Pulitzers Play Little Rock: DOUBT at the Studio Theatre

TST DoubtIn 2016, the Studio Theatre presented John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning Doubt. It was not the first theatre in Little Rock to present the play in the 12 years since it had debuted.  But the taut, riveting, and somewhat ambiguous story is one that offers audiences plenty of reasons to return to it.

As the Studio Theatre summarized it:

Did he or didn’t he? Doubt, a Parable, follows the story of the staff at a Catholic school in the Bronx, New York. It begins when Sister James, a young sister who recently started teaching at the school, becomes concerned that the relationship between a priest, Father Flynn and a student may have become inappropriate. Sister James confides this fear to the principal, Sister Aloysius, who becomes determined to find out the truth about what happened and to protect the boy.

Bob Bidewell directed the play. The quartet of actors in the cast were Karen Q. Clark (cast against type), James Norris, Angela Bloodworth-Collier, and Jessica Lawson.  Brandon Nichols was the assistant director and Andrew Jordan designed the lighting.

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama being given. To pay tribute to 100 years of the Pulitzer for Drama, each day this month a different Little Rock production of a Pulitzer Prize winning play will be highlighted.  Many of these titles have been produced numerous times.  This look will veer from high school to national tours in an attempt to give a glimpse into Little Rock’s breadth and depth of theatrical history.

Go to the WOODS

TST ITWSince the rights became available in the early 1990s, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods has been popular for theatres of all levels from youth to professional regional theatres. It is, on the surface, a show that is easy to do adequately allowing for singers and actors of varying levels of expertise to perform. As such, I have seen numerous productions of this title (my interest stemming partly from being a cousin of the Brothers Grimm on whose work this musical is based).

The Studio Theatre’s production of Into the Woods is a reminder why it is worthwhile to go on the journey again. Whether you have seen outstanding or dreadful productions in the past or never seen the show before, this production of Into the Woods highlights the many charms of the property.

(It also reminded me that despite some judicious trims here and there, the first act is very long. So be forewarned and visit the restroom beforehand.)

Director Rafael Castanera has assembled a strong cast and then made sure they carry out his vision. Given the physical confines of the space, he has created a world in which the stage is always bustling with activity but never seems to be crowded. This is a very wordy script, but Castanera also trusts his cast with silence. Some of the most memorable moments (touching and comic) were achieved with no words. That is the hallmark of deft directing.

The show is truly an ensemble effort with uniformly solid performances. As the Baker around whom much of the action centers, Michael Goodbar gives a nice dramatic turn. Often seen in the outrageously comic Red Octopus Theatre productions, his layered performance here is a revelation. He has great chemistry with Angela Kay Collier as the Baker’s Wife. She is an even match for him in a performance that is both strong (but not strident) and vulnerable. Erin Martinez turns in yet another memorable characterization as the Witch. Her vocal prowess is on display in numbers ranging from rap (Sondheim did it here long before Hamilton) to tender song to power ballad.

Brandon Nichols brings an animalistic swagger to his performance as the Wolf. He is predatory and sensual without being obscene, which is especially important since the object of his lupine affection is an adolescent girl. In his other role, he is a hilariously vainglorious and charming Prince. With an arched eyebrow or shift in posture, he both echoes fairy tale princes and spoofs them.   His brother in arms in the narcissism department is Ryan Heumier as his brother the other Prince. Heumier can sing to another character all the while primping in front of his ever-present handheld mirror. The fraternal duet “Agony” is a highlight of the first act (and gleefully reprised in the second).

As the object of Nichols’ princely pursuit, Rachel Caffey brings a clear voice and clear eye to the role of Cinderella. She is equally at home among the ashes as she is running through the woods in a ballgown. Grace Pitts is a delightful Red Riding Hood alternating between assertive and susceptible, innocent and knowing. Often juvenile actors can be cloying (which may be why this part is usually played by someone older). But Pitts is never mawkish in her portrayal. Even as the character comes to grip with a new reality, Pitts’ performance lets the audience know she is still a young girl with enthusiasm and vulnerability.

