Tag Archives: Mesa theater

“Much Ado” in Argentina

“It takes two to tango,” muses David Vining in his director’s notes for Southwest Shakespeare Company’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Vining seized on the tango vibe for “Much Ado” after realizing how well it matched the Beatrice/Benedick sparring at the heart of the play — which centers on folks who spend entirely too much time trying to trick others, for reasons sometimes malevolent but mostly benign.

Like all of Shakespeare’s works, “Much Ado About Nothing” reveals much about human nature. In this case, it’s the giddiness of man — described by Vining as the tendency “to get our knickers in a twist over the least little thing.” Think Shakespeare meets Sarah Bernhardt. Then thank goodness for Maren Maclean, whose Beatrice rocks the farce with true force and finesse. Her performance elevates this “Much Ado” to one of the finest feasts of Shakespeare I’ve ever tasted.

Maren Maclean (Beatrice) and Jesse James Kamps (Benedick) from "Much Ado About Nothing" at Southwest Shakespeare Company

Vining sets this “Much Ado About Nothing” in 1930s Argentina, noting its many “serendipitous parallels” with Shakespeare’s Messina along the Sicilian coast — the original setting for the play. First, “the passion and sexiness of the tango.” Then similar periods of “political and military unrest.” Both had “a powerful military, an established aristocracy and a clearly defined class system” — plus “the strong presence of Catholicism.”

The flag of Argentina hangs over a balcony at the center of the set, with ivy-laden walls washed in yellow tones. A single bench sits on either side of the stage. The set changes very little over the course of the play, but no matter. It’s lovely, and enhanced every now and then by elements like hanging strings of small white lights. Scenic artist Laura Johnson’s experience with murals shines through. Costume design by Masi Hosler and lighting design by J. Alan Davis is beautiful as well.

There’s a serious sexiness to this production, filled with handsome men in crisp uniforms and gorgeous women in elegant gowns. Still, the tango falls a bit flat — lacking the flair of true tango, and feeling a bit like an afterthought rather than a passionate piece of storytelling. Better to focus on the cast’s command of Shakepearean dialogue, which is delightful. It’s all in the diction — that’s the word shared by “Much Ado” cast members during their opening night talk back after the show.

Several students attended the opening night performance. The house wasn’t quite full but it was full of laughter. Take your teens to see the show. Then ask them to imagine how things might have evolved differently were Beatrice and Benedick, or Hero and Claudio, armed not only with works — but also with Wi-Fi. “Much Ado About Nothing” happens everyday in our offices and schools, via telephone and text message. Time spent watching others get giddy is a fun reminder that reining it in often trumps letting it roll.

— Lynn

Note: Southwest Shakespare Company performs “Much Ado About Nothing” though May 5. Click here for details and ticket information.

Coming up: “American Idiot” opens at ASU Gammage


Theater meets Christmas

Irving Berlin's White Christmas comes to ASU Gammage in Tempe Dec. 6-11

More than a dozen Valley venues are presenting family-friendly theater fare with a Christmas theme. Here’s an early round-up, listed by city, to help families who celebrate Christmas with holiday planning…


Musical Theatre of Anthem presents a “Holiday Show” Dec. 16. www.musicaltheatreofanthem.org.

Fountain Hills

Fountain Hills Theater presents “Christmas Jukebox” Nov. 25-Dec. 18. www.fhtaz.org.


Hale Theatre Arizona presents “It’s a Wonderful Life” through Nov. 26 and  “A Christmas Carol” Dec. 1-23. www.haletheatrearizona.com.


Spotlight Youth Theatre presents “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” Dec. 2-18. www.spotlightyouththeatre.org.


Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre presents “A Christmas Carol” Nov. 17-Dec. 25. www.broadwaypalmwest.com.

East Valley Children’s Theatre presents “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” Dec. 1-11. www.evct.org.

