Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Theater review: Give Me a Break at PFAMILY Arts Theatre
Slow transitions and awkward scenes make this rock 'n' roll musical much too long.
The setting for the story is Dallas in 1979. Pulsar5, a local rock 'n' roll band, is tired of playing the local bar scenes and wants to be “discovered” and become rock stars. The band is made up of two women and three men. Julia and Markie, the two women in the band, have been friends since childhood. Billy and Sal have been friends for years and Tek is new to the band and has a crush on Markie. Billy and Julia have been in a relationship together for the past several years.
The storyline begins after an evening performance at the Greenville Bar and Grill, in which Billy and Sal decide to go meet Coka, a local transvestite, to score some ganja. Meanwhile at the bar, Markie is picking up a local patron for an evening of sex. Tek is sharing that he has had a longtime crush on Markie and Julia is left trying to decide what to do after Billy takes the rent money to go buy marijuana.
Over the next few days members of Pulsar5 will be faced with situations that include where to buy drugs, date rape, jealousies, herpes, visions, an opportunity to audition for a “big time” agent from Las Vegas and a difference in goals by the members of the band.
Just before the doors opened for seating of the audience, a young man wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt began walking around and introducing himself as the bartender for the Greenville Bar. I thought that he was the bartender for the theatre’s intermission bar. It turns out that he was Ian Mead-Moore, one of the actors in the production. Moore plays the roles of the bartender and the transvestite, Coka.
The performance area is a large black box space. The stage was at one end of the space with the audience seated on portable seating placed on the concrete floor in front of the stage as well as on a raised area for better visual of the stage. Seating for the audience appears to be able to hold approximately one hundred patrons.
Entering the auditorium, the first area that caught my attention was the stage. It was crowded with furniture and items that included a small bar with bottles and barstools, and small sofas on either sides of the stage. A mattress had been placed extreme stage left, while a keyboard, electric guitars and a drum set was positioned up center stage. So many set pieces and props were placed on the stage at one time that it seemed overly crowded and created confusion for me as to whether this was the lone location or not. As the production progressed, it became apparent that Set Designer George Spelvin intended for three very different locations to be placed on stage at the same time. This did not work visually for me. With so many items on stage at one time it was also confining for the actors who often had to weave their way between tables, sofas and music equipment as they tried to present their story.
The Greenville Bar and Grill is the opening location for the performance. After being seated, and prior to the performance, Moore continues to interact with the audience, walking back and forth, getting a drink at the bar, then back to the audience and talking with members in the audience about the playbills in their hands. Just prior to the start of the production, Moore invites five members of the audience onstage to become a part of the scene in the bar, thus incorporating audience members into the production. This led me to wonder whether these individuals had been planted in the audience had or been previously asked to be a part of the scene. Why did I think this? Because, while these five individuals were about the same age as the actors in the production, most of the audience age range was thirty and older, people like me that had lived through the 1970s and remembered the age of rock 'n' roll. Additionally, when the opening scene began, one of the girls from the audience, now on stage, began caressing the character Billy while another stage audience member was reading from a script as the character that Markie was hitting on. After that scene was over, the members from the audience were then taken backstage and entered the house through an entrance door to take their seats back in the audience.
In a theatrical performance, the fourth wall is an imaginary separation between the fiction on stage and the reality of the audience. The acceptance of the fourth wall between the audience and the performance is part of the “suspension of disbelief." In this instance the fourth wall was totally obliterated, thereby integrating members of the audience into the performance without an apparent productive purpose.
Most of the lighting for the show appeared to be a series of blue and red/violet gels for creating moods and spotlights for bringing focus to individual actors as they performed on and off the stage throughout the production. At various times throughout the performance Sal and Billy would enter through a door into the house area, sit and perform a scene on the edge on the stage almost in the laps of those sitting in the front row.
One such scene included Sal and Billy pulling out a joint to smoke as they discussed what to do about their opportunity to audition for the agent from Las Vegas and a recent altercation between Billy, Julia and Markie. Despite the joint never actually being lit, they acted as if it was, which is why I noticed when Sal put the “lit” joint back into his shirt pocket. My focus was on the manipulation of the joint and not on the actors because the actors in this scene were not presenting engaging and believable characters.
At least, we are led to believe that it is the spirit of David Cassidy, as a picture of a teen age David Cassidy is projected on a side wall for the audience to see while a voice sounding nothing like Cassidy is heard giving Sal and Billy career advice.
The hearing and seeing of visions is used on three different occasions throughout the production. On one occasion Markie has a vision. Later in the show Billy and Sal, and then Julia, each have respective visions. Each time the vision occurs after the character takes a few hits from a bong or a few puffs from a joint.
For each spiritual visit, a picture of the rock 'n' roll legend that is “advising” is projected on the sidewall while a voice is heard from offstage. This type of un-earthly advice worked well in the musical Grease, when Frankie Avalon comes down to give advice and sing “Beauty School Dropout.” However, it did not work as well for this production. The off-stage voices were often monotone and non-interactive so that the actors on stage had to bring these scenes to life on their own. In her vision scene, Julia was the most successful of the three in bringing a more believable interaction by using emotional responses to this unseen voice so that we at least wanted to believe that she saw and heard the vision.
I was seated in the middle area of the audience that offered an unobstructed view of all the action on the stage. Though I could see all of the action I could not always hear the actors, especially when individual actors were singing solos. The stage was furnished with drop microphones hanging from the ceilings that did not seem to access the entire stage area. Therefore, if the actor was not in a hot spot area or not adequately projecting I could not hear the songs very well. This was especially the case with Billy, Sal, Tek, and Markie on most of her songs. Notable exceptions were the consistently strong vocals songs presented by Murphy and Mark-Brian Sonna as Louie Lizarde.
