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'Witches' delves into women's liberation, empowerment

I have seen an ad recently by the "West End's oldest watering hole" to put the kids on the bus and join them for a drink. The Ogunquit Playhouse has the same sorta message with their naughty, newly interpreted production of the THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK. z-theater-withee

This stage version is firmly set in the late 1960s, allowing a stronger voice of women's liberation and the sexual revolution. Sexual innuendos and girl talk quickly move to full on, openly expressive women, taking charge of their desires, temptations and the hidden power their gender has always possessed.

The musical is about "people talking on a couch," stated Shaun Kerrison, the director, during the talkback session after the performance. Mr. Kerrison has created a charming, intimate musical, filling the space with an emotionally charged through line, as personal morality is explored. Our own morality.

Strong, engaging performers are needed to execute the complexity written for them, and the three leads breeze through their time on stage with complete command of the storyline. Mamie Parris is cast as the music teacher, Jane Smart. Her sexual awakening concurs with her passionate cello playing and is a standout of hilarity. Librarian Sukie Rougemont is portrayed by Nancy Anderson, with her number, "Words, words, words," my favorite number of the evening. Rarely does an actor captivate as completely as the statuesque Sara Gettelfinger, fully inhabiting Alexandra Spotford. Ms. Gettelfinger is the power center for the trio, cementing the relationship between women who look to each other for needed towers of strength.

The three women work well as one, engaging in an energy assault, yet fully exploring the mountainous emotional complexities that exist in all of us. I very much appreciate actors who are conveying layers of information, not through the lines, but their amazing faces and body language.

James Barbour is the force of darkness, taking on the role of Darryl Van Horne. Mr. Barbour is a powerful vocalist, weaving a presence of raw sexuality through the performance. In the end this is a musical comedy, with many of the laughs provided by a veteran Queen of evoking laughter, Sally Struthers. Ms. Struthers has impeccable comic timing, and her facial expressions coupled with line delivery and interpretation resulted in multiple belly roars. Ms. Struthers is also saddled with many of the "magical voodoo illusions," executing them to perfection. The ensemble is also a joy and locomotive of energy, with actor Jeffrey Zicker a particular standout.

THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK is smartly supported through well thought out designs. I've always enjoyed the use of a curtain and the building anticipation to discover the mystery hidden behind. Michael Schweikardt creates a fortress of gabled, clapboard facades, settling the viewer into the historic New England village we all know very well. Mr. Schweikardt also creates extremely personal spaces for each of the three leads. The spaces are very detailed and comforting, exploding with the unique essence of each women's signature artistry.

Perhaps I'm at that age of nostalgia waxing, with costume designs of Dustin Cross catapulting me back to my early childhood. Mr. Cross has an eye for detail, with authentic period dress the backdrop for great hats, glasses and other accessories. I very much enjoyed the visual feast of intricate detail.

Biblical themes of original sin and the weight of woman as the temptress of man's downfall is kicked around, with the message of female empowerment and liberation loudly proclaimed. After the show and during the talkback, it occurred to me that this show about female strength had an all male creative team, except the Choreographer, Lisa Stevens. Ms. Stevens created wonderful, cute movements for the numbers, working well to showcase the talented cast, who were not all trained dancers. Ms. Stevens certainly leaves her mark on this show.

THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK will be performed at the Oqunquit Playhouse through Sept. 27. For information and tickets, contact the box office at 646-5511 or online at www.ogunquitplayhouse.org

(Harold Withee is a member of Actors' Equity and SAG/AFTRA.)

Last Updated on Friday, 12 September 2014 02:07

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Breathtaking 'Varekai' revisits era of traveling circus

Excitement and anticipation with the news of a circus arriving in town is a long tradition in rural America. The train was the major force moving the troupe and animals throughout the countryside and here in Maine, often was coupled with the local county fair. z-theater-withee

Animals in small cages and elephants chained together to haul the circus cars through town from the rail yard to the fairgrounds in a parade no longer seems thrilling, and for many, seems downright cruel. The tradition of the European Circus, though, has been elevated to a new fusion of improbable showmanship and storytelling. Majestic, mystical and haunting, layered with operatic elements of voice, live musicians and over the top production values, CIRQUE DU SOLEIL'S "VAREKAI" is eye-popping, jaw-dropping, time well spent.

A train is still needed to move this small army of 50 performers and 45 support persons. A train of 18 large trucks is needed to move this massive technological wonder. How lucky to live in a cultural hotspot where the world's best in entertainment travels to us. Most of the friends I've known who have traveled to Las Vegas tend to put a ticket for a CIRQUE DU SOLEIL show top on the list of "must see" events while visiting.

