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"Marvin's Room" at Chapin Theatre Company

"Willy Wonka Jr." at Village Square Theatre

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Now Playing:
"My Fair Lady," September 9-25, Town Theatre, 799-2510.

"Tail! Spin!" September 9-17, Trustus Side Door Theatre, 254-9732.

"The Hound of the Baskervilles," September 9-18, Chapin Theatre Company, 240-8544.

"Duck for President," September 16-25, Columbia Children's Theatre.

"The Music Man," September 23 - October 9, Village Square Theatre, 359-1436.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream," September 30 - October 8, USC Drayton Hall, 777-5208.

"Big, the Musical," September 30 - October 9, On Stage Productions, 351-6751.

"Grounded," October 7-12, USC Lab Theatre,

"The Rocky Horror Show," October 7 - November 5, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

"Ain't Misbehavin'," October 20-30, Sumter Little Theatre, 775-2150.

"Cosi," November 11-19, USC Longstreet Theatre, 777-5208.

"Almost, Maine," November 17-20, USC Lab Theatre, 777-5208.

"A Christmas Carol, the Musical," December 1-18, Town Theatre, 799-2510.

"A Christmas Story," December 1-11, Sumter Little Theatre, 775-2150.

"'Twas the Night...," December 2-10, On Stage Productions, 351-6751.

"Deck the Halls With Chardonnay," December 2-11, Chapin Theatre Company, 240-8544.

"The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical," December 2-17, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

"You Can't Take it With You," January 20 - February 5, Town Theatre, 799-2510.

" Boy," January 13-21, Trustus Side Door Theatre, 254-9732.

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Holmes and Watson Are On the Case in Chapin Theatre Company's Hound of the Baskervilles

Review by August Krickel

The game is afoot at the Harbison Theatre, where Sherlock Holmes (George Dinsmore) and Dr. Watson (Frank Thompson) are hot on the trail of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a fearsome legendary beast in rural southwestern England that may not be so mythical after all. The lord of the local manor has succumbed to a fatal heart attack; yet found near his body were - in the words that fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1902 thriller invariably recall as italicized even though they weren't - the footprints of a gigantic hound!  Director Glenn Farr and the Chapin Theatre Company have assembled a capable cast and crew to bring this classic tale of murder and suspense to the stage in the regional premiere of new adaptation that debuted just three years ago at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Doyle had killed off his famous detective almost a decade earlier, but relented to popular demand and brought him back for this novel, explaining that it took place several years prior; absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that, combined with the atypical addition of a supernatural component, made this one of the most popular of the Holmes stories. Playwrights David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright remain fairly (but not entirely) faithful to the original, but fleshing out the personalities of the supporting cast of victims and suspects. The new Baskerville heir, Sir Henry (Tanner McLeod) for example is now more of a man of action, and a veteran of cattle wrangling and mountain lion hunting in the wilds of Alberta. The female characters too, even faithful housekeeper Mrs. Hudson (Cathy Carter Scott), are depicted as more than stock roles. A few locations are reworked to fit better with the limitations of live performance, but the dangers of the moor (i.e. rocky wilderness alternating with swampland) surrounding Baskerville Hall remain as intimidating as ever.

Full disclosure: I've known the director and the two leads for years, and have done shows with all three. Moreover, I'm a huge fan of the Holmes stories, saw a re-release of the 1939 Basil Rathbone film at the pre-Nickelodeon Fox Theatre when I was in high school, and even performed in a readers' theatre version of Hound in the late '80s.  We all picture beloved literary figures differently, and Dinsmore definitely has the angular features one expects. His portrayal is reminiscent of Robert Downey, Jr.'s recent big-screen characterization: a little scruffy, a little eccentric, somewhat soft-spoken, but nevertheless brilliant. The script thankfully allows Watson to be Doyle's resourceful ex-Army doctor and not the befuddled bumbler so often depicted, and Thompson contributes his customary good-natured heartiness and bluster. Nathan Dawson does excellent character work as local naturalist Stapleton. Still, at some level I'm imagining what additional heights might have been reached had Thompson lent his crisp diction and unfaltering projection to the role of Holmes, with Dawson's pleasant, intellectual demeanor shifted to Watson, leaving Dinsmore to dive into Stapleton's flamboyant quirks. (Is there a fantasy league for play casting?)

