Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


Arkansas Heritage Month – Little Rock’s Jeff Nichols at Cannes

NicholsLittle Rock native Jeff Nichols’ latest film, Loving, premieres at Cannes today. The film showed at 8:30 am and 11:30 am Cannes time. (That would be at 1:30am and 4:30am, Little Rock time). It also shows at 7pm Cannes time (12 noon, Little Rock).

Loving, which was written and directed by Nichols, tells the story of the Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial married couple who were sentenced to prison in Virginia in 1958. It is set for national release in November and is being distributed by Focus Features.

Nichols was first brought the project by Martin Scorsese. A 1997 graduate of Little Rock Central High, he was intrigued by the story and the opportunities it provided him as a filmmaker.

The film stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as the central couple. Others in the cast include Michael Shannon, Nick Kroll, and Bill Camp.  Edgerton, Shannon and Camp are part of Nichols’ informal repertory company of actors. Interestingly, Shannon and Camp are both nominated for Tony Awards in the same category (Featured Actor in a Play) for work they have done on Broadway this spring in American classics: Shannon in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and Camp in Miller’s The Crucible.

This is Nichols’ third film to screen at Cannes, following 2012’s Mud (which like Loving was in contention for the Palm d’Or) and 2011’s Take Shelter (which won the top prize at Cannes’ Critics Week).  His first feature film was 2007’s Shotgun Stories.

With Loving’s screening at Cannes, Nichols is in a select group of directors to have one film screen at the Berlin International Film Festival (where he showcased Midnight Special) and another at Cannes in the same year.


Arkansas Heritage Month – Tony Awards nominations with Will Trice

Trice at the 2014 Tony Awards

Trice at the 2014 Tony Awards

Trice at last year's Tony Awards (photo by Lisa Pacino)

Trice at 2013 Tony Awards (photo by Lisa Pacino)

The Tony Awards nominations were announced today.  Little Rock native Will Trice picked up his eighth nomination as a Broadway producer with year’s nod for the revival of Fiddler on the Roof.

Trice has earned previous Tony nominations for producing the plays All The Way* and Wolf Hall; play revivals The Best Man, The Glass Menagerie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?*, and You Can’t Take It With You; and the musical revival Porgy and Bess*.  (An * indicates a Tony win.)

This season, Trice was a producer of four different shows: Sylvia with Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford; China Doll with Al Pacino; Fiddler on the Roof with Danny Burstein, Jessica Hecht and Ben Rappaport; and American Psycho with Benjamin Walker and Alice Ripley.


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.


Arf – Celebrity Attractions brings ANNIE here this weekend

AnnieCelebrity Attractions is proud to present the new U.S. National Tour of ANNIE February 19-21 at the Maumelle Performing Arts Center.   Directed by original lyricist and director Martin Charnin for the 19th time, this production of ANNIE is a brand new physical incarnation of the iconic Tony Award®-winning original.

ANNIE has a book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin. All three authors received 1977 Tony Awards® for their work.   Choreography is by Liza Gennaro, who will incorporate selections from her father Peter Gennaro’s 1977 Tony Award®-winning choreography.

The production features a 25 member company: in the title role of Annie is Heidi Gray, an 11-year-old actress from the Augusta, GA area, making her tour debut. Gilgamesh Taggett stars as Oliver Warbucks.  In the role of Miss Hannigan is Lynn Andrews.  Also starring in the tour are Chloe Tiso as Grace, Garrett Deagon as Rooster, Lucy Werner as Lily and Jeffrey B. Duncan as FDR.  Macy and Sunny, rescue terriers, star as Sandy.

The orphans are Sage Bentley as Tessie, Bridget Carly Marsh as July, Molly Rose Meredith as Pepper, Emily Moreland as Kate, Annabelle Wachtel as Molly and Casey Watkins as Duffy.

The original production of ANNIE opened April 21, 1977 at the Alvin Theatre and went on to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, seven Drama Desk Awards including Best Musical, the Grammy for Best Cast Show Album and seven Tony Awards®, including Best Musical, Best Book (Thomas Meehan) and Best Score (Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin).  The show remains one of the biggest Broadway musical hits ever.  It ran for 2,377 performances after it first opened, and has been performed in 28 languages and has been running somewhere around the world for 37 years.

The beloved score for ANNIE includes “Maybe,” “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” “Easy Street,” “I Don’t Need Anything But You” and the eternal anthem of optimism, “Tomorrow.”

Welcomed by the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, ANNIE takes the stage February 19-21 at the Maumelle Performing Arts Center, located on the campus of Maumelle High School.  The performance schedule is Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are now on sale and are priced $32, $52, and $67.  Tickets are available by phone at (501) 244-8800 or (800) 982-ARTS (2787) or online at www.ticketmaster.com.  Discounts are available for groups of 10 or more by calling (501) 492-3312.