Southwest Shakespeare Company presents “A Christmas Carol” Nov. 26-Dec. 17. www.swshakespeare.org.

Southwest Shakespeare Company performs A Christmas Carol Nov. 26-Dec. 17 in Mesa


Arizona Broadway Theatre presents “Miracle on 34th St.” Nov. 25-Dec. 29 and “A Broadway Christmas Carol” Dec. 9-17. www.arizonabroadwaytheatre.com.

The Homestead Playhouse presents “A Christmas Carol” Dec. 1-4. www.dcranchnet.com.

Theater Works presents “A Christmas Carol” Dec. 2-18. Theater Works/Youth Works Puppet Works presents “Saving Santa” Dec. 3-24 (Sat only). www.theaterworks.com.


Grand Canyon University presents “Amahl and the Night Visitors” Dec. 2-11. www.gcu.edu.

New Carpa Theater Co. presents “American Pastorela” Dec. 9-18 at the Third Street Theater (Phoenix Center for the Arts). www.newcarpa.org. (Mature content)

Phoenix Theatre presents “A Christmas Story” Nov. 23-Dec. 18. www.phoenixtheatre.com.

Space 55 presents “A Bloody Mary Christmas II” Dec. 1-17 and “7 Minutes Under the Mistletoe” Dec. 17. www.space55.org. (Mature content)

The Black Theatre Troupe presents “Black Nativity” Dec. 2-11. www.blacktheatretroupe.org.

Valley Youth Theatre presents “A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail” Dec 2-23. www.vyt.com.


Theatre Artists Studio presents “Holiday Music & Musings: From the Page to the Stage” Dec. 2. www.thestudiophx.org.

Sun City

Sun City Grand Drama and Comedy Club presents “Over the River and Through the Woods” Dec. 1-4. www.granddrama.com.

East Valley Children's Theatre presents The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Dec. 1-11


ASU Gammage presents “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” (touring production) Dec. 6-11. www.asugammage.com.

If your Valley organization is presenting a theater production with a Christmas, or other winter holiday, theme — please comment below to let readers know.

— Lynn

Note: A calendar of family-friendly events is always available online at www.raisingarizonakids.com. This post will be updated as I learn of additional theater offerings with a Christmas theme. Although most of the events noted above are designed for family audiences, please note that some are “mature audience” only productions.

Coming up: Christmas concerts, A cup of cheer

Update: Some of these shows are extending their runs, so check theater company websites for the latest and greatest information. 11/26/11

Recipe for revenge


Actors in the dark play Titus Andronicus enjoy lighter moments while rehearsing at the Southwest Shakespeare Company studio in Mesa

Start with one melodramatic nymphomaniac and one well-meaning warrior. Add two offspring — one pristine, another psychotic. Then a few more siblings, and a couple of suitors, from different points along the naughty to nice continuum. Mix in a noble choice with life altering consequences. Finish with generous helpings of rape, mayhem and murder. First simmer, then broil. You’ve got “Titus Andronicus,” Shakespeare’s recipe for revenge.

In modern-day parlance, I suppose “Titus Andronicus” is a sort of “Shakespeare meets SVU.” Or “Sweeney Todd” without the soundtrack. It’s the tale of a good man who snaps — not once, but twice — after his daughter’s violent assault. A downward spiral once harmless grows heinous, then unimaginably evil. But with a surprising montage of humorous moments along the way.

You can enjoy a taste of “Titus” through Sept 24. It’s being performed by Southwest Shakespeare Company at the Mesa Arts Center — inside an intimate theater just right for a work of this intensity. The audience is seated along the two longer sides of a rectangular platform where actors perform at eye level. This violence, though not depicted with traditional blood and gore props, is very much in your face.

The platform touches a single wall, where a collection of swords and masks hang above a simple bench. There’s space off the other end of the platform, near the audience entryway — where some of the action occurs. Folks in the front row on either side of the stage must beware. Accidentally thrust out a foot and Titus could be toast.

