Summerfest Reviews Archives


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May 8-18 at the Red Mountain Theatre Cabaret

Reviewed May 7, 2008 by Billy Ray Brewton

There's much to admire about Red Mountain Theatre Company's production of "Godspell", now running at the Cabaret space.  "Godspell" is one of those shows you either love or hate.  I have always fallen towards the latter, having always found the show too narrow in its scope and too jumbled in its presentation.  But, it does contain some beautiful music, and if the cast is firing on all cylinders, the chance for some real stand-outs, performance wise.  This is the third production of the show I have seen in Birmingham, and it was the best.  However, there were some areas that, had they been improved upon, would have made the show that much more powerful.

The show provides a rather faithful interpretation of the New Testament, and through brightly colored clothes and genre-mixing musical numbers, basically tells the story of Jesus Christ, even leading up to his crucifixion.  Jesus (Davis Haines) and Judas (Chris Sams) are the two focal points of the show, with "Godspell" giving us some subtle insight into Judas' frustration and confusion over Jesus.  The rest of the ensemble represent Apostles, and the Company turn in song after song, giving us cabaret, country-Western, Vaudeville and much, much more.  Throughout the show, a projection screen is used to bounce images of modern pop culture references everything from television shows and game shows to images representing words of the Gospel.

The strongest part of the show rests in the performances.  Each member of the ensemble sounds fantastic, and the performances also measure up in a big way.  Davis Haines is fantastic as Jesus.  He has a rich voice and a nice sense of movement that help keep the show well-paced.  Chris Sams is equally impressive as Judas, boasting probably the strongest vocal of the ensemble.  Standouts in the ensemble include Audrey Cardwell, Ashley Guin and Meagan Lewis, especially Cardwell and Guin.  Cardwell's "Day By Day" is one of the standout vocal numbers of the show.  The best staged numbers would have to be "Alas for You" and the Finale.

If there was one issue I had with the production, it was the decision to use the projection system and to beat the show to death with modern pop culture references.  It just didn't work.  The projection screen took me out of the show entirely, and the pop culture references were not catchy or clever enough to really seem like anything other than a ploy.  One of the problems with "Godspell", as a show, is that it was written in the 1970's as kind of this 70's antithesis of "Hair", so the show seems very dated for a reason it is.  However, infusing the production with such contemporary references doesn't make it seem any less dates it just makes the datedness seem more noticeable.  Otherwise, the choreography is very engaging, especially "We Beseech Thee"; the pacing is very nice and doesn't find the audience bored at all; and the casting pretty much impeccable.

Minus the projection screen, this would have been a much stronger show.  Take out some of those endless pop culture references, this would have been a much stronger show.  That said, the cast is strong enough to make this a must-see.  Go for the singing.  Go for the performances.


The Look of Love at the Summerfest Cabaret Theatre

Reviewed Februaryt 14th by Polly Goins

Summerfest Cabaret Theatre has opened their latest hit, The  Look of  Love.  The musical is a celebration of the songs of Burt Bacharach & Hal David.  There is no story line.  Summerfest has succeeded in being the first to perform the musical off Broadway.  The cast does this honor justice.  Some of our beloved favorites return;  Carl Dean, Tam Debolt, & Kendall Johnson.  The new voices on the stage show the same incredible talent; Chris Couch, Badia Farha, & Emily Herring.

Director, Abe Reybold, has taken a Broadway Musical & adapted it well to the intimate setting of the Cabaret Theatre.   What could easily be overwhelming feels at times energetic & at times soothing.   The selections are artfully blended, bringing the audience into the scene slowly with each cast member singing a short introduction & building into a company piece,The Look of Love.  The energy builds with each selection & then brings the energy down again for the Act One Finale.  Act Two takes the emotions through a similar build with the band (Joseph Cooley, Charles Giambrone, Carlos Pino, Carolyn Violo, & Sallie White) opening. 

