Review: Henegar’s ‘The Addams Family: The Musical’

Henegar Center's 'The Addams Family: The Musical'

Henegar Center’s ‘The Addams Family: The Musical’

By PAM HARBAUGH

The affectionate undead gleefully haunt the Henegar’s spirited production of “The Addams Family: The Musical.” It begins during the overture when the familiar music from the 1960s television show starts. The audience immediately gets in on the act and “snap snap” before you know it, you’re hooked.

Truly. Before arriving at the theater, the memory of what came decades before takes over all reason and you have willed yourself into thoroughly enjoying this musical, despite its weak story line. Indeed. When the curtain rises on the deadpan Addamses standing as still as the tombstones around them, the audience responds with thunderous applause.

This is nostalgia, baby, and we want it just like we remembered it. And that’s what the Henegar gives us — a wonderfully realized recreation of the kooky and spooky and ooky Addams Family.

Directed by Hank Rion, the production lives and breathes not because of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s thin storyline, but because of the talented cast, musicians, designers and crew who give their all…especially on an opening night with electrical outages plaguing downtown Melbourne and the Henegar, adding an uninvited bit of the macabre.

This production of “The Addams Family: The Musical” is different from the one which opened on Broadway in 2010. After some pretty harsh reviews, the show was re-tooled for touring and regional productions. Basically, the story revolves around Wednesday wanting to marry a normal guy named Lucas. She tells her father, Gomez, who agrees to keep the secret from Morticia. Eventually, the Addamses invite Lucas’ parents to a dinner, which here evokes DaVinci’s “Last Supper.” Pugsley spikes some special wine, which — you see coming a mile away — is consumed by Lucas’ mother. That’s about it. The show is just this side of a musical revue, moving characters around to set up Andrew Lippa’s songs.

Rob Landers finds more than the sexy Latin lover in Gomez, he hits the genuine core to the man, imbuing him with humor and tenderness, especially in “Two Things” and “Happy Sad,” which he sings flawlessly. Shane Frampton goes step to step with Mr. Landers as she brings out the sexy in Morticia in “Tango de Amor.”

With the quintessential forbidding glare, Gabrielle Marchion carves the perfect dismal look to Wednesday. She brings a lot of life to the stage in “Pulled,” in which her character tortures her younger brother, Pugsley (a wonderful Aidan Holihan). Daniel Grest delights as Lucas and is especially strong in the duet “Crazier Than You.”

Dana Blanchard nearly steals the show as Fester, the odd man who falls in love with the moon. In fact, in the second act, his “Moon and Me” is a piece of sublime theater magic which you really cannot miss. It will probably end up in Brevard community theater legend along with the old Phoenix Theatre flying an Angel onto the small stage in “Angels in America.” (Big help here from Joseph and Liz Lark-Riley of miR Theatre.)

In “Waiting,” Monica Toro Lisciandro lets her hair down as Lucas’ uptight mother Alice. She has accidentally taken some potion cooked up by Grandma (hysterical Leslie McGinty) and has her way with Lurch (an unforgettable Pete Jacobsen) before giving a piece of her mind to her closed-minded husband, Mal (a fun Aaron Karnes).

Conductor Staci Cleveland leads the very good pit orchestra, which sets a lively tempo to the show. But on opening night, more volume was needed from the singers as the orchestra frequently drowned out the voices. Choreographer Heather Mowad brings some fun energy, especially in “Full Disclosure.” Kate Sauer’s makeup design is terrific, as is Andrew Cline’s costume design.

No doubt, you will have fun at this show. You’ll thrill at the music, delight over the visuals, giggle at the characters and laugh at the Addams’ odd approach to family values. Oh yeah, and you’ll snap your fingers. Twice. Resistance is futile.

Photo by Dana Niemeier

SIDE O’ GRITS: “The Addams Family: The Musical” runs through Nov. 2 at the Henegar Center for the Arts, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. $16 to $25, service fee may apply. Call 321-723-8698 or visit www.henegar.org.

Review: MCT’s ‘The Game’s Afoot, or Holmes for the Holidays’

'The Game's Afoot' at Melbourne Civic Theatre

‘The Game’s Afoot’ at Melbourne Civic Theatre

By PAM HARBAUGH

High-style repartee, theater, murder and wit blend into Ken Ludwig’s glorious concoction called “The Game’s Afoot or Holmes for the Holidays.” And in the hands of Melbourne Civic Theatre talent, this farcical souffle rises to the comic sublime.

