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Friday
Feb152019

Market Theatre's "Our Town" Glows with Charm, Sincerity

By Paul Hyde/Anderson Observer

“Our Town” works its gentle magic in a poignant production of this classic play at the Market Theatre Company.

Director Robert Fuson’s streamlined staging of Thornton Wilder’s drama glows with charm and sincerity.

Fuson’s production unfolds naturally, with no undue theatrical flourishes or razzle-dazzle. For scenery, there are only two tables and 10 chairs on stage. It’s a simple story simply told.

Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Our Town” finds the beauty and poetry in ordinary lives. At the heart of the story are two teenagers, Emily and George, tentatively courting and starting a life together.

The play is set in a small town in the early 20thcentury, perhaps not so different from any small town in the early 21stcentury.

The Stage Manager (Jessie Davis), foreground, tells the story of Emily Webb (Kellsey Cornnell) and George Gibbs (Noah Austin) during a rehearsal for “Our Town” at the Market Theatre Company. Photo by Noah Taylor. Grover’s Corners is the sort of community where most local folks believe that an evening stroll can be as satisfying – if perhaps not as thrilling -- as a trip to Paris.

There’s not much high drama in the small town, but there are compensations: the sunrise, birdsong in the summer, plants, trees and the change of seasons. For most of the town’s residents, that seems to be enough, and even more than enough.

Not everyone, of course, is “meant for small-town life,” one character says, and it’s probably true that the low-key “Our Town” is not meant for all theater-goers. Its humor is genial, its voice almost never shouts.

But it’s a profound play that wears its profundity lightly.

Fusion’s staging aims to be natural and earnest. It succeeds at that but, on opening night, the actors spoke so softly at the beginning of the play that I and some others missed some of the dialogue. 

“Our Town” is an ensemble show, and this production features 13 capable Upstate actors.

Among the standouts is Jessie Davis as the Stage Manager, the play’s narrator who occasionally becomes a character in the drama. The role is often played by a folksy grandfatherly actor, but Davis, a young actress, was an inspired choice for the part. She offers an emotionally engaged portrayal, sensitive and heartfelt.

Kelsey Cornnell and Noah Austin are appealing and believable as Emily and George, the young romantic couple. Cornnell’s Emily is sweet and gracefully articulated. Austin captures George’s youthful awkwardness and rambunctious energy.

Four actors offer solid contributions as the parents of Emily and George: Rob Gentry (Dr. Gibbs), Sarah Anderson (Mrs. Gibbs), Ken Thomason (Mr. Webb) and Casey Certain (Mrs. Webb).

Bree Green designed the excellent costumes.

Only two more performances, Saturday and Sunday, remain of this fine production of “Our Town.” For tickets, call 864-729-2999 or visit the website www.themarketanderson.org.

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

Wednesday
Dec122018

"Hamilton" a Dynamite Theatrical Experience at the Peace Center

By Paul Hyde/Anderson Observer

You can believe all the great things you’ve heard about “Hamilton.” The national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical at the Peace Center is dynamite, a brilliant theatrical experience that lives up to its hype.

The national tour of "Hamilton" continues through Sunday at the Peace Center.It’s a very American story of an impoverished immigrant from the Caribbean who makes good in the land of opportunity.

It’s also a love story, and a love letter to our founding fathers and mothers.

And it’s the arts event of the year in the Upstate.

What you may not know is that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s remarkable, game-changing musical nicely balances revolution with tradition. The show tells the story of Alexander Hamilton – the fellow on the $10 bill and the creator of America’s economic system – through a virtuosic outburst of rap music.

Yet, the show also features traditional -- and highly appealing -- song and dance numbers in the styles of R&B, jazz, Britpop and good ol’ musical theater. Miranda, a dynamic wordsmith and theater pro, drops tasty references to Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan and “South Pacific,” among many others.

At almost three hours with intermission, the show, which also won the Pulitzer Prize, is a lot more substantial – but also funnier – than the usual blockbuster musical. Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson conduct war, compose the Constitution and outline the economic structure of a new nation.

