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December 3, 2011 Comments Off on Review: A “Cinderella/Owen Meany/Dina Martina” Holiday Treat. Views: 2633 #Theater and Stage, Arts & Entertainment, Reviews, Stage

Review: A “Cinderella/Owen Meany/Dina Martina” Holiday Treat.

It’s the Holidays, darlings! Time to spend WAAAAY too much money in the pursuit of happiness; eat too much rich food; attend holiday themed stage works! We’d love to help you spend money and we would be thrilled if you made us dinner, but that’s unlikely…but, we can assist you in your holiday themed theater attendance. Here’s three recently opened holiday shows we bravely checked out for you.

Cinderella (Jennifer Paz) has to deal with her Evil family, (L-R, Suzanne Bouchard, Sarah Rudinoff, Nick Garrison) in the 5th Avenue Theater's production of "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella".

The 5th Avenue Theater ALWAYS does a family friendly musical for the holiday (hello? they’re not stupid!) and last year they offered the delights of “A Christmas Story”, the still evolving adaptation of the beloved film. It was a big budgeted treat with some lovely songs and performances, and a hit, but very expensive to produce. This year the 5th is being considerably more budget conscious and offering an old chestnut: “Rodger & Hammerstein’s Cinderella”, the iconic musical team’s adaptation of the old fairy tale originally done as a television special a thousand years ago, and originally starring Julie Andrews. It was made for TV, so “Cinderella” is short, simple and not at all taxing; it’s a million miles away from the depths of “Oklahoma”, “Carousel”, “South Pacific” and “The King and I”. “R&H’s Cinderella” is a big, poofy, lightweight, feather pillow musical with simple, sweet (and slightly dull) songs and an even simpler plot. All the familiar elements are present: plucky heroine, noble prince, nasty step mother, evil step sisters and wise fairy godmother. The dialogue is very TV friendly; lots of corny jokes and there’s very little drama involved. One, we all know the story, and two, the characters have been stripped of most of their motivation. The nasty step mother and step sisters are more comic relief than evil, and the trio is more dimwitted than devilish. Cinderella herself has been updated a bit to be a plucky, “make your dreams come true by DOING something” type but she still ends up marrying a prince. Again, it’s simple, but sweet and familiar like your Grandma’s fudge.

The chief reasons to see “Cinderella” are of course, the spectacle and the comic villains. The 5th Avenue saved a bit of money by renting the sets and costumes from another production of the show, but David Gallo (Set Design) and Renato Balestra (Costume Design) are both experienced professionals and the sets and costumes are gorgeous and don’t look “borrowed” at all. And,. there’s plenty of magic and pyrotechnics in this show to satisfy the kid in everyone with plenty of special effects and very fast costume changes and transformations. The entire show is nicely put together under the competent hands of young Brandon Ivie making his main stage directorial bow at the 5th and briskly moves along for a 2 hour running time. It’s the perfect show for families.

But, for the rest of us non-family types, it can be a bit of a candy coated snooze…it’s a feather weight show without much depth. Fortunately, “Cinderella” has a strong cast, most of them local, with both Jennifer Paz, as Cinderella, and resident 5th Avenue leading man Brandon O’Neill on hand as the very appealing leads. Ms Paz is appropriately pretty, yet spunky and Mr. O’Neill is appropriately hunky, yet modest and both have big strong voices and a nice chemistry. They make a pretty couple.

However, the only elements that keep “Cinderella” from drifting into a family friendly saccharine overload, are the “Evil” elements: the Step Mother and Step Sisters and happily, three big talents are on hand to keep the grownups in the audience awake and enthused. Veteran Seattle actress Suzanne Bouchard is delightful as the Step Mother; meanly bitchy enough to be a threat to our heroine, yet a delightful “straight man” to her more robustly comedic daughters. And, as the daughters/step sisters (and not very surprisingly), Sarah Rudinoff and Nick Garrison not only steal the show, but grab it outright and run out the door and up 5th Avenue with it. These sisters aren’t really very evil; they’re really the “Stupid Sisters”, but both actors make the most of their comedic bits and turn their numbers into delightful duets of hammy burlesque. Their big number, “Stepsister’s Lament” pretty much stops the show and you continually wish Rodgers & Hammerstein had written a sequel follow up, starring the pair. To be frank, they’re the only reason I recommend adults w/o kids go see this show. Ms Rudinoff and Mr. Garrison are worth the price of admission alone. Well, that and the costumes.

MORE Reviews, of “Owen Meany” and “Dina Martina” after the JUMP!

Connor Toms and Josh Aaseng star in Book It Rep's production of "Owen Meany's Christmas Pageant" adapted from the John Irving novel, "A Prayer for Owen Meany".

Meanwhile, over at Book-It, they’re bringing back a holiday treasure from the past. Back from a ten year vacation, their adaptation of a chapter from John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany” returns to the stage at the Center House Theater at Seattle Center for a brand new production. The holiday themed chapter was renamed “Owen Meany’s Christmas Pageant” and features an 11 year old, tiny and broken voiced lad named Owen Meany who takes over the production of the local church’s annual Christmas pageant with comic results. It’s also a briskly paced show, running about an hour and a half without intermission but not so suitable for the very young; there are some jokes about erections and inappropriate adult/child kissing so it’s more suited for teens and up.

I have to confess I’m a fan of John Irving, but I’m not a fan of either “A Prayer for Owen Meany” or “The Cider House Rules”, which was also adapted by Book-It and became one of their largest successes. Both books are a bit cloying to me, and trying too hard to emulate other authors (Günter Grass for “Meany” and Dickens for “Cider House”) and left me dissatisfied and more inclined to reread Irving novels I do enjoy and admire: “The World According to Garp”, “The Hotel New Hampshire” and “A Son of the Circus” all of which are probably too filthy and/or political for Book It to adapt.

