High School Students Hit the Stage, A Local Production Hits the Bar, and a New Venue Hits Main

The past four weeks were hectic in the stage theater world of Murfreesboro; three high schools had productions, as did Murfreesboro Little Theatre, with lots of irons in the fire for April.

On Thursday, March 11, I went to Blackman High’s Spring Theatrical Musical, “Little Shop of Horrors,” and to say it was impressive is an understatement. It was easy to see the students had worked hard, knew their lines, and were believable in their roles. To single out a few, Seymour, played by Jeremy Robertson, did a most excellent job as the guardian and “chef” of Audrey II, the bombastic meat-eating plant who devoured, sooner or later, practically everyone on stage. Mr. Robertson was complemented on the stage by his heartfelt love, Audrey, played by Suzanne Lamb. She was perfect in the role and made the part look easy. She also has the voice of an angel. Most notable, and doing an old man justice, was Caleb