I drove up to Denver's Ellie Caulkins Opera House on Sunday convinced there was no way The Book of Mormon could live up to the hype.
I mean, the show won nine — count 'em, nine — Tony Awards. Ben Brantley of the New York Times called it the best musical of the century. (Sure, it's a young century, but still.) Tickets for the Broadway production are such a hot item that premium seats are going for $500 a pop — not on the street, but at the box office. And when tickets for the National Tour's stop in Denver went on sale in January, the entire three-week run sold out in less than five hours.
Well, believe the hype. This show is ridiculously good.
And it accomplished something a lot of people thought was impossible. It made Broadway cool again.
The Book of Mormon is the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, University of Colorado grads who first rose to fame as the creators of the animated sitcom South Park. (The fact that both of them grew up in Colorado was one big reason they chose Denver as the launchpad for the tour.)
But they couldn't have done it alone. Robert Lopez, the man who helped make the musical Avenue Q such a huge hit nine years ago, added Broadway savvy and his own edgy brand of comedy to the mix.
It was, as it turned out, a match made on Kolob.
The story focuses on a pair of young Mormons about to set out on their first mission. Elder Price is the slick one, a supremely confident young man with perfectly coiffed hair and an Aqua-Fresh smile who lives his life as though God is his own personal Santa Claus, dispensing an endless supply of rewards for his model behavior. Elder Cunningham is the geeky one, a cackling, overweight schlub who lies under stress and instantly latches onto Elder Price as his last best chance for a friend.
While their fellow missionaries are assigned to comfortably exotic locations like Norway or France, Elder Price is convinced that he and his newfound partner will be sent to the most wonderful place in the world, Orlando. Instead, they're sent to Uganda.
"Cool!" Elder Cunningham says. "Like Lion King!"
They soon realize, however, that the Ugandan village where they end up is nothing like a Disney movie. Animal carcasses rot in the streets, 80 percent of the people have AIDS, and an evil warlord with an unprintable name is on his way to kill the men and mutilate the women. In recognition of their plight, the villagers greet their new visitors with a song that in unexpurgated, four-letter glory expresses what they think of God.
That's exactly the kind of thing you'd expect from the Bad Boys of Broadway. What you might not expect is how sympathetically, even positively, the Mormons are portrayed.
Sure, some of their beliefs seem weird. The song "Turn It Off" is a sequin-covered, tap-dancing send-up of the Mormon practice of shutting down uncomfortable feelings (led by the deeply closeted Elder McKinley). And "I Believe," which is nothing more than a listing of some of the more unconventional doctrines of the Mormon church, is one of the funniest songs in the show.
But when you get right down to it, the creators seem to say, the Mormons do a fair amount of good. And they're just so gosh darn nice while they're doing it.
Jared Gertner threatens to steal every scene as Elder Cunningham, whose "creative" reading of the Book of Mormon holds the key to winning over the villagers. But Gavin Creel, a respected Broadway veteran who played Claude in the 2009 revival of Hair, more than holds his own, making Elder Price's journey from shallow pretty boy to rock-hard man of faith not just funny but believable.
Also worth noting is Samantha Marie Ware as Nabulungi, the African girl with whom Elder Cunningham falls in love. She brings a surprising tenderness to "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," an ode to that heavenly Utah city. And yet, when she and Gertner share vocal duties in "Baptize Me," a song loaded with clever double entendres, she proves that she can get down and dirty, too.
In an age when most mainstream movies and TV shows avoid religious issues like the plague, it's refreshing — and pretty much unbelievable — that two self-professed atheists would advance one of the strongest, most practical defenses of religion in a long time.
That it comes wrapped up in such a hilariously obscene package only adds to the charm.
The Book of Mormon
Through Sept. 2, Tuesdays through Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. (see website for special performance times). Ellie Caulkins Opera House, 1101 13th St., Denver. Tickets are sold out, but 24 will be available via lottery for each show for $25. See denvercenter.org for information.
Tolstoy once wrote, "All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
The plays of William Shakespeare are kind of like that. While each of the Bard's tragedies is tragic in its own way, his comedies tend to run together, blending varying amounts of mistaken identity, misdirected messages, cross-dressing and, somewhere toward the end, a clumsily performed play within a play.
Which is why it's so important that a theater company put its own unique spin on its chosen production. Fortunately, in the case of Love's Labor's Lost, TheatreWorks does.
As for the last three years, TheatreWorks is performing its season opener inside a big tent at Rock Ledge Ranch. (The play runs through Aug. 26.) This makes for an interesting dependence on the weather — the night I went, the wind was lifting the flaps, apparently trying to get its own peek — but there's no denying the magic of seeing Shakespeare done in such idyllic surroundings.
Even more magical, for me at least, was the gusto with which the veteran cast members threw themselves into the script. Love's Labor's Lost is such a frothy trifle of a play that it was considered a poor cousin to the Bard's other comedies and went unperformed for almost 200 years. When done right, however, as it is here by director Murray Ross, it can also be one of Shakespeare's funniest.
