Reviews

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August 24, 2017

Nicole Parker, Lauren Pritchard & More to Take Part in Developmental Lab of The MAD Show...
A new musical based on MAD Magazine will get a developmental production from Colorado's Theatre Aspen.
The show will be featured in presentations at the Wheeler Opera House from September 12-16.

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August 24, 2017

Theatre Aspen, in collaboration with the Wheeler Opera House and Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, will present a developmental production of the MAD Magazine-inspired The MAD Show September 12-16.

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August 23, 2017

The new show, featuring Wicked alum Nicole Parker and more, is from “the twisted minds behind MAD Magazine.”

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Aspen Times - Review: Swipe right on ‘Sex with Strangers’ at Theatre Aspen

August 4, 2017

He's a 28-year-old internet celebrity bro and sex blogger. She's a gifted but frustrated and overlooked novelist nearing 40. What happens when you throw this literary odd couple together in a remote writer's retreat in snowy backwoods Michigan?

Sex, of course. But also, in Laura Eason's "Sex with Strangers," running at Theatre Aspen through Aug. 12, an incisive look at the way we live and love in the digital age.

In the opening moments of the play, Ethan (Patrick Ball) barges in on Olivia (Jessica Robblee) as she is working quietly on a novel she's sure nobody will ever read. She repeatedly asks, "Who are you?" as this voracious stranger hunts for food in the rustic, book-lined retreat house.

Ethan, known to the masses as "Ethan Strange," has mastered Internet fame with salacious accounts of sexual misdeeds and a book titled "Sex with Strangers." He's up in Michigan to finish a screenplay and begin rebranding himself as a serious literary writer (by developing an app, natch).

Between steamy trips to the bedroom (and the couch, and the bear skin rug, and…) he attempts to convince Olivia that she, too, needs to reinvent herself by embracing the anarchy and deception of the digital world.

Some audience members may cringe with recognition as Ethan searches for a cellphone signal and Wi-Fi and is filled with existential dread as he realizes he'll have neither for a night and will be unable to post and tweet and snap ("People will think I'm dead!"). Others may see themselves in Olivia the Luddite, with her clunky old laptop and her precious attachment to her privacy.

This smart, sexy dramedy doesn't have the kinds of belly laughs that Theatre Aspen normally aims for with its summer plays. But it is filled with clever, character-based comedy and psychological insight.

Director Christy Montour-Larson — who also helmed a Curious Theatre production of "Sex with Strangers" in Denver last year — has elicited phenomenal, naturalistic performances from both Robblee and Ball. They're as real as it gets.

Robblee has several long, silent moments alone onstage where — through simple body language and facial expressions — she speaks volumes about her conflicted emotions. Can she trust Ethan? Should she follow his lead and harness the power of the web for fame?

Ball, meanwhile, nimbly walks the line between charm and smarm. In a lesser actor's hands, Ethan could be an easily hateable caricature of the internet Lothario and Tinder scumbag. Ball makes us, as an audience, fall for Ethan as Olivia does — in his best moments, he seems so genuine, generous and intelligent that we're willing to forgive his misogynistic online persona. He insists that his base "Ethan Strange" exploits are a character he's playing and that the good guy we see in private with Olivia is the real Ethan. Like her, we want to believe him.

Also like Olivia we are "waiting for the asshole to show up" (the subhead of his own book dubs him a "certified asshole," after all).

We get glimpses of the bad boy, but we don't quite know. And Olivia, given a taste of online glory, also makes us wonder about her integrity. But that's the heart of this of-the-moment play: How can we really know anybody? How do we reconcile an IRL identity and an online persona?

"Sex with Strangers" doesn't give us easy answers or (thank God) hectoring speeches about the Internet toppling civil society. Instead, we get a steamy and complex conversation-starter.

atravers@aspentimes.com

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Aspen Times -

June 30, 2017

The musical "Hairspray" is a family show and also a subversive epic of social outcasts. It's a celebration of early 1960s teen culture that pays tribute to the rock 'n' roll and Buster Brown-scuffing dance moves of the day while also staring down the era's segregation and bigotry. In tone, it's both sincere and satirical — by turns campy and unselfconscious.

