Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book of Mormon

        Can you enjoy a play but not like it? Can you learn from something you find repulsive?
         I had the opportunity to travel to Chicago over Memorial Day weekend and see The Book of Mormon. I went with my eyes open. I knew this was going to be very tongue in cheek the point of gagging.
         I knew I would be offended by the language, and I was. This is comedic cursing, using four-letter words not because they are appropriate to the context but because they aren't, and therefore it's funny. It's written by the same team that created the uber offensive animated series, South Park.
         Although the play lampoons organized religion, especially the Church of Latter Day Saints, it's actually more insulting to African cultures because the most offensive behavior is reserved for  the villagers who are being visited by LDS missionaries.
         But even in this context, I found little nuggets of truth in the story--the way Christians sometimes act like people ought to be able to ignore biological urges that go against the teaching of the church,  the way the message of salvation can sometimes seem irrelevant to current problems, and the way some Christian tales seem as conveniently  fictional as "Star Wars."
         I don't turn to musicals for religious teaching, but I believe all creativity emanates from a central fount of truth and inspiration. I think these creators were making fun of musicals as much as anything, and yet the songs are snappy and fun, the dancing was great, and the plot, though predictable, actually works pretty well. So I suppose enjoying it means I missed the point.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The new normal

One of my favorite children's books is Leo the Lop. My son Ryan and I often read this delightful story about a lop-eared bunny who wants desperately to have nice tall ears like the other bunnies. He feels defective because he's different. He tries all sorts of machinations to make his ears look like other bunnies' ears until he finally realizes that lop is normal for him.

Looking for Normal, the latest offering from Actors' Theatre, is the adult version of the same story. (See review) A man feels defective because he believes he is a woman trapped in a man's body. He decides to go through a sex change operation which reminds me so much of all the efforts Leo made to look "normal."

But unlike Leo who finally accepts himself as he is, the man in Looking for Normal goes through hormone injections, electrolysis and reconstructive surgery to make himself "complete." And that's nothing compared to what he puts his family through in trying to cope with their feelings for this man turned woman. The situation is a real test of love and friendship. The ultimate question is does gender really matter? Can you still hang out, drink beer and watch the game with dad if he's wearing a dress? Can your son still inherit the family farm if he's a she?  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dog Gone it!

Even a cute little blonde dressed in bright pink can be upstaged by a dog, even a little dog whose legs look too long for his body and whose pointy little ears keep flopping over. That was the lesson offered this week at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre's DISH.
      Breighanna Minnem, 19, of East Grand Rapids,  was dressed in hot pink from head to toe to welcome dishers and talk about the upcoming show, "Legally Blonde."  She'll be portraying Elle, a California Valley Girl who takes Harvard by storm to reclaim her man.  But Elle's purse-size pooch, CeZar demanded most of the attention at the DISH event, wrapping his pretty pink leash around the actress and eventually riding off on his owner's shoulders. In the play, CeZar will have to share the scene-stealing with Jake, his gigantic canine buddy with a tongue a big as CeZar. 
       The dogs are an important part of the story, Breighanna, says, because the story champions individual differences and accepting people, and dogs, just the way they are. 
       In recognition of the importance of pets, Civic will sponsor an Adopt-a-pet event on opening night, May 31, with representatives of the Humane Society bringing in kittens, dogs and various other "creatures" for audience members to adopt.  Don't worry, you don't have to take your new pet into the theater. That would be way too much upstaging. You can purchase the pet and pick it up at the Humane Society on Saturday.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The other shoe drops...

     Earlier this year I reported that my book, One Shoe Off, was in the running for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. In the semi-final round, however, trimming 100 mystery candidates down to five, One Shoe Off did not make the cut.  I thought I would keep the bad news to myself, but friends have been asking, so here's what the Publisher's Weekly reviewer had to say:

The prose is above average in this complex, ambitious novel, but the characters are too flat and the action is too episodic to hold a reader’s attention. Josie Braun, divorced mother of an eight-year old son, is city editor of the Jordan Daily News, a newspaper published in the Chicago suburbs in 1985. Josie and her colleague Ormand “Duke” Dukakis, a married reporter and recovering alcoholic with whom Josie had a brief affair the year before, investigate a murder discovered at the same time that veteran reporter Maggie Sheffield suffers a massive stroke. While conducting the investigation and helping to care for Maggie, Josie finds clues -- one being a woman’s distinctive red shoe -- that might solve the mysterious disappearance 30 years earlier of news editor Zelda Machinko, herself a crime investigator. As Josie learns more about Zelda, eventually even dreaming of her, Josie finds that the crimes of the present are linked to those of the past. Unfortunately, even though she appears in only a few flashback scenes, Zelda, with her refreshingly frank, sometimes cynical, and always snappy first-person narration, is a much more interesting character than the bland Josie, whose story is told in the third person. Moreover, Duke’s constant animal-centric exclamations such as “Walrus whoppers!” and “Pigeon paste!” are never as clever as the author seems to imagine, and quickly grow tiresome. One finishes this novel wishing that the author had told Zelda’s story instead of Josie’s, or at least given the scene-stealing Zelda equal time. 

   Obviously not a winning review, but not horrible either. In fact, as a reviewer myself, I have to agree that Zelda is definitely more punchy than Josie, though I'm not sure I'd want to build a series around her. So, there you have it friends. The other shoe.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Anything Goes!

The world has gone mad today
And good's bad today,
And black's white today,
And day's night today, 

Sounds  like a pretty good description of 2013 doesn't it? Well, would it surprise you to know that Cole Porter penned those lyrics about that wild and crazy time...1934?

Last night when I was reviewing the new Broadway Tour at DeVos Performance Hall, I couldn't help but enjoy the great lyrics in Porter's songs, his ridiculous rhymes as well as his amazing vision.

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now, God knows,
Anything Goes.

Good authors too who once knew better words,
Now only use four letter words
Writing prose, Anything Goes. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

The show goes on

I am constantly amazed at the talent in this town, and I've never been more amazed than this week seeing "The Wedding Singer" twice at Circle Theatre.
I went to Wednesday's dress rehearsal with my church group and then gladly returned Thursday to review. Such energy. Such powerful singing voices. How do they sing and execute those tricky dance moves at the same time? And the characters! Every cast member is a standout.

So I'm a little surprised that some of the cast members take exception to my review pointing out the extra challenge that was overcome in the execution of the opening number Thursday. I know things go wrong in every performance; things I never see; things of which the audience is blissfully unaware. But since I did notice that one of the performers was struggling with a "wardrobe malfunction",  why shouldn't it be mentioned?

The point is not that a problem arose; the point is that it was handled with such grace and professionalism.

I know performers deal with much bigger problems than a costume snag, so perhaps they don't think it's worth mentioning.  But it is in coping with ordinary realities, like wardrobe malfunctions, that we're able to connect on a very human basis.

Theater is about creating illusion, but why pretend those illusions happen without overcoming obstacles? This isn't the movies where you can stop the camera and reshoot the scene. Theater is real time. The actors and the audience breathe the same air in the same room. And if a real live dancer is able to maintain the illusion when her costume isn't cooperating, those real people in the real audience are real impressed.

Friday, May 3, 2013

It's none of your business

What would you do if you discovered a homeless woman living on your neighbor's porch? And what if that neighbor is a grouchy hermit who never comes outside or lets anyone in? And what if you discover that neighbor is hiding another woman with horrible scars all over her face?

It's starting to sound like one of those spooky Gothic mysteries by one of the Bronte sisters. But it isn't. It's a new play, "Four Wounded Women," by Grand Rapids playwright Mike Smolinski (who as a sidelight happens to be homeless himself right now as one of the residents evacuated from the flooded Plaza Towers).

Stark Turn Players premiered the show Thursday night at Dog Story Theater. With a raised stage in the corner,  warm period furnishings and a strong, experienced cast, the 90-minute show seemed much more like traditional theater than some one-weekend experiment in a 50-seat black box.

In writing my review for The Press last night, I got so caught up in groping with the questions brought up by the play that I barely mentioned the fine performances. Mary Brown is especially good as the awkward, fearful and witty Helen, the homeless woman. But there are also fine performances by Sherryl Despres as the assertive Meryl with an underlying neediness that's just below the surface; Teri Kuhlman as the irascible Ruth, who also has her soft side; and Kim Zoller as the delicate but damaged Joy who turns out to be just as protective of Ruth.  Every actor does a fine job from Elizabeth Schaub as the snippy paper carrier to Patrick Bailey as the thundering husband and, of course, Frank VanPelt as Sam, the sane, steady--and sorta sexy -- delivery man who goes beyond the call of duty in his concern for his customer.

Which brings me back to those questions. What would you do? Should you step in, call the police? Would that help or hurt? Or is it none of your business?