Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Lysistrata Jones at Musical Theatre Southwest's Black Box

If you haven't heard of "Lysistrata Jones," it's a very new show. It debuted on Broadway in December 2011 and initially received good reviews, but closed a month later after only 30 shows. Currently showing at the Musical Theatre Southwest Black Box performance space, the modern musical version of this Aristophanes-based play certainly doesn't take itself too seriously, and if you're in the mood for something lighthearted, this show is meant to leave you smiling.

In the original Greek satirical comedy, the women decide to use their feminine power to change the world by withholding sex from their husbands and lovers until they end their fighting of the Peloponnesian war. In the modern musical, however, the horny cheerleaders withhold sex from their even hornier, basketball-playing boyfriends in order to end a 33 year losing streak. The modern "Lyssie" is as driven with her need to change the world as the original, but with a healthy dose of campy comedy and incessantly upbeat lyrics, the cast works hard to give the new version an innate sense of fun.

Devon Frieder plays the peppy newcomer Lysistrata "Lyssie" Jones, whose high minded ideals seem to catch on at Athens University. Frieder's behind the scenes involvement brought this show to Albuquerque as a production for Warehouse 21, a Santa Fe-based organization that's dedicated to fostering artistic expression in young people. Frieder also acted as the show's director and choreographer (and costumer!) As the title character, her strong vocals are showcased in a show such as this, most certainly in numbers like "Where Am I Now?", and when combined with her high cardio, cheer-infused choreography for the entire cast, the outcome is frenetic fun.

Lyssie's boyfriend, Michaelangelo "Mick" Jackson played by Erik Joshua Clack, is full of swagger and not so keen on the girls' ideas on how to win a Spartans game. Clack also played double duty in this endeavor, acting as musical director as well, showing the labor of love that this cast approaches the show with. Surrounded by his posse, Mick and the rest of the basketball team defiantly decide to fight fire with fire and give their attention to porn, to each other, to video games, and basically anything else that might relieve their sexual frustrations and foil the girls' plans.

Also embroiled in the war of the sexes is slam poet Robin (Amy Bingen), and Xander Lee (Joey Cote), the liberal blogger who learns to reengage in the real world thanks to Lysistrata's cajoling ministrations. Hetaira, played by Rikki Carroll, embodies a number of parts, acting as emcee, referee, and even (yup) the wise-cracking madame to the local brothel -- a comic role Carroll obviously relished, as did the audience -- all helping the story to unfold. Supported by a cast of strong vocals, the ensemble throws themselves into this piece with fervor. While also strong in voice, I wasn't entirely certain the hidden Greek chorus, clothed in togas and floating above the action in an elevated singer's pit, was necessary to the storytelling, but they're there too, watching over the action at Athens U like a pantheon from somewhere near the gymnasium scoreboard.

Written by Douglas Carter Beane, the lyrics are relentlessly peppy and full of messages of being true to yourself ("Give it up! Whatever's keeping you from being you / Give it up! You gotta just believe!"). The show itself seems to pattern itself as something of a "High School Musical" meets "Legally Blonde" meets classic Greek theatre mashup, and as long as you don't search for a high minded, feminist message in Beane's work (women who cross their legs to win a basketball game and thereby "change the world"?) you will enjoy this casts' high octane performance. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Little Shop of Horrors at the Aux Dog Theatre

Some duos work perfectly, some don't. One happy duo is the Enchanted Rose Theatre and the Aux Dog Theatre who collaborated to produce the musical classic, "Little Shop of Horrors." Originally based on the black and white film by Roger Corman, the black comedy musical version is set in Skid Row during the early 1960's, featuring the perfect duo of doowop sound and campy comedy along side the imperfect duo of a man and his hungry, flesh eating plant.

Tim MacAlpine plays Seymour, our lovable loser, the orphan from Skid Row with few prospects. Yet everything begins to change for Seymour after the eclipse when a strange plant appears, whom he lovingly names "Audrey 2" after his coworker and object of his unrequited affection. MacAlpine maintains Seymour's quirkiness and balances out the character's nerdiness with naivete, finding the lovable and courageous aspects that Seymour can also be.

Jessica Osbourne plays Audrey, his tawdry love interest, and expands on her comedic talents last seen in "Boeing, Boeing" by adding her vocal abilities in this musical. However, Osbourne is an actor first. I was sitting close enough to see the tear that fell during her solo number, "Somewhere That's Green." If you weren't close enough, you might not have seen it because Osbourne (lucky girl) doesn't do the ugly cry or choke up, and by finding Audrey's innate vulnerability, she keeps her from being a simple dumb blonde stereotype. We might find Audrey's dreams tacky, but she thinks they're sublime and that's why we care about what happens to her.

Audrey's abusive boyfriend, Orin, the sadistic Skid Row dentist, is a quirky comic role requiring an actor who's willing to play broad humor and yet remain believable. Bryan Lambe throws himself into the bizarreness of the leather clad, nitrous oxide huffing motorcyclist fully, delivering our villain. Orin is just one of Lambe's roles in this show, who shifts from character to character often, but it is the dentist who allows him to showcase his own growing comedic talents.

As Audrey 2's popularity grows, so does business for Mushnik, played by Phil Shortell, the Skid Row florist and Seymour's employer. Audrey 2's carnivorous appetite is growing also, as we discover her appetite for blood which Seymour alone can no longer fulfill. The puppetry of the Audrey 2 was superbly done, both in presentation of the puppet itself in its various stages of maturity, but even more so due to the comic duo of Michelle Gammill, the human puppeteer, and Gene Corbin, the deepset bass voice of Audrey 2. Requiring an ability to coordinate on an almost intuitive level, the two bring our plant to life, and Gammill's full body performance is quite convincing and commendable in its unabashedness.

Not to be forgotten are the trio Crystal (Hannah Guzman), Chiffon (Sandra Williams) and Ronnette (Klarisa Thornton) who interact in scenes but also act as the occasional Greek chorus, narrating events. With strong solo moments for each voice, the girls add to many scenes and numbers such as "Dentist!" The joy of the Aux Dog's intimate theatre is it allows the natural, unamplied (with the obvious exception of Audrey 2) voices to shine through, as well as the live music that they feature here, which is always to be enjoyed.

Directed by Vernon Poitras, with choreography by Edye Allen, the theatre sold out every show for the first weekend, and this perennially popular musical is bound to keep selling out so advance tickets are recommended. Visit the Aux Dog Theatre's website at to buy tickets online, or call their box office at 505.254.7716. And, click on Enchanted Rose Theatre for more information about their company's works as well.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

TLC & Popejoy Presents "Life on the Road" with Jonathan Ragsdale

Hosted by the Theatre Lovers Community and Popejoy Presents, local talent Jonathan Ragsdale gave a talk at Musical Theatre Southwest's Center for the Arts on January 30th, while taking a break in his touring schedule for the Broadway show "Memphis." The show will be pulling into Albuquerque this June 5-8 at Popejoy Hall, coincidentally the last stop on the tour that Ragsdale is currently performing in.

Facilitated by Terry Davis, Ragsdale spoke about getting the call from casting, a typical day on tour, the challenges of life on the road -- turns out finding places to eat that are close to the hotel and still open at odd hours is one of the biggest -- and what he loves most about his job. Ragsdale fielded questions from the audience for nearly an hour as well, answering everything from salary and contract questions, to how long did he have to wait to find out he got the job (after 5 callbacks auditions there was a 3 week wait until the call came), and what it's like to perform in a show of this caliber? He smiles broadly when recalling being onstage for the show's final number. "I live my entire day just to get to that energy in the finale," Ragsdale confided, grinning.

Ragsdale provided behind the scenes glimpses, including home made videos of the casts' "Stronger Challenge," something of a tradition backstage on this show. The actors take on a variety of tasks to try to complete in the short time they are off stage, but their body microphones are on, so they must remain silent during their tasks, which can vary from how many cupcakes can be consumed without water to how many high fives they can run around and get from the tech crew before being back in place on time (see below).

The dream job takes a toll as well. "It's good but it's exhausting." Ragsdale says, "You're always working." Often performing 10 shows in one week, life on the road can be physically and mentally exhausting as well as exhilarating. When Ragsdale left Albuquerque for New York City last February, #ArtInNM covered his cabaret as well.

