“Hey, Good-Lookin’!” exclaims a beaming young man to a bleary-eyed
older one. Arthur Przybyszewski, a downtrodden donut-shop owner in a
rough Chicago neighborhood, sighs, seeming to regret opening his door.
But hyper-energetic 21-year-old Franco Wicks is unstoppable. Franco
immediately hits Arthur up for a job, then, without missing a beat,
starts bouncing around the shop cracking jokes and trying to make
improvements. The Eeyore/Tigger tension between the two is palpable at
first, but Franco gradually wears the old man down (or, more accurately,
buoys him up) until the two characters can actually see eye-to-eye.
In Artists Rep’s staging of Superior Donuts,
Vin Shambry plays the role of Franco with a radiant, irresistible
charisma that lets him pass for an earnest first-timer, rather than the
classically-trained Broadway theater vet that further investigation
reveals him to be. On the night Culturephile caught his act, he so
thoroughly “punked” young audience members, they seemed ready to invite
him to a kegger. Judging by this performance, And his recent return to PDX.
Alice and Wonderland: A Rock Opera
Don't be fooled by the simple cardboard cutouts of a teapot and the Mad Hatter's hat hanging in the lobby of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, or the benign twittering of birds onstage before the show. "Alice and Wonderland: A Rock Opera," performed in the Newmark Theatre by the Oregon Children's Theater, departs from the Lewis Carroll story as we know it, and tumbles down the rabbit hole with acoustic fervor, a riot of color and a decidedly psychedelic twist.
The hourlong blast from the past features a full band on stage delivering nonstop numbers inspired by the Beatles, James Brown, Janis Joplin and more. Created in 1973 by Richard Rosen with composer Wink Kelso for the Magik Theater in San Antonio, Texas, the show as a full, two-hour rock opera became a long-running hit with a cult following in the heyday of "The Wiz" and "Tommy," but never made it to Broadway due to prohibitive costs.
Today, it's been trimmed down to a one-act, family-friendly show. Both parents and grandparents brought along the little ones Saturday afternoon for the opening production. Do kids need educating when it comes to learning about rock 'n' roll? Probably not, but you never know. Everyone seemed to be absorbed and caught up in the rhythms of yesteryear.
Poor little Alice (initially played by the young Madison Wray). She's bored and lonely, sitting by the river, having a tea party with a toy bunny, singing a plaintive song. Then, hey presto, the universe shifts, and Alice (Sara Catherine Wheatley) is transformed into a grown-up gal with a flower in her hair, patterned stockings and high-top boots, ready to rock, as she's approached by the White Rabbit (Dave Cole) and led into a world shimmering with color-splashed images, wonderfully decked-out creatures who pack the stage with song and dance.
There isn't much of a narrative here. A story line might distract from the musical numbers, which are great fun. The tunes mesh with the visuals to take us back several decades to the hippie era, and director Stan Foote has put together an amazing cast, many who were babies during the '60s. Wheatley, whose resume includes a stellar performance a few years back as Patsy Cline at Broadway Rose, is wonderful as Alice. She can belt with the best of them, but can bring down the volume to tender moments when required.
The rest of the performers are right on her level. As the Mock Turtle, the talented Vin Shambry belts the blues with vocal magic as Alice lends a sympathetic ear. Emily Sahler Beleele, swathed in a long velvet '20s coat, with chorus members lined up behind her as segments of the Caterpillar, likewise demonstrates impressive vocal skills as the critter who hopes to be a butterfly. As the benevolent White Rabbit, Cole is a masterful musician, and Michael Mitchell sparkles in a variety of roles, particularly that of Humpty Dumpty, a rotund vision in white who's afraid of falling, but needs to get down off his precarious perch.
The split-level stage designed by Torie Van Horne allows for plenty of action for the cast of 17, and the smart, inventive choreography by Sara Mishler Martins fills it up nicely. The dances look to the '60s for inspiration, but have a life and shape of their own. Don Crossley's lighting designs have much to do with reviving the psychedelic era and transporting us to a pre-disco dance hall: Colored stage lights flash periodically, and fairy lights wink cheerfully, but there are no strobes to overwhelm young eyes. Costumes by Sarah Gahagan are an imaginative blend of modern and vintage. The show is recommended for ages 4 and up. Alas, there was no listing in the program of the various numbers.
