Bob Keefer on art and music around Eugene, Oregon

Category: Theater (Page 1 of 11)

Annie Get Your Gun at the Shedd: A fun night’s entertainment, if culturally uncomfortable



Annie Get Your Gun, which opened tonight and runs through December 18 at The Shedd in Eugene, isn’t the most problematic old musical out there when it comes time for a 21st century revival in these days of cultural sensitivity.

But it’s not the easiest, either, mostly on account of the stereotypical way it presents native Americans in telling the stylized story of the real life Annie Oakley and her romance with sharpshooter Frank Butler amid William Cody’s spectacular Wild West show, which captivated much of the western world as the 19th century drew to a close.

The production at The Shedd doesn’t dance around the foibles of the script. In fact, this show, directed by Ron Daum, harks back to the original 1946 version, with book by Dorothy and Herbert Fields and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. One song has been cut — “I’m an Indian, Too” — but for the most part the musical barrels right ahead, including passages that make you wince.

That’s mostly OK. The core story here is a feminist fairytale about Annie’s struggles to find true romance with Frank without, ahem, upstaging him. That’s a story we’re comfortable with, and it gives us such wonderful nuggets as “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” and “Anything You Can Do,” which are performed to near perfection by Shirley Andress in the strongest performance I’ve seen her give. Andress is tough, cute and winsome by turns as she sings her heart out about the difficulty of romancing a man who doesn’t shoot as good as she does but thinks he can.

Matt Musgrove is also strong as Frank, whose masculine charms cause the entire female dance ensemble to swoon at various times in the show.

The cultural trouble, of course, comes from the show’s depiction of Indians, and they are as stereotyped here as it’s possible to be. Just one or two nods to the 21st century — a line about Standing Rock, say?– might have helped, but instead the show grinds right ahead, oblivious, even though George Comstock did a presentable job as the stereotypically wise old Chief Sitting Bull, who gives Annie paternal advice.

This is all in the realm of cultural misdemeanor, though. Nothing here is bad-hearted, and the show itself has enough energy to carry us comfortably through its three-hour run time (including two intermissions).

Caitlin Christopher’s choreography is nicely done throughout, and the set, by Janet Whitlow, is simple and elegant, with a few delightful surprises.

The orchestra, conducted by Robert Ashens, was muddy as the play opened tonight, and then appeared to miss some sound cues later in the show.








Cleanse your holiday palate with ‘The Santaland Diaries’ at Oregon Contemporary Theatre


Colin Law as an elf named Crumpet. Photo courtesy Oregon Contemporary Theatre

Tired of “A Christmas Carol”? Seen one too many productions of the “The Nutcracker”?  Had it up to here with “White Christmas”?

Oregon Contemporary Theatre has the remedy through December 11 in the form of “The Santaland Diaries,” a stage adaptation of David Sedaris’ wonderfully sardonic and perhaps fanciful take on working as a Christmas elf named Crumpet at Macy’s department store during the holidays in New York. Originally penned as an essay, the work established Sedaris as a major voice in American humor after he read it aloud on NPR’s Morning Edition  in 1992. It was adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello in 1996.

Actor Colin Law, who performed the one-man (or should we say “one-elf”) show at OCT in 2010 and 2011 while studying theater at the University of Oregon — he now lives in the Midwest, having just finished an MFA at Illinois State University — carries this hour-long performance along with considerable comic energy, starting with the desperate New York job search that leads him to a classified ad for a job that involves dressing up as an elf and talking to children and their often overbearing parents.




Between Law’s physical animation — he pinballs around the Santaland set like a figure skater on speed — and Sedaris’s caustically funny writing, “Santaland” keeps moving and keeps the laughter flowing. A fine moment comes when Law belts out “Away in a Manger” in Billy Holiday style to vex a particularly irritating Santa.

That there aren’t any belly laughs in the show isn’t the fault of Law or of director Craig Willis. Sedaris’ essay relied for its success on dry humor and deadpan delivery from a detached observer. Adapting “The Santaland Diaries” into a one-man play required turning that observer into the character who’s being observed, losing much of the deadpan wit.

Never mind that. If you’ve never read the essay — or even if you have — it’s deadly funny material, and works as a great antidote to too much holiday sap. Even on its third run in town, the show is still packing people in, so get your tickets early at Just be sure to leave the little kids at home.




A fluffy ‘Willy Wonka’ rings in the holidays at Actors Cabaret


Want to immerse yourself in chocolate for Christmas? You might do worse than take in “Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka,” a lighter-than-marshmallow musical that premiered in 2004 based on Dahl’s 1964 kids’ book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and on the 1971 Gene Wilder movie that followed. A local production of the musical opened downtown tonight at Actors Cabaret, which is — mercifully — substituting it for yet another version of “A Christmas Carol” on this year’s holiday calendar.

