directors have tailored the production to make the best use of actors’ talents. Hannah Marie Craton’s voice as Rapunzel is a bit shrill and unpleasant, and other characters’ reactions to it let us know it’s not only the audience that finds it that way. Ms. Rosenzweig and Sophie Decker (the Witch) throw in seeming ad libs that mesh beautifully with their characters, and that have been integrated into the action to highlight them, with one delightful, oft-repeated bit showing no one helping Ms. Rosenzweig up after she curtseys.

The show is filled with fine performances. Ms. Rosenzweig and Ms. Decker, in her half-mask as the ugly witch, spark each scene in the first act in which they appear. Ms. McCusker makes for a charming Little Red Ridinghood who also draws full attention when she’s onstage. Aaron Hancock is endearingly inept as Jack, and Reese Witherspoon look-alike Maggie Taylor enchants as Cinderella, really coming into her own in the more dramatic moments of the second act as her silken voice soars in song.

There are no horrible performances, although Stephen DeVillers (Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf) and Scott Christopher (Rapunzel’s Prince) are directed to play more broadly than I would prefer and Stephen Spainhour-Roth mugs outrageously with a flask and doesn’t project in the tiny role of Cinderella’s father (although his costume may be the best in the show).

Sound is problematic, with distracting crackles in the amplification and uneven sound levels among actors’ headsets. Particularly in the second act, when the dwindling cast size results in more solos than ensemble numbers, some vocal strain can be detected that might have been avoided if more balanced sound levels had been used. The orchestra generally sounds good, although some sickly reed sounds were in evidence late in the production I attended. Particularly in Ms. Rosenzweig’s songs, the accompaniment tended to lag a bit from the pace in which she started.

Act3 consistently puts on fine productions, and "Into the Woods" is no exception. There’s a lot of sparkle and verve in the performances, some excellent singing, and a lot of effort has been put into the technical elements. Expect multiple MAT nominations for this show in the 2017/8 season.

Cardboard Piano, by Hansol Jung
Pika, Paul, and Marry
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Hansol Jung’s "Cardboard Piano" covers some of the same ground as Danai Gurira’s "Eclipsed," showing us the effects of civil war on African child soldiers. Whereas Ms. Gurira’s play focuses on the wives of a rebel commander, Ms. Jung’s play focuses on the interaction between a white Christian missionaries’ daughter and an African child soldier who has been physically assaulted by a rebel commander. It has more of the feel of fiction than does "Eclipsed," relying as it does on the symbol of a cardboard piano.

The introduction of the idea of a miniature cardboard piano occurs at a quiet spot in the action-filled first act. At first, it seems like a fairly pallid emblem for humankind’s ability to fix things. Its repetition (with variation) in the second act has more power, reinforced by the physical manifestation of a cardboard piano late in the act. But it all has the artificial feel of a well-told story, with a bit of LGBT moralizing to top it off.

The play takes place in two acts, 14 and a half years apart. The three main characters of the first act (Chris, Adiel, and Pika) are supposed to be teenagers. In the second act, the same three actors appear, but as older individuals. Casting for this sort of show is problematic, and Actor’s Express hasn’t successfully navigated the problem. The actors are obviously older than teenagers in the first act, yet aren’t quite old enough in the second act.

Nor does Kat Conley’s set navigate the 14.5 year gap well. In the first act, we’re supposedly inside a church with a hole blasted in its roof. That’s not what we see. The brick back wall has windows with prison bars and a door. It looks like we’re in a courtyard, an effect strengthened by the sideways benches and blanket on the ground at the start, as if for a refugee’s shelter or a nighttime picnic. The "hole" in the roof is clearly an empty window frame inside a suspended structure resembling roof trusses and a skylight. It’s functional, but that’s about it. Rebecca Makus’ dim lighting suggests an outside setting.

