‘Fiddler on the Roof’ delivers perfect match of familiar, fresh

November 13, 2012

Jennifer Weingarten and Eric Polani Jensen star as daughter and father in Village Theatre’s ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ By Jay Koh/Village Theatre

“Fiddler on the Roof” is rooted in a bleak era and setting — circa 1905 czarist Russia, a bastion of anti-Semitic sentiment — and the plot only turns grimmer as the acts progress.

The musical bears a reputation as a downer and, on the surface, “Fiddler on the Roof” seems like a strange choice for Village Theatre’s holiday offering.

But “Fiddler on the Roof” also shares essential truths about family and, as lead character Tevye is fond to point out, tradition — important tenets in a season often focused on everything but.

Scribes Joseph Stein and Jeffrey Bock ladled on Borscht Belt humor to introduce audiences to the population of Anatevka, a shtetl, or village. The numbers “Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man” deserve entries in the Great American Songbook.

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‘Big River’ confronts big ideas on small stage

September 18, 2012

Huck, played by Randy Scholz (left), and Jim, played by Rodney Hicks, float down the Mississippi River on a raft in a scene from the Village Theatre musical ‘Big River.’ By Jay Koh/Village Theatre

In Mark Twain’s novel, Huckleberry Finn resisted attempts to “sivilize” him, but nonetheless, the character cleans up nicely for the stage.

Huck’s adventure on the Mississippi River is re-engineered in “Big River” — a stage adaptation at Village Theatre. The musical opens the 2012-13 season at the downtown Issaquah playhouse.

Overall, despite occasional shortcomings, “Big River” is a spirited romp propelled downriver by a dynamic cast and a score rooted in radio-ready country and pop.

The towheaded Randy Scholz, 26, seems at least a decade younger onstage, and creates a credible Huck, a prankster coming of age at the same time as a burgeoning nation.

Jim is a titan of literature and the moral core of “Big River” — and Rodney Hicks is majestic in the role. Jim, determined to escape from slavery in Missouri, is embodied with dignity and grace by Hicks.

Both actors deserve ample credit for adding flesh to the characters, to compensate for the elements lost in translation from “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to “Big River.”

The supporting cast adds color and texture to the characters Twain sprinkled along the Mississippi.

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‘The Producers’ at Village Theatre charms, offends for laughs

May 15, 2012

Brian Earp (Leo Bloom), Richard Gray (Max Bialystock), Nick DeSantis (Roger De Bris) and Chris Ensweiler (Carmen Ghia) perform a scene in ‘The Producers.’ Photo by Jay Koh/Village Theatre

“The Producers” caricatures and offends in strokes as broad as the Brooklyn Bridge.

The musical is the ultimate equal-opportunity offender. “The Producers” aims and fires at Jews, gays, women, Nazis — yes, Nazis — and almost everyone else in a rollicking production onstage at Village Theatre.

Indeed, the questionable material, especially the can-they-do-that moments, is the most enjoyable part of “The Producers.”

The mega-musical runs until July 1 and closes the 2011-12 season at Village Theatre.

“The Producers” is a breathless tribute to Broadway and, often in the same breath, a knife-edged parody. The appeal is the cynicism and crassness in the absurdist romp. So what, then, if some songs seem almost forgettable? The numbers still act as a capable delivery device for a handful of funnyman Mel Brooks’ sharpest lines.

The musical is a smash imported to Issaquah 11 years after Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick tore up Broadway in the original run. The lackluster 2005 film adaptation introduced audiences farther afield to the unabashedly old-school show.

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Say ‘I do’ to Village Theatre’s ‘It Shoulda Been You’

March 20, 2012

John Patrick Lowrie (George Howard), Leslie Law (Judy Steinberg), Jayne Muirhead (Georgette Howard) and John Dewar (Murray Steinberg) star as the parents of the bride and groom in ‘It Shoulda Been You.’ By Jay Koh/Village Theatre

Ours is a matchmaker-mad culture.

“The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” canoodle and cavort across the pop culture landscape. Cable TV is garter-deep in dating games and wedding stories.

The musical “It Shoulda Been You” — the raucous wedding-crasher comedy onstage at Village Theatre — is more akin to the MTV chestnut “Next” than “Bridezillas” and other guilty pleasures in the WE TV lineup.

“Next” — for the uninitiated, or audiences spared from circa 2005 reality TV — sent a contestant on a series of a blind dates, and he or she could end the outing abruptly by declaring, “Next!”

“It Shoulda Been You” is not so cruel, but after a jilted ex-boyfriend crashes the nuptials, hopes for a simple coast down the aisle dissipate faster than Champagne bubbles.

Though, truth be told, nothing is simple about the impending union between Rebecca Steinberg and Brian Howard, in large part due to the lovebirds’ overbearing mothers. Rebecca’s spinster-in-training sister Jenny is assigned to referee.

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‘The Odd Couple’ is fresh, funny at Village Theatre

January 24, 2012

Felix Ungar (Chris Ensweiler, front) receives a massage from mismatched roommate Oscar Madison (Charles Leggett) in Village Theatre’s ‘The Odd Couple.’ By John Pai/Village Theatre

Neil Simon is a regular at Village Theatre.

The playwright — gilded in Tony Awards aplenty and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama — often offers rich material to Village Theatre producers. In the past decade, the downtown Issaquah theater presented “Barefoot in the Park” and “Lost in Yonkers” to audiences. The latest Simon offering on stage is “The Odd Couple” — perhaps the most recognizable piece in the playwright’s oeuvre.

“The Odd Couple” — re-imagined on stage and screen more often than Felix Ungar scrapes up crumbs — is a solid choice as the selection for the play in a Village Theatre season defined by musicals.

