Saturday, September 21, 2013

Romeo and Juliet, Artes de la Rosa, 9-13-13

Romeo and Juliet
Artes de la Rosa Cultural Center for the Arts
Friday September 13, 2013

Artes de la Rosa’s production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a musical romantic comedy until the big fight scene, and then it becomes a disjointed but achingly beautiful romantic tragedy.

“The world’s most famous story of an impossible ‘star-crossed’ love told against a scene of violence in the streets of Havana, 1958. It is the story about a place for pleasure, power, and passion wrapped in the loving words of the world’s greatest poet, William Shakespeare. Behind this dazzling world of nightlife, glamour and romance, the country is fraught with corruption. Feel the heat and desire from the winds in Havana. Fall in love with the passion of Romeo and Juliet.” (taken from ADLR’s press kit.)

William Shakespeare borrowed heavily from other works for his infamous romantic tragedy about a pair of lovers from feuding families, and it remains one of the most popular of his plays. I had forgotten how many good lines are from Romeo and Juliet. It is one of those plays “everyone” has read, knows, and feels like an expert on, but I’ll be the first to admit it has been years since I read it. (And I may or may not have skimmed through a cliff notes version the day before a certain exam...) It is NOT my favorite of Shakespeare’s. In fact, it is my least favorite for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was my overexposure to the storyline prior to actually reading it. ADLR’s production, especially the actors’ handle on the classical language, inspired me to read it and truly savor the words as if reading them for the first time. Still not my favorite, but they gave me a new appreciation for the story and the characters’ journeys.

Director Adam Adolfo has been my favorite director in the DFW metroplex for nearly the last four years. That being said, this production was not without its flaws. He set the tale in Havana Cuba just as Fidel Castro was poised to take over in 1958. The best part of historical fiction is watching true events crop up in the midst of the fictional storyline. Though the authentic flavor of Cuba was ever present, the political turmoil was not. As the country was dividing, I expected the families to demonstrate their division along political lines. This could have been easily accomplished through costume choices: the Montagues favoring Castro in clothing with the Capulets favoring Batista (the president Castro eventually overthrew, who had welcomed American organized crime and had paved the way for Cuba to become America’s glitzy yet illicit playground.) Instead, they all looked as if they shopped at the same department store. Another solution would be the simple addition of flags or symbols hung as part of the set décor, signifying allegiances, but the stage remained impartial. The audience needed intimate and detailed knowledge of Cuba pre-Castro, which most did not have, in order to draw the parallels themselves. Though “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Havana where we lay our scene…” has a lovely rhythm to it, the intent of the historical placement was lost on the audience and thereby the audience did not understand why the two families hated each other. The forbidden love of all time does not seem so forbidden if the audience cannot grasp the depth and the scope of the consequences. *SPOILER ALERT* Romeo and Juliet kill themselves in dramatic fashion when they both think they can’t be together. Unfortunately, the death scene in the tomb needs the most work. It came across as campy and uncommitted, like a line-thru rehearsal of a junior high production. I saw the intention of the director, with a nice moment between the two I’ve never seen brought out before, but the execution was horridly flawed. There were also occasional blocking issues, such as the Apothecary’s entrance into the family tomb. It upstaged the Priest’s heartfelt eulogy of the lovers, placed at upstage center, and for no purpose that I could see. Entrances and exits should not detract from the focus. Finally, the first act was much stronger than the second, with actors looking a bit lost in the second act (and dropping their volume below audible levels), odd choices in blocking and a sense of frenzied ‘just get to the death scene’ desperation. For example, at one point, set pieces were being cleared and daggers left from a fight were picked up as a dramatic and information packed scene took place downstage. I wanted to tell everyone to stop moving so I could focus!  I found out after the show that the simple reason for this was because the mechanized curtain jammed. The curtains were not fully opened and could not be shut for the transitions as rehearsed. Though I knew ‘something’ felt a bit off, I hardly noticed. I wouldn’t have at all if I hadn’t been there to review. Knowing, though, that entire scenes had to be altered as they went, I am all the more impressed with the experience. I will be seeing it again on closing weekend, and I am excited to watch it grow and smooth out, curtain permitting.

Despite all this, though, Adolfo worked his trademark magic to create an original Romeo and Juliet with characters as new and fresh as though they had never before been heard. This adaptation runs just under two and one half hours, and every cut was needed and every addition perfectly in sync with the original intentions of the playwright.  FINALLY a Romeo and a Juliet we WANT to fall in love and we root for them to ‘defy the stars’ and live happily ever after. Heck, it is often a given in most productions that they just ‘fall in love’ whereas in this one, Romeo and Juliet had to work at their relationship, however brief it was. Hopefully without giving too much away, the Act I closing scene was innocent, pure passion and perfectly executed. Adolfo did justice for the story without being sensational, and because of what was and wasn’t shown, it was even more sensual. In his Note from the Director, Adolfo said, “Our hope was to deliver on the joy and hope of Romeo and Juliet and celebrate the innocence, exuberance, and joy of falling in love!” Mission: ACCOMPLISHED. The story and this production take a turn from the musical romantic comedy to serious drama in the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt. It is a pivotal scene for every character, and it is one of the few scenes with a lot of action. This puts the pressure on the stage combat choreographer (Adolfo and his assistant director Joshua Sherman). This fight scene was the highlight of the show for me. Hand to hand, daggers, guns- it was believable, it was fast, and it left me breathless. Thrilling. The triumph of the production is the transformation of the minor character Balthasar into a balladeer who sings us through much of the narration in a mixture of English and Spanish.  This addition made the Cuban Shakespeare in a nightclub vision work, and it worked like magic.

The historic Rose-Marine Theater in Fort Worth’s Northside is transformed into a Cuban nightclub complete with slot machines, scantily dressed showgirls and high stake card games. The large stage and even the house are used to the fullest extent. Sarahi Salazar, scenic designer, received the loudest cheers of those individually introduced to the crowd at the after-party for a reason: her set is a work of Cuban art. She used simple lines, natural wood and linens to create the island atmosphere with the exquisite chandelier adding the glam. The stage was extended to include a small platform with stairs out into the house, nicely expanding the playing space for actors and creating levels in which to work. You will notice the lack of a balcony in the description, but it is not missed in this production! Lighting design by Juan Gonzalez and Costume design by Marcus Lopez complete the look of the time period and locale to a T. Adolfo, in addition to directing and producing, was the Sound Designer for the production, though one would have thought a high paid professional had been brought in. Levels mixed nicely between effects, recorded tracts, live singing via a body microphone and spoken dialogue from actors without microphones- giving the effect that this live stage play had a soundtrack layered underneath. Sherman, Stage Manager and Assistant Director, ran lights and sound from the booth in the back of the theater with nary a misstep. Choreography by Rebekah Ruiz and Austin Ray Beck was appropriate to the music, the time period and the storyline, though the execution of the dances needed a lot of work. The male dancers, Michael Alonzo, Eduardo Aguilar, and Austin Ray Beck were ten times better than the female (Rebekah Ruiz and Kimberly Butler)- secure in their steps and with high energy. The ladies were less self- assured and often faltered, which registered on their faces and sucked the energy expected from them for the remainder of the performance. One could blame their large showgirl headdresses and the perilous high heels up and down the stairs, but this marked difference between male and female dancers occurred no matter the costume. It was most obvious in dances that required partnering. The opening dance number needed the most polishing, while the strongest was when the men were featured in a trio. As the Balladeer sang, he started to dance. He was joined by two ensemble dancers and together they created an electrifying and downright SEXY number incorporating the dance styles jazz, hip hop, paso doble, and merengue to the 1950s Latin nightclub music. They did all this while mixing in Shakespeare’s lines that kept the storyline going. Truth be told, I was left a little flushed and breathless while the rest of the audience thundered their applause.