In the second act, the prison bars have been replaced with windows, a skylight has been installed in the roof, and the lockable door has been replaced with louvered folding doors. With a pulpit and with benches and with brighter lighting, it looks more like the inside of a church. Still, the louvered doors give the impression of an entrance from one room to another, while the windows in the same wall suggest the door is to the outside. Architecturally, the set doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The thrust stage, with audience on three sides, also presents blocking problems. Director Karen Robinson has staged most scenes with a stationary actor whose back is toward one section of the audience almost the whole time. I assume Ashley Anderson (playing Chris, the missionaries’ daughter) has a face, but I could hardly tell in the first act from my position in the audience. It’s jarring that only the curtain call has been staged to take the full audience into account. Actors bow on the diagonal to one side of the audience (but pretty clearly visible to everyone), then cross the stage to bow in the opposite direction. If only the entire play had been blocked with the same considerations!

Sydney Lenoir Roberts’ costumes are fine, lending a more youthful air to the actors in the first act than in the second, but costumes can’t take the place of age-appropriate actors inhabiting them. David Sterrit’s fight choreography is more than fine, adding real excitement to the first act. Jan Wikstrom’s dialect coaching has helped create believable African-inflected speech patterns that aren’t difficult for American ears to understand (although Rob Demery’s consistent pronunciation of "soldier" as three syllables in both acts doesn’t make enough of a distinction between the two roles he is playing). Ryan Bradburn’s special make-up, on the other hand, isn’t altogether successful. Ms. Jung’s script calls for two actors to show the effects of having had an ear cut off, and that’s just not possible in any realistic manner.

Performances are generally good, taking into account that only one actor (Mr. Demery) is an appropriate age for his characters in the two acts. Ashley Anderson has gamine-like coltishness in the first act as Chris, transitioning to a more somber 30-year-old in the second. Isake Akanke is a charming presence in both acts, and Stephen Ruffin plays teens in both acts with innocence and heartbreaking emotion. Rob Demery is a commanding presence, as a rebel commander in the first act and a preacher in the second act, but fails to seem believable in his big emotional breakdown in act two. That adds to the impression that this story is a playwright’s fiction.

Hymn singing starts both acts and ends the show. Dr. Oral Moses, the musical director, has gotten fairly good balance among the four voices, but has the singers take a unison breath in the middle of a phrase that throws off the syntax. It’s another touch of artificiality that firmly grounds this production in the realm of neatly tied-up fiction.

Midsummer Nights’ Spell , by J.K. Winters
Casting a Spell and Coming Up Empty
Sunday, November 12, 2017
J.K. Winters’ "Midsummer Nights’ Spell" pays homage to Shakespeare’s similarly-titled comedy in little ways -- the rhymed couplets that start and end each act, a reference to "mustardseed" -- but the play itself is hardly Shakesperean in scope or quality. We are introduced to a mother (Anna House), her son (John Zincone), her daughter-in-law (Paige Steadman), her daughter (Lory Cox), and her son-in-law (Edward Davis) as they relax at the daughter’s house following the wedding of a grandson. Costumes suggest that they’ve changed following the wedding.

We are presented with five contrasting personalities. The mother is a word-perfect type, with wide-ranging knowledge and an unswerving Christian faith. Her daughter is a new age shaman, while the daughter’s husband is skeptical of all religion. Her son is a man of few words, and her daughter-in-law is an uneducated woman who becomes confused by the religious conversation that it is obvious will eventually ensue.

First, though, we have to watch the family members play the Scrabble-like game Upwords and discuss going to the touring "Bodies" exhibit, which shows flayed human bodies, preserved with resin, posed in artistic ways. It’s not terribly interesting, and feels like being trapped in a house where other people are playing games and relaying their impressions of a museum visit while you sit helplessly by, mute but polite. The main takeaway from the first act, aside from the general situation and the different personality traits, is that the daughter-in-law misuses words egregiously while the mother is a stickler for correct usage and spelling.

The set, designed by James Beck and Cathy Seith, with construction help from James Nelson, portrays a cozy living room in the first act. There are dream-catcher touches to the décor and it has a lived-in look. For the second act, the set is redone as a funeral parlor, complete with coffin, flowers, and institutional stackable chairs. Before the act starts, it’s unclear who might be dead. We see a portrait of the daughter on the upstage wall. Has she died? We see an Upwords board filled with the interlocked phrase "I will always misspell." That suggests the daughter-in-law. When the act starts, we learn that it is the mother who has died, from a stroke, and that the portrait of the daughter is the mother’s favorite of all the paintings she’s done (although it’s pretty clearly a photograph in this staging). The black costumes reinforce the idea that this is a funeral, but it becomes obvious that this is a family meeting and informal rehearsal before the actual funeral service.