The experience is no less intoxicating and mesmerizing here in Portland, and the half stadium, theatre like with thrust set up at the civic center is intimate, allowing full immersion into this fantasy sphere.

Humor is a large element of this show and the jesters or "clowns" interwoven throughout the evening provoke needed belly laughs. Seeing ladies underwear when she bends over, or the simple, yet highly enjoyable act of a singer trying to follow the dancing spotlight, easily elicited smiles and laughter.

The true foundation of this circus though, lies in the bodies of the amazing contortionists, gymnasts, trapeze artists and dazzling dancers and athletes. The spectacle is, at times, dangerous, yet always stunningly beautiful and artistic, bringing the audience right to the seats edge.

I was lucky enough to spend time watching a rehearsal of the Russian swing troupe in the afternoon before the opening. As I watched I was reminded of how amazing the human spirit can be. I watched the connection these men shared, not of the art itself, but the awareness that each shared a responsibility for the safety, well-being and life of each other every time they set foot upon the stage.

Nothing compares to live entertainment. Nothing you have viewed on film could prepare you for an evening with this cast. "VAREKAI" is a happening not to be missed.
Cirque du Soleil's "VAREKAI" will run at the Cumberland County Civic Center's Cross Arena through Sunday, Sept. 7. Tickets through Ticket Master.

(Harold Withee is a member of Actors's Equity and SAG/AFTRA.)

Last Updated on Friday, 05 September 2014 02:17

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Hits keep coming at Arundel Playhouse with 'Wonderettes'

Labor Day weekend? How can it possibly be the end of Summer? Children back in school? How can this be and when did Summer ever really start? z-theater-withee

Yesterday was May and now I feel I have to get a few memories in the noggin before the snow flies. This past week I have walked around Portland, hiked some of the trail system, walked around Peaks and enjoyed a Casco Bay Ferry music cruise. I also drove south and laughed for an evening listening to classic tunes. This weekend is the last for this season at the Arundel Playhouse and my suggestion is to load the car with old friends and enjoy the unforgettable music of the '50s and '60s.
1958 is the year we find ourselves in when introduced to four young women entertaining at the prom. THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES is the name of the girl group, lending their name to the show title as well. The script is a bit silly, only adding plot for a through line of storytelling to allow a couple dozen songs to be strung together in some logical sequence. Casting is crucial, as well as direction, and the choice to bring in veteran Musical Director, Director and University of Southern Maine faculty member Edward Reichert, paid dividends.8-29-14-HW-arundel

Four young women make up the cast, all bringing enormous talent, depth and beautiful voices to harmonize. Watching this cast work was a complete joy and I was highly intrigued and amused with the non verbal storytelling expertly harnessed to raise the show beyond musical review. Facial expressions are pure gold and harken back to the days when ladies gave great face. More than once I lost track of the lyrics because my mind was so engaged with the body language and comical mugs these women provided.

The cast was comprised of Lexi Duffy, Kate Turner, Danae DeShazer and from Portland and the University of Southern Maine, the best redheaded, cateye glasses wearer, Rachel Grindle as Missy.
Kellie Moody is also a graduate of the University of Southern Maine, playing piano and conducting the pit band. I highlight the USM connections for a reason. USM is a pillar and feeder into the Southern Maine artistic economy, which, in turn, benefits the larger economic picture. Support USM by seeing this show and then contact USM administrators and congratulate them on the success their students are achieving.
The music alone is worth the trip and these young women have beautiful voices. Timeless tunes the majority of the audience was singing along with. "Lollipop," "Lipstick On Your Collar" and "Dream Lover" are songs your lips will unconsciously move along to. "Mr Lee" was certainly the highlight number of Act 1 and the audience participation for this song was charming.
Act 2 is a class reunion 10 years later, set in 1968. The script gets weaker and darker, fortunately the playlist is stellar and the hits keep coming. How can anyone frown with songs like "Heatwave," "You Don't Own Me," "Son of A Preacher Man" and "Rescue Me." "Leader of the Pack" was a great number from the second act.
Emma Ford created wonderful, colorful attire for the women and lights were designed by Derek Jones.
This show is the perfect Summer night activity. Memories, friends and bubble gum.
THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES is being produced by the Arundel Barn Playhouse, just 30 short minutes south of Portland, just off Rte 1. The show runs through Aug. 30 with a Friday Matinee. For tickets, contact the box office at 985-5552 or www.arundelbarnplayhouse.com.

