Saturday, March 15, 2008

Theatre Droppings: a smokin' "KISS," and a kiss for "SMOKE"

These pages have been dormant for a while, as my every waking moment has been concerned with my return to the Madness of Shear. The show is an exhausting one to perform, and even more exhausting to rehearse, so I've been essentially brain-dead while trying to get back up to speed. More on that anon.

This weekend was the first time off I've had in a fortnight, so I took the opportunity to check out some local Theatre Droppings, hoping the diversion would help clear my head.

Signature Theatre has kicked their Kander and Ebb Celebration into high gear with a hugely successful production of Kiss of the Spiderwoman. I imagine the original Broadway production was anchored by Chita Rivera in the title role, but here, the show is dominated by the spectacular performances of Hunter Foster and Will Chase, as the unlikely cell-mates Molina and Valentine.

The show is an intensely atmospheric piece, with the minimal plot taking a back seat to the scenic elements. The huge multi-leveled set houses the largely male ensemble like caged animals, with Steve Cupo's creepy warden observing from on high. Matt Rowe offers the clangiest sound design heard at Signature since Grand Hotel, but the effect is electric. And that dripping sound which often fills the quiet moments is a chilling reminder of the degrading conditions to which these prisoners are subjected. My only complaint concerns the matinee audience of oldsters who hacked and coughed their way through the show, reacting to the frequent use of smoke onstage.

This is the first production of Kiss of the Spiderwoman I have seen, and while its unrelenting, tragic darkness will never put it at the top of my list of Kander and Ebb favorites, Signature's offering is riveting from start to finish.

Yesterday, I schlepped out to Wayside Theatre's Front Royal space to catch their latest installment of the Smoke on the Mountain series. I have not seen any of these crowd-pleasers before (there are three of them), but I had a good idea what kind of musical I was attending. The trilogy about the Sanders Family of preachers and proselytizers has been a huge hit around the country for years, and Wayside's cast has played all three shows together. The result is a tightly-knit group who really delivers, both musically and dramatically. I have to admit that I went in expecting Bluegrass Nunsense but with Baptists, so I was quite surprised that I was sucked into this slender story of a family dealing with a loss and a return. The plot is paper-thin, but each member of the cast gets their chance in the solo spotlight. Each family member "testifies" in their own way, with a couple of monologues slanted toward comedy, including that of Liz Albert, with whom I worked years ago when she was a student at Shenandoah University. It was a treat to see the mature performer she has blossomed into. Most of the monologues tugged at the heartstrings, though I suppose there may be some who are uncomfortable with the overtly Christianic tone of the show. But that did not get in the way of my appreciation of the performance given by my buddy Larry Dalke, as the black-sheep uncle returning home. His world-weary speech comparing himself to the apostle Peter was a highlight of the production. And my friend Thomasin Savaiano, as the hugely pregnant, hugely tone-deaf elder daughter of the family, gave a performance rich in both physical comedy and emotional truth. (Selfishly, I love it when I can claim my friends are giving scene-stealing performances. I'm sure it makes me look good, though I'm not sure how...)

And I look forward to the fourth entry in the Smoke on the Mountain series: The Sanders Family Goes Hawaiian.