Curtain Calls

Review: 'Bright Beach Memoirs'
JET closes season with 'memorable' Neil Simon comedy

There's a risk directors take whenever they hire adults to play teenagers in shows such as "Brighton Beach Memoirs." More often than not, it seems, the grown-up actors look too old to be believable in their roles. Or worse, they ACT too old.
So I approached the Jewish Ensemble Theatre's current production of the Neil Simon classic comedy with some trepidation. However, it didn't take long for my concerns to evaporate on opening night!
The Neil Simon comedy is the first of a semi-autobiographical trilogy that follows Eugene Morris Jerome as a 15-year-old Jewish boy in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach to, ultimately, a career as a sketch writer on a national radio show. Part one takes place in 1937, a time when American families were both struggling to recover from the Great Depression and debating what role the country should play in Europe's political turmoil.
But for young Eugene, it was the year his raging hormones appeared – and thoughts of his live-in 16-year-old cousin Nora took a decidedly different track!
Nora, her younger sister Laurie and their widowed mother Blanche moved in with Eugene's family three years earlier, and tonight, pretty much everyone in the house has a need to talk with Eugene's father, Jack: Elder son Stanley stood up for his principles at work and will be fired the next day if he doesn't write a letter of apology to his boss; Nora has a chance to audition for a Broadway musical, but Blanche doesn't know whether or not she should allow that to happen; and mother Kate wonders how they'll feed all seven mouths now that Jack's second job is gone.
And that covers only a part of what happens in the plot-packed comedy's first act!
With a 15-year-old as the play's primary character and three supporting teen roles, director Orbach was faced with a dilemma: Is it possible to find four teenage actors with professional-level skills to play these roles – and who can match the talents of the seasoned veterans with whom they'll share the stage?
Instead, Orbach cast four young-looking and experienced 20-somethings in her show; the results of that decision speak for themselves!
The show's success hinges on Eugene, and Jason Richards tackles the role with the perfect mix of na•ve sweetness, teenage curiosity and blossoming adulthood. Everything about his performance is right on target, from his vocal characteristics to his body movements to his facial expressions. It's a fine job from start to finish!
Dax Anderson (Stanley), Shannon Ferrante (Laurie) and Rachel Nardecchia (Nora) also create age-appropriate and very believable characters.
The "once-retired from the stage" Samuel Pollak makes yet another welcome comeback as the father who carries the weight of the world – and his family – on his heavily burdened shoulders. Karen Sheridan gives a nicely controlled and understated performance as Kate, the mother who's never happy unless she's worried about something.
And it's a very pleasant surprise to see Kristin Dailey (Blanche) back on a hometown stage after nearly a two-decade absence.
"Brighton Beach Memoirs" Staged Wednesday through Sunday (excluding Friday) by the Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at the Aaron DeRoy Theatre, 6600 W. Maple, West Bloomfield, through June 5. Tickets: $27 – $37. 248-788-2900.
The Bottom Line: A finely conceived and beautifully paced audience-pleaser that ends the season on a very positive note!

Review: 'Storm Warning'
StarBrite Dinner Theater serves laugh-filled adult comedy

Dinner theater, to most people, should consist of nothing more than lighthearted comedies and fluffy musicals. After all, the theory goes, no one wants to sit in the basement of a bar or restaurant and ponder the deep, dark problems of the world while noshing on chicken, fish or roast beef.
But there are only so many times a market can stomach the endless productions of "I Do, I Do" and "The Fantasticks." So every once in awhile it's a pleasure to discover a dinner theater that's willing to take a risk by offering a production that SEEMS like typical dinner theater fare – but isn't!
Sure, "Storm Warning" at StarBrite Presents Dinner Theater in Madison Heights is a two-person comedy in the vein of "I Do, I Do." And its basic plot – two total opposites are tossed together and eventually come to discover a love that neither could have predicted – is one that has been used ad nauseam. But how often do you find one of the characters on the verge of suicide at the start of the show? And how many others are pill-popping, potty-mouthed women with a colorful past?
Not many, I'm sure – and that's part of the show's charm!
Jack is a divorced World War II veteran who lives year round in a cabin "up north." He's interrupted one morning – while writing a note and checking out his revolver – by a "loud-mouthed tootsie with a fine derriere" who arrives for a weekend stay in the cabin next door. It's 1953 and Emma is there to work; she's one of the few women in the music industry who writes "charts" for a popular orchestra.
She's also rather nosy. And pushy. Plus, she has a drug problem.
It doesn't take long before Emma immerses herself into uncovering the secrets her handsome neighbor has buried deep within himself.
Written by Norm Foster, one of Canada's most oft-produced playwrights, "Storm Warning" is a "laugh out loud" adult comedy with liberal amounts of drama, mystery and sexual tension to keep it interesting.
Chris Moller (Jack) and Lisa Curry (Emma) compliment each other well, although towards the end, both seemed a little awkward or ill-at-ease with their roles on opening night. Maybe they – like their characters – simply need time to get to know each other better!
"Storm Warning" Staged Friday and Saturday by StarBrite Presents Dinner Theater at the 14th Street Grille and Bar, 350 E. 14 Mile Rd., Madison Heights, through June 25. Tickets: $39.50, includes three-course dinner. 248-589-9900.
The Bottom Line: Let this be a warning to you: Dinner theater gets meatier in Madison Heights!


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