Titus is played by Randy Messersmith, head of the theater arts department at Scottsdale Community College, who had me worried early on with his evenly-paced words and movement. Just as Justine Hartley, who plays Goth queen Tamora, took me aback with her diva-like depiction of grief in the opening scene.

Randy Messersmith (kneeling), pictured here during rehearsals with Jesse James Kamps (L) and director David Barker. Messersmith has since lost his shirt and his locks.

But they’re each laying those first bricks in the foundation of a story that needs room to grow. Without all that weeping and gnashing of teeth, it’s hard to envision one woman wreaking so much havoc. And all that civility and calm Messersmith brings to Titus as a triumphant warrior is what makes his demise as defeated father truly tragic.

Part of the intrigue in watching Shakespeare’s work is seeing his characters’ true colors unfold. It’s especially true in “Titus,” where the turn of events leads to truly chilling consequences that might have felt entirely out of proportion in a pre-9/11 world. But we’ve seen more than once just this century alone what can happen when a single soul feels agrieved.

I thought often during “Titus” of my husband and his tender relationship to our daughters, wondering how far he might go in the face of the unfathomable. Dawn Rochelle Tucker, who plays Titus’ daughter Lavinia, transforms the play from an abstract piece of theater to a compelling tale every parent can relate to.

Dawn Rochelle Tucker (L) rehearses with Jesse James Kamps, who plays compassionate brother to a sister mocked and mutilated

Many familiar with Shakespeare would advise the uninitiated to start somewhere else, just about anywhere else, in exploring Shakespeare’s canon. There’s a reason Southwest Shakespeare Company is performing it only now, as the opener for its 18th season.

But this particular production, brilliantly directed and staged by David Barker, is a perfect introduction to Shakespeare. Weighing in at a lean 90 minutes (about two hours counting intermission), it shaves a good hour off the time it takes to enjoy a typical serving of Shakespeare. The plotline is easy to follow for those who don’t have the luxury of brushing up their Shakespeare before attending.

I have mixed feelings about recommending this work for teens. Barker’s vision is beautifully executed — a “must see” in many ways for serious students of the theater. His use of color, shadow and actor-generated sound effects is breathtaking. The costumes, props and lighting prove that less can be more — even, and especially, in a world so obsessed with a constant barrage of stimulation serving no higher purpose. 

I was struck, when first taking my seat, by a row of simple objects that hang or stand along one wall in the theater, just feet from some audience members. A long, tangled rope. Two pairs of tall rods. Several masks and a single white sheet — at first a death cloth, then a royal’s robe.

Producing artistic director Jared Sakren (R) talks with cast members about mask work

All are transformed — often with large black lights mounted high and low along each corner of the stage — into a true feast for the senses. It’s rare to leave a work of theater feeling you’ve just experienced a masterful exhibit of visual arts, but “Titus” makes that impression.

On the other hand, the actions wrought by revenge are hard to stomach. I don’t know that “Titus” is the best choice for teens struggling with serious emotional issues of a much higher magnitude than worrying over what to wear to the prom. But it is a convincing morality tale for a day and age when one act of bullying can too easily escalate into an endless stream of aggression. In most cases, parents and teachers should see “Titus” for themselves before taking younger audiences.

Oediupus had his mommy. Sweeney his lovely wife. And Titus his beloved daughter. But the differences are stark. We never see Sweeney Todd before his decline into revenge ala razor mode. The musical opens long after he’s lost his wife and daughter. In “Titus” we see both the “before” and “after” of a man who opts for sword instead of scissors but brings a similar fate to those around him.

Yet Shakespeare, like Sondheim, also delivers a man who’s just plain evil from the get-go. For Sondheim, it’s Judge Turpin, the man who kidnaps Todd’s fragile wife and daughter. For Shakespeare it’s a Moor named Aaron, who faces death by gleefully confessing his regret for having not murdered many more.

