Tag Archives: Jason Estrada

Break Out the Mindless Nostalgia With CP’s Re-Engineered “Grease”

Review: Grease

By Perry Tannenbaum

People forget that Grease was a huge smash on Broadway for over eight years, the incubator for such hunks as Patrick Swayze, Richard Gere, Barry Bostwick, Peter Gallagher, Treat Williams, and that John Travolta guy. The 1978 film starring Travolta and Olivia Newton-John not only eclipsed the 1972 original, it radically altered the Jim Jacobs and Warren Jacobs book and score. By 2007, the last time it was revived on Broadway, Grease couldn’t be Grease without the two hit songs created for the movie, “You’re the One That I Want,” one of numerous #1 hits that John Farrar wrote for Newton-John, and Barry Gibbs’ “Grease (Is the Word).”

The result at CPCC Summer Theatre, with Carey Kugler directing that 2007 version, will often play like a blurred – or cut – version of the movie. Our summer romance at the beach with its poignant farewells, the second beginning devised for the show, now gives way to a third. Sandy Dumbrowski’s nemesis, Rizzo, is more like a spider lady than a tough punk. Stockard Channing delivered. Sandy’s quest to become part of the Pink Lady clique is forgotten, and there’s no climactic drag race when Danny Zuko reasserts his heroism behind the wheel of Kenickie’s Greased Lightnin’.

With one of the actors absent for the Sunday matinee, confusions compounded. Justin Austin smoothly replaced Aaron Coulson as Teen Angel, singing “Beauty School Dropout” to the disconsolate Frenchy, Sandy’s staunchest ally. But Coulson was also supposed to portray deejay Vince Fontaine at the high school sock hop. Touchy situation. Megan Postle, who terrorized one of Danny’s T-Bird chums as Miss Lynch, his English teacher, had to reappear as the fulsome emcee of the hop, and Ashton Guthrie, who was just learning the rudiments of guitar at the top of Act 1 as Doody (a pretty lame “Those Magic Changes”), now gets to sing Vince’s “Born to Hand Jive,” one of the best numbers in Act 2.

Unless you had recalculated based on CP Theatre Dept. chair Tom Hollis’s pre-show announcements, these were additional head-scratching moments.

Perhaps the most charitable way of looking at the Jacobs-Casey book, substantially overhauled by Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard for the film, is to presume that they were trying to flip Manhattan’s West Side Story into a vaguely Chicago comedy – if they had any idea of what they were doing at all. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain the botched, crisscrossed contretemps at the prom and the abruptly scheduled rumble between the T-Birds and the Scorpions that never happens.

Kugler never seems compelled to plug up any of the plot holes, so Philip Stock as Danny acts like a jerk without any qualms or hesitation. Stopping one time while making your exit doesn’t quite cut it. Robin Dunavant gets more to work with in baring Sandy’s heart – including twice as many songs – but with Danny wavering so capriciously in his affections, her “Hopelessly Devoted to You” feelings seem downright stupid. While Jason Estrada’s costume designs could be more rugged for the T-Birds, the megawatt blond wig he saddles Sandy with throughout her pre-makeover scenes (I’m not sure a single hair moves) made me wonder whether or not a beautiful teen lurked underneath.

Despite these teetering foundations, Stock does project a hard James Dean-like edge and – keeping in mind that this is Rydell High – a lean, sneering arrogance that recalls Bobby Rydell. There really are sparks when Dunavant finally crosses over from Sandra Dee-land to the leather-clad tramp that Danny wants, but the gulf between the two Sandys is so wide that it’s hard to shake the notion that her latter-day self is her creators’ wet dream. The masculinity takeaways from GREASE, that gangster toughness gets you girls and that unprotected sex is cool, are pure ‘50s bull, never questioned.

Amid Danny’s vacillations and Sandy’s pathological primness, the bitchy, predatory Betty Rizzo stands taller with the steadfast power of her slutty convictions. Don’t you dare feel sorry for her! Lindsey Schroeder further accents Rizzo’s outlaw chic with a self-assured swagger that gives her dominion over every scene she appears in, singing or not. The astonishing dancing jolts that Treston Henderson brings to Kenickie’s “Greased Lightnin’” are totally worthy of this spitfire Rizzo, his usual girlfriend. But the garbled speaking parts? Not so much.