Other standouts in the cast include Emily Meadows as Beryl Stapleton, who manages simultaneously to convey damsel-in-distress and femme fatale, and Cathy Carter Scott who doubles as the Baskerville housekeeper, Mrs. Barrymore, and imbues her with a credibly tragic tone implied but never detailed in Doyle's novel. That doubling is an issue, however. The nature of the story requires almost every actor to pull double and triple duty as assorted servants, train conductors, and London pedestrians, yet much of the central mystery involves people mistaken for or pretending to be someone or something else. I wish there had been clearer distinction between instances when an actor in a new hat, wig, or costume represents a character attempting a disguise, and when we're seeing a traditional convention of the stage.

Director Farr proved to be a master of intricate blocking in last fall's Noises Off, and demonstrates a similar flair here. Actions spills out onto Baker Street and eventually into the foggy and foreboding moor, and Farr uses not only the stage but also the floor area in front of the audience, and even the steep stairwells for scenes of pursuit. Timing is crucial, so that a fugitive can interact with passersby, then exit just ahead of an entrance by Holmes and Watson from another part of the theatre. It all flows quite smoothly and naturally. Performers are similarly and effectively choreographed in a cocktail party scene there the only props on stage are a fireplace, an armchair, a sideboard/bar unit, and a few portraits on the wall. Nevertheless, movement is never stagnant, and each actor has clear motivation for every cross and counter, e.g. refilling a drink, welcoming a third person into a conversation, turning away for solitude, etc. 

To replicate fully the cluttered confines of Holmes's Victorian bachelor pad, stately Baskerville Hall, and the rocky outcroppings and murky depths of the ominous wasteland nearby - not to mention a spectral hound from Hell - would have taken a small army and the budget of a small nation. Designer Matt "Ezra" Pound instead goes for a bare stage with only a few necessary props, accomplishing the rest via excellent projections. Most are black-and-white images of relevant exteriors that are quite striking, while a few proficiently signify Gothic arches and eerie moonlit windows. Pound designed sound and lighting as well, including a neat animated effect representing fog. I can't imagine anyone pulling off this script any better with such a minimalist design and budget, and I really, really liked those projections. However, the Harbison stage is awfully big, and the raked, stadium-style seating allows the audience complete view of everything, meaning that there's little opportunity to fool the eye. However enthusiastically the cast threw themselves into the proceedings, I was never quite able to forget that I was watching actors run up and down stairs in a modern theatre, or that they were treading lightly on an imaginary path in a pretend swamp. I'm just not sure this was the best material for this space. It's no spoiler to reveal that someone will die (the play starts off with a murder, after all), someone will be shot at, someone will be menaced by the Hound, and someone will encounter the natural dangers of the swamp. Farr has devised an inventive, "practical" special effect for one of those, one of the best I've ever seen in fact, but at the matinee I attended, several older ladies behind me had no clue what they had just witnessed, and at plays' end were still trying to figure out what that effect represented.   Overall, it's not a huge problem though.  It just means that the strength of the play lies in Masterpiece Theatre-style dialogue and acting, and not in thrills and chills one might find in a Hammer horror film. That said, some silent moments with an escaped mass murderer, and some mood music composed by J.S. Lee are both are pretty creepy.

What?  There's an escaped killer? Oh yes - there are many layers and levels and red herrings to be found in Doyle's story, and don't expect the authors to follow its denouement precisely. Enthusiasts of the novel and of the Holmes stories in general will appreciate it all, and Chapin Theatre Company’s entry into the Sherlockian canon is a welcome one. As Vincent Starrett wrote of the enduring appeal of Holmes and Watson, “Here, though the world explode, these two survive/And it is always eighteen ninety-five.”  The Hound of the Baskervilles returns on Thursday, Sept. 15, for four more performances, closing with a matinee on Sunday, Sept. 18. For ticket information, visit http://www.chapintheatre.org/2016/hound-of-the-baskervilles.html, or call (803)240-8544.

