Sunday, June 30, 2013

Romeo and Juliet at the American Shakespeare Center

The American Shakespeare Center kicks off its 25th anniversary season with that well-known staple of Shakespeare companies and high school curriculums Romeo and Juliet. Artistic Director Jim Warren stages a Romeo and Juliet that, as he states in his director's notes, mines every compelling moment in this story. As Mr. Warren comments there is no right side in this deadly feud.  The kids aren't right and the parents aren't wrong, and most importantly, by striving to strike a balance in this story of more woe, it is very clear that everyone is making their decisions, however rashly and quickly, because they truly believe that are doing it for the right reasons.

All of the elements are present in what has become known as the American Shakespeare Center's performance style. There is universal lighting, the audience can sit upon the stage and there is ample interaction between actors and audience. Yet, no matter how many times you have read the play or seen a production of Romeo and Juliet this production will contain surprises for even the most seasoned Shakespearean theatre-goer.

Unlike other productions, minor characters are not cut or consolidated with other characters to give a better known character a larger part.  So, when, for example,  Romeo's cousin Benvolio vanishes from the story after Act III, Scene 1, he stays vanished from the story. Cousin Capulet shows up to dance at Capulet's ball. The entire comedic role of the servant Peter is intact. Most surprising, the prologue to the  balcony scene is enacted here.

A very strong artistic team assists Mr. Warren and his ensemble of actors in bringing the world of Romeo and Juliet to life. Costume designer Erin M. West creates contemporary ensembles that seem right for this Verona and a color scheme that helps the audience keep track of whom belongs to which feuding family or the royal family as soon as that character enters the stage. Stephanie Holladay Earl has choreographs a jolly bit of fun for the dance at the Capulet ball. Benjamin Curns creates heart-stopping fight choreography that is both beautiful to watch and, when called for, astonishing in its brutality.

Tracie Thomason and Dylan Paul are charming, youthful, brash and impulsive as the star-crossed lovers. They easily mine the comedy in their impulsive first meeting and the anguish when their love story provides the catalyst for the horrendous tragedy that follows. Rene Thornton, Jr. shows a surprising deep love for his daughter Juliet that many other Lord Capulets lack. When he turns from doting father to outrage at his daughter's willful disobedience the audience is just as taken aback at his rage. Lee Fitzpatrick is a colder Lady Capulet, yet behind her reserve, there is a passionate side that she lets the audience see when her beloved family members die. John Harrell seems a preening peacock as the hotheaded Tybalt, his proud facade barely containing his rage.

There are three revelatory performances in this outstanding ensemble and they are all three, long time American Shakespeare Center vets. Gregory Jon Phelps turns Mercutio into such a lovable rogue that we genuinely feel the loss of his character at his untimely death. Mr. Phelps takes one of the best known poetry speeches, the famed Queen Mab speech, and mines it for every bawdy, comic image and joke and wrings laughter and groans from the audience. For once the speech feels like the natural teasing of a love-sick friend, rather than simply a recitation of beautiful poetry.

There is a tradition at the American Shakespeare Center of cross gender casting. As is well known, in Shakespeare's day, all of the women's roles would have been played by men. The American Shakespeare Center uses that tradition upon occasion and also gives women the opportunity to portray men's roles as well. Allison Glenzer takes on the role of Friar Lawrence in this production. Ms. Glenzer takes the role of Friar Lawrence and has him react in ways that the adults in the audience probably would do in similar circumstances. Lawrence's chastising of Romeo for falling in and out of love so quickly establishes Lawrence as that authority figure that teenagers can trust and Ms. Glenzer easily earns the trust of the audience as well.

Juliet's Nurse is one of the great female comic roles in all of Shakespeare. In the hands of Benjamin Curns the Nurse is a towering terror of a mother bear to her precious Juliet. Yet, there is a gentle warmth to Mr. Curns particularly when the Nurse must counsel Juliet in the aftermath of Romeo's banishment. Whenever an actor takes on a female role there is an initial bit of tittering from the audience. With Mr. Curns that initial "egad, it's a man" quickly vanishes as he gives us a complex woman, Juliet's true mother, who loves her charge fiercely.