Get social with Celebrity Attractions by becoming a fan on Facebook.com/BWayLR.  Follow the Little Rock engagement of ANNIE on Twitter.com/BwayLittleRock or join the conversation using #AnnieLRANNIE is a part of the 2015-2016 Broadway Season which concludes with RAGTIME.   Celebrity Attractions is proud to have KATV and the Maumelle Area Chamber of Commerce as sponsors for this spectacular season.  For more information, visit www.CelebrityAttractions.com.


Little Rock Look Back – Abraham Lincoln

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863On February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky.

Lincoln never visited Arkansas. In the 1860 election, he barely registered on the Arkansas election map. Arkansas counties went strongly for Southern Democratic candidate John Breckinridge.  John Bell, the Constitutional Union/Whig candidate ran strongly in Pulaski County and a scattering of other counties.  Neither Lincoln nor Northern Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas carried a county in Arkansas.  In 1864, though Arkansas was officially under control of the Union forces, the state had not been readmitted. Therefore no Arkansans voted for Lincoln that year.

As President, Lincoln did correspond with several Arkansans.  It is said that the polite written exchanges he had with former Mayors C. P. Bertrand and Gordon Peay were helpful in maintaining a fairly peaceful occupation of Little Rock by federal forces.

In the listing of Presidential Streets of Little Rock, Lincoln is omitted.  On first blush, this might seem to be intentional to skip the name of the President who oversaw the “occupation.”  However, if that were the case, then surely Johnson would have been left out as well since he was President during the final years of the federal military occupation.  In fact, there once was a Lincoln Street. A portion of what is now Cantrell/Highway 10 was named for Lincoln. It predated the other Presidential streets.  At the time the other streets were laid out, Lincoln was skipped because a street already bore the name.

Over time, Highway 10 had been given multiple names for various sections: Lincoln, Q, and Cantrell. In the 1930s, these names were consolidated into Cantrell which was the longest section. The name Lincoln was dropped. There were very few addresses on Lincoln, most of it was railroad property.  The viaduct connecting Highway 10 with LaHarpe still bears the name of Lincoln Avenue.

In 2008, Sam Waterston appeared at the Clinton School of Public Service to kick off the Abraham Lincoln Sesquicentennial celebration activities. The official launch was supposed to be elsewhere but was cancelled due to inclement weather. So it happened in Little Rock as Waterston appeared in a program reading letters and writings from throughout Lincoln’s lifetime.  In 1994, Waterstson had received a Tony Award nomination for starring in the Lincoln Center revival of Abe Lincoln in Illinois.


Little Rock Look Back: Carol Channing

Carol C2On January 31, 1921, future “Little Girl from Little Rock” Carol Channing was born. Alas it was in Seattle.

After gaining the notice of New York critics and audiences in the musical revue, Lend an Ear, Channing achieved Broadway stardom playing fictional Little Rock native Lorelei Lee (the creation of Anita Loos) in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  In this show, which opened in December 1949, she introduced the Leo Robin-Jule Styne songs “Little Girl from Little Rock” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”  Her work in this show predated Tony Award nominations being announced.  (The Tony that year went to Mary Martin for playing another Little Rock native – Nellie Forbush in South Pacific).

Her first Tony nomination came for the The Vamp in 1956. Five years later, she earned a second nomination for Show Girl.  In 1964, she won the Actress in a Musical Tony for her second signature role playing the title character in Hello, Dolly!  Channing also earned a special Tony in 1968 for Dolly when it became the longest-running Broadway musical.

She returned to Lorelei Lee in the reworked update entitled Lorelei and earned a Tony nomination.  In 1995 she earned a Lifetime Achievement Tony.

In the 1960s, she visited Little Rock on a tour of Hello, Dolly! which played at Robinson Auditorium. It was arguably the biggest Broadway show to have played Robinson at that time.  While she was in Little Rock she spent time at the Governor’s Mansion and was made an honorary citizen of Little Rock.  (Nearly 30 years later, she recounted very glowingly her Little Rock visit to the Culture Vulture.)

In 1993, she spent her birthday in Washington DC at a White House dinner for the National Governors’ Association.  This was the Clintons’ first offiical White House dinner after moving in to the residence eleven days prior.  President Bill Clinton led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to her.  She remarked to the President that she was Christian Scientist and didn’t celebrate birthdays, which meant she didn’t get any older.  He replied that it meant the night was her first birthday (it was her 72nd in actuality).