As the paramount star of the production, even more so than the titular characters, Michael Alonzo as Balthasar turned Balladeer carried the entire production securely on his shoulders. Alonzo’s singing is angelic, like a Latino Josh Groban, and he sang everything from Latin jazz to pop to classical opera sensationally well. Alonzo opened the show with singing and dancing (and a Shakespearean prologue) and continued to guide the scene transitions. The audience was putty in his hand after he sang and danced as part of the male trio mentioned above, and he used that momentum to propel us further into the story. Overall, when it came to the acting, the comedy was better than the drama, but Alonzo delivered all the drama anyone needed-particularly in the final scene. The young lovers lost me at the end, but Alonzo made me care about them retrospectively. Did I mention the singing? He made me wish ADLR produced cast recordings.

Juliet was played by high school senior Courtney Reid Harris. Her big, expressive eyes and petite frame were reminiscent of a young Audrey Hepburn (though with the play set in 1958 Cuba, it is doubtful this Juliet was purposefully mimicking her.) She was light and airy, and believably in love. She made you want to protect her innocent heart. The prose dripped from her tongue and came as natural as ‘um, yeah, like’ does to other teenagers. When the story took its dramatic turn, she continued to deliver on all levels, eliciting tears from the audience along with hers. Her only sin was in the final death scene, which I previously discussed. It was hurried and without commitment, which was a shame considering the powerhouse performance she delivered up to that point.

Kevin Acosta as Romeo was suave yet boyish, amplifying his charm. A perfect match to Harris’ Juliet, Acosta demonstrated the transformation of Romeo from playboy to protective and sincere lover convincingly. Though he too grasped the classical language well, he was often so soft spoken, the lines were lost. The emotions on his face, though, read to the back row throughout every scene. And it never hurts when Romeo is a bonafide hunk.

Veteran classical actor Adrian Godinez took on the role of Mercutio, and well-played Romeo’s friend as part bodyguard, part fraternity brother. Godinez handles the language best and his voice reverberates to the highest rafter so that every nuance, every joke, every syllable was laid upon the audience’s ears with the care and impudence Mercutio required.  Jule Nelson Duac as Lady Capulet shined in the dramatic scenes of Act II, but did not exude the confidence of the social elitist by day, cougar by night character she was supposed to be in Act I.  She seemed awkward, almost jerky, and was far, far too young. Playing Tybalt as the sullen and troublemaking cousin of Juliet, Parker Fitzgerald brought the macho and male-dominated force women had to contend with, both in Shakespeare’s time and in 1950’s Cuba. He was impressive both in his commitment to the lines and in his physicalization of the character. Though he is shorter in stature than that of his cast mates, Fitzgerald’s broad shoulders, muscular arms and fierce stare gave the impression of a raging bull on a thinning leash. Juliet’s Nurse was hilariously and yet touchingly played by Kristi Taylor. Her physical comedy broke up the lover’s scenes before they crossed into sappy melodrama just right, and she gave the most credence to Juliet’s young albeit mature character. She had a mother’s love for the young woman, and her devastation at the magnitude of the loss of both lovers was palpable and genuine.

Lorens Portalatin returned to the ADLR stage first as a nightclub singer, thankfully, where she shined alongside Alonzo in a hauntingly beautiful duet. In Act II, she became the Apothecary who doles out the poison to Romeo. In costume and movement, Portalatin embodies the spirit of an island voodoo priestess, but all her lines were lost in the accent she affected. As choreographer and dancer, Austin Ray Beck commanded the stage with ease. Anyone who has seen him perform knows and expects this. Surprisingly, he can also deliver Shakespeare on ALL levels- from the comedic to the dramatic. He was the unforeseen triple threat when he emerged as Benvolio.  Clyde Berry as an island version of the Catholic priest Father Laurence was accurate, funny and poignant. Eduardo Aguilar as Sampson (one of Romeo’s friends) was obviously more comfortable moving than acting, and his moving more than made up for the acting. Kyle R. Trentham as the Prince Escalus (the most difficult character to fit into the Cuban political scene with its lack of royal governance) had an excellent voice and mannerism for Shakespeare when he wasn’t tripping over the lines. Rounding out the cast was Cameron Allsup as Abraham (a Capulet), Jacob Harris as Paris (the man Lady Capulet picks for Juliet to marry) and Stephen Madrid as Romeo’s father, Montague. All three were rarely seen on stage, but when present, they were in the moment and delivered subtle, powerful performances.

After the shaky but breathtaking opening night performance, the audience adjourned to the Artes Gallery for the VIP After Party presented by Artistic Director Adam Adolfo, with a virtual who’s who of hip, hot theatre being produced today in attendance. It was classy with fantastic food catered from On the Boarder and an open bar. The event was complete with red carpet photos and interviews.  As guests interacted, they enjoyed the intriguing work by Race Street Artists, curated by Carter Riverside High School educator Mary Boswell, and a slide show of production photos on projector. Production photos from Artes de la Rosa are often works of art in their own right, and this was no exception. Photos can be found on the company’s Facebook page, and their YouTube video

Artes de la Rosa’s current production of Romeo and Juliet resonated with me long after the lights dimmed and it left me despondent that such beautiful lovers didn’t get what they richly deserved. Add in the sexy singers and dancers with fierce talent, and I am left longing for this Cuban romance extinguished far too early.

And to the lady who rudely texted throughout the show up until the end of the ‘balcony’ scene (when I not-so-politely told her to put it up), I hope you will return and enjoy the experience without your phone. And bring some friends and family- this is a production any musical, culture, Shakespeare, romantic comedy, sexy dancer, action sequence loving human being needs to see distraction free with an open mind and willing heart.

Romeo and Juliet runs through October 6 with shows Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 and Sunday matinees at 3pm. (ONE DAY they will push the curtain time to 8pm, a more convenient time for audience members fighting traffic, getting off work late, or who desire to eat dinner BEFORE the show.) Tickets are $18 for adults, $14 for students and senior citizens and available online at, calling 817-624-8333 or in person 30 minutes prior to curtain. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

In the Heights, Artes de la Rosa, 5-17-13

In the Heights
Artes de la Rosa Cultural Center for the Arts 
May 17, 2013

When a close friend tells you that in one year he is directing his dream musical as a regional premiere, then after auditions announces the cast that includes several of your other friends and acting acquaintances in their dream lead and supporting roles, and finally the production company asks you to review the show: you spend the week leading up to opening night a quiet nervous wreck.

On one hand, I wanted to give my friends a good review; on the other hand, I needed to be fair and unbiased; and, oh yeah, I don’t review musicals because they are not my area of expertise!

