REVIEW: Sleeping Beauty (Marriott Theatre)

Centuries-old fairy tale energized with girl-power

 SLEEPING BEAUTY--Jessie Mueller as Princess Amber 2

Marriott Theatre presents:

 

Sleeping Beauty 

Adapted by Marc Robin
Directed and choreographed by
Matt Raftery
At
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (map)
through April 25th
(more info)

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

“Sleeping Beauty” was first published in 1697, and since then has morphed, changed, been embellished and re-interpreted in thousands of ways; both subtle and overt. Here in America, any girls born after 1959 probably know the Walt Disney version of the story the best; lovely, quiet Aurora sings and picks flowers, obeys her godmothers (without any inclination that they are, in fact, fairies  – and that she is in fact a princess), gets tricked, falls asleep, gets rescued by an equally genteel and beautiful prince and they all live happily ever after. The film is a classic, but SLEEPING BEAUTY--Jessie Mueller as Princess Amberprincesses like that don’t reign anymore. It is no longer interesting to see a heroine who goes through the story with no control over her actions, and whose main character arc is going from slumber to awake.

In Marc Robin’s new theatrical adaptation, produced by the Marriott Theater for Young Audiences, Sleeping Beauty is a tomboy: she spends her days climbing trees, dreaming of adventure and defending the bumbling dork Prince Hunter (Ryan Reilly) from fire-breathing dragons. Her dialogue is lightly peppered with girl power rhetoric: she claims that pressure for her to wear dresses is "stereotyping" and at one point accuses her Puck-like attendant (Andrew Keltz) of discrimination. These not-so-subtle aims to break down hundreds of years of gender expectations are nice to see, even if they do go over the heads of the kids in the audience and are too broad for the adults.

Sleeping Beauty has gone by many names, including Grimm’s Briar Rose and Disney’s Aurora.  Here, however, she is Princess Amber, of Colorland (played by Jessie Mueller). Colorland is a magical world where everyone has their own color that identifies them: the three fairy godmothers are Periwinkle (Heidi Kettenring), Ruby (Johanna McKenzie Miller) and Marigold (Tammy Mader), and the wicked fairy who condemns Amber to prick her finger on that fateful spinning wheel is Magenta (Susan Moniz). The three good fairies have a nice relationship, and Heidi Kettenring’s goofball performance is a standout (remarked my six year old companion, "Periwinkle was funny!"). Magenta is bad without ever being too scary. The fear factor for kids varies widely; age and sensibility are obvious factors. I brought a six year old and a nine year old who had different reactions to Magenta. The six year old was a little scared of Magenta, but managed to work through it, while the nine year old was mostly interested in her dress which was "cool." Magenta does in fact have a cool dress, designed by Nancy Missimi, but no extra baubles that would make her SLEEPING BEAUTY--Ryan Reilly as Prince Hunter, Jessie Mueller as Amberparticularly freaky to most kids – she does not sport any weird make up, wear a mask or wig, or anything out of the ordinary that would be particularly creepy.

The show is nicely paced. The whole production, including the talk back at the end, runs about 90-minutes. The top half of the show is focused on Princess Amber and her unconventional personality. The presence of Princess Amber is strongly felt, and her sleep is greatly reduced from the hundred years of most versions to an afternoon. During this time, Prince Hunter has to overcome a series of obstacles in order to save his slumbering love with a kiss. Being scared and uncoordinated, he relies both on the fairies and on the audience to help. The children in the audience are cued to shout "I’m your friend" and "You can do it!" at different times. Some kids might find this embarrassing, but it makes for a lively production. The connection between actors and audience is stronger here than in most adult theater. It comes to a quick, clean conclusion and ends on a high happy note (go figure).

SLEEPING BEAUTY--Andrew Keltz, Susan Moniz, Jessie Mueller SLEEPING BEAUTY--Tammy Mader, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Bernie Yvon, Heidi Kettenring

Sleeping Beauty ends with a question/answer talk back, introducing the audience to the actors, the stage manager, the back stage crew and the live band, which is educational and well rounded. The kids get to ask the actors questions about plot points that don’t make sense to them or special effects that seem like real magic to little eyes. The encouraging and informative nature of this talk back is the highlight of the show. Imagination and participation are strongly encouraged by the charming cast, which hosts the session.