Jeffrey Lamar’s performance as Aaron gives us a glimmer of hope, as he begs for the life of his infant son, that even the most wretched man might have a soul. Still, his final scene left me wanting to run right out and do a Childsplay chaser. Leave the kids at home if you’re going to see “Titus” this weekend, but buy a set of tickets to “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” too.

Titus will leave you wanting more time with your children and the balance of a story with a much lighter touch.

— Lynn

Note: Learn more about Southwest Shakespeare Company, headed by producing artistic director Jared Sakren, at www.swshakespeare.org. “Titus Andronicus” features costume design by Lois K. Myers, lighting design by Daniel Davisson and scenic design by Karen Siefried. All photos by stage manager Kati Long (thanks to her nifty iPhone) and courtesy of Southwest Shakespeare Company. Production photos are available on the company’s Facebook page.

Coming up: From thespian to med student

Girl power!

Parents eager to introduce their daughters to “girl power” themes like “it’s okay to be smart” and “be your own person” have three especially fun choices in musical theater this season.

First up is “Dear Edwina, Jr.” featuring actors from the summer theater performance program at Greasepaint Youtheatre in Scottsdale. It follows the adventures of Edwina Spoonapple in Paw Paw, Michigan — who offers advice via “The Dear Edwina Show.” I’m told the production features an “advice-a-palooza extravaganza” and that tickets run just $5. “Dear Edwina, Jr.” is being performed Fri, July 29 at 7pm and Sat, July 30 at noon.

Next up is “Legally Blonde the Musical” presented by Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre. Though college student Elle Woods initially enrolls in law school only to get her man, she discovers along the way that she’s plenty happy doing her own thing. A national touring production of “Legally Blonde the Musical” was a huge hit during its ASU Gammage run in Tempe. This local production runs Oct 6-Nov 12 in Mesa.

Also coming in October is “Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer Live: Dora’s Pirate Adventure” — which features Dora the Explorer, her best friend “Boots the Monkey” and her cousin Diego as they search for “Treasure Island.” Nickelodeon’s “Dora” has been praised for being a smart and confident problem-solver who accomplishes great things with only “Boots” by her side. Valley Youth Theatre brings her to life Oct 7-23.

If you believe that kids model the attitudes and behaviors they see in others and want your daughters to experience life as capable and confident women, consider the role live theater can play in reinforcing these qualities.

— Lynn

Coming up: Dance meets imagination

What would Robin Hood do?

Liam Thibeault (Robin Hood) and Darian Lorrain (Marian) appear in next week's junior production of Robin Hood from Actor's Youth Theatre

There’s been plenty of political rhetoric of late. Should we cut programs for the elderly? Raise taxes on the rich? Rally for fewer regulations? Or argue for greater protections? And so I got to thinking — What would Robin Hood do?

If Robin Hood was an actual person, scholars have yet to name him with certainty. Opinions on his exact origins, whether real or fictional, vary. We can pinpoint the first references to Robin Hood in literature and song, and even find his name in plays by Shakespeare and others.

Adam Lundgreen (Sheriff of Nottingham) and Liam Thibeault (Robin Hood) in Robin Hood

The people of Nottinghamshire in England claim him as their own, making Robin Hood the center of their tourism efforts. He’s been the subject of a good 100 or so films and televion shows — even making appearances with “The Muppets” and the “South Park” gang (voiced by Trey Parker).

I’m told the tales of Robin Hood were adapted for children during the Victorian era. It’s these stories that paint Robin Hood as a man who takes from the rich and gives to the poor, making it fun to imagine how he might approach contemporary budget crises and the tough decisions they necessitate.

But I suspect that’s of little concern to young performers readying to open the Actor’s Youth Theatre junior production of “Robin Hood” at Mesa Arts Center next week. The production runs Tues, July 26 to Sat, July 30 — and tickets are just $11. For about a third of the cast, ages 8 to 13, it’s their first time on stage. So it’s especially important that folks come out to support the show.