This, of course, is why we love it. Like us and like the America it chronicles, "Hairspray" is a bundle of contradictions.

Theatre Aspen's exuberant production of the Tony-winning contemporary Broadway classic opened Wednesday and runs through Aug. 19 at the Hurst Theatre in Rio Grande Park.

It stars the magnetic young actress Taylor Hartsfield as Tracy Turnblad, the plump and peppy teen in 1962 Baltimore who dreams of getting on a local TV dance show and ends up as a crusader for racial integration. As Tracy finds love and fame and acceptance and social justice, she and this irresistible show will cure you (at least temporarily) of your 21st-century cynicism.

Hartsfield nails Tracy's sunny optimism and enthusiasm while infusing a charming awkwardness into Tracy's dance moves. She can rattle the mountaintops in her big solo numbers like "I Can Hear the Bells" and the opener "Good Morning Baltimore," but Hartsfield is also game as a team player.

She's surrounded by a feisty supporting cast. The standouts in the young ensemble are a charismatic Stephen Scott Wormley as Seaweed, star of "Negro Day" on "The Corny Collins Show," and Abigail Isom as his over-eager love interest and Tracy's bestie Penny. But everybody gets a moment to shine, from Denis Lambert's subversive spin on the Dick Clark-esque TV host Corny Collins to Tamara Anderson as Motormouth Maybelle (her gospel-tinged lament "I Know Where I've Been" is a showstopper) to Annabel O'Hagan as the odious bully Amber and Christian Probst as the cloying teen idol with a conscience Link Larkin to utility players Michael Gorman and Kayla Ryan Walsh, who show up memorably in multiple small roles.

And Kevin Carolan is a scene-stealing one-liner machine in drag as Edna, Tracy's shut-in mother. It's become an iconic role, originated by Divine in John Waters' 1988 film, by Harvey Fierstein on Broadway and played by John Travolta in the 2007 Hollywood musical. Carolan's is a deeply empathetic Edna, performed with a heartfelt approach that translates well in the intimate setting of the Theatre Aspen tent. Edna's big number — the cute and ridiculous "Timeless to Me" duet with her gag shop owner husband Wilbur (Patrick Richwood) — brings down the house.

This Aspen production — directed by Mark Martino, who has become a master of the tent over the past decade — makes full use of the Hurst's thrust stage and aisles. High-spirited large ensemble numbers like "Without Love" and the finale "You Can't Stop the Beat" spill off the stage and into the crowd. For "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" — performed by three pairs of mothers and daughters — Martino has positioned actors on the stage and in each of the main aisles.

Paul Black's cartoonish sets, which arrive and exit through a retractable door that's plastered in early-'60s advertisements, are just over-the-top enough to situate us in Waters' bizarre and demented alternate reality but authentic enough to keep us grounded in the tumultuous historic moment of "Hairspray."

"Hairspray" has been a Broadway smash, a feature film musical and, most recently, a live television event. So chances are you already know some of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's songs, and you've seen some version of it before you walk into the Hurst. But you've never seen it quite like this. Theatre Aspen's dazzling cast and thoughtful creative team make it new.

atravers@aspentimes.com

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Aspen Times - Theatre Aspen Buyer & Cellar Review

July 26, 2016

People who need people are the luckiest people in the world, as the bard Barb said. But people who seem to have everything, like Barbra Streisand, may need people to mind the shops in the decadent personal European-styled mini-malls housed beneath their sprawling Malibu estates.

This is the premise of Jonathan Tolins’ “Buyer & Cellar,” running through Aug. 19 in a Theatre Aspen production at the Hurst Theatre. The one-man show stars a sweet and hysterical Jeffrey Correia as the guy hired to be the shopkeeper in Streisand’s luxurious lair.

The play opens with the house lights up and Correia strolling into the theater, humming “Memories,” sitting on the edge of the stage, and explaining in no uncertain terms that “This is a work of fiction,” repeating himself a great many times to protect this unlicensed play from the “litigious” Ms. Streisand.

