A trip back to World War II through the music of the era sounds like a delightful vehicle for a musical revue. But without any of the actual songs that were popular during the time period, Kansas University Theatre’s production of “Over Here!” feels strange as a nostalgia piece.
Written in 1974, the show, with music by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman (the team behind “Mary Poppins” and other Disney musicals) and a book by Will Holt, was designed as a vehicle for the two surviving Andrews Sisters. Thus, Paulette (Kristen Larsen) and Pauline (Jessica Brink) DePaul are a pair of USO singers looking for their big break, when they are assigned to entertain recruits being shipped via train from the West Coast to New York, where they will embark for Europe.
The duo is convinced they are never going to hit it big unless they can find a third singer to give them that tight, three-part harmony the Andrews Sisters were famous for. Thus, they spend part of the journey recruiting every woman on the train until they at last find soprano Mitzi (Lilly Karrer). Of course, no one realizes she is a Nazi spy, despite her thick, German accent.
Meanwhile, June (Abby Sharp) has stowed away aboard the train to keep her high school sweetheart, Bill (Cale Morrow), company as he travels toward the war. Bill wants to consummate their relationship, since he doesn’t know if he’ll ever see her again, but being a good girl, June refuses, sparking tension between them.
The rest of the cast plays soldiers and civilians in ensemble fashion, with each having his or her own special number that invokes the mood of the time period. The whole thing is woven together by a narrator (Kevin Thomas Smith), who alternates as a drill sergeant, train conductor and civilian relating his memories of the home front.
Production-wise, “Over Here!” is top-notch. Director/choreographer John Staniunas has his students acting, singing and dancing as if they stepped straight out of 1942. At times, it’s like watching an Irving Berlin film unfolding live in front of you. The dance numbers are all terrific, particularly “Charlie’s Place,” which has everyone moving at a frenetic swing pace and features some acrobatic work by its leads, Jaclyn Amber Nischbach and Justin Kelly.
Likewise, Frankie Jay Baker stops the show with an impressive, and at times searing, rendition of “Don’t Shoot the Hooey to Me, Louie,” a song that explodes the quiet racism and troop segregation of the 1940s. Baker is mesmerizing, gliding around the stage in bowler cap and white gloves and using a push broom for a partner.
Larsen and Brink are great as the DePaul Sisters. They could easily be Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen in “White Christmas,” and when they add in Karrer upon Mitzi’s discovery, you’d swear you were listening to the Andrews Sisters.
A 20-piece band recreates the sound of Glen Miller, Benny Goodman and other Big Band maestros. Indeed, the Sherman Brothers do a fine job of mimicking the popular music of the early ’40s. Every song could have been recorded by Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Clooney, or, of course, the Andrews Sisters.
And that’s what makes the show so strange. It’s very deliberately a nostalgia piece. “That’s the way I remember the war,” the narrator says on several occasions. The plot is really flimsy and is constructed largely to evoke memories of things like rationing, “loose lips sink ships,” the nation pulling together and other aspects of World War II America. That usually works just fine as a vehicle to perform the songs of the time period.
But these songs are all original to the piece. They were written in 1974 to give the Andrews Sisters new material. They sound like they could be “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” or “In the Mood.” But they’re not. The show opens with the narrator saying, “Here’s one of the big hits from the time, ‘Since You’re not Around.’” Jake Thede renders it gorgeously with a golden tenor voice, but it’s not a song from the time.
“Over Here!” keeps asking us to remember things we don’t. As a result, it feels like a kind of amnesia. You keep thinking you should know a song you don’t.
In 1974, with the Andrews Sisters onstage deliberately evoking their glory days, it probably worked very well. Thirty years later, one wonders why, if the producers wanted a 1940s nostalgia show, they didn’t just use the actual music from the time period. Consequently, “Over Here!” feels more dated than charming.
Still, it’s no fault of the performers. The actors and musicians embrace the music and schtick wholeheartedly, rendering it honestly and entertainingly. If the goal, though, was to educate young performers on one of American music’s most dynamic periods, it’s a shame University Theatre didn’t choose a piece that featured the actual songs of the day.
“Over Here!” continues May 2, 3, and 4. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m., except Sunday, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 864-3982 or online at kutheatre.com.