The second act requires some technical magic as the dead mother appears onstage, invisible to the others, and causes poltergeist-like activity. The effects are nicely handled, but don’t really go anywhere. We have the daughter feeling the presence of spirits in the room and the son-in-law seeing a visual manifestation of the mother in the parking lot, but it’s all wrapped up with a speech from the daughter-in-law about the bonds of family. It’s a rather abrupt ending to a short play.

The biggest unresolved issue in the play, though, is why the mother, so punctilious when alive in the first act, starts misusing words in the second act, while the daughter-in-law’s speech pattern undergo the opposite transformation. Have mini-strokes in the interval between the two acts altered the mother’s faculties? Has there been some sort of transference between life and after-life? There’s no explicit explanation, and I found it baffling and consequently unsatisfying.

James Beck’s lighting design and his sound design (with assistant director Brandi Kilgore) are fine, but his direction leaves a lot to be desired. The cast doesn’t seem as if it has jelled, and frequent line bobbles are covered up adequately, but give a choppy rhythm to the flow. Blocking is constrained by the small size of the stage and the large amount of furniture, and also by a script that requires actors to sit and play a board game onstage.

"Midsummer Nights’ Spell" combines a weak script with a weak production. Actors are well-cast and have great stage presence individually, but the whole production seems imbued with flop sweat, as if the actors know this isn’t a strong script and they aren’t giving their most intensely satisfying performances. All the pieces seem to be there, but sometimes in a production the pieces don’t all come together. Compare it to a game of Upwords, where the playwright keeps attempting to force incorrect words onto the board, and the actors and director are forced to make it all seem right.

Fences, by August Wilson
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Troy Maxson is one hard-nosed S.O.B. After leaving his cotton-picking family at 14, he was a tomcat with the women and a petty thief in his youth, then spent 15 years in prison for murder during a botched hold-up. He played baseball in the Negro leagues; fathered a couple of sons, before and after his stint in prison; then married, settled down, and now works as what is today called a sanitation engineer. The first act shows him attempting to get his union to allow blacks to be drivers, not just manual laborers. This is not a plot-driven play, though, and we don’t see how he has become a driver, despite his lack of reading skills and a driver’s license.

What the play focuses on is his family relations. He has a loving relationship with his wife, although his catting-around days may not be fully behind him, but his relations with the males in his family are far less loving. His brother Gabriel was brain damaged in World War II, and Troy’s arms-length caring for him tends to be more self-serving than careful. He has no truck with his sons’ ambitions. Older son Lyons dreams of making a living as a musician, but Troy sees him as nothing but a payday mooch, even when Lyons attempts to repay a loan, and ignores Lyons’ requests for his father to come hear him play at a respected nightclub. Younger son Cory, still in high school, wants to play football, for which he has been offered a college scholarship, but Troy insists he quit the team and get a job, then throws him out altogether. Troy is not anyone’s ideal of a father; he’s not much of a husband either, taking years to make any progress on building the fence his wife wants to surround their property.

The action plays out over several years, with the first act occurring during the 16th year of his marriage to Rose. The second act starts a few years later, and carries us through several more years, with a six-year gap before the final scene. As a play, it’s on the long side. Subtle age make-up (mostly graying of hair) helps establish the timeline, although one orange dress worn by Rose in both the first act and the second act tends to counteract the timeline.

The set of the Independent Artists’ Playhouse production is simple, but functional. Center stage is taken up by the porch of a modest house, a couple of chairs on the porch itself and a couple more on the ground in front of it. Sawhorses and pieces of wood for the fence are stage right; a clothesline is stage left. The lighting scheme clearly illuminates the area in front of the porch and the center of the porch itself. The sides of the porch, though, including the doorway, are in shadow. Steps backstage from the porch down to the stage floor are directly behind the door, although they would better have been placed to descend behind the façade. The floorboards on the porch are just loose enough to suggest age, and the post by the stairs is a bit rickety too. This is a house that has been cared for, but on which no money has been lavished.

