Magic captivates in Death & Harry Houdini

MIAMI -- It’s not every day that famed magician and escape artist Harry Houdini flings playing cards at you, interacts with you  and even calls you up as a volunteer to participate in one of his tricks.

Then again, it’s not every day that you witness a play as unique and engrossing as “Death & Harry Houdini.” This combination of enthralling magic, mood-capturing music performed by the actors, daring stunts, suspense and at least a semblance of a story has returned to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County’s Carnival Studio Theater after a sold-out run in 2012.

This co-production with The House Theatre of Chicago is playing on the nearly 200- seat Susan Westfall Playwrights Stage through May 21.

Vivid sound effects and varied, intense lighting contribute to the suspense that will grab your attention, while stage fog reinforces the mystery surrounding Houdini’s character and his death-defying feats.

Tickets may disappear faster than Houdini can make a goldfish vanish and re-appear, as he does in this show, which is part circus, part magic show and part play, all wrapped up in a kind of modern-day Vaudeville piece.

The acts of magic look so natural that it’s impossible to offer even a remote guess as to what the “secrets” are.

But as impressive as the magic is, Houdini has more on his mind in this play, penned and directed by The House Theatre of Chicago Artistic Director Nathan Allen.

The master escapist (March 24, 1874-Oct. 31, 1926) is out to humble death, which stalks him as he performs his dangerous feats. To quote the title of a poem by John Donne, “Death, be not proud,” for Houdini doesn’t fear you. And as boldly played by a fast-talking Dennis Watkins, who invests the character with charisma, confidence and urgency, we come to feel like death’s no match for us, either.

Still, you’ll cringe when Watkins is lowered into the Chinese Water Torture Cell. The concern grips you as his feet are locked in stocks, he’s suspended in mid-air from his ankles with a restraint brace and he’s lowered into a glass tank overflowing with water. To top it all off, the restraint is locked to the top of the cell. Throughout all this, Watkins appears as comfortable as though he were taking his daily shower.

That’s hardly the case for Houdini’s brother, Theo (an overly-protective, uptight Shawn Pfautsch), who worriedly urges Harry not to perform this daring stunt, citing facts that would suggest Houdini won’t survive, much less escape. This conflict between Harry and Theo (Harry will hear none of Theo’s worrying), helps to create tension for the somewhat flimsy plot.

The story also includes a ringmaster (a highly enthusiastic and attention-grabbing Johnny Arena), Harry’s love interest, Bess (a charming and devoted Emjoy Gavino) and a touching scene in which Harry demonstrates his intense love for his mother, Cecilia (a confused-looking Markia Mashburn, who makes her character seem frustrated at her inability to speak or understand English.)

Cecilia’s death drives Harry to want to defeat death, who appears in human form in the person of actor Tommy Rapley, clad in dark clothes, a dark mask and making motions with his arms, as though casting a spell.

Rapley may look creepy, but as we’re reminded  death is not the end of life – it’s the absence of it, and magicians know they can make something absent re-appear. Hence, we should be less fearful of it.

As an audience member, you’ll need to overcome stage fright; there’s a good chance Watkins will point at you and ask you a question, or call you up to, for instance, check to ensure there are no problems with restraints.

Thanks to Watkins’ vivid portrayal, we get a sense of Houdini’s motivation to perform such daring acts and the type of person he might have been.

Overall, this is an all-around strong production. There are times when actors speak over sound effects or music, making it hard for us to hear them. But the breathtaking magic, performed seemingly so effortlessly as well as the energy and acting skills of this House Theatre of Chicago company, more than make up for the shortcomings.

 “Death & Harry Houdini” continues through May 21 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing A0rts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., downtown Miami. For tickets, call (305) 949-6722 or visit www.arshtcenter.org.

Slow Burn Theatre Company's 'Aida' contains emotional depth

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- “Love Transcends Death” is a poem by Naoimh Spence, but it’s also a powerful premise in several theatrical shows, including “Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida,” a heartfelt, touching tale of honor, loyalty and forbidden love which is receiving a remarkable production by the Carbonell Award-winning, Ft. Lauderdale-based Slow Burn Theatre Company to end its 2016-17 season.

