Birmingham Festival Theatre Reviews Archive



Please, if you have an addition or comment, send it to me theatre@eBHM.org


Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo

Directed by Mel Christian

January 12-28, 2012 at the Birmingham Festival Theatre

Reviewed by Leonard Jowers

 

Let’s start by letting you know that this is a wonderful play for adults.  Becky Shaw had its world premiere in 2008 and has been well-received, sometimes for extended runs, wherever performed. It was a 2009 Pulitzer Prize Finalist. Opening night at Birmingham Festival Theatre validated Becky Shaw’s reputation.

BFT is not the easiest place at which to find a parking place, but Five Points South is. We started with appetizers at a restaurant there and sallied over in the freezing weather about 7:40 to the comfortable and cozy theatre behind Golden Temple. The set’s design and artwork (kudos to Mindy Wester Egan) was interesting and pleasant. A video presentation screen was effectively used during the play; before the play began, it blended with the background as would a large wall mural. Our audience consisted mostly of “over-40’s”; and I felt 60%-70% capacity for a cold winter’s night was not too bad.

Becky Shaw is sort of a satirical dark comedy. In case you have not read, the birds-eye view is that it is about a young married couple (Suzanna and Andrew), and a blind date they arranged between the bride’s “adopted” brother (Max) and her husband’s co-worker, Becky Shaw. Add to that the bride’s mother (Susan), deceased father, and never-to-be seen Mother’s gigolo boyfriend, Lester. It takes a comic look at the lives of these players and points out major questions about our lives and inabilities. A particularly admirable part of this play is that it develops the character of each of its players. You may go, “I’ve been there, Ouch.”

Funny? Yes it is, in a nervous kind of way. There were numerous one-liners; some drew hearty laughs; some made us widen our eyes in a smile.

For fear I may ruin the show for you, let me just give you some background on the characters. Mother, Susan Slater (Pam Elder), says things we know in our hearts, but would never admit. For me, Pam was the most consistently on-point performer in the play. She was, however, the least of the characters who made the stage. There truly was no lead performer. Max (Hal Word) is a Type-A, Theory X, investment specialist with serious sexual issues. Max knows the meaning of pathos, but has never experienced it. Hal, thanks for great delivery and with pace in the first scene. Suzanna (Annalisa Keuler Crews) was mostly, to me, normal; except she and Max have a propensity toward gratuitous use of the F word. She loves Max more than as a brother.  Andrew (Cris Morriss) is that son-in-law you don’t want your daughter to have married. He’s a barista who surely would give milk to any stray cat that came to his door. He does have another job at the moment, but he wants to go back to barista-ing so he has more time to be free for his art, writing. Cris does a great job of making us feel and Andrew’s point of view (even if we are a Max). Oh, but Becky Shaw (Holly Croney Dikeman), I cannot tell you much about Becky Shaw to preserve the show. Holly, well I take back a statement above, Holly was also consistently on-point. She took the play up to its climax and brought it home. At the end, I really felt sorry for Max.

I’d be remiss if I did not point out one issue with the play that I hope the director (Mel Christian) can address. Something did not work as well as it should have in Act I, Scene 1. Hal and Annalisa were fine, but I did not find myself integrated into the play. I felt the stage blocking had Hal and Annalisa too far upstage; we, the audience, were not “there”. Perhaps, if the bed were closer in that first scene to the audience, it would help. In her, Mel’s, defense though, research showed me that Act I, Scene 1 has a reputation of being difficult for the show. It is a very important scene; as mentioned above, Hal was instrumental in its success.

This is a really good production of a really good script. The show will run for three weekends on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 pm through January 28, with one matinee performance on Sunday, January 22 at 2 pm. Tickets (933-2383) are $20 for general admission and $15 for students or groups of ten or more. Keep in mind too that BFT's Pay What You Can Afford night on January 19 with a $7 minimum; that’s less than a movie ticket. I am sure you will enjoy it as much as we did.


Loot

Birmingham Festival Theater

January 31, 2011 by Max Soma

 

Loot is a British comedy from the 1960s by Joe Orton, and recently wrapped production at BFT under the direction of Mel Christian.

Loot is the story of a British family where the mother has recently passed away.  She is survived by her husband, Mr. McLeavy (Ward Haarbauer), and their son, Hal (Richard Taylor Campbell).  There is immediate suspicion of Fay (Victoria Ward), the gold digging nurse of the deceased woman.  The audience is onto Fay rather quickly as she forces McLeavy into proposal after she has announced she convinced the old woman to change the will and leave all the money to her.  Then we discover that Hal and his “friend” Dennis (Christoph Hooks) have recently robbed a bank and plan on burying the money with the old woman and then digging it up again later.  Truscott (Edwin Booth) pops up pretending to be with the water works, but is obviously a detective.  Madness ensures as Hal and Dennis realize they can’t get the money into the coffin with the body in it.   And there folks, you have the makings of what should be a fast paced broadly played dark farce.  Well, that is a lot of adjectives, but you get the point.

I actually really liked the script, but I did have some problems.  It holds up rather well for being 40+ years old, and it translates across the pond well.  Not all British comedy plays in America.  However, a lot of the jokes seemed to fall flat because they were Catholic based.  I thought it might just be me (I’m protestant), but almost no one laughed at the religious jokes.  Plus, I had issues with the money not fitting in the coffin.  In this production, it would have had no trouble fitting inside with the body.  I also never really understood why they needed to bury it in the first place.  Wouldn’t it have been easier to just hide it in something else and take it out of the house?  I could ponder what ifs all day with the script, but being a farce, I just dropped the questions and decided to go with the flow.  Finally, I was confused by Hal and Dennis’ relationship.  They seemed like lovers, but also took delight in talking about the number of women they’ve slept with (Hal has fathered 5 children).

As for this production, I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would.  I’m not that big on British comedy, and I get frustrated with community theatre productions of farce.  I see so many comedies that are played really big when the writing seems to not fit that style.  Farce requires broad acting and comedy.  Then, when given the chance, it seems a lot of actors in farce tone it back down.  Farce is pretty much go big or go home.  However, most of the actors in this production really played it up.  I was disappointed in Haarbaur, who I sometimes struggled to even be able to hear.  His timing was off, and he wasn’t on par with the other male actors in the show.  Ward’s Fay was another disappointment.  She was one note, and very “on the page.”  I saw no technique in her performance. 

On the other hand, Hooks and Campbell were delights.  They knew exactly what play they were in, and went all out to give the audience what they wanted in a broad comedy.  Campbell knows how to work a pause before a punch line, and Hooks has incredible stage presence.  He practically steals every moment he is on stage.  Booth’s Truscott was also well played, and Booth kept his character interesting even when you wanted to slap Truscott.

Christian’s pacing is really what kept a lot of the play from being just outright hilarious.  The production clocks in at two and half hours.  That is really long for a comedy, and you feel it by the end of the first act.  The pacing wasn’t lightening fast, and it could have worked a lot better had it been. 

I saw the show with about 40 people in the audience.  That is a really good house these days in community theatre in Birmingham.  It is really good when so many other shows are running at the same time.  However, I did just see Theatre Downtown’s Fahrenheit 451 with over 70 in the audience.  They should have come to this instead.