Director Kevin Harry has done a wonderful job of shaping the play to bring out the story, and also a wonderful job of blocking the action to seem natural, yet to allow the audience to see reactions flickering on the faces of everyone onstage. And the performances verge on the phenomenal. Leiloni Arrie Pharms is a self-assured, well-spoken child in the final scene. Charlie T. Thomas pulls at the heartstrings with his sensitive portrayal of child-like Gabriel. Darrell Grant grounds the action as Troy’s pal Jim Bono, and Jared Brodie adds a street-smooth vibe as older son Lyons.

The central relationships in the play are of Troy with his wife Rose and his younger son, Cory. Marcus Hopkins-Turner brings a scorching intensity to Troy, raging and battling against all obstacles he encounters, including death. Britny Horton is a marvel as Rose, her incandescent smile in the first act slowly disappearing as life wears down on her, her reactions to what is happening onstage often as eloquent as her words. Jael Pettigrew does the most profoundly satisfying job of aging in the show, being totally believable both as a petulant, defiant teen in the early sections and as a disciplined six-year Marines veteran in the final scene. It’s his journey that is the most moving.

"Fences" showcases the supreme talents of August Wilson as a writer, of Kevin Harry as a director, and of the entire cast as actors. The Independent Artists’ Playhouse production clearly shows us the emotional fences Troy Maxson has thrown up as a defense against what he perceives as external threats, but that wall him off from the love his family offers that could be his inside a simple, picket-fenced cottage.

Laughter on the 23rd Floor, by Neil Simon
Laughter in Every Seat of the House
Monday, November 6, 2017
Neil Simon’s "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is inspired by his time working as a writer for Sid Caesar’s "Show of Shows" alongside Mel Brooks and other top-notch comedy writers. It’s a tremendously funny play, with a cast of wacky characters and with jokes and funny lines abounding. When the cast is filled with as fine a set of actors as at Lionheart, the comedy comes through with flying colors and the laughs are pretty much non-stop.

Richard Diaz’s set design makes full use of the width of the Lionheart stage, with doors down stage right and up left. The furniture includes a weighty desk, a bookcase, a coffee station, and a round table surrounded by matching chairs that may not be period (1953), but that certainly have a mid-century feel. The walls are partitioned with vertical black stripes, with one center section that has a non-working clock protruding a tiny bit. Since breaking a hole in the wall is an important action in the play, and since the hole must be repaired for each performance, my initial thought was that this protruding section was where the hole would be. It’s not. Instead, the hole is on one side of the set, where the right-angled wall can’t be seen clearly by all sections of the audience.

Gary White’s lighting design isn’t complex, with general lighting the norm. We do, however, have spotlight effects for narration monologues and a light-up Christmas tree. Rebecca Spring’s costumes do a wonderful job of setting the period and adding visual interest. Carla Scruggs’ props too add to the visual appeal.

Bob Peterson’s sound design isn’t complex either, but starts the show off with a news recording about Joseph McCarthy and the blacklist, the NBC theme, and some music from blacklisted artists. Although the soundscape isn’t complex, it’s effective. All technical elements are designed to support the play itself, without drawing unnecessary attention to themselves.

Jeremy King has done a terrific job of blocking the large cast on the relatively small stage and of eliciting fine performances all around. Some are funnier than others, with Hannah Musall as Helen being the least funny of all (which is sorta the whole point of her character). A few are over the top, but in ways driven by character and not by oversized actorly egos. This is a true ensemble piece, and everyone gets a chance to shine.

Accents are wonderful throughout. Not everyone has one, and some of the New York inflections are slight, but they are consistent from start to finish. Grant Carden has a glorious Russian-Yiddish accent as head writer Val Slotsky, and Alex Parkinson delights with his Irish brogue. Face it, everyone delights.