For nine weeks, I avoided these friends- their Facebooks, blogs, even social functions- because I wanted to come to the opening night performance as clear of all bias as possible. To top it all off, I had seen the Tony-award winning Broadway production with the original cast as well as the Broadway tour that came through Dallas last year, and I struggled to grasp that a 250 seat theater with no fly space was attempting this production.

It is with great relief that I tell you I was in joyful tears by the third song/scene because of the theatrical feat Artes de la Rosa Cultural Center for the Arts had accomplished with their regional premiere of In the Heights.

Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also wrote the music and lyrics, and the book written by Quiara Alegria Hudes, “In the Heights tells the universal story of a vibrant community in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood – a place where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, the windows are always open and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music. It’s a community on the brink of change, full of hopes, dreams and pressures, where the biggest struggles can be deciding which traditions you take with you, and which ones you leave behind.  In the Heights is the winner of the 2008 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Score, Choreography and Orchestrations.” (taken from ADLR’s publicity materials.) The script and the lyrics were full of wit and charm, and I was easily moved from laughter to tears as the story went along. The music was a mixture of Latino and hip hop beats- a truly unique sound for a full length musical. There are several lines sung or spoken in Spanish, so yet again those of us who are bilingual are treated to extra jokes and insights. However, an English-only speaking audience can easily grasp their meaning so to enjoy the story as well.

I first met Artistic Director Adam Adolfo when I was assigned to review a show at Artes de la Rosa in September 2010. Since then, he and I have worked together professionally several times and grown close personally. After our first show together, I met a woman (who later turned out to be his mother), and I told her, “He has a unique gift. There are good directors, there are great directors, and then there are a few in every generation who are classified as brilliant directors. Adam is one of those brilliant directors. There is a light that emanates from him, and he sees the world and creates new worlds like no one else I know.” His direction of In the Heights lives up to my long held professional opinion of my now friend. Blocking is organic, the ENTIRE theater space is used with ease and creativity, and all the elements of design are united to tell the story of a group of people living along a city block in Washington Heights. Adolfo elicits truthful acting in the midst of belting out dynamic notes from his cast, and he supports them with an ensemble of dancers and singers who are allowed to shine in their disciplines without detracting.  Adolfo found stories in subtext and movement that the original and touring shows somehow missed, and his take on the script and music was a rare experience that rivals- and in many instances surpassed- the experience I had when viewing the original Broadway cast. One of the songs asks what would you do if you won $96,000? Well, if I had $96,000, I’d give it to Adam Adolfo to produce more work like this. Until then, I hope producers both local and far away hear me as I quote the show “You have to commission a great artist while his rate is still good.”

Adolfo was obviously well supported by Musical Director Kristin Spires and Choreographer Elise Lavallee. Spires conducted the tight band who created a fantastic sound. There are those in the audience who claimed the band was too loud. As the critic in the last row, I heard every word out of the mouth of every actor/singer (when their mics were working properly.) However, I recognize there are those of a certain generation who are unaccustomed to following sing/speak or rap lyrics which are prevalent throughout In the Heights. Another feather in Spires’ cap, and the cap of Associate Music Director Mark Howard, is the stunning, pitch perfect, powerful, and moving vocals coming from the stage. Yes, a lot of the amazing vocal performances were a result of the dynamic talent assembled; however, their ability to blend and play off one another is to Spires’ credit.  Lavallee’s choreography, with help from Associate Choreographer Maegan Marie Stewart and Assistant Choreographer and cast member Michael Anthony Sylvester, was crisp, original, and believable. It’s hard to make a sudden burst into song and dance look organic, but the moves were in styles found in el barrio, so it worked for both performers and the audience. At times the choreography was SO BUSY I didn’t know where to look. (I heard this from other audience members, too.) And, given the set design, sometimes the dancing upstaged the action and dialogue actually driving the storyline by its simple placement at downstage center. This upstaging was rare, though, and the movements and pictures created were a worthy distraction when it did.

As I previously stated, ADLR is a small theater with 250 seats, no fly space,  a proscenium arch and three aisles in the house. The live band was on the floor in front of the stage, behind a low wall constructed specifically for this show, giving the appearance of a sunken orchestra pit. Somehow, scenic designer Sarahi Salazar made ADLR into an authentic looking New York City block, complete with levels, multiple entrances and exits, and plenty of play space for the cast to work within all of which was covered in a fair amount of “artistic graffiti” - presumably from local tagger (character) Graffiti Pete. Little touches, including a fire hydrant, completed the street look, though the hydrant was hidden for most of the show behind a musician. Salazar was assisted in her endeavor by Assistant Scenic Designer and Technical Director Bradley Gray, Scenic Charge Artist Jessica LaVilla, and Master Carpenter Jonathan Jones.  

Lighting and projection design by Aaron Sanchez and music design and engineering by Jordana Abrenica, though phenomenal and supportive of the overall storytelling, were not without their opening night glitches. While I tend to frown upon giving a theatre an “opening night” excuse, I have decided to let this one slide upon hearing that this performance was their first and only tech rehearsal. Sanchez’s design left parts of the stage in shadow with the intention of illuminating the performers in a specific section. However, if you leave a shadow anywhere on the stage, an actor will always manage to find it. I am confident the actors have learned to find their light, and the other bobble of the houselights suddenly coming up during “Carnival del Barrio” has been rectified. Abrenica had her work cut out for her with 12 miced actors/singers and a live band, plus the occasional sound effect. Except for one malfunctioning microphone, feedback during one song, and the occasional delay in turning a microphone up as an actor entered and began speaking or singing, sound was unnoticed- as it should be. Unfortunately, I was seated near the back, and due to the (still daylight) 7:30pm start time of the show and the venue utilizing curtains instead of doors into the lobby, lights and sounds from the street at times interfere with the production. Between audience members coming in late and the multiple entrances and exits by the cast via the house, those curtains did not remain shut enough to block intruding light and sound. The simply solution is to be early and grab a seat closer to the center. However, when the show is sold out, as opening night was, a later start time and an investment in thicker curtains and maybe even sliding doors would have been appreciated so to block the lights from the lobby and the sounds from the street.

Prop design was unaccredited, but the props master should have provided water in the various coffee cups, glasses, and shot glasses used throughout the show. One of my biggest pet peeves on the stage is props that are “fake.” An empty prop looks empty and is treated as such by an actor. Also, there is a scene where the national pride of the various Latino cultures is displayed via the flags of such countries as Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Venezuela. Sadly, the flags at times touch the floor. Actors and dancers should, to the very best of their ability, treat each flag with absolute respect and keep them off the floor. Despite these two instances, every character had what he or she needed to move the storyline along without cluttering the working space. The best addition was the dispatch microphone on the counter at Rosario’s Car Service, one of the businesses on the block.

Costume design by Marcus Lopez was stunning in its colorful simplicity and dedication to revealing each character beyond their text. For example, during “Alabanza” which in this production became a funeral of sorts for Abuela Claudia, each character wore the traditional black and yet maintained who they were and where they were in their emotional storyline. Even down to details such as shoes and messenger bags completed the feel of The Heights. (Vanessa, played by Sarah Dickerson, performs the entire show in a variety of heels and wedges that never once measured less than three inches tall. She handled them with seasoned skill.)

