Review: ‘The Producers’

Titusville Playhouse opens 50th season with "The Producers"

Titusville Playhouse opens 50th season with “The Producers”

By PAM HARBAUGH

It may be filled with esoteric Broadway humor, but Titusville Playhouse lets an entire audience in on the jokes in its laugh-a-minute 50th season opener, “The Producers.”

Written by Mel Brooks, the stage musical is based on his original 1967 movie. It concerns unscrupulous Broadway producer Max Bialystock who teams up with hapless account Leo Bloom. Their scheme is to score a cool million by creating a Broadway flop. The musical they choose is the tasteless “Springtime for Hitler.”

This is a big, complex show with frequent scenic shifts and layers of action. Here, director Alexander Nathan directs it adroitly and keeps it zipping along at a dizzying pace. His entire cast draws loveable, broad characters who tell a story filled with nutty situations and rim-shot asides. Mr. Nathan’s restaging of Susan Stroman’s original choreography is clean and tightly on the mark.

Working with music director Michael Coppola, the “I Wanna Be a Producer” is so smartly staged. This is a potentially unwieldy dream scene number that weaves chorus girls in and out of a group of accountants. But Mr. Nathan’s direction keeps it easy and neat while still allowing Leo to lavish the stage with his dream.

Scenic designer Jay Bleakney and lighting designer Samuel G. Byers wisely sticks to establishing location and otherwise gives focus to the cast and their antics. An, oh my, costume coordinator Katy Ball has her hands full with the 160 wonderful costumes.

In the end, though, it is the top-notch cast who own this show.

Seemingly born to play the role of Max Bialystock, Steven J. Heron squeezes every ounce of humor in his energetic, aside-quipping, double-taking performance. A professional actor, Mr. Heron was once cast as the replacement for Max Bialystock in the Broadway run, which, unfortunately, closed before he had a chance to step onto the boards as Max. As artistic director for Titusville Playhouse, Mr. Heron is used to telling people what to do. Here, he shows them, easily boasting humor, timing and voice, especially in “That Face” and “Betrayed.”

As panic-ridden milquetoast accountant Leo Bloom, professional actor T. Robert Pigott fills the stage with…well, cuteness. From his priceless takes on Leo’s panic attacks to his romantic yearnings for blond bombshell Ulla, Mr. Pigott is nothing less than loveable. In the number “I Wanna Be a Producer, he summons that same winning quality displayed by Robert Morse (“How to Succeed in Business…”) in the early 1960s.

The all-singing, all-dancing Holly McFarland brings a refreshing take on Ulla. Always on the mark, she empowers her Ulla with a smart sexiness shown vividly in the number “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It.” It’s a joy to see Ms. McFarland take the stage in this big show.

Another professional, Mark Hardin, dishes the delicious in his performance of over the top director Roger DeBris. He is a treat.

Joseph Rose delivers a funny Teutonic edge to Franz Liebkind, the playwright for “Springtime for Hitler.”

With “The Producers,” Titusville Playhouse mounts a splendid production; evocative of the early ‘60s style Broadway musical comedies. Think ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ in 1961, ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’ in 1962 and ‘Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ in 1963.

There is so much fun here. You’ll want to see it twice, so get your tickets now.

SIDE O GRITS: “The Producers” performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays and 2 p.m. There is one more Saturday matinee, 2 p.m. Sept. 20. Tickets are $22 to $25 with $2 discounts for seniors, military and students. Service charges may apply. Titusville Playhouse performs at the Emma Parrish Theatre, 301 Julia St., Titusville. Call 321-268-1125 or visit www.TitusvillePlayhouse.com.

Review: ‘The History Boys’ at the Mad Cow

"The History Boys" at Mad Cow Theatre

“The History Boys” at Mad Cow Theatre

By PAM HARBAUGH

The facts don’t add up to the truth nor do they insure success in life. That seductive current runs throughout Mad Cow Theatre’s engrossing production of Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys.”

The 2006 Tony Award winner for best play concerns an academic tug-of-war over the hearts and minds of a group of promising students at a boys school in northern England. In it, beloved teacher Hector uses an array of techniques to cajole the group of eight adolescents into thinking for themselves. He is not above letting the boys improvise a bawdy scene in French, nor re-enact melodramatic scenes from old Hollywood movies. He challenges them to recite obscure poetry while he pops them in the head with a paperback book to get them to think. His affection for them and they for him is clear.