Kevin Landis plays the King of Navarre, a monarch so devoted to study and clean living that he refuses contact with women for three years — and pressures his three attendants to take the same vow. No sooner do they sign the contract, however, than the Princess of France, played with knowing wit by Amy Brooks, arrives with three of her own attendants.
The men are instantly smitten, of course, and each of them launches a secret plan to win the heart of his beloved. It's obvious to the Princess, however, that the men are only in love with the idea of love, and she decides to teach them a lesson by having her ladies disguise themselves so that the four of them can swap places.
It's not much to hang a play on, and anyone who’s seen more than a couple Shakespearean comedies knows exactly what's coming next. But it really doesn’t matter because the real joy of the play is in the verbal sparring, the deluge of putdowns and puns, and the fertile ground these provide for physical comedy. And in this production, Ross cast some of the best clowns in town.
Sammie Joe Kinnett, as the wisecracking attendant Berowne, steals the show right out from under his comrades, all of whom are wooing the women while dressed as Communist-era Russians, complete with fur hats and oversized mustaches. Jordan Mathews bounds across the simple stage as Costard, a “rustic” who the men enlist to carry messages to the women but who only succeeds in messing things up even further. And Tom Paradise is a bumbling Spanish soldier who boasts of his love for a sweet country girl winningly played by Takiah Coleman, but who seems to be more in love with the sound of his own lisping, heavily accented voice.
The women may win the battle of wits, but it’s the men who through sheer persistence win the day. At least until the end of Act V, when the meaning of the play’s title finally becomes clear.
But this production is so buoyant, so full of life and love, we know that the men will succeed, must succeed. Only this time, they’ll know what love really means.
Of all the recent trends on Broadway, the rise of the jukebox musical may be the most odious. Digging up a bunch of old songs, crowbarring them into a thin, contrived plot, and then marketing the show as something fresh and new has got to be the laziest possible way to make a musical.
Which may be why Jersey Boys — the 2005 Broadway phenomenon about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons — is so careful to avoid calling itself a jukebox musical in its promotional materials. Sure, it recycles the doo-wop group's songbook from the 1960s and 1970s, but any resemblance to more cynically manufactured shows like Rock of Ages and Mamma Mia! ends there.
For one, the story linking those songs is true. Written by Marshall Brickman — a screenwriter better known for his work on Woody Allen films like Annie Hall and Manhattan — and Rick Elice, the show is a Rashomon-like retelling of the group's history from the earthy, witty and often conflicting viewpoints of the members themselves.
And two, nearly all of the songs are performed concert-style, with the actors singing them to the audience rather than to other characters.
It's a whirlwind show, crammed with so many details of the band members' lives that I often felt I was watching one of those late-night infomercials pitching "Sounds of the ’70s" box sets. Just when I started to get into one song, they cut it short to move on to another scene and the next song.
But it's a testament to the depth of the group's catalog that they can do this for 2 1/2 hours and still leave 19 of their lesser-known hits (listed in the program as "The Ones That Got Away") unsung.
Tommy DeVito, the wisecracking tough guy who founded the group, kicks off the show by narrating the funniest of the four sections, "Spring." (The first Season ... get it?) At the time, the group — then called the Variety Trio, the Royal Teens and at least a dozen other names — spends as much time in jail as they do on the stage of neighborhood clubs. They seem destined to wallow in obscurity forever until Joe Pesci — yes, that Joe Pesci — hooks them up with an intellectual young songwriter named Bob Gaudio.
Gaudio takes over for the next section ("Summer"), a period that sees the Four Seasons sign a record deal with Bob Crewe, the gay producer/lyricist who would help them define their unique sound.
As Gaudio describes him: “We knew something was different about this guy, but back then we thought Liberace was just theatrical."
The 19-year-old Gaudio cranks out three hits ("Sherry", "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man") in almost as many days and the quartet is promptly launched into the stratosphere of stardom. Gaudio, meanwhile, achieves his own "personal first," losing his virginity to a prostitute as chronicled in the group's later hit, "December, 1963".
But the seeds of their eventual breakup have already been sown. In "Fall," the tension reaches a high point as bassist Nick Massi, the quietest member of the group, describes the standoff between bandmates after DeVito gets in trouble with the mob over some gambling debts.
Massi soon offers his own resignation. "Everybody wants to be up front," he says. "But if there's four guys, and you're Ringo — better I should spend some time with my kids."
Frontman Frankie Valli wraps it all up in "Winter." Emotionally, this is the weakest section. Although Valli suffers significant personal loss here, we're left dry-eyed because the secondary characters have only been stenciled in.
Still, the show manages to end on a high note as the four of them reunite for their 1990 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
How do the actors compare to the original Four Seasons? Well, Brad Weinstock manages to capture the astonishing falsetto of the real Frankie Valli, but his normal range is much weaker, which leads to disappointment in bluesier songs like "Beggin'".