Kansas University Theatre concludes its season with a trip down memory lane, when it opens “Over Here!” Friday night. The 1974 musical with a score by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman and book by Will Holt goes back to the early days of World War II to explore life on the home front during the most important conflict of the 20th century.
“The propaganda movies of the time were designed to support the boys overseas,” says KU Theatre Professor John Staniunas, who directs the production. “This show responds by asking what was happening here.”
The musical is set largely on a train, shipping new recruits from the West Coast east, where they will be deployed to Europe. Soldiers, civilians and the USO intermix to create a picture of the American mindset in the early days of the war.
“I wanted the students to understand what happened in the 1940s and how it really shaped America,” Staniunas says.
The story follows two singing sisters, who are searching for a third person to fill out a trio and launch them on the way to stardom. “Over Here!” was created as a Broadway vehicle for the two surviving Andrews Sisters, Patty and Maxene, and it was immensely successful at the time, earning five Tony nominations, winning one and also netting a pair of Drama Desk Awards.
“Audiences loved seeing those two Andrews Sisters onstage again,” Staniunas says.
It closed in early 1975 under controversial circumstances, when a conflict arose between the Andrews Sisters and the producers. But it launched the careers of Treat Williams, Marilu Henner and John Travolta among others.
“It’s one of those shows that sticks with you,” says Staniunas, who was in a production of it in college shortly after it closed. “The ensemble really pulls together.”
Now, as then, “Over Here!” is a celebration of the music of the 1940s. The Sherman Brothers wrote all original music for the show, but it is in the style of those wartime pieces, particularly the tight harmonies of the Andrews Sisters.
“It’s representing a certain time in our history,” he says. “It’s a love song to a forgotten era.”
“Over Here!” opens Friday, April 25 and runs April 26, 27, and May 2, 3 and 4 on the Crafton-Preyer stage of Murphy Hall on the KU campus. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. except April 27 and May 4, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 864-3982 or online at kutheatre.com.
Sometimes, you can reach too far. Such is the case with Kansas University Theatre’s production of “The Other Shore” by Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian. Surreal, abstract and high-minded, both the play and the production are bold but don’t quite make for a satisfying evening of theater. The show begins with a troupe of 11 actors coming onstage and deciding to play a game. They get ropes and then engage in several intellectual exercises about the nature of relationships symbolized by the connections the actors experience through holding opposite ends of the ropes. It all has a sort of Philosophy 101 feel to it.
Then, becoming childlike, they decide to cross a river to the other shore. They all takes turns imagining different aspects of this river, building their set as they go, placing rocks around the stage. Eventually, the river rages, and they struggle to make it to their destination.
Once they have made it, though, the play transforms into a surreal exploration of the nature of reality. It becomes a series of vignettes that explore individual aspects of how we perceive the world. Each actor takes on various roles making their work onstage as fluid as the action. If you’re looking for a story, you won’t find it in “The Other Shore.” It is quintessential experimental theater — using drama to push concepts. We see loss of innocence and learning to lie. We experience the tyranny of the majority and willful ignorance. Unrequited love, social intolerance of lust, and the suppression of individuality all make their appearances.
The ensemble cast does a fine job slipping from one role to the next. Director Alison Christy pulls fearless performances from all of them. Indeed, University Theatre should be commended for staging this play this late in the season. Most of the actors have held more standard roles in other productions this season, and seeing these recognizable faces take on something as experimental and ambitious as “The Other Shore” is a treat for regular attendees.
The technical aspects of the play are excellent as well. Transitions are flawlessly executed by the lighting crew, expertly directing the audience where to look by bringing lights up and down. Christy makes good use of levels and movement too by having her actors climb large structures, and staging the vignettes in varying locations. She makes full use of the tiny Inge Theatre, making it seem like a much bigger space than it is.
But as well executed as the show is, it still plays like a dramatized version of an Eastern Philosophy class. There is less story than there is situation. As a teaching tool in a classroom, each vignette would enhance a learning environment. Several of them are very powerful.
The first experience on the other shore involves one actor teaching language to the others. As they learn, they discover they can say both nice things and mean things. Eventually, the students kill the teacher — a powerful lesson on how harmful language can be when misused.
