Two Brilliant Productions Close Local Runs

Courier Staff Photo: Eric S. Swift

I believe it has been about 10 years since I saw the Alley Theatre production of Dale Wasserman’s disturbingly brilliant play, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Memory fades, of course, but I cannot imagine that the Alley version was any more skillfully produced than that just presented by the Crighton Players at Conroe’s Owen Theatre. With a flawless cast, and the equally flawless direction of Don Hampton, this “Cuckoo” was a real winner. My one regret is that a recent trip out of town prevented my seeing it in time to advise readers not to miss it before last weekend’s close.

The plot, based on the novel by Ken Kesey, is a troubling one as it takes place in a psychiatric hospital full of confused souls who have apparently lost their way. But a new patient, Randle P. McMurphy (a stunning performance from Bill Geffen), is a kind of hustler who suddenly arrives to energize these sad mental patients and mischievously turn their ward on its head. He very quickly locks horns with the cruel and heartless head nurse, Miss Ratched (a deliciously evil characterization from Brandi Baldwin). The sometimes comic, sometimes tragic events that follow played out on the appropriately sterile and very authentic set design from Master Carpenter Wes Bush and Lead Carpenter Jason Wright. Dramatic lighting (Roger Ormiston/Sherry Sellers) and special effects (David Fitzgibbons) punctuate many scenes. Beverly Townsend’s costumes add to the realism of this sad world, and musical interludes offer ironic touches such as Roy Orbison’s, “Only the Lonely.”

The uniformly excellent cast brings an agonizingly grim and ghastly realism to this group of patients. There are wonderful performances from Trevor Hall as the sweet, stuttering, Billy Bobbit in search of his manhood, Rick Sellers as the endlessly twitching, fidgeting and giggling, Scanlon, Craig Campobella as Martini, Dale Trimble as Buckley and Mike Ragan as Cheswick. There was heroic work from both W. Ryan Willingham (who brilliantly took over the role of Dale Harding for a cast member called out of town), and from Micah Taylor in the pivotal role of Chief Bromden, the gigantic, troubled, and most-often silent Indian who links various scenes together when stage lights dim and he stands in the spotlight delivering numerous touching soliloquies addressed to his late father, as he recalls the waterfalls, melting snow, and jumping salmon of happier days on their reservation before a government takeover.

The hospital staff was also well cast with Steve Murphree, Dan Tippen, and Luke Cowan as aides, Megan Nix as nervous Nurse Flinn, and John Ogden as the compassionate Dr. Spivey who tries to resist Nurse Rached’s cruelty toward the patients. Taking the edge off all this sadness are the lively performances of Lindsay Morris and Jennifer Marshall as the good-time girls McMurphy has smuggled into the ward for a late night party.

One other touch added to the very realistic atmosphere established in this production. Four of the patients are so severely mentally disabled they cannot function more than to simply sleep, slump in their chairs or stare blankly into space. Skillfully acting the parts of these “chronic” patients were Joe Kolb, Jim Walker, Butch Walker and Jim Murph. May I say that doing nothing has never been done so well!

In the Woodlands, the ever-growing popularity of Class Act Productions brought a sellout crowd to the Nancy Bock Center for the Performing Arts to attend Sunday’s final performance of the blockbuster production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Company founder/producer/director, Keith Brumfield, operates on such a grand scale (this cast included over 160 area youngsters) it continues to amaze me, even as I am in my second decade of reviewing his outstanding musical productions. Tens of thousands of dollars go into each effort, and it shows in the set design/technical direction of Jonathan Shelledy, the dazzling lighting designs of Lauren Gallup, eye-popping special effects and pyrotechnics of Phoenix Design Group’s Michael Svatek, airborne flying effects coordinated by Dan Kondas of ZFX Flying, stunning choreography from Tony Smith, scenic artistry from Joan Rothhammer, and the superb musical direction from Rae Moses & orchestra. (The cast’s wonderful singing throughout even included several songs and introductions dropped from the familiar MGM film). As for the gorgeous, endlessly colorful, and very Broadway-worthy costumes, designer Caroline Zirelli should probably have her name listed above the title for her outstanding work.

But of course it is the talented young performers of all ages that make a Class Act performance so special. Leading this cast was vocally gifted Whitney Brandt in the familiar role of Dorothy Gale, who finds herself suddenly transported (here by a very convincing onstage tornado) from the family farm in Kansas to the magical Land of Oz that was created so many years ago by the story’s author, L. Frank Baum. All the usual characters were on hand, including Auntie Em (Cecily Breaux, who also sweetly played the good witch, Glinda), Uncle Henry (Joe Dougherty who doubles as Emerald City’s guard), and the three farm hands that become Dorothy’s Oz companions, the Scarecrow (Josiah Miller), the Tinman (Keith Hale), and the Cowardly Lion (Travis Meador). The latter three are an especially fine trio, and perfectly capture the fun of those amusing characters. In the dual role of Almira Gultch & Wicked Witch, Abby Moss is spooky enough to haunt any house. She has some help from Heather Garsen as the Witch Flying Double in airborne sequences. George Downham cheerfully plays both Professor Marvel and the Wizard, while adorable Coco Whitaker plays Dorothy’s dog, Toto.

The Technicolor splendor of Dorothy’s arrival in Munchkinland was a memorable scene with the aerial decent of lovely Glinda, and some of the youngest members of the cast adding to the charm, including the Mayor, the Coroner, the dancing Lullaby League, the Lollipop Guild and many others. In addition to the countless citizens of Oz and Munchkinland, numerous others pepper this huge cast with Crows, Apple Trees, Snowflake Dancers, Winkies, a Girls Chorus, Jitterbug Dancers and Flying Monkeys that really do fly. Class Act is soaring in more ways than one!

Readers can learn about upcoming Crighton Players productions at www.CrightonPlayers.org and Class Act productions at www.classactproductions.org.

(The Courier    7.30.10)

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About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the Lambs Club, he is also editor of The Lambs' Script. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic@earthlink.net.
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