Tail! Spin! Is a Timely Send-Up of Political Sex Scandals

Review by August Krickel

Some stories write themselves. Playwright Mario Correa has taken that to the extreme with Tail! Spin!, running through this weekend in the Side Door Theatre at Trustus. The cleverly punctuated title signifies both the attempts of politicians to "spin" news reports of their sexual indiscretions, and the downward spiral into which their careers usually descend.  Taken entirely from the public record - speeches, interviews, depositions, evens texts and tweets - Correa's script explores the details of four recent and particularly notorious scandals: Idaho Senator Larry Craig's foot-tapping encounter with an undercover officer in an airport men's room; New York Congressman Anthony Weiner's sexting escapades; Florida Congressman Mark Foley's online advances to underage male pages; and our very own Mark Sanford - credited with those very words on the cover of the program - who abandoned the fall lines of the Appalachian Trail for the tan lines of his Argentinian girlfriend. Four male actors portray these politicos as well as dozens of reporters, colleagues and associates with whom they interact, while one female actor, Ellen Rodillo-Fowler, fills in as all of the women in their lives. Under the capable and precise direction of Jason Stokes, maximum humor is wrung from lines that were originally intended to convey sincerity and conviction.

The quartet of disgraced legislators enter as if at a celebratory rally, shaking hands, smiling for unseen cameras, and waving to supporters spotted from afar. No one goes for an imitation, physically or vocally, of the four principal figures. Kevin Bush as Foley comes the closest to making one feel sorry for him, if briefly, as he delivers the obligatory mea culpa speech, and he gets plenty of laughs in other roles, including a just-the-facts cop, an unenthusiastic commercial announcer for Weiner's mayoral campaign, and even a couple of brief appearances as Stephen Colbert, greeting his "Nation." Stann Gwynn as Craig is perhaps the best at capturing the contrived gravitas of denial; Gwynne particularly impressed me with the delivery of a few lines as an unnamed aide to Mark Sanford, using an instantly recognizable accent that implies an educated South Carolinian professional, yet completely different from his own voice. Clint Poston is appropriately long-winded and insufferable as the love-struck Sanford, mooning over his soulmate in love letters worthy of a 12-year-old. Joseph Eisenreich gets the raunchiest material, recreating the worst of Weiner's messages to assorted women, and then shifting to play the teen recipient of similar messages from Foley; the actor uses his own youth to his advantage, nicely depicting the confusion of a teen in such a situation. Rodillo-Fowler demonstrates once again her versatility, employing a splendid array of accents ranging from trailer trash to Latin to brassy New Yorker. As Huma Abedin, her tone becomes increasingly bitter even as she defends her husband; as Hillary Clinton, she adopts a harsher and prophetically hoarser tone as she stands by her man. Her best moments come as she recreates the unique elocution of Barbara Walters, simultaneously playing interviewee Jenny Sanford.

Each public figure's episode plays out from start to finish in turn, resulting the equivalent of four 15-20 minute comedy sketches, for a total run time of only 90 minutes, including intermission. I do feel that intermission is important, however, as it allows for socializing among audience members over a drink or two, which is an important part of the Trustus experience. Costumer Amy Brower Lown has provided one formal, business-like suit for each actor, and each is quite elegant and appropriate for the character. Projected images - including logos of news programs that indicate where each character is appearing, and captions explaining a particular circumstance - are important to the plot, and work perfectly as designed by director Stokes. Much of the play's humor derives from juxtaposition of unrelated quotes for comedic effect and double entendre; innocuous speeches referring to eating a hot dog, or applying lotion for proper skin care, take on decidedly different undertones when woven into a narrative of carnal misconduct. Split-second timing is therefore essential, since so many of the lines are seemingly non-sequiturs, and Stokes has ensured that his cast carries these off with ease. His blocking is similarly excellent, allowing the actors to move naturally, and never seem limited by the tight confines of the Side Door (a 50-seat black box.)

Ultimately, the humor of Tail! Spin! is analogous to an excellent skit on Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show. Yet I feel the author's brilliance lies in how he technically didn't write a single word of his own, but rather assembled and edited actual transcripts from these lawmakers' misadventures, managing to create hilarious satire where none was intended. My only words of caution are that conservative theater-goers may not care for the often X-rated dialogue (mainly in the Weiner scenes) and that three of the four characters are Republicans; there's not any overt political agenda here, apart from the notion that all politicians are lying scumbags, but if one isn't prepared to accept that going in, this may not be the ideal choice. Tail! Spin! returns to the Richard and Debbie Cohn Side Door Stage at Trustus Theatre for Four more performances, Wednesday, Sept. 14 through Sat. Sept. 17; for ticket information, visit http://www.trustus.org, or call the box office at 803-254-9732.
My Fair Lady Hits All The Right Notes to Open Town Theatre's 98th Season

