Thursday, September 30, 2010

Where oh where is a News Journal theatre critic?

The other guy in town
Theatre season opened last week in New Castle County with “The Children's Hour” at Wilmington Drama League and “Little Shop of Horrors” at New Candlelight Dinner Theatre. Where was the News Journal?
Matt Casarino of WDL commented that a critic was unavailable but they were thankful for a run up to the production that appeared the week before.
Aisle Say had reported several weeks ago that NJ scribe Tom Butler's last byline was in May.
Historically, from the halcyon days of The Morning Journal and The Evening Journal (yes, I grew up on the banks of the Brandywine with Wilmington's two dailies delivered to our door), reviews would be out the day after opening.
Printed words were offered up by Dr. Jekyll, Phil Crosland, (Pollyanna in a grey flannel suit) or Mr. Hyde on steroids, Otto Dekom. While Crosland's extracts were nowhere near as erudite as those of his colleague, actors breathed a sigh when they saw him rather than 'the malevolent one' in Row C on the aisle. (True story: I played the lead in “Kismet' for The Brandywiners in 1978 at Longwood. Dekom characterized my stage movements thusly: “Firestone bounces around the stage like a Jack-in-The-Box”. (Not a ringing endorsement for a romantic lead!)
Which leads me back to present day and the apparent absence of any critic at the only daily statewide newspaper.
Possibly a decade ago the NJ quit employing full time reviewers. Arts writing is a bit different than other sections in a big time newspaper – or at least one that purports itself to be big time. Editors seek out poor souls who have no life and who are blessed with a modicum of gravitas in both theatre and the written word. The editor then offers him the opportunity to see all the shows he wants for free and revel with his name in the paper!
(Aisle Say's pay is such that he must hitchhike to theatres and is then asked to help recycle programs after each performance.) But... one digresses.
I understand the economics of the times. Seriously folks, it's pretty pathetic when the NJ lets down both the performers and, in fact, its customers by not seeking out a qualified arts critic. How does this square with Delaware being a 'world class destination'?
When the company does finally get one, Aisle Say hopes he/she will have institutional knowledge of the arts in Delaware and not merely be a place holder.

OperaDelaware gets intimate
OperaDelaware has added a Studio Series to its Fall schedule. The cabaret-style evening of opera entertainment will be presented in the intimate surroundings of Opera Studios overlooking the Christina River Leads from future and past productions of OperaDelaware will sing a combination of opera’s greatest hits along with a few interesting selections from operas never performed in their entirety in Wilmington. Guests can sit at V.I.P. tables or in general admission and enjoy a glass of wine or beer while listening to their favorite arias.
“Last year’s Studio Series was a tremendous hit,” says executive director Lee Kimball.  “Folks can get their feet wet with opera without having to commit to an entire evening of one opera. We expect they’ll come back for more.”
Jeffrey Miller, OperaDelaware’s associate music director, will accompany the singers and provide interesting commentary.
Soloists will include soprano Youna Yang, who sang the title role of Madama Butterfly and Mimi in La Bohème; soprano Lynne Claire Morse, recently in OD's The Barber of Seville. In all, over fifteen professional singers will be entertaining over the weekend.
Fri., Sept. 23 and Sat., Sept. 24 at 7:30 pm, and on Sun., Sept. 25 at 2 pm, at 4 South Poplar Street, Wilmington. For tickets, call 1-800-37-GRAND
Finally, Director Kimball proudly reports that OD was in the black for this fiscal year. “We cut everything but the quality of our performances!” La Traviata is next on November 7

Wilmington Drama League
The influence of the DuPont family and company in the arts is so pervasive. The birth of what was to be their arts legacy was birthed in 1902, when the 3 cousins bought the gunpowder company from the elders.
Chick Laird, one of P.S. Du Pont's nephews, asked to use the stage at Longwood for productions. That has become a much beloved annual trek up Rt. 52.
Additionally, in 1933 Laird gathered together a group of community theatre advocates and created what was to be Wilmington Drama League. They have been in that same building on Lea Boulevard since 1941. I played a Japanese peasant boy in “Teahouse of the August Moon” in 1957. My father was my peasant father and my mother (in very serious miscasting) was a geisha girl.
The fanatics (there is no other word) that volunteer at WDL are singular folk and are to be commended for the outrageous hours they work at their craft.
“The Children's Hour” opened last weekend and will run until October 2. Next up is “Chicago” on October 29.

