Review: COMEDY OF TENORS is a Must-See at GET

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For the next week and a half, Georgia Ensemble Theatre is treating Atlanta audiences to an evening of pure farce.

Complete with mistaken identity, family drama, and a little bit of music, A Comedy of Tenors is absurd hilarity from beginning to end. The Lend Me a Tenor sequel by Ken Ludwig sees producer Henry Saunders (Robert Egizio) trying to keep his tenor trio together for a huge concert in Paris. But knowing artists and their temperaments, Henry’s fate has to be none other than running around like a chicken with its head cut off until the last scene. Chaotic highlights include: tenor Tito Merelli (Brian Kurlander), his wife Maria (Courtenay Collins), and their daughter Mimi (Lyndsay Ricketson) falling apart at the seams, plus Mimi’s man (Haden Rider) of whom Tito doesn’t approve, and more messes involving Henry’s son-in-law Max (John Markowski), the bell-boy, and a saucy ginger.

Let’s go ahead and clarify that the “mature content” advisory is for real, so please don’t bring your 10-year-old twins.

Under the superb direction of Shelly McCook, Tenor 2 epitomizes feel-good escapism comedy, with a firm grasp on classic farce- in this case, physical comedy for days. Highlights  include a pants debacle culminating in stair-hopping (I can’t explain it- you just have to see it), recurring non sequitur sign language, and opera references.

Collins slays as the melodramatic Maria, opposite Kurlander’s non-stop, flawless diva antics as Tito. As Mimi, Lyndsay Ricketson delivers a magnificently over-the-top, unhinged performance, taking schmacting to a whole new level. Rounding out the cast, Lane Carlock delightfully barges into the narrative with simultaneous strength and oblivion, Haden Rider brings expert comedy to Carlo, and the always brilliant Egizio plays the no-nonsense Henry Saunders, frequently juxtaposed hilariously with John Markowski’s berated Max.

It’s funny. It’s warm and fuzzy. It’s relatable. And there’s a cash wine bar in the lobby, so what’s not to love?

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Courtenay Collins, Brian Kurlander
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Lyndsay Ricketson, Haden Rider
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Brian Kurlander, Courtenay Collins
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Brian Kurlander, Lane Carlock

Photo credits: Dan Carmody/Studio7

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Review: World Premiere of VIVIAN Shows Huge Potential for Future Productions

How does a family move on from the loss of a wife and mother? It’s a difficult question in the first place, then you throw in a haunted house, and the whole situation gets jumbled.

So begins Vivian, a new musical by Atlanta theatre professionals Chase Peacock and Jessica de Maria. Making its world premiere at the intimate Lyric Studio Stage (one of a zillion theatres on the Marietta Square), the audience is tightly packed in, inches from the action- the pre-show curtain speech requests no one leave their seat until the end of the show for their own safety.

It’s worth noting that this particular crowd- largely composed of friends of the writers and performers- seemed unfazed by the spooky elements. Unexpected ghost appearances, sudden shocking moments, almost all were greeted with laughter from this congenial, if relaxed group. You’ve never seen an audience more ready to fall in love with a new work.

Vivian tells the story of therapist Cliff Bennett (a rich Travis Smith) who, having recently lost his wife, moves with his two daughters to a disheveled fixer-upper home. Reading patients and reaching his own daughters prove two very different things, with the latter being the chief struggle Dr. Bennett- who repeatedly reminds us of his prestigious title- faces. As they settle in, his youngest child, Vivian (a young and brilliant Mabel Tyler), seems haunted by an invisible force in the house. Teenaged Chrissy (a poignant Brittany Ellis), meanwhile, is so over both her dad’s lame attempts at connecting with her, and the boy-next-door’s, James (a golden-voiced Austin Taylor), attempts to woo her. As a first mounting, the 90-minute one-act musical leaves much to be desired while showing great promise.

It feels like two shows in one: the first being a sad but hopeful musical about a family trying to rebuild their life, a man struggling to love his daughters well, and a teenager falling in love. The second, a straight play without songs, is a ghost story about a girl sporadically possessed by something unknown. Each entity is intriguing and worth pursuit, though neither is fully fleshed-out. As a unit, Vivian plays as simultaneous productions of both the musical and the straight play performed in tandem unbeknownst to one another. This ultimately creates an unfinished product in search of a focal point as it flails in different directions.

