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In 'Seven Brides,' MSMT perfects art of dance

A theme is emerging for me this summer as I attend the many summer options for theater goers in our Arts abundant state. Dance is the word and Maine State Music Theatre’s production of 7 BRIDES FOR 7 BROTHERS is jaw-dropping explosive athleticism.7-22-14-HW-Brides-1
Every show has a star, a standout and hands down, this show belongs to Director/ Choreographer Patti Colombo and her choreography. Ms. Colombo has taken this classic American Musical about the opening up of the Oregon Territory (this show is not about political correctness) and presents it with a cartoonish quality of style and gritty realism of animal magnetism (doesn’t every young women want to be abducted by sculpted mountain men in the middle of the night who they have lusted after since a dance and be trapped with them until the spring snow melt?). You now know the plot, but honestly, this plot is only there to fill time between the extraordinary dance numbers.
The technical attributes are also off the charts and I’m proud to say the first set I walked onto at college was also designed by Charles S. Kading. I loved this set and very much enjoyed the intricate dance the stage pieces performed to create the wonderful images of the Northwest. The pictures were always changing and the action never came to a halt to move the story into another location. The forest was brilliant, effectively simulating the movement through the wooded mountains as characters are lost, found and hunted down. I mentioned earlier the wonderful cartoon quality to the overall feel of this production’s set, giving the events on stage a magical lift by supporting the extraction of humor through the naive initial mingling of young men and young women. Lighting Designer Dan Efros also is a superstar with his illumination. The effects are spectacular and I especially appreciated the sun setting against the backdrop of magnificent mountains. Costume & Wig Designer Kurt Alger adds the third leg of this impressive triumvirate of creative design. Mr. Alger certainly provides attractive garments with the consideration of how they would look and wear during the gruelling dance numbers. I also found the color coordination with the couples a cute gesture, weaving the design firmly within the bosom of the storytelling.
The good news is this cast is not swallowed up by the set, dynamically projecting this show’s infectious energy. Director Patti Colombo presents a fast-paced production, squeezing all the extraneous air into extinction. “Hold on to your hat” has real meaning as this attractive young cast attacks the material. Heidi Kettenring takes the lead role as Milly Bradon. Ms. Kettenring brings the right touch of Disney Princess, Annie Oakley, Nurturer and wide-eyed optimist. She commands the stage, at ease yet confident with all that is asked of her. This whole cast can act, sing and dance with impressive ease. Jarid Faubel portrays Adam Pontipee, Milly’s love interest and the leader of the brood of mountain boy brothers needing the rough edges smoothed. Mr. Faubel does an outstanding job breathing life into a character with modern questionable attributes, yet presenting a likable individual. Mr. Faubel is a towering presence on stage with a powerful singing voice.
Ladies, this show was directed with you in mind. The 7 brothers comprise very toned and muscular young men who move well and often with few garments covering the goods. Eric Sciotto played Frank and provided one of the few complaints I had in the show. His acting, singing and dancing are superb, but by the end of the evening his performance had become about keeping his hair out of his eyes. I was getting whiplash watching. Each brother needs a woman and the bevy of beauties won’t disappoint the male members of the audience either. Sarah Marie Jenkins was simply delightful as Alice, mining the script for every laugh. I also wish to mention Shanna Heverly and Merrill West for the sheer force of presence and talent they bring to the stage. As the old saying goes, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, just backwards and in high heels.” This show is sexy and vibrant, steaming full speed ahead without breaking gear.
University of Southern Maine faculty member Edward Reichert from the School of Music is the Music Director. The music perfectly supported the vocals without ever drowning out the lyrics. The delivery from the singers is also well supported with breath and strong diction. I also wish to compliment Maine State Music Theatre for using Maine-based talent on and off the stage.
7 BRIDES FOR 7 BROTHERS will be performed at the Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, Maine on the Bowdoin campus through Aug. 2. For tickets and information please call the box-office at 207-725-8769 or www.msmt.org.