Those mid-production standing ovations heard during a recent performance were well-deserved.

The production, under Patrick Fitzwater’s sensitive direction and smart staging, features a depth of palpable, authentic emotion that renews our belief in the power of live theater to viscerally move us in ways that film and television cannot.

Slow Burn Theatre Company has found a star shinning as bright as a supernova in Kahlifa White, who plays the title role in this early 2000s musical, originally produced by Disney Theatrical Productions and the winner of four 2000 Tony Awards.

White’s vocal power and ability to convincingly and seemingly effortlessly convey a range of emotions is evident in this tale of a Nubian princess sold into slavery and forced to choose between allegiance to her people and devotion to the Egyptian soldier whose country enslaved them.

You especially sense the devotion Aida and her fellow countrymen and women feel about their homeland in the song “The Gods Love Nubia,” a Gospel-flavored anthem. The actors’ eyes are shut tight and their arms are extended, as though they’re in the midst of intense prayer, being moved involuntarily by a spirit neither we nor they could see if they opened their eyes. There’s a “Les Miserables”-like sense of solidarity and passion during the performance of this number; you get the feeling these enslaved people love their country with such fervor, they’d gladly die for it.

With tender voices, at least one gentle kiss, and soft caresses, White and the Egyptian soldier, Radames (an excellent Stephen Millett) also convince us their love is something special. In the end, a la "West Side Story's" Tony and Maria, not even the threat of death can break them apart. In fact, it strengthens their bond. Radames’ words soon before the final curtain are some of the most powerful one will hear in theater.

If I have to search through a thousand lifetimes I will find you.

The line is spoken with touching sincerity by Millet. He excels all around in the role, at first fiercely menacing and dictatorial, later imbuing Radames with a rebellious streak and then his toughness melting into sincere, soft but forbidden love for Aida.

That sense of love is also evident in “Written in the Stars,” a song that reached No. 2 in the Billboard U.S. adult contemporary charts – and No. 1 in the Canadian contemporary charts.    

In addition to her strong capacity to love and her purity, part of what endears us to Aida is her devotion, her effect on people and assertiveness.

White’s Aida stands tall, defiant, with an inner strength and pride which never turns into arrogance.

At one point, before they fall in love, Aida’s tasked with scrubbing Radames’ back. She’d already proven her resolve by breaking free from the chained slaves, grabbing a sword and threatening Radames.

The following exchange comes while Aida is scrubbing Radames’ back.  

Radames: You’re much better with a sword than a sponge.

Aida: I wish I had a sword now!

White says this line forcefully and without a moment’s hesitation. We feel happy for this royal woman, unjustly stolen from her country, chained up as a slave, but a daring woman ahead of her time – one who won’t stand to lose her dignity or that of her country.

During another scene, White’s Aida walk ahead of a servant ordered to take her somewhere. She takes off before him and the servant is forced to run to catch up. We can’t help but admire the chutzpah of Aida.

White also deftly conveys a more vulnerable aspect of her character in the song “The Past is Another Land” in which she sings of a painful realization.

The past is now another land
Far beyond my reach
Invaded by insidious
Foreign bodies, foreign speech
Where the timeless joys of childhood
Lie broken on the beach

The present is an empty space
Between the good and bad
A moment leading nowhere
Too pointless to be sad
But time enough to lay to waste
Every certainty I had

The future is a barren world
From which I can't return
Both heartless and material
Its wretched spoils not my concern
Shining like an evil sun
As my childhood treasures burn

But the indomitable quality of this remarkable woman still shines through in the song:

You’ve plundered our wisdom

Our knowledge, our wealth

In bleeding us dry, you long for our spirit

But that you will never possess.

The song is part of John and Rice’s Rock-pop-infused score, featuring emotional ballads and vivacious choral numbers.  