"Little Shop" at New Candlelight Dinner Theatre

From 1989 to '95 Alan Menkin was the wunderkind of the Disney Renaissance, composing music for 'Beauty and The Beast', 'Aladdin', 'Pocahontas' and 'The Little Mermaid'.
Seven years before his impressive run with animated characters, Menkin wrote “Little Shop”. The music is a blend of rock 'n roll, do wop and early Motown. When it closed it was then the longest running off-Broadway show ever.
The farcical story involves a flower shop employee who finds a plant whose sustenance is blood; from a tiny drop to the eventual go for broke engorging of live people. And, along the way, rockin' music and, sigh, a love story.
The mark of a true professional is the sublimation of their personal talent to the honesty of the character. That integrity – allied with consistency – is exemplified by Audrey (Kaylan Wetzel). She has been in several recent NCT shows and Aisle Say has heard the power and grandiloquence of her natural voice. The character Audrey is from somewhere near the depths of downtown Brooklyn and is encumbered by a very, very annoying nasality. Wetzel realizes this role.
Artistic Director Chris Alberts was additionally blessed by the perfect casting of Peter Briccotto as Seymour, the quintessential nebbish. Briccoti is an amusing dead center concoction east of Woody Allen and west of Rick Moranis. He plays his character such that the audience is preparing a giggle even before he opens his mouth. I would suggest Seymour be mindful of the spotlights in which the director has him placed. He missed a few on the night that my dear sister Liz and I were in attendance.
There is no denying the Motown trio of Crystal (Erienne Poole), Ronnette (Erica Scanlon Harr) and Chiffon (Lindsay Mauck) have both the pipes and the presence. Their costuming was drab. One would think if they had been dressed similarly throughout, possibly in outrageous costumes, it would have added more theatricality. The three work well together and they set the stage with the opening “Skid Row (Downtown)”.
Actor Michael Delaney, who is a dead ringer for House Manager Paul Goodman, played so many roles that one ran out of digits counting them. Yet, with each, (most emphatically the sadistic motor cycle riding, misogynistic dentist Orin), he brought life and credibility to them all. (Dentists take a major blow to the incisors in this show. Think “Marathon Man”.) Aisle Say emphatically agrees with Seymour's admonition to the audence,...“there's always time for dental hygiene.”
Director Alberts convinced Patrick Ahearn, owner of Hob Hollow Studios, to design, create and perform the role of Audrey II, the man-eating plant. His precious work was last seen at NCT as 'The Wizard' in Oz. Ahearn's gift is a great asset to the production. I would ask that he hold off for five minutes after the final curtain to have his technicians 'dismember' Audrey II. As long as one can sustain the illusion of the production, you should go for it.
Chris Alberts pays homage to Music Director Jim Weber, who is relocating to Florida. For 30 years Weber and his partner Gary Prianti were producers for Three Little Bakers Dinner Theatre. During the salad decades of the '70's and '80's, Bakers was a theatrical money mill, churning out classic Broadway shows to bus groups pouring in from seven states.
But Bakers was a 900 seat elephant needing to be fed 8 shows weekly. Tastes changed. Entertainment avenues increased. The economy happened.
Both gentlemen are professionals and they are friends of mine. Godspeed.
Gentle readers, from seven dinner theatres in the '70's in our state – now to NCT, the last man standing.
Til October 30. 302.475.2313

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Walnut Theatre, America's oldest, celebrating its 202nd season, opens with a musical “Whodunit”, Kander & Ebb's 'Curtains'. Set in 1959, it is a musical comedy send-up of backstage murder mystery plots. The story follows the fallout when the supremely untalented star of 'Robbin' Hood of the Old West' is murdered during the opening night curtain call. It is up to a police detective who moonlights as a community musical theatre fan to save the show, solve the case and fall in love, within being killed himself.
It's musical ancestry is flawless. Kander & Ebb wrote 'Chicago', 'Cabaret', 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' and many more. Their iconic stature is also linked to Liza Minnelli, whose luminous career began in 1965 with the first collaboration between the lyricist and composer in “Flora The Red Menace'. As we know, that proceeded quite well.
'Curtains' had a brief career on Broadway until its curtain was lowered.
The Walnut's 'execution' of the production is flawless. The sets, costumes, direction and choreography are superb and abundant with Broadway glitz. The actors have Equity credentials and have glorious voices.
The leading female character Carmen Bernstein (Denise Whelan) has Broadway pipes second only to Ethel Merman, with comic timing to match. Her marriage to philandering husband Sidney (Fran Prisco) is the subject of the evening's funniest double entendres. When Sidney is found hanging by a noose backstage, Carmen spouts, “Well, that's the first time he was ever accused of being hung!” A moment before Jessica Cranshaw's (Anne Connors) demise which begins the intrigue, she says to her leading man, “There was this crazy guy in the front row waving his arms at me.”. He responds, “Jessica, that was the conductor!”
The problem with the show itself is that it is uneven and not well integrated. There are numbers that don't work or move the plot forward. The production number to end Act I “Thataway” comes to mind. It's as if the musical and writing crew interpolated tunes from their extensive trunk of previous tunes and inserted it in.
A 'send-up' implies back stage theatre jokes or homage to past musicals. There are some corny jokes and even a fantasy dance sequence that Aisle Say considered to be inspired by the Ascot scene in 'My Fair Lady' or the dream sequence in 'Oklahoma'. They worked in those productions. Not so much here.
That is not to say the cast was not supremely talented. Lyricist for 'Robbin Hood' Aaron Fox (Jeffrey Coon) displays a beatific lyric tenor in the tune “I Miss The Music”. Detective Frank Cioffi (David Hess) sings a stylized classic Herald Square/Great White Way tune with “Coffee Shop Nights”. There is even a discussion that hearkens back to the old question, which comes first, music or lyrics. (Aisle Say says music!)
The show has its many moments, though. For a theatre junkie like myself, there is even a nod to addicts like us...“show people are dreamers”. Director/Choreographer Richard Stafford has that precious belief in his veins and fulfilled his mission.
The Walnut audience is always packed. Their marketing in this economy is superlative. They are Broadway in Philadelphia sans Broadway prices.
Til October 25. 215.574.3550