The White Rose

May 1-17 at the Birmingham Festival Theatre

Reviewed May 3, 2008 by Billy Ray Brewton

     The problem with "The White Rose" is the script, plain and simple.  Lillian Groag's script is not very exciting, moves at a snail's pace and never fully capitalizes on what could have been a powerful story of courage and honor.  Director Sandra Taylor has done some very interesting things with the script – adding brief scenes of action and even mixing up the way the events are told in the script.  It's a good thing she did.  Her decision to do that is what helped rescue the show from sluggishness and mundanity.

The show tells the story of a group of German students who were executed for publishing a pamphlet called 'The White Rose', a political paper designed to rally the youth of Germany into standing up against Hitler and The Third Reich.  The show is told through both present day and flashbacks.  We see two Nazi officers, Mohr (Steve Halsey) and Mahler (Scott Nesmith) as they discuss what to do with the young people.  We also see the students (Rebecca Yeager, Franklin Slaton, Jamie Schor, Eric Young, Justin Lenard) as they become involved in this operation, and are eventually apprehended.

One of the script's biggest problems is that it allows very little time for developing these characters.  I don't know that we really come to care for any of these people.  It's almost as if Groag wanted us to observe these people in a context of historical non-fiction, but not really look past the event itself into who they were as people.  This was a mistake on the part of the playwright.  We cannot care about characters when we are not given any sort of information on which to base this compassion.  Director Sandra Taylor has staged the play quite well, and the set is very affective.  The most affective staging, and the most affective scene in the show comes during the interrogation of the students.

In terms of performances, they are universally strong.  In a small, but crucial role, Saxon Murrell is fantastic as Bauer.  He takes a small role and really develops it.  We feel we know more about this character than any other on stage.  Scott Nesmith plays his role of villain with equal parts ruthlessness and equal parts zeal.  This character likes what he is doing and doesn't try to hide it.  As for the students, the standouts are Rebecca Yeager as Sophia and Franklin Slaton as Hans, though all of the students do fine jobs.  I did, however, feel that the performances became a little too heavy-handed at the end of the piece.

So, on the whole – do I recommend "The White Rose".  Yes.  It's a dark part of human history that a lot of people know very little about.  At the very least, it's something you should see so you can understand the darker sides of the human condition.  Most of the problems I had came with the script itself, but you can't fault the actors or the director for that – they did what they could with a lackluster piece of literature.  "The White Rose" runs for the next three weekends at Birmingham Festival Theatre.  Thanks to Sandra Taylor, Saxon Murrell and a strong ensemble – the show rises above the script.


The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife

March 20-April 5 – Birmingham Festival Theatre

Reviewed March 21, 2008 by Frank Thompson

 

     It isn't often that I walk into a theatre completely clueless with regards to the show being presented. With The Tale Of The Allergist's Wife, however, I knew almost nothing about the production beyond two facts: A: it was a success on Broadway several years ago. B: The Broadway production starred Linda Lavin. I am happy to say that the show turned out to be an engaging and entertaining piece of theatre. Playwright Charles Busch has created an outrageous, yet oddly familiar ensemble of characters, each of whom will be at least passingly recognizable to everyone...the detached intellectual, the neurotic "lady who lunches," the crusty, foul-mouthed grandma, etc...where the talent of the cast and director truly shines through in BFT's production is in the absolute absence of stereotype or "mugging."

Director Ellise Mayor has staged the show with a light, artful touch, keeping her characters almost constantly in motion, both literally and figuratively. I particularly noticed more physical movement from all of the characters following the arrival of Lee (Jan D. Hunter), who brings new life and fresh air into a fairly staid and lethargic household. This sounds like a simple and insignificant thing to notice, but it beautifully illustrated the effect of Lee's personality on the surroundings.

I won't go into a tremendous amount of plot synopsis. The Tale Of The Allergist's Wife is an intelligent, well-crafted contemporary drawing-room comedy ... imagine Noel Coward in the late 1990's, and you're pretty close. If you enjoy witty banter, slightly naughty situations, and intelligent humor, this is a show for you. (One word of warning to those from New York ... a few of the regionalisms seem slightly awkward when spoken, but this is a very minor drawback.)

The actors were, across the board, outstanding. Debbie Smith and Michael Abrams bring a spot-on upper-middle-class ennui to Marjorie and Ira, a well-to-do NYC couple facing retirement and empty nest syndrome. Abrams' cool-headed and polite Ira balances nicely with Smith's histrionic Marjorie. The actors seem as comfortable and in sync with one another as do the characters they portray.

The more over-the-top roles are delightfully brought to life by Mackey Atkinson as a flamboyant and endearing doorman (who also serves as a narrative voice from time to time) and Adriana Keathley as Frieda, Marjorie's irascible and opinionated mother. (When Frieda commented that Marjorie's aunt "is a f*#king liar" I almost fell out of my chair.) Atkinson and Keathley do a marvelous job of sharing focus when appropriate, yet running away with their respective spotlight moments.

As wonderful as the rest of the cast is, it is the stellar performance of Jan D. Hunter as Lee that takes The Tale Of The Allergist's Wife to greater heights. Again, I won't bore the reader and/or ruin the show by giving away the plot. Let it suffice to say that Hunter is sparkling in the role. At turns sexy and sophisticated, cloying and suspicious, (and occasionally vulnerable) Lee is a complex and engaging character on the printed page. Hunter's talent brings her to life in every sense of the phrase.

The set is appropriate and authentic, creating a fair-to-pretty-good representation of a New York doctor's flat. There is eye-catching artwork decorating the set that is also for sale following the production. (One criticism: the trim on the walls needs to be painted on top.)

The Tale Of The Allergist's Wife is well worth the time and price of admission. Kudos to Mayor and her cast for a well-presented and enjoyable show.


Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens

Presented by Birmingham Festival Theatre

Reviewed for February 20, 2008 by Robert Cole

 

When you walk into the Birmingham Festival Theatre, there are two large pieces of the AIDS quilt hung in the lobby. A replica of this monumental effort is the dominant image on the stage. The show is called Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens. The word “elegies” evokes thoughts of death, of disease, of hopelessness. But, that is not the show that is being performed on that stage.

     Instead, this production of the cabaret revue Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens is a celebration of life. It is not a gay show. It is not a straight show. There are stories of hetero- and homo-sexual men and women who are/were brave, scared to death, and utterly, believably human.

     The show is a series of fun and (most times) touching and beautiful songs. But, it is not the songs that are the highlight of the evening. The highlight is the verse monologues performed by a courageous and multitudinous cast, with so many wonderful performances that it would be improper to list only a few. These are stories of children, the elderly, and the myriads of beautiful people that have been infected by this horrible disease. But, as the show’s final moment confirms, it is the memory of these people that stays with you long after you leave the theatre.

     Before the show began, the director J. Heath Mixon welcomed the audience to a show that is not just “theatre for theatre’s sake, but a show that makes a difference.” I would argue that theatre for theatre’s sake is some of the greatest work we do on this earth. And, though the ticket sales go to Birmingham AIDS Outreach, the fact that this cast has assembled and put on this show is the true miracle that theatre can be.

     Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens, by Janet Hood and Bill Russell, runs at the Birmingham Festival Theatre February 21-24th. http://www.bftonline.org/.


