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Now Playing:
"Our Town," November 14-22, USC Longstreet Theatre, 777-2551.

"White Christmas," November 14 - December 7, Town Theatre, 799-2510.

"Guys & Dolls Jr.," November 14-16, Columbia Children's Theatre YouTheatre, 691-4548.

"Comedy of Errors," November 14-23, Ritz Theatre of Newberry, 276-6264.

"The Women of Lockerbie," November 20-23, USC Lab Theatre.

"A Christmas Carol," November 21 - December 20, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

"Christmas in Lexington," December 5-14, Village Square Theatre, 359-1436.

"Jack Frost," December 5-14, Columbia Children's Theatre, 691-4548.
"The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," December 11-21, Sumter Little Theatre, 775-2150.

"A Very Second Samuel Christmas," December 12-20, On Stage Productions, 351-6751.

"Jingle Bell Jazz," December 17, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

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Theatre USC's Our Town Maintains Appealing Simplicity

Review by August Krickel. 

Our Town is an ode to the ordinary, a love letter to simpler times in early 20th-century America, and seeing it live on stage for the first time is like peering through a window into the past. Steven Pearson directs a cast of undergraduates and eight new MFA students in a straightforward rendition of this Pulitzer-winning classic, which runs through Saturday November 22 at USC's Longstreet Theatre.  While contemporary audiences may find what was groundbreaking in 1938 to be a little familiar in 2014,  author Thornton Wilder's portrait of simple human nature and emotions still rings true.

Wilder's abandonment of traditional stage conventions (sets, props, an unbroken fourth wall between cast and audience) wasn't original; everyone from the Greeks to Shakespeare incorporated speeches directed to the audience describing broader settings and themes, and every child has imagined some prop while playing "house." Still, theatre-goers in 1938 must surely have wondered what they were in for when a stage manager enters onto a bare stage, and proceeds to describe the layout and population of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, population 2,642.  Actors enter in character and mime daily activities like delivering papers, preparing breakfast, and cleaning house, with the stage manager periodically providing further narration and explication. Probably half the plays produced today incorporate this technique, and 75 years of high school and community theatre productions of this play, as well as multiple film and television versions (with everyone from William Holden and Paul Newman to Hal Holbrook and Robby Benson in lead roles) may have diminished some of its novelty, but the text still works. Also, Pearson has emphasized as much minimalism as possible, if you can imagine that in an already minimalist play. By this I mean that the mimed actions are performed very inconspicuously, allowing for greater focus on dialogue and plot. One pivotal conversation between two teenage sweethearts is performed with the actors simply facing each other, expressing their feelings, with no intricate blocking required. This simplicity is quite appealing, and echoes the simplicity of the (non-existent) set, which is realized through nothing more than a rich wooden floor, a few chairs and tables, and a pair of stepladders. Those stepladders are perhaps the show's most memorable element, as they become the upstairs windows from which the puppy-lovers gaze at the stars and each other.

Nicole Dietze and Matthew Cavender are believable as the teens, as we follow them from crush to love to marriage; Dietze masterfully carries the final third of the play as the adult version of her character, who discovers some insight into the meaning, or at least the nature, of life and living.  Josh Jeffers, Dimitri Woods, and Candace Thomas are all fine as the parents, although they and most of the cast have some issues with projection and audibility. The show is performed in the round, meaning that at any given moment, each actor is facing away from part of the audience, but this is an expected challenge, one which the cast of last month's Ajax in Iraq overcame. That said, Rachel Kuhnle, as Dietze's mother, and Benjamin Roberts as the local choirmaster, are almost always easy to hear and understand. Kuhnle also has some great moments with Dietze where the mother is faced with her teen daughter's question, to which there can be no right answer: "Am I pretty?" The mother replies, with typical New England reserve, "You're pretty enough for all normal purposes."