Coupling and uncoupling are so unmotivated that the remaining T-Birds and the Pink Ladies threaten to devolve into stock characters. Among the guys, Guthrie as Doody is the only other gang member to leave an impression. Ava Smith as Frenchy is the only Pink aside from Rizzo that I could care a little about, but a beauty school dropout warrants a far more frightful wig. Outside the Pink clique we do better, with Alexis Harder showing some flair as Cha-Cha DiGregorio, the outsider dancing ace that Kenickie brings to the sock hop to spite Rizzo. Patty Simcox is no more scheming or manipulative than Rizzo, but Susannah Upchurch manages to make us dislike her chiefly for her wholesome veneer – and because she doesn’t seem to be enjoying her own wickedness nearly as much.

Fun-loving mindlessness is as much the word at CP as GREASE is. At Rydell High, you are so uncool if you can’t sustain enthusiasm through all the many ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong nonsense phrases that “We Go Together” provides for the ensemble at the end of Acts 1 and 2. The old folk at Halton Theater on Sunday, bobbing their heads to the beats until the lights came up, weren’t looking for any meaning at all in GREASE. They were looking for the sheer joy of youth, and they were finding it.

 

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Miller’s “Crucible” Roars Its Power at CP

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Review: The Crucible

By Perry Tannenbaum

Powerful men abound in the annals of drama, but few can vie with the formidability of Deputy-Governor Danforth in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Reminding the petitioning Francis Nurse just exactly whom he’s dealing with, he can honestly claim to have jailed nearly 400 people in various towns across Massachusetts with his signature – and sent 72 to the gallows with that many strokes of his pen.

“We burn a hot fire here,” he warns soon-to-be martyred John Proctor. “It melts down all concealment.”

If those declarations sound to you like they should be spoken softly, you are not reading them the way stage director Tom Hollis did for the current CPCC Theatre production at Pease Auditorium. Panoramic Pease is a challenging place acoustically, often frustrating audience members, especially the elderly, who chance to be seated in one of the side sections, trying to hear what actors are saying at the other end of the stage.

Anybody who has been reluctant to go to Pease, or stayed away because of that frustration is now encouraged to come back. There has never been such a roaring production at Pease – or anywhere else on the CPCC campus. It would be misleading to say that it begins with Tim Huffman, who gives a fearsome account of the Dep Governor in the climactic scene at the Salem Meeting House, ground zero of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. He doesn’t appear in the drama until the second scene after intermission, or Act 3 in the original script.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

We don’t hear anything about the full extent of Danforth’s rampage until he announces it himself, but the steady roar of the panicked citizens of Salem – and the shrieks of the pubescent girls who incredibly become their accusers – testify to the hysteria that has gripped the whole colony. Reverend Samuel Parris intrudes upon his servant Tituba leading a pagan moonlight ritual, with his daughter Betty and his niece Abigail Williams among her acolytes, in a marvelously creepy scene that Miller added to his 1953 script for his 1996 screenplay.

The secret of how that cinematic lagniappe was converted to stage may be locked in a local recipe, since the brief prologue isn’t referenced in the playbill’s rundown of the scenes. When we cut to the original opening scene in an upstairs bedroom of the Reverend’s home, Parris is huddled over the seemingly comatose Betty who will not waken since returning from her midnight revels. As great as Parris’s fears may be for his daughter’s life, his greatest fear is that the word “witchcraft” might be whispered around town about members of his family. His career is at stake.