 

Fat Pig

Birmingham Festival Theatre

Reviewed on October 19th, 2006 by Billy Ray Brewton

Around this time last year, I was reviewing another Neil LaBute piece for this site, "The Shape of Things".  As I mentioned in that review, I am a huge fan of LaBute's work, from his theatrical pieces to his directorial efforts on-screen.  He has this rare and uncanny ability to extract the maximum amount of honesty from something that seems to typical, and so taken for granted.  "Fat Pig" is one of his most difficult pieces in that it shows men and women for what most of them truly are -- physical beings.  As much as we want to think that what we're like on the inside matters most, that means nothing if it's not coupled with at least a reasonably desirable outside.  "Fat Pig" explores that.  Strike -- "Fat Pig" digs that up, dusts it off, and shoves it in all of our faces.  That is what you should expect from a LaBute piece.
     The piece revolves around Tom (Stephen Mangina), a successful businessman who meets a woman named Helen (Amy Donahoo) one day at lunch.  They immediately connect and Tom finds her very desirable, even though Helen meets the technical definition of 'fat'.  They begin to date, which does not set too well with Tom's co-workers, his former romantic interest Jeannie (Gabrielle Metz) and his slacker friend Carter (Grey Tilden).  The play consists of seven scenes taking places at work, at restaurants, even at the beach.  Over the course of these seven scenes, we see the type of relationship that Tom and Helen develop, and we also see the ramifications of that relationship on Tom's office life.  He's ridiculed by everyone he works with -- no one thinks they should be together.  Helen is constantly put down by both Carter and Jeannie.  How much can one person stand?
     Whereas "Fat Pig" is one of LaBute's most difficult works, it is also far more accessible than "The Shape of Things" or "Autobahn".  The characters here are likable, even if most of them are likable for being so terrible.  Tom is very uncertain, very wishy washy, and very unsure of himself.  He probably has the worst self-esteem of anyone in the play, if you get right down to it.  Helen is smart and funny and warm and, in many ways, desperate for love without seeming so.  Carter is an ass, plain and simple, but sometimes a lovable ass who at least admits he's a shallow person.  And, Jeannie is a borderline psychopathic stalker who just happens to tow the line.  In the lead, Stephen Mangina is able to capture Tom's weakness admirably -- we see his uncertainty and his inability to face the truth, even when it's staring him in the face.  As Helen, Amy Donahoo gives an amazing performance.  Having directed her in two shows, I had no idea she was capable of commanding such attention in a role like this.  You fall in love with Helen immediately, and you find yourself almost as devastated as she is at the end.  Grey Tilden and Gabrielle Metz offer fine support as Carter and Jeannie, both striking the right amount of zaniness, yet keeping true to the ferocity and truthful nature of the script.  This was one well acted piece of theatre.
     Directed by Gaye Jeffers, ths production is quirky and works like a charm.  The set is minimalized in such a way that you just want to shake her hand and congratulate her on being so inventive with her choices.  Her choice to have Tom change clothes there in front of the audience also works, and I really don't know why.  But, it does.  My one problem was with the choice in music.  Having read the show and now seen it, I understand the choice -- I just didn't find it appropriate.  There is also an added part at the beginning of the show with Amy Donahoo on stage in character that is priceless -- it really kicks the show off to a damned fine start, and I was rolling in the aisles.  So, in summation, "Fat Pig" really works and it does absolute justice to LaBute's script.  The performances are top notch, the set and lighting design were funky and great, and I think everyone left the theatre on opening night a little more honest than when they came in.  Neil LaBute will do that to you, like it or not.


 

tick, tick, … BOOM  at Birmingham Festival Theatre, by the Dane Peterson Theatre Series

Reviewed on July 16th, 2006 by Billy Ray Brewton

Jonathan Larson's "tick, tick…BOOM!" is a show that had never before appeared on the Birmingham theatrical scene until this month, July of 2006.  This always struck me as bizarre, seeing as how the show is very minimal, very powerful, and from the same brilliant playwright behind the hit musical "Rent" – it seems like every theatre would be chomping at the bits to do this show, especially with the recent release of the film version of "Rent".  Dane Peterson Theatre Series was the first company to tackle the production, and it looks like it might be the only production Birmingham needs for a long, long while.

     It is going to be almost impossible to top this production.

     The show is, essentially, Jonathan Larson's autobiography, dealing with a struggling composer and playwright, John (Lucas Pepke), who is waiting for his current project to hit workshop, while juggling his dancer girlfriend (Kimberly Kirklin) and his best friend and roommate Michael (Mark Holden).  This three-person ensemble portray every single character in the show, from John's stereotypical agent to the staff of the restaurant where John waits tables.  The pace is kinetic as Kirklin and Holden hop from character to character, from song to song.  Pepke plays John throughout.  The band also play a central role in the piece, and even participate in one song.  The band, lead by Debbie Mielke's mesmerizing keyboards, never missed a beat and looked like they were having more fun than any backing band I have seen in any theatrical production before.  When the band is having that much fun, you know you are watching something truly genuine.

     From beginning to end, I was blown away by this production.  I have been a fan of "tick, tick…BOOM!" for a few years now and just never imagined it coming to Birmingham.  I am so pleased that it has, and cannot wait to see it again.  Lucas Pepke carried the show, and was absolutely flawless as John, a character that has always reminded me of a less-dorky Woody Allen.  Pepke plays on all those traits equally and really rounds out the performance.  Not to mention, his voice is perfectly tailored for the songs in the show, especially the signature "30/90" and the show stopping "Why".  Kimberly Kirklin delivers her best performance, likely to date, in her ability to bring so much energy to so many characters, and still have time to belt like she's never belted before.  As Michael, Mark Holden does exactly what he needs to do – he's straight as an arrow when he needs to be, and over-the-top with the minor characters that pop in and out, really distinguishing himself on stage.  The highlight of the show, for me, was the hilarious and brilliantly staged "Sunday".

     Enough praise.  Now…onto the problems I had with the show…hmmmm…give me a minute...ummm…one second...sheesh…I know I can think of something – WAIT A MOMENT.  I don't think I had a single problem with the show.

     In fact, "tick, tick…BOOM!" is the best musical I have seen in the Birmingham area since I started watching musicals in the Birmingham area, and that has been a few years now.  I could not have been more pleased by this production, the choices the director made with the staging, the performances, or the amazing band that really made me smile.  I encourage everyone with a love for theatre to attend this show, and attend it well.  It's going to be leaving the stage far too early, and you only have a short time before you've missed your chance.  Either you'll be kicking yourself for missing out on this phenomenal production, or I'll be kicking you in the ass for the same.

     Either way, shuffle your butts to BFT.


 

Line and Acrobats  at Birmingham Festival Theatre

Reviewed on June 16th, 2006 by Jonathan Goldstein

I went to see Line and Acrobats, by Israel Horovitz, at BFT last Friday night, and I was really impressed with what I saw, and I suggest anyone who hasn't seen it to catch it before it closes this Saturday night. 

     The evening begins with Acrobats, which is done outside of BFT on the roof of the building next to it.  The BFT courtyard is a very pleasant setting, and although it was a bit hot outside, the atmosphere added to the enjoyablility of this short appetizer of a one-act play.  Stephen Mangina and Morgan Smith star in this marital spat that occurs while acrobatic routines are taking place.  Stephen and Morgan perfectly deliver the hilarious, yet serious, dialogue, which is made more funny by the timing of the acrobatic routines.  The acrobatics of trying to make a relationship work is portrayed through the actual acrobatics in the choreography along with the dialogue.  Stephen and Morgan obviously worked their butts off to perfect Acrobats, and they did an excellent job.  It was a great way to kick off the night. 