The show’s dialogue, conveyed in often briskly-paced rap, approaches Shakespearean lengths. The large principal cast also puts one in mind of the breadth of Shakespeare’s plays or a Wagnerian opera.

“Hamilton” is crammed with words and, yes, it’s fair to say the show makes demands on a modern audience’s attention span. 

At the center of the story is Hamilton himself, the fast-talking, fast-writing man with a mission and overwhelming ambition. His friend and murderous rival, Aaron Burr, serves as an embittered narrator with a front seat to Hamilton’s meteoric rise to become the first U.S. secretary of the Treasury.

“Hamilton” certainly qualifies as the musical of the modern resistance, with its emphasis on the central role played by immigrants in our great Nation of Immigrants. Today, when refugees and immigrants are often shunned in our nation, “Hamilton” is a keen reminder of our roots.

The show’s most famous line -- “Immigrants, we get the job done” – inspired enthusiastic applause on the night I attended, as it does most anywhere the musical is staged.

With black and Hispanic actors in period costumes portraying white historical figures, the cast looks like America today rather than the American of 1776. The show’s diversity and hip-hop music remind an audience that the ongoing American revolution – and its vision of a more inclusive nation – belongs to the young.

Our hero Alexander Hamilton speaks in contemporary rap, but he achieves fame and influence the old-fashioned way -- by earning it: “by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter,” as the opening number makes clear.

I think history buffs will love the show, based on Ron Chernow’s sprawling 2004 biography of Hamilton. The musical gets the broad outlines of our nation’s story correct – particularly the shifting loyalties in an America founded on the sort of brutal factionalism that continues today. It’s a bit jarring, to say the least, to see Jefferson and Madison played as comic characters – but they’re certainly funny.

Miranda is not out to diminish the founding fathers. Quite the opposite: The musical is patriotic, awestruck by the achievements of the founders.

And it’s gratifying to see the revolutionary war hero John Laurens, who was born and died in South Carolina, occupying a prominent role in the story of “Hamilton.” Laurens was a good friend of Hamilton, maybe his lover. The city and county of Laurens in the Upstate is named after John Laurens’ father, Henry.

The electrifying, high-octane direction and choreography are by, respectively, Thomas Kail and Andy Blankenbuehler.

The cast is superb. Joseph Morales is sympathetic in the tour de force role of Hamilton, a mix of pluck and insecurity. Nik Walker, a commanding actor with tremendous charisma, plays Burr.

Jon Patrick Walker is a delight as King George III, who comments on the revolution with prissy petulance.

Shoba Narayan is beautiful in voice and presence as Eliza Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s wife. Ta’Rea Campbell, as Eliza’s sister Angelica Schuyler, soars in her numbers.

Marcus Choi is the formidable George Washington. Several actors do double duty, embracing their roles with gusto: Kyle Scatliffe (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Fergie L. Philippe (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), Elijah Malcomb (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton) and Nyla Sostre (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds).

Wonza Johnson, a graduate of the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, offers a solid contribution in three roles (Philip Schuyler, James Reynolds, the Doctor) – and substitutes for Hamilton in some shows.

The entire cast sounds magnificent in big ensemble numbers like “Yorktown.”

David Korins’ economical, rough-hewn set of planks, stairs and ropes suggests an 18th century port which, to the refugee and immigrant, must have been the symbolic equivalent of a Statue of Liberty in colonial America.

This dazzling touring production of “Hamilton” continues through Sunday. Some tickets may remain. Call the Peace Center at 864-467-3000 or see the website peacecenter.org.

Paul Hyde, a veteran Upstate journalist, writes about the arts for the Anderson Observer. Write to him at paulhydeus@yahoo.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

Sunday
Dec092018

Hope Abounds in Market Theatre’s Rambunctious ‘Annie’

By Paul Hyde/Anderson Observer

Hope and optimism are in abundant supply in the Market Theatre Company’s rambunctious “Annie.”

Charles Strouse’s 1976 show about an orphan who wants to find a loving home is a perfect treat for the Caption: The Market Theatre Company's "Annie" continues through Dec. 16. Photo Credit: Escobar Photography.Christmas season. It’s sweet, disarming and cheery.

