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Thursday
Jul252019

Mill Town Players Hit Bullseye with "Annie Get Your Gun"

By Paul Hyde/Anderson Observer

Before the summer of 2019 slips away, Mill Town Players is offering a sunny, rip-snorting production of “Annie Get Your Gun.”

Sarah Greene stars as Annie Oakley in the Mill Town Players’ “Annie Get Your Gun,” continuing through Aug. 4 at the Pelzer Auditorium. (Photo by Escobar Photography LLC).Irving Berlin’s classic 1946 musical really is a perfect summertime treat, as sugary and refreshing as a tall glass of sweet tea.

Director Lauren Imhoff’s blithe and breezy staging features a dynamite cast led by Sarah Greene and Bradley Lucore as the two sharpshooters Annie Oakley and Frank Butler who toggle between comic rivalry and blissful infatuation.

Annie and Frank fall in love as stars of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show but their fierce competitiveness forces them apart. Will love triumph in the end? Need one ask?

A host of beloved musical standards propels the show -- “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” “Anything You Can Do,” “They Say It’s Wonderful,” and the boisterous curtain-raiser “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” among other favorites.

Imhoff, assisted by Lucy Southwell, brings to the production a pleasing clarity and comic inventiveness that reaches sublime heights in the competitive duet “Anything You Can Do.” 

The principal cast and chorus of almost two dozen make a bountiful sound in the Pelzer Auditorium on “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and other big ensemble numbers.

Greene and Lucore are terrific as Annie and Frank. Greene’s irrepressible Annie has a sparkling smile and a lovely voice. Her rendition of the divine “Moonshine Lullaby” is sweetly rendered. But Greene also has some powerful pipes that she unleashes when needed.

Lucore exhibits a resonant baritone that’s also capable of a warm, expressive croon. 

It’s easy to overplay “Annie Get Your Gun.” Greene and Lucore opt for understatement, delivering the show’s sometimes corny jokes naturally. The musical’s humor still hits the mark: The opening night crowd seemed to have a grand time.

Will Ragland, the founder of the Mill Town Players, returns to the stage as Buffalo Bill Cody, a role Ragland embraces with gusto.

A romantic subplot involves Drake King (Tommy Keeler) and Waverly Speranza (Winnie Tate), who make a fetching and spirited young couple.

Laura Beth Beckner, as Frank’s assistant Dolly Tate, is appropriately catty and sarcastic. Joe Welborn plays Chief Sitting Bull with comic stoicism. 

It’s great to see self-assured Upstate stage veterans like Bud Shevick (Pawnee Bill) and Tom Holahan (Foster Wilson) in this production. 

Other fine contributions are offered by Alex Robinson and the beaming, energetic children Alice Johnson, Daisy Bates and Riley Fincher-Foster.

One caveat: On opening night, Annie and her siblings were too well-scrubbed at the beginning of the show. They’re supposed to be hillbillies at the outset: References are made to their comically grubby appearance, but Greene’s Annie was gorgeous when she first stepped foot on stage. That shortchanges the “Fair Lady”-arc of her character.

Imhoff’s production follows Peter Stone’s 1999 version of the show, which updates the musical in a thoroughly appealing way, eliminating some cringe-worthy songs and scenes, and giving Annie greater self-assertion. She’s a forward-looking character, anticipating changes in women’s status. Frank, meanwhile, is stuck in the privileges of his gender – but he seems to have the capacity to change.

There’s a subplot that touches on prejudice against Tommy, who is half-Native American, and though the subject is treated lightly, it resonates against the backdrop of today’s political climate.

Musical director Julie Florin deserves credit for the superb vocal preparation. Kudos to Florin particularly for emphasizing clarity in diction. 

Stacey Hawks’ costumes – including some sumptuous ballroom gowns -- are outstanding.

Ragland, scenic artist Abby Brown and graphic designer Ryan Bradburn created the excellent big top setting for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. 

This peppy production of “Annie Get Your Gun” continues through Aug. 4 at the Pelzer Auditorium. For tickets, a bargain at only $10-$12, call 864-947-8000 or visit the website www.milltownplayers.org.

Paul Hyde, a veteran Upstate journalist, writes about the arts for the Anderson Observer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7. Follow the Facebook page Upstate Onstage for the latest in arts news and reviews. 

Wednesday
Jun262019

AU Rep Theatre ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Around the World’ This Weekend

By Paul Hyde/Anderson Observer 

The high school students of the AU Repertory Theatre have two big plays to put together in a mere three weeks. 

But that’s no problem for these talented teens.AU Repertory Theatre students rehearse for performances this week of “Julius Caesar” and “Around the World in 80 Days.” (Photos Courtesy of AU Repertory Theatre)

AU Rep Theatre, now in its seventh year, is a summer program for Upstate teenagers who work with Anderson University theater students to stage plays on a tight deadline. 

“It’s an intense experience,” Robert Homer-Drummond, artistic director of the program and an Anderson University associate professor of theater.

