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Friday
Aug032018

New Season Aims to Revive Foothills Playhouse’s Fortunes 

By Paul Hyde/Anderson Observer

Will Ragland, who created a hugely successful community theater company in Pelzer in mere a few years, has taken the reins at Easley's Foothills Playhouse.

On Friday night, Ragland unveiled the first season of the playhouse's new era. 

The series includes two big musicals to open and close the season, a classic comedy, and three shows that will appeal especially to children and their parents: 

-- "Godspell" (Oct. 5-21). Stephen Schwartz' 1971 musical, with a spirited score, is a retelling of parables from the Gospels with references also to the Passion of Christ. Directed by the Market Theatre’s Noah Taylor, this “Godspell” production will be set in an abandoned cotton mill. 

-- "Elf Jr.: The Musical" (Nov. 30-Dec. 16). Based on the beloved holiday film, the musical follows Buddy the Elf in his quest to find his true identity.

-- "Steel Magnolias" (Feb. 8-24). The 1987 comedy-drama, a staple of regional theaters, follows a group of small-town southern women who come together in a beauty salon to find friendship, humor and the strength to endure through personal tribulations.   

-- "Charlotte's Web" (March 29-April 14). The play is based on the classic children's novel by E.B. White about a pig named Wilbur and his friendship with a barn spider named Charlotte, who protects Wilbur.

-- "Willy Wonka" (May 31-June 16). Roald Dahl's timeless story of the world-famous candy man and his quest to find an heir comes to chocolate-covered life on the Foothills stage. 

-- "9 to 5" (July 26-Aug. 18). Dolly Parton’s high-energy musical centers on three hard-working women who take revenge on their tyrannical boss. 

Ragland, the playhouse’s new executive artistic director, scrapped the Foothills’ earlier planned season when he came on board in July. 

The series of shows he announced Friday was based on surveys Ragland sent out by email and through social media.

“I was really interested in input from the community,” Ragland said. “I wanted to regain the trust of the community. I asked people, ‘What would you like to see?’ 

“I got over 500 responses.”

Ragland also is reducing individual ticket prices from $15 to $12.  

Emphasizing quality and affordability, Ragland has devised a motto for this season: “Expect great things.” 

Expectations certainly are running high. Ticket sales at the playhouse, now in its 37th year, have plummeted in the recent past, with some performances seeing only 20 percent attendance, Ragland said. 

The playhouse’s finances have been shaky at best, with debt piling up and some concerns that the theater would have to close its doors. 

“My two goals are to increase attendance and to boost tickets sales,” Ragland said, adding with a laugh: “butts in the seats and money in the bank.” 

SUCCESS AT MILL TOWN

Ragland hopes to replicate the success of Pelzer’s Mill Town Players, which he created only four years ago.

Mill Town has thrived not only through support from the Pelzer community but also by attracting audiences from Greenville, Anderson and Simpsonville. Ragland hopes to tap into wider audiences at Foothills as well. 

In Mill Town, ticket sales numbered 13,000 in the theater’s first year, and grew to 23,000 in the second year and 33,000 in the third year. 

“We’re on track to beat that again this year,” Ragland said. 

About 5,000 people saw the theater’s recent production of “Dearly Departed” and the current production of “Beehive” is packing the house as well. 

Mill Town and Foothills are about 30 minutes apart by car. It might be efficient for the two theaters to share productions, but Ragland has no intention of doing that. 

“I don’t want to be predictable and overdue things,” Ragland said. 

None of the shows scheduled for Foothills has been performed at Mill Town, Ragland said. 

“I’m excited about all of them because we’ve never done any of them,” he said. “I really like that. I don’t like repeating shows.” 

Foothills and Mill Town have officially merged, with Ragland serving as volunteer executive artistic director at Foothills while retaining the leadership of the Mill Town Players. 

FOCUSED ON COMMUNITY

Foothills, like Mill Town, should have a close connection with the community, Ragland said. 

He’s particularly aware of the Upstate’s cotton-mill past. That’s why he named the Pelzer theater Mill Town. 

That’s also why he decided to set the first show of Foothills’ season, “Godspell,” in an abandoned cotton mill.

That setting, and perhaps the current financial state of the playhouse, dovetails with the theme of “Godspell”: hope in a place of desperation, Ragland said 

There was another reason to choose “Godspell”: Easley is home to more than 60 churches, Ragland said. 

“We’re really trying to connect with the community,” Ragland said. 

Three of the six shows planned for Foothills – “Elf Jr.,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “Willy Wonka” –should appeal to young people and their parents. 