But all four of the leads play their roles with real humor and charm. And when they blend their voices together, you can hear echoes of the original group.
For most fans, that will be pleasure enough.
Through August 11, Tuesdays through Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Buell Theatre, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St., Denver, Tickets, $30 to $125; call 800/641-1222 or visit denvercenter.org for information.
Avant-garde theater company THEATREdART has always taken pride in doing plays you can't see anywhere else in town. And in its sixth season, announced at its annual fundraiser on Saturday, the company will be continuing that tradition with a tantalizing menu of both the rare and the weird.
While co-founder Brian Mann didn't mention a theme for the season, nearly all of the plays seem to involve either insanity or politics.
Or do I repeat myself?
Dates haven't been announced yet, but they will be soon. For the latest updates, check the THEATREdART website.
A fresh batch of short original plays. Some are sick. Most are just twisted.
Adapted by Jeff Keele
Directed by TBD
This uber-talented playwright blew the walls off the Osbourne Theatre last season with his outrageous farce The Show Trial. (Read our review of it here.) This season he returns with something a little more mainstream, his original adaptation of John Milton's epic poem about angels and devils.
Adapted and directed by Brian Mann
Based on Franz Kafka's dystopian novel about a bank officer who finds himself entangled in a legal nightmare after being arrested for an unspecified crime.
Written by Dario Fo
Directed by Sean Verdu
In this offbeat play that includes political satire, farce and the medieval maskwork of commedia dell'arte, a media mogul turns the tables on her kidnappers through manipulation and deceit. Verdu promises "you will laugh at least every two minutes."
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST
Adapted by Dale Wasserman
Directed by Michael Lee
Ken Kesey's story about inmates in an Oregon insane asylum was a play long before it became an Oscar-winning movie. This marks the first co-production between THEATREdART and the Star Bar Players. I can't wait to see which local actor is crazy enough to take on the Jack Nicholson role.
Written by Jose Rivera
Directed by Anna Faye Hunter
This 1993 Obie winner offers an apocalyptic vision of a New York City ravaged by war between a senile god and a band of rebellious angels.
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Ben Bonenfant
Shakespeare's last and perhaps most autobiographical play, this tragicomedy centers on an exiled duke who seeks revenge after the brother who deposed him is shipwrecked on his island. Bonenfant plans to put his actors through rigorous physical training so they can perform the magical illusions that form an important part of the story.
Written by Peter Weiss
Directed by Jon Margheim
This modern classic is only rarely referred to by its complete title, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. And that pretty much sums it up. Despite its absurdist leanings, it managed to snag the Tony Award for Best Play in 1966.
One of my biggest gripes with musicals these days is that all too often the characters seem straight out of cartoons. I mean, who wants to watch a show filled with tired stereotypes spouting hackneyed dialogue? (I'm looking at you, Rock of Ages.)
Which is why I never dreamed I'd wish a show would be more cartoonish. But that's what I was thinking at The Addams Family, the 2010 Broadway musical playing at the Buell Theatre in Denver through July 1.
When the Addams Family first appeared 74 years ago in a single-panel cartoon in the New Yorker, it was an ice cold blast of fresh air: an odd, ghoulish clan that was the antithesis of everything the American family stood for in that ultraconformist era.
They lost some of that edge in the 1960s TV sitcom, but at least that show was good for a few guilty laughs. The pair of 1990s films regained much of that edge while keeping the humor.
Sadly, the musical has neither. This time around, the familiar characters are trying too hard to be normal instead of reveling in their weirdness. And the story itself is paper-thin, filled with contrived situations and plot holes so big, Lurch could jump a pogo stick through them.
In this version, Wednesday, the crossbow-wielding daughter of Gomez and Morticia, is 18 years old and hopelessly in love. The lucky boy is Lucas, a "normal" teen remarkable primarily for the fact that he has no discernible interests or personality whatsoever.
Wednesday knows that her family is "different," but for some unexplained reason she's eager to have their parents meet. But not so eager that she's willing to announce their plans to get married. Or at least she tells Gomez that they're getting married, but makes him promise not to tell Morticia. Which wouldn't be such a big deal except that Gomez has never kept a secret from Morticia. Which makes it really strange when after dinner, they play an old family game in which each person is supposed to reveal a secret they've never told anyone — as though everyone in the house is brimming with secrets.
It goes on like this for 2 1/2 hours. Lucas is eventually forced to prove his love for Wednesday. Does he do this by ridding himself of some bad habit or standing up for his fiancee in front of his parents? No, he does this by letting Wednesday shoot an apple off his head.
Oh, and then there's the hurricane, which traps Lucas' parents overnight in the Addams mansion, at least until the writers (Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice of Jersey Boys fame) need the characters to go for a romantic stroll beneath the moon, at which point the hurricane disappears just as quickly — and conveniently — as it came.