Although there is no story line, even those who are not fans of Burt Bacharach & Hal David can enjoy this review because the cast does a wonderful job of inviting the audience in & entertaining with their incredible talent.  In one selection, sexy Carl Dean entices the women in the audience as he does his moves with them.  Badia Farha also has a selection where she comes into the audience & her powerful voice draws the audience into the piece.  There are some wonderful moments of humor when Tam Debolt & Carl Dean bring laughter with 24  Hours  From  Tulsa. and when Kendall Johnson performs She Likes Basketball.   Chris Couch's smooth voice gives A House  is  not a Home  meaning & fills the song with emotion.  Emily Herring brings the song One Less  Bell To Answer  into the heart of the audience. 

The strongest performers are Carl Dean, Tam DeBolt. & Badia Farha.  All three, have a vocal talent which entices the listener & makes the words & melody important in any piece they perform.  The weakest selection is She Likes Basketball.   This is more the song than the performer, Kendall Johnson.  Johnson does as much with the song as can be done.  The song does not seem to blend with the rest of the show.  Instead, Basketball  stands out  as if an afterthought & causes a hiccup in the energy.  There was one sound difficulty when a mike seemed to have been cut off during a piece sung by Kendall Johnson.  Yet, he does a wonderful job of making his voice heard & shows no evidence of there being a problem.

The set is simplistic, yet useful.  The simplicity encourages the cast to be the main attraction & does not take away from the musical content.  There are small costume changes & additions which enhance rather than detract from the words of the songs.  Overall, the performance is a great success, showcasing some of Birmingham's best performers.  The finale company piece, What The World Needs Now, left me energized & singing (don't worry.... only in my car & the shower)


Smokey Joe's Cafe at Summerfest Cabaret
Reviewed September 30, 2003 by Leonard Jowers

     Summerfest is known for its excellent Cabaret productions. I assure you that this is another. Carl Dean, Belinda George Peoples, Molly Proffitt, Caprenia Robinson Anthony, Kendall Johnson, Ernest Sykes and Cameron White, all solid performers, give a thoroughly enjoyable and exciting presentation of the songs of Leiber and Stoller.  If you can remember the 50's and early 60's, you will be delighted to hear faithful renditions.  I cannot do justice to what a good time it is, or how good the performances are. If you cannot remember the 50's and early 60's, you will surely enjoy the music and these performers anyway.  This is really good stuff. Birmingham is so fortunate to have so many talented people. Thanks to Summerfest and Director/Choreographer Keith Cromwell for bringing us this production with these performers.  Two performances have been added.


Grease at Virginia Samford Theatre (Summerfest)
Reviewed July 17, 2002 by Frank Thompson

     That's about the only word that adequately describes the level of performance quality in Summerfest's production of GREASE, running through July 28 at the newly-revived Virginia Samford Theatre. From the larger roles through the smallest ensemble performer, the entire cast functions with grace and style, and above all, FUN! Director Keith Cromwell has clearly created a true ensemble, with each and every actor/singer/dancer adding to the collective product. In a large cast of over 30 people, there isn't a single one who fails to deliver. There is truly no weak link. 
     This is particularly encouraging, when one considers the recent "slump" suffered by Summerfest. Having grown up performing in the 1980's James Hatcher/Boutwell Auditorium era of Summerfest, I can clearly recall the "golden years" which were followed by a period when Summerfest shows were almost laughably bad. Much credit should be given to the new Executive Director Steve Kent, who has obviously breathed new life into the organization. Under his guidance, Summerfest may well become better than it has ever been. 
     And of the actors...well, it's hard to pick any standouts in such a uniformly strong cast, but here goes...Kyle Redd is a stellar Danny, with just enough John Travolta in him to satisfy the movie buffs, but he makes the role brilliantly his own. Sara James' Frenchy is a hoot, and as Marty, Adrienne Reid shows she can sing as well as act.Carrie Cimma is wonderfully trashy yet vulnerable as Rizzo. Morgan Smith is a sweet Sandy,and Ben Hope's Kenickie is a delight. In smaller roles, Lisa Paden Gaines is a very funny caricature of nerdiness as Principal Lynch, Mickey Ferguson literally brings down the house as smarmy deejay Vince Fontaine, and Belinda Peoples' Teen Angel is a true show-stopper. Melissa Bailey is a fabulous Cha-Cha in the Fran Drescher style, and Valerie Lemmons is delightfully off-the-wall as the coleslaw-loving Jan.  And the list goes on...I could say something great about every person in the show. 
     Now for the bad news...and it's relatively minor. The sound is a big problem, which Summerfest needs to address. At times the orchestra is overpowering, dialogue is lost, and microphones seem to have minds of their own. The atrocious sound tech is the only blemish on an otherwise flawless night of entertainment. 
     RUN...don't walk, and see GREASE. Summerfest has truly risen to a new height of excellence.