“Aida” is blessed with two strong female characters, the other being Amneris, princess of Egypt, daughter of the Pharoah and Radames’ fiance.

Along with Radames, Amneris undergoes a big emotional change –thanks in part to Aida, who has the capacity to better others. Amy Miller Brennan deserves kudos for seamlessly transitioning from a self-absorbed, narcissistic, sarcastic, bratty princess to one of caring sensitivity. In the beginning, Brennan enunciates with just the right tone to ensure her biting sarcasm lands like a dart in the chest of Aida. As the production progresses, Brennan’s tone softens and becomes more sympathetic, conveying a sense of mercy while retaining an air of authority when she sentences Aida and Radames to death.

Amneris opens the musical, singing the memorable “Every Story is a Love Story.” There’s a mysterious, almost otherworldly quality to the song, setting the tone for the fantasy. The non-realism is enhanced by lighting designer Thomas M. Shorrock, who bathes the stage with a variety of colors, some appropriate, some questionable, and sharply focuses the performers.  

The musical opens in a modern-day museum, designed stately with tall columns by scenic designer Sean McClelland, whose handsome sets convey majesty. Within the museum, ancient history comes alive. The story flashes back to ancient Egypt before ending in the present-day museum.

"Aida" comes full circle as reality touchingly interweaves with fantasy.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “Aida”

WHEN: Through May 7. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Broward Center for the Performing Arts’ Amaturo Theater, 201 S.W. 5th Ave., Ft. Lauderdale.

HOW MUCH: $47-$60. Call (954) 462-0222 or log onto www.browardcenter.org or ticketmaster.com.

 

 

 

Touring 'Matilda' is a theatrical experience to remember and cherish

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. --  You can associate any one of many ferocious animals with the formidable, fiendish, she-devil of a school headmistress, Agatha Trunchbull, in renown author Roald Dahl’s beloved tale “Matilda.”

But it’s safe to say we all become mother bears whenever we watch adults – particularly of the immature, bratty, foolish, irrational and mean-spirited variety – mess with children.

And when those “revolting” youngsters are actually more mature, wise and ethical, we’ll always gladly side with the youth -- and revolt with them.

Audiences across the country are no doubt rooting for Crunchem Hall’s indomitable students. These fictional children are traveling on an equity national tour of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s mesmerizing production of “Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical.”

The stage musical, based on Dahl’s classic novel, is running through May 7 at Ft. Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts before playing venues in other cities.

The show, which has taken the stage in various parts of the world, including London’s West End and Broadway, has won 50 international awards, including the Tony. It ran for 1,555 performances on Broadway, closing Jan. 1 of this year.

It’s not a musical without flaws. Still, it combines eye-popping spectacle, catchy songs, clever, witty, lyrics and a poignant story. The result is invigorating, riveting and touching theater.  

Under director Matthew Warchus, the child actors marvelously match the intense, realistic performances of the adult cast members in movement, gestures and spoken words, which seamlessly segue into song. The cast, wearing character-defining costumes designed by Rob Howell, sing impressively, backed by a live orchestra. The only downside: sometimes the orchestra drowns the actors out, making lyrics hard to understand. Cast members skillfully execute Peter Darling’s choreography, which tells the story as much as the spoken and sung words.

Audience members on opening night Tuesday were treated to the fearless, commanding performance of Gabby Gutierrez, who shares the title role with two other girls.

Gutierrez endows Matilda Wormwood with an intensity, confidence, fearlessness and conscience you don’t see from many adults. The young actress demonstrates remarkable stage presence and has obviously internalized her role thoroughly.

As good as she is, early on in the production, there’s room for improvement. Her Matilda, at first, is so straightforward, unsentimental and armed with such confidence, the performance imparts a bit of arrogance. Of course, to portray Matilda as overly sweet and cute would be to misinterpret the role. Still, you couldn’t help but wish for just a tad of innocence, curiosity and a sense that books and knowledge bring joy to Matilda. We get a sense of those feelings as the production progresses.

