"Cheaper by the Dozen" - Melissa Swick Ellington reviews the new show at Lexington's Village Square Theatre

cheaper2 The Lexington County Arts Association presents Cheaper by the Dozen, dramatized by Christopher Sergel from the book by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr., and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, at the Village Square Theatre through November 16.   Based on the book authored by two of the Gilbreth children, Cheaper by the Dozen explores family life in the early twentieth century as the older girls begin grappling with the social and fashion issues of high school.  While the song titles and style choices are of a different era, the teenagers’ feelings are timeless. The real life inspiration for the father character, Frank Bunker Gilbreth, was an accomplished efficiency expert. His work in the field of time and motion study extended from factories to his own home, where Gilbreth and his wife Lillian Moller Gilbreth implemented procedures inspired by efficiency with their children. Several of these attempts are dramatized in the play, such as the use of Victrolas in the bathrooms for the purpose of learning foreign languages. Although the scene of Gilbreth modeling the most efficient way to bathe while fully clothed on the living room rug is undeniably humorous, he made serious contributions to his profession. (The book by Gilbreth and Carey was made into a film in 1950. Potential audience members may want to know that the more recent movie starring Steve Martin does not reflect the book’s characters or plot.  South Carolina connection: Gilbreth later wrote a popular column for the Charleston News and Courier for many years under the pseudonym of "Ashley Cooper.")

As the authors of the book that inspired the play’s creation, Frank and Ernestine provide a handy narrative framework, sharing glimpses of character and exposition as they remember their energetic and loving father’s impact on family life. The story focuses on Mr. Gilbreth’s goal of prioritizing efficiency as well as instilling strong character and values in his large brood. While the oldest child Anne rebels with silk stockings and a flashy cheerleader suitor, her younger sisters encourage her daring ways as ardently as her father tries to put on the brakes through insisting younger brothers accompany older sisters on dates. Although light-hearted matters of high school popularity and the family dog’s misbehavior suggest an insouciant romp, there is a dark cloud of illness that runs through much of the drama. The parents’ awareness of Mr. Gilbreth’s heart trouble contrasted with the children’s ignorance of the situation allows for moving exchanges such as one daughter’s careless declaration (“I wish I were dead”) met by her father’s troubled reply, “What a thing to wish.” As the audience comes to understand the motivation behind Mr. Gilbreth’s urgent need to organize his family and push the children through their education, the play moves beyond a simple comedy to a more complex depiction of the harsh struggle that mortality poses for any family.

This Village Square production boasts effective direction and an excellent cast. In the central role of the patriarch known for his “By jingo!” exclamations, Brian Andrews delivers a moving performance as Mr. Gilbreth. With the charming Lisa Pappas playing his gracious and clever wife, Andrews creates a highly convincing family dynamic. (Gariane Gunter plays the role of Mrs. Gilbreth for the November 14 – 16 performances.)  The idea that “what works in the factory” can improve the home helps to drive an entertaining script.  Andrews’ strong stage presence reveals a father who loves, gives firm direction, and teaches his children.

Although we don’t see all twelve children referenced in the title as the babies are being cared for “upstairs” throughout the play, the nine youngsters who appear on stage are vibrant enough for a full dozen and then some. The children craft a very believable sense of sibling camaraderie, transforming the living room set into a real home full of lively young people. As eldest daughter Anne, Maggie Hornacek achieves a skillful portrayal of the adolescent girl trying to date boys and become popular, while also learning adult truths about life.    Riley Goldstein and Cameron Eubanks share enthusiasm as Ernestine and Frank, making fluid transitions between reminiscences and scenes of the past. Kori Hays plays Martha with verve, and Paul Woodard becomes a genuine and funny younger brother in the role of Bill.   Isabella Gunter (Jackie), Kristen Hallman (Danielle), Cade Culler (Fred), and Annsyn Feinberg (Lillian) demonstrate spirit and charisma. It is rare to see a cast this young deliver such consistently strong performances, and the Cheaper by the Dozen kids succeed admirably.

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Supporting characters are also well represented in this production. Graycen Szalwinski is appropriately flashy as the cheerleader Joe Scales, while Nick Holland makes a sympathetic impression as the beleaguered boyfriend Larry. Ben Sellers shares a memorable performance as the disapproving teacher Mr. Brill, and Rae Fuller’s effective appearances as Mrs. Fitzgerald remind us of the tremendous work required to keep the home running. Alternating in the brief yet significant role of Dr. Burton are Jeff Sigley, Steve MacDougall, and Troy Fite.

Mr. Gilbreth keeps an eye on his daughter and her suitor.