I also don’t much care for the character of Owen Meany, who always seemed to me to be a complete asshole and the other main character, narrator/Owen’s best friend of Johnny was such a doormat that it prevented me from embracing the novel. It doesn’t help that Owen is tiny and has a “weird” voice, both of which are difficult to duplicate on stage. Book It’s adaptation doesn’t actually feature children; once again we’re treated to a show where adults play children, a very popular theatrical device, (and, one I’m a bit weary of, to be honest), and Owen is played by the very adult Josh Aaseng, who’s appropriately petite and affects an appropriate but irritating “wrecked” voice to play the role, with resident Book It/Irving interpreter Connor Toms as the narrator Johnny, a role rather similar to his starring turn in last year’s production of “The Cider House Rules”. Both actors do a fine job with their roles, though it takes awhile to get used to the awful voice necessary for Owen but because this play is a snippet of a larger whole, these are performances taken out of context…some of the motivations don’t really make much sense, unless you’ve read the entire book.

The rest of the HUGE cast (21 actors in all!) plays all the other roles, the majority of them the rest of the children in the pageant. Of the kid roles, the most significant is the role of Mary Beth Baird, the girl chosen by Owen to play the Virgin Mary and Ashley Marshall is exceptionally good as the “big” girl who gets her big break and tries to make the most of it. It’s a funny and charming performance from a very gifted actress.

Both Richard Nguyen Sloniker as Johnny’s stepdad and Daniel A. Guttenberg as the neighbor, Mr. Fish, experiencing his first Nativity play, give strong performances, but the main adult characters of “Owen” are the husband and wife team of the Reverend Dudley Wiggin and his stewardess wife, Barb played by Andrew DeRycke and Kathleen Stoll. Both Mr. DeRycke and Ms Stoll reprise their performances from the previous productions of this play and both actors naturally excel, with Ms Stoll in particular relishing her turn as the not very nice wife who isn’t pleased that Owen has usurped her position of authority. The role is a bit of a stock piece in the Irving canon; adult woman behaving inappropriately with a pubescent male, (and, an autobiographical moment from the author’s own life) but Ms Stoll manages to make the character both real, yet broad enough to not be entirely creepy.

As for the play itself, I have to say, that as I watched it being performed I initially did not care for it. It’s VERY broadly played, with big performances and a frenetic pace with no room to breath and get to know the characters. And, I’ve read the book (years ago) yet at times, I was a bit confused by the play since it’s a snippet of a larger whole, so I can’t imagine how people who’ve NOT read the book can enjoy it. It’s all rush, rush, rush and yell, yell, yell and when we finally do get a quieter, more intimate moment towards the end of the play, with Johnny reflecting on his Christmas without his recently deceased mother, it seems a bit out of kilter and a case of “too little, too late”.

Yet, perversely, in the end I kind of liked “Owen Meany’s Christmas Pageant”. It is a story with a lot of charm, and it’s hard not to care about the characters, even the not so nice ones. The actors do a nice job and the characters and story are rich and robust, like all of Irving’s best work. Book It’s co-founders Jane Jones and Myra Platt adapted the material and Ms Jones directed and they do manage to capture much of the tone of Irving’s world; I just wished they would slow things down a bit once in awhile so we can absorb some of the meaning of that world. “Owen Meany’s Christmas Pageant” is a bit like Christmas itself: too loud, too bright, too go-go-go and not enough slow down and enjoy the quiet moments.

Is that Dina Fried Turkey in that bucket?

Another annual treat is also loud, bright and very go-go-go, but that’s to be expected of “The Dina Martina Christmas Show” now playing at Re-bar through New Year’s. Seattle’s beloved drag institution has become a cult hit all over the country for good reason. Dina’s creator, actor/writer Grady West has crafted an amazingly original comedic character rich with charm, wit and perversity. Dina is a force of life in all her peculiar charms, and to know her, is to love her.

That being said, it should also be noted that the last couple of Dina Christmas shows have been a little…rote. Still funny but a little repetitive, revisiting too many similar themes and too many song parodies that we’ve heard before. A high note for me, was 4, maybe 5 years ago with a Christmas show that featured some “archive” video footage of a young Dina Martina and a show that teetered into some introspection and pathos on Mr. West’s part. The concept of Dina Martina works best, when you can see a glimpse of depth behind the character, a hint that she’s a REAL, albeit grotesquely baroque, person. It’s been missing for the last few holiday shows.

Our current edition of “Dina/Xmas” starts out in familiar territory: funny song parodies, “jift” parades; Dina’s interaction with “child prodigy” pianist, the Deadpan King, Chris Jeffries and her usual brilliant, improvised interactions with the audience. But, two things become apparent as the show progresses…one, there are some complicated songs and musical arrangements in this year’s show and, two, Dina seems to have a larger budget. It all culminates at the end of Act One with a brilliant, but difficult song and a pricey sight gag/stunt.

Act Two continues to surprise with more “tough” vocal arrangements and a finale that has to be seen to be believed, involving a fancy costume, props, extras, and lovely black velvet curtain. We don’t want to “spoiler” the show, so we won’t say anything more, but once again I advise folks to take pain reliever BEFORE the show, to avoid laughter induced headaches. Ms Martina./Mr. West has crafted a show that is over the top humorous and showcases both Mr. West’s skills as showman and comedy genius. It’s a delight and a must see holiday treat.

But, it might put you off the traditional Thanksgiving dinner…

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