Tag Archives: Playwrights

Shrek: I’m a believer

Scene featuring Shrek, Donkey and Princess Fiona

I ran into Colleen Jennings-Roggensack and Kurt Roggensack after the opening night performance of “Shrek the Musical” at ASU Gammage in Tempe.

She’s the executive director for ASU Gammage, while he’s an ASU volcanologist. I was there with my 17-year-old daughter, Lizabeth.

It looked at the time like a volcano had just erupted in the theater, as children scurried to and fro trying to capture a few of the large circles of green and silver confetti released during the show’s final number — the song “I’m a Believer,” composed by Neil Diamond and recorded by the Monkees in 1966. (It’s the Smash Mouth cover that you hear during the 2001 movie “Shrek.”)

“I didn’t want to like it,” I confessed to Jennings-Roggensack. “But now I’m a believer!” We agreed that, although the musical is plenty fun for kids, it seemed at times that the adults might be having the most fun. As we chatted, a silver-haired woman walked by — unaware she was sporting confetti in her gorgeous locks.

Lord Farquaad isn't phased by talking cookies like Gingy

It’s hard to pin down the intended audience of this baby. Unlike some works that integrate youth and adult material with ease, “Shrek” seems to skip back and forth between the two.

It leaves the show, though perfectly enjoyable, feeling a bit choppy and disjointed. At times, it reads like a sparkling Las Vegas extravaganza. But sometimes it’s just a simple fairy tale.

To the credit of playwright David Lindsay-Abair and the rest of the musical’s creative team, “Shrek the Musical” isn’t a mere rehashing of the “Shrek” movies. The same characters are there, but the story has more layers — much like the onion Shrek uses to show his new friend Donkey that he’s more complicated than he appears.

Princess Fiona sparkles like Las Vegas royalty with her tap dancing rats

So is Lindsay-Abair, whose work you might have seen in movie theaters of late. He’s the playwright and screenwriter for “Rabbit Hole” — originally a play, which earned a Pulitzer Prize in Drama.

“Shrek” is great fun for those who enjoy the occasional homage or parody of favorite fairy tales or Broadway musicals. Think “Wicked,” “Les Mis,” “Lion King,” “HAIR” and more.

I’m certain I heard echos of “Rent” and “Hairspray” tunes, but Lizabeth tells me I’m merely “ovethinking things again.” I found myself wishing they’d found a way to incorporate “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” but perhaps that would have been in poor taste.

Can you hear Pinocchio sing?

The show is heavy with messages and morality tales. I suspect they’re too complex for younger theater-goers, yet a tad too sappy for the more mature crowd. “What makes us special,” we’re often told, “is what makes us strong.”

Tear down your walls. Don’t judge. Things aren’t always what they seem. Don’t fear something just because you don’t understand it. My favorite number, “Freak Flag,” is a high-energy celebration of diversity.

Still, Lizabeth and I agreed that we might enjoy the show more if it ran a bit shorter — closer to 90 minutes or so. Though I certainly wouldn’t want the job of deciding which scenes to cut. It’s best, I suppose, that producers never think to call for my opinion on such matters.

The four lead actors — Eric Petersen (Shrek), Haven Burton (Princess Fiona), Alan Mingo, Jr. (Donkey) and David F. M. Vaughn (Lord Farquaad) — were well matched in terms of talent, with each showing particular strengths. Sadly, the full measure of Petersen’s vocal talent isn’t revealed until well into the second act.

Four puppeteers operate this magnificent flying dragon

Other vocal powerhouses in this production include Carrie Compere (Dragon, Mama Ogre, Tweedledum), who dedicates her performance to the memory of her mother — leading me to surmise that her mom was a blissful blend of joyous and strong. Also Aymee Garcia (Mama Bear, Gingy), whose gingerbread cookie is smart and sassy. (Think “Eat me!”)

My favorite scenes featured Fiona’s entourage of tap dancing rats, a Shrek and Fiona burp-fest, and Shrek’s anthem to self-doubt titled “When Words Fail.” Plus anything and everything involving puppetry — especially the dragon scene — which you’ll appreciate even more if you’ve seen the fine work of our own local Great Arizona Puppet Theater.