“Foothills Playhouse has active youth participation,” Ragland said. “In the past few years, youth plays have been the most popular.” 

With the season set and stage directors already identified, Ragland believes he has the makings of a successful year. 

“I began this process,” Ragland said, “with the question, ‘What can I do that will be great for the whole family and would appeal to the majority of the community?’” 

He added, “We want to give Easley exactly what it wants.” 

For information or to purchase tickets, see the website foothillsplayhouse.org or call 864-855-1817. 

Paul Hyde, a veteran Upstate journalist, writes about everything under the South Carolina sun. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7. Write to him at paulhydeus@yahoo.com.

Saturday
Jul282018

Market Theatre’s “Cabaret” a Gritty, Powerful Production

By Paul Hyde, Anderson Observer

Anderson’s Market Theatre has staged a gritty, powerful and satisfyingly decadent production of “Cabaret.”

Under Christopher Rose’s direction, this “Cabaret” begins cheerfully and grows increasingly desperate in tone as it depicts a Weimar Germany goose-stepping toward catastrophe.Photo Courtesy of Escobar Photography

Rose has assembled a strong local cast led by the terrific Meghan Cole as Sally Bowles, the self-centered hedonist who’s too busy having fun as a cabaret girl to notice the Nazi menace sinking its poisonous fangs into 1930s Berlin.

It’s Sally who utters one of the most chilling lines you’ll ever hear in an American musical: “That’s just politics, and what does that have to do with us?”

The musical’s answer, then and now, is “everything.”

Sally sings at Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub, where she meets the young American writer Clifford Bradshaw, and sparks fly.

Their rocky romance is set against the backdrop of the racy entertainment at the cabaret, featuring a chorus of scantily-clad men and women.

“Cabaret” is a musical that manages to be both a dazzler and a sober exploration of how hatred and bigotry can lead a society, almost unthinkingly, off the cliff.

Rose’s direction is taut, dynamic and briskly paced. Rose embraces the audacity of the sexed-up 1998 Broadway revival of “Cabaret.” This is a bold production.

I particularly enjoyed how Rose has his actors remain in the audience even when they are not on stage. Rose also has devised a riveting ending (without giving anything away) that is a coup de theatre.

Ashley Bingham’s Fosse-inspired choreography is edgy and anxious, making the cabaret men and women provocatively sexual rather than sexy. Bingham’s foot-stamping moves at the end of Act 1 – a menacing suggestion of an army on the march – are particularly effective.

The score, by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics), is as vibrant and prickly as when the Tony Award-winning show debuted more than 50 years ago.

Julia West is responsible for the tight musical preparation.

In lieu of live music, this production uses a soundtrack, which works well, although at Friday’s performance the music occasionally overpowered the singers.

Cole, with a commanding stage presence, fully inhabits the role of Sally. A deft actress and singer, Cole delivers showstoppers like “Mein Herr” with ease and confidence. She sings the climatic “Cabaret” as an expression of defiance by a woman hellbent on self-destruction. (But here I’d register a concern about the staging: The song “Cabaret” is one of the most powerful moments of self-assertion in musical theater. But in this production, that mood is undercut by choristers rushing onstage at the end of the song, distracting from Sally’s biggest moment in the spotlight. I thought Sally’s brief breakdown at the conclusion of the song also detracted from the fist-shaking thrust of the number.)

Leading the revels at the Kit Kat Klub is the androgynous Emcee, played here by Dave LaPage, a veteran Greenville actor. LaPage’s compelling Emcee toggles between engaging and sinister. He’s also suave of voice in such songs as “Willkommen” and “I Don’t Care Much.”

Michael Lewis is winning and sympathetic as Clifford Bradshaw, a forthright, decent man, though with a few secrets of his own.

Rachel Jeffreys and Rob Gentry share a few tender scenes as the older couple, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, cruelly divided by the surrounding hatred. Jeffrey’s Fraulein Schneider projects inner strength in numbers like “What Would You Do?” Gentry’s Herr Schultz, meanwhile, is sweet-natured and endearing.

Maggie McNeil is appropriately brash as the prostitute Fraulein Kost. But, surprise, she sings like an angel in her lovely German-language version of the ballad “Married.” McNeil also is responsible for the evocative lighting design.

Matt Groves is the superficially smooth but devious Nazi, Ernst Ludwig.

The Kit Kat women and men are uniformly excellent.

Hazel James Designs is responsible for the sleek and alluring, though not tawdry, costumes.

Only two more performances remain of this bawdy “Cabaret” – Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10. For $50, you get a front-row cabaret table for two and a bottle of wine. Tickets are available at www.themarketanderson.org.

