A Surfeit of Song: 4 Musical Ventures

If music be the food of love, cry me a river until another hundred people get off of the train…. It’s Summertime so musicals start bustin’out all over like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, which makes the livin’ less easy for busy reviewers. Another opening can be trouble with a T, but many a new day will shine before bringing him home will make me a comedy tonight. Enough, already! Bring on da funk….

Here’s a composite review of a selection of musical theatre I’ve seen lately in the Dallas/Ft. Worth region with a new rating system I’m attempting to employ.  5 is Excellent; 4 is Solid Work; 3 is Average; 2 is Needs Help; 1 is Abysmal.

1)   The Gospel at Colonus recasts the Sophocles play Oedipus at Colonus as an oratorio in a black Pentecostal church service. Greek myth with universal themes replaces Bible story, but a devout Pentecostal reverence and sense of the service remains. There is an onstage choir, a Choragos trio (in this production), a pastor, a preacher Oedipus and a singing Oedipus, a live onstage band, plus four other characters. That’s a lot of robed people crowded on the limited space stage at The Corner Theatre in DeSoto, with a whole lot of story to tell. Add a substantial set of crumbling Greek ruins, and nobody got to move very much if not blocked far downstage.Overall it seemed minimally directed, more of a staged concert than a play; it was difficult to distinguish some of the characters or understand their function. Outstanding vocal performances by the Choragos trio costumed in somewhat incongruous Supremes-like contemporary attire (Eleanor Threatt, Kristal Jemerson, Simone Gundy) and Sheran Goodspeed Keyton as Singer Ismene kept the show buoyant. Gil Pritchett made a commanding Preacher Oedipus; his delivery and presence offered intriguing contrast to Terrence Charles Rodgers’ Singer Oedipus. Overall impression: 3+; staging, use of space, effective direction: 2; set and production values: 3; vocal performance: 4+; acting, movement: 2

2) Level Ground Arts’ Poseidon An Upside Down Musical faced major challenges in its mounting: an action heavy show with twenty-seven actors on a minimally lit black box stage with next to no fly space and ongoing air conditioning problems and sight line challenges.  Lively, clear, focused direction by Andi Allen and Bill Fountain plus a multi-talented, high energy cast made this an extremely fun show to attend, no matter how stuffy and hot the house or hard it was to see some of the action. It helped to have seen the 1970’s disaster movie upon which the musical was based, now something of a cult favorite with disaster aficionados. Not a fan of disaster movies, I realize I missed many of the inside jokes. Still I found it very funny and believable in an improvised, imagination-rich way and an utterly charming entertainment. I hope Level Ground Arts can continue its programming in a larger, more flexible facility with better audience amenities. Most memorable performances: Shane Strawbridge in ever-melodious, commanding voice as Reverend Scott; Lon D. Barrera in hausfrau drag as sympathetic audience favorite Belle Rosen; Greg Hullett as Jim/Purser, delivering an excruciatingly realistic personal monologue in Act II; Jason Robert Villarreal as precocious, obnoxious Robin Shelby; and Andi Allen as Linda Rogo, singing a show-stopping number about ladies’ panties with naughty, delicious verve. Props to the entire creative team for being so inventive in conveying the sense of climbing up and out of a capsized ocean cruise ship. The main choreography by Brittany Levraea and Andi Allen and additional choreography by Dance Captain and cast member Darius-Anthony Robinson deserves special mention, as it was remarkably effective given the cast size and the limitations of the performance space. Overall impression: 4+; staging, use of space, effective direction: 4+; set and production values: 3; vocal performance: 4; acting, movement: 4

3) Where’s the bee-hive? A show called Beehive with six women portraying and covering the tunes of major female stars from the 60’s, and not one of them wears a beehive hairdo for the Act I early part of the era?  What’s with that?  This is a show that will succeed largely due to the casting of really strong singers who can imitate the stars portrayed to perfection. In Theatre Three’s production, the singers fall pretty far from the mark most of the time: one is consistently off key, another strains uncomfortably to fit her voice to her song ranges; harmonies that should be tight wander; without benefit of amplification, the singers get routinely drowned out by the live offstage band accompaniment. Why have them mime singing on mics; why not just use mics so they could be heard and save their voices? Generally the acting/ interpretations of the songs worked better than their delivery. Costuming, by show’s director Bruce R. Coleman, was erratic—hard to tell exactly what era some of the attire belonged to; oddly, in Act II, some costumes and hair changed, while other ensembles did not. Choreography and stage interaction worked well for the most part, occasionally drifted into superfluous movement for movement’s sake. Best moments: in Act I—“I’m Sorry” delivered with expressive humor by Marianne Galloway and “The Beat Goes On” as a tragic commentary on the changing era, delivered with great feeling by Natalie King. In Act II, the poignant interpretation of “Society’s Child” by Britney Hudgins awed the audience; and  “Respect” by Natalie King interwoven with “Natural Woman” by Crystal Hannah got everybody clapping along. Beehive at Theatre Three is an almost hit with songs that can inspire fond nostalgic memories in an older audience. Overall impression: 3; staging, use of space, effective direction: 3; set and production values: 2; vocal performance: 2; acting, movement: 3

