School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play at Loyola’s Marquette Theater thru July 1
(Full disclosure: I am the sponsor of The Carol Sutton Memorial Grant and I, along with Grant advisers Gwendolyne Foxworth and Wanda Rouzan, awarded The NOLA Project a 2022 grant to help offset some of the costs associated with the postponement, due to the Omicron Covid surge, of School Girls from January to June. I can assure you, however, that even if that had not been the case, I would’ve felt the same way about this production as described below.)
Set in 1986, School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play transposes the elements of high school teen flicks to Ghana’s most exclusive boarding school for girls with devastating results. Jocelyn Bioh’s knowing play may take place two hemispheres away from ours, but its themes are universal while its impact is sharpened by its specificities of place.
In this dramedy, Paulina, the reigning queen bee at Aburi Girls’ Senior High School (a real institution in southeastern Ghana), hopes to enter–and win–the Miss Global Universe pageant. The arrival of Ericka, however, a new student from America with undeniable talent and beauty, captures the attention of the pageant recruiter and upsets the school’s pecking order.
Having seen School Girls on my cell phone when its off-Broadway production was streamed during the height of the pandemic, it was a pleasure seeing life-sized actresses take on the roles in Bioh’s beautifully written and keenly observed script.
Other than somewhat static staging in the opening moments, Tenaj Jackson, making her directorial debut, has done a masterful job of orchestrating the proper dynamics among all the students, and overseeing the shift from comic to more serious moments. Like a seasoned conductor, she wisely accelerates the tempi of expositional moments yet slows it down to allow the emotional ones to sink in.
The six actresses portraying the students all display the proper schoolgirlish charm and genuine ingenuousness of teenagers. Watch out for Paulina, though. Confirming the talent she revealed in Loyola’s Stop Kiss last year, Aria Jackson cunningly shifts from demure to cutting with lighting speed, always covering up a painful insecurity. As Paulina’s plans start to crumble, watch how a range of emotions play out across Jackson’s wondrously expressive face.
As Ericka, Jordan Bordenave brings an innate decency to the American transfer student, whose father has business interests in Ghana. Little did her performance as a cute li’l kid goat in last fall’s Tell It To Me Sweet prepare me for the depth of feeling she exhibits here.
Portraying the other four students under the thumb of Paulina, Rebeckah Gordon-Kirk, J’aiLa Price, Payj Ruffins, and Elexis Selmon all individualize their relatively one-note roles and, watching the power struggle play out between Paulina and Ericka, respond with perfectly calibrated reactions. And their wonderfully “terrible” singing of Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All for the pageant recruiter adds risible seasoning to School Girls.
Gordon-Kirk, in particular, last seen in Tell It To Me Sweet as Bordenave’s “Mama Goat” who demonstrated, as I wrote then, “maternal caring and determined fortitude”, bravely takes on the role of an overweight girl cowed by Paulina to marvelous effect, her face exposing both pain and triumph. I’d love to see her in a production of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig.
Delphine J. and Whitney Mixon embody School Girls’ adults, their long-standing rivalry undiminished since they attended Aburi 20 years earlier. As the school’s Headmistress, Delphine J. carries herself with poise and a deep-rooted dedication to her charges despite the many challenges such an institution as hers faces. Mixon handles the realpolitik of the recruiter well, but occasionally plays her too broadly; Bioh’s humor is better suited to the sharpness of a stiletto. Still, this is a minor quibble.
Dialect Coach Eliza Simpson has guided the cast to wholly credible Ghanian accents; if they are sometimes a slight challenge to understand, well, I suspect that just attests to their authenticity.
The NOLA Project has taken up residence in Marquette Theater on Loyola University’s campus to present School Girls. I don’t want to give away too much more of its plot as Bioh has constructed a taut 80-minute story that engrosses with its twists and turns. Let’s just say I give it an “A”.
(For tickets and more information, go to https://www.nolaproject.com/schoolgirls)
Matilda the Musical at 30 by Ninety Theatre through July 3
In the past three years, I’ve seen five local productions of Matilda the Musical. Yet with its inventive book by Dennis Kelly, based on Roald Dahl’s novel, and memorable score by Tim Minchin, I didn’t mind seeing a sixth interpretation of it. In fact, in Christopher Manguno’s production at 30 by Ninety Theatre in Mandeville, I discovered additional things and delighted in wholly new takes on various elements of it.
Sure, Dahl’s tale of a hyper-intelligent little girl with extraordinary powers who uses the potency of storytelling and her prodigious imagination to overcome the forces of evil, remained the same as always. Yet Manguno, a young director new to me, created an amazing sense of tension along the way; even if I knew where the story was going, at times I was on the edge of my seat (not unlike the librarian Mrs. Phelps who listens as Matilda creates an ongoing and beguiling narrative for her).