Like he did in previous theatrical comedies, (“Lend Me a Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo,” “Leading Ladies” and the book to “Crazy for You) Mr. Ludwig uses the world of the theater as a backdrop to mad goings-on in “The Game’s Afoot.” We immediately meet a theatrical company headed up by the famous William Gillette playing Sherlock Holmes. A shot rings out and soon, the musty stage turns into the brilliant art-deco inspired Gillette estate on the Connecticut River where a group of theater friends have been invited to spend Christmas Eve. All is pitter patter perfect until…egads…the drama critic arrives.

I will not reveal one bit more for fear of spoiling the deliciousness that ensues. Allow me to leave it that this production is exhilarating in its timing, delirious in its dialogue and funny as hell in the acting of it all.

Christina LaFortune is at the top of her game in the role of Daria, the drama critic who’s both sophisticate and slut. In wonderful vampy style, she takes stage focus and dishes out “I’m a sorceress. A wave of my pen and I can make you a star.” Ms. LaFortune wrings every drop of humor from this role, leaving you aching for more.

Glenn Krasny as Gillette is an urbane man as comfortable dishing out lines from Shakespeare as he is solving a murder. Mark Blackledge is his very funny, often befuddled sidekick. The two of them have one of the funniest scenes in the second act when they try to hide…er…something.

Kim Dickman adds some nice layers to Gillette’s mother, Martha. Deanna Dickman and Zephan Smith are sweet and fun as Aggie and Simon. Tracey Thompson brings a good style to Madge. And Tori Smith mines funnier stuff than was written for her role of the Inspector.

Director Peg Girard has become so adept at comedy that she is beginning to make this look all so easy. She knows her timing and pacing. Knows what’s needed visually to tell a story with terrific entertainment value. And knows how to relate all this to her cast and crew.

Alan Selby’s scenic and lighting design here are splendid. His set, complete with a wall filled with weapons, art deco touches reminiscent of the Empire State Building, art deco paintings and a staircase that really feels as if it’s leading to the second floor. Then there’s…no, I can’t say that either.

Wendy Reader does her usual excellent work on sound design. Jessica Foix’ hair and wig design is terrific as are the costumes headed up by Jennifer Frandsen.

So much fun to see such a good production of a really funny comedy. Opening night may not have been sold out, but my guess is the rest of the run will be.

SIDE ‘O GRITS: “The Game’s Afoot or Holmes for the Holidays” performs at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 16 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 E. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. Tickets are $25 general, $23 students, seniors and military. $2 service fee for credit card ticket purchases. Call 321-723-6935 or visit www.mymct.org.

Review: ‘Miss Saigon’ at Cocoa Village Playhouse

Francesco Battagliese as The Engineer in 'Miss Saigon'

Francesco Battagliese as The Engineer in Cocoa Village Playhouse’s ‘Miss Saigon.’ Photo by Jonathan Goforth

By PAM HARBAUGH

Big spectacle and big voices tell an epic story in Cocoa Village Playhouse’s potent and precise production of “Miss Saigon.”

With music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr. (Schonberg and Boublil created “Les Miserables”), this remake of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” tells the story of love between an American soldier and a Vietnamese woman immediately before the 1975 Fall of Saigon.

In it, John brings his buddy, Chris, to a brothel run by The Engineer. Chris meets Kim, an innocent young woman driven by hardship into accepting a job there. The love they soon share is thwarted by the Viet Cong and the Americans’ hasty retreat from the war-torn country. The image to keep in mind is the famous photograph of the final helicopter on the roof of one of the buildings in the American embassy compound in Saigon. The moment was fraught with despair and hopelessness by those left behind. Indeed, that image also looms as the iconic moment for this musical — a moment which leaves directors and technical directors scratching their heads on how to make it happen.

Along with scenic/lighting designer Ian Cook, associate designer Jeremy Phelps and sound designer Gavin Little, director Anastacia Hawkins-Smith pulls off this crucial plot point with light and sound and another little trick which breaks fourth wall and sends the thrilled audience into excited applause. But you can’t depend only on smoke and mirrors to make the show succeed. It also needs stunning talent. Here, Hawkins-Smith has brought together a stage filled with splendid voices which sail easily through nearly three hours of challenging music.

Francesco Battagliese is unbridled in his performance of The Engineer, a French-Vietnamese man who can finagle his way through any challenge and end up on top. His big scene is “The American Dream,” in which he treats money as a sexually-alluring idol.

Christina Montgomery evokes emotion in her heart-filled portrayal of Kim. Blessed with a beautiful voices, Ms. Montgomery and Jason Reichman (Chris) whip up the passion and romance in “Sun and Moon” and “The Last Night of the World.”

