STAGE REVIEWS: It’s just a fantasy — ‘All My Sons,’ ‘Mildred Wild’

Terry Martin in 'All My Sons' (Photo by Karen Almond)

To contemporary audiences, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons feels like a first draft for his more famous Death of a Salesman. The plots are different, but the themes are eerily similar: An ageing patriarch with two sons lives in a kind of fantasy world of self-denial, aided by his doting but unstable wife; when his transgressions are revealed and one son loses faith in the father’s character, the older man cannot live with the consequences. That describes Willy, Linda and Biff Loman as well as Joe, Katie and Chris Keller. It makes you wonder exactly what Miller’s hangup was with parental figures.

Although All My Sons was eclipsed by Salesman, which came out two years later, it did win the first-ever Tony Award for best play, and has been revived several times on Broadway as well as regional theaters, of which WaterTower Theatre is the latest. While Miller was one of our primary exponents of American realism in drama as filtered through the abstractions of memory, his go-to often ended up being melodrama. That’s a problem inherent in the play, from the brooding Act 2 appearance of the chief antagonist, George, to the ways characters’ convictions seem to hinge on just a word or two. The Keller family has built an emotional house of cards that gets blown over by the storm that opens the show — heavy-handed, self-important and metaphor-laden, in case you needed to be reminded.

That hand-holding is something that has always irked me about Miller’s plays, though a good production can usually grant you permission to you overlook them (or think less about them), and WTT’s production is a good one, especially with Terry Martin in the leading role of Joe. Martin is one of North Texas’ most popular acting coaches, and he proves why every time he gets onstage. He lives inside the moment of the show, never overplaying but not afraid to explore the emotional edges of his characters. Joe is a surprisingly reckless chap, courting conflict with a kingly sense of entitlement and untouchability, and, Lear-like, discovers too late the cracks in the veneer.

Katie, played by Diana Sheehan, is a familiar type from mid-20th-century American theater: The emotional wreck trying to maintain the semblance of family, and inadvertently undermining it. We see it in Linda Loman, but also Amanda Wingfield (Glass Menagerie) and Mary Tyrone (Long Day’s Journey) and others. It’s a prickly thing to do, teetering on the brink of madness, and Sheehan does a good job. The more problematic performance is Joey Folsom as George. Folsom is a talented actor, but he seems to be appearing in an entirely different production. Gloomy as an undertaker and stalking the stage more than moving across it, he feels like Bogart with his brusque, hard-nosed delivery and squinting scowl. It’s as if he were plopped right out of 1946, which isn’t bad, except than most of the other actors don’t go there, so it’s a jarring disconnect from the world director David Denson has created.

All My Sons never fully comes together as a play; it feels almost too ambitious, as if Miller couldn’t resist moralizing about money, law, lust, family and guilt in one great epic, in case he never wrote another play again. He did, of course, which bloats the stage exactly when he needs to pull back. It’s almost in spite of itself that it still makes good points amid all the sanctimony.

Mildred Will (Marcia Carroll) is another character living in a fantasy world. She’s a woman disappointed by life who has retreated her inner life of movie magazines and TV, frittering away her existence in 1970s-era New York. When she wins a contest that promises to give her a new start, she allows herself a brief window of hope … only to have it yanked out from under her.

Doesn’t sound much like a comedy, does it? And in fact, The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild, now at the Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, isn’t really meant to be all that funny. It has a darkness to it, sandwiched by some one-liners. Think Kiss of the Spider Woman more than You Can’t Take It With You.

Neil Simon, of course, was the master of the “comedy” that ultimately proved to be quite sad, and Paul Zindel is no Neil Simon. (His two best-known plays, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, are more definitively dramas.) There should be a bright-line that divides her depressing reality from her idealized dream world, which simply doesn’t happen under director Frank Latson. For instance, Mildred’s husband, played by Scott Latham, is sad-sack with a bad toupee, while the actor also is supposed to be the romantic lead in Mildred’s reimagined movies (she’s always the heroine, trying gamely to cast her spouse in the heroic role he doesn’t play in her day-to-day life). But Latham seems just as dull and awkward whether he’s being Fred Astaire or Clark Gable as he is a lonely candy store salesman.

Many of the problems with the play, though, lay in Zindel’s script, which — like All My Sons — tries to do too much at once. All the action takes place over the course of about 48 hours, even though there’s no reason to pile on except to create a sense of urgency. But it feels false, and the reality of Mildred’s plight comes off as theatrical and resolvable, if anyone simply put in some effort. Her home is about to be destroyed by a wrecking ball, but she hasn’t packed a single valise, nor does anyone seem concerned about that. It’s hard to care about characters when the playwright doesn’t, either.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Donald Fowler’s long-brewing Jack the Ripper musical, ‘Creep,’ will bow in Oct.

