NINE a 10

imageOne would be hard pressed to find a stronger volunteer theatre production than the Studio Theatre’s current offering of Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopjt’s Tony Award winning musical NINE. (The term “volunteer” theatre is used because “amateur,” “community,” or “non-professional” belie the quality of the production.)

Rafael Colon Castanera’s production is both visually stunning and full of surprises. The cohesive ensemble is up to the task of telling this compelling, complex tale in an entertaining and enchanting manner. They find the humor and humanity in these sometimes thinly sketched characters and scenarios.

The anchor of the production is James Norris as auteur Guido Contini. He deftly morphs from reality to fantasy while juggling numerous romantic conquests and searching for fulfillment. It is a challenging role because Guido is, at the same time, supposed to be worthy of the audience’s sympathy while also behaving in a unsympathetic manner.  Norris had many touching moments as the man-child desperately seeking something. A fearless actor, he threw himself into the role whether the moment called for romance, humor or desperation. These different moods are also reflected in the wide range of singing styles required of the role–all of which he handled skillfully.

As the younger version of Guido, Price Clark showed maturity beyond his years. His performance of “Getting Tall” at the end wrapped up the show as a lesson to the audience about the challenges and opportunities of getting older. Clark also had a wonderful rapport with both Norris (acting as a mentor to his older self) and Beth Ross as his mother (showing love, respect and embarrassment).

Ross was one of many in the cast who had the chance to showcase a wider range of their talents. Often cast in wisecracking roles, she here displayed a maternal warmth and daffiness as well as weariness and frustration. Likewise Julie Atkins often plays long-suffering, noble women. In this show she had the chance to show her comic skills and her bawdiness as an all-knowing spa proprietor. Often playing heartbreaking heroines, Erin Martinez zealously attacked her role as a tambourine-wielding unapologetically, earthy strumpet.

Antisha Anderson-Scruggs was audacious and bodacious as one of Guido’s mistresses. She was bawdy but never crass as she flaunted her sexuality. Anderson-Scruggs also displayed depth as her character faced disappointment with resolve and a new-found strength.

As another mistress, Rachel Warnick elegantly captured the persona of a classic European beauty who is no longer content with being a trophy. She was grateful and forgiving toward Guido, but resolute nonetheless to pursue her new life.

Mary Ann Hansen put the gal in Gallic as a gamine French film producer. She relished her moments in the spotlight and evoked a bygone era as she celebrated a past career (and joyously took the audience along on this reflective journey). Amy Young and K. L. Martin played her entourage; the pair enjoyably insulted, threatened and otherwise antagonized Guido each in her own way.

Elena McKinnis, Bailey Lamb and Moriah Patterson were a protean trio who functioned as a sort of Greek chorus (or was it Italian chorus?) playing various parts and keeping action moving.  Together with Martin, these performers showcased their dancing talents as showgirls during the musical within a musical numbers.

Heather Smith was Guido’s long-suffering wife. While clearly in love with him, she was also weary of her stagnant life.  A high point of her performance was her sung defense of him to the press in which she is convincing them of his sincerity, while also trying to convince herself.

As director, Castanera elicited layered performances from each of the actors and kept the action moving seamlessly.  As designer, he used a deceptively simple, classically elegant scenic design as a framework for the action. Tyler Herron’s transformative lighting and Greg Wirges’ evocative sound design reflected the many different moods and settings.

The orchestra led by music director Bob Bidewell played almost nonstop through this cinematic, nearly operatic production. This lush score has many moods which were ably performed without overpowering the actors.

The costumes by Castanera are almost worth the cost of admission by themselves. Each character was uniquely clad in black attire that reflected their character down to minute details. It is safe to say this show has the most intricate and lavish costumes of any volunteer theatre production in Little Rock history. For the “film” sequence, Castanera mixed some white in with the black and created fantastic, over the top ensembles (again often with unique and humorous touches). The wigs by Robert Pickens were the same quality as the costumes. Together, wigs and costumes helped define the characters without distracting from the actors’ performances.

As a musical, NINE has challenges. In the wrong hands the characters can be vapid and unlikeable.  It is also vocally demanding. Much like the source material (a semi-autobiographical Italian film), it has moments of absurdity and a plot which wavers between linear and concept. But NINE also has enormous warmth, heart and joy. The Studio Theatre’s production captures these merits without betraying the complexities of the characters. NiINE is another step forward in the development of both The Studio Theatre as well as volunteer theatre in Central Arkansas.

NINE continues April 4, 9-12 and 16-19. Performances are at 7pm except for Sundays, which are at 2pm.

NINE next at Studio Theatre

The 1982 Tony winning Best Musical Nine takes the stage oimagef the Studio Theatre tonight to begin a three week run.

Written by Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit, and based on Fellini’s autobiographical 8 1/2, it tells the story of Guido Contini, a filmmaker, and the women in his life.

