Hello Jerry! Revue of Broadway Titan’s Work Now at The Wick

By Mary Damiano

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Lauren Sprague, Susan Anton, Julie Kavanagh and Klea Blackhurst in Jerry’s Girls

Hello, Dolly!

If Jerry Herman had decided to rest on his laurels never compose another score or write another lyric after that show, his place in musical theatre history would have been firmly cemented.  Luckily, Jerry Herman isn’t that kind of guy.  His shows, from the cultish Dear World and Mack and Mabel to the beloved Mame and La Cage Aux Folles, are, simply, legendary.

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Lauren Sprague

Herman’s final show, Jerry’s Girls, now on stage at The Wick in Boca Raton, is a loving tribute to the career of a Broadway giant.

Jerry’s Girls began as a cabaret revue to showcase songs from Herman’s shows, especially Mack and Mabel, which was deemed a failure in its original run. After La Cage Aux Folles  premiered on Broadway, Florida impresario Zev Buffman approached Herman about expanding the cabaret revue, and Jerry’s Girls premiered at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse in Royal Palm Beach in 1984 before moving to Broadway the following year.

Director Lee Roy Reams, who has starred in two of Herman’s musicals at The Wick, La Cage Aux Folles and Hello, Dolly!, in which he made history but becoming the first man to play the titular role in a professional production, wanted to give Jerry’s Girls an update. So, instead of chorus girls, the leads are backed by Jerry’s Boys, including new Carbonell Award winner Elijah Word.

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Susan Anton

The star here—and The Wick loves to have a star—is Susan Anton, the tall blonde entertainer who gained fame in the 1970s through commercials and talk show appearances and notoriety in the 1980s for her relationship with diminutive British actor Dudley Moore.

Anton is joined onstage by Klea Blackhurst, Julie Kavanagh and Lauren Sprague. Word is joined in the chorus by a talented bevy of local boys, Anthony “AJ” Cola, Joshua Conner, James Giordano, Hugo Moreno and Mark Williams.

It’s a real treat to have a live band, musical director James Followell on piano, Julie Jacobs on drums and Rupert Wiawinski on bass—having the musicians on stage with the performers injects a lot of energy into the show. Emily Tarallo’s choreography is inventive and tailored to the needs of the cast. Jim Buff’s elegant costume design makes each woman look like a million bucks.  Randel Wright’s streamlined scenic design of  repeating rings and arches harkens to a simple club allowing the performers to shine.  The lighting design by Ginny Adams picks up nuances in the costumes and complements the setting of the songs.  The sound, by Justin Thompson, seems muffled at times.

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Julie Kavanagh

The show retains its cabaret roots.  The performers greet the audience as themselves and take the audience on a musical journey through Herman’s career, aided by tasteful projections by Josieu Jean, Jerry’s Girls is a primer on Herman’s work for newbies and a chance for seasoned theatre buffs to reminisce.

Most of the first act is devoted to Hello, Dolly! and Mame, the original two Jerry’s girls.  The second act begins with songs from Dear World but mainly features Mack and Mabel and La Cage Aux Folles.  Clever bits include a photo montage of performers who have played the iconic Dolly Levi over the years, which invites audience participation.  Another is a bit about the diverse things the song Hello, Dolly! has been used to sell, including Oscar Meyer products  (Hello Deli) and a president (Hello Lyndon). There is also a wonderfully staged homage to silent movies, which captures the essence of Mack and Mabel.

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Susan Anton and Jerry’s Boys

Anton is an affable performer who blends well with the other leads. Regarding solos, she is at her best on ballads—her rendition of And I Was Beautiful is lovely.  Her upbeat numbers include the title song to La Cage Aux Folles, which she does well, though her impressions of Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich mid-song fall flat and feel like the show has morphed into her own personal nightclub act rather than Georges’ emcee duties in the original musical.

Sprague delivers a beautiful version of I Won’t Send Roses from Mack and Mabel.  The lyrics have been tweaked to He Won’t Send Roses and offer a poignant female counterpoint to the original song. And Sprague’s duet with Blackhurst onKiss Her Now is stunning—their voices blend to form one gorgeous sound.  Kavanagh is terrific in Tap Your Troubles Away, accompanied by that bevy of boys and Look What’s Happened to Mabel.

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Klea Blackhurst

Blackhurst is the standout in Jerry’s Girls.  She and Anton have great chemistry in their duets, and her powerhouse voice wows.  Other singers reach for the rafters, but Blackhurst raises them.  She possesses both charisma and stage presence and fully inhabits whatever character she plays.  And when she sings the iconic I Am What I Am, she makes you believe the anthem was written especially for her.

