Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sunset Playhouse: Opening Night of the Summer Musical

By Russ Bickerstaff
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After a July 9th – 13th extended weekend of five shows in as many days, it was a bit strange going to my one opening of the weekend. (Other obligations have pulled me away from this weekend’s Uprooted show. I'm disappointed to be missing it.) The trip out to Elm Grove by bus found me arriving in Elm Grove roughly a half hour prior to the Sunset Playhouse’s  opening night of FAME—The Musical.

A large audience somewhere in the vicinity of a sell-out slowly filtered-in to the theatre and the show started. But first, there was a word from both Artistic Director Mark Salentine and Managing Director Jonathan West. West and Salentine have a considerable amount of charm in a shared curtain speech, but seem to be in the process of developing a rapport for such things, so it felt almost a little off balance.

The show itself was entertaining. A concise review runs in next week’s Shepherd-Express. One of those things that I didn’t have the opportunity to mention in the print review was J. Michael Desper’s impressive set. The one thing I’ve come to count on over the years at the Sunset is a really clever set by the Sunset’s Scenic Designer In Residence. This one was had the feel of his work on a high school reunion musical from a while back crossed with a major element from his work on their production of Misery. The classic details of a high school built in the mid-twentieth century were flawlessly rendered here . . . and there’s a rotating scenic element in the middle of the set switches from a classroom complete with blackboard, to a dance studio complete with a wall of floor-length mirrors, to a  hallway  complete with functioning lockers to a music studio big enough for a keyboard, drum kit and extra space. The band sits atop it all in front of windows big enough to catch John R. Dolphin’s stylized lighting Desper’s done remarkable things with already generous amounts of space.  

As things settled-in, the stand-out performers really shone in what is a reasonably large cast. One of the most unique stand-outs here is Samantha Moyer in the role of high school rocker Grace Lamb, whose stage presence here feels extremely polished. The woman has had a remarkable amount of stage experience for a young actress. She's already appeared in productions with The Rep an First Stage. It’s interesting to compare her with others in the scenes that featured bigger crowds.

Big crowd scenes are a lot of fun in local productions . . . even if it’s a bunch of inexperienced people up there going through the motions, it looks ten times more natural than anything coming out of Hollywood. Look closely at a Hollywood crowd shot and you’ll see a bunch of people trying to stand out. Aspiring actors who are looking to get into the center or the frame, extras on a Hollywood set are trying so hard to be noticed that they end up looking really unnatural. (A notable exception to this was regional actor John Kishline’s appearance in the locally-filmed Public Enemies. A lot actors would’ve killed to be shot in the first reel of a big budget picture and Kishline did a remarkable job of taking the bullet. If I’m not mistaken, he got paid pretty well for relatively little work.)   And when big name stars try to look natural in crowd shots, they can look very uncomfortable, particularly those who have grown-up in the center of the frame. Big crowd scenes in local productions are that much more natural because, even those actors who ARE trying to stand out seem to be trying to do so by looking more natural then everyone else in the scene, which makes for a really interesting dynamic.


Somewhere in intermission Jonathan West approached me and we had a brief exchange. It felt a bit odd . . . he’s a really active blogger I have a great amount of respect for. The man is a solidly entertaining performer and in a previous life had staged one of the best things I’ve ever seen (Bialystock and Bloom’s production of Far Away some time ago.) As much respect as I have for him, I don’t ever give myself the time to read his blogs with any serious frequency. The man doesn’t read my stuff either, but the kind of small talk you make in a lobby with someone else covering theatre in Milwaukee is kind of limited. We had the same kind of conversation we would’ve had if we avidly read each other’s stuff. It’s the main reason why I don’t find myself talking to other theatre journalists at openings . . . it’s always going to be more or less the same conversation. . . one I don’t mind skipping. One of these days, I’m going to write a play about online and offline theatre journalists in a mid-sized American city that takes place entirely in various theatre lobbies during intermission. It will run for one evening and sell half a dozen tickets before being forgotten entirely by everyone involved. There is even a good chance this has already happened.

In any case . . . the Sunset Playhouse production of Fame ended up being the right thing for that particular Friday evening . . . it runs through August 9th at Sunset’s main stage in Elm Grove. A concise, comprehensive review of the show appears in this week’s upcoming Shepherd-Express

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