In the Heights boasts a large cast, with arguably four leading characters, eight supporting characters, and in this production, 14 ensemble members. There is not a weak link in the cast, and each performer deserves individual attention and praise.

As the narrator Usnavi, local actor Matt Ransdell Jr simply shines. He embodies the character heart and soul to the point you forget he is an actor putting on a performance. I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda originate the role and his successor, Corbin Bleu both perform Usnavi on Broadway. Ransdell surpassed those two performances. His mastery of the fluid language and the transitions he made between narrator, responsible shop owner and loving family member were as natural and believable as breathing is for you and I. He also has enviable  comedic timing, and though Usnavi is not a dancer, Ransdell knew how to use movement to tell a story. This young man was born to play this role, and I am deeply grateful I was there to experience his profoundly memorable realization of  a dream.

Lorens Portalatin is no stranger to the ADLR stage, but in the role of Nina, a star was born. Portalatin and I have worked together before, and she has become akin to a kid sister to me. I have experienced her talent as an actor and a singer in previous productions, but not until she emerged as Nina did I appreciate the depth and scope of her abilities. Nina is el barrio’s college success story, and the pressure threatens to crush her. Portalatin conveyed her fear, her doubt, her anger, and her disappointment in herself before she ever uttered a word- and THEN she SANG. Her voice was simultaneously powerful and vulnerable, silvery and velvety, and she glided through her extensive range as a seasoned concert professional- all without losing the emotional context of the moment. Portalatin is coming into her own, much as Nina was.

Vanessa was played by the dynamic Sarah Dickerson. Vanessa wants out of el barrio, but she just can’t catch a break. There is also an unspoken romantic connection between her and Usnavi. As previously mentioned, Dickerson handled her three inch heels and miniskirts with ease along with the songs and the acting. Dickerson was a powerhouse on the stage and force to be reckoned with vocally. It also helped that she was believably cast as the “hot chica next door.”

Joshua Sherman is another actor friend of mine, and this time he took on the role of Benny, the white kid working for Nina’s parents. Sherman rapped, sang, danced, acted and he even spoke Spanish to the point where my ginger-headed friend semi-disappeared and Benny was born. Benny is the romantic interest of Nina, but he has to fight for her because her father is less than approving. The song I started to shed tears of joy in was Sherman’s performance of “Benny’s Dispatch.” Later, he had me shedding tears of coinciding angst and hope as his character completed his journey and new dreams were made in “The Sun Goes Down.”

Sonny, the goofy younger cousin of Usnavi, was delightfully portrayed by Rashaun Sibley. Sibley provided a lot of the laughs and gave Ransdell the contrast within which to play. Given the caliber of the rest of the cast, it came as no surprise when Sibley revealed he too can sing and dance, and at times, he even showcased his emotional depth as an actor.

Pilar Ortiz as Abuela (Grandmother) Claudia was gentle and humble as the long standing matriarch of the block. As she made her way on and off the stage with some difficulty, I wanted to scream at the boys in the bodega, “Ayuda tu Abuelita!” Both as young actors and as their characters of young Latino men, they should not have left her to maneuver stairs and ramps unassisted. Ortiz wrapped the neighborhood and the audience in the warm love only a Grandma can offer. She was hard to understand at times due to her accent and possibly a malfunctioning mic.  When she sang, she was occasionally off key or flat, and I saw her watching the musical director for pickup cues rather than exuding confidence. But the audience loved her gentle and wise delivery, and when she got the notes right (which was most of the times) it was beautiful.

The owners of Rosario’s Car Service (across the street from Usnavi’s bodega) are Kevin and Camila Rosario, played by Martin Antonio Guerra and Pamela Garcia Lanton. I ached for Mr. Rosario during his agonizing song “Inutil (Useless).” He was believable as the hardworking father who set high standards for himself and his family while withholding his emotions until they threatened to consume him. Lanton as the mom was a little stiff and jerky in the beginning, but she smoothed out and later matched her husband (who was also a bit of a stuffed shirt.) The scenes when they fought (as married couples do) over money and their daughter were electrifying.

Amanda Williams was cast as Daniela, the beauty salon owner and neighborhood gossip. Apparently, no one told Williams Daniela is a minor character because she owned the stage and made every word, every note and every movement count. She never once stepped out of character as Daniela and was intriguing to watch, even when she was just “part of the crowd” in a scene. Williams also found levels to Daniela who may at first appear to be shallow, but in the end, she’s the beautician with a heart of gold. And when Williams sang, she was seductively playful which wrapped the audience around her voluptuous curves.

Carla is Daniela’s assistant in the salon, and she was quirkily played by Natalie Coca. Sadly, we couldn’t hear her over the band until the 2nd act when her microphone was fixed or replaced. However, even without sound, she lit up the stage with youthful exuberance and played well against the neighborhood diva Williams made Daniela to be.

My favorite character in In the Heights is Piragua Guy, and so I was surprised to see Michael Alonzo cast given his age. Piragua Guy is often played by an older gentleman, but Adolfo went with a younger actor because, as he later told me, he could hit the High A required in his song “Piragua” and it allowed him to create a subtext storyline between he and Daniela. Piragua is a frozen Puerto Rican dessert sold in a push cart, and so Piragua Guy must compete with Mr. Softee, the mega ice cream truck chain found on every street corner of New York. (I think these jokes were lost on the Fort Worth audience.) Alonzo mastered his musical requirements with ease and added a light-hearted vibe to the streets of Washington Heights.

Opening the show and giving one of the more memorable moments at its conclusion was Michael Anthony Sylvester as Graffiti Pete, and his solo in the shadows of early dawn with cans of spray paint was some of the finest dancing I have seen on ANY stage in Dallas in the last three years. Added to this was his high energy and total commitment to the antics and reactions as the resident hoodlum. He lit the stage on fire every time he stepped onto it and even the audience when the choreography took him there.

Ensemble members, both dancers and singers, include: Kevin Acosta, Austin Ray Beck, Jeremy Coca, Jordan Ghanbari, Benicka Janae Grant, Gina Gwodz, Courtney Harris, Aigner Mathis, Darren McElroy, Addie Morales, Mark Quach, Rebekah Ruiz, Maegan Marie Stewart, and Rashard Turley. During intermission, I started making notes in my program. I wrote the following: “Dancers- Whoa. Wow. Ow.” As previously mentioned, they were allowed to shine without distracting, but if any audience member found their eye or ear wondering, the ensemble did not disappoint. The ensemble members were always in a specific character with their own story and emotional arc. In addition, the dancing and singing sounded like a Broadway cast, only with a little more heart- like underdogs fighting for what they really want- and fewer equity points.  The partnering work in various songs was particularly exceptional. If this seven (plus) page review has not convinced you to run see this show, allow me to say this: “Carnival del Barrio” has sexy, hot and half- dressed male and female dancers giving it their all as the sweat drips from their excess of muscles. Audience members were seen dancing in their seats from the first row to the last. I have purchased tickets to two additional shows with the express intent of giving total focus to the storylines and actions of the ensemble for which there is a wealth to absorb and appreciate.