The fear flips Reverend Parris from his initial condemnation of Betty and Abigail to becoming their staunchest supporter no matter how outrageously they overreach in their reign of terror. Cole Long may be giving us the most chilling performance here as Parris for he is never in the least soft-spoken. This rabid weasel speaks in a passionate, panicky squeal that threatens to shatter glass, most heinously in his waspish attacks upon John Proctor. Long’s high-voltage intemperance makes it easy for Huffman to become mightily annoyed with his zeal.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Hollis also finds strong – yet sweet – voices for the two most important accusers: Sarah Clifford is the implacably wicked and wanton Abigail, and Ashley Gildersleeve is the ambivalent Mary Warren, the witness Proctor enlists to debunk Abigail’s masquerade. Interestingly, Mary is Abigail’s successor in the Proctor household, hired after Abigail was told to hit the road when she had committed adultery with a now-penitent John.

Clifford gives us a shameless and forceful Abigail. Hollis is wise to include the nocturnal confrontation between Abigail and Proctor, written by Miller for the stage shortly after the original Broadway production, for it reveals Clifford’s full range. Switches between Abigail’s vamping, seductive mode to her imperious affirmations of divine judicial authority can be played so abruptly that the wench can seem to have an insanely split personality. But Hollis and Clifford find the bridge between the two Aby’s in her arrogant self-confidence – she obviously has no doubt that John will ultimately succumb to her charms.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Gildersleeve proves to us that Mary is also quite a powerful role, pulled ferociously hard in opposite directions by John and Abigail, pivotal in the outcome of the climactic court scene. Hollis is going against the usual impulse to cast Mary as a diminutive mouse who will cower in the proximity of the domineering Abigail. Making her more substantial magnifies the power of both adversaries who tug at her, and Hollis – not withstanding today’s political correctness – does not gloss over John’s abusiveness toward his servant.

The biggest payoff with Gildersleeve is how taut the tension can become before Mary makes her fatal choice. We can see that she isn’t going to break easily. When inevitability sets in, the chaos that breaks out in Danforth’s court is as alarming as you’ll ever see, like a vast cauldron coming to a boil and overflowing.

Nothing less can bring Josh Logsdon down in his hulking, near-Promethean performance as Proctor. There are few mild-mannered moments in his tragic odyssey toward the gallows. If, as he claims, he has walked tiptoe around his own home since his great sin, Logsdon certainly turns the corner when John confronts Elizabeth, raging and roaring at her like a tyrant before her unexpected arrest. Then he turns on the gendarmes with leonine fury as they take her into custody. Then on the quailing Mary, who has brought the incriminating poppet to his house from Salem.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Torn between taking advantage of Abigail’s affection and risking her fury, Logsdon is comparatively becalmed in their forest scene, but he’s only truly temperate in the presence of the Dep Governor when Elizabeth’s fate hangs in the balance. Even then, we see him as a powder keg, ready to explode in a heartbeat.

The Gothic aspects of such sulfurous action are somewhat muted by the raked and abstract set design by Beth Aderhold and costume designer Jason Estrada’s execution of what could have been Hollis’s most daring concept – transporting the 1692 atrocities to the McCarthy Era 1950s when Miller’s tragedy premiered. But the concept gathers little further momentum. We find no TV in the Proctor home that could be tuned to the HUA or Army-McCarthy hearings, and no projections on the blank upstage wall from contemporary newspapers heralding the anti-Commie hysteria that Miller was obliquely targeting.

It’s Caryn Crye who unexpectedly brought me the strongest flashback to the 50s as Elizabeth. Again and again, Crye’s quietly assertive and judgmental portrayal evoked the Emmy Award-winning Audrey Meadows in her iconic role as Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners (1952-57). This is a cold and grudging Elizabeth who knows a woman’s place yet never backs down. She comes to see her own failings and their causes in the poignant final dialogue with John. Yet when we hear her last words, it’s hard to discard the notion that nothing less John’s march to the gallows could convince her of his complete atonement for his infidelity.

The depth and power of the CP cast helps to shine new light on Miller’s lesser characters. Giles Corey usually comes off as a contentious, litigious, and ultimately harmless old fool, but Tom Ollis – among the loudest actors we have – bellows him to a different place, now fully consistent with the defiant eulogy Elizabeth gives him. Reverend John Hale is also prone to trivializing, apt to be portrayed as a naïve student who needs the books he carries to substantiate his witch-sleuthing credentials.

