Look Forward to a Season of Wit and Whimsy at Arizona Rose Theatre

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season.

Entertaining the People with Brandon Howell of Arizona Rose Theatre.

by Leigh Moyer

Arizona Rose TheatreGive the people what they want and make art while you do it. This seems to be the approach to Arizona Rose Theatre‘s 2019 – 2020 season, based on my recent conversation with managing director, Brandon Howell.

“We wanted to have a fun season this year. We have a group in the theatre, core performers and production team, work with them first, looking for suggestions. Also asked our audience what they wanted to see. Always take audience suggestions into consideration. We want to provide theatre that our audience wants to see,” Howell explained. “It isn’t quite putting shows into a hat and pulling the season out, but it is more looking at the suggestions and filling the slots.”

Arizona Rose Theatre has been bringing theatre to the people of Tucson for over 30 years. For much of that time, the productions they put on were dictated by in part by not having their own stage and having to adjust based on the stage available to use. Now, with a permanent home in the Tucson Mall, they are able to control the season better. They have also changed their model over the last three decades. In the beginning, they did all original works. Now they produce some originals like Sherlock Holmes and the East Wind and big names like Into The Woods

“No one should miss any of our shows. That has to be my answer,” Howell said when I asked if he had a favorite this season. “We are excited about all of our shows. They all present a challenge. And I enjoy when a show brings a challenge.”

They have given themselves several challenges; big musicals like Into the Woods in a relatively small space, adapting classic murder mysteries into musicals without losing the serious nature of the source material in Sherlock Holmes, and depending on a small cast to carry a lot of show in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged

“I do think there are different elements considered. Female writers were the backbone of the season last year. Women playwrights was the unspoken theme. We often choose female heavy shows, although this year we haven’t really looked at that as much,” Howell said of this season compared to last.

The last of those three has the potential to have an extra layer of complication. At the time of the interview, casting wasn’t completed but Howell and the director were looking to cast the three man show with two men and a woman. I hope they did. I’d love to see, live on stage, that the gender of the actor doesn’t matter, that women can play roles usually filled by men. That said, there is a section that, quite spectacularly in my memory, makes fun of men playing women (and being so out of touch, the female characters are silly and over the top)– I am curious how Arizona Rose gets around that. I think it is possible and, with a history of writing, choosing plays by female playwrights, and frequently having strong women casts, they should have the skills to pull it off.

“[Arizona Rose Theatre] was founded with the mission, basically, of entertaining and introducing audiences to theatre, especially those who haven’t been to the theatre before or often. Every time we have an audience leave having enjoyed what they saw, we’re completing our mission. We want to improve and do it better every year,” Howell said, and added, “I want to reach out to newer audiences and introduce them to theatre. That is the future of theatre.”

A Season of Wit and Whimsy

Arizona Rose Theatre’s 2019 – 2020 Season:

The Musical World of Fairy Tales
August 24 – September 8, 2019
The Arizona Rose Theatre is expanding on a popular show from the last two seasons, the Musical World of Disney. In addition to favorite Disney music, the show will include music from other fairy tale favorites such as Shrek, Wicked, The Wizard of Oz and more… Come and enjoy a show for children of all ages. Watch as each song is brought to life with amazing production values, beautiful singing and fantastic dancing. This show is sure to delight the whole family.

Sherlock Holmes and the East Wind: a new musical
October 12 – 27, 2019
December 23rd, 1915–At the Hotel du Louvre in Paris, guests seek refuge from the war wreaking havoc throughout Europe. Dr. John Watson and his wife are staying there, and plan to meet their nephew, who is on leave from the British army. When a hotel maid is murdered however, they quickly become embroiled in an international conspiracy so complex that only the great Sherlock Holmes could unravel it–if only he were still alive.