It's not all bad. The Latin-infused pop score by Andrew Lippa (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown) is reasonably catchy, and there are a few good gags. But for the most part, the cast seems bored, and it's left to the talented Douglas Sills, who plays Gomez, to do most of the heavy lifting in the humor department.
"My mother?" he says to Morticia when she recalls Grandma's arrival in their home. "I thought she was your mother!" A stupid line, maybe, but it made me laugh.
Hardcore fans of the films or even the old sitcom might find enough in the musical to keep them entertained. But it's a bad sign when the most lifelike characters in the piece are the ghosts that make up the ensemble.
The Addams Family
Through July 1, Tuesdays through Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Buell Theatre, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St., Denver, Tickets, $25 to $105; call 800/641-1222 or visit denvercenter.org for information.
From the listings desk: Nancy Holaday, the instructor behind the University School of Colorado Springs' production of Beauty and the Beast, says that through this Friday, reserved tickets for the show will be $10 off.
As the Indy covered in this week's article, the show is a benefit for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, with prices regularly $20 to $35.
Purchase them here.
Steve Martin and I go way back.
No, I've never met him, but over the last 30-some years, I've followed his career so closely that I almost feel like I have. I saw the movies. Caught the Saturday Night Live gigs. Dork alert: I even bought a copy of his "King Tut" single back when a song took up as much space as a pie plate.
So I couldn't wait to check out Springs Ensemble Theatre's production of The Underpants, the Wild and Crazy Guy's adaptation of a 1910 German play by Carl Sternheim.
It's not as brilliantly creative as Martin's better-known play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile. But it does show its own kind of brilliance, straddling what is normally a very wide line between satire and farce. And the SET production, briskly directed by Sarah Sheppard Shaver, is one of the funniest shows I've seen all season, even if the acting's a little uneven.
The show marks a new era for the young theater company. Set in 1910 Dusseldorf, The Underpants is SET's first true period piece. And the ensemble's gone all out, draping actors in a colorful kaleidoscope of costumes by Jillmarie Peterson and filling space with an intimately detailed set by Max Ferguson. The faded walls and bland landscape paintings practically reek with bourgeois smugness.
The story centers on Louise, the young, sexually frustrated wife of an overbearing bureaucrat named Theo. As the play begins, the pair have just rushed home after Louise dropped her drawers — accidentally, of course — at the exact moment the king was passing by.
"Thank God your sluttishness has had no consequence!" the humiliated Theo declares.
But as they're about to discover, her simple act yields nothing but consequence.
Erin King plays Louise, and while she brings an appealing innocence to the role, I felt her performance was way too deliberate. It seemed like she was putting all her effort into recreating the correct expression and gesture at each moment, instead of letting them flow naturally from the situation.
SET co-founder Steve Emily is Theo. I've been a fan of Emily's work for a long time, but I think he goes in the wrong direction here. Theo's chauvinistic rants are some of the best lines in the play, yet in the performance I saw, they didn't always get the laughs they deserved because they were delivered too straight. I'm thinking a more bombastic or bumbling approach might help.
It's the secondary cast that really nails the humor in the piece. Oscar Robinson wields a rakish charm as Versati, an amorous poet who becomes obsessed with Louise after witnessing her very public indiscretion. He follows her home and, when he learns that Theo is looking for a lodger, promptly takes the room for the sole purpose of seducing Louise right under her husband's nose.
Versati meets his surprising match in Cohen, a sickly, sniveling barber as intent on protecting Louise's virtue as he is on hiding his Jewishness. ("That's Cohen with a K!") In the role, Emory John Collinson shows a real gift for physical comedy, especially when, in the spirit of the best farces, he inadvertently downs an entire bottle of sleeping potion.
I also enjoyed the multi-talented Peterson (see costumes above) as a chatty, man-hungry neighbor who first persuades Louise to entertain Versati's advances.
Oh, and I have to give a shout-out to "newcomer" Rigby Riordan, a last-minute replacement who played a surprise visitor to regal perfection. I've never heard of Riordan, but I've got a funny feeling I've seen him somewhere before ... and you may have that feeling, too, if you've seen some theater in this town.
May 31-June 17, Thursdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 4 p.m.
Springs Ensemble Theatre, 1903 E. Cache la Poudre
Tickets: $15; call 357-3080 or visit springsensembletheatre.org.
Anyone who believes a musical can't be both splashy and smart has missed one of the best shows to come out of Broadway in the last 10 years.
I'm talking about Hairspray, the 2002 musical based on the 1988 movie by John Waters.
Broadway, of course, has been stealing ideas from Hollywood for most of those 10 years. And Waters, a director notoriously remembered for "trash films" like Pink Flamingos, which featured a drag queen dining on dog crap, might seem like a spectacularly inappropriate source for a mainstream musical.