This production is directed by Rafael Colon Castanera with musical direction by Bob Bidewell.  Castanera also designed the set and costumes as well as co-choreographed the musical with Bailey Lamb.  Tyler Herron designed the lighting and served as assistant director.  Robert Pickens designed the wigs, Greg Wirges designed the sound, and Cara Smith is the stage manager.

The cast includes Antisha Anderson-Scruggs, Julie Atkins, Price Clark, Mary Ann Hansen, Bailey Lamb, Elena McKinnis, K. L. Martin, Erin Martinez, James Norris, Moriah Patterson, Beth Ross, Heather Smith, Rachel Warnick and Amy Young.

Performances are tonight (an opening night gala), Saturday (April 4), April 9 through 12 and April 16 through 19.  Showtimes are 7pm on Thursdays through Saturdays, and 2pm on Sundays.

 

A Sparklejollytwinklejingley Show!

THEREP_ELF (no credits)-page-001The holidays are here. And if you need to get into the Christmas spirit, I suggest you buy, beg or bargain to get a ticket to see Buddy the Elf and his friends in the musical Elf which is playing at the Arkansas Rep through January 4.

This frothy, fun, friendly show has but one aim – to entertain.  And how it does succeed.

With a smart, witty, heart-filled book by Tony winners Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray) and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, TV’s “Slings & Arrows”), the story works on several different levels. (Incidentally, Meehan takes a swipe at his other Christmas-NYC set musical Annie with a joke, while Martin seems to be aping The Drowsy Chaperone by having the story open with a man in a chair). The score by Tony nominees Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar (The Wedding Singer) ranges from toe-tapping to heartstring-pulling.

Elf is, of course, based upon the eponymously named film.  Disclaimer – I’ve not seen the movie.  I do not get Will Ferrell’s appeal, so steer clear of most movies starring him.  But love of the movie is not necessary to enjoy the stage musical. The book, score, cast and production values take the audience on a wild sleigh ride of holiday fun regardless of familiarity with the source material.

As Buddy the Elf, Ethan Paulini is a chief reason for the show’s appeal. He is rarely off stage, and somehow manages to keep a high level of energy throughout. His ebullient Buddy is both naïve and knowing. Whether singing, dancing or acting, he never overplays the part or goes for cheap laughs.  Through his performance, one believes that he really does charm his way into everyone’s hearts regardless of their age or gender.

As the object of Buddy’s affection, it is a joy to watch Alyssa Gorgone’s Jovie transform from guarded to glowing.  She deftly handled her songs and dances.  Gorgone and Paulini have a nice chemistry together as the court each other.

David Hess moves from blustery to boasting in his portrayal of Buddy’s dad.  Anna Lise Jensen is a delight as his long-suffering wife whose struggle to find her own place mirror’s Buddy’s quest.  As Buddy’s younger half-brother Price Clark is a joy to watch. He is neither precocious nor cloying. Instead, he is a believable kid who is concerned about his parents and is thrilled to have a new brother.

Tessa Faye stops the show as Deb the secretary as she comically aids Buddy and leads the office in a rousing production number. Kyron Turner and Tanner Wilson make the most of their scenes as harried employees hoping for a holiday miracle. J. B. Adams bookends the show as an avuncular, folksy Santa Claus.

From beleaguered New Yorkers to bored Macy’s elves to depressed Santas, the ensemble fill the stage with delightful characters. Hannah Eakin, Allison Stearns, Jason Samuel, Jimmy Kieffer, Anthony Bryant, Chris McNiff, Jack Doyle, Samantha Harrington, Tatiana H. Green, Marisa Kirby, Eric Mann, Kennedy Sample and Mary Katelin Ward have enough vigor, vim and verve to make the cast seem much larger than it actually is.

The elves are played by the younger members of the cast. These kids are having fun – and why not? They get to spend the show in two of the most magical settings imaginable: The North Pole and New York City at Christmas.  They very ably perform their production numbers and create memorable characters without stealing focus from Buddy and Santa.  Addison Dowdy, Gunner Gardner, Reagan Hodson, Anna Beth Jeane, Ethan Marbaise, Max McCurdy, Danny Phillips, Grace Pitts, Corbin Pitts, Niall Prochazka, Marisol Sela, and Madison Stolzer were welcome additions to the production.  Most of these performers are seasoned veterans of the Rep’s Summer Musical Theatre Intensive. They show that their talent works in the wintertime too.

Nicole Capri directed Elf with a light, comic touch. She neither glosses over nor smothers the audience with the heart in the show, she trusted her performers and the story to bring it out.  She keeps the show moving at a brisk pace while allowing for enough quiet moments that it does not seem frantic.  Marisa Kirby’s creative, crowd-pleasing choreography put the actors through their paces.  Together Capri and Kirby fashioned production numbers which allowed each performer to stand out as an individual character while still part of a seamless ensemble.