He finds himself pitted against Irwin, a brilliant young teacher who has bedazzled the school’s headmaster with tales of higher education at Oxford. The headmaster decides it is Irwin who will hone the students into being admitted at Oxford or Cambridge. Of course, that’s the superficial take. Peel back that first layer and you find compelling character portraits and stories of human duality.

Philip Nolen paints a vivid, complex and oh-so-loving portrait of Hector. He regales the boys with his prowess one moment. Then at a quieter scene, subtly fights back the tears. We see Mr. Nolen so often in light-hearted fare, it’s a real treat to see him in a show that lets him strut his deeper, dramatic stuff.

Peter Travis rather emerges in his role of Irwin. His deliberate, steady pace brings a moment of heightened realism when Irwin reveals his own secret. When Mr. Travis debates with Mr. Nolen how to “teach” the Holocaust (one of Mr. Bennett’s most brilliant dialogues), his arguments are like the cool, easy parries of a skilled fencing expert.

Robin Proett Olsen is a theatrical dream as Mrs. Lintott, the tidy teacher known for teaching the facts. As the only on-stage female in the play, she is especially impassioned in her speech about women not having a place in history except to carry the pails of water.

Jeffrey Todd Parrott adroitly brings out the pathos of misfit Posner, lost in love over swaggering, sexy Daikin, brought to full bodied life by Robert Johnsten. Sean Michael Flynn is a low-keyed comic relief as hapless Rudge, a student athlete who seems sadly out of the running for Oxford or Cambridge. And Tommy Keesling hits the perfect pompous note for the Headmaster, the school administrator who can’t hold his own in Hector’s class.

Director Mark Edward Smith carves an artistic edge to this production with help by lighting designer John Hemphill. Mr. Smith also keeps it moving at a good, quick clip, so you have to pay attention to the dialogue, most of it spoken with accents of northern England. Big nods here to dialect coaches Gemma Victoria and Anne-Marie Colwell.

This acclaimed, award winning play does have one element to it that may make audiences wince. At the end of the first scene, Hector asks which boy would like a ride into town on his motorbike. None of them want to ride with him because they know a ride means a grope or two. Here’s what Mr. Bennett said about that in a New York Times interview:
“…there’s never any hope that he’ll get anywhere and that enables them to be quite lighthearted about it…I don’t subscribe to the notion that if somebody puts their hand on your knee it’s going to scar you for life. Partly because when I was a boy, that was expected almost. You just thought, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ ”

SIDE O’ GRITS: “The History Boys” runs through Sept. 7 at Mad Cow Theatre, on the second floor at 54 West Church St., Orlando. It performs 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $28.25 to $35.75. Call 407-297-8788 or visit. www.madcowtheatre.com.

Review: ‘Merrily We Roll Along’

Henegar Center presents "Merrily We Roll Along"

Henegar Center presents “Merrily We Roll Along”

By PAM HARBAUGH

The Henegar Center for the Arts delivers a bonanza of talent in its production of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Merrily We Roll Along.”

It is based on the 1934 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play, which has 91 characters; and its Broadway debut also had nine complete sets designed by Jo Mielziner.

But George Furth, who wrote the book for the Sondheim musical, did quite a bit of slicing and dicing. Here, a cast of 20 tells the story of successful Hollywood songwriter Frank Shepard as he goes back in time to his Broadway beginnings. In peeling back the years, we see Frank and his two best friends – writers Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn – shed years of crippling cynicism and return to the sweet, starry-eyed innocence of three young people who more than anything want to succeed on Broadway.

In returning to this naïve core, these young people unwittingly reveal the mistakes they will make. You can’t escape this underlying current as it guides you to consider your own life through this perspective. Yes, life has changed you, but can you remember those early passions? Are you being true to them or have you abandoned them?

Directed with slick, high-concept style by Hank Rion, the production is minimal. A small orchestra (led by the crazy-talented Kevin McNaughton) sits upstage. The only “scenery” is lighting reflecting on gleaming silvery scaffolding flanking the acting area.

That’s it. This production is shaved down in order to let shine a basic element – the talent.

Ben Morgan is handsomely and earnestly in tune as Franklin Shepard. He rightly starts out as cavalier and self-involved and ends up so much nicer. As Charlie Kringas, Tyler Pirrung pours out some terrific moments. He is quick, witty and adroit in “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” a musical number in which his character skewers the money-grubbing man Frank has become.

