After surviving the growing pains associated with mounting a new citywide festival last year, the second annual Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival recently announced its lineup. Included among the festival's nine productions are the East Coast premiere of Mart Crowley's The Men from the Boys, a sequel to Crowley's legendary The Boys in the Band (which will also be appearing); the Philadelphia premiere of the musical Breathe, from talented local composers Dan Martin and Michael Biello; and the world premiere of Fuchsia, from Mary Fengar Gail.
Unfortunately, not all the news was as good. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival announced that due to financial concerns, the company would be canceling its season-ending production of As You Like It. According to Artistic Director Carmen Kahn, the company had built its season around a Joseph Chaikin-directed production of Uncle Vanya. When Chaikin passed away, PSF lost, in Kahn's words, "not only a wonderful friend, but one of our biggest grants." With no time to apply for alternative funding, the company began the 2003-04 campaign with a $200,000 shortfall, and Kahn says that rather than borrow the money, it decided to nix the final production. After restructuring the administrative staff, Kahn reports that PSF will be returning next season with a "new format," the specifics of which will be announced at a future date.
There are many things to admire in InterAct Theatre Company's production of Naomi Wallace's In the Heart of America, though, unfortunately, Wallace's play is not one of them. Expertly directed by Seth Rozin and extremely well performed by the five-member cast, In the Heart of America, which was written in 1994 as a response to the Gulf War, is still eerily contemporary. Featuring a soul that wanders from one American conflict to the next, the play's references to Bush and Hussein emphasize the never-ending nature of war. But while Rozin's production is adept at communicating the sometimes subtle distinction between sexuality and brutality, the play's lack of focus makes it as sprawling and empty as the Kuwaiti desert the American soldiers ravage.
J. Cooper Robb
St. Louis/Kansas City
Mid-February brought valentines and rising curtains, plus an anti-valentine, with five shows opening in a five-day period. The touring Oliver! brought out handbillers from Equity and the American Federation of Musicians to protest the absence of union performers, and with only nine musicians in the vast Fox Theatre pit, there was room for a dance troupe to perform there at the same time. The production was lackluster, and in a city where standing ovations are the norm, half the audience applauded while the remainder sought the exits.
Meanwhile, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and the New Jewish Theatre welcomed English playwrights, with Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange at the former, Hyam Maccoby's The Disputation at the latter.
Director Steven Woolf brought his usual skill to the Rep's three-hander, and Rashaad Ernesto Green was impressive as the patient, but Jeremy Webb and Anderson Matthews, the dueling psychiatrists, bogged down in the second act's repetitive verbiage. It runs through March 12.
The Disputation (closed Feb. 29), replaying a 13th-century debate between a rabbi and a bishop, brought superior work from Jerry Vogel, whose portrayal of Moses ben Nachman was exquisite. David Cooperstein was a strong foe. Donna Northcott's direction was right on, and Drew Bell, as the Clintonesque King James I, was a delight, as were Deborah Sharn as his diamond-hard, diamond-cold queen and Sarah Cannon as his sensuous, flirtatious mistress.
Historyonics, the Missouri Historical Society's theatre in residence, offered a good look at Brown vs. the Board of Education (closed Feb. 29), written stylishly by the group's artistic director, Patton Chiles. Garrett Bergfeld and Whit Reichert stood out.
And 1970s gangbangers, badly dated, were in the St. Louis Black Rep's revival of The River Niger (closed March 7). Director Buddy Butler, stage manager for the original Negro Ensemble Company production, showed the play's strength, with good performances by Lisa Rachel Harris, Erik Kilpatrick, Fannie Belle, and Ronald L. Conner, but the revolutionaries were more like trick-or-treaters.
A thoughtful drama, a classic, and an original work highlight February's openings in Phoenix.
When is a two-person play intensely dramatic? First, when it's written by Donald Margulies, a playwright who creates sympathetic characters who blossom and clash. Second, when it's directed by someone (Elaine "E.E." Moe) who understands the tricky balance of natural and presentational. Third, when it features two actresses (Janet Arnold and Jessica Flowers) who have a strong and believable connection that allows for the remarkable movement of their characters. The Arizona Jewish Theatre Company's production of Collected Stories (closed Feb. 29) was an insightful and incisive production tautly presented.
Arizona Theatre Company Associate Artistic Director Samantha K. Wyer once again scored a direct hit, this time with her gritty production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (closed Feb. 29). A difficult step in recreating this classic is casting. To that end, Wyer eschewed the stereotypical by casting Stephen Beach as Stanley. Beach is not physically imposing, despite a well-muscled physique. He is a balding, middling-height scrapper. What Beach depends on, and what Wyer draws out, is the bravado, the self-image of Stanley. When first we meet him, he is strong of spirit and self-assured, unaware of any possible flaws in his personality because he has Kelly Mares' enabling Stella squarely under his control and can see himself through her lustily enchanted eyes. It is only as Katherine Clarvoe's haughty Blanche flits into the world and disrupts the fanciful picture in both Stanley and Stella's minds that we see Beach turn from strutting rooster to snarling animal, desperate to hold on to what is his.
The Black Theatre Troupe commissioned local playwright Ben Tyler to write about the relationship of big-band frontman Duke Ellington with his carefully hidden, extremely talented, prolific, openly gay songwriter, Billy Strayhorn. The PR claims Sweet Thunder (closed Feb. 29) concentrates on their complicated relationship. However, Tyler's script is nothing but an excuse to present 22 of Strayhorn's many great songs. What dramatic movement there is depends on excessive exposition that is awkwardly handled. Sweet Thunder rumbles that it is a drama, but strikes closer to being nothing but a musical revue.
Mark S.P. Turvin
Utah's theatre scene has been bubbling with conflict. In D.L. Coburn's The Gin Game (closed Feb. 29) at Salt Lake's Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Pygmalion Productions explored a universal American fear: the nursing home. Fine performances by Reb Fleming and Ron Jewett brought out the worst in both gin rummy and old age.
Then the Salt Lake Acting Company put office gender politics on stage in an excellent production of Annie Weisman's Hold Please (closed Feb. 29). Male bosses never appear, yet nonetheless exert their power over these four women. Kathryn Atwood and Anne Stewart Mark played the veterans of the women's movement; Daisy Blake and Rebecca Larsen were the tech-savvy but naïve young ones.
And the Pioneer Theatre Company featured Neil Simon and his Brighton Beach Memoirs (closed Feb. 28). Paul Barnes directed a stellar cast led by Bobby Steggert as Eugene. PTC's production of the coming-of-age struggle of an emerging writer was first-rate. And the immigrant story and the claustrophobic family environment also got fair play.
But musicals are also on offer. Hale Center Theater Orem has filled every corner of its tiny space with the Paul Gordon and John Caird adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (through April 12). The musical actually works better on the stage than dramatic versions. Ruth and Nathan Hale's theatres are unashamedly committed to family entertainment, and the tale of Jane Eyre's search for love and acceptance accords with that Hale legacy.
In contrast, a Broadway tour of Chicago blew into Salt Lake City for three days in early February with a strong cast: Bianca Marroquin (Roxie Hart), Reva Rice (Velma Kelly), and Carol Woods (Mama Morton). And the sinuous dancers looked boneless, they were so fluid. Walter Bobbie may be the award-winning director of this revival, but the Fosse style is still stamped on the jazzy musical.
Tom Wopat, who had just replaced Patrick Swayze, was disappointing as Billy Flynn, however; although his voice is fine, he seemed leaden next to the other high-energy performers. Overall, the production adapted well to the Kingsbury Hall concert stage, with musical director Vincent Fanuele and the 13 musicians center stage. Seeing Chicago live raises the question, "What movie?" After nearly three decades, it still has its original pizzazz.