"...Everyone Is Entitled To My Opinion." ~Madonna

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Summer Kitchen

Author Lisa Wingate should be on every woman’s list of go-to-authors. I hate dividing books into categories: men’s literature, chick lit, kiddie lit, etc., but Wingate writes about things that traditionally we do associate with  being of interest to women. Based on a real situation, THE SUMMER KITCHEN is a strong story about a strong woman who made a big difference in a small way.

SandraKaye is getting a house ready to sell. The old place had belonged to her beloved uncle Poppy and had once stood proudly in a nice residential neighborhood. Now the streets have become unsafe and the residents are living in sub-poverty conditions. She knows that the chances of selling the decaying house are slim.

Taking an old lady home from the local Wal-Mart, SandraKaye sees three small children eating from the apartment complex dumpster. Not aware that she is being watched, she chases them out of the garbage bin.

Cass Blue is watching the lady with the fancy car scold the children; she knows that they have no other food. Twelve-year-old Cass and her teenage brother have been on their own since the death of their mother. They are always one step ahead of Children’s Services and real hunger. Cass has learned to keep a low profile and not to be the least trusting. If you get too close to someone, your secrets could be revealed.

Later Cass watches as the lady comes back with free peanut butter jelly sandwiches for the kids. Neither Cass or SandraKaye know how that simple act of kindness will affect both of their lives.

Wingate gets us into her characters quickly. SandraKaye lives a prosperous life, but with her older son missing, her younger son depressed, and her husband too wrapped up in his job, she feels that her life no longer has meaning.

Cass has problems just getting food on the table. Her brother works, but because of his age he finds good paying jobs scarce. The drugged out stripper that he brings home one night not only takes the bedroom from Cass, but comes with a small child and an abusive boyfriend on her trail.

The best part of any Lisa Wingate book is her character development Not only are her main characters strong, but her secondary ones - both good and bad- are real. The story may seem a little predictable,but  there are always enough twists to keep you reading about people who matter .

Saturday, July 26, 2014


Currently playing at Millbrook Playhouse is Neil Simon’s BILOXI BLUES. This autobiographical play captures the humor and drama of new recruits during World War ll at a camp in Biloxi, Mississippi. The interaction between six strangers who have to learn to work together as a team creates a delicate balance of humor and drama to challenge the director and cast.

Eugene, a thinly disguised Neil Simon, plans on being a writer some day. As he writes in his journal, he shares his observations with the audience. Brian Lose did a stalwart job of portraying the young, naive future playwright. Brian showed an insight into his bunkmates that was touching and at times humorous.

Much of the story depended on the actions of Arnold Epstein, the young Jewish scholar who is at odds with the military mentality. Jake Novak was perfect. Yes, I know that I said the same thing about this young actor after seeing him play Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, but it gives us an idea of the range of talent inside Jake.

The stand out performance of the evening had to be Gavin D’ Ulisse as Sgt. Mervin Tooney. His voice and presence dominated the stage each time he appeared. Not only did the recruits under his command hate him, so did the audience. His final scene had the audience in the palm of his hand, as well as on the edges of their seats. Speaking to Gavin after the show, I met a completely different person than I expected. I did not see the overbearing sergeant, but a quiet, young man. His role as mild mannered Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz must of been a “walk through”. Here is a talent to watch.

James Kern, Philip Calabro, Ian Fairlee, and Jake Evans rounded out the recruits. They deserve credit for how well each personality came across. James and Philip were new to me, but we have seen Ian and Jake in earlier shows. Again, I repeat, this is why I get season tickets to Millbrook. It is fun to watch the new talents, but to watch actors who can run a wide, and sometimes wild, range of parts is more than exciting. To quote one of his fellow actors, “ Jake is a powerhouse” I agree.

Jessica Brown and Karen Querns may  have had small parts as the only women in the show, but turned in excellent performances, Karen as the experienced prostitute guiding Eugene through his first experience  and Jessica as the sweet, young, love interest. I have followed Jessica’s show business career through her high school days and hope to continue to do so.

I do have two complaints about this season. The first is a small one. The small print in the program is very hard to read. More importantly, the Main Stage has too many bad seats this year. It seems as if the directors are more accustomed to proscenium and not to area staging. So many good scenes took place in front of the raised platform and could not be seen from the sides. This was a shame, especially for Little Shop of Horrors.