The show is uneven—the pacing is off, some songs seem slowed down, and it doesn’t always sparkle as it should—but the good and great moments definitely outweigh the fair and flat ones. Negatives, though, can be put aside. Sometimes it’s dazzling and sometimes it’s cheesy, but this production of Jerry’s Girls is always entertaining.

Jerry’s Girls runs through May 13 at The Wick in Boca Raton.  For tickets and more information, visit TheWick.org.

Are There Coincidences? Not a Chance in “This Random World”

By Mary Damiano

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Robert Fritz and Melissa Almaguer in This Random World

Conversations with family and friends and chance encounters with strangers that show how individuals are connected is the focus of This Random World by Steven Dietz, now on stage at Main Street Playhouse in Miami Lakes.

 

Through about a dozen two-person meetings and conversations, Dietz shows how each individual can have an effect on someone’s life. There are no coincidences here; it’s two degrees of separation up close and personal.

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Laura Marrero and Robert Fritz in This Random World

The play opens with practical and pragmatic Beth (Melissa Almaguer) reading her obituary to her brother, Tim (Robert Fritz) and giving instructions for her death. Beth isn’t dying of some terminal disease, but she does love statistics and has run the numbers on the chances of her dying on a bucket list trip to Nepal.  Beth’s obit talk leads Tim to a meeting with Claire (Laura Marrero) his high school sweetheart and the one that got away, while Beth ends up stuck on a freezing mountain with Claire’s ex-boyfriend Gary (Zack Myers). Meanwhile, Scottie (Fern Katz) is planning a trip to Japan with her aide Bernadette (Rita Joe), who wants her sister Rhonda (Brianna Hart-Cox) to go in her place.

 

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Melissa Almaguer and Zack Myers in This Random World

Over the course of 90 minutes all of these characters merge in some unexpected ways, with no two characters having an in-person conversation twice. The result is a series of seemingly random vignettes that show the intimacy of this great big world.

 

This production, directed by Robert Coppel, brings Dietz’s story to life with mixed results.

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Robert Fritz and Briann Hart-Cox in This Random World

The biggest issue  is the scenic design by Amanda Sparhawk and the lighting design by Marcel Ferreira, which are a distraction rather than an enhancement to the plot. Wrinkled silver fabric behind black-framed screens hangs as a backdrop and on either side of the stage at the wings, creating a three-sided box for the characters. Chairs, tables and a few other set pieces are brought in and out by stagehands. The lighting design bounces off the shiny silver fabric creating an unfortunate garish look to most scenes. Projections of tall, spindly trees to represent an overgrown forest don’t make sense. Neither the set nor the lighting do anything to anchor the time and place of each setting, which includes an apartment, a restaurant, an airport, outside at sunrise, a mountain, a Japanese garden, a funeral parlor and a waiting room.

 

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Fern Katz and Rita Joe in This Random World

Katz has some nice moments as Scottie, a wise old woman determined to not to be a burden on her children. Fritz delivers an understated, measured performance in refreshing contrast to Myers, who either yells his lines or shows anger percolating just below the surface. And Almaguer, Hart-Cox and Marrero? Keep moving, folks, nothing special to see here.

 

Joe is the standout, infusing her character with a quiet integrity and delivering the kind of trademark performance that once again makes her the best part of a show. If only other performances and design elements of this production approached her deft skill, the overall result might have been a success.

This Random World runs through May 6 at Main Street Playhouse in Miami Lakes. For more information, visit MainStreetPlayers.com.

Photo Credit: Dennis Lyzniak

New Season at Island City Stage Includes a World Premiere Musical

By Mary Damiano

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Martin Childers, managing director, and Andy Rogow, artistic director, of Island City Stage at Pier Sixty-Six

Island City Stage could not have ordered up a more picture postcard perfect afternoon to unveil their 2018-2019.

The luncheon, held today at the rooftop lounge at Pier Sixty-Six on the intracoastal, which offers a 360-view of Fort Lauderdale, was a gorgeous setting to make the announcement to the press, board of directors, season subscribers and friends of the Wilton Manors theatre.

Andy Rogow, Island City Stage’s artistic director, revealed the season, which includes a drama and comedies, as well as a world premiere musical about two icons of the LGBT community, written by Michael Leeds, the theatre’s associate artistic director.

First up is Buyer and Cellar by Jonathan Tolins, a one man show about the curator of the mall Barbra Streisand created in the basement of her Malibu home.  The play will feature Matthew Buffalo, who teaches acting at New World School of the Arts in Miami.