Leyla Corbett is splendid as Mary — “Sally” to Pirrung’s “Buddy” (think “The Dick Van Dyke Show”). Strong voiced, emotionally powerful, Corbett has some very sassy, world-weary Elaine Stritch-y moments throughout this show. We can only imagine where this still-young talent will go.

Christine Brandt lusciously fleshes out celebrated Broadway actress Gussie Carnegie, a self-involved vamp who gets her talons into the man she wants and doesn’t think twice about splashing iodine into the eyes of an interloping ingénue.

One of the stand-out numbers is “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” a wonderfully fun and delightfully staged song about the Kennedy White House years. It features Morgan, Pirrung and the bright voiced Lindsay Nantz who portrays Beth, Frank’s first wife.

But there are interesting ironies with this show’s theme about selling out your art to make money. First, there’s the chance you have never heard, let alone seen, a production of “Merrily We Roll Along.” It is seldom produced. Indeed, its Broadway debut had only 16 performances. And that was after 52 preview performances – a time where tweaks generally take place to improve the commercial appeal of a Broadway show.

Then, there is Charley’s and Mary’s full-blown finger-pointing of Frank’s willingness to bastardize his talent to make Hollywood money…Sondheim recently announced that he did exactly that, and quite deliberately, when he agreed to soft peddle the ending to Disney’s movie version of Sondheim’s huge hit musical, “Into the Woods.” In a June 23 online article, BroadwayWorld.com quoted him as saying “There has to be a point at which you don’t compromise anymore, but that may mean that you won’t get anyone to sell your painting or perform your musical. You have to deal with reality.”

Fortunately, the reality with the Henegar’s production is that it entertains throughout. You will be thrilled by the talented cast and probably come away changed, for the better.

SIDE O’ GRITS: “Merrily We Roll Along” runs through Sunday, Aug. 17, at the Henegar Center for the Arts, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. Curtain is 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $16 to $26 plus handling. Call 321-723-0698 or visit www.henegar.org. MORE…I will moderate a “Talk Back” with the director, music director and select cast members after the 8 p.m. Friday performance. Do stick around for that.

Review: ‘Hair’ at Mad Cow

Erick Perafan in "HAIR" at Mad Cow Theatre. Photo by Tom Hurst

Erick Perafan in “HAIR” at Mad Cow Theatre. Photo by Tom Hurst

By PAM HARBAUGH

While pop culture remains agog with “Mad Men,” there is plenty to consider on opposite side of the 1960s coin — the counterculture that slapped a nation in its face. As the lyrics state “My eyes are open” and nothing remained the same. Yes, it’s the 1960s musical “Hair,” this time 1960s at Mad Cow Theatre in Orlando.

Set in New York’s East Village in 1968 – then a tough location filled with drugs and crime and squatters –the loosely organized musical concerns a group of hippies who burn draft cards, protest the Vietnam War, practice free love and smoke dope.

Lyricists James Rado and the late Gerome Ragni showed some deep talent in crafting songs that painted apt pictures of 1968 hippie life and some of those in the anti-war movement. But, their “careers,” were as ephemeral as the “happenings.” They never did much beyond this musical. And composer Galt MacDermot turned out some unforgettable tunes. These are the iconic songs that resonate so – from the druggy “Walking in Space” and the pop-pounding “Black Boys” / “White Boys” to the lofty “What a Piece of Work is Man” and happy “Good Morning Sunshine.” Afterwards, MacDermot worked on minor projects and drifted into relative obscurity.

But this moment in theatrical time does, thankfully, abide. There are some gorgeous voices in this show, especially Kaylin Seckel (“Aquarius”), Byron DeMent (Claude – “Where Do I Go?”), Heather Kopp (“Easy to Be Hard”) and Joanna Yeakel (“Frank Mills”).

Newcomer Jake Mullen is quite a find. As Margaret Mead, he sails through “My Conviction” with humor, grace and aplomb. And Sean Michael Flynn is a fun ball of energy as a nameless tribe-member. Keep an eye on both of these talented young men.

To my thinking, the best review of this musical was uttered as an aside by Bryan Cranston when he received his Tony Award last Sunday. He said, in part: “My first Broadway play was in 1977. I snuck into the second act of ‘Hair.’ To this day, I still haven’t seen the first act, but they tell me the second act was better….”

Granted, he finished by saying there was supposedly more nudity in the second act. But really, there’s more story in the second act. The first act is basically a “be-in” where you get to know some annoying, self-indulgent hippies. At least they have good songs to sing.

