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Posts Tagged ‘jeff whitty’

Head Over Heels
Songs by The Go-Go’s
Based on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney
Conceived and Original Book by Jeff Whitty
Adapted by James Magruder, Music Arranged by Tom Kitt
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Choreographed by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack
New Line Theatre
March 6, 2020

Michelle Sauer, Sara Rae Womack, Alyssa Wolf, Grace Langford
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre continues its tradition of offbeat hits with its latest production of Head Over Heels. Essentially a “jukebox musical” featuring music by pop group The Go-Go’s, this show show incorporates its musical catalog in a clever, crowd-pleasing way that’s more about telling a whimsical story inspired by classic literature and an ancient Greek setting than being a simple tribute to its musical source. It also provides a great opportunity for an excellent cast to showcase their talents as well as a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.

The plot can get convoluted at times, as a lot is going on here, but it’s a lot of fun, and the occasional confusion is part of the enjoyment. At first, in the kingdom of Arcadia, there are a lot of conflicting goals and motives. The King, Basilius (Zachary Allen Farmer) and Queen, Gynecia (Carrie Wenos Priesmeyer) have two daughters with romantic dilemmas. Younger daughter Philoclea (Melissa Felps) is in love with a rustic shepherd, Musidorus (Clayton Humburg), of whom her father does not approve. Meanwhile, the King is doubling his efforts to find an acceptable suitor for his elder daughter Pamela (Grace Langford), who isn’t interested in any of the men presented, and initially seems to be more in love with herself than anyone else. When the King and his attendant Dametas (Aaron Allen) go to visit the mysterious Oracle Pythio (Tiélere Cheatem), the oracle tells them of a four-fold prophecy which will lead to Arcadia’s losing its “Beat”. The king, determined to foil the prophecy, takes his people on a seemingly aimless journey, where eventually truths are revealed, lies are exposed, and there are a lot of whimsical twists and turns involving the King, Queen, Princesses, the Oracle, Dametas and his daughter, Pamela’s handmaid Mopsa (Jaclyn Amber), and more. 

Don’t think you have to be a fan of the Go-Go’s to enjoy this show. The group has always been more on the periphery of my musical interests, and I wasn’t extremely familiar with their songs beyond their bigger radio hits. Still, this show uses the songs well, and in a setting that might not seem an obvious one for these tunes. Everything from the rousing opening number “We Got the Beat” to other hits such as “Vacation”, “Our Lips Are Sealed”, and “Heaven is a Place on Earth” is used in an inventive way that contributes to the story. Especially notable is the fun, cleverly staged “Mad About You”, sung by Musidorus and a chorus of puppet sheep, staged in a hilarious, energetic way that makes it a highlight of the production. There is a message here, of accepting and encouraging change and not being bound to tradition simply for tradition’s sake, as well as some perspectives on challenging traditional gender norms and stereotypes, and everything is integrated into the story so that it fits the characters and situations well. Most of all, though, it’s a fun show with a lot of broad comedy and catchy, well-utilized pop tunes that serve the setting surprisingly well, even with the dialogue that’s more Elizabethan-sounding for the most part.

As is to be expected at New Line, the casting is strong, and the singing is especially impressive. Everyone from the leads to the ensemble puts in a winning, energetic performance, with standouts being Langford and Felps as the sisters who are at once different and not-so-different;  Humburg as the lovesick Musidorus, who through the course of the story has to change his appearance in a way that drives a lot of the plot; and Amber as the loyal, determined Mopsa, who both challenges and inspires Pamela. Farmer and Priesmeyer are excellent as the King and Queen, as well, as is Cheatem in a dynamic performance as the oracle Pythio. The chemistry among all the couples is strong, as well, as is the spirit and enthusiasm of the ensemble. There’s some especially clever staging here by directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, and choreography by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack, along with a great band led by music director Nicolas Valdez.

The presentation here is colorful and whimsical, with Rob Lippert’s classically inspired set serving as an ideal backdrop for the action. There are also bright, striking costumes by Courtney Gibson and Sarah Porter that add to the overall tone of the show nicely. Also lending to the overall atmosphere is Kenneth Zinkl’s dazzling lighting. Overall, the look and feel of this production is in keeping with the catchy, bright pop score and the general comic tone that blends the classical and the modern in a cleverly inventive way.