But forget all that. Hairspray just works. And the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's production, which opened last Friday, is such a big-hearted bundle of joy, you'll want to stand up and cheer.
The story is set in 1962 Baltimore, a city where flashers greet students on the way to school and African-American teens are allowed to dance only one day a month on Baltimore's version of American Bandstand, The Corny Collins Show.
But Tracy Turnblad, played by an adorable firecracker named Andrea Rutherford, doesn't care about any of that. She just wants to land a regular gig dancing on the show, mostly so she can meet the pompadoured dreamboat Link Larkin, played with the requisite swagger by the always excellent Marco Robinson.
There's just one problem. Tracy is on the hefty side, and as her even-more-generously proportioned mother Edna says, "People like us don't appear on television."
It's easy to let the campier elements of the story run away with the show, but director Scott RC Levy plays it straight, giving plenty of room for the characters to live and breathe as real people.
Key to this is the casting of Edna, a role which has been played by a man ever since the great Divine created the role for the original, non-musical movie. Here the bigger-than-life laundress is played by Drew Frady (Toad in A Year With Frog and Toad), a natural comic who knows he doesn't have to milk a joke to get every laugh it deserves.
Michael Augenstein makes a perfect partner for Edna as her adoring, wisecracking husband Wilbur, and their sweetly comedic duet "You're Timeless to Me" is one of the highlights in a show packed to the rafters with them.
But it's not all fun and games. Eventually Tracy realizes the injustice of segregating dancers by the color of their skin and takes it upon herself to integrate The Corny Collins Show, risking everything she has worked so hard to win in the process.
The choreography by Victor Ayers is some of the most dynamic I've ever seen on the FAC stage, and even if there were a few problems with microphones cutting out or coming detached from costumes on opening night, the cast was so good I didn't care.
Carmen Vreeman was utterly charming as Tracy's best friend Penny Pingleton, a geeky girl who learns to throw off the strictures of her over-protective mother after falling in love with a black teen nicknamed Seaweed (a remarkably rubber-limbed Tyrell D. Rae).
Lacey Connell was pitch-perfect as Tracy's snotty arch-nemesis Amber Von Tussle, and Lynn Hastings was in powerful voice as Motormouth Maybelle, her soulful rendering of "I Know Where I've Been" nearly stopping the show.
Also worthy of note are the lush lighting by Jonathan Spencer and the kaleidoscope of colors provided by Lex Liang's costumes.
No, Broadway isn't making them like they used to. But with a feel-good musical like this, who would want them to?
Editor's note: Grab Wednesday's Indy for a behind-the-scenes feature on the show.
If you've ever seen the WYNOT Radio Theatre in action, you know how frantic and fast-paced their shows can be. So fast-paced, in fact, that you might find yourself wishing you could replay the show so you can catch all the one-liners and double entendres you missed the first time.
Well, now you can. Last week, the twisted troupe behind this spoof of 1940s radio shows released their first CD. It's something head honcho Cory Moosman has wanted to do for eight years — and fans have been clamoring for almost as long.
"People always ask, 'Do you have a CD?'" Moosman says. "It's another way to push what it is that we do out there."
I've listened to the CD, which sells for $10, and I'm happy to say it's professionally done and just as funny as the live show. There's no Rick Luger, but the CD does include the hilariously closeted antics of the Grimm Spectre and some of the group's best commercials, including Black Falcon Whiskey ("It gets you drunk and that's all right") and Hammer Cigarettes' famous smoking baby.
Moosman recorded and mixed the whole thing at his in-home studio in a week and a half. In addition to the usual suspects, Moosman brought in his old friend Tom Massmann to fill out the voice pallette. A voiceover pro, Massmann handled his new duties with aplomb — until they came to the Captain Comet sketch.
"It's got a lot of big weird words like 'cronoogler voltage' and 'quasi-gender-bender beam'," Moosman said. "We'd do takes of things and he'd be going along at a clip and then he's like, 'What the hell is this?'"
For now, the CDs are only available at performances of A Case of Mail Order Murder, currently appearing at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center through Saturday, April 28. But Moosman plans to offer them on the WYNOT website beginning next week.
In the meantime, Moosman and co-writer Sammy Gleason are cranking away on their next shows, including spoofs of Casablanca and Orson Welles' legendary broadcast of The War of the Worlds.
If these are anything like their previous shows, mass hysteria is assured.
Queen Elizabeth I has been represented on screen so many times, we might be tempted to think we really know her. From Dame Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love to Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen is consistently portrayed as ruling England with an iron will and an imperious charm.
But in TheatreWorks' production of Mary Stuart — the 1800 play by preeminent German playwright Friedrich Schiller — local stage veteran Jane Fromme gives Elizabeth a fresh spin that sheds a whole new light on the many perils she faced on the throne.
