Looking back on six years of reviews and 100+ shows

Six years and six weeks ago – i.e. in May of 2008 – I returned to the world of local theatre reviews.  I had written plenty in the early years of the Free Times (along with interviews, essays, previews of shows, plus reviews of movies, books, even museum exhibitions.)  James Harley was starting a website for independent reviews, OnstageColumbia.com, as The State was scaling back its arts coverage, and he realized quickly that one person can’t see everything, and so a number of folks pitched in to help.  (Then Cindi Boiter started Jasper, and asked me to help, which led to even more reviews.)  Since then I have seen a whopping 108 shows(!)  This includes:

- 31 of the last 38 shows at Workshop;  27 of the last 47 Main Stage shows at Trustus, 7 shows in the Trustus Side Door (plus a Late Night production, and a staged reading of a new play); 16 of the last 34 shows at Town; 8 of the last 19 shows at Columbia Children’s Theatre (plus 2 YouTheatre productions, i.e. performed by children for children); 6 plays at USC, 2 at High Voltage, 2 at SC Shakespeare (including a one-act excerpt done at the Rosewood Arts Festival); one each at Theatre Rowe, On Stage Productions, and Stage 5; a semi-improv dinner theatre performance by the Capital City Killers, and a reading of a new play by the Chapin Theatre Company. That’s a LOT of theatre!

jasper_watches95 of those I reviewed.  The majority of the reviews were written for Onstage Columbia, 68 in fact, and 20 of those were picked up by the Free Times.  Two were online exclusives for the Free Times  – interestingly, both were world premieres of  High Voltage shows – 25 more were for this blog, i.e. What Jasper Said, and one of those was also rerun by the Free Times.  Somehow I managed to see 30 shows last year (including the 2 readings and the one-act) and 17 so far this year.  A conservative estimate is that there were 350 or more shows done locally in that period, i.e. close to 60 done each year, not even counting children’s shows, recitals, drama ministries at churches, marionette shows, burlesque, circus and cabaret performances, etc.  So as above, no one can see everything, least of all me.  What follows then is some off-the-top-of-my-head reflections on what I have seen, and what I enjoyed.  (Disclaimer: the following is solely a personal opinion, and not representative of the views of this site, nor this publication, nor anyone involved with it, nor is it meant to represent anything definitive.  And this only refers to shows I did see, not those I didn’t.  So if I missed your nephew or niece’s appearance as the third daffodil from the left, I’m sure it was dazzling nevertheless. )

Some interesting stats: a dozen plays that I saw were new works, most written by local authors, including Chris Cook’s new adaptations of Dracula and Night of the Living Dead,  Columbia  Children’s Theatre’s original commedia productions of classics like Snow White, Cinderella and Rapunzel, and assorted winners of the Trustus Playwrights’ Festival.  More than half of the shows I saw in this period had roles for actors of color, and many of those shows in fact benefited from color-blind casting. And about time, I might add.

 

shakespeare11

What did I like?  Well, believe it or not, I’ve seen very few if any bad shows. Columbia has evolved over the decades to where there are literally several hundred talented performers here in town, although some don’t do shows that frequently anymore.  More often than not, I see actors’ performances surpass mediocre or at best adequate material.   I think this stems from a combination of odd programming choices, dated shows that don’t always stand the test of time, and the relative weakness of much of contemporary Broadway.   There have only been maybe 7 shows that I haven’t enjoyed that much, and 3 were really old shows (an average of 50+ years old) that were showing their age, 2 were rarely-produced works that came out of regional theatre (i.e. never made it to Broadway, and in retrospect there may have been a reason) and 2 were original plays that might benefit from some re-writing (to my knowledge neither has ever been done since.)  But even those had their moments, primarily due to some great folks in their casts.  I’m not saying everything was a classic, or great literature – but seeing an age-appropriate cast do an energetic production of, say, Disney’s Camp Rock, or elementary-school age kids do an adorable 25-minute production of the Charlie Brown Easter Beagle show, can still be fun if you accept them for what they are.

