REVIEW: Stage Door (Griffin Theatre)

Huge, hugely talented cast gives their all to ‘Stage Door’

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Griffin Theatre Company presents
 
Stage Door
 
By Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman
Directed by Robin Witt
Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. (map)
though May 23 | tickets: $18-$28 | more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

One of the most overlooked and underrated writers of the 20th century, Edna Ferber brilliantly showcased the lives of working women in her keenly stories. In the 1936 Stage Door, Ferber and George S. Kaufman crafted an impressive and charming drama about one such downtrodden group.

MechelleMoeatpaino Set in the Footlights Club, a New York boardinghouse for theatrical women, the story follows the lives of the young contenders of Broadway. Hoping for their big break, they subsist on hope and pennies … and often succumb to temptations away from the stage. For the luckiest, Hollywood lures; for others, love, or security, or pure hopelessness.

No one would write a play like this today, and Griffin deserves tremendous props for producing it all. It’s not that its themes haven’t been covered in subsequent plays — 1991’s I Hate Hamlet, for instance, takes on similar Broadway vs. Hollywood issues — but that the cast is huge. There are 32 distinct characters, played in this production by a cast of 27. Quite literally, they don’t make ’em like this anymore!

What’s more, when I say "distinct characters," I mean just that. Each is skillfully introduced, significant and a unique personality that adds to the heart and spunk of this rich play. Director Robin Witt brings out those traits to the fullest.

Mechelle Moe stars as the central character: plucky, generous Terry Randall, who’s been trying to make a go of it on Broadway for three years. Despite her lack of success, she remains stagestruck. "We live and breathe theater and that’s what I’m crazy about," she says.

Her friends tell her she’s talented, but she hasn’t managed more than a few weeks of work in all her time in New York. The play suggests that’s because she’s not beautiful and doesn’t appear well offstage. It’s perhaps a slight flaw in the script that we never see Terry acting, and can’t judge for ourselves. Moe’s own performance occasionally seems too gung-ho, like the young Judy Garland enthusing about putting on a play in the barn, but she makes the audience care about Terry.

We do get to judge the talents of Olga Brandt, a classically trained pianist who earns a living playing for dance rehearsals. "For that I studied fifteen years with Kolijinsky!" she says in disgust, and solaces herself by playing Chopin on the boardinghouse piano. Janeane Bowlware is both a skilled musician and delightfully funny in this difficult role. (In a nice theatrical in-joke, during most of the play, the piano’s music stand displays sheet music from Show Boat, the Jerome KernOscar Hammerstein musical based on Ferber’s 1926 novel.)

We also see some fine comic turns from Sara McCarthy as Bernice Niemeyer, the house busybody; Erin Meyers as the man-hating Ann Braddock; Ashley Neal and Christina Gorman as Big Mary and Little Mary, a Mutt and Jeff duo; and Kate McGroarty as Pat Devine, a leggy dancer earning her living in nightclub shows.

Other notable performances include Stacie Barra, archly dry as Terry’s cynical friend Judith Canfield, and Jeremy Fisher, strong as Keith Burgess, the earnest young playwright on whom Terry pins her hopes. Lucy Carapetyan is ardent as Jean Maitland, who urges Terry to go with her to Hollywood.

mechellemoeJamesFarruggio Maggie Cain gives us a matter-of-fact Mattie, the boardinghouse’s maid of all work, and Chuck Filipov a subtle performance as Frank, a teenage household helper, while Mary Anne Bowman alternately fawns and frowns as Mrs. Orcutt, a one-time actress turned boardinghouse manager.

Judith Lesser and Mary Poole play a compelling scene as Linda Shaw, sneaking in after a night with wealthy married man, and her unexpectedly visiting mother.

Marika Engelhardt plays Madeleine Vauclain, an actress from Seattle, trying to find a double date for visiting hometown conventioneers — Jeff Duhigg and Paul Popp, as a pair of buffoonish Pacific Northwest lumbermen. Rakisha Pollard is brave as Louise Mitchell, an unsuccessful actress sadly leaving Broadway to marry the boy back home in Wisconsin.

It feels like hair-splitting to point out the few flaws. James Farruggio seems a little stiff as David Kingsley, the moviemakers’ agent who urges Terry to stick to the stage, and Caroline Neff is a bit too detached as Kaye Hamilton, Terry’s desperate and destitute roommate.

D’wayne Taylor doubles as a Hollywood producer and as Terry’s father, a small-town Indiana doctor. He acts well in both parts, but he stands out oddly as the one African American in the company, making me wonder what led Witt to cast him. Color-blind casting works well when it’s done with consistency, but if you’re going to suspend historical accuracy for the sake of diversity, you need more than a token. When all the rest of such a large cast is white, it jars suspension of disbelief to have the sole black person in the show play the father of a white woman.