Altogether, the loud ovation Guiterrez received during her curtain call was well-deserved on opening night of the Ft. Lauderdale run. By the end of the musical, you wanted to wrap this special little girl in your arms, just like the aptly-named teacher Miss Honey (a sweet, loving, determined Jennifer Bowles) does after the foolish Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood leave behind their daughter.

It’s hard to understand how anyone would want to do that; we know somebody like Matilda. OK, so maybe your young acquaintance or friend doesn’t possess telekinetic powers and isn’t a 5-year-old who reads “Crime and Punishment.”

Perhaps your neighbor’s a small girl who’s a child prodigy, but her talent is ignored by her insensitive, uncaring and selfish parents, who aren’t fit to be a mother and a father. Maybe she’s a gifted child whose folks refuse to place her in advanced classes because it’s their way or no way.

Dahl (Sept. 13, 1916-Nov. 23, 1990) would be far from so stubborn if he had the chance to witness musical book writer Dennis Kelly and composer and lyricist Tim Minchin’s faithful adaptation. It follows the plot closely enough to satisfy “Matilda” fans, while featuring changes that enhance the mystery of Matilda and her unbelievable abilities. The adaptation honors signature Dahl’s dark, twisted humor, which might be a little overboard for wee little ones. But the young and young at heart will probably appreciate the striking visuals, while adults and older youth should value the lessons of tolerance and acceptance retained from the novel.

One of the drawbacks of the stage show is that Matilda repeats the words “that’s not right” so often we grow tired of hearing it after a while. Surely a brilliant girl like Matilda can convey that same message using different words.  

Matilda is a girl who adores stories. So what better way to depict her character than to have her not just read adult books (like she does in the novel), but tell a story. In the musical, she does just that, with librarian Mrs. Phelps (a riveted, child-like Keisha T. Fraser) listening.

Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design, perhaps just a bit overdone, nevertheless deftly captures the mood and intensity of a scene, as well 1as the fantastical elements of the tale. Simon Baker’s dark and foreboding sound effects enhance the effect. 

The sound effects are particularly effective during scenes involving Trunchbull. In the novel, Dahl paints a portrait of an over-exaggerated character who is almost impossible to depict on stage. Dahl portrays her as some vile, beastly alien-like monster that makes our suspension of disbelief a challenge, even knowing that “Matilda” is a fantasy. 

In this production, Dan Chameroy (most if not all actors portraying Trunchbull have been men) is so vile that he makes Trunchbull earn our hate. His child-despising Trunchbull makes Miss Hannigan from “Annie” seem like a girl scout adviser of the year.

Like a slithering, silent, poisonous serpent or a lioness stalking her prey, Chameroy’s Trunchbull sneaks up on the students (she calls children “maggots”).

Chameroy, sporting a pigtail that is erect in the middle of his head, shouts thunderously, “You!” as he shoots a finger at a student to call on him or her. Menace drips from Chameroy’s voice, even when he speaks in understated, sly tones. And then there’s his ferocious, guttural “How dare you?!?” after Matilda talks back to “The Trunchbull.” That’s not a wise idea; this woman competed in hammer throw, shot put and javelin in the British Olympics. Misbehave, and she just might pick you up by the ear, spin you around and throw you some 100 yards over a fence.

One weakness in Chameroy’s performance is that when Matilda finally gets the best of this beast, the pay-off to which we feel we’re entitled isn’t entirely satisfying. The Trunchbull merely runs off, supposedly scared, without conveying hysteria. We want to see her suffer, tortured, just as the children must have felt when she locked them in the “Chokey” – a dark, narrow cupboard with spikes in the walls and nails sticking up from the floor.

A stark contrast to that claustrophobic, nightmarish space is beautifully conveyed in the song “When I Grow Up.” During the number, the children sit or lie on their stomachs on moving swings, looking forward to their adult years.

The children sing as they swing freely, as though happily into their future. The melody is optimistic and serene, mirroring their relaxed state.

