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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Irving Berlin's White Christmas
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
That Pretty Pretty; or, the Rape Play

Also see Tim's reviews of Old Wicked Songs and Plato's Apology

White Christmas
Jeffrey Coon and David Elder
Photo: Mark Garvin
Irving Berlin's White Christmas is a musical that shouldn't work as well as it does. Some of the musical numbers are shoehorned into the show so awkwardly that they bear no relation to the rest of the show. The script is so corny that even those who haven't seen the 1954 movie it's based on will probably find it predictable. And it's all wrapped in a sentimental veneer that seems almost ludicrously old-fashioned.

And yet the Walnut Street Theatre's White Christmas is astonishingly entertaining. Director/choreographer Marc Robin's production is a lot less elaborate than the touring production that played last year at the Academy of Music; there are fewer sets, and some scenes dispense with scenery altogether in favor of curtains. (And one of the songs, "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun," has been virtually eliminated; only the reprise remains.) But in this case, less is more. Robin's production moves so quickly that you don't have much time to ponder the dramatic complexities of what passes for a plot. Instead, you can spend more time being dazzled by spectacular tap-dance numbers like "I Love a Piano." And the Walnut's production feels warmer and more convincing than the version at the Academy did (though that's partly because it's in a much more intimate theater).

The plot? Oh, yeah, there is one. It's about two song and dance men (Jeffrey Coon and David Elder) who romance a team of singing sisters (Julie Reiber and Vanessa Sonon) while simultaneously trying to organize a televised tribute to the general (Paul L. Nolan) who commanded them a decade earlier in World War II. The movie's plot was far from sophisticated, and the play's book by David Ives and Paul Blake simplifies it too much. (The reason for a lovers' spat between the main couple was contrived in the movie, and seems even less believable here.) But it all serves as an excuse for a bunch of talented people to sing and dance their way through some terrific Berlin songs.

As the main romantic leads, Coon and Reiber each get an opportunity to show off their excellent voices, although they come off as a bit bland in comparison to Elder (who also starred in the tour last year) and Sonon, who have fun doing the more lighthearted numbers. Nolan is suitably gruff but lovable as the general, and there are delightfully hammy turns by Alene Robertson as the general's assistant and youngster Eloise Sharkey as his granddaughter (Sharkey alternates with Brigid Harrington in the role). And Fran Prisco makes a big comic impact in a few small roles.

White Christmas is no Christmas classic, but it's a fun way to kick off the holiday season.

Irving Berlin's White Christmas runs through January 9, 2011, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $95, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.


Another musical that's perfect for the holiday season—or any time of the year—is The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a show which could never be called old-fashioned. The new production at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, the latest of several productions in greater Philadelphia this season, is delightful, giving a nice twist on the offbeat tale of a bunch of middle school misfits who find their gift for spelling makes them feel special.

Rachel Sheinkin's book (from a concept by Rebecca Feldman) is filled with gently subversive (and often riotously funny) humor, and makes room for audience participation (four audience members are called to fill in as contestants at each performance). William Finn's score is about as different from White Christmas as you can get, but it works superbly, with clever lyrics, offbeat rhythms, and time signature changes that perfectly capture the mood of characters looking for a place where they can fit in.

Director Marc Bruni's production is easygoing and sweet. It's solidly professional, too, yet that's not always a good thing. A few of the contestants in this Spelling Bee aren't as odd as they've been in past productions; their rough edges are smoothed out a bit too much. That's true of the adults at the bee, too—moderator Rona (Marla Mindelle) seems more sweet than quirky, and "comfort counselor" Mitch (Jerold Solomon) comes off more cuddly than threatening. But there are a few standouts in the cast who not only capture the show's off-kilter spirit perfectly but also give it a touching center: Olivia Oguma as Marcy Park, a seemingly perfect student who sings a song called "I Speak Six Languages"; Will Blum as William Barfee, an eccentric who spells out the words on the floor with his right foot; and especially Ali Stroker as Olive Ostrovsky, who poignantly struggles to succeed in the face of parental neglect.

