Month: September 2016

Theatre Review – Violet at Burlington County Footlighters

Director Brian Blanks is taking theatergoers on a journey this fall. The station is Burlington County Footlighters and the vehicle is Violet; a deceptively complex musical that explores one person’s voyage of self-discovery. I bought my ticket and embarked on the show’s opening night, September 16th.

Footlighters opted to kick-off their 79th season with this lesser known piece by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley. When I arrived a woman in the audience asked me if I’d ever heard of Violet. In fact, even the director told me that among his theatre friends familiarity with it is “about 50/50.” When I heard the tale centered on a young North Carolina woman’s bus trip across America, I figured, “Here we go: yet, another story about a small town girl heading off to Hollywood.” This piece ended up as different from that premise as one could imagine.

Violet (played by Roxanne Paul) suffered a disfiguring accident as a child when her father (played by Chuck Klotz) inadvertently hit her in the face with an axe blade. In 1964, several years following his death, she embarked on a bus trip from her North Carolina home to Tulsa, Oklahoma. She sought a televangelist (Michael Gearty) there she believed could heal her. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” During the sojourn, Violet encountered a host of interesting characters that transformed the trip from an external one into an internal voyage of discovery. During the journey she experienced a series of flashbacks that facilitated the later. All this occurred to the accompaniment of a live band (directed by Cameron Stringham) playing sensational sixties sounding music.

None of the players used microphones. They didn’t need to. Violet featured performers with very strong voices. I encountered Footlighters veteran Dan Brothers in the audience before the musical began. Mr. Brothers can project his voice better than anyone I’ve ever heard. His presence in the building may have inspired the newcomers to this theatre group. When Michael Gearty testified in the role of the evangelist I’m sure people way up in the Heavens could hear him. Soulful Tee (in the role of choir singer Lula Buffington) belted a note that made both my eardrums rattle. As a longtime Motown and Stax fan, I welcomed the volume.

Roxanne Paul delivered a stellar performance as Violet. Her music featured a range of styles, from soulful tracks to upbeat numbers to ballads. Some began a capella. I liked the soft way she vocalized the mellow, “Lay Down Your Head.” While sitting in a bed near the back of the stage, she crooned in a voice soft enough to convey feeling, but loud enough for the audience to hear.

Ms. Paul’s brilliant facial expressions and mannerisms conveyed the character’s vulnerabilities in ways that Brian Crawley’s lyrics couldn’t. Her proficiency added an element that made the serious aspects of the show more impactful.

Darryl S. Thompson Jr. turned in a moving performance as Flick. The lone African-American character in a story he played a crucial role. As the bus travelled through the Deep South before the advent of the Civil Rights Era he encountered prejudice. When a character addressed him with a racial epithet even the audience gasped. I found it interesting that they became just as affronted as the character.

Mr. Thompson also sang some challenging vocal numbers very well. He rightly drew cheers from the house during his rendition of “Let It Sing.” He delivered the number so well it made me wish the songwriter would have let his character sing more often.

Gabrielle Affleck deserves great credit for taking on multifarious, and rather diverse, roles. In this one show Ms. Affleck played an old woman, a choir singer and a prostitute. That’s range. I liked hearing her vocals on the bluesy track “Anyone Would Do.” It’s doubtful anyone would have done it as well as she did.

As mentioned, Violet featured a host of phenomenal voices. I’d compliment Nicholas Zoll, Alex Davis and Glenn Paul for their contributions to the performance, as well.

Throughout the show myriad references were made to Violet’s being “disfigured.” When the subject arose, Ms. Paul did a nice job exhibiting anxiety by wincing and nervously covering her cheek. Her face didn’t have any scars, however. Young Violet (Ms. Orlowski) didn’t either. I could overlook it in the latter case since that character didn’t have as much stage time. Ms. Paul’s Violet appeared on stage in almost every scene. Her “ugliness” served as a crucial part of the show.

Ms. Paul is a good-looking woman. As much as I tried I simply couldn’t visualize her as “deformed.” In retrospect I figured the playwright intended symbolism to show Violet as a beautiful person who needed to discover it for herself. I can accept the premise. It just took me a while to understand it. That’s a reflection on the playwright, not the cast or crew.

A true “team effort” made for the most memorable scene of this show.  With apologies to Kenny Rogers, “Luck of the Draw” just may be the best song ever written about poker. This bouncy number featured Chuck Klotz (as Violet’s father), Emily Orlowski (as Young Violet), Ms. Paul, Mr. Thompson and Brandon Zebley (as Monty) working together. They did a nice job transitioning from Young Violet’s learning the game from her father to modern Violet applying those lessons. I liked hearing so many talented vocalists on the same track.

