Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Theater review: The Ark at Artisan Center Theater in Hurst
Regardless of its Biblical origins, it remains a story about family, trust, hope, and love at its core.
In 2006, Artisan Center Theater debuted Michael McLean's original production, The Ark, seen outside of Broadway. Now six years later, Artisan is once again bringing this special musical and its timeless characters to life in their quaint stage-in-the-round, but with mammoth results. Bring your umbrellas and your life vests (figuratively) and get ready to set sail on one of the greatest adventures ever told of Noah and his ark.
One of the founders of Artisan and Executive Producer for over 150 shows, Dee Ann Blair, works double duty as Co-Director for The Ark, and also appears in the cast as Eliza. In ten years, this is Blair's second time to perform on the Artisan stage, a special treat indeed for those audience members with tickets on her night. Sharing the director's chair with Blair is Dennis Canright who also appears onstage as Noah. It's obvious just how much Blair and Canright treasure this show. The ambience the sound design creates to transform the stage into an ark, the detailed set design with rudimentary undertones, and the combination of a strong cast all tie into a clear presentation of the directors' vision. This being Artisan's third time to produce The Ark (I first saw the show during its second run in 2008), I can say for a fact that they are raising the bar for this latest installment.
The set design, also by Blair and Canright, has more functionality and detail than it did in the past with more ways to expand and create the ark within the small confines of a building. Always an impressive scene is the closing of the door to the ark. Using a combination of ropes and pulleys, the thick wooden door looks more complicated than it really is and the ominous way it closes shut gives a sense of finality to the scene. Artisan's resident Scenic Painter Lily Stapp-Courtney fine-tunes the background in detail with her beautiful, realistic paintings of miscellaneous animals on the ark. Her work is always something to look forward to seeing.
Kirk Corley's light design casts an array of golden tones to emphasize the wooden ark and is complemented with underlying hues of blue representing the moonlight flooding in through the windows and the beams.
It's Joey Geisel's sound design that completes the full setting. You'll hear everything from birds chirping to lions roaring, giving the sense you've walked into a wildlife safari. The best part of Geisel's design is the sounds of the ark, such as the creaking of the beams as if the theater is moving and rocking about in the sea. Is it possible to feel like you might be getting seasick from the safety of your seat?
The costumes by Rebecca Roberts are traditional garb for the times, long flowing tunics and garments. The women use sashes and aprons to alter their outfits over the course of the show, however, few of the men stray from tradition, wearing pants and flowing shirts. Ham's costume in particular follows a modern look with the actor sporting jeans and a leather vest which also separates him from the family as the "bad boy."
The choreography by Eddie Floresca is lighthearted and includes your traditional Biblical-day moves like the classic grapevine. The cast doesn't look overwhelmed having to tackle some of McLean's more complicated pieces and remember their dance steps simultaneously. I've seen what Floresca can really do, so in this case simple is better for the cast to be in unison and look good while doing it.
The ensemble as a whole is well-directed and blends seamlessly through most of the group numbers. The opening song could be stronger, but by the time they get to "You Must Believe There Are Miracles," the cast feels warmed up and here is where they become a chorus. Richard Gwozdz is to be complimented for his musical direction and his work with the multiple casts. McLean's music, which at times is reminiscent of a Stephen Sondheim number, does not sound as if it is mastered so easily.
This is the second time I have seen Canright in the role of Noah. The first time left a lasting impression, so much so I worked hard to remain objective about this specific performance. True to form, Canright reconfirms why he is perfect for this role. He invites the audience into the story with an exuberance and frivolity that sets the pace of the show. Canright clearly has fun taunting the "animals," expounding with a few ad libs here and there and relishes in Noah's aloofness to his surroundings, but with a comical twist.
Canright portrays the painful, exposed emotions of Noah with amazing fortitude. As a prophet alone in his journey, with his family pushing for answers, he patiently waits and believes God will provide the answers and redemption promised. Canright creates a delicate balance between his character's faith in God and his own human nature and frailties. Most significant is the relationship between Noah and his unbelieving son Ham that represents faith versus reason and Canright gives a strong yet childlike honesty to the performance.