-- Holly Johnson, Special to The Oregonian image by Owen Carey
Deep-fried Cliché: Tracy Lett's Superior Donuts
Tracy Letts won a Pulitzer in 2008 for August: Osage County—fairly or not, once you've got a Pulitzer on the ol' résumé, your work is held to a higher standard than the average playwright. But even if one steps outside the long shadow of Letts' reputation, Superior Donuts feels like a minor work, with darkly funny dialogue that can't compensate for a fundamentally unoriginal premise. Artists Repertory Theatre has produced a number of Letts' scripts over the years—it's to the company's credit that the most worthwhile elements of the current production are its performances.
Arthur (Bill Geisslinger) is a white Vietnam draft dodger who owns a doughnut store in Uptown Chicago—after the death of his ex-wife, he plunges into such a funk that, if he opens his shop at all, it's mostly just to smoke joints and hand out free coffee. Enter Franco (Vin Shambry), a boisterous young black man hired to help behind the counter, whose energy provides a needed jolt to Arthur's passive existence. Unfortunately for Franco, he must be made to suffer before Arthur is sufficiently shaken to emerge from his apathetic state.
This odd-couple relationship is pure formula: Letts' script is at once overambitious and lazy, packing grandiose ideas about race and America and progress into a paint-by-numbers melodrama that's propped up with the familiar old crutch of a white guy just needing some color in his life. (Letts introduces historical and local context by padding the script with flashbacks to Arthur's past, staged with almost comical gravitas by director Allen Nause.)
But the show is redeemed by intelligent performances by its two leads, Geisslinger and Shambry. As the pot-smoking, pony-tailed Arthur, Geisslinger's performance is low key and watchful, grounding a cast that occasionally turns cartoonish. Spastically orbiting Arthur's stoney center is Shambry's Franco, who is so likeable that it's tempting to ignore what a problematic character he is. (A goodhearted hustler toting around the Great American Novel in his backpack, doling out just the wisdom Arthur needs to hear—it's a testament to Shambry's skill that the character seems even remotely plausible.) And despite the script's lofty themes, Letts injects plenty of dark humor into the mix—it's not a bad show, or a boring one, it's just that audiences have rightly come to expect more than stock characters and formulaic relationships from this playwright.
- Alison Hallett, Portland Mercury, January 13th, 2011
Cast of Black Man Rising
'Black Man Rising' made my spirit soar | New York Amsterdam News, Nov 22-Nov 28, 2007 | by Armstrong, Linda "Black Man Rising" was riveting! It was a reason to go to the theater and watch as five men not only shared the plight that the Black man has faced in this country, but also gave us glimpses of his strong and resounding spirit.
When you watched this play, you had a new appreciation for African American males. Without a doubt this play proclaimed they are not an endangered species,'but the descendants of A&ican Kings.
They are men who have a strong culture, respect for the women in their lives, respect for their elders and do believe in holding a job, raising their families and being good husbands and fathers.
The problem for a while is they believe it. However, when one takes a close look, one can see that you don't have to be lazy or a loser or a slave, the choice is yours. If you choose to do the right thing, than, you will and you are very capable of having a productive fife.
"Black Man Rising" looked at how Black men's rights are often non-existent, but also demonstrated that this is not something one has to accept. This production also declared that "we are our brother's keepers.
Superior Donuts (Artists Rep.) Tracy Lett's latest is a finger-choppin' sitcom
Tracy Letts made his name with an act of one-upmanship: August: Osage County, which earned Letts both a Pulitzer and a Tony, is the dysfunctional family drama to end them all, an emotionally draining three-hour opus that draws upon Faulkner, Williams, O’Neill, Albee and Shepard. Letts throws all his predecessors’ most lunatic characters into a sweltering three-story manse and lets them gnaw one another into submission; it is not better than Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but it is louder and meaner, and it is impossible to imagine anyone trying to top it. With August, Letts declared an entire genre of American dramatic literature finished, roaring, “I’m in charge now!”
His follow-up, which plays through Feb. 6 at Artists Repertory Theatre, is less noisily ambitious. Superior Donuts is an odd-couple comedy of familiar form: Arthur Przybyszewski, a burnt-out, emotionally stunted former radical and draft-dodger who now runs the Chicago donut shop his father founded, hires Franco Wicks, an exuberant, uninhibited black 21-year-old with dreams of literary stardom, to work the counter. They banter, hilariously, as Franco tries to draw his reticent boss out of his shell, bluntly appraises his appearance (“Let me tell you who looks good in a ponytail: Girls. And ponies.”) and proposes he add poetry readings (“Poets can’t pay the rent, but they drink coffee like a motherfucker”).