Fowler CreepIt’s been almost exactly five years since out Dallas actor Donald Fowler went behind the scenes to share a passion of his with audiences: Creating an original musical. In March 2010, Fowler debuted an in-the-works musical, Creep, at the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. I thought it showed great promise at the time, and over the years, I’ve asked Donald if there are any developments I can report. “Soon… hopefully” was his most frequent response.

Well, I don’t think five years is “soon,” but better late than never. Just as this year’s OOTL fest ended yesterday, came word that a revamped version of Creep  — a fantasia about Jack the Ripper, full of foggy Victorian London streets and introspective ballads (the subtitle is The Very , Very Sad and Unfortunately True and Completely Fabricated Tale of Jack the Ripper) — would be fully produced … the season opener, in fact, of WaterTower Theatre’s 2015-16 season. I was at an announcement party Sunday night where Fowler’s team performed two of the new numbers for the show. And given the arc — Fowler wrote the book, music and lyrics starting more than 10 years ago — it’s truly been borne of blood … and expect plenty of blood when it debuts Oct. 5, following a gala preview on Oct. 4. Until then, a fundraising group, called the 2015 Producers’ Circle, has been established to raise a minimum of $75,000 to supplement the cost of mounting a new production. Already about $25,000 has been raised.

WTT will announce its complete season on May 26.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

WaterTower announces lineup for Out of the Loop Fringe Festival

dodd headshotWaterTower Theatre’s 14th annual Out of the Loop Fringe Festival begins its 11-day run one month from today, and WTT artistic director has announced the lineup, which includes seven world premieres: You Need Go Search; iMy Sweet Bat-Cinera!; Melanchomedy: Funny Scenes about Sad Folks (pictured); Eating Pavement; Standing 8 Count; Nomad Americana; and The Spark, which is produced by the folks at WTT.

There is some specific gay content this season (as most seasons). QLive! — the live performance arm of Q Cinema — will return to the fest with the musical Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story. And Blaque to Blaque: A Trilogy of Short Plays features one about a gay man coming out to his two dads. The festival will also include dance, visual arts and standup comedy.

Single tickets ($10) go on sale Feb. 24, but festival passes ($55–$65) are available now, and reservations for passholders can begin on Feb. 11. You can see the entire schedule there.

 

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

WaterTower announces lineup for Discovery Series

A gay Macy’s elf, an artist who seems to paint vaginas and a married couple on the rocks are featured in the three shows making up WaterTower Theatre‘s upcoming Discovery Series, which debuts in December.

Garret Storms reprises his role as a Christmastime employe Crumpet in the stage adaptation of David Sedaris’ amusing The Santaland Diaries. This is the sixth time the show has been performed at WTT, and the second with Storms.

That will be followed in January with Sexy Laundry, directed by WTT’s artistic director, Terry Martin. It’s an adult comedy about a couple who seek to spice up their stale marriage.

The final show of the series will be O’Keeffe, a one-woman show about Georgia O’Keeffe, whose flowery painting have made her a favorite artist in the LGBT community for decades, owing to their suggestive, erotic nature. The show features local actress Carolyn Wickwire, who has traveled extensively with the show in recent years. It opens in April.

Tickets for all the shows will be on sale by Dec. 9.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

WATCH: WaterTower’s ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ cast goes ‘Bang Bang’

CriminalOK, so Kayla Carlyle doesn’t have a wardrobe malfunction like Nicki Minaj did at the VMAs, but otherwise this music video — produced by WaterTower Theatre to promote their current production of the musical Bonnie & Clyde (which I quite enjoyed) — has all the trappings of a fun time. Just watching Depression-era gangsters lip-synch to Jessie J, Ariana Grande and Nicki to “Bang Bang” is hilarious (especially starting around two minutes in). Enjoy!

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Theater critics bestow awards

Liz Mikel, left, and Tiffany Hobbs, right, were singled out for their performances in ‘Raisin in the Sun,’ directed by Tre Garrett. (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

The Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum met as usual the first Saturday after Labor Day to hash out our awards for the best of North Texas theater over the preceding 12 months, and the Dallas Theater Center ended up the big winner, with five of its shows receiving citations. Les Miserables, Fortress of Solitude, Oedipus el Rey and its in-repertory pair of Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park (Raisin‘s quasi-sequel) all took home major awards, including direction for the first four. Cast members from many were also recognized, including Liz Mikel and Tiffany Hobbs from Raisin, Allison Pistorious from Clybourne and Steven Walters from Les Miz. Uptown Players, coming off one of its best seasons, also won accolades for two of its shows: The gay comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (for direction and its ensemble) and for The Boy from Oz for its three stars and for its wig and makeup by Coy Covington. My own Actor of the Year winner for 2013, Tina Parker, won note for her performance in Detroit — one of nods to Kitchen Dog Theater, which also produced best new play winner Barbecue Apocalypse by Matt Lyle. WaterTower also fared well, especially for its recent musical Dogfight. The winners — which are voted on by a panel of 12 local theater critics, including me — are hashed out over a luncheon. There are between four and nine winners in each category this year.

