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theatre reviews

A M B U S H  M A G  2 0 0 0   -   V O L U M E  1 5   -   I S S U E  10

Trodding the Boards.GIF


When I returned from experiencing the opening night of Miss Saigon, I turned on the TV to see the late news, as is my wont. There before my eyes, as if orchestrated by some great pr man in the sky, was the spectacle of Ambassador Pete Peterson, a much decorated Vietnam POW and All American hero, taking office as the first post-Vietnam War Ambassador. How relevant, how topical, can you get?

Miss Saigon Eight years after it took the world by storm, a carbon-nay, Xerox-copy, bearing the imprimatur of Cameron Mackintosh, its meticulous British producer, has settled most comfortably into the Theatre of the Performing Arts for a month-long stay.

For all its theatrical razzle dazzle - from a copious and talented cast to the seemingly real helicopter evacuation scene with its Imax quality sound effects - this modern agitprop pop opera is a perfect example of theatrical perfection-so perfect, in fact, to be eerily non-involving; at least, not the gut level. On the cerebral level, it's another story.

Set upon the backdrop of the fall of Saigon and the failure of a paranoid, greedy U.S. policy, circa 1975, the central story is the love of a Madame Butterfly-like Vietnamese girl called Kim (Deedee Lynn Magno) forced into prostitution and kept there by her scamming pimp, called the engineer (Joseph Anthony Foronda) for a defeated, confused American soldier called Chris (Will Chase). Intercut with the above story, the time shifts to 1978, between Bankok - where Kim, the Engineer, and Kim's child by Chris have fled; and, New York - and the work of an organization created to find the American fathers of Vietnamese orphans (led by Chris's old army buddy, John (Raymond Patterson), who is aided by Chris's new American wife, Ellen (Andrea Rivette). Word reaches them that Kim is in Bangkok with a child.

They return to Bangkok and there find Kim, who has been forced to return to prostitution after fleeing Vietnam with the Engineer and her son, after she shot her cousin, Thuy (David Kater), who has become a communist supporter of Ho Chi Minh and wants to kill her bastard son. When Kim mistakenly meets Ellen, the new wife, and realizes she cannot have Chris, she begs Ellen to take Chris's son, Tam (Amado Labez Cacho), before she runs away.

Meanwhile, the Engineer, salivating at what he thinks is his eminent departure to America, is featured in a big production number called The American Dream - the "11 o'clock" number which features an enormous Cadillac which floats in on a cloud and is triumphantly humped by the Engineer - comic relief before the Madame Butterfly suicide of Kim and the quick rescue of Tam by his father and new stepmom; thus, a bittersweet ending.

Because this complex story is told totally through the filter of amplified music, which distances as it amplifies, the staging has to be crystal clear - Mr. Mackintosh has seen to that. Using the same design team that gave Boublil and Shonberg 's Le Miserables such eclat and acclaim - director Nicholas Hytner, choreographer Bob Avian, production designer John Napier & costume designers Andreane Neofitou & Suzy Benzinger), everything works computer perfect. Oh, and the cast: if you closed your eyes, you would swear you were hearing the CD of the original Jonathan Pryce, Lea Solonga production.

If you go, be sure to take your head with you. It'll sure make you think about The Big Picture.

The stage at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre is alive with The Sound Of Music these days-and NOT mucus.

This is due, in no small part, to the superior musical talents of its combination music and stage director, Brandt Blocker.

Mr. Blocker, "resident" musical director for Rivertown Rep, is certainly not slumming in this gig. He has amassed a stellar cast which can only be attributed to his musical expertise and the desire of his cast to work with such a caring, meticulous professional (even though we know the cast is performing gratis-one of the main quirks of this "amateur" theatre).

Among an exuberant, well-rehearsed cast of musical pros stands the calmly self-assured musical actress, Liz Argus, one of Tulane's Lyric Theatre stalwarts, who can go from the addle-brained stage mother in Ruthless! to the cockeyed optimist of Maria Von Trapp with nary a glitch along the way. Indeed, Ms. Argus' creation of Maria would make both Rodgers and Hammerstein sit up and take notice; and, coupled with the dashing Lance Spellerberg as the Captain Von Trapp whose seven children Maria governs (after being ejected from the convent to which she has half-heartedly pledged her life), the sentimental love story is given its much-needed dash of verisimilitude.