See if your children can figure out the mechanics of Lord Farquaad's short stature and nimble legs

Puppetry on this grand scale requires athleticism and agility, and you’d be wise to extend the fun at home by having plenty of puppets at the ready so your child can act out his or her own stories.

Laptime with favorite fairy tales may also surge in popularity at your house after you’ve experienced this show with your kids.

You might also want to revisit the “Shrek” films — as well as the “Shrek” book written by William Steig (first published in 1990). It’s fun to find and talk about differences in various tellings of a single story.

When all is said and done, I suppose you’d have to say that I’m a believer.

— Lynn

Note: “Shrek the Musical” (Book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire, Music by Jeanine Tesori) runs at ASU Gammage in Tempe through Jan 9. Click here to see “Gammage Goer” reviews of “Shrek” and other ASU Gammage productions.

Coming up: Expert tips on college theater program auditions


Stories & songs with Bill Harley

Maybe you didn’t make it to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix for the recent celebration of John Lennon’s 70th birthday.

Bill Harley brings family-friendly story and song to the MIM in Phoenix on Sunday (Photo: Tom Thurston)

No worries. Sunday will be another fabulous day at the MIM as Grammy Award winner Bill Harley brings his family-friendly fare to the MIM Music Theater.

I spoke recently with the prolific singer/songwriter, storyteller, author and playwright — and his team was kind enough to send me review copies of his latest CD (“The Best Candy in the Whole World”) and soon-to-be-published paperback (“Between Home and School.”)

Harley is the father of two grown sons and currently lives with his wife Debbie near Providence, Rhode Island. He grew up in Indianapolis and Connecticut.

Two of Harley’s “Best Candy” stories are originals — while others are adapted from the British Isles, Africa and Appalachia. While you’re at the MIM for Harley’s concert, take some time to experience musical instruments from these (and other) regions.

"Best Candy" from Bill Harley is a decadent dessert for those with a sweet tooth for storytelling

I asked Harley whether storytelling seems a dying art. “It can’t really die,” shared Harley, “because it’s what people do.” Storytelling, says Harley, is what makes people human.

While talking about the family-friendly nature of his show, Harley noted that “songs and stories always go hand in hand culturally.” But what exactly is a story?

Story is “saying what happens before and imagining what happens after,” reflects Harley. “History is the winner telling the story.”

“My job,” says Harley, “is to watch, listen and pay attention” — adding that artists help others take a second look, to notice things they might otherwise miss.

So what are we missing as parents today? Many would say it’s family together time. Or ways to connect and communicate with our kids. Which is why a shared experience of story and song might be just the ticket this weekend.

Bill Harley's "Between Home and School" is an ode to the fine art of communicating

“I’ve done my job,” says Harley, “if I give kids and parents a common language.” Harley loves seeing parents and children in the audience elbowing each other during his show with a “Yup, that’s us” grin.

We focus too often, observes Harley, on what we think kids need to learn in order to grow up. It’s no less important, he says, to honor children’s emotional lives.

Harley describes his work as more descriptive than prescriptive — hoping concertgoers will leave considering not simply what they know, but what they feel.


Note: Harley performs this Sunday at 2:30pm at the MIM Music Theater. Visit www.themim.org or call 480-478-6000 to learn more about this concert and others in the MIM 2010-2011 Concert & Film Season.

Coming up: Reflections on NPR, “Glee” and GQ magazine

Before there was CSI…

There’s a humble hangout in Phoenix that I’ve taken for granted through the years. It’s smack dab in the middle of two other places where I’ve spent plenty of time—a hip little joint called Mama Java’s and the School of Ballet Arizona.

But the Book Gallery caught my eye recently when I noticed a display of Sherlock Holmes stories in the window, reminding me that ASU’s School of Theatre and Film will bring playwright Suzan Zeder’s “The Death and Life of Sherlock Holmes” to Galvin Playhouse  on the Tempe campus April 16-May 2. (Attend the April 24 matinee to enjoy a Q & A with Zeder.)

I’m eager to see the production for several reasons, including the exceptionally high quality of other performances I’ve seen at this venue. Knowing the scenic designer is Todd Hulet, Lizabeth’s production studies teacher at Arizona School for the Arts, also ups the intrigue quotient.

