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Into the Woods

CenterStage Productions at Virginia Samford Theatre

Reviewed March 9, 2008 by Howard Green

Parents would forever protect their children from the dangers of the woods, but even if you put your child all alone in a tall tower with no entrance except by climbing up her long, long hair, somehow the world will find a way in.  It’s how we respond to these dangers that can end up defining us.  Even if it kills us.

The Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical is based on familiar fairy tale characters Cinderella, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel that are intertwined with a childless baker and his wife.  They are instructed by a witch to seek out items within the woods in order to reverse a long-ago inflicted curse.  The bright and magical first act features the baker and his wife desperately running through the woods and mixing up these fairy tale characters, all of whom are desperately longing for their own wishes as well.

Faced with obstacles, the silly, self-centered characters begin revealing all-too-human traits.  They become liars, thieves and murderers.  It’s a bad ending for most of the characters.  In fact, few survive yet push the story further and a deeper truth is revealed; reality is better than fantasy.  There are many funny moments, but what makes it resonant are characters confronting terror, death and sadness.  They don’t all get what they thought they wanted, but the ones who remain find a surprising peace and harmony.

Director Paul McCracken’s main success is not just in his direction, but in the casting of exceptional performers who carry the complex show on their shoulders with total ease and grace.  Kimberly Piazza brings a wonderful mix of worldliness and naivety to Little Red Riding Hood as she skips and prances across the stage. Jennifer Gamble sings very nicely, but it is her surprising realizations as Cinderella that really shine.  Frank Thompson and Hal Word are total hams as the princes, showcasing their talents with a hilarious over-the-top “Agony”.  Leah Luker finds lots of humor as the witch, but also reminds us of her golden voice in the moving “Stay with Me”.  Brent Jones is a heartwarming and sincere baker (with a great voice to boot).  Besides Jones, Kristy White is probably the most lovable and endearing character of all as the baker’s wife (also, with a glorious voice).  Reid Watson portrays Jack with boyish innocence and Joe Towey nearly steals the show as Milky White, his pet cow.

Perhaps the most important element when doing a Sondheim show is having an orchestra that is up to the formidable task.  Debbie Mielke has put together a wonderful group of musicians that maneuver through Sondheim’s imposing score like a hot knife through butter.

In the end, the characters shift, form new alliances and understand what acceptance means.  Life goes on.  As they sing in the unforgettable refrain “You are not alone, no one is alone.”  Whether you’re a Sondheim fan or not, this is a production well worth your time.

A Christmas Story

Presented by CenterStage Productions

Reviewed for December 9, 2007 by Shawn Reese

Based on the now classic movie, CenterStage’s A Christmas Story is a production that is sure to delight both families and fans of this holiday favorite.  Adapted for the stage by Philip Grecian, the play transports the audience back to the Chicago neighborhood of 11 year-old Ralphie during the 1938 Christmas season.  As in the film, Ralphie’s quest to get a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas is told by his adult self, played here with a relaxed ease by Terry Hermes.  From the moment he hears a radio ad for the gun, Ralphie’s obsession grows until he can think of nothing else. Finding his desires thwarted by a seeming conspiracy of all the adults in his life to claim the he will shoot his eye out, he fantasizes about how to win them over, and even targets his parents with a covert advertising campaign.  Along the way he navigates the familiar childhood hazards of bullies, homework, and being caught using foul language. In the end he gets his wish, but the real gift he receives is the cherished memories of that magical time in all our lives when life is simpler and dreams really do come true.

     Director Frank Thompson has done a fine job of capturing the sweet innocence of the film without resorting to choices that would have merely copied it.  His economical staging helps in this by placing the actors onstage in a way that heightens the chemistry between them and keeps the emphasis on their relationships.  It is these relationships that form the core of this endearing story.  One thing I would have changed, though, is the repetition of a sequence showing the daily routine of Ralphie and friends being chased by the school bully, Scut Farkis, played with comedic zeal by the talented David Strickland.  While the narrator announcing the day of the week with Scut chasing the neighborhood kids around is a fine device for showing his daily terror the first time, repeating it later in the show in an attempt to emphasize the bullying seems like an unnecessary addition.  This is a fault in the writing, though, not with Mr. Thompson’s direction, which faithfully follows it to otherwise make this production a joy to behold.

     From the opening scene the cast does a terrific job of establishing the warm family dynamic that gives the story its heart.  Holly Dikeman’s wonderfully harried Mother is in constant motion as the glue holding the family together, while Bill Lawson rises to the challenge of playing the iconic Old Man with an eccentric and bombastic intensity that is both natural and original.  As Ralphie, Zachary Sayle really shines with a blend of vulnerability and playfulness that is easy to identify with.  His rapid-fire repetition of the Red Rider advertising slogan is a treat, especially when his friends join him in one of his many entertaining fantasies. Young Olivia Fulmore gets big laughs too, as his whiney brother, Randy, playing him with a sweet charm.   Dianne Daniels’ performance as Ralphie’s shrewish teacher Miss Shields is also notable, as is Lee Fowler’s crusty portrayal of the irritable department store Santa Claus.

     Ben Boyer’s set is marvelously effective in conveying a sense of home with plenty of entrances and levels.  The actors use it to full effect too, particularly in a carefully choreographed scene involving the infamous leg lamp. His lighting also contributes to the overall feeling of warmth and brightness in the home, and coolness in the wintry outdoor air of the Windy City.  The sound design is fine also, with the only exception being the recorded ranting of the Old Man as he curses the basement furnace. Having Mr. Lawson deliver the dialogue live from offstage would have given it an immediacy and rawness that the muted recording did not. That is a minor flaw, though, in this highly enjoyable production that leaves you with a warm feeling and a smile in your heart.