Yet there were easily 20-30 more that I would feel no need to see again unless there was some particular performer I really wanted to see.  A lot of those weren’t really plays – they were musical revues, even if they had dialogue and an ostensible plot.  These too can be enjoyable to listen to, since there are so many gifted singers around.  Still, often I’d be just as happy if they tossed the framing devices and just let the performers just do a cabaret show.

victoria3But seriously, what did I enjoy most?  Hands down, Victor/Victoria at Workshop in March of 2011.  Perfect casting, and lightning-fast timing and choreography made this a great experience for me.  Close behind that would be The Producers, also at Workshop, and Avenue Q and [title of show], both at Trustus. Interestingly, some combination of Kevin Bush, Laurel Posey, and Matthew DeGuire were in each of those productions.

 

 

Giulia Dalbec and Jason Stokes in "The Producers"
Giulia Marie Dalbec and Jason Stokes in “Victor/Victoria”

Then again, it’s hardly surprising to anyone who knows me that my favorites were shows from Blake Edwards, Henry Mancini, and Mel Brooks, a show about muppets, and a show about making a show, since those would have been my favorites at age 10 or 15 too.   It’s hard to escape one’s own preferences.   Broad comedy, done rapid-fire, with lots of double entendre, has always appealed to me.  Case in point:  I admired the professional quality of shows like Next to Normal at Trustus (I feel sure that I saw a production exactly like I’d have seen in NYC) and Miss Saigon (I suspect Town’s elaborate production would rival that of a touring company – maybe not the original one in the 80′s, but certainly one that might play the Koger or Township now.)    But I didn’t rush out to buy the script or the original cast album.  I appreciated the artistry  and professionalism, even though it may not have been my cup of tea.   And I don’t even consider myself that much of a musical lover – but sometimes the spectacle on stage and memorable songs that set your toes a-tappin’ make for a great experience.

 

Laurel Posey, Giulia Marie Dalbec, and Matthew DeGuire in "VIctor/Victoria"
Laurel Posey, Giulia Marie Dalbec, and Matthew DeGuire in “Victor/Victoria”

Actually, what I normally enjoy most is quirky, character-centric shows with something to say (which would  be an apt description of [title of show] too), and the very best of those that I have seen in years and years was The Shape of Things, directed by Bakari Lebby – at age 22!! – in two separate and equally excellent productions, first at USC and then at Workshop with a different cast.  Close behind would be the NiA Company’s production of Fat Pig, and A Behanding in Spokane, both done in the Trustus Side Door space, and the Trustus Main Stage production of The Little Dog Laughed.  All  were done on a virtually bare stage with a cast of four actors, which is all you need as long as you have good people.  While I’m at it, I do want to mention the very magical and moving production of Caroline, or Change, at Workshop, quite inspirational in its own way. Honorable mention goes to Dracula at High Voltage and Second Samuel at On Stage Productions for doing an incredible job with very limited resources (i.e. sets, space, and budget.)

 

 

 

Robin Gottlieb, Kevin Bush, Matthew DeGuire, and Laurel Posey in [title of show] - photo by Richard Arthur Kiraly Photography
Robin Gottlieb, Kevin Bush, Matthew DeGuire, and Laurel Posey in [title of show] – photo by Richard Arthur Kiraly Photography
Here’s another interesting stat:  I have seen Vicky Saye Henderson and Frank Thompson more than any other performer locally in that period:  12 times each (although that’s just a fraction of the shows each has done – remarkable, since all of Frank’s that I saw were in a period of only three and a half years, as were all but two of Vicky’s.) Charlie Goodrich is close behind with 11, Will Moreau with 10, Bobby Bloom and Giulia Marie Dalbec with 9, followed by Kyle Collins, Elisabeth Baker, Chad Forrister, George Dinsmore, Patrick Dodds, Elizabeth Stepp and Hunter Bolton, all tied at 8. But again, I stress that these were just the ones that I saw them in.

