ABEs: West End Theatre District innovates
Prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shutdown, some Lehigh Valley regional theaters were able to stage plays and one theater was able to stage a musical as 2020 wound down.
Here is my overview of some of the best area stage shows that I reviewed for the Lehigh Valley Press Focus section. Three of the productions were presented in Allentown’s West End Theatre District or its vicinity.
The Pennsylvania Playhouse kicked off the new year 2020 in February with a memorable production of Neil Simon’s masterful Tony-Award-winning “Biloxi Blues.”
The play was expertly directed by Gary Boyer, himself an actor and a frequent play director at the Playhouse. He created a cohesive and high-quality collaboration in all the creative and technical aspects of the play.
Boyer’s casting of the seven male and two female players was spot-on. The results were convincing portrayals of the characters who found themselves in complex and highly emotional situations, but were able to maintain the innate humor in the script.
Jack Miller (Eugene) was engaging as the coming-of-age recruit thrust into a barracks of disparate privates facing a sobering future. He was a narrator of sorts, standing in the stage spotlight each time he revealed the observations he had written in his journal.
Miller captured the naiveté of Eugene on the brink of growing up. His facial expressions are a reflection of who he “is” and his reactions at any given time.
The central character in “Biloxi” was played sensitively by Cody Jackson as the harassed Arnold Epstein, who started out as everybody’s victim, but wound up turning the tables. In his character’s journey, Jackson struck just the right balance between resignation and renewal.
On another level, Brian Keller as Drill Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey had a tough part to play because he had to be at once motivator, counselor and mentor to his soldiers, and dreaded taskmaster, demanding unquestioned obedience. He also had to deal with his own demons. Keller did a commendable job of handling the conflicting nuances of Toomey’s character.
CIVIC THEATRE OF ALLENTOWN
The Lehigh Valley premiere of “The Humans” at Civic Theatre of Allentown hit a little too close to home as it peeled away the layers of a typical family’s relationships and issues, and left the audience wondering what it had just experienced.
The one-act drama written by Stephen Karam and recipient of a Best Play Tony Award featured members of a dysfunctional middle-class Scranton family, the Blakes, who were meant to represent more than just members of an ordinary family with problems. They were more symbolic than real, intended to embody all “Humans.”
Civic Theatre Associate Artistic Director-Production Manager Will Morris, who directed the play, did an insightful job of guiding his actors through the transition from the ordinary to the symbolic, from the well-known to life’s painful secrets, all with an artful touch of the supernatural.
Pat Kelly was commanding in his role as the father, who evolved from a seemingly content family man to a failure overcome with despair. His wife, played realistically by Sue Sneeringer, hid her pain and strain beneath jokes and outbursts of biting sarcasm.
The most compelling acting performance was given by Becky Engborg as Momo, the wheelchair-bound grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease. With little movement and the ability to utter only indiscernible sounds, Momo’s presence on stage was a constant reminder of the frailty of human existence.
MUNOPCO MUSIC THEATRE
MunOpCo Music Theatre’s production of “Gypsy,” the fabled 1959 musical very loosely based on the relationship between stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and her controlling backstage mom, was a first-rate production directed by Daniel Petrovich.
When the curtain opened, the audience was treated to a colorfully-costumed throng of delightful children who continued to delight throughout the show. The news kids (Noah Green, Khylah Eure, Rowan Urich and Jaxx Valenzuela) deserved special mention for their boundless exuberance.
Julie Valenzuela was dynamic as Mama Rose. She belted out her quintessential “Every Things Coming Up Roses,” but played on your heart strings in “Rose’s Turn.” She mastered her character in every respect.
The squeaky-voiced Baby June (Emily Noel Bellfy), Mama Rose’s youngest daughter, entreated the audience to “Let Me Entertain You” while twirling and twisting and doing splits. She was charming, but her vaudeville act with the other youths was intentionally so bad that it was very funny.
Jillian Rossi was engaging as the older Louise, who becomes stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. She evolved convincingly from timid daughter to independent woman. She was moving when singing “Little Lamb,” and heart-rending when she discovers, “I’m pretty, momma.” She shone on the runway and in her conflict with Mama Rose.
Veteran actor Robert Calder was an ideal Herbie, the long-suffering, unrequited suitor with whom the audience couldn’t help but sympathize.
Strippers Tessie (Beth Sucro), Electra (Christine Ebert) and Mazeppa (Bethe Hoppes) were laugh-riots with lots of bumps and only a few grinds.
PINES DINNER THEATRE
The Pines Dinner Theatre’s Christmas musical, “At the Stroke of Midnight,” with original book, music and lyrics by the multi-talented Pines owner-producer Oliver Blatt, was by far the best original musical and Christmas show staged at the Pines in recent years.
The play, set in a small town in England, had a decided Dickensonian flair, but with a lot of its own creative twists and turns, including romance.
The Scrooge-like character, William Hawthorne (Kristofer Wills), is an overworked clockmaker whose aversion to Christmas provides a difficult challenge to overcome. Unlike the protagonist in “A Christmas Carol,” instead of ghosts, Hawthorne was surrounded by seven delightful human characters who took up the challenge.
Topping the list was the town lamplighter Bob Barking (Nathaniel Barber), who acted as a charming narrator. He set a lively tone for the show in his opening solo “At the Stroke of Midnight,” and he stayed upbeat as he delivered the message that “something magical is happening here.”
He was right. There was real magic happening on stage with an impressive eight-member ensemble that was well-balanced vocally and maintained a high level of energy from curtain up to lights down. The highpoint of their performances was the spirited dance number “Feast Day,” in which as town residents they got to enjoy some seasonal frivolity.
Besides providing adequate performance space, the scenic design is intended to help create mood and ambiance. The set for “At the Stroke of Midnight” featured gas street lamps outside and interior spaces designated by movable back walls. It had a very finished, 19th Century look and feel to it. It was definitely one of the Pines’ classiest sets ever.
Underscoring all the other pluses in the performances and production of “At the Stroke of Midnight” was Blatt’s beautiful musical score, orchestrated and arranged by Stacy Bechtel.