The play, which is staged in the round, shares the lovely real wood, rustic set of Fiddler on the Roof, the evening production at the Marriott Theater for Old Audiences. The set was conceived to work with both productions, and doubles well. The natural looking set relieves some of the tension of the princess-and-fairy-run-world of Colorland and brings the production down to earth. The fire breathing dragon, who makes two appearances is constructed of three parts, operated by three different people. The three actors walk in unison, holding large wood puppets representing the three sections of the dragon’s body. The effect is nice and organic. It is also not the only shadowing of Julie Taymor-esque impressionism: a cloth mound is a mountain, a blue sheet is the sea.

The production sets its audience up to fill in the blanks with their imaginations, which proves easy for the kids.  And for adults, it’s nice to see some subtlety in children’s entertainment. Sleeping Beauty respects the intelligence of children and the sanity of adults: it’s is never over-stimulating or tacky.  The little ones in the audience don’t see the thought that went into this production, but they will enjoy it without the need for shock-value. The clarity and focus of the storytelling make Marriott Lincolnshire’s Sleeping Beauty a perfectly nice and colorful way to spend your morning with the little ones in your life.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

SLEEPING BEAUTY--Heidi Kettenring, Susan Moniz, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Tammy Mader

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REVIEW: Fiddler on the Roof (Marriott Theatre)

Marriott takes the Jewish out of Fiddler

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Marriott Theatre presents

Fiddler on the Roof

Book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem
Directed and choreographed by David H. Bell,
musical direction by Doug Peck
Through April 25 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

With its haunting melodies, endearing characters and poignant, historic story, Fiddler on the Roof is one of the greatest musicals of all time. Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick crafted a musical so beautiful, so compelling, that — from Broadway theater to high-school auditorium — it’s a tough show to screw up. As with any production of this engaging show, Marriott Theatre’s "Fiddler" offers much to enjoy, but it’s a long way from a great version.

fiddler03 The story of Tevye, a Jewish dairyman, and his family and friends in the Russian shtetl Anatevka, ca. 1905, is a multi-layered tale both personal and sweeping. In its conflicts between progress and tradition, between generations, between duty and desire and between different faiths and cultures, "Fiddler on the Roof" offers many universal truths. Tevye is a father coming to grips with his children’s coming of age. Anatevka stands for a lost way of life, as exotic and vanished a culture as Brigadoon.

Yet despite the looming presence of the disruptive outsiders, Anatevka represents not just any lost society, but a Jewish homeland, a tight community whose people spoke their own Jewish tongue (Yiddish, the language in which Sholom Aleichem wrote the original stories that inspired this musical) and where they brought up their children according to age-old Jewish customs. Tevye, above anything else, is a deeply religious Jew. Further, his people’s traditions were not just left behind by the passing of time, they were murderously stolen by bitter bigotry.

Fiddler on the Roof, first and foremost, is a Jewish story. Director David H. Bell, in his perception of Tevye as a bland "Everyman," seems to have missed that point.

You’ll rarely hear any Yiddish or Hebraic accent in his version of "Fiddler." When the script or score compels it, as in the "bidi-bidi-bums" of the klezmer-style song, "If I Were a Rich Man," Ross Lehman, as Tevye, seems ill at ease, almost swallowing the fiddler04syllables. James Harms, meanwhile, plays the village rabbi like an Irish priest, complete with rolled R’s. The whole rhythm of the show seems off, in part because it lacks the cantorial cadence normally imbuing the lead.

Lehman may be the least patriarchal Tevye ever — not discounting those high-school productions. It’s not that he’s a tenor in a role typically cast for a baritone and a physically smaller man than the actors famous for this part; it’s mostly his tone. Tevye, a devout and spiritual man, expresses his deep, personal relationship with God and with his family conversationally and often sardonically throughout the play, but he isn’t snide. Lehman’s Tevye is snarky where he ought to be good-humoredly ironic, arch when he should be aggravated. His performance evokes Paul Lynde or Edna Turnblad (his most recent role at Marriott, a brilliant turn) more than Zero Mostel or Topol.

Beyond casting flaws, Bell’s direction and choreography frequently disappoint. Although he’s no newcomer to Marriott’s theater-in-the-round stage, this show seems to have challenged his ingenuity. From my seat in Section 4, far too many scenes had me looking at actors’ backs. Faces were often obscured by vertical posts or the back of another player’s head. This particularly marred the scenes where Tevye and the butcher Lazar Wolf (an oddly low key David Girolmo) talk at cross purposes and in which Tevye recounts his nightmare to his wife, Golde. Bell redeems these scenes somewhat by well-executed dance numbers, but there, too, I often seemed to be viewing them edge on.

