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Friday, October 24, 2014

What's the Matter with 'Carrie'?

The curiosity factor is high when it comes to Carrie: the Musical, whose status as a legendary flop still resonates. Its 1988 Broadway debut was met with scathing reviews, and it closed after only five performances with a loss of $7 million dollars. Since then, it's been revised, retooled and updated, but the question remains — "What's the matter with Carrie?"

The Woodlawn Theatre is hoping to answer that question with a production that preserves the essence of the story while peppering the script with modern references to texting and selfies. The familiar cast of characters is here — good girl Sue Snell (Megan McCarthy) and her all-star boyfriend, Tommy Ross (Cody Jones); mean girl Chris Hargensen (Alison Hinojosa) and her asshole boyfriend Billy Nolan (Walter Songer); Chris’s stooge, Norma (Tamara Brem); the compassionate gym teacher, Miss Gardner (Katie Benson); and, of course, Carrie White (Elise Pardue) and her fanatical mother, Margaret (Rebecca Trinidad).

As directed and choreographed by Christopher Rodriguez, Carrie looks and sounds good. Benjamin Grabill’s utilitarian set properly evokes a high school gymnasium, with sections of Carrie’s house on either side to serve as backdrops for key scenes at home. The five-piece band, under the direction of Josh Pepper, sounds great — and the vocal performances are fine.
Elise Pardue as Carrie

The problem lies within composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford’s score. When you’re working with such familiar territory as Stephen King's horror classic, you really need to bring your A-game. Alas, among the 20 songs in the show, only five or six of them really resonate. Too many seem to be treading water, as if they exist merely to fulfill the qualifications of a musical. And since special effects onstage are limited out of necessity, even more pressure is put on the performances to convey the drama.

Here again is where Rodriguez's production comes through. Pardue is fine as Carrie, morphing from timid geek to self-assured young woman with exceptional powers. Hinojosa and Songer are perfect as the high school couple you love to hate, and
McCarthy and Jones effectively represent the other side. Benson brings a lot of heart to the role of Miss Gardner, but it's Trinidad who really stands out as Margaret White. It certainly doesn’t hurt that some of the best songs in the show are given to her, and she delivers them with the emotion and ferocity that the piece needs much more of.
Pardue and Rebecca Trinidad

Carrie: the Musical plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through November 9th at the Woodlawn Theatre, 1920 Fredericksburg Road, San Antonio 78201. Tickets can be acquired online or by calling (210) 267-8388. There will also be a teen version of the show playing October 26-28 at 8 p.m.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Rocky Horror Hits Texas

Each October, the Woodlawn Theatre becomes home for RuPaul’s Drag Race stars as they participate in its annual production of The Rocky Horror Show. After 2012’s successful steampunk staging and last year’s S&M theme, the theater’s artistic director, Greg Hinojosa, has set the musical in a circus milieu this time around — and the results are terrific.

The carny atmosphere, with its colorful lights, garish make-up and general seediness, provides the perfect backdrop for the story of Frank N. Furter.

Having played Magenta last year, Drag Race judge Michelle Visage returns to the Woodlawn stage, this time doing some gender-bending in her portrayal of Riff Raff, cast alongside Season Six winner Bianca Del Rio as sinister sibling Magenta. Season Six runner-up Courtney Act joins the production for the first time this year as Frank, and it's more than just stunt casting. Both Act and Visage possess fine singing voices, and Act makes the most of the iconic role. Del Rio also captures the essence of the perverse Magenta while delivering the kind of campy comedy the audience expects to see.

Rocky Horror Show
Some Woodlawn vets are also returning in different roles this time around. Melissa Zarb-Cousin, who portrayed Janet for the past three years, is stepping into Columbia’s shoes. Sean Hagdorn, who played Riff Raff and Brad in the past, takes on the role of Eddie. Another former Riff Raff,

Matthew Lieber, squeezes into the gold lamé shorts this time to play Rocky. They all know their way around this show and therefore provide solid support.

Kurt Wehner and Carla Sankey capably handle the roles of squeaky-clean Brad and Janet, while Dave Cortez hams it up as the wheelchair-bound Dr. Scott. David Blazer is also fun as The Narrator, transformed into a carny barker in this new staging.

Speaking of staging, Wehner and Benjamin Grabill’s set looks great, evoking the feel of a small-town traveling carnival with a sinister edge. Hinojosa has designed an array of appropriately flamboyant costumes for the large cast, and everything sparkles under Chris Muenchow’s fine lighting. The performers are nicely choreographed by Sankey, and the aerial acrobats contribute to the atmospherics.