“None of this is real,” he says with a smirk. “I don’t exist.”

What does exist, however, is Streisand’s 2010 coffee table book “My Passion for Design,” which details her subterranean mall and provides the kernel of truth for the comedy’s charming blend of camp and sentimentalism.

“What if someone had to work down there?” Correia asks before the lights go down. He then becomes Alex More, an out-of-work actor recently fired from a gig in Disneyland’s Toon Town who finds himself as the lone employee of Streisand’s mall, on hand to serve its only customer.

He is issued a shopkeeper’s uniform (Donna Karan, natch) and gets to work dusting and manning Streisand’s meticulous shoppes (“shop-eeze” in More’s smirking appraisal) including a vintage clothing boutique, doll store, popcorn stand and frozen yogurt bar.

His retelling of his first few days at work is a laugh-a-beat whirlwind. Alex’s first meeting with “the lady of the house” is laugh-out-loud hilarious. She descends the basement stairs and tests a flustered and star-struck Alex, forcing him to improvise as she haggles with him over the price of a bubble-blowing doll. (Why is she buying a doll she already owns, in her basement, and presenting a coupon? Why not? Locals who’ve tended to the massive manses and egos of Aspen’s own eccentric mega-rich will no doubt recognize some of the personality quirks and power dynamics at play here.)

Alex and Babs bond and soon become something like friends, with Streisand retelling the story of the water bottle she used as a doll during her hardscrabble childhood and the cold bed she shared with her mother (“Colder than Aspen!”) and Alex eventually begins serving as her acting coach.

Loving Babs is, as Alex puts it, is his “gay birthright,” but he’s no superfan. His more effusive boyfriend, Barry, is a card-carrying aficionado. Alex’s rapid-fire back-and-forths at home with Barry — including an epic rant about “The Mirror Has Two Faces” — prove to be a high point. And their clash over Alex’s subservient role provides the play’s heart.

Directed by Maurice LaMee, “Buyer & Cellar” makes use of a simple set backed by surreal projections of images rendered in the Max Ernst style — a pair of pristinely manicured hands, for instance, holding a doll house — that enhance the absurdity of the one-man onstage action.

Whether the play works, of course, depends on its sole cast member. Correia brings a subtle physicality and endearing tenderness to the role. He’s always moving, ever gesticulating, and transforming into eight characters using simple shifts in posture and voice. He embodies Streisand, for instance, with a slight squint and purse of his lips, adding her hint of Brooklyn to his voice, raising his wrists and landing in a sweet spot between homage and parody.

Correia’s performance is the accumulation of small gestures combined with impeccable timing (his Streisand’s slight gasp at the mention of a rug from Home Depot, for example, lands perfectly). The effect is like listening to a great story, told by a good friend with a snarky streak who has a knack for off-the-cuff impressions, a witty turn of phrase and encyclopedic pop culture fluency.

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, there’s a falling out between Alex and Barbra. The turn the play takes at that point elevates it from what might have been just a funny diversion about celebrity excess. Somewhere between the frozen yogurt machine and the doll shop, “Buyer & Cellar” hits a true and touching note about the loneliness of fame, the meaning of friendship and the trap of materialism.

atravers@aspentimes.com

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Aspen Times - Dear Edwina at Theatre Aspen

July 22, 2016

Handling gross little brothers, dealing with rude party guests, remembering how to set a table and politely turning down weird foods. Such are the moral conundrums of the kids seeking advice from the plucky and wise Edwina Spoonapple in Theatre Aspen’s production of “Dear Edwina.”

Running through Aug. 13 at the Hurst Theatre, the family-friendly musical comedy follows a day in the life of the 13-year-old Michigan “advice-giver extraordinaire” as she stages a backyard musical, responding to letters in the “Dear Abby” tradition. Edwina (Alie Walsh Dame) is something of a schoolyard Emily Post, doling out her authoritative etiquette advice in earworm-y song-and-dance numbers.

