One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at Jefferson Performing Arts Center
One may wonder who’s crazier: the inmates of a State Mental Hospital who populate One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) for putting on this complex play with its large cast? It may not matter as, nowadays, it seems like everyone’s a little bit crazy…or more.
At a time when, due to COVID and all its concomitant challenges, many people’s mental health status is in a precarious position, Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel may be an apt script to present. Cuckoo’s Nest, however, has never been just about patients in a mental ward. Rather, it also works as an allegory about free spiritedness and individuality versus authoritarianism. As such, whether looking at Russia or China or our own country, this 1962 work, which gained global fame from the 1975 Oscar-winning movie, remains as timely as ever.
Janet Shea’s recent production was a solid one even if it broke no new ground. On George Johnson’s austere set, the facility’s large day room had white baseboards and doors topped by walls painted the color of nausea green. Shea did an excellent job of choreographing the movements of her cast and pacing the show; one always felt the forward momentum of the script.
What was missing, however, was the full emotional pay-off from most of the big set pieces like when McMurphy, the inmate who has opted for the mental hospital over jail time, calls all the plays of a World Series game after the ward’s television privileges have been revoked. Making up for this were smaller, more quiet moments as when McMurphy offers Chief Bromden, another one of the patients, a stick of chewing gum and in this small gesture restores, in part, a measure of dignity and humanity to this Native American man.
As McMurphy, the role made famous by Jack Nicholson, Travis Resor was an enthusiastic defender of the oppressed patients while also conveying the sense that he’s a bit of a hustler as well. Lacking, however, was an underlying toughness or menace that would’ve suggested what landed him in jail in the first place. As such, this McMurphy came off as more like Jackie Gleason than, say, Sean Penn.
With her pinched voice and sibilant S’s that made her sound like a snake, Maria Victoria Hefte’s Nurse Ratched, despite an ever-calm exterior, oozed evilness, and created a compelling portrait of a woman devoid of humanity. Yet Hefte could’ve brought more shading to her performance as Jan Chimento did, with half smiles and pauses for calculation, in the Cuckoo’s Nest at True Brew in 2003. Still, at the play’s climax, Hefte was chilling as she provoked McMurphy to damningly violent behavior.
The rest of the cast all worked well together, particularly such old pros as Peter Gabb, Earl J. Scioneaux Jr., and Wayne Gonsulin as some of the residents of the ward. It was nice to see Jorden Majeau, known principally as a ballet dancer, take on the role of Billy Bibbit, the stuttering momma’s boy, and stretch his talents; if Bibbit’s haunting self-awareness escaped Majeau, he still achieved true pathos by the end.
In the small but crucial role of the hospital’s alcoholic night guard, “Uncle” Wayne Daigrepont reminded me a bit of the Porter in Macbeth, finding the proper balance between earthy humor and grasping venality.
Especially noteworthy was the Chief Bromden of Paul Bello. Bromden too often comes off as stoic to the point of opaqueness. With his wonderfully resonant voice, Bello let show the emotional toll that societal injustice had taken on the Chief for a tremendously moving portrait of this troubled person.
Stephen Thurber’s lighting was good but I wouldn’t have minded if it had been a touch more expressionistic. Kage Laney’s sound design, however, expertly evoked a hallucinatory world formed by minds out of joint. Working with Shea, Laney achieved the proper level of miking for the cast to overcome any potential muffledness caused by COVID-required masks; that the masks were clear allowed the audience to see more of the actors’ faces, another plus.
Next up at JPAS, running February 26-March 7, is the classic dark comedy Arsenic and Old Lace about a crazy family; do you sense a theme in JPAS’ offerings? Shea returns, on the other side of the footlights, to star along with Helen Blanke, a standout in last year’s production of The Mousetrap, as two seemingly sweet spinster aunts who turn out to be serial murderers. Sounds like just another 2020 tale to me.
For more information about Arsenic and Old Lace or to purchase tickets, go to https://www.jpas.org/performance/arsenic-and-old-lace/
Cadillac Crew at Loyola University’s Marquette Theatre
Loyola University’s Department of Theatre Arts presented Tori Sampson’s Cadillac Crew earlier this month, merely the play’s second production after debuting at Yale Repertory Theater in 2019. Loyola is to be commended for giving this vital, new work its regional premiere, and persevering to showcase it despite COVID restrictions and after Hurricane Zeta forced its postponement in the fall.
Cadillac Crew focuses on an overlooked part of history, namely women’s contributions to the civil rights movement. It’s 1963 and four young ladies who staff the Richmond branch of the Virginia Office for Civil Rights are getting ready for a convocation where Rosa Parks will deliver the keynote address. The plan is for her to speak about women’s issues as well as civil rights, but plans don’t always work out, sometimes for unexpected reasons.
Against this background, Sampson portrays the easy camaraderie and friendly bickering among Rachel (Eden Camille James), Abby (Demyria Bell), Dee (Jada Williams),and Sarah (Aaliyah Thompson). Each of these multi-dimensional characters have strong personalities and are committed to the movement, but differences of opinion emerge among them. Rachel, for example, wants there to be more female leadership while Dee thinks men exclusively should be at the forefront of the civil rights campaign.