 

the cast of "The Producers
the cast of “The Producers”

USC’s Theatre South Carolina  and the SC Shakespeare Company  both have missions to produce the great works of the stage and thank goodness, because apart from shows there, I have seen only a couple of genuine classics, i.e. things that are taught in English classes. More and more local theatres have to be conscious of box office, which isn’t always a good thing, especially if a show chosen for its potential to sell tickets doesn’t live up to financial expectations.   So the alternative is to do name-brand shows, straight from NYC, and while I’ve enjoyed the chance to see these, I just wonder how many will hold up over the next few decades? Romeo and Juliet, for example, is going strong after 400 years, and recent productions of works by Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee still worked just fine. But to me something like Miss Saigon now seems less ground-breaking and more of a traditional doomed love story.    We’ve unquestionably seen top-notch local productions of some of the biggest-name and biggest-reputation shows from the last few decades,  including lots of big award-winners.  But I keep finding myself writing variations on “well that was fun, but how on earth did it win so many awards?”  And I think back to Pulitzer winners of yore, like Of Thee I Sing, Men in White, Beyond the Horizon, Fiorello, and Seascape.  Wait, what are those shows?  Exactly.

As above, a lot of productions contended with their age, with varying levels of success.  If you’ve never seen it, it’s new to you, as NBC used to remind us during rerun season, and if a theatre knows their audience will support a show that some might think has been done to death, there’s no shame in bringing it back, as long as it’s done well.   But I have to stress – there were a LOT of fairly recent and disposable pop hits like High School Musical, Drowsy Chaperone, and Shrek which were nevertheless quite entertaining, and which gave plenty of good people good roles in which to shine.

Most promising trend I’ve seen over the last six years:  talented child and teen performers maturing into adult leading roles.  Also performers migrating from theatre to theatre; everyone benefits when the best actors land the roles they are best suited for.  It’s very gratifying to see people from one cast attending a performance of a show at a nearby theatre on their only night off in order to support their friends.  Another terrific trend:  actors normally seen in lead roles being willing to  appear in ensembles; again, everyone benefits, and as anyone who’s done live theatre knows, it’s not the size of the role… it’s how fun your castmates are over 6-8-10 weeks of rehearsals, performances and cast parties.

Most disturbing trend I’ve seen:  audiences over-inflating their experience.  I’ve occasionally been accused of “liking everything,” but read what I write more closely – I usually say that something is good if that’s what you’re looking for.    And explain who might enjoy a particular show – fans of country music, fans of slapstick, senior citizens, families with children under age 7, drunk people.   What I see far too often, however, is audience members saying that every show they see is ground-breaking, trend-setting, transcendent, transformative or life-changing.  More likely, the best show you’ve ever seen in Columbia is about as good as a hundred other good shows that have been done here over the years.  You may just need to get out more, see more live theatre, and read more plays.  I think we also may tend to confuse hitting a high note in a solo with something unique, when hundreds and hundreds of singers in church choirs do it every Sunday morning.

So there are some thoughts after the most recent six years of reviews.  Have I learned anything?  Yes.  A) there are a ton of talented people in the Midlands, and B)  there are thousands of potential audience members who will come see the right show if they are in the mood for it, and will come back for more if it lives up to their expectations.    Yet how much influence does a critic’s review have on box office?  Or is the critic’s role to interpret and help find meaning in a particular work?  Does one even need a critic’s review, and does some random writer’s opinion even matter?    All valid questions…. all of which will have to be addressed in some future blog post.  In the meantime, those were some of the shows I enjoyed – what about you?  What did you like?  The comments section below awaits your input!

~ August Krickel

 

 

 

 

 

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“Body of Work: Faces and Figures” opens at Gallery West Tuesday, July 8

Just as any vibrant summer gathering should be, Gallery West’s fast-forthcoming show is destined to take on qualities of a reunion and a first meeting of new friends – referring to both art and patrons. For a reunion with the past, work – created over three centuries – grace the walls at 118 State Street in West Columbia. New friends will show up as new work in all media; featured will be new work by outstanding Columbia artist Pat Callahan. Patrons will converge for the show opening Tuesday, July 8 with a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception hosted from 4 to 8 p.m.

