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.

Review: Riverside Theatre “How to Succeed in Business…”

"Brotherhood of Man" from Riverside Theatre's "How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying"

“Brotherhood of Man” from Riverside Theatre’s “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying”

By PAM HARBAUGH

With its entertaining and fast-paced production of “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying,” Riverside Theatre ends its 40th seasons — one of its very best — with such verve that it’ll make you yell “encore!”

Set at the societal precipice of women’s lib, civil rights marches and society’s general consciousness raising, “How to Succeed” extols the “Brotherhood of Men” who pat each other on the back to get ahead while the women remain busy secretaries waiting to become wives. The musical has the same kind of feel good, what-me-worry gravitas as a Doris Day movie.

In other words, check your beret at the door and enjoy the spectacle, served up by a mostly female creative team.

Based on the book by Shepherd Mead, the 1962 Pulitzer Prize winning musical was written by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. It takes a comic look at window washer J. Pierrepont Finch’s meteoric rise to chairman of the board of World Wide Wickets. Reading a how-to book on climbing the corporate ladder, Finch learns who to befriend, how to finagle a promotion and how to turn a disadvantage into another rung on the ladder.

While the story is all about Finch’s charm and lucky timing, the production is all about Michele Lynch’s sensational choreography — some of the best ever on Riverside’s stage. Ms. Lynch uses fresh invention and sprightly energy, kicking the entire show up that ladder right alongside Finch. Her work in “Coffee Break,” “A Secretary Is Not a Toy” and “Brotherhood of Man” is, simply, terrific.

Directed seamlessly by Casey Hushion, the show moves at an exhilarating pace. Ms. Hushion has impressive credits. Her work includes associate director for “Elf” and Broadway/national tours of “In the Heights” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Here, her direction throughout is smart and creative, especially in “I Believe in You” which takes the audience through several visual points of view. This marks her debut at Riverside Theatre, leaving us crossing our fingers that she’ll return.

Her professional cast delivers 150 from curtain to curtain. As Finch, Jeremy Morse…nope, no relation to Robert Morse who originated the role on Broadway and starred in the 1967 movie…Jeremy Morse summons his every ounce of cuteness and spot-on timing, making the glad-hander a winning hero. Becky Gulsvig (so poignant last season as Eponine in Riverside’s “Les Miz”) hits constant sweet notes as Rosemary, the secretary who loves Finch.

Mark Jacoby gets to the crusty center of World Wide Wickets president J.B. Biggley and Ed Romanoff is a real treat as kindly mail room supervisor Mr. Twimble and, later, grumbling chairman of the board Wally Womper. It’s great fun to see both Mr. Jacoby and Mr. Romanoff show their talent and experience while dancing and singing among their younger cast mates.

Brian Shepard carves a perfect portrayal of smarmy, manipulative Bud Frump, Biggley’s nephew who dishes up the story’s conflict. And Amy Bodnar delights as funny, sexy Hedy LaRue, the married president’s girlfriend.

Other kudos to music director Anne Shuttlesworth and costume designer Lisa Zinni who exacts the 1960s looks. Robert Andrew Kovach’s scenic design intrigues with its use of windows through which you can see an impressionistic image of the New York skyline. Although vivid, his use of scenic units lit in a crayon box of neon hues by lighting designer Paul Black, comes across more ’80s than ’60s.

This is Riverside’s second co-production with Philadelphia’s venerable Walnut Street Playhouse, opening there May 13. For sure, audiences who love big musical comedies have a treat coming to them. It is quite impossible to sit in that audience and not want to sing along or move in your seat or at least tap your foot to “How to Succeed.” It’s fun, fast and so well worth a drive to Vero Beach.

SIDE O’ GRITS: “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” runs through April 27 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Drive, Vero Beach. Tickets are $45 to $70. Call 772-231-6990 or visit riversidetheatre.com.

Review: Titusville Playhouse “Monty Python’s Spamalot”

Titusville Playhouse presents Monty Python's "Spamalot."