Dashing Through the Snow
December 7 – 15, 2019
The play takes place in the Snowflake Inn in Tinsel, Texas where it’s Christmas 365 days a year. It’s four days before Christmas and a parade of eccentric guests arrive at the Snowflake Inn and deck the halls with holiday hilarity. Trina, the harried yet upbeat innkeeper of this B&B, has more than she can handle coping with these nuttier-than-a-fruitcake lodgers. You’ll swear this family-friendly Jones/Hope/Wooten Christmas comedy is more fun than a joyride in a one-horse open sleigh.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)
February 29 – March 15, 2020
All 37 plays in 97 minutes! By three actors! Complete Works is an irreverent, fast-paced romp through the Bard’s canon. It is fast paced, witty and physical; it’s full of laughter for Shakespeare lovers and even those few Shakespeare haters or those who “do not understand” Shakespeare will love this show.

Into the Woods
April 18 – May 3, 2020
Into the Woods is a Tony-winning musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, about wishes and what can happen when they come true. Based on fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, it brings together the story of a Baker and his Wife who wish for a child, of Cinderella who wishes to go to the King’s Festival, of Jack who wishes to keep his best friend, of a Witch who wishes to be beautiful again and many more. It all comes together in the woods, where everyone will have to consider if they truly want what they thought they wished for.

Wit, One-Liners, and Mystery Make for a Pretty Killer Play

by Holly Griffith

Arizona Rose Theatre’s production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Nile has all the staples of a good British detective story: colorful suspects, wry wit, and most importantly, a puzzle of motives. The story takes place aboard a cruise on the Nile River. A love triangle between the wealthy Kay Ridgeway (Diana Ouradnik), her new husband Simon Mostyn (John Reimann), and his ex-lover Jacqueline de Severac (Michele Holland) motivates most of the action. Simon and Kay are on their honeymoon, and the jealous Jacqueline has followed them, appearing unexpectedly to ruin their romance. When Kay is murdered in her bed one night, all fingers are pointed at Jacqueline. Kay’s uncle, Canon Ambrose Pennefather (Michael Shipione) serves as the detective, and he discovers that things are not as they seem.

The cast of Murder on the Nile. Photo courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

The cast of Murder on the Nile. Photo courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

First-time director Ron Kari achieves that delicate balance required of a murder mystery—planting clues subtly enough that we can’t quite put them together immediately, but clearly enough that we remember them when all is revealed. No spoilers, but this cast does a great job of throwing us off the scent. Stephanie Howell’s earnest innocence as Christine and Ouradnik’s measured elegance as Kay are particularly solid performances. Holland as Jackie and Leah Kari as Miss ffoliot-ffolkes [spelled correctly!] add some juice to the production—both actors bring the villainy without being too over-the-top. With its twists and turns and witty one-liners, this play is just plain fun.

At times, a sharper pace would have helped the production a great deal. While the mystery plot is negotiated masterfully, a few comic moments fall flat, and some of the suspense is squeezed out by a tempered pace. Speed would achieve two major things for this story. First, it would let some of the jokes really smack us in the face—in a good way. Second, it would cause the audience to sit on the edge of their chairs and follow the action with more energy. If an audience is asked to keep up, rather than merely follow along, the whole room is infused with excitement.

A word of praise for costumer Leah Rosthenhausler. The costumes are multitudinous — many characters have multiple outfits, complete with hats and accessories. Garments are period-appropriate without looking dusty, extremely well fitting, flattering, and expensive-looking. The actors all looked comfortable and confident. The set by Ruben Rosthenhausler, Luke Howell, and Mike Howell is functional and richly dressed. However, I found the moving video of the exterior landscape somewhat distracting. While realistic, it didn’t quite fit, especially in the world of 1940’s Egypt. The creativity is commendable, but I’m not sure that the idea worked in this instance.

I’d like to address the question of racial stereotype in this production. Agatha Christie wrote the first version of this story in 1937 and adapted it for the stage in 1944. Christie’s depiction of Egyptians is not particularly progressive, even for its time. She writes the two Egyptian bead merchants as pushy and money-hungry, a nuisance for the proper English passengers trying to board their riverboat. This depiction alone is problematic, but I was disappointed to see two white actors cast in the roles. Their over-the-top accents and wacky personalities bordered on minstrelsy. I was relieved to see that they didn’t figure prominently in the rest of the play, but I wondered if those characters could have been cut altogether. They didn’t add much to the plot or even to the atmosphere, and instead made me cringe. The other Egyptian character, a steward aboard the boat, is also played by a white actor. While the steward character isn’t nearly as problematic, I wish Arizona Rose had found an actor of Arab or North African heritage to play the role.  The actor did a fine job, but it felt like a missed opportunity to hire an actor of color.