This and other such topics make for a fascinating play of ideas. Sampson, though, layers in various personal dramas which causes Cadillac Crew to occasionally edge into melodrama. It adroitly pulses with narrative urgency, however, until the start of Act Two (though Loyola chose not to include an intermission) when, for a too long stretch, the characters just stand and recite from journal entries to move the story along.
Eventually, the play gets firmly back on track. By then, we’re on a lonely road in Mississippi where the four women, now a historically-based Cadillac crew dedicated to organizing women for civil rights (sometimes with tragic results), have landed with a flat tire. We wonder what will happen to them and then (spoiler alert), fortunately, they’re rescued.
Sampson then jumps 53 years into the future. The actresses have metamorphosed into three of the founders of Black Lives Matter while the fourth interviews them on a podcast that was transmitted on a screen. While thematically related to the rest of the play, dramatically it’s a misfire as tension slackens and we’re left with just talking heads. While I have nothing against mashing up genres (a devise which, according to the New York Times review of the original production, Sampson has successfully used before), didacticism is no substitute for dramatic conflict. The play ends with a coda that acknowledges the hard work of the Richmond women from a bittersweet perspective.
On David Raphel’s ingeniously mutable set, Lauren E. Turner’s accomplished direction propels the action along while expertly shaping four terrific performances from her actresses, each of them a Loyola undergrad. If I especially liked how Bell tossed off Abby’s self-description (“I’m not spoiled, just accustomed.”), she and her castmates made a phenomenal transformation across the two time frames, delineating with precision the differences between each of their two characters.
Sound Designer Ryan Wiles did an excellent job of summoning up protesting crowds in Virginia and chirruping crickets in Mississippi. I just wish that he along with Turner had been able to do something to counteract the muffled quality that the masks, which the cast understandably wore on stage, too often imparted to the actresses’ voices. For despite any reservations I may have had about Cadillac Crew’s script, when a production is as fine as Loyola’s, you don’t want to miss a word of it.
Kelli O’Hara and Jeremy Jordan & Ashley Spencer/The Seth Concert Series through February 21
Until the computer gremlins killed her live feed, Kelli O’Hara’s resplendent voice made her encore appearance on The Seth Concert Series pretty fabulous. And while those gremlins may have won the battle, ultimately, they lost the war.
Though I certainly knew who O’Hara was, I had only seen her on TV or streamed a few times, twice as part of Metropolitan Opera broadcasts (Cosi fan tutte and The Merry Widow) plus her Tony-winning turn in The King and I. Watching her perform and banter with Host/Musical Director Seth Rudetsky, it was a true pleasure to finally see her up close and personal.
Looking radiant in royal blue against a neutral background (a “cheapy painting” as she called it), O’Hara spoke about her early days in show biz, “If I got into Phantom of the Opera, it would mean I succeeded in the eyes of people back home [in Oklahoma]” because Phantom was the ultimate Broadway show to them. Ironically, despite auditioning for Phantom many times, she never got cast because, she heard through the grapevine, she looked “too all-American.”
O’Hara went on to sing Phantom’s operatic Think of Me beautifully with just an appropriate pinch of campiness. She also recalled having dinner with Andrew Lloyd Webber in London to discuss a future project (sorry, no dish; she had nothing but nice things to say about him).
Songs from The Bridges of Madison County followed along with a snippet of Mozart’s Queen of the Night. After a lovely, thoughtful tribute to her friend Rebecca Luker, who passed away in December due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), she sang the touching Goodnight, My Someone from The Music Man, gorgeously.
After a magnificent Somebody, Somewhere from The Most Happy Fella, O’Hara’s audio and then video feed seemed to be taken over by aliens. Rudetsky held court with some dishy stories while the tech people tried to get things back under control. They succeeded to the extent that O’Hara was able to get two more songs in (Small Talk from The Pajama Game and Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now), but after O’Hara spoke about Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’ new musical adaptation of Days of Wine and Roses, her feed died again just before the finale, a song from that Broadway-bound show.
Though one could hardly complain, as the show had already run an hour and forty minutes, Rudetsky and producer Mark Cortale thoughtfully sent out a bonus clip the next day that not only included the Days song, but, as lagniappe, the cute specialty number They Don’t Let You in the Opera (If You’re a Country Star that showed off O’Hara’s remarkably wide range both vocally and stylistically.
Despite the technical glitch, this concert delighted as O’Hara not only has an angelic voice, but it’s matched by her classy and gracious personality. Apparently, this was her first live concert since her previous appearance on The Seth Concert Series in May. The only thing better would be, when things return to normal, for her to come to New Orleans so we can get to see her live and in person as part of the Broadway@NOCCA series.
One person who has been live and in person at NOCCA has been Jeremy Jordan. Having followed O’Hara in the spring on The Seth Concert Series he did so again last month only this time he was joined by his wife, Ashley Spencer, who is perhaps best known for coming in second place among the Sandys on the TV show Grease: You’re the One that I Want!
(Coincidentally, the 4th place finisher, Kathleen Monteleone, now lives in New Orleans and did a livestreamed cabaret from Le Petit in December.)