Evan Patterson offers a dim-witted but well-intentioned Jack (of Beanstalk fame). The part is sometimes played doltishly. But Patterson’s portrayal focuses on the humanity of the character who happens to be more absent-minded than stupid. As his mother, reliable Beth Ross tempers her exasperation at her son with her devotion to him and her desire to provide for him. David Weatherly plays the narrator who fills in for Jack’s cow Milky White at times and also appears briefly as a eponymously named “Mysterious Man.” His talents for facial expressions and cud-chewing helped bring out much of the humor in the script.

Rounding out the cast in various roles were Courtney Speyer (whose dulcet tones were on display as she sang a sort of siren’s song), Amy G. Young (having fun as a not too weak Granny), Daniel Collier (as the officious and official steward), Katie Eisenhower, Brooke Melton and Autumn Romines. The latter three were the deliciously wicked step-relatives of Cinderella.

The cast was clad in intricately detailed costumes designed by Castanera. The clothing skillfully defined the characters and added whimsically to the story. Every square inch of fabric was there for a purpose. There were many accents and accessories, so each time an actor came on stage it was possible to discover something new. But the costumes served the actors and did not distract from the performances or the story. The clothing was abetted by Robert Pickens’ exquisite wigs.

Pickens is also the set coordinator. The set is a marvel. In a relatively small space there are a variety of platforms and ramps which depict many different settings. The set mainly consists wooden planks in groupings framing the proscenium. With this wood, a few ropes and some canvas, the story unfolds before the audience’s eyes. In a subtle reminder of the storybook nature of the evening, the stage is littered with hundreds of books stacked in any possible nook and cranny. The proceedings are well-lit by Joey DiPette who manages to make sure the actors are always seen while still conveying changes in settings and shifts from day to night.

While not a through-sung musical, Into the Woods has much, much music!. Even when the actors are not singing, the music rarely stops. Musical Director Bob Bidewell has made sure that the singers maximize their musical moments in the woods. He and the orchestra never play over the singers, but definitely enhance the mood and the overall musical experience by supporting the songs and the singers.

Like revisiting stories from childhood, it was pleasant to revisit Into the Woods, especially in a strong, cohesive production currently running at the Studio Theatre. Performances continue through March 26 (7pm Thursdays through Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays).

Go INTO THE WOODS this month at the Studio Theatre

Grace Pitts as Little Red Riding Hood - Photography by Grant Dillion for The Studio Theatre

Grace Pitts as Little Red Riding Hood – Photography by Grant Dillion for The Studio Theatre

Once upon a time, Pulitzer Prize winners Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wrote a musical based upon the folk tales of the Brothers Grimm. Into the Woods ran for over 700 performances on Broadway and won 3 Tony Awards, spawned a Tony winning revival and a movie. Now the Studio Theatre brings it back to Little Rock.

Directed by Rafael Colon Castanera (who also designed the costumes), other members of the creative team are Jennifer Caffey (assistant director), Bob Bidewell (musical director), Robert Pickens (wig designer) and Carrie Henry (stage manager).

The cast includes Rachel Caffey, Angela Kay Collier, Daniel Collier, Katie Eisenhower, Michael Goodbar, Ryan Heumier, Erin Martinez, Brooke Melton, Brandon Nichols, Ethan Patterson, Grace Pitts, Autumn Romines, Beth Ross, Courtney Speyer, David Weatherly, and Amy G. Young

The production opens tonight and runs through March 26. Performances are at 7pm Thursdays through Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm.

Monday Musings: Bob Bidewell

BidewellBob Bidewell is the founder of The Studio Theatre, organist, musical director, musician, singer, actor and theatre director.  In addition to The Studio Theatre, he has long been involved in the Central Arkansas Chapter of the American Guild of Organists and Little Rock Wind Symphony (both of which have upcoming events this week).  He has served in leadership roles of those and many other arts organizations in Central Arkansas.  As an actor, he has shared the stage with Broadway stars Matt Cavenaugh and Kyle Dean Massey.  Later this month The Studio Theatre will be performing the musical satire Reefer Madness.