The play is a charming anachronism, 47 years after “The Odd Couple” debuted on Broadway. The boozing and smoking recall a looser era before political correctness. Still, the dialogue and the mismatched-roommate premise remain universal almost a half-century after Simon introduced audiences to uptight Felix and untidy Oscar Madison.

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Village Theatre’s ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ nails the target

November 15, 2011

The company in ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ dances during a number set at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show on stage at Village Theatre. By Jay Koh/Village Theatre

“Annie Get Your Gun” is often all hat and no cattle.

Too many theaters trade on the musical’s good name, a storied pedigree and recognizable songs to produce shows set in a West more mild than wild. Not Village Theatre.

The rendition on stage in Issaquah through Dec. 31 is as gutsy and snappy as the title character, sharpshooter Annie Oakley.

“Annie Get Your Gun” abounds in a coltish energy from the dance numbers and a hard-to-resist magnetism from the lead actors, Dane Stokinger as marksman Frank Butler and Vicki Noon, a former Elphaba in a national tour of “Wicked” and a Liberty High School alumna, in the title role.

Noon is incandescent as Oakley, a bumpkin pulled from backwoods obscurity for a spot in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

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Take a chance on Village Theatre’s ‘Take Me America’

September 20, 2011

The cast of asylum applicants in ‘Take Me America’ portrays people from war-torn nations and geopolitical hotspots around the globe. Photos By Jay Koh/Village Theatre

The last day in a toilsome asylum process, a long march from morning to 5 o’clock, is the backdrop for “Take Me America” — a challenging and spirited original musical on stage at Village Theatre.

“Take Me America” inserts audiences into tales from refugees seeking political asylum in the United States — a multiethnic group from different continents and geopolitical hotspots — and the government agents assigned to grant or deny asylum based only on impersonal paperwork and fleeting interviews.

Before the musical opens, a blank U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum application is projected on stage. The form is a reminder to audiences about the agents’ detached and emotionless role in a heated — and arbitrary — process.

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Rejoice for Village Theatre’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ reboot

May 17, 2011

The tale, so familiar to believers and nonbelievers alike, is upended as soon as “Jesus Christ Superstar” opens.

Michael K. Lee (center) performs as Jesus alongside the apostles in Village Theatre’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ By Jay Koh/Village Theatre

The apostles scale a chain-link fence and enter a fascist alternate reality steeped in modern dress and slang.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” is more Lady Gaga’s “Judas” than Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in Village Theatre’s just-opened production. The monumental rock opera runs through July 3 and closes the theater’s 2010-11 season.

In the Issaquah playhouse’s rendition, the greatest story ever told trades robes and sandals for bandanas and drainpipe jeans, and from performance to performance, trades actors in the lead roles.

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Comrades, uncover ironclad comedy behind ‘Iron Curtain’

March 22, 2011

Stern portraits of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin peer from a slyly subversive set piece in “Iron Curtain” at Village Theatre: horns for Marx, a propeller beanie for Lenin and Coke-bottle glasses for Stalin.

Yengenyi Onanov (Nick DeSantis, center) and actors portraying apparatchiks at the Soviet Ministry of Musical Persuasion perform in ‘Iron Curtain’ at Village Theatre. By Jay Koh/Village Theatre

Spoofing the godfathers of communism is a fitting introduction to the original musical.

“Iron Curtain” is no cobwebbed museum piece, even though the globe buried the Cold War era 20 years ago. Instead, the piece is unabashedly enjoyable — and nimble enough to shift from kitschy to heartfelt, often in the same number.

“Iron Curtain” carries a serious name, but the musical is as elastic as Flubber under the crush of so much history. The premise nods to classic Broadway musicals, spy-versus-spy potboilers and too many Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons to count.

The latest propaganda piece from the Soviet Ministry of Musical Persuasion — “Oklahoma!” rip-off “Oh, Kostroma!” — is a dud. Infuriated, the mercurial Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, commands the ministry to import Broadway playwrights to doctor the musical before opening night.

Howard Katz and Murray Finkel do indeed qualify as playwrights, although the duo is chronically unsuccessful at selling pitches to producers.

The idea for the latest Katz and Finkel musical, about a loveable-loser baseball team, sounds like a surefire smash. Oops, another set of scribes just sold something similar — something titled “Damn Yankees” — for a Broadway run.

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‘Next to Normal’ offers unfiltered portrayal of mental anguish

March 1, 2011

Something is not quite right about the Goodman family.

The bright and chipper matriarch, Diana, bounds to the breakfast table after a sleepless night to assemble enough sandwiches to supply a church picnic. Only, rather than the table, Diana uses the floor.

Alice Ripley (left) and Jeremy Kushnier perform in the celebrated musical ‘Next to Normal,’ a wrenching account of a woman’s struggle against mental illness. By Craig Schwartz

“Next to Normal” drops the pretense in the opening moments, as the Goodmans’ song about another ordinary day morphs into a call for help. Indeed, as patriarch Dan (Asa Somers) notes in the opening number, the family is “living on a latte and a prayer” amid the domestic tumult.

“Next to Normal” plumbs the mental illness afflicting Diana and unflinchingly details the corrosive effects the disease has on a suburban family. The subject matter sounds bleak and, no, the musical does not sugarcoat or recoil from the more unpleasant moments in the unending struggle against mental illness.

“Next to Normal” earned Tony Awards by the sackful and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Beneath the hardware is a musical unlike others in recent memory.

“Next to Normal” precursor “Feeling Electric” received tune-ups at Village Theatre in Issaquah. Village Theatre alumnus and Issaquah High School grad Brian Yorkey is responsible for the searing book and lyrics.

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