Hello, Dolly! at Summerfest, BJCC
Reviewed June 29, 2001 by Leonard Jowers

     Dolly (Carole Cook) Gallagher Levi, is the consummate Matchmaker in NYC, and she has decided to make herself a match with the widowed, miserly, mean, self-serving, half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder (Benjamin Middaugh). Her plan is devious and cute; she knows people and knows how to snare the old coot.  Horace goes to NYC from Yonkers to be in a parade and to court the pretty and young Irene Molloy (Krista Muzer), who he thinks Dolly has picked out for him. 
     Vandergelder's Hay and Feed Store has two exploited employees, Cornelius (Brad Simmons) and Barnaby (Joey Bucheker).  Cornelius, the "brains" of the pair, convinces Barnaby to sabotage the store and sneak off to NYC and have themselves their first adventure. It is a complex but fun storyline that has them narrowly escape being accidentally caught by Vandergelder in Irene Molloy's hat shop, the very place Vandergelder has arranged to meet with Mrs. Molloy. Vandergelder breaks off the arrangement because the hat shop is "crawling with men", and devious Dolly makes the match of Irene Molly and Cornelius Hackle, and of Minnie Fay (Morgan Smith) and Barnaby Tucker.  Dolly's plans now bring all of them to NYC's finest restaurant (did I mention how destitute Cornelius and Barnaby are?) to what should surely end in disaster. 
     The show was very enjoyable.  Carole Cook is, as one would expect, an excellent Dolly, and is is difficult to image a better Horace Vandergelder than our own Benjamin Middaugh.  The supporting roles and storylines were played very well also.  The show has an outstanding singing-dance ensemble.  It was good to see familiar faces doing well, but it was also good to see so many new faces at Summerfest. 
     This is hard for me.  As good as the show was, there are some issues that Summerfest needs to address in future shows. Sound was not as good as it should be.  The set, although very nice and appropriate, was not as sturdy as it should be.  There were extraneous noises from backstage.  And much of the audience could see into the wings.  These things are distractions to the audience at every level of theatre. 
     Do see the show.  It very good and you will enjoy it; our audience did. 



Jerry's Girls at Summerfest Cabaret Theatre
Reviewed June 8, 2001 by Leonard Jowers

     Beeklie has taken a Sabbatical on me, but I must tell you about another great Cabaret from Summerfest.  We are already half-way through its run, so do not let it slip by you. 



