Curtain Calls

Review: 'The Rainbow'

{HEADLINE Controversial 1915 novel has much to say to 21st century audiences}
If nothing else, the cast of "The Rainbow" at Ann Arbor's Blackbird Theatre deserves a hardy round of applause for just going out there and giving it their all last Friday night.
With a presidential debate, light rain and hoopla surrounding the battle for the Little Brown Jug at U of M all happening that same night, the competition for butts in the seats was intense.
But the eight bodies in the audience – at least two of whom were critics and two were visitors from out of town – didn't deter the eight performers from maintaining the energy and quality one would expect if the house was packed to the rafters.
What's more, with a runway that splits the theater in half – and where most of the show's action takes place – the actors never played to only the folks scattered on either side of the stage. Instead, with sweeping grandeur, the show was presented to the masses. Even the imaginary ones.
So in the face of adversity – and disappointment, I'm sure – the cast – and crew – triumphed.
But what of the production itself?
Although not nearly as triumphant, "The Rainbow" is a creative and noble attempt by playwright and director Barton Bund to adapt the work of British novelist D.H. Lawrence for the stage. Tame by today's standards, "The Rainbow" kicked up a fuss when published in 1915, primarily because of its language and unpopular views on sexuality (including bisexuality) and feminism.
Lawrence's novel chronicles three generations of the Brangwen family, but much of the epic has been jettisoned. Instead, Bund wisely places his emphasis on Ursula – whose mother was the beloved stepdaughter of the family's patriarch – and her philosophical and sexual maturation. What back-story is needed Bund reveals through a modern-day version of a "Greek chorus" – that is, a group of actors that, together or individually, helps "fill in the blanks."
Adapting "The Rainbow" for the stage must not have been easy. Lawrence's prose is filled with biblical imagery, lush narratives and passionate internal contemplations – concepts that don't always translate clearly when condensed for the stage. Despite the obstacles, however, Bund succeeds fairly well with his adaptation.
As its director, however, Bund is slightly less successful.
Although often engaging, his production's overall concept fails to grip and retain the attention of its audience from start to finish. (Or maybe it's a "guy" thing: It seemed like it was the men who were restless last Friday night, more so than the women.)
Much of the story is revealed as if it's a royal pageant: Actors often enter and exit at the same pace; dialogue is delivered at the same metronomic rate. Match that with plenty of expository dialogue that has little action and the result is a tedium that sets in at various points throughout the evening.
Bund uses an ensemble of eight actors to tell his tale. But as the story requires 16 characters, all but two are called upon to play multiple roles. And that leads to the next problem.
Playing more than one character presents a challenge to an actor. Simply tossing on a head dressing or donning a different shirt does not a new character make. Distinct characters require well-defined and unique vocal qualities and mannerisms, something often missing in this production. As such, confusion reigns in the minds of the audience until dialogue -rather than the actors themselves – eventually identifies the players.
Most impressive in the cast is Dana Sutton who plays The Girl. Ursula is a blossoming young woman conflicted by the role society expects her to play and the life she thinks she prefers. It's a role of constantly changing emotions, and Sutton plays them all equally well.
All technical elements of the show are fine, particularly the music used throughout the show and during intermission. Whoever chose the music has superb taste!
"The Rainbow" Staged Thursday through Sunday by BlackBag Productions at the Blackbird Theatre, 1600 Pauline Blvd., Ann Arbor, through Oct. 24. Tickets: $5 – $17. (734) 332-3848.
The Bottom Line: A generally entertaining adaptation of a novel that covers way more territory than a 90-minute play can manage.

Review: 'How High the Moon: Sarah, Ella & Pops'
Jazz legends and their music get classy staging at Plowshares

Now THAT'S how jazz SHOULD be!
Or better yet, if you're going to do a musical about jazz, you can't do it much better than "How High the Moon: Sarah, Ella & Pops," a toe-tapping, finger-snapping production that opened last weekend courtesy of Plowshares Theatre Company.
If the title sounds familiar, it should: Plowshares premiered the Janet Choe musical last season and then moved it to Lansing's BoarsHead Theatre for yet another run. The show as originally staged was entertaining – and Linda Boston received a Wilde Award nomination for her dazzling performance as Ella Fitzgerald – but ultimately, a few flaws kept Choe's concept from being realized to its fullest potential.
But wow! What a difference a season makes!
Under the lively direction of Janet Cleveland (Choe's not-so-secret identity), this season's production has been partially re-rewritten, splendidly recast and infused with an infectious energy that could be felt throughout the audience from start to finish!
"How High the Moon" takes place in the Afterlife with Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recalling their careers. It's the greatest jam session that never took place, and it vividly serves as a crash course in the development of jazz from its roots in New Orleans to its heyday in the mid 1950s.
Short scenes reveal the artists' individual stories, but much of the production is a celebration of the music the legendary performers made famous. A four-man combo beautifully renders more than three dozen numbers – with a trumpeter named Armstrong, no less! – all of which are given life by a cast of six dynamic actors.
If there's a force to be reckoned with in this production, it's James Bowen who brilliantly captures the essence of Armstrong. Three numbers in particular display his considerable skills: "When the Saints Go Marching In," "When You're Smiling" – in which he definitely was NOT – and the crowd-pleasing "Mack the Knife."
A magnificent performance is also given by the gorgeous Jahra Michelle McKinney whose delicious voice gives body to the tunes of Ella Fitzgerald. Most notable are "Mr. Paganini" and "Misty."
Sheila Alyce, who plays Sarah Vaughan, also rocks the house, especially with "Lullabye of Birdland" and a knock-your-socks-off duet with McKinney, "That's Why the Lady Is A Tramp."
Three talented supporting actors play multiple roles. Especially notable is William J.G. McLin, the only actor held over from the original production, who understands how to create a unique personality for each character he plays.
"How High the Moon: Sarah, Ella & Pops" Staged Thursday, Saturday and Sunday by Plowshares Theatre Company at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren, Detroit, through Oct. 31. Tickets: $15 – $35. 313-872-0279.
The Bottom Line: A joyous celebration of a uniquely American style of music and its three brightest stars.


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