Village Square Theatre has once again assembled a talented production team, with producers Jill Larkin and Jeff Sigley at the helm. Debi Young provides insightful direction, and Daniel Woodard (Technical Director/Master Carpenter) has created a very attractive and functional set. Additional technical support includes experienced theatre artists such as Debra Leopard (Lighting Design), Nancy Huffines (Costumes), and Becky Croft (Sound Design and Control).

This lovely production gently affirms the idea of saving time for where one’s heart lies. Hard work, education, and family bonds: the Gilbreth clan’s experiences do not sugarcoat life’s challenges. My first grader shared that she enjoyed this play “about a family who learned about love.” I believe that audiences will leave the theatre feeling that they have learned something about love, and family, too.

~ Melissa Swick Ellington

Cheaper by the Dozen runs through Sunday, November 16; visit www.villagesquaretheatre.com/ for more information.

 

A heart-warming tour of "Second Samuel" - a review of the new show at On Stage Productions

There may be snow and ice across most of the southeast, but there is warmth to spare in the little town of Second Samuel, GA (so named after the Yankees burned the first town down) where colorful Southern eccentricity blends with a timely message of tolerance and acceptance. Pamela Parker's Second Samuel has been produced at dozens of theatres, from Wetumpka, AL, to Perth, Australia, and off-Broadway by this production's director, Robert Harrelson. Harrelson, the founder of On Stage Productions in West Columbia, has a nice little under-the-radar hit on his hands, and it only runs through this Sunday at the On Stage Performance Center, at 680 Cherokee Rd. samuel3

Our narrator and tour guide is B-Flat (Sam Edelson), an appealing, innocent young man (or older teen) given his ironic nickname by piano teacher Miss Gertrude for his lack of musical ability. (His actual surname is "Flatt," first initial "B.") B-Flat is just a little slow, or what they used to call "simple" in the play's 1949 setting. Think Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies, or Eb from Green Acres, just more loveable. As played by Edelson, one imagines that B-Flat is probably just awkward and perhaps dyslexic, with minimal education. His description of his hometown's quirks is fairly eloquent and insightful, in the manner of Big River's Huck (another under-educated outcast thought to be simple), and one local accurately observes that the boy may have more sense than anyone else. Plus his big heart makes up for any intellectual shortcomings. Like Steel Magnolias, the local ladies gather to chat at the beauty parlor, while the men convene at "Frisky's Bait and Brew," the kind of place where you can get a Nehi and a Moon Pie as easily as a cold beer or a shot of whiskey. Every character would be at home in Mayberry, Hooterville, or Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. I mention these iconic rural settings from fiction not to imply that author Parker is necessarily influenced by them, but rather to note that she is working in an easily recognizable tradition, with all the stock character types - archetypes even - that we expect. What she does with them, however, is quite creative, and caught me completely by surprise.

the cast of Pamela Parker's "Second Samuel," down at Frisky's Bait and Brew.

1949 was the summer that the beloved Miss Gertrude died, and the play's action commences with preparations for her funeral, as everyone recalls how she touched so many lives in some way. Assorted plot twists transpire, taking the broad, southern-fried comedy of the first act into slightly more serious and meaningful territory in the second. Hilarious characters still are funny, but they face decisions that will define just who they are, both as individuals and as a community. A good parallel might be socially conscious sitcoms from the 70's like All in the Family, or warm family-themed shows from the 80's (e.g. Family Ties or The Golden Girls) where outrageous characters engage in outlandish antics, but there's still an "Awwwww" moment at the end.

A friend noted that everyone seemed perfect for his or her role. A few of the cast are clearly newer to acting, while some have been shining in lead roles for decades, especially at community theatres in Lexington and Chapin, but everyone plays a specific type convincingly. Parker's dialogue flows very naturally, and all the cast has to do is go where the words take them. Debra Leopard and MJ Maurer are especially convincing as histrionic ladies with big hair, while Courtney Long as pretty young Ruby has fewer lines, but is always enaged in the action on stage. As Leopard and Maurer squabble with the town troublemaker (Anne Snider) Long is giggling silently at every word, indicating how seriously the audience should take them. David Reed as the local funeral director has some inspired comic moments. Full disclosure: he and I did a show together 20+ years ago, and so I am familiar with his real voice and mannerisms. Here he affects the soft, high voice of a prim Southern gentleman, and creates a very believable character. Some of the show's biggest laughs come from physical comedy where Reed is drinking, while the beauty parlor ladies are screaming: everyone's pace and pitch is perfect, while Brandon Moore's split-second timing on light cues makes everything flow at a lively pace. Also deserving of praise is the sincerity that A.T. Marion brings to the pivotal role of "U.S." In rural 1949 Georgia, the challenges faced by U.S. as a person of color are obvious, and Parker never sugar-coats the historical context. U.S. wisely explains to B-Flat that each of them is different, but then, who isn't in some way? The charm of the town, and the play, is the way in which the town's residents ultimately look out for their friends. (They even pretend to believe the man who swears he was kidnapped by Nazis from a U-boat off Myrtle Beach , when everyone knows this was a story concocted to explain a week-long bender.)