It’s a comfortable, entertaining, even heart-warming character comedy, directed without fireworks by Allen Nause. Bill Geisslinger, who last appeared at Artists Rep as the burnt-out middle-aged cynic Sharkey in the company’s 2009 production of The Seafarer, incorporates some of that character into Arthur, by way of The Dude and maybe Harvey Pekar. Vin Shambry, a veteran of New York productions of Hair and Rent with few nonmusical credits in his bio, is immediately likeable as Franco. He is constantly in motion and endlessly curious, part grifter, part eager student. We love him as soon as we see him.
Letts knows this and, because he’s an emotional terrorist, abruptly saddles Wicks with implausible gambling debts, collected by a pair of anachronistic Irish thugs borrowed straight from 1970s Mamet, and sends the plot spinning off into unearned tragedy. It’s a silly, self-indulgent move, and brings with it enough stupidity—some really offensive Russian stereotypes, a badly choreographed fight scene and body horror that will come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen Artists Rep’s ads for the show—to nearly sink the ship. Most of the second act is disappointing, but Shambry and Geisslinger build up a strong enough head of steam in the first that even the final scene, a blunt allusion to The Cherry Orchard, cannot completely overwhelm my good feelings about the show. Adjust your expectations. - Ben Waterhouse, Willamette Week, January 12th, 2011 image by Owen Carey
Theater Review: Superior Donuts looks at hopes and dreams, fear and hardship, and the redeeming power of courage
Superior Donuts has clung on in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood for nearly 60 years but you can almost see it fading before your eyes. Health-conscious customers spurn the sugary treats and Starbucks has moved in nearby, siphoning away the coffee drinkers. "Doughnut is like videotape, it is over!" cries Max Tarasov, the Russian immigrant who owns the DVD store next door and wants room to expand. "Time change [sic] everything and donut has been left behind." Replies Arthur Przybyszewski, the doughnut shop's aging hippie proprietor, "Time hasn't changed me." True enough. It's not that time isn't powerful. Arthur's just practiced at evading things. Kind but taciturn, he runs the shop that's been in his family since he was born, giving away a cup or a cruller more readily than anything personal. "Entanglements" and "derailments," in his view are ever-present dangers to be dodged. But Arthur's past begins to catch up with him after he hires Franco Wicks, a fast-talking young African American with an optimism as strong as Arthur's decades-long malaise. In "Superior Donuts," which opened Friday at Artists Repertory Theatre, Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts uses these schematically contrasted characters to look at the way hopes and dreams get battered by fear and hardship, and at the redeeming power of courage. Lest that sound like one of those old TV after-school specials, the genre "Superior Donuts" more closely resembles is the sit-com. Act I, especially, is hilarious, moved along at a brisk pace by Franco's rapid-fire banter as he cajoles his way into not just a job but an unlikely friendship with Arthur. For example, there's this exchange when Franco advises Arthur to spruce up his appearance: Franco: Let me tell you who looks good in a pony tail -- girls –and ponies! Arthur: I've had this pony tail almost 40 years, man. Franco: And you're not ashamed yet? Vin Shambry, a musical-theater performer making his debut as a straight-play actor, gives Franco a coltish energy and charm that endears him to the audience even more than to Arthur. If he's not quite the sly and confident gamesman that Letts' script suggests, he's instead enough of an inspired innocent that we more easily see Arthur as a surrogate father figure. And however many laughs Franco gets, it's Arthur who is the heart of the matter here. His quiet grappling with shame and loss gives the play a necessary depth and balance. Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Bill Geisslinger gives Arthur a sad gravity. "The root of the Polish character is hopelessness," Arthur admits at one point, and Geisslinger frequently takes on a hollowed-out expression that can flip the mood of the room in a heartbeat. His mastery of the rhythms and emotional nuances of the play is at once this production's anchor and its rising tide. Most things about this show are at a high level, in any case. There are a couple of slightly strained scenes, such as an argument between Franco and Arthur that feels contrived to stress their pessimist/optimist attitude split. A series of speeches that Arthur delivers – in contrasting low light and seemingly to no one in particular – give us valuable background information but feel like bumps in an otherwise smooth narrative road. (They seem at first like the voice of his private thoughts, but eventually make more sense as flash-forwards to a more talkative Arthur.) And a pivotal fight scene comes across more as kerfuffle than endgame, its obvious (though, of course, necessary) contrivance disturbing an otherwise compelling realism. But those are small lumps in an otherwise delectable batter. Director Allen Nause's sure hand is evident in the production's thoughtfulness and pacing. Artists Rep regular Michael Mendelson is unfailingly entertaining as Max, the neighboring shopkeeper, who comes to resemble Lopakhin, the capitalist arriviste from Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." Geisslinger's longtime Ashland colleague Linda Alper hits the right notes of sweetness and frustration as a romance-starved policewoman hoping to crack open Arthur's shell. And all the performers contribute to the sense of a neighborhood full of varied ethnicities and colorful characters – a place where change isn't always as predictable as the arrival of Starbucks. - Marty Hughley, the Oregonian, January 9th, 2011