The complete list is below.

Direction: Daniel Aukin, Fortress of Solitude (Dallas Theater Center); B.J. Cleveland, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Uptown Players); David Denson, Year of the Rooster (Upstart Productions); Tre Garrett, A Raisin in the Sun (Dallas Theater Center) and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Jubilee Theatre); Tim Johnson, Detroit (Kitchen Dog Theater); Terry Martin, Dogfight (WaterTower Theatre); Kevin Moriarty, Oedipus el Rey (Dallas Theater Center); Susan Sargeant, The Diaries of Adam and Eve and Happy Days (WingSpan Theatre Co.); Liesl Tommy, Les Miserables (Dallas Theater Center).

Vanya-Show

The cast of ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ was recognized as best ensemble, as was its director, B.J. Cleveland.

Actor: Adam A. Anderson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Jubilee Theatre); Jaxon Beeson, Stiff (Fun House Theatre and Film); Joey Folsom, Year of the Rooster (Upstart Productions) and Hank Williams: Lost Highway (WaterTower Theatre); Alex Ross, The Boy from Oz (Uptown Players); Garret Storms, for his season of performances; Drew Wall, Nocturne (Second Thought Theatre); Steven Walters, Les Miserables (Dallas Theater Center).

Actress: Tiffany Hobbs, Raisin in the Sun (Dallas Theater Center) and Spunk (WaterTower Theatre); Janelle Lutz, The Boy from Oz (Uptown Players); Liz Mikel, Raisin in the Sun (Dallas Theater Center); Tina Parker, Detroit (Kitchen Dog Theater); Allison Pistorius, Venus in Fur (Circle Theatre) and Clybourne Park (Dallas Theater Center); Sarah Elizabeth Smith, The Boy from Oz (Uptown Players); Juliette Talley, Dogfight (WaterTower Theatre); Ashley Wilkerson, The Mountaintop (Jubilee Theatre).

Ensemble: Barbecue Apocalypse (Kitchen Dog Theater); Heroes (Stage West); The Echo Room Presents: Her Song (Echo Theatre); Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Uptown Players).

Creative Contribution: Coy Covington for his wig and makeup design for The Boy from Oz (Uptown Players) and wig designs for Pageant (Uptown Players); Clare Floyd DeVries for her set design, Detroit (Kitchen Dog Theater); Jay Dias for his music direction, Nine and Titanic (Lyric Stage); Jeffrey Colangelo and Katy Tye for their movement design, Galatea (Prism Co.); the design team with Trinity Shakespeare Festival, for their season.

New Play or Musical: Barbecue Apocalypse by Matt Lyle (Kitchen Dog Theater); Booth by Steven Walters (Second Thought Theatre); Fortress of Solitude by Itamar Moses and Michael Friedman (Dallas Theater Center); mania/gift by Shelby-Allison Hibbs (Echo Theatre); Stiff by Jeff Swearingen (Fun House Theatre and Film).

Touring Production: Evita (Dallas Summer Musicals); The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess (ATTPAC); Peter and the Starcatcher (ATTPAC); Trick Boxing (Sossy Mechanics).

Special Citations: To Matt Tomlanovich, for reviving the Margo Jones as a busy performance space, opening it to fledgling companies at a reasonable price, and making it available to small festivals, poetry slams, readings and dance groups; and to Lawson Taitte, for his distinguished career in arts criticism.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

LISTEN: ‘Nothing Short of Wonderful’ from ‘Dogfight’

In the current edition of Dallas Voice, we have an interview with Benj Pasek, the gay half of the composing team responsible for the musical Dogfight, which gets its outside-of-New York premiere at WaterTower Theatre, which opens tonight. You can listen to a sample of what the show has in store here, with one of the charming musical numbers form the show.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

WaterTower Theatre announces 2014-15 season

terrymartin-38

Terry Martin

Addison’s WaterTower Theatre extends its affiliation with Fort Worth’s Stage West with another co-production, and offers two regional premieres as well as a piece by local playwright Vicki Caroline Cheatwood in its upcoming season.

