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

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Flowers from the Storm

The downsizing of my library is complete. I now have a better understanding of Hercules and the Augean Stables. The difference is that he probably did not find some hidden gems nor have I ever heard that he hid those gems under his bed.One of the gems that I found is FLOWERS FROM THE STORM by Laura Kinsale. Kinsale has taken the Regency Romance to a slightly different level.

Maddy Timms is a quiet Quaker living with her blind father. Her only contact with the Duke of Jervaulx is when she delivers her father's mathematical paper to the Duke's home. The brilliant duke and Mr. Timms have been working on proof of an obscure mathematical solution with hopes of presenting the paper to the Analytical Society of the  Royal Institution on Albemarle Street.

Unfortunately, before this important meeting, the Duke, while leaving the bedroom of his present mistress, feels an unpleasant tingling and numbness in his right hand and a weird overall feeling. As he descends the staircase in his mistress' home he meets her husband at the foot of the stairs.

The next time Maddy goes to the home of the Duke, she finds the place in an uproar. The Duke has become a dangerous lunatic and is being taken to an institution for the insane. What follows is Maddy's attempts to save Jervaulx against his family's insistence that he be found incompetent so that his vast wealth can be turned over to them. So far, we have the makings of a typical romance novel.

What made this book so fascinating was the Duke's illness and how it was treated. Naturally, it was never stated that he had suffered a stroke. Little would have been known of aneurysms or hemorrhaging of the brain during the early 1800's.  All that the people around him could see was that he had lost his ability to communicate and that he became violent when his attempts were frustrating.

The conditions of the "hospital" where Jervaulx was institutionalized was probably better than most, but still filled with what a modern reader would only see as inhumane treatment. The fact that a duke would expect very special privileges did not help his relationships with his caretakers.

It also was to the author's credit to be able to keep Maddy true to her Quaker beliefs. Her conflict of her attraction to Jervaulx, her horror of his life style, and her loyalty to her father and the Society of Friends were never glossed over. Instead, we worried for her and her Calling to help this man who was so far out of her experience.

FLOWERS FROM THE STORM appeared on my nightstand at the perfect time. I needed a read that was not too deep of a medical study and yet, not too fluffy. Thanks to author Laura Kinsale, I found a little gem.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

THEATER REVIEW: The Marvelous Wonderettes

Millbrook Playhouse is closing the season on a high note. THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES is a feel good show full of fun, talent and four young ladies briming over with personality.

Asked to be the entertainment, at the last moment, for the class of 1958's senior prom, Missy, Suzy, Cindy Lou and Betty Jean bring their four part harmony to fill in. They also bring their boy problems. As the girls wow the audience with their music, the individual personalities become distinct and love situations become tricky. In the second act, their ten year reunion shows us the changes in the young women as well as the changes in the music over a ten year span.

If you had seen Samantha Carroll as Mary Poppins and as General Cartwright, you would not have recognized her as Missy. Well, maybe you would have recognized some of her high notes. Her  straight, dark hair, the black framed glasses and the conservative gown made Missy the picture of 1950's nerd. The love of her teen years is her high school choir director. The fact that his name is Mr. Lee gives her a chance to sing not only the song "Mr. Lee" but of course "Teacher's Pet", which works into the plot nicely. In the second act we learn that his first name is Bill and we hear "Wedding Bell Blues" ( "Won't You Marry Me, Bill?")

Kate Keating as the gum chewing Suzy captured the sound of the 50's very well; she had the slight, rather sweet voice that could break when needed. After the slightly screw ball of the first act, we were not quite prepared for the change in her in the second act. When she started on Aretha Franklin's "Respect" I had my doubts. Kate nailed it! In fact she, to use an old theatrical phrase, ate up the stage.

Man stealing Cindy Lou, was played by Katrina Diehn. My biggest disappointment this summer was that we did not see more of Katrina. She is such a delight, no matter how she is cast, but she does shine as the pretty girl who is accustomed to getting her own way - including her best friend's boyfriend. She proved that she could do some scene stealing as well when she did "Son of a Preacher Man" and "Leader of the Pack".

Shannon Agnew has been thrilling Millbrook audiences all summer. As Cindy Lou's best friend, Betty Jean, Shannon had many opportunities to show her comedic side. I suggest that when ordering tickets  you always sit where you can see Shannon's facial expressions. But, do not ever forget that this young woman can sing. Her medley around "It's my Party and I Can Cry if I Want To"  hit on all levels.

Dax Valdes has been one of my favorites over the years at Millbrook. He sings, dances and acts with the best of them, but he shines as a director and choreographer. His touch as both with THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES was obvious. The stage movement was energetic and the dance numbers were well coordinated - after all this was a show about back up singers as well as leads. Any time that you see Dax's name in a program, get you ticket as fast as possible.

This is such a fun show and I heard more than one member of the audience say that it was the best show of the season. If fact, the run of the show is a sell out and an extra week has been added to the schedule, now running through August 28th. For time and seat availability, call 570-748-8083. Good luck or visit their website.