But then, oh my, comes the second act, which actually has a bit of a storyline. This is where director Elena Day and choreographer Ellie Potts Barrett excel. It takes those who are old enough back to the era of Vietnam War. You sink into the reality – again – that it was all for nothing. That all those lives were tossed into political volcanos. That they were the dominoes that fell, not nations.

Certainly, if you love the music – so well performed by cast and musicians — or just want to feel that connection well up within you again, then by all means head to the Mad Cow to see this unusual musical. Hopefully, by now they will have fixed the sound system which screeched and annoyed so on opening night.

Photo by Tom Hurst

SIDE O’ GRITS: “Hair” runs through July 6 at Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., Orlando. Tickets begin at $26.25. Call 407-297-8788 or visit www.madcowtheatre.com.

Review: ‘A Few Good Men’ at Titusville Playhouse

Titusville Playhouse "A Few Good Men"

Titusville Playhouse “A Few Good Men”

By PAM HARBAUGH

The end does not justify the means, or so we think, in “A Few Good Men,” the courtroom drama currently on stage in a gripping production at Titusville Playhouse.

Written in 1989 by Aaron Sorkin, it explores in part how easy it is to cross moral boundaries. Sorkin is no stranger to social and political issue-driven stories. He wrote and produced for “The West Wing” and for HBO’s “The Newsroom.” He also wrote screenplays for “The Social Network” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

Here, he takes aim at a Marine code of “unit, corps, God and country” and considers how it can set the stage for honor or, unchecked, lead to self-righteousness.

Set in various places in Washington, D.C. and U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it concerns the court martial of Lance Cpl. Harold Dawson (a very appealing and ever-poised Joseph Rose) and PFC Loudon Downey (a bravely vulnerable Ben Youmans).

The two are accused of murdering Pfc. William Santiago in an action called “Code Red,” in which physical bullying is used to induce conformity among the ranks. Code Red has been outlawed on the books, but unofficially sanctioned by two officers, the self-righteous Lt. Jonathan Kendrick (wonderful Gregory Galbreath) and his superior, Lt. Col. Nathan Jessep (a terrific David Baum).

Coming to their defense is Marine lawyer LY. J.G. Daniel Kaffee and Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway. Professional actors Brian Brigthman and Ame Livingston tear into these roles with gusto, delivering natural, fun and engaging portrayals of two Naval lawyers battling not only with each other, but with their clients and the military hierarchy.

The prosecuting attorney is Lt. Jack Ross, portrayed with an almost flamboyant ease, if you will, by Orlando actor Tom Mangieri. It’s a delight to watch both Mangieri and Brightman spar on stage.

But while it could be easy to land on one side or the other of the moral question, Sorkin’s play, under the very smart and artful direction of Stephan Jones, paints a picture that is filled with shades of gray instead of stark black and white.

When Jessep hollers “You can’t handle the truth,” it shouts out to us all. We wonder, what would we do if we were constant moving targets; if our actions determined the security of family, friends and fellow Marines. Is he 100 percent wrong? Indeed, Kaffee uses courtroom trickery to get his way. His act of subterfuge is a means to an end, but we turn a blind eye to that and instead cheer him on.

While a courtroom drama can be pretty stolid on stage – no intercuts like you have in film or TV which accelerates pacing and tension – here, scenic designer Jay Bleakney and lighting/sound designer Philip Lupo move action through multiple locales.

This is a long play, very well performed under the direction of Mr. Jones. It will get you talking.

SIDE O’ GRITS: “A Few Good Men” runs through May 31 at Titusville Playhouse, 301 Julia St., Titusville. It performs 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $20 to $22 general, with $2 discounts for students, military and seniors 60 years and older. Call 321-268-1125 or visit www.titusvilleplayhouse.com.

Review: ‘A Delicate Balance’ at Melbourne Civic Theatre

Melbourne Civic Theatre's 'A Delicate Balance'

Melbourne Civic Theatre’s ‘A Delicate Balance’

By PAM HARBAUGH

Maintaining can be quite a balancing act. Emotions churned up by life can tilt us this way and that, tipping our sense of stability and threatening a slide into oblivion.

This is one of the many important themes in Edward Albee’s three-act masterpiece, “A Delicate Balance,” currently engrossing audiences at Melbourne Civic Theatre.

The setting of this Pulitzer Prize winning play is the comfortable living room in a suburban home. Agnes and Tobias are a married couple on the verge of their golden years, as comfortable with each other as warm slippers.

