Fort Myers Florida Weekly
June 10, 2009 [excerpt]




THERE MAY BE A SHOW OR TWO left, but the 2008-2009 season is rapidly coming to an end.

Those in the arts venues breathe a sigh of relief, announce their upcoming season, and plan their summer vacation… if they haven't left town already.

And arts and entertainment critics look back and take inventory of the season.

Theatergoers flocked to see "Wicked" at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers, and audiences gave "Legally Blonde: The Musical" at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts (a show I almost walked out on) a much-undeserved standing ovation.

But this critic maintains that popularity doesn't equal quality. Because something's popular only means that it's, well... popular. It doesn't necessarily mean it's good.

Here's a look at what I consider the true highlights of the season.

The last show of the Mann's Broadway season was "Fiddler on the Roof," starring Topol. This was the national farewell tour for the actor who had played the role of Tevye in the movie version of the musical.

I was concerned he might overplay the role, milking it too much. But he didn't. He was fabulous portraying a man wed to tradition, struggling with the new ways of a changing world.

But so much attention was placed on Topol, and the fact that this was his farewell tour, that most people didn't realize just how great a production it was overall, and how talented the rest of the cast.

This timeless musical first hit Broadway 45 years ago. By contrast, it shows just how anemic and shallow some current Broadway musicals are. Everything about this show was superlative, from the entire cast to the sets to the costumes. But the audience only had eyes for Topol.

"The Pajama Game," which came to the Mann Hall immediately after the month-long run of "Wicked," also suffered a similar fate. People were so crazy about "Wicked" that they overlooked "The Pajama Game," which was one of the best Broadway touring shows to come to town this season.

No special effects, just a very talented cast, clever sets and costuming, and hits such as "Steam Heat," "Hernando's Hideaway" and "Hey There."

And while people flocked to see "Wicked," they likely missed "Stephen Schwartz and Friends: Defying Gravity — the Music of Stephen Schwartz" at the Phil. Who's Stephen Schwartz? He's the composer and lyricist of "Wicked" who also wrote the musicals "Godspell," "Pippin," "The Magic Show" as well as for films such as "Pocahantas," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "The Prince of Egypt."

It's always revealing to hear songwriters sing their own creations, even if others may possess better voices. After all, that's the voice that first sang the song while it was being born. And it's fascinating to hear the stories behind the songs, how they were created, how they changed. Mr. Schwartz was joined by the excellent Liz Callaway, Scott Coulter and Debbie Gravitte, who sang solos and duets while he accompanied them on the piano.

Not only did they perform a stirring version of "Defying Gravity," but managed to make older songs such as "Corner of the Sky" from "Pippin" and "Day by Day" from "Godspell" sound brand new.

Theatre Conspiracy had a couple of standout shows this season. First was "Love Loves a Pornographer" by Jeff Goode, who also wrote "The Eight: Reindeer Monologues." This absurd send-up of a period British farce had so many laughs and cleverly written lines I immediately went out and bought a copy of the script.

And the venue's "My First Time," presented the true-life stories of different people's first sexual experiences — joyful, horrifying, disappointing — presented as monologues and short vignettes. Both shows were edgier fare than typically offered in Southwest Florida.

Tom Jones wowed the audience at the Mann Hall — then weeks later, also performed at the Phil. He's still got The Voice and yes, he's still got the moves. Attending a Tom Jones concert is like going to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," because part of the entertainment is watching the audience itself. And the Mann audience did not disappoint. Throughout the show, women danced seductively up to the stage, throwing their underwear at the Welsh singer.

Audience participation was also a major factor in Dame Edna's three shows at the Phil. The blue-haired Australian interacted with people in the audience and brought three audience members on stage as guests for a mock talk show. I love Dame Edna, and I love her for saying to me in an interview, "I'm bringing my beautiful stimulus package to Florida." No matter how many times I think of that statement, it never fails to make me laugh.

Violinists Midori and Joshua Bell both had their own concerts at the Phil, but it was Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in a guest appearance with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra who knocked my socks off. The woman plays with such skill, such unrestrained verve and passion that it makes you sit up and take notice. She plays violin the way Jimi Hendrix played guitar. I'd love to see her as the featured artist in a concert.

Some people mistakenly think the classics are dry and boring, which is maybe why "The Glass Menagerie" at the Florida Repertory Theatre was not as well-attended as it deserved. The Tennessee Williams play was a haunting portrayal of a young man's formation as a writer and the disintergration of his dysfunctional family. Brendan Powers's Tom was outstanding, especially his monologues.

The Aquila Theatre Company, which often sells out New York City's Lincoln Center, had too many empty seats at BIG Arts. The company presented an innovative interpretation of "The Illiad: Book One," using minimal props and ritualized, choreographed movement. This troupe is always well-worth seeing, and helps modern audiences see the classics with fresh eyes.

On the other side of the coin, the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre totally surprised me with the delightful "All Shook Up" by Joe DiPietro. It incorporated Elvis songs into a plot based on Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." How crazier can you get than that? This campy, zany show was great fun and pitch-perfect, from the acting, singing and dancing to the costumes and set design.