On the day we meet Edwina and her band of neighborhood boys and girls, they’re performing for a crowd that includes a talent scout from the Kalamazoo Advice-a-Palooza — and Edwina is eager to impress.

Kids are definitely the target audience here (it’s recommended for ages 4 and older). But “Dear Edwina,” by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, is more than clever enough to keep adults entertained over its fast-paced 60-minute running time, and the music and choreography is remarkably varied. There’s an opera aria, a tap-dancing number, a dash of ballet — even a reggae-tinged one about saving money. I defy anyone to walk out of the theater not humming the table-setting instructional anthem “Fork, Knife, Spoon” or the infectiously lilting one about overcoming shyness titled “Hola, Lola.”

The fresh-faced, energetic cast is led by Dame, who also co-choreographs with director Paige Price. Outfitted in a red polka-dot dress and beaming smile, Dame nails the can-do kid who rallies the neighborhood while also managing to plumb some of the depths of early adolescent anxiety. “Up on the Fridge,” her song about longing to do something great enough to land a ribbon on the Spoonapple kitchen refrigerator alongside her over-achieving siblings, is a highlight. The song, like this musical, manages to be cute and funny while nailing some truisms of growing up. And the uplifting closer “Sing Your Own Song” is the best in the show.

Marcus Shane (also seen as Pepper in Theatre Aspen’s “Mama Mia!” this summer) plays an eager, awkward boy with an unrequited crush on Edwina, while four Theatre Aspen apprentices round out the cast — playing multiple roles with relish (Ryne Nardecchia, for instance, makes a fantastic quick change from Edwina’s flustered new neighbor into monster in the song “Frankenguest”).

In the background, Spencer Hansen plays keyboards and Nicole Patrick plays drums, each landing a few memorable laughs of their own as Edwina’s brother and sister.

The show continues a wonderful recent run of family shows at Theatre Aspen — “Junie B. Jones,” “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “Little Women” — that have shunned more insipid fare for kid-friendly musicals that grown-ups can enjoy, too.

atravers@aspentimes.com

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The Aspen Times - Review: 'Mamma Mia!' at Theatre Aspen

July 1, 2016

Theatre Aspen’s “Mamma Mia!” is a big, rowdy, Lycra-clad wad of cotton-candy escapism propelled by a disco ball, tap-dancing in scuba flippers and 20-plus thumping ABBA earworms.

Think you’re too high-brow? You’re wrong. Resistance is futile. You will be on your feet. And you will be dancing along to “Waterloo” during the boisterous encore.

The musical, which opened Tuesday and runs through Aug. 20 at the Hurst Theatre, sucks you into its abandon like the dance floor at a great wedding reception and leaves you sated in the same kind of warm-hearted exhaustion.

The young Sophie (played with a sweet, soft-voiced restraint by Cristina Oeschger) is set to be married at a taverna in the Greek Isles, owned by her mother, Donna (Anne Brummel), who led a rocking disco-era trio back in the day: Donna and the Dynamos. Hoping for her father to give her away, but not knowing who her father is, Sophie invites three men from her mother’s bohemian past to the wedding: Harry the banker (Mark Price), Bill the globe-trotting writer (Dane Agostinis) and Sam the lovable rogue who got away (Jim Ballard). They’re none the wiser to the Sophie’s plot and are met at the tavern by Donna’s aging disco-diva besties — Tanya (Elise Kinnon) and Rosie (Margot Moreland).

The action plays out on a Swiss Army knife of a set — decked out in the Aegean blues and stone whites of the Greek isles ­— that revolves to become a bedroom, a beach and the taverna.

It’s an ensemble-driven show where just about everybody in the cast of 20 gets their time to shine, but Donna and her Dynamos shine brightest on showstoppers like “Super Trouper” and “Dancing Queen,” with Moreland taking center stage on “Take a Chance on Me” and Kinnon doing so for “Does Your Mother Know.” Brummel brings down the house with an emotive “The Winner Takes It All” and a tender, relatively subdued duet with Price on “Our Last Summer.”

