Transylvania Mania at Workshop Theatre - a review of "Young Frankenstein" by Jillian Owens

youngfrank1 It seems appropriate that the last show ever to be performed by Workshop Theatre at their Gervais and Bull Street location would be Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. Emotions surrounding their move to 701 Whaley run high among the Columbia theatre community. Only something silly and fun will do for this occasion. Adapted from the 1974 film of the same name, Young Frankenstein tells the story of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fron-ken-steen”!), grandson to that other Frankenstein who terrorized the townsfolk of Transylvania with his monsters for decades.

Kyle Collins as Dr. Frankenstein - photo by Rob Sprankle

Frederick is summoned to Transylvania to claim his inheritance when his Grandfather dies. At first, he has no intention of “joining the family business” of creating monsters, but then he meets Igor (played by Frank Thompson), a masterless hunchbacked stooge who pronounces his name “Eye-gor,” and who softens his resolve in the song "Together Again (for the First Time."  A visit from the ghost of his dead grandfather (played by Hunter Boyle), and the temptation of taking on a sultry local by the name of Inga (played by Courtney Selwyn) as his lab assistant remove it altogether. With the assistance of Igor, Inga, and his horse-scaring housekeeper Frau Blucher (played by Elena Martinez-Vidal, he builds a monster that-- you guessed it--ends up terrorizing the village.

Elena Martinez as Frau Blucher ("Nee-e-e-e-igh!") - photo by Rob Sprankle

This is one of the best put-together casts I’ve seen. Kyle Collins is a delightfully neurotic Dr. Frankenstein, and Thompson is a brilliantly hilarious Igor. Vicky Saye Henderson delivers a standout performance as the Doctor’s madcap socialite fiancée, Elizabeth Benning, who is more than a bit frigid with the good doctor in the song "Please Don't Touch Me." Selwyn is an exciting and relatively new talent, having only one other production under her belt (the recent Ragtime at Trustus.) With impressive vocal chops and other…ahem…assets, she is perfectly cast as Inga, and I look forward to seeing her talent grow in future productions. Martinez-Vidal earned the most laughter as Frau Blucher, sometimes without havingto say a thing.  Jason Kinsey is perfectly cast as The Monster, and his “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number does not disappoint.

Courtney Selwyn as Inga - photo by Rob Sprankle

This is one of those rare Columbia productions that has somehow managed to capture the best of our local talent, and has showcased it fantastically well. Even the ensemble is comprised of actors and actresses whom I’m accustomed to seeing in lead roles. And I’ve never seen a show where the cast is so clearly having such a ridiculous amount of fun.

Frank Thompson as Igor - photo by Rob Sprankle

That’s what this show is. Pure fun. Well, not all that pure. There are plenty of bawdy jokes, songs (such as the song, “Deep Love,” which is referring to exactly what you think it’s referring to) , and silly sight gags. But this is nothing that would surprise anyone who’s ever seen a Mel Brooks film.

Young Frankenstein is a big show, both in cast size, and technically speaking. Randy Strange has done a phenomenal job with the challenging set requirements, most impressively in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. This is a bittersweet compliment, as this is to be Strange’s last show in his decades-long career-- but what a way to go out. What couldn’t possibly be built on such a small stage is created through the clever use of projections by Baxter Engle, also credited as Sound Designer for this show.

Director Chad Henderson, Choreographer Mandy Applegate, and Music Director Tom Beard have created a production that is truly a triple threat. Great direction, great choreography, and great musical talent have come together to make the last show on this stage something truly special.  Young Frankenstein runs though Saturday, May 24;  contact the box office at 803-799-6551, or visit www.workshoptheatre.com for ticket information.

workshop

Review -- Passing Strange at Trustus

  Passing Strange is one part rock concert specifically tailored for theatre aficionados, and two parts Broadway play that's particularly accessible to artists and musicians.  Incorporating elements from both forms, the show is an autobiographical reminiscence of one young man's search for artistic, ethnic and spiritual identity.  Raising some interesting points and issues, the new production at Trustus Theatre never forgets to keep the audience rocking, even as they may ponder larger questions.