Throughout the performance there were numerous times when there seemed to be delays in the actors coming on stage for the next scene as well as slow transitions between scenes. This, and slow pacing through most of the production, contributed to an almost three hour run time for the show.
Emily Murphy as Julia Fitzgerald, PULSAR5’s keyboard player, songwriter and lead singer, brought energy, animation and a defined character to this production. Julia is the only one of the members of the band that has a job, at least until she is fired. It becomes obvious that Julia is the strength in the band for keeping the rest of the band together and somewhat stable. Through numerous scenes Murphy gave us a character that allowed us to see and experience turmoil, confusion and resolution Her vocals were the strongest and most consistent on stage.
Tori Hudson as Markie Markham, PULSAR5’s lead singer, brought a character that was subdued through most of the show. There were scenes written into the story that provided opportunities for a range of emotions for this character. Throughout most of the show, Hudson underplayed her character so that when she did present emotion, it often came across as indicating or forced.
Quinn Angell as Billy Watts, lead guitarist and singer for Pulsar5, is called “Billy the Kid” by the other members of the band. Billy is involved in a relationship with Julia but that does not stop Billy from trying to rape Markie and then try to place the blame on her. Angell presented a Billy that is selfish, manipulative, self centered and petulant when he is not getting his way. Unfortunately, it was a characterization with limited emotional ranges, such as when he is confronted about the attempted rape, or taking the rent money that he uses for drugs, or when his plans to manipulate his friends in the band do not go the way that he wants.
Sal Lepiggio, PULSAR5’s drummer and singer, is played by Stuart Charles Neef. Sal and Billy are best friends and have been friends for years. Neef played Sal as a character that follows Billy’s lead in every situation and Neef’s portrayal of Sal was so easy going that the character had no real personality of his own.
Steve Robert Pounds plays Tek Murdoch, PULSAR5’s new Bass guitarist and singer. Tek is so new to the band that a few members of the band ask at times who he is. Tek has a crush on Markie and has been a fan of the band for a long time. Pounds played Tek as one who was understated and mild mannered. When others around him are involved in conflicts, such as about what song to sing for the audition with Lizarde, Tek stays cool, perhaps too cool, only showing a slightly bemused look on his face. Pounds did not have the vocals to be heard or appreciated from the audience. Ironically, the only song in which I could really hear him was when Tek and Markie were in Tek’s apartment and singing the duet “In Your Eyes,” though they were facing away from each other during the song.
Mark-Brian Sonna, as Louie Lizarde, is only on stage a few times. But was a pleasure to watch him every time he was on stage in this production. Louie Lizarde is a talent agent from Las Vegas that Billy and Sal meet while they are at Coka’s trying to buy marijuana. Sonna gave the audience a character that was complete in personality, depth and characteristics. Sonna actively engaged with each character with whom he interacts, thereby making this a character that you want to watch and will pay attention to him in any scene. The costume design for this character includes bell bottom pants, an obvious toupee, and loud styling that reminded me of a combination of the stereotypical “lounge lizard” and over-the-top owner of an exotic club. Sonna was loud, over the top, obnoxious and one of the bright spots. Sonna also choreographed this production, bringing playfulness into some of the songs, such as when Lizarde, Buster, Sal and Billy sing “Scanty Panties” or when Pulsar5 sings “The Big Man Cometh.”
Ian Mead Moore, as Coka and the Bartender, brings two characters to the story, unfortunately differentiated only by a change of costume. The bartender wears that multi-colored tie-dyed T-shirt while Coka wears a long brightly colored wig, a shirt that was tied up just below the chest and bright gold hot pants with hose underneath.
Tyler Cochran, as Buster, was another character that was fun to watch and kept my attention every time that he was on stage. Cochran has some of the fewest lines in the show but developed and brought a character that through witty use of costume and clever “busy work” in the background constantly stayed engaged with other actors in the scenes and became a fun focal point in the show. Buster is the advance man, or rather the bodyguard, for Lizarde. Cochran put just the right attitude, whether verbal or non-verbal, into his character and scenes to make Buster very relevant. When Buster first enters Coka’s apartment we are introduced to a character that appears intimidating, clothed in a trench-coat, hat and sunglasses. His engagement with Sal and Billy during this scene gave a taste of the skills that Cochran used to take what could have been a minor character into one that the audience wants to always pay attention to when he is on stage.
However, throughout most of the performance most of the band members of Pulsar5 lacked a real connection to each other and the circumstance, bringing a presentation that lacked depth and believability. Using the vision sequence three times may have been three times too many as it disengaged me from the story line and did not really seem to add a productive or entertaining element. Many of the scene changes were uncomfortably slow. On one occasion, a long slow scene change forced the audience to watch Billy and Julia on a mattress with Billy between Julia’s legs appearing as if they were having sex. This scene came across as uncomfortable and gratuitous rather than adding a meaningful element to the story. The show felt overly long and at times, tedious during the three hour run time.
Creating, developing and then presenting an original work of art is not an easy task. Going from an idea to a concept to a production easily understood by others may take months or years of trial and error, then trying again if something is not working the way that it should. There are so many variables involved in creating, producing and presenting original theatrical productions, especially musicals, in order to “get it right.” Give Me A Break is an original work conceived, developed and produced from the local Dallas area, using local technical and performance talent to bring a story to life. I fully appreciate and admire the desire and ability to artistically create any work of art.
Windham and McMillen also produced a CD, presenting the songs and music from Give Me A Break. The music on the CD is snappy, has very good vocals, and is well worth picking up.
The stage show had some shining moments and a few talented performers that brought life, energy, and connection to the story. It's worth seeing if you would like to support local talent and the development of original theatrical creations.
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