Hers is a hesitant Elizabeth, a fearful Elizabeth. And no wonder. Thirty years into her reign, she remains the target of countless assassins who question her legitimacy as queen, due as much to her Protestant faith as to her being the "bastard daughter" of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
But it is the presence of her cousin Mary — magnificently brought to life by British-born, NYC-based actress Claire Warden — that poses her greatest threat. After Mary is overthrown as Queen of Scotland, she escapes to England.
The reason? Mary claims it's for refuge. The English Queen insists it's to carry out an assassination.
Although the play never definitively answers this question, Warden plays Mary with so much gusto that I personally never had a doubt. Where Elizabeth agonizes over every decision, Mary plunges forward with passionate abandon. Where Elizabeth defers to her advisers, Mary knows what she wants and goes after it.
The play, given an elegant translation by Peter Oswald, is brilliant, filled with enough intrigue and wit to fill a season of PBS' Downton Abbey.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast seemed a bit bipolar to me. Some of the actors, including John FitzGibbon as Elizabeth's chief adviser and Calvin Thompson as Mary's young lover, took a stagey, old-fashioned approach to their roles, making every line of dialogue sound like a speech.
Now, this could work in a grand, historical play like this. The problem is that others in the cast, such as Steve Emily as the chief jailer and Jason Lythgoe as the hilariously indecisive Secretary of State, took the opposite tack, playing their roles with a more modern, natural sensibility. The difference is jarring, and I can't help but think that the production would have benefited from a firmer hand by director Murray Ross.
Still it's a powerful piece, gaining extra juice from Russell Parkman's stark, imposing set — designed to suggest a modern-day interrogation chamber — and Lloyd Sobel's moody lighting.
Also worth noting is the creative slant on costume design taken by Betty Ross. While she draped the women in full period costumes, Elizabeth looking especially lavish in gowns befitting a queen, the men wore contemporary business suits, which seemed to accentuate their corporate-like scheming and greed.
It doesn't take a history degree to know that in the end, it's Mary's head that falls. But even as she marches to her execution — without fear, without compromise — you may find yourself feeling that she's the one who's victorious.
After all, how we die can be just as important as how we live.
I know what I'm supposed to say about Wicked, the Broadway phenomenon that opened a six-week stand at Denver's Buell Theatre last week. I'm supposed to say it's a confection, an overhyped combination of cartoonish characters and sappy pop tunes that appeals only to teenage girls.
Only I can't.
Because if you look past the glitzy veneer, if you set aside the hype that has helped make it the No. 1 show on Broadway for nine years running, you'll see it for what it really is. A smart, sassy satire of recent American history.
Think about it. There's the leader who came to power by dubious means and maintains his popularity by adopting a bumbling, aw-shucks persona. There's his second-in-command, a Machiavellian mastermind who's considered to be the real power behind the throne. And then there's the way these two manipulate the media, convincing the citizens to relinquish their civil rights in the name of defeating a common foe.
Nominally, of course, Wicked is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz from the viewpoint of Elphaba, aka the Wicked Witch of the West. Only in this version, Elphaba isn't wicked at all.
But in a world where conformity is the highest virtue, a smart, green-skinned girl with unusual powers doesn't stand a chance. And when Elphaba discovers that the Wonderful Wizard of Oz may not be so wonderful — especially in his use of censorship and intimidation to silence his enemies — she rebels, and soon finds herself the target of a media campaign to recast her every action as evil.
"Where I'm from, we believe all sorts of things that aren't true," the Wizard tells Elphaba. "We call it 'history.'"
This is the third time the show has come to Denver, and if you've seen it before, you may wonder whether it's worth seeing again. After all, the story's the same, the score's the same, the sets and costumes are the same.
The difference, of course, is the cast. And for me, at least, that's reason enough.
Mamie Parris is simply phenomenal, grounding her Elphaba with an earnest sincerity that'll tug at even the hardest of hearts. And she boasts a remarkably agile voice, handling both the bombastic belt of "Defying Gravity" and the more tender yearning of "I'm Not That Girl" with equal panache.
Alli Mauzey is almost her match as Glinda, the "good" witch. Several new gags have been written for her, and while Mauzey goes way beyond previous Glindas in the perkiness department, which can get grating, there's no denying her natural comic flair.
Other standouts include Broadway veteran Mark Jacoby (he was in the original cast of both Grand Hotel and Ragtime) as a charmingly rumpled, folksy Wizard and Andy Kelso, who made Glinda's boyfriend Fiyero more than just a stereotype of a self-absorbed prince.
In my book, though, it's the score by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin) that's the real star. It is in turn playful, moving, ironic and clever, with unforgettable melodies and lyrics so witty that they almost seem like a throwback to the Cole Porter musicals of the 1930s.
Listen a little closer and you'll realize that the entire score is tied together by a common theme, exploring as it does the many different meanings to which we assign to the word "good."
Yes, you can appreciate the show for its score, or its humor or even its eye-popping costumes.
But if you're too embarrassed, just tell them you're there for the satire.