Filling out the cast, Jennifer Betancourt plays Bobby Melrose, a Southern belle; Morgan Maher is her boyfriend, Sam Hastings, an actor from Texas. Joey deBettencourt portrays Jimmy Devereaux, a confident would-be actor who hasn’t ever auditioned for a professional part; Skyler Schrempp, Susan Paige, perpetual understudy; and Erin O’Shea Kendall Adams, daughter of a family of Boston Brahmins.

Witt stages the show in three acts, with two intermissions — a 1930s convention that always makes feel as if I’ve really been to the theater — and blocks it beautifully, particularly in a wonderful Act III scene that puts nearly all the cast onstage. Marianna Csaszar‘s convincing set, built around a central staircase, helps to give the wide-ranging scenes focus.

Stage Door was the basis of the 1937 film of the same name, but the movie’s plot bears little similarity to this delicious play (which seems rather a meta-joke in itself). Don’t miss this rarely performed gem.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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Review: Porchlight’s “The Fantasticks”

The Fantasticks disappoints more than it thrills

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Porchlight Theatre presents:

The Fantasticks

by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones
directed by Sean Kelly
through November 15th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

 Fantasticks-7 The 1960 musical The Fantasticks, the longest running performance in American theatre history (almost 50 years!), was built-up to be spectacular production. Every musical theatre actor I know wanted to be a part of Porchlight Theatre’s production and long time musical fans praised The Fantasticks as a must see musical in Chicago. However, this production, now playing at Theatre Building Chicago, is a disappointment.

The story is about two innocent kids: Matt (Sean Effinger-Dean) and Luisa (Emma Rosenthal,) who naively fall in love due to the manipulation of their fathers. Knowing that all kids will do the exact opposite of what their father wants them to do, the fathers: Hucklebee (Dan Ferretti) and Bellomy (Ryan Lanning). pretend to despise each other and forbid Matt and Luisa from interacting. They insult one another in front of their children and build a tall fence to separate the two young neighbors. Of course, now that their interaction is forbidden, the two seek out each other’s company and there is a new passion that fills their shared moments. The fathers then plan their ultimate bizarre plan to bond the two lovers in marriage, but it all blows up in their faces when the kids realize that they have been manipulated. But don’t fear, all seems to work out in the end.

The set is cold and bare (maybe this is a  common element for the show), leaving the backyards of Matt and Luisa up to our imagination. The blue lighting softens the set a little bit, and being able to watch the pianist and Harpist play in the back of the stage provided the only magical romantic feeling to the scenery.

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The story is filled with catchy songs with fun satirical lyrics and beautiful accompaniment by the pianist and harpist. The vocal talent on stage is top-notch. The song “Try To Remember” is absolutely one of my favorites from any musical I have seen. I am still singing it in my head and, lucky for me, I can still hear Jeff Parker’s (El Gallo) soothing voice singing it. Unfortunately, the quality of songs is lost in the randomness of the choreography. The characters flit around in dance moves that have nothing to do with what the songs are about, adding nothing to the words or the feeling of the songs. At one point it looks as if jumping-jacks are substituted for actual dance. The bare stage offers the opportunity for the choreography to add to the play’s atmosphere and provide the emotion behind the music, but this opportunity is missed, coming off as childish fun.

Additionally, individual character development is lacking. There is no chemistry on stage – so there is a lack of believability to the emotional moments between Matt and Luisa. Many times Luisa appears to be pretending to have feeling for Matt, rather than truly falling in love with the boy in front of her. Luisa’s character is oddly cast. Emma Rosenthal’s voice, although beautiful, was too powerful and makes Luisa sound too womanly and older than her character. Ms. Rosenthal’s movements project a resolute maturity that surely would be lacking in a teenage girl – her strength then does not match up with the shy boy she is supposed to be fantasizing about.

Fantasticks-3 Sean Effinger-Dean’s character, however, is thoroughly enjoyable. Matt is not the typical “pretty boy” that may be found in a commercial love story. A 22-year old biologist, Matt sings and acts with the insecurity and social awkwardness that a 22 year old who is in love with a teenage girl would have. His role might not be as charming as it could have been, but the portrayal of the immaturity in a 22 year old boy is thoroughly convincing.

Jeff Parker’s El Gallo brings the only inspiring dramatic moments and sense of continuity to the play , but my favorite character in the play is the elegant mute (Tanya McBride).  Her subtle additions to the staging help create the feelings that surround the play, and it is incredible to witness her expressive face and fluid balletic movements, providing more magic to the stage than the interaction between characters.

This production makes one question the relationship between the two fathers. Do they have a fondness for each other beyond friendship? Do they want their offspring to marry just so that they can share a sense of a domesticated relationship they could not achieve in their current situations, or did their characters just lack the masculinity that I expected from a play written in the 1950’s?

I am skeptic when it comes to musicals (I don’t enjoy the fluff,) but I have seen good musical theatre and this is not it. This play has been successfully performed well for over 40 years, so the book would seem strong, so don’t turn your back on The Fantasticks as a whole, just this production.

Rating: ««½

Playing at the Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Chicago, IL, Friday & Saturday at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours with intermission, through November 15, 2009.

 

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