In another segment, one actor is told he has drawn a trump card, when he has not. He fights for the truth of what he knows and is tortured by the others until he recants. Gao’s reaction to the Orwellian nature of China’s Cultural Revolution is sharp and clear.
But as interesting and compelling as each of the situations is, strung together they add up to less than the sum of their parts. The play lasts an hour and 15 minutes, but it seems longer. At the end, one of the actors asks the others if they understood what they had just staged. He gets few affirmatives.
As an intellectual exercise, “The Other Shore” is interesting, and it is well staged and performed. But it doesn’t make for a satisfying theatrical experience.
“The Other Shore” continues April 15, 16 and 17. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. in the Inge Theatre on the KU campus. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 864-3982 or online at www.kutheatre.com.
Go to see Shakespeare anymore, and you can almost certainly count on it being set at some other time than during the 16th century, when it was written. Kansas University’s latest production of “Much Ado About Nothing” follows this trend, bringing the witty comedy all the way to the present day.
To accomplish that, director Peter Zazzali makes one minor change to the script. Rather than have Don Pedro (Joseph Carr) and his comrades be conquering heroes from an ill-defined war, they are instead a soccer team returning to Sicily after having won a national championship.
The show begins with a pre-recorded movie wherein the climactic moments of the soccer match play out, complete with a TV announcer relating the action. The play’s comedy is enhanced by this device when players speak in Shakespearean verse after getting fouled and preparing to take a penalty shot.
Once the action moves to Messina, though, it feels very much like standard Shakespeare fare, despite the modern dress. Benedick (Zach Sudbury), a confirmed bachelor, cannot believe his best friend, Claudio (Aden Lindholm), has fallen in love with Hero (Jordyn Cox) and plans to marry her.
Meanwhile, Hero’s cousin, Beatrice (Sara Kennedy), delights in insulting Benedick, and the whole town enjoys watching the two spar verbally. Don Pedro, Claudio and Beatrice’s father, Leonato (Walter Coppage), conspire to have some sport with the two by tricking each into thinking each is harboring a secret love for the other. Naturally, when Benedick is convinced Beatrice loves him, he falls for her and vice versa.
The whole thing is complicated when Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, John (Alexander Terry), becomes jealous and decides to torpedo Claudio’s wedding by making him think Hero has been unfaithful. The ruse works, sending a light and witty comedy into decidedly dark territory, when Claudio impugns her at the wedding and leaves her at the altar. Leonato is set to disown her until Friar Francis (Michael Miller) persuades him to show mercy and concocts a scheme of his own to prove Hero’s innocence.
The performances are strong across the cast. Sudbury is clearly having a ball playing the happy-go-lucky Benedick. He floats around the stage, firing off zinger and zinger. His reactions when he overhears the rumors of Beatrice’s love for him are hysterical.
Likewise, Kennedy revels in the sharp-tongued Beatrice, lobbing her witty insults at Benedick like they were bombs. Kennedy’s smooth delivery and mischievous smile light up the stage, allowing us to share in the wicked pleasure she takes from each verbal dart landing on target. By way of contrast, Carr is easygoing as Don Pedro. He is clearly the leader of this band of athletes, and Carr exudes the calm confidence of a man who knows everyone looks up to him.
“Much Ado About Nothing” calls for more range than the average Shakespeare comedy. When it makes a hard turn into tragedy, the cast demonstrates its depth by shifting from jokesters to angry and grieving characters. Kennedy is consumed with outrage and demands Benedick challenge Claudio for his cruelty at the wedding. Sudbury is believably conflicted, trying to decide how to manage his loyalties — to his friend or his love.
Most impressively, Coppage transforms from a jovial, considerate host to an angry, embarrassed father. The fury he conveys toward Hero when he thinks she has dishonored him is palpable and disturbing. Moments later, he appears ready to tear his heart out in grief that this tragedy should befall not just his house but his daughter. Coppage is an Equity actor brought in for the production, and he’s at the top of his game as the deeply complex Leonato.