Titusville Playhouse presents Monty Python’s “Spamalot.” Photo by James Berkley Photography

By PAM HARBAUGH

It’s Monty Python through and through with Titusville Playhouse’s spot-on hysterical production of “Spamalot.”

The show bubbles over with so much nutty dialogue (courtesy of Eric Idle) and chock-full-o-nuts action (courtesy director Steven Heron) that your own raucous laughter just might upstage actors.

Indeed, TPI’s stellar cast takes this musical and squeezes every drop of humor from it.

Gregory Galbreath, who was so full of heartfelt yearning as Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables,” turns his fine voice and strong stage presence into stalwart King Arthur as he seeks knights to help him on his quest for the Holy Grail. Christopher Rye, who was impassioned Enjolras in “Les Mis,” becomes the King’s fool, ever using cocoanut halves to clip clop through the countryside. As the sweet, round-faced, hapless Patsy, Mr. Rye is the perfect foil for the serious Mr. Galbreath and, yes, has a Nathan Lane-esque presence.

Alexander Nathan takes on multiple roles, including that of Lancelot, the head Knight of Ni and Tim the Enchanter. His turn as the French Taunter is exquisite as he uses every ploy to insult the English King and his knights.

As Sir Robin, Kyle McDonald gives 150 in “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway.” Funny, though, on opening night, when he sang out “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you haven’t any Jews,” you could feel the politically correct discomfort in the TPI audience. However, as Mr. McDonald and the entire dancing and cavorting cast lavished the stage, the laughs began to build.

Greg Coleman is an absolute scream as the Historian, Not Dead Fred and Prince Herbert. This lanky guy reveals a real flair for comedy as he twists his body into a multitude of comic contortions, all the while maintaining miraculous balance and timing.

Other standouts include Ken Barnes as Sir Galahad, William Merklinger as Sir Bedevere and the Black Knight, and, of course, Amy McDonald as sassy and beautifully voiced Lady of the Lake.

While the music by John Du Prez and Mr. Idle was presented via a professional recording rather than live orchestra, Mr. Heron taps into his inner Broadway soul to bring out some full bodied staging in the musical numbers. Helping him is Sarah’s School of Dance which supplied some eye-catching pom pom girls complete with flips and splits.

Although a couple of projections (at least, that’s what it seemed to be the intention) didn’t work on opening night, the visuals here are solid. Scenic designer Jay Bleakney does some very smart work, especially obvious when a castle is magically brought onto stage from lord-only-knows-where. Philip Lupo’s colorful lighting design adds to the fun. Costumer Katy Ball paints the stage with a wealth of costumes, wisely rented from a few professional costume houses.

The program notes gratitude to the Henegar Center for the Arts, which mounted a production of this musical last month. In a collaborative spirit, the Henegar loaned TPI some props for the show.

Granted, many of you saw that production. Nevertheless, you are urged to see the Titusville Playhouse production as well. You will see new faces, which is always a joy. And, you will laugh, again…and again…and leave the theater looking on “the bright side of life.”

Photo by James Berkley Photography

SIDE O’ GRITS: Monty Python’s “Spamalot” runs through April 17 at Titusville Playhouse, 301 Julia St., Titusville. It performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (only 8 p.m. Sat., April 26). Tickets are $20 to $22 with discounts for seniors/military/students. Handling charges may apply. Call 321-268-1125 or visit titusvilleplayhouse.com.

Review: ‘The Full Monty’

Melbourne Civic Theatre's "The Full Monty"

Melbourne Civic Theatre’s “The Full Monty”

By BREUSE HICKMAN

Given the musical “The Full Monty” is a guaranteed crowd pleaser and this is Melbourne Civic Theatre’s second time at this rodeo you might expect this production to show us the goods and much more. Good news: This production does not disappoint.