Those seven children are also wonderfully trained in the intricate musical numbers that give this musical play its ebullience. They are: the oldest, Liesl (Julie Toliver) whose teenage crush on Rolf (Jonathan Drury), the delivery boy who succumbs to the pariah of Nazism which serves as the sobering catalyst of the play's denouement, is quite touching; Friedrich (Taylor Miller), Louisa (Keeley Tieperman), Kurt (Alan Brockhoeft), Marta (Stephanie Gill & Jenny Collins), Gretl (Meghann Mehrtens & Rachel Nusbaum); and, Brigitta (Savanah Wise).

The Mother Abess of Megan Dearie, while stiff and unsure with dialogue, is on solid ground with the operatic Climb Ev'ry Mountain; as is her bevy of habited sisters.

Mr. Blocker has done major surgery to the rather syrupy, languidly overlong script by cutting one song between the subplot characters of Max (Phil Blunt) and Elsa (Peggy Sweeney), neither of whom are noted for their musical abilities - but both help to add spice and color - especially Ms. Sweeney, whose costumes by Julie Winn are quite stunning, draped, as they are on her svelte physique. Also, Mr. Blocker has interpolated a number of changes which were wrought when the show was filmed: opening with Maria on her hill (here pitifully realized by the slowly self-destructing "technical" director, Bill Walker) singing the title song, before the overture; having Maria sing My Favorite Things to the children instead of the Mother Superior; dropping an Ordinary Couple for the movie's Something Good. These changes only help the production, which cannot be undermined by Mr. Walker's hand-me-down, rumbling, poorly detailed sets, framed with raggedy teasers, or the dimbulb lighting attributed to David Riddick.

On the other hand, all of Julie Winn's costumes are spiffily correct and Holly Smith's choreographic contributions flow seamlessly with Mr. Blocker's blocking.

One other major change in musical presentation one has not experienced at Le Petit in many moons: no erratic, tinny amplication with those ridiculous body mikes and visible wires, and a muted orchestra which further bolsters the wonderful sound of music now wafting through the centuries-old building at the corner of St. Peter and Chartres.

Even though Ty Tracy has been toiling in the peapatch that is New Orleans Recreation Department Theatre (NORD) for virtually his entire career, seldom has he produced and directed anything homegrown, with the side-splitting exception of Bob Bruce, David Cuthbert and Danny Rubio's jivin', jumpin', joyous musical, The Trial Of The Big, Bad Wolf, which he has revived with atomic energy - and not a pea in sight.

In this skewed take on the aftermath of the age-old fairy tale, the writers have brought the Big, Bad Wolf (the valedictorian of Mr. Tracy's school of theatrical talent, David Tringali) to trial before the court of Judge Bopner (played raucously by a gavel-bopping Chris Wecklein). For 60 roller coaster minutes the audience is reduced to tears of laughter and delighted groans at the audacious high jinks and awful puns of the judge, jury of other toons and the principle testifiers: The Hamm Sisters (Lisa Moran's Rosanne, Casey Cammatte's Luzianne and Ellen Flohberger's Gargantu-Anne), Jeff Lukas' Peter B. Peterson, and a perky peanut of a rappin' "Fred Riding Hood" (Bryan Wagar) who has his moves down pat.

Besides his innate musical comedy talent (and his able creative staff: Gloria C. Fallo's music and vocal direction, Leo Jones' choreography, co-scripter Bob Bruce's sun-drenched costumes, and Phillip Wagar's Grandma Moses set), Mr. Tracy also possesses another major asset - a seemingly bottomless trove of young, raw talent and a Rolodex filled with graduates and sympathetic adults. On the night of this reviewer's attendance the role of Grandma Gabor was filled in at the last moment by an obliging Wess Hughes - one of New Orleans' major theatre assets - he'll do a "pants" role later in the month as the lounge lizard Emcee of Pageant - subbing for an ailing Regina Bourgeois. Mr. Hughes' bearded and beaded Hungarian matron helped immeasurably to put this ridiculous farce right over the top into a kind of delicious lala land of lubriciousness. My companion and I, along with a packed house (more adults than children), loved it.

I am currently looking for 9 male actors, between the ages of 25 and 35 for a production of Mart Crowley's The Boys In The Band, which I will direct for the Krewe of Petronius, the producer, to be presented Aug. 22 thru 31 at Southern Repertory Theatre. Send pictures and resumes to: George Patterson, 1021 Gov. Nicholls St., New Orleans, LA 70116, or call me at 504.525.4498 for information about auditions.

Anyone who purchases tickets for the Krewe of Petronius' benefit performances of Pageant, May 21st or May 22nd, AND for The Boys In The Band, Aug. 22-31, will secure an invitation for one table seat for the krewe's 37th Mardi Gras Ball, Feb.15, 1998 at the Municipal Auditorium, and I have it on VERY good authority that this ball will be the best ever.

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