The tragic elements of the play, while gripping and moving, belie the modern treatment. It’s difficult to believe in the 21st century that a father would disown his daughter over the unsubstantiated claim (and adamant denial from her) that she had been unfaithful. Likewise, while 16th century Europeans might have believed a woman could die from shame, it doesn’t seem like something a modern man would buy. A period treatment might have made those contrivances more reasonable.
But never mind those tiny flaws. “Much Ado About Nothing” is a delightful, rich and thoughtful comedy that is well-acted and pleases on many levels. This is Shakespeare at his comic finest rendered lovingly by a talented, well-directed cast.
Say “Shakespeare” and you conjure worry in the minds of many — in audience members, who fear they may not get it; in actors, who think it may be too hard; in directors who worry it may be too dated.
You won’t get any of those reactions from Peter Zazzali, who’s directing a new production of “Much Ado About Nothing” that opens tonight on the Crafton-Preyer stage at Kansas University.
“I’ve always adored ‘Much Ado About Nothing,'” he says. “I’ve done it twice as an actor, and the wit is sublime.”
One of the Bard’s sophisticated comedies, “Much Ado” follows two sets of lovers — Beatrice and Benedick, and Hero and Claudio — whose stories interconnect. The former are an unlikely pair who come together to help the latter.
“The two plots weave together nicely,” Zazzali says. “It’s much stronger than many of (Shakespeare’s) comedies.”
Of course, there is always that fear that audiences won’t be keen on watching people speak airy, Elizabethan prose wearing tights and capes. To help, Zazzali has brought this production forward in time to the 21st century.
“No one speaks that way now,” Zazzali says of the language. “No one spoke that way then. To do a traditional Elizabethan version of the play might have been dull and not nearly as engaging for a modern audience.”
That doesn’t mean he thinks Shakespeare has nothing to say in 2014.
“The themes of the play run rife across history,” he says. “Putting it in a modern context causes it to speak to us.”
Zazzali’s version has more than contemporary costuming to bring the play up to date. Shakespeare’s original text features a band of soldiers returning from war and being celebrated as heroes. Zazzali has changed that to a soccer team.
“I thought, given our sports-crazy, KU culture, that would give them something they could root for,” he says.
But Zazzali isn’t interested in rewriting Shakespeare. On the contrary, he has great reverence for the Bard and his work.
“I was interested in the spirit of the words of the play without dumbing it down,” he says. “We made a few cuts to shorten the run time and a few changes to modernize the setting, but the language is very much intact. You can’t do Shakespeare well without paying service to the words.”
Bringing 16th century comedy to a modern audience has other challenges too. One of them was the stage.
“The Crafton-Preyer Theatre is an enormous space,” Zazzali says. “It’s a classic proscenium and a huge audience, which doesn’t lend itself well to Shakespeare. A thrust stage is more suitable for Shakespeare. That’s how it was originally performed.”
But Zazzali was undeterred. Just as he modified the script for contemporary times, he adapted the stage to make the show more intimate.
“I arranged that the set is built from the proscenium ramp down into the audience,” he says. “We’re bringing the actors, the words right to the audience.”
And so the Bard of Avon returns to the KU campus, updated and fresh, timeless and classic. Zazzali sums up the whole thing — the play and the experience — succinctly: “It’s been a delight.”
“Much Ado About Nothing” opens tonight and runs March 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9 on the Crafton-Preyer stage in Murphy Hall on the Kansas University. Curtain is 7:30 p.m, except Sundays, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 785-864-3982 or online at www.kutheatre.com.
Everything old is new again seems to be the theme of this year’s Black Box Directing Project at KU’s University Theatre. Student directors brought fresh visions to Anton Chekhov’s “The Boor” and the biggest classic of them all, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
“The Boor,” under the direction of senior theater major Brian Buntin, tells the story of a grief-stricken widow, Helena (Abby Hadel), and her long-suffering servant, Luka (Sophia Hail). Helena’s husband died seven months ago, and, despite his having been a philanderer and cruel to her in life, she is determined to remain completely devoted to him in death, much to Luka’s chagrin.
Her plan is interrupted when Grigori Smirnov (Josuha A. Greene) arrives, demanding she pay one of her husband’s debts. He needs the money today because of his own financial problems, but she can’t get it for two days. The two begin quarreling, and hilarity ensues as Chekhov makes his point about the absurdity of love and male-female relations.