Jacob Nielsen and Jacob Kerby play jesters in AYT's Robin Hood at Mesa Arts Center

“Robin Hood” is performed infrequently by Valley theater companies, another reason to see the show when the opportunity arises. The cast list is intriguing. It includes two pairs of siblings, and several youth with interests outside of theater. Think soccer, origami, journalism, chess, violin, robotics, camping and more.

Actor’s Youth Theatre notes that one of their older teen actresses, Adriene Dugger, is doing costumes for “Robin Hood” and that a high school student, Bryce Wagner, is designing and running the lights. Maybe I’m biased, but I think theater folk are some of the most well-rounded people out there.

L to R: Caitlyn Seiffert, Saylem duPont and Aundria Arneson play peasants in AYT's Robin Hood July 26-30

It couldn’t hurt at this point to send a few theater folk to Washington, D.C. Plenty are already involved with causes beyond the stage. I discovered Gwyneth Paltrow’s name on a list of board members for the “Robin Hood Foundation,” which “targets poverty in New York City by finding and funding the best and most effective programs, and partnering with them to maximize results.”

Whatever your politics, I think we all agree on at least one thing — the importance of supporting our youth as they engage in activities, like community theater, that hone the skills they’ll need to build a better future for themselves and others. I like to think that Robin Hood would buy a bunch a theater tickets and share them with his friends. My guess is as good as all the others.

— Lynn

Note: Photos courtesy of Actor’s Youth Theatre

Coming up: A pair of Saturday Disney offerings in Anthem

Pardon my Pygmalion

Here’s a little something for those of you seeking just the right name for your baby boy: Pygmalion. The word, which has Greek origins, means “King of Cyprus” — which rather reminds me of Sara Bareilles’ “King of Anything.”

For others, the name Pygmalion conjures thoughts of playwright George Bernard Shaw — whose play titled “Pygmalion” references a Greek myth recounted by Ovid in which a sculptor who loathes women falls in love with his own statue of a beautiful woman.

Most know a later version of this story — the one told in the 1956 musical “My Fair Lady,” which is based on Shaw’s 1912 work. It’s the tale of a commoner, Eliza Doolittle, who undergoes a phonetics makeover at the hands of professor Henry Higgins.

Theater League brings “My Fair Lady” to two Valley stages this season — Mesa Arts Center Jan 31-Feb 1, 2012 and the Orpheum in Phoenix Feb 16-19, 2012. It features book, music and lyrics by Lerner and Loewe. Think “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

In his preface to “Pygmalion,” Shaw disparages the language skills of his peers. “The English,” Shaw writes, “have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it.”

I suspect the Irish playwright, who lived from 1856 to 1950, would have plenty to say about most states deciding to drop cursive writing from the school curriculum. Blogging might take a beating as well.

Mesa Community College presents “Pygmalion” Jan 27-Feb 4, 2012 at Theatre Outback, located on the MCC campus. It’s one of four theater works in their “Theatre Arts and Film 2011-2012 Mainstage Season” — which includes some truly fascinating fare.

Those of you eager to experience Shaw’s work have another option as Desert Rose Theatre performs “The Dark Lady of the Sonnets” July 21-30 at St. Daniel the Prophet Catholic Church in Scottsdale. Each 7:30pm show is preceeded by a 7pm “pre-show chat” and followed by a “fun Q & A with the actors.”

Desert Rose offers this summary of the play: William Shakespeare is out on the town to meet his Dark Lady, the woman who inspired his sonnets. But a sleepwalking figure interupts his tryst. Who is this new, mysterious and fascinating woman with regal bearing? Could she end up his new muse?

Tickets for “The Dark Lady of the Sonnets” are just $10, and the fine folks at Brown Paper Tickets note a minimum age of 8 to attend. This production features Chris Michael Dennis, Diane Senffner, Kristina Rogers and Dave Edmunds.