Guys and Dolls

Presented by CenterStage Productions at the Virginia Samford Theatre

Reviewed on March 10, 2007 by Howard Green

Thought by many to be the quintessential American musical, “Guys and Dolls” delights audiences with a tale of a group of likeable gangsters circa late 1940’s New York.  The score is full of well known, beautiful songs by Frank Loesser including “Fugue for Tinhorns”, “A Bushel and a Peck”, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat”.  The show is based on a Damon Runyon short story and tells the tale of Nathan Detroit (Michael Bridges) and his quest to find a place to host his notorious crap game and to continue to extend his 14-year engagement with Adelaide (Valerie Lemmons).  Detroit enters into a bet with ladies’ man Sky Masterson (Jeh Jeh Pruitt) in order to be able to fund the crap game.  The bet involves Save-a-Soul Mission leader Sarah Brown (Leah Luker), who would like to bring about salvation for all the gamblers in the city.  Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows have written an energetic, funny and smart show that is still fresh today, over 50 years after it debuted on Broadway. 

     The Center Stage production of “Guys and Dolls” bursts on stage with impressive and colorful costumes by Kim Dometrovich and a unique set design by Ben Boyer using the video projection system installed last year at the VST.  But the spotlight of this musical is on Nathan and Adelaide.  Michael Bridges is a natural comedian and lands the humor in the role of Detroit; and there is a lot of funny stuff to be landed.  Jeh Jeh Pruitt has been well known in the Birmingham area for several years as a regular on Fox 6 News.  He appears very comfortable on stage and seems almost as happy in the role of Masterson as the audience is to have him.  Leah Luker is a properly prim and modest Sarah when she needs to be and a spunky do-gooder when the role calls for that.  Sarah’s songs require a beautiful voice and Luker has a golden one.

     Often the choice role and certainly the highlight in this production is faithful Adelaide.  Valerie Lemmons delivers a performance that is right on the mark.  Lemmons is a Birmingham stage veteran and seems born to play this role.  Her nightclub scenes (accompanied by the Hot Box Girls) are bawdy and teasing, while  Adelaide’s Lament” is touching and heartfelt.  Funny, endearing and a joy to watch on stage, Lemmons is an Adelaide to remember.

     The ‘Guys’ are full of funny characters, particularly Don Everett Garrett as Nicely-Nicely and Will Harrell as Benny.  Both are hilarious and both sing up a storm.  Garrett delivers a knockout punch with the lead on “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat”, arguably the best musical number in the show.  Every cast member has a chance to stand out as actor-singer-dancer.  Raymond Quintero’s Big Jule, Clay Boyce’s Harry the Horse, Pam Cooper’s General Cartwright, Ron Bourdages’ Liver Lips Louie and Ron Wilson’s Arvide Abernathy are terrific supports.

     “Guys and Dolls” is ably directed by Frank Thompson and the Melissa Bailey/Valerie Lemmons choreography has some fine moments, particularly the “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and “Luck Be a Lady” sequences.  Music direction by Derek Jackson is beautifully played and right on par with the set and costume design and all combine to present a very enjoyable production.     


A Christmas Carol

CenterStage at Virgina Samford Theatre

Reviewed on December 3rd, 2006 by Billy Ray Brewton

First, I will freely admit that I am not a real fan of the whole "Scrooge" saga.  I never have been.  It's just a little too sweet and sappy for its own good – a nice Christmas package with a neat little bow and ribbon.  I remember seeing a production of it here in Birmingham when I was about seven, and even then I remember wanting to punch Tiny Tim in the mouth when he stood on the stage, all crippled and smiling, blabbering, "God Bless Us, Everyone!"  No little kid has that sunny a disposition, especially one who has polio, or rickets, or whatever it is the little punk has.  So, to say the very least, I was more than skeptical about the Alan Menken adaptation of the musical.  Alas, while the story isn't my cup of tea, CenterStage did a fine job of making it very watchable.
     The story is the same – we all know it.  Ebenezer Scrooge (Dollar Bill Lawson) is a bastard.  He is visited by his former partner, Jacob Marley (Greg Hagler) and three spirits (Kim Demetrovich, Paul McCracken, Pam Cooper) and then he changes his tune and buys a big turkey.  That's pretty much it, in terms of depth of plot.  Scrooge comes to see the error of his ways and he makes amends to all of those he has wronged – yeah, just how it works in real life, eh?  That was a joke.  The Alan Menken adaptation is actually rather enjoyable, song wise, with some very nice numbers that director Frank Thompson has brought to life with a vivid set and lavish prop and costume design.  The set is a technical achievement and it helps add a great deal to the overall enjoyment of the show.
     In terms of performances, they are hit and miss.  I'll focus on some of the hits.  Dollar Bill Lawson is perfectly cast as Ebenezer Scrooge, boasting a nice acting range and likable vocals – he was just a pleasure to watch on stage and he really knows how to command the performance.  Greg Hagler  has one of the more entertaining numbers in the film as Jacob Marley, and he helps bring out some much needed humor at that particular time in the production.  The standout performances were Don  Garrett and Kristy White as Mr. & Mrs. Fezziwig.  They had, by far, the most energy and the most fun with their time on stage, and I think most of the audience members walked out remembering them, not only for their on stage chemistry, but also their vocal talents and stage wherewithall.  And, several of the smaller roles really stuck out to me.  Aaron White was fantastic as Scrooge's nephew Fred; J.J. Marrs evoked the sense of Shakespearean tragedy as the beleagured Smythe; Leah Luker shines, and is totally underused, as Scrooge's mother; and, Chuck Evans and Shawn Reese pop up all over the place, and sound impeccable throughout.
     So, if you're in the holiday spirit and you want to take the kiddies, or yourself, to see something warm and toasty and filled with good cheer, "A Christmas Carol" is right up your alley.  It's probably  one of the better adaptations I've yet to see, especially since it managed to entertain me, something no other version has been able to do successfully.  Kudos to Frank Thompson and company on a fine holiday show!