Hadel is hilarious as the overdramatic Helena. She is a master of facial comedy, contorting her expression into one sidesplitting reaction to Greene and Hail after another. In fact, if Buntin’s direction has a flaw, it is that he often puts the Hadel and Greene on opposite sides of the stage, so that one has to choose whether to watch him deliver his lines or watch her react to them. It’s a very small blemish on the production, but some of the comedy is missed by not being able to see everything Hadel does when she doesn’t have lines.
Hail is equally funny as the put-upon Luka. Both Helena and Grigori order him about without any consideration to practicality or his feelings, and Hail perfectly captures the attitude of an older man, who begrudgingly accepts an unfortunate lot in life. She also has a strong command of physical comedy, eliciting uproarious laughter from the audience during a sequence when Luka appears to be having a heart attack and neither Helena nor Grigori notice, so consumed are they in their argument.
Despite his desire to present Chekhov’s comedy classically, Buntin allows himself to explore fresh territory by casting a woman in the role of Luka. Hail wears a wig, mustache and tuxedo, but she’s clearly female. Thus, even in Buntin’s straight presentation of “The Boor,” we get something new.
After a brief intermission, an ensemble cast of six actors (Jake Dutton, Kendra J. Hacker, Alena Ivanov, Justin Petty, Zechariah Williams and Brianna Woods) takes on three short revisions of “Hamlet,” each directed by a Ph.D. student in KU’s theater department.
First up is Tom Stoppard’s “The 15-Minute Hamlet” directed by Danny Devlin. As the troupe tells us, “Hamlet” is the longest play in the English language, taking, on average, five and a half hours to perform. The role of Hamlet is also the longest part, with more lines than any other role in an English-language play.
Stoppard boils it all down to a 15-minute synopsis, which is played for comedy with panache and gusto by the sextet, many of them playing multiple roles. Stoppard’s play takes all its lines from the original, essentially condensing it down to a Cliff’s Notes version. Devlin adds an introduction wherein the cast interacts with the audience, explains what they’re going to do, and even gives an audience member a stopwatch to time their performance. It works to good comic effect, made all the funnier by what is cut out and glossed over.
The second play is “The Dick and Jane Hamlet” by Larry Siegel. Directed by Jeanne Tiehen, this version spoofs children’s programming. Its title references early reading primers from the '60s and '70s, but, in addition to lampooning those banal teaching tools, it also takes shots at the more modern, sugary, toddler programming on daytime television. The cast assumes the roles of actors on a “story time” type of TV show with lots of over-the-top enthusiasm.
Today’s episode of the show features “Hamlet,” and the action goes from silly (they don’t really seem to be telling “Hamlet”) to ridiculous when everyone starts dying. It’s another fine bit of comedy made more fun by the same actors from the Stoppard play getting different roles in this one.
But it is the dark, surreal “Hamletmachine” directed by Scott Knowles that really puts the whole evening into perspective. Heiner Müller’s postmodern attack on contemporary culture and traditional gender roles as expressed by Hamlet and Ophelia plays like the odder moments of a David Lynch film.
The actors throw books, destroy the set, tear off their Shakespearean costuming, and generally commit mayhem while Hamlet rages that he no longer wants to act as he’s supposed to or even be a man. Meanwhile, Ophelia rejects the classic female role of mother and nurturer. In its strange way, it both embraces the essential conflicts of these characters while completely exploding them.
And perhaps that’s the point of this year’s project. Buntin embraces classic theater with a straight portrayal of “The Boor” but bends the gender roles a shade by casting a woman in a man’s part. Devlin lampoons the greatest play in the language by comically reducing it to a frenetic 15-minute short. Tiehen uses “Hamlet” to mock what we’re teaching our children and vice versa. And then Knowles blows the whole thing up with an experimental piece that borders on violent.
It’s thought-provoking theater, and, even if it doesn’t always make sense, it has young actors and directors pushing limits and finding something new, something fresh, in something very familiar.
Under ordinary circumstances, a friend being forcibly checked into a mental hospital wouldn’t be funny. Ordinary circumstances do not exist in a Richard Greenberg comedy, and “The Maderati” presented by Kansas University Theatre is no exception. Misunderstanding, false accusations and hilarity ensue when a group of self-absorbed yuppies gets word that an ill fate has befallen a friend.