 The song seems out of place; it doesn’t flow naturally from the preceding dialogue. “When I Grow Up” would work perfectly if it’s sung after a child is locked in the chokey.

Matilda’s parents are played by Matt Harrington and Darcy Stewart as laughable, cartoonish nitwits who convey exasperation and angry annoyance at Matilda. As Mr. Wormwood, Harrington brings to mind actor Daniel Stern in “Home Alone,” only with a British accent. Think of Stewart’s Mrs. Wormwood as a combination of one of Cinderella’s stepsisters and Lily St. Regis in “Annie.”

The couple are likely jealous because Matilda’s so smart. Her brain comprehends complex concepts and operates at a much faster pace than others.

Minchin has said that he tried to put audiences inside Matilda’s head; for every one thought we have, she has 10 at the same time, he noted in a video.

Matilda’s complex mind is suggested in Rob Howell’s set, which features a proscenium of blocks, each featuring letters, some spelling out “Matillda.” At various times, the “curtains” of blocks come together, as though Matilda is assembling a complex puzzle.

Whatever she’s doing, you can’t help but admire and pull for this little girl who sprung from Dahl’s vivid, imagination. 

For more information about tour stops, ticket prices and venues, log onto http://us.matildathemusical.com/tour/engagements/

 

Could Beckett's world in 'Godot' be a preview of a bleak future world?

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- With a Trumpian America in full swing, and the resulting uncertainty, fear and dread of many citizens, not just those of the U.S., perhaps it’s time to look at the much-analyzed and confounding “Waiting for Godot” through a dystopian, futuristic lens.

Seeing Samuel Beckett’s 1953 existential masterpiece through such a prism is no doubt bleak and pessimistic. Then again, Beckett explores, among other things, futility in his play – a work that has probably left many foreheads bearing at least a drop of blood as critics and theatergoers scratched their heads in search of meaning and purpose in a work about a couple of tramps, well, searching for meaning and purpose in a universe seemingly devoid of them.

These thoughts came to mind during a recent performance of the current fine production of Beckett’s enigma of a play. It’s on-stage at Evening Star Productions’ extremely intimate Sol Theatre in Boca Raton, Fla. through May 7.

As you watch a superb Skye Whitcomb in the role of Pozzo command his slave with menace and glee like a Civil War-era slave master, it’s hard not to draw parallels to what many may fear will become of this country.  

Set designer Ardean Landhuis’s dark, dreary landscape sets the scene for such a place – one in which people believe they’ve lost all purpose, usefulness and sense of time and place. The set suggests decay and deterioration, commonly found in Beckett’s work. In one spot stands a filthy brick wall sporting what looks like some sort of dried up yellow stain dripping down. The wall is cracked, the background is black and what resembles a ladder and a board is upside down, suggesting a topsy-turvy, disorderly universe. This production, however, could use some foreboding sound effects to further reinforce the darkness and dreariness.

If Christopher Mitchell’s ironically-named Lucky is anything resembling a person living in a future century, many living today might be glad they won’t be around to witness such a sight.  Mitchell’s Lucky resembles a person, or perhaps a creature such as something out of Frankenstein’s lab, who hasn’t eaten, drank or bathed in months. He pants and snorts at such a rapid pace, you fear Mitchell, himself, will hyperventilate at any second. This “Lucky” man or creature can barely stand up, in stark contrast to Skye Whitcomb’s strong, commanding, ruthless Pozzo, whom we’re told is on his way to market to sell the pathetic being. Thoughts of an era of slavery repeating itself might repeatedly poke at our minds to the point that we feel rattled. Indeed, a March 3, 2017 Washington Times article reported that faculty at a university “mentioned student suicides (after Trump’s election) before requesting venues for quiet conversations and easy access to websites dedicated to preserving freedom.”