Little Shop of Horrors

Virginia Samford Theatre - Presented by Centerstage Productions

Reviewed on October 19th, 2006 by Jonathan Goldstein

When I went to see Centerstage Productions’ Little Shop of Horrors at Virginia Samford Theatre on opening night, I was expecting to see a very good show.  I was not disappointed.  From top to bottom, from the set to the orchestra, from Seymour and Audrey to the bums on skid row, this is a quality production, and a very enjoyable way to spend an evening.

     The first thing you notice as you walk into the theatre is the set.  It is an incredible set.  It looks professional in every way, it adds to the show, and transitions smoothly from scene to scene.  Kudos to Ben Boyer for delivering yet another top quality product, which truly makes you believe that skid row has moved into Virginia Samford Theatre.

     As most people know, this is a show about a plant that eats people.  While this sounds like a pretty silly scenario for a show, the same can be said about a masked man that lives in the basement of an opera house, or about numerous other plots of famous musicals.  What carries this show is the singing, and the outrageous characters, which are played to perfection by this talented cast.  Morgan Smith does a wonderful job of playing the ditsy but lovable Audrey.  Her voice, which is truly of professional quality, sounds fantastic in every one of her songs, and is especially enjoyable in “Suddenly Seymore”, in which she teams up with Chris Carlisle to deliver the strongest song in the show.  Carlisle does a great job of playing the geeky, newly-famous, green (and red) thumbed Seymore, and also delivers with his powerful singing voice in every one of his songs.  One of the other highlights of the show is when Carlisle teams up with Frank Thompson (as Mr. Mushnik) in the rousing and raucous “Mushnik and Son”.  Thompson, while slightly young for the role, greys-up a bit, and plays Mr. Mushnik with a blustery strength and hilarity that catches your attention every time he is onstage.  Other notable performances are given by Sean Spurlock, who menaces the stage with his evil, but funny, Orin the dentist, and by Russell Hodgins, who plays the voice of Audrey II.  The Doo-Wop girls, who act as narrators and the core of the ensemble, do a great job of tying the show together, and the rest of the ensemble is also in perfect character, and add tremendously to the show.  And the orchestra, which includes some of the best musicians in Birmingham, is always in tune, and keeps this fun and fast-paced show moving along beautifully.

     At just under 2 hours, this is not one of those “war horse” musicals that will have you checking your watch every few minutes.  It’s a fun, cartoony, beautifully sung, and hilariously acted romp, that is definitely worth the price of admission.  I definitely recommend Little Shop of Horrors for anyone who wants to have a fun and enjoyable evening at the theatre.


Kiss Me Kate  by CenterStage Productions at the Virginia Samford Theatre

Reviewed on June 3rd, 2006 by Brent Jones

You'll want to kiss YOURSELF as a reward for treating yourself to a night of pure, unadulterated fun when you go see "Kiss Me Kate," now playing at the Virginia Samford Theatre. Centerstage has assembled an outstanding cast, crew and technical staff that have put together a very enjoyable nights' entertainment. While the plot will not change your life, you will leave the theatre feeling happy and thoroughly entertained. The show is an old style musical with a very predictable storyline, but the cast and crew keep the action moving with excellent comedic timing, high energy and outstanding musical vocals.

     I refuse to mention individuals, because so many individual performances were exceptional, and I know that I would inadvertently leave someone out and that would be a terrible injustice. Instead, I will speak generally about groups.

     First, the principals- AMAZING voices. If any of you have seen Centerstage productions in the past, then you know that you can always depend on hearing some of the best voices in Birmingham. This show will not disappoint in that regard. Come prepared to hear some of the most thrilling vocals you could ever expect. The comedic timing and physical humor provided by the principals is beyond reproach as well. Verbal jabs, physical punches and pratfalls abound in perfect precision.

     Next, the chorus-Great energy, great focus. One of the problems that I often see with community theatre groups is the tendency for shows to have a few good leads and several chorus members that seemed to have forgotten they were on stage and are thinking about what they will be having for dinner or what they have backed up on TIVO to check out when they get home that night. Not so with this group. The energy and the focus stayed consistent throughout as they rounded out the onstage picture for the audience to enjoy.

     The orchestra- beautifully done. Some orchestras have trouble staying with the singers and miss a note here and there. Not this one. The orchestra added beautiful sounds to a wonderful production.

     Finally, the crew and technical staff- Costumes were fabulous. The set changes moved along seamlessly without slowing down the show at all. The choreography was energetic and lively. The lighting design blended beautifully with the costumes and sets. The sets were massive and effective. The sound provided the opportunity for the audience to hear the words. Tech- A job well done.