Loren Collins’ gives us a hypochondriac Ira Stone who demands attention at every turn. Paul Milliken makes Milt Fields a natural funnyman who has to convert everyone else’s comments into a straight line for his punch lines (quantity over quality!), but shows humorous vulnerability after making a wardrobe faux pas. Bridger Trent centers the play as new hire Lucas Brickman, and his real-life father, Jackson Trent, brings a cool California vibe as Kenny Franks. Brittany Walker may not be a rubber-faced comedienne as Carol Wyman, but she ably fills the role of den mother to this group of foul-mouthed jokesters.

The plot revolves around Max Prince (Jerry Knoff), the Sid Caesar of the comedy show the writers work for. We don’t get to see much of his on-screen behavior other than rehearsal for a Marlon Brando "Julius Caesar" parody. His off-screen behavior, though, screams "dysfunction." Mr. Knoff’s portrayal leans more to the ponderous than the manic, but he definitely gives the impression of a boisterous boss who makes others tremble in his presence, yet inspires tremendous loyalty.

"Laughter on the 23rd Floor" may have can’t-miss comic lines, but that doesn’t mean it’s a can’t-miss comedy. Without distinct, powerful performances all around, it could easily fade into mediocrity. And Lionheart’s production is not mediocre at all. It’s a funny, funny show being given a fine production that results in laughs, laughs, laughs.

Miss Nelson Is Missing!, by Joan Cushing
Confusing Miss Nelson
Monday, November 6, 2017
The children’s musical "Miss Nelson Is Missing!" tells the story of a sweet teacher who is cursed with a class of misbehaving children (a.k.a. brats). When substitute teacher Viola Swamp shows up in place of Miss Nelson, the children are forced into obedience that continues once Miss Nelson returns. The musical score starts and ends with a paean to the children’s school (Horace B. Smedley Elementary School), with a number of sprightly numbers in between.

The twist in the show is that Viola Swamp is really Miss Nelson (Angelica K. Spence) in disguise. That’s not entirely clear in the script, as evidenced by a talk-back session after the show in which multiple children in the audience seemed confused by this plot point. Part of the problem is that one actor (JD Myers) plays multiple distinct roles, so the theatrical assumption would be that even if one actress is playing two roles, they are meant to be distinct individuals. With distinct wigs and with Mariana Wegener’s astounding costume for Viola Swamp, there is so little similarity between Miss Nelson and Viola Swamp that sung words about a "secret" as Miss Nelson shows Viola Swamp’s blouse on a hanger comes across as much too subtle.

Joan Cushing’s script shows us four bratty children (the perky, talented ensemble of Erik Poger Abrahamsen, Shelli Delgado, Robert Lee Hindsman, and Asia Howard) and threatening or ineffective authority figures. It’s not exactly filled with upstanding role models. As such, it’s got a fairly muddled message.

Erin Bushko has directed a lively production on a fairly simple set. Jon Nooner’s set design consists of fabric screens upstage, two multi-sided columns, a rolling desk chair, and gray oblong boxes that serve as desks and seating. The boxes are repositioned and the columns rotated for various scenes, as cast members clear or set Julian Verner’s varied collection of props. The action flows smoothly.

Performances are good across the board, although the antic misbehavior of the four children can become a bit grating, and Shelli Delgado’s harmonies sometimes sound a trifle off. JD Myers gets to show the most range as a series of male adult figures, which he does with energetic brio and a terrific voice. Ms. Spence creates two entirely different characters as sweet Miss Nelson and buffoonishly evil Viola Swamp, perhaps too successfully, given the confusion of some children that they are meant to be the same person in two disguises.

Arielle Geller’s choreography nicely shows off the performers’ abilities, and Spencer Stephens’ music direction gets good sound out of the actors, although song accompaniments have a bit too much of a synth sound. There’s enough noise and activity onstage to keep children’s attention, but the optimal viewer is probably someone already familiar with Harry Allard’s book, upon which the musical is based.

Verdict, by Agatha Christie
Accents All Over the Place
Sunday, November 5, 2017
"Verdict" is not one of Agatha Christie’s most-produced plays, and with good reason. It’s not a murder mystery; we see the murder taking place at the end of the first act, but the perpetrator tries to frame it as a suicide. After confessing to a single person in the second act, the perpetrator is killed in a traffic accident. When the death is ruled a murder, an innocent person is arrested and brought to trial. What will the jury’s verdict be?