The show was written by Stew (the stage name of musician Mark Stewart, i.e. like "Bono" or "Sting"), who also composed the score with Heidi Rodewald; both worked with original stage director Annie Dorsen (who gets an "in collaboration with" credit) to realize Stew's vision. In addition to Stew the real-life author, there is Stew the narrator, played by himself on Broadway and here by Samuel McWhite, and Stew the Youth, played by Mario McClean. The Narrator alternately sings and tells of his formative years as a teen and young adult, as the Youth brings them to life on stage. Sometimes the Narrator, with the perspective and wisdom of a mature adult, explains what the Youth was really thinking; at other times he makes jokes about his younger self's naiveté, or wistfully shares an insight realized too late.  Just as often, McClean shows the audience the depth and intensity of a sensitive artist's sorrows, hopes, and joys, as McWhite, backed by a capable 5-piece band (led by Musical Director Tom Beard on keyboards) sings Stew's often witty and self-deprecating lyrics. It's an inventive narrative technique, since one is never quite sure whose perspective is the more accurate.

Both McClean and McWhite (and you couldn't find a more fortuitous combination of names to play different aspects of the same character!) have pleasant, rich voices that easily adapt to the show's meandering journey through musical styles, from rockers to ballads, and McClean displays an impressive vocal range.  McClean also captures his character's utter innocence in his mid-teens, then convincingly grows into a gifted, if fairly cocky, young intellectual; meanwhile the world-weary Narrator reminds the audience of the choices he might have made along the way.  Towards the show's end, the suffering on his face is palpable McWhite attempts to relay difficult truths; without saying a word, he conveys both reluctant acceptance and defiant denial of the lessons his older self strives to teach.

Stew the composer is a rock guitarist, but shows an impressive mastery of just about every musical form. Some songs, especially those set in the earlier part of his life, are smooth soul, and recall acts like the 5th Dimension.  Others are bluesy, with McWhite channeling artists like B. B. King. Later numbers reflect anarchist metal and punk influences; quite a few reminded me of Pete Townshend's softer, piano compositions from his solo projects, and from the classic Tommy, songs like "Welcome" and "Sally Simpson."  Stew won a Tony for his book, but not for his score, however, and while all the songs are pleasant enough, there are no "Let the Sun Shine In" anthems to be found.  I must note that often his rhymes, while amusing, border on the obvious, and at times can be almost Dr. Seuss-like in their simplicity. Still, that too can be used for good comedic effect, as when every possible rhyme for "keys" is used to describe how a generous, trusting European offers her apartment to the Youth; he compares that with the way a snobby American might reject him, concluding "bitch, please - she gave me her keys."

Katrina Garvin, as Stew's mother,  makes the most of her moments on stage. Her voice is just as beautiful as it was in last summer's Smokey Joe's Cafe, and here she gets to show off her acting skills, alternately stern, loving, comical, or a combination of all three.  Four performers depict every other character, and one might think there was a hidden ensemble of another dozen singers somewhere.  It's just the four, however, and each has one or more meaty character parts. Terrence Henderson, who doubles as choreographer,  chews the scenery shamelessly and hilariously as an over-the-top performance artist, while Kanika Moore is at first scary and authoritarian as a nihilist/revolutionary/Bohemian, then softens as we see her genuine affection for the Youth.  Her demand that he "have a conversation with the hand!" is just priceless.  Avery Bateman gets lots of laughs as a suburban, church-choir princess, then is sweet, appealing and vulnerable as the Youth's Dutch girlfriend, while Kendrick Marion does fine supporting work as assorted friends and colleagues in each of those settings.