Manguno sensibly coached his actors to dig in and get the meaning of each word across, something that happens less often than it should. Similarly, by insisting on clear diction throughout, he allowed me to hear lines and lyrics I’d previously missed.
Though his cast was fairly small, Manguno did a lot with it, flooding 30 by Ninety’s stage with people in such musical numbers as Loud and Bruce, the first act finale, to thrilling effect. Like a veteran director, he found the proper balance between heartfelt reality and Dahl’s cagey surrealness; as one example, the cook who brings in the cake that Bruce must eat (deliciously played by Stephanie Cooke–quelle coïncidence!) is a hulking, misshapen, and slovenly baker who might’ve just walked out of a Dickens novel that had been illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
Given the events going on in the world today, Manguno’s decision to substitute Italian for Russian mafiosi in the finale was entirely apt; that he also switched the author Matilda has read from Dostoevsky to Dante not only showed off Matilda’s smarts but Manguno’s as well.
While Manguno populated his stage with talented actors, two of his casting choices were inspired.
The malevolent headmistress Miss Trunchbull is usually played by an imposing man in drag (at Mount Carmel Academy earlier this year, however, a young actress portrayed her with success). Lean and of Napoleonesque stature, John Wesley may not look like the Olympic hammer thrower Agatha Trunchbull is supposed to be, but through the magic of his acting, he convinced you that she was.
Seen last fall in the ensemble of 30 by Ninety’s Rent, here Wesley emerges as a charismatic performer who can anchor a show (apparently, he has had larger roles before, I just haven’t seen him in any of them). His face powdered a ghostly white, Wesley knowingly grounds his performance in a precisely detailed telling of Trunchbull’s aggressions, both macro and micro; one senses a deep-seated satisfaction as this Trunchbull tortures her charges.
Coiffed and dressed somewhat stylishly, this Trunchbull comes off less the gargoyle than usual, yet Wesley’s slightly nasal voice adds a certain snaky wickedness to the Headmistress. Performatively, by eschewing nearly all traces of campiness, Wesley makes this a very scary Trunchbull and one of, if not the, best I’ve seen.
In contrast, Miss Honey, Matilda’s sympathetic teacher, traditionally is cast as a thin, willowy, if mousy, blonde. Aided by the dowdy costuming of Ryan Gary Williams and a nondescript hairstyle, Courtney Calato Lee comes off as frumpy, a much more plausible character choice given Miss Honey’s traumatic backstory. At last, Mrs. Wormwood’s advice to her in Loud (“A little less dressing like your mum”), makes sense.
Add to this, the requisite sweetness layered with a browbeaten mien, plus a beautifully pure singing voice, and Lee makes an ideal Miss Honey, like Wesley’s Trunchbull, perhaps the best I’ve seen. And by that, I’m including the Broadway version for both of them.
Lolo Loris finds a happy medium between (justifiable) anger and sangfroid for Matilda; often performances go one way or the other. She is very, very good both when acting and singing. Loris has a tendency, however, for her face to go blank when not speaking. Once she learns that “half of acting is reacting”, she’ll be dynamite.
In her Juicy Couture sweatpants and tacky blonde wig, Camille Bechac makes a terrifically garish Mrs. Wormwood, Matilda’s mother. Bechac may not be the first class dancer the way most Mrs. Wormwoods are which makes her plan to enter the Biannual International Amateur Salsa and Ballroom Dancing Championship all the funnier. It’s also probably a more realistic reflection of someone like her.
Quinton Williams’ Mr. Wormwood is suitably trashy and oily and weaselly; we utterly enjoy watching him get his comeuppance. Together, he and Bechac are repellant, and excellent, as the Wormwoods.
In his tight shirt and pants, Nino Bonura as Rudolpho, Mrs. Wormwood’s dance partner, was an audience favorite. Kate Comeaux did full justice to the cake-eating Bruce Bogtrotter; she was completely believable as a boy…and she tap-danced in her big number, too! Lori Molinary was just right as caring Mrs. Phelps. Only John Gavin Hodges, outstanding in last year’s Brighton Beach Memoirs was off; portraying Matilda’s TV-obsessed brother Michael as catatonic takes things a bit too far.
Melanie Lunn’s choreography was simple but well-done, though the enchanting When I Grow Up could have used more variety and imagination in showing the joys of childhood.
Manguno directs with such assurance that his few lapses in judgement, such as allowing a hand to be seen jostling the water jug that Matilda moves telepathically (the other special effect–no spoilers here–was flawless) and letting a good deal of Bruce’s cake remain visibly uneaten, thus undercutting his presumed triumph, stood out. Such things in a community theater production, however, can be easily overlooked.
