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The A List

theatre reviews
Volume 16/Issue 16

by George Patterson

Songs For A New World

One of my mentors, the late great Lehman Engel, taught me that there are only three kinds of theatre songs: the ballad, the comedy song and the charm song. He predicated this axiom on his own Broadway musical comedy experiences that spanned three decades from the 30s through the 60s. He had no experience with the phenomenon called Stephen Sondheim who, I conjecture, took the idea of the charm song-where music and lyric are given equal weight-and created what I like to call the character song. Using sweeping musical passages, usually sandwiched between staccato recitative, and especially quirky lyrical construction, what has been called a "one act play" emerges-more aptly, however, a unique character is revealed.

songs Jason Robert Brown, the young songwriter whose talents are on display in a musical revue of his songs called Songs for a New World now on the boards at True Brew Theatre (and its first regional production), clearly represents the new generation of song writers for the theatre, Sondheim A.D. David Spencer, in one of his Aisle Say reviews of the CD of this show, compared Mr. Brown more to Cy Coleman than Sondheim, "...Not because he seems terribly influenced by Coleman, but because like Coleman, his heart seems rooted in jazz. And where Coleman's imprimatur marks him as a master of big band vocabulary, Brown creates intricate and spectacular fusions of musical theatre diction with progressive jazz and progressive rock: there is as much Steely Dan in him as Sondheim, and that gives him an unusual freshness of sound and distinctiveness of voice...." I might add that, like Sondheim, Mr. Brown also possesses a most refreshing lyric-writing ability. He is clearly one to watch.

Local musical theatre maven Diane Lala, while on summer vacation from her teaching job as Associate Professor of Musical Theatre at the Univ. of Cincinnati, has staged this revue for True Brew's producer Trish Denmark, with care and affection-she also performs with her fellow singer/actors, Michael Larche, Kerry Mendelson and James Murphy. It is 90 minutes of character-dense entertainment that never flags and often delights.

Ms. Lala has taken the part of the hyper-attenuated contemporary urban female who, in one song, is threatening to jump to her death if she doesn't get her way with "Murray" and in another, she's a bored and horny Mrs. Claus saying goodbye to St. Nick in a Kurt Weill pastiche called "Sarabaya-Santa" with a sour kraut accent to highly comic effect. This is yet another cool cabaret comedy song which even makes fun of other cabaret songs, notably the Maltby/Shire chestnut "I Don't Remember Christmas" (which has been included often in Ms. Lala's cabaret sets). Michael Larche assumes various minority roles with intense vocal pyrotechnics, especially in the opening "On The Deck Of A Spanish Sailing Ship" and, in the second act's "11 o'clock number" as a Blackman already strapped into the electric chair in the scaldingly ironic "King Of The World." Kerry Mendelson and James Murphy serve as handsome yuppie surrogates with songs that illustrate relational angst, fear and ultimate commitment. Ms. Mendelson shines in "Christmas Lullaby" about becoming a mother and the two are quite stirring in the show's major soft rock love song, "I'd Give It All For You."

Musical director Leonard Raybon has melded these four voices admirably with the excellent accompaniment of Lantz Harvey on keyboard and Bill Walker on percussion, while Stephen Thurber's humble flat grey unit set serves the show unobtrusively.

The Elephant Man

A theatrical sensation that won the Tony award for author Bernard Pomerance, director Jack Hofsiss and actress Carole Shelley in 1979, The Elephant Man refers to John Merrick, a Victorian "freak of nature." It has been recently established that he suffered from something called proteus syndrome which caused horrible bony deposits to accrue on his body until he was finally suffocated to death by the weight of his head-not your usual theatrical fodder.