It’s always great to hear live music in a production such as this, and Hector Serna’s six-piece band provides solid backup for the singing. Alas, the singing was not always audible, as there were some opening night sound glitches which will hopefully be mended in future performances.

As a newbie to the Woodlawn Rocky Horror experience, I was impressed by this production, and I plan to make it a regular part of my Halloween season entertainment.

The Rocky Horror Show plays Thursdays at 8 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 11 p.m. at the Woodlawn Theatre, 1920 Fredricksburg Road, San Antonio 78201. Tickets can be acquired online or by calling the box office at (210) 267-8388.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Movie Review: 'Calvary'

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson
Calvary opens with Father James (Brendan Gleeson), the parish priest of a coastal Irish village, sitting in the confessional, listening. He's listening to the words of an unseen parishioner who tells him the shocking and heart-rending story of the sexual molestation he’d suffered at the hands of another priest from age seven until he was 12. When Father James suggests that he report it to the authorities or seek professional help, he is told that the guilty priest is long dead. The parishioner still wants his revenge, though, and announces his intention to murder Father James himself in a week's time. “There’s no point killing a bad priest,” he reasons. Murdering an innocent man would be far more dramatic, and it’s just what he plans to do.

Father James goes to the local bishop and tells him that he recognized the threatening man's voice, but refuses to break the sanctity of the confessional. Rather, he makes the decision to go about his normal pastoral work in the hopes of changing the mind o
f his would-be assassin. He tries to intervene when he sees that the promiscuous wife (Orla O’Rourke) of the village butcher (Chris O’Dowd) has been physically abused by either him or the immigrant (Isaach De Bankolé) she’s been seeing, but he is mocked and rebuked by them all. He also attempts to counsel a sexually inexperienced youth (Killian Scott) who thinks that his pent-up impulses would be more effectively released as a soldier in combat, but bristles when the priest suggests that there's something psychopathic about wanting to join the army in peacetime. Tact is obviously not one of the good Father's gifts.

Gleeson and Chris O'Dowd
When he reports the death threat to the local police inspector (Gary Lydon), who is just concluding a dalliance with the local male prostitute (Owen Sharpe), the officer is surprisingly disinterested. In fact, cynicism and antipathy are the general reactions Father James receives throughout the town, from the virulently atheistic doctor at the hospital (Aiden Gillen) to the local millionaire (Dylan Moran) who wants to use his ill-gotten wealth to buy his way into heaven. Even the priest's own daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), coming from London to recover after a botched suicide attempt, arrives with a suitcase loaded with hostility. Only the elderly American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) living out his last days in hermit-like seclusion, seems glad to see him, and that’s because he wants his help in obtaining a gun so that he may put himself out of his misery when his time comes.

Gleeson, who is onscreen for virtually the entire film, provides a masterful depiction of a man whose faith and compassion are profoundly tested. His facial expressions are deliberately kept to a minimum, but one can see the emotions working just below the surface. His interactions with the village's disbelievers and miscreants are marvelous, but his scenes with Reilly have a special resonance. One in particular — a cliffside stroll during which Fiona reveals her long-standing resentment for having been abandoned by both him and her mother (after she died, he joined the priesthood) — really hits home. “ I lost two parents for the price of one,” she laments, and his tender reaction is one of the film’s best moments.

And when a convicted serial killer and cannibal (played in a perversely fun bit of casting by Gleeson’s own son Domhnall) asks him to visit him in prison, the young man, rather than seeking repentance, explains that he just wanted “someone to talk to.” As he reminisces wistfully about watching the light going out of his victims’ eyes and feeling like God, Father James explodes, retorting “You’re not God; no — you’re not.” And when circumstances finally drive the priest to the very edge, Gleeson's meltdown is shocking and spectacular.

Writer-director John Michael McDonagh, who'd earlier teamed with Gleeson in 2011’s well-received The Guard, provides a scenario that succeeds in merging themes of faith and religion, the corruption of the church and the strange behavior of small, insular communities. And McDonagh’s decision to structure the film with a ticking-clock countdown to the fateful day is a wise one, giving it a drive that would otherwise be lacking in a story that is essentially a collection of character sketches. It’s far from a mere murder mystery, however — McDonagh is far more interested in the lives of these people than merely revealing "whodunit."

Enhanced by Larry Smith’s beautiful cinematography of the commanding Irish coastline, as well as Patrick Cassidy’s unobtrusive score, Calvary presents a powerful, mournful portrait of an earnest man of the cloth who continues to bear his cross in an atmosphere of increasing apathy and faithlessness.

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