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Carbonell Award winning actress Mallory NewBrough, who will play Bette Midler in a world premiere musical next year

Next up is that world premiere musical by Leeds, Bette and Barry: From Bathhouse to Broadway, about—who else—Bette Midler and Barry Manilow.  Mallory Newbrough, who won the Carbonell Award for Best Supporting Actress, Musical, earlier this month, will play Midler, and Carbonell Award nominee Michael Ursua will play Manilow.

Then there’s From White Plains by Michael Perlman, a play about a screenwriter who, while accepting an Oscar, outs the bully he believes pushed his gay best friend to suicide, and explores the long-lasting effects of bullying from different perspectives.  The play was brought to Andy Rogow’s attention by South Florida native Alex Weisman, an actor based in Chicago.  Weisman was set to star in the play at Island City Stage but is currently making his Broadway debut in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  Rogow called From White Plains the play next season he was most looking forward to doing.

Next is Veronica’s Position, a comedy about a Broadway diva who’s about to marry a conservative Republican politician.  The play is by Rich Orloff, whose short plays have been featured in South Florida theatres. Rogow characterized Veronica’s Position as a sophisticated comedy along the lines of The Little Dog Laughed by Douglas Carter Beane, which Island City Stage produced in 2015.

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Angel Burgos, president of the Island City Stage board of directors, with his partner, David Jobin

And speaking of short plays, Rogow said that while Island City Stage and City Theatre will partner again to present its sixth edition of Shorts Gone Wild this summer, the future of the evening of short, LGBT-themed plays is undecided, leaving Island City Stages’ summer 2019 production up in the air.

“Have we told all the stories we can tell in short form?” was the question Rogow was pondering in deciding whether or not to produce Shorts Gone Wild next year.

A highlight of today’s luncheon was entertainment by Newbrough who sang two Midler songs, the sassy One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show and the wistful ballad Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, giving the crowd a taste of what they can expect from her portrayal of the Divine Miss M.

Flex Passes for Island City Stage’s next season will be on sale in a few weeks.  For more information on Island City Stage, visit IslandCityStage.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take Me To Church: M Ensemble Delivers That Old Time Religion

By Mary Damiano

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Joseph Long in God’s Trombones

Can I get a Hallejulah? Can I get an Amen?

The M Ensemble, the company that won five Carbonell Awards at the recent April 2 ceremony, is back with its second show of the season, God’s Trombones.

While God’s Trombones seems different from Kings of Harlem, the play about a 1930’s Harlem basketball team, which won four of those five Carbonell Awards, the two bear some similarities.  M Ensemble styled both shows as immersive experiences, and both plays feature an important part of Black history and culture.

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Dancers interpret the poems in God’s Trombones

God’s Trombones is based on the 1927 book God’s Trombone: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson.  Johnson was an extraordinary man in any era, but especially for what he accomplished in his day.  At a time when the odds were against a man of color having a single professional career, Johnson had many, including teacher, principal, diplomat, poet, Broadway lyricist and lawyer—he was the first black man admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction.  He was an influential leader and held a prominent position in the NAACP.

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Daryl Patrice leads the choir in God’s Trombones

Johnson’s most famous book has been adapted to bring has words to thrilling life.  More than just bible stories, Johnson’s anachronistic storytelling, both humorous and passionate, are fashioned as sermons and accompanied by well-known hymns.

God’s Trombones is reminiscent of playwright Young Jean Lee’s Church, which was produced in 2014 at Thinking Cap Theatre in Fort Lauderdale.  Just as Church immersed its audience in an old time revival experience, complete with outdoor tent and sweltering August heat, M Ensemble’s God’s Trombones immerses its audience in the joyous celebration and raw emotion of a Sunday morning gospel service, with a few twists.

For example, as Joseph Long, playing one of the preachers, recounts The Creation, his words are illustrated by interpretive dancers.  The dancers, led by choreographer Jeffrey Cason, Jr., do excellent work and add another layer to the bible stories recounted in Johnson’s poems.

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Isaac Beverly passionately recounts the The Crucifixion in God’s Trombones

Long plays one of five preachers in God’s Trombones.  Each is a standout in a different way, bringing different styles and personalities to Johnson’s poems.  Long’s approach is steadfast and paternal.  Isaac Beverly’s passionate, heartfelt retelling of  The Crucifixion is humbling, while Ray Lockhart’s The Prodigal Son sears with fire and brimstone.  Jean Hyppolite gives power to Noah Built the Ark.  The lone female preacher, Toddra Brunson, turns her story, Go Down Death (A Funeral Sermon), into a powerful but tender tearjerker.