PS. If I have a complaint about this year, it is the program insert. Very small, black print on colored paper is very hard to read. Using one main program and then the insert for individual plays is practical, but I want to be able to read credits.

Our group is always a bit sad when Millbrook's summer season is over, but we will be watching to see what happens next. Thank you David E. Leidholdt for having the talent to gather all of these great people to Mill Hall, Pennsylvania again this year.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Whistling in the Dark

There is something about an author using a ten-year-old protagonist that attracts a reader. It has been done often. Maybe it is the combination of innocence and wisdom that captures our imagination; or maybe it is that loss of innocence itself. Whatever the reason, Lesley Kagen has done it beautifully in her WHISTLING IN THE DARK. It is impossible not to get involved in young Sally O’Malley’s life.

Sally’s beloved father has died causing Sally, her two sisters, Troo and Nell, and their mother to move from their farm into town. Shortly after the move, the mother remarries. She becomes ill and has to go into the hospital. The new stepfather proves to be a cruel drunk who leaves the girls to fend for themselves.

Thus starts Sally’s story. She had promised her father before he died that she would take care of Troo and would tell their mother that he forgave her. Older sister Nell is busy making out with her boyfriend and stepfather Hall is soon out of their lives. This leaves Sally and Troo on their own.

The year is 1959. A time when children were free to play outdoors until after dark, neighbors’ doors were always open, two extra mouths at the dinner table was accepted and winning a coon skin hat was a big thing to a young girl. It was also the year that people on Vliet Street started locking their doors. Someone was molesting and killing young girls. Sally is not only sure of who the murderer is, she is sure that she is going to be the next victim.

The plot of WHISTLING IN THE DARK sounds as if it would be fairly straightforward, but author Lesley Kagen has some neat surprises for the reader. The residents of the town came very much alive and as we learned about them we felt that we also were residents of a small town in the late 1950’s.

My idea of who was the guilty person kept changing (though I never agreed with Sally’s choice). No sooner would I have my suspect than the author would throw a new twist  into the plot.

The identification of the murder is only one of the reasons that you will have trouble putting this delightful book down. The underlying secrets of people that you thought that you knew are revealed slowly throughout the story making this a warm page-turner. It also gives me a new author to keep my eye out for.

Monday, August 10, 2015

THEATER REVIEW: My Vaudeville Man

You can depend on Millbrook Playhouse for providing its audiences with a well balanced season, a summer of beloved musicals, classic mysteries, and brand new shows by up and coming playwrights. MY VAUDEVILLE MAN is a new musical that should be around for future audiences to enjoy,

Based on the life of Jack Donahue,  who had a brief run as a dancer on the vaudeville circuit, the show revolves around Jack and his mother.  Jack started playing small towns at the age of 19 and had some success before dying of alcoholism at 39. His story is told mainly through the letters written between him and his mother as he tries to make it to a top billing spot. Mother Donahue not only is opposed to his career choice, but very worried that he will become a drunk like his old man.

The credit for this rather weak play being as enjoyable as it was belongs to the talents of its stars and its director.

Director Joshua W. Kelley kept the action well paced and never allowed the story to fall into what could have been melodrama. The plot is full of cliches: the religious Irish Catholic mother, the mother/son guilt tripping relationship, the fear of becoming like the absent father, the trials of being “on the road”, etc. Instead, Joshua allows us to see a mother and son interact.

The mother was played by the amazing Shannon Agnew. Shannon is almost a regular at Millbrook and we never know what to expect from her; only her fantastic voice is a constant. She can belt out a song with the best of them, plus she has comic talents to spare. If she is back next year, I hope that Gypsy is on the schedule. If Merman could do it, Agnew can do it.

Matthew Fairlee drew my attention as the butler in Mary Poppins and I was happy to see what all this young actor could really do. As the young Jack Donahue, Matthew had a chance to, literally, strut his stuff. His interaction with the audience was natural and charming; his acting and his dancing were both impressive. The first act left me with a feeling that he was a little weak for the part, but by the end of the show I realized that the director wanted to show Jack’s growth as an entertainer. His “Tap Drunk” number in the second act was worthy of a Kelly or an Astaire. Like Kelly and Astaire his voice has a limited range, but he know how to work with what he has.

I also enjoyed the old fashioned piano playing of musical director Martena Rogers. She, along with drummer Bruce Wallace, provided perfect vaudeville music. I always enjoy the “orchestra” when it does not drown out the singers. Thank you, Martena.

This is basically a two person show, but sets, lights and props made it feel like a much larger cast, thanks to Joshua Gallagher, Denise Lalevee and Ethan Vail. When any of these three get a reaction from the audience, it is a good thing and that happened several times on opening night.

MY VAUDEVILLE MAN closed August 9 and has been replaced by The Marvelous Wonderettes beginning on August 14. It is sure to make you go home with “Leader of the Pack” stuck in your head. Call 570-748-8083 or check www.millbrookplayhouse.org for more information.