George Bernard Shaw received the 1925 Nobel Prize in Literature, and you can learn more about his work by visiting the Nobel Prize website. The Nobel Committee is currently reviewing productions nominated for the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature.

If you’re having twins, by the way, consider coupling the names Pygmalion and Hamlet. I owe that suggestion to my daughter Jennifer, though I think it might be a better choice for a pair of puppies you call “Pyg” and “Ham.”

— Lynn

Coming up: What would Robin Hood do?

Touring shows with a Tony Awards® twist

Jackie Burns performing the role of Elphaba in Wicked (Photo by Joan Marcus)

In a perfect world, we could simply hop the light rail (or Elphaba’s broom) and hitch a ride to NYC for the latest and greatest Broadway productions.

Thankfully, there’s a plan B — attending touring productions of Broadway shows at three Valley venues during the 2011/12 season.

Theater League’s “Broadway Series” includes four shows that’ll be performed at both Mesa Arts Center and the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix

My Fair Lady,” coming to Arizona Jan 31-Feb 19, 2012, earned six Tony Awards® (including best musical) in 1957 and one in 1976 (for best actor in a musical).

The “Broadway in Your Backyard” series at ASU Gammage in Tempe features seven shows. ASU Gammage also presents three special engagements, including “Wicked” — a musical that earned three Tony Awards® in 2004 (best actress in a musical for Idina Menzel, costumer designer and scenic designer).

Other Tony Award® winners coming to ASU Gammage include “West Side Story,” “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific,” “Green Day’s American Idiot,” “La Cage Aux Folles,” and “Million Dollar Quartet.”

Kyle Harris and Ali Ewolt performing in West Side Story (Photo by Joan Marcus)

West Side Story” earned two Tony Awards® in 1958 — one for best choreographer (Jerome Robbins) and another for best scenic designer. The revival earned a 2009 Tony Award® for best actress in a musical. The touring production of “West Side Story” opens the 2011-12 Broadway season at ASU Gammage on Sept 27.

The touring production of “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific” comes to ASU Gammage Jan 10-15, 2012. The revival earned four 2008 Tony Awards® — for best revival (musical), actor, lighting design and director.

The original “South Pacific” earned nine 1950 Tony Awards®, including best musical, actor (musical), actress (musical), score, libretto and director. Also best supporting or featured actor (musical), supporting or featured actress (musical) and producers (musical).

Green Day’s American Idiot” — which earned two 2010 Tony Awards®, for scenic design (musical) and lighting design (musical) — takes to the ASU Gammage stage April 24-29, 20102.

La Cage Au Folles” earned six Tony Awards®, including best musical, in 1984. Also actor (musical), book (musical), director (musical), score and costume designer. One revival earned 2005 Tony Awards® for best revival (musical) and choreographer.

Douglas Hodge earned the 2010 Tony Award for best actor in a musical (Photo by Uli Weber)

The most recent revival received three 2010 Tony Awards® — for best musical and director. Also best actor (for Douglas Hodge). The touring production comes to ASU Gammage May 15-20, 2012.

Million Dollar Quartet” rounds out the 2011-12 “Broadway in Your Backyard” series at ASU Gammage June 5-10, 2012. It earned a 2010 Tony Award® for best actor in a featured role (musical).

I hadn’t imagined, while watching last year’s broadcast of the 2010 Tony Awards®, that I’d be able to enjoy touring productions of three winning musicals right here in the Valley so soon thereafter.

But I’m thrilled that’s the case, and even more excited now to watch the 2011 Tony Awards® ceremony knowing that several of the shows being honored this year may soon find their way to Arizona.

— Lynn

Note: ASU Gammage is sponsoring a Tony Awards® contest, with a very nifty prize for the winner. Click here to learn more.

Coming up: A conversation with Arizona’s only Tony Awards® voter