Chase and Jessica’s modern ballads sit comfortably in the Broadway-pop genre, with an easy rock bent. Especially in “The Tides,” a masterful trio sung by Dr. Bennett and his daughters, C&J’s songs feature utterly delightful folk-like harmonies. Much of the music and lyrics prove memorable in the best ways, with another particular winner, the sweetly relatable “Let Me Guess.” Still, the show feels under-sung, with little variety in the tunes, which often trail off without closure, and have a weak connection to the book.

Its billing as a ghost story hypes the supernatural elements more than the story delivers, with some explanations turning out to be disappointingly benign. Even at the close of the show, it’s unclear whether the ghost(s) are malicious or just creepy by virtue of being ghosts.

A few key moments are lost in Vivian’s underdeveloped book. Without giving anything away, the audience reaches some conclusions while the characters are still in the dark. Then suddenly, we’re all on the same page, not quite sure how or when the Bennetts and co. got there. Among its many fragmented pursuits, the most disjointing is the show’s abrupt, songless end. Even the actors seemed apologetic as they shrugged, smirked as if to say, “Yes, that’s really it,” and bowed.

Director Julie Skrzypek uses every inch of the limiting venue, with a simple if predictable set. As a small-scale world premiere, this production does exactly what it needs to: it shows the vast potential in this musical and its writers.

(Dis)Agree with what you read? Let’s have a discussion in the comments or on Twitter- @BwayGinger!

Oh and let’s just all listen to “The Tides” and “Let Me Guess” on repeat, ok? And then check out more at Chase and Jessica’s website, here.

Review: Aurora’s BURNPILE Tugs on Atlanta Heartstrings

It’s a sinister-looking poster, right? That title combined with the visual of a woman holding a match and a mischievous look on her face that says, “Just dare me not to do it”-honestly, I thought I was walking into a tragedy. But Aurora’s nostalgic Throw me on the Burnpile and Light me Up is anything but sinister in this one-woman production starring Taylor M. Dooley.

The summary on the flier hardly does it justice. This piece sees Boss recalling memories from a solid year or so of elementary school in rural Georgia. Delivered as though every memory happened yesterday, Dooley embodies a 3rd/4th-grader as she tells anecdote after anecdote about her life. “Boss” (as her father calls her) is the daughter of a pro bono lawyer who defends criminals most of the judgmental folks in the town would call scumbags. He uses his cases as a way to gently educate her, particularly in his philosophy, which she repeatedly parrots, “Everyone deserves a defender.”

Very reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, Boss recalls events in her life as nothing special, not realizing in her innocence that bringing Sam Cook tapes to murderers in jail isn’t exactly a regular part of most childhoods. She refers to the cases and clients as “ours”- hers and her daddy’s. It’s a sweet touch. In her wide-eyed desire to help her hero, her father, Boss genuinely sees herself as part of the defense team. The way she tells it, she is indispensable.

As fits the backdrop motif to the story, the burnpile- a collection of belongings of Boss and her father’s clients who died on death row- very literally serves as the backdrop in the play. Stacked high upstage, it visibly includes items she mentions in her stories. Kudos to the design team for that noticeable detail. From all these objects, the faux monkey grass bordering the stage, and the candles she lights before every new scene, some combination thereof created a musty, summery scent. This olfactory touch puts the audience right in Boss’s backyard as she paces around and tells us about her life.

From the moment she first addresses the audience, Dooley makes an individual connection with everyone as if each audience member is her best friend. Maybe not a feat for intense memories, but she keeps the connection throughout the entirety of the show. Her engaging eye contact, active childlike demeanor, and her impeccable impersonations of every person in her life bring an urgency to her serious stories, but keep the audience actively engaged even in the silly, childlike stories.

She solidifies this connection by breaking the fourth wall in her pauses for laughter, directing the next line at people laughing the loudest, adding a smooth, “Yeah, and you won’t believe what happened next…” effect. At first glance it seems that Dooley’s friends must all be on the front rows. But they aren’t. Boss’s are.

