A, E, I and You

Caroline and Anthony are partners on a project analyzing the use of I and you in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”.  On the surface the two have little in common as Anthony is cheerful, laid back, and outgoing while Caroline is sickly, angry, and seems unable to communicate outside of social media.  As they analyze Whitman’s poem, they begin to peel back their own layers to fully reveal each to the other and a friendship grows between them. . .and perhaps something far more.  This is I and You by Lauren Gunderson and currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Lauren Gunderson has crafted something truly original with this play.  It is a slice of life in its purest sense.  The play eschews the normal narrative style.  Instead it relies on a powerful sense of voice as the construction of the dialogue is purely conversational.  There doesn’t seem to be a plot as the two characters engage in ordinary conversation.  Yet through this conversation you see the bonds of friendship come into existence and strengthen.  A nice touch to the story is how Ms Gunderson makes the two characters two sides of the same coin.  Each is nearly a polar opposite in terms of personality, height, gender, race, and philosophies.  In spite of these surface differences, one finds they have much in common as they slowly show their real selves to the other.  The play also contains one of the most satisfactory endings I’ve seen in almost any show.

Barry Carman provides a very fine piece of direction to this work.  His staging is of superlative quality as his actors stay pretty far apart from each other when the show begins to show the gap between them.  But they physically move closer and closer to each other as their friendship grows.  His understanding of the script is both deft and delicate as he knows how to get his actors to hit the beats just right so the discoveries always pop with surprise.  Carman has also led his two performers to sterling characterizations.

Early in the show, the character of Caroline refers to herself as “small, but mighty”.  However, small, but fierce might be a better descriptor.  In the hands of Anna Jordan, the character is simply acting gold.  Ms Jordan brings a real sense of anger, distrust, and determination to the role.  Caroline suffers from a bad liver which has kept her a virtual shut-in for most of her life.  Being cut off from the outside world has kept her away from a lot of joys in life.  The nuances of face to face conversation elude her as social media is her primary means of communication.  Pleasures like reading seem to be anathema to her as she’d rather google things.  She’s resigned herself to being alone and dying young, though what she wants is to be out in the crowd and living life.

Ms Jordan’s physicality is tremendous as her anger manifests in her rigid, rodlike posture and body language.  So ever present is her anger that this physicality is used even when she is having fun like dancing in her room which was one of the show’s highlights.  As Anna loosens and opens up, so, too, does her physicality.  Her movements become more fluid and culminate in a rocking air piano solo to Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire”.

Jordan Isaac Smith keeps pace with Ms Jordan with his own excellent portrayal of Anthony.  Where Caroline is tight and withdrawn, Anthony is completely loose and open.  Smith’s physicality is almost gliding as he practically floats around the room, especially when he is gushing over the work of Walt Whitman.  He gives a very convincing portrayal of being a good kid.  He’s close with his family, gets good grade, and is popular.  But he also does fine work in playing typical teenage behaviors such as his sheepish looks and delivery when he confesses to Caroline that he’s put off this project until the last minute.

Smith is equally skilled at playing the heaviness of Anthony as well as his lightness.  Though Anthony is a pretty happy person, he does carry his own well of sadness that he slowly reveals to Caroline as their friendship grows.

Martin Scott Marchitto has designed a stellar set for this show.  It truly looks like a typical teen’s bedroom.  His set is further enhanced by the properties of Amy Reiner.  Few can dress a stage like Ms Reiner as her properties of books, toys, records, computer, and furniture add to the messy, lived in quality of this room.  Josh Mullady’s lights add their own brilliant life to the show.  Especially impressive are his use of planetarium lights from Caroline’s toy turtle and the subtle transition from light to dark to light during a moment of awakening in the show.  Molly Welsh’s sounds blend so smoothly into the show that you are sometimes unaware of their presence until powerful moments end and you realize the sound was adding to the moment.

The play’s narrative style may catch a few off guard as it doesn’t follow the ordinary path of a story, but its utter realism and naturalism are crucial to the unfolding of this tale.  With sure and stable direction combined with a pair of potent performances, I and You is another winner in the Blue Barn legacy.

I and You plays at the Blue Barn through Feb 24.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm with the exception of a 6pm performance on Feb 17.  Tickets are $35 for general admission and $30 for seniors.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576 or visit www.bluebarn.org.  The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

This Quartet is Worth Far More than a Million

On December 4, 1956, the first supergroup of rock and roll appeared at Sun Records.  On that day, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Carl Perkins all happened to be at Sun Records at the same time and had an impromptu jam session recorded by Sun’s owner, Sam Phillips.  Inspired by that day, Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux wrote a little show about what might have gone on in the studio.  They called it Million Dollar Quartet and it is playing at Maples Repertory Theatre.

To be honest, I was expecting a jukebox musical when I sat down to review this show, but Escott and Mutrux actually wrote a nifty little story that segues nicely into the evening’s showstopping numbers.  It’s fun, actually delves a bit into the characters of Phillips and the Million Dollar Quartet, and is even a little sad and haunting at certain points.  This strong tale is strengthened by the legendary hits as performed by a powerhouse cast who hit all the right notes musically and acting-wise.

