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Now Playing:
"Rock of Ages," June 2 - July 1, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

"The Commedia Sleeping Beauty," June 10-18, Columbia Children's Theatre, 691-4548.



Upcoming:
"Sex On Sunday," July 7-15, Trustus Side Door Theatre, 254-9732.

"Beauty and the Beast, Jr.," July 23-30, Village Square Theatre, 359-1346.

"Madagascar - A Musical Adventure," July 28 - August 6, Chapin Theatre Company, 240-8544.

"Black Super Hero Magic Mama," August 4-12, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.





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“Sleeping Beauty” Proves Commedia dell' arte Is Alive and Well at Columbia Children's Theatre

Review by August Krickel.

Commedia dell' arte - which flourished as a madcap form of popular entertainment in Renaissance Europe - is alive and well and thriving in the Midlands. Continuing what has now become an annual summer tradition, Columbia Children's Theatre (CCT) presents their latest fairy tale done in the frenetic, irreverent commedia style, Jerry Stevenson's original Commedia Sleeping Beauty, directed by the author, and running through this weekend.

Commedia's importance to and influence on modern theatre and pop culture cannot be overstated. (Although if you're just looking for a recommendation on where to take your kids this weekend, and not a quick lesson on theatre history, skip ahead to the next paragraph.) The term obviously means "comedy of art," but I'll stretch that to imply "comedy of artistry," i.e. comedy deriving from the improv skills and talent of the cast and not solely from the pen of an author. The genre is a comedic ancestor of vaudeville, English pantomime, slapstick, burlesque, and aspects of circus clowning and Punch & Judy shows, and uses stock characters - the young beauty, the brassy broad, the clever rascal - to tell improv-heavy variations on familiar stories such as fairy tales; that makes it a natural for children's theatre, and two of CCT's previous commedia shows, Rapunzel and Cinderella, have gone on to be produced off-Broadway in New York, featuring two of the original Columbia cast. The visual legacy of commedia lives on in the traditional costumes and masks of Carnival and Mardi Gras, and it's not too much of stretch to see the diabolical yet colorful 1960's team of the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, and the Catwoman as modern incarnations of the clown Pulcinella, the trickster Arlecchino, the older man Pantalone, and the beauty Columbine. (Indeed, Suicide Squad's Harley Quinn is essentially a crazed Columbine in Arlecchino drag.)

As in previous CCT commedia epics, we meet five woebegone actors, played by Julian DeLeon, Paul Lindley II, Mary Miles, Charley Krawczyk (alternating with Noah Barker) and Kaitlyn Fuller (alternating with Frances Farrar Fields.) Most of the cast are familiar to CCT regular attendees, and most were featured in last year's Hansel and Gretel, and in Lindley's original musical Jack Frost the year before. Their chosen tale concerns a princess cursed at birth to fall into a coma on her 16th birthday due to the wrath of an evil fairy, but who will one day be awakened by a prince's kiss. All is well until our heroes realize that's only 5 minutes' worth of material, and must scramble to stretch out the storyline, forcing DeLeon to don corset and blonde wig to portray the teen Beauty since Miles and Fuller have to play the fairy and the queen respectively. The story then meanders from the child's christening, to her secluded childhood - her parents strive to protect her at all costs from her destiny - to her efforts to assert her individuality and freedom as she turns 16. Along the way she wanders off into the woods, hoping to find playful Disney woodland creatures, but ending up with a scroungy bat, goat and badger.   Highlights include DeLeon accurately capturing the giddiness of a teenage girl, the absurdity of the princess trying to have a sleepover with her only friends (i.e. the forest animals), and Miles doing straightforward menace as the villainess, whom they call Malfeasance and Malpractice so as to avoid any trademark infringement from a certain theme park hegemony (a running joke from previous years.)  Not every joke works - there's a new member of the troupe called Il Capitano, a legit commedia character descended from the braggart soldier of Roman farce, and if I told you that he has orange hair, declares his supremacy in all fields of endeavor, and constantly threatens to start tweeting, I think you'll get the target of the satire. But, like his real-life counterpart, his boasts quickly become tiresome. Similarly, the animal characters are amusing but definitely need to be developed in greater depth, and the denouement is more rushed than it needs to be.  But that's the beauty of commedia - the story and the jokes grow and evolve with every performance.