David Morales stuns with his strong portrayal of Thuy, the Viet Cong who also loves Kim and to whom she is betrothed. His second act appearance brings chills. Wendy Bernier finds the deep irony, as Gigi, the bargirl who sits beneath a sign reading “Dreamland” while she sings “The Movie in My Mind.” And Natalie Palmer strikes the right chord as Ellen, Chris’ American wife. Ms. Palmer is especially compelling in “Now That I’ve Seen Her,” which she sings after her character meets Kim three years after the war.

But it is Johnathan Shepherd who brings down the house as John, the soldier who finds himself on a crusade to unite servicemen with the children they fathered while in Vietnam. Mr. Shepherd is a powerhouse on stage and his “Bui-Doi” is as good as it gets, anywhere.

Choreographer Pamela Larson does her best work ever in “The Morning of the Dragon,” the thrilling dance in which lines of now-communist Vietnamese march in lock step while holding up posters of the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. It is a fierce ballet, filled with dread and big spectacle (great banners by Sheryl Koby).

That dance, coupled with the Fall of Saigon complete-with-helicopter scene, are wonderful examples of theatrical spectacle. But Cocoa Village Playhouse ironically sets itself up for missing the mark with “The American Dream.” They prove they can crank out the big stuff and that’s what we want this third time to the plate. Although performed very well by the talented cast, “The American Dream” needs needs more visuals than a big glittering dollar sign and a red carpet. C’mon. Smack us in the face with it. We can take it.

Music director Daniel Klintworth and conductor William Yoh bring astounding work to this production — from voices to orchestra, it sails with professionalism. Add to that costume design by Dan Hill, Ray Asiala’s wigs and fast-paced precision by stage manager Brian Brown.

There’s no question. Cocoa Village Playhouse begins its 25th season in sure-footed manner with “Miss Saigon,” which also celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It’s big, splashy, filled with emotion, splendid spectacle, great voices and, yes, lots of contemporary adult content.

Photo of Francesco Battagliese as The Engineer by Jonathan Goforth.

SIDE O’ GRITS: “Miss Saigon” runs through Oct. 12 at Cocoa Village Playhouse, 300 Brevard Ave., Cocoa. $16 to $24, handling charges may apply. Call 321-636-5050 or visit www.CocoaVillagePlayhouse.com.

Review: Henegar Center’s ‘Proof’

Rachel Greshes as Catherine in "Proof" at the Henegar Center. Photo by Dana Niemeier Photography

Rachel Greshes as Catherine in “Proof” at the Henegar Center. Photo by Dana Niemeier Photography

By PAM HARBAUGH

How far will a brilliant mind wander before it leaves sanity behind? That’s one of the resonating questions explored in the Henegar Center’s terrific second stage production of “Proof.”

The play won playwright David Auburn, a 2001 Pulitzer, Tony and Drama Desk Award. It concerns a 25-year old Catherine who has left her pursuit of mathematics at Northwestern in order to take care of her dying father, Robert, a mathematics genius who teaches at Chicago University.

Robert’s lofty theorems speak a language only a few can understand. But in the end, his “beautiful mind” unravels into dementia, leaving Catherine to worry if he has passed on not only his mathematics “gene” but also a predisposition to insanity.

Yes, this has some familiar sounds to it. There’s 19th century playwright Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” in which a dead father’s transgressions is visited upon his ailing son. And filmmaker Ron Howard’s 2002 “A Beautiful Mind,” in which a brilliant mathematician is diagnosed with schizophrenia.

But Mr. Auburn’s 2000 drama is much more accessible. “Proof” brings the erudite thoughts of prime numbers and mathematical equations gently into the lap of the audience. There’s not a whit here that feels foreign. You identify with it all.

Its setting — the humble back porch of Robert’s home in Chicago’s Hyde Park – humanizes the story. So, too, do the tender scenes between Robert and Catherine. And then there’s that budding romance between Hal and Catherine. All the characters here have something to prove: their sanity, their love, their sincerity, their trustworthiness.

Directed by Anthony Mowad and brought to life by a talented cast, “Proof” unfolds like a beautiful blossom, filled with emotion and intelligence and commentary.

Rachel Greshes is luminescent as Catherine. She brings both a charming delicacy and a smart stubbornness to the character. There is something familiar about Catherine. You believe at the outset that you’ve had coffee with this person and talked about things both profound and mundane.

Although he’s a stage newcomer, Josh Huss has a very sweet, natural stage quality as Hal. His romantic scenes with Ms. Greshes are tender and filled with vulnerability. Although he may prefer to stay in the background and design lights, which he did so well for “Proof,” we hope to see much more of Mr. Huss on stage.

