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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Robin Hood and
My Fair Lady

Also see Tim's reviews of A Behanding in Spokane, Hamletmachine and Medeaplays

Robin hood
Charlotte Ford and Sean Lally
Photo by Mark Garvin
The Arden Theatre transforms a jungle gym into Sherwood Forest in their Spring show for children, Robin Hood. Visually arresting and performed by a versatile and high-spirited cast, it's a show that kids will really enjoy. But while it's a fun show, director Matthew Decker's production doesn't shy away from serious issues and never talks down to the little people in the audience.

As designed by Tom Gleeson, the set is one big playground, a place where any kid would love to live. Bright green pipes crisscross the stage overhead and line the walls. Maid Marian escapes the bad guys by swinging from monkey bars, and the merry men slide down poles. Robin and his band of brothers (and one sister) look utterly contemporary, wearing grey hoodies, dungarees and fingerless gloves. Costume designer Rosemarie E. McKelvey also puts the evil Sheriff of Nottingham into a pinstripe vest to show he means business.

Greg Banks' adaptation of the Robin Hood legends touches on the most famous elements of the story and tells them in a clear, linear fashion. But the play doesn't sugarcoat the darker elements of the story; the threats Robin and his men face seem genuinely menacing, as we see when a character gets killed in the first five minutes. There's an extraordinary moment in the climax, when the villainous sheriff meets his fate. Just as it seems as if the audience is about to cheer, Robin admonishes the audience: "Quiet! We never cheer the death of any man." (When was the last time you saw a children's show teach a moral lesson so explicitly?) Jenn Rose's fight choreography is thrilling but never seems threatening; the violence is cartoonish at all times.

All five actors play multiple roles, and they're so engaging that they make it easy to get involved in the show. Sean Lally is a genial Robin, Charlotte Ford is a spunky Marian, and Carl Clemons-Hopkins is a jolly Little John. But the most fun comes from watching the comic performances: Ian Merrill Peakes hamming it up as the sheriff, and Steve Pacek as a snobbish Prince John who takes a bath in a tub filled with money.

Occasionally, the production gets too cutesy, especially in its musical interludes (a brief hip-hop dance number is a pandering step too far). But for the most part, this is a thoughtful, highly enjoyable production that will keep kids alert, attentive and entertained.

Robin Hood runs through June 24, 2012, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $16 to $32 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at (215) 922-1122, online at www.ardentheatre.org or in person at the box office.


My Fair Lady
Eileen Cella and ensemble
Photo by Bill D'Agostino
While Robin Hood shows the virtues of a small cast, Act II Playhouse's production of My Fair Lady shows that sometimes a cast can be too small for a show's good. The original 1956 Broadway production of Lerner and Loewe's classic musical had a cast of 48, but Act II has reduced the cast to just eleven people, with some of the actors in supporting roles doubling as chorus members. And the orchestra has been replaced by a single piano (although one song also features an actor playing viola). This low-key, intimate approach might be fine for some shows; a similar style would certainly work for the play My Fair Lady is based on, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. But My Fair Lady, with its raucous music hall numbers and lush, melodic balladry, needs more. If there's anything My Fair Lady shouldn't be, it's low-key.

This My Fair Lady feels cramped, and that's best typified by Dirk Durossette's set design. It has two levels, but Act II's stage is so short that when actors climb a spiral staircase to the second floor, their heads appear to be cut off. Sonny Leo's choreography is repetitive, hemmed in by the limited playing area; the only memorable "dance" moment comes when the actors sit clanking beer steins together during "Get Me to the Church on Time." And the minimal accompaniment makes flaws stand out, such as the off-key harmonizing by the three-member chorus in "Wouldn't It Be Loverly."

All this might be somewhat forgivable if director Bud Martin's production shone dramatically, giving us more insight into the characters. But while the production isn't bad in this regard, it's nothing special, either. There are, however, some excellent performances. Tony Braithwaite captures the bluster and wounded dignity of Professor Henry Higgins and, unlike some actors in this role, he takes care to actually sing the songs instead of talk through them. (The way he plays with the dynamics of "I'm an Ordinary Man" is marvelous.) Eileen Cella shows off a lovely voice and an indomitable attitude as Eliza Doolittle, the simple Cockney flower girl Higgins is determined to pass off as a proper society lady. There are also wonderful comic turns from Chris French as Colonel Pickering and Mary Martello as Higgins' mother. Jonathan Silver shows off a sterling tenor as Eliza's suitor Freddy, although the decision to stage his gorgeous ballad "On the Street Where You Live" as a comedy number is puzzling.

Act II's My Fair Lady isn't terrible by any means; at times it's quite cute. But with such a great score and book, My Fair Lady should be more than just cute. It should be exhilarating.

My Fair Lady runs through June 17, 2012, Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices range from $33 to $38, with discounts available for students and groups, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-654-0200, online at www.act2.org or in person at the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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