Here's the thing with that story though. Traditionally, there are two levels of comedy in these CCT summer shows: the surface plot and jokes aimed at the target audience, which is 7 or 8 and younger, and then an additional layer topical satire and pop culture references that goes over the tiny heads of the kids, but is appreciated by mom and dad. It's the same appeal that makes Bugs Bunny cartoons and Bullwinkle's Fractured Fairy Tales so popular to this day among kids of all ages.  But at the performance of Sleeping Beauty that I attended, I'd say there were 2-3 times as many adults and older children in attendance as there were tykes who were there solely for the fairy tale. Granted, I went to a Saturday evening performance, while families with small children had two earlier shows to choose from. And many of the middle-schoolers and teens in attendance were likely students in CCT's popular acting classes and/or cast members from their YouTheatre productions who were there to support Mr. Jerry, Mr. Paul, and Mr. Julian, just as plenty of the grownups were friends and relatives of the cast.

But all of that said, while I am convinced that the youngest of audience members loved all the crazy costumes, outrageous expressions, outlandish acrobatics, and funny voices, and surely had the theatrical time of their lives, most of the jokes were squarely aimed at, and appreciated by, their older counterparts. After a certain point, I began jotting down examples, which included references to stage plays like Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, Steel Magnolias, and Our Town, musicians including Britney Spears, Gene Simmons, Wham!, and Nickelback, celebrities such as Kevin Federline and Greta van Susteren, tech trends like e-vites and Groupons, and even 1960's allusions to acting teacher Uta Hagen, the song "What's It All About, Alfie," and a Virginia Slims commercial. My friends - it was not the 6-year-olds, nor even the 26-year-olds, who were laughing at "you've come a long way, baby."  What I think I witnessed was the moment where a children's theatre show actually became a commedia dell'arte show.  And that's a pretty impressive feat that one isn't likely to see otherwise, at least not without the employment of Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine.  And while that doesn't necessarily mean you should rush out to see a children's play on your own if you're not a parent, it does mean that you should beg, borrow or steal your favorite niece, nephew, grandchild or neighbor's kid for a quick hour of fun entertainment for one and all.  Important note: during CCT's move into their new space in Richland Mall, all performances are being held just around the corner at the First Christian Church, located across from Casa Linda at 2062 Beltline Blvd.  Visit http://www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com/the-commedia-sleeping-beauty/ or call (803) 691-4548 for ticket information.

 

 

C'mon Feel the Noise as Trustus Theatre's Rock of Ages Flashes Back to Hair-Metal's Heyday

Review by August Krickel

As the lights come up on Trustus Theatre's new production of the jukebox musical Rock of Ages, you'll probably find yourself in '82 - the disco hot spots hold no charm for you. You can't concern yourself with bigger things - you catch the pearl and ride the dragon's wings.  And if you're now tapping your toes and banging your head to the band Asia's 1982 hit "Heat of the Moment," then pop your favorite 80's mix tape into your Walkman, grab a four-pack of wine coolers, and enjoy the guilty pleasure of the glamour and excess of Hollywood's Sunset Strip during the heyday of hair-metal bands and power ballads.

Let's get the obvious out of the way. Yes, Rock of Ages was a consciously commercial contrivance, primarily designed to sell tickets by playing on the nostalgia of Gen-Xers who came of age during the first decade of the MTV era.  Beginning as a novelty in one of the Hollywood clubs whose ambience it recreates, the musical moved to New York and ran for more than 2300 performances, garnering 5 Tony nominations.  And yes, over the last decade, a name-brand musical with broad popular appeal has been a staple of the Trustus season roster, and a dependable revenue-generator in the summer, enabling the theater to present lesser-known titles and original works throughout the year.   That tradition actually dates back to the summer of 1987, when in their second season, Trustus presented Ain’t Misbehavin’, a revue featuring the songs of Fats Waller.  Trustus being Trustus, however, recent choices have often reflected the organization's commitment to diversity (Smoky Joe's Cafe and a revival of Ain’t Misbehavin’ which featured primarily African-American casts), rebellion (Green Day's punk rock epic American Idiot and the original protest musical Hair), pansexuality (Avenue Q, Rocky Horror), and R-rated campiness (Evil Dead the Musical.)  Rock of Ages similarly concerns ostensibly controversial topics – sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, although only the type that’s found in the music videos of the era - as well as fighting the power, and sticking it to the man. For me, the principal enjoyment came from the chance to see some favorite performers rock out to some familiar tunes.

