Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Get Ready and Taking Steps

Also see Ed's reviews of Leaving Iowa and Kiss of the Spider Woman

Get Ready ends Penumbra's 30th anniversary year with a flourish

At its core, Joe Plummer and Jaye T. Stewart's Get Ready at Penumbra Theatre is a backstage show biz story, a thinnish but entertaining vehicle for great soul and blues singing and good jazz. Yet under Lou Bellamy's acute direction, the irresistible characters lift the story beyond its simple plot into real synergism with nine tremendous songs. The characters command the stage with their back-biting humor, conflict-packed histories and, of course, their glorious voices.

The Doves are five 1950s soul crooners who had a hit song and then broke up. Talk of their past gives glimpses into the difficult history of black music in pre-Civil Rights America. Now, as middle-aged men in 1987, their old hit is popular again, and they have a chance to mount a reunion tour that could earn them decent money - if they can get their act together, literally.

Bunch (T. Mychael Rambo in a fat suit) grazes constantly and quotes the Bible; Johnson (gangly Benny S. Cannon,) an old ladies' man, has a gammy foot; flamboyant Frankie (Dennis W. Spears) can't get his glass eye back from an angry girlfriend and has never forgiven unreliable Roscoe (J.D. Steele) for taking over as lead singer; Vern, (Shawn Hamilton) well, he's the steady ex-army man.

Knobby, played by James Craven, runs a shabby, basement dance studio that's well past its sell-by date. His idea of cool belongs to the '50s and before, but it's his job to choreograph the group's rusty moves. It was Knobby's rejection of glamorous soul singer, now producer, Eva (Jamecia Bennett) that split the group apart. Young J.R. (Lucas Bellamy) cleans the studio and has up-to-date musical ambitions of his own.

In fine ensemble playing that captures the characters' old furies and deep loyalties, this talented group ham, argue, threaten each other with fists and pistols and leak a palpable joy from the Penumbra stage.

The voices soar in a cappella and to Moore By Four's on-stage, warm jazz accompaniment. What Cannon's bass lacks in volume, he realizes in acting. Particularly powerful are J.D. Steele and his falsetto range and Jamecia Bennett, who sets stage and audience ablaze.

The dialogue is funny and unexpected in this comedy/drama/musical, and Lance Brockman's revolving set creates, in detail, a world that feels chronically passé. Get Ready starts with a jazz set by Moore By Four and ageing Knobby unselfconsciously rehearsing rusty footwork, solo, on stage. As long as you like jazz, it's a slow but good start to two-and-a half hours of stage magic that I would happily have had last longer.

Get Ready, Penumbra Theatre, June 7 —July 1, 2007 Tuesday —Thursday 7:30 p.m. Friday —Saturday 8:00 p.m., Sundays 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $15 - $30:00. 270, North Kent Street, St. Paul, MN 55102.

Park Square's Taking Steps needs to step up its pace

Sure, I laughed. I laughed until I was loose with laughter at the scene in Alan Ayckbourn's British farce Taking Steps, in which twitchy Mr. Watson awakes in a Very Important Customer's double bed with an unknown, attractive woman in his arms and dread in his heart; he's certain that myth will have its way and strike him dead at sunrise. OK. So you have to be there for it to be funny, and I recommend this well-acted play, but please, Park Square, do let's up the pace a bit.

Ayckbourn's plot has all the right elements, a wayward fiancée stashed in a cupboard in the attic of a dilapidated English country house; a possible prostitute ghost; a bombastic, self-absorbed husband and his equally self-absorbed young wife who's on the brink of walking out; an ineffective brother-in-law; a nervous young lawyer; and a biker landlord who is desperate to sell the run-down pile to the tycoon husband. Add to this, wonderful staging and a witty script, and the planets are aligned for hilarious farce.

Park Square's Taking Steps is funny, quite funny, but because director David Mann paces it like a regular play, it lacks the hectic verve that propels farce into hilarity, as misapprehension heaps upon misapprehension and begets more happy chaos. Ayckbourn writes stiff moments of awkward silence into the play, and these could be funnier if they arose, like islands, out of the frenetic impetus of the rest of the work.

One more small beef. Ayckbourn builds in opportunities for slapstick in Taking Steps but, in that English way, care should be taken not to overplay them. The wonderful sight joke, for which the play is named, might benefit from being toned down during its frequent recurrences, once the joke has been thoroughly enjoyed.

In playful Ayckbourn fashion, the staging in Taking Steps is sheer delight. Rick Polenek's set of a front hall and sitting room, a bedroom and an attic exists on one plane, but through the actors' antics, their precise understanding of the geography of the house, and Michael P. Kittel's changing light design, three floors emerge in clear relief for the audience.

Led by trim Stacia Rice (in an unfortunate wig) as Elizabeth, the young go-go dancer wife with delusions of being an artiste, and Steve Hendrickson as her bucket magnate husband, the cast is strong. Wade Vaughn excels as diffident Mr. Watson, the ever-so-anxious-to-please lawyer. As Elizabeth's brother, Steve Lewis is pompous and properly boring. John Elsen taps the lower class edges of the landlord in accent and manner, and Heidi Bakke rounds out the cast as vulnerable Kitty, the trapped fianc├łe.

Taking Steps might be farce, but Ayckbourn touches upon people feeling trapped, and he pokes delicious fun at England's self-satisfied middle class.

Taking Steps Park Square Theatre, June 7 —June 24, 2007. Thursdays —Sundays 7:30 p.m., Sundays matinees 2:00 p.m. Tickets $32 - $35. 20, West 7th Place, St. Paul, 1633. 651-291-7005.

- Elizabeth Weir

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