And Now For Some Community Theatre

My last post was about, among other things, the connection between theatre and the community, and another way that theatre can transform a community is by encouraging and educating its young performers. Thus, I decided to support Sol’s Children’s Theatre by bopping over to its first production of the season, Little Shop of Horrors.

Given that these were student performers, I’m not going to say too much about the acting, besides that Celia Roberts had great stage presence and hit some impressive notes as “Mrs. Mushnik,” a role gender-bent from Mr. Mushnik in the original script. In fact, the vocal talents of some of the female ensemble members made me wonder what could have been if some other male characters had been less traditionally cast.

The show was well directed by Courtney Poston and had great production values. This was my first time seeing the stage version of Little Shop of Horrors, and it was refreshing to see a show that was relatively family-friendly and consistently amusing without being frivolous or grating. The play, which initially seemed to be a whimsically absurd story of a sweet workplace romance and a mysterious plant, also had some surprisingly dark moments and complex themes.

After all, the only happy ending to be found is for Audrey II the plant, and the way that it (He? She? Female name, male voice….Do giant plants even have gender identities?) gradually talks Seymour into committing steeper and steeper crimes so that he can keep the fame being a giant-plant-gardener has granted him is eventually revealed to be an allegory for the ways in which insidious forces of evil can gradually infect our psyches. In fact, the show’s closing edict urging us not to “feed the plants” could well be considered a similar message to the one espoused under far more serious circumstances in Gablestage’s production of Wiesenthal.

The next production on my agenda was Calendar Girls at the Delray Beach Playhouse, where I’ll be performing in a few staged readings for their Playwrights’ Festival later this month. The play Calendar Girls was inspired by the film, which was in turn inspired by the true story of Angela Baker, a British woman who lost her husband to leukemia and then sought to raise money to buy a new couch for the wing in which he had undergone chemotherapy. The twist is that she raises this money by convincing a few of her closest WI (Women’s Institute) friends, all of who are over 40, to appear with her in a special “nudie calendar.”

The grief of Annie (the character based on Angela) and this noble mission provide the heart and pathos behind what is otherwise a relatively light show. The women’s calendrical caper eventually raised over 5,000 dollars for leukemia research, and many productions of the play have taken up that mantle by making their own charitable contributions. The Delray Playhouse did so by donating to the Holy Cross Hospital’s Partners In Breast Health program.

Calendar Girls is quite the popular show over in England, the home country of its protagonists, and this production makes it easy to see why. The play boasts several meaty roles for older actresses and movingly and memorably celebrates the power of female friendship and the good that can come from baring it all for a good cause, pun the only kind of intended. Helen Buttery is a heartfelt and grounding presence as protagonist Annie. Other standouts include Amy Salerno as the fun-loving Celia, Marcie Hall as the spotlight-frenzied Chris, and Forman Lauren as the young-at-heart Elaine.

The play’s highlight was most definitely the photoshoot scene, which began with the characters loosening up for the occasion by taking swigs from a large bottle of vodka and becoming fittingly raucous. The actresses appear quite scantily clad, but all of their truly naughty bits are creatively covered up by props ranging from flower wreaths to cinnamon buns.

The second act is somewhat less engaging as the focus shifts to an out of nowhere subplot about one woman’s philandering husband and an unrealistic plotline in which the women struggle against the temptation to give into their own “plants” and appear wearing only flowers in an advertisement for detergent. However, the play finishes strong as the ladies smooth over their superficial disagreements and enjoy the lovely sight of a hill covered in the sunflowers that John had requested be planted in his memory.

I then completed my latest trifecta by attending this Thursday evening’s performance of Sister Act at the Lake Worth Playhouse. Though this story is a fictional one, it did, like Calendar Girls, featuring a group of traditional women who gain worldwide acclaim for their nontraditional behavior. Its action kicks off when wayward soul singer Deloris agrees to hide out in a convent in order to gain protection from her criminal ex-boyfriend Curtis.

Deloris predictably fails to fit in with her “sisters” at first, leading to few entertaining “fish-out-of-water” type gags, but things take off when she is placed in charge of the church choir. The rock and roll inspired anthems that ensue take the convent’s congregation by storm, leading to a huge spike in donations for the church, national TV appearances, and even a performance in front of the pope.

The playfully irreverent in-story musical numbers that result from this contrivance are probably the show’s highlight, featuring some impressive harmonizing and showcasing the vocal talents of Michelle Sanchez as Sister Mary Robert and the rapping abilities of Arielle Ingrassia-Smith as Sister Mary Lazarus. On the whole, the choreography was less impressive than the singing, but who expects nuns to know how to dance anyhow?

I’ve never seen the movie Sister Act, but the broad and endearingly improbable story seemed veritably built for musical comedy. As protagonist Deloris, Fednike Nozistene had great comedic timing and vocal chops, and the star power to suggest that she was as “Fabulous” as the script asserted. Unfortunately, her more frantic dialogue occasionally got too shrieky to be clearly understood. This may have been less of a problem with her and more with the sound design, which more noticeably faltered a few times during the performance.

In contrast, the exquisite set and costume design shined both literally and figuratively. A gorgeous stained-glass window served as the backdrop to the chapel scenes and eye-popping outfits appeared throughout; standouts include Deloris’s opening leopard ensemble and the nun choir’s shimmering finale habits.

Jill Williams as Mother Superior made the straight-laced character likable, and her charisma and sincerity enlivened even uptight anthems like “Here Within These Walls” and “I Haven’t Got A Prayer.” Less enjoyable and a tad indecorous was “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” a song that featured some less talented male company members as Curtis’s lackeys discussing how they would hypothetically seduce unwilling nuns in order to gain access to Deloris. Finally, Joseph Gervasi lent an endearing awkwardness to his portrayal of Deloris’s protector and eventual love interest Eddie.

Otherwise, the tuneful music by veteran Alan Menken and often clever lyrics by Glenn Slater ensured a consistently enjoyable performance. So did some hilariously specific touches, such as John Carlile as the Monsignor dancing excitedly during his sisters’ first choir performance. You probably won’t come away with any great spiritual insights from this religiously inspired tale, but if a feel-good night at the theatre and the chance to enjoy some incredible local talent is what you’re after, you definitely won’t be disappointed.

You only have until this October 20th to catch all three of these productions, so time to get moving!

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