Last night, Scott RC Levy and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center announced its 2012-13 theater season, which not only includes six plays on the schedule — plus one from last year — but the unveiling of a second stage in the upstairs music room.
Here's the lineup for the main theater:
Gypsy (Sept. 27 to Oct. 21)
A Christmas Story (Nov. 29 to Dec. 23)
Prelude to a Kiss (Jan. 31 to Feb. 17)
Other Desert Cities (March 21 to April 7)
The Drowsy Chaperone (May 16 to June 9)
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (June 20 to July 1)
The FAC had originally planned Next to Normal instead of Other Desert Cities (as you'll see in our InSider performing arts story); however, it went with the latter instead when the opportunity came to stage the Colorado premiere. (We'll get to it before the Denver Center.)
In the music room, the FAC has planned festival called Rough Writers, which will likely take place over a two-week period. Levy says it's "an opportunity to do readings of new scripts and development." He'll accept submissions of scripts (many of them for children's theater) from around the world, and the chosen scripts will be performed in a dramatic reading. Ideally, the playwright will be in attendance to receive feedback.
Happily, Levy's ambitious new schedule doesn't come with a bump in prices for season subscription tickets. They've also added "B-seating" passes, which cover the first four rows on the sides of the theater.
Additional reporting by Matthew Schniper.
"We ask that you stay at least five feet from the actors," Brian Mann told us as we waited to enter the back room of the Western Jubilee Recording Company on East Cucharras. "Ten feet if they have any type of firearm."
Not your ordinary audience instructions. But then this was no ordinary play. This was Reservoir Dogs, THEATREdART's latest experiment in immersive theater.
A concept that's only about 12 years old, immersive theater picks you up and drops you down right in the middle of the action. You don't sit in some plush upholstered seat. You stand up, wander around, explore. You don't watch from a safe, comfortable distance. You experience it up close, live it, breathe it.
THEATREdART first dove into the world of immersive theater last fall, with their version of Antonin Artaud's surrealist Jet of Blood. Last Friday they leaped in again, this time with a visceral, nearly word-for-word adaptation of the groundbreaking 1992 film directed by Quentin Tarantino (read our preview here).
The play is only an hour long, but it packs enough violence to satisfy any hard-core Tarantino fan. Much of the credit for that goes to Crystal Carter, who both wrote and directed the play. The one major change she made from the famously nonlinear film is that her version plays it straight, unspooling the scenes in the order they were supposed to have happened.
As the play begins, you — the audience member — stake your position in the warehouse-like back room of the building. It's there that Joe, a crime boss played with confident swagger by Kevin McGuire, gives final instructions for a brazen diamond heist to pulled off by his hand-picked team of professional criminals.
You follow them into a cheap diner, squeezing around the table as they debate the deeper meaning of Madonna's hit Like a Virgin over cigarettes and coffee.
Finally, you return to the warehouse. And from that point on, as the action unfolds, you'll swear you're watching the real-life aftermath of the heist as the team reassembles one by one and it becomes all too clear that things went horribly wrong.
Of course, with the audience positioned so close to the action, the actors are under a microscope and any flaws in their performances will be magnified. From where I was standing, some of the hand-to-hand combat looked kind of fake. The famous torture scene lost much of its impact because it was done with an empty gas can (couldn't they fill it with colored water or something?). [UPDATE: Carter has since informed me that the gas cap was stuck that night—AKA the magic of live theatre.] And I thought that Valiant Pico didn't show nearly enough agony as the mortally wounded Mr. Orange.
But Troy Sedlacek was truly chilling as Mr. Blonde, taking an almost childlike glee in torturing Josh Wolfaardt's helplessly bound cop. Greg Reilly brought a crazed kind of intensity to every heated argument in his portrayal of Mr. Pink. And veteran actor John Horn nicely captured Mr. White's descent into hopelessness and despair.
No, you don't have to watch the movie first to fully enjoy the play. Even if you have watched the movie, you may want to see the play more than once so that you can experience it from different angles, gain different perceptions.
Just make sure you stay five feet from the actors. You don't want to make Mr. Blonde mad.
Photos by Haley Hunsaker
In a theater season that has seen the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center push the envelope further than it's done before, the 1937 drama Of Mice and Men might seem like a safe choice, a dull choice: the stuff of Depression-era retrospectives and middle-school reading lists.
But as I discovered at Friday's opening performance, John Steinbeck's play still packs a powerful punch. And in director Scott RC Levy's stunning production, that punch may even knock the breath out of you. (Read more about it here.)
The play, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning novella on which it's based, is set in California during the Great Depression. It centers on George and Lennie, migrant ranch workers who as the play opens are headed to a new job in the Salinas Valley.
They're not like the other ranch hands. They dream of buying their place, where the hard-bitten George won't have to answer to anyone, and the genial but mentally disabled Lennie can pet rabbits to his heart's content.
