Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Two Songbook Musicals: Snapshots and American Idiot
Village Theatre and ArtsWest

Snapshots at Village Theatre and American Idiot at ArtsWest opened the same night last week, as varied as two such shows could be, as the former draws from the pen of Broadway and film giant Stephen Schwartz, while the latter dramatizes songs from the Green Day pop album of the same name. But both are worthy and able to fill the show-going needs of the two companies' contrasting audience bases.


Ben Wynant, Mallory King, Beth DeVries, Hugh Hastings, Tracy McDowell, and Jim DeSelms
Photo by Tracy Martin
Snapshots, which Village first produced in a pocket-size workshop version in 2005, is an original story of the crumbling marriage of a fiftyish couple and looks back at them in their 20s and 30s. Thus the story is not quite backwards a la Merrily We Roll Along, but skips around in time. David Stern's romantic, warm, funny, if rather thin book does borrow a bit from another Sondheim show, Follies, when the late-40ish couple questions the actions of their younger selves that led them where they are now (humorously in this show, the younger two pairs respond back to their criticisms). The Schwartz songs, with almost 50% of the lyrics new compared to their original form in the shows and films they are drawn from, are a feast for the ear, and generally land quite successfully in this conceit. The numbers are mostly from his lesser-known shows, such as Children of Eden and The Baker's Wife, rather than, say, Godspell or Wicked. The newest song in the line-up is the utterly charming calypso number "That's How You Know?" from the half live/half animated film Enchanted. The use of blended song medleys is a good idea, and there is also an inspired take on the cult favorite ballad "Meadowlark" involving all three of the versions of Sue (aka Susan and Susie). Direction of the show by Daniel Goldstein is smooth and well-paced, and if the show seems a bit overlong, well you pick which Schwartz songs to omit. I sure couldn't.

Still, it is an apt and vital cast on whom the show relies, and that is exactly what the half dozen players here are. Beth DeVries and Hugh Hastings are the same pair who played Sue and Dan in the 2005 production, and also in a full production a few years later in Palo Alto. They know these characters inside out and have chemistry and ease onstage together, and their own life experiences have only enriched the depth and truth of their characterizations this go round. DeVries is as good a leading lady as you will find in all of Western Washington; her Sue is by turns warm and wry, and the songs she is assigned live in her vocal sweet spot. She also pairs well with both her "younger selves," and the aforementioned "Meadowlark", Sue's leitmotif in the show, is ravishing as she anchors it with young Susie (Mallory King) and middle Susan ( Tracy McDowell) joining in. Hastings' rich baritone serves him well on "All Good Gifts" and the stirring "Fathers and Sons" and he makes Dan a good guy, in spite of his obvious failings. The two cut a rug and get some jauntier material together strutting to Steve Tomkins' kicky musical staging in "All For The Best."

Ms. King's Susie is, well, rather "Extraordinary" as the actress takes her from giggling girlhood to mid-20s indecision. Her rendition of "Lion Tamer" (an unfairly forgotten Schwartz charmer from his long-running The Magic Show) is a little slice of heavenly goodness, and her romantic other, diminutive Ben Wynant as Danny not only scores from the onset with "New Kid in the Neighborhood" but owns the show's funniest moment in a number from a revue called Personals called "Movin' in with Susan." The only glitch in casting here, that Wynant is rather noticeably shorter than his alter selves, is easy to dismiss when watching this young man work the stage. Tracy McDowell (Susan) and Jim DeSelm (Daniel) are new to Seattle area stages and prove most welcome additions. DeSelm is a most affable young leading man type with a funnybone as well as vocal prowess, and McDowell is an attractive young leading lady with real depth and a radiant voice. The pair offer a smooth bridge between the youngest and oldest duos and offer "Endless Delights" (the song and their overall performances). Bravo to musical director R. J. Tancioco for his work with the cast and an amazingly full-sounding four-person band.

