Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of Bonnie & Clyde
However, as Michael Druxman's one man show Orson Welles makes perfectly clear, once you start at the top, the only direction you can go is down. This intimate 80-minute dive into the life and times of Welles, set in his later years as he looks back and reflects on his past, follows the brilliant highs and spectacular lows of Welles' life. The play is the first production at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre's beautiful new venue in Scottsdale, and it stars Keath Hall in an exceptional and commanding performance as Welles.
Michael B. Druxman worked as a Hollywood screenwriter, publicist and director for over 40 years and as a playwright he's written numerous one-man and one-woman plays about various Hollywood stars. Druxman sets Orson Welles in 1985, shortly before Welles' death, and uses the idea of Welles attempting to secure financing for his latest film as a way for him to talk about his life. Since most of Hollywood considers him to be irresponsible and his films have continued to lose money, finding backing proves to be a constant struggle and Welles claims he's been reduced to being a "dancing bear," continually putting on a show for people who have little interest in actually supporting his films. While he waits for the next phone call, he looks back at his many successes while also pondering how he could go from being called a boy genius to a man who let his ego and self-destructive behavior tarnish his reputation, making his fall from grace so extraordinary.
Druxman does a fairly good job of interweaving the relevant facts about Welles' life into the play, including how his childhood was troubled due to an alcoholic father and a mother who died when he was just a boy, as well as details of his major triumphs and also his many dismal failures. While the script goes back and forth in time and skips around a bit, and the phone calls do sometimes cause more of an unnecessary interruption into the forward motion than they should, the majority of the narrative around his projects is in a fairly chronological order.
The many highlights include details on how Welles and John Houseman worked with the Federal Theatre Project and how their production of The Cradle Will Rock was only allowed to be performed at first with the actors stationed in the audience as they weren't allowed to step on the stage due to union issues once the federal government threatened to shut it down because it was deemed to be "radical." In the play, Welles talks about forming the Mercury Theatre and he relishes in telling of the aftermath of his infamous radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" in 1938, which caused panic and rioting mobs in the streets but also got Welles' picture on the front page of many U.S. papers the next day and secured The Campbell Soup Company as a sponsor.
Much time is also spent on the many film successes that were just within his grasp that he failed to achieve, including two films, The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil, which were taken away from Welles and edited without his input. But we understand from Druxman's well-crafted script how this was due to Welles' inability to listen to input from the studio heads without thinking they were always against him or that he was often out of town during the editing and post-production phases because he had to continue taking acting roles in other films, usually shooting out of town, in order to support his lavish lifestyle and fund his other film projects, many of which were never completed.
Keath Hall is delivering a powerhouse of a performance as Welles. He has complete control of the character and, with the combination of a deep speaking voice that mimics Welles's dulcet, velvety tones and perfectly delivered vocal inflections, anyone who has seen Welles on screen or TV will immediately notice the similarity. With the addition of flecks of grey in Hall's slicked back hair and his long, bushy beard, as well as the padding underneath his suit to resemble the portly older Welles, there were many times I eerily felt like I was seeing Welles directly in front of me in the flesh. That's how spectacular Hall is in the role.
But the success of Hall's performance goes beyond an uncanny impersonation. He draws the audience in to Welles' plight and makes them care for him and the many unfortunate circumstances he suffered, which is incredibly impressive considering how pompous, conceited, and hot-heated a man Welles was and how he's depicted exactly that way in Druxman's script.
Director Lee Cooley does an adequate job in achieving variety in the tone of the show. However, I wish he had reduced the number of times he has Hall move around the stage, as the movement is almost constant and often distracts from the dialogue. While I understand the importance of not having a one-man show just be a man sitting in a chair delivering his dialogue, less would me more here with the stage movement. The set design by Cooley and Hall is simple but highly effective, with just a few pieces of furniture, including an armchair, a side table, and a bar cart, along with period perfect props such as metal film reel containers and a red sleigh. I love how two different period phones are used, a 1980s push-button phone for the current age scenes and an antique rotary one for the scenes set in the past. The combination of a wonderful sound design by Cooley and Roger McKay, which uses sound effects and musical cues to underscore the dramatic moments, and moody and vibrant lighting design by Cooley and Bret Reese, plus the use of archival photos and video clips, creates a rich and atmospheric theatrical experience. Corinne Hawkins' costumes, which include a period suit, coats, cloaks, and hats, are excellent.
Orson Welles was a fascinating man with a fascinating life. While he achieved a few well-regarded performances in films he didn't direct, such as The Third Man, he had many failures and unfinished projects, and none of his later films ever achieved the highly regarded success of Citizen Kane. With a wonderful performance by Keath Hall, Orson Welles at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre is a rich treat. Anyone who only knows Welles from Kane and the string of commercials he made in his later years will find much to learn about him, but even those who are more knowledgeable of him will discover new and interesting facts about this amazing man.
Orson Welles runs through May 22, 2021, at the Don Bluth Front Row Theatre, 8989 E. Vía Linda #118, Scottsdale AZ. For more information on this production or to order tickets, visit www.donbluthfrontrowtheatre.com or call 480 314-0841.
Directed by Lee Cooley