     I really only have one tiny criticism, which in NO WAY takes away from the overall enjoyment of the production. While the songs were highly entertaining, some of them were simply too long. Too many verses. I don't know if the publishing company grants the right to trim the music a bit or not, but it should have been done. The performances were outstanding, but some of the songs were simply too lengthy, which took the most miniscule of bits away from the otherwise outstanding turns on the tunes. Unfortunately, today's society (including myself) simply doesn't have the attention span of audience's from decades ago when this show was written.

     Again, fun is the best way to describe the show. If you are looking for a night of pure, lighthearted fun and entertainment, then this is the show for you!


Phantom of the Opry by CenterStage Productions

Reviewed on October 20th,, 2005 by Maree Atchison


Although I’ve grown up in the South, I’m not a huge fan of country music, but when I went to see The Phantom of the Opry, I changed my mind a little bit…

Phantom, a new musical by Lloyd J. Schwartz, playwright of another CenterStage hit, Gilligan's Island: the Musical, parodies the admired and ever-popular "Phantom of the Opera" story. There’s a little twist though: Schwartz sets the story at a famous country-music hall! This setting and music are absolutely perfect in translating the story into something which is easily identifiable to good ole Southern folks, and it helps to bring the story up-to-date. Schwartz commented in the program that one of the challenges to using country music would be using it to advance the plot, yet from the very beginning, with classic country songs such as “I’ve Loved ‘Em Every One”, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Stand by Your Man” the audience gets a strong sense of the characters as well as the action within the play.

The most outstanding performance was seen by Greg Hagler as the menacing Phantom which haunts the Opry. When Hagler sings his creepy versions of “Crazy” and “Ring of Fire”, it is sure to send chills down your spine. Bravo! Two other bright spots in the show were Lindsey Kennedy as fiery Chrissy, and Howard Green as flirtatious Ronnie. The audience explores with them their rocky relationship and troublesome past which, thanks to the Phantom, makes both of them realize just how much they mean to one another. 

Other notable performances in the show were Holly Dikeman as the big-haired country diva, Carly, who definitely knows how to work a crowd at the Opry, and the always entertaining Raymond Quintero as Baldy. These two characters seem to come on stage at just the right time to liven things up a bit. 

Although the dialogue is a slow at times, the music picks the pacing right back up with a great group of musicians led by Ron Dometrovich. With the addition of the loveable Down Home Singers in their flashy country ensemble, there won’t be much keeping you from clappin’ your hands and singin’ along with the actors.


Gilligan's Island: The Musical by CenterStage Productions
at Virginia Samford Theatre
Reviewed October 11, 2003 by Matthew Bedford

     CenterStage Productions takes us for a musical flashback with the stage revival of the 1960s television classic Gilligan’s Island.  The only thing missing was a sofa and the commercials, but no one misses those anyway, right?  Gilligan’s Island: The Musical is making an historic off-Broadway debut right here in Birmingham.  The opening performance was attended by original co-writer Lloyd Schwartz, Dawn Wells, who was Mary Ann, and Laurence and Hope Juber, writers of the tune we all know.  One could say this production is officially sanctioned and blessed.  That is truly something CenterStage should be proud of.
     This is a perfect show for those who are new to the theatre, due to its adherence to an television-like episodic format.  There is something for everyone.  I mean, come on, who hasn’t seen at least one episode?  Not only is it familiar it is entertainingly fresh and convincing.  We have all become familiar with the mugs of the original cast and we know them as Gilligan, the Professor, etc.  The CenterStage cast had to work extra hard not only to play each part, but impersonate the original cast.  But, they did their homework.
     Ginger Grant as played by Kimberly Kirklin really captures the essence of Tina Louise.  Kirklin actually double-acts in some scenes.  Kirklin playing in the manner of Tina Louise, as Ginger acts out choice scenes from some of her “movie star” roles to provide inspiration to her fellow marooned shipmates.  This is a Tour de Force performance for Kirklin, thanks to her phenomenal acting performance and spectacular singing voice in songs like “Natural Phenomenon”.
     Stephen Mangina delivers a physical performance as Gilligan, but his self-admitted lack of vocal talent helps instead of hurts.  Because he sings like Bob Denver not John Denver, voice cracks and all, endearment and authenticity are added.  Something would surely be amiss if bumbling Gilligan sounded like Frank Sinatra or the “other Denver”.
     Michael R. Bridges did his homework and perfected the “aw shucks” delivery of Jonas Grumby a.k.a., The Skipper, that Alan Hale Jr. brought to the small screen some forty years ago.
     Kim Dometrovich found the perfect role with insular, no pun intended, country girl Mary Ann Summers.  I am sure it was a great thrill for Dometrovich to meet Dawn Wells who came for the opening.  Mrs. Dometrovichs’ vocal talents are showcased in scores like “How Do You Know You're in Love?”  and “Things I Never Said.”  Which begs the question with whom is she in love?  Go see the show.
     The Howells played by Frank Thompson III, as Thurston and Diane Daniels as Lovey, are obviously younger than their small screen counterparts, but they pull it off in a most convincing manner.  The lack of age is quickly forgotten as Thompson and Daniels present the wealthy couple in a manner consistent with that of Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer. 
     Roy Hinkley or the Professor is portrayed by Jonathan Goldstein.  Once again just as the others, Goldstein delivers a top notch performance.  If Gilligan’s Island were cast again today as a television show, Goldstein would be a shoe-in for the part.  Kudos to the set and prop designers, they made the Professor look really smart.
     Character actor and workhorse Raymond Quintero is unswervingly hilarious in his surprise role as a benevolent—or is he?—alien.
     Gilligan’s Island: The Musical is a fun production.  If you can watch a few episodes of Gilligan back to back you definitely should see it.  If on the other hand you have always considered the TV show too low brow, check it out now in its musical form and appreciate the finer things on the Island.  In its musical format Gilligan’s Island: The Musical is like a singing episode of Survivor, because the songs allow each castaway an aside to the audience to vent--just like those video diaries reality show contestants make to say all those things that are on their mind.  I mean, what were the Professor and Gilligan thinking about Mary Ann and Ginger, or vice-versa for that matter.  Too bad for the Skipper, Lovey is the only one close to his age, but he is probably not a “hut-wrecker” but one never knows, just kidding!  Anyway the musical opens up more possibilities on that front--more so than the TV show, yet the slapstick nature of one wacky situation after another remains true to the original.  I must again mention the set-designers for great props and set.  The orchestra is solid as is the direction.  The actors and actresses are brilliant and the songs are memorable. So, bring everyone and sit right back and strand yourself for a two hour tour and you will need not be rescued.