Paul Kerr has directed a real winner with this production.  He sets a snappy pace, wonderfully stages the show, and pulls some exceptionally strong performances out of his actors.  Kerr has a good grip on the true depth of this story and hits all of its emotional beats with maximum impact.

Kerr’s cast is stellar from top to bottom.  Each fully understands his or her character and each also happens to be a darn good singer and instrumentalist.

I’d like to give special notice to the unsung heroes of this show:  Sean Powell and Darren Johnston.  Powell does double duty as the show’s musical director and in the small role of Jay Perkins.  As musical director, Powell’s work is superb as he and the cast don’t miss a trick in any of the night’s numbers.  He also does well in the role of Jay, Carl Perkins’ older brother.  Powell brings a real presence to the role and brings a natural flamboyance to it, not to mention some dynamite strumming on and skillful acrobatics with his stand up bass.  Johnston fuels all of the numbers with a deadly accurate backbeat as the session drummer, Fluke.

While all of the actors are great, Billy Rude may be the one to keep your eye on with his frenzied performance as Jerry Lee Lewis.  Rude’s Lewis has a natural gift for rubbing people the wrong way and has a self-confidence bordering on arrogance as he struggles to achieve stardom as Sun Record’s newest artist.  Rude’s ability with the piano borders on the superhuman as I had difficulty following his fingers as they blitzed across the keys.  He didn’t just play the singer known as “The Killer”, he became him as he perfectly emulated his over the top piano playing right down to kicking away the piano bench and having that hairstyle that gets just as wild as his performances in “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’”.

Sean Riley brings a surprising amount of pathos to the role of Carl Perkins.  Perkins was the first breakout star of Sun Records, but has hit a bit of a slump and is feeling overlooked by Sam Phillips.  Riley brings a bit of bitter frustration to the role as he is a bit of a curmudgeon who is only really close with Johnny Cash.  Lewis irritates him and he harbors a lot of resentment and jealousy towards Elvis who not only supplanted him on the charts, but became better known for Perkins’ hit song “Blue Suede Shoes” more than Perkins himself.  Riley is also a master guitarist and singer who flies high in “Matchbox” and his sections in “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”.

You may think Johnny Cash has been reborn when you see Christopher Essex’s take on the Man in Black.  He bears a remarkable physical similarity to the singer, effortlessly duplicates his unique style of guitar playing, and has a similar bass voice.  Essex ably plays Cash as a gentle man of faith wrestling with the problem of telling Phillips he’s leaving the label.  He also shines in classic Cash numbers such as “I Walk the Line” and “Down By the Riverside”.

I really liked Courtney Crouse’s take on Elvis Presley.  He managed to show Elvis’ congeniality which people often forget about.  By displaying this side of Elvis’ personality, he shows us that the King was actually too nice for the cutthroat world of show business as he is often pushed around by Colonel Parker and his new record label, RCA.  But Crouse also reminds us that Elvis was a versatile performer almost without peer as he rocks out with “Hound Dog” then just as easily goes Gospel with “Peace in the Valley”.

After Bradley Farmer, as Elvis’ girlfriend, Dyanne, belted out “Fever” with that sultry alto, I needed to go soak my head in a bucket of ice water to cool off.  Ms Farmer gets a lot of mileage out of this small role who ends up serving as the confidante of nearly every character in the show.  Ms Farmer adds that extra something to the show whether it be singing or dancing to the numerous numbers or boosting the beat with her tambourine.

Last and certainly not least is Eddie Urish’s beautiful turn as Sam Phillips.  As the narrator of this tale, Urish presents Phillips as the grizzled record producer who built tiny Sun Records into a starmaking factory by recognizing rock and roll for the revolution it was and seeing the talent in future stars that other labels wouldn’t glance twice at.  I loved the loyalty that Urish gives to Phillips because it made his pain at watching the Quartet dissolve around him all the more believable and moving.

Todd Davison’s set is phenomenal as it has the perfect flavor of the former auto parts store now turned into a hitmaking machine.  Reymundo Montoya’s properties complete the picture of Davison’s set.  Shon Causer’s lighting adds a je ne sais quoi to the story as it changes from the brightness of the jam session to the dark blue of Phillips’ narration.

Believe me when I say you’re going to get more than a million bucks worth of entertainment out of this show.  The story is strong.  The performances are terrific.  The music is legendary.  Buckle up and enjoy the ride of this show.

Million Dollar Quartet plays at Maples Repertory Theatre through July 9.  Showtimes are at 7:30pm on June 28 and July 7-8; 2pm on June 25, 27, 30 and July 5 and 9.  Tickets cost $29 for the Main Floor and $22 for the balcony.  For tickets contact the box office at 660-385-2924 or visit the website at www.maplesrep.com.  Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.