(Harold Withee is a member of Actors’ Equity and SAG/AFTRA.)
(Photo by Jenny Sharp)

Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 July 2014 02:36

Hits: 190

'Billy Elliot' resounds with masculine fury

BILLY ELLIOT is now on stage at the Ogunquit Playhouse where the political turmoil of Margaret Thatcher's Britain collides with a young boy's awakening of his natural talent for dance.7-15-14-HW-OP Billy-Elliot Noah-Parets Stephen-Hanna photo-by-Gary-Ng

I remember the 1970s of political and economic upheaval. A decade in which the once great world power of Britain had become the economic backwater of Europe. Britain's longest serving Prime Minister of the 20th century came to power in 1979 and began the dismantling of government owned and subsidized entities, culminating in the bitter miners strike of 1984. Breaking the Miners Union caused divided families and communities, bloody violence and a resetting of the British economy, moving it away from socialism. Take a deep breath and relax, that backdrop gives this story great power, insight and, in the end, an incredible journey of uplifting optimism.

The production values at Ogunquit Playhouse are the same as seeing a show on Broadway, creating an engaging world of the gritty mining villages in the heart of England. Campbell Baird's Set Design is theatrical in style, yet cleverly simplistic and unencumbered. The action never has to stop for a scene change, as the stage is always in a state of adjustment, creating an enticing dance of its own accord. Lighting Designer Jack Mehler provides texture to the emotional tapestry, draping the action in gloomy illumination. Dustin Cross is credited with Costume Design and the two created chilling effects with the helmet-mounted mine lights. Under the direction of BT McNicholl, the many facets and pieces of this production harmoniously meld, drawing the audience deep within the bosom of his vision. The only technical glitch was the sound levels of the pit orchestra at times. Under the direction of Ana Flavia Zuim, the music was flawless, yet, at times, overpowered the vocals. Microphones are used in this production, leaving me to believe the issue is the sound board operator. Hearing the words is important in moving the plot forward, I want to hear them.

Above everything, BILLY ELLIOT is a show about self discovery, courage, conviction and, of course, mesmerizing dance. The weight of this production is set squarely upon the shoulders of the young gentlemen playing the lead role of Billy. The role is shared between Sam Faulkner and Noah Parets with Mr. Faulkner taking the stage the evening I attended. This young teen had no issues equaling the veteran Broadway cast that supported him. I have worked with young people in the theater my whole career and always I'm amazed at the sponge-like ability to quickly absorb large amounts of material, attacking with no fear. Mr. Faulkner is a triple threat with a good voice, acting chops to create a complex, emotional soul and, of course, one hell of a phenomenal dancer. This is a Professional, Union production and with that I must admit the only weak delivery occurred with the screams during the dance ending Act one, "Angry Dance." I wanted more pain, release from emotional bondage, uncontrolled from the gut. The vocals were a screech from the throat and didn't convey the inner explosion to match the mind-blowing talent of this kid's feet. I wanted to be brought to tears by this dance and he didn't get me there. I may be asking to much, but from every other moment of his presence on stage, I think not.

Theater on this level provides a cast with no weak links and I could write about all of these performers, all giving jaw-dropping performances. I will mention a few in the space provided me. I would like to see more bios at Ogunquit with Maine-based actors represented (yes, they exist) but, having spent 10 privileged years working within the Boston theater scene, I'll give credit for searching for New England talent at least. Alec Shiman is a Boston talent I have seen in the last couple of years and this kid explodes with the ability to inhabit his characters completely with mature internal interpretation and a great hoofer to boot.

This is a very masculine show, a story about men who labor underground, black from soot. The show is laden with masculine expectations being challenged in an increasingly changing world. Anastasia Barzee portrays Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance instructor, tiny in stature, yet a tenacious warrior fearlessly battling into the darkness against the masculine stereotype. Ms. Barzee is a force on stage, chain smoking her way into my heart. We have all had a teacher who not only opened the world up for us, but fought to give us a place in it.

The other dominant female presence on stage is Billy's Grandmother, played by Dale Soules. Her solo, "We'd go Dancing," is loaded with the female viewpoint of a women trapped in societies image of dutiful wife. The song was humorous, yet intensely sad, crediting the immense depth Ms. Soules brings to the stage. Lastly, an ensemble shout out to Chris Woods, who was just fun to watch.