     The audience is then led inside BFT for the second one-act of the night.  Line is a show about a bunch of people waiting in line for... well... they don't know.  It is a comment about the "shoot-for-the-top", "winner-takes-all" society that we live in.  They are all fighting for first place in the line, even though they don't have any idea what they will gain from it.  I have read the play, and I auditioned for it... so, I had an idea of what to look for.  But, I was really surprised with the choices that some of the actors made... and that's a good thing.  It's always interesting when actors and directors take a character, or a situation, and play it differently than you would have normally imagined it being played.  That was the case with lots of the situations and characters in this show.  I was truly surprised to see Grey Tildon enter the stage as a geeky young Jewish guy wearing a yarmelke.  I saw the character as being a little different from that... but, Grey totally made it work in the way that he played it.  Carole Armistead as a slutty woman who has sex with everyone in the line... I had my doubts, but it was done perfectly (and I'll never look at Carole in quite the same way).  John Falkenberry, Dwayne Johnson and Terry Hermes round out this very talented cast.  Falkenberry is the first character who makes an appearance in the line, but is quickly fooled out of first, which is a development that he is not at all happy about.  His struggle throughout the rest of the show is well done and believable.  Johnson plays the loser of a husband to the manipulative wife played by Armistead.  One of the funnier moments in the play is when Johnson finally makes his move to the front.  The look on his face is priceless.  And Hermes plays a manipulative under-DOG, in what I believe is the best performance I have seen him give.  The show moves along rapidly, at a steady pace, and the audience always has something interesting on which to focus their attention.  As the characters all try to be first, the show builds to its very unusual climax.  You'll have to see the play yourself to find out how the battle ends.  The whole show was very well done, and I truly enjoyed it. 

     When I see a play, I like to focus my attention away from the action... to see what people are doing when they're not supposed to be watched... and, with only a couple of minor exceptions, every actor was totally into the moment at every point during the show.  That's impressive.  Dane Peterson has done another wonderful directing job, and it shines through each performer in both Acrobats and Line.


 

Collected Stories at Birmingham Festival Theatre

Reviewed on July 25th, 2005 by Nancy Bent

This past weekend, while visiting from Atlanta, I had the good fortune to find my way to Birmingham Festival Theater. The current production there, "Collected Stories" by Donald Margulies, was as good as anything I've seen in New York, London, Atlanta and various other theaters throughout the country.

The two-woman play is about the changing relationship between a formerly prominent writer and her protégé, as the star of the younger woman begins to ascend. The two actresses, Dolores Hydock and Holly Hamm, established an on-stage intimacy that was absolutely transcendent. Dolores Hydock in particular exhibited extraordinary mastery as an actor. She so completely inhabited her character, Ruth, that it was as if she aged right before our eyes.

Actually, everything about the production was top-rate. How lucky you are in Birmingham to have such a theater to showcase that caliber of talent. And how lucky I was to get to see it. Bravo!


 

Take Me Out, Birmingham Festival Theatre
By Bill Smith

As someone who has seen productions of "Take Me Out" in both Atlanta and Birmingham, I wanted to share my opinion of the play and the actors who played each character.

 First off, a couple of members of the board at Birmingham Festival Theatre had apologized to me in advance because they thought that the BFT production wouldn't measure up to the Alley Theatre of Atlanta's production because several of the actors in the Atlanta production were professionals who had Actors Equity Cards, but I can whole heartedly say that the BFT production is far superior in every way to the Atlanta production.  Professionalism comes from what is shown on the stage, not what is shown on the resume.  Here are my opinions about the actors' performances:

Michael Wilson (Kippy): When I saw the production a few weeks ago, you could tell that Michael's nerves were on overdrive, because he rushed the opening monologue, but as the play progressed, he settled down and gave an outstanding performance.  Tonight (April 28), he more than made up for the nerves in the first performance I saw, and gave his role an entirely new dimension.  Breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience is never easy, but he handled both the exposition to the audience and the interraction with his fellow characters excellently.  He helped me understand Kippy much better than Daniel May, the Atlanta actor, did.  Daniel May played Kippy so effeminately that I thought Kippy really DID have crushes on Shane and Darren, which was very distracting when trying to figure out Kippy's intentions.  

Jordan Wilder (Darren): Far superior than Brandon Dirden in Atlanta, who played Darren as always "too cool for the room" without any other emotion.  Also, I didn't believe that Darren was actually gay in the Atlanta production.  Jordan's performance was much more textured than Brandon's was.  Jordan showed the internal conflict much better, and his interaction with the Davey Battle character was much more believable as well.  There was real heartbreak in Jordan's reaction to their final argument.

Jack Cannon (Skipper, New Jersey Fan, & Jail Officer): Really great casting as well as an excellent trio of performances.  Bill Murphey in the Atlanta cast was just too young for these roles.  Jack made the character of the Fan as something much more than just a New Jersey accent, and showed a restrained power in his performance as the Skipper.  He really showed the paternal side of the Skipper, much more so than Bill Murphey did.  I even thought Jack was chewing tobacco at one point, as all good baseball managers should.

Alexander Fritz (Shane): This role could easily have been played as just an impersonation of John Rocker, but Alexander showed much more vulnerability in the role than Travis Young in the Atlanta cast did.  He showed a lot of rage in the jail scene, but didn't chew the scenery.  Also, Alexander's accent was much more convincing than Travis'.  For someone who didn't know a lot of words that weren't four letters long, Shane as played by Alexander used the words he knew to show the man beneath the monster.

Shawn Castle (Toddy):  Brik Berkes in the Atlanta cast made Toddy more menacing than Shawn did, and I didn't think the role called for it.  Toddy should be laughed at, not feared.  I really admire Shawn's comedic timing, especially during his rants.  His manic behavior in the third act with Kawabata on the mound is a gem of a moment.

Jonathan Goldstein (Mason): Jonathan took what could have been a cartoon character and made him into a real person.  Matthew Myers in the Atlanta cast portrayed Mason as a super-geek gay nerd, but Jonathan's performance was much more restrained for the most part, which made his "flame outs" even more delicious.  Jonathan's Mason is still a nerd, but the kind of nerd that we can all see in ourselves.

Jason Mccarty Jr. (Davey): Jason is fine actor who played Davey as more of a contemporary of Darren than did Ismail ibn Conner in the Atlanta cast.  Skipper is the father figure in the play, and to portray Davey as another father figure is a disservice to the play.  Jason did a much better job of playing Davey as the friend, not the father.

Tanner McCracken, Jason Hudson, and Adam Czachurski (Rodriguez, Martinez, and Kawabata): While these were the three smallest roles, each player shined in his unique way with the limited dialogue they had, almost all of it being in Spanish or Japanese.  David Kronawitter, Gabriel Rincon-Mara, and John Liu, who played the same characters in the Atlanta production, were nothing more than afterthoughts and scene fillers.  Tanner, Jason, and Adam were able to give the small roles lots of both dramatic and comedic power.