The action begins the Sunday following a disastrous party, when Rena Debutts (Maggie Boyles) gets word her friend and artist, Charlotte Ebbinger (Abby Hadel), has been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. Convinced she cannot allow Charlotte to be imprisoned — despite her being crazy — she sets off to get her out, while pressing her husband Chuck (Ben Schatzel) into the unwanted job of informing their friends.
Things blow up almost immediately when Dewy Overlander (Sara Kennedy) hears Charlotte’s name and is convinced she’s dead, because she had a premonition. Thus, Dewy and husband Ritt (Collin Stephens) are telling everyone Charlotte has died, while Chuck is trying to get the real news out and making a total mess of it.
Complications start springing up almost as fast as the laughs as assumptions and misunderstandings are made that lead to everyone talking at once, without realizing they are saying completely different things about the same person. Greenberg’s witty dialogue contributes to the frenetic pace as the characters race from one manufactured crisis to another.
Several of the performances are worth noting. Preston O’ffill is delightful as the megalomaniacal, painfully closeted Martin Royale. He does a perfect British accent and is so uptight it looks like it hurts.
Likewise, Thomas Tong generates laugh after laugh as the narcoleptic Keene Esterhazy. He falls asleep at the drop of a hat, and Tong seems unconcerned with his own safety, frequently dropping to the floor in hilarious fashion with practically no warning.
Charlotte doesn’t appear until the second act, but, when she does, Hadel plays her with the utter desperation of someone who can’t understand why she isn’t as special as she wants to be. Hadel is a master of physical comedy, somehow cramming sesame noodles into her mouth with blinding speed before freaking out and hiding under a blanket.
But it is Kennedy’s performance as Dewy Overlander that really shines. Like her character, she seizes the show by the throat from the moment she enters and refuses to let go. Her Dewy is over the top and recklessly self-absorbed. Kennedy spits out the dialog with machine-gun rapidity, and she alternates between condescending looks at her husband, empty-headed confusion at the ravings of the others, and sidesplitting lust toward bad boy Danton Young (Aden Lindholm). It’s a tour de force performance that is a highlight of the show.
Jenifer Harmon’s set is a brilliant paean to the 1980s. The back wall painting is sunshine and New York City and is evocative of the pop art of the period. The tiny Inge stage accommodates the script’s multiple locations via a series of freestanding doors, all of which are painted in vivid pastels — another signature of '80s pop culture.
The costumes are equally sharp. Delores Ringer does a fine job recreating several iconic '80s looks. Aside from New York City, it’s not exactly clear where the play is set. One gets the impression from the dialogue it is Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but many of the characters look like they’d be more at home in Greenwich Village. Then again, the less-slick characters are the artists in the group, so it works.
The play ends with a gotcha moment that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s obvious from the final lines that Greenberg did it on purpose — one last joke. It doesn’t really matter. “The Maderati” is zany fun. The pleasure comes in watching ridiculous characters cause trouble for themselves, laughing at their idiosyncrasies and hoping we don’t share them.
Ask Jeanne Tiehen why she returned to graduate school, and she doesn’t talk about herself.
“I love teaching because it really reminds me why I love theater,” says the second-year doctoral student. “Seeing undergraduate actors grow has always been rewarding for me.”
Tiehen gets another chance with “The Maderati,” which opens tonight in the Inge Theatre on the KU campus. The 1987 Richard Greenberg comedy follows the misadventures of a group of Manhattan artists whose world turns upside down when a friend checks into a mental hospital. Through a series of misunderstandings, they come to believe she’s dead.
“It’s Greenberg’s response to a lot of his friends in the arts,” Tiehen says. “(The 1983 film) ‘The Big Chill’ is definitely a component of it. The natural self-absorption of these characters is enhanced by their being artists. They engage in a lot more self-reflection.”
Tiehen saw a lot of potential in the play for the undergraduate actors she enjoys helping to develop their skills.
“I saw the blurb when I was looking for a show to direct,” she says, “and when I read there were nine roles, I thought that was a fantastic opportunity for young actors.”
