Monday, December 23, 2013

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Duke City Repertory Theatre

Passion for the arts comes in every size, and for many young artists, it strikes at an early age. For those who wish to hit the stage as fast as they can, stories such as "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," produced by Duke City Repertory Company and playing at the Cell Theatre, provide an opportunity for the artist and audience alike.

Photo credit Rick Galli
In a time when schools are de-emphasizing the arts, and slashing budgets as well, stage opportunities for young actors are met with enthusiasm by myself. So often, children's roles are diminished and one-dimensional in plays. What's most refreshing about this show, beyond its holiday appeal, is the chance for young actors to show their chops in roles that require not just line and blocking memorization, but comic timing, physical humor, and even character development. As Grace Bradley declares, "Jesus, Mary, even the short kids; everyone's important!"

Photo by Rick Galli
Lauren Myers plays Mother/Grace Bradley, the one who must direct this year's church Christmas pageant after a series of mishaps beyond her control, such as Mrs. Armstrong landing herself in traction. Equally beyond control are those "awful Herdman kids," the delinquent bunch who show up to church for the first time ever once they find out from young Charlie Bradley (Elijah Ortiz y Pino) that refreshments are being served there.

Cigar-smoking ringleader Imogene Herdman, played quite believably by Lillie Raine Kolich, bullies her way into being Mother Mary, and the rest of her siblings inevitably follow suit to join the cast as well. The heart of the show comes from watching the heathen Herdmans react to being a part of the Christmas story, having now heard it for the first time ever. Imogene has perhaps some of the best lines in the show, not only in her over-the-top pussy willow scene, but more so in pageant rehearsals, "My God! They didn't have room for baby Jesus?"  

Photo by Rick Galli
Surprisingly, each Herdman brings something unique to the pageant's production. Young Gladys (Ruby Webb-Sagarin) augments her part as the angel of the Lord by adding directions so the wise men wouldn't get lost. Leroy (Joaquin Madrid Larranaga) brings baby Jesus a welfare ham as his wise man's gift. Ralph (Matthew Joel Barkley) plays Joseph and Imogene garners laughs while indelicately burping baby Jesus in the way a true mother would. Perhaps it was me, but I could see Imogene having an authentic moment, likely being the one who rocked her own brothers and sisters, taking care of them in the absence of any true parental care.

Photo by Rick Galli
For the purpose of the show, the six Herdmans from the original book are reduced to four, which works nicely for the intimate playing space of the Cell Theatre. The show has many supporting parts, such as Grace's husband (Ezra Colon) but the bulk of the storytelling is done by young Beth Bradley, who often acts as the narrator in the show. Playing for a tight 45 minutes, this is no easy task and Mackenzie Jarell excels at the challenge, reminding us grownups what it's like to be caught between the peer and bully dynamics and the expectations of your parents & elders.

Directed by Katie Becker Colon, the show has all of the heart of original book by Barbara Robinson, and is a story I remember from when I was young myself, so it gave me a sense of nostalgia to come back to this story and hear it fresh once more. I admit, I am a softy through and through, and when Lillie, as Imogene playing Mother Mary, sang "Silent Night," I got a bit teary. Sure to touch your heart, the actors of this show are destined to give you a sense of Christmas cheer and remind you of what the season truly means to so many.

For more information about the Duke City Repertory Theatre's 2013-14 season, as well as their burgeoning outreach programs for children, visit their website at

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Miracle on 34th Street at Albuquerque Little Theatre

A Christmas classic, "Miracle on 34th Street," is a seasonal treat for audiences at the Albuquerque Little Theatre. Adapted from the novel by Valentine Davies, this story has been playing on our television sets as the 1947 film version for years, but seeing it live has a different pace, and keeps the show new, while maintaining the familiar for the nostalgic ones in the audience.

John DuBois plays Kris Kringle, the man who believes he's Santa Claus. Witnessing a drunken Santa interacting with kids at the Macy's parade, Kris steps in and insists he should play Santa since he is Santa. Diane Villegas brings the skeptical Doris Walker to life, a female executive at Macy's, and a single mother in a time when divorced single mothers didn't exist in normal society. Suspicious of Kris, her opinions are torn between those of the psychologists and counselors, and those she loves who believe in Kris, such as her daughter Susan (played adorably by Elise Klinger in the role movie buffs recall belonged to young Natalie Wood). But it is Kris whom Susan confides in, wishing for "a father, and a house" for Christmas.