This year the AU Rep Theatre presents a classic tragedy -- Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” -- and a comedy – “Around the World in 80 Days,” based on the Jules Verne novel. 

The plays will alternate, Today-Saturday, with “Julius Caesar” on Wednesday and Friday and “Around the World in 80 Days” on Thursday and Saturday. 

Performances at Anderson University’s Belk Theatre begin at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are only $10. For more information, call 864-231-2125 or visit www.schoolofthearts.com

The productions are briskly paced, lasting a little more than an hour.

The 16 high school students take on all acting roles while the seven college students lead behind the scenes: as stage directors, and as set and costume designers. 

“They’re really only three or four years apart, so the high school students really relate well to the college students,” Homer-Drummond said. “The kids bond together really well.” 

The high school students work 9-to-5, taking theater classes and rehearsing one play in the morning and another in the afternoon. 

They also get involved with the technical side of the production.

“We create fully realized sets and costumes,” said John Leggett, an Anderson University student who is directing “Julius Caesar.” 

It’s a great educational experience for the high school students. 

“They learn a lot about all aspects of theater,” Homer-Drummond said. “They absorb the seriousness with which the college students take the art and craft.” 

Theater education not only boosts self-confidence but also teaches communication skills while nourishing creativity, empathy and teamwork, Homer-Drummond said. 

Many students return for a second summer -- or a third. 

“They get hooked,” Homer-Drummond said. 

Meanwhile, the Anderson University students who lead the program “just love it. I usually have a line out my door of students wanting to be involved,” Homer-Drummond said.

Leggett said the college students learn a lot themselves – by intensively examining their own acting and directing, and by teaching classes in the theater technology.

“A lot of us go to school for acting but we want to be able to branch out from that as well,” Leggett said. “I majored in acting but I’m really interest the production side of theater. I hope the kids are learning a lot from what I bring to the table.”

Paul Hyde, a longtime Upstate journalist, writes about the arts for the Anderson Observer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7. 

Sunday
May262019

Review: Mill Town Players Baptist Women Touch the Heart

Greg Wilson/Anderson Observer

“You’re not supposed to understand, you’re Baptist.”

This line from the second act of “First Baptist of Ivy Gap,” could not be a better tagline in this latest offering from The Mill Town Players. 

Photo Escobar PhotographyBut you don't have to be Baptist to enjoy this two-act play which kicks off in 1945, with the 75th anniversary celebration of the church and concludes in 1970 as they plan to mark 100 years of First Baptist Ivy Gap. 

As the play begins in 1945, six women are gathering at the church to roll bandages for the war effort. Five of the women are, in one way or another pillars of the church, and the sixth eager to become a Baptist and a member of their fellowship.

But while preparing for their act of mercy, preparations are also under way for First Baptist Ivy Gap’s 50th anniversary celebration. Not party, a celebration, as Edith is quick to remind the women Baptists don’t have parties.

Libby Riggins shines as the ageless Edith, the pastor’s wife, and serves as a kind of master of ceremonies, keeping not only the story, but the stories of the other women moving. Riggins’ movements, voice and temperament bring a sassy attitude to the long-suffering wife of a pastor who gets little respect. Edith does what many pastors’ wives have done for more than a century, she runs the church while her husband preaches on Sunday. The women who are paying attention are the only ones who recognize her effort. 

If you grew up in practically any denomination in the Deep South during the last half of the last century, these women will either be familiar to you, or you are likely a man who was never allowed (or never bothered) to look behind the scenes. 

Meanwhile Mae Ellen, the church organist who can’t wait to leave Ivy Gap, is less diplomatic than the others about what’s wrong the the church, the town and those who live in it.

DeAnna Gregory brings an authenticity to a role which could easily have drifted into caricature. Mae Ellen loves going “off the bulletin” to play her own versions of the hymns, even changing the words to update the text. She is first to say what almost everyone else is thinking, without a hint of real malice, all the while constantly begging to be fired. Mae Ellen also manages to link the younger women, including Edith, in overlooking tradition and rules.  

Her interactions with Olene, in a lively and energetic performance by Alyssa McMillan as the wanna-be Hollywood starlet ready to leave town today, offer some of the play’s silliest (and funniest) moments as at least some of the older church ladies aren’t sure what to make of them and their song and dance routine. Olene follows her dream to Hollywood, only to find it more a nightmare, before landing a long-running job in the land that Baptists forgot - Las Vegas. Olene’s demonstration of her “Madame Midnight” dance gets more eye rolls than blushes, though, from her long-time friends at Ivy Gap. She breaks all the rules but still is welcomed home as if she never left. 

Those rules were primarily the domain of Vera, the church aristocrat played with pearls and cat-eye glasses snooty perfection by Nancy Burkard. Vera might be the most recognizable church goer, the one who is affluent, tithes and always carries a pocket full of first stones. She expects deference, and wants no part of fun or real fellowship with the other women. Her gear shift to redemption in the second act finally brings her some measure of connection, even if it is a little prickly. 