To keep up with future challenges and other videos, subscribe to Jonathan Ragsdale's youtube channel, and you can also follow him on Twitter @TheJRags. For tickets to "Memphis," visit the Popejoy ticket website.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Barnum by Musical Theatre Southwest

Theatre is about taking chances, and if anyone understood that it was Phineas Taylor Barnum, a man who had a long career before he ever got involved with a circus and a guy named James Bailey. Musical Theatre Southwest took something of a chance by offering this show, Barnum, during December, as it doesn't fit in to the typical Christmas-y theatre options the public might expect.

In the striving to find a family friendly show, a show whose rights are available to regional theatres, and something that's different than what fellow companies are also playing, other shows come to the forefront, which may partially explain this choice during the holiday season. Before the show began, the circus atmosphere was encouraged as red noses were handed out to the audience (and worn by some!), and the character Charity Barnum begins onstage, knitting quietly, for the half hour that the house is open but the show has yet to begin.

With book by Mark Bramble and set in 1835 to 1880, the story of P.T. Barnum (played by Erick Seelinger) unfolds, beginning with his touring acts such as Joice Heth, the "160 year old woman." Rarely leaving the stage, Seelinger's ability to maintain a strong voice in the many numbers that he must perform in this show is commendable. Also worth mentioning was Stephanie Burch's ability to sell a number, even behind a slightly frightening old age mask, which came next in Joice's number, "Thank God I'm Old." However, the pacing of the show begins to slow down afterwards and the songs, written by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart, have a tendency to last a verse (or two) longer than the action of the scene provides. The dynamic between Charity "Chairy" Barnum, the sensible suffragist played by Wendy Barker, and her husband she calls "Taylor," the lover of all things bright and bombastic, is explored (and explored, and explored) in "The Colors of My Life."

Knowing the importance of the razzle dazzle, the scenes between Chairy and Taylor are interspersed with circus moments that act as transitions, and songs such as "One Brick at a Time," as Barnum builds the American Museum. With performers balancing on balls, juggling, twirling ribbons, spinning plates, cracking whips, stilt walking and tumbling about throughout the show, it helps to pick up the inherent and persistent pacing issues. Kelly O'Keefe steps in as General Tom Thumb in "Bigger Isn't Better" but his character's cameo, while entertaining, does little to advance the storyline.

After a fire destroys the American Museum, Barnum's next big idea is to find and sign Jenny Lind, the noted European soprano renamed "the Swedish Nightingale," to tour America. Requiring a truly coloratura voice, Claire Seelinger brings her formidable operatic training and gives this role a moment of true artistic brightness in "Jenny Lind Obligatto." I looked up obligatto. It refers to a prominent countermelody, often played or sung above the principal theme, and being essential or integral to the piece as a whole. This conveys so much more in one word than the song Jenny sings next, "Love Makes Such Fools Of Us All," which suffers from being placed immediately after her stronger obligatto moment just prior.

The conflict of a supposed attraction between Barnum and Lind lasts only the length of the intermission before being hastily resolved at the top of act two, so that the story can advance to include Barnum's political career that followed next. Stephanie Burch returns in the second act as the Blues Singer in "Black and White," and yet again revives the pace of the show, while being expertly flanked by dancers Larry Aguilar and Michael Maldonado. 
While the political ambitions for mayor, then U.S. Senate, unite Charity and Taylor, they just as quickly dissolve as Barnum realizes he has been had in "The Prince of Humbug." At Chairy's unexpected death, Barnum finds himself alone and uncertain. Enter James Bailey, played by Zane Barker, and Barnum comes alive as he makes plans to enlarge the one ring circus to three rings.

Dual husband and wife teams -- the Seelingers and the Barkers, along with the two young Barker children making their way onstage for the show as well -- bring some family charm to the cast which does read to the audience. And, the actors as a whole gave a tremendous amount of themselves learning how to bring the circus to life with skills that few had prior to casting. But the brokenness of the show's disjointed plot line and sluggish pace held them back as well.

Musical Theatre Southwest's next production is "Into the Woods," playing in at the MTS Center for the Arts in April 2014, and information on the entire season, tickets, auditions, and more can be found at