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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Theater Review—"Les Miz" Returns to Seattle in Glorious Style

Opening night at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre never felt more exciting than on June 28, when about 2,000 eager people waited for the curtain to rise on Les Misérables. But this wasn't just another Les Miz. Even lifelong fans find fresh reasons to fall in love with this new, spectacular, reimagined, 25th Anniversary production, which made its Seattle debut in 2011. This version introduced significant changes to the sets, costumes, lighting, choreography, and music.

"Lovely Ladies" - The Company of the New 25th Anniversary of Les Misérables
Photo: Deen van Meer
If you missed seeing Les Miz in Seattle last year, don't lose the opportunity again. In 2011, it ran for three weeks at 99.01% capacity, attracted over 50,000 patrons, and grossed more than $4 million in ticket sales. This year, the run lasts only two weeks and will surely sell out, as before.

"Seattle audiences have always loved Les Miz," the show's producer, Cameron Mackintosh, said in a press release. "But the reaction to the new production last year was so phenomenal, and tickets went so fast, that—to say thank you—we wanted Seattle to be the first city that we returned to on this remarkable sell-out national tour."

"One Day More" - The Company of the New 25th Anniversary of Les Misérables
Photo: Deen van Meer
As much as I admired the singing and acting, I wish to praise the talented people working behind the scenes, the designers, managers, technical staff, stage hands, and of course the excellent musicians. I especially applaud Paule Constable for the lighting design, which added as much to the drama as any human actor, becoming almost a character in itself. It takes nine computers and 1600 amps of power to run the lighting package.

"Barricade" - The Company of the New 25th Anniversary of Les Misérables
Photo: Deen van Meer

The sets, designed by Matt Kinley and inspired by Victor Hugo's own paintings, were amazing in their detail and versitiliy. And the clever use of the moving projection of background images created special effects I’ve never seen on a stage before, illusions of movement that felt entirely believable. Then, of course, there is the music that has been reproduced in nearly 40 recordings.

"Stars" - Andrew Varela (Javert)
Photo: Deen van Meer
The story’s universal themes—the human spirit’s victory over injustice, the power of love, the price of war, the ability to forgive, the virtues of loyalty and selflessness, and the hope of redemption—speak to us today as profoundly as they did in Victor Hugo’s classic novel, published in 1862. The superb acting by every member of the cast did justice to the story. It contained sincerity, sentimentality, romance, humor, bawdiness, spiritual meaning, and dramatic tension, all delivered with passion. Even the five children in the cast performed like seasoned pros.

"Fall of Rain" - The Company of the New 25th Anniversary of Les Misérables
Photo: Deen van Meer
Although, in the beginning, it seemed a little difficult to hear the lyrics, I soon found myself getting most of the words. I don’t know whether I simply became more tuned in as time went on, or if an adjustment had been made in the orchestra vs. vocal volume levels. Some diehard Les Miz fans I spoke with during intermission said it takes a few times to catch all the lyrics in any production. Nevertheless, I had no problem following the story line and appreciating the subtleties. Solo vocal performances came through clearly and moved me.

The choice of Peter Lockyer as Jean Valjean, the fugitive and central figure, could not have been better. His impassioned vocals imbued his character with humanity. Andrew Varela, as Javert, delivered his songs with power. Betsy Morgan gave a heartfelt performance as did Briana Carlson-Goodman as Éponine, who drew my compassion as the young woman suffering from unrequited love for Marius, played by Max Quinlan. Timothy Gulan and Shawan M. Hamic, as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier brought humor and physical comedy into this serious story, but with a malevolent edge that made them delightfully obnoxious.
"Beggars at the Feast" - The Company of the New 25th Anniversary of Les Misérables
Photo: Deen van Meer
I loved the costumes for their contrasting rich and subdued hues and authentic style. According to the theater, the cast’s wardrobe contained over 5,000 costume pieces, including 57 brown shawls, each one different from the others. The only costume I didn’t care for was Madame Thénardier’s hot pink dress with its puffball-like trim. I realize it was meant to represent bad taste, but its extreme outlandishness and guaudiness seemed better suited to a Disney cartoon than Les Miz. However, it took nothing away from Hamic’s superb performance.

For the sake of those who don’t care to support the arts—those who view live theater as some kind of useless liberal fluff in a society that seems less and less willing to support anything that enriches lives—I offer this point of practical interest. When Les Miz came to Seattle in 2011, it pumped $1.5 million into the local economy. Just one matinee last August grossed $202,257 and brought 2,085 extra people to the downtown retail core on a Thursday afternoon. Unfortunately, the people with whom I would like to share these statistics are most likely not reading theatre reviews.

Most importantly, theater, like all the arts, make us think, question, and explore the potential of the human spirit. Creativity is vital to a civilized world. Art matters. To all of us. Support it.