The Secret Garden at Indian Springs Badham Theatre (CenterStage)
Reviewed March 6, 2003 by Leonard Jowers

     Pardon me for reviewing a show in which I have some personal interest, but after a while in Birmingham theatre it is hard to avoid a personal interest.  The Secret Garden showcases several talented old friends and some exciting newcomers.  Two of these newcomers are Kendall Johnson, and Adena Williams.  One can tell from his portrayal of Fakir, that Kendall Johnson has an exceptional voice, quality and range, and stage presence that would add to any production.  Adena Williams’ Rose made it clear that she too is a veteran of quality theatre.  I commend both to Birmingham’s theatre community as persons well worth recruiting for lead roles.
     Not a newcomer to Birmingham theatre, but seldom on stage here, is Brent Jones of Tuscaloosa.  Brent masterfully developed the character of Uncle Archibald better than one normally expects a character in a musical to be developed.  But musically, wow,  Brent Jones’ and Frank Thompson’s “Lily’s Eyes” was undoubtedly the best male duet performance I have heard in decades.
     Ali Fredrick and Alie B. Gorrie are the young stars of the show.  Gorrie plays the mostly bed-ridden Colin Craven; Fredrick is the lead, Mary Lennox.  Both of their vocal performances seemed flawless; during their duet I wondered how they could be so good, so young.  Of particular note is that of Fredrick’s role in relation to her age; many many lines delivered and songs sung, with meaning and without noticed error.
     This cast is very talented. Unfortunately, in a review that does not ramble, for a good production, it is not possible to praise every performer worthy of praise.  With one short exception, all of the vocals of this near-opera were delivered as well as one would expect or better.  There were a couple of issues that did detract from the performance for me.  Although the lighting was well designed for this show, it appeared there were some glitches and sometimes the cast did not “find the light” for stationary lighting.  In a couple of cases from supporting roles, lyrics are not understandable by someone not already familiar with them.  These are close enough however to be corrected by your performance.
     Another bright young star in the cast is Sara James.  Whether solo or otherwise, Sara’s character (Martha) and clear chansons were delightful; as one expects from anyone of her talents.  The ensemble of ghosts and individual ghost performances were strong and had some interesting choreography.
     If you are a person for musicals, this is one to see.  It has more than twenty-five, well-done, enjoyable numbers, and one can tell the score is not an easy one with which to sing.  As I recall, several of the numbers begin a capella or go so within, requiring confidence and pitch.  This The Secret Garden is a good production, and there are several individual efforts that make it worth the price of admission and your time.  It is a story about love, love lost, and about the power of love to heal.


Oliver! at Indian Springs' Badham Theatre (Centerstage Productions)
Reviewed December 7, 2002 by Beeklie

