Friday, May 5, 2017

The Theatre Guy

Many of you who read my posts every month know that for the past year-plus, most of my creative writing has been as a freelancer for a local tabloid newspaper. The majority of my stories have fallen under the general assignment banner, but since December I’ve been getting a lot of local theater assignments. By my count, there are at least four colleges in the Dayton area with active theater departments. There are also a few community theatre groups, and a couple of professional theatre companies. They all present plays throughout the season, and my paper feels an obligation to cover most of them.

This thing started when I did a favor for my editor. We have (or had) a wonderful theatre critic on staff, a nice lady named Jackie. Apparently, she had a medical mishap and had to beg off of an assignment she had committed to, so my editor contacted me a few days before opening night. I’ve long suspected that when these things happen, or there’s a story that no one else wants, she says “Offer it to Smith—he never turns down anything!” Sadly, she’s right. Apparently, I did too good a job with the first one, because that’s what I’ve been getting ever since. To me, a job is a job and it all pays the same, so who cares?

In the past few months, I have reviewed or previewed a dozen stage productions. Some were college, some were community, and one was the touring company of a Broadway play. I’ve seen some very talented performers in some very demanding roles, ones that made me wonder “Why isn’t this person doing professional theatre somewhere, or at the very least, dinner theatre, where they might get compensated?”

My assignments have ranged from the classics to musical/comedies. I had the pleasure of reviewing the Wright State University production of “The Children’s Hour” by Lillian Hellman. I hadn’t seen the stage production (only the so-so film adaptation with Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner), but I was familiar with the story. I was also blown out of my seat by the quality of the production and the performances. I was very impressed that a play set in 1934 could, with no changes, still be relevant today. The theme of malicious gossip and its effects on innocent people’s lives still resonates, and the cast delivered the goods.

“Elf: The Musical” was another pleasant surprise. This was done by a professional touring company, so my expectations were a bit higher. I wasn’t disappointed, and I called it an improvement over the original film. The fact that I didn’t care for the movie because I’m not a big fan of Will Farrell probably influenced my write-up. I also got to have a nice interview with the leading lady, a charming young woman whose name I can’t recall, but I may if I ever read it in association with a major production.

Speaking of screen-to-stage adaptations, I reviewed a community theatre production of “Xanadu.” You may recall the 1980 film starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly, which was a remake of a 1947 Rita Hayworth picture, “Down to Earth.” That was a musical adaptation of 1942’s “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” which was later remade in 1978 as “Heaven Can Wait” with Warren Beatty.

Got all that? Good.

Once again, I was pleasantly surprised, especially since the big finale production number was done on roller skates. Here’s what I wrote: “This is the first time I’ve ever seen an entire company perform an elaborate dance routine on roller skates without falling down. The same cannot be said of the last Ice Capades show I attended, so hats off to the cast for their agility.” Who says you can’t have fun writing reviews?

I also reviewed a college production of “9 to 5: The Musical,” based on the film starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. It had a brief run on Broadway in the early 2000’s, with awards going to Dolly Parton’s musical score. The show was, to put it mildly, great. This was one of those where I predicted future success for most of the theatre majors involved. Watching this performance, I totally forgot that I was sitting in a college theatre auditorium watching a cast of twenty-somethings, it was that good. The book and score were tops, too.

Speaking of unlikely stage musicals, how about this one: “The Toxic Avenger: The Musical.” You read that correctly. Someone actually made a stage musical/romantic comedy out of a gruesome B-movie cult horror flick that gained its following on cable TV. I muttered “You’ve got to be kidding!” when I picked up this one (again, because someone else bailed at the last minute, I suspect on purpose). Truth be told, it was one of the most fun evenings I’ve had at the theater in a long time. It’s a funny show with a great music score, and some hilarious dialogue and characters. It also makes a somber point about global warming and the environment.

When I’m not reviewing plays, I’ve been assigned to preview them. These are the “teaser” articles that appear before opening night to whet the public’s appetite to buy a ticket. My job with these articles is that of a PR person, one who hypes the product and whips the ticket buyers into a fever pitch so they’ll think that this is the must-see production of the season. I should do some business on the side.

Recently I did a couple for the University of Dayton’s theatre department. “Enmity of the People” was a re-imagining of Henrik Ibsen’s play “An Enemy of the People.” It was re-imagined by a warped mind at the UD Theatre Department who strongly believed that the whole thing would play out better as a puppet show, with minimal dialogue. I am not making this up, and thankfully I didn’t have to attend the performance. Loved the story, hated the concept.

Another UD performance held some promise. It was a presentation of three classic 1950’s radio plays. “Father Knows Best,” “Zero Hour” and “I See Myself Falling” were presented in their original format with live sound effects and the cast taking on multiple roles, just like they did on radio. It sounded like a fun show, and I wouldn’t have turned down tickets for that one.

I’ve noticed the trend of turning non-musical films into musical stage productions. I just completed a preview piece for one such adaptation, “Catch Me If You Can,” based on the Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio film. We’ve also been treated to musical stage adaptations of “Young Frankenstein,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Producers,” and the above -mentioned titles. I’m not certain what the rationale is behind this, and when I’ve asked theater people, they didn’t have an answer, either. I thought I had seen it all until I ran across this ad in the classifieds:

“Auditions are now being held for ‘Bonnie and Clyde: The Musical.’”

I hope I don’t draw that assignment.

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author whose books range from romantic mystery/thrillers to contemporary erotic romance. His website is www.timsmithauthor.com.


jean hart stewart said...

Rough life, Tim... seeing all that good stuff and getting paid for it. When you need an assistant let me know...

Tim Smith said...

LOL, Jean, and thanks! Those stories really are fun, and I didn't mean to imply that they aren't. And you're right--I do get to see some pretty good entertainment as part of the job.

Tim Smith