One of the show's many ironies is that in a theatre world, and a local theatre community, where good roles for actors of color are hard to find, all of the performers are African-American, yet they spend much of their time convincingly playing Dutch and Germans. And that is another irony: although the search for meaning in life and art is universal, Stew's journey is different than one might expect.  A baby boomer born in Los Angeles, he might easily have been one of the children answering James Brown with "I'm black and I'm proud!"   Stew, however, is black and ambivalent, verging on (but not quite) self-loathing. Growing up in a traditional, religious, middle-class home, his rebellion is not against 'the man," but against his mother's church, and the societal expectations placed on him by his peers, that as an intellectual, he will naturally gravitate into a Cliff Huxtable-style respectability. Instead, he forms a punk band, then flees first to Amsterdam, then Berlin, where he can find his musical voice.  The supreme irony, however, is that in a culture oblivious to his color, the Youth affects an oppressed background that he hasn't completely experienced, compelling his German peers to concede "his ghetto angst is far superior to ours."  It's quite a courageous move for the author Stew to admit that to some extent he exploited his own heritage for artistic acceptance, and when the Youth asks (paraphrasing from memory here) if anyone really understands what it's like to struggle on the streets of South Central, the Narrator stops the action, wryly observing that no one in the show, characters or performers, really understands that.  The show's title, a quote from Othello that refers to a fascinating, exotic tale, also is a reference to an accusation that just as African-Americans once tried to "pass" for white, for acceptance, so the Youth is passing for ghetto, to be accepted as a performer.

Director Chad Henderson wisely emphasizes the non-theatrical aspects of the play. Bland white drapes suggest the sheltered and clean-cut background of the youth, then open to reveal a Europe represented by vivid abstract paintings, exploding with color and vitality.  (Full disclosure: Jasper - The Word on Columbia Arts  partnered with Trustus on the original art featured in the production, and all works can be bid on via silent auction though the run of the show. Most of the artists as well as Henderson have been featured in the magazine, and we heartily encourage you to support local art and artists this way.  This writer's involvement with all of that, however, has been limited to drinking a beer or two while looking at the paintings, and saying "Wow - cool art.") There is no set, nor is one needed; all action plays out naturally in front of the live band, with the occasional table, chair or hand prop used when necessary.  When characters are on stage but not directly involved in a scene, they behave naturally, listening to music on headphones, writing some private composition, or occasionally sharing a joint with the band. Yet when the time comes for a choral number, often you hear their voices while they remain focused on their personal business, seemingly uninvolved in the action. It's a technique we also saw in the recent Spring Awakening, and the result is quite effective.  Director, Musical Director, and Choreographer reunite with cast members Bateman and Marion from that show, which explored similar dramatic territory: intellect searching for truth in the midst of youth and sexuality (and Germany!) set to contemporary rock music, and performed by an energetic and talented young cast.

At the recent Jasper release party, I joked with a friend about a review he once got where the critic didn't realize how much she enjoyed the show. She detailed how good the performances were, but griped about the play itself.  So skip to the next paragraph if you are interested solely in this specific production's qualities, which are excellent.  I must commend Trustus for yet again taking a risk, being adventurous, and producing not one but two bold musical choices in quick succession, both tackling controversial themes via non-traditional storytelling and contemporary rock music.  (The composers for both Passing Strange and Spring Awakening were respected but non-mainstream rock artists who transitioned to musical theatre, and both shows premiered within months of each other in New York.)  Yet for me, the universality of this show's themes was severely undercut by an unsatisfying conclusion, or lack thereof, a gripe I also made about the generally enjoyable Spring Awakening.  The Youth asserts that "life is a mistake that only art can correct," while the ostensibly wiser Narrator cautions him that "song is a bong" (again, those witty but nursery rhyme-ish lyrics) and that what the youth is looking for in life can only be found in art.  Which are two sides of the same coin, in a way.  The Narrator maintains that love is the highest power of all... but what I longed for was a stronger declaration.  Either an extra scene showing wisdom that led the Youth to mature into the Narrator, or a song channeling The Faces'  "Oo La La" that clarifies how the Youth will have to learn it all on his own, or an admission that even now, the Narrator doesn't have all the answers.  In many ways, I was left with the impression that his former girlfriend, the German nihilist, might still see the author falling prey to the same weakness: mining his own history for immediate effect, in lieu of finding a deeper emotional truth. The ground he covers has been done before, and better, in everything from Tommy and Quadrophenia, to Purple Rain and Pippin. Still, if this was Stew's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I look forward to whatever next project becomes his Ulysses.