Directed and designed by Joe Zingo, this is the kind of show ACE does best: fun, light, frothy and a little camp. Zingo knows how to make the most of a community theater cast, kids and all, not to mention a community theater production budget, and this “Willy” moves breathlessly and delightfully along, right from the opening number (“Pure Imagination”) by Tony Joyner as the weirdly dark chocolate magnate Willy Wonka.

In the story, the world’s imagination is set afire when Wonka announces that he’s slipped five golden tickets into Wonka chocolate bars, entitling their lucky recipients to a tour of his secretive chocolate factory — and a lifetime supply of his chocolate.

This sets in motion Dahl’s wonderfully caustic look at over-entitled children and their clueless parents — the winners of the golden tickets — from the unforgettable Veruca Salt, played here to spoiled perfection by Emily Westlund, to the gum-chewing southerner Violet Beauregard, played by Jane Brinkley. Orion Van Buskirk is a perfectly piggish Agustus Gloop, and  Manny Longnight is delightfully irritating as the tech-absorbed Mike Teavee.

The hero of the tale, of course, is the modest Charlie Bucket, played with grownup grace and poise — and with a heck of a singing voice, too — by Samuel Rose.

Yes, the show has some adults, too. Bruce McCarthy does a star turn as Veruca Salt’s self-absorbed father, and Tom Grimsley steals much of the end of the show as Grandpa Joe, who hauls himself out of the bed he shares with Charlie’s other three grandparents to join young Charlie on the factory tour.

The music is familiar and fun. Zingo’s sets and costumes are sparkling, and the traditionally over-the-top Christmas decorations at ACE turn the entire theater into a work of fevered imagination.

Go see this, and maybe even reserve dinner at the theater with your show. The whole package makes a great holiday night out.

“Willy Wonka” runs through December17. Find out more at








Richard P. Haugland, 1943-2016


Richard P. Haugland, a major financial supporter of Eugene arts organizations, died last night in Thailand after a battle with brain cancer, according to his friends at the Eugene Ballet. He was 73.

With his wife, Rosaria, Haugland was a founder of the Eugene hi-tech business Molecular Probes. With the profits from that company, the couple created charitable foundations that have given large gifts to Eugene Ballet as well as to Oregon Contemporary Theatre and Eugene Opera, among other organizations.

“I first got to know them when their daughter, Marina, studied ballet at our school over 30 years ago,” Eugene Ballet Artistic Director Toni Pimble said today. “He was a very generous, kind and thoughtful man whose philanthropic gifts spread far beyond Eugene. His generous soul touched all who knew him. He will be sincerely missed.”

The Hauglands supported the ballet in its early years and, more recently, gave more substantial gifts that enabled the organization to purchase the building that became the Midtown Art Center on South Willamette Street.

Later he offered funding to Pimble and the company to create a new children’s ballet, and the result was 2013’s “Mowgli, the Jungle Book Ballet.” Pleased with what he saw at the premiere, he immediately offered to support a second new show.

With a $200,000 grant from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation, the ballet is currently at work on an all-new production of “The Snow Queen,” which will premiere here in April.

“We are so very sad that Richard will not see the results of his support for this second work,” Pimble said.

In recent years, Haugland lived in Thailand, where he supported – both financially and with hands-on work – needy children and orphans.

“Eugene is fortunate that he and Rosaria chose to grow their company here and to simultaneously play major roles in the growth of several of Eugene’s arts groups,” said Craig Willis, artistic director of Oregon Contemporary Theatre. “What I find even more inspiring was his dedication to improving the lives of AIDS orphans in Thailand. He so clearly loved these children and found joy in enriching the lives of people who might otherwise be cast-offs.”



Consider Yourself going out to see Oliver! at The Shedd


That old stalwart Oliver! presents a special challenge for theater: It has a whole lot of kids in the cast.

The production that runs through October 2 at The Shedd as part of the Shedd Theatricals series must have 20 kids on stage at the same time, acting, singing and dancing — and they pull it off with verve and style.

Oliver himself, played here by a young lady named Kenady Conforth, is right on top of the role. Conforth has a sweet young soprano that’s perfect for songs like “Where is Love” and “Who Will Buy.”

Adapted from the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, the musical — with book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, for whom it would be his best known work — opened in London’s West End in 1960 and got to Broadway in 1963. It was made into a 1968 film that took several Oscars. With its rough and tumble rags to riches story, the play has been pretty much in continuous production somewhere in the world for more than half a century.