-My earliest memory was (age and incident):
1-2 years old. Hearing train whistles and begging my parents to take me to see the trains.
-When I was in high school and imagined my adulthood, I thought I would be…
Band Director.
-Star Wars, Star Trek, Battle of the Network Stars, or Dancing with the Stars?
Star Wars.
-I most identify with the Winnie the Pooh character of…
Owl (not because I’m intelligent and brilliant but that I’m older, somewhat wiser and love to teach).
-The performer I’d drop everything to see is…
Carol Burnett.
-My first paying job was…
Mowing Neighbors Lawns.
-A book I think everyone should read is….
A Time to Kill (John Grisham).
-My favorite season is…
Autumn.
-We are all geeks (or experts) about something. My field is….
Musical Theatre.

Musical DOGFIGHT up next at The Studio Theatre – this weekend only

(LtoR) Koty Mansfield, Payton Justice, Ethan Patterson, Xavier Jones, Ben Mills, Chase Cundall

(LtoR) Koty Mansfield, Payton Justice, Ethan Patterson, Xavier Jones, Ben Mills, Chase Cundall

The Studio Theatre presents the regional premiere of Dogfight, a story of compassion, heartbreak and redemption adapted from the 1991 movie. With music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (James and The Giant Peach, A Christmas Story) and book by Peter Duchan, Dogfight offers audiences the winning combination of a great musical score, an unexpected love affair and a genuine soul.

It’s November 21, 1963. On the eve of their deployment to the small but growing ‘little conflict’ in Southeast Asia (and unbeknownst to them, also the eve of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination), three young, fresh and cocky Marines are looking forward to one final night of partying. They set out to find the ugliest girl to bring to the “dogfight”, a cruel game where the men put up money for a party and a cash prize for whoever brings the ugliest girl. But when Corporal Eddie Birdlace meets Rose, an awkward and idealistic waitress he enlists to win the cruel bet with his fellow recruits, she rewrites the rules of the game and teaches him the power of love and compassion. Dogfight is a powerful and haunting musical about the end of the age of innocence in the 60’s.

Winner of the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical in 2013, Dogfight runs August 20- August 23 at The Studio Theatre located at 320 West 7th Street. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, August 20, 21 and 22, 2015 at 7 PM and Sunday August 23, 2015 at 2 PM. Ticket price is $20 for Adults and $15 for Students, Senior Citizens and military (with valid id). Seating is general admission. Tickets can be purchased at www.eventbrite.com.

Due to mature themes, adult content and strong language, this production is not recommended for young children.

The cast is led by Ben Mills and Kayla Walker. Others in the cast include Payton Justice, Koty Mansfield, Bridget Davis, Ethan Patterson, Xavier Jones, Chase Cundall, James Norris, Georgeann Burbank and Jennifer Restum.  Rounding out the cast are Rachel Caffey, Brooke Melton and Hayley Coughlin.

The production is directed by Mark A. Burbank.  Bob Bidewell is the music director.  Others on the crative team include Hannah M. Sawyer, Anthony McBride, Stacey Johnson, Sarah Scott Blakey and Tye Davis.  Justin A. Pike is the Artistic Director of The Studio Theatre.

 

XANADU is magical fun

Edith Hamilton’s Mythology was never like this.  The god, goddesses, muses and mythical creatures that romp and skate through Xanadu are having more fun than I remember from my studies in high school and college.