4) Bye Bye Birdie took Broadway by storm in 1960. Based upon the media circus following the 1958 drafting of Elvis Presley into the Army, it won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Dick Van Dyke), Best Choreography and Best Direction of a Musical (Gower Champion) and was nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Chita Rivera) and Best Scenic Design for a Musical and Best Conductor and Musical Director. Lyric Stage revives the show with its fully orchestrated original score, as in 2009 with The King and I, and gives audiences the chance to see a fully mounted, richly appointed, solidly cast production of a classic. The Carpenter Performance Hall at the Irving Arts Center is a magnificent space with a deep, wide proscenium stage, multiple fly rails and lighting instruments and excellent acoustics (as opposed to that offered by several major, newer Dallas venues). Regional stage director Cheryl Denson assembled a versatile cast of local through out of the area performance artists. With Jay Dias’ musical direction and conducting, Christopher Potter’s innovative high concept set design, Drenda Lewis’ costumes and Ann Nieman‘s choreography, it’s hard to conceive of this production as being anything but a major hit. Yet, I came away slightly disappointed. It’s been years since I’ve seen this show live, but I don’t remember it starting so slowly before and proceeding along at so sleepy a pace. It picked up, some, in Act II, but not much; I wonder if my current expectations of crisp, energetic scenes and snappy song delivery and lightning fast set changes based upon contemporary shows made this venerable production seem old-fashioned and dated, far beyond the quaint cultural issues it addresses. The cast seemed dwarfed by the set and stage, as if it needed more members to fully realize the show.  The Act I song The Telephone Hour, so integral to the show’s early success with its charming youthful vigor, seemed lackluster and superfluous in delivery. There was an air of incongruity to the set design, fluctuating widely between a stage-y sort of realism and a pastel-washed fantasyland, both valid and creatively intriguing, but not well integrated. Opening night, Catherine Carpenter Cox sang and danced superbly as lead Rose Alvarez but hardly ever seemed to connect with anyone else on stage. Steve Barcus as lead Albert Peterson sang well but lacked the spark needed to define his lead role with Dick van Dyke charisma and made a number of amateurish script gaffes opening night, surprising in an Equity performer. Strongest performances came from secondary characters: Charlotte Franklin as Mae owned the stage whenever she was in a scene as did Mike Gallagher as Mr. MacAfee; and Lee Jamison Wadley exhibited Lucille Ball-like comic flair in her one brief hilarious scene as sensual distracter Gloria Rasputin. UNT student Daniel R. Johnson gave a polished, Broadway caliber performance as Elvis clone heartthrob Conrad Birdie (predict a natural segue to the lead in Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson on tour?). Strongest musical number cam in Act II: Baby Talk To Me with the men’s quartet (Martin Antonio Guerra, Eric Domuret, Babakayode Ipaye and Ben Giddings); best choreographed scene was also in Act II, the Shriner Seduction Ballet with Rose and the Shriners at a long, draped banquet table.  This production is a charming, sweet version of an oldie Broadway hit with less than scintillating music; it doesn’t compare in artistry, majesty or musical validity to last year’s The King and I, so superbly mounted by Lyric Stage. Overall impression: 3+; staging, use of space, effective direction: 3; set and production values: 3; vocal performance: 4+; acting, movement: 3

Poseidon An Upside Down Musical runs through June 26 at Dallas’ The Hub in Deep Ellum. For tickets to Level Ground Arts productions, visit: www.levelgroundarts.com

Lyric Stage’s Bye Bye Birdie runs through June 27 at Carpenter Hall in the Irving Arts Center. For tickets call 972-252-2787 or online: www.lyricstage.org. Watch out for rudely unhelpful ushers.

Theatre Three’s Beehive runs through July 4 at The Quadrangle in Dallas. For tickets call214-871-3300 or online: www.theatre3dallas.com. PHOTO info: Credit: Jeffrey Schmidt
L-R Top: Natalie King, Lisa-Gabrielle Greene, Crystal Hannah
L-R Bottom: Marianne T. Galloway, Yolonda Williams, Britney Hudgin

For information about future African American Repertory Theater productions go to: www.aareptheater.com

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