Before the show even ended, the opening night audience had jumped to its feet and was showering In the Heights with the loudest standing ovation ever heard at Artes de la Rosa, perhaps the loudest I’ve ever heard in Fort Worth. As I made my rounds during intermission and the after-party, audience members were not just praising the production: they were gushing as they wiped away tears and fidgeted with unexpressed physical excitement over the show. Accolades on social media and texts continue to pour into Artes de la Rosa. There are a lot of local shows getting good to great reviews right now, and good for them. But you gotta get home to In the Heights before it’s too late.

On a personal note: A few years ago, I was cast in my VERY FIRST production as an actor. I was an un-named ensemble member in a cast of 110. (I am fairly certain I was number 97 on the call sheet.) Guiding me through the process and explain some of the interworking’s of the local theatre politics was Mrs. Ana Coca. During the rehearsal process for that show, I announced I had been selected for a conservatory program in New York. Mrs. Coca pulled me aside and told me about this new musical that was winning all kinds of awards in New York. Something about Heights. I will never forget what she said about the show. “You need to see this show not just because it’s great but because of what it means for the future of Latino and bilingual actors everywhere. It is going to change Broadway. As a bilingual actor and as someone who works closely with Latino theatres, this show needs you in the audience. I cannot wait for it to come here on tour one day. Our Latinos need a show like this. Oh! And there are NO maids or construction workers!” Needless to say, I bought a ticket as soon as I got my student ID. (No, I’m not a Latino actor, just the resident gringa at a few local Latino theatres.) Ever since, I have repeated her words to Latino actors as opportunities to see or even just hear the musical have arisen. By “coincidence”, I was chatting with my friend at the sensational opening night VIP After Party for In the Heights when I turned and saw Mrs. Coca wrangling some actors into a group shot. That’s when it hit me- the two Cocas in the show were her children I had seen running around the theater a few years earlier. The musical that meant so much to her had finally found its way Home. So, should we sing “It’s a Small World After All” or “Circle of Life?”


In the Heights runs through June 9th, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 3pm. $14-$25, general seating.

Tickets are available by calling 817-624-8333, online at, or in person at the box office.

Artes de la Rosa Cultural Center for the Arts is located at 1440 North Main Street, Fort Worth, TX 76164.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Lucky Chance, Echo Theatre, 2-15-2013

The Lucky Chance or, The Alderman’s Bargain
Echo Theatre


Echo Theatre’s production of The Lucky Chance or, The Alderman’s Bargain by Aphra Behn currently running at the Bath House Cultural Center was an evening of highly entertaining and well executed spectacle, but the spectacle unfortunately overshadowed the story, resulting in amused confusion.

The Lucky Chance, Or The Alderman's Bargain embraces the classic theme of innocent, young women who are betrothed to self-serving, lustful men and is an indictment of the arranged marriage system of Behn’s society. The self-important old roué Sir Feeble Fainwood uses his wealth to gain lovely Leticia Bredwell as his bride. Feeble's friend, Sir Cautious Fulbank, also bought a bride, Julia who - like Leticia - is in love with another younger, poorer man. The young lovers vow to end this tradition of marital servitude before Leticia must consummate her marriage and Feeble's daughter, Diana, becomes the next victim. Echo's streamlined new adaptation toys with the parallels between the English Restoration and the Sexual Revolution by setting the play in 1960’s Swinging London. Behn's classic language collides with commedia dell' arte style, the musical interludes of The Singing Detective and the 1960’s sound of Hullabaloo! It’s a 1680's play done in 1960's style! The Lucky Chance features explosive physicality and a sizzling sexuality and requires a dozen actors playing 20+ characters.” (taken from Echo Theatre’s publication materials)

Aphra Behn is credited as the first published female playwright of the English language, so it is clear why she easily fits in with Echo’s mission. The classical text was full of wit and charm, and the storyline is a tried and true one. It is a lesser known text, so the plot twists were fairly surprising. Once the audience was in the groove of the language, the jokes and the comebacks become predictable. This doesn’t make them any less funny, though. Director René Moreno adapted the script. Given the time period in which it was written, one can assume he did a lot of cutting in consideration of a modern audience’s attention span. It is doubtful the audience experienced a tragic loss as the flow of the story, and especially the lines, gave no hint to any cuts or rewrites.

The Bath House Cultural Center, home of Echo Theatre’s productions, is a small venue with seating for about 50. The proscenium stage was painted with a giant Union Jack and had two doors for entrances on the far upstage. A psychedelic painting of the Queen adorned one wall. Entrances and exits were also made from the far left and right curtains, and there was a surprise window revealed in a comedic bit late in the first act. Other surprises are also hidden throughout the design, but to critique them here would ruin the joke for a future audience. It is a long space that is not very deep, but scenic designer Clare Floyd DeVries was still able to carve out many useable levels for the director and actors to play within. One distraction of the design is that the doors were not flush with the floor, so movement offstage was visible, and the all wood set made for at times thunderous backstage travel, especially for those in high heels. Linda Blasé’s lighting design was simple but effective: dimming for night and no part of the stage left unseen. When it comes to the costumes, Ryan Matthieu Smith showcased the fashion of the 1960s in ALL its splendor. From wedding attire to bedroom lounge wear and everything in between, I honestly don’t think a single trend of the entire decade was left out. A well fitted and character appropriate lime green suit was the costume highlight for me, though Leticia’s shoes had me resisting the urge to ask the actor what size she wore and where the shoes were procured. Props Design, shared by Rebekka Koepke and Lynn Mauldin, was minimalistic. A few bottles of perfume, letters, coin purses and so forth were excellent in their unobtrusive detailed accuracy. The use of wigs was unaccredited  but they were appropriately styled for the time period. However, there was a noticeable color difference between the actors' hair and the wigs that I found to be distracting.

Moreno successfully unites the farcical design elements with his more than capable actors to create a fun and colorful world. The juxtaposition of the belletristic text with the music, clothes, and general attitudes of the 1960s somehow worked. The blocking was always organic and clearly motivated, and with some help from Sara Romersberger, who was credited with Choreography and Movement, even the scene changes proved to be a source of entertainment.

The standout directing choice by Moreno in this production was the use of a variety of 1960s music that the actors lip synced while remaining in character. I lost track of how many performances there were after seven such musical interludes. Though each number was performed with absolute dedication and the finesse of trained dancers in a Broadway musical, the joke got old after a while. And they didn’t just sing the chorus or a verse of the song. No, they often sang the entire thing. The first number, as much from shock value as for delivery, was met with laughter and applause. The only other number greeted with such enthusiasm was Adrian Spencer Churchill’s rendition of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ I Did it My Way at the end. Before I criticize the bold choice, let me stress that the songs were well performed, and the audience found them to be entertaining. If such a category existed, they would be nominated for best lip synced musical. However, the songs did not add to the story and in many ways detracted from it. Part of the detraction was the flip from classical to contemporary language. It jarred the audience and left our ear out of tune when the dialogue picked back up. Also, the songs added to the run time of the show which clocked in at just over two and a half hours with one intermission. (This show could have benefited from a second intermission or just more cuts.) Once the music started, I often stopped paying attention to the story and instead became the person in the audience who noticed things like my neighbor’s beautiful watch, wondering when the show could get on. It was entertaining, and I did my best to have fun with the actors, but in the end, I was fed just too many lip synced exhibitions.