But offstage, something lurks – Agnes’ alcoholic sister, Claire, and the couple’s 36 year-old daughter, Julia, en-route back home after a failed fourth marriage. The ordered home becomes the launching pad for emotions, threats, confessions, grand philosophy, insights and a battle between reality and blessed ignorance.

Nellie Brannan crafts a fine portrayal of Agnes, a complex woman who explains that keeping in shape means maintaining, holding the status quo. “I shall keep it in shape,” she announces. Ms. Brannan takes Agnes from comfortable propriety to the edge of despair when she questions Clair’s lack of respect, Tobias’ fidelity and her own daughter’s exhausting need to be consoled. Calling herself the “fulcrum,” Agnes reveals her own difficulty in keeping the balance whens she says about her own family and friends — “the helpless are the cruelest lot of all – they shift their burdens so.”

Terrence Girard disappears into his portrayal of Tobias, slicing him open to reveal fear, guilt and deep love. He has a remarkable monologue (the play is loaded with them) about a stray cat he once loved. As he descends into this chilling monologue, a sense of foreboding rises, making one wonder what is going to happen in this play. “We live in a highly moral land,” he says. “We assume we have done great wrongs.”

Although keen universality rings throughout Mr. Albee’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama, it was written in 1966 which profoundly informs. This was a tipping point in American society — we were finally taking a breath from years of Cold War terror when social upheaval confronted us and diluted lifestyles like those enjoyed by Agnes and Tobias. Indeed, in the play’s third act, reference is made to the “help” not cleaning up and leaving the family to make its own coffee.

The dread of change is made manifest at the end of the first act when the couple’s lifelong friends, Edna and Harry, pay an unexpected visit. Edna (Tori Smith at her best) is on the verge of tears. Harry (Michael Thompson in tidy, restrained form) is obviously troubled. They soon confess that in the midst of a normal evening, she was doing needlepoint and he was practicing French, they both felt an unspeakable fear. Their terror was so fierce, they left their house to move in with Agnes and Tobias.

Thus enter the slap of theatrical absurdism for which Mr. Albee is known. Edna and Harry settle into Julia’s room, bags and all, displacing the self-pitying daughter (shades of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”). Edna soon dictates how the room should be decorated and how Julia should behave.

Their presence ratchets up the emotions and dynamics. They are the chemical activator, setting the petri dish foaming with threat and confrontation.

As Agnes says, they are “the plague, the terror, sitting in the room upstairs.”

Like his celebrated 1962 drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” another strong current in this play is escaping from reality, a subject about which Mr. Albee opined in 1996 in “The Progressive”: “I don’t think there’s any problem with having false illusions. The problem is with kidding yourself that they’re not false. O’Neill said, in that extraordinary play that nobody does, The Iceman Cometh, that we have to have pipe dreams. I think Virginia Woolf was in part a response to that; it’s better to live without false illusions, but if you must have them, know that they are false. It’s part of the responsibility of the playwright to help us see when they’re false.”

Clair, wonderfully brought to life by Susan Suomi (we want to see more of her on stage), is the wisecracking realist who copes by frequent trips to the liquor cabinet. Early in the play, Tobias asks Clair what he can do for her, she replies “Kill Agnes.” Their dialogue quickly spins into murdering the entire family, a delicious bit of foreboding. But she is our “fool,” whose insightful quips leaven the action.

Tracey Thompson flawlessly presents Julia as a distraught woman in constant need of reassurance. She is deeply flawed, though, without a whit of independence or responsibility. The only balm she offers is to make a pot of coffee.

Scenic designer Alfie Silva creates a balanced living room, anchored up center by the liquor cabinet, suggesting the real fulcrum in the action. However, the production would be better served by toning down the clash of color and styles in this intimate theater. While thematically revelatory, it visually upstages the fine cast.

This electrifying, complex three-act play, is directed with integrity by Peg Girard, who heeds Mr. Albee’s demanding stage directions for the actors.

It instantly grabs you and holds you tight. This production goes by in a flash, leaving you satisfied with its artistry, its performances and, not at all the least, Mr. Albee’s exquisite talent at using absurdity to paint important lessons.

(Glenn Close and John Lithgow will star in ‘A Delicate Balance,’ scheduled to open on Broadway for previews in October, 2014.)

SIDE O’ GRITS:
“A Delicate Balance” runs through June 22 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 E. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. It performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25 general, $23 seniors, military and students. Call 321-723-6935 or visit www.mymct.org.