Need any more reasons to go? Here’s the link to the box office.

"I Dreamed A Dream" - Betsy Morgan (Fantine)
Photo: Deen van Meer

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rose Garden at Point Defiance Park (video tour)

To celebrate the beginning of summer, I wandered through the rose garden at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma yesterday, with my camera in hand. Please enjoy this video tour I prepared for you. And remember to appreciate your life, the people you love, and all the beauty that surrounds you.

If only I could have included the scent of roses...

Monday, June 18, 2012

Just What you Needed: "One Slight Hitch" at ACT — a review

Except for the remembered joys of motherhood, I’ve never had a good reason to revisit the 1980s, but I did so last Thursday in Seattle, at ACT — A Contemporary Theatre. There for opening night of a play called “One Slight Hitch," a comedy by Lewis Black set in 1981, I probably had more fun than I had in the entire actual decade.  
Katherine Grant-Suttie, Marianne Owen, Kirsten Potter, Kimberley Sustad, and R. Hamilton Wright in back.
Photo: Chris Bannion

The play uses only one set, the interior of the well-appointed home of Doc and Delia Coleman in suburban Cincinnati. It represents everything safe, sane, and insipid about the ‘80s, right down to the floral sofa pillows that perfectly match the floral wallpaper that perfectly matches the floral arrangement on a table. But in that conservative and affluent setting, complete and hilarious chaos threatens the wedding day of one of the couple’s three daughters when the clueless former lover of the bride-to-be shows up for an unannounced visit.

Although the entire cast did an outstanding job, in my opinion the parents, Doc (yes, he’s a doctor) and Delia, stole the show. The role of Doc, played by R. Hamilton Wright, gave this versatile and most amazingly talented actor a chance to show his funny side. He embellished the script with subtleties of voice, expression, and physical comedy that felt spontaneous and oh so fun. I had been impressed by his acting in the serious role of dental mechanic Harry Wilson in “The Pitmen Painters” and just became an even more ardent fan.
Equally delightful and impressive was Marianne Owen as Delia. Make that Delia the Drama Queen. What a talent! I'll be watching for her name. Owen nailed this character perfectly. She was the high-minded hostess invested in pulling off the perfect wedding one minute and the witty, sharp-tongued, Valium-popping, exasperated wife and mother in a bathrobe and curlers the next. But she spoke seriously at one point in the second act and imbued the scene with depth and poignancy as she reminded us of the differences in generations.

Kimberley Sustad, Katherine Grant-Suttie, Kirsten Potter
Photo: Chris Bennion
Kimberly Sustad as Courtney Coleman, the bride-to-be, also acted her role with flair. In this comedy with a serious side—about recognizing our real wants and needs versus the ones we pretend to have for the sake of convention or approval—she walks the fine line between liberated female writer and about-to-be cookie cutter 1980s wife and never loses her balance. Even her quintessential ruffled and romantic ‘80s wedding dress, so obviously not representative of her real taste, spoke volumes.
The heavy drinking, hilarious, and sexually liberated sister Melanie Coleman, played by Kirsten Potter, added more than her share of laughs to this comedy. Potter delivered sidesplitting one-liners in quick succession and, like Wright, made the most of her lines with the small nuances that show her to be a true pro. In spite of her vices, I loved her most of all.
Katherine Grant-Suttie, an adult of at least average height, played the part of a pigtailed, Walkman-wearing, young teenaged girl, not even old enough to drive. But she met the challenge well and created a funny and charming character. I admire the fine job she did, even though this casting choice required my imagination to work a little.
Shawn Telford and Kimberley Sustad
Photo: Chris Bennion
The two remaining characters were Courtney’s ex-lover and fellow writer, Ryan, played by Shawn Telford, and her fiancé, Harper, played by John Ulman. As elsewhere in this masterful script, we meet two characters who each have another side and surprise us when they turn out to be more complex than our first impression would suggest. Telford could get the laughs with nothing more than a move or look and Ulman slipped skillfully between his nauseatingly suave persona and the more believable fellow later revealed.
The only confusing part came when these two would-be, should-be rivals ended up sitting so close together on the sofa I wondered if the plot was about to head off in a whole new direction. But it didn’t, and I’m not sure what that action was meant to imply.
This play resolved all the confusion and craziness with a sweet and satisfying ending. My companion, whom I have never seen laugh so hard, exclaimed, “That was just what I needed!” If life seems way too serious, do yourself a favor and go see “One Slight Hitch.” I'll make it easy. You can order your tickets right here.

It might be a farce, but it hits close enough to the truth of family life, relationships, and the ‘80s themselves, to make you grateful to be an outsider who could laugh at someone else’s near disaster of a day. 