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is being performed as part of the American Shakespeare Center's 25th Anniversary summer season through November 30, 2013. It is being performed in repertory with Shakespeare's Alls Well That Ends Well and Bob Carlton's Return To The Forbidden Planet.  In September it will be joined in repertory by Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Monday, June 24, 2013

Anything Goes National Tour at the Kennedy Center

There is something refreshing about a revival of a musical, first produced in 1934, that is presented exactly as it was intended. Anything Goes is a wonderful piece of fluff musical comedy that has memorable characters, jokes that have actual punch lines, rousing choreography and, most importantly the incomparable score by Cole Porter. Roundabout Theatre Company's 2011 revival deservedly won the Tony Award for Revival of a Musical that season. The touring production preserves the high quality of the original revival giving audiences across the country the opportunity to see the same great show New York audiences saw.

Anything Goes is another one of those shows that has constantly had its libretto tweaked, including before the original 1934 production opened on Broadway. It also has had tunes added and subtracted from Mr. Porter's vast output, which Mr. Porter did himself in many other shows. This production preserves mostly the script update from the 1987 Lincoln Center revival which followed the basic premise from the 1934 production. The advantages of that script include making the central love story seem more plausible and fleshing out two supporting characters so that they develop into vibrant members of this wacky cast of characters.

Billy Crocker, who works on Wall Street for  the wealthy lush Elisha Whitney, laments that he can't find Hope Harcourt, a girl he spent a memorable night with just a few weeks ago. His pal, nightclub singer and evangelist, Reno Sweeney mentions that Hope is sailing to England on the S.S. American. Hope is marrying Sir Evelyn Oakleigh in order to save her mother's dire financial situation. Billy goes to the ship launch to find Hope. Traveling on board is the gangster, Moonface Martin and his moll, Erma. They await the arrival of their partner, Public Enemy Number One Snake-Eyes Johnson. When Snake-Eyes doesn't show, Billy takes his ticket and passport. Meanwhile the Captain of the ship laments that he doesn't have any real celebrities on board the ship, which disappoints his passengers. When Billy is discovered, the ship is thrilled to have their celebrity, but Hope is not. There is a lot of mad-cap scenarios before we achieve a rather silly happily-ever-after for everyone.

The ship design is based on the original scenic design by Derek McLane. Its' three stories are filled to the brim by director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall's terrific old-school dancing. Yes, this is a show that has real dancing in the choreography whether it is the Astaire-Rogers style romantic ballroom moves that accompany Billy and Hope's duets or the rousing tap that accompanies the title tune. Martin Pakledinaz' 1930's costumes perfectly complete the period setting.

If there is anything detrimental about the production it is minor. One is technical. As with all professional Broadway and touring production this cast is miked for sound. In the Kennedy Center Opera House it really sounds miked as opposed to simply enhancing the actors' voices. The other problem is with the script. It does contain two stereotyped characters in the Chinese Christian converts. Fortunately their names were updated in the 1987 revival to something less offensive and the actors playing the parts do not adopt a stereotypical Chinese dialect.

Despite these minor issues let the touring cast present for you this infectious revival. Sandra Shipley, as the overbearing Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt is channeling the great Margaret Dumont in her best comic pomposity. Paired with the unabashed lush Elisha Whitney, Dennis Kelly clearly relishes his comic moments. Joyce Chittuck as the man-hungry gangster's moll, Erma brings the house down when accompanied by the sailor boys in her big number "Buddy Beware."Fred Applegate has immense comic timing and do not be surprised if Public Enemy Number 13 brings tears from laughter to your eyes in "Be Like the Blue Bird."

Edward Staudenmayer's Lord Evelyn Oakleigh is more than an upper-class British twit. By giving the character the song "The Gypsy in Me", Mr. Staudenmayer cuts loose showing Evie's animal magnetism. His fate at the end of the show makes much more sense with this additional aspect to his character.Alex Finke has a clear, beautiful soprano and comes across as genuine as the ingenue Hope. Josh Franklin has much more of a classic leading man vibe than some of the more cad-like Billy Crockers of earlier scripts. He has a marvelous voice and well-matches his love interest in their duets and his friendship with the true leading lady, Reno Sweeney.

Rachel York is a tall glass of cool water. Her lanky, sensuous frame and legs that go on to tomorrow are perfect for our nightclub evangelist. She's a swift-talking dame that belts Porter's tunes vibrantly. Her dancing skills burn up the stage floor. She surely converts the audience to the religion of musical comedy.

Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Anything Goes is playing in the Kennedy Center's Opera House through July 7, 2013. For tickets and other performance information please visit For additional tour dates please visit