I enjoyed taking Violet’s journey. In the playbill Mr. Blanks commented on its timeless themes. Unfortunately for theatre fans, time’s ticking on the show’s run. Take a journey to Burlington County Footlighters no later than October 1st.  Don’t miss the bus.

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Theatre Review – Brighton Beach Memoirs at Haddonfield Plays and Players

The Haddonfield Plays and Players theatre group has a history of presenting challenging “dramedies.” It seemed fitting that they’d add Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs to their repertoire. This semi-autobiographical sketch of an extended Jewish family living in 1937 New York featured a host of comedic yuks coupled with intense drama. The cast and crew met the demands of this Pulitzer Prize winning playwright.

I attended the premiere performance on September 15th. The evening also entailed HPP’s rolling out of an original stage set-up. They relocated it closer to the center of the theatre. While tasked with animating Neil Simon’s dialog, this cast had the additional duty of playing to both sides of the room. Due to the new seating configuration, I expected to spend most of the evening staring at the backs of performers’ heads. The talented assembly of thespians accommodated this new format like seasoned stage veterans. I’d also give credit to director Matthew Weil for coordinating everyone around this original arrangement.

Dylan Corbett (as Eugene Jerome) faced the toughest challenge. While his character played an active role in the story’s events, he also served as a narrator. On numerous occasions he addressed the audience directly. With it seated both in front of and in back of the stage, this presented quite a challenge. I sat in the row against the far wall. Mr. Corbett’s deft movements to both sides of the stage made me feel like he spoke to me personally the entire night. That’s a remarkable accomplishment for anyone under these circumstances; especially for someone performing in his second community theatre show.

The play’s action took place over the span of two weeks. Mr. Corbett convincingly transformed from an immature, libidinous kid into a young man and then back again. That’s not an easy feat with a script covering that short a time span.

Nick Ware played an outstanding Stanley Jerome. He’s a very expressive performer. I really enjoyed the animated way he gesticulated while explaining how he stood up to his boss, thus risking his job at a time his family depended on his salary. He added a nice touch of humor when asking his cousin Nora (played by Meaghan Janis) to mention Abraham Lincoln’s “principles” at dinner. This would allow him to segue into a discussion about it with his father. His method of interjecting the topic at supper proved much more comical.

Lori A. Howard portrayed the epitome of a Jewish mother living in 1930s New York. She chose the perfect voice to compliment the role of Kate Jerome. Ms. Howard got into the character so well that I consciously avoided her after the show. (I worried she’d be forcing me to eat liver.) While she delivered funny lines well, her character possessed much more depth than simple “comic relief.” Mrs. Jerome battled anxieties over her husband’s health, her son Stanley’s wild ways and her sister’s descent into self-pity after becoming a widow. Combined with these challenges, Ms. Howard also served as the core holding this troubled family together. I liked the way she manifest all this tension in her argument with the character’s sister Blanche (performed by Marissa Wolf).

In addition to this altercation with Ms. Howard, Ms. Wolf launched an intense dispute with Blanche’s daughter, Nora (played by Meaghan Janis). These two performers did a phenomenal job during this heated exchange. While difficult to watch, the rewards of witnessing two talented performers play characters who want to love, but struggle in doing so made it worthwhile. They executed this difficult scene so realistically that I felt uncomfortable. That’s superb acting.

Doug Suplee (as Jack Jerome) played the clan’s patriarch. The role reminded me a bit of Mike Brady with a New York accent. Mr. Suplee brought to life the character of a wise father committed to the well-being of his family. I liked the way he showed tenderness as a surrogate father to his niece, Nora. He became a stern, but loving parent to his son, Stanley in their scenes together. When Kate worried about her sister’s condition, Mr. Suplee counseled her wisely. Understand the Brady reference now?

I also give credit to 11 year old, Sera Scherz in the role of Laurie Morton. She played an unemotional, detached young lady very well. The talent she displays at this point in her career shows she has a great future ahead of her in theatre.

During long portions of the show, performers who weren’t involved in the scenes didn’t leave the stage. They either sat at the ends of stage left or stage right. I found that unusual. I suspected that the new configuration had something to do with that. The designer located both egresses at the middle of the stage. None of these entertainers did anything to attract attention in these instances. However, at times my gaze drifted towards them because I wondered if they had a role in the action.