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Marriott Theatre typically stages musicals with large casts beautifully, yet the "Fiddler" stage often seemed cramped and overcrowded, particularly in ensemble numbers such as the "Sabbath Prayer" sequence. Thomas M. Ryan’s set is lightly furnished (except for those unfortunate posts) and he’s used hanging lanterns and other tricks to expand the stage beyond its physical space, so that fault can’t be laid at his feet.

The ensemble as a whole perform very well, and nothing can rob the power from "To Life" or "Sunrise, Sunset." Andrew Keltz, as Motel, does a sweet version of "Miracle of Miracles," but there are no strong individual voices. Again, beyond Nancy Missimi’s traditional costumes, the characters, even in otherwise excellent performances such as Jessie Mueller’s anguished Tzeitel, Rebecca Finnegan’s brisk Yente and Paula Scrofano’s forthright Golde, rarely convey any sense of Jewish or Old World identity.

The residents of Bell’s Anatevka don’t need to go to America at the end of the play. They’re already there.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

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REVIEW: My Fair Lady (Marriott Theatre)

Marriott’s ‘My Fair Lady’ loverly, but risk-free

MY FAIR LADY--Heidi Kettenring as Eliza (with flowers)

Marriott Theatre presents:

My Fair Lady

By Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe
Directed by
Dominic Missimi
Through February 14th, 2010 (
ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

The story of linguistics professor Henry Higgins and the Cockney girl he transforms into a lady may well be the most beloved and best-known musical of all time. Based upon George Bernard Shaw‘s Pygmalion, its original Broadway production in 1956 ran for 2,717 performances and won six Tony Awards. The 1964 film based on the musical won eight Oscars. The musical has had three major Broadway revivals, and a 2001 British production toured both the United Kingdom and the U.S. and won three Olivier Awards. Columbia Pictures has announced an upcoming movie remake.

MY FAIR LADY--Heidi Kettenring as Eliza vertical You’ve surely seen some version of this musical — if not a professional show, then a high-school or college production or the film. Just listing its popular songs — "Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?" "With a Little Bit of Luck," "The Rain in Spain," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "Get Me to the Church on Time" — will set the tunes ringing through your head. Audiences are hard pressed to keep from singing along.

If you’re one of the lovers, then all I really need to tell you is that Marriott Theatre has produced an exuberant, picture-perfect production of My Fair Lady. Nothing about this show will mar your vision of the musical — from Kevin Gudahl channeling Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins to Nancy Missimi‘s gorgeous Edwardian costumes to Matt Raftery‘s jolly choreography.

If you’re not already an ardent fan, though, nothing about Marriott’s version will challenge your perspective. Dominic Missimi‘s direction breaks no new ground whatsoever. This is "comfort theater" at its safest.

The songs are all beautifully sung, the orchestra is first-rate and the acting never misses. The in-the-round staging works surprisingly well (though I held my breath every time the cast schlepped the office furnishings on and off the stage in the dark).

The cast and ensemble — as one expects from Marriott — do everything right. Heidi Kettenring brings verve to her part as Eliza Doolittle, particularly in her "unreformed" Cockney scenes, making Gudahl’s Higgins seem especially like a stuffed fish. Don Forston makes a feisty Alfred Doolittle (our heroine’s opportunistic father) and Catherine Lord an especially expressive Mrs. Pearce (Prof. Higgins’ long-suffering housekeeper); her Scottish accent is a nice touch. David Lively gives a stiff upper lip to Colonel Pickering while Ann Whitney brings dry wit to Higgins’ mother.

MY FAIR LADY--Heidi Kettenring and Ann Whitney

Max Quinlan, as Eliza’s yearning suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, gives full measure to "On the Street Where You Live," and George Keating, Brandon Koller, Christian Libonati and Joseph Tokarz are a cheeky Cockney quartet.

The scene at Ascot, when Eliza is first revealed to the upper crust, is particularly delightful, thanks mainly to some amazing hats and staging that gives them all the display they deserve. Apart from that, though, and the intrinsic worth of live performance over recorded media, you might just as well rent the video.

I found myself thinking of all the things a theater company might do with this brilliant but hoary old musical to shake it up. While it’s probably going too far to set the show in the Loop and give Eliza a Bridgeport accent, a production, however beautiful, that merely follows where others have gone before, forms a sadly lost opportunity. Marriott’s My Fair Lady feels as if it’s set in aspic.

Rating: ★★★½

Note: Dinner packages available.

MY FAIR LADY--Heidi Kettenring as Eliza & Kevin Gudahl as Higgins