You Can Dance, You Can Try, I Had The Time of my Life!

by Felíz Torralba

Set on an idyllic Greek island, 20 year old bride-to-be Sophie (Olivia Gainey) dreams of having her father give her away on her wedding day. Sophie invites three strangers discovered in her mother’s diary: Sam (Rafael Acuña), Harry (Evan Taylor) or Bill (Andrew Miller) who all might be her father. Sophie secretly invites the three men to her wedding with the hope that she will finally find out who her father is. When her mother, Donna (Thea Lancaster) sees the three men, she, with the help of her best friends and former singing partners Rosie (Gianbari Deebom) and Tanya (Shann Oliver), also tries to figure out what she will do with the sudden appearance of three former lovers. As complications ensue from the misunderstandings, Sophie and Sky’s (Eduardo Rodriguez) wedding and relationship may be jeopardized. While finding what is truly in their hearts, many may discover the course of true love. The best part: the story unfolds to the nostalgic and uplifting beats of ABBA!

The audience is primed for the story with a gorgeous musical overture (Mark Nelson, conductor). From this moment on, I knew that I would enjoy this performance solely based on the orchestra’s infectiously joyful sound. There was a whimsical, modern spin on the music that I enjoyed so much I could have listened to that and been satisfied. When the curtains lifted, I was immediately drawn to the simplistic architecture of this set (Todd Poelstra). There are two versatile pieces of what look like limestone structures with rusted iron rods and old, colorful wooden doors. This transported me straight to Greece and the island hotel where the story takes place. Scene changes were seamless and entertaining (this makes or breaks musicals in my opinion), and it was amazing that the versatility of the set allowed a dock, a chapel, a hotel, and different bedrooms to inhabit one stage.

The choreography (Mickey Nugent) is really one aspect of the show that blew me away the most. The show was choreographed as if the ensemble was one giant amoeba. Everybody hit every cue, each detail was articulated clearly, and each seemed like the moves came naturally to them. The movement supplemented the show so incredibly well and made me want to keep watching. I also think an element of the show that should not go unnoticed is the musical direction (Martha Reed). The cast knew how to HARMONIZE. This made their sound swelling; (literally) giving off good vibrations.

The Cast of Mamma Mia! Photo courtesy of Pima Community College Center for the Arts.

The Cast of Mamma Mia! Photo by Carol Carder, courtesy of Pima Community College Center for the Arts.

One of my favorite performances of the night was the radiant Rafael Acuña, who portrayed Sam. Credit is very much due and deserved here. Acuña was romantic, paternal, showed impeccable vocal control and ability, and gave us a damn good Sam. This program is very lucky to have him and I would watch this performance again just to experience this young man of color perform. Thea Lancaster (Donna) acted as the glue that held this show together. Lancaster was balanced in all aspects of her performance and it was satisfying to watch. She was both playful and maternal, both harsh and sweet, youthful and womanly. I found her portrayal of Donna refreshing.

Unfortunately, I found Olivia Gainey’s Sophie to be insincere and sloppy    She was simply not mature enough to be Sophie, she did not look or sound like an island girl and was not the sexy, fun, curious character that you’d expect when reading the script. In fact, during the number between lovers Sophie and Sky “Lay All Your Love On Me,” I was a little uncomfortable because she looked like a very little girl in a questionable situation. It was evident that she relied too heavily on her direction and her vocal ability (which had its moments but was inconsistent in volume and quality).

Quite frankly, Lidia Zadareky who played Sophie’s friend Lisa read more “Sophie” than anyone else. Zadareky shone brightly and reflected (appropriate) youthfulness along with very capable vocal and physical ability. She looked very confident and gave a genuine performance filled with joy and playfulness. She stood out, you need that kind of power when casting a strong female lead. I feel that if Gainey and Zadareky would have been cast in each other’s place the show would have benefited from it.

I would also like to mention Gianbari Deebom and Shann Oliver – Rosie and Tanya respectively. They were quite the duo and I was impressed by their contrasting vocal timbre. They complimented each other incredibly well (them harmonies, though!). Rosie is a free, fearless woman and Tanya is an affluent, pampered, girly girl and the performances from these two young ladies were so true to the script. It was very refreshing to see young performers put their egos aside and work to tell the story and not make the performance about themselves. Bravo.

Although the casting for Sophie was not ideal, everyone else was cast very strategically. Every actor had strengths and each person’s talents brought something valuable to the storytelling. Each artist understood the story, knew where it was going, and took the audience with them. Most had clear intentions, high energy, and seemed settled into each of their characters. All of this is a sign of good direction (Todd Poelstra) and a healthy communication between the actors and the director.

The costumes were hit or miss (Julio Hernandez). Sophie was dressed very oddly throughout the play. There was not one outfit of Sophie’s that seemed to match the character, not even the wedding dress. Sophie is classically dressed in a white tank top and shorts. Throughout the play, she was wearing long skirts and loud shirts – totally opposite from the character’s free-spirited, curious nature. I was disappointed by Donna’s wedding outfit: a modern day halter dress with blue tye dye. It seemed as if the designer did not understand how to dress people for everyday life, especially women. To contrast, the designer did well with the “showy” outfits: Donna was wearing her classic overalls at the beginning of the play and for the song “Mamma Mia.” Donna and the Dynamos looked FABULOUS. They looked like a girl band, and that was the goal. The party dresses for the ensemble in “Voulez Vous,” were gorgeous.