The action all takes place in the apartment of Professor Karl Hendryk (Rick Perera). Elisabeth Cooper’s set design gives us a large room with arched openings up right and down left, a picture window up left center. The walls are brown, blemished with darker blotches in no particular pattern on the open sections of wall. Shabby-elegant furnishings include several bookcases, a sofa center stage, and a desk up left. Liane LeMaster’s excellent props fill up the bookcases and spill onto the furniture. The view from the picture window just shows us a blue background with shadows of the muntins separating the panes of the window rather than anything evocative of the location.

David Reingold’s lighting provides the brightest illumination for people seated on the sofa. That works pretty well for the first act, where people tend to sit on the sofa, but creates bands of bright and dim light that people are constantly walking through in the second act. The few lighting effects in the show seem clumsy. Lights dim as the first act is approaching a close, then brighten and dim again, accompanied by portentous music.

Amy Morrow’s sound design goes for the loud. Music selections are appropriate, if a bit campy, but fill up scene changes with such volume that it robs scene endings of applause. There also seemed to be an extraneous gunshot sound at the performance I attended, when no one is shot in the play.

Lauren Sakryd has supplied some nice costumes, but the time period of the play is unclear. Agatha Christie wrote "Verdict" in 1958, and the women’s costumes would suggest the 1950’s, but the hairstyle and clothing of Lester Cole (Taylor Ballard) would suggest the late 1960’s or beyond.

The technical elements all suggest a light directorial touch by Elisabeth Cooper that has failed to correct less-than-optimal design features. The same applies to performances, and especially the welter of accents with which the cast attempts to contend, with very limited success. Rick Perera has a wonderful, consistent German accent as Professor Hendryk. His cousin Lisa Koletzky (Karina Balfour), on the other hand, has a nicely consistent Polish-tinged accent. His sickly wife Anya (Courtney Loner) has American speech patterns tinged with occasional words in a vaguely Eastern European accent. What country have these refugees come from? We’re never told, and we certainly can’t tell from the accents we hear.

Other cast members have American speech patterns with occasional British pronunciations, such as Stephen Banks’ English as Sir William Rollander, Adam Bailey’s Scottish as Dr. Stoner, and Victoria Wilson’s weirdly enunciating and hard-to-understand Mrs. Roper. Taylor Ballard’s lower middle class English as Lester Cole and Samuel David Gresham’s upper middle class English as Detective Inspector Ogden are more consistent and therefore more successful. Hannah Morris, as the ritzy Helen Rollander, pulls off the most successful British accent. Horace Ceasar’s lines are so few and his volume so low as Police Sergeant Pearce that it’s difficult to judge the accuracy of his accent.

Volume is also an issue for Mr. Perera, who in addition seems to have been blocked to deliver many lines upstage during conversations with others onstage. It’s a fine performance in all other respects, but would benefit from a little extra volume.

Performances are good all around, with the exception of Ms. Wilson, whose self-assured playing to the audience sticks out like a sore thumb. Mr. Ballard is directed to play for comedy, which also falls a bit flat, as do Mr. Bailey’s frequent attempts at dry humor. Roles that are played straight are more successful, and Ms. Loner’s makeup works exceedingly well at making her look sickly.

The heart of the play is the relationship between the professor and his cousin. Mr. Perera and Ms. Balfour are both excellent in their roles, as is Ms. Morris in the most villainous role in the play. Her attraction to the professor doesn’t seem well-motivated, though, which is a common problem in Agatha Christie scripts. Ms. Christie is so concerned with plot that plot-advancing actions take precedence over more human concerns. "Verdict" has a mediocre plot, avoiding any riveting courtroom drama in order to play on a single unit set, and the human relationships at the forefront appear a bit pallid. Under Elisabeth Cooper’s direction, the lackluster script is reflected by a lackluster production.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, by Edward Albee
Straight Up, Undiluted
Saturday, November 4, 2017
Edward Albee’s "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" has entered the pantheon of great American plays. Live Arts’ production shows why. Fine performances and fluid movement let the play’s emotional resonance reverberate in the small playing space.