While I loved all of the performances, my two favorites had to be Michael Wilson as Kippy (mentioned earlier), and J. Heath Mixon as Jason. Heath took a goofy, secondary role (or at least that was how it was played in the Atlanta production by Jason Loughlin) and gave Jason Chenier the biggest heart on the entire baseball team!  Heath infused Jason with a sweetness that was breathtaking, and a sincerity to his simple-mindedness that was beautiful.

Will York did an extraordinary job of balancing the humor and the horror in this play, and the creativity of the lighting and scenic design really added to the show as well.  I didn't see a sound designer listed in the credits, but the sound was much better than the Atlanta production.  Whether it was the sound design, the actors, the director, or just the acoustics of the theatre, I could HEAR all of the dialogue in the Birmingham production, so I was able to understood several things that I missed when I saw the Atlanta production.

The play isn't an easy play to do, and it took a lot of courage on EVERYONE's part to put on such a daring show, but I guess it just goes to show that, like Jason Chenier on the baseball team, BFT has the BIGGEST HEART in the ENTIRE Birmingham theatrical community team!!!!


 

Take Me Out, Birmingham Festival Theatre
By Rick James

Wayne and I went to see Take Me Out on Saturday, April 23.  We didn’t go earlier in the run because we knew there had been some casting problems and we wanted the show to have time to gel before we saw it.

We had both read the script (I briefly considered auditioning) and were perplexed as to why it had won awards.  It was a difficult read; the dialog sounded contrived and stilted from the page.

We were then all the more surprised at the production we saw.  As spoken by these actors under the expert direction of Will York, it was vibrant and alive, and we could easily see why it won awards and praise.  It is a beautifully crafted piece of work.  It is very clean and direct without a word too many or an unnecessary scene.  And Will York’s direction is as crisp and clean as the writing.  The entire production unfurled itself seamlessly.  It was like the proverbial well-oiled machine.  It was like watching a splendid thoroughbred run a race with all his heart while making it look effortless and natural.

Reading the program, I was surprised to see that more than actor was making his stage debut.  I misplaced my program, so I can only remember character names.  The actor who played Darren, the star player who comes out of the closet, was everything that the script required - handsome, powerful, of obvious mixed racial heritage, moving with assurance and grace in an aura of great charisma.  You totally understood why this character was loved by baseball fansKippy, his best friend on the team, was the narrator and facilitator of the entire show, and told the story well and with great compassion.  He was an affable, well-meaning young fellow, and you could understand why they were friends.  The fellow who played Darren’s long-time best friend from another team was spot-on great.  I would like to see more of him at BFT and TNT and Virginia Samford, etc.  I believed him every moment he was on stage.  A couple of actor’s names I did know.  Jonathan Goldstein was terrific as Darren’s adoring, worshipful, sycophantic accountant, nicknamed Mars.  He struck exactly the right notes - just Gay enough, just odd enough, just funny enough to still be real and lovable.  And dear Jack Cannon, no longer the male ingénue, but bringing all that powerful acting talent to a character role and getting every nuance and color out of it.  As a long time character actor, I love it when it is done well.  Thanks, Jack.

Did I mention that almost every character is completely naked at one time or another?  Well, it is in a locker room at a major league baseball park.  It’s only natural.  And it was only natural.  And it was only natural that it would be the cause for discussion among the players.  It was not a distraction nor was it in any way gratuitous.

This production also featured probably the best set I have ever seen at BFT.  And the lighting was more subtle and well done than usual, too.  All I can say is CONGRATULATIONS to everyone involved in the production.


 

The Subject Tonight is Love at Birmingham Festival Theatre

Reviewed November 18th by Gabrielle Metz

Truly a subject needing attention and consideration

 

I had the wonderful opportunity to see this play at Birmingham Festival Theater on Thursday night.  The play by Sandra Deer is an inspirational, candid, and profound exploration of life and change, and the intricacies of familial relationships.  The acting by Elise Mayor, Carol Armistead, and Grey Tilden was superb.  The stage direction and blocking by director Marc Powers were effectively crafted to present a real life view into the complexities of this family, both brought together and torn apart by a horrific disease.  Grey Tilden had the interesting and beautifully staged role of portraying several key characters in the play.  As the professor, he offered insightful research and statistics into the human condition including the brain disease Alzheimer’s, for which the play revolved.  As the grandson, he was the night in shining armor, making magical and exciting moments on the stage, which in and of themselves provided wonderful respite from the harsh effects of the illness on these people’s lives.  The voices of all 3 actors were gloriously showcased at various intervals, and the addition of song was both comforting and moving when it was used.  Carol Armistead played the role of the mother and grandmother Ruby who had begun to suffer with an atrocious and devastating illness – Alzheimer’s disease.  A proud professional nurse in her career, and a farm raised Southerner by birth, Ruby was sharp and aware of what this illness meant perhaps more so than the shocking 1,000 people a day who are diagnosed with this destructive dementing illness.  Carol played this role with amazing devotion and insight.  So convincing with her gait and body movements was she, that I was truly fearful that she might fall at times during the show, playing a woman much older than she with great foresight and expertise. Elise Mayor was captivating as the literary professor daughter trying her best to function in her life, while simultaneously taking care of her mother’s increasing demands, dementia, and mood swings with grace and honesty.  She showed the multi-faceted and complex feelings and circumstances of a caregiver with great accuracy and depth.  She candidly explored the most difficult things in life to explore, and allowed the play to transcend its subject matter to a exploration of relationships at their core.

 

As caregiver herself, Janice Kluge the set designer, along with Marc Powers, created an amazing set to simply and unobtrusively resemble and transition into the sparse environment that Ruby had to become accustomed to after moving from her beloved home into a retirement home.  I loved the fact that there was no intermission, allowing the audience to stay focused on the emotion of the production.  The only criticism I can think of at all is in the writing at the very end.  I thought the story could have been closed in a better way, although this in no way affected my overall enjoyment of The Subject Tonight is Love.  I left the theater with a lot to think about, and totally awe-struck.  Congratulations to BFT an amazing, and profound production.  You have done a great service to our community in embracing such a subject with the artistry and depth that truly did it justice.   Thank you!


Hedwig and the Angry Inch
at the Birmingham Festival Theatre
Reviewed June 8, 2004 by Rick James

Wayne and I saw this Saturday night and it was absolutely amazing! One of the finest pieces of theatre/rock musical/comedy/tragedy/Euro-trash performance art I have ever seen. It was spectacular. Tony Roach is one of the most powerfully subtle, sexy, talented men/women I have ever seen. Bitingly sarcastic, painfully funny, wonderfully wicked, heart-wrenchingly sad and totally engrossing. And he sings! Wonderful voice! And did I mention that he is beautiful? Both as a drag queen and as a man. Go see it. You've never seen anything like it before.

We also got a real kick out of Nancy Malone's Yitzhak.  I have known Nancy for a while and there is absolutely nothing masculine about her in real life, but I think she really managed to get in touch with her "inner man."  And yes, the woman can sing!  She sounded great on her own and when backing up Tony.

The Angry Inch, Hedwig's band, Freddie Smith, Carlos Pino, Eric McGinty and Joe Cooley , was excellent.  They struck all the right notes.  The sounded good.  They looked totally jaded and bored and totally past caring.  They were world weary and resigned to a life of playing secondary clubs for a misunderstood or perhaps never-to-be-understood talent.  They never distracted; they only served to add immeasurably to the ambiance.