Several weeks ago, Lori A. Howard informed me that HPP’s presentation of Brighton Beach Memoirs “features an extraordinary cast that is my honor to work with.” After attending the show I could understand her enthusiasm. The show runs through October 1st. After that, Brighton Beach Memoirs becomes a memory at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

 

Book Review – The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk crafted the most brilliant bildungsroman I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The Caine Mutiny traced Willie Keith’s development from his pampered beginnings, his commissioning and early years as a naval officer through his participation in the most insubordinate act an armed services member can commit. To add even more drama to the later incident, it took place in the eye of a typhoon during World War II. If there’s a better war novel out there, I haven’t experienced it.

While the novel traced Mr. Keith’s maturation, three articles delineated in the Navy Regulations served as the cohesive theme holding the story together. These rules described the conditions under which a subordinate may relieve his superior of command. One has to credit Mr. Wouk for combining these disparate elements into a single story.

It would be hard to imagine more serious topics than those chosen by the author. I found it quite interesting that he began his career as a comedy writer. The entertaining way he managed to add humorous quips to the narrative made the reading much more enjoyable. Here’s Mr. Wouk’s depiction of Willie’s first meeting with the then skipper of the Caine, Captain DeVrees.

“Collared him did you? Nice work,” said a voice full of irony and authority, and the captain of the Caine came to the doorway. Willie was even more startled by him. The captain was absolutely naked. In one hand he carried a Lifebuoy soap, in the other a lighted cigarette. He had a creased old-young face, blond hair, and a flabby white body. “Welcome aboard, Keith!”

“Thank you, sir.” Willie felt an urge to salute, to bow, in some way to express reverence for supreme authority. But he remembered a regulation about not saluting a superior when he was uncovered. And he had never seen a more uncovered superior than his commanding officer.” (Location 1437)

Thomas Keefer, one of Willie’s shipmates and a budding novelist, observed: “The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots.” (Location 2020)

When Willie expressed his admiration for Keefer’s writing ability, the later provided him with a tutorial on how to write an official Navy report. It read like a passage out of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

“Are you kidding?” said the communications officer. “I wrote that as fast as I could type it. Probably a minute and a half. You just have to develop an ear for Navy prose, Willie. For instance, note that split infinitive in paragraph three. If you want a letter to sound official, split an infinitive. Use the word ‘subject’ very often. Repeat phrases as much as possible. See my beautiful reiteration of the phrase ‘subject man.’ Why, it’s got the hypnotic insistence of a bass note in a Bach fugue.” (Location 3398)

The author included one conversation with semi-comic effect. Here’s part of an exchange between Willie and Ed, the captain of another ship, regarding the rules governing a commanding officer’s removal.

“…Want me to tell you something? One night down in Noumea I got drunk with the exec—under the Iron Duke (Captain Sammis), this was—and he quoted Article 184 to me by heart. And he said he was just waiting for the Duke to do that one really impossible thing, and he’d nail him. But he never mentioned it to me again. You should have seen the way Sammis made him crawl, too—“

“They never do that one thing, Ed. That’s the catch.” (Location 9703)

Mr. Wouk crafted the novel in a way that stimulated my curiosity for what would happen next. He wrote the events leading up to the mutiny against Captain Queeg brilliantly. The subsequent court martial also read well. I found myself wavering on whether or not the captain deserved to be removed. In the events leading up to his displacement, I agreed with the officers’ analysis of his behavior. During the court martial I agreed with the JAG that Willie and the executive officer acted improperly. Now I’m not sure. That makes me want to re-read a book I just finished.

I found Willie’s development absolutely outstanding. His father wrote him a letter stating:

It seems to me that you’re very much like our whole country—young, naïve, spoiled and softened by abundance and good luck, but with an interior hardness that comes from your sound stock. (Location 1237)

The author did an exceptional job animating these traits in his protagonist throughout the novel. Marcel Proust once wrote, “We don’t receive wisdom. We must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us, or spare us.” Willie embodied this sentiment. I liked the ways he came to discover and struggle with his personal shortcomings on his own.

I’d classify this 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel as a masterpiece of historical fiction. Willie Keith’s development amidst the backdrop of real events made an outstanding read. At the book’s conclusion, I found myself wanting to learn about the next stages of Willie’s life. Mr. Wouk celebrated his 101st birthday in May. Would he be open to writing a sequel after all these years?

Book Review – The Light between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

The Light between Oceans contained the best overall story I’ve ever read in a debut novel. M. L. Stedman also introduced readers to very well-crafted characters. The book contained the most creative multi-layered conflict I’ve ever read. In addition to these achievements, Ms. Stedman wrote in lyrical language to tell this extraordinary tale.