Yet for all the darkness inherent in Evening Star Productions’ “Waiting for Godot,” directed with sensitivity and an attention to detail by Rosalie Grant, laughter is audible throughout the audience. The contrast between lightness and darkness, hope and despair, with hope winning out at the end, is part of what has endeared so many to the play. Its multiple interpretations and layers of meaning was, no doubt, a factor in “Godot” being named one of the most significant plays of the 20th century.

The play made its debut in France in 1953 and had its American premiere at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in South Florida in 1956.

 This “Godot” has many comedic moments, many of them coming courtesy of the deft physical comedy and verbal humor between tramps Vladimir (Lito Becerra) and Estragon (Seth Trucks). Just watching them, to borrow lyrics from “A Drowsy Chaperon,” “stumble, bumble, fumble, plumble” across the stage, jump on each other’s backs, wrestle with each other as well as with Pozzo and Lucky, represent the kind of slapstick, low comedy of the highest order here, that results in knee-jerk laughter. There’s a moment in the play when a suddenly vibrant and drill sergeant-like Pozzo gives way to a blubbering mess while a formerly piteous Lucky suddenly takes on the look of a ready-to-pounce, confident wild animal. The change happens so abruptly and seamlessly that it drew hearty laughs during the reviewed performance on Sunday. Our allegiances, too, suddenly and seamlessly shift from the slave to the master.

Of course, it’s hard to tell just who is who and what their purpose is in the plotless “Godot,” which leaves many questions unanswered and much fodder for discussion and thought. Who, for instance, is the mysterious boy (11-year-old Carsten Kjaerulff, demonstrating impressive naturalness even while nailing the youngster’s politeness and timidity). He claims to work for Godot. But how did he end up with the enigmatic being, or figure, or thing, or whatever? Are there two boys or one?

We know nothing about the background of the boy as well as that of Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky. The question on everybody’s mind is, likely, who or what is Godot? Beckett has insisted that Godot isn’t God, yet one cannot help think otherwise, since the first three letters spell “God.”

But whoever or whatever Godot is or stands for, the name symbolizes hope. As lonely, lethargic, sad, and defeated Vladimir and Estragon appear, they never lose a sense of hope. That is never more evident in the production than when Vladimir and Estragon (a nebbish of a forlorn, shaking, fearful fellow, as played by Trucks) literally lean on each other, place their arms around each other and comfort each other whenever they’re about to give up. They are, forgive the cliché, each other’s rock. No matter how bleak their situation, Vladimir (as astutely played by Becerra, he’s the more optimistic, reassuring, vivacious and thoughtful/philosophical tramp) ensures that the two forge ahead and continue to believe Godot will, in fact, come.

But then there’s the waiting. What are they to do until then? That’s where all the jokes, physical comedy and games come in. The two men, Vladimir in particular as portrayed by Becerra, is quite resourceful when it comes to finding ways to pass the time. You only wish you had this Vladimir’s company when you were stuck in bed, sick with the flu for weeks, or in that blizzard, with the power out for weeks, and, in the play’s opening words spoken by Estragon, “nothing to be done.”

Becerra and Trucks demonstrate equal skill at conveying despair and delight with their silly antics, of which there are aplenty. Their deft comic timing is on display when, for example, they play a game of trying to one-up each other as they hurl insults. A rapid fire of exchanges dart out of their mouths, building toward a crescendo, when the last, most hurtful insult is hurled.

Vladimir: Moron!

Estragon: Vermin!

Vladimir: Abortion!

Estragon: Morpion!

Vladimir: Sewer-rat!

Estragon: Curate!

Vladimir: Cretin!

Estragon: Crritic!

It’s easy to be critical of the state of today’s world and fearful of what the future holds. It may, indeed, resemble the decaying, hopeless universe depicted on the Sol Theatre stage. But Beckett seems to say that as long as we each have our “Godot” to hope for,  and each other to lean on, living will be at least tolerable.

WHAT: “Waiting for Godot,” by Samuel Beckett

WHEN: Through May 7

WHERE: Sol Theatre, 3333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton

HOW MUCH: $30 and $20 for students. Call (561) 447-8829 or visit www.eveningstarproductions.org.