Tony Wright plops those books down in the Parris bedroom as if he has read and absorbed very word, needing them merely to double-check his vast erudition and point out chapter and verse to the common folk who have hired him. Most Hales seem to be windblown by the dizzying events in Salem, but Wright’s is open-minded and discerning, ultimately bewildered by the insanity that surrounds him, still grasping and feeling the tragedy as deeply anyone.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

My only disappointment was Corlis Hayes, who starts off so spectacularly in her second pass at Tituba at CP, where she also excelled in 2001. Abetted by James Duke’s lighting design and Marilyn Carter’s movement coaching, she’s an object of terror in the opening blood ritual. She “lays low” obsequiously enough, if I might be permitted an Uncle Remus allusion, as cries of witchcraft pursue her like the Eumenides. Hayes breaks so pitifully under the merest pressure that it’s almost comical.

Ah, but when she reaches the prison – the first to be branded a witch – Hayes mangles the words of Rev. Parris’s hapless servant so badly that they are unintelligible. That’s a shame, because Tituba has the freshest, wittiest, big-picture perspective on the whole Puritan catastrophe.

“Devil, him be pleasure-man in Barbados, him be singin’ and dancin’ in Barbados. It’s you folks – you riles him up ‘round here; it be too cold ‘round here for that Old Boy.”

Those who profess to fear and loathe Satan come to rule in 1692 Salem – zealots, scoundrels, and a pack of screaming she-wolves led by a vengeful, slatternly she-devil – wreaking havoc that even Satan might marvel at. Miller wrote The Crucible in 1952 to show postwar Americans that history can repeat itself, destroying us from within. Miller’s message still resonates in post-2016 America, and CP is serving it up scorching hot at maximum volume.

Stirring the Pot in a Bronx Soup Kitchen

Theater review: Three Bone Theatre’s Grand Concourse

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Most people, particularly the homeless and the poor, don’t need to be told that soup kitchens are all about feeding the hungry who are beaten down – temporarily or permanently – by the harsh realities of our teeming cities. But to an unexpected degree, Heidi Schreck’s Grand Concourse, set in one of these missions of mercy at a Bronx church, struck me as a play about soup.

Not to worry, the current Three Bone Theatre production, at Spirit Square through Saturday, occasionally delves into the question of how to best serve the poor. Yet we aren’t out there among the hungry who are gratefully lapping up their free lunches. Instead, we’re behind the scenes – in the actual kitchen of the soup kitchen – so we’re mostly involved with the providers of the meals, not the recipients.

Sister Shelley runs the kitchen, a nun who has chosen to discard the traditional costume and struggles to sustain another habit: prayer. Setting the kitchen timer on her microwave to one minute, she can’t nearly fill it with 60 seconds of earnest supplications. A new volunteer, Emma, enters in the next scene, and it’s really her time at the kitchen – first as a volunteer and then as a salaried worker – that shapes the arc of our story.

About two-thirds through the action, which clocks in at 95 minutes, I had the feeling – can I admit it was a worry? – that we were watching one of those incubator stories about a flawed, wounded, immature young person who experiences growth and healing via the subtle balms of acceptance and friendship. We’ve seen a few of these, haven’t we?

Lovely Emma turns out to be a different kind of apprentice, partly warm-hearted and enterprising but also partly toxic. The two men in this tragicomedy, Oscar and Frog, help in sharply defining the best and worst of Emma. Among her initiatives, the boldest is to expand the mission of the soup kitchen into helping the regulars get on their feet and find jobs. Appropriately, the first beneficiary of these attentions is Frog, who has long disregarded the taboos against camping out by the church and fraternizing with the kitchen folk.

Her effect isn’t so benign in her various interactions with Oscar, the maintenance/muscle guy who regularly drops by for sandwiches kept in the fridge, usually lingering to lend the women a helping hand. Emma works on Oscar’s eyes with her good looks, then on his sympathies with her big lies. Everyone around Emma is hoodwinked as she spins plausible yarns to her mother, about her mother, and about herself.

