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Sunday
Sep162018

Wonderettes Sock Hops into Music, Nostalgia

By Paul Hyde/Anderson Observer

The Mill Town Players has enjoyed great success recently with nostalgic jukebox musicals. In July, the irresistible "Beehive" took audiences back to the pop songs of the 1960s.

"The Marvelous Wonderettes," which opened Friday, journeys back further -- to the 1950s -- with charm and feel-good glee.

Terrie West Poore directs a quartet of talented local actresses in this blithe and peppy production that evokes a simpler time, tugging ever-so-lightly at the heartstrings as it puts a smile on your face.

"The Marvelous Wonderettes," written by Roger Bean, focuses on four high school students who are called on to perform at their 1958 senior prom as a last-minute replacement. That setup allows for some cutesy high jinks and comic awkwardness as the girls entertain their "classmates" (the audience, that is) with songs in close four-part harmony.

The story is told through more than two dozen familiar pop tunes from the 1950s and 60s, such as "Lollipop," "Dream Lover," "Stupid Cupid," "It's My Party" and "It's In His Kiss."

Act II finds the girls 10 years later, returning for their class reunion. The easy cares of their teenage years have been replaced by bigger real-life issues, particularly romantic disappointments.

But in this joyful musical, it's a pretty safe bet that love will find a way.

The show makes considerable demands on its four actresses, who never leave the stage -- well, except to interact with the audience.

There were a few rough patches at Friday's opening, but continued performances should tighten things up.

Poore, the director, has assembled a winning cast. As an ensemble, the four produce some lovely sounds. To mention one episode: The shimmering, yearning harmonies of "Dream" which morph into "Dream Lover" are pure magic.

Poore's spirited choreography evokes 1950s and 60s social dances. She elicits vivid performances from her four actresses. Each enjoys a few solo moments in the spotlight.

Amy Blom, as Cindy Lou, is marvelous as the would-be high school princess, perfectly coiffed and with perfect teeth always beaming. She seems to channel Amy Adams from the film "Enchanted." Blom has a ballet dancer's arms, which she puts to graceful use in her pretty "Allegheny Moon." In Act II, she sings a heartfelt "Maybe."

Laura Bennett plays Betty Jean, the delightful cutup of the quartet. Vocally, Bennett soars on "That's When the Tears Start."

Kelsey Crews, as Missy, delivers an assertive "Wedding Bell Blues" and follows that with "You Don't Own Me," knocking it out of the park.

Laura Beth Cannon, as Suzy, closes the revels with a dynamite "RESPECT."

Chase McAbee is responsible for the fine musical direction -- and he also serves as stage manager and light board technician.

The show makes use of recorded music, which is not as appealing as live music, but it works.

Will Ragland designed the pleasing, heart-themed set.

This crowd-pleasing "Marvelous Wonderettes" continues through Sept. 30: Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, call 864-947-8000 or visit the website www.milltownplayers.org.

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.

Thursday
Sep062018

Market Theatre Announces Ambitious 9-Show Season

By Paul Hyde/Anderson Observer

Before a packed crowd Thursday night, Anderson’s Market Theatre Co. announced its most ambitious season ever, with a total of nine shows planned.

On tap for 2019 will be two free outdoor productions, two children’s shows and seven Broadway musicals.

Two big Upstate premieres are scheduled: “Bonnie & Clyde: The Musical” and “Heathers: The Musical.”

The Market Theatre’s season runs on the calendar year. Here’s the full fourth-season lineup:

  •  “Our Town” (Feb. 8-17). Thornton Wilder’s classic 1938 play, a slice of nostalgic Americana, focuses on the ordinary and beautiful events in the lives of people in a small town. (Directed by Robert Fuson) 
  •  “How I Became a Pirate” (March 22-April 7). The children’s show is based on the book by Melinda Long with music and lyrics by the veteran creative team of Janet Yates Vogel and Mark Friedman. (Directed by Aaron Pennington) 
  •  “Bonnie & Clyde: The Musical” (May 17-June 2). The Depression-era outlaws mix crime with romance in Frank Wildhorn’s 2009 show. “Bonnie & Clyde” was the most-requested show in a recent survey of Market audiences.
  •  Free Shakespeare in the Park (June 21-24). Shakespeare in the Park will be "The Adventures of Pericles," an epic journey of myth, magic and adventure. One storm at sea brings love, and another takes it away. Pericles, Prince of Tyre journeys to find redemption in one of Shakespeare's hidden gems. The free performances of a play by Shakespeare return for the fifth year in Anderson’s Carolina Wren Park. 
  • “Heathers: The Musical” (July 19-Aug. 4). Based on the 1989 cult film by John Waters, “Heathers” looks at the joys and anguish of high school, with a provocative message about bullying. (Directed by Christopher Rose) 
  • “The Sixth Annual 24-Hour Musical” (August TBA). The Market Theatre partners with a charity to put together an entire Broadway-style musical in 24 hours. (Directed by Drew Whitley) 
  • “Into the Woods” – a free production in Carolina Wren Park (September 5-15). Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musical offers a modern take on familiar fairy tales. (Directed by the Noah Taylor)
  • “The 39 Steps” (Oct. 10-20). The fast-paced spy caper is based on Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, in turn based on a John Buchan novel. (Directed by Drew Whitley) 
  • “Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” (Dec 5-15). The irrepressible Junie and her first-grade classmates return in a holiday show to delight children and their parents. (Directed by Jessica Wayland)

“Our goal is to offer quality, affordable entertainment and something for everyone,” said Noah Taylor, executive artistic director of the Market Theatre.

A BANNER YEAR

The Market Theatre in 2018 has enjoyed a banner year, with ticket sales likely to break previous records, Taylor said.

Even as the Market Theatre makes plans for its 2019 season, two shows remain this year: “The Addams Family” (Oct. 12-28) and “Annie” (Nov. 29-Dec. 16).

Though Market performances take place mostly in the theater’s warehouse-style space, the theater has never shied away from big musicals such as “Legally Blonde” and the recent edgy hit “Cabaret.”

“That gives us the courage to take on challenging and bold shows in the future,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s “dream project” for 2019 is the production of “Into the Woods” to be presented admission-free in Carolina Wren Park, thanks to the support of the City of Anderson.

“The City of Anderson has been thrilled with the success of Shakespeare in the Park, so when I took the idea of taking ‘Into the Wood’ outside under the stars, the city said ‘absolutely.’ There was no hesitation,” Taylor said.

The Market Theatre has staged one children’s show every year but Taylor decided to up that to two children’s shows in 2019.

“Kids shows are so popular,” he said.

A children’s show based on the beloved “Junie B. Jones” books sold out its entire run in the Market’s first season, so the theater will present another account of the young heroine in “Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” in December 2019. 

Taylor founded both Anderson’s Shakespeare in the Park and “The 24-Hour Musical,” but those projects were not part of the Market Theatre’s operations. That changes in 2019.

“Now they’re going to officially be under the same brand,” Taylor said.

The overall aim of the Market Theatre is to please as many tastes as possible, Taylor said.

“I’m excited to announce a bigger season and to offer more in terms of diversity and opportunities for people to be involved,” he said. “We want to be a place that unifies the community.”

For tickets to the 2019 Market Theatre season, see the website www.themarketanderson.org or call 864-729-2999.

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.

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.