Paul Hyde, a veteran Upstate journalist, writes about everything under the South Carolina sun. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7. Write to him at paulhydeus@yahoo.com.

Sunday
Jul222018

Mill Town Players Irresistible in 1960s "Beehive"

By Paul Hyde/Special to Anderson Observer

Ain't no cure for the summertime blues?

Think again: The Mill Town Players are offering an irresistible production of "Beehive," a dance-happy revue centered on the upbeat music of the female singers of the 1960s.

This is a dynamite show.

Greenville's go-to choreographer Kimberlee Ferreira has assembled a terrific five-member cast and given the show an infectious joy and momentum.

Friday's opening-night audience packed the house and frequently roared its approval.

There's no plot really. "Beehive" buzzes through more than two dozen familiar tunes of the 60s -- songs of innocence first and experience later -- with the vocalists providing a little context along the way.

Act 1 covers the carefree beehive period of the early 60s. Act 2 deepens and occasionally darkens the mood to reflect a more troubled era.

It's a show that gets better as it journeys through the years, finding gold along the way.

Act 1 spotlights buoyant oldies such as "The Name Game," "It's My Party" and "One Fine Day." Act 2 offers "Son of a Preacher Man," "Somebody to Love," and tributes to Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin.

This crowd-pleasing "Beehive" is a must-see. It's a summertime lark, but if you also detect an underlying message of the power and creative spirit of women -- well, all the better.

The cast is superb, taking the stage with poise and pizzazz.

Tiffany Nave returns to a role she memorably played in Greenville years ago, channeling Janis Joplin with humor and go-for-broke commitment. Nave also offers a sultry turn on "Son of a Preacher Man" and a mellow, tear-drenched "Abraham, Martin, and John."

Beverly Clowney pours on the passion in "Natural Woman" and righteously lays down the law in "My Boyfriend's Back" and "Proud Mary."

Meris Privette, a petite actress with a sparkling stage presence, soars wonderfully on Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love."

Celia Blitzer brings a smooth, caressing voice to such songs as "Walking in the Rain," "Sweet Talkin' Guy" and "One Fine Day."

Ashley Wettlin sings a soulful "Where the Boys Are" and later unleashes some powerhouse vocals on her dynamic "You Don't Own Me."

Ferreira's high-energy choreography, composed here of a host of 1960s social dances, never fails to please. 

The singers are backed by a top-notch five-member band. The overall musical direction is under the excellent leadership of Joshua C. Morton.

Will Ragland's cheery set design is based on a motif of circles that may put you in mind of Mod styles favored by the Austin Powers movies or the 1960s game Twister.

Katie Halstensgard's colorful costume designs nicely trace the changing fashions of the 1960s.

Tony Penna's  animated lighting design brings the set alive and helps drive the pace of the show. 

Ragland, executive artistic director of the Mill Town Players, has really performed something of a miracle in the small town of Pelzer in just a few short years: brought great and affordable theatre to town to please a range of tastes.

"Beehive" continues through Aug. 12: Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, call 864-947-8000 or see the website www.milltownplayers.org.

Also, check out next season's shows, including "The Marvelous Wonderettes," "Romeo and Juliet," "Crimes of the Heart," "Pump Boys and Dinettes," "A Pelzer Gospel Homecoming," "Annie Get Your Gun" and several others. 

Paul Hyde, a veteran Upstate journalist, writes about everything under the South Carolina sun. Write to him at paulhydeus@yahoo.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7. 

Saturday
Jul212018

Review: Mr. Rogers Documentary a Heartfelt Study in Kindness

By Greg Wilson/Anderson Observer (Updated July 21 after second viewing)

Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.” - Lao Tzu

“There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” ― Fred Rogers 

Quietly, deliberately, the new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is a gentle ride that begins by putting a lump in your throat and ends with your reaching for tissues to wipe away big tears.

The documentary will resonate with those who remember “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” either from their own childhood or those of their children or grandchildren. 

The show, which was first broadcast in 1968,  aimed squarely at and speaking directly to young children, through a medium mostly populated with loud and violent programming aimed at the little ones.  

My wife and I, both too old to have been part of the audience of the show, found ourselves watching it anyway. My wife said she found it calming and quiet. My experience was the same. There is something mesmerizing about the program, even today.

Those who did grow up with the show, including director-actor Judd Apatow, agree.

“All my philosophies go back to Mr. Rogers,” said Apatow in an recent interview. “I feel like that simple ideology is not forefront enough in our culture – kindness, compassion, wanting the other person to be happy.”