     Once again, CenterStage Productions has taken a winning cast of players and directed them towards a phenomenal production!  This production of Oliver! is quite different than the last Oliver! I saw.  The entire show is action packed, which very effectively enlists the attention in this classic of younger audience patrons.  Another attention getter is the amount of interaction between the play’s characters and the audience; great chases and marches happen in the aisles, amongst the audience.  This technique keeps even the most ADD and ADHD children (and adults) interested.  I can remember plays I saw at the Birmingham Children’s Theatre where this no-boundaries technique was used.  It almost always enthralls and surprises the audience when this type of participation happens.  I believe that off stage action is one of the most exciting possibilities of the theatre, and it can be an amazing touch when it is done as well as it was in this production.
     My best of cast picks go to Will Lacey and Katie Wesler.  Both are Grade A players and significantly contribute to the entire play.  Will Lacey magnificently captures the role of The Artful Dodger.  He portrays confidence through the use of his naturally wonderful voice projection and captivating stage presence.  I hope to see him in more plays, he has a certain charm that is purely captivating.  Katie Wesler is the other eye catcher, and she just so happens to be Will Lacey’s understudy.  Katie will be playing The Artful Dodger on December 8th.  As for the other dates, Katie is cast as one of Hagin’s Gang and has little to no speaking parts, but her enthusiasm radiates through her overall characterization.  She may be one of the best young actresses I have seen; I will confirm this thought on the 8th.  Despite her small part she shines.  I cannot explain it without calling it 100% talent and a possible love for theatre.  I would like to know which it is, love, talent, or both.  Go see for yourself, she is easy to pick out of the group of kids... she is the extremely exceptional one.
     Conner Milam takes on the leading role of Oliver.  At first I was a bit unsure of this casting decision but I came to realize the importance of Conner’s innocent and meek qualities.  Conner allows her character to be a real child, a lost and misplaced boy.  This adds to the development of the Oliver character.  Conner’s melancholy is fitting to the circumstances of the play.  This is a big role and I do not remember Conner missing a single beat.
     Now, I want to mention by name other hits of this production.  Brad Riegel is an ingenious recreation of the diabolical Bill Sykes.  Fagin becomes Frank Thompson, and that wording is not a mistake.  Frank’s little shut-eyed slow dances really made the character come alive.  Every eye-twitch seemed in character... it is a creepy sight and very successful.  Some of the scenes and songs worth singling out include “Will you Buy,” performed by Mary Mendenhall, Terry James, Susan Hayes, Sara Chesler, and Conner Milam, and the classics, “Food Glorious Food, “ “Consider Yourself,” and “It’s a Fine Life.”  All are superb.  I am always amazed at quality theatre productions where the cast is primarily children.  Often kids get a bad rap, but lately I have seen some stellar performances fueled by the talent and professional attitude of the younger cast members.  Bravo! 
     After each show I try to think of one sentence that describes my opinion of the performance.  I then tell my friend or date that sentence to see their reaction.  When the play ended the first summation I uttered was, “Very professional and great quality!”   My friend agreed and then added, “And it is still early.”   Take your kids and go see this great play.  Everyone will eventually see Oliver!, but not everyone will see a good version of it.  Do not miss this chance.
     Congratulations to all the children in this one.  A lot of hard work went into this performance.  Santa will assuredly note your devotion and talent when rechecking his list.  Good Job to All! 


Chicago at Indian Springs Theatre (Centerstage Productions)
Reviewed September 20, 2002 by Beeklie

           Chicago, oh that word!  If you are like me that very utterance brings to mind music.  Add in a little glitz, a dash of glamour, and a whole lot of talent ... you have yourself some damn good entertainment. If you are thinking this is your standard musical think again.  Tipper Gore should not be allowed to see this lest she ruin all the good fun.  It is refreshing to see performances that press the envelope of good taste, yet pull it off with a sense of culture.  Centerstage Productions hit one out of Wrigley with their performance of Chicago
            Superior performances go out to all the cast members of this production, but the ones that stand out illuminate the whole production.  These stars include Caprenia R. Anthony (Roxie Hart), Kimberly Kirklin (Velma), Andrea Brown Hubbert (Mama Morton), and Tim Heston (Amos Hart).  Each one of these stars lit up the stage and captivated the audience with their stellar vocals.  Roxie’s voice projects from the stage with a righteous vibrato. Her performance is so strong and heart felt, but maintains the raunch.  Her swan song entitled ‘Roxie’ is soulful and moving.  Caprenia is a superb performer.  Another major asset to the cast is the duo of manipulation, Velma and Mama.  These two leading ladies, if you can all them ‘ladies,’ are a class act.  Velma and Mama’s observation of the waning social etiquette of the 1920s is portrayed in their rendition of “Class.”   The duet is a perfectly hilarious.  The two are also wonderful in their solos.  Velma, who plays the antagonist/ rival to the infamous man killer Roxie, comically fulfills the demands of this part by becoming a love-to-hate goody-two-shoe'd bad girl.  You need to see it to appreciate it fully... it takes a strong actress to pull it off.  And whoa Mama, what casting!  Hats of to Centerstage!  Mama was faultless.  She was dominating, in more ways than one. With her powerful voice and stage presence- Masterful Mastress Mama, is un-duplicate-able.
           The female lead roles are so strong, but you canot miss the strong performance of Dwayne Johnson as Billy Flynn, the somehow loveable shyster lawyer.  This role is binds the play, the plot, and keeps it all understandable amid the excitement.
            The other male characters are intermittently dispersed among the hoards of scantily clad women.  Amos (Roxie’s husband) is “Mr. Cellophane,” never noticed, never missed, and never in the spot light.  I laughed aloud and laughed hard almost every time Amos had the stage.  I loved his pathetic demeanor and convincing cluelessness.  I must also mention Mary Sunshine.  Mary Sunshine is a surprise of sorts, and she is a beauty--Ru Paul meets Barbra Walters.
            The cast is one of the best-selected groups I have had the pleasure to see.  The dynamic cast played off each other, complementing one another at every turn.  Each woman in this show, although scarcely clothed, exuded confidence.  All were on the mark as far as choreography goes; they hit the high kicks, the turns, and the shimmies all on cue.  There were a couple line fumbles but nothing that should happen twice.  The synergy among the cast members made any flaws virtually undetectable.  There was nothing distracting, at least not to me.  My date may have been a little too interested in the T&A accouterments, but what does that really hurt?  He loved the play!  Raved about it and would see it again. 
            This is an Extravaganza par excellence!  Go see it, bring friends, and be prepared to have a rollicking good time.  Check your conservative ideals at the door and let yourself have a ball.  It is about time Birmingham stepped away from the “approved play list” and moved on to something a little more risqué and fun.  I thoroughly enjoyed this play from beginning to end.  I cannot name all the exceptional performers that grace the stage during the show because everyone is a hit.  The jazz ragtime band really had a big sound.  The quality of the musical accompaniment gave the production an authentic 20’s ambiance.  The vocals and choreography were phenomenal.  I would love to go on and on but my words fall short of Chicago.  Go, go, go! 