Alethea Vedder is pinpoint accurate as Catherine’s efficient older sister, Claire, her opposite in every way. In high heels and skin-hugging clothes and constantly tapping her pen on pages in an appointment book, Ms. Vedder’s Claire is wound tight and it shows.
John Dwyer delivers a rich, well-rounded portrayal of Robert. We see him as the loving father and the brilliant man. Then, finally we feel his agony when, in a fleeting lucid moment, Robert realizes the depth of his dementia.

Mr. Mowad’s direction is clear and concise thanks in part to projecting mathematical formulas onto the stage to show time, which is very helpful since the play jumps back and forth in time. Moreover, there’s a tenderness in pacing and character intention that makes the production feel as comfortable as the old robe Robert wears. Not to spoil anything here, but do pay attention to the lovely, sly direction of the first scene.

Brighid Reppert’s scenic design is solid and believable. Hats off, too, to sound designer Thom Restivo. A lovely little moment is when Claire, in a huff, storms into the house slamming the door shut behind her then out the other side with another “thwop.”

When you step into the little Upstairs at the Henegar space, you feel like you’ve drifted into some found space in a big city where talented people gather. The bonus is, this production amplifies that feeling.

Photo by Dana Niemeier

SIDE O’ GRITS: “Proof” runs through Sunday at the Henegar Center’s Upstairs @ the Henegar second stage, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne, Fl. Tickets are $16 to $26, handling charges may apply. Call 321-723-8698 or visit www.Henegar.org.

Review: Surfside’s ‘Lend Me a Tenor’

Surfside Players 'Lend Me a Tenor'

Surfside Players ‘Lend Me a Tenor’

By TERRENCE GIRARD

Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor” was a Broadway success in 1989, and put him on the map among contemporary farceurs. Surfside Players kicked off their 2014-15 season with a production, which I’m glad I caught on its final weekend.

Rob Dickman set the play into motion as visiting opera star Tito Merilli, arriving in Cleveland for a one-night benefit fundraiser for the local opera company. Director Bryan Bergeron wisely showed off Mr. Dickman’s powerful tenor voice to establish Tito’s credentials, and we bought into his overblown ego and histrionics without question.

For me, the comic engine that really got the show humming was Jack Maloney’s Henry Saunders, director of the Cleveland opera company hosting Il Stupendo. When Tito overmedicates and cannot go on, a substitute must be snuck into his starring role in Otello to avoid refunding the benefit’s ticket proceeds. Maloney’s increasingly desperate need to hide the ruse fueled much of the manic energy and comic schtick. Rich Reifsnyder countered Maloney beautifully as Max, his somewhat nebbish assistant, who is lured into the deception by the promise of his ‘big break’ with the opera company.

Liz Keimer scored as Maria, Tito’s Italian spitfire of a wife, fed up with her husband’s real or imagined philandering. Donna Furfaro added comic brio as Julia Leverett, the dilettante maven of the opera company. Hilariously costumed to resemble a certain New York City landmark, she drew big laughs draping herself seductively on a sofa to offer “Il Stupendo” her um, comfort. Sarah Roberts lent expert slinky support as Diana, a soprano in the opera company who would also like to seduce Tito and obtain his help in advancing her career.

Michelle Dion was delightful as Max’s perky girlfriend (and Henry’s daughter), starstruck by Tito and unwilling to commit fully to Max until she’s tasted more of life. Matthew Hall rounded out the cast as an ambitious bellhop who (guess what?) is also jockeying for an impromptu audition.

It took quite the suspension of disbelief to buy that Reifsnyder and Dickman could be mistaken for one another – even under their dark Othello makeup – but that goes with the farcical territory. Bergeron and his cast delivered all the door slamming, identity confusion, and underwear-clad girls that are staples of the genre, with precision and energy.

The production dispensed with the optional scripted curtain call that recaps the proceedings in short order; I didn’t miss it in the least. The set – the sitting room and bedroom of a fancy hotel suite – was impressive, and costumes by Eldonna Mellen were flattering and period appropriate. I’m not a big fan of musical underscoring used to clobber us over the head, but that’s a minor nit. In all, the production was an auspicious beginning to Surfside’s new season.

SIDE O’ GRITS: Since we missed getting a review in time for the run of “Lend Me a Tenor,” we feel duty bound to let you know Surfside Players’ next show. It’s the thriller “Wait Until Dark.” It runs Oct. 17 to Nov. 2 at Surfside Playhouse. Visit www.SurfsidePlayers.com.

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.