There is more complexity with Sister Shelley, who is dealing with her crisis in faith and the oncoming death of her dad. Unlike most volunteers, Emma returns for a second day, becoming a standout simply by persevering. Continuing to volunteer, Emma introduces new variations to the daily soup – a whole eggplant one day, maybe a few pinches of fennel the next. But she’s stirring the pot at a deeper level when she starts helping Frog to hop out of hopelessness. Why haven’t the sisters thought of doing that before? It starts Shelley to wondering.

It also starts to make it obvious that Schreck isn’t primarily concerned about Emma’s apprenticeship. This playwright’s eyes are trained most diligently on how all the characters are affecting one another. What’s simmering up in the Bronx, workday after workday, is a human soup of interaction and influence – and this humble little soup kitchen is a microcosm for the Grand Concourse that is humanity. It’s a volatile stew without any pat or easy endings. It keeps on boiling along.

There are plenty of energies distributed among this unpredictable foursome, and director Robin Tynes does a fine job in making sure we see how different – and how unevenly distributed – these energies are. Shawna Pledger hasn’t been this wired onstage since she made her first Charlotte splash in the title role of Sylvia four years ago at CP. Here she’s rechanneling that restless energy into Shelley, a neurotic and indecisive nun whose ultimate crucible will be forgiveness when young Emma pushes her to her limits. Pledger’s is an intense energy pent up in a pressure cooker of religious tolerance and discipline. Even when she stumbled on a line on opening night, it came out like part of Sister’s high-strung struggles.

Emma’s confusions are on a more elemental, hormonal level than Shelley’s, and Callie Richards gives her a variety of erratic, moody, and sensitive shadings. Nothing about Richards’ demeanor suggests that Emma is a temptress. Nor are Jason Estrada’s costume designs spurring her in that direction. She’s sneaky, deceptive, and her conquest of Oscar is like a raccoon invading your attic in the middle of the night. Suddenly, she’s just there.

Watching things unravel, we don’t know exactly how to analyze Emma’s ultimate violence. It’s passive-aggressive, to be sure, and its effect is irreversible, but Richards is careful not to give away how intentional it may have been. Life is often messy precisely because we encounter chaotic, messed-up people like Emma behaving irresponsibly.

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As portrayed by Nicholas Enrique Pardo, it’s easy to come away thinking of Oscar as a genial sacrificial lamb, pounced upon by both Emma and Frog. But his victimhood is more complex and unique than that, for he had trained to be a dentist in the Dominican Republic before the process of immigrating to the US effectively stripped him of his credentials. Now he holds down a day job to survive and attends a community college to improve his employment prospects. Pardo just struck me as too young to have all that mileage and dentistry in his rearview mirror – but I didn’t detect much in Schreck’s script that exposed this shortfall.

Likewise, Bill Reilly may be a wee bit young to comfortably fit the aging hippy profile sketched for Frog, but he turns in such a compelling performance as this eccentric loose cannon that all incongruities quickly cease to matter. Reilly’s entrance at the dawning of his reclamation is delightful, largely because he himself seems shocked and disoriented by his new attire. The whole outing would have been even more extraordinary if Steven Levine’s fight choreography had been more meticulous.

Notably more shabby – and less clinical – than the Playwrights Horizons’ off-Broadway production, Ryan Maloney’s set design jibes better with the way most out-of-towners think of the Bronx. This kitchen is more welcoming and, with Jackie and Peter Hohenstein’s prop designs, still richly detailed.

The carefully crafted clutter and slovenliness of the kitchen also accords with the episodic manner that Schreck relies on in telling her story. Watching the jagged sequence of scenes unfold, it seemed that the playwright may have pieced them together like journal entries, maybe shuffling the order, discarding numerous scenes, and cutting out minor characters – the mother, the head nun, and a pesky teen delinquent – along the way.

We sift through a cunningly calculated slovenliness to get at Schreck’s takeaway, with a few loose ends purposely left dangling. You won’t be as sure of what to make of Grand Concourse as the many tidier comedies and dramas you’ve seen before, but you’ll likely be more convinced of its authenticity.