Elf’s magical world was ably served by Shelly Hall’s colorful costumes, Dan Kimble’s lighting, Allan Branson’s sound and Lynda J. Kwallek’s props.  One of the joys of the show is undoubtedly the songs. Credit for that goes largely to Mark Binns, the show’s musical director.  He leads the orchestra as they play the peppy, tuneful score. He also deserves credit for helping the actors maximize their sounds as they perform the songs while executing Kirby’s inventive choreography.

Though based on a 2000s movie, Elf is really a throwback to 1950s and 1960s workplace musicals. There are the buffoonly bullying boss, the comic-relief secretary, the dancing office boys and office girls, the disconnected wife and kids, and, of course, the outsider hero who saves the day and wins the heart of the leading lady. The show also offers dancing Santas, prancing elves, and a travelogue’s worth of New York City settings.

Elf doesn’t ask the audience to think too hard or to get wrapped up in cloying sentimentality. It merely wants to entertain as it allows the audience an escape from daily strife.

No matter your holiday of choice at this time of the year, the Rep is giving audiences a present with Elf!

ELF takes stage at Arkansas Rep through January 4

THEREP_ELF (no credits)-page-001The Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of the holiday musical Elf opens tonight for a run through January 4.

Adapted by Thomas Meehan (The Producers) and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) from the popular 2003 film starring Will Ferrell, with a score by Tony®-nominated songwriting team of Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer), Elf turns one of Hollywood’s most beloved holiday hits into a hilarious and heartwarming musical that towers above the rest.

When a young orphan who mistakenly crawls into Santa’s bag of gifts is raised in the North Pole, unaware that he is actually a human, his enormous size and poor toy-making abilities eventually cause him to face the truth. As he embarks on a journey to New York City to find his birth father and discover his true identity, Buddy strives to win over his new family and help New York remember the true meaning of Christmas.

The cast is led by Rep veteran Ethan Paulini as Buddy.  Others in the cast include J. B. Adams, Price Clark, Jack Doyle, Tessa Faye, Alyssa Gorgone, David Hess, Anna Lise Jensen, Jason Samuel, Anthony D. Bryant, Hannah Eakin, Samantha L. Harrington, Jimmy Kieffer, Marisa Kirby, Eric Mann, Chris McNiff, Allison Stearns, Kyron Turner, Tanner Ray Wilson, Tatiana H. Green, Kennedy Sample and Mary Katelin Ward.  The elves are played by Addison Rae Dowdy, Gunner Gardner, Reagan Hodson, Anna Beth Jeane, Ethan Marbaise, Max McCurdy, Danny Phillips, Corbin Pitts, Grace Pitts, Niall Prochazka, Marisol Sela and Madison Stolzer.

The creative team includes director Nicole Capri, music director Mark Binns, choreographer Marisa Kirby, costume designer Shelly Hall, sound designer Allan Branson, prop designer Lynda J. Kwallek and lighting designer Dan Kimble.

Les Miserables Continues at Ark Rep

replesmizTwenty-seven years ago today, on March 12, 1987, Les Miserables opened on Broadway.  The production won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. It eventually ran for 6,680 performances.  After being revived on Broadway in 2006 and spawning an Oscar winning movie in 2012, another Broadway revival is currently in New York.

Arkansas residents do not have to travel to New York (or Netflix) to see Les Miserables.  The Arkansas Repertory Theatre has brought the production back to life on its Little Rock stage.  Following an acclaimed 2008 production, Rep Producing Artistic Director Robert Hupp has again directed the show for Arkansas audiences.  It opened last Friday night and runs through April 6.

Douglas Webster and Christopher Carl return to their roles of protagonist and antagonist as Jean Valjean and Javert, respectively.  Joining them are Christopher Behmke as the romantic revolutionary Marius, Matthew Hugg as pint-sized revolutionary Gavroche, Karenssa LeGear as Valjean’s adoptive daughter Cosette, Mary Little as the waif Eponine, Caleb Reese as revolutionary leader Enjolras, Danielle Erin Rhodes as the doomed Fantine, Sydni Whitfield as Young Cosette, and Michael Sample & Terey Summers and the scheming Thenardiers. Others in the cast are Kelsie Adkisson, Alex Bush, Price Clark, Monica Clark-Robinson, Darren Drone, Hannah Eakin, Marisa Kirby, Bailey Lamb, Greg Robinson, Makayla Shope, Alyssa Sowers, Benjamin Stidam, Billy Clark Taylor and Paul Thiemann.

In addition to Hupp as director, the creative team includes choreography by Robert Kolby Harper and music direction by Mark Binns. The design team features Mike Nichols (scenery), Rafael Colon Castanera (costumes), Yael Lubetzky (lighting), Allan Branson (sound), Lynda J. Kwallek (props) and Rob Pickens (wigs).

Performances are Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm and 7pm.  During the run, there are Tuesday performances at 7pm on March 18 and April 1.