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Posts Tagged ‘doug finlayson’

Time Stands Still
by Donald Margulies
Directed by Doug Finlayson
New Jewish Theatre
March 28, 2019

Ben Nordstrom, Wendy Greenwood
Photo by Phillip Hamer
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre’s latest production is a look at relationships in several different aspects. Time Stands Still examines romantic relationships, as well as a people’s relationships with their work and their callings in life. It’s also an especially timely play in terms of its subject matter in various ways. On stage in St. Louis, NJT’s production is particularly compelling and impeccably cast.

The play and this production are notable for their realism. The first thing that stands out, even before the action begins, is John Stark’s detailed set that accurately represents a small but well-appointed Brooklyn loft. Playwright Donald Margulies is also meticulous in his script, with richly defined characters and vivid, emotional, and highly credible dialogue, tracking what seems to be about a year in the lives of the characters, who are both journalists. Sarah (Wendy Greenwood), a photographer, and her boyfriend, reporter James (Ben Nordstrom), live together in the loft, but they have apparently spent little time there recently as both had been on assignment in the Middle East, although James had come home earlier than Sarah. The play begins as Sarah, who was wounded in a bombing shortly after James left, returns home, and the two try to settle into a more “normal” life away from the dangers of war zones as Sarah recovers from her injury and James tries to finish several writing projects. They’re also struggling in various ways with how to resume–and define–their relationship following various traumatic events. Meanwhile, their friend and magazine editor Richard (Jerry Vogel) encourages them in documenting their experiences and also introduces his new, younger girlfriend Mandy (Eileen Engel), an event planner whose outlook on life is decidedly different from theirs.  The play deftly examines various themes–the dynamics of relationships and how career goals, life attitudes, and traumatic events can affect them, as well as artists’ and writers’ relationship with their art and also questions concerning covering troubling world events and whether or not that coverage makes a difference in public perception and encouraging activism and change. These seem like a lot of topics to cover in one play, but Margulies manages to do so in a seamless way while making the characters credible and relatable at the same time.

In terms of credibility, the performances are also essential even with the excellent script. Here, all four cast members are strong, with excellent emotional range from both Greenwood and Nordstrom, who display strong and throughly believable chemistry throughout all stages of their relationship. Vogel and Engel are also impressive, providing a striking contrast and an example for James and Sarah of what they could be if they so chose. The ensemble chemistry is strong and the energy is taut and palpable. It’s a truly impressive cast.

The technical aspects of the production, in addition to the set, are also strong. The excellent, evocative lighting by Michael Sullivan effectively portrays the change in seasons and passage of time, as well as setting the mood in various scenes. The costumes by Michele Siler are suitable and, as in keeping with the general tone of the play, realistic as well. The play is set in 2009, and there are some nice little touches like the small flat-screen TV that help to convey the sense of time and place.. There’s also crisp sound design by Zoe Sullivan.

Time Stands Still is an intense, thought-provoking play. It’s a highly emotional, vivid portrayal of characters who have been in intense situations and have differing reactions and life goals. On stage at New Jewish Theatre, it’s a memorable and compelling theatrical experience.

Wendy Greenwood, Jerry Vogel, Ben Nordstrom, Eileen Engel
Photo by Phillip Hamer
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Time Stands Still at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until April 14, 2019

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Company
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by George Furth
Directed by Doug Finlayson
Insight Theatre Company
June 17, 2016

Cast of Company Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Cast of Company
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company has begun its 2016 season with the classic Stephen Sondheim “concept musical”, Company. A look at marriage and singleness in New York, the show has been staged in various venues around the world since its Broadway debut in 1970. Now, at Insight, the show has been given an ambitious production that, for the most part, is an intriguing and thought-provoking character study, although the script is starting to seem a bit dated.

In this production, Martin Fox plays Robert, or “Bobby” to most of his friends. As his 35th birthday approaches, the perpetually single Bobby is challenged by his married friends to examine his choices and consider the idea of marriage. The married friends range in ages and degrees of happiness and compatibility, and through a series of vignettes we get a glimpse into their lives, as well as Bobby’s life as he interacts with the couples and goes on dates with three different women.  Through the means of Sondheim’s insightful songs and George Furth’s witty script, we are shown the merits and challenges of romance and marriage in modern day New York City.