Zeder’s bio for the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin describes the professor as “one of the nation’s leading playwrights for family audiences.” ASU’s Herberger Institute notes that the play is “suitable for youth” but equally appealing to “mystery lovers of all ages.”

“At its heart,” reflects Zeder, “is a sometimes terrible, sometimes tender, always tentative relationship between creator and creation.” Characters in the play include not only detective Sherlock Holmes, faithful sidekick Dr. Watson and evil nemesis Dr. Moriarty—but also author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his daughter Mary.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read much of Doyle’s work, though my husband James confesses to spending more than a few hours with Sherlock Holmes during high school. I get the feeling the play, featuring “lots of twists and turns that vex and puzzle Holmes,” will appeal to both Holmes aficionados and Holmes amateurs alike.

Sherlock Holmes hits Tempe Friday (Photo: Tim Trumble for ASU)

I mentioned to Jennifer, my ASU “Sun Devil” daughter, that I was eager to learn more about the adventures of the fictional detective. She shared with me that she’d just come from a history class in which Sherlock Holmes was mentioned—and soon had me pondering how superficial the stark line so many of us draw between history and science might be.

Seems the field of criminal anthropology took some disturbing turns in the late 19th century, especially with the work of Caesar Lombroso, who aligned criminal tendencies with particular physical traits. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print with the publication of “Study in Scarlet” in 1887.

I’m always fascinated by the historical context of great playwrights’ work, and decided to do a bit of digging into what else occurred that year in European and American history. Turns out 1887 is the year Anne Sullivan began teaching a young Helen Keller as well as the year the U.S. secured rights to Pearl Harbor.

It was the year of several important patents (to A. Miles for the elevator and Emile Berliner for the Gramophone) and the year that Charles Dickens traveled to NYC for his first public reading in America. These tidbits leave me all the more eager to see Zeder’s twist on Sherlock’s sleuthing. (Don’t even get me started on Doyle’s fascinating childhood.)

The Herberger Institute has developed a nifty study guide of manageable size for parents, teachers or youth eager to learn more before or after seeing the production. It begins by answering the question: “Who is Sherlock Holmes and why is he important today?” It also includes several activities and additional resources.

I’m hoping this production will be playful anecdote to the myriad of mysteries still surrounding the American teen—like why some credit CSI with inventing forensics and why others favor analyses ala “tweet” over steady observation and deductive reasoning.

Alas, no work of art can solve the many mysteries of parenting…


Note: Yesterday Jennifer introduced me to another great place to find used books, videos, CDs and more–it’s the ARC Thrift Shop (tucked away in a strip mall at Mill and Southern in Tempe), which has been “enriching and empowering the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities since 1965.” Most paperbacks are just 25 cents and we came home with a suitcase full–literally–for just $6 thanks to their Wednesday ‘half-off for students’ special!

Coming up: Details about the School of Theatre and Film’s 2010-2011 season, as well as the 2010-2011 Broadway Across America season soon to be announced by ASU Gammage. Also look for reviews of SCC’s “The Diviners” and Childsplay’s “Tomato Plant Girl.”

Theater tackles “No Child” policy

Ever wonder what actors do when they’re not on stage? I got a glimpse while speaking by phone recently with actor and playwright Nilaja Sun.

Sun’s one woman show about “everyday life in a low-income Bronx classroom” comes to Phoenix later this month, so we chatted a bit about how she gave birth to—and continues to nurture—the work.

But first Sun shared with me that she’d recently seen the movie “Date Night” with Tina Fey and Steve Carell. Seems we’re fellow Fey fans (that woman can write), and that Sun felt the flick was “a lot of fun.”

If a genie shows up at my door anytime soon, I’m using one of my three wishes to arrange a coffee and cheesecake fest with these two women. Then I’m asking for a ticket to every single performance of Sun’s show, being presented by Actors Theatre at Herberger Theater Center’s Stage West April 23-May 9.

In case you’re wondering, my third wish will be for world peace. But never mind that right now. I’m keen on making sure you get yourself, your teens, your kids’ teachers and pretty much everyone else you know to this show—called “No Child.”

Think Mother’s Day gifts. Think teacher gifts. Think parent date night. Think girls night out. Just get those tickets—before my genie gets to the box office.