Luby, Fran Eckert’s widow worried with grief, sets the tone for the first act as a smothering mother waiting for her only son to return from the war. She is the very real reminder that the bandages are for real people, and hopes, but doubts her prayers are enough to bring her son home safe. Eckert brings a quiet, mourning counter tone of solemnity to a story that otherwise could have turned into regional farce. Her redemption and transformation are believable, thanks to a fine performance. 

Her son’s safety is also foremost, but secretly, on the mind of Sammy, the young non-Baptist outsider played by Ryvers Martin. Sammy is more rural than the townsfolk of Ivy Gap, and wants to fit in so badly she jumps at any chance to join in, including Baptism. Martin gives heart to the wounded Sammy, and nails the most radical transformation of any of the characters after 25 years have passed.   

The growth, or lack thereof, of these women provides an excellent second act, and the good opening-night crowd was engaged throughout.  

As always, the set for this play was spot on, thanks to Will Ragland. The Mill Town Players are widely known as having the best staging of any company in the Upstate, and “First Baptist of Ivy Gap” is no exception. 

"First Baptist of Ivy Gap” has seven more shows, Sunday at 3 p.m., and Friday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and June 2 at 3 p.m., and June 6-9.

For more information visit Mill Town Players

Friday
May242019

Market Theatre Bonnie & Clyde Bold, Ambitious

By Paul Hyde/Anderson Observer

The Market Theatre Company is nothing if not bold and ambitious.

As many Upstate theaters go for the familiar and safe, the Market Theatre goes for broke.

That’s certainly true of the theater’s dynamic production of “Bonnie & Clyde” that opened last week and continues through June 2.Photo Escobar Photography

There’s risk in presenting a big but lesser-known show for the first time in the Upstate. (This production may be a South Carolina premiere, too.) But the gamble pays off, thanks to an appealing musical score and an attractive, strong-voiced cast.

The story is part of American folklore: Bonnie and Clyde, two restless young Texans, find love and adventure by becoming outlaws in Depression-era America.

The show traces the two from their starry-eyed youth, with Clyde idolizing Al Capone and Billy the Kid, and Bonnie more innocently longing to be movie star Clara Bow, the “It Girl.” For both Bonnie and Clyde, fame is their ticket out of dirt-poor drudgery.

Later, robbing banks and stores – and killing a few people along the way – Bonnie and Clyde become folk heroes, a symbol of resistance to an American system (fat cats, the church and government) that had abandoned a desperate, starving populace. 

For a story of mayhem and murder, Ivan Menchell’s book also offers flashes of surprising humor – as when Bonnie and Clyde bicker over who deserves top billing in their illegal exploits.

Frank Wildhorn, best known for “Jekyll and Hyde,” created an eclectic score for “Bonnie & Clyde” that encompasses jazz, blues, gospel, country-western, rockabilly and pop-style power ballads.

Director Dalton Cole brings focus, clarity and momentum to the Market Theatre production. Caitlin Browne provides the lively choreography.  

Mariel Zmarzly and Matt Groves, as Bonne and Clyde, make a fetching couple of young bandits, negotiating Wildhorn’s sometimes high-flying songs with ease. They’re young actors, a reminder that Bonnie and Clyde were barely out of their teens when they embarked on their criminal careers.

Zmarzly caresses the suave ballad “How ’Bout A Dance” and soars on the heart-tugging “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad,” the latter a pop Liebestod in which Bonnie imagines the lovers dying together.  

Groves is an affable outlaw, brimming with swaggering self-confidence and cutting loose on rousing uptempo numbers like “Raise a Little Hell.”

The opulent-voiced Lauren Renner is a standout as Blanche Barrow, Clyde’s sister-in-law. When Renner joins with Zmarzly for the tear-jerker “You Love Who You Love” – about fateful romance – it’s an episode of musical theater transcendence.

Jonathan Long plays Clyde’s brother, Buck Barrow, with gusto, sturdy in voice and stage presence.

Camila Escobar glows with charisma as the Young Bonnie. Gregory Middleton brings restless energy to the role of Young Clyde.

Cam Johnston does a fine turn as Ted, a cop hankering after Bonnie but unable to compete with the roguish appeal of Clyde.

Ken Thomason, as the Preacher, leads the chorus in the spirited “God’s Arms Are Always Open.”

The production features a solid ensemble of more than a dozen. Joshua VanderVeen is responsible for the tight musical preparation.

The production uses recorded music that serves the production well.

One caveat: Don Black’s lyrics could be more crisply articulated throughout the show.

Theater-goers should note: The dialogue includes some strong language.

For tickets to the Market Theatre’s compelling production of “Bonnie & Clyde,” call 864-729-2999 or visit the website the www.marketanderson.org.

Paul Hyde, a longtime Upstate journalist, writes about the arts for the Anderson Observer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

Friday
May242019

Market Theatre Shoots Up Stage with Bonnie & Clyde