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theatre reviews


A M B U S H  M A G  2 0 0 0   -   V O L U M E  1 5   -   I S S U E  5



Trodding the Boards.GIF

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

What can I write about Stomp, the percussive dance entertainment which recently played a one-week gig in the Broadway Series at the Saenger Theatre, that has not already been said?

True, the eight man and woman cast, who look for all the world like world-class slackers with skin heads or dreadlocks, are as drilled and rehearsed as any crack Marine unit or over-praised dance company. True, the uniqueness of Luke Cresswell's and Steve McNicholas' theatre piece is impossible to catagorize since it not only incorporates tap dancing with ultra modern dance movements and British pantomine with circus clowning, but also utilizes a bewildering array of industrial grade objects to render actual thematic music and musical motifs, all of which make up the constructivist set which, at one point, becomes yet another musical instrument!

Among the objects utilized to dynamic percussive advantage are oil drummed feet, match boxes, zippo lighters, plain old push brooms, hub caps, various sized buckets, both plastic and metal, plastic and paper bags of various sizes and grades, polyvinyl tubing (which supplies a peculiarly melodic, stringed instrument sound when beat on the floor), boxes, garbage cans and their lids, even a metal tape measure and a saw.

Presented as a series of dance scenes ending in blackouts, the 90 minute, intermissionless presentation builds and builds to its highly amplified crescendo of smashing, clanging, juggled garbage can lids that brings the audience to its feet. The extended encore cleverly incorporates the audience's rhythmical clapping as the "button" of the encore. The audience ends clapping for itself. Pure Theatrical Heaven created by eight of the following performers, all of whom deserve much more than a mere mention: Michael Bove, Ivan Delaforce, Coralissa Gines, Chad Kukahiko, Mignon A. Mason, Jamson Mills, Raymond Poitier, Danielle Riddick, Matthew T. Scanlon, Marcia Thompson, Mario Torres and StompMaster General Matthew Pollock.

In vivid contrast to the tightly con trolled discipline of Stomp, the Jazz Tap Ensemble of Los Angeles paid New Orleans a one-night visit during Stomp's run at the Theatre of the Performing Arts under the aegis of the New Orleans Ballet Association.

Lynn Dally's innovative dance company has garnered many awards for freshness of approach, melding as she does tap dance with contemporary jazz, or rhythm and percussion as music. Her four co-jazz enterpretive dancers along with her excellent jazz trio gave the pre Jazz Fest audience a studiedly laid-back evening of mellow, almost sleep-inducing, jazz. With the exception of Ms. Dally herself (a visibly middle-aged, June Allyson type) the dancers were deft and cool; especially winning was Sam Weber.

In William Luce's lucid one-woman play, Lillian, about the American literary figure, Lillian Hellman, the local actress Janet Shea creates the obstreperous New Orleans native with every card in her impressive deck of theatrical technique, but is called upon to effect one more - the casual, compulsive cigarette smoker.

It is a sign of our times that the program, which fails to credit the playwright, nonetheless espouses a warning: "This show contains the use of lit cigarettes. The management and staff of Southern Rep Theatre in no way advocates smoking of any kind; however, it would be artistically irresponsible for us to portray a historical figure by eliminating their personal character traits. We hope these give you insight into the persona of Lillian Hellman and do not distract you from the performance."

It is not the smoking that gives us insight into this rara avis, but her words, her thoughts, her brilliant clarity of expression. And in the hands of playwright William Luce these words spring to life, for he has culled the words from her many writings and reminescences of her long and productive life as a successful Broadway playwright and lover of the mystery writer Dashiel Hammett.

Set in a hospital waiting room in the early 60's, Lillian holds forth on her life in a sort of spoken stream of consciousness as she awaits the death of Hammett, offstage, from cancer. And said death, when it comes, serves as the play's denouement, giving it a proper dramatic arc which holds its audience spellbound until the end.

But it is Janet Shea alone on stage for two absorbing hours who brings flesh and blood, and yes, copious clouds of cigarette smoke, like the whisps of memory, to the proceedings, embuing them with a lifetime's experience in the theatre. So into her character is she that one is hardput to realize it is really Ms. Shea.

Under David Hoover's sensitive direction and clothed and bewigged with Hollywood accuracy by Tony French, in a detailed setting by Jason Foreman lit expertly by Kimen Allen, Lillian regales us with growing up in early 20th Century New Orleans where her primary source of adult interaction was supplied by her black nanny from whom she received her deep-seated sense of honor, truth and justice.

Even though Ms. Shea is the only visible actor, there is one scene which does utilize, to telling effect, male voices meant to be Joseph McCarthy and other House UnAmerican Activities Committee interrogators into her youthful political dealings with supposed communists, undoubtedly the most dramatic event in a lifetime of drama. These voices are also not credited in the terse program but their introduction, prior to Hammett's death, add greatly to the play's inherent theatricality. Presented for a meager 6 performances, this production would have been a perfect companion piece for the upcoming Tennessee Williams Fest.

Rivertown Repertory Theatre has come up with a real winner and perfect audience pleaser, the almost grotesquely charming I Do! I Do! Written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, shortly after their first musical The Fantasticks had established itself as a bona fide hit (and still running, 36 years later), this small, two-character "chamber" musical was bloated out of all proportions by its original producer, David Merrick, presented, as it was, in a Broadway theatre starring Mary Martin and Robert Preston with clever direction by Gower Champion. Those two megastars filled the theatre nonetheless and the show was a certified hit which has seen many, many amateur productions over the years.

Rivertown stepped up to the plate with the ubiquitous director Stocker Fontelieu (who has had his hand in three previous local productions-at Le Petit in the 70's, Bayou Dinner Theatre in the 80's, with Terri Gervais, and now Rivertown Rep in the 90's-but swears this is the final and definitive one), recreating this musical adaptation of a play called The Fourposter by Jan de Hartog, concerning the 50 year marriage of Michael, called Mickey, and Agnes. Mr. Fontelieu has been ably abetted by choreographer Alton Geno, set designer Robert Self, costume designer Elizabeth Parent and lighting designer Daniel Zimmer and, of course, co-stars Kris Shaw and Ms. Gervais. Their confection is truly tasty.

From giddy newlyweds to doddering old age, these two local theatre professionals bring a sure-footed polish to the proceedings with Ms. Gervais' sensible savvy and deepening mezzo only slightly eclipsing Mr. Shaw's more cartoony approach to his role. The troupers move through marriage, two births, parenting, marital strife and old age, communicated through quick changes, a bewildering array of props and numerous intricate dance steps with grace and high energy. Kudos also must be extended to Brandt Blocker for his sensitive and economical musical direction and to producer Charlie Ward for seeing to it that the sound did not distract from but enhanced the production.

Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre or, more specifically, its hap less board of directors, seems to have shot itself in the foot once again. How else to explain the utter fiasco that was the opening night of the frothy musical confection, She Loves Me, written by Harnick and Bock, and the premiere production of the new Managing Director, Mr. Keith Briggs?

They obviously hired Mr. Briggs without taking into account their newly acquired technical director/set designer Bill Walker, who was placed in his position last summer by guest director and fellow contender for the managing directorship, Sonny Borey. Mr. Borey went out of his way to show his loyalty and dedication to the venerable community theatre. He saw to it that sufficient funds were in place not only to mount properly two ambitious musicals, They're Playing Our Song and Sophisticated Ladies, gorgeously and ambitiously set off by Mr. Walker's expertise, but also to refurbish the theatre's green room with a new paint job, new carpeting and furniture, as well as cleaning up the long neglected prop and costume room in the theatre's large attic. All this for naught with the hiring of Briggs. I think were I Mr. Walker I would be upset as well.

I am only conjecturing in an attempt to explain an opening night that had its curtain delayed because of "set" problems which continued through three excruciating hours, made even more painful by obstinate bodymikes that refused to stay on, much less maintain a consistent volume level.

With this kind of nerve wracking torture, a spunky cast could do nothing to help itself. Entrances were missed, actors had to play whole scenes on wrong sets and scamper about trying to find something to serve as the proper prop.

Of course, the technical director had very little, if anything, to do with the (mis)casting of the piece, with Kerry Mendelson, Griff Midkiff, Kelly A. Keegan, Steve Coenen and, to a degree, star Ashely Smetherman (who was not well served by costumer Roy Haylock) doing the best under the circumstances. The poor sound system was especially harsh on Ms. Smetherman who is called upon to perform a role tailormade for a young Barbara Cook, which is what gives this show its cult status to begin with- not the show itself.

I plan on returning in the show's closing week to give it another chance. Not even the callowest amateur deserves to suffer through such an ordeal as this opening night with its full house of potential members. What a bummer.

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