Review: ‘La Cage aux Folles’

Cocoa Village Playhouse "La Cage aux Folles"

Cocoa Village Playhouse “La Cage aux Folles”

By BRUCE HICKMAN

The fabulous female impersonators known as the Cagelles introduce us to the magical world of illusion as they invite us to enjoy the magical journey at La Cage aux Folles, a popular show bar. And this magic translates beautifully to Cocoa Village Playhouse’s production of “La Cage aux Folles” as well.

The enchanting production shows Cocoa Village Playhouse at its best, allowing the cast and those working behind the scenes a chance to show off their goods.

Director Anastacia Hawkins-Smith keeps the proceedings brisk and energy filled. During the curtain speech she reminds the audience they will be transported back to 1973. But aside from a few period street clothes and outdated expressions, the story could very well be taking place in 2014, given the political climate of late.

The talented James Spiva as Georges serves as our tour guide, if you will. He’s a bridge between illusion and his character’s reality, after wigs and dresses are removed.

And what a sweet, blissful reality it is as we see his gleeful home life with his longtime companion Albin (played by Ray Asiala) who works nights as a popular female impersonator Zaza at La Cage.

Enter Georges’ 20-something son Jean-Michel (played by tall, dark and handsome Joe Horton) who announces he’s getting married.
If there is a bad guy to be had in this story it’s really Jean-Michel who insists Georges and and Albin pass for straight folks while his fiancee Anne (Victoria Zombo) and her conservative parents (played by Alecia Deveraux and Gene Hayes who both add much comedic spice to the proceedings) are in town.

As for the diva of the night? Ray Asiala is a perfect casting choice. The production marks Asiala’s return to the stage after a 24-year absence. And to that I say audiences hopefully won’t have to wait that long again for another performance. Back in the day, Asiala was a gifted singer who had a natural command of the stage. This show proves his gifts have aged beautifully.Watching him, you feel he was born to play for this role.

Like his Zaza, his Albin is over the top as you might expect, yet never out of control nor obnoxious.
And just as his performance turns many comedic shades, his beautiful baritone voice fills the room – and the theater – offering several chills along the way.

A musical highlight is his performance of “The Best of Times” which he delivers with Albin’s assistant/sister-in- crime Jacquiline, played by the charismatic Kari Ryan Furr and several other cast members in fine voice.

As for Spiva, anyone who knows him from his rock band performances knows he is a musician at heart. And that shows in his lovely tenor voice throughout. But it’s the chemistry he creates with his co-star Asiala that offers the show its warmth. His performance makes it easy to overlook that he’s a few decades younger than the character he portrays. (I may have even detected a few inside jokes regarding the age differences.)

The musical numbers are spectacular and consistent throughout, offering the right mix between vocals and orchestra (directed by Daniel Klintworth) as we expect from CVP. Bravos to sound engineer and sound designer Gavin Little.

As is the orchestra, another unseen star Daniel Hill. His costume designs provide an ongoing fashion show with enough costume changes that one can only guess what sort of reality show goes on backstage. I’d tune in to that one for sure.

Lighting designer Ian Cook and associate production designer Jeremy Phelps have once again provided a spectacle of a set design, this time offering plenty of wow factors (the red draperies and La Cage logo for instance) that offer the actors a perfect playing field.

And speaking of fun costume changes, particularly fun to watch is Ben Jackson, as Albin’s butler, who longs to perform at La Cage — and to be called Albin’s maid. Is that so wrong?

Can’t forget that the show’s book is by Harvey Fierstein who helped introduce the world to “La Cage” in the early ’80s. Music and lyrics are by Jerry Herman. It’s based on the play by Jean Poiret and was adapted for the film “The Bird Cage” in the mid ’90s.

A shout out to Cagelles Jonathon Adler, Christopher Beavers, Benjamin Cox, Freddy Fernandez, Justin Radlein, and Frederick Toland. Though often working as part of an ensemble, each performer offers a personality that is as unique as their hair, make-up and dresses. Pamela Larson is the show’s choreographer. Wigs and makeup are by Dustin Coleman
Also turning comedic turns in smaller roles are Brenda Kreiger, Don Bricker and Dann Hogerty.
With only one week left to see it, score your tickets now. Ultimately, the show offers a wonderful message about positive family values and despite a few bawdy jokes, the show is family friendly.

SIDE O’ GRITS: “La Cage aux Folles” runs through Sunday at Cocoa Village Playhouse, 300 Brevard Ave., Cocoa. $27 general, $25 student/senior, $19 children under 12 years. Call 321-636-5050 or visit www.cocoavillageplayhouse.com.

