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Now Playing:
"Evil Dead: The Musical," June 20 - July 26, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

"The Hallelujah Girls," June 27 - July 13, Chapin Theatre Company, 240-8544.

"Peter Pan," July 18 - August 2, Town Theatre, 799-2510.

"The Magical Land of Oz," August 1-10, Chapin Theatre Junior Company, 240-8544.

"The Velvet Weapon," August 8-16, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

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Chapin Theatre Company Keeps the Southern Humor Coming With “The Hallelujah Girls”

Review by James Harley

While not one-dimensional by any means, the Chapin Theatre Company has found its niche, recently producing a number of successful comedies designed to simultaneously mock and celebrate southern culture. A good fit for a rural-based theatre on the outskirts of town, the company continues that streak with the comedy “The Hallelujah Girls” by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten (Dearly Beloved, Christmas Belles, Southern Hospitality) under the direction of Jessica Fichter.

Set in a small town in Georgia, “The Hallelujah Girls” tells the story of six local women as they navigate their various late-life crises. Sugar Lee Thompkins has purchased an old church and is transforming it into a day spa but is not sure she will succeed given the town’s small population. To make matters worse her ownership is challenged by the town’s “old money” in the form of Bunny Sutherland, a smug and pompous sociopath who wants to use the building to create a museum for her own aggrandizement.

Sugar Lee’s friends (and Bunny’s enemies) include Carlene Travis, the “black widow of Eden Falls” who has buried three husbands already and is uncertain of her ability to attract another given this record. Also on the friends list are Nita Mooney, the single mother of a vagrant son who lives at home challenging her sanity, Mavis Flowers, a longtime wife equally challenged by her indifferent husband, and Crystal Hart, a creative goofball whose mind only seems to get younger as she ages. Brought together by the death of a mutual friend, these ladies meet regularly at the spa, sharing their dreams and realities as they watch their lives pass by.

It takes less than a minute to establish the comedic tone of the production as all of these characters are classic southern stereotypes with the accompanying drawl, and the laughs increase with nearly every entrance, timed to create both situational and visual humor. In some cases this is mild, in others way over the top (in a good way), particularly when Crystal (played by Debi Young) takes the stage in one of her many holiday-inspired costumes. Indeed, costumer Sandy Steffen (who also plays the role of Mavis) deserves mention not just for the obvious, but for the small details such as Nita’s various jingling jewelry that contributes to her characterization. Of course, Steffen’s dual responsibilities also make one wonder if those leopard spotted tights actually came from her own wardrobe…

Standing out among the cast is Tracy Rice as Nita, who earns the affection and support of the audience in her battle with her son. Meesh Hays does an admirable job as Sugar Lee given the demands of the role and the fact that it is her stage debut. Gayle Stewart as Carlene broadcasts her stereotype in stereo and Steffen’s comic timing is strong, almost making the show seem like a stand up comedy routine at times. But the highest honors go to Tiffany Dinsmore as Bunny, the rich vulture seeking to prey on the rest. Dinsmore displays the appropriate egomaniacal swagger, making one wish suffering upon her more and more with each appearance. Interestingly, her real-life husband George Dinsmore plays the role of Bobby Dwayne, Sugar Lee’s long lost love, adding a bit of extra outside humor to Bunny’s effort to jealously destroy Sugar Lee’s dream.

George Dinsmore is a bit restrained as Bobby Dwayne relative to the other characterizations, but the same cannot be said of the cast’s other male member, Jeff Sigley, who goes all out and earns some of the night’s biggest laughs as the postman pursuing Carlene’s affection.

Visually the show plays up the appearance of the characters primarily, with a basic set (designed and constructed by Matt Pound) that is neither exceptionally good nor bad, but which handles all of its essential duties.

So, who would most enjoy “The Hallelujah Girls”? As most of the comedy relates to issues of age, the show is likely best appreciated by the older crowd, which was in fact quite vocal in its opening night approval with multiple bursts of spontaneous laughter and mid-scene applause. However, its high comic content makes it fun for anyone into the genre (or with aging parents). Is it an outstanding production? I would characterize it as fairly typical of the Chapin Theatre Company’s offerings on the whole, but again, strong enough on the humor to be worthy on that front alone. I would also recommend taking a long sleeve top with you, as the Harbison Theatre can get quite cold.

“The Hallelujah Girls” runs through July 13 at the Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College. For ticketing information visit our Press Release page or call 240-8544.


