Chronicle Art Reviews
Fri., Nov. 21, 1997
WEST SIDE STORY: A BOXFUL OF KITTENS
through November 23
Running Time: 2 hrs, 15 min
Testosterone will be oozing off the Paramount stage all the rest of this week. The Jets and the Sharks are at it again, marking their territory like packs of stray dogs, snarling and snapping at anyone who steps across their invisible borders. Too many people in too little space provides the spark, testosterone the fuel, and love the oxygen in Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim's explosive West Side Story.
Before you read further, let me make clear that this is a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging show. Austin is lucky to have Austin Musical Theatre, a company committed to producing professional musical theatre. I left the theatre trying to dance the mambo and singing "America." Audience members around me were sobbing after the final scene, proof that this is a piece that connects and makes you care. Donna Maria Asbury as Anita and Tim Talman as Riff steal the show with their strong performances and incredible voices. Marsh Hanson as Tony, the good guy caught in this turf war, makes his role seem effortless, and Lindsay Korman as Maria, the Juliet to Tony's Romeo, is fragile but strong-willed with the voice of an angel.
It was only after the last strains of "Some-where" left my head that I realized that the whole experience, while as fun as a basket of kittens, was somehow unsatisfying, like eating nothing but cotton candy for a week. Unlike the aforementioned collection of felines, there was no sharp scratch to this production, no undercurrent of what is really going on in this New York neighborhood that is in the midst of growing pains. Scott Thompson and Richard Byron, the directors and choreographers, have a knack for snappy numbers and know how to sell a song, yet they can't seem to sustain enough tension to carry the show through some of its more troubling moments.
Part of the responsibility for this also seems to lie with Tony Tucci's lighting design and Bill Sheffield's stage management. Brighter is better appears to be Tucci's motto for this section of Manhattan, either through a conscious choice on the designer's part or through a compromise that had to be made because of the Paramount's electrics. Sheffield and the deck hands don't seem to know what is supposed to happen next, a compromise, I'm sure, to the economics of having to load-in and tech the same week that the show opens.
Speaking of compromises, Ken Huncovsky's sound design seems as if it was forced to make the best of a bad situation. Almost every show at the Paramount suffers from hisses, scratches, pops, and whistles. This historic space was made for grand productions and deserves to have more attention paid to its aging systems, the conditions of which force wonderful pieces of theatre into the sterile Bass to achieve any real technical quality. This landmark is a treasure that deserves to be used to its fullest potential.
It's frustrating to know that, despite my vehement assertions of West Side Story's strong points, all the focus will be on everything negative that I have said. Let me repeat: This show is great and has been a long time in coming. But it could have been the kind of show that leaves an audience with its jaw on the ground, heart pounding, and palms sweating, if more attention had been paid to the nagging details. The energy is there, almost ready to explode like boys and girls in love, if all the elements could find their way onstage.
— Adrienne Martini
NAUGHTY AUSTIN: TALKING TRASH
Later@Live Oak Cabaret,
With apologies to Irving Berlin:
"There's no people like show people,
They know how to hit low...."
Yes, even when you can't depend on them to know their own lines, to remember a bit of direction from one performance to the next, or to show up at the theatre on time (much less sober), you can still count on actors to tell you what's disastrously wrong with the rest of the cast's work, who has appallingly bad taste in clothes, and who's working only because they slept with the director. And to do it in the most entertainingly bitchy way possible. I can't say why thespians so love talking trash, only that they do and that some do it with such style that they've virtually turned it into an art form.
Case in point: the debut last week of the revue Naughty Austin. In some 30 musical numbers, fired off with the rapidity of an Uzi, a half-dozen local performers ripped, reamed, and roasted scores of the city's theatre artists and companies and their onstage efforts, but did it with such finesse — the word carefully chosen, the impersonation sharply observed, the tone bemused, not bitter — as to be artful.
Blake Yelavich can be credited for much of the show's skillful air. He penned the parody lyrics to the songs, and he's most adept at laying new words onto familiar tunes, getting them to scan just so while getting across his own joke. And those jokes.... Yelavich knows Austin's stage scene inside and out, and can dish on it in detail, from the choreography of Austin Musical Theatre's Scott Thompson and Richard Byron to the propensity of actors in VORTEX productions to show a little skin. Moreover, he understands the scene and what behavior is excessive enough to justify spoofing, as with the Zachary Scott Theatre Center's literally dazzling Rockin' Christmas Party at the Paramount, which Yelavich has drawing all the power from the rest of Congress Avenue, or the local cabaret trend, which he accurately spears as "one step removed from karaoke." Occasionally, he focuses a tad too closely on his subject — his spoof of Man of La Mancha lead Edmound Fitzpatrick was a bit obscure if you weren't actually in the show — and a handful of his barbs fall short of the target, but he finds the yellow circle more often than not.