The Shedd show, directed by Peg Major, with music direction by Robert Ashens and choreography by Caitlin Christopher, is a fine production with occasional moments of glory.

The first of those comes in the Act I, when Oliver, who has been causing problems at the orphanage, is sold to the undertakers, the Sowerberrys, played here as goth Addams Family figures by Matthew Woodward and by Christopher herself. Christopher, who danced for two seasons with Ballet Fantastique, glides onto the stage like a tall, raven-black puppet, an amazing sight. The audience sighed.

She could have stolen the show at that moment, but then Lynnea Barry, as the bad guy Bill Syke’s girl Nancy, sings the desperately sad “As Long as He Needs me” to close out Act II, her sheer power and loveliness overcoming contemporary issues of sensitivity to domestic abuse (she’s got a black eye from Bill as she’s singing).

And then there’s Sykes himself, played powerfully by Ward Fairbairn, who I last saw as the creepy vice principal in Cottage Theatre’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Ffinally there’s Fagin, the over-the-hill shyster thief who runs the gang of young thieves into which Oliver is inducted. Tom Wilson’s got this one down; his Fagin is softer and sweeter then I recall ever seeing, a man who has lived a life of vice and is now confronting his destiny with humor and grace. He also sings a treat.

All in all, a great show. Go see it.






OCT opens its new season with a very meta ‘The Revolutionists’

Inga R. Wilson as Marie Antoinette

Inga R. Wilson as Marie Antoinette

Lauren Gunderson’s “The Revolutionists,” which made its West Coast premiere in Eugene this weekend to kick off Oregon Contemporary Theatre’s 25th season, is about as meta as theater gets. It’s so meta it even makes fun of meta theater, on its way to skewering theatrical conventions from the daffiness of musicals and the need for really good exit lines to the unbearable sound of people unwrapping cough drops in the audience.

Don’t let that put you off. Yes, it tends to be a bit precious and self absorbed, like so much theater about theater (or, for that matter, like so many novels about novels and novelists). But it also creates a fast, funny and sometimes moving universe of four sympathetic women, who one by one face the ultimate challenges of life amid chaos and death by the guillotine.

Guillotine? That’s because they are all but one historical characters from the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution: Olympe de Gouges, a writer, played by Erica Towe; Marianne Angelle, an imagined Haitian revolutionary, played by Janelle Rae Davis; Charlotte Corday, the killer of Jean-Paul Marat; and Marie Antoinette, the deposed queen, played by Inga R. Wilson.

The four are characters in Olympe’s play, the writing of which is stalled with writer’s block as the lights come up on a spare, serviceable set by Geno Franco. The zingers pile up quickly in Gunderson’s dialog, as Olympe meets first Marianne, the warm-hearted feminist who wants the idea of “egalite” to be extended to slaves in the colonies, and then Charlotte, who is determined to make history by putting a stop to Marat, the architect of so much of the post-revolution horror.

The show is deftly directed by Elizabeth Helman. All four actors are great in their roles, but Wilson’s Marie Antoinette is exquisite. Her Valley Girlish depiction of the author of “Let them eat cake!” (That was taken out of context, she complains) combines frothy femininity — she has a girly thing for ribbons — with moments of perfect self awareness. Nicely done.

Hailey Henderson, as the crazy assassin, manages to pull out a  moving depiction of the sudden terror she feels once she’s been sentenced to death by decapitation.

Period costumes are by Jeanette deJong, sound design is by Bradley Branam, and lighting is by Kat Matthews.

All in all, the play is a bit long, but not by much. It may try to pack in a few too many themes, from the relationship of art, history and politics to feminism and anti-colonialism, but at least it tries to do all this without ever taking itself too seriously. Even with its new-play glitches, “The Revolutionists” makes for a good, quick, entertaining evening.The French revolution has never been this funny.


A smart ‘Hamlet’ on a spare stage at Cottage Theatre


Timothy McIntosh and Martha Benson as Hamlet and Ophelia

A quiet, reflective and very smart new production of Hamlet that opened this weekend at Cottage Theatre strips this well known Shakespeare tragedy down to bare visual essentials — and makes it fun to watch in the process.

Directed by Tony Rust, who is a force of nature on the local theater scene, the show stars an actor I’ve never before seen here — Timothy Mcintosh, a professor at New Hope Christian College and Gutenberg College. McIntosh is also a playwright; his Søn of Abraham (about the last three years of Søren Kierkegaard’s life), received a Best New Play award in 2008 from the Chattanooga Theatre Centre, and his screenplay Mandi was produced and released by Kalon Media in 2009. He also had a short play, High School How I Hated Thee, produced by the Northwest 10  new plays contest in Eugene in 2010.