Now we have a new theatre organization calling itself The Actor's Box Theatre Group which has acquired the second floor of the Victorian-era building that houses the Zeitgeist Alternative Arts Center, located on Magazine St. hard by St. Andrew St., in which they have begun their existence with a bare bones, tightly paced production of this Victorian history play in an arena configuration with the audience sitting on opposite sides of a raised playing area designed and lit, with minimal equipment, by Glen S. Mehn. The building, although comfortably air conditioned, is nonetheless creaky in the extreme. The production, however, directed tightly by Douglas M. Griffin, purrs along on the well-oiled talents of its cast of seven, three of whom play multiple roles.

elephant man Led by the distinguished New Orleans actor/producer/lawyer/Le Petit CEO Michael Arata as the likably affable and self-effacing London surgeon, Dr. Frederick Treves, who rescues Merrick from the freak show, befriends him, and opens him up to the world only to have him die prematurely, the remarkable news here is the riveting performance by Mark Krasnoff as John Merrick. Using the conceit that garnered the original Merrick actor, young Philip Anglim, a Tony nomination, a good-looking actor is stripped to a loin cloth. As his afflictions are ticked off, the actor contorts his body, dragging himself painfully about and speaking in a deeply nasally impeded manner. Our imagination does the rest. Mr. Krasnoff delineates this highly sympathetic character like acid on glass.

Katherine Keberlein goes from playing a twin pinhead in the freak show to the touchingly elegant and unfazed actress Mrs. Kendal, brought in by the good doctor to befriend Merrick. Not only does she introduce the hoi polloi of London society to the suffering man, she also grants Merrick his one most heart-felt wish-his only view of female anatomy. The poetry of Merrick's reaction to this stunning display becomes the central metaphor of this wonderfully crafted play.

Veronica Russell and Marc Anderson are two young actors who acquit themselves admirably in their several roles, while Charles A. Bosworth, III as Car Gomm, Dr. Treves' boss, although cutting an imposing figure with his Robert E. Lee looks, is nonetheless hobbled by an unfortunate British accent that makes his words garbled and unintelligible; likewise, Peter Gabb, a local veteran character actor, was uncharacteristically self-conscious and insecure with his lines, also suffering from dialectitis on a recent rainy night. Perhaps the dearth of an audience caused this unlikely problem.

Daviel Rossby's live cello playing adds elegance to the heightened drama while Jeanne Cwiklik's costumes, clearly created from a non-existent budget, correctly define the period even if finishing details are left to fray in the breeze.

The Actor's Box Theatre Group is yet another indication of the incredible growth in our local theatre community this summer--now if they can only make their box a little more comfortable--and accessible....

Romeo and Juliet

One of Shakespeare's most accessible and produced tragedies (the age-old story of the two "star crossed lovers" whose deaths are so unnecessarily tragic, Romeo and Juliet, the final production of The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, directed by Aimee K. Michel), will be remounted from its original home in the Lupin Theatre to the larger Dixon Hall next year, in order to accommodate the area's high school students. This production will serve as an introduction to the Bard for scores of teens. Not only will this production hold their interest, it will also surely whet (some of) their appetites for more.

It is a lovely-to-look-at production. Although costume designer Janet Harreld has been criticized elsewhere for clothing members of both the Capulets and the Montegues in identical, and therefore, confusing, white, a little dye could easily change all that. The fact remains that the clothing imparts a summery freshness that serves the script and still gives the play a certain contemporaniety. Hugh Lester's abstract unit set, bathed in dusty rose, with golden arches and a huge set of airy metal doors (upon which Romeo climbs to reach Juliet's balcony), served this production more amicably than its sister production of Julius Caesar. Mr. Lester's lighting was likewise diaphanous and airy.

Most serendipitous to this production was the casting of two young professionals as the title characters. Both Naomi Peters and Eric Keith were excellent in these wordy roles. Although far from the character's age of 14, Ms. Peters nonetheless captured the youthful headstrong spirit of Juliet with a delightful teenaged giddiness. Eric Keith's youth, on the other hand, was somewhat hampered by the casting of his friend Mercutio with Danny Bowen, an excellent actor who is old enough to be his father-or at least his uncle. When these two young lovers are on stage alone, their impetuous youth makes the Bard's poetry manifest.

Casting a black actress as the nurse proved to be another coup for director Michel, for the talent displayed by Sharon London was awesome-she brought earthy humor to the blowzy role; likewise, Ron Gural's Friar Laurence was right on the money.

Others in the large cast who shown brightly were Gavin Mahlie as Paris, George J. Sanchez and Adriana Bate as Juliet's exasperated, progressively defiant parents and Jerry Lee Leighton's Tybalt, whose sword fight with Romeo was rambunctiously staged by Fight Choreographer B. J. Merman.

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