The main action in the story occurred on the remote Australian island of Janus during the 1920s. After witnessing the carnage of the First World War, Tom accepted the job managing the lighthouse there. The carefree and naïve Isabel became his wife and joined him. The strain of isolation combined with three stillbirths placed an immense emotional strain on the marriage. Just weeks following Isabel’s last miscarriage a boat washed ashore. It contained a dead man and a living infant. Then the real drama commenced.

This author displayed exceptional skill in developing the characters. I admired the way she did so through conflict. As the lighthouse keeper, Tom emphasized his duty to report the incident to the authorities. Isabel argued otherwise. She surmised the man in the boat probably the child’s father. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume the mother dead under these circumstances? Wouldn’t the child get sent to an orphanage? Wasn’t it true that only they knew about the miscarriage a few weeks before? The opposing views and justifications behind them provided fantastic insight into the characters.

I won’t give away spoilers, but I will comment that the dynamic between the couple changed throughout the book. As the story progressed so did my perception of them. At times the author managed to transform them into villains. My astonishment and curiosity kept me reading to see how the novel would end. Along the journey, Ms. Stedman included a few superb plot twists and a red herring. They made the book a much more exciting read.

The author included many clever uses of language. I liked the alliteration in the expression, “seemed so solid she.” (Page 3) I enjoyed the simile, “the light stood guard, slicing the darkness like a sword.” (Page 34) The author even added a line that would’ve made Louis Zamperini proud: “You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day.” (Page 323)

My favorite lyrical passage described Tom’s thoughts on the island’s lighthouse:

But Janus light was the last sign of Australia he had seen as his troopship steamed for Egypt in 1915. The smell of the eucalypts had wafted for miles offshore from Albany, and when the scent faded away he was suddenly sick at the loss of something he didn’t know he could miss. Then, hours later, true and steady, the light, with its five second flash, came into view—his homeland’s furthest reach—and its memory stayed with him through the years of hell that followed, like a farewell kiss. (Page 11)

I found one area where the novel could be improved. The author front-loaded The Light between Oceans with a lot of back-story. Since it occurred in the opening chapters, I had trouble understanding what the main story concept would be. Granted, the majority of the book took place on an isolated island inhabited by either two or three characters. It would’ve been challenging to describe both Tom’s and Isabelle’s backgrounds in that setting without it coming across as contrived.

Also, I thought some of the resolutions towards the end too abrupt; at least when compared to the pace the author established at the beginning. I thought the narrative could’ve been more balanced in that respect.

I would also like to credit the author for the creative title. It possessed both literal and symbolic meanings. It’s very challenging to condense a book’s content in a few words. It’s even harder to do so with a phrase containing multiple connotations. The Light between Oceans summarized the book brilliantly.

I have to give Ms. Stedman immense credit for a stellar debut. She crafted characters and managed the conflict between them like an expert storyteller. So far only one Australian has received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Is it premature to suspect another could be so honored in the future?

Book Review – Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

By this time I’m sure that even those who’ve never even heard of theatre are familiar with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s, Hamilton. This musical has expanded the boundaries of theatre unlike any show in recent memory. Critics have recognized it as such and their praise has been “non-stop.” In addition to the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it’s also received several Tony Awards along with a variety of Drama Desk awards. That’s just the short list of its accolades as of this writing.

“We know” Hamilton is a show that would “blow us all away” like a “hurricane.” Unfortunately, I’m “helpless” to “take a break” and see it in “the room where it happens.” I didn’t want to “wait for it” to pass me by since I may not get “my shot” to see it performed on Broadway. Fortunately, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter “satisfied” my curiosity about “what’d I miss.” They crafted a remarkable book exploring both the show’s content and its history. How could I “say no to this?”

Hamilton: The Revolution contained all of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics. As a bonus it included his personal commentary on them. His witty observations enhanced the book. When Alexander Hamilton sang the line “I may not live to see our glory,” Mr. Manuel Miranda explained, “Yes, these lyrics are foreshadowing, but they’re no more dire than most pub drinking songs.” (Page 35)

In a later scene Hamilton ordered his men to remove the bullets from their guns. He didn’t want anyone to prematurely alert the British to an attack. Mr. Manuel Miranda wrote:

This seems so counterintuitive but it’s what happened: Leave it to Hamilton to make his men remove their bullets to ensure no one would give away their sneak attack. That’s some control-freak realness. I can relate. (Page 121)

Mr. McCarter’s portions of the book described the many facets of putting together the first Hip-Hop musical. The author performed extensive research by interviewing myriad people involved with the show. In addition to the foundations of Hamilton, he included insights on casting, the choreography and costuming. I appreciated reading about all these different components of the show. I marveled at how these diverse aspects all came together into a cohesive unit.