(Harold Withee is a member of Actors' Equity and SAG/AFTRA.)

PHOTO: (From left) Kate Turner, Rachel Grindle, Lexi Duffy and Danae DeShazer appear in "The Marvelous Wonderettes" at Arundel Playhouse. (Photo by Dick Morin)

Last Updated on Friday, 29 August 2014 02:29

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'Mary Poppins' offers technically superb theater experience

The summer is quickly drawing to a close, and the children will be back in school in a matter of a few days. MARY POPPINS is a perfect way to cap the lazy days and introduce the transition back to structure. z-theater-withee

The Ogunquit Playhouse offers a dazzling production of this classic tale and one last walk on the beach or the Marginal Way shouldn't be undervalued either. MARY POPPINS certainly is a show where the entire generational family structure can share laughs, hear familiar songs, see a few dance numbers and leave the theater a tad wiser on how we interact with loved ones and neighbors. The technical aspects will also keep young jaws on the floor. What child isn't amazed by flying nannies?

Shaun Kerrison has created a mesmerizingly slick production with many wonderful attributes. The design team has mastered the spectacle that a production of MARY POPPINS must be. Lisa Donmall-Reeve is splendid as Mrs. Corry in the "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" segment, while the scene is given such incredible power through the costume design of Rachel Berchtold & Dustin Cross and the wigs of Britt Griffith & Trent Pcenicni. The red motif, visually, was one of the most interesting aspects of the production.8-22-14-HW-OP Mary-Poppins 02 Joseph-Hall Gail-Bennett Siara-Carrillo-Tracey Tony-Mansker-photo-by-Julia-Russell

I also enjoyed the collaborated talents of Lighting Designer Richard Latta and Christine Peters' Set Design, underscoring my favorite scene in the play, "Feed the Birds." Animation was used to produce the illusion of birds flying into and out of the scene, landing on the surrounding buildings and disappearing once again. The one major technical drawback was the overall sound quality the evening I attended. Microphones seemed to only bring forth the treble with the children, making them almost impossible to understand. I few times microphones were not turned on when a character was speaking and also had a couple muzzled moments.

The role of Bert is undertaken by Tony Mansker, bringing to the stage charming, intelligent and insight sensibilities. Energy exudes from this actor, and he was noticeably nimbler on his feet beside his very talented cast members. Mr. Mansker commands the stage with ease and is the steady force moving the story forward. Mr. Mansker was a member of the original Broadway cast.

The title role is placed in the hands of Gail Bennett, a role she performed during the first National tour. Ms. Bennett's portrayal is certainly not a sugar and spice rendition. Ms. Poppins is allowed to have a mature feminine side, mischievous and just a pinch of darkness. The darkness isn't about evil, but pragmatic, realism of how the world works and the unbending approach of raising children who are enveloped with love, acceptance and understanding. Of course, much is expected in return, the realization that we are part of something larger; and our true worth at the end of the day rests within the attributes of how we treated those with less money, power or physical beauty. True happiness stems from giving of ourselves to others, most important of all, our time.

The ensemble was highly talented and not a note or dance step was ever out of place. Lisa Stevens' choreography, though, seemed timid. This summer I have witnessed some amazing dances and dancers. I never felt the talent was tested and was disappointed with the complexity of the numbers. Perhaps I'm being greedy, but when the talent is on the stage, use it, impress me, leave me wanting more.

The audience was wowed the evening I attended, and with the great cast and over the top technical wizardry I should have been as well. I wasn't. "Practically Perfect" is a number in the show and also is a good description of this production. The issue for me is the "slick" replaced the one element I need to be satisfied from an evening attending the theater, an emotional connection. I was left feeling empty. I was highly entertained, I suppose, but when the show ended so did my involvement.

The one major exception was the "Feed the Birds" scene, showcasing Sandy Rosenberg. I still speak of her uproarious performance from last season and was thrilled to see her once again. Ms. Rosenberg was able to bring the show to a halt with the beautiful simplicity her interpretation of Bird Woman brought forth onto the stage. I longed for the same reaction when the curtain call arrived.

MARY POPPINS is playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse through Aug. 30. For information and tickets, call the box-office at 646-5511 or www.OgunquitPlayhouse.org.

(Harold Withee is a member of Actors' Equity and SAG/AFTRA.)

(Promotional photo by Julia Russell)

Last Updated on Friday, 22 August 2014 02:10

Hits: 455


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