Legal Dose of Love

After being dumped by her boyfriend due to not being perceived as serious enough for the political career he has planned for himself, Elle Woods hatches a plan to win back his love.  She decides to follow him to Harvard Law School.  Initially disdained by her classmates, Elle eventually shows them she’s got what it takes to be Legally Blonde which is currently playing at Lofte Community Theatre.

I had neither seen the movie nor read the original novel, but after seeing this show, I might now do so.  The character of Elle Woods is a fictionalized version of the novel’s author, Amanda Brown, who was inspired to write the book based off her own experiences as a blonde law student at Harvard.

It’s actually a really great tale that reverses the traditional “fish out of water” story.  In this case, the fish is already a highly popular student, but that popularity doesn’t follow her to Harvard due to the highly competitive, ultra-serious nature of her fellow law students.  The show also touches on themes of self-respect and not to judge a book by its cover.  A lot of Elle’s early troubles at Harvard are the result of her bubbly personality and obsession with fashion leading her peers to think she’s an idiot, conveniently ignoring the fact that she was admitted to Harvard which means she is smart (she had a 4.0 grade average as an undergrad).  But when she finally applies herself, her peers’ eyes finally open to that reality.

Kevin Colbert’s direction is truly marvelous in this production.  Energy starts at a fever pitch and manages to be maintained throughout the show.  Pacing was right on the mark and Colbert knew how to merge the serious with the funny, expertly following those beats as those two elements were often in the same scene and, sometimes, the same moment.  Colbert has molded a wonderful set of performances from his actors that were utterly believable and just a load of fun to watch.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, an invested ensemble adds so much to a large scale production and I was extremely impressed as to how much the ensemble was into this show.  In bigger scenes, I kept my eyes on them just to see what little reactions and touches they would add and it really helped this world to blossom. 

Some great performances in the supporting/featured cast include Wade Mumford who nearly got a standing ovation mid-show for the way he simply walked into a salon to make a delivery and let the women ogle him.  Peyton Banks is shallow as the status chasing Warner Huntington III and has a nice falsetto with “Serious”.  Zoe Tien exudes a great superior than thou attitude with her take on Vivienne Kensington, a rival of Elle’s who has a rod up her backside which had a rod up its backside that I strongly suspect had a rod up its backside.  Max Antoine is very convincing as Professor Callahan, a popular law professor who is predatory inside and outside of the courtroom and classroom.

It was great seeing Anna Rebecca Felber grace a stage again as the theatre community has sorely missed her talents.  Felber shines as Paulette Buonofuonte, the hairdresser with hutzpah who befriends Elle.  Felber has comedic timing which can’t be taught and does more with a look or expression than some can with multipage monologues.  Felber has the loyalty and “take no guff” attitude needed for the hard as nails New Englander.  Felber can also belt out a tune like few can with a stirring rendition of “Ireland”.

Alex Rownd makes for a fine everyman as Emmett Forrest.  Normally, he would be the traditional “fish out of water” as he came from the poor side of town and had to make it to Harvard based on grit and grades.  But it’s his “fish out of water” nature that allows him to support Elle as he recognizes that same out of placeness in her and helps her to find that “chip on her shoulder” needed to succeed and quiet the naysayers.  Rownd brings real decency and an honorable nature to the dedicated student and he has a pristine tenor which he can use to humorous effectiveness in “Chip On My Shoulder” to a sweet sadness in “Legally Blonde”.

I rather hope Lofte qualifies for OEA nominations because Olivia Sis’ portrayal of Elle Woods not only deserves a nomination for Leading Actor in a Musical, it was also, for my money, one of the best performances of the season.

Sis just exploded onto the stage and had energy that would light up New York.  She perfectly captures Elle’s essence with that supreme self-confidence, enthusiastic personality, and devotion to fashion.  Most importantly, she doesn’t play her dumb.  Elle is smart, but not always a dedicated student unless the subject matter interests her.  Sis laid out a beautiful arc for Elle as she actually starts this show with a lack of self-respect, though she may not be aware of it as she follows (almost stalks) her ex-boyfriend to Harvard to win him back.  But when she realizes how vapid he is and the joy of using the law to help the underdog, she really begins to peak personally.