Jazz quartet The Brubeck Brothers played with the Gulf Coast Symphony at the Mann Hall, playing original tunes and classics composed by Dave Brubeck, including "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo a la Turk." (Two of the group's musicians are Dave Brubeck's sons.) It was a rousing evening of jazz, an unusual but creative pairing. And personally, the evening was made sweeter by the fact that I was sitting in the row behind Mr. Brubeck himself, and could watch his face as his music was being played by his sons and orchestra. He leaned forward every time there was a piano solo, watching the musician's hands on the keyboards.

The Florida Rep had an outstanding season. "Indian Blood," by A.R. Gurney, was much overlooked. A sweet (but not saccharine) humorous piece, it examined the trials of adolescence while also paying tribute to familial love.

"The Last Romance" mixed humor with drama, as a couple found love in their sunset years. And "The Art of Murder" mixed mystery with humor while also taking some swipes at the art world. It was a tricky combination, but it worked.

The Rep's production of "Dancing at Lughnasa," a memory play about five sisters living in Ireland, was one of the best plays I've ever seen at the venue, as good as last season's "Doubt." Terry

Teachout, theater critic of the Wall Street Journal, came to review it, and raved about it in print. It was a perfect ensemble piece.

And "Shirley Valentine," the venue's current one-woman show, is a tour de force for Lisa Morgan, who receives enthusiastic standing ovations nightly. This play about a middle-aged woman who rediscovers herself allows Ms. Morgan to use her considerable comedic and dramatic acting skills, portraying emotions from despair to glee, and pondering everything from the relationship between the sexes to our purpose in life. This remarkable performance so impressed me I returned to see it — and still laughed at the lines I'd already heard. The show's so popular, its run was extended to June 13, thus making it the only show on this list you can still see, if you act quickly.

The Hot Club of San Francisco brought its energetic gypsy jazz to the Philharmonic Center for the Arts's Daniels Pavilion for four performances. The all-string band celebrates the music of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. This quirky and highly talented group of musicians also showed three vintage black and white movies during each show, accompanying them. (One mixed animation and live action; it was about a junkyard man who finds an unusual bird that eats automobile parts.) People were buzzing after the show, and I felt sorry for anyone who missed this group.

The Turtle Island String Quartet played the music of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" in the same venue, also for four shows. Their recording of the same earned them a Grammy Award in 2008. This jazz quartet blends all kinds of music, marrying the discipline of classical musicians with the lively improvisation of jazz masters.

And Oleta Adams brought her soulful jazz/pop/gospel and optimism to the venue, performing a show that was so intimate and personal, you felt you were sitting in her living room. These are tough times, and Ms. Adams knows how to uplift your soul.

Phoebe Snow and Liza Minnelli both wowed audiences at the Phil with their individual concerts. Touring on the heels of her latest CD, "Live," Ms. Snow sang pop, blues, funk and standards. She sang the song she's most famous for, "Poetry Man," but also performed a funky "Shakey Ground" and a romantic cover of "It's All in the Game." Her poignant version of "I Am Your Girl," now performed as "You are My Girl" and dedicated to her late daughter, Valerie, brought tears to the crowd.

And Liza Minnelli is a class act, singing and dancing her heart out. As with performers of the old school, she gave more than demanded, delivering an impassioned performance. She sang, she danced, she acted out the songs, including "Cabaret" and "New York, New York." And she was not leaving that stage until you were 100 percent satisfied.

The Phil's trio of dance performances was also a highlight of the season. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater brought grace and athleticism to blues, gospel spirituals and music by Otis Redding.

Modern dance troupe Momix performed "the Best Of," an offering of selections from their most popular works. It was a great way to get an overview of this creative troupe's repertorie, a dance equivalent of a sample platter.

And Hubbard Street Dance Chicago never fails to wow me every year; I've learned to not miss their annual show at the Phil, if at all possible. This year's performance was intriguing, moving, humorous and electrifying. It culminated with "Minus 16," an innovative piece that stretches the boundaries of dance by including interviews with the dancers and bringing audience members on stage to dance with the professionals in an uninhibited celebration of life and movement.

You can't see them all

Yes, sometimes I miss shows too. It can happen because of illness, a scheduling conflict and even, on rare occasion, the simple inability to obtain tickets. As many shows as I see (and in the height of season, it can be as many as four or five in one week), there are always some I regrettably miss.

This year's missed opportunities included three at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts: The Neville Brothers and Dr. John; Linda Eder; and Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin in concert together.

I also wish I'd been able to catch "Bad Dates," a one-woman show starring Lauren Drexler at Theatre Conspiracy in Fort Myers. Ms. Drexler performs in one or two shows each season, and she's always wonderful to watch on stage.

I missed James Taylor at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, too. I would have loved to see this classic singer/songwriter command the stage with just his voice and a guitar.

I heard the Ernestine Anderson concert in the Daniels Pavilion at the Phil was a knock-out show. And I also hated to miss "Visiting Mr. Green" when it was presented at BIG Arts on Sanibel. I saw it at Florida Repertory Theatre the previous season and found it tremendously moving. It was so good, I would have loved to see it again.

— Nancy Stetson