Pat Callahan, "Side Light", pencil and conte
Pat Callahan, “Side Light”, pencil and conte

Many Columbians are already familiar with the sensitive and beautifully-crafted figure drawings by Pat Callahan. On view for this summer exhibition will be a selection of Pat’s work that showcases her refined viewpoint and poetic drafting skills. Callahan comes to art and to craft through graphic design. Perhaps to balance her computer-based career, Callahan draws a classical subject – the body – in traditional drawing media. She works from life, capturing beauty and strength embodied in her subjects. With descriptive line and gesture she captures exquisitely bodies of weight, ruled by gravity and time.

Among the many other highlights in Body of Work is a small, elegant photograph by internationally acclaimed photographer Edward Weston. This intimate, wistful portrait of Weston’s friend, Mary Buff, is contrasted by a large, flashy oil on canvas by New York society portrait painter, Mabel Hatt. Hatt’s painting of Evelyn Siegel looks like a direct descendent of John Singer Sargent, and for good reason – Hatt’s father was a student of Sargent’s. More contemporary is a brightly-colored painting by well-known South Carolina artist Jonathan Green of a family enjoying the beach.

In addition to paintings and photographs, there are numerous works on paper in Body of Work. Of note is a haunting etching by nationally-acclaimed printmaker and former head of the Yale University Art Department, William Bailey. A forceful graphic note is struck in Sigmund Abeles and his print of a mother and child. Among the most geometric works in the show is a large original print entitled, Builders, by renowned American artist Jacob Lawrence.

Jacob Lawrence, "The Builders (Family)", 1974, silkscreen
Jacob Lawrence, “The Builders (Family)”, 1974, silkscreen

Side-by-side with these well-known artists will be paintings, photographs, prints, drawings and sculpture by artists of great talent. Gallery visitors will note a 1930s portrait of a young girl by Elsie Budd, an astonishing wood engraving by Alfred Tinayre, or the whimsical sculpture of Tom Soumalainen.

Gallery West has quickly become characterized by its director’s innate talent for unearthing affordable treasures and spotlighting them evocatively in the gallery. Several area artists are also featured in the exhibition, including Russell Jeffcoat, Philip Hultgren, and Bonnie Goldberg.

The exhibition remains on view through August.  Gallery West is located at 118 State Street in West Columbia.  For more information, call (803) 207-9265,  e-mail gallerywest.sara@aol.com , or visit their Facebook page.

 

~ Rachel Haynie

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Horror, Camp, Comedy, and Splatter Come Together in Trustus Theatre’s Gloriously Gory “Evil Dead: The Musical” – a review by Jillian Owens

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What could possibly go wrong? Ash (played by Michael Hazin) is just an average S-Mart employee who wants to spend a relaxing spring break at a creepy abandoned cabin in the woods. Joining him on this vacation are his sweetheart, Linda (played by Elisabeth Baker), his jerk of a friend, Scotty (played by Patrick Dodds), his jerk of a friend’s recent hookup, Shelly (played by Abigail Ludwig), and his socially-awkward buzzkill of a little sister, Cheryl (played by Jodie Cain Smith.) When a mysterious trap door in the floor flies open, the fellas decide to investigate.

(L-R) Jodie Cain Smith, Elisabeth Baker, Michael Hazin, Patrick Dodds, Abigail Ludwig - rehearsal by  Richard Arthur Király - Photography
(L-R) Jodie Cain Smith, Elisabeth Baker, Michael Hazin, Patrick Dodds, Abigail Ludwig – rehearsal photo by Richard Arthur Király – Photography
Michael Hazin and Patrick Dodds - - rehearsal by  Richard Arthur Király - Photography
Michael Hazin and Patrick Dodds -  rehearsal photo by Richard Arthur Király – Photography

Unless you’re — as Scotty would say (and says repeatedly) — “a stupid bitch,” you’ve probably figured out that this is the standard set-up for countless horror movies, and that there is no possible way for this to end well for our young friends. The group discovers a tape recorder and a very strange book, written in Latin. The bizarrely helpful voice on the tape (contributed by Scott Blanks) reveals that they hold the Necronomicon, a book of the dead bound in human flesh and written in human blood that has the power to unleash an army of some pretty catty Candarian demons upon the world. They, of course, play the transcription of the cursed words and release these aforementioned demons. And what do you do when being attacked by demons? You sing a song (“You stupid bitch!”)

