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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Pretty Fire and
What a Glorious Feeling

Also see Tim's reviews of Stars of David, Behind the Eye and The Exit Interview

Pretty Fire
Cathy Simpson
Photo by www.plate3photography.com
Theatre Horizon's handsome, spacious new home in Norristown is getting a first-rate introduction via Pretty Fire, actress/author Charlayne Woodard's finely detailed chronicle of the highs and lows of her childhood. Performed with brio by local actress Cathy Simpson, it's an ordinary tale elevated by the way it's told and presented.

Woodard was born prematurely, weighing only a pound and a half; the doctor predicted she wouldn't make it through her first night. But she rallied, and her family gave her all the love and support she would need to survive and succeed. Her stories cover the bliss of her early life and the pain as well; for instance, a tale of a summer visit to her grandparents' home makes 1960s Georgia seem like a paradise ... until that happiness is shattered by a racist attack on her family. What makes Pretty Fire so rewarding is that even though she was sometimes cruelly victimized, Woodard never turns the show into a litany of woe and never paints herself as heroic. What sticks in the mind after Pretty Fire are heartwarming accounts, like how Charlayne and her little sister played all day in the red clay of Georgia and were cleaned up afterward by their no-nonsense Grandmother—"our hero," as Charlayne calls her. Woodard's stories gain power through their discerning and painstaking detail, and she recounts the joys and the anguish with equal ferocity.

Under James Ijames' sensitive direction, Simpson bounces between childlike glee and sober maturity, and never goes overboard in either direction. The years slip away in an instant: one moment Simpson is telling of a harrowing lesson she learned, and the next she is sitting cross-legged on the floor, eyes wide, miming herself watching television and dreaming of turning into Shirley Temple. She's a pleasure to watch.

Maura Roche's set design consists of intersecting wooden slats that serve as an all-purpose background for her various stories but take on a different meaning during the show's most chilling moment. David Todoro's versatile lighting and Christopher Colucci's sound strengthen the story significantly, and are a good indication of why Theatre Horizon's move to a high-tech new home is a welcome move both for the company and its audiences.

Pretty Fire runs through November 18, 2012, at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, Norristown, Pa. Tickets are $31, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available by calling 610-283-2230 or online at www.TheatreHorizon.org.


What a Glorious Feeling
Summer Broyhill & Charles Osborne
Photo by BRT Staff
What a Glorious Feeling is an odd mixture of music and melodrama. Set in a rehearsal hall at the MGM studio in 1951, it's the story of the making of the classic movie musical Singin' in the Rain. Part of the play deals with the creative process, and there are anecdotes about casting choices that, thank goodness, didn't make it to the screen (like having Oscar Levant play the sidekick role that went to Donald O'Connor). But playwright Jay Berkow focuses on the love triangle between leading man/director/choreographer Gene Kelly, his co-director Stanley Donen and Jeanne Coyne, who was Kelly's assistant and Donen's ex-wife (and, later, Kelly's second wife). It's a tale of jealousy, bitterness and recrimination that doesn't make Kelly or Donen look good. Berkow's version is shopworn and repetitive, and the characters are exasperating; by intermission, when we've seen Coyne kiss both men, you wish she'd just choose between them and get the whole thing over with. Berkow's dialogue is flat and unimaginative, typified by several moments in which characters apologize for telling terrible jokes and mouthing "pretty corny dialogue." (It's bad enough to hear bad dialogue, but it's worse for the playwright to call attention to how bad it is.) Director Susan D. Atkinson's production is full of long, dull pauses in which the characters scowl at each other or try to think of a new dance step; this makes the slender story feel over-dramatized.

Fortunately, all this soapiness is interrupted from time to time by some sensational dancing. Choreographer Stephen Casey recreates Kelly's work nearly step for step on classic numbers like "Good Morning" and "Broadway Melody," and the exuberance the cast of highly skilled dancers brings to these numbers is infectious. Charles Osborne plays Kelly and, while he lacks Kelly's easygoing charm (and high voice), he handles the drama well and has mastered Kelly's trademark moves and poses. Zak Edwards is excellent as the determined and beleaguered Donen. Summer Broyhill is a standout as Coyne: she's believably conflicted during the dramatic scenes, and brings a lot of heat to the dance numbers (especially when she recreates Cyd Charisse's moves in the "Broadway Ballet" number). And Liz Filios is adorable as Debbie Reynolds, the ingénue who wilts under pressure as the oppressive Kelly transforms her into a dancer. (Strangely, the producers have given Filios a blonde wig, even though Reynolds was a brunette in the movie. It's a mistake the meticulous Kelly never would have made.) In non-dancing roles, Vincent D'Elia lends support as producer/songwriter Arthur Freed, and Mark Hartman is the onstage pianist.

In the final scene of What a Glorious Feeling, the filmmakers sit in a screening room and watch Gene Kelly perform the title song. As he spins around that famous lamppost, all the tensions that have dogged them throughout the filming disappear. They marvel over Kelly's talent and how his seemingly effortless dancing can lift your spirits. Likewise, the great dancing lifts this show out of its doldrums. And if you can ignore the creakiness of the love story and focus on the dancing, you'll leave What a Glorious Feeling with a song in your heart and a spring in your step.

What a Glorious Feeling runs through November 18, 2012, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pa. Ticket are $41 - $54, with discounts available for students and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100 or online at www.BRTStage.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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