Carl Dean's direction was subtle, smooth and clean.  No wasted or unnecessary movement.  Decisive and clear and true to the movement of the story line.  Excellent collaborative work with Tony Roach in climbing to all the highs and trolling to the deepest depths.

After the performance Wayne looked at me and asked, "Don't you wonder how someone could come up with a story like that?"  Yes, I do.  I have no idea how one conjures up such a story line which turns on the point of a botched sex reassignment surgery and the Berlin Wall, but I am so glad John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask did.  It's fantastic, wild and like nothing you have ever seen.  That's why I encourage you to see this bizarre and wonderful production while you can.

It runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights through June 26 at 8 PM with matinees on Sundays, June 12 and 20 at 2:30 pm.  Tickets are $20.  Call the BFT box office at 933-2383.


Tom Jones at Birmingham Festival Theatre
Reviewed May 9, 2003 by Frank Thompson

     BFT's production of Tom Jones has a lot of good in it...some excellent actors, along with some very funny scenes, and an ensemble that works well together. There are also some drawbacks that keep it from being as enjoyable as it might be. Among the high notes are the performances of Carole Armistead and Jeffrey Marrs. Armistead tackles two roles with equal amounts of flair and comic timing, alternating superbly between a fussy old maid and a lecherous aristocrat. Marrs serves double duty as well, as his Mr. Partridge both narrates the show and performs as a character within the action. His nervous twitches and giggles make Partridge a delight. Kimberly Kirklin and Karla Blanton serve as the two romantic female figures in the show, and each plays her role brilliantly. Kirklin brings a wide-eyed innocence and demure hysteria to the role of Sophie , which could have easily been less memorable in the hands of a less accomplished actress. Blanton, as the steamy seductress Mrs. Waters, uses her natural beauty, along with subtle gestures, facial expressions, and her voice to create a true vamp, without ever resorting to caricature. Both she and Kirkin demonstrate great talent in establishing the "good" and "bad" girls in Tom's life. In smaller roles, Brad Riegel shines as a pompous and drunken judge, Randy Higgins makes a wonderful stage debut as a rowdy Irishman, and Pam Cooper plays well as a pompous member of high society.
     On the flip side, however, there are certain problems which make Tom Jones less than perfect. The major problem is the script, itself. Condensed from the 800 + page novel, it is just too long. The first act clocks in at an hour and a half, and while some of that 90 minutes is hilarious, some of it is just lengthy. Things pick up in the second act, which runs about 45 minutes, and involves more comedic scenes.
     Secondly, the overall pace of the show seemed inconsistent. At times, the show flew by at "farce pace" which suits the script, beautifully. At other times, the pace slowed down and the humor was lost. 
     Overall, Tom Jones is an enjoyable show. With some script cutting and a faster pace, it could be outstanding. BFT has assembled an excellent cast, and their considerable collective talent makes the show worth seeing.


The Laramie Project at Birmingham Festival Theatre
Reviewed June 16, 2002 by Frank Thompson

BFT has once again combined engaging storytelling with timely subject matter in Moises Kaufman's THE LARAMIE PROJECT. This play, which runs for the next couple of weekends, covers the events surrounding the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a young Wyoming man who was killed, apparently, simply for being gay. The tragic results of the senseless violence in this case are demonstrated through Kaufman's artfully crafted script, which takes much of its' text from recorded interviews.
Much praise is due to director Jamie Lawrence, whose blocking and conceptualization of the piece effectively create the multiple and oft-changing locales of the script. The simple set is attractive and functional, and the cast members move with seemingly effortless grace through a plethora of roles ranging from brutal rednecks to good-hearted buffoons, to kindly and sympathetic "normal" people. In a strong cast, there are still standouts. Ginny Loggins, who always shines in any role, brings to life a wide range of characters from a policewoman with an HIV scare (from handling Shepherd's bloody body) to a female minister, to Shepherd's broken-hearted mother) Frequently, Loggins simply changes into a shirt or jacket to indicate a new role, yet makes each one completely believable. Her performance is outstanding.
Creed Bowlen also stands out in the cast, particularly in his role as one of Shepherd's attackers. In the hands of a less capable actor, this part would have been a mere caricature of evil, but Bowlen managed to make him eerily sympathetic in a scene which showcases his courtroom "apology." It takes true acting ability to create sympathy for a bigoted murderer, and Bowlen rises well to the challenge.
Other noteworthy performances came from Amy Donahoo in hilarious and poignant turns as a local redneck and biker chick, and Neal Hunter Hyde as Matthew Shephard. Both performers were excellent in their many roles. As for the rest of the cast...well, there is no weak link, let's put it that way.
The subject matter will have to be a "tough call" issue for parents. While LARAMIE includes some very adult themes (i.e., sexuality, violence, and death) the message of tolerance and compassion it conveys should be heard by  young and old alike. I would comfortably recommend the show for anyone age 13 and up.


Putting It Together at Birmingham Festival Theatre
Reviewed November 10, 2001 by Frank Thompson

     Putting It Together is a musical revue of the works of Stephen Sondheim, featuring five of Birmingham's premier performers; Jan Hunter, Amy Miller, Jeff Johnson, Lonnie Parsons, & Brad Simmons. The skeletal plot revolves around an affluent but unhappy middle-aged couple hosting an intimate cocktail party for a (seemingly) ever-changing series of guests.  Through the course of the evening, we see numerous situations and events played out in song. (There is almost no spoken dialogue.) It goes without saying that each of these wonderfully talented actor/singers brings finesse and sparkle to his/her role. Especially enjoyable were Miller's comic rendition of "I'm Lovely" (originally from ...Forum, but now performed by a ditzy maid) and Parsons' "Marry Me A Little" (beautifully sung to Miller, who has morphed from maid to party guest.) In a show that was, for the most part, either comic or bitchy, Parsons effectively inserted a truly romantic note with this number. Other standout moments were Hunter's hysterically wordy "I'm Not Getting Married Today" Johnson's poignant "Being Alive" and Simmons' "Understand A Person" number which literally stops the show with its' vaudevillian song-and-dance routine.
     The show's clever premise inserts old Sondheim favorites to a new setting (example: The number "Hello, Little Girl" from Into the Woods is now sung by a lecherous businessman instead of the Big Bad Wolf.) This device, while often charming, is also one of the main drawbacks to the show. Some of the "re-conceptualized" numbers work well, while others seem forced. Luckily, the performers make the music enjoyable, no matter what the context.
     The only other negative I found with the production is one common to musical revues...it's just a little too long. Without a real plot or characters to link the songs together, the roughly 2-hour running time seemed about 15 minutes too much. Again, however, the talent of the cast kept the audience engaged where lesser performers handling the same script may have gotten tedious by show's end.
     Derek Jackson's musical direction was most impressive, as was Lani Dill's choreography and Sidney Summey's direction. The production staff had clearly worked hard to produce a slick, tight, well-crafted piece of theatre.
     I would recommend Putting It Together to anyone looking for a fun, lighthearted show presented by incredibly talented individuals who easily overcome a slightly flawed script. "Three Stars" to this enjoyable BFT production. 