“The Maderati” is a screwball comedy, and that is exactly the sort of challenge Tiehen was looking for.
“Each character has a lot of opportunity for undergraduate actors to hone their craft, and the humor is so offbeat and absurd, they really have to work at it.
“The biggest challenge for all of us was to keep that commitment of character but still remember that this is not real. It’s a comedy, and these people aren’t like real people.”
So how does one guide young actors to find that delicate balance between over-the-top comedy and depth of character?
“I just told them to trust the work we’ve done,” Tiehen says. “They don’t have to push it. And this cast has been terrific. They have a lot of comedic instincts, and they offered a lot of their own suggestions, many of which were right on.”
Tiehen has worked very hard to keep everybody on the same page, which can be challenging, given the zaniness of the characters and story.
“I go into each rehearsal and say, ‘OK, this is our goal for tonight,’ and then give them an objective. It’s worked really well.”
The cast seems to agree. Topeka Senior Sara Kennedy enthuses it’s the most fun she’s had working on a show.
“The highlight of my day is everyone coming together and discovering more about this ridiculous production,” she says.
Tiehen hopes to keep creating those kinds of opportunities.
“I want to do something in academic theater,” she says. “Ideally, I’d love to end up at a university.”
At least for the moment, she seems to be in the perfect place.
“The Maderati” opens Dec. 6 and plays Dec. 7, 8, 10, 11 and 12. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m., except Sunday, Dec. 8, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available online at www.kutheatre.com or by calling the box office at 785-864-3982.
Mark Reaney is marrying the future and the past to make a point about the present. The KU professor of theater is designing the set and lighting for University Theatre’s new production of “Adding Machine: A Musical,” which opens Friday.
The show opened off Broadway in 2008, but it’s an adaptation of the 1923 Elmer Rice expressionist play “The Adding Machine.” University Theatre staged the play in 1995, and Reaney was heavily involved in the design of that production.
“That was our very first experiment into computer graphics,” Reaney says. “We’ve come a long way since then.”
The 1995 production explored virtual reality concepts in what was pretty new technology at the time. But both then and now, one of the themes is making a statement about technology.
“There’s heavy symbolism and irony that we’re making art with modern adding machines,” Reaney says, referring to computers. “We’re trying to make the point that it’s not the machines that are the problem.”
“Adding Machine: A Musical” tells the story of Mr. Zero, an unimaginative accountant, who is replaced after 25 years of thankless service to his company by a machine that can do his job faster and better. Infuriated, he murders his boss, is convicted and executed and goes to Heaven, wherein he continues to choose a dull, meaningless existence.
“You’re not supposed to like Zero,” Reaney says. “He makes bad choices every time.”
For a musical about technology and humanity’s relationship to it, Reaney created a virtual reality environment evocative of the places in the show.
“In the early part of the show everything is flat,” Reaney says. “It’s mostly colorless. Then, when he goes to Heaven, there’s lots of color.”
That’s accomplished by projecting images onto the stage and even onto the actors. “We project numbers onto them at certain points,” he says. “The lion’s share of the front lights are also computer-generated.”
And that’s not all. The images interact with the characters, requiring a lot of programming and timing.
“The show features VR backdrops with real-time changes,” Reaney explains. But he emphasizes it isn’t all pre-programmed and then allowed to run, with the actors being forced to keep up. Because it’s virtual reality technology, it’s meant to be reactive to what’s happening around it.
“What keeps this work exciting is the fact the VR technology is not prerecorded; the computers are working live just like the actors,” Reaney says. “We live in a digital world and modern audiences must be spoken to with what they are most familiar with — innovative technology.”
And that’s the point. Technology is defined not by itself but what we use it for. It can be made to dehumanize, but it can also improve our lives and help us make art. Mr. Zero loses his job and subsequently his life as a result of technology and his reaction to it. But his story is told in an environment that could only be created by advanced machines.
“It’s all experimental,” Reaney says. “It’s real experimental theater with a capital X.”
“Adding Machine: A Musical” opens Friday and runs Nov. 16, 17, 22, 23 and 24 at Stage Too! in the Crafton-Preyer Theater at Murphy Hall on the KU campus. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. except the Sunday dates, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets for the performance on the 17th are only available to University Theatre’s Friends of the Theatre (FROTH) organization. “Adding Machine: A Musical” includes themes of racism and offensive language. It is not appropriate for younger audiences.