The lighting stands out as a significant piece of the story’s tapestry, creating a marvelous car headlights look at one detailed moment, and throughout the piece, distinctly changing for emphasis. In the first half, Dooley sporadically transforms into adult Boss to tell some portions of stories, with lighting playing a large part in her transformation. Quite an intriguing choice, though it ultimately proves confusing due to its inconsistency and ultimate discontinuation.

The depiction of Boss and her father and the way Dooley brings it to life make this one-woman show a winner. I kept apprehensively waiting for the moment she would die, or her father would suddenly do something horrible to taint her childlike hero worship of him. But neither happens. It’s just a sweet, meaningful look at two formative years in the life of a child in an adult world, dealing optimistically with harsh realities, not knowing hers is anything but a normal childhood.

Photo Flash: First Look at THROW ME ON THE BURNPILE AND LIGHT ME UP at Aurora Theatre

Top 10 Reasons to Drop Everything and see HUNCHBACK at Aurora/Theatrical Outfit Yesterday

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Got any plans this weekend? Perfect. Go see a musical. And make it The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville.

Aurora and Theatrical Outfit’s joint production of the musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame based on the songs from the Disney movie and classic Victor Hugo novel of the same name opened mid-July at Aurora and will transfer to the Rialto Center for the Arts in September. It’s beautiful. It’s dark. It’s perfection. Despite its “Disney” tag, there’s nothing fluffy Disney or kid-friendly about this wonderful musical. At its core, it is a true adaptation of Hugo’s book, representing harsh realities of living in a broken world.

Whatever you do, don’t miss The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and here is why.

1. It’s basically the movie on steroids.

The Hunchback movie has always disappointed me. It brought us some of Alan Menken’s very best music coupled with a genre-ambiguous story that sits homeless between depressing and happy ending-driven. The songs were fantastic, eagerly awaiting an expanded score and overhauled book. Enter the 2014 stage adaptation at La Jolla Playhouse. With a book by Peter Parnell and about a zillion extra songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, this new Hunchback ditches the wishy-washy attempt at child appeal and leans boldly into a genuine take on this dark, sad story. More songs. More backstory. Richer plot. Huge kudos to Aurora/Theatrical Outfit for choosing a rock solid musical.

2. “Top of the World,” “In a Place of Miracles,” and many more new tunes. 

The 10+ added songs- many more if you count the frequent Latin choir background- bring a fresh wholeness to the score. Like Disney’s good stage musicals, the extra tunes give audiences a new favorite song from a musical they thought they knew so well. You’ll leave the theatre with “Top of the World” in your head and really might cry over “In a Place of Miracles.”

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3. That set though!

For those who watched the La Jolla production, Aurora’s set will look familiar. Designed by Shannon Robert, the whole stage is the interior of Notre Dame itself, complete with a painted floor and stone statues of saints (don’t worry- I hate myself for that alliteration as much as you do). But better than La Jolla’s, Robert ingeniously depicts Quasimodo “gazing at the people down below” by using a freestanding staircase that easily swivels about the stage. With no suspension of disbelief, the audience often sees Quasi high atop a church tower overlooking Paris, especially effective in “Out There” and “Top of the World.” As an added bonus, nostalgic Disney fans get to see this Quasi perform his signature parapet slide which, as ’90s Disney VHS tapes remind us, appeared in every preview for Hunchback ever.

4. Themes on themes on themes.

Hunchback is largely plot-driven, taking the audience through a neverending sea of emotions. These are evoked through the inventive direction of Justin Anderson as he pulls out many poignant themes, including the comparison between Quasimodo and his stone gargoyle friends (virtually unexplored in the La Jolla premiere), the power of those who are physically weak but emotionally strong, and of course the line that appears in both the first and final song, “What makes a monster, and what makes a man?”

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5. The hardest-working ensemble in the world.

You’d think there were 40 people in that cast. Throughout the whole show, the ensemble is ubiquitous- on stage as characters, off-stage singing in Latin as a church choir, sometimes townspeople, sometimes gypsies. Oh and sometimes gargoyle puppeteers. Discussing what a tragedy it is that Hunchback has yet to premiere on Broadway, one cast member jokingly told me, “Well I can see why! Who wants to do all this eight times a week for months? It’s exhausting!”