Michael Hazin and Elisabeth Baker - rehearsal by Richard Arthur Király - Photography
Michael Hazin and Elisabeth Baker – rehearsal photo  by Richard Arthur Király – Photography

Even the most pedestrian lovers of campy horror films can guess that this musical is based on the three films of the Evil Dead franchise: Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead 2 (1987), and Army of Darkness (1992.) The musical version, (created by George Reinblatt, Christopher Bond, Frank Cipolla, and Melissa Morris) was originally produced in 2003 in Toronto, Ontario where its success lead it to Off Broadway in 2006. The musical version combines the plots of the first two films, and contains several Army of Darkness references as well.

Jodie Cain Smith
Jodie Cain Smith as demon-possessed Cheryl – rehearsal photo by Richard Arthur Király – Photography

The songs in the show are silly and fun, and reminiscent of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Song titles include, “All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons,” “Bit-Part Demon”,”Do the Necronomicon”, and –my personal favorite- “”What the F*ck Was That?” The music isn’t particularly challenging, and it certainly isn’t brilliant, but it’s also not trying to be. The simple score allowed director Chad Henderson to assemble a cast of very funny actors, some of whom are also very strong singers.

(L-R) Amy Brower and Michael Hazin -
*WHOOSH* Amy Brower turns her head as Michael Hazin looks on – rehearsal photo by Richard Arthur Király – Photography

Michael Hazin pulls off the role of Ash with a terrific Bruce Campbell (star of the film series) swagger and a commanding voice, and Elisabeth Baker was an obvious choice for the role of Linda, his sweet love interest. She’s also no stranger to musical theatre, and it shows. Matthew DeGuire seems an unlikely Jake (a rugged and sort of sketchy Mountain Man) which makes his role all the funnier and he nails every note. The rest of the cast’s strength lies primarily in their comedic abilities…and that’s okay. Jodie Cain Smith’s Cheryl is hilarious, both pre- and post- Deadite (the term for bodies possessed by Candarian demons), even if some of her numbers pushed her out of her comfortable vocal range. Amy Brower is the most melodramatic archaeologist you’ll ever meet, with some serious wardrobe malfunctions that lead to much laughter, and Patrick Dodds is a complete and utter jerkoff as Scotty, which in this case is a compliment.

Ash vs. the Deadites - "Come and get some!"- rehearsal photo  by Richard Arthur Király - Photography
Ash vs. the Deadites – “Come and get some!”- rehearsal photo by Richard Arthur Király – Photography

Evil Dead: the Musical is the definitely the first musical I’ve ever been to that featured a “Splatter Zone.” That’s right – this stage adaptation maintains the high levels of campy gore established in the films, and if you’re feeling particularly fearless, you can choose to be covered in fake blood as the body count rises. You’ll also get to see a beheaded corpse with a grudge, a feisty dismembered hand, and a really unpleasant evil moose. Scenic Designers Brandon McIver and Baxter Engle and Prop Designer Jillian Peltzman have made this production a 4-D experience.

Evil Dead: The Musical is a must-see for horror fans, fans of all things funny, and fans of really strange musical adaptations. Go ahead…heed the calling of the Deadites…Join Us…at Trustus Theatre.

~ Jillian Owens

Evil Dead: The Musical runs through Saturday, July 26; call 803- 254-9732 or visit www.trustus.org for ticket information.  Also, be sure to check out the artwork of Sean McGuinness, aka That Godzilla Guy, the featured artist in the Gallery at Trustus for the run of the production.

 

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