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The space at On Stage, a former retail shop that probably specialized in country-western attire, is limited, and director Harrelson does an excellent job of blocking, given the close quarters. More importantly, he has cast the right types to bring out the depth and nuances of the work, which can be enjoyed at face value as a variation on Mayberry or Vicky Lawrence's Momma's Family, or taken at a much deeper level.

On Stage Productions is now in its fourth season (see the current print issue of Jasper - vol. 3 no. 3 - for some details on its origin) and is a wonderful little gem that's not nearly as out of the way as you might think. From downtown Columbia, you simply cross the Blossom St. bridge and head out Charleston Highway, veering on to Airport Blvd. Cherokee Lane is the right just before I-26, which it parallels, and you're there in not much more than 5 minutes. When my friend Melissa saw and reviewed their last production, her young daughter told her "This looks like a fun place to do a show," and I heartily agree.

Second Samuel runs through Sunday, Feb. 16th - visit http://www.onstagesc.com for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

Complete History of America (abridged) at Town, Little Mermaid at Lexington

Some of Jasper's favorite performers are opening in shows tonight.  Bill DeWitt, who played a dozen different residents of Tuna, TX a few years back in A Tuna Christmas, is joined by Frank Thompson, who along with DeWitt portrayed several dozen separate characters in The 39 Steps this past spring; teaming up with Charlie Goodrich, who has been acting nonstop this year (Andre in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Gooper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sonny in Grease, Judah in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and many other roles) the trio set out to recreate the complete history of America... just slightly abridged.  Yes, it's another production originally created by the Reduced Shakespeare Conpany, with three performers doing madcap, semi-improv comic versions of the story of our nation.  Jamie Carr Harrington directs, and her assistant director is Shelby Sessler, one of the three finalists for Jasper's Theatre Artist of the Year, and the female lead(s) in 39 Steps with Thompson and DeWitt. From press material:

From Washington to Watergate, yea verily from the Bering Straits to Baghdad, from New World to New World Order – The Complete History of America (abridged) is a ninety minute rollercoaster ride through the glorious quagmire that is American History, reminding us that it’s not the length of your history that matters – it’s what you’ve done with it!

The Complete History of America (Abridged) is a delightfully zany evening and wildly inaccurate crash course in American history. In only an hour and a half you'll have a screwball evening of fun starting with who actually discovered America, all the way to the current  President! See Bill DeWitt (The 39 Steps), Frank Thompson (Harold Hill in The Music Man) and Charlie Goodrich (Judah in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) attempt to put history in its place. Proceeds will go to Town's Repair-the-Roof Campaign.

Town Theatre will present this two night only engagement on Nov. 2nd and 3rd at 7:30 PM.  Tickets are ONLY $12 in advance and $15 at the door. This will be the funniest history lesson you'll ever have.  Call 803-799-2510 for more information.

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On the other side of the river, the Lexington County Arts Association presents Disney's The Little Mermaid, Jr. at the Village Square Theatre; it runs tonight through Sun. Nov. 18th, with shows at 7:30 PM Fridays and Saturdays, plus Saturday and Sunday matinee performances at 3 PM. We're especially excited to see Haley Sprankle step into the lead role of Ariel - this young actress has stood out in the ensembles of everything from Legally Blonde to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and was a memorable and hilarious Frenchie, the beauty school dropout, in Grease (which coincidentally featured Goodrich and Thompson from above.)

From press material:

In a magical kingdom fathoms below, the beautiful young mermaid Ariel (Haley Sprankle) longs to leave her ocean home to live in the world above. But first, she'll have to defy her father King Triton (Tanner Connelly), make a deal with the evil sea witch Ursula (Bailey Gray) and convince Prince Eric (Rut Spence) that she’s the girl with the enchanting voice.  Based on the Hans Christian Andersen story and the Disney film, directed by Debra Leopard, Eliza Caughman Spence and Becky Croft, with musical direction by Jonathan Eason; lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, music by Alan Menken, and book by Doug Wright.