BILOXI BLUES will be on the Main Stage until August the 3rd. Church Basement Ladies opens August the 1st in the Cabaret. The scheduled run has sold out, but an encore production is planned, so call 570 748 8083 or check their website, www.MillbrookPlayhouse.org for ticket availability.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Death of Santini

If you have ever read a book or seen a movie written by Pat Conroy (The Great Santini, Prince of Tides, etc), you owe it to yourself to read his autobiography THE DEATH OF SANTINI. As you read, you will discover the plots to all of his books have been part of his life.

My first book by Conroy was Beach Music and I was hooked by his beautiful use of language. His other books hypnotized me for the same reason; he may be the most gifted master of the English language writing today. As one reviewer put it, “Reading a Pat Conroy book is like watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel”. His autobiography is as masterful.

Pat Conroy’s father had been nicknamed The Great Santini after the charismatic trapeze artist who seemed fearless of death. Donald Conroy was a Marine Corps fighter pilot whose visits home were full of brutal acts toward his wife and seven children. Pat said that he hated his father before he knew the word hate.

The publication of The Great Santini brought Pat Conroy to the attention of the public and much critical acclaim, but because it followed his life so closely, it also caused a family that was already battered to break apart. The making of the movie may have been the start of healing between Pat and his dad. Donald was happy to be played by Robert Duvall. This was the actor who had been in the Godfather and Apocalypse Now, and if Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne could not do it, Duvall would be alright.

THE DEATH OF SANTINI should have been a book that I found too disturbing to read, let alone recommend to anyone, but I was caught up in the way an author could take a dysfunctional family that included domestic violence, sibling suicide, and mental illness, and turn it into a love poem.

Maybe this is the best way for a craftsman of words to exorcise his demons. We can all hope that since Conroy has told his complete life story there are still future books.  

THE DEATH OF SANTINI is a disturbing book in many ways, but it is brilliant.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

THEATER REVIEW: Don't Dress For Dinner

Millbrook Playhouse can be depended upon to do a farce each season. This season’s choice is DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER and it kept the packed house roaring with laughter. Hint: Always count the doors on stage, the more doors the more outrageous the comedy. DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER has five doors, plus the audience area was used! A good farce also demands fast pacing and director Synge Maher gave us a show that never slowed down.

Much of the comedy depended on physical contact so it was vital that the actors be right on their spots or there could have been bodily damage. Equally important are the rapid lines. I was pleased that even though some were close to being tongue twister, not a line was missed. Ms. Maher obviously worked this cast during rehearsals. So much has to be said for the cast. Millbrook has had many talented performers on its stage over the years, but this season the whole company is outstanding.

We have seen three different sides of Katrina Dieh this summer and each time she has impressed me. This show has her playing the blond bombshell, Suzanne, who never quite understands what is going on. If the audience had never seen her in anything else, Katrina would only be cast as the ditzy blond. And remember, she can sing! Katrina is in the Theatre Arts program at Penn State so locals should have a chance to see more of her in the future.

We will get a chance to see Meghan McCormick later in Church Basement Ladies which should be a switch in character for her. In DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER Meghan is the proper wife whom everybody else is trying to keep in the dark while she has secrets of her own. This called for the most layered performance on stage and Meghan was up to the task.

Peter Kendall and James Cella, as best friends Bernard and Robert, (even though one is having an affair with the other’s wife) played off of each other perfectly. There were times that Monty Python images went through my head; the physical humor was so good and the difficult lines flowed so smoothly.

Joseph Tornabene-Zalas was proof that there are no small parts in the theatre. He was on stage only near the end of the show for a brief time, but was so perfect for the role. Here is an actor that I would like to see do other parts. 

Stealing the show from these other talents was Meg Mark as Suzette. The role of Suzette gave Meg a chance to run the range of acting skills. Meg was a pure delight as the slightly dowdy hired cook. She was radiant after a few drinks! It was clear that the dumpy Suzette would transform into the sexy actress/model(?) early in the plot, but the actual transformation was beyond belief.

I love a good farce, but it is crucial that all of the elements, timing on the actors’ part, pacing on the part of the director, and good, fresh lines from the playwright, come together. DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER had the perfect combination of each element. Plus the cast seemed to be having a party that they thoughtfully invited the audience to join as expressed in a very enthusiastic curtain call.

DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER will be in the Cabaret July 23-27 and will be followed by Church Basement Ladies on August 1st. Biloxi Blues opens July 25th on the Main Stage. And, that sadly, will bring a close to Millbrook's 2014 season. Call 570 748 8083 or check their website for more information.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Life Is A Banquet

I have to start this with a disclaimer, just for the sake of honesty. For years I have said that when my life is made into a movie--and it should be-- I want Rosalind Russell to play me. I am Ruth from Wonderful Town, could be Hildy from His Girl Friday, and want to be Auntie Mame.  My favorite literary quote is “Life is a banquet and most of you poor suckers are starving”. Therefore I was all ready to be prejudiced about Rosalind Russell’s autobiography, LIFE IS A BANQUET.

As long as the author is not into gossipy, scandals, and tell all exposés, I like theatre biographies. I do enjoy reading how an actor prepared for a particular role, or how difficult it was to get the backing to do a certain show. Who slept with whom does not interest me.

Rosalind Russell tells her story in a straight, forthright style with surprisingly little personal information. We learn that she was born in Waterford, Connecticut, one of six children. She is rather vague about the year in the book as if it were one of the unnecessary details. She speaks more about the fun and freedom she had as a child. Her parents were not wealthy, but encouraged their children to be creative and to enjoy life.

In 1929 the stock market crashed and Roz was graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Throughout the book she gives credit to good fortune for her success in show business, but this early in her life, it is obvious that her tenacity, and talent, were the root of her longevity in the theatre.
After limited success in legitimate theatre on the East Coast, in 1934 she received a call from Universal Pictures. At this time, Broadway actors looked down on Hollywood as a lesser form of the arts and Roz wanted to be a Broadway Star. At the meeting with the man from Universal, she demanded the unheard of salary of seven hundred fifty dollars a week. She was offered less than half of that so she went home. By the time she walked into her apartment the phone was ringing and she was on her way back to Hollywood.
After being cast in a number of movies as the second woman, Roz fought for the chance to play the part of Sylvia in The Women. The role is that of a gossipy, flighty, but funny woman, the polar opposite of her former dramatic roles. This was probably the movie that brought her future success.
His Girl Friday has always been one of my favorite movies. According to Roz, she had a big hand in the script (the original scriptwriter had a drinking problem) and Cary Grant’s music hall background gave the two of them many opportunities to ad-lib….and at times it shows. After reading this section, re-watching the movie was even more fun. I was pleased to read that she was very reluctant to take the role of Ruth in Wonderful Town because she could not sing. (I have never been cast in a musical for the same reason). If you have heard the original cast recording, you have an idea of how much work she put in on the music. Side fact: that is actually her voice in the movie version of Gypsy.
Without a doubt, my favorite parts of the book dealt with the making of the play and then the movie of Auntie Mame. I may be biased, but nobody has been a better Auntie Mame than Rosalind Russell. If you have never seen the movie, you have missed one of Hollywood’s greatest comedies. It was such a shame that when the musical movie was made that Mame was so miscast.
This was a fun autobiography. There were few personal specifics. In fact, her husband’s introduction gives more details like awards won (one hundred and fifteen awards and ninety-four recognized civic activities), her battle with rheumatoid arthritis or the cancer that killed her.
Roz Russell maintains throughout the book that she never made it to the upper echelon of actresses, but most actors would kill to have her resume.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

THEATER REVIEW: Little Shop of Horrors

If you go to Millbrook Playhouse to see LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, expect the unexpected. At least, it contained some things that surprised me.  Not unexpected was the outstanding talent involved in the production, many who have been in earlier shows.

Of course, the well designed set was the first thing that the audience saw and the “growth” of that little shop was very impressive. Thanks to designer Mandy Goynes and her crew for a job well done.

Lighting designer Ethan Vail also is to be commended for very tricky lighting. I have always said that lighting is the last part of any production that I would work; mistakes are too hard to cover.

Todd L. Underwood, director and choreographer, did a great job with moving his cast on stage. His characters were consistent and his dance numbers fresh. I particularly liked the Urchins movements and the “Mushnik and Son” number was a true show stopper. Unfortunately, I am not sure how well audience members sitting in the sections other than South section could see much of the action.

To tell you about Amy Lang might act as a spoiler, but I have to say, “What a talent”! Amy has a voice that rattled the rafters and was able to showcase an acting ability under difficulty physical limitations. Amy does a stand up act when away from Mill Hall. I hope that she tours with it.

