Review: No More Dead Dogs (Griffin Theatre)

  
  

Griffin Theatre focuses on ‘Dead Dog’ fun

  
   

Alex Kyger, Colton Dillion, Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

  
Griffin Theatre presents
  
  
No More Dead Dogs
   
Based on novel by Gordon Korman
Adapted by William Massolia
Directed by Dorothy Milne
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Just what is it about children’s literature? On the one hand, classics in the genre can zap heartstrings and endear us to them forever. On the other hand, they, too, fall back on tired formulas that make us wonder what we ever saw in them. Heaven help the public school teacher trying to turn kids onto literature using “age appropriate” work from the 1950s. Wallace Wallace (Ryan Lempka) is just the kind of kid who won’t accept that kind of fodder without blunt and unforgiving commentary. Griffin Theatre’s latest production at Theatre Wit, No More Dead Dogs, follows Wallace’s keen observation that many books for young people, such as “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows”, often have dogs die in them in order to foster some tear-jerking Ellie Reed and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"realization about life for the young reader. (Don’t get us started about Bambi.)

But dead dogs and orphaned deer aside, Griffin’s show, under the easy, swift and agile direction of Dorothy Milne, is a joyous romp for both cast and audience. Co-Artistic Director William Massolia has adapted Gordon Korman’s best-selling comic novel for the stage and his light handling of the ‘tween material usually carries off without a hitch. Wallace, having been lied to so often by his Dad (Jeff Duhigg), simply cannot bring himself to lie about anything, ever—including how much he thinks the book he’s assigned to report, “Old Shep, My Pal”, stinks. Too bad his English teacher, Mr. Fogelman (Jeremy Fisher), can’t accept that his favorite children’s classic may be past its prime. He perpetually puts Wallace in detention until he can write a book report that meets with his approval. What could have been Wallace’s irresistible force running into Fogelman’s immovable object instead morphs into school jock meets the drama club, since Fogelman has adapted “Old Shep, My Pal” for their next production.

By no means is No More Dead Dogs a John Hughes drama. Crafted for younger audiences, the comedy kindly skirts the rancor between high school cliques. Indeed, sub-cultural clashes become virtually negligible once Wallace starts updating Fogelman’s adaptation to something his classmates can relate to. This includes incorporating Vito’s (Joey deBettencourt) garage band, The Dead Mangoes, into the production, much to Fogelman’s chagrin. Lempka strongly shows he knows the importance of being earnest in his humorously straightforward interpretation of Wallace. Fisher, however, almost steals the show, as Fogelman journeys from escalating frustration over his play being usurped, to hip cat on a sax once the band tells him he can join.

          
 Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs" Ellie Reed and Joey Eovaldi in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Ellie Reed and Cameron Harms in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs". (background: The Mangos)

Indeed, much as the play spoofs stale children’s lit, the show looks strangely reminiscent of zany, overtly physical 50s comedy, where every character pretty much stays in type and the show winds up even more crazy from there. Milne’s direction never overplays its hand but always builds the action to its appropriately goofy outcomes. Wallace is solidly flanked by his football buddies and the nerdier drama club, with Joey Eovaldi adding coy and energetic mischief in his role as the younger Dylan. Would that the parts of Rachel (Elllie Reed) and Trudi (Samantha Dubina) could have gone beyond girls-with-crushes-on-the-lead cliches—but at least Reed and Dubin handle their characters sportingly and generously. In fact, one would be hard put to find a more good-natured production, focused solely on dealing out firm and lively fun for the young, than this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Joey deBettencourt, Erin O'Shea, Morgan Maher and Jeremy Fisher as The Mangos in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Griffin Theatre’s No More Dead Dogs continues at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through June 19th, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25-$30, and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online.  More info at www.griffintheatre.com.