Congratulations to playwright Lewis Black and everyone else involved.
Playwright Lewis Black with Cast members Marianne Owen and Kimberley Sustad
Photo: LaRae Lobdell

Copyright 2012 Candace J. Brown

Monday, June 11, 2012

Dandelion Summers - a Baby Boomer's Memories

In my memories of childhood, summer stretches out like a lazy cat on a porch long, warm, and relaxed. It wasn’t that we had nothing to do. We all picked strawberries at our neighbor's farm, and we had our chores. There were weeds to pull in the vegetable garden, green beans to snap so Mom could can them in Mason jars, and plenty of other little jobs. Whining about boredom could lead to things like being handed a rag and a pan of warm water and baking soda solution to wash the painted woodwork around the doors and windows of our old house.

The summers when I was old enough to have a bicycle and a bit of freedombut young enough to not yet know the turmoil of pubertystand out as the highlights of my childhood. I think of those times while walking on the hill above a park in Tacoma. Floating up to me in the evening air, come the quintessential sounds of summera bat hitting a ball, distant cheering, whistles and applause.

In spite of my life lessons in physical work and responsibility, I enjoyed plenty of afternoons on an old quilt spread under a tree, reading my beloved library books, my mind in another world. I can still feel the soft cotton against bare suntanned legs and hear the leaves rustling above my head. I had time to daydream, look up at clouds and imagine what their shapes suggested.

We had a great homemade swing set, and we improvised other play equipment from such things as a couple of old oil drums and some long 2x12 planks of lumber. These could become everything from a “teeter-totter” to the tight rope in a circus act. We hung old blankets over the board to make tents, and used it to make a safe path through blackberries thickets, flopping it down through the brambles to part them, since the sweetest, juiciest and biggest berries always seemed to grow in the center.

That's me in the back, my brother Bruce with the hat, and some little girl named Debbie
sitting in the kiddy car I had regretfully outgrown. I wish I had that car now.
We ran barefoot and stepped on bees, fell down and got bruised and scraped, played kick-the-can and croquet on the front lawn, drank lemonade out of brightly colored aluminum tumblers, and ate Popsicles Mom made herself in Tupperware molds. There were trees to climb, bugs to catch, bikes to ride, and camps to build. Across our hayfield the dirt path to the neighbor kids’ house was well worn and trampled hard, as children and dogs ran from one yard to the other all day long.
We enjoyed memorable family outings, long and short. They included picnics, all-day excursion to Mount Rainier where we picked blueberries, camping trips, and even a two month tour of the U.S. with our travel trailer. We often ate dinner on the patio. Except for swimming lessons, we had no organized activities. Mom never drove us anywhere all week. Imagine life without McDonald’s or computer games.

I look back and remember these summers as rich and enriching experiences, that had much to do with shaping the person I now am. Left to our own resources and imaginations we learned to think creatively, get along with each other, appreciate nature, believe in the possibility of anything we could dream, and that life was meant to be joyful.

It’s a nice Northwest summer day, but the kids are still in school. Their summer won’t be quite like the ones I remember, but I hope at least some things haven’t changed. I hope they play more outside than inside, scrape a few knees, get dirty, and that little freckled faces still grin as they stretch out grubby hands to give a smiling mother a bouquet of weeds. Have a dandy, dandelion summer!

(Note: This is a slightly edited version of a post I published in 2008, one many people enjoyed. It seemed just right for today.)

All photos and text Copyright 2012 Candace Brown. Please do not use without permission.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Ballerina's Birthday — Appreciating Gifts That Can't be Wrapped

Katherine Neumann—known as "Katie" to her family, friends, and fans—turns 20 years old today and has been living her passion since the age of four. She began as a toddler in a tutu who started dancing around the house about the same time she started to walk. Even though she trains for hours every day, she told me, "I would love to have dance be all day and all night and have that be my life." The more I learn about her, the more I am sure that wish will come true.

Katherine Neumann                                                          photo by Maks Zakharov

The little girl from Olympia who pretended to be a ballerina is now Principal Dancer Katherine Neumann with Dance Theatre Northwest. She will star in the lead role in Paquita when DTN presents excerpts from this classical ballet as part of the school's annual recital on June 23, 2012, at Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma. In the past, she danced lead parts in Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty, plus many other roles in other ballets. Neumann teaches too, and has a lesson for all of us, about the power of gratitude, dedication, and dreams.

Regardless of what surprises may come to her on this birthday, Neumann believes she has already received plenty of priceless gifts of a nonmaterial kind. Those gifts came from her loving and supportive family and what she thinks of as a second family—the people involved with Dance Theatre Northwest, especially Artistic Director Melanie Kirk-Stauffer, principal trainer and choreographer, who is respectfully called "Mrs. Melanie" by her students.

