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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‘Sleuth’ is a wicked game — and wicked fun

January 25, 2011

David Pichette (left) as Andrew Wyke and MJ Sieber as Milo Tindle act in a ‘Sleuth’ scene set in Wyke’s country house. By Jay Koh/Village Theatre

“Sleuth” unfolds in the sort of country manor stamped on every Clue game board.

The antiques-crammed rooms hide secrets, each character is a suspect, every drawer has a revolver stashed inside and the players jockey to solve the whodunit.

Professor Plum, in the library, with the candlestick, perhaps?

The comparison to the board game is certain to delight “Sleuth” character Andrew Wyke, a mystery novelist ensconced in a manor in the English countryside. The character — played by a guileful and gleeful David Pichette — might appreciate the reference, for Wyke adores games.

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‘Anne of Green Gables’ features spitfire in a straw hat

November 16, 2010

Marilla Cuthbert (played by Suzy Hunt) and brother Matthew Cuthbert (played by Dennis Bateman) meet Anne Shirley (Kasey Nusbickel) in a scene from the Village Theatre production of ‘Anne of Green Gables.’ By Jay Koh/Village Theatre

Just after the second act opens in “Anne of Green Gables,” a character turns to the title figure and proclaims in exasperation: “Anne, you do beat all.”

The pithy assessment is meant for the character, but the appraisal also applies to Kasey Nusbickel, the actress in the title role of the just-opened Village Theatre musical.

The actress — a spitfire in a straw hat in the initial scenes — portrays Anne as all nerve and verve, from the motor-mouthed orphan in the opening scenes to the whip-smart lady at the conclusion. Nusbickel has enough aplomb and snap to banish any cobwebs from the century-old dialogue lifted from the classic novel.

Costumed in a series of carrot-topped wigs, shapeless frocks and starchy dresses, she steers the storyline through a series of misadventures.

The musical starts as young Anne Shirley daydreams at a train station in Avonlea, the pretty-as-a-postcard setting of the production.

The orphan landed in Avonlea after siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert decided to adopt a child to pitch in on the family farm, Green Gables.

Only, the Cuthberts had requested a boy.

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Humor, grit and blue-collar blues add endearing touches to ‘The Full Monty’

September 21, 2010

The ‘Monty’ men, from left, Kevin High (as Dave Bukatinsky), Terence Kelley (‘Horse’), Troy Wageman (Ethan Girard), Michael Nicholas (Malcolm MacGregor) and Bob De Dea (Harold Nichols) begin their final scene from Village Theatre’s production of ‘The Full Monty.’ By Jay Koh/ Village Theatre

The clothes start to come off during the opening moments of “The Full Monty” at Village Theatre, prompting audience members to lean forward, exchange glances and wonder: Now?

No, not now. Maybe not ever.

“The Full Monty” has made a name — as a film and, later, as the stage musical here — for offering a fleeting glimpse of flesh. But, as the audience learns early on, “The Full Monty” is about a lot more than, well, the full monty.

The show about unemployed steelworkers struggling to gain a foothold in a ruined economy has swagger to spare and, more importantly, tenderness to temper the testosterone.

The ribald comedy serves as the raucous opener to the Village Theatre season. The choice may raise some eyebrows in Issaquah, but the musical has the humor, heart and grit to be accessible to casual theatergoers.

The average Joes at the center of the musical scheme to strip in order to regain the money and, ironically, the dignity lost amid unemployment.

The action has been shifted from the industrial England of the film to Buffalo, N.Y., circa 1992. The steel mill at the center of the blue-collar universe has gone bust, and the main characters tiptoe through a minefield of indignities: unemployment checks and minimum-wage jobs at the local mall.

The plot resonates in post-recession 2010 — even among white-collar theater audiences confronting shrunken retirement portfolios and frugal fatigue.

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Village Theatre presents tap spectacular ‘42nd Street’

May 18, 2010

There might be no better way to close out a theater season than with “42nd Street,” especially when you do it incredibly well.

And well in this instance means with unbelievable choreography, amazing costumes and super-talented dancers, as well as great voices that really soar and blend stunningly during group numbers.

Village Theatre continues to amaze audiences with quality performances that rival any “big” theater. Maybe its nickname should be “the little theater that could.”

Mercer Island resident Don Clark said “42nd Street” is one of his favorite plays, so much so that he has even seen it on Broadway.

“I couldn’t tell any difference,” he said when asked how the local version compared. “They were that good.” Read more

Royally funny ‘Gypsy King’ keeps you laughing long after the show

March 23, 2010

Jose J. Gonzales, as Prince Dijon (center), and the ensemble, enact a scene in the Village Theatre world premiere production of ‘The Gypsy King,’ by Emmy Award-winner Randy Rogel. By Jay Koh / Village Theatre

If laughter is the best medicine, get to a performance of “The Gypsy King” at Village Theatre, because the doctor is in.

You won’t experience the occasional chuckle or snicker. You’ll howl with sidesplitting, belly-aching raucous laughter.

This musical starts with a rousing opening. (Who would laugh at a blind joke? You will.) It continues with sumptuous costumes in luscious colors. Then, there’s the amazing set design. (Seriously, is there anything they can’t pull off on this small stage?)

Then, there’s the delightful but pure evil Sergei laying out a plot so outrageous, well, you’ll have to see for yourself. Read more

Lose yourself in ‘Yonkers’ fine performances

January 26, 2010

Jennifer Lee Taylor (center) and Suzy Hunt enact the climactic confrontation between Aunt Bella and Grandma Kurnitz, as (from left) Mike Dooley, Nick Robinson, Collin Morris and Karen Skrinde, as Uncle Louie, Arty, Jay and Gert, look on in a scene from ‘Lost in Yonkers.’ By Jay Koh/Village Theatre

Silently, Arty and Jay Kurnitz wait in their grandmother’s living room. They question why they’ve come so far to see a woman they barely know and they plot their escape.

But leaving isn’t on the agenda.

What unfolds onstage in the next two and a half hours is nothing short of dramatic perfection and well-timed comedic relief, provided by a talented cast who embrace the irony of one of Neil Simon’s best-known plays — “Lost in Yonkers.”

Typically, reviewers find time to take light notes in the margins of their program during a play, but “Lost in Yonkers” proved so captivating that it didn’t happen this time.

Comfortable suspense — if there is such a thing — kept everyone in the audience waiting for the next character to unravel.

As the son’s broken father, Eddie, played by Bradford Farwell, tries to heal himself and the family bank account after his wife’s death, the boys are faced with the realities of adulthood.

The touching coming-of-age story is marked by realism, not simplicity or comfort. Rather, the two boys — Jay, played by Collin Morris, and Arty, played by Nick Robinson — learn no matter how simple they may seem, familial relationships are messy, complex and laden with history. Read more

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