The 12 member cast devoured the classical language and offered it to the audience without the pretention often associated with other classical works. Comedic bits were played off with ease, and their energy and dedication to the moment oozed off the stage. They gave it their all, and the audience responded in kind. I laughed even when something wasn’t funny because I was trying to reciprocate, sending positive audience energy back to the actors. Of particular note was the use of London accents- each character with his or her own class distinction that every single actor performed admirably.

Opening the show with a monologue chalk full of expose the audience needed was Austin Tindle as Mr. Bellmour. He was one of the young men whose lover had been arranged into marriage with a much older man. He schemed his way into the home of the bride and began an elaborate plot to win her back. With ease, perfect diction and a willingness to connect directly with his audience, Tindle carried the audience into the show as easily as he might invite us into his own home. Playing the other jilted lover, Charles Gayman, was Brandon Sterrett. In the opening scene, he seemed tripped up by the dialogue, but this was remedied by the second scene and was never a problem again. His shining moment came in a would-be steamy scene with his much older landlady (played by Kateri Cale) in which he fights the urge to vomit.

Laurel Alons as Lady Julia Fulbank and Martha Harms as Leticia were the young women suffering from arranged marriages to much older men. Harms was most believable in her angst and broken heart. I also felt she and Tindle were better matched as a couple. Alons was a strong actress who brought a lot of fire to her character, but I felt a genuine passion was missing during her encounters with Sterrett. It’s almost as if they were telling the audience “We are in love, we are in love” only to leave us doubting the statements once they finally shared the stage. Her most truthful moment was when she seductively, silently gestured “come hither” while lying on a bed.

Sir Feeble Fainwood and Sir Cautious Fulbank are played by Bradley Campbell and Adrian Spencer Churchill, respectively. Campbell relished in playing the biggest kid on the stage with over the top physicality, facial expressions and vocalizations. He really sparked to life during the second act, and I found myself anxiously awaiting his return to a scene. The biggest laugh of the entire evening for me came when he talked about the scary ghosts. Churchill, as mentioned before, had his standout moment during I Did it My Way, but it was not his only time to shine. While debating the loss of his wife verses the loss of 300£, he had the audience in stitches.

Carissa Jade Olsen as Diana (Fainwood’s daughter who also had her engagement arranged) was appropriately wide eyed and utilized her long hair and slender frame to woe not only her intended but the audience as well. She handled the emotional context with relative ease- easily portraying a ditzy young woman in love, but what seemed to be a slight speech impediment made it difficult to understand her at times. Dan Schmoker as Mr. Bredwell- another poor servant in love, was able to truly shine in both voice and physicalization when he donned the cape, top hat, and mask of Satan himself. The switch from Mr. Bredwell to Mr. Bredwell as Satan was so complete and highly entertaining that I applaud him for creating a character within a character. Ian Ferguson as Mr. Bearjest appeared to be a minor comedic character who helped open the first Act, but gave a surprise turn by the end of Act II. Ferguson was engaged in every scene and was the quintessential smarmy rich kid.

An actor who plays multiple roles in a single production with acute attention to details such as voice, accent and physical characterization along with the added design elements such as costuming deserve special recognition. Lauren Davis, Kateri Cale and Nathan Autrey played at least nine characters. Each time he or she entered the stage, a complete transformation had occurred to the point I had to double check it was only a cast of 12. Davis used her deep voice and slow walk to seduce characters and was able to flip comedically from an English accent to a French accent with ease. Servant Gammer Grime and Landlady Pert were played to perfection by Kateri Cale, an Echo producing partner. Autrey and I attended college together, and so it was a joy to see him onstage once again in a highly comedic role. His transformations between characters (playing four in total) was a constant source of entertainment for the entire audience.

Overall, Echo Theatre’s production of Aphra Behn’s The Lucky Chance Or, The Alderman’s Bargain was an high energy and commendable spectacle that left the audience perplexingly charmed.


Runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm through February 23.
Tickets are available by calling 214-904-0500 or online at 
Bath House Cultural Center
521 E. Lawther Drive
Dallas, TX 75218

Director: René Moreno
Choreography and Movement: Sara Romersberger
Set Design: Clare Floyd DeVries
Sound Design: Pam Myers-Morgan
Stage Manager: Kelsey Ervi
Lighting Design: Linda Blase
Costume Design: Ryan Matthieu Smith
Props Design: Lynn Mauldin and Rebekka Koepke

Sir Feeble Fainwood: Bradlley Campbell
Sir Cautious Fulbank: Adrian Spencer Churchill
Mr. Gayman: Brandon Sterrett
Mr. Bellmour: Austin Tindle
Mr. Bredwell: Dan Schmoker
Mr. Bearjest: Ian Ferguson
Ralph, Captain Noisey, Dick, Shepardess: Nathan Autrey
Lady Julia Fulbank: Laurel Alons
Leticia: Martha Harms
Diana: Carissa Jade Olsen
Phillis, Postwoman, Rag: Lauren Davis
Gammer Grime, Pert: Kateri Cale
Board Operator: Rebecca Brooks

Monday, September 10, 2012

Two Rooms at Runway Theater August 2012

My blog was down the day I originally wanted to post this (August 13, 2012), so it was originally published on Facebook. But, I wanted to get the word out about a GREAT show, even if it's after the fact. Two Rooms was a must see EXPERIENCE!

Runway Theatre’s current production of Two Rooms is an enlightening, heart wrenching and an absolute must see production.

Two Rooms by Lee Blessing is a play that takes place, as the title suggests, in two rooms. One is a cell in Lebanon where Michael Wells is being held hostage by terrorists. The other is a room in his home in Washington D.C., which his wife has stripped of furniture so that, at least symbolically, she can share his ordeal. In fact, the same room serves for both and is also the locale for imaginary conversations between the hostage and his wife, plus the setting for the real talks she has with a reporter and a State Department official. The former, an overly ambitious sort who hopes to develop the situation into a major personal accomplishment, tries to prod the wife into taking umbrage at what he labels government ineptitude and inaction. The State Department representative is coolly efficient, and even dispassionate, in her attempt to treat the matter with professional detachment. It is her job to try to make the wife aware of the larger equation of which the taking of a hostage is only one element, but as the months inch by it becomes increasingly difficult to remain patient. The play deals with the subjects of the terrorism and the government, the media, and the love of a husband and wife. Blessing’s play is poignant, thought provoking, and a masterpiece in and of itself.

Runway Theatre is a small, 100 seat theater in Grapevine, and the converted proscenium stage in conjunction with the intimate space is the perfect set for this production. Set designer Jordana Abrenica creates the walls of the room with sheer gauze-like curtains that can be opened or shut, creating feelings of isolation or openness as the scene requires. There are four chairs placed on the diagonals outside of this “room” where the actors sit and watch the scenes in which they have no dialogue. Within the room, there is only a simple mat and an occasional ottoman is brought in for the State Department official to sit on. The (appropriate) starkness of the stage allows the actors to fill the space with emotions and witty dialogue that will long ring in the audience’s hearts and ears. Michael Wells is an amateur photographer, and some of his images are displayed on these curtains in the form of a slideshow. Sadly, holes are appearing in the curtains, so from my vantage point on the right, most of the faces of his subjects were obliterated. The overall drama captured in the images was not lost, though.