With an ensemble cast of 17 representing an entire town, and with action taking place at four points over twelve years, there is little opportunity for the actors to flesh out their characters beyond thumbnail sketches. The stage manager, played by Carin Bendas, gets the most time on stage, but is primarily a narrator, and occasionally steps in to double as a town resident.  This figure is traditionally played by a male actor, often a crusty older gentleman whose homespun manner reflects the small town setting. Bendas, however,  is a striking young woman in contemporary business attire, with a commanding stage presence. While she has the rural dialect down pat, the character's folksy observations are at odds with her crisply modern demeanor, and she somehow seems out of place.  Still, of all the new MFA students, she is the one I now anticipate the most in future roles.

Wilder's prose is undeniably elegant and vividly descriptive, but extended sections on the town's demographics and topography drag; slice-of-life moments, while often touching or amusing, offer little conflict - just warm vignettes like a teen who neglects his chores, or a skittish bride-to-be.  Wilder's message seems to be that we must cherish those seemingly insignificant little details of our day-to-day existence, as they both enrich us, and ultimately define us as individuals and as a society. Which is probably true, but I'm not sure how easily the MTV and X-Box generation may embrace the idea. There is, however, a more important component to this work, although it may have been secondary to Wilder. At one point the stage manager makes a significant observation:

Y’know—Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about ’em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts... and contracts for the sale of slaves. Yet every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney,—same as here. And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then.   So I’m going to have a copy of this play put in the cornerstone {of a building which will contain a time capsule} and the people a thousand years from now’ll know a few simple facts about us.

Posh big city audiences when this play premiered were already a generation removed from their own small town roots, and may have found it quaintly and charmingly nostalgic. We are now 101 years into the future from the setting of the first act, yet human nature hasn't changed much. Our Town enables us to see that. And if many of the show’s innovations have inspired countless iterations and variations in successive decades, it’s always nice to see how the concept became so popular.

Our Town runs Wednesday November 19 through Saturday, November 22 at LOngStreet Theatre on the USC campus.  All performances are at 8 PM, with an additional matinee at 3 PM on Saturday November 22.  Contact the box office at 777-2551, or visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/our-town-longstreet-theatre-nov-14-22 for more information. 



Town Theatre's White Christmas a Good One For the Old Folks

Review by August Krickel

There are probably two types of people in the world: those who hear that a local community theatre is producing a stage version of White Christmas and think "That sounds like fun - let's go!" and those who think that is the last thing they'd ever want to see. If you fall into the latter category, read no further, because this is a review of a family-friendly musical based on a 60-year old Bing Crosby film, that is running at Town Theatre just in time for the holidays. And for what it is, and what it sets out to accomplish, the production is quite enjoyable.

Officially billed as Irving Berlin's White Christmas, a more accurate title might be Backstage Romance (accompanied by some Irving Berlin songs including White Christmas.) While the movie, directed by Casablanca's Michael Curtiz and starring Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney (aunt of George) was a huge hit and the year's biggest-grosser when it premiered, the plot is a fairly by-the-numbers story of a couple of Broadway song-and-dance men, Bob and Phil, who become involved onstage and off with a sister act, Betty and Judy. Plot devices lead them to mount a show to save a struggling Vermont inn, with some musical numbers done as part of the show-within-the-show. Why is the inn struggling? It's an atypically warm winter, meaning no snow and no visitors, so I think we can all guess what everyone is wishing for as December 25th approaches. Original screenwriters Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank were among the top practitioners of their craft at the time, even if this may not be their best creation; the latter two worked on many of Crosby's "Road" comedies with Bob Hope, and would go on to write both the screenplay for Danny Kaye's Court Jester, and the book for the stage musical Lil' Abner.   The film incorporated a number of earlier Berlin hits - the title song, for example, won an Oscar when it was featured in 1942 in Holiday Inn - along with new compositions, and this stage adaptation, which debuted in 2004 with a book by David Ives (who wrote Venus in Fur, believe it or not!) and Paul Blake, similarly adds more unrelated songs from the vast playlist of Berlin hits. 