  
  

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REVIEW: Company (Griffin Theatre Company)

One’s Company…

 

Company

   
Griffin Theatre presents
   
Company
   
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by
George Furth
Directed by
Jonathan Berry
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through November 14  |  tickets: $22-$32  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Five more or less married couples and their seemingly confirmed bachelor friend–the contrast between their ambivalence and his fecklessness fuels this early, episodic Stephen Sondheim musical, a show with enough brains to hit the heart. So, if Bobby remains unyoked at 35, it could be because his “institutionalized” friends have set cautionary examples with their drugging, boozing, infidelities and threats of divorce. And Bobby’s lusty life of interchangeable dates is its own dead-end excuse for a mid-life crisis.

Stephen Sondheim and bookwriter George Furth cleverly chronicle the complications and contradictions in bittersweet, ambiguous showpieces like “Sorry-Grateful,” “Marry Me a Little,” “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” as well as the vaudevillian warmth in “Side By Side By Side” and the title song. (Here “company” means both the opposite of loneliness and what misery loves best.)

Those songs, ably directed by Jonathan Berry, revolve like a carousel around eligible bachelor Bobby, a very un-lonely New Yorker who just turned 35 and receives contagious concern from the compulsively, reflexively or instinctively married couples who comprise his industrious friends. (The slick plot, with its sitcom setups and twisting revelations, recalls bookwriter Furth’s own The Supporting Cast and its gay counterpart, Paul Rudnick‘s Jeffrey.) Bobby’s tensile friends include control-freak Sarah and her co-dependent husband Harry; Southern-belle Susan and her estranged and closeted Peter; amiable Jenny and considerate David (who would love to be single "for an hour"); frantic Amy, a shiksa who almost doesn’t marry her adoring Paul; and sophisticates Larry and Joanne. Joanne’s amorous assault will help to shock Bobby from his fear of commitment. It also fuels the ending, where he determines to be himself, enough to realize one’s company and two’s a crowd.

For them and for the three women in and out of Bobby’s life (sweet stewardess April, ebullient Marta, "the soul of New York," and knowing Kathy, the girl who got away), Sondheim delivers delicious numbers, ranging from Marta’s New York tribute, "Another 100 People," to the sardonic anthem "Crazy Person."

Despite the drawback of an orchestra that’s so loud that the singers are overmiked, music director Allison Rae Kane maintains the Sondheim supremacy with this playful, bouncy and fluid tribute to New York in all its normal nuttiness. (Jessica Kuehnau’s functional set is just abstract enough to suggest New York’s teasing formlessness.)

Company is a hungry show, eager to assert its sometimes borrowed wisdom: Griffin’s rough-and-tumble urgency fits the bill, and here, despite a too-slow and deliberate second act, the ensemble acting is everything a chorus should be.

An instantly likable anti-hero and a solid survivor, Benjamin Sprunger’s Robert (who is almost exactly the right age for the character) conveys both the curiously unattached “Bobby baby, Bobby bubbie” who fascinates his friends and the haunted loner who aches for connection in the enthralling “Being Alive.” (Sprunger brings so much hunger to the number that you can imagine, from a slightly different perspective Bobby verging on tragedy instead of tragicomedy.) Amid so much Gotham craziness he’s a grounded, solid soul who stands out by hanging back. Standouts among Robert’s 13-member supporting “family” include Allison Cain whose bibulous ferocity in “The Ladies Who Lunch” makes you reconsider Prohibition and recalls Elaine Stritch but with repression as much as rage. Samantha Dubina’s winsome stewardess (so moving in “Barcelona”) says a lot with the look of longing. Dana Tretta incarnates the free spirit of 70s New York as a date too independent even for freedom-loving Bobby. Darci Nalepa runs Amy’s tour-de-force “Getting Married Today” along a fine knife edge between hope and farce.

Company may seem dated in its view of the Big Apple as a couples’ mecca where anonymity and intimacy constantly vie for dominance. (References to the “generation gap” and phones that lack even an answering machine don’t help this updated production.) But the interpersonal dynamics so cleverly lampooned and confirmed by these songs remain in full force: The show keeps the crowds it earned.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
  

more “Company” videos after the fold

          
        

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