Chances are you already know it’s a charming, uplifting – albeit, bawdy – spectacle about teamwork, friendship and body acceptance. Director Peg Girard has done a fantastic job utilizing the small theater space for the large cast and Heather Mowad’s lively choreography requires the men to be comically sensual. Scenic designer Alan Selby’s warehouse set is fun to look at for all of its multi-purpose uses. A drawer opens to reveal a rehearsal piano at one point.

As you know, the stage show about six out-of-work men who form a male strip revue is based on the 1997 movie. MCT previously staged the show in 2009 when it showed plenty of box office appeal. The book is by playwright and four-time Tony Award winner
Terrence McNally.

As expected, the show boasts nudity, mostly of hind quarters but not much more you wouldn’t expect to see at the beach or while shopping at Wal-mart. Going down that checklist, there are some f-words in the song lyrics. But you knew you weren’t seeing another production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” right?

The show opens with an eyeful of hot stuff that should get hormones slam dancing thanks to Wagner DeAssis who has two marvelous things going for him and they both serve to keep his g-string in place. This show marks the Brazilian musician’s first appearance on the MCT stage and what a charming debut it is. At times he seems to have learned his lines phonetically. But so what? With his dude ‘tude and dance moves he serves the show’s purpose to illustrate the contrast between a Chippendales-style dancer and the average blokes who come together to do something that’s terrifying, yet ultimately rewarding.

Not that cast members Dan Wilkerson and Michael “Big Mike” Paul aren’t pleasant on the eyes. Gym memberships pay off.

Where were we? Oh yes, the story.

Whereas the movie was set in a blue-collar English town, the story for the stage show concerns six unemployed steel workers in Buffalo, N.Y. Alfie Silva perfectly walks the line between being confrontational and good humored. He discovers there is big money to be made in male striptease so he and his out-of-work buddies form the group “Hot Metal.”

There is much sweetness to be felt and hardly anything saccharine, particularly involving the relationships between the men and the women in their lives.

But it’s the relationship between Jerry and his son Nathan (a nice subtle performance by 13-year-old Kyle Caudill who avoids precocious trappings) that provides the story line its purpose and gives the show heart.

Each cast member – and that goes for members of the ensemble – get their chance to shine and the payoff is worth it .
It’s fun watching the guys – and the actors playing them – gel as they become more comfortable with their bodies and working as a team.

A comedic delight throughout is Dana J. Blanchard as Jerry’s best bud Dave.” Particularly fun to watch is Andrew Villa as Noah (aka, ahem, “Horse”). His transition as he begins to find his groove is like watching someone age in reverse.

Michael Paul is reprising his role as Harold, a mill supervisor who lavishes his wife (played by Rita Moreno, always a joy of a class act to see and hear) with material goods and can’t admit to her that he no longer has a job. Also reprising a role is Alan Selby as Malcolm, an inhibited man with suicidal tendencies. Expect to fight back tears during Selby’s mournful rendition of “You Walk With Me.”

Despite some sad moments, the show stays true to its upbeat self. If there’s a villain to be had it’s found in Michael Thompson as Teddy Slaughter. Thompson has played a zillion characters on the Space Coast but being a bad guy seems to suit him best.

While the story is focused on the men, the women are just as crucial to the plot and this production. I particularly liked Tracey Thompson as Georgie, Dave’s wife who serves as his main motivation. Holly McFarland gets to show off some sass and I’ll leave it at that.

Everyone is in fine voice (and that goes for actors who may not be known as seasoned musical performers). KT Lee serves as the show’s musical director.

As usual, Wendy Reader’s sound design mixes well with the action, though some of the canned segue music reminded me of my neighborhood ice cream truck.

Particularly a joy to listen to are Michael Paul and Silva who beautifully maneuver through the lower and sudden high notes the songs require.

SIDE O’ GRITS:

“The Full Monty” runs through April 27 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 E. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sundays. Get your tickets now. The show could be a sell-out. Tickets are $25; $23 for senior citizens and military personnel. For info, call 321-723-6935 or visit MyMCT.org.