Of the four main characters, Abigail Ludwig as Betty is the standout; she's a tall, striking beauty, natural and confident, and always seems to be center stage even when she physically is off to one side. Celeste Mills as Judy, Scott Vaughan as Phil, and Frank Thompson as Bob turn in good work as well, with Vaughan and Mills getting some laughs in what starts as a waltz and turns into a sort of aggressive dance-off. Thompson and Ludwig created these same roles four years ago, and have a nice and easy rapport; he's a decent singer, if not exactly Bing Crosby (then again, who is?) but interestingly everyone in the show sounds even better vocally when harmonizing/dueting with him. Mills (with help from Vaughan) takes the spotlight in the show's biggest and liveliest production number, I Love a Piano, where she and the ensemble demonstrate some mad tap dancing skills. Don't recall that from the film?  It was actually a prior hit for Berlin from 1915, which shows you how deeply this production's creators dug into the composer's repertoire. 

Lindsay Harmon and Kristy O'Keefe are amusing as the Snookie and J-Woww of their day, tacky yet delectable showgirls whose advances on Phil they hope will similarly advance their careers. Kathy Hartzog turns up in her patented role as the feisty old battle-axe, the inn's concierge who just happens to have been a musical star in her youth. As I noted when I first saw her perform in 2011's The Drowsy Chaperone, Hartzog may not be the world's most accomplished soprano, but her irascible characters aren't supposed to be, and she can sell a song with characterization and enthusiasm as few others can. Her rendition of "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" is a rousing celebration of musical theatre, and it's even better when reprised by adorable Caroline Quinn, as the innkeeper's young granddaughter who discovers her own flair for performing.  (Ellen Rescigno will alternate in this role.) Another highlight is Vaughan and Thompson vamping it up in "Sisters," flirtatiously copying Mills and Ludwig's choreography move for move, down to the last shimmy and bat of the eyelash. Full disclosure: many in the cast are friends, former castmates, and/or long-time acquaintances of mine, including an old roommate from the 90's whom I first met in 4th grade, and who will love it if I say he makes a great cameo on stage as himself. Still, I feel sure he would confirm that I've never had a problem criticizing him – or anyone - about anything, meaning that I can say with some degree of professional impartiality that everyone does just fine, although in material that isn't particularly difficult.

Director/choreographer Shannon Willis Scruggs and musical director Sharon McElveen Altman establish a pleasant and leisurely pace throughout, although I both hope and expect that it will kick into overdrive as the run continues. While White Christmas isn't a zany screwball comedy, it could be played like one, with the right audience, especially if everyone has a nip or two of eggnog in advance.  (OK, I mean the audience, but possibly the cast as well.)  Some components of Danny Harrington's set design are as good as anything I've seen him create, especially a minimalist depiction of a barn that doubles as a playhouse. Detail isn't needed, and the suggestion of the setting allows us to pay more attention to the cast, plus we're able to see more freely a huge projected effect of a beautiful crescent moon just in time for a love song. Later in the play, when Ludwig sings alone in a club, all that's necessary is a silver curtain full of sparkles, and a perfectly aimed and focused spotlight. Some other settings, for a nightclub and for the interior of a train, seem unfinished, but are only seen once en route to more important scenes and locations.  Lori Stepp's costumes reflect the era appropriately - wider ties and baggy trousers for the gentlemen for example - and some whimsical get-ups for the Ed Sullivan Show are hilarious.

I mentioned initially that this is a decidedly family-friendly production. It is, however, faithful to the style of the 1950's, and I don't mean Elvis, I mean Bing Crosby. In other words, younger family members may or may not enjoy the clean-cut music and overall wholesome tone after watching Miley and Beyoncé. If the kids eagerly join in on family night to watch Turner Classic Movies, then by all means bring them along, but otherwise, this might work better as a treat for parents and grandparents' night out. The show runs through Sunday, December 7, but the schedule is tricky: there are performances this Thursday through Sunday (November 20-23) followed by performances on Friday the 28th and Sunday the 30th, but no Thursday (Thanksgiving) or Saturday.  And then a final Thursday through Sunday, December 4-7, and all those Sundays are 3 PM matinees. Better still, just visit http://towntheatre.com/white-christmas/ for details or call the box office at 799-2510.



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