Adam Adolfo wore many hats as director, costume designer, lighting designer and sound designer. Though no doubt it was a considerable time commitment, he unified the design elements with his overall directing vision to support the story as completely as any design I’ve seen on stage this year. The pacing of the show never once drags, and though the material is definitely meaty, he prohibits his actors from “milking” certain scenes too long while allowing silent moments to feaster. There are no costume changes for the characters, and they are in an array of tans and chocolate browns suitable to the role within the show. The lights were soft at times and with a subtle shift, the room would become harshly bright- and he even had them illuminate or conceal the actors in their four chairs as needed. Finally, as sound designer he was aided by the pre-recorded original music by Joshua Bradford. As music should, it underscores the story without detracting from it. It is also hauntingly eerie.

With only four characters played by four actors, everyone is a lead, but in this production, Alden Bowers Price as Lainie is the standout star. Never once in the two hour production did her emotion seem forced or the dialogue anything less than organic. Her expressive eyes and voice lent themselves to her innocence and heartbreak. When she cried, I cried- as did my theater companion. Playing her husband Michael is Sean-Michael Cohn. Though every bit as invested in his character, Cohn faced very different challenges- including spending most of the first act blindfolded. He walks with a limp and is handcuffed- all of which he plays subtly and effectively without over-emphasizing them. The story is not about his physical journey- it’s an emotional one. There are times when the emotions seemed force or a dramatic pause was just slightly too long, but overall, you begin to genuinely fear for his safety and want, more than anything, for him and Lainie to be reunited.

Melanie Swenson as The State Department rep, Ellen, uses her tall stature and deep voice to project an air of authority. As the story progresses, though, she expertly balances between being both a stone wall and a woman obviously caught between her duty and her empathy. Parker Fitzgerald is Walker, the journalist who wants an exclusive interview with the wife of this hostage- a wife who has been strangely silent throughout the ordeal. She allows him into her home, but does not grant him the interview he seeks for months. Fitzgerald plays Walker as kind but with a driving mission. IF, and let me emphasize IF, IF there is a weak link in the cast, it is Fitzgerald. I needed to see more variations, both physically and vocally as Walker arcs throughout the story. His anger seemed too subdued and his triumphant joy seemed forced. I wanted him to stretch to the far extremes while still remaining a believable journalist (level headed, observant, and determined.) This is a nitpicky criticism that disappears by the middle of the second act. As he and Lainie become closer, as they forge the “us against the world, to save Michael” bond, Fitzgerald completely embodies the role of Walker- to the point my theater companion and I were both vocal in our emotional responses as if he could really hear us. He is both a fully professional, detached journalist and yet a compassionate human being- not an easy trait in real life much more on stage.

Though the drama Two Rooms is currently competing with area feel good musicals and other typical summer comedies, it is the production I encourage local audiences to make the greatest effort to see. You will be a better husband/wife, American and most importantly, human being.


Two Rooms runs at Runway Theatre (215 North Dooley Street Grapevine, TX 76051) August 10-19. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 with a Sunday matinee at 3pm. Tickets range in price from $12-$15 and can be purchased at or by calling 817-488-4842.

Two Rooms by Lee Blessing
Director: Adam Adolfo
Assistant Director/Dramaturg: Jeremy Jackson
Stage Manager: Kristi Taylor
Scenic and Property Design: Jordana Abrenica
Lighting Design: Adam Adolfo
Costume Design: Adam Adolfo
Sound Design: Adam Adolfo
Original Music: Joshua Bradford

Michael: Sean-Michael Cohn
Lainie: Alden Bowers Price
Walker: Parker Fitzgerald
Ellen: Melanie Swenson

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Early Education of Conrad Eppler

The Early Education of Conrad Eppler Echo Theatre

Echo Theatre’s production of The Early Education of Conrad Eppler currently running at the Bath House Cultural Center is a show I enjoyed very much and recommended it to all my friends, but can only seem to tell you all the reasons I didn’t like it or the parts that stood out as odd. Regardless, this show is an experience that will leave you spinning long after it is over.

“Three adolescent angels make an unlicensed appearance on Earth, triggering reactions on three planes: the material planet Earth (where Conrad resides with the Sisters of Sorrow), the celestial planet Grace (where angels are cultured), and the transitional Moon (where the Joyous Mystery Sisters abide). There is a revolution in progress in the heavens, but Heaven knows that Earth is the future. Eden will no longer be just some has-been, burned-out tear-down, but rather a vision unrealized, a Garden yet-to-be. Throw the lever in reverse! There’s still time! Conrad's the key; the Apocalyptic future can be rewritten!”- (taken from Echo Theatre’s website.) Conrad Eppler is a young boy who was left on the front steps of a convent when he was just an infant. He is taken care of by some less than normal nuns. One night, three angels hear his prayer for parents, and they appear to him. One of the angels loves him and promises him parents, and the journey thus begins.

The fact that I need to write an explanation of their synopsis is indicative of the entire play. Take a friend or two to see this show- you’ll need help explaining it to each other. Playwright Isabella Russell-Ides was one of three winners of Echo Theatre’s Big Shout Out contest, and the last of the winning plays to be staged this season. If one were to close his eyes and just listen to the script, the sing-songy rhymes of the witty one liners is soothing and quite poetic. But poetry is not always meant to be understood, and this is a downfall of some of the dialogue. At no fault to the actors, I at times had no idea what was being said nor could I assimilate all the rapid fire information into the storyline fast enough to keep up. Early on, though, I realized this is a play to be enjoyed on two levels. The first way is to sit back and enjoy the ride and don’t think about it. Laugh when it’s funny, which thankfully it often is, and sit quietly during the parts you don’t understand. The other way is to get a copy of the script and read it, taking time to research on the internet or in the religion section of the library all of the references and allegories drawn from multiple belief systems so to best understand the writer’s deepest meaning. For the purpose of this review, I opted for the first way, but don’t think I won’t be asking for a copy of that script. I’m more than ready to enjoy The Early Education of Conrad Eppler on all its levels.

The Bath House Cultural Center in Dallas is a small but charming venue which seats about 50 people in the audience. The director, Pam Myers-Morgan, let those of us who were new to the Bath House know that this production required the audience and the stage to flip sides, so the audience members entered almost onto the stage before reaching our seats. Several chairs had signs on them as well that said partial view seats. Being an invited critic, I was given the best seat in the house- dead center of the third row. This is definitely a show where partial view is going to be a let- down.

Above everything else, one could assume director Pam Myers-Morgan had fun with this production. She allowed the designers of the set, costumes, lights and sound to run to the farthest reaches of their childhood imaginations and then carefully crafted them into a bright spectacle that supports the storyline in total unison. Unfortunately, the blocking at times became stagnant, usually when all the actors were on stage at the same time. A small stage fills up quickly with 10 or so people on it, so we were left to watch them stand in a semi circle and talk. Though, at other times, very inventive uses of the space proved to be the over the top entertainment we had come to expect (especially the parts that involved the scooters.) For the most part, the blocking was fast paced and matched the style of the show. One drawback that, in the end became an advantage, was the very young cast- if young only in appearance. The lead angel is herself only a high school student, and though all were good choices, their youthfulness added a “junior high play production” campiness feel to the performance.