Adam Pelty is the Choreographer who created the visual feast these dance numbers are. Many different styles of dance, not just ballet, explode off the stage. The ballet duet with Billy and his older self is spectacular and the dance with the whole cast on stage, with chairs, telling multiple viewpoints simultaneously, was a goose pimple moment of movement. "Electricity" was also outstanding, bringing the show to a standstill as Mr. Faulkner garnered his accolades. The applause rolled on as I overheard an elderly gentleman lean to his wife and whisper, well, he sure as hell earned it. Human self awareness seems to grow through adversity, challenged by loss and hard times. BILLY ELLIOT leaves you with the assurance the human experience is worthwhile, always worth the pursuit of self acceptance.

BILLY ELLIOT is on stage at the Ogunquit Playhouse for another two weeks, through July 26. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday, including matinees. For more information, please contact the theater box-office at 207-646-5511 or www.ogunquitplayhouse.org.

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

Photo courtesy of Gary Ng

Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 July 2014 02:29

Hits: 359

'A Chorus Line' provides grit, gusto in Arundel

Memories are a powerful force in our lives and no theater person forgets their first time in New York seeing a Broadway show. My first time was January 1983, and I had a seat for the longest running Broadway show ever at the time, A CHORUS LINE. That was exciting enough, but during the scene where the dancers hold up their headshots, a voice came over the speakers to evacuate the theater due to .... well, we didn't know, but as I was seated in a cheap seat at the back of the theater, I was nearest to the exit that opened right onto the street and I ran directly into the late, great Patricia Neal, she wearing a full length fur coat.7-8-14-HW-chorus

After 30 minutes, the audience was allowed back into the theater and I witnessed a show that bared soul and as an aspiring actor, the show spoke directly to me.

A CHORUS LINE has the underlying grit of 1970s Manhattan, telling the story of struggling dancers in a profession that is unforgiving. A CHORUS LINE is being produced at the Arundel Barn Playhouse, just down the road from Biddeford, off Route 1.

Maine has a rich history of Summer Theater and the Arundel Playhouse is a living remnant of the days when old barns ruled the scene. The theater is carved from an 1800s structure, once home to livestock, now home to young professionals beginning their journey toward union cards. The company is comprised of college theater students and recent graduates, bringing the shows to the stage at a break-neck speed, every two weeks.

This is summer stock, fly by the seat of your pants, bubbling with passionate exuberance. I want to say thank you to the Producing Artistic Director for working with so many students from The University of Southern Maine and area high schools. I believe strongly in the "support local" mantra and it shouldn't be just for food.

A CHORUS LINE is a bitch of a show. Minimal set, costumes and technical attributes, but the talent must sing, dance and deliver emotionally charged monologues extremely well. This cast handles the task. This is truly an ensemble cast, but a few members just have that extra spark.

Kate Turner plays Val, the T & A gal and fills the stage with energy. I also had no problems hearing her. Aili Venho as Diana was also a favorite, singing "Nothing." As an acting major, that song resonated with me. Bobby is played by Roger Reed, another powerful presence on the stage. Cassie is in the hands of Lexi Duffy, nurturing an underlying dignity with the need to work. I very much appreciated the nuance and inner struggle Ms. Duffy portrayed. This Cassie is humble yet rock hard in principle, putting work above ego. Sheila, on the other hand is far from humble. Ashten Banister breathes life into Sheila, female with attitude. Ms. Banister has the most fun on stage, creating a lovable spitfire. I saw this show on the Third of July and not 100 feet from the theater a few fireworks were set off, near the end of the show. Unfortunately, they occurred just as Paul is giving his show stopping monologue, revealing the painful journey to the stage and the need to dance. Brain DiRito wasn't phased at all and gave the performance this show needs to cap the end with an emotional punch.

One issue I did have with the show was the interaction between the stage and the voice from the house. Often, the voice was house left, yet the actors on stage spoke out to the back of the house. Why? Keep it real and talk TO each other. I also felt Will Bonney in the role of Zach was a disappointment. His line delivery was monotone and lacked any inner interpretation. This is a guy with a lot on his plate, including the ex-girlfriend showing up at the audition. I wanted a fully developed, complex character. I felt like Mr. Bonney was reading from the script and, quite frankly, was far too young to really carry this role.
Taavon Gamble is Director/Choreographer and creates nice stage visuals. My only real disappointment with choreography was Cassie's dance. Ms. Duffy had the talent to let loose a bit more, mixed with more razzle/dazzle. The three-piece pit band was under the direction of Raymond Bailey and provided the right support. The music never drowned the vocals and added the underscore lightly to support the storytelling.

