Friday, August 26, 2011

Shout! The Mod Musical : Guggenheim Entertainment : It's Like Groovy, Baby!

     

Shout! The Mod Musical is a charming, nostalgic trip though the swinging, modernist subculture of 1960s London that helped define a decade. Presented as a comic revue split into two acts, it showcases many memorable popular tunes that swept the UK and the rest of the world during that period. And while it does maintain a whimsical tone throughout, it doesn’t shy away from serious underlying themes of feminine self-discovery and liberation.

The cast of lovely and uniformly talented ladies – mostly clad in fetching minidresses, groovy high heels and hip white vinyl go-go boots (“These Boots were Made for Walking”) – inhabit five distinct female types, each representing different colors of the so-called  “mod rainbow.”

“Red Girl” (Shannon Guggenheim) is the bespectacled, insecure nerdy girl; “Blue Girl” (Kate McCormick) is the vain, Twiggy-like model and actress who harbors a secret; “Orange Girl” (Hilary Little) is hopeful a husband and children will bring her happiness; “Green Girl” (Ashley Rae Little) is the tart who’s particularly adept in dumping men; and “Yellow Girl” (Catherine Brady) is the obnoxious American obsessed with Paul McCartney.

The static set is essentially a multi-tiered stage reminiscent of the television variety shows prevalent at the time such as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, to which the play and director (Scott Evan Guggenheim) owe much in terms of concept, design and staging. The scenic elements (Julie Engelbrecht) are fairly straightforward and effective, with the requisite beaded curtain, flower power motif and rainbow hues, but an opportunity was lost for a more imaginative and visually evocative (e.g., psychedelic) lighting design.

There is no storyline per se, and scenes are introduced by the characters glancing at annual editions of Shout! magazine while commenting on the latest news and trends in pop culture, with the unseen Holter Graham providing marvelous narration as the “voice” of the English periodical. We get to know more about them via a series of letters written to the rag's advice columnist “Gwendolyn Holmes.”

The questions asked of Ms. Holmes are sincere and heartfelt, but the guidance they receive – featuring fine offstage voiceover work by Carole Shelley – are unsatisfying, condescending platitudes espousing the traditional role of marriage and motherhood and extolling the virtues of visiting a beauty salon!
But it’s the splendid costuming and wigs, also created by the remarkably versatile Ms. Engelbrecht, that say as much about the women's evolution as they do about the era in which they live. Bravo!

The vocalizations are all very good, offering a melodious spectrum of complementary timbre and range. They do justice to the original hit recordings by such renowned Brit singers as Lulu, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey. And in between songs they perform a number of clever skits that touch upon a panoply of personal issues and controversial topics from “pot” to "the Pill."

Among the many highlights is the ensemble's hilarious and risqué segue into “Coldfinger,” a parody of the classic "James Bond" composition, with lead vocals by the charismatic and sexy Ashley Rae Little. Equally impressive are Catherine Brady’s rendition of a “Son of a Preacher Man,” and Shannon Guggenheim’s wonderfully comic interpretation of “How Can You Tell,” both enhanced by the latter artist's own vibrant and spot-on retro choreography.

The second act does take on a vaguely pensive mood, with Ms. Guggenheim’s poignant “Those Were the Days” eliciting spontaneous clapping from the enthusiastic opening-night audience. Few of the numbers ever quite reach a crescendo, however, because of an easily corrected sound design misstep limiting the sonic intensity. And the use of a somewhat flat and uninspiring canned musical accompaniment doesn't help, either.

Celebrating its second anniversary at The Retro Dome in San Jose, this Guggenheim Entertainment production lives up to the venue's name and is noteworthy for its singular vitality, clockwork professionalism and sheer entertainment value. It's highly recommended!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

American Buffalo : Actors Theatre of San Francisco : Outstanding Production Ensures No Danger of Extinction of Classic Play


American Buffalo took the theatre world by storm when it debuted in Chicago in 1975.  David Mamet’s allegory about the dubious morality of American capitalism showcased a mastery of the vernacular of the urban underclass that had been hitherto unseen. It has an undeniable authenticity and power – despite the fact that his stylized use of profanity, breakneck pacing and pithy, fragmented phrasing often flirts with (without ever fully embracing) the satirical.

The entire two-act play takes place in a single set depicting a seedy, secondhand store painstakingly decorated to capture the period by designers James Baldock and Jen Welch. It’s owned by Donny (Randy Hurst), the alleged “brains” of the hapless trio of small-time crooks who hatch a plan to rob a coin collector. The numismatist became a “mark” because he took advantage of the junk dealer by purchasing a rare American buffalo nickel for a fraction of its value.


Suffice it to say the scheme goes awry, but in the process the playwright weaves a stunning tale of friendship, betrayal, delusion and paranoia among his pitiable band of thieves.

Christian Phillips, co-founder and artistic director of the company, has a trademark menacing intensity tempered with an unmistakable intellect that serves his character well. “Teach” (aka Walter) ostensibly serves as “muscle” for the proposed heist, but his wry observations of the darker side of human nature reveal he’s an existentialist, albeit an uneducated one, at heart. The robbery is more than another job to him – it’s a defining moment in a life filled with disappointment and despair.

The intricate bond between Walter and Donny is undeniable, but it’s borne out of a kind of codependence as much as any notion of genuine affection. Phillips’ outstanding signature turn nails both the emotional volatility of the role and the unique rhythm of the dialogue with a seemingly effortless concentration and aplomb. Bravo!

Vlad Sayenko plays Bobby, a drug addict whom Donny takes under his wing and designates as his original partner in the daring plot. But Teach convinces Donny that Bobby is too naïve and unreliable for such a big score and is allowed to take his place. They assure one another that the decision is strictly "business" and nothing personal.

Sayenko portrays the young substance abuser as sweet and a little slow, but with an agenda that’s not entirely clear. Interestingly, the subtlety of his performance purposely avoids the manic energy one would typically expect of a junkie and is both engaging and quite affecting.

Caught between his addicted friend and his unpredictable, suspicious cohort, Donny does his level best to keep the peace and bring together his poorly thought-out crime.

Early on it becomes abundantly clear that he’s not a bad man and is not entirely comfortable with the highly risky, illicit project. But it’s his sense of righteous indignation and entitlement that motivate him to carry on. Besides, it's only business (a recurring theme). Hurst’s multi-layered characterization manages to effectively convey Donny’s ethical ambivalence and essential goodness, but he seems perplexed by the Mamet’s demanding timing and tempo and he flubs his lines a few times too often to ignore.

Once again, Actors Theatre of San Francisco has chosen to tackle one of the best and most difficult plays written in contemporary American English. This successful production, featuring the sure-handed direction of Keith Phillips, is illustrative of just how their steadfast refusal to be intimidated by such challenging material can have outstanding results.