Sis also has an incredible singing voice as she consistently knocked balls out of the park with “What You Want, “So Much Better”, “Bend & Snap”, and “Legally Blonde”.

Benjamin Pettiford and his band nailed the peppy score to the floor and I give them bonus points for an item I’ll discuss shortly.  Becca Schmucker has crafted the new best piece of choreography I’ve seen on a metro stage.  It’s fun.  It’s exciting.  It’s inventive.  And the dancing in “Whipped Into Shape” is easily the best dance number ever performed locally.  Mark C. Koski at Sceneographics designed a very ambitious three tiered set with columns painted by Linda Dabbs whose rotations and incoming and outgoing properties of Shila Hansen & The Cast changed locales.  Kevin Colbert’s lights help add some ambiance with the almost pinkish light in Elle’s room to the use of focused spotlights on more serious moments.

For all the great things this show offered, it had one powerful thing working against it and that was microphone volume.  I had a very difficult time hearing the cast during Act I and they would sometimes be drowned out by the music of the band.  And here’s where the bonus points come in as the band picked up on that and lowered the volume in Act II so the actors could be heard more easily and the issues finally cleared by the climax of the show. 

That being said, this is still a virtually perfect night of theatre.  It’s a fun story with some surprising depth fueled by a high powered cast more than up to the challenge.  Take advantage of its last weekend and see a fantastic production.

Legally Blonde performs at Lofte Community Theatre through July 31.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets cost $24 and can be purchased at www.lofte.org, visiting the Box Office, or by calling 402-234-2553. Lofte Community Theatre is located at 15841 Manley Road in Manley, NE.

In the Garden of Evil

One girl’s lie to avoid trouble for dabbling in a voodoo ceremony unleashes a swathe of evil upon the city of Salem.  Under the hysteria of witchcraft, secret hatreds and jealousies are vented through baseless accusations sending innocent victims to the gallows.  Will a farmer burdened by his own secret sin be able to halt the onslaught?  Find out in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible currently playing at the Barn Players.

I have been involved with theatre for nearly 22 years.  I’ve acted, directed, stage managed, worked on crew, run lights and sounds, and reviewed shows.  Having experienced all of these different aspects of theatre has helped me to develop a sixth sense about plays and I’ve usually got a good feel for the quality of a show as I head into it.  As I walked into the theatre for tonight’s production of The Crucible, I had a feeling that this was going to be a pretty good show.  However, I must admit that my sixth sense was wrong.

This show wasn’t “pretty good”.  It was beyond amazing!!  It may very well be the very best drama I’ve ever seen staged.

Few writers could pen a tragedy as well as Arthur Miller due to his understanding of the human condition.  In The Crucible, he presents humanity at its basest and its stupidest.  It’s hard to fathom people being depraved enough to lie about their neighbors in order to steal their property or to satisfy a hidden grudge.  But it’s even harder to realize that supposedly intellectual judges could fail to see through such a farrago of nonsense and deception and forget that justice means innocent until proven guilty and not the other way around.

The Barn Players was fortunate to have David Martin helming this show because his direction was transcendent.  He brought Miller’s story to life in its full glory.  He not only understood the story’s darkness, but he also found the glimmers of hope and humor buried in the tale and brought them to light as well.  His staging was impeccable and made full use of the entire theatre.  You couldn’t punch a hole in the quality of his cast’s acting.  He also did double duty on sound design which was so apropos from the creepy, haunting music heading into the first scene to the relentless drumbeat to close out the show.

This is one of those shows where I’d like to do a write up on every single actor, but, for the sake of brevity, let me assure you that there wasn’t a weak link in the lot.  Each and every one was fully immersed in the story which only brought the audience deeper and deeper into it.  But I want to especially note the work of Charles Christesson who brought intelligence, levity, and heartbreak into the character of Giles Corey; Scott Shaw’s Rev. Samuel Parris, the “man of God” more concerned with power and reputation than faith; and Emma Cook’s portrayal of Mary Warren, a servant stretched to the edge of sanity due to being the rope in a spiritual tug of war between John Proctor and Abigail Williams.