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The Choir and dancers in God’s Trombones

The preachers are accompanied by a choir whose voices blend seamlessly into one.  But there are soloists who excel, despite having to compete with music so loud it often drowns out their voices.  Brunson concludes her sermon by leading the choir in Peace Be Still.  Long’s rich, clear voice is perfect for Go Down Moses.  And Asher Makeba, Brianna Woods, Deidra Chiverton and Sarah Gracel sing Were You There, creating a sound so rich and pure it may bring a tear or two.

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Choreographer and principal dancer Jeffrey Cason, Jr. in God’s Trombones

 

Director John Pryor has assembled a cast with heavenly voices, whether singing or proclaiming their truth. The simple set of risers and white draped chairs for the choir and a lectern for the preacher all framed by black curtains, leaves plenty of room for the dancers and for Mitchell Ost’s vibrant lighting design.  Shirley Richardson’s costume design is traditional, full dresses in purple spiked with vivid prints and sashes for the choir and pants and dashikis in tones of orange and yellow for the male preachers.  The dancers’ costumes enhance their characters, sometime lithe and body conscious, sometimes flowy dresses that enhance their movements.

God’s Trombones isn’t a play or musical in the traditional sense, but it is a theatrical experience worth having.

God’s Trombones runs through May 6 at M Ensemble.  For more information and tickets, visit TheMEnsemble.org.

Photo Credit: Deborah Gray Mitchell

“Waitress” Serves Up a Heaping Helping of Happiness

By Mary Damiano

Waitress the Musical

Desi Oakley in Waitress

If Jenna, the waitress and pie maker in Waitress, saw the stage incarnation of her life, she might be inspired to create the Magical Musical Pie.

And while the opening refrains of sugar, butter, flour are the basis for every pie Jenna bakes, this recipe also includes soaring songs by Sara Bareilles, a funny, heartfelt book by Jessie Nelson, and powerhouse performances by a talented cast. The result is a deep dish delight that makes the audience savor every bite.

Waitress, based on the 2007 film starring Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion, is one of the brightest shows to hit Broadway—or Broward Center—in some time. A tuneful, tearjerker that is simply terrific, the plot centers on Jenna (Desi Oakley) a waitress and pie-maker extraordinaire in a small southern town. Trapped in an abusive marriage to lazy, possessive Earl (Nick Bailey), Jenna’s only real slice of happiness is baking her imaginative pies at Joe’s Pie Diner, pies with distinctive names like Ain’t You Sweet Potato Pie and Gingersnap Out of It Pie. Jenna was taught early on by her mother to cope with the ugly side of life through baking, and Jenna elevates pie-making to a mystical, magical experience. Life becomes more complicated when she discovers she’s pregnant, and she devises a plan to bake her and her baby to a better life. Plans are further complicated when she and the new guy in town, Dr. Jim Pomater (Bryan Fenkart) form an instant attraction to one another which grows during every pre-natal visit before finally and hilariously turning into an affair.

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Maiesha McQueen, Desi Oakly and Bryan Fenkart in Waitress

The plot of the musical closely follows that of the original movie, so while Waitress is technically a remake, it feels fresh and original. There are several subplots that turn the pie place into a Peyton Place, including the complicated marriages of Jenna’s boss Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) and best friend and fellow waitress Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and the courtship of plain Jane waitress Dawn (Lenne Klingaman) and her devoted beau Ogie (Jeremy Morse), as well as the observations of Joe (Larry Marshall) Jenna’s loyal and exacting regular customer. All of that, mixed with a whole lot of heart and topped off with a generous dollop of charm make for one very satisfying show.

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Bryan Fenkart and Desi Oakley in Waitress

Waitress is also beautifully designed and staged. The scenic design by Scott Hask is clever, with sets rolling and flying in and out and a vista through the diner’s windows of highway, telephone lines and rolling green countryside that look like they go on for miles. The lighting design by Ken Billington is also impressive, enhancing both the place and the mood. The band is out of the pit and inventively on stage, amping up the levels of an already energetic show.

Writer musician Bareilles, best known for her pop songs like Love Song and Brave and her recent performance as Mary Magdalene in the TV production of Jesus Christ Superstar, has created a host of infectious, catchy songs that work seamlessly with the story but also stand alone.

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Charity Angel Dawson , Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman in Waitress

Oakley’s strong voice and heartfelt performance is at the center of Waitress. She expertly conveys Jenna’s evolution from pragmatic abused wife to fiercely determined woman. Her solos on What Baking Can Do and She Used To Be Mine are powerful and her star-crossed duet with Fenkart, You Matter To Me is beautiful and heartbreaking.