Whether you’ve never seen Matilda before or already have seen it six times, a trip to the North Shore before this production closes on July 3 would be as intelligent as a 7-year-old who reads Dostoevsky…or Dante.
(For tickets and more information, go to https://30byninety.com/shows/matilda/)
Hamilton at the Saenger Theatre through July 10
Hamilton has returned to the Saenger Theatre. If that excites you, by all means get tickets; apparently, they’re a bit less expensive than during its first time here in 2019.
If you’re still deciding whether to go or not, here are some thoughts I had upon seeing it for a second time.
–While an interesting history lesson, much of Hamilton, particularly the first act, feels more like a blazingly theatrical (thanks to Thomas Kail’s direction, Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography and Howell Bikley’s lighting) Wikipedia entry than a musical in which real people worth caring about are up on the stage.
–I preferred the second act which features more conflict and more nuanced characterizations. A few people I know, though, liked Act One better with its Revolutionary War derring-do.
–While I doubt the tempi have been slowed down, this time I was better able to process Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ingeniously rhymed words in terms of how they advanced the plot and added to the characterizations. That said, particularly in the rapped sections, everything seems to be pitched at the same emotional level, like a steady stream of fireworks.
–Would that all the songs achieve what The Room Where It Happens does, in which a catchy tune perfectly complements and enhances the lyrics and, together, they move the story along with wit, power and flair. The Schuyler Sisters is pretty but it sounds like it was written for the NYC Tourism Authority.
–Understudy Deejay Young went on as Alexander Hamilton at the performance I attended and while certainly abrasive, as Hamilton is supposed to be, Young’s underlying charm made him a more interesting antihero than the actor I saw three years ago. Combine this with Josh Tower’s merely okay Aaron Burr (the bone-deep, Salieri-like desperation was missing), and the dramatic balance shifted; I empathized more with Hamilton than Burr this time.
–That mean and nasty King George III still gets one of the best songs in the show, You’ll Be Back, which Peter Matthew Smith plays to snivelly perfection.
–I kept waiting to be moved or deeply touched to no avail. Miranda writes seemingly more to show off his intellect than to probe compelling interpersonal emotions. Blankenbuehler’s choreography had a similar effect; gorgeous to look at but lacking the expressive exuberance of a West Side Story’s The Dance at the Gym or Sweet Charity’s There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This or so many others.
I guess you won’t be surprised then that, unlike Matilda the Musical, I probably won’t be seeing Hamilton six or seven times.
(For tickets and more information, go to https://www.saengernola.com/)
The Cuck at The Treehouse
Intramural Theater recently presented the world premiere of The Cuck by Sam Mayer, in an extraordinary outdoor production at The Treehouse, a venue in the Florida Area of the Upper Ninth Ward.
A fairly straightforward adaptation of Euripides’ Electra, The Cuck is still set in ancient Greece, but Mayer brilliantly employs modern language/lingo to make this ancient tale utterly more accessible. While Electra is still determined to kill her mother Clytemnestra to avenge her father Agamemnon’s murder, here an ice luge for dispensing vodka figures in the proceedings, and Electra and her gal pals party at venues named Club Toto and Hot Cup.
Bennett Kirschner directed with penetrating insight, finely balancing over-the-top-ishness with emotional truthfulness, camp with seriousness, to powerful effect. The style he employed brought to mind productions I saw back in the 1980s with Charles Ludlam at his Ridiculous Playhouse in the West Village.
The entire cast was pitch perfect. Alexandria Miles, as Electra, gave a fierce, finely shaded performance in a role that some have called the female equivalent of Hamlet. Native New Orleanian Paul Braud returned to NOLA, after starring in Shakespeare productions around the country, as Electra’s long-separated brother Orestes; Braud’s royal hunky dude, who aspires to be a poet and finds he has a taste for killing, sizzled.
Venita “Vinnie” Matthews brought magisterial grandeur to Clytemnestra. Mary Langley, as Electra’s servant, was unrecognizable in appearance and manner from her hysterical drag turn earlier this year in For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls. The three party girls (Jordan Holton, Madi Zins, Mary Davis) who made up the Chorus could have been transported from Studio 54, but there was a subliminal sadness to them as well. And Joshua James evinced a Chekhovian pathos as Electra’s soon-to-be-ex husband.
Bitingly funny, by the end, The Cuck turned heartbreakingly sad as we watched a civilization collapse, a foretelling, perhaps, of what is to come for our own.
Suffice to say, it’ll be a tragedy if this is the only production The Cuck receives.