Arts & Entertainment
Review: 'Sarah, Ella & PopsÉHow High The Moon'
By Donald V. Calamia
Originally printed 2/12/2004 (Issue 1207 - Between The Lines News)
Well-executed comedy examines gender roles at Hilberry Theatre
In the farcical comedy "Lovers and Executioners" now playing in repertory at Detroit's Hilberry Theatre, playwright John Strand takes his audience back to 18th Century France to examine the role that gender played in the affairs of the world. It was an era in which the acceptable behavior of men and women were rigidly defined, yet it was also a time in which ancient traditions were starting to change.
And it was a period in which men wielded the political and legal power, but women could rule the swords of men - if you get my not-so-subtle drift!
In other words, the battle of the sexes was about to heat up!
Returning home late one evening, Bernard makes a shocking discovery: Another man is sneaking out of his bedroom. The devoted, yet devastated husband assumes the worst - his beautiful and loving wife is cheating on him - so he sets about to do what he believes is within his rights according to the law: he murders his wife. Bernard does not want to ruin either his or his wife's solid reputation within the community, however, so he claims she was lost at sea - her body was never recovered.
Three years later, Bernard decides to remarry - after all, the townsfolk are beginning to suspect that maybe he's not the man they thought he was. Bernard encounters two problems, however: The woman he's pursuing - Constance - has two other suitors.
And the so-called virgin has her eyes on the somewhat feminine Frederic!
Actually, there are four problems for poor Bernard, although he doesn't know it yet: Frederic is really his supposedly dead wife, Julie, who escaped the island on which she was abandoned.
And Octavius, the man who rescued Julie, is in love with her.
Sound complicated? Of course it is - it's a farce!
Julie, as you can imagine, is out for revenge.
Yet she's mystified about why Bernard wanted to end her life - he never gave her an explanation, nor did he allow her to defend his accusation.
So when given the power to right the wrong done against her, will Julie act like the man people believe her to be - or will her decision be guided by such feminine ideals as compassion and forgiveness?
Strand based his somewhat bawdy tale of swashbuckling and romance on a popular 17th Century French comedy, "The Wife, Judge and Accuser." It's a little bit Shakespeare with a touch of Moliere - yet with more than a few modern-day references to keep it fresh and timely.
And there's never a dull moment, thanks to the crisp staging of Guest Director David Hay.
In lesser hands, the script's rhythmic meter could prove deadly; instead, his vision and expertise breathed life into Strand's witty dialogue - and fleshed it out with the appropriate mix of humor and pathos.
But it is Hay's uniformly excellent cast of Hilberry favorites that shines in this oh-so-fun - and funny - production!
Andrew Huff plays Bernard with the perfect mix of regret and puffery, while Nikki Ferry's portrayal of Frederic and Julie is right on target.
Christi Marsico (Beatrice), Mike Anthony (Guzman) and Aaron T. Moore (Octavius) provide wonderful support; Jennifer McConnell lights up the stage every time she appears as the not-as-virginal-as reputed-to-be Constance.
However, it's Tony Bozzuto who stands out from the rest. It would be easy to turn the role of Don Lope, the third suitor for the hand of Constance, into nothing more than a cheap stereotype, but Bozzuto's Lope is a charming rogue who is true to his time and breeding. It's a perfect performance from start to finish!
All technical aspects of the production are equally top-notch.
"Lovers and Executioners" Performed in repertory Wednesday through Saturday at the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit, through March 13. Tickets: $12 - $20. 313-577-2972. http://www.theatre.wayne.edu/t_hilberry.html.
The Bottom Line: A little bawdiness never hurt anyone; in fact, it's downright entertaining!
Tribute has plenty of jazz but not enough pizzazz
Every once in a while an original production comes along that sounds like it can't be nothing less than a sure-fire hit.
In theory, "Sarah, Ella & PopsÉHow High The Moon" is one such show.
A co-production staged by Detroit's Plowshares Theatre Company and Lansing's BoarsHead Theater, this world premiere musical initially had an impressive pedigree: two celebrated directors (Gary Anderson and Geoffrey Sherman), a first time playwright with an extensive theatrical background (Janet Choe), a talented cast and a jazz quintet featuring the legendary Marcus Belgrave on the trumpet.
But things happened along the way - Belgrave had to cancel, for one - and what started on a high-note does not always live up to its potential.
That, too, is "Sarah, Ella & PopsÉHow High The Moon."
It's always a risk for a theater company to stage an untested, original production; some turn out better than others - no matter how hard the talented artists work on it.
And while "Sarah, Ella & PopsÉHow High The Moon" is not the slick production it could have been, it is still an entertaining look at the progression of jazz from its New Orleans' roots to the Bebop era of the 1950s.
Playwright Choe's script takes place in the afterlife where Jazz legends Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn now reside. It's also where one of the greatest jam sessions ever takes place, now on a nightly basis!
Choe uses the life stories of these three entertainers to compare and contrast the development of America's unique contribution to the world of music. It's a tale filled with colorful characters and amazing melodies, as well as heart-wrenching prejudice and record-shattering accolades.
A lot of territory is covered in two-hours, most of it quite well.
However, it's the occasional lack of detail where the script is somewhat flawed: Who exactly ARE some of the secondary characters, and when and where are certain events taking place? Such sketchiness might be fine for Jazz aficionados, but not for those with little or no knowledge of the characters' history and their past associations.
Also occasionally lost is the sense that "Sarah, Ella & PopsÉHow High The Moon" is a theatrical event, not a concert. Live theater is supposed to meld both the visual and the audial senses; in this production, however, the songs and the music take center stage.
The result, then, are long periods in which very little happens on stage to keep your attention focused. Sure, the soulful tunes are amazing - but audience attention spans are short. Some selective song trimming and additional stage business - especially for Lydia D. Willis who, as Sarah Vaughan, barely moves or sways while delivering her numbers - would prove helpful to the show.
The brightest spot of the evening is the spectacular performance given by Linda Boston. As Ella Fitzgerald (and a few secondary characters, as well), Boston has both the pipes to sing Fitzgerald's trademark songs and the chops to vividly portray the character's complexity. It's obvious she's having fun with her performance, and consequently, so do we!
Augustus Williamson has the unenviable task of recreating Armstrong's patented gravelly voice, and he does it well. (But will his vocal cords survive?)
William McLin is also fine playing many of the show's secondary characters. His most impressive feat is hitting probably the highest note of the eveningÉand it didn't seem to hurt a bit!
"Sarah, Ella & PopsÉHow High The Moon" Staged Thurs., Sat. & Sun. by Plowshares Theatre Company at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit, through Feb. 29. Tickets: $15 - $25. 313-872-0279. http://www.plowshares.org.
The Bottom Line: With some tweaks here and there, this moon could shine brightly for many years to come!