Becca Parker has designed a set that dresses up the space beautifully. The oft-used bar is stage right, near the front door and hall tree. A record player is up center with an abstract painting above it, and downstage of it are a sofa and coffee table and chair. Up left is a bookcase, in front of an arched exit to the rest of the house. Down left, on an angle mimicking that of the sofa, and also sitting on an oriental rug, are a desk and chair. The pale walls and the eclectic vintage furnishings give the space a charming look.

Ms. Parker has also provided the fight choreography, and that too is first-rate. Technical elements work well, with door chimes the primary sound effect, but beautifully associated with movement at the physical door bell chimes we see on the wall next to the front door. Lighting is basic general illumination and is blessedly free of unnecessary adjustments to heighten mood.

Technical elements, of course, do not make a show. Acting can, and in this case does. Jamie Link FitzStephens has the least to do as Honey, but manages to make an impression with her cheery smile transitioning to sleepy half-closed eyes as the play progresses. Joshua Howe has more to do as her husband Nick, but betrays some community theatre lack of nuance in his performance. Nuance, however, is not lacking in the performances of Angela Van Tassel and Edwin Ashurst as the battling Martha and George. Ms. Van Tassel doesn’t have outsized charisma, but plays her role with spiteful venom blended with great heart. Mr. Ashurst is a genuine marvel onstage, distilling all the comedy and passion and ruefulness of George into a 200-proof performance.

The uncredited direction of the show is wonderful, mixing inventive blocking with ever-changing emotional levels. The running time is well over three hours, but the action is riveting throughout. This production brings Albee’s words and characters to life and puts them right in the faces of the two rows of the audience. It’s an unforgettable theatrical experience, sparked by an amazing performance by Edwin Ashurst.

The Way We Get By, by Neil LaBute
An Unmemorable Title
Saturday, November 4, 2017
Beth (Jackie Costello) and Doug (Grant McGowen) have obviously just had sex. It’s in her place, to judge by the tasteful off-white and pale blue furnishings we see in the living and dining rooms and by the fact that we see Doug entering first, looking around at unfamiliar surroundings and turning the TV on/off. We learn pretty early on that these two consider their relationship problematic, in that friends and family would not approve. It takes a while before we learn how family has brought them together and yet kept them from hooking up until now.

The play is almost all talk, but Grant McGowen, in his role of director (in addition to his roles as actor, costume designer, lighting designer, sound designer and projection artist) has blocked the show with lots of movement. We get to know these characters as time goes by, and we also get to know Beth’s roommate Kim through a lot of the initial dialogue, as Beth and Doug discuss Kim’s maddening foibles before circling around to more personal matters. Even so, the subject of Kim comes up again at the end of the play, in a satisfyingly humorous way.

Neil LaBute’s script has frequent references to Star Wars (beginning with the film sequence that starts the show, projected on the white drapes that back the set) and also features a retro American Apparel ad as a focal point of discussion and wardrobe. The costumes reflect these references. The props and set dressing by Courtney Lakin combine the dated (a record player) with the more modern (a flat screen TV). That gives a slightly amorphous feel to the time period of the play, not that the time period is of major concern to the plot.

In two-person romantic comedy like this, it’s as important that the audience connect with each character as that the actors connect with one another. Jackie Costello has no problem with this; she’s an incandescent performer, totally natural and totally expressive. Grant McGowen, on the other hand, naturally has an impassively cool persona and sometimes seems more calculated than fluid in the back-and-forth dialogue in which the characters almost talk over one another in their alternation of lines. There’s a nerdiness and giddiness that Doug needs to display from time to time, and pretty boy Mr. McGowen only approaches giddiness as the play is reaching its ending.

Mr. LaBute’s play is filled with indirect and fractured speech patterns, full of "whatevers" and half-formed thoughts. That gives a natural feel to the dialogue, but dilutes the content. We have fast-moving dialogue and a slow-moving plot that requires some patience on the audience’s part. Pinch ’n’ Ouch’s production does the play credit, putting two immensely attractive performers front and center and shaping the action for maximum interest. It’s not a mind-blowing play and has an immensely unsatisfying title, but it fills the bill for a romantic date night comedy with heart.