Look a little deeper and you’ll find a great American musical with heart and decency, recalling a time – specifically the Great Depression – when Americans stuck together through thick and thin, looking out for each other.

That’s a welcome message at Christmastime and anytime.

Director Jessie Davis and choreographer Ryan Hewitt deliver an energetic, high-spirited production.

Those virtues are evident early in the show when the young residents of the Municipal Girls Orphanage attack the number “Hard Knock Life,” generating a satisfying ruckus with their foot stamping and vocal oomph.

This is a staging with gusto, and it’s a big cast, with more than 15 orphans.

Davis, the director, nimbly negotiates the Market Theatre’s challenging space, bringing clarity and momentum to the proceedings.

Daisy Bates is a spunky Annie with a sparkling smile and winning stage presence.

Kyle Caudell is a pleasingly gruff Oliver Warbucks who later exhibits a heart of gold and an appealing baritone.

Heather Mutolo, a standout, plays a fierce Miss Hannigan, the drunken matron of the orphanage, the harridan you love to hate. In the comic world of “Annie,” however, even the villains are not all that nasty. Mutolo brings a powerful voice to songs such as “Little Girls.”

Noah Austin and Victoria Cox are the two zesty schemers, Rooster and Lily St. Regis.

Kyle Heaten is adorable as the youngest orphan, Molly.

Ben Otto Sunderman is a likeable, forthright Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s scenes are played for laughs but they’re a reminder of a president who preached optimism, invested in people and brought Americans together. Those scenes gain added resonance in light of today’s divided political climate.

Hal Hunsinger is the chipper radio host Bert Healy.

Martha Upper and Carl Whitman offer solid contributions as, respectively, Warbucks’ secretary Grace and butler Drake.

The dog playing Sandy was uncredited in the program, but he (she?) did what Sandy usually does in “Annie” – completely steal the scene.

Michael Benitez does a good job with the musical preparation.

The entire ensemble makes a splendid sound in the relatively small Market Theatre. One caveat: At times, the cast could articulate Martin Charnin’s superb lyrics a bit more crisply.

This lively “Annie” continues through Dec.16. For tickets, call 864-729-2999 or visit the website www.themarketanderson.org.

Paul Hyde, a veteran Upstate journalist, writes about the arts for the Anderson Observer. Write to him at paulhydeus@yahoo.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

Wednesday
Dec052018

Mill Town Players “Plaid Tidings" Brings Great Joy for the Season 

By Greg Wilson/Anderson Observer 

Looking for a sweet, fun, enjoyable show holiday show to get you through this hectic season? The Mill Town Players’ “Plaid Tidings” is just the ticket.

A followup to “Forever Plaid,” the tale of a young quartet (“The Plaids”) who could have been famous if not for their untimely deaths in a 1964 auto crash (they were hit by a bus full of teenagers on their way to see the Beatles), who have now been sent back to Earth from the cosmos for one more visit. 

Their new mission? To help spread the wonder of the holiday spirit. The Plaids’ members — Frankie (Drew Whitley), Sparky (Mark Spung-Wiles), Jinx (Aaron Pennington) and Smudge (Dalton Cole) — kick off the show with a good look around the theater and concluding that the audience sure looks a lot older than they did on the group’s last visit to Earth.

It takes the quartet a bit to realize their holiday mission, with a fair portion of the initially somewhat slow first act connecting to the group’s past musical numbers, including a medley of their “would have been” hits.  

But the Plaids hit their stride when, with the help of Rosemary Clooney, they move into a wonderful, hilarious run of new spins on holiday favorites. Channeling Harry Belfante, one calypso number, which continues to repeat “in excelsis da-a-ay-o,” let’s the audience know they are in for a fun ride for the rest of the show.

And fun it is. Their recreation of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” complete with Topo Gigio, the Flying Wallendas, a plate spinner, a dog act and more, is one of the most delightful moments I’ve witnessed on a local stage. (Kudos to Kim Granner who designed the scene’s wonderful madness.)

The harmonies, a mixture of barbershop harmony and Four Seasons, are tight, and, after a bumpy start, the comedy works, especially when it’s just plain silly.  

