There are good reasons why Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel has become a popular item in regional theaters throughout the country. To begin with, it’s an extraordinarily well-crafted play. Also, it mines the mother lode of drama inherent in the immigrant—and especially the African American—experience. Of course, its superficial theme concerns romantic love, which at some level qualifies it as the stage equivalent of a chick flick. Yet it’s ultimately a story about friendship and trust, and in Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s current staging it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Director Rene Copeland has assembled a strong cast to tell the story of North Carolina-born Esther Mills, a 35-year-old seamstress working in 1905’s Lower Manhattan. Esther’s clientele includes everyone from society ladies to hookers, for whom she crafts fine garments and underwear. Esther desires love and harbors a dream to open her own beauty salon catering to African American women. Meanwhile, the passionate yet still virginal Esther embarks on a long-distance correspondence with a laborer in Panama, who eventually arrives in New York looking for marriage. She learns some bitter life lessons from that experience while also struggling with her feelings for a Jewish merchant.
Nottage’s tale, which focuses closely on the lives of six characters, also covers a wide ranges of cultural issues: turn-of-the-20th-century manners and mores, class distinction, women’s suffrage, ragtime music, slavery and the northward migration of blacks. Yet the author’s integration of time and place never overwhelms the story’s particulars, which probe poignantly into female bonding, male strengths and failings, and, in its frankest moments, lesbianism and prostitution.
Stella Reed is Esther, and like others in this cast she inhabits her character with a verisimilitude that transports her audience. John Brooks is also riveting as Esther’s irresponsible husband, George. Ross Brooks, as the fabric dealer Mr. Marks, turns in a marvelously understated and sensitive performance, as do Jenny Littleton as one of Esther’s upper-crust customers and Lisa Kimmey as a likable but jaded lady of the evening. Tamira Henry completes the cast as Esther’s doting landlady.
Gary Hoff’s multileveled period set is a work of art, one that allows the action to shift deftly, via Phillip Franck’s lighting, from rooming house to salon to bordello to storefront. Trish Clark’s costumes—dresses, beaded corsets, elaborately tailored suits and accessories—are appealingly sumptuous and add to the fine details that make this show a resounding success.
Last Friday night’s standing ovation was spontaneous and heartily deserved.
All that jazz
For 40 years, Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre has done business in Nashville, proffering light comedies and musicals along with thousands of family-style meals. Sometimes the theatrical fare is strictly low-carb, but that’s not the case with its first-rate staging of the Kander-Ebb musical Chicago.
Credit director and choreographer Pam Atha with breathing fresh life into this version, which features a hardworking cast of 14 led by such veteran performers as Martha Wilkinson, Bobby Wyckoff and Holly Shepherd. Atha’s Chicago is all vaudeville and circus, with rim-shots punctuating intentionally corny one-liners while the seedy story of murder and tabloid journalism in the roaring 1920s plays out with appropriate cynicism and garish style.
The dancing here doesn’t have all the sinewy sexuality of Bob Fosse’s original, but Atha smartly interpolates her witty-enough choreography into the seamless staging. If we’re not always wowed, we are certainly entertained, and the story moves along at a vigorous pace. Billy Ditty’s costumes help matters too, contrasting monochromatic prison duds with sequins and rich colors to evoke both trash and flash.
Shepherd’s presence as the hard-bitten murderess Velma Kelly is more earthy than slinky, but she belts out her brash numbers with gratifying intensity. Wyckoff seems at first an unlikely choice for slick lawyer Billy Flynn, but his vocals are strong and stylish and he’s not afraid to go edgy (or humorous) in his characterization. He makes the role his own. Wilkinson, as man-killer Roxie Hart, proves once again that she is a musical comedy professional of a very high caliber. Her portrayal is sharply etched—infused with impudence and moxie—and she gives a commanding performance.
There are plenty of great musical numbers—“And All That Jazz,” “All I Care About,” “Cell Block Tango,” “Razzle Dazzle” and “Class.” There’s also the weirdly memorable “Little Bit of Good,” warbled by the gossip columnist Mary Sunshine (played in drag by a male actor credited as Kaye Raymond). Derek Whittaker also does nicely with the underrated song “Mister Cellophane.”
Tim Fudge’s musical direction is appropriately somber yet rhythmically aware, and a five-piece combo led by keyboardist Jane Watt cranks out the speakeasy score with spare precision.
In a fairly typical move, the Barn has added a second intermission to a show that requires only one. Fortunately, even the interests of commerce can’t kill the momentum generated by this always high-energy effort.
Christine Mather’s Zoologies, a collection of six original short plays, reveals a writer who’s intelligent and also attuned to modern media and current events. Her scenes are set in zoos around the world, usually in the aftermath of tragedy or conflict, and her characters—both animal and human alike—come to life via an absurdist performance style that is both dramatic and whimsical.
Co-directors Marc Mazzone and Ashley Beam have little to work with in the way of budget, but with a few set pieces and minimally effective costumes, they lead a focused and imaginative ensemble of eight into interesting theatrical territory that lies somewhere between Waiting for Godot and Saturday Night Live.
In “The Kabul Zoo,” a burka-clad stranger (Sonia Justl) delivers a brooding monologue on zoo life prior to 9/11. In “The Sarajevo Zoo,” three bears—Angela Gimlin-Clore, Phil Perry-Dixon and David McGinnis—restlessly dream of food and ponder their fate in the wake of the Bosnian conflict. In “The New Orleans Zoo,” two Hurricane Katrina victims (Mazzone and Tiffany Poulose) wait for a rooftop rescue while a glib, toothy alligator (Lane Wright) hovers nearby. In “The Baghdad Zoo,” post-invasion American soldiers, unmoved by the plight of the animals, parrot some of the dim rationales for the war. (Beam serves up a “W” imitation worth a chuckle.)
Of particular note for its wordplay is “The National Zoo,” in which Mazzone and Wright play a pair of D.C. spies engaged in tight, funny double-speak that revolves around privacy issues and the espionage culture, with references to John Ashcroft and Valerie Plame thrown in for good measure.Mather’s sketches are wonderfully economical, and the cast plays the anthropomorphized pathos and comedy with equal success. Zoologies is an offbeat, 80-minute excursion into the world of animals that ultimately has more to say about the way people treat each other. Which is to say: improvement needed.
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