The Country Club at Birmingham Festival Theatre
Reviewed October 1, 2001 by Beeklie

     I have had a hard time with my feelings on this production.  The truth is I did not like this play, and is was not the actors or actresses at fault.  I found myself wondering, or moreover wanting some value.  I disagree and dislike some of the messages presented in this production.  Many parts of the play left me feeling creepy.  Instances involving one of the lead characters, Zip, made me want to run.  Subject matter was not my only qualm however.  The characters seemed under developed making understanding the needs and desires of the characters hard to grasp.  At the least the play appeared to be choppy. 
     On a better note, I was able to see the some good attributes of the performance; probably because I was looking real hard for them.  The cast was one of the pluses of the production.  I felt Creed Bowlen did an excellent job playing Zip.  As I said before, He made me want to run.  Though I detested his character I felt Bowlen developed his part more than the rest of the cast.  Soos and Chloe also seemed a bit more developed, yet their roles were larger than the others
     Chloe, played by Mindy K. Wester, had the most consistent character.  She was Brooklyn all the way through the play and had her mannerisms down to a T.  She was comfortable with the audience even during her nude scene.  I do not know if anyone could have done that scene with the ease that she seemed to obtain.
     Shannon Neil has been in a few plays that I have seen lately.  This was not her strongest part.  i believe the narrow explanation of characters hurt the cast.  Neil especially seemed to have a hard time defining her character.  The choppy nature of the play also did little to help the audience identify or even know who Soos really was.  This is even more true for Pooker and Bri. Pooker played by Michelle Pare and Bri played by Shawn Castle.  They had little, if any definition.  The sad part was I could tell they had enhanced their characters to full capacity; the play simply did not allow for anymore insight into their role.
     Catherine Pfitzer played Froggy, a once fun but now uptight friend.  I got a lot out of Froggy.  I knew her by the end of the play.  She stayed with one attitude and style through out the production.  Kevin Oestenstad also had a more developed character, Hutch.  Hutch was a drunk, which Oestenstad played well.  I felt for him at the end of the play.
     I must say that the beginning of the production was not as good as the end.  The last two scenes were very good and I feel that can be attributed to the cast pulling the play together.  I hate to down the production because the cast did all they could to make this play work.  My only beef with the actors or actresses performance relates to staging.  The amount of crossing the cast does on stage does not help the audience grasp the play.  If anything the constant stage-left stage-righting confuses and irritates the viewers more.
     The stage design and costume design was great, as always at the BFT.  The set was one of the better sets I have seen, not to mention this particular production of The Country Club is done in the round.
     Everything aside I commend the cast for trying this one but I would not go see this again.  I feel this was probably as good as this play can get.  I will, however, go to Liquid 360 to see Torrential Downplay do  improv.  I believe most, if not all, the cast are members of this group.


 


Dracula (a dramatic reading) at Vamp & Tramp Booksellers
Reviewed October 1, 2001 by Frank Thompson

     If you are looking for a lovely way to spend the early evening, by all means make the trip down to Vamp & Tramp Booksellers in Pepper Place and attend some (or all) of the readings of Stoker's DRACULA performed by UAB Theatre. I attended the first reading last night (October 1) and plan to attend as many subsequent installments as possible. 
     The atmosphere is most congenial, especially to one who loves bookstores as much as I. Vamp & Tramp is a cozy, inviting family-owned bookshop, providing a welcoming and very useful "stage" area for readings, etc. This space is utilized well by director Ward Haarbauer for the presentation of DRACULA. The stage area itself is lined with brimming bookcases, creating the feel of a Victorian study. The performers themselves sit onstage until their time to speak arrives. Monday's performance was dominated by Dennis McLernon as Jonathan Harker, the young solicitor who travels to meet the mysterious Count Dracula (Randy Marsh) at Dracula's gloomy castle in the Carpathian Mountains. Dennis was an outstanding Harker, giving tremendous life to his reading, and creating the image of a young, ambitious Londoner most effectively. Marsh brought a legitimate chill to the role of Count Dracula, without ever slipping into "I vant to drink your blood" caricature. Of particular interest was Marsh's slightly halting speech. The novel explains that Dracula has learned the English language from books, but has never before spoken it with anyone. Kudos to Marsh for picking up on this detail and including it in his characterization. The other roles at Monday night's reading were well played (read?).  Each performer gave an enthusiastic and enjoyable "life" to his/her character.
     If you miss any of the evening's readings, a synopsis of the entire novel is provided in the program, so audience members can join the series in progress quite easily.
     Subsequent installments will utilize many familiar faces to Birmingham theatre-goers, including Audra Yokely, Russell Drummond, Ron Hubbard, Jack Cannon, and Alan Gardner, among others. I would recommend, with enthusiasm, that anyone looking for a pleasant and professionally-done diversion in a warm, salon-style atmosphere visit Vamp & Tramp for the staged readings of DRACULA. 


 


The Sisters Rosensweig at Birmingham Festival Theatre
Reviewed March 13, 2001 by Beeklie

       Looking for a full night of laughter and mind boggling fun?  The Sisters Rosensweig showing at the BFT this weekend is an excellent place to go.  The phenomenal cast creates the scene of a real family reunion interrupted by a few outside guests.  Each developed character's quirks not only captivate but represent someone that everyone knows.  Sara Goode, the overachiever that works too hard to enjoy her life, and is set on making all around her enjoy their life less, makes for the sobering part of the production.  The relationships between each of the characters makes the show, allowing for the audience to see and laugh at everyday interactions.  Wendy Wasserstein wrote this play trying to capture the way different people interact with one another.  The make up of the characters only adds amusement to the production.  All three Jewish sisters split up to find their true self in adulthood.  Each one's perspective on how life should be at this point is very different; watching the sisters try to prove their way is the way in the realm of sibling hood.
        As I said before this cast was phenomenal.  Many of the actors and actresses are well known in the Birmingham area for lighting up the stage; yet a few new comers radiate.  Ginny Loggins, playing Sara Goode, pulls off another hit production.  In the bulletin she explains how she was able to play this role so well; she has five sisters.  Sara plays a Jewish woman living in London trying to forget her roots.  Her daughter, Tessie, played by newcomer Kendra Cahill, finds herself very confused about her place in the world. In order to conform to something she latches onto a freedom fighter boyfriend.  This relationship is one of the reoccurring funny, yet almost sickening ones.  I can remember being so smitten in high school; I can also remember how crazy it made my parents.  If it is true to life, it is in this play.
        The other two sisters bring their own problems to London for their big sis to end up stumbling upon.  Ellise Pruitt Mayor, or Dr. Gorgeous, is the model of a good Jewish woman.  The other sisters cringe at her devotion to the Jewish faith and ways while Gorgeous pretends that they are just jealous of her life.  Ellise plays Gorgeous perfectly; the walk, the talk, and never ending hand gestures.  The youngest sister, Pheni Rosensweig, is a traveler.  She writes for the hope of world peace but cannot find peace in staying put herself.  Shannon Neil plays Pheni and completes the trio of sisters, she is the sister everyone tries to love but can never hold onto long enough.  Her love interest is a bisexual theatre director who has not decided if he loves Pheni, or if he is afraid of being gay.  This couple makes the audience laugh outrageously until the final scenes.
        The four intruders on the dinner party include: Geoffrey Duncan who is the theatre director and love interest of Pheni,   Mervyn Kant who is a friend of Geoffrey's and interested suitor of Sara, Nicholas Pym who is Sara's boyfriend and thought of as a Nazi by everyone else, and Tom Valiunus who is the freedom fighter and boyfriend of Tess.  Geoffrey is played by Tom Wofford.  Tom is wonderfully enthusiastic and a major contributor to the success of the entire production.  This is not his first appearance in Birmingham productions.  I hope he will be gracing the stage for many more shows in the near future, his energy really takes center stage.  Mervyn is a model Jewish man, recently widowed, and looking for love from Sara.  Edward C. Miller makes Mervyn this down to earth, overly welcoming character that everyone loves.  Edward is not a newcomer to the BFT either and holds the stage with confidence which is crucial to his part.  In the end of the play everyone's heart reaches out for the hope of Sara's acceptance of the lovable Mervyn.
        Tom Valiunus and Nicholas Pym play opposite roles in the play.  Nicholas Pym is a hard man that is viewed to be a bit pretentious.  John Lonsdale-Eccles plays Nick.  His appearance on stage in a stuffy gray suit makes him the least loved character in the play.  He is the brunt of all jokes while on stage.  Still his character is played to the T.  Then there is Tom Valiunus whose two major objectives in life are freeing Lithuania and getting in Tess's bedroom.  Kevin Oeststad portrays Tom as a bleeding heart that often makes himself a bit too at home for Sara.  This is Kevin's first stage performance, surely it will be followed by many more.  Kevin made the best Tom there could be.
        As I said at the beginning of this review the play is wonderful but it makes for a full night.  Eat before the show because it runs a little on the late side.  I must commend the BFT for putting on another stellar performance.  I have never been disappointed with a production at this theatre.  Bravo to the cast and go see this play;  it is amazingly amusing.