“He that better knows how to tame a shrew, now let him speak,” wrote William Shakespeare in his classic comedy “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Cole Porter thought he might have some ideas on that subject, and KU’s University Theatre brought them to life Friday night, opening its new season with Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate.”
A show within a show, “Kiss Me, Kate” adds layers to the original plot. A troupe of actors is attempting to stage a musical version of Shakespeare’s comedy. Fred Graham (Stephen Dagrosa) wrote, directed and stars in the production. He’s a man who thinks more highly of himself than his talent dictates.
He’s cast his ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi (Julia Geisler), opposite him as the shrewish Kate, because she’s gone on to film and he needs her star power to sell tickets. When she discovers he’s secretly sleeping with young ingénue Lois Lane (Rachel Tolbert), who plays Bianca in the production, life imitates art as Lilli becomes every bit as mean as her character, torturing Fred in hilarious fashion onstage during the performance.
The plot is further complicated by Lois’s boyfriend Bill Calhoun (Luke Reddig), who also is in the show as Lucentio, losing $10,000 gambling but signing Fred’s name on the IOU. That brings two gangsters (Thomas Tong and Lily Lancaster) to the show intent on getting their money from the box office. When Lilli threatens to walk out on the show before the end of the first act, the gangsters are pressed into service as additional cast members to force her onstage and to perform.
There are other zany complications, and working through it all are Porter’s catchy, clever songs. The cast embraces the comic silliness of it all and is clearly having fun with it.
Geisler is fantastic as wounded Lilli. Her sarcastic delivery of insults to Fred, her secret hope they can one day get back together, her broken heart when she finds out he lied to her and her using her U.S. Army general boyfriend (Brian Duerksen) to make him jealous are all perfectly executed. Geisler knows when to be subtle and when to go over the top, and she is fun to watch. She also has a gorgeous soprano voice that is always exactly right for the song — playful in “Wunderbar,” both remorseful and hopeful in “So in Love” and hilariously angry in “I Hate Men.”
Dagrosa gets a slow start, but he soon catches up. He’s a little flat in his first two scenes, but, once he becomes Petruchio, he throws himself into the part with gusto. His scenes with Lilli once she discovers his treachery are the funniest in the show.
Some of his songs sound as though they are a little too low for him. He’s got a gorgeous tenor voice that really shines when he gets into his upper register, but he struggles on the low notes.
Likewise, Tolbert seemed to wrestle with her early scenes. “Why Can’t You Behave” is written for an alto, and it sounds as though her mezzo was a little high for it. But, in the second act, she stops the show with the playful and naughty “Always True to You in My Fashion,” enabling her to really show off her voice.
The rest of the cast offers exactly the right level of support. Duerksen is humorous as the brutish General Howell. Reddig hits the right notes as the put-upon boyfriend. Lancaster gives a picture-perfect comic portrayal as the Gangster Moll, and Michael Colman turns in an inspiring rendition of “Too Darn Hot.” The various storylines don’t all resolve satisfactorily, but the music, dancing and acting make “Kiss Me, Kate” fine, lighthearted summer fare.
Director John Staniunas elected to put the audience onstage, so they could be a part of the show as well. Between scenes (and sometimes during them) the revolve rotates, moving the audience to a different part of the stage. In the wrong hands, this gimmick could become tedious, but it’s not overdone and, consequently, works perfectly. Sets don’t have to be changed, and the actors are all in position and ready to go when the audience “arrives,” thereby expediting scene changes. The tactic ends up adding to the fun.
In the end, “Kiss Me, Kate” doesn’t really improve on Shakespeare, and it has some pretty large plot holes. But it’s so much fun and moves breezily from its spectacular opening number to its deliberately ironic conclusion one doesn’t mind. It is fine entertainment on a summer night that is “Too Darn Hot.”
Kiss Me Kate” runs July 18-21 at Stage Too! in Murphy Hall on the KU campus. The Sunday, July 21, performance is sold out. Tickets cost $10-$15 and are available by calling the box office at 785-864-3982 or online at kutheatre.com.