Things That Go Bump, by conceived by Daniel Guyton
The Past, Tense
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
"Things That Go Bump" has turned into "Things That Went Bump." In a one-time-only performance, any review needs to use the past tense to describe that performance. And in this case the performance was indeed a bit bumpy.

The two acts each contained a selection of five plays/monologues and three songs. In general, the songs were the low points of the evening. Bennett Walton showed great guitar-playing skills in the first couple, but only Dan Bauman’s rendition of "Re: Your Brains" really scored in the sense of true Halloween entertainment. Teenager Alice Reed showed great vocal promise in "Pulled" from "The Addams Family Musical," but the song is only tangentially related to Halloween. In some songs, notably "Bleed It Out," Angie Short’s sound levels let the musical accompaniment overpower the vocals. Musical interludes between segments were also on the loud side, and didn’t always fade out appropriately as segments began.

The plays were a mixed bag. None of the three monologues landed particularly well. John Courtney’s recitation of a story from Daniel Guyton’s "Three Ladies of Orpington" was gory and suffered from its lack of context. Jana Cummiskey’s performance of Joseph Arnone’s "That’s Classy" was so highly choreographed by Cathe Payne that it came across as all style and no substance. Ankita Sen Dasgupta’s "Did I Ever Tell You I am Afraid of the Dark?" was fairly flatly spoken by Kathy Buraczynski and didn’t seem to have much substance beyond what the title states. Elisabeth Cooper’s sound design, however, meshed echoing party sounds beautifully with the text of this final monologue. The sound design overall (as considered separately from sound levels) was highly impressive for a one-time production.

After an opening song, the first act continued with Laura King’s "Liquid Courage." This is a slight piece about a love potion that works on two couples. It starts with ballet movements of Lurlene (Dacey Geary) tossing items like teddy bears and cologne into a cauldron. Mabel Ann (Sharon Zinger) then enters with a rifle and a jug of moonshine, twanging her skepticism of Lurlene’s intentions toward the skittish Bobby Ray. When Bobby Ray (the delightfully energetic Lucas Scott) enters with Mabel Ann’s monosyllabic man, Cyrus (Ian Geary), he is convinced to chug the love potion. He immediately quivers and twirls and then runs off with Lurlene, obviously in the throes of romantic passion. The same then happens with Cyrus and Mabel Ann. Barbara Hawkins-Scot directed the play with a fair amount of movement, but only the performances of Mr. Scott and Ms. Geary impressed.

The next play up (following Mr. Courtney’s monologue) was "Another Use for Toilet Paper," written and directed by Nick Boretz. His cast seemed stilted and under-rehearsed, and the stage set-up didn’t accommodate itself well to the need of Harvey (Gene Paulsson) to skulk around and hide. Costumes were good, though, and there was a nice toilet paper binocular effect in the blocking. The anti-bullying message of the story was nicely balanced with sarcastic interplay between Harvey and his wife Doris (Kathy Buraczynski).

"Spells 1.0" by Daphne Mintz was another slight piece. Two tech-savvy app designers (Eric Hosford as Seth and Jami Terracino as Vanka) try to reduce a spell spoken by Olga (Annie Cook) to its component parts, using computer programmer terminology to determine how the parts should be coded. Old-school sorceress Olga wants none of this and eventually uses her spell against the meddlesome duo. William Warren’s direction made use of a whiteboard and a spell book and had fairly fluid blocking, enhanced by a spotlight effect (light operator Katy Clarke) during speaking of the Gaelic(?) spell. Despite a commanding performance by Annie Cook, this play seemed to be one rehearsal away from truly catching fire.

The last play in the first act was the act’s best. GM Lupo’s "Devil’s Due" had the largest cast, with the playwright himself and the director, Brian Jones, taking part in minor roles. Ruthless CEO John Jones (the forceful Gene Paulsson) is being led into his personal hell by Satan (the sleazily charming John Daniel King). It doesn’t seem more than annoying at first -- a receptionist (the deadpan Kendal Franklin) who endlessly repeats "please have a seat;" a huckster (the cheery Brian Jones) who endlessly promotes worthless, "can’t miss" opportunities for investment; a talentless, Bob D