I happen to think that more time at the theater for us all might just bring my third wish to life. If you doubt the transformative power of live theater performance, prepare for a conversion. I suspect that Sun’s prophetic piece may change the way we look at education forever.

It’s about time.

“The passing of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act was not without its share of criticism” is the diplomatic statement offered by Actors Theatre in their “What It’s Really About” description of Sun’s work.

You know the basics. Lagging in education performance worldwide, U.S. officials decided it was time for math and English to take not just center stage—but nearly all the stage. It was back into the wings for the arts, or all the way out to the gutter.

So has it proven effective in preparing our children for the many challenges of the modern world? I’m all for math and English, but something is missing when music, theater, dance and the visual arts fall by the wayside.

What Sun has wrought, by her own admission, is “a bit of a revolution happening.” She didn’t wait for someone else to start it, fix it or spread it. She did it—and it sounds amazing.

I’ll share a bit more about Sun’s journey from student in the New York public schools to portrayer of all that is possible for our schools going into the future in an upcoming post.

In the meantime, I leave you with Sun’s final remarks as our call drew to a close. “What value,” I asked, “do the arts have for students who won’t grow up to work as artists?”

“The arts,” shared Sun, “begin opening up kids’ hearts and souls to the world and to their own humanity.

“The arts,” she added, “help us all to be a little more human and to have a greater grasp of all that we can do.”


What’s new in Valley theater?

So many Americans seem obsessed with the new. New clothes, new shoes. New computers, new cell phones. New televisions, new music players. New partners, new politicians. We seem to have an insatiable appetite for novelty. Why, then, are we so starved when it comes to the arts? The feast has been spread, but we rarely partake.

The arts menu in Phoenix is much more rich and robust than most folks realize. Fond as you might be of one particular taste—whether the symphony, poetry or musical theater—it’s nice to bite into something new and unexpected now and then. A new creative masterpiece can be every bit as satisfying as a new culinary morsel.

Whet your appetite for new art with the “New Play Series” presented by Theatre Artists Studio in Scottsdale, a non-profit organization designed to provide a professional theater resource for members and the community. Five new works written by Studio writers will be performed as staged readings between January and June of this year.

A staged reading of the first new work in this series will take place Tuesday, Jan. 5th. Each staged reading takes place for one night only, so get thee to the theater promptly before you let another good thing slip away. Tuesday’s work, by playwright Les Leiter, is titled “The Wrong Tree.”

Having just discovered that my new next door neighbors have a dog that’s rather large and loud, I am especially intrigued by the plot of Leiter’s play: Next door neighbors tangle over a barking dog, a crying baby, manhood, individual responsibility and the effects of the recession. What does it mean, I wonder, to tangle with one’s neighbors? This sounds ever so civilized.

Theatre Artists Studio presents a staged reading of “Podski’s Hole”—a new play by Alan Austin—on Feb. 9th. What in the heck is a “podski,” I wondered, until I read the play’s description: Everyman Podski struggles to survive at all costs, while two imaginary worlds both explore a timeless human predicament of being caught between history and one’s own time. One world seems bent on “blowing itself up,” another on “polluting itself to death.” (It rather reminds me of cable news station rating wars.)

March will bring us Micki Shelton’s “Fred and Mary: An Unconventional Romance,” an exploration of the life of architect Mary Jane Colter during the early 1900s. May will feature Debra Rich Gettelman’s “In Vino Veritas,” about a married couple with “the perfect life” whose days and decisions are anything but perfect. The final play in the series, by Mare Biddle (and currently untitled), will debut in June.

All are single-night staged readings, best enjoyed by adults, according to Carol MacLeod, a founder and president of the Theatre Artists Studio board who also serves as producer, actor and instructor.

Gettleman is well known around our parts as a rock star writer, actor and theater producer. She’s been with the magazine for years, writing with honesty and insight that’s hard to match. I can only imagine the power and prowess she must bring to the stage.

Next time you’re in the mood to try something new, don’t settle for the “fresco” menu at Taco Bell or the latest “there’s an app for that” gimmick. Get your tickets to the truly new, the truly innovative—the new works premiering at Theatre Artists Studio.


Note: Visit the Theatre Artists Studio website to learn about other upcoming performances, workshops and projects—including “Medea’s Ghost” by Arizona playwright Micki Shelton (coming Jan. 29th to Feb. 13th).