Review: “9 to 5″ at the Henegar Center

Henegar Center presents "9 to 5 the Musical"

Henegar Center presents “9 to 5 the Musical”

By PAM HARBAUGH

The Henegar Center sets the stage to showcase new and growing talent with its sleek production of “9 to 5 the musical.”

The 2009 musical is written by Patricia Resnic with music and lyrics by Dolly Parton. It is a faithful musical retelling of the 1980 movie that starred Ms. Parton, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dabney Coleman.

In it, an unlikely trio of harassed women join forces to get back at their sexist boss.

Kim Miller is impassioned as Violet Newstead, the woman who keeps hitting her head against the glass ceiling. A single mother, she refuses to accept that a man should be paid more because he’s the head of a family.

Lindsay Nantz is wonderful as blonde bombshell Doralee Rhodes, a smart country gal who discovers her boss has been spreading unfounded rumors. Ms. Nantz is a charmer on stage and has a melodic voice that always finds the music’s sweet spot.

As Judy Bernley, Holly McFarland reveals a deep performance talent. She crafts her portrayal of the young, insecure divorcee as one who eventually discovers inner strength. Her big number, “Get Out and Stay Out,” is a knock-out.

And Rob Landers is exquisitely dastardly as the male chauvinistic pig Franklin Hart. Mr. Landers digs into some wonderfully dark places to bring out this character and it’s right on. His song, “Here for You,” is as creepy and well done as can be.

Pam Quenzler draws a comical caricature of Roz Keith, the office busybody who has the hots for Hart.

But really, this is one strange mash up of movie and stage musical. It starts with a video of Dolly Parton giving the backstory on each of the main characters. It ends with another video in which Dolly speaks to the bewildered live theater audience and then sings “9 to 5” along with the cast.

What’s especially appealing about the Henegar production, though, is the talent that continues to emerge on its stage. Some of it is new, some has been around for a while but had never “come out.” And some is continuing to grow and shine.
Director/choreographer Amanda Cheyenne Manis has created some rich choreography and production numbers. Her “Heart to Hart” number in which a bevy of Roz Keiths come out to dance is inspired.

David McQuillen Robertson’s set and lighting design is clean and smart. Shannon Reppert’s costume design and Will Bernstein’s hair design are right on for time. The orchestra, led by Sue Diebel sounds solid.

The biggest problem stilling nagging the Henegar are technical ones.

The venue needs a technical director, a counterweight fly system that works and speakers that don’t steal the glory away from a performer like Holly McFarland during what should have been her show stopper number (she was robbed).

Despite a rugged opening night, the show came together with fluid precision on Sunday. It’s fun, stylish, and more important, showcases some impressive talent.

SIDE O’ GRITS: “9 to 5 the Musical” runs through May 18 at the Henegar Center for the Arts, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. $16 to $25, handling charges may apply. Call 321-723-8698 or visit www.henegar.org.

Review: miR Theater’s ‘Jazz/Reade’

miR Theater's "Jazz/Reade"

miR Theater’s “Jazz/Reade”

by PAM HARBAUGH

Going to the newly formed miR Theater is turning into quite a refreshing adventure into the unusual side of the arts. And I like it. They promise “unusual pieces in unusual places” and so far that’s been the case.

Their first production, “Cereus Moonlight,” brought us into the world of the old Indian River and included puppets and some pretty wild staging.

Their second and current production, “Jazz/Reade,” although quirky and beguiling, comes with a caveat: Skip any meal or drink which you know will compel you to visit to the rest room within two hours.

Upon arriving at the current production’s venue, the Thompson House, a tiny building sitting at the edge of Anderson Park in Rockledge, I asked for the ladies room. What I was told was the stuff of nightmares: “It’s onstage.”

Oh my. Memories of gutsy, vulnerability-inducing ‘Method Acting’ exercises bubbled to the top of my mind, and I immediately knew that Brevard audiences were not ready for that.

“No, no,” designer Joseph Lark-Riley said, pointing. “It’s there.”

I was relieved to see that the bathroom was upstage, behind a door. At least there was that. After a brief visit across the tiny acting area and into the bathroom to “powder my nose,” I slunk back to my seat knowing that all eyes must have been on me. A moment later, director Elizabeth Lark-Riley walked onto the stage and advised the sold out “house” of 20 or so that if they had to go, they better go now.