Every member of the cast gets their moment to shine. As Becky, Dawson is maternal and caustic and the perfect best friend, and her second act solo, I Didn’t Plan It, is a showstopper. Klingaman is perfect as Dawn, the sad sack transformed by her soul mate.

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Desi Oakley and Bryan Fenkart in Waitress

Jeremy Morse’s endearing goofiness and his superb physicality as Ogie brings down the house on Never Ever Getting Rid of Me. Marshall delivers as Joe, the observant voice of reason, especially in his big number, Take It From an Old Man. As Dr. Pomatter, Fenkart doesn’t get a solo, but his chemistry with Oakley is magic.

Waitress is a slice of heaven, from the first bite to the last morsel.

Waitress runs through April 22 at Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. For tickets, visit BrowardCenter.org.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Terrific Cast and Timely Story Make “Gloria” at GableStage a Must-See Show

By Mary Damiano

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Katherine McDonald, Shari Wiesman, Philip Andrew Santiago and Clay Cartland  in Gloria

Who owns a violent experience? Does it belong to the perpetrator, the victims, the survivors or the bystanders? And whose story is the one that matters most to a society that turns tragic events into a television movie event and makes those who lived it the celebrity du jour?

Those are some of the questions explored in Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, (his play play An Octoroon was produced at Area Stage last year) a fascinating, timely play now at GableStage, although you’d never know it from the first 45 minutes. For nearly the entire first act, Gloria is an innocuous story about the petty jealousies and career ambitions of a group of assistants at a New York magazine. The titular character, Gloria, (Katherine McDonald) is only seen a few times, but her name and situation come up in conversation among the assistants as almost a warning of the career to avoid: Gloria, an editor, has been at the magazine for 15 years, a dedicated employee all but married to her job, whose only circle of “friends” are her coworkers.

When the play begins, Dean (Clay Cartland) stumbles into work, late and hungover, telling everyone about the expensive housewarming party Gloria hosted the night before, which turned pathetic and sad when only he and three other coworkers attended. The other assistants gobble up the gossip as they go on with their morning, which includes little work, some backstabbing, more gossip, and talk of five-year career plans so they they’re not in the same job when they hit 30. It’s a typical day at work. Then, out of the blue, violent tragedy strikes.

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Cubicle life:  Clay Cartland, Philip Andrew Santiago, Lai-Si Lassalle and Shari Wiesman in Gloria

The second act picks up eight months later at a Starbuck’s and focuses on the aftermath and how some of the characters are coping with their experience.   Several have gotten book deals because of their experience and have different reasons for writing their books—catharsis, career move and cashing in. The last scene takes place a few years later and focuses on Loren (Cliff Burgess) a former fact-checker at the magazine, now over 40 and working as a temp for a film production company in Los Angeles.

Gloria is a finely crafted play, both clever and shocking, funny and poignant, the kind of play GableStage is known for.  Director Joseph Adler has assembled a terrific cast—Burgess, Cartland, and McDonald are veterans, while Philip Andrew Santiago, Lai-Si Lassalle, and Sheri Wiesman are making their GableStage debut—and together they form a tight ensemble. The pace is perfect, conveying the energy and boredom of office life, and the big moment is effectively jarring.

Cartland does fine work in Gloria, expertly ricocheting from an affable, dedicated guy in the first act to a mere shell of a man in most of the second act, and then taking on the bored, patronizing demeanor of another character as well. McDonald pulls double duty well, deftly portraying the blah, seemingly mousey Gloria in the first act and then Nan, an aloof former editor in the second act. Santiago is most effective as Miles the young office intern in the first act, but also plays a barrista and executive in act two. Lassalle brings Kendra to life in all her annoying, ambitious, shallow glory, and also makes icy film exec Jenna all her own later on. Wiesman, like Santiago, plays three characters, and makes each dictinctive.

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Cliff Burgess, Lai-Si Lassalle, Philip Andrew Santiago, Shari Wiesman, Clay Cartland in Gloria

Burgess is the one actor who gets to play the same character, Loren, throughout the play, and he is astonishing, Harried and frustrated in the first act, Loren is changed by the violence in a different way.  The last scene belongs to Burgess, and his lovely, understated performance.

Lyle Baskin’s two office sets, nondescript gray for New York and vibrant colors for Los Angeles, are on point, while his Starbuck’s set has everything except a line of customers waiting to order. Both Matt Corey’s sound and Steve Welsh’s lighting are evocative, while Ellis Tillman’s costumes go a long way in illustrating each character’s personality. The one flaw lies in the wigs and facial hair some actors wear to play their other characters, which look more like a bad disguises. Kudos to Waldo Washaw for the jarring special effects.