A CHORUS LINE is one of my favorite pieces of theater because of the raw, reality mirror it holds in front of the face of Show Business.

The Arundel Barn Playhouse will present A CHORUS LINE through July 12. For information and tickets, contact 207-985-5552.

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

Last Updated on Tuesday, 08 July 2014 02:26

Hits: 428

Initial reviews are in for PortFringe

PortFringe is in full swing and I have a bit of feedback from the first performances. Keep in mind, the full thrust of the Festival just continues to pick up steam as the weekend progresses. Do not forget the daylong presentations at the Mayo Street Arts Center, inclusive for all family members this Saturday and Sunday beginning at 10:30. The Night belongs to the Arts District with five venues staging the productions. Grab a beer at the bar and settle in for a mind-bending evening. z-theater-withee
The first show I attended was THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. The show was multi media and incorporated dance into the story, shedding light on societies abuse of animals. Grace Fosler was the Writer/Director and assembled an ensemble of six to bring to life the message of how we look at our fellow life forms on this planet. I very much enjoyed the performance of Liam Neualt, bringing to the stage power and energy not always matched. The show contained vignettes and especially enjoyed the ensemble work and writing in the dogs at animal shelter piece. I very much thought this section would be great expanded into it's own full piece, perhaps with elements of the dog fighting scene. Thought provoking and engaging. See this show Friday, June 27th @ Space @ 6 pm.
TOUGH LOVE is the creation of Catherine Wright, another multi media experience. This show was visual overload performance art with ukulele, original songs, dance and personal revealing. I loved the song "Freedom", resonating with me a message of moving on. The performance was entrancing and ,for me, reminiscent of the great Kate Bush. Red lighting, powerful dance coupled with mesmerizing visuals allowed an emotional journey through the Volcano piece which had great music as well. When the hour was over, I felt as if I had just gotten up off the massage table. See this show Friday, June 27th @ Space@ 10 pm.
SERIAL KILLERS, COUNTRY MUSIC & PICKED PUNKS: JOE COLEMAN IN VIGNETTES caught my attention, presented by Curtained Productions. The ensemble was good size and the show was about the controversial painter told by him with help from the people in his life. I really liked the script and the country music singer added the melancholy, evoking laughter with each heartbreak ending. I didn't have a cast list but very much enjoyed the ex-con and the blonde love interest that isn't anymore, who appears at the end. The statement that religion, psychology and philosophy do not answer questions but helps us to cope and move on was a theme throughout the evening. The production was a tad under rehearsed but the cast rallied and had a good time . I did as well. See this show Saturday, June 28th @ Geno's @ 7 pm.
My final viewing was ellipsis productions' mounting of David Mamet's SEXUAL PERVERSITY IN CHICAGO, set in the late 1970's. Mamet is a great writer and this cast handles the language with ease. The young love interest of Kelsey Taylor and Carrie Bell-Hoerth was infused with a wonderful arch of emotion, ending with the dreaded split. The script is dated in the PC sense but do men and women really change? My only major complaint with the production was the focus on props and set pieces, which should have been pared further. The pace was hindered and in the beginning of the show, came close to being about the set changes. The cast had great energy and interpretation, all this script needed to be enjoyed. See this show Saturday, June 28th @ 8:30 pm @ Space.
The weather is going to be inviting this weekend. An evening out to engage in theater will fill the void of artistic nourishment. The more you see, the less each performance costs. Single punch pass is $10/ 3 show punch pass is $25 / 7 show punch pass is $55 and see all the shows with a VIP punch for $125. Passes available for purchase at all the venues, CASH ONLY. Venues include Geno's, Space, Empire, Portland Stage Company Studio Space and Storefront along with Mayo Street Arts for the Family Fringe.
Also buy passes at all Coffee by Design locations. 100 timed events make this Northern New England's largest Theater Festival and be part of it! For information and schedule visit www.portfringe.com

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

Last Updated on Friday, 27 June 2014 01:46

Hits: 463

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