That said, the less one has seen the artist's struggle to find his identity depicted on stage before, the more one will marvel at this show's existential themes, acted out live with an accompanying rock band.  As above, Passing Strange is theatre for non-theatre-goers, pop music with an intellectual edge, an art exhibition with music and lyrics. Go for the art,  go for the talented cast, and go because this sort of show, one that addresses timeless yet intangible questions while actually entertaining you, just isn't done often enough in Columbia.  Passing Strange runs through April 14th; call the Trustus box office at 254-9732 for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

This is Not a Review of Spring Awakening

There are a couple of reasons why Jasper cannot review Trustus Theatre's current performance of Spring Awakening -- not the least of which is the fact that the director of the play is dating the daughter of the editor of the magazine. The fact that we can't review the play is unfortunate for a couple of reasons, as well -- not the least of which is the fact that the editor of the magazine doesn't hold anything back, and doesn't care who is dating whom.

That said, there are issues of propriety which we will respect. So, as you read, please keep in mind that this is not a review of Spring Awakening.

What this is is the story of how, thanks to the generosity of Coralee Harris, a dear friend and all around lovely person, whom Tracie Broom most aptly denominated as a bon vivant, this writer and more than one hundred other luckies had the opportunity to enjoy one of the last dress rehearsals of Spring Awakening on Wednesday night last week. It was cozy and friendly -- we sipped champagne, munched on our free popcorn, and simply took in all the youthful angst and profundity that the performance offered.

As frequent theater goers, it is unusual for us to attend a play in Columbia in which we know few of the actors, but this was the case on Wednesday night. Of course, we were very familiar with the work of the  director, Chad Henderson, who previously directed such plays as Assassins, Dog Sees God, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and more. And if you live in Columbia and don't know the work of the two people who played the parts of the adult male and female respectively, Christopher Cockrell and  Vicky Saye Henderson , I'm sorry, but it's my duty to inform you that your life would be so much better than it is if you did.

The new faces were universally young and unaffected; their voices, powerful and eager. From the closeness of our second row seats we were easily caught up in the almost palpable atmosphere that their combined energies created -- it was like some kind of youthful and frustrated pheromone. We could sense how thrilled and terrified they were to be on the stage, and how delighted they were by their own abilities to overcome their terror and giddiness and give us a professional performance. While I would usually never recommend sitting so closely, this was one time that proximity paid off.

The contrast of the young and eager cast against the laid-back and experienced persona of the band also needs to be noted. With local legends like professor of Jazz, Bert Ligon, and loyal Trustus stage musical director, Tom Beard, on deck, we expected the music to be exceptional, and it was. The gentlemen were joined by Jeremy Polley on guitar, James Gibson on bass, Greg Apple on percussion, Dusan Vukajolvic on cello, Jerrod Haning on viola, and Jennifer Hill on violin. Their steady, subdued-but-excellent sounds seemed at times to perturb the young actors who, when singing seemed to try to channel to the band the message to play louder and faster so they could metaphorically roll down the windows on the theatre and let their voices and spirits soar.

Our favorite part of the performance happened before the play itself got underway. Director Henderson had his actors frolicking about the stage, as young people are wont to do, as the audience arrived.  Then, they took their places perched atop chairs that were literally hanging off the wall at random heights and order. It was as if the young people had been set on shelves -- out-of-the-way, out of sound, out of mind -- until the performance began, and the young actors were finally in charge -- taking the stage and, with sometimes heart-breaking results, taking control.

It is the little things, like suspending the children on the wall at the beginning of the show, and two young and damaged women singing together and ultimately taking one another's hands in courage, that touch people so much about Spring Awakening. It's the authentic tears of young Patrick Dodds who plays Moritz and the Judy Collins-like voice of Adrienne Lee's Ilse. It's the sad realization that the premise of the story -- adults being fearful and unwilling to affirm the agency of a new generation, and the individuals within it, because of the fear of their own authentic selves -- is just as applicable in modern America as it was in late 19th century Germany.

No, this is not a review of Spring Awakening -- clearly it was a night to remember -- but you can find an excellent assessment by Jasper's own staff writer, August Krickel by clicking right here.

 

(Like reading Krickel? Tune in tomorrow for his reflections on, for many of us, the day the music died.)