Review by August Krickel

My Fair Lady might be the greatest musical comedy ever written.  It was certainly one of the most successful, setting a record with 2,717 performances in its first Broadway run, winning six Tony Awards (out of ten nominations) and inspiring a film which won eight Oscars. Subsequent revivals over the decades usually garner awards as well. It helps to have been based on perhaps the greatest work by Nobel laureate George Bernard Shaw, whose play Pygmalion (and the screenplay for its film adaptation) provided the inspiration for Alan Jay Lerner’s book and lyrics, set to Frederick Loewe’s music. Town Theatre opens its 98th season with this classic, which features soaring vocals from the leads and lively ensemble numbers.

Full disclosure:  I’ve always loved this material. The Rex Harrison-Audrey Hepburn film was probably the first live-action musical I ever saw on screen. I dug up scenes from Pygmalion to perform in high school drama class (even if this was a ruse to get out of the regularly assigned lesson plan for the day.) I was part of the committee that chose MFL as Town Theatre's 500th show kicking off its 70th season in 1989, and to my surprise, ended up improbably playing Alfie Doolittle in that very production. Additionally the current cast includes a number of friends, former classmates, former roommates, and former castmates, including one from that same 1989 production. (Insert shock-face emoji here.) Would that make me more inclined to automatically like this production? Or might my familiarity make me vastly more critical and judgmental? Going in, I wasn't sure, but hoped that those might cancel each other out. I'll report, you decide.

Language and phonetics expert Henry Higgins (Jeremy Hansard) and linguist Col. Pickering (Bill DeWitt) make a friendly wager, to see if Higgins can teach a yowling Cockney guttersnipe - defined as "a scruffy and badly behaved child who spends most of their time on the street, or a person of the lowest moral or economic station" - how to speak properly. Higgins is convinced that Eliza (Kerri Roberts) has the potential to be passed off as a lady, after she takes the initiative to seek elocution lessons as a way of moving from selling flowers on the streets to perhaps working the counter in an actual shop. Higgins is a cranky bachelor with an upper-class pedigree; that, combined with wealth and education, means he has no qualms about treating anyone dismissively. As he instructs Eliza in speech, Higgins inadvertently (or subconsciously?) imparts his independence and self-confidence, thus creating the one woman with whom he might interact as an equal. The only problem?  His creation doesn't like being treated as a creation.

Some may see Higgins's famous tirades against women as misogynistic, which was the prevalent sentiment of the era - Pygmalion debuted just a few years before women in England won the right to vote. Yet original playwright Shaw is often considered an early feminist and socialist - in other words, he didn't invent this plot or its themes randomly just for laughs, even if the dialogue, large chunks of which Lerner incorporated, unaltered, into the book for MFL, zips back and forth as wittily as any episode of Friends or Sex and the City. Higgins maintains he shall never let a woman in his life.... meaning he almost certainly has in the past, with disastrous results. He fumes that a woman should act and think more like a man - yet lets slip that he really means she should act and think more like him. Eliza is in her 20's, yet clearly has avoided relationships, presumably holding out for someone to respect her. She concludes that beyond diction, "the difference between a lady and a flower girl isn't how she behaves...but how she is treated."  Can these two crazy kids overcome self-created barriers and get together?  The answer isn't as easy or obvious as one might expect.

Hansard is an excellent singer and a decent actor, if not a particularly subtle one, and navigates tricky lyrics and stretches of songs where the words must be spoken in time to the accompaniment with ease. DeWitt is a natural for the scholarly/military/gentlemanly Pickering. Will Moreau plays Eliza's rascally father Alfie with an impish twinkle in his eye and a skip in his step, channeling the traditions of music halls of the era as he plays to the crowd in "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me To The Church On Time."  Alfie is a sporadically employed garbageman and full-time grifter with hopes of extorting five pounds from Higgins, who he assumes has installed Eliza as a kept woman. Alfie's scenes are played for the broadest comedic effect, but they contain some of Shaw's sharpest satire. MFL is a long show, and director Allison McNeely has trimmed down some 20-30 minutes of exposition. I understand why this was necessary, but the result gives some scenes an almost cartoon-like quality, advancing the plot apace but with few of its details or nuances. Accordingly, we miss the some of the natural development of the attraction between Higgins and Eliza, and much of Alfie's railing against "middle class morality." Some of his lines could be just as hilarious - and controversial - today as they were a century ago, as when Alfie declares himself an undeserving man whose need for food and drink - especially drink - "is as great as the most deserving widows that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband."  

