by Clark Groome
Last week was as enjoyable a week for this theater critic as I’ve experienced in ages. Let’s get right to it.
About three-quarters of the way through David Hirson’s brilliant “La’ Bête,” the play’s mood changes drastically, becoming, after more than 90 minutes of unalloyed hilarity, a thought-provoking piece about arrogance and judgment and tolerance. It’s an impressive shift and one of the reasons this is such a wonderful way for the Arden Theatre Company to begin its season, where “La Bête” plays through Oct. 12.
But this is a play that’s best approached and appreciated as Moliere-like farce. Written in iambic pentameter (which is spoken as naturally as I’ve ever heard it), the play is set in 1654 in the palace of a French prince (the dandified and impressive Dito van Reigersberg) who has demanded this his resident theater troupe add Valere (Scott Greer, about whom more later), a troubadour who has caught the Prince’s fancy.
Elomire (the invaluable Ian Merrill Peakes, whose character is an anagram of Moliere) runs the prince’s troupe. He’s a serious actor and playwright who can’t abide the off-the-wall humor that Valere would bring to his company.
Their first encounter happens about two minutes into the play when Valere enters, dressed in one of costume designer Rosemarie E. McKelvey’s deliciously goofy costumes, and begins a monologue that last at least 40 minutes. It’s hilarious. Greer is absolutely amazing, switching topics and accents and physical presence in an instant. Greer has always been one of Philadelphia’s best actors. But nothing I’ve ever seen a local actor do matches the skill and difficulty of what he takes on as Valere. Forty uninterrupted minutes at breakneck speed followed by several other equally impressive turns, some solo and some with others, make this as thrilling – and funny – as you’ll ever encounter. It left many asking on opening night, “How does he do that?”
Peakes’ Elomire is just as impressive in a role that is somewhat less physically demanding.
The rest of the cast – Alex Bechtel, Taysha Canales, Michael Doherty, Alex Keiper, van Reigersberg, Amanda Schoonover and especially James Ijames – is superb.
So is the physical production, designed by James Kronzer (the oddly shaped set), Thom Weaver (the hot lighting) and Jorge Cousineau (the subtle – if anything in this show can be called subtle – sound).
Director Emmanuelle Delpech is the director blessed with this extraordinary cast and design team and the talent to turn her production of “La Bête” into the extraordinary theatrical event it is.
For tickets call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org
9 to 5: The Musical
Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” while not the greatest musical in the canon, is a hoot from start to finish. The story of three secretaries at a company run by a sexist pig is short on plot. Who cares? Thanks to Dolly Parton’s terrific score and the stunning Walnut Street Theatre Company production, “9 to 5” is entertaining and exciting from the opening to the finale, both of which feature the popular title song.
The Walnut production, which plays through Oct. 19, has a superlative cast that is led by three-time Tony Award-nominee Dee Hoty’s Violet Newstead, Amy Bodnar’s Doralee Rhodes and Amanda Rose’s Judy Bernly.
Very different characters, the three conspire to take over the company from their slimy boss, Franklin Hart Jr. (Paul Schoeffler).
The show generated for me the same kind of excitement that so many of the pre-Broadway shows did in their tryouts here in Philadelphia in the 1950s and ‘60s. While we were blessed to see a number of the theater’s greatest musicals before anyone, the largest number were shows that had good scores, good production values and strong cast but didn’t quite make it into the top tier of Broadway musicals. “Bajour,” “Ben Franklin in Paris,” “Golden Rainbow,” “How Now Dow Jones” and “Subways Are for Sleeping” are examples that come to mind.
They, like “9 to 5,” had a lot going for them and were a lot of fun.
Bruce Lumpkin directed the Walnut’s terrific production. He was ably abetted by Michelle Gaudette’s excellent choreography. Robert Andrew Kovach’s sets, Colleen Grady’s costumes and Paul Black’s lighting all added to the evening’s success.
In addition to Hoty, Bodnar and Rose, local treasures Mary Martello and Ben Dibble had standout moments.
“9 to 5” reminded me why I love musical theater. It’s fun, sassy and jam-packed with talent, onstage and off.
For tickets, call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org.