Actually, “modern day” is one of the problems with this show as it is currently staged. Although Insight’s production is clearly set in the present with its meticulously detailed modern loft set by Peter and Margery Spack, and costumes in a varied range of current styles designed by Laura Hanson, the script and situations seem more closely tied to the early 1970s than to today. With 1970’s slang still intact, and with a picture of marriage as something of a social compulsion more so than it is generally viewed in much of today’s culture, the 2016 setting of this show ends up being somewhat jarring. Conventions such as Bobby’s listening to his answering machine messages have been portrayed as voicemails on his smart phone, although they still seem more appropriate to the earlier setting. Although the show still has timeless truths and concepts with universal appeal, I still wonder if this show would be best if staged as a period piece rather than trying to update the setting.

Still, the show is still a strong piece, with excellent songs like the iconic “Being Alive”, which is given a dynamic performance by Fox, and the acerbic “The Ladies Who Lunch”, which is sung here by Laurie McConnell as the snarky Joanne, in a strong interpretation emphasizing its sadness more than its ferocity.  There are also some excellent production numbers that superbly feature the whole cast, such as the excellent Act 2 opening song-and-dance “Side by Side by Side”. Other songs suffer from the difficult acoustics in the venue, such as the title song that opens the show, and Samantha Irene’s (as Marta) more lackluster rendition of the show’s normally dynamic ode to New York, “Another Hundred People”.

The cast here ranges from ideal to OK, but for the most part does an excellent job. The standouts are Fox in a charming performance as the conflicted Bobby, McConnell as Joanne, and Stephanie Long as the anxious Amy, who delivers a superb rendition of “Getting Today” supported by the ensemble. Matt Pentecost as her intended, Paul, gives a convincing and amiable performance as well. There are also memorable performances from Bailey Reeves as one of Bobby’s girlfriends, somewhat ditzy flight attendent April, and Jonathan Hey and Cherlynn Alvarez as David and Jenny, who spend an awkwardly funny evening smoking pot and sharing uncomfortable truths with Bobby. Generally, it’s a strong cast, although due to the aforementioned sound problems it’s sometimes difficult to understand what people are singing, especially in the more wordy group songs.

Company is a well-respected classic show that was a game-changer in the musical theatre world in its day. Despite some dated language and concepts, it’s still a strong show, with a top-notch score by one of the all-time great composers and lyricists in musical theatre. Although Insight’s staging isn’t perfect, it hits a lot more than it misses. It’s a worthwhile opener for their new season.

Martin Fox (center) and Cast Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Martin Fox (center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Company is being presented by Insight Theatre Company at Nerinx Hall’s Heagney Theatre until July 3, 2016.

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Eleemosynary
by Lee Blessing
Directed by Doug Finlayson
Mustard Seed Theatre
February 6, 2016

Austen Danielle Bohmer, Nancy Lewis Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Austen Danielle Bohmer, Nancy Lewis
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Eleemosynary is an exploration of the unconventional in the story of three generations, a non-linear story that’s a study in emotions and relationships. It’s a fascinating play, now on stage at Mustard Seed Theatre. Lee Blessing’s story of family, estrangement, eccentricity and love of language and life is presented with spirit by a first-rate cast.

It’s a fairly straightforward premise, but then the story veers on flights of fancy through various times in the lives of young spelling bee champion Echo (Austen Danielle Bohmer), her mother Artemis or “Artie” (Kelley Weber), and grandmother Dorothea (Nancy Lewis), with whom Echo has lived for most of her life. At the play’s outset, we learn that Dorothea has had a stroke and has been hospitalized, necessitating Artie’s return. The story jumps around, recounting tales of Dorothea’s chosen life of eccentricity and its effect on the sensitive, increasingly distant Artie, who has difficulties relating to her mother and her daughter.  Although the story is by no means linear, it’s not confusing, either. It’s structured in a way that highlights the eccentricity of its characters as well as majoring on the emotional connections between the characters.

With such an emotional story and complex characters, casting is essential in a play like this. Mustard Seed and director Doug Finlayson have assembled a talented, fully invested cast to tell this story. As the word-obsessed Echo, Bohmer adeptly portrays the character’s intelligence as well as her sensitivity and underlying sense of determination and hope. Lewis is also memorable as the willfully unconventional Dorothea, allowing the audience to see her stubbornness as well as her optimism. Weber, as Artie, gives a masterful performance, displaying the sensitivity and fear that lead to her estrangement from her family but also displaying a real sense of caring and desire for connection, despite the fear.  All three performers work together well, showing a believable family relationship that is the heart of this production.