Based on the 1980 Olivia Newton-John/Gene Kelly flop of the same name (and lifting some pages from the equally floptastic Clash of the Titans) the stage musical aspires only to be a tongue-in-cheek, eye-winking, breezy, entertainment.  What the book, by Douglas Carter Beane, lacks in plot believability, it makes up with jokes and heart.

xanaduAs main muse Clio and her Australian alter-ego Kira, Courtney Speyer brings a light-hearted touch to the role. She spends most of the show on roller skates, which is no easy task.  Speyer charms not only her leading man but also the audience as she sings, dances and jokes her way through the story.

Kevin Crumpler plays the object of her affection. With bright eyes, a broad gleaming smile, and a cheery personality, he is an obvious match for Speyer. His pleasant and powerful singing voice is nicely used throughout the show as well.  Crumpler has a deft comic timing which was put to good use, especially in moments when Sonny’s dimwittedness and naiveté get the best of him.

Greg Blacklaw is equally at home as a harried businessman as he is as Zeus.  Though he spends more time as the former, the latter is actually fleshed out more by the book. Regardless, Blacklaw brings gravitas when necessary as well as a sense of nostalgia and longing to the roles.

Though everyone in the cast seems to be having fun, undoubtedly the two having the most fun are Amy Young and Gabi Baltzley as two scheming evil muses (representing tragedy and epic poetry).  They mug, leer, giggle, cackle, and chew scenery (Baltzley quite literally) as they sing and zing while throwing stumbling blocks in the way of the hero and heroine.

The cast is rounded out by Tye Davis, Adriana Napolitano, Bridget Davis and Brian Earles. These proteans zip between the 1940s, 1980 and Ancient Greece all the while singing and dancing. Earles had a cameo as Hermes that was both deadpan and saucy — not an easy feat.

Multi-hyphenate Justin A. Pike directed the show. (The artistic director of the Studio Theatre, he also designed the scenery and co-designed the lighting.) He kept the story going briskly without making it seem rushed. With the slight book, it cannot afford to drag lest the audience think too hard. Trusting his actors and audience, he doesn’t skip over the jokes in the book, but he also doesn’t hammer them home. This understanding of audience and of actors’ abilities are marks of his adroitness as a director.

Hannah M. Sawyer’s costumes pay homage to both Ancient Greece and 1980. Let’s face it, with flowing light fabric, there really wasn’t too much different between the two.  Sawyer creates a unique look for each muse in both color and style.  She also created attire which allowed a variety of movement. Her 1940s clothes were classic and avoided the temptation to be caricatures. On the other hand, her mythical creatures were over-the-top and the hilarious.

Bob Bidewell’s music direction maximized the vocal abilities of the singers.  The singers’ voices blended well together in the variety of vocal styles in this score.  This music from 1980 is not the strongest, which offers its own set of challenges. Bidewell and the cast succeeded in making it work on stage.  He also led the four-piece orchestra through Jeff Lynne and John Farrar’s score.

Xanadu plays today at 2pm. It resumes performances July 16 to 18 at 7pm and the 19th at 2pm.  It is like a summer cocktail – frothy, light, a touch sweet and refreshing.

XANADU skates into Studio Theatre

xanaduThe 1980 movie musical FLOP Xanadu was reimagined as a stage musical in 2007 and became a surprise smash on Broadway.  It has now skated into the Studio Theatre for a summer run.

The bubblegum pop score of Jeff Lynne and John Farrar has been augmented by a book by Douglas Carter Beane. He combined the original movie story with a touch of Clash of the Titans (another early 1980s movie disappointment) and added a great deal of humor and campy fun.

Directed by Justin A. Pike, the musical features a cast of Courtney Speyer, Kevin Crumpler, Greg Blacklaw, Gabi Baltzley, Amy Young, Tye Davis, Adriana Napolitano, Bridget Davis and Brian Earles.

The creative team team features choreographer Sara Adams, musical director Bob Bidewell, costume designer Hannah M. Sawyer and stage manager Danette Scott Perry.  In addition to directing, Pike designed the sets and co-designed the lighting with Michael Goodbar.

Performances began on July 9 and continue through July 19.  Curtain time is 7pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2pm on Sunday.