Christopher Jenkins’ set design at first appears to be very simple, even cartoonish with large cloud like swirls and several doors and curtains for entrances scattered on the far left and right and within the seat itself. As Jaymes Gregory’s lighting design is added to the set design, though, we see that the audience’s right is the convent where Conrad lives and the left side is used for the “other worlds” the story takes us to. Gregory’s lights also differentiate between our reality and other planes and allow for some over the top entrances and exits for the various characters. Sound design by M. Graeme Bice was spot on, both in quality and in the timing of the delivery done by Board Operators Bryan Douglas and Lisa Robb.

Costumes by Ryan Matthieu Smith were, depending on your opinion of the show, either the highlight or the downfall of the production. From zebra print leggings to pink nun habits to a space cowboy- no character was untouched- and this includes the stuffed monkey Conrad carries with him wherever he goes. All costumes were well fit, and once the shock of them wore off, somehow matched the writing and the actors’ characterizations perfectly. The props, designed by Lynn Mauldin and Rebekka Koepke, were very similar to children’s toys, and once the play concludes, it is evident as to why. As the play progresses to this ending, though, the use of the props by the adult actors in total seriousness adds to the laughter of the evening.

The title character was bravely and whole heartedly embodied in that of 6th grader Jennings Humphries. He is a self confidant and fully involved actor who is also a child without being that pretentious “child actor.” At times, his line delivery was a little fast and certain lines came across as unmotivated, but this was rare. As he grows and develops his craft, he will learn that performances are not line tests- neither in getting them all out word for word nor in speed. Ellen Locy as Mother Mary Extraordinary and the High Consul was the mean nun with an interesting secret to play and then, a few scenes later, would emerge as the gracious and nearly omniscient High Consul. As a nun, she was the character I was able to relate to most easily in a believable way and is what drew me into the story of Conrad Eppler and made me care about him.

Supporting Mother Mary Extraordinary was Kateri Cale as Sister Merry Berry and LisaAnne Haram as Sister Subordinary. Nothing is funnier than women dressed in nun habits doing very un-nun like things. But, aside from the easy jokes there, these two actresses also had quiet moments with Conrad and one another that let the audience know that their world was the “our reality.” Berry was the “happy” nun, very reminiscent of the Sister Mary Patrick in the movie Sister Act. Haram also appears later as Sister Omega Omicron the Oracle, and she not only changed her costume (if only in color, not in style) and her eyelashes, she also changed her voice and her physical movements so that NO ONE would be confused as to who she was at any given time. It’s not hard for me to say that Haram was my favorite nun and she lit up the stage with every entrance.

Kylie Zeko as the angel Alethia (or is she a reincarnation of the first woman Eve?) had the difficult task of carrying much of the emotional journey of the show, and giving a lot of expose to the audience. For the most part, her performance was truthful- making use of her young age and big expressive eyes, but there were times when she did not go far enough or relax enough to convey only the character. Her inexperience in these very adult themes at times did show through, but were later forgiven as she drew us in with her honest emotions. Alethia’s angelic friends, Epiphany and Honeycomb, are played by Tatum Zeko and Wendy Blackburn respectively. They are giggly school girls who only begin to grasp the events they have set in motion. Later, when they emerge as Sisters Delta Delta, the work in unison, often speaking and moving as one. Though minor roles, their presence and performances added to the setting of the storyline.

As Aletheia’s love interest Roica, Matthew Clark is tall, handsome, and delivers his lines in earnest, though much of his purpose in the storyline itself was lost on me. Also, his eye make- up was extremely heavy and distracting.

Stealing the show was David Lugo as Luce, the chief of the Angel Police (and possibly that fallen antagonist, Lucifer.) He was the creepy, smarmy, self confidant slime ball the devil should be- and he put all of Luce in the deep booming “radio” voice and his cheesy grins to the audience. He was finally able to flex some of his comedic timing and wealth of vocal acting experience in Act 2 as he quickly shifted from accent to accent, character voice to character voice, but all the while we saw Luce hiding underneath in disguise. At his right hand was David Meglino as Lieutenant Kilowatt, the bumbling minion of Luce. Meglino had some of the best lines of the night, and though his character had some of the most off the wall reactions (physically and emotionally) to the happenings on stage, he sold every single one as believable simply because he was fully committed to it.

As Miss Demeanor and later Sister Rho Zeta, Miller Pyke seemed confidant in her purpose in the story and uncertain of what she was doing all at the same time. Her four inch heels and incessant use of an inhaler as Miss Demeanor, Conrad’s social worker, did not aid her at all, but got the formulated laughs they were intended to.

Finally, Stephanie Butler and Tamitha Curiel as the Wing Sergeants to the High Consul moved in such unison and were so well cast as identical angels, I honestly don’t know who was who- and this is as it should be.

The Early Education of Conrad Eppler might offend some of the religious fundamentalists, might annoy those who prefer a linear story told in traditional ways and be full of predictable one liners and physical comedy, but for the most part, this “deeply religious, ‘don’t mess with a good thing’ theater critic” laughed a lot at this very weird and oddly impressive show. Don’t miss this production- it’s a very rare treat for our theater community.

The Early Education of Conrad Eppler
Echo Theatre
at the Bath House Cultural Center
521 East Lawther Drive, Dallas, TX 75218

Reviewed performance on Saturday February 18, 2012.
Runs through February 25th.

Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays @ 8:00 pm and Saturday Matinee at 2pm.

Tickets for evening performances are $20 online, $25 at the door, and matinees are $15. Students and seniors are $10 for any performance. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling (214) 904-0500.

Directed by Pam Myers-Morgan
Assistant Directed by Reis Myers McCormick
Written by Isabella Russell-Ides
Stage Managed by Jordan Willis
Assistant Stage Managed by Alett Gray
Scenic Design by Christopher Jenkins
Lighting Design by Jaymes Gregory
Costume Design by Ryan Matthieu Smith
Props Design by Lynn Mauldin and Rebekka Koepke
Sound Design by M. Graeme Bice
Technical Director: Bryan Douglas
Production Assistant: James Stroman
Publicity: Kateri Cale

Alethia- Kylie Zeko
Epiphany- Tatum Zeko
Honeycomb- Wendy Blackburn
Conrad Eppler- Jennings Humphries
Sister Merry Berry-Kateri Cale
Sister Subordinary- LisaAnne Haram
Mother Mary Extraordinary- Ellen Locy
Luce- David Lugo
Lieutenant Kilowatt- David Meglino
High Consul- Ellen Lucy
Wing Sergeant I- Tamitha Curiel
Wing Sergeant II- Stephanie Butler
Roica- Matthew Clark
Miss Demeanor- Miller Pyke
Sister Omega Omicron, Oracle- LisaAnne Haram
Sisters Delta Delta- Tatum Zeko, Wendy Blackburn
Sister Rho Zeta- Miller Pyke
Skipper the Gospel Monkey- Tommy Myers-Morgan