The book contained a number of memorable quotes. One participant expressed the following trenchant take on Hamilton. When reflecting on its predominantly minority cast members he called it, “A story about America then, told by America now.” (Page 33) Mr. McCarter observed, “The past places no absolute limits on the future.” (Page 88) An artistic director gave Mr. Manuel Miranda the highest compliment imaginable for a playwright. He said, “Lin does exactly what Shakespeare does…He takes the language of the people, and heightens it by making it verse.” (Page 103)

Hamilton: The Revolution contained a host of photographs. I found them an excellent supplement to the text. Many original cast members have moved on to other projects. The pictures allowed me to feel like I was with the show from the beginning. Since I haven’t watched it performed, yet, I got a sense of how magnificent it must appear on stage.

“What comes next?” readers may wonder. Mr. Manuel Miranda’s and Mr. McCarter’s book made me even more interested in watching the musical performed. I may not be able to escape it. In a few years, community theatre groups and high school drama clubs will be able to stage Hamilton. This means that for those who’ve already seen it performed on Broadway, “You’ll be back” “one last time.”

Book Review – Story Trumps Structure by Steven James

Literary junkies like me appreciate iconoclastic works in the craft. How can any of us forget the first time we delved into Ulysses, Waiting for Godot or anything Claude Simon wrote? I found myself just as intrigued by a work on the craft just as innovative. Steven James wrote Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules as such a work.

Mr. James presented an oppositional take on several premises both writers and instructors accept as sacrosanct. Outlining a novel served as the main target of his criticism. The author takes a “seat-of-the pants” or a “pantser” approach to his own writing. He preferred the expression “organic writing” for this practice. He didn’t argue that outlining isn’t the best approach for him. He believed that it’s wrong for everybody. The author advised: “rather than outlining, focus on (1) narrative progression, (2) genre conventions and (3) reader expectations.” (Page 107)

The book contained suggestions that both outliners and pantsers would find useful. Mr. James even included a useful chart showing the issues both styles of writers would encounter. (Page 113) The author emphasized the importance of driving tension in one’s writing. (Pages 8 and 9) He kept returning to the idea of escalating that tension throughout an author’s work. Story Trumps Structure even introduced a new axiom to the principles of fiction writing: “the Ceiling Fan Principle.” (Page 7) Named after a story a fifth grader told the author, it meant that, “you do not have a story until something goes wrong.” (Page 7)

The author also objected to critique groups reviewing works-in-progress. He expressed several issues with the practice. For one, a reviewer may not be aware of all the narrative forces at work in the story. (Page 34) He added that, “any writing taken out of context will end up being critiqued poorly.” (Page 35) He summarized his disagreement with critiquing as such:

I can’t think of any other field in which people who aren’t experts critique other people who aren’t experts in the hope of everyone becoming an expert. (Page 35)

Overall, I found Story Trumps Structure full of solid advice for good fiction writing. I did have some issues with it. I disagreed with both the author’s advice and his pedantic tone on the subject of organic writing. I did extract value from his craft tips, however, so that issue didn’t dissuade me from finishing the book.

I’ve been a member of several critique groups over the years. I’ve neither considered anyone in any of them an “expert” nor did I ever hear a participant use that term. One must always keep in mind the knowledge and background of who reviews one’s work. I would add that any person reading a critique piece is a “reader.” It’s always possible or probable that other readers may have the same reaction when they encounter the same scene in an author’s story.

Mr. James undoubtedly presented a revolutionary take on organic writing. From his liberal use of clichés, I wondered if his next work would espouse their value. I write without hyperbole that Story Trumps Structure contained more clichés than I recall reading in a single book. They included the author’s use of expressions, “between a rock and a hard place” (page 229), “give it some breathing room” (page 89) and “in a nutshell” (page 87) just to cite a few. I thought Mr. James could’ve utilized more creative phrasing in a book about writing instruction.

Story Trumps Structure presented myriad suggestions on how to write fiction well. The addition of the unusual ideas made the book more memorable than most on the subject. Even though I didn’t share the author’s view on a number of them, he made me expand my frame of reference. Isn’t that what both great works of fiction and non-fiction are supposed to do?