"I could not wish for a better mentor," Neumann told me in a recent interview. "I call her my ballet Mom. She really is like a second Mom to me. She’s done so much for me over the years.
"Mrs. Melanie has so much experience. She’s always keeping up to date with teachers all around and the latest studies. It’s inspiring to have a teacher who is always trying to learn more herself. It makes you want to learn more too."
Katherine Neumann             Photo by David Main

Concerning the upcoming presentation of Paquita, Neumann said, "The music is beautiful, and the dancing. And of course, with Mrs. Melanie and her history, it makes it even more meaningful to dance it and learn it from her. So it's very exciting." Her comment referred to the fact that, years ago, Kirk-Stauffer danced the lead role in Paquita with the Tacoma Civic Ballet, at age 17, drawn from the corps de ballet to do this part only three weeks before the performance. She went on to have an impressive career.

Under Kirk-Stauffer's tutelage, Neumann's training included a main focus on Royal Academy of Dance Teaching Syllabus through level 6. Now only twenty years old, she has had:

  • 16 years in classical ballet training
  • 10 years pointe training
  • 7 years of partnering training
  • 11 years of tap and jazz training
She took part in four student dance education trips to New York with Kirk-Stauffer, where she attended classes at the Broadway Dance Center, Joffrey Ballet School, Steps on Broadway, City Center, and New Dance Group. Neumann also took Master Classes with Finis Jhung, Robert Atwood, Francesca Corkle, David Howard, Ludmila Raianove, Diana Cartier, Sheila Barker and Shea Sullivan.

Kirk-Stauffer told me, "Katie is exceptional in that she is very determined to succeed and is flexible enough mentally to help work through new choreography with ease but also capable of refining her classical work to include every detail. On top of that, she is a fabulous performer."
Katherine Neumann featured in "Paquita"
 Photo Courtesy of Dance Theatre Northwest by Maks Zakharov
In addition to all her dance training, Neumann has excelled academically too. Through Washington State's Running Start program, she began taking college classes while still in high school. She graduated from North Thurston High School in June of 2010 with High Honors and from South Puget Sound Community College in March of 2011, also with High Honors. She also received the Willian J. Shurgot Memorial Scholarship in Humanities.

During our interview, I said to Neumann, "You have all this hard physical work and time spent, and dedication to your goals. What is it that keeps you inspired?"
"I love pushing myself," she answered. "The thing about dance is that there is always something that you can be working to improve upon. There’s never an ending. I love that it’s infinite.
"You can be working on something for months, and then one day suddenly you get it, and it’s there. Just that feeling of accomplishment after working so hard . . . there’s nothing like it. When you get to perform and share that with everybody, it’s just wonderful."

Then she talked about Dance Theatre Northwest, what this non-profit organization has meant to her, and why she thinks it matters to the whole community:

"Dance Theatre Northwest is a special place. Besides the high quality training you get there—you really don’t get that kind of training anywhere else in the community—you have all these wonderful role models and build these great relationships. And you learn all kinds of life skills at DTN too. It teaches you discipline. It teaches you dedication. It teaches you time management and hard work, how to hold yourself, carry yourself and respect yourself. It teaches you how to be a good person.

"Mrs. Melanie is a fantastic role model. And Miss Vadne (Associate Director Vadne Domeika), our other teacher, is a really great role model too. They’re both very supportive of all the students. And there’s a lot of community service we all do together, going to retirement homes and schools, which is wonderful too. It’s great to involve the teens and the younger kids in that community service. It teaches them a lot about respecting and giving back to their community."
Paquita Pas Deux   Chhay Mam and Katherine Neumann    
Photo courtesy of Dance Theatre Northwest, by Maks Zakharov

Neumann hopes Paquita will draw a large crowd, and not only from among those who already love ballet. "Part of the art form of ballet is to make it look effortless and easy," she said, "but it’s really a very challenging art form. I would love for more people to see and appreciate that and enjoy the beauty of it too."
I don't know for sure what wish Neumann will make when she blows out her birthday candles today, but I can guess from her closing remarks: 

"I’m working on hopefully going to New York in the fall. Mrs. Melanie has been kind enough to take me to New York a few times over the years to study there with different teachers and kind of experience the life of a dancer in New York. I absolutely love it. I’m hoping in the fall I can move there and start to pursue a higher level of it and see where that leads me.
"I love ballet. It’s where my heart is. I just can’t imagine life without it."
Happy Birthday Katie! May all your wishes come true, and may all the gifts you've already received serve you well in life.
You can order your tickets for Paquita today, through this link to the DTN box office.   Sat. 23rd 2:30pm - Sat. 23rd 7pm
Or Call 253-778-6534            

Sunny June Day in the Garden -- a photo tour

While rain fell on most of the Puget Sound area yesterday, here in Tacoma we enjoyed a glorious June afternoon. So for those of you yearning for a real summer day, I offer these photos full of color and sun, beginning with video of a buzzing bee and flowers tossing in the breeze. Take a deep breath of fresh air and feel the warmth.