Originally produced three years ago, Gloria is a timely play ripped from too many headlines that illuminates the perspectives and struggles of those directly effected by violent tragedy. It raises more questions than it answers, and while no one can answer those questions effectively in such a short time, Gloria is bound to raise some thought-provoking discussions.

Gloria runs through May 6 at GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. For tickets and more information, visit GableStage.org.

Photo Credit: George Schiavone

“Be Here Now” at Theatre Lab Finds Meaning in the Mundane

By Mary Damiano

 

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Gretchen Porro, Laura Turnbull and Elizabeth Dimon try yoga in Be Here Now 

Finding meaning in the mundane and getting a new lease on life are just two of the themes running through Be Here Now, a new play by Deborah Zoe Laufer, now on stage at Theatre Lab in Boca Raton.

Bari, (Laura Turnbull) is a middle-aged woman who believes in nothing—she is a former New York City college professor whose subject was nihilism. Forced to suspend her teaching career until she finishes her dissertation on the subject of how nothing has meaning, she has returned to her tiny hometown in upstate New York to sell her parents’ home and work in a gift fulfillment center while she struggles to write.

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Gretchen Porro, Laura Turnbull and Elizabrth Dimon at work at a gift fulfillment center in Be Here Now

Although it’s only two hours north of New York City, tiny East Cooperville is a different world, a small town where everyone is either related or has known each other practically from birth, and hopping in the car and driving one town over is considered an adventure. Bari’s coworkers are Patty Cooper (Elizabeth Dimon) and her niece Luanne Cooper (Gretchen Porro) who are descended from the town’s founders and have spent their entire lives close to where they were born. Patty believes in astrology and met Bari in kindergarten—she recalls how even then Bari was an anti-social child who called her classmates cretins. Luanne is sweet and flighty and thinks nothing of sending boob pix to a guy she’s met online. The Cooper women are both happy and content in their small-town existence, a direct counterpart to Bari’s dour demeanor.

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Laura Turnbull gives Gretchen Porro and Elizabeth Dimon a scare in Be Here Now

Determined to fix Bari and help her be happy, Patty and Luanne arrange a blind date with Patty’s cousin Mike (Desmond Gallant) whom Luane describes as a genius with cute ears. While the Coopers are excited that the date could be a turning point in Bari’s life, she sees it as a chore and, plagued by one of her chronic headaches, talks herself out of following through. But when Bari has a seizure and experiences visions of light and sound, her perspective shifts. She meets Mike, a sweet, loopy guy who rides a bike, has a pet crow, and collects garbage to use in his work. As the seizures continue, Bari begins to question everything she’s believed about her life and the world around her, leading her to an unexpected path.

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Laura Turnbull and Desmond Gallant engage in a wavky lip-lock in Be Here Now

Laufer has a talent for creating unforgettable characters with distinct, quirky personalities—plot aside, it’s fun just to watch these people interact with each other. But she has also crafted an insightful story, one that takes threads of the meaning of life, mindful living, and finding purpose in the forgotten and woven them into a beautiful, thought-provoking tapestry. The play is bookended by two similar scenes, one funny, one lovely, that show how far the characters have come in a short time.

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Laura Turnbull and Desmond Gallant in Be Here Now

Laufer also directed this production, and each member of the cast delivers a winning performance while working together seamlessly, fully immersing the audience in their world.

Porro embodies Luanne’s sweetness, though her delivery hints at an aching sadness beneath her chirpy exterior, adding nuance and dimension. Dimon, who sports a head of spiky white hair with a shock of hot pink, uses her impeccable timing to great advantage, making her pitch-perfect as maternal Patty.

Gallant’s performance is sometimes funny, sometimes heart-wrenching, but always endearing. Like the character he portrays, Gallant wastes nothing—every gesture, every expression, has meaning and purpose—and he brings Mike to life with a quiet, insightful dignity, transforming him from character to fully-fleshed out person.

From the first moment of the play, sitting in a yoga class, cynicism on full display, Turnbull sinks her teeth into Bari and doesn’t let go, making the wild ride of Bari’s evolution all her own. In Turnbull’s skilled hands, Bari’s shift from austerity to awe is a joy to watch.

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Laura Turnbull and Desmond Gallant in Be Here Now

Matt Corey’s subtle sound design is exquisite, allowing the audience to hear through the characters’ ears. Jayson Tomashesky’s lighting illustrates Bari’s personality shift and grounds each locale. Michael McClain’s inventive scenic design visually enhances the play’s themes of meaning and purpose. Dawn C. Shamburger’s costumes complement each character to great effect.