Best Supporting Actor - Musical All Shook Up - North Country Center for the Arts/Papermill Theatre (John T. Lynes as Dennis) Babes In Arms - Barnstormers (Josh Bebnarsky as Gus) Babes In Arms - Barnstormers (D. Neal Brown as Lee Calhoun) RENT - Weathervane (Kevin Smith Kirkwood as Angel Dumott Schunard) RENT - Weathervane (Vin Shambry as Tom Collins)
Master of the Musical The Summer of Jason Robert Brown by Noah Dunham
JASON ROBERT BROWN is something of a deity in the musical theater world. He's one of the best contemporary composers/lyricists working today, heralded as the Stephen Sondheim of a new generation. For those who don't know much about musical theater, the name may ring a faint bell, but probably doesn't resonate as anything noteworthy. And if you're living in Portland, Oregon, where "music" and "theater" are two words that usually only make passing acquaintance in sentences regarding which venue the current buzz-worthy band is playing, you probably haven't heard of Mr. Brown. But here's the thing, Portland: You should get to know him.
Lucky for you, Staged! ("Portland's musical theatre series") and the Miracle Theatre Group are giving Portlanders a comprehensive introduction to the Tony Award-winning playwright, with a summer of programming that features a large slice from his body of work. They begin it all with an acoustic and intimate production of Songs for a New World, Brown's first musical and one of his best-known scores.
Songs for a New World isn't a standard narrative musical. The piece uses four actors playing a variety of characters whose songs, stories, and character arcs all wrap together into an overarching theme. Brown's primary focus here is transference, the moments when life's events come to a crux and an inevitable future is embraced.
The play has little dialogue and acts as more of a musical revue, highlighting moments of transition and discovery in each character's life. The genre-spanning music (soul, gospel, lounge, jazz, adult contemporary) is moving, and Mr. Brown has written refreshingly well-formed and compelling lyrics, something that's often lost in large-scale musicals.
The four actors in the Miracle Theatre/Staged! production—David Cole, Elizabeth Klinger, Vin Shambry, and Rebecca Teran—are clearly full of love for this show. There is a very evident passion in each of their performances, and it's hard to not be swept away by their earnestness and charm. There are points at which it seems the vocal range demanded by Brown's score is too challenging for some cast members, but these performers have enough emotional drive to win the audience back over. Jamie M. Rea's thoughtful and precise direction keeps the show at an even pace, and musical director/pianist Eric Nordin is a force all on his own when put behind the piano. The production rings out as a successful and heartfelt endeavor, a musical without any of the kitsch, corniness, or spectacle of a 42nd Street-style show.
Staged! and Miracle Theatre Group's Jason Robert Brown extravaganza will be in full swing this weekend, with the man himself coming to town for a special live concert on Sunday, June 27, at Miracle Theatre. The following week, on July 2, Isaac Lamb and Courtney Freed star in a late-night benefit production of Brown's The Last Five Years. And if you still haven't had enough (or if you've got some Glee-loving middle schoolers you want to get out of your hair), Staged! and Miracle will host two theater camps in July and August, focusing on Brown's plays 13 and Parade. Musical theater overkill? Maybe. But at least it's in homage to one of the best musical theater artists of the last two decades.
Theater review: 'Songs for a New World' opens a Jason Robert Brown summer
Jason Robert Brown is a Tony-winning composer and, at 40, still considered part of the younger generation of major musical-theater creators. His works are the focus of a summer-long series of professional performances and youth-geared educational camps put on jointly by Staged! and Miracle Theatre Group. The series kicked off Friday night with an energetic production of his 1995 revue, “Songs for a New World,” a song cycle that presents various characters in trying moments, before they’re able to make a breakthrough. The “new world” is a catch-all metaphor, a dream of yearnings fulfilled. Written when Brown was still in his early twenties, these songs are remarkable for their melodic grace and thorough-going sense of structure. Freshness of insight and imagery aren’t yet in his tool kit here, but musical facility and emotional empathy are in plentiful supply.David Cole, Elizabeth Klinger, Vin Shambry and Rebecca Teran throw themselves into the songs with an emphasis on passion more than precision; control in the upper registers is a problem at times, but there’s otherwise such agreeable personality and palpable emotion in the voices that such moments easily are overlooked. Among the show's highlights are Shambry and Cole dueting on "The River Won't Flow," a sort of soulful anthem for the down-and-out, and Teran's reading of "Stars and the Moon," a song that's become a cabaret staple recorded by the likes of Audra McDonald. Klinger gives an hilariously bawdy touch to "Surabya Santa," Brown's comedic take on the romantic life of Mrs. Claus, though for a Portland audience there's no matching the vocal assurance brought to the song by Susannah Mars in her "Mars on Life" holiday revue.All in all, though, the spare, crisply effective staging from director Jamie M. Rea brings out the humor as well as the pathos in Brown's songs, helping us discover a new world of musical theater.