  Birmingham News, March 2001 by Pam Morse.

 


Three Days of Rain at Birmingham Festival Theatre
Reviewed March 9, 2001 by Beeklie

     Three Days of Rain, written by Richard Greenberg, came alive at the BFT last Friday night.  The tight cast played off each other as though they were the real deal, a family in crisis pulling and tugging at each other.   Edward O'Brien and Ellise Mayor work so well together that I begin to feel as if I should stop snooping through the key hole listening to the siblings discuss their family secrets. The introduction of Pip, played by Tony Roach, excited and humored me.  Despite the dark air surrounding the play, the three of these actors brought the audience to laughter by perfectly relating the humor to us all.
     The play begins in the future with the characters Walker and Nan, as siblings; and their close family friend Pip.  The second act is a flashback into the parent's lives of the three characters.  The story line has many themes, all of which contain immense universality.  The most prominent theme is the "you are your mother's daughter syndrome," as I like to call it.  This is the fear that resides in all of us that we will inherit the traits we would rather bury with our parents.  Each of the youths carry traits of their parents.  Because of this Greenberg asks for the actors of the children also play their parents in the second act.  This feat for the actors, playing both the children and their parents in the play, arises with great believability.
     The play has many twists and spins; what you once believed will fade when the truth surfaces in the second act.  I enjoyed every second of this play.  I have seen Edward O'Brien in The Three-Penny Opera and Ellise Mayor in many plays all over the Birmingham area; both are always a joy to watch.  I now must add Tony Roach to my list of actors to watch for; he was great.  I have been recommending this play all weekend to my friends and now I recommend it to you.  You will not be disappointed!


 


The Dining Room at Birmingham Festival Theatre
Reviewed September 14, 2000 by Leonard J. Jowers

     The Dining Room is a "slices of life" play set in, surprise!, the dining room.  I thought the acting was superb. There are many vignettes and the players are given opportunities to show themselves from six to sixty.  They have a lot of energy and do a good job with it. The cast is nicely balanced in quality, but you will especially enjoy the work of the  three ladies, Beth Kitchin, Shannon Neil, and Martha Summey.  Pardon me for not giving specifics, but there are so many scenes, each flowing nicely into the next, that it would be impossible.   John Hallum has one scene in which, intentional or no, he does a very smooth and effective Henry Fonda.  The most amusing piece is a humorous one in which the whole cast helps to poke fun at a snooty, rich, offended family.  Judd McCluney is a standout in that one.  One of the serious pieces was an excellent dialog between by Sam Landman and Beth Kitchin, about a young mother's dining room attempt to get her dad to let her return home with her children.
     My companion enjoyed this one more that I did.  The set and lighting design was good (Russ Friedrikis).  We both agreed that it was directed well (Jack Cannon) and that the presentation was interesting and entertaining.  It is a good production but do not expect a plot; it's about a dining room.



  Birmingham News, September 18, 2000 by Pam Morse.

 


Master Class at the Birmingham Festival Theatre
Reviewed May 12, 2000 by Leonard J. Jowers

     It's a Master Class at the Julliard School sometime between 1970 and 1972. Maria Callas (Betty Campbell) instructs a class in opera during which three young singers are her "victims".   It is a lesson on art, not just opera. Maria is exposed first as a high-maintenance diva as she complains and bullies her accompanist (Jay Tumminello) and her stage manager (David Crutcher). Each of the three three opera hopefuls in turn present themselves to her review for the benefit of themselves and the class.  Sophie (Kellie Gregg) is so wanting to please that it is surprising she can contain her fear. She is continually interrupted by the demanding Maria.  The second soprano,  Sharon (Amy Strickland) is at first not up to the experience and the class looses her.  Tony (Jeff Johnson) is a tenor with an attitude.  Maria sends him off but he refuses to go. Sharon does return; her voice is beautiful, her delivery effortless.   The play is not about the singers though.  The apparent subject is Maria Callas.  We learn her life, her disappointments, about her. For me, the real subject of Master Class is art and life and virtuosity.  If you listen well, there is a lot to learn there.
     The presentation of the play was excellent.  The set design (Robbin Watts) and implementation puts the audience into a college lecture setting of a modern university.   The way in which the lecture area wall was done presented an interesting and effective change of set during flashbacks.  Lighting was simple but properly done and on cue.
Betty Campbell did a superb job of presently the private life of Maria Callas during the Master Class.  You are brought to understand her sacrifice and subsequent rise to fame; and the sadness of her marriages to the considerably older and wealthy Battista Meneghini and subsequently to Aristotle OnasissCampbell tells two tales, one of Callas, the other of art. Both were well done and enlightening.  If you've been close to there you will understand, if you want to be there you should try. Callas died in Paris on September 16, 1977 at the age of 53. It is said that during her brief and fiery career she brought a new level of artistry to opera.
If you have an opportunity to see this one, it is well worth your time and money.  I hope the performance you get is as good as the one Betty Campbell and her supporting cast gave us.  I'm sorry I did not get a chance to review this earlier so that you would have been encouraged to see this one.
     Master Class premiered at the Philadelphia Theatre Company on March 1, 1995 and received the Tony Award for Best Play of 1995.  Terrence McNally is also known for his Kiss of the Spider Woman and controversial Corpus ChristiThis production was directed by Joe Sneigocki. Our audience loved it.

 


These pages are dedicated to the promotion of live theatre that uses local Birmingham talent.  If this site helps you make an audition or a performance, please mention it to some producer or director.  If this helps Birmingham live theatre, they need to know so that they will keep us informed.  If you would like to be added to our mailing list, have an addition or comment, drop a line to theatre@eBHM.org