Annie at CenterStage Productions/Indian Springs School
Reviewed December 1, 2001 by Beeklie

     There is an all time classic play going on this weekend that is a “must see.” CenterStage Productions is putting on one of the most nostalgic plays … for at least three generations of people; this play is none other than Annie.  I saw it last Saturday afternoon and had a great time.  It was extremely impressive how well this production held the attention of both the young and the old audience.  Most plays never entirely interest children, and if one does the adult audience is not too enthralled.  Annie is the exception. 
      I have not seen the movie Annie since the second grade, and I actually was in a production of the play Annie in kindergarten.  As an adult there is so much more to the play than I ever remember.  As a child I never understood the Depression aspect of the story.  Today the storyline is almost relevant and touching. 
     The cast did a wonderful job putting this show on.  Daddy Warbucks played by one of my favorite Birmingham actors, Frank Thompson, was marvelous.  I am always staggered by his vocal abilities, especially when the last few parts I have seen him in have been non-singing parts.  Todd Ponder and Melissa Bailey made a great pair in the wicked roles of Rooster and Lily St. Regis. 
     Mary Jim Quillen acted as Mrs. Hannigan, the woman we love to hate.  She was spectacular!  I thought the only other person that could play Mrs. Hanningan as well as Carol Burnett was my mother.  Well, Mary Jim would make my mom work for second place.  Interestingly enough, and for me expected, this production is different than the movie most of the people from my generation are familiar with, the ending is harsher to the villains; but it is still sensitive enough for the children. 
     Back to my experience with this play, I can remember working on this production.  I was Molly, the youngest, cutest, and most loved next to Annie.  Ali Fredrick plays Molly in this production and does a marvelous job.  All the orphans were superb.  I remember how much work went into the production I was in and it was not even half as good as this production.  All the children were very professional and just perfect.  The choreography, done by Melissa Bailey was great.  The cast nailed this performance.  Hats off to Melissa for all the hard work that must have gone into teaching the children all there steps. 
     As for the star of the production, Elizabeth Elliott became Annie.  She was awesome.  Her voice was as strong as any adult on the stage and her presence was overall captivating.  Elizabeth’s performance could not have been topped.  I commend her excellence. 
 Overall this play was SUPERB!  If you are looking for something to do this weekend you really should go see this play.  Take your nieces and nephews, children, grandparents and friends.  I really feel that anyone, like me, who has gone since 1985 without seeing Annie should see it again.  It is a different experience than it was before.  And despite some of the serious topics, the play is full of fun, laughter, and jokes. 
     To top off all the greatness this play already has going for it, history, children, humor, it also has cuteness.  All the children are beyond adorable on top of being professional.  There is also Jake; I believe he is a golden retriever.  Jake stars as Sandy.  Jake did a good job dealing with the crowd.  If you take any young kids let them take Jake some milk bones, they would really get a kick out of that.  So would Jake.


Anything Goes at CenterStage Productions, Oak Mountain Performing Arts Center
Reviewed September 18, 2001 by Beeklie

     This play is just about perfect for the times we are all facing right now.  I was about ready for a happy ending to sweep me away, and I got one tonight.  This performance of Anything Goes has so much to offer the audience: An awesome cast; Wonderful music; A great set; And a classic play all wrapped up into a two hour fun for all.  I went on opening night, a Tuesday night performance that is almost unheard of.  I almost regret going for the shows opening debut only because there were a few technical glitches that needed to be worked out.  By Act Two everything seemed to be under control. 
     I must give a hats off to Michael King, the Musical Director and pianist.  Every show I have seen in Birmingham that he has been a part of has been musically precise.  Maury Levine on drums and Lissa LeGrand on bass also did a phenomenal job.  The accompaniment for the entire show was nothing but tight. 
     The major players in this production of Anything Goes includes Frank Thompson as Billy Crocker and Patsy Benson as Reno. Both did a marvelous job through out the show.  Frank's voice does the trick for maintaining unity in any performance; and though I am unfamiliar with Patsy, I feel the part of Reno could not have been filled by anyone other than her.  She plays a great celebrity. 
     Jill Rynearson stars as Billy's love, Hope.  Jill and Frank have three duets where they harmonize wonderfully together.  Jill's voice is full of vibrato and lovely.  They fill the hopes of the audience if only by their beauty.  Together on stage they almost glide at times. 
     Hope's mother is played by Kathy Leigh Hancock.  Kathy does well with her naive character.  All the fainting and torment Kathy takes during this play can not be easy.  She is the butt of most of the trickery.  Her cruise catch is Eli Whitney, a famous stock broker.  Eli is played by Raymond Quintero.  It is amazing to me that this character actually ends up with a girl in the end.  Raymond makes Eli into such a ma goo it is almost unbearable.  Whitney's crew song is great; it really develops the character. 
     As with every successful play there is a conflict.  Anything Goes' conflict is based around Hope's fiancee, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh.  Tim Heston plays this English chap.  He as well does a lot with his roll.  Oakleigh is probably one of the more complicated characters in the play. 
     My two favorites of this performance are Steve Kent and Kim Dometrovich.  Both Mafia oriented characters add so much to this play as they attempt to help Billy get his love from Lord Oakleigh.  Steve Kent is Moonface, a not so popular Mafia man.  I can not express how well Steve performs his roll.  Every movement, every wink screams Mafia! Be Like a Bluebird stills the show.  And Kim, playing Erma his counterpart, has the same effect.  Kim has such charisma and stage presence.  These two are definitely the most tuned performers in this production. 
     Many others contribute to the fun in this show.  Luke and John are two Chinese Christians with a weakness for booze and cards.  Evan Volgas and Todd Ponder play these comical characters.  Their shuffle onto stage is a sure laugh.  Another group of laughs are Reno's Angels.  These four blonde bombshells prance on and off stage with an air of excellence around them.  Their names are: Purity, played by Melissa Bailey; Chastity, played by Sheryl Tucker; Charity, played by Chrys Black; and Virtue, played by Sara James
     Dave Crabb is the bartender and boat hand, for some reason I really remember Dave during the bar seen at the beginning.  He seemed so natural.  Cynthia Barr plays a girl in the bar pursued by Ron Dometrovich, or otherwise listed as pursuer.  Meredith Johnson acts as the Old Lady.  Pam Cooper fills the role of a reporter, which I might add she does a lot with this small role.  Al Davenport appears beside Pam as a Photographer, also stepping up with his small part. 
     John Cooley is a sailor who never seems to be in the right place at the right time.  Leonard Jowers plays an FBI agent at the beginning of the play who takes the wrong preacher away to jail.  Kent Boyd plays this holy man.  This scene is also a humorous part of the play. 
     I also commend Melissa Bailey on her wonderful job with the choreography.  The ensemble did a great job as well.  The only thing going against this performance in my eyes was the technical problems.  I feel these are minute, however, and will be fished out by tomorrow's show.  I also feel the casting was spectacular; everyone of these actors and actresses put so much into their part.  I believe that from here on out it will be Smooth Sailing for this production of Anything Goes