Trustus Theatre's Evil Dead: The Musical Is An Amusing Alternative to Traditional Stage Musicals

Review by August Krickel

Known for cutting edge productions and controversial themes, Trustus Theatre often turns to broader crowd-pleasers in the summer: revues of pop hits (Smokey Joe's Cafe, Ain't Misbehavin'), Tony-winners (Avenue Q), and cult favorites (The Rocky Horror Show.) Evil Dead: The Musical falls squarely into that last category, spoofing and homaging Sam Raimi's famous film trilogy. While the special effects are decidedly low-tech, the humor low-brow, and the bloodshed intentionally hokey, audiences ready to experience campy carnage set to bouncy music won't be disappointed.

No knowledge of the films is necessary. As explained in song, five college students head to an isolated cabin in the woods, and no one knows where they are; what could possibly go wrong?  There they accidentally unleash an arcane force of evil, which can animate everything from the surrounding trees to severed body parts, and possess humans before and after death. The first act follows the plot of the original movie, while the second act reflects the many years that passed until the sequel, in which hero Ash is decidedly older, cockier and more assertive. Random lines that mysteriously inspire wild applause from the audience stem from the third film, which was more of a comedy. Even plot inconsistencies in rookie screenwriter/director Raimi's story - he was barely 20 when shooting began - are replicated on stage, and mined for maximum comic effect.

As Ash, Michael Hazin looks and sounds the part. His struggle with his possessed hand is a triumphant display of physical comedy. Patrick Dodds plays best friend Scotty as a bit of a tool, leading to plenty of good one-liners. Elisabeth Baker is appropriately adorable as girlfriend Linda, while Abigail Ludwig, as Scotty's one-week stand Shelly, plays the quintessential sexy bimbo. Jodie Cain Smith has the biggest challenge, singing in character as Ash's nerdy sister Cheryl, then using a deeper, snarlier rasp to depict possessed Cheryl. Matthew DeGuire is backwoods bumpkin Jake, with Amy Brower as scholar Annie, and Trey Lawson as her overlooked boyfriend. Everyone is well-cast, with Brower taking top honors for most successfully embracing the over-the-top goofiness of the production.  Her every move is stylized, and her every line more dramatic than necessary. When characters recoil in fear from assorted demonic happenings, she manages to strike sultry poses reminiscent of Frank Frazetta illustrations, and as the mayhem continues, her costume conveniently rips to become more revealing.

George Reinblatt's script and lyrics are wickedly witty, and his eclectic score reflects his collaboration with three other composers. Some songs channel the doo-wop sounds of the early 60's, others are contemporary rock or Broadway-style pop, while at least one contains echoes of the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen. Dodds and Hazin are up to this challenge, using strong operatic tones and melodramatic choreography as they sing the incongruous lyrics: "What darkness lurks beyond this wooden sanctum? What the f**k was that?"   Most numbers are vocally more challenging than one might expect, and musical director Randy Moore elicits a rich and appealing sound from his cast. Director Chad Henderson incorporates parodies of types of stage delivery and choreography that channel the inexperience found in the first film. Jeremy Polley’s sound design is filled with convincing shotgun blasts, chainsaw hums, and spectral voices. Baxter Engle contributes some spooky projections, and his set, co-designed with Brandon McIver, incorporates a steeply inclined rake, recalling Raimi's disorienting camera angles. Emily Deck Harrill is credited as "run crew," meaning that her assistance is vital for most of the special effects and transformations from human to demon.  Mirroring the B-movie roots and budget of the source material, most of these effects are ridiculously cheesy, but that's part of the fun. Just don't expect much beyond high school level quality.  While the visuals are purposefully unrealistic, I felt there could have been more grace with much of the fight blocking and choreography, which seemed awkward at times, especially with exits following lethal blasts and blows; fortunately, issues like these usually resolve themselves over the run of a show.

Bodies are dismembered by chainsaws, and stage blood squirts and splatters freely (although not as much into the designated "Splatter Zone" as you might expect), but the violence is so absurd that only the most prudish could find offense. The infectious score is surprisingly pretty, and the talented performers will have your feet tapping early on. Hardcore fans of the movies will flock to every performance to make their Evil Dead experience complete, while others should simply be forewarned as to the nature of this type of parody. Designed as an ode to fanboys and the schlocky shtick they love, Evil Dead: The Musical is an affectionate yet irreverent tribute to its cinematic source, and an amusing alternative to traditional stage musicals. 












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