A Saint Goes Marchin' In
Drinking green beer. Vomiting green beer. Pinching fellow green-beer drinkers who are not wearing an article of green clothing. Let's face it, this is the stuff of Saint Patrick's Day. But that's in the rest of the nation. South Florida doesn't have many bars that attract would-be bagpipers and other enthusiasts looking for an excuse to drink. For this reason I'm not sure why Mad Cat would choose this holiday as the theme of its second production at Miami Light Project's Light Box Studio. Shepherd's Pie (or Helluva St. Patrick's Day) traces the life of Saint Patrick, formerly known as Maewyn (Michael Vines), the son of Cal and Conchessa Suckit (Pamela Roza and Jennifer Lehr) and grandson of a minister. Uninterested in the fire and brimstone of his family's religious leanings, he leaves home, has an encounter with some evil forces, and is banished to the hills to live with sheep. Occasionally he receives a few one-line prophecies via Victor (Ivonne Azurdia), a belching, cigarette-smoking angel just trying to earn his feckin' wings.
Mad Cat already demonstrated that a largely commercial celebration can be cause for comedy with its first production, Helluva Halloween, a hilarious parody of slasher movies with a South Beach twist. That said, Shepherd's Pie is a helluva good time. From The Brady Bunch to The Silence of the Lambs, the production's pop-cultural references are legion and quite clever. Five microphones, a couch, several hats, and a few other props set the stage for a standup comedy-style production. The actors, dressed in grungy costumes, portray a variety of sadistic, sarcastic, roughhousing pagans. Oh yes, and a herd of sheep. Nate Rausch's sound effects and curious musical mixes keep the format from growing stagnant.
Artistic director Paul Tei has chosen his company well. The Mad Cat Players are funny and energetic, and the troupe is quickly establishing its m.o. of spontaneity, physicality, and irreverence. As Maewyn, Vines manages to create a character who is amusing. He's not just a comedy act amid innumerable pop-cultural references and sound bites. In an expandable green top hat and zebra-skin jacket, Ken Clement is appropriately self-mocking and Rodney Dangerfield-esque as the narrator. Whether a rich Beverly Hills brat in GableStage's Popcorn or a neurotic Polly Purebred in Helluva Halloween, Jennifer Lehr consistently stands out as a very self-contained actress. She makes each character she plays unique, and that ability is displayed in Shepherd's Pie more than in any other work. She succeeds in succinct portrayals of myriad characters, from the tight-ass, rosary-clutching mother of Maewyn to a roller-skating servant. Mad Cat's troupe of actors is definitely the highlight of the show.
The story line about the rise of Maewyn/Patrick to sainthood is interesting enough at first, but too much quality time with the sheep, followed by the tedious conversions of the protagonist and 10,000 others, becomes a little drawn out, even when articulated to a funky bass beat. Although the script, written by Azurdia and Tei, is fresh and comic, all the laughs in the world cannot disguise the fact that it is built not around a plot but rather a time line. Even funny jokes hanging on a threadbare story line weigh down a performance if it goes on too long, as Shepherd's Pie does. Easter is just around the corner, and though I know this crew could pull it off, I hope I won't be witness to an updated Crucifixion (in zebra-skin jacket?) with several thug bunnies throwing stones. Like anyone else I love a helluva good time, but I am hungry to see what the Mad Cat Players can do with a more challenging script.
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There's a different type of good time going on over at Shores Performing Arts Theater, where the musical Storyville is now being staged. Granted it does have all the components of a Life magazine spread: the cute kid in his knickers and cap playing hooky and hanging out at the docks; the jaded cabaret singer; the heavyset vodou mama; the country boy come to town to make it big -- not to mention the multitalented/multiracial palette of prostitutes for hire. Storyville is the name of the red-light district that prospered just two blocks from New Orleans' French Quarter from 1899, when it was created by city ordinance, to 1917, when it was abolished by the federal government because of increasing violence and the death of a U.S. Navy officer. The plot of the musical is nothing new: Boy meets girl, boy wants girl, boy must battle many evil forces (among them his own stupidity) before he finally gets girl. Butch "Cobra" Brown (Adrian Bailey), a heavyweight boxer turned trumpet player, is new in town and looking to make his name as a jazz musician. He meets and falls in love with Tigre Savoy (La Tanya Hall), a cabaret singer who is raising a son, Punchie (Tristan Montague), on her own while trying to keep one step ahead of the corruption around her. What is exciting about Storyville is the caliber of performers and musicians who unite to deliver a three-hour show packed with compelling characters, high-quality music, and a dynamic stage presence.
All of the core members of Storyville have extensive stage credits, including Broadway experience, and it shows. Countess Dolly (Ernestine Jackson) reigns over the opening funeral procession and the entire production. As the brothel's madam and the consort of good ol' boy and New Orleans kingpin commissioner Mickey P. Mulligan (Murray Gaby), Jackson displays a presence both commanding and regal.
Storyville's central conflict arises from the struggle between two incompatible bed partners: success and dignity. This theme of selling out plants the seeds that really took root in groundbreaking musicals such as Michael Bennett's Dreamgirls, the story of a black singing group that rises from the ghetto to national fame and fortune in the '60s. (Hall also starred in a national production of that show.) Although Storyville is much less complex than Dreamgirls, the actors and director Marion J. Caffey are masterful creators of character. Each character has a distinct, colorful persona and an outstanding singing voice, which convert the stage into a veritable smorgasbord of entertainment. In one number, "Makin' It," the sophisticated but fiery Tigre has a run-in with the prima donna of all prostitutes, FiFi (Myiia Watson-Davis). Watson-Davis' gritty, soulful voice grabbing at Hall's more classically trained sound makes for a devastating duel, as FiFi spits out: "We're all whore to someone." As Butch, Bailey also shows his force as both a dancer and singer. His timing is impeccable and his movements surprisingly smooth for such a large man. When Butch belts out his passions for Tigre and jazz music in tunes like "Feel That Jazz" and "Rollin' up the River," his deep baritone voice leaves nothing in its wake.
The constant presence of a seven-piece band, conducted by pianist William Foster McDaniel with musical arrangements by Danny Holgate, is a real treat. Live music is vital to any musical performance but indispensable to such a jazz-infused show. The visual presence of the band creates the feeling of bustling activity and spontaneity for which the district was known.
The talented chorus possesses skill and energy. The dance numbers are not technically intricate, but each chorine establishes her character's personality and area of sexual expertise in a number called "The Blue Book" and maintains this identity throughout the performance while still being part of a unified and energetic group.
The standout number of the night is undeniably Big Mama (Katura) doing "The Best Is Yet To Be," in which she implores Tigre to relinquish her obstinacy and make up with Butch. Musically pummeling Tigre and the audience with wave after wave of electrifying gospel-style power, Katura brings down the house.
At the end of Storyville, Tigre, Butch, and young Punchie are headed off to make their own fortune as riverboat performers -- a happy ending we are eager to believe because we like the characters so much. While the play doesn't reveal anything new about the place, the time, or its inhabitants, the tremendous talent Caffey has brought together does remind us that a musical with outstanding showmanship and music can still succeed on a South Florida stage.
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