McIntosh’s Hamlet is quirky and dynamic. It took me a while to warm up to his performance, as he seemed a little too odd at first, even for my bizarre tastes. But soon I realized I couldn’t take my eyes off of him on stage. As Hamlet descends into madness, McIntosh is in constant motion, and his expressive face seems at times to be made of rubber.

Other very strong performances came from Martha Benson, as Ophelia, and Mark Anderson, as Horatio. Benson has a strong background doing Shakespeare in New York, and Anderson is a familiar face around Eugene theater, having played Sir Belvedere in Very Little Theatre’s Spamalot and Andrew Ague in Cottage Theatre’s (and Tony Rust’s) wonderful Twelfth Night. Patrick Torelle is a perfectly platitudinous Polonius, Tracy Nygard is Gertrude, and Davis Smith is Claudius (and the ghost of the dead king). 

Rust is a director to watch. He’s got a strong sense of story telling and entertainment and is himself a consummate comic actor. He also designs his own sets, and the set for this Hamlet — a stark, simple abstraction in middle gray — focused our attention wonderfully on the play, which was presented in more or less period costume without making the characters look like they belonged in a museum.

I last saw Hamlet two months ago, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. The show, directed by Lisa Peterson, featured heavy metal music by a big deal California guitarist on the big outdoor Elizabethan Stage, and a splendidly subtle rendition of the young Hamlet by Danforth Comins.

Cottage Theatre’s Hamlet was at least as much fun to watch as the one running in Ashland, and it actually had a scarier ghost. Tonight’s show easily held my attention for the entire three hour run time, and wrapped up in a skillful and exciting sword fight.

Hamlet runs through August 28. Go see it.





‘Shrimp & Gritts’ a must-see at Oregon Contemporary Theatre

Bary Shaw and Rebecca Nachison as Gritts and Shrimp / OCT photo

Bary Shaw and Rebecca Nachison as Gritts and Shrimp / OCT photo

“Shrimp & Gritts: She’s Gone,” which opened last night at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, is as charming and engaging a new play as I’ve seen in years – a sensitive, funny love story of contemporary life, mostly set in a cheesy bar on the Oregon coast.

The full-length drama by Eugene’s own Paul Calandrino explores the complicated relationship of Gritts, a retired merchant seaman played by Bary Shaw, and Shrimp, his lesbian best friend, played by Rebecca Nachison. Both are charmingly alcoholic and sardonically witty and both miss Serena, Gritts’ partner of 15 years, who has walked out of their lives and left them to find their own ways alone and together.

Shaw and Nachison play the two old barflies as though they were born to the roles. Shaw’s Gritts is a bit aloof and grandiose, riffing at one point about being God, while Nachison’s Shrimp is alternately sweet and dry.

Providing a counterpoint to this AARP-age pair are the younger couple Ruud (Cloud Pemble) and Clementine (Tara Wibrew), a folky duo who perform in the bar and whose relationship has its own bumps along the way. Their music – Wibrew and Pemble are actually better than a lot of bar acts you’ll ever encounter – offers a perfect series of interludes to the main story.

The play is performed on a realistic set by Amy Dunn — you can just about smell the beer and seaweed — and is directed by Brian Haimbach, head of the theater program at Lane Community College.

In the program, he notes that – unlike many new plays these days – “Shrimp & Gritts” has not been workshopped, a process that polishes scripts but also homogenizes them.

Instead, he writes, it is “just a really (really) strong first draft.” This could well explain the script’s sparkling freshness and drive. Calandrino, who runs the Northwest Festival of Ten-Minute Plays here, also wrote “The Final Leg,” produced by OCT in 2005.

“Shrimp & Gritts” runs at OCT through August 20. This is one not to miss.

‘On the Town’ sizzles at OFAM


Mention Leonard Bernstein musicals, and you’re probably already thinking “West Side Story.”

But 13 years before “West Side Story” made its Broadway premiere in 1957, the New York composer composed the music for “On the Town,” a slender, sweet and funny musical whose music was based on Bernstein’s score for a ballet,  “Fancy Free,” which also was first performed in 1944.

This year’s Oregon Festival of American Music — in its 25th anniversary season — kicked off Friday night at Eugene’s Shedd Institute with a production of “On the Town” in the Jaqua Concert Hall. It’s the opening number in the Shedd’s three-show series of musicals, which continues with “Oliver!” (September 16-October2) and “Annie Get Your Gun” (December 2-18).