Aaron Pennington, who steals almost every scene, is hilarious as he evokes Lou Costello to the point one half expects him to shout “Hey Abbott!”  

The rest of the cast also delivers, including Spung-Wiles’ energetic and amazing (and strange) cover of Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” Spung-Wiles near-frenetic movement thoughout gives momentum to the play Just when things start to slow a bit. Cole brings not only a calming presence, but a much needed lower-register voice, and his solos of straight Christmas numbers shine. Meanwhile Whitley is in top form wearing an island hat and leading the audience in a Christmas-inspired “Matilda” singalong. 

Chase McAbee, on piano, and Anderson Legend John Brookshire, on upright bass, provide almost all of the production’s lively music in style.

And “Perry Como” also puts in a noteable, if somewhat stiff, cameo as himself near the end. You don’t want to miss it.  

If you need help getting in the Christmas spirit this year, there’s no place like The Mill Town Players “Plaid Tidings” for the holidays. And there are still two more weekends of shows. Tickets are $12 and available here, at the door or by calling 864-947-8000. 

Wednesday
Oct312018

Mill Town's "Romeo and Juliet" Packs Emotional Wallop

By Paul Hyde

Set it where you will, “Romeo and Juliet” can still pack a wallop.

Gregory Middleton as Romeo and Kat Bates as Juliet. Photos by Escobar PhotographyThe Mill Town Players decided to place Shakespeare’s tragedy among hardscrabble mountain folk in 19thcentury Appalachia.

The conceit works well, perhaps because any time period is apropos for a play about how tribal animosities can destroy young love and young lives.

Such hatred has always been with us, and perhaps more so in this election year, as the headlines of the past week attest. 

Director Christopher Rose has given the play, which opening Friday, a hurtling momentum, reducing its famed “two hours’ traffic of our stage” to one hour.

Rose has cut many lines while admirably retaining the heart of the story about the star-crossed lovers from two families divided (in this production like the Hatfields and McCoys) by an ancient feud.

Shakespeare’s words remain unchanged, but they’re delivered with Appalachian accents. Knives and guns take the place of swords. Paris bribes Capulet for his daughter’s hand with a jug of moonshine. If those nods to our own region’s heritage help to bring the play’s message closer to home, all the better.

Another plus: This is an age-appropriate production: Rose’s teenage characters are played by young actors.

Rose’s uptempo production grabs you by the lapels and never releases you. One occasionally longs for more breathing space for dramatic emphasis – or for love to develop. (I believe this play is being prepared for competition where performance time is limited.)

Yet the cruelty of the parents, the rage of the young rivals and the fate of the lovers tug mightily at the heart.

Kat Bates and Gregory Middleton are an appealing pair of impetuous young lovers. Bates is a glowing Juliet. Middleton is the very picture of the wide-eyed besotted swain with his head in the clouds.

The marvelous Cindy Mixon is a standout as the blunt, earthy, garrulous, highly emotional Nurse. She’s terrific.

It’s a pleasure also to see Anne Robards, another veteran of Upstate stages, as the fierce Lady Capulet. 

Ken Thomason has some explosive scenes as the domestic tyrant Capulet.

In a nice bit of non-traditional casting, Kelly Crittendon is a nimble Mercutio, delivering the character’s Queen Mab speech with verve.

Also offering solid contributions are Will Landrum (Benvolio), Al Means (Friar Lawrence), Jason Masters (Paris/Apothecary), Matthew Garrison (Tybalt), Ed Chambers (Montague) and Debbie Chambers (Lady Montague). 

Scenes are pleasingly interspersed with some evocative Appalachian fiddle music.

Will Ragland’s set design features a weather-beaten barn that serves a variety of purposes. Mountains and trees are never out of sight, reminding the audience of the ties that bind these characters to the land.

Beth King’s costumes are excellent – plain, sometimes threadbare and dirty -- suggesting a people burdened by poverty and hard work.

The cast generally articulates Shakespeare’s words clearly and naturally, although a few lines could be enunciated more crisply.

This production of “Romeo and Juliet” continues at Pelzer’s Mill Town Players through Nov. 4. For tickets, 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.