This whole scenario begs the question—how do companies deal with playwrights whose prejudices reflect their time? Do we refuse to produce their works? Do we edit their works to reflect more progressive values? Do we produce them fully to remind our audiences that these ugly prejudices are a real part of our history? Shakespeare is racist too, remember. How do we deal? I don’t have an answer, and if I did, it would probably change from production to production, story to story, but I think the most important things are discussions within the company, among the cast and creative team, and with audiences—and an earnest attempt to get it right.

While I hope for more sensitivity regarding depictions of race in the future, I enjoyed this production, and I appreciate Arizona Rose Theatre’s mission to produce works that are positive and accessible. The company did a fine job of staging a murder mystery, and I’m looking forward to returning to see other productions.

Murder on the Nile runs through June 16th at Arizona Rose Theatre located in the Tucson Mall on the lower level near Macy’s. Tickets can be purchased by calling (520) 888-0509 or visiting www.arizonarosetheatre.com.

An Astonishing Production of Little Women

by Gabriella De Brequet

Little Women the musical, with book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland, and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, is based on the 1868 novel of the same name by Louisa May Alcott. It is a coming of age story about sisters Jo (Erin Recuparo), Meg (Diana Ouradnik), Amy (Kelly Coates), Beth (Kate Scally Howell), and their Mother Marmee (Korby Myrick). While their Father is fighting in the war the girls find love, discover their callings, and evolve together as a family.

Kate Scally Howell as Beth, Kelly Coates as Amy, Erin Recuparo as Jo, Korby Myrick as Marmee, Diane Ouradnik as Meg. Photo by Brandon Howell, courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

Kate Scally Howell as Beth, Kelly Coates as Amy, Erin Recuparo as Jo, Korby Myrick as Marmee, and Diane Ouradnik as Meg. Photo by Brandon Howell, courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

The musical is lead by Jo (Recuparo) the headstrong sister whose passion for writing drives the narrative. Themes of female empowerment and female camaraderie resonate throughout the play. Each Sister is uniquely different from one another and this allows the audience to find a little bit of themselves in each sister. It’s refreshing and timely to see dynamic female characters such as these headlining the narrative. This heart felt production will astonish you!

The vocal performances were impressive and well adjusted for the space. Recuparo’s Jo was passionate, dynamic, and strong. The audience had the great pleasure of watching her evolve from start to finish right before our eyes. Howell’s Beth was bright, kind, and humble. Her performance will break your heart. Ouradnik’s Meg was thoughtful and funny. Coates as Amy was hilarious and brash. Jeremy Vega’s Laurie was sincerely honest and youthful. Ruben Rosthenhausler’s Professor Bhaer was sweet, and comical. Perhaps the most poignant performance for me was Myrick’s Marmee. Myrick’s vocal performance brought me to tears more than once, and her characterization of Marmee was rich, and selfless. The entire ensemble really blew me away. There was not a single weak link in this strong chain of actors.

Erin Recuparo as Jo, Kate Scally Howell as Beth, Diane Ouradnik as Meg, and Kelly Coates as Amy. Photo by Brandon Howell, courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

Erin Recuparo as Jo, Kate Scally Howell as Beth, Diane Ouradnik as Meg, and Kelly Coates as Amy. Photo by Brandon Howell, courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

The set design was impressive considering the size of the small venue. The stage has a circular center which rotated. The rotating element helped illustrate the passage of time, growth, and change. The lighting design was vivid. At times I felt that it was too vivid for the space but it remained consistent throughout the play and it wasn’t too distracting. The costumes by Daniela Ayala were thoughtful and fitting. I was thoroughly impressed with Arizona Rose Theatre company’s production of Little Women. I encourage all musical theatre lovers to witness this local gem of a production.

Tickets are available at www.arizonarosetheatre.com or by calling the box office at (520)888-0509. Special tickets prices for students, children, seniors and military apply. Little Women runs from April 27th- May 5th