South Pacific at CenterStage Productions, Homewood High School
Reviewed June 23, 2001 by Elizabeth Mallonee

     With South Pacific, Frank Thompson and Co. have taken on an ambitious project. Famous script, beloved songs and a movie that ranks among one of the best all-time chick flicks. But this production, part of Center Stage's inaugural season, more than fills the bill for an evening of light entertainment. 
     The play opens at the island estate of the handsome, mysterious Emile DeBeque (played by the handsome, mysterious Ron Wilson), as he and Arkansas nurse Nellie Forbush ( Kim Dometrovich) shyly begin a new romance. The first time they sang "Some Enchanted Evening", they won me over. The look in her eyes as she watched him sing to her....well, it's the moment that made me believe the rest of the show. It seems as if Ron Wilson was born to play this character, and he fills the stage every time he appears. While she doesn't possess the stage presence of her co-star, Dometrovich's Nellie had an earnest sweetness about her that was very appealing. 
     There were several standouts in the cast. Jonathan Goldstein gave another wonderful performance as Lester Billis. Ah, New York's gain is truly Birmingham's loss. Frank Thompson (obviously a triple threat singer-actor-director) provided much of the show's vocal power. And Raymond Quintero, as Stewpot, could've walked right off the movie set. 
     As a whole, the chorus was delightful, full of energy, enthusiasm and quite a bit of talent. In fact, the group scenes were among my favorites. Hats off to Melissa Bailey for her terrific choreography! And I must mention Michael King, the music director, who obviously helped the cast to find the story within the songs. 
     Of course there are signs that this play didn't have the budget of larger theatre groups. The set is minimal, the costumes begged, borrowed and Thrift Shop-ped from all over town. But one thing this production does so well is put the "community " in community theatre. The people on stage represent every age group, neighborhood and (I'm guessing here) level of experience possible. It is a pleasure to spend an evening with my friends and neighbors---including one of my own students, Helen Eckinger as Ensign Bessie Yeager. This is indeed a grand opportunity to support Birmingham theatre. 
     Besides, the cast seems to be having such a good time, that you can't help but root them on! 
Enjoy the show! 



Greater Tuna at CenterStage Productions, Southside (& Homewood High School)
Reviewed April 16, 2001 by Beeklie

     If you are looking for some deep belly laughs Greater Tuna is the show for you!  This shows may hit a little close to home for some but that is part of the beauty of it.  I so not believe this would be one of George Bush's favorites because the scene is a small Texas town where bigotry is still popular and everyone is ignorant. 
     When I say everyone I mean all twenty characters; all twenty are played by two men.  Frank Thompson and Jonathan Goldstein spend half the production changing roles and characters.  The changes are some times made in a matter of a few seconds and every cue is taken on time.  Intensity and hustle can not even describe the way these two must change in between lines. 
     Jonathan Goldstein does an excellent job through out the entirety of the production.  He takes the touchy script and makes it so all you can do is laugh at it.  He plays the characters to be total fools and does it with such believability that you are not even taken back by the outrageous thoughts that come out of his characters mouth. 
          Frank Thompson plays the women in this production like a women never could.  Pearl Burras and Bertha Bumiller are two of his most prominent characters and they are a hoot.  These two women are loud and crazy.  Above all they are crazy.  Bertha wants to remove questionable words from the dictionary and Pearl wants to kill all the dogs in her neighborhood with rat poison.  Thompson plays these two perfectly, allowing them to seem normal until you actually hear what is coming out of their mouths. 
     This play is not an easy play to put on because of the constant character and costume changes.  With all the different characters finding a personality and voice for each one could be difficult.  Thompson and Goldstein make the entire production seem fun and easy.  Each character is distinctive and equally hilarious.  I hope to see this one again, I thoroughly enjoyed it! 



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