Head Over Heels is another example of one of those shows that seems to fit better in a smaller setting like New Line than on Broadway. Staged at New Line’s home base, the Marcelle Theatre, this show makes the most of the space and the closeness to the audience, who are seated on either side of the performance area here. It’s a fun, colorful, energetic and thoroughly winning production that marks another success for New Line Theatre.

Clayton Humburg and Cast
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Head Over Heels at the Marcelle Theatre until March 28, 2020

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Avenue Q
Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Book by Jeff Whitty
Based on an Original Concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Directed by Lee Anne Mathews
The Playhouse at Westport Plaza
January 31, 2019

Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Andrew Keeler Photo by John Flack The Playhouse at Westport Plaza

Avenue Q is a show that advertises its shock value and irreverence. Still, as a sort of adult-oriented (not for kids) riff on Sesame Street, this Tony-winning Best Musical has a surprising amount of heart amidst all that crassness. Now onstage at the Playhouse at Westport in a locally-produced production, this latest iteration boasts a strong cast featuring a few notable local performers.

As fantastical as the setup may be–humans and puppets interacting in a grown-up version of a children’s TV show–a lot of situations are relatable, which is, I think, where Avenue Q gets a lot of its appeal. I mean, for English majors everywhere (such as yours truly), it’s easy to relate to a song called “What Can You Do With a B.A. in English?” The struggle to make one’s way in the adult world is an experience a lot of viewers can imagine, because to one degree or another, we’ve experienced that struggle, as well as the disconnect between childhood dreams and adult realities. Here, the story follows the optimistic puppet Princeton (Andrew Keeler) as he makes his way in the “real world” after college, settling in on Avenue Q and making new friends, including the idealistic Kate Monster (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), bickering roommates Nicky (Kevin O’Brien) and the fastidious Rod (also Keeler), the porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster (also O’Brien), and also human friends, aspiring comic Brian (Brett Ambler) and his fiancée, the clientless therapist Christmas Eve (Tori Manisco at the performance I saw, standing in for principal Grace Langford), as well as jaded former child-star Gary Coleman (Ileana Kirven), who is now the neighborhood superintendent. Amid struggles to succeed and form new relationships, there are also obstacles and temptations, represented primarily in the form of the Bad Idea Bears (O’Brien and April Strelinger) and local lounge performer Lucy the Slut (also Theby-Quinn). It’s a funny, frequently crass, occasionally surprisingly poignant show with some memorable songs, a catchy premise, and a message that manages to be both cynical and hopeful at the same time.

The staging, as usual, is colorful and whimsical, with a brightly colored set by Dunsi Dai that is somewhat reminiscent of Sesame Street, aided by some fun projections by Val Kozlenko. The intimate setting at Westport is a good setting for such a small show, as well. There are also appropriate costumes by Rissa Crozier and excellent lighting by Michael Sullivan. The puppets, conceived and designed by Rick Lyon, are in the recognized Avenue Q style, and the cast members do a good job with bringing them to life onstage.

The small ensemble is well cast, led by the always excellent Theby-Quinn in a winning performance as the determined but unlucky-in-love Kate Monster, and also as the temptress Lucy. It’s especially impressive when both characters are talking to each other, and Theby-Quinn effortlessly transitions between the two different voices. She also displays a strong singing voice on numbers like “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” (as Kate) and “Special” (as Lucy). Keeler is also convincing as the optimistic Princeton and the conflicted Rod, also showing off strong vocals in both roles. O’Brien brings a lot of energy and comic timing to his roles as Nicky, Trekkie, one of the Bad Idea Bears, and more, and Strelinger is impressive in a variety of roles. The human characters are well-portrayed, also, with Manisco (the understudy) impressive as Christmas Eve, who ends up counseling a lot of the characters despite not having any formal clients. Ambler is funny as Brian, and Kirven shows excellent stage presence and a great voice as Gary.

This is a fun show, even if some of the songs have dated a little in the last decade or so, and some of the raunchiness seems to be there for the sake of shock rather than really serving the story. Still, for the most part it holds up well since the last time I saw a production 10 years ago. This edition highlights the comedy but also the heart, and it makes for an entertaining evening of theatre.

Cast of Avenue Q Photo by John Flack The Playhouse at Westport

Avenue Q is running at the Playhouse at Westport until March 3, 2019

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