Alongside Canright is Jana Offutt as Noah's wife Eliza. Offutt settles in well as the matriarch of the family, some of whom don't look much older than she, and her relationship with Canright feels like a friendship years in the making. Offutt's voice is superb (she actually works as a voice talent for hire) and there is something magical that happens when she sings. The highlight of her vocal performance is in the number "Eliza's Breakdown/Hold On" with Canright in Act II. On one hand, Offutt misses an opportunity to really fine tune the physically emotional side of the character but her vocal performance is what ultimately portrays the desperation of Eliza's situation. New to the Artisan stage, Offutt is a talented addition to the theater's repertoire of actors.
To say that Kyle Holt is captivating in the role of Ham is an understatement. Holt delivers such raw emotion as the prodigal son his performance is sometimes leaps and bounds above the rest of the cast. The first time Holt really gets to shine is his solo "Whenever He Needs a Miracle." The frustration and intensity of the song leaves you breathless and Holt's powerful tenor voice rings clear. The scene leading up to the first entrance of "Lift Me Up/Hold On" is equally heartbreaking and Holt carries the weight of one of the song's melodies with strength and clarity against the rest of the cast. Apart from his overall serious nature, he gets a few opportunities to have some fun with his character. I feel sorry for the one audience member Holt chooses to zone in on for the "Dinner" number and as an actor who can learn choreography he has some pretty good moves.
David Otteson is quite natural in his role as the eldest brother Japeth and he is the most genuine of the supporting cast in his reactions and scripted direction. His character's curiosity, inventiveness and simplicity are sincere as if you can see the wheels turning, or not turning, in his head. Otteson also has a way of carrying the ensemble numbers without reticence and without overpowering the other actors with his singing. What little solos his character has, Otteson exudes a gentle confidence that makes his performance a pleasure to watch without any critique.
As the youngest brother Shem, David Seil gives a more comedic performance than I was prepared for but I easily got on board (no pun intended) with his oddball character before the end of Act I. Seil's naivety as a newlywed husband is endearing to a point until, as a woman, you want to shake him. He provides some much needed fun but in trying to lighten the mood, some of his scenes feel too chaotic. He is overtly exuberant and my guest and I still found ourselves chuckling at his melodrama quite often.
Ham's wife Egyptus is the outsider of the group and is introduced to the surprised family just as the rain begins. A pivotal part to Ham's growth, Tasia Robinson portrays the young bride with the heart of an old soul. Her calming presence counteracts well with Ham's restlessness. Robinson tackles a number of solos; unfortunately some of the music comes across as too advanced for her voice. Given a simple melody and time to breathe, Robinson has a beautiful tone that she can truly let shine. Overall, her transition into the family is a sweet picture of acceptance and love.
Kelly Kennedy is spot on as the vain, upbeat and sometimes ditsy Sariah. Her greatest struggle being the lack of a proper wardrobe, Kennedy pines away for her character's husband, Japeth. Sariah is the least featured of group but Kennedy manages to carve a memorable space in the action.
Unlike her counterpart Shem, Meredith Stowe, as Martha, is a shy, timid young beauty having to compete with her groom's affections. The tight quarters prove too much for Martha to handle and Stowe has a great breakaway performance in "I've Got a Man Who Loves Me" in the first act. On the flipside, Stowe's apron is such a distraction that I was half hoping she would fling it off during her solo, a response that would be completely appropriate for her character at that moment. She shows much more boldness and assuredness when she takes the stage alone compared to when working with the ensemble. Stowe just needs to carry that confidence into her whole performance, including the choreography and harmonies, and her portrayal would be flawless.
Audience members should be prepared to join in the fun and have a few laughs, just beware where you sit. After all, someone has to play the animals. The Ark is an entertaining show for all ages. Regardless of its Biblical origins, it remains a story about family, trust, hope, and love at its core. It's a pleasure to see Artisan continue to bring this remarkable show to the DFW area.
As an added treat, Artisan is hosting a two-night event June 8 and 9 as they welcome the show's creator to their production. The "Special Event: An Evening with Michael McLean" begins an hour before curtain when McLean will meet guests and engage the audience with a short Q&A session. It's a proud moment for Artisan and the cast of The Ark and a moment you won't want to miss.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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