The set, by Kyra Bishop, is a colorful, whimsical multi-level unit that provides an ideal space for the many shifts in time and place that occur in the story. Michael Sullivan’s lighting also contributes well to the overall atmosphere of the play. Jane Sullivan’s costumes perfectly suit the characters, from Echo’s bright-colored overalls to Dorothea’s more eclectic attire, to Artie’s more subdued, conventional fashion.

Eleemosynary is a richly told story that focuses on self-expression and multi-generational relationships. It’s a vivid portrayal of three fascinating characters, raising many thought-provoking questions. Mustard Seed has brought it to the stage with style, energy, and heart.

Kelley Weber, Nancy Lewis Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Kelley Weber, Nancy Lewis
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

 Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting Eleemosynary at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre until February 21, 2016.

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The Sunshine Boys
by Neil Simon
Directed by Doug Finlayson
New Jewish Theatre
October 15, 2015

Peter Mayer, John Contini Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Peter Mayer, John Contini
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Vaudeville is a matter of history for most people nowadays, remembered mostly for its influence on the development of entertainment and comedy performance. Once upon a time, though, Vaudeville was at the heart of the entertainment industry, and its performers were well-known stars, many of whom later found success in movies and television. But as big as it was in its heyday, Vaudeville’s popularity eventually died out, its performers grew older, and audiences’ memories faded. For the two aging vaudevillians at the center of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, the memories of their more successful days are bittersweet. Now being presented in a well-cast production at New Jewish Theatre, The Sunshine Boys is a sometimes overly long, but still insightful look at the life of two performers who may not like each other very much, but with whom, for better or for worse, they will always be associated.

That “for better or worse” phrasing calls to mind a marriage, and in a way former stage partners Willie Clark (John Contini) and Al Lewis (Peter Mayer) act like an acrimonious divorced couple. They are linked by a shared past and common public association, but they also harbor years of bitter resentment. It’s a wonder that these two actually managed to work together for over 40 years. The story centers mostly on Willie, who lives in a shabby old hotel room (reduced from what once was a suite), and spends his days watching TV, complaining about various issues to the management, reading Variety and hoping to get jobs acting in commercials. When his longsuffering nephew, Ben (Jared Sanz-Agero), who is also Willie’s agent, brings a network TV job to Willie’s attention, that’s when the volatile action really begins. The job requires a reunion with Al, whom Willie hasn’t seen in years, and a revival of one of their best known acts, a sketch about a a doctor. A somewhat disastrous rehearsal in Willie’s apartment doesn’t bode well for this collaboration, but the TV appearance continues as planned until an unexpected crisis disrupts Willie’s life even further.

The play is surprisingly slow-moving for a Neil Simon comedy, and it takes a while for the story to really start moving. The first act is mostly Willie complaining to Ben about his life, and after Al shows up, it’s almost nonstop bickering. There are some great comic moments, and a good look at a largely forgotten area of the showbiz world, but it’s a little difficult to sympathize considering Willie is just so insufferable for much of the play. Veteran actor Contini, who took over this role on very short notice, does an admirable job of bringing out a degree of charm in the cantankerous old comedian, which is a feat considering the script makes him so difficult to like. The show’s best moments are when Contini is sharing the stage with Sanz-Agero, who is an effective “every man” figure as Ben, and with Mayer as the curmudgeonly but less caustic Al, who serves as a good foil for the more combative Willie. The recreation of the comic sketch is funny, as well, and there’s great support from the ensemble including Leo B Ramsey as a TV production assistant, Bob Harvey as a patient and Julie Crump as a patient and nurse in the doctor sketch, and Fannie Belle-Lebby as a real home health nurse who appears late in the play.

Technically, the show lives up to New Jewish Theatre’s already excellent reputation. Margery and Peter Spack’s incredibly detailed set appropriately suggests the rundown, cluttered hotel room where Willie spends his life. There’s also a good recreation of an early 1970’s TV set, with excellent lighting by Michael Sullivan and sound by Robin Weatherall. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and props by Margery Spack help to vividly illustrate this world of an aging vaudevillian, with Willie’s old costume trunk as a key element in the story.

Overall, while the script does drag in places and takes a while to get going, The Sunshine Boys is a funny and occasionally poignant portrayal of aging comedians struggling to restore a relationship that they’re not sure they want to restore. The importance of family and friendship ties is also emphasized in this classic comedy by one of America’s best-known playwrights. As staged at NJT with its excellent production values and strong cast, The Sunshine Boys is well worth seeing.

John Contini, Jared Sanz-Agero Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewis Theatre

John Contini, Jared Sanz-Agero
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewis Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting The Sunshine Boys at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until November 1, 2015.

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