Doris' jaded heart is the object of Fred Gayley's affection, played by Nick Fleming, who seeks to woo Doris without scaring her off. Fred insists Doris is afraid, but she argues it's common sense, not fear, that anchors her beliefs. As the debate grows over whether Kris is the real Santa or not, the issue is settled in court, much the same as the classic film version's tale. When Judge Harper (Hugh Witemeyer) is presented with irrefutable evidence, the verdict we all hoped for is given.

The underlying message of the play is the exploration of faith, "believing in something when common sense tells you not to," and for Doris, she must learn to believe in love and second chances, as much as she does in Kris Kringle. Giving the show some comic counterpoint is Dehron Foster's role as the psychologist Leslie Sawyer, tipping the levity with laughter in his moments onstage. A perfect choice for a show to introduce young kids to theater, with many children onstage to watch as well, the play is heart warming and full of the messages of the holiday season.

Directed by Henry Avery, the story flows nicely in and out of interiors and exteriors thanks to the set design, and kudos to the construction crew not only for some sharp looking sets, but most especially for the wow factor of the Macy's parade float.

To catch this seasonal classic, head to Albuquerque Little Theatre, located near Old Town, or visit their website at to purchase tickets, find out showtimes, and much more about the rest of their 2013-14 season.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Up (The Man in the Flying Chair) by Mother Road Theatre Company

December theatre options are usually seasonal fares -- Nutcrackers and plays about Santa, or Scrooge -- but for those wanting something a little different for their theatre experience, "Up (The Man in the Flying Chair)" provides it. Currently playing at the Musical Theatre Southwest Center for the Arts, this is not the Disney-fied "Up," with a lovable curmudgeon. This is a lot grittier.

Set in 1989, the dialogue between the Griffins is modernly authentic and, along with the dynamic of the family, it draws you into their tale. Perhaps director Vic Browder knew it would feel like two hours of eavesdropping, because the cast as a whole seem exquisitely aware of how easy it would be to over-act these roles and so they are slightly underplayed, and more believable as a result. In an intimate space such as the MTS Black Box, even a whiff of melodrama would spoil this play's impact. Father and wannabe inventor Walter Griffin, played by Shangreaux Lagrave, is the frustrated dreamer, full of big ideas yet unable to make anything of his ambitions to help him succeed. Amy Suman plays Walter's wife, Helen, who is frustrated beyond measure with her husband's inability to take responsibility and provide for their family, choking on her own buried rage at times, yet she never stops loving her husband.

Their 15 year old son Mikey, played by Grey Blanco, is caught in the middle, supportive of his father's dreams but also old enough to see his mother's dissatisfaction, and wonder why his father can't do better for himself. When Mikey hooks up with pregnant teenager Maria, played by Amy Bourque, his own coming-of-age tale begins to unfold, while his father's life simultaneously begins to dramatically unravel.

Lagrave's performance as Walter has a touch of Willie Lomax to it, that sense of time slipping away and opportunities that never return, haunting and baffling the central character. Lagrave knows how to oscillate between Walter's bombastic moments, as well as his deflated ones. Commendable in her ability to sustain the rage and intensity of Helen, Suman finds the balance between haranguing and desperation. Bouncing between them, Blanco shows us Mikey's adolescent need to find his own destiny, and make his own way. When he begins to outperform his father, you sense that Mikey has lost the childhood hero that his father once was to him.

The metaphor of being "up," suspended in the sky by floating chair or high wire, calls to Walter after the one event in his life that gave him a sense of purpose and destiny -- the day when he tied weather balloons to a lawn chair to soar to a height of nearly 16,000 feet. The rest of his life is consumed with the "job" of inventing a flying chair, the Paramotor, although every new attempt seems a miserable failure. When Walter sees a picture of tightrope walker Philippe Petit, he exclaims, "There's a man who's living his dreams!" And when describing having a job to his son, Walter equates it to being "tied down," and "picking up someone else's shit."

The dream-like scenes where Petit appears to Walter are perhaps some of my favorite moments in this show. Lit in a hallucinatory purple light, actor Ron Weisberg takes his tightrope walks while philosophically talking to Walter about the meaning of life, and later, we see Mikey on the high wire with Petit, symbolically living his own teenage dreams, even though convoluted and not fully formed. These moments evolve the play from an ordinary family drama (a la Neil Simon but with more dysfunction and less humor) and into something more magical and otherworldly.