Theatre Lab’s production of Be Here Now features some of the best talent in the region in a tender, thought-provoking play that is sure to resonate with those who see it. Even its title is a reminder to not let the beauty of every moment pass by without notice.

Be Here Now runs through April 22 at Theatre Lab on the FAU campus in Boca Raton. For tickets and more information, visit fau.edu/theatrelab

Photo Credit: Niki Fridh

Fab, Fun and Frothy, Hairspray is a Musical with a Message

By Mary Damiano

2 - Hairspray - photo by Jason NuttleEnding segregation through dance—that’s the basic premise of Hairspray, the rollicking, beloved musical now on the stage at Maltz Jupiter Theatre.

Based on the John Waters movie starring Ricki Lake and Divine, Hairspray concerns Tracy Turnblad, a Baltimore teen who, through her simple desire to dance on a local American Bandstand-style TV show, leads a crusade to end segregation.

It’s a pretty big deal when Tracy, who is not as skinny as the more popular girls, gets cast on The Corny Collins Show.  In addition to getting to dance on TV, Tracy gets to be close to her crush, teen idol wannabe Link Larkin.  But Tracy learned the dance moves that got her the gig from the black kids she meets in detention, and she doesn’t think it’s fair that they only get to dance on “Negro Day”, so she sets out to open hearts and change minds.

1 - Hairspray - photo by Jason NuttleThe overall production is just as colorful and over the top as you want Hairspray to be, although somewhat scaled down.  The big opening number, for example, “Good Morning Baltimore”, is devoid of the street scene of everything Tracy encounters on her way to school.   Other set pieces look awkward, such as the circular platform with steps that serves as the home of both Tracy and her best friend Penny.  For some reason, the Maltz stage looks cramped and truncated.  Hairspray lacks the lavish touch exhibited in most Maltz productions.

Perhaps more resources were funneled into the costumes and wigs, which are spectacular.  Costume designer Kathleen Geldard keeps the wardrobe colorful and wonderfully on point for each character.  Velma Von Tussle’s angular outfits enhance her wicked edge, while Maybelle Motormouth’s clothes have a sexy softness.  Edna Turnblad’s post-transformation costumes are vibrant and refreshingly tasteful, better-suited for a woman with a new attitude.

5 - Hairspray - photo by Alicia DonelanWig designer Gerard Kelly went all out with his intricate, sky-high, delightfully cartoonish hairstyles.  His bouffants and beehives are divine, and he modernizes his designs in fun ways, like adding a shock of pink to Mr. Pinky’s ‘do.

This production features a slimmer Tracy Turnblad than Hairspray fans are accustomed to, but Mary Digangi is a triumph in the role.  She expertly conveys Tracy’s feisty spirit, her teenage vulnerability, and her strong sense of right and wrong.  She is also a terrific singer and dancer.  And if anyone thinks she doesn’t physically fit the role, perhaps the message here is that one doesn’t have to be too far outside the mold of conformity to be ostracized.

Michael Kostroff is terrific as Tracy’s mom Edna Turnblad, the laundress who rediscovers her own confidence and regains her life through Tracy’s fight to follow her dreams.  Kostroff makes Edna’s transformation from drab to fab realistic, and gives her journey nuance.

11 - Hairspray - photo by Alicia DonelanAltamiece Carolyn Cooper, as Motormouth Maybelle, makes every scene she’s in her own.  Cooper has charisma to spare, and when she belts the gospel-tinged  “I Know Where I’ve Been” you can’t help but feel a few tears welling up as well as hope for the future.

Mia Matthews, won won the 2017 Best Actress Carbonell Award for her dramatic performance in After, shows both her versatility and her vocal prowess.  She is delicious as the villainous, Velma Von Tussle, the racist producer and stage mother who will do anything to get what she wants for herself and her mean-girl daughter Amber.  Matthews’ flair for hurling an insult, her satisfied panache when carrying out Velma’s schemes, her comic timing—these things should all make directors consider her for more musicals.

7 - Hairspray - photo by Jason NuttleThere are many musical standouts, including “You’re Timeless To Me” the sweet duet between Edna and her ever-loving hubby Wilbur (Philip Hoffman), “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” the classic teen plea sung by Tracy, Amber (Chelsea Turbin) and Penny (Taylor Quick) to their worried moms, and the hopeful anthem for the future, “You Can’t Stop the Beat”.

On the surface, Hairspray is a fun and frothy show, but it’s a musical with a message: Segregation is wrong.  Discrimination is wrong.  And while Hairspray is set in 1962, among the signs in the protest scene is one proclaiming the more modern slogan Black Lives Matter.  It’s a sad reminder that the fight against discrimination is still being fought.