Also new to me was Daejanae Lettman. Daejanae, along with Philip Bolton and Morissa Trunzo, were the Street Urchins. If the show is unfamiliar to you, the three of them act as a Greek chorus, musically adding their explanations and comments on the action. Their harmonies and movements were well choreographed and, obviously, well rehearsed.
The rest of the cast have been in earlier shows this summer, but here we saw a whole other side of what they can do. They made me very, very glad that I have season tickets to Millbrook. Jake Novak was the quintessential Seymour, the shy, nerdy sales clerk. His other roles did not prepare me for his acting and singing abilities. He was impressive---and we will get to see him once more on the Millbrook stage in Biloxi Blues.

Casting the unique role of Audrey can be difficult and at first I was not sure about Rebecca Kuznick’s vulnerability. Rebecca quickly changed my mind. Again, here is a young talent with fabulous acting and singing abilities. Her rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green” was touchingly lovely.

What can be said about Marc de la Concha that I have not said in the past? His Mr. Mushnik was right on. Marc really does it all, sing, dance, as well as being a great character actor, (I asked a friend who was with me if she could spot Miss Abigail in this show. She answered, “No, where is she?” Now, Marc, that is talent!)

If I read my program correctly, Jake Evans was a replacement in the show. If so, I can not picture anyone doing Orin, the sadistic dentist any better. Just imagine going from Richie Cunningham to Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. in a matter of weeks. Jake also did some fast change parts after Orin’s unfortunate demise. We will see Jake as yet another personality in Biloxi Blues.

Millbrook has been surprisingly creative with shows that we think we know; each director has been able to add his or her little touches. We still have three more shows to go this summer, so check their website (which has terrific pictures) or call 570 748 8083 for schedule/ tickets.

For 51 seasons Millbrook has been providing central Pennsylvania with superior, authentic summer stock theatre. This season is a good example of why they have been around so long.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Courage Tree

Diane Chamberlain was another author who I felt would be a good vacation read. Her Keeper of the Light trilogy had been good and I wanted to try her again. The summary on the back of THE COURAGE TREE sounded very good. This sounded like something with possibilities.

Sophie Donohue is an eight-year-old with a rare disease. She wants so much to be like other little girls. Her mother, Janine, has enrolled her in a controversial treatment and she seems to be doing well enough that Janine allows her to go on a weekend camping trip with her Brownie troop. Janine’s ex-husband and his parents are very much against both plans. When Janine goes to pick up Sophie at the end of the weekend the car that she had been riding in has disappeared. It is vital that Sophie gets the medication that is keeping her alive.

Sophie has found refuge deep in the remote forest with an unusual woman named Zoe. Zoe wants nothing to do with the little girl. She has developed an isolated place to protect her own daughter who has escaped from prison. Zoe finds herself torn between saving her own daughter, a convicted murderer, or an eight-year-old who will die without medical help.

This could have been a great story and I am not sure why it missed the mark. I found much of the plot to be too contrived. For example, Zoe was a beautiful, well-known movie star, accustomed to living well, to be taken care of. To believe that she set up housekeeping in a remote, run down mountain shack was difficult. Too many parts of the story of the plot just did not move well. This is not a book that I would recommend.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Butterfly

A typical vacation for the two of us is that one of us fishes and the other reads for two weeks. Usually I take favorite, light authors and veg-out until the fisherman comes back and then we go out to eat. This is the perfect arrangement for both of us.

Sharon Sala is one of my reliable authors. She is always good and sometimes she is outstanding. Usually her crime novels have an unexpected twist; but BUTTERFLY was too easy to solve almost from the beginning.

China Brown has just been abandoned by the father of her unborn child. She finds herself penniless and out on the street. Wandering through a seedy part of town she is shot after witnessing a murder. Her baby has been killed and she is barely alive. As the only one to have seen the murder, her life is still in jeopardy.

The murder victim had been a photographer known to go after pictures with a high scandal value and he had been after the biggest photo of his career. Of course, it is discovered that his photographs have been a source of blackmail money for him and that opens up an interesting group of suspects. Now the police have to keep China alive and sort through the blackmail victims for the murder.
As usual, Sala develops characters who catch the reader’s attention: although, in this case, most of them become slightly stereotypical. My biggest problem was that I was so sure that I had the murder solved that I was let down when I found out that I was right. BUTTERFLY may not be the best of Sharon Sala, but it still is an enjoyable light mystery. If this is your type of book, give her a try.