Fred Rogers’ message was simple: “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”

As one of Mr. Rogers' producers says in the film: "If you take all of the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite, you have ‘Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.’ Low production values, simple set, unlikely star. Yet it worked."

The set at the studios of WQED-TV public television station in Pittsburgh was indeed as simple as Mr. Rogers message; a 1950s-inspired living room and a “Neighborhood of Make Believe” populated by puppets in trees, clocks and castles which almost appeared to have been constructed by children.  

And yet it all came together and worked, as filmmaker Morgan Neville said, because of one thing. 

"I think it was because of him," Neville said in an interview promoting the film. "Because of the trueness of his message and the way he was able to communicate with kids. He created this really unique vision that was not only ahead of its time and apart from its time, but is unique in history. I mean, people are still not doing the things he was doing on his show." 

The movie is about the Fred Rogers we all saw on television, with just enough personal background to fill in some of the gaps on his motivation for the show. 

The opening sequence finds Mr. Rodgers at the piano explaining how he want to help children navigate through the modulation and key changes of life. Some are easy to manage, he said, but others are much more tricky. Mr. Rogers especially wants to help children find ways to work through the feelings that come with such tricky changes in life.

From the earliest shows where as the voice of the puppet Daniel the Striped Tiger he asks” “What does assassination mean?” (This program ran just after the killing of Robert Kennedy on the campaign trail), to his call to “look for the helpers” in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Rogers is a calm voice assuring children - and the rest of us - that even when things are bad, there is hope. 

If “Sesame Street” helped teach a generation (or two) of children the letters of the alphabet and how to count, “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” taught children the A-B-Cs of how to deal with their anger, hurt and fears that were part of their emotions, and encouraged them to find grown ups who they trusted to help.

Mr. Rogers approach grew out of his own deep faith. A Presbyterian minister, ordained to be an evangelist to television, Mr. Rogers brought a message that was clearly in line with Christian teaching without ever being sectarian or exclusionary. His message seemed imbued with the biblical “fruit of the Holy Spirit:” peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, joy, forbearance, goodness and self-control.  

Mr. Rogers was all of these things, and brought a calm settling gravitas to this message. He held no truck for those who promoted racism, and commercialism, degrading themes or violence in children’s programming. And he was nice, something that was as lacking then as it is now. 

He was largely oblivious to his critics, a point made clear in the movie through a clip of Mr. Rogers on an early “Late Night with David Letterman” in which he shared a Polaroid of him standing close with Eddie Murphy. Murphy’s “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” was a urban-projects parody of Mr. Rogers show, and often featured Murphy (who also changed into a sweater) on the run from the police or a landlord. Mr. Rogers said that while he didn’t like some of them, he embraced Murphy, who was thrilled to meet him (“I just met the real Mr. Rogers!”). 

“Some of [the parodies] aren’t funny, but a lot of them are done with real kindness,” Rogers says in the film. Rogers’s wife Joanne says the parodies  that made fun of his philosophy were the only ones which offended him. 

Among those mentioned in the film are Fox News, where a number of news readers and commentators blamed Mr. Rogers as a progressive who is responsible for today’s “entitled young people.” Fox clearly misses the Christian core teaching of the value that all are children of God, which is a key element of Mr. Rogers central message.

The film reminds us that opposition from the far edges of the political right were nothing new to Mr. Rogers.

During a hearing before a U.S. Senate subcommittee led by Sen. John. O. Pastore, who was pushing the committee to defund public television in 1969, Mr. Rogers offered this:

“This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, ‘You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.’ And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger ― much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.”

“I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goose bumps for the last two days,” Sen. Pastore said, who had never seen Mr. Rogers’s show and who had said going into the hearing he had little intention of funding public television. “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”  

Mr. Rogers gentle answers to an aggressive committee chair may have single-handle saved public television in the Unites States. 

And it is this gentle, kind, almost childlike approach and curiosity that appealed to the children. Throughout the movie, clips of his interaction with children is nothing short of magical. 

In his book, “The World According to Mr. Rogers,” he writes: 

“In the external scheme of things, shining moments are as brief as the twinkling of an eye, yet such twinklings are what eternity is made of -- moments when we human beings can say "I love you," "I'm proud of you," "I forgive you," "I'm grateful for you." That's what eternity is made of: invisible imperishable good stuff.” 

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” offers 93 minutes of bright, shining moments or imperishable good stuff.

 

The movie is currently playing at Cherrydale Cinemas in Greenville. An excellent inteview with Mr. Rogers appeared in Equire magazine in 2017