I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change at Summerfest Cabaret Theatre
Reviewed April 5, 2001 by Beeklie

     I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change is a hysterically funny play about the trials of dating and marriage.  If you are in the mood for a bunch of good laughs then this is the play. Due to its mature subject matter,  it is not recommended for children under 17.   The premise of the play is the humor and importance of finding and holding onto love; every man and woman will find themselves relating and laughing as they relive some of the embarrassing, sad, and just plain absurd moments of life. 
     The show stars a favorite, Jan Hunter, a new favorite who we hope to see more often, Amy Miller, and two fine singer-actors, Barry Austin and Dwayne Johnson.  It is directed by Derek Jackson.  Violin Susan Nuckols.  Barry Austin Chjor.  Musical direction was by . 
     The music and the vocals are tweaked to perfection.  It is amazing, the variety of characters and styles the cast of four created.  One scene, Amy Miller is twenty and the next she is seventy; the entire cast showed great diversity in their acting and vocals with this production.  With Jan Hunter's "Always a Bridesmaid" ("For Tabitha, I wore taffeta/You shouldn't/People laugh at ya") and Barry's "Shouldn't I Be Less in Love With You?," you will be touched.  "A Stud and a Babe," with Amy and Dwayne, is so true, and so funny. The male audience will appreciate Dwayne and Barry's "Why? Cause I'm a guy."  There were so many wonderful numbers; watch for the "Marriage Tango." 
     I have already started telling people to go see this play, especially if you're single and experiencing the dating life.  This show is clearly geared toward attracting a young (but remember 17+) audience. I think that everyone will be pleased with this show.  All the elements are intact: great script; excellent music and dance; and, most importantly, a phenomenal perfromace by a great cast.  Go see this play, you will have fun. 

NOTE: As of January 7, 2001, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change is the longest-running musical revue in off-Broadway history, outpacing previous record-holder Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.



Oklahoma! at Summerfest, Alabama Theatre
Reviewed July 26, 2000 by Leonard Jowers

   Where to start.  The Alabama Theatre, as always, is amazing.  If you have a great production there, it cannot be better anywhere else.  If you have never been there, be sure to roam upstairs during intermission to get its full effect.   But the play’s the thing. 
     Oklahoma! has reasonably complex storyline.  Cowboy Curly (Archie Messersmith) loves sweet farmgirl Laurey (Kim Erwin), who lives alone with her Aunt Eller (Debbie Smith).  Aunt Eller and Laurey have a farmhand of questionable morals and background, Jud (Jeff Johnson).  Laurey cannot make up her mind if Curly is the one for her, and for spite, chooses to go to the hoedown with Jud instead of Curly.  The resulting confrontation resolves Laurey and Curly’s love-hate relationship, but at Judd’s mortal expense.  A secondary storyline is the courtship of Laurey’ best friend Annie (Lani Meek) by Cowboy Will (Adam Sullentrop) and Peddler Ali Hakim (Gabe Belyeu).  In the mix, Gertie (Lauren Padalino) finds herself a husband.  Three couples are united, two by shotgun weddings, and everyone lives happily ever after, except Jud ... uh ... and Ali Hakim. 
     From the opening of the play, it was clear that we were to see a quality production.  Archie Messersmith’s opening “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” was a delight, so clean and with an apparent effortlessness that belies the control necessary to do it so well.  Kim Erwin sang and played her role excellently.  Both of them brought out the beauty of the Rodgers and Hammerstein lyrics and music. 
     But, until you see the show, you cannot understand how close the rest of the cast came to taking over the show.  The crazy, silly love between Adam Sullentrop and Lani Meek’s characters, along with Gabe Belyeu’s peddler and Lauren Padalino’s laugh, was so well done that I often felt they were the main story.  Their story sold.  Messersmith might consider getting more humanity/emotion in his character. 
     Jeff Johnson’s role was exceptionally played.  He was the villain; and yet he had a course dignity that made me feel sorry for him.  He developed a credible character, without which the play would have suffered greatly. 
     Summerfest’s Oklahoma! was almost perfect.  Set, costumes, orchestration, choreography, sound, lighting, execution were all top quality. On the technical side, because so many of Birmingham’s play have sound problems, I was especially pleased to have not heard sound problems.  Otherwise, there were detectable faults, but none that greatly detracted from the performance.  The production is long; 2:45 including intermission.  I suggest you be prepared for that.  Rene Pulliam is the director, congratulations. 
     At one time everyone knew the background of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.  When you watch it, try to understand an America without smog, gangs, and interstates, but with shotgun weddings, outhouses, peddlers, and range wars between farmers and cowboys.  This is an outstanding production.   If you like musicals, this is a sure winner for you. 