I was particularly impressed with what Michael Juncker dug out of the role of Deputy Governor Danforth.  He plays Danforth as a man of strong, if misguided, character.  He truly believes in the cause of justice and honestly believes he is doing his part to rid Salem of witchcraft.  Yet his appalling cluelessness is sickening as he can’t see through the histrionics of the accusers, puts the letter of the law above its spirit, and claims to be doing the will of God, yet ignores the undisputed expert on witchcraft and true man of faith, John Hale.

Jessica Franz’s take on Elizabeth Proctor is as strong as it is tragic.  Ms Franz well communicates the sickliness of the recovering Elizabeth and ably portrays the duality of warmth and iciness in the character.  Elizabeth wants to love and trust her husband, but has difficulty doing so due to an infidelity on his part.  When her warmth finally wins out, it makes her horror at dooming John Proctor due to a lie she concocts to protect his honor all the more believable and heartrending.

I loved Phil Howard’s take on Rev. John Hale.  Howard’s Hale is a good man.  He is a decent man.  Sadly, when all is said and done, he is also a broken man.  Howard presents Hale as a truly devout man dedicated to God and ending the scourge of witchcraft.  But he is also an intelligent and just man who is dedicated to discovering the truth more than anything.   Howard’s anguish is palpable when he realizes the truth behind the Salem witch trials and tries to mitigate the damage by persuading accused witches to give false confessions which will preserve their lives, but excommunicate them.

Abigail Williams truly is a witch, but not in the magical sense.  In Lauren Hambleton’s capable hands, you will experience one of the greatest villains I have seen on stage.  Ms Hambleton’s Abigail is unspeakably disgusting and diabolically clever.  What begins as a simple lie to avoid punishment for participating in a voodoo ceremony evolves into a cunning plan to rid herself of her perceived rival in Elizabeth Proctor for the love of John Proctor, with whom she had an affair, and a chance to revenge herself on the “hypocrites” (though some truly are) of the town.  Evil just oozes from Ms Hambleton’s pores and I really appeciated the smarts she brought to Abigail who enhances her lies through information she gleans from Rev. Hale’s questions and books.

Andy Penn’s work as John Proctor is a tour de force performance.  Penn brilliantly essays the walking paradox that is Proctor.  He is a good man, but is bowed by the guilt of his infidelity with Abigail Williams.  He believes in God, but hates the hypocrisy of his church.  He is willing to make a false confession to save his life partially because he doesn’t want to have his death be a lie about him being a saint.  Penn provides a clinic in acting as he finds beats within beats within beats as he creates a man you will admire for his strength and pity for his weakness.

Steven Ansel James has prepared a wonderful bare bones set with its extended stage, docks, and chalk drawings of trees, heretical words, and occult symbols.  Chuck Cline’s lights gorgeously animate all of the emotional moments of the show.  Jenny Knecht’s costumes perfectly reflected the Puritan time period.

At one point, Rev. Hale wonders if the devil has come to Salem.  The sad truth is that he did because the people of Salem opened the doors and invited him in by succumbing to their own evil desires.  But even in all the darkness and mayhem, Arthur Miller still manages to show where there is a kernel of faith, hope, and decency, the devil can still be overcome.

This play is storytelling at its zenith.  If you want to see compelling, powerful, thought provoking drama, then you need to buy a ticket and see The Crucible.  It’s the best thing going in theatre this summer.

The Crucible plays at the Barn Players through July 30.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $18 ($15 for seniors 65+ & $12 for students with ID and groups of 10 or more).  There will be an Industry Night performance on July 24 at 7:30pm.  All tickets for this performance will be $12 at the door.  For tickets, visit the Barn Players at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100.  The Barn Players is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.