Rudetsky, as he often does when he has couples on the series, alternated between Jordan and Spencer, each one singing a song and chatting with the host. This pair, however, also did something a little different, two medleys each with a different theme.
The first was comprised of songs they’ve done in shows or concerts, but with the roles reversed. So Jordan did Girls Just Want to Have Fun; When You Got It, Flaunt It from The Producers; Cooties from Hairspray; Harden My Heart; and Grease’s Hopelessly Devoted to You. Spencer’s line-up included West Side Story’s Maria; Falling from the TV series Smash; Santa Fe from Newsies (which had garnered Jordan a Tony nomination); and a number from Bonnie & Clyde which Jordan had starred in on Broadway. Cute idea, marvelously done.
They followed this with a medley of duets from shows that they hope to do together in the future: Our Children from Ragtime; Urinetown’s Follow Your Heart; As Long As You’re Mine from Wicked; Moulin Rouge’s Come What May; and Suddenly, Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors. Not only was it thoroughly entertaining, but it was nice to hear these songs as The Seth Concert Series has mostly featured solo performers.
Throughout the evening, which was happily free of any technical snafus, Jordan and Spencer proved to be a delightful couple. She winds up playing more of the straight person to his adorable goofball, but one with an awesome set of pipes. When he said, referring to their home life since the birth of their daughter in April 2019, there’s a “lot of happiness and joy around the house”, you knew it wasn’t fake newsies.
Up next, on Valentine’s Day, is Laura Osnes who was the winner of Grease: You’re the One that I Want! She’ll be followed on February 21 by Santino Fontana who starred in the musical version of Tootsie on Broadway and won a well-deserved 2019 Tony Award for it.
To purchase tickets to these upcoming shows, or to see Jeremy Jordan & Ashley Spencer’s show on demand, available through February 15, go to thesethconcertseries.com
As is typical, even in this atypical year, area stages have closed down for Carnival with theater shifting to the streets. Unusually, alas, Orleans Parish stages will remain quiet even after Fat Tuesday. Here, tho, in addition to Arsenic and Old Lace, are some theatrical offerings in surrounding parishes to look forward to post-Mardi Gras.
Playmakers Theater in Covington presents The Glass Menagerie on Saturdays (7pm) and Sundays (2pm) from February 20 through March 7. Tennessee Williams’ award-winning play features a family comprised of a faded debutante mother, a closeted gay son who’s an aspiring writer, and a daughter who suffers from debilitating shyness. When the son brings a co-worker home as a possible beau for his sister, what could go wrong?
Directed by Michael Doyle Graves, Menagerie features Arden Allen Dufilho as Amanda, Matthew Eli Judd as Tom, Jamie Ferguson Lee as Laura, and Jason Smith as Jim (aka The Gentleman Caller). For tickets and additional information, go to https://playmakers-theater-05.webself.net/
I’m happy to report that, at Slidell Little Theatre, Little Shop of Horrors, which had been canceled last May, will finally have a chance to bloom on February 26 until March 14. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s horror/comedy/rock musical tells the story of Audrey, a pretty blonde who works in a flower shop; her abusive boyfriend who’s also a sadistic dentist; and Seymour, her hapless co-worker who raises a plant that feeds on human blood and flesh. What could go wrong?
Director Larry Johnson, Jr. has been able to bring back many of the actors from last year’s planned production including Skylar Broussard, Jennifer Bullock, Nicholas Anthony Smith, and Derrick Schlumbrect. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. More info and tickets at https://www.slidelllittletheatre.org/html?PageId=167631
In Mandeville, 30 by Ninety Theatre opens Brighton Beach Memoirs February 27; it plays through March 14. This first of Neil Simon’s autobiographical trilogy has Eugene Jerome, the playwright’s stand-in, dreaming of baseball and girls; coping with his formidable mother, overworked father, and worldly older brother; and bedeviled by his widowed Aunt Blanche and her two young (but rapidly aging) daughters. What could go wrong?
John Gavin Hodges plays Eugene; Evette Randolph, Kristina Kingston, Steven Campo, Reese Maguire, Avery DeFrank, and Jason Leader make up the rest of his family. Tom Bubrig directs. Click on https://30byninety.com/shows/brighton-beach-memoirs/ to order tickets and find out more.
And Rivertown Theaters in Kenner is giving the regional premiere to Disney’s Descendants: The Musical, a new musical comedy adapted from the Disney Channel original movie. In it, all of Disney’s heroes and royalty are living happily ever after, safe from the villains they have banished, until Ben, the benevolent teenage son of Belle and King Adam (The Beast), offers a chance of redemption for the trouble-making offspring of the evilest villains–Maleficent, Snow White’s Evil Queen, Cruella De Vil, and Jafar. What could possibly go wrong?
Descendants has been double cast so you may want to see it twice to enjoy all the talented folks on Rivertown’s Main Stage. Its “once upon a time” is February 26; “happily ever after” occurs on March 21 with performances Friday-Sunday. Tix and info at https://www.rivertowntheaters.com/
Stay safe and Happy Mardi Gras!