To help him sling his arrows of outrageous spoofery, Yelavich recruited several actors with crack aim and no sense of shame. Lauren Adrian, Neal Gibson, Cathie Sheridan, Dan Sullivan, and Laura Walberg gamely don wigs and doff their clothes in the course of delivering Yelavich's parodies, selling most of them with the fervor of an Act One finale. They also manage some memorable impressions of local stage personalities, with Sullivan scoring the most laughs with his Dave Steakley — chatty, with birdlike tilts of the head — and Scott Schroeder — standing on his knees, singing in a sharp, high voice just this side of a Pomeranian's bark. Who knew that inside this lantern-jawed leading man was such an exuberantly gifted clown? Let's see more.
For that matter, let's see more Naughty Austin. Skillful parody is still pretty rare in this community and this troupe's debut was sharp and funny enough to warrant encouragement. If these show people want to talk more trash, I'm happy to listen. — Robert Faires
STEP ON A CRACK: WE ARE FAMILY
Auditorium on Waller Creek,
through November 23
Remember that childhood omen, "Step on a crack, break your mother's back?" If it worked on stepmothers, Ellie would be pounding the pavement. Written by Susan L. Zeder, Step on a Crack is the touching if somewhat syrupy story of Ellie (Maddie Gatling, played at alternate performances by Lynly Forrest), a bright and promising young girl who must adjust to her father's new wife the only way she can: one step at a time.
After her real mother's death, Ellie enjoyed a laid-back bachelor dad existence with her pop, Max (Lee Simon); they bowled together, lollygagged around, gorged themselves on TV dinners and ice cream. That is, until Dad married Lucille (Vanita Trippe). See, Lucille brings to the house everything Ellie never wanted: discipline, cleanliness, and fierce competition for her father's attention. Feeling neglected, Ellie begins to fashion herself as "Cinder"-Ellie, prey for a wicked step-monster. She refuses to listen to well-intentioned Lucille, seeking refuge in her room, where imaginary friends Frizbee (Daniel A. Lam) and Lana (Danielle L. DiDio) romp about with wild abandon. Although Ellie aches for maternal attention, she tramples any attempt to get close to her "Mom." In Ellie's defense, Lucille does flub a few moments. But so does Max, whose passive aggressiveness pigeonholes Lucille as the bad guy. Under the stress, the family's stability is cracking, and it looks as if either Lucille or Ellie will have to go.
Zeder's play uses an old family recipe for drama — teetering at times on ABC Afterschool Special material. However, Zeder peppers this concoction with some playful nuance. Lucille and Max pop up unexpectedly in Ellie's absurd fantasies, and Frizbee and Lana's shenanigans offer comic relief for flagging attentions. Zeder has added a character who acts as Ellie's inner "Voice" (Jessica Tallmadge), yelling "Red Light!" to freeze the play's action and offer insight into Ellie's thoughts. While the effect can seem jarring to an adult, children probably need such narrative hand-holding. And despite its roll-your-eyes predictability, the play's ending is genuinely moving.
In this Austin Theatre for Youth production, Gatling performs with an adult sensibility, maintaining the audience's sympathy despite Ellie's appalling brattiness. As Lucille and Max, Simon and Trippe are less realistic — few parents engage in such G-rated simplicity — but this is theatre for youth. Not to mention, this is Ellie's story, and her parents are depicted as most kids probably perceive them: tall people who make the rules and foot the bill.
Step on a Crack isn't merely child's play, however. Yes, it is a relevant lesson for the young in acceptance and love. But hidden in there too is a poignant reminder of what the childhood trenches feel like: the mangled self-esteem, lack of control, and impulsive need to destroy the very things you desperately want. Despite its frosting-on-fudge sentimentality, Step on a Crack reminds everyone that all parents mess up sometimes, all children hate sometimes, all families stumble sometimes — but together, they stand.
— Sarah Hepola