The season — the 15th for WTT’s artistic director, Terry Martin — opens with a musical biography with Dallas roots: Bonnie & Clyde (Oct. 10–Nov. 2), which had a brief run on Broadway two seasons ago.  That’s followed by a new holiday show built around a familiar group. The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical (Dec. 5–Jan. 4, 2015) follows the antics of the popular Great American Trailer Park Musical, which WTT has produced in the past to much acclaim.

The Explorers Club, co-produced with Stage West, runs Jan. 16–Feb. 8, 2015, followed by Arthur Miller’s Tony Award-winning drama All My Sons (April 17–May 10). Cheatwood’s new play Manicures & Monuments settles in for a summer run (June 5–28), and the musical Sweet Charity closes out the season (July 14–Aug. 16).

The Out of the Loop Fringe Festival returns for its 14th incarnation, March 5–15.

For more information or season tickets, visit WaterTowerTheatre.org.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEWS: ‘Evita,’ ‘Spunk’

caroline bowman as eva peron with CheFor many, Evita was the show that won over musical theater fans to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s side before he became the bombastic hit-monster of Cats and Sunset Boulevard. In some ways, it’s the most unlikely of musical subjects: The machiavellian machinations of the former first lady of Argentina, Eva Peron, who was long-dead by the time the show opened. And yet, it’s a compelling piece of operatic theater, a kind of political tragedy where Lady Macbeth never has second thoughts.

The original production made stars out of Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin (Madonna made the movie version 17 years later). The version now at Fair Park Music Hall, courtesy of Dallas Summer Musicals, doesn’t reach those legendary heights, but it’s a reminder of how solidly entertaining and innovative Evita has always been.

It’s the day Eva (Caroline Bowman) has died, and a disgruntled Che Guevara (Josh Young) seems alone in his lack of sentiment. Was she a devil or a saint? Madonna or whore? Is it possible to be all of these things? Through flashbacks, Che narrates her calculated rise from rural nobody to radio star to wife of military hero and eventual president Juan Peron (Sean MacLaughlin).

This is the national tour of the recent Broadway revival that starred Ricky Martin. Ricky doesn’t she-bang in this one, but with Tony Award nominee Josh Young in the role of Che, it doesn’t matter much — he has a powerful tenor and a fierce indignation (especially evident in the fantasy number “Waltz for Eva and Che”).

He’s not the only strong performance, though — indeed, of the many productions I’ve seen of Evita this is the first where all five man roles are equally well played. Bowman’s transformation from girl-from-the-sticks to trashy actress to steely political wife to, eventually, a frail and cancer-ridden ghost, is endlessly convincing. MacLaughlin is a strong, sexy Peron, and even Christopher Johnstone, as the cheezy singer Magaldi and Krystine Alabado as Peron’s former mistress do excellent, detailed work. Michael Grandage’s direction keeps the show moving effortlessly, and despite a few missed opportunities for irony and character development, it’s a stellar show, not revived often enough.

KA2_8128Up at the Addison Theatre Centre, WaterTower Theatre has its own stellar musical on the boards. Based on three short stories by Zora Neale Hurston, Spunk is a jaunty little 90-minute show that has the smoky appeal of a Lenox Avenue speakeasy in the 1930s.

Liz Mikel is this show’s Che, a kind of narrator who escort us through three unrelated scenes by one of the few female voices to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance. The stories are largely unrelated both in tale and tone, but Hurston’s clear, precise style bursts through each of them. In one, a woman (Tiffany D. Hobbs) in the rural south endures the abuses of her drunken husband … until an opportunity presents itself that may free her. In another, zoot-suited dandies throw more shade than a drag queen at noon as they try to woo a liberated woman in post-War NYC. In the third, a loving family man deals with the anguish caused when his wife cheats on him in a weird twist on The Gift of the Magi.

This is toe-tapping theater, full of energy and dark beauty, magnificently lighted by Jason C. Foster (who imbues the Art Deco, Gatsby-inspired set with fire and mood) and performed by a gifted cast. Just try not to have a good time.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

WaterTower announces lineup for 2014 Out of the Loop Fringe Festival

AztecButcher15WaterTower Theatre announced today the lineup of shows for its 2014 Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, which takes place March 6–16.  The Addison theater will host seven world premieres and several returning favorites, Terry Martin, the artistic director, said. As always, the festival will include dance, theatre, cabaret artists and visual arts

Eighteen artists and performing arts organizations will participate in this year’s festival. Among the  world premieres will be Mozart’s Muse (presented by Jendi Tarde), Beware of Plastics (Actor’s Conservatory Theater), local actress-singer Diana Sheehan in Searching for Gertrude Lawrence and returning gay playwright David Parr’s Express from 59th. Best of Loop will also return this year. 

The gayest of the plays is certainly Falling Man, about a drag queen, a hustler and Jeffrey Dahmer.

Read the full line up after the jump.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones