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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Bootycandy, Spring Awakening,
Grease and Heroes

Bootycandy
Phillip James Brannon, Lance Coadie Williams, Benja Kay Thomas and Jocelyn Bioh
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev
Robert O'Hara's Bootycandy is a show that pretty much meets the definition of the term "outrageously funny"—that is, it's a show that inspires both laughter and outrage. During one scene, which features African-American women on the phone arguing about whether one of the women should name her daughter "Genitalia," the opening night audience at the Wilma Theater was laughing so hard that the dialogue was often drowned out. But the very next scene, which depicts two men in a bar discussing in lurid detail how far their upcoming sex acts will go, stunned the audience into silence (except for the woman behind me who gasped "What?!").

Bootycandy, which is filled with skits that jump back and forth in time from the 1970s to the present day, examines what it's like to grow up gay and black. Much of the play is raucously funny, especially in the way it mocks stereotypes—like the scene where Sutter, the playwright's teenaged alter ego, complains to his parents that a strange man tried to follow him home; the boy's parents tell him it's his own fault for not being masculine enough. (His father gruffly gives nonsensical suggestions on how to be less appealing to predators, like "Stop sitting down to pee.") O'Hara's tour de force is his act one finale, in which a panel of black playwrights has its work examined by a clueless and insensitive white moderator—and allows O'Hara to examine and deconstruct all the scenes we've seen so far while skewering racism and the demands of regional theatre. ("Are these your subscribers?" asks one of the playwrights, looking into the Wilma's audience. "Not for long," replies the moderator.) It's a brilliant scene.

But for O'Hara, who also directed, there's no such thing as "going too far." For those who disagree, parts of Bootycandy will be tough going. My breaking point came in an act two skit called "The Last Gay Play," which features murder, male nudity, and a breakdown by one of the actors that is supposed to be real but didn't feel convincing for an instant. It kills the show's momentum.

O'Hara has constructed Bootycandy using a skit format that seems like a more risqué version of the classic TV sketch show "Laugh-In." And speaking of 1970s variety shows, one of the scenes features a character that seems like a combination of the two most famous characters from "The Flip Wilson Show," Reverend Leroy and Geraldine.) The actors show remarkable versatility and great comic timing; Phillip James Brannon and Lance Coadie Williams are the standouts, but there are also excellent contributions from Jocelyn Bioh, Benja Kay Thomas and Ross Beschler. Clint Ramos' turntable set and vintage costumes add to the sense of fun; you never know what's going to appear next, or where O'Hara's imagination will take you.

Parts of Bootycandy are insightful, exhilarating and hilarious, but parts of it are excessive and tasteless. For O'Hara, there are no boundaries and no apologies. You'll have to take him as he is.

Bootycandy runs through June 16, 2013, at the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $39 $66, with discounts available for students, groups, or anyone in their 20s, and may be purchased by calling the Wilma Box Office at 215-546-7824, or online at www.WilmaTheater.org.


Spring Awakening
Cast of Spring Awakening
Photo by Matthew J. Photography
The story of Spring Awakening is, on the surface, not an uplifting one. The characters in Franz Wedekind's 1891 play are teenagers in late 19th century Germany who, through a combination of ignorance, foolishness, lust and parental repression, end up in one crisis after another. But the musical version of Spring Awakening is invigorating, because the rock score by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater makes the story seem relevant, compelling and, despite its setting, up to date. Director Matthew Decker's production for Theatre Horizon seems too constrained at times—it doesn't pulse with energy and danger as much as it should—but it tells its story with sensitivity and bravado.

Sheik's pounding music is a great vehicle for aggression, but also has moments of contemplative folk-rock gentleness; Amanda Morton's seven-piece band mixes violins and cello with the guitars and keyboards. Sater's book moves the story along efficiently, but his lyrics are the show's biggest weakness—they're fuzzy at times, more concerned with emotions than with moving the plot along, and they're grounded by too many false rhymes (life/by, is/live). Jenn Rose's choreography is full of impulsive leaping, though it seems too indebted to Bill T. Jones' work in the Broadway production. And while Maura Roche's set design is attractive, her hollow wooden stage platform leads to a lot of loud distracting bangs whenever the dancers jump on it. David Todaro's lighting uses vertical strings of Edison bulbs to suggest the vast starry sky these young people look to for inspiration.

All the singers have fine voices, and the casting makes good use of the actors' distinct appearances. Ben Michael's angular intensity as Melchior contrasts well with Grace Tarves' soft innocence as Wendla. Similarly, Mary Tuomanen's smooth, collected moodiness as Ilse plays well against Corey Regensburg's unkempt agitation as Moritz. Ian Lithgow and Catharine K. Slusar play all the adult roles, varying between authority and confusion as the moments demand.

Spring Awakening isn't perfect—its moody nihilism can get overpowering at times (especially at the end). But its tale of urges that cannot be controlled—the urge to love, the urge to live, the urge to sing about it—lands with force.

Spring Awakening runs through June 9, 2013, at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, Norristown, Pa. Tickets are $31, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling 610-283-2230 or online at www.TheatreHorizon.org.


Grease
Matthew Ragas and Laura Giknis
Photo by Mark Garvin
Speaking of musicals about horny teenagers ...

Grease has never been a show that's taken itself too seriously, which has been one of the keys to its success. Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's 1970s musical about 1950s high school students has always been a show that promises fun and casual good times. But there's a difference between casual and sloppy, and the Walnut Street Theatre's lackluster new production repeatedly crosses that line. For proof, check out the lifeless version of one of the show's best songs, "Summer Nights," early in act one. Star-crossed sweethearts Danny Zuko and Sandy Dombrowski are on opposite sides of the stage, singing to their respective friends about their very different views of their summer fling. But while Danny is up front, taking charge of the number, Sandy is somewhere near the rear of the stage, lost in a sea of "Pink Ladies." The song's balance is completely lost, with Sandy reduced to a supporting player in her own song. Meanwhile, their Rydell High classmates run around the stage in a seemingly random manner, straining to make their voices heard over Douglas G. Lutz's blaring orchestra.

But it's not just the songs that suffer in director Bruce Lumpkin's staging. Shortly after "Summer Nights," there's a slumber party scene that seems to drag on forever, draining nearly all the joy and humor from Jacobs and Casey's book. What started out as a clever, politically incorrect take on 1950s nostalgia ends up a crude, boring mess.

Things start getting better at the beginning of act two, thanks largely to Michelle Gaudette's spirited choreography for a couple of sock hop numbers. And act two also has some well-placed solos that show off the cast's best voices, including Matthew Ragas as Danny, Laura Giknis as Sandy, Eric Kunze as the Teen Angel and Kate Fahrner as Betty Rizzo. But these good moments come too late to save the show. Ragas makes a fine leading man, but Giknis is too subdued, displaying little of the sparkle that has made her performances at Bristol Riverside Theatre so memorable.

If you're trying to figure out why Grease has been such an enduring, oft-revived success for over four decades, this leaden production won't tell you.

Grease runs through July 14, 2013, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $10 $95, with premium tickets available for $175, and are available online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by phone (800) 982-2787.


Heroes
Mal Whyte, Dan Kern and Peter DeLaurier
Photo by Mark Garvin
Heroes is a play by Tom Stoppard (adapted from a French play by Gérald Sibleyras) about Henri, Philippe and Gustave, three elderly World War I veterans living in a retired soldiers' home circa 1959. With military-like precision, they hatch a scheme to escape the home on foot—to Indochina, or to the other side of the nearest hill, or wherever they can get away from the home's supposedly tyrannical hierarchy. But a few things keep getting in the way—like Henri's aches and pains, Philippe's fainting spells, and Gustave's increasingly loopy ideas, like his plan to bring their dog along on the journey, apparently not realizing the dog is really a 200-pound statue.

Directed by M. Craig Getting, the Lantern Theater's production is sweet and gentle, and features amiable performances by Peter DeLaurier, Dan Kern and Mal Whyte. But Heroes is so lightweight that it practically collapses before your eyes. As the plan becomes more and more elaborate, and the arguments between the veterans get more and more petty, the whole thing just seems more and more tiresome. But if you're in the mood for something cute, there are worse ways to spend a couple hours than with this trio. (Like seeing Grease, for example.)

Heroes runs through June 9, 2013, and is presented by Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia. Tickets are $20 $38, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available by calling the Box Office at 215-829-0395, or online at www.LanternTheater.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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