David Farley's attic set design, overcrowded with cobwebs, forgotten mementos, and memories is spot on, as is the work of lighting designer and projections designer David Cuthbert, especially the projections. Farley also is billed as co-costumer with Tracy Christensen, and they coordinate the looks/time period appropriateness of the cast's wardrobe skillfully. And an extra nod to sound designer Brent Warwick for making sure the many lyrics, old and new, are crisply and clearly heard.


Kirsten deLohr Helland and Cast
Photo by Michael Brunk
I was fabulously unimpressed by the so-called book musical made of the group Green Day's beloved 2004 recording American Idiot when it shattered ear-drums and made mincemeat of Billy Joe Armstrong's lyrics in a national tour at the Paramount three years back. What a difference the brave, bold and rather brilliant Eric Ankrim directed version at ArtsWest is. ArtsWest loved this director's vision that tore up their entire venue to allow it to be presented in two versions simultaneously, Observational and Immersive. You can watch it Observationally as a normal audience spectator would and be just fine, or if you're limber enough and didn't have enough exercise that day, try the Immersive (or as I think of it, Guided Tour through modern day post high-school angst) version, where you become a part of the show. As an awaiting-a-knee replacement guy, the Observational version worked fine by me, and the delighted, deer in the headlights, and just plain scared looks on the part of the Immersive group, as much as Ankrim's brilliant juggling of traffic patterns of these brave patrons, amidst the staging of the show proper is just genius.

That in name only book by Huels and Michael Mayer is a sort of "Son of Hair" story of three young friends facing the real post high school world in our jaded and always on boil modern times. (I'm not afraid to reveal more but even on a second viewing the story lost me and so I suggest Wikipedia for complete information.) The musical score by Green Day (a few pieces of which are drawn from their other album, "21st Century Breakdown") with Huels' raw, often incisive and possibly offensive lyrics, is stirring and above all audible, thank you musical directors Chris Ranney and RJ Tancioco, and the kick-ass band. The choreography by the trio of Trina Mills, Shadou Mintrone, and Gabe Corey is electric, exciting and original. And the performances? This is, individually and collectively, as fine a company as I have seen in some time.

Frederick Hagreen steps out of the ensemble roles he has been laboring in too long and dazzles as the deeply self-damaging Johnny who develops a terrible dug problem. Hagreen, with his rough-hewn yet handsome looks and fierce energy, is an ideal fit for this role, his underlying sincerity making the unlikable character keep us from growing apathetic with him, and therefore contrasting well with his Drug dealer alter-ego/id St. Jimmy, played fearlessly by Trent Moury. Justin Huertas is engaging and empathetic as the off to the war and back Tunny, and Michael Coale Grey slips comfortably into the part of Will, the buddy who stays in the hometown because his got his girl knocked up.

Kirsten deLohr Helland invests a great quiet energy in her role as Whatsername, and lets out with a big, impressive burst of vocal dynamism on her key featured song "Letterbomb." Chelsea LaValley makes another good impression as Heather, the pregnant wife, and her warm vocal style is a nice contrast to some of the other vocal styles. Innovative casting of actor Jimmie Harrod as Extraordinary Girl who nurses a wounded Tunny and returns home with him, pays off as I think half the audience was unaware of the gambit. I was aware I was watching a fantastic nuanced performance. The young, impassioned ensemble give 100% in all departments and bode well as stars to be in Seattle's playhouses down the line.

Scenic and video designer Jared Roberts' industrial playground w/ video screens, with entrances, exits, and playing areas everywhere, is clearly this season's leader in stunning achievements, complemented by top flight work from lighting designer Tristan Robertson, sound designer Haley Parcher, and costume designer Brynne McKeen. This American Idiot rates a MTD (Magic to Do) the equivalent of 4 stars!

Snapshots runs through October 18, 2015, at Village Theatre 303 Front Street in Issaquah, then October 23 - November 15, 2015 at the Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Avenue in Everett. For all information go to www.villagetheatre.org.

American Idiot runs through October 11, 2015, at ArtsWest Playhouse, ArtsWest Playhouse, 4711 California Ave SW. For tickets or information contact the ArtsWest box office at 206-938-0339 or visit them online at www.artswest.org.

- David Edward Hughes




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