Perhaps the most inscrutable character in the show is Maria herself. Caught in the circumstances of her dysfunctional family life with her aunt (Staci Robbins) as certainly as Mikey is caught within his, Maria's emotions vacillate between a street smart fast talker, and a vulnerable, unwed mother-to-be. Bourque sells the drama pitch perfect, allowing the audience to decide by the end if Maria is a willing perpetrator of Mikey's downfall. ("Downfall," a show like this makes one realize how often "up" and "down" are deeply ingrained human metaphors).

If this premise seems quasi-biographical, it is. Although more recent lawn chair launches have been attempted, the most famous is Larry Walters', Lawn Chair Larry, the inspiration behind this Bridget Carpenter play, who launched himself via lawn chair and weather balloons in California in 1982. Also unable to find his way in this world, the real life Walters died some years later by his own hand.

For more about the show, and their upcoming 2014 season, visit the Mother Road Theatre Company website at

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Man of La Mancha by Landmark Musicals

The beautiful mind of the mad man is Landmark Musicals' focus in "Man of La Mancha," the final show of their 2013 season. The show's layers of story telling are slowly revealed to the audience, allowing us to see the illusionary Don Quixote through the eyes of his alter ego, Alonso Quijana, as told by Miguel de Cervantes, who is thrown in prison, along with his manservant, for foreclosing upon a castle and awaits questioning by the Inquisition.

Described as "either the wisest mad man, or the maddest wise man," when Jack Nuzum embodies Don Quixote's persona, he is swept away by his own grandiose delusions, convincing all around him to either humor him and play along, or to scoff at his madness. Nuzum's ability to sink into each layer of his character, from Don Cervantes to Don Quixote is found in the shaping of his words and the carriage of his body, simply becoming each one alternatively. A strong tenor, his voice lives up to the challenge of Quixote and delivers the sound that longtime fans hope to hear.

Consistent in his care, despite his master's madness, is the jocose Sancho Panza, who explains away every eccentricity by remarking, "Knights have a language of their own." Played by Vernon Reza, he acts more as caretaker to his master's delusions, finding the nurturing side of this character, who could become sarcastic or sardonic in the hands of the wrong actor. Instead, Reza allows the audience to identify with Don Quixote by acting as that voice of love and reason to the visions of greatness he cannot see, but pretends to.

Cast by Don Quixote as Dulcinea, the ultimate female to whom every quest is dedicated, is local tavern wench Aldonza, whose attitude toward men and love has long since gone sour, as we see in, "It's All the Same." Tasha Waters finds Aldonza's jaded heart easily, but alternatively softens to Don Quixote's delusions, and regrets her own bitter reality. Abused grievously, she represents the harsh reality that Don Quixote's romantic notions cannot begin to fathom. Waters' operatic training shines through in the role, giving her Aldonza a larger than life quality that elevates her to the level which Quixote sees in her. 
Giving counterpoint to the show was Bryan Daniels, as the Duke and Carrasco, showing Albuquerque yet again that he is becoming known for his character voices. Exceptional at keeping an accent while never losing focus in the moment, Daniels gives some menace to the production, perhaps even more so than the figure of the Inquisition itself, the Captain.

Landmark Musicals' producer Myra Cochnar describes the company's goals of bringing high production values and live music to each show, and director Paul Ford uses the home of Rodey Theatre to the musical's ultimate advantage by sinking the musicians into the orchestra pit, and allowing the pit itself to become an alternative entrance, integrated at times into the story itself. It's been done before, but it never ceases to delight me, I admit. 

The sound of this show was far more operatic than a traditional musical might demand, and music director Wojciech Milewski aptly blends the Spanish elements of this score into the vocals as well. With a strong ensemble cast, the sound was full and as epic as the bombastic quests of the mad man himself; songs such as "We're Only Thinking of Him," and "Little Bird, Little Bird," showing off their "mad harmonic skills." And as proof there are no small roles, only small actors, was my favorite muleteer, Alex Wasson. His gently authentic expressions as Sancho's mule -- at times an extension of his own master's emotions, much the same as Panza extends the emotions of his own master, Quixote -- were so precious, they kept me smiling continually in this show.

For more information about their upcoming 2014 Landmark at the Rodey Season, visit their website at or give them a call at (505) 453-8844.