The sitcom premise and jukebox musical setup (and all that ABBA) might be a recipe for a forgettable diversion of a musical, but Brummel brings emotional heft to her Donna. Her introspective performance and the pain in her face through much of the second act bring to the surface Donna’s single-mom stress, the anguish of seeing her daughter leave the nest and the emotional confusion of rekindling a decadesold romance or three. This might seem ridiculous for a regional production of “Mamma Mia!” but this is what often makes the tiny Hurst Theatre a fascinating home for a Broadway musical — no matter where you’re sitting in the less than 200 seats around the thrust stage, you’re seeing the story play out in extreme close-up, which makes for some extreme emotional immediacy. So, between the sequins and the slapstick of this good-time show that no doubt earns the exclamation point in its title, this “Mamma Mia!” also gets poignant.

atravers@aspentimes.com

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Aspen Times - Review: 'Other Desert Cities' at Theatre Aspen

August 12, 2015

You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! No, really. Going home for the holidays with the Wyeth family in Theatre Aspen’s “Other Desert Cities” is a riveting emotional roller coaster of a theatrical experience.

This combustible, compelling production of Jon Robin Baitz’s family drama, directed by Sarna Lapine, opened last week and runs through Aug. 22 at the Hurst Theatre.

Polly and Lyman Wyeth are old guard Hollywood Republicans, who proudly call their friend Ronald Reagan “Ronnie” and staunchly defend the Iraq war (the action is set mostly on Christmas Eve 2004). Lyman, a movie star turned politician and culture warrior, is cut from the same charismatic cloth as Reagan, but his kids are no fans of the act. Their Palm Springs home is host to a tense reunion, with Polly’s sister Silda, fresh out of rehab, and their TV producer son, Trip. Their daughter Brooke, home for the holidays from New York, drops a bombshell and reveals she’s written a family memoir.

The ghost of the Wyeth’s first son, who died after joining a radical group that bombed an army recruiting station in the 1970s, is ever-present. When the family begins reading Brooke’s memoir, which revisits that dark episode, sparks fly and the secrets of the Wyeths’ past engulf them all.

Baitz cleverly mines generational conflict, family dysfunction and the foibles of the idle rich for laughs early on - and cuts the tension with biting humor throughout - but “Other Desert Cities” is ultimately a devastating study of familial bonds and loyalty.

Designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdam’s evocative one-piece living room set screams Palm Springs. But if you traded the palm trees and tennis whites for antler chandeliers and ski gear, the play could easily be set in a Red Mountain mansion among Aspen’s elite.

A stellar five-member cast manages to shape Baitz’s characters into three dimensions. No small feat, as in lesser hands these could easily be WASP-y caricatures.

Megan Byrne’s Brooke is a mess of psychological trouble and medication, trying to empower herself through writing – she’s by turns defiant, desperate and despairing. Her primary foil is her mother, the aloof and vindictive Polly, played with vicious delight by Lori Wilner. Her husband, played by Jack Wetehrall, is a hard shell of patrician rectitude with widening cracks that expose his disappointments and regrets as the show progresses.

Brooke’s brother, an aging Gen X-er who has found fortune producing a ridiculous reality TV show, gets the bulk of laugh lines early on – delivered impeccably in a naturalistic performance by Curran Connor (whose comic timing is also on display this summer in his broad take on Smee in “Peter and the Starcatcher”). Peggy J. Scott, playing the drunk and debauched old Aunt Silda, turns what could be a clownish Hollywood stereotype into a pivotal supporting role that underscores this dysfunctional family’s dynamics and the ties that both bind and break.

It’s worth noting that “Other Desert Cities” marks Theatre Aspen’s first foray into sober drama in seven years. Here’s hoping that audiences support this challenging brand of high caliber theater and keep plays like “Other Desert Cities” in the company’s summer repertory for years to come.

atravers@aspentimes.com

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Aspen Times - Roses and thorns

August 10, 2015

A rose to Theatre Aspen for its return to staging serious drama with “Other Desert Cities.” The taut, supremely acted play (running through Aug. 22) packs a wallop and has made for a well-rounded summer of theater in the tent in a season that offers something for everyone.

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