Hairspray runs through January 28.  For tickets and more information, visit JupiterTheatre.org 

 

 

 

 

Actress Soars as Grounded Pilot at Thinking Cap Theatre

By Mary Damiano

NkiArmsThere are two things you need to know about Grounded, the current show from Thinking Cap Theatre at The Vanguard in Fort Lauderdale.  There are only two performances left, and you should do whatever you can to see this magnificent production.

Niki Fridh delivers a bravura performance as a badass, rock star fighter pilot who lives for the moments she’s in the air, in “the blue,” she calls it.  She rhapsodizes about flying, fighting the war in the desert, dropping bombs here and there, unconcerned about the aftermath because she’s always long gone before her target is reduced to dust.  Her world changes when she gets pregnant and is grounded, eventually assigned stateside to the Nevada desert to become a drone pilot.  Instead of her beloved, glorious blue, she’s entrenched in a grey screen of the desert she used to fly above.  While she recognizes the gift of being able to fight the war with the threat of her own death removed, and go home each night to her husband and daughter, being a drone pilot turns out to be much more dangerous than she ever imagined.

NikiFlagNicole Stodard is a visionary, both in her choice of material for Thinking Cap, which she founded, and with her direction and design of her productions.  In Grounded, the use of projections, designed by Cat Del Buono, allow the audience into the pilot’s world and into her head, creating a marriage of style and substance that complements Fridh’s compelling performance without overshadowing it.

The other designers are up to the challenges of the script.  Stodard’s sound design, Eric Nelson’s lighting and Alyiece Moretto’s scenic and costume design mesh seamlessly to create the world in George Brant’s play.

NikiScreenGrounded rests squarely on Fridh’s slender shoulders, and she is strong enough to not only pull it off, but turn it into an edge-of-your-seat nail biter.  On stage alone for 80 brisk minutes, she never falters. With macho swagger, Fridh deftly conveys the pilot’s exhilaration of flying and living the fighter pilot lifestyle, and later the struggle of balancing her profession with her role as a wife and mother.  And when the pilot begins to realize the consequences of her actions, Fridh ratchets up the intensity of her performance, becoming even more riveting and intense as the psychological effects of her job take their toll.

Both Grounded and Fridh’s performance are not to be missed.

Grounded runs through Saturday, April 15 at the The Vanguard in Fort Lauderdale.  Visit ThinkingCapTheatre.com for tickets and more information.

Photo Credit: Nicole Stodard

 

Sedaka Is Back? Concert Shows He Never Really Left

By Mary Damiano

NeilSedakaNeil Sedaka taught us that breaking up is hard to do, but breaking up with Neil Sedaka is impossible.

Watching Sedaka perform at Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale last night was like visiting an old friend you haven’t seen in a while and being reminded of why you like him so much, and wonder why you haven’t gotten together for so long.

Sedaka is now 78 years old, but his voice has not changed—it’s still as rich and steady as ever.  He also looks great.  Sedaka is celebrating 60 years of songwriting and performing, which began with his first hit, Oh! Carol, written for his high school girlfriend Carol Klein—the world knows her better as Carole King.  Juilliard-trained to be a classical pianist—he even included some Chopin in his 90-minute set—Sedaka discovered pop music and the rest is history.

Last night’s concert started with footage of other artists performing Sedaka songs: Frank Sinatra, Connie Francis, The Carpenters, Clay Aiken, showing how Sedaka’s music transcends genres and generations.

NeilSedakaTourSedaka opened with Bad Blood, his 1975 hit which featured vocals by Elton John, and ended with another song from 1975 that’s still timely, The Immigrant.  In between, he sang hits that he and other artists made famous: Oh! Carol, The Diary, Where the Boys Are, Next Door to an Angel, Calendar Girl, Solitaire, Love Will Keep Us Together, Laughter in the Rain, The Hungry Years, and so many others.  One fun segment featured a video of Calendar Girl he made in the 1960s, which illustrated the lyrics with a bevy of beauties in bizarre costumes.  He also performed the original upbeat 1962 Breaking Up is Hard To Do, and for an encore, played the smoky, ballad version he recorded in 1975.

Woven between the songs were Sedaka’s memories of how they came about, writing with partner Howard Greenfield in the legendary Brill Building in an atmosphere which nurtured so many talents who produced so many classic songs, and his own memories of his career.  It was like watching a rock and roll version of Mister Rogers tell stories—gentle, folksy and funny.  And oh, so much fun.

For upcoming Neil Sedaka tour dates, visit NeilSedaka.com