The show's storyline (wait, there's a story?  surprisingly, yes) follows a traditional if clichéd love story between Sherrie (Katie Leitner), a small town girl, living in a lonely world, and Drew (Rory Gilbert), a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit. (Cue the relevant song from Journey.) They work as bar back and waitress respectively at the fictional Bourbon Room, an analogue for (in)famous LA rock clubs like the Whiskey a Go Go and the Roxy. Naturally, he wants to ROCK!  (cue the relevant Twisted Sister song) but he's enticed into joining a boy band, while Sherrie, an aspiring actress, ends up working as a stripper.  Their romance plays out against the backdrop of evil German developers (Cody Lovell and Matthew Phenix) trying to redevelop the iconic Strip into strip malls.  It’s a plot straight out of Scooby Doo, and they'd have gotten away with it too if it weren't for those durn kids, led by city planner Regina (Kayla Cahill) with neo-hippie fervor and idealism. Leitner and Gilbert play their parts with naturalism, while everyone else chews the scenery with abandon, especially Chad Henderson as the club's owner, Michael Hazin as the narrator and ringmaster for the proceedings, and Jason Stokes as a Steven Tyler/Bret Michaels-like rock star who's about to crash and burn. It's a small cast of only 16, half of whom play main characters, while the others double/triple as rockers, strippers, and groupies. Music director Christopher Cockrell on keyboards leads a 5-piece band on stage, and the musicians proficiently careen though 30+ hits from assorted artists, ranging from Whitesnake to Poison to David Lee Roth. Some fit naturally into the plot, such as Europe's "Final Countdown," which recurs when the Bourbon Room's demise seems imminent; some are shoe-horned into new contexts, such as Extreme's "More Than Words," which becomes Sherrie's song about her family. Many are condensed into only a verse or two plus the chorus, and some become part of clever mashups, such as Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You" and Asia's "Heat of the Moment," which together depict Sherrie's adventures at the strip club. Foreigner's "Waiting for a Girl Like You" is a nice opportunity for a love duet between Leitner and Gilbert, while Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" gives Stokes the chance to flamboyantly preen and strut his stuff across stage.  Everyone is in fine vocal form, and Monessa Salley's choreography complements the omnipresent vibe and milieu of music videos, right down to the perfectly-timed hand claps on Styx's "Too Much Time On My Hands." Fans of Leitner's rich, often operatic voice are in for a treat on her numbers, and while she's as beautiful as one might expect in the strip-club scenes, somehow she manages to convey vulnerability and pathos more than eroticism, which is no mean feat when you're clad only in a bikini and fishnets. 

I can't recall a time when director Dewey Scott-Wiley has allowed a cast to have this much fun on stage; wisely she has turned some great performers loose and told them to have a blast while holding nothing back.  Chad Henderson's set recalls his design for 2015's Godspell, incorporating fluorescent bars of color and the interior clutter of old concert posters and graffiti that wouldn't have been out of place in old Columbia clubs like Rockafella's. And Cockrell and his cohorts do a terrific job at recreating the guitar arpeggios and soaring - some might say bloated - synthesizer chords that we recall from so many of these pop hits.

It would be all too easy to dismiss Rock of Ages as disposable ear candy, or to slam a sub-genre of music that may never have achieved the same musical street-cred of punk rock, folk music, jam rock, or hip-hop.  And many of us have our own 80's playlist already queued up in our heads - mine would feature the work of the B-52's, the Talking Heads, the Go-Gos, and REM, while I'm sure others would prefer the songs of Prince and Michael Jackson. Yet however slick and extravagant the videos and concerts of most of the bands represented here may have been, and however many hundreds of millions of dollars their managers and producers may have made, most of the artists were once kids struggling to learn chords in their basement or bedroom, dreaming of making it onto the airwaves one day. Trustus has homaged the music of a number of eras as an annual treat for their audience, and this year, it's arena rock's turn. Whatever one's musical preferences, this is still a great chance to see some great singers hitting some great high notes on some songs you probably know by heart. So c'mon, feel the noise, girls rock your boys, and we'll all get wild, wild, wild. Rock of Ages runs through July 1; visit www.trustus.org for ticket information.

 


 



 
 

  










 
 
 










 

 




 
 

 
 

 










 
 


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