Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Theater review: Bold, young stars sparkle in ICT Mainstage’s Last Night of Ballyhoo
The mediocre script ignites in the hands of a stellar cast and confident director.
The two-act comedy is set in the upper class German-Jewish community living in Atlanta, Georgia in December 1939. Hitler has recently conquered Poland, Gone with the Wind is about to premiere and Adolph Freitag, owner of the Dixie Bedding Company, his sister Boo and nieces Lala and Sunny — a Jewish family so highly assimilated they have a Christmas tree in the front parlor — are looking forward to Ballyhoo, a lavish cotillion sponsored by their restrictive country club. Adolph's employee Joe Farkas, transplanted from New York, is an attractive eligible bachelor and an Eastern European Jew, familiar with prejudice but unable to fathom its existence within his own religious community. His presence prompts college student Sunny to examine intra-ethnic bias, her Jewish identity (or lack thereof), and the beliefs with which she's been raised.
After twenty-four previews, the Broadway production, directed by Ron Lagomarsino, opened on February 27, 1997 at the Helen Hayes Theatre, where it ran for 556 performances. The original cast included Terry Beaver as Adolph, Dana Ivey as Boo, Paul Rudd as Joe, Arija Bareikis as Sunny, Jessica Hecht as Lala, and Celia Weston as Aunt Reba.
Replacements later in the run included Peter Michael Goetz as Adolph, Kelly Bishop and Carole Shelley as Boo, Mark Feuerstein and Christopher Gartin as Joe, Kimberly Williams as Sunny, and Cynthia Nixon and Ilana Levine as Lala.
ICT Mainstage presents Ballyhoo in the lovely Dupree Theatre, located in the Irving Arts Center. The Dupree is a wonderful, intimate space which highlights this play very well. The high proscenium stage space allows for a large fixed set with details abound that welcome you in preshow. A two story interior of the 1939 Atlanta home is represented with a large staircase, living room area, foyer, hallways to “other” parts of the house, and a dining room.
The main feature is a massive Christmas tree (one of the talking points throughout the story as this is a Jewish home) that towers above the stage and performers. Large windows flank the stage left area around the Christmas tree and dining room areas while smaller ones lead your eyes upward along the staircase on stage right.
Direction by Bruce R. Coleman is well executed and he has assembled a very talented cast. The script for Ballyhoo is not a strong one and sometimes tends to be a bit slow in storyline.
However, Mr. Coleman’s direction keeps the presentation flowing and creates some very nice moments on stage. There were some awkward incidents of blocking and movement in a few scenes. However, as this was opening night, it seemed more nerves were the culprit for the performers not the direction. The use of an upstage door did confuse me though.
For example, when Adolph retires to his bedroom he exits through that upstage door then in another scene other characters enter through it from a “day out”, as well as, exiting as a group in another. It makes for a difficult understanding of the house layout but isn’t such a major issue that it confounds the storyline.
Overall, Mr. Coleman does a wonderful job of capturing the essence of the play.
Set Designer David Walsh had an arduous task of recreating a home in 1939. When presenting a period piece attention to details must be followed to convey the appropriate setting.
I will say there is a LOT of detail in the set; some items, however, are literal representations while others are represented by being scenically painted.
The use of actual “old time family portraits” is great, like the one at the top of the grand staircase, but having a scenic painted one, above the kitchen entrance, confuses the reality of the setting. The overall presentation, however, is very eye-catching and functions well throughout the entire performance.
Sam Nance’s lighting design is basic yet functional. There is very little color in the lighting which causes it at times to be a bit brash and too bright, but small elements like moving clouds seen through the windows are a very nice touch. There are a few locations set outside the house like the bus-stop scene, as well as, the scene at the Ballyhoo dance, that did not work well in the setting. Very high-angled back lighting from upstage, with a sharp front light, takes the intimacy away from the scenes when needed. When performers move they are sometimes dark and shadowed in a much too tightly lit area. Being as these scenes are downstage of the proscenium, not having the grand drape closed behind them only makes the visual confinements more distracting. The dance scene, however, does have a nice effect within it to set the location and it does work well.
Costume design by Suzi Cranford, supported by Dallas Costume Shoppe, is very well executed. Again, being a period piece, great attention to detail has to be followed and Ms. Cranford generally achieves this task. All the costumes are well fitted, represent the character, and accent moments in the storyline. For example, the “Gone with the Wind-esque” dress LaLa enters and presents herself in while walking down the grand staircase is a wonderful moment and the audience loved it. Tailored suits for the men and dresses with wonderful accents on the women are very well chosen and are a pleasure to see. Overall, the costume design is a strong contributor to this entertaining evening of theatre.
This production has a very strong and talented ensemble cast that definitely makes the production shine. All are well focused, on point and portray their characters wonderfully. I MUST congratulate them all on the various accents they hold throughout the show. This script requires very specific accents to set the social and ethnic statuses of the characters. From deep southern drawls to a brash Bronx accent, all the performers do a splendid job and never lose their respective accents. Bravo!!
Rachel Robertson as LaLa Levy is a pleasure to watch on stage. She creates a loving yet misunderstood young woman you simply fall in love with. Ms. Robertson’s facial expressions and reactions are perfect and she never misguides her character throughout the show.
Reba Freitag, played by Brandi Andrade, is simply a hoot! She has a wonderfully-written character that she plays perfectly. Ms. Andrade revels in some hilarious one-liners that make the audience burst into laughter yet never steals the scene. Her character choice is perfectly chosen and her presentation of it just shines on stage.
Dena Dunn’s portrayal of Boo Levy shows the talent of this seasoned DFW actress. She commands the stage when necessary yet falls back when called for in the storyline to allow the other characters to develop. Ms. Dunn’s stage presence is only matched by her perfect delivery of the character. She is a true pleasure to watch perform!
Greg Phillips as Adolph Freitag presents a wonderfully-entertaining and well-developed character. He has some side-splitting comedic moments on stage and then applies his well-honed talent to the intimate and emotional moments his character has to portray. He never once seems fake or misguided in his character’s development and always captures your attention when necessary. Mr. Phillips’ makes his stage debut at ICT Mainstage and I’m sure we’ll see much more of him there after this wonderful performance!
Edward Treminio, in the role of Joe Farkas, exudes nothing less than pure enjoyment on the stage! He is one of the people that have to hold a difficult and specific accent as the “Jewish Yankee” from NYC, and he never falters with it. As a protagonist in the story, he develops his character in a wonderfully arcing manner so that when he is faced with his social and moral conflict, he captures your focus and doesn’t let you go. Mr. Farkas is also making his debut at ICT and what a debut it is! This talented young man will definitely be making a name for himself in the local DFW Arts community… and I will venture to say WAY beyond it with great success. Congratulations on a job very well done!
Sunny Freitag, played by Shannon Rasmussen, is another top-notch performer in this production. She presents her character with the southern grace and charm it requires and is captivating on stage. I have seen this role played before unsuccessfully, as a throw away character, but NOT in this case. Ms. Rasmussen obviously took great time in developing this character and her choices are perfect. Brava!
Travis Ponikiewski as Peachy Weil rounds out this stellar cast with another spot-on performance. His character bursts on to the stage with overflowing vitality and never allows that energy to drop.
Watching him perform is a pleasure, and he's another actor who definitely makes the right choices with his role. He is a regular performer at ICT and it’s very obvious why. This young man has exciting talent and I look forward to seeing him in many more productions around the area.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo might have a bit of a weak script, but the talent that interprets it under magnificent direction is definitely worth the ticket for a wonderfully entertaining evening of live theatre at ICT Mainstage!
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