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6. Oh hey Lowery Brown, where have you been all my life?

As captain of the guard, Phoebus, Lowery Brown comes close to stealing the whole show. His stirring vocals particularly during “Finale” coupled with his commanding presence secure him in the ranks of Atlanta’s best. It begs the question- where have I been, that this is the first time I’ve seen this incredible talent in action?

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7. Puppets.

I’d love to have been a fly on the wall for the moment the creators of the La Jolla production decided how to handle the gargoyles. My best guess is they shrugged and said, “Meh, let’s just throw some people in grey robes and call it a day.” Were they gargoyles? Were they just saints? Lol honestly, who knows. Aurora/Theatrical Outfit’s production looks the issue square in the face and solves it. With puppets. This design is strongest during “Made of Stone,” as Quasimodo has all but lost hope. One by one, the puppeteers lay down their puppets, showing a harsh comparison between the gargoyles’ immobility and Quasimodo’s defeatism.

8. The unstoppable choreography of Ricardo Aponte.

Oh y’all, Hunchback sees Ricardo Aponte’s choreography at its finest. Composed mostly of songs sprinkled with dialogue- think The Phantom of the Opera, but shorter and with an actual plot- Aponte was busy. His stellar melding of various dance syles drives home the idea that the outcast gypsies are a melting pot of nomads from many cultures. His work brilliantly enhances the story rather than merely making a pretty spectacle to look at. The characters don’t just dance because it’s a moral imperative for musicals. They dance because that’s part of who their characters are, a rare approach that is refreshing to see right here in our city.

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9. Julissa Sabino, the only Esmeralda. 

You think you’ve seen Esmeralda, and then you see Julissa Sabino’s interpretation, and everything changes. She takes on the resilience for which the character is so well known, but she adds a distinctly feminine gentleness and quirky affectations that bring Esmeralda down from a macho, invincible gypsy to a woman who can admit her imperfections without letting them hinder her. She never sacrifices kindness for strength. Can we just go ahead and hand Sabino that Suzi Bass Award? Please and thank you.

Check out my conversation with Julissa from this summer!

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10. Haden Rider, my new favorite Quasimodo.

As Quasimodo, Rider tackles the interesting challenge of playing a man with a strong heart but a deformed, weak-looking body. With his whole being, he distinguishes so effectively the difference between the Quasimodo the world sees and the true Quasimodo in his head. We see him transform for the duration of his solos from a man with a physical impediment and raspy voice into a man with a strong posture and stunning voice. Rider’s tenor vocals are simply unmatched. He delivers “Out There” with ease, even with strep throat (as he told me was the case the first time I attended the show). Frankly, it’s an exhausting process to watch. And he does it magnificently.

You got your tickets yet?

In short, go see the show. As someone who has attended Atlanta theatre for years, I can firmly say this is the best local production I have ever seen. It’s a spectacular musical, and there could not possibly be a better version than Aurora/Theatrical Outfit’s.

Follow BwayGinger on Twitter for more Atlanta theatre news, reviews, and coffee shop live-tweets!

For more information and to purchase tickets, click here (Aurora Theatre) or here (Theatrical Outfit).

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Photo credits: Daniel Parvis

It’s Too Darn Hot, so Check out Atlanta’s Top 5 Must-See Shows this Summer!

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Summer in the South can be downright miserable without proper distraction from the heat.

Fortunately for us, the Atlanta theatre family is offering ample distractions in the forms of some rockin’ shows all summer long! From parks to beloved local venues, ITP to OTP, this season in Atlanta has us counting ourselves lucky to be southerners. Now that all of our interstates are back in place (BLESS), let’s celebrate by venturing all around the city and laughing as we sail through.