Gianbari Deebom as Rosie, Thea Lancaster as Donna, and as Shann Oliver Tanya. Photo courtesy of Pima Community College Center for the Arts.

Gianbari Deebom as Rosie, Thea Lancaster as Donna, and as Shann Oliver Tanya. Photo by Carol Carder, courtesy of Pima Community College Center for the Arts.

As always, when experiencing Pima Arts shows, I love seeing young POC’s getting opportunities to play historic musical theatre roles. Everyone seemed like they were enjoying themselves so I could not help but enjoy myself. With all that’s going in on the world today, it was just so nice to forget about everything and smile, laugh, listen to fun music, and be entertained by talented, enthusiastic performers. I can guarantee you’ll have a blast at Pima Arts’ production of Mamma Mia!

Ticket and box office info: Feb 28th at 7:30, March 1st at 2pm & 7:30 pm, March 2nd at 7:30pm and March 3rd at 2pm. Buy tickets to see Mamma Mia at www.pima.edu.cfa or call (520) 206-6986.

 

Ensemble Storytelling Bring Emotion and Experience to Life in Curious Incident

by China Young

Ryan Parker Knox as Ed and Hunter Hnat as Christopher. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Ryan Parker Knox as Ed and Hunter Hnat as Christopher. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

All actors remain on stage unless prescribed otherwise. This is one of very few scripted stage directions in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Cynthia Meier, the director of The Rogue’s novel-inspired production, noted that she took that one to heart. In doing so, Meier and her ensemble of 10 performers sculpt a simple and genuine theatrical experience layered with complexity. This is a production that emphasizes the powerful storytelling potential of a well-trained ensemble in lieu of elaborate spectacle.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the story of a young man, Christopher, who takes on a detective role in effort to uncover the mystery behind who killed his neighbor’s dog. As can happen when sleuthing, he discovers much more than he could have imagined.
This detective story is unique from others: Christopher is autistic. While autism expresses differently for different people, in this production it is his ability to interact with others that is most evidently affected. Put simply, Christopher’s social communication skills are not in alignment with societal standards. Told from his perspective, the audience can experience Christopher’s world as he does. The ensemble introduces this quality at the top of the show by disrupting the audience’s sense of normal. Christopher’s teacher and mentor, Sioban, played by Patty Gallagher, delivers dialogue that doesn’t seem to belong to her while the rest of the ensemble re-enacts memories and thoughts from Christopher’s mind. All this occurs while performer Hunter Hnat, who plays Christopher, masterfully embodies every word and action taking place around him, occasionally stepping into the scene of a memory, but only speaking when he’s commenting on his version of what’s happening. This disembodied introduction also establishes that this is a story Christopher wrote and is sharing with the audience.
Throughout the production, the ensemble enhances the experience of what it’s like to be Christopher, whether that means amplifying his emotional state, creating his environment, or portraying the people he interacts with. They disrupt other theatrical norms as they become the set, the props, and ingeniously facilitate the sound design and scene shifts. It’s a work of true collaboration that I appreciated immeasurably.

Holly Griffith as Judy and Hunter Hnat as Christopher. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Holly Griffith as Judy and Hunter Hnat as Christopher. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Because it was such an ensemble-based show (With an equal gender distribution I might add!), it’s hard to single anyone out. Even so, Hnat as Christopher was inarguably outstanding in the role. His journey of emotional shifts within the autistic lens were raw, instinctive, and credible. Gallagher as Sioban brought warmth and gentleness that counteracted Christopher’s occasionally harsh bluntness. Ryan Parker Knox and Holly Griffith, who portrayed Christopher’s parents Ed and Judy, both brought depth to their characters as they balance the trials of parenting a child with autism and fulfilling their individual needs as human beings. I was equally as impressed with their ability to slip back into the ensemble without fixating on the named characters they played.
The remainder of the cast shifted in and out of secondary characters with similar ease and finesse. Kathryn Kellner Brown rises slightly above the rest with her presentation of Mrs. Alexander, an elderly neighbor that Christopher becomes better acquainted with through his detective work. For me, one of the most memorable moments of her performance was watching Mrs. Alexander walk in front of the stage and the moment she took the first step to rejoin the ensemble onstage, Mrs. Alexander completely disappeared, leaving just Ensemble Voice 6. Samantha Cormier also deserves honorable mention with the deft comedic timing executed during her brief moments as Julie, another one of Christopher’s teachers. These performers are incredibly skilled in their abilities to jump in and out of character and doing so all without leaving the stage further elevates their professional dexterity.
Honestly, I cannot praise the cast enough for the trust they have for one another that inevitably translates into the vulnerability they have with the audience. It’s incredibly refreshing to see this kind of work being done in Tucson and I hope more companies and performers embrace its power in the future.
Meier and her creative team definitely deserve applause for the level of artistry applied to this production. Some of that ensemble work wouldn’t be as impressive without the complimentary lighting effects and the 9 boxes that are utilized throughout as seating, storage, and more tangible amplifications of Christopher. If my descriptions seem vague, it’s because curiosity should get ahold of you and you should make every effort to see this production.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs at The Rogue Theatre Theatre November 1st through 18th. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 7:30; Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2:00. You can buy tickets online at theroguetheatre.org or by calling 551-2053.