(Stroker's disability—she performs in a wheelchair—isn't mentioned onstage, but it's appropriate for a show where the contestants' various backgrounds all mark them as different from the norm. When William develops a crush on Olive, it seems like the most natural thing in the world; he appears not to even notice that she's, well, not at his eye level.)

All of the actors have fine voices, and Andy Einhorn's small but lively combo accompanies them well. Anna Luizos' school gym set is impressive and Wendy Seyb's choreography makes the most of a limited area for dancing.

This Spelling Bee isn't perfect—it sometimes aims more for "lovable" than "lovably strange"—but its few missteps are outweighed by its abundant charm. It's an excellent production of a hilarious and idiosyncratic musical about a bunch of life's losers who will end up winning your heart.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through December 12, 2010, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $48 to $69, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.


A Separate Peace
Charlotte Ford and Christie Parker
Photo: Paola Nogueras
Sheila Callaghan's That Pretty Pretty; or, the Rape Play will blow you away. Just when you think you've figured out what it's about, the scene changes to one that deconstructs everything you've seen so far. And that pattern repeats itself for over ninety minutes. It's violent, disturbing and disgusting, and mocks itself about how violent, disturbing and disgusting it is. Yet despite all that, it's a vital and powerful piece of playwriting, and director Joe Canuso's vivid production for Theatre Exile never lets up for a second.

Agnes and Valerie (Charlotte Ford and Christie Parker) are sisters—maybe—who have made it their mission in life to punish men for what they think are the crimes of all men. They pick up men, kill them, and abuse their bodies; then Valerie takes pictures of the carnage and uploads the photos to her blog. But wait a minute: Valerie is narrating Agnes' words as Agnes says them. Is Agnes real, or a character in Valerie's blog? In the next scene, the gender roles are reversed, with two men (Jered McLenigan and Allen Radway) carrying out the brutality and Agnes as one of the victims. Is this scene reality? Later we find we're in a screenplay written by one of the men, but the line between reality and bizarre fantasy doesn't stop there. The writer becomes a woman before our eyes, putting on a ballroom gown and lipstick and then giving birth. And then Jane Fonda ... wait, did I mention that Jane Fonda is a major character? Played by Amy Smith, she makes entrances and exits throughout the play, being whatever people project her to be—sixties sex kitten, seventies war protester, or eighties workout queen. All the while the characters comment on what we're seeing, reminding us that this is "polarizing" and that "some people just don't have the nerve for social commentary."

Confused yet? Callaghan's play is ridiculous, self-contradictory, and aggressively tasteless. It condemns violence, yet revels in violence; it celebrates feminism, then ridicules feminism. But Callaghan's heady stew all works, as improbable as that may seem.

Canuso's production flows beautifully. Much of the credit belongs to Jorge Cousineau, whose sets and stunning video projections make for some remarkable scene transitions. Actors are projected, life-size, onto screens and act out a scene on video, and it can be hard to tell what's real and what's videotaped ... until the killings start. Then the screens part and reveal the aftermath. It's masterfully staged, and helped greatly by Rosemarie McKelvey's deliberately tacky costumes and J. Paul Nicholas' convincing fight direction. Canuso also gets extraordinarily rich and varied performances from his cast, who play characters who embrace varying degrees of reality depending on the playwright's mood.

"I certainly don't expect everyone to love it," says the screenwriter in the play's last moments, commenting both on the movie we haven't seen and the play we have. Well, you can say that again. (As Valerie says in the play's opening scene, "Let's get subtexty.") That Pretty Pretty is guaranteed to make you feel uneasy, and knows it. But for those who can handle it, it's a sick, twisted, and incredibly thrilling ride.

That Pretty Pretty; or, the Rape Play runs through December 5, 2010, and is presented by Theatre Exile at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 North American Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $25-$32 and are available by calling 215-218-4022 or online at www.theatreexile.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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