One more brave soul ventured forth. Upon his slinking return, the play was ready to start.

The stage, if I may call it that, is so small it makes 93-seat Melbourne Civic Theatre seem cavernous. About 20 chairs are nestled in two rows against the south wall of a room in which you become voyeur into the relationship between best friends Jazz and Reade.

Jazz (an impassioned Ben Cox) is a flighty actor who thrives on international travel. Reade (the talented Aurelia Rose, where the heck has she been?) is an elementary school teacher hopelessly in love with Jazz. However, Jazz is interested only in friendship and Reade is too insecure to tell him her real feelings.

Harboring a secret love for a best friend is a common theme in life and art. Here, though, Gonnsen brings some quirky conceits to the stage, beginning with a mannequin that turns into Jazz’s alter ego and counsels Reade on how to win Jazz’s heart.

Like they did in “Cereus Moonlight,” Mr. and Mrs. Lark-Riley employ unexpected creative touches. Here, they shift settings from “real time” to “fantasy time” — lights flash, and music plays, provided by a cellist sitting on stage in front of a large swath of black fabric.

We get involved with Reade, wanting her to get what she wants. The characters and their portrayal keep our interest throughout. Gonnsen’s play has some real potential, but the naturalist dialogue needs to be tightened and peppered up to fit with the pace and style of the play’s off-beat concept. That would keep Gonnsen’s play sprightly in content and form.

Those of adventurous theatrical spirits should enjoy it. (Just go potty before you get there.)

SIDE O’ GRITS: “Jazz/Reade” runs through Sunday at the Thompson House in Anderson Park, 1220 Pluckebaum Drive, Rockledge. It performs 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $20, $15 for students and seniors, and $18 for teachers. Call 321-890-5110 or visit madeinrockledge.org. Send a Tweet to @mirtheater

Review: Henegar Center’s ‘Stories My Grandmother Told Me’

Henegar Center's "Stories My Grandmother Told Me" Photo by Dana Niemeier

Henegar Center’s “Stories My Grandmother Told Me” Photo by Dana Niemeier

By BRUCE HICKMAN

“Stories My Grandmother Told Me” presents a premise that might suggest an evening of folksy tedium. Though family friendly with nary a coarse word to be heard, rest assured this is not front porch story time. And thanks to the honest writing and several performances by the Henegar Center cast directed by Anthony Mowad, the show avoids homespun cliches wrapped in pretty bows.

Playwright Ted Swindley adapted the play from a few of his short stories, which take on the relationship between younger John Mark (Jarrett Poore) and his grandmother Gladys (Dee Quinn). We see it unfold mostly through the eyes of the grown-up John Mark (Bob Gray)who also serves as the story’s narrator.

Particularly engaging is Jarrett Poore as the younger John Mark. With his trousers pulled so high and wearing an expression that seems lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting, he is the picture of southern innocence and charm. We’re easily drawn to him as he lives the memories. He presents a wide-eyed contrast to his character’s wisdom-meets-the-cynicism of his older self, which now grapples with his grandmother’s lifelong need to find comfort in the black-and-white world she’s desperate to believe.

Even ensemble pieces such as this one need a central focal point and veteran actress Dee Quinn is perfect as Gladys, the grandmother of a certain age. She is a woman of faith – or certainly comes across as such in the narrator’s book.
Tori Terhune and David Hill have the tasks of playing multiple roles as ancillary characters are recalled in the memories. Hill especially is a joy to watch and seems almost too good of a fit as a fire-and-brimstone preacher. His scenes may cause flashbacks for those who grew up in southern churches.

Certainly the play doesn’t have the name recognition of Swindley’s “Always…Patsy Cline.” But if you’ve seen that play you sense similiar warmth and some tragedy with very of it sinking into darker territory.

Some frustration is felt but there’s little cathartic anger to enjoy. But that’s the point. As the narrator explains near the play’s start, the memories are “based on fact filtered through the fiction of the heart.”

The set is quaint and inviting, consisting of a couch and chair.

Audiences don’t have much time left to catch this production. Final show is 2 p.m. Sunday at Upstairs @ the Henegar at The Henegar Center.

Photo by Dana Niemeier

SIDE O’ GRITS: “STORIES MY GRANDMOTHER TOLD ME” runs through Sunday at Upstairs at the Henegar venue on the second floor of the Henegar Center for the Arts, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. Curtain is 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. $16 to $25, handling charges may apply. Call 321-723-8698 or visit www.henegar.org.