Songs For A New World (Staged!) Hot diggity, can these chaps sing!
The title of this 1995 revue by Jason Robert Brown is misleading—although the characters in these 19 songs find themselves in the midst of dramatic realizations, their situations aren’t, for the most part, what I’d call new. Songs for a Cruel World would be more accurate. These are men and women standing at the precipice (literally, in one case), staring down the cold reality they’ve spent years avoiding, and all they can do is sing.
And they sing really, really well. This production, a joint effort by Miracle Theatre Group and Staged! (an education-focused company that occasionally mounts minimalist musicals), features one of the best vocal ensembles I’ve ever seen on a Portland stage. Most of Brown’s songs are written in a style I don’t care for—call it post-Rent virtuosic Broadway pop—but David Cole, Elizabeth Klinger, Vin Shambry and Rebecca Teran make the meandering melodies’ sudden leaps of tempo and volume sound as natural and straightforward as any Rodgers and Hammerstein standard. Brown’s songs vary in interest from delightful (“Surabaya-Santa,” a venomous Dear John from Ms. Claus) to New Agey mush (“Flying Home,” which is either about dying or very religious aviation), but this ensemble sells them all just the same. This is the musical stripped bare: Just one piano and four voices, sans plot, sans synthesized band and especially sans head mics.
A brief rant: At what point was it decreed that every musical production, no matter how small, must make use of these idiotic headsets? I understand their utility—if you’re dancing like mad it’s hard to keep up enough volume to be intelligible to the audience—but I’ve seen the things deployed in sedate, two-person shows in 100-seat venues. This is madness. There’s little more annoying than the distorted echo of an amplified singer in a small space. If you can’t sing over the drums, get an electronic kit. And bless Staged! for giving us natural voices.
SIDESHOW THE MUSICAL
“The Gallery Players presented Side Show with obvious love and professionalism. The story is clearly told and there are many moving moments. The musical values are excellent and the choreography sparkles with inventiveness. My gratitude to all involved for their care and dedication.” Bill Russell, author of the book and lyrics to Side Show
“Central to the show…are the twins, and director Matt Schicker has helmed an earnest production that smartly puts Daisy and Violet’s humanity at the forefront. The action unfurls at a brisk, heady speed, carrying the audience along with the twins on their turbulent whirlwind adventure toward realizing their dreams.” Off-Off Online.
Cast of Hamletmachine 2009
The play has pretty good street cred with a fancy European director and the uber-captivating actress Yap Sun Sun, direct from Vienna. That’s not to say that the Americans in the cast don’t represent as well. Anneka Fagundes, John Boonin, and Melvin Shamby Jr. are particularly engaging and throw themselves into the text with fierce abandonment. You feel like you are watching European protest theatre as it is meant to been watched. While I didn’t love every choice that was made, I did have a true “experience” at the theatre. I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s hard to say more because everyone will take away something vastly different from this play. Some will think it is bizarre, others will flip for it. It definitely is not for everyone. If Mamma Mia is your idea of high art, you should probably skip Hamletmachine. If you like to be challenged at the theatre and see something different, check out this show.
Coming of Age in Korea A new Musical
The book scenes, though, are entertaining, thanks to the lively performances of Reynaldo Piniella as Sal, Evan Schultz as Frankie, and the succinctly named Chima as Walter. They somehow manage to be engaging while not always convincing. The live musical numbers are ably handled by a seven-person offstage ensemble led by Vin Shambry and Aja Nisenson. Composer Annie Roboff has included an affable compendium of 1950s pop styles, from Calypso to doo-wop, in her 13-song score, and Newman’s lyrics match the mood of the era. The production values of both the film and the musical numbers are fairly rudimentary, but the show clips along at a satisfactory pace under the direction of Desmond Richardson