Lerner's adaptation of Shaw's brilliant text notwithstanding, MFL is simply a beautiful show to listen to, with seven or eight standards contained within Loewe's score, including "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" and "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face." Although vocal arrangements and orchestrations seem somewhat simplified - again, perhaps for time's sake - the overall vocal performance by both leads and ensemble is just outstanding. If you are fond of the score, there's a strong chance that Roberts and Jeremy Reasoner (as Eliza's would-be beau Freddie) will bring tears to your eyes with the beauty of their respective renditions of "I Could Have Danced All Night," and "On the Street Where You Live." The latter performer recreates the giddiness of young love he perfected so well last year as the lead in Singin' in the Rain, and I think approximately 150 older ladies in the audience were holding their hands to their hearts as he hit his final high note on opening night. I've left leading lady Kerri Roberts for last because... just... wow. The production's publicity photos don't do her pretty features justice, and her acting is right up there with her singing, which is just incredible. As the second act opens jubilantly with "You Did It," her silence and the wounded expression in her eyes (while Higgins and Pickering rejoice as if she's a prize-winning trained pet) speak volumes. The British accents come and go throughout the cast, although at worst they soften into a mid-Atlantic sound, but Roberts is consistent, first as a shrill Cockney and then as the assertive lady she becomes. Her bio notes that two years ago she played Mary Poppins, another iconic role for Julie Andrews, Broadway’s original Eliza. As far as I'm concerned, she can keep moving right on through the Andrews canon, and since Hansard can do authority, Reasoner can play romantic, and Moreau has quirkiness down pat, there's your Guinevere, Arthur, Lancelot and Pellinore anytime anyone is ready for Camelot

MFL is also an elaborate show to design, and Danny Harrington's set makes some smart and effective compromises. The library-like interior of the posh Higgins home is two stories, with a circular staircase and upper-level balcony, but much of the intricate woodwork and the hundreds of books are actually two-dimensional, created with paint. A few crucial props and elegant furniture items make for a cozy parlor area, while most of the other scene locations are accomplished by elaborate painted drops that descend and rise as needed. This reduces the available space downstage significantly, and means that while elegant, these settings - the ballroom of an embassy, the exterior of the Covent Garden Opera House, the opulent Ascot Racecourse - require just a little suspension of disbelief, as they are not completely three-dimensional.  But I feel this was necessary for the very smoothly handled and timely scene changes and transitions. Janet Kile’s costumes are nice, especially for the all-black-and-white color scheme of the Ascot.  MFL isn't a dance-heavy show, but choreographer Joy Alexander moves people around the stage with proficiency; as a result, people in crowd scenes seem to be breaking into dance naturally as they would at some rowdy county fair when music begins, and lowly flower vendors and street sweepers don't magically turn into ballerinas or break-dancers. Musical director Gloria Wright lets Reasoner and Roberts do what they do best, as detailed above, which is enough. But she also makes sure that several memorable moments of harmony work correctly - a Cockney quartet that backs up first Eliza and then Alfie, and a couple of chambermaids who try to put Eliza to bed when she'd rather be dancing - and singing - all night. Wright also leads four other musicians and plays keyboard, utilizing a lot of appealing synthesized string effects. The accompaniment includes flute and trumpet, which give a decidedly lush and orchestral sound to many numbers, although I'd have been just as happy had bass and drums been switched for, say, a second keyboard, a cello and a bassoon.

As above, My Fair Lady is a long show: the first act finishes around 9:35 PM (so 4:35 PM on a matinee) meaning that the second act doesn’t take off until almost 10 PM, and it’s a full second act. Efforts to contend with the length result in the loss of a little of the show’s eloquence and subtlety, and tech, music, and dance all seem a little pared down too.  Yet it’s fun to watch, it’s funny and touching and sweet, and there’s some very complex social commentary going on. And oh my word can those kids sing.   My Fair Lady runs through Sunday, Sept. 25th; call 803-799-2510 or visit www.towntheatre.com for ticket information.





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