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Beauty and the Beast at the Atlanta Lyric Theatre

When: June 9-25
Elevator pitch: I mean first of all, it’s one of the best Disney musicals ever. As for the timing, God bless the Lyric for capitalizing on the recent release of the Emma Watson movie. I give them 5 stars and a cookie for this decision. But better than the movie, this version will include the songs written for the Broadway show, including my personal favs, “If I Can’t Love Her,” and “If I Can’t Love Her (reprise).” (although, tbh I could go my whole life without hearing “Human Again” again)
But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? But to get right down to the point, the big draw for me is seeing the hilarious Jeff McKerley work his antics as Lumiere. Y’all, I would watch this man read the phone book. Serious question: is that a thing?
Get those tickets!

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The Dancing Handkerchief at Theatrical Outfit

When: June 1-18
Elevator pitch: To close their 40th season, Theatrical Outfit is bringing us a brand new musical that has yet to see the light of day. According to TO, this world premiere “blends the emotional accessibility of Disney princesses with the odd-ball pop-rock sensibility of Sergeant Pepper or Ziggy Stardust and evokes the imagined lands of Narnia and Alice’s Wonderland.” Literally, what’s not to like?
But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? Get excited y’all, because the songs are written by the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award-winning Robert Lopez, who brought us FROZEN, AVENUE Q, and THE BOOK OF MORMON! I, for one, will be on the edge of my seat waiting for the next Lopez earworm.
Get those tickets!

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Robin Hood at Serenbe Playhouse

When: June 2-August 13
Elevator pitch: When’s the last time you remember hearing about a stage production of ROBIN HOOD? (Your nephew’s middle school play doesn’t count) The oh so familiar story of the good guy running through the woods, robbing the rich to feed the poor, and romancing a fair maiden in the process is perfect subject material for this creatively outdoor theatre.
But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? It’s no secret that this spring’s fabulous production of GREASE made me promise myself I’d never miss another Serenbe show (see: 10 Reasons You Can’t Miss GREASE at Serenbe). I’m excited to see a refreshingly fun, family-friendly adventure story. And how often do you get to see a woodsy play actually take place in nature?
Get those tickets!

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Memphis (AGAIN!) from Aurora

When: May 20 on the Suwanee Town Square
Elevator pitch: If you hate FREE Tony Award-winning musicals with infectious music and uncontrollably awesome dancing, skip this one. But if you’re human, the millionth reincarnation of Aurora Theatre/Theatrical Outfit’s MEMPHIS will kick off your Atlanta summer with just the right combination of excitement and inspiration.
But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? I fell in love with MEMPHIS when I saw the original Broadway cast and first tour, and I can tell you Aurora’s production was just as good. With dynamite vocals and endless, lovable energy, Travis Smith’s Huey Calhoun is not to be missed.
Get those tickets!

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Nobody Loves You from Horizon Theatre

When/Where: June 14-17 at Piedmont Park
Elevator pitch: Can we just agree that it’s a crime to not go see a FREE musical? Ok perfect. Now that’s out of the way… Horizon has been the real MVP of the Atlanta theatre scene for the last few years as they have brought back crowd favorites- usually starring local stud Nick Arapoglou, if we’re being honest- for free encore performances in a popular Atlanta hangout spot.
But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? As a general rule, I’d pay to see Leslie Bellair work her comedic magic any day of the week (see: her single-handed portrayal of a two-character fight in TOXIC AVENGER). If it’s free, that’s what you’d call a no-brainer.
Get those tickets!

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BONUS: In the Heights from Aurora Theatre

When/Where: June 17 at the Duluth Town Green
Elevator pitch: Free shows on free shows, y’all! Honestly, this is an easy one. Before there was HAMILTON (the musical, not the historical figure), almost-EGOT-er Lin-Manuel Miranda penned a semi-autobiographical musical called IN THE HEIGHTS. This encore performance of Aurora/Theatrical Outfit’s non-stop Dominican party about the importance of family and identity closes out the Lawrenceville company’s FREE Musicals by Moonlight series with a bang.
But really, why fight Atlanta traffic? Opening Aurora’s new season late last summer, IN THE HEIGHTS perfectly combines musical theatre rap- which is apparently a thing now- with endearing characters and a heartfelt message. But let’s be real, the endlessly talented Julissa Sabino as Vanessa makes attending this show a moral imperative.
Get those tickets!

Hit me up on Twitter (@BwayGinger) and tell me which shows you’re hype for this summer!