   Birmingham News, July 29, 2000 by Alec Harvey
Birmingham Weekly, July 26, 2000 by Martha & Ward Haarbauer.



Big, The Musical at Summerfest, Alabama Theatre
Reviewed July 5, 2000, by Valerie Whitfield

     Walking into the Alabama Theatre for the first performance of Big, I overheard several people wondering how the popular Tom Hanks movie could possibly be turned into a musical.  Leaving the theatre at the end of the night, all the after-talk was overwhelmingly positive.  The charming nature of the plot line and the main characters fit in well with music. 
      The cast is universally strong and energetic.  As Josh, the boy suddenly trapped inside a man's body, Gabe Belyeu is hilarious, often stealing scenes without even speaking.  Belyeu and Jake Bridges, as the young Josh, act convincingly as the same person.  Amy E. Miller also gives an outstanding performance as Susan, Josh's grown-up love interest.  Miller has a beautiful voice and a strong stage presence.  Her confused attraction to Josh is one of the funniest aspects of the play.  The remainder of the cast is packed with talent.  Ensemble numbers showcase the impressive singing and dancing of many cast members.  My sole complaint about the show is that the orchestra often drowned out the singers.  Other than this sound difficulty, the show was very professional. 
     Big is a show for all ages.  While grown-up situations like work and relationships are portrayed, they are shown as though through Josh's eyes.  Adults will enjoy the underlying humor, while children will love the sight of a grown-up kid.  Take the family and enjoy a great production! 

PS  This is the directorial debut of Todd Underwood, director and choreographer.



the World Goes 'Round at the Cabaret Summerfest
Reviewed May 31, 2000 by Leonard J. Jowers

     When something is done well, a lot of little things have to be done well.  When something is done really well, it takes talent, experience, and attention to detail.  This production is so very good. In case you hear from someone else, there were technical difficulties, and although they detracted from the performance, they were the kind of sound and lighting things that will have been corrected by the next performance.  The performers were unaffected. 
     At the Cabaret Summerfest on 3rd Avenue North and 19th Street, it's cozy and allows the audience proximity to the performers.  Kristi Tingle Higginbotham, Jan Dickson Hunter, Brad Simmons, and Adam Blair Suellentrop are the cast; everything they did was good.  Tell me if you think me wrong, but almost all of their numbers were at a quality level that you will not easily find better anywhere. Repeat, anywhere. 
     When Kristi opens the show, with And the World Goes 'Round, you know you are in for a treat.  They carry you through some very funny numbers and a few with feeling.  The scores were not the easy ones with which you may be familiar, for these were real; half-tones sung properly in transition and all the neat musical stuff that you hardly hear anymore. The orchestration was superb.  Jan and Kristi were both delightful, and easy on the eyes.  Jan's Colored Lights, My Coloring Book, Adam's Mr. Cellophane, are just a few of the twenty-five gems they sung.  One novel device used effectively more than once, was a duet/trio with a twist in which the performers each sang different songs, simultaneously. I tried to find a noun for it, other than entertaining.  My favorite rendition was Brad's I Don't Remember You; it was wonderfully done, poignant, and he made it look so easy.   This was not just a night of songs.  Every selection is a scene and they are all acted. 
     The director/choreographer is Stephan DeGhelder.  The musical director is Robert Wright.  His musicians are Chris Griffin, Chris Byars, and Todd Brasher. Costumes are by Jeffery Todhunter.  The music is by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. 
     If you like music, you'll love it.  I promise. 

Birmingham News, June 3, 2000 by Alec Harvey.


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