I was happily surprised this evening by the gentle good quality of OFAM’s “On the Town.” It’s a show that essentially has six lead roles, three boys and three girls, all of whom need to be able to act, sing, and dance, and the Shedd has managed to pull off this unlikely feat in style.

The story is simple. Three sailors find themselves on liberty for 24 delirious hours in New York City, and all three try to compress all of life and romance into that single amazing day — mostly in the form of boy meets girl. Gabey, particularly, falls in love with a photo he sees on a subway of Miss Turnstiles for June, and enlists his two buddies into the citywide search for the charming Ivy Smith.

The best known — perhaps the only known — song in the show these days is “New York, New York,” as in “New York, New York, what a hell of a town,” a lyric often bowdlerized (though not here) to “a wonderful town.”

The production, directed by Peg Major with music direction by Robert Ashens, keeps the action and music moving right along. One of the best scenes comes at the end of Act I, when a sexy encounter between Stephanie Hawkins (as Claire de Loone) and Jim Ballard (as Ozzie) devolves into natural history museum madness.

Janet Whitlow’s set, with large New York silhouettes, is simple and effective. Caitlin Christopher’s choreography takes good advantage of several trained ballet dancers in the show.

“On the Town” runs through August 7. Go see it.





Vietgone at OSF: The refugee experience, from the refugees’ point of view

Tong (Jeena Yi) prepares to leave Vietnam and move to a refugee camp in Arkansas. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Tong (Jeena Yi) prepares to leave Vietnam and move to a refugee camp in Arkansas. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

There certainly is no time like the present for a serious, fun and energetic play about refugees and immigration. As our xenophobic sociopath of a presumptive nominee blathers about building walls and rounding up foreigners, let’s just take a moment to imagine that we’re not talking about refugees or immigrants or strangers whose tongue sounds like noise.

Let’s just imagine that all those people in the distant camps are actually us. And the incoherent noise is coming from our American hosts.

The strength of Vietgone, which has been running since April in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s small Thomas Theatre, is that is forces us, through the magic of drama, to cross that impassable divide between them and us. It may do so clumsily and awkwardly at times, but in the end this little hip-hop musical sparkles with a fine, original love story that keeps the play from becoming a civics lesson.

As we learn from the moment the curtain speech begins, this is the story of playwright Qui Nyugen’s parents, who fled Vietnam at the end of the war, and met and fell in love in a refugee camp in Arkansas. Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Delivered by Nguyen (except that it’s an actor playing him), the curtain speech also warns us that anything said here about Nguyen’s parents isn’t necessarily true.

Score one for art over reality.

Directed by May Adrales, Vietgone takes us back forty years to the fall of Saigon and the desperate rush by Vietnamese who had been allied with the United States to escape a country that now saw them as a defeated enemy. And so as the play begins we meet the rough and ready helicopter captain turned American biker Quang, played as a cross between John Wayne, Gregory Peck and Jack Kerouac by the devilishly handsome James Ryen, and his loyal sidekick, Nhan, played by Will Dao.

Quang’s main goal in life is to get back to Vietnam to rescue his wife and children, whom he was forced to abandon in the rush to fly a helicopter full of refugees to a U.S. aircraft carrier. Without his knowledge, on one last flight his helicopter was shoved over the side of the ship to make room for more landings, and he, too, became a refugee.

But while at the refugee camp in Arkansas, Quang runs into the captivating Tong, played by Jeena Yi, and, amid loud protestations of nonchalance from each side, the two fall in love.

This simple, straightforward story lurches forward a bit incoherently in seemingly random flashbacks, using video-projected comic book graphics to add setting and help sort out the confusing time frame as well as ground the tale in a later era, the 1980s, in which Nguyen himself came of age in America.

Quang and Nhan head off on a motorcycle on the classic American buddy road trip, which provides the opportunity for some awkwardly choreographed work with the front halves of motorcycles on stage as the two men try to plumb the American dream.

Paco Tolson, with a comic face to challenge Don Knotts, plays, among other roles, the earnest but condescending refugee camp worker named Bobby. He’s a delight.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t captivated right from the beginning. Too much of Vietgone is obvious, and at first the rest was confusing. Some of this may boil down to the fact I’m not much interested in hip-hop, but I’ve certainly heard hip-hop performed with better energy.

By the time Act II arrived, though, the show was growing on me. And then that ending. I won’t tell you what it was, but it could have gone on a lot longer.

Vietgone is engaging, moving, challenging and well worth seeing. Go see it.

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