In the original 1937 Broadway production, Steinbeck was disturbed to learn that audiences were laughing "outrageously" at Lennie, as though he were some kind of clown. Lennie inspires some laughs in this production, too, but they're kinder laughs, sympathetic laughs. And if this Lennie refuses to be a clown, that's entirely due to the talent of Logan Ernstthal, making his FAC debut, who embues Lennie with a quiet, almost devout nobility.
A character that's almost as hard to get right is George, who acts more like a big brother than a friend to Lennie. At first, George seems mean-spirited — even cruel — as he puts Lennie down at every turn.
"It ain't bad people who cause all the trouble in the world," George tells him. "It's dumb people."
But Kent D. Burnham, also making his FAC debut, gives this tough-as-nails character a more nuanced spin, offering us glimpses of a more gentle soul within. This George, we know, really cares for the big lug.
Despite George's efforts to keep Lennie out of trouble, however, things soon spin out of control. Curley, the boss' son, played with sneering malevolence by Kyle Dean Steffen, has it in for Lennie, and when Curley starts a fight with him — a fight that ends with his own hand being crushed — it triggers a series of events that can only lead to tragedy.
The entire cast is excellent, but I'd especially like to point out Jeremy Joynt, who usually finds himself cast as a wide-eyed young husband or boyfriend, but here shows a whole new breadth to his talent as the bitter, slouch-backed Carlson.
I was also pleased to see Sol Chavez return to the FAC stage after a 10-year absence as Candy, a chatty old duffer who manages to wrangle a place on George and Lennie's dream ranch.
This rough-and-tumble world is brought to vivid life by Janson Fangio's wonderfully weathered costumes and Christopher L. Sheley's lovingly detailed sets, especially the ramshackle bunkhouse and the lush backdrops inspired by the Depression-era murals of Thomas Hart Benton.
I also have to commend composer Samuel James, whose hauntingly evocative folk songs during set changes made me wish the stage hands had done their jobs a little slower.
Even if you already know how Of Mice and Men ends — and if you went to an American public school, you probably do — you may be surprised how much more powerful it is on stage. As the play hurtled toward its inevitable conclusion, it seemed as though the entire audience held its breath, and only when George made his final, fateful decision did the tension release itself in a single collective gasp.
It was an amazing experience. But then, that's what great theater can do.
When Hair — the first rock musical — opened off-Broadway in 1967, theatergoers didn't know what hit them. The old way was dead, people thought, and from then on all musicals would have to be rock musicals.
Anyone who's been to Broadway lately knows that that hasn't happened. But as shows from Jesus Christ Superstar to Rent have shown, wrapping a musical around some amped-up axes and a kick-ass rock score still has the power to change the world.
American Idiot, the 2010 Broadway musical now touring the country (it landed at Denver's Buell Theatre on Tuesday), doesn't quite reach those heights. The story is too thin, the characters too shallow. But forget all that. The show managed to launch its own musical grenade into the often dreary little world of Broadway.
For those who've lived in a cave these last 10 years (and really, who can blame you?), American Idiot is based on Green Day's seminal 2004 album of the same name. Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and the boys had always intended to dramatize their story of urban angst, but it took them five years to get it onto a stage. When they did, they expanded it both musically and storywise. The band gained a keyboard and cello, and Jesus of Suburbia (here renamed Johnny) is given a couple of equally uneasy friends, Will and Tunny.
The story, what little there is of it, has Johnny leaving his suburban prison of a life and heading to the city for its promise of freedom and excitement. Will desperately wants to go with him but is sucked back in when his girlfriend becomes pregnant. Tunny, on the other hand, does join Johnny, but he soon finds the city just as meaningless as their old lives and enlists in the Army.
Yeah, you could accuse the story of sexism, with nameless female characters like Whatsername and The Extraordinary Girl functioning more like symbols than real people. But the males don't fare much better. Despite their dreams, Will and Tunny remain as three-dimensional as stick drawings, and even Johnny deserves more depth. Strangely, the only character with any real complexity is St. Jimmy, a heroin-addicted punker who tempts Johnny to follow his own self-destructive path.
Is St. Jimmy a real person or just the darker side of Johnny's own ego? Who knows? And really, who cares? The reason you're going to pony up $80 or more to go, is the music. And it won't disappoint, whether you're a hardcore Green Day fan or not. The six-piece stage band plays with enough raw power to keep you pinned to your seat, and the energy doesn't let up for the 90-minute duration of the show, even during softer ballads like "21 Guns" or "Wake Me Up When September Ends."
What's surprising is that the choreography — yes, there's dancing — actually adds to the music, the dynamic ensemble giving each song its own unique expression. I was also impressed by the set, an industrial warehouse-looking thing that would be depressing if it weren't for the 37 widescreen TVs that flash an ever-changing array of images as comment on the action.
No, the musical will never be as intense as a real Green Day concert. But if you approach it on its own terms, it might just make you appreciate their music even more.