Thursday, October 24, 2013

Sweeney Todd by Musical Theatre Southwest

There are very few times that Alissa the Reviewer allows herself to fall into superlatives or cliches. It's bad journalism, right? Not this time. Buckle up... it's Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" playing at Musical Theatre Southwest's Black Box performance space, and it (literally) gave me chills, it (literally) is full of surprises for the audience and it (literally) is one of the best shows I've had the pleasure to see this year.

Originally a cautionary tale, director Hal Simons' vision of the macabre musical is entirely different than any previous staging you will ever see, and that's all I will say about that because "Sweeney wouldn't want [me] to give it away." Yet, from the opening scene the audience is sucked into this dark tale (I nearly jumped out of my skin at Sweeney's first entrance) and ready to meet the many disturbed characters that parade about Victorian London.

Making his MTS debut, TJ Bowlin plays the dark and disturbed lead character with a sense of emotional conviction that some actors might find daunting. At times he's almost kind, at others he's bloodthirsty and maniacal, and Bowlin plays Todd's twists and turns adeptly. Vocally and dramatically challenging, Bowlin loses himself inside Sweeney, all while keeping the pace of the show active but never hurried.

Supporting him along his path of vengeance is Mrs. Lovett, played by Kari Reese, the only character who knows Sweeney's true identity. Reese expertly manages to find all the shades that Lovett's character can provide -- she's funny, she's sexy, she's nurturing and, of course, she's shockingly amoral in her business ventures. With a strong sense of comic timing, and a wicked good accent, Reese's Lovett is ruthless and her conniving ways match perfectly with Todd's need to punish those who've wronged him; the chemistry between the two actors drives the tale.

Musical director Lina Ramos' work cannot be overlooked -- Sondheim's music is complex, heavy with operatic influences, and requires a cast of strong voices who can sing the score's many discordant chords pitch perfectly. At times, I would close my eyes (but only for a second, lest I miss something!) just to hear all of the levels in this music and the vocal ability of the entire cast. This is certainly a show that plays well in the tight confines of MTS' Black Box space. The sound of these actors' voices are so close, they reverberate inside you. It's dissonant and darkly melodic, and thank the good gods the audience gets to hear it all with real live musicians (which is beginning to become a rare treat for musical theatre goers in our town).

The young lovers Johanna (Emily Melville) and Anthony Hope (Nate Warren) are the foils to Lovett and Todd, and Melville's coloratura voice is given a chance to shine in her solo "Green Finch and Linnet Bird." Nate Warren, also making his MTS debut, has a liquid yet strong tenor voice that was made for Anthony. His ability to hold his own is tested in duets and quartets, but allowed to shine through in his solo "Johanna." Another strong tenor in this show was Derrick Medrano, playing Tobias Ragg. With many character transformations to navigate, Medrano's voice is given full range in his duet with Mrs. Lovett, "Nothing's Gonna Harm You."

Many more strong characters help tell this tale, Brian Clifton's Beadle Bamford was given a new twist with Clifton's natural comedic strengths glimmering through, and as the moralizing Judge Turpin, played by Josh Griffin, we find a fearless actor who rises to the challenge of Simons' directorial choices in "Mea Culpa," pushing the audience's boundaries. Bryan Daniels as Signor Pirelli brings the comic relief necessary to lighten the mood, and make sure the audience remembers to smile in this show too.

Certain to sell out, best buy your tickets online at or call 505-265-9119, and get to the theatre early to get a good seat... in fact, sit in the front row if you dare. Like a roller coaster, this is a scary, funny, thrilling ride that leaves you exhilarated and ready to get back in line to do it again! 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Young Frankenstein at the Albuquerque Little Theatre

"Young Frankenstein," the Mel Brooks classic horror spoof, comes to life onstage at the Albuquerque Little Theatre and the laughs are plentiful. Fleshing out many of the classic moments which film lovers such as myself quickly recognize in the script are the score numbers, allowing us to get to know these iconic characters in a different way. However, those who don't know the original can certainly enjoy this show equally.

Directed by Henry Avery, Daniel Tabeling is cast as Frederick Frankenstein, the son of the infamous Victor von Frankenstein, who seeks to leave behind his father's notorious medical legacy in pursuit of modern neural science. When his trip to his father's home leads him to discover his past, Frederick is compelled to try his hand at reanimation. Tabeling tackles the challenge with a strong voice and gives his Frederick a slightly different sound and character, choosing not to imitate Gene Wilder's performance but to find his own.

Accompanying Frederick on his journey is the hump-backed Igor, and Dehron Foster finds the essence of this sidekick, comic relief character without sliding into two dimensional caricature. Foster's choices as Igor are priceless. In any given scene, I would find my eyes drifting to see his reactions to the moment, and would start giggling. His ability to mug the audience, much as Marty Feldman is permitted to mug the camera in the film, plays authentically and delights.

Frederick has two love interests, the frigidly fabulous Elizabeth Benning, played by Stevie Nichols, and the luscious lab assistant Inga, played by Jessica Quindlen. Both actresses know their way around the comedy and how to work their laughs. Equally strong in their solos, Nichols' "Please Don't Touch Me" and Quindlen's "Roll in the Hay" were both buoyant and bawdy crowd favorites. Another strong female role in this show is Fabiana Borghese's Frau Blucher (neeeeeigh!) whose accent & comic timing was brilliant.

Joe Moncada brings Dr. Victor von Frankenstein to life in "Join the Family Business," the dark fantasy number that was a sheer delight. Moncada's comic prowess onstage is phenomenal in every role we see him in, and as the great Herr Doktor, he truly abandons himself to the part of the mad scientist as the ensemble joins to dance in the mad inspiration that is Frederick's dream. Stephan Balling as the Monster isn't given many lines but relies heavily upon his ginormous build and comic physicality for his story telling and laughs -- his scene with Harold the Hermit, played by John Shelton, particularly pleased the audience and myself.

With choreography by Desiree Lang, and the increasingly rare treat of live music to be enjoyed, the glitches in the lighting on opening night were only a minor distraction to the show onstage. Certain to sell out during the Halloween holiday, you can buy tickets ahead at or at 505-242-4750.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Lights, Camera...Medication! by the East Mountain Centre for Theatre

Original works by a local artist are still on the menu at the East Mountain Centre for Theatre, where "Lights, Camera... Medication!" is currently in production. The annual October murder mystery is now in its 8th year with the company, and this year it's a musical as well, with an original script & score written by Richard Atkins, who also directs and performs in the show.

Set in the Sunnyvale Asylum, we meet Nurse Ainsley, played by Cheryl Atkins, the caretaker of the institution's residents, many of which believe themselves to be TV characters and Hollywood celebrities -- Elvis, Ginger Rogers, John Huston, Joan Crawford and Perry Mason being only a few. But while rehearsing the asylum's annual talent show, something nefarious happens and one inmate ends up dead.

The Whodunnit style mystery continues to unfold, and (of course) everyone is a suspect, including the asylum staff. The show is written to showcase each cast member who must rely on their ability to do celebrity impressions, have their own solo numbers to perform, and equally require a strong comic presence to keep the laughs coming, as the body count begins to stack up. 

If the chemistry among the players seems natural, it's no wonder with two husband-and-wife teams (Cheryl and Richard Atkins, David and Marteena Bentley) as well as a father-mother-daughter team (Tim, Kay and Catie Reardon) and many more rounding out the tight knit cast. With a title song that's meant to get you to your feet, the show encourages the audience to relax and enjoy the asylum's antics. 

Presented in the performance space in the Vista Grande Community Center, the dinner theatre show includes a catered meal by Atrios Catering, and plenty of laughs to be had. If you're ready for some entertainment set in the beautiful East Mountains of Albuquerque, take I-40 exit 175 and head north on Highway 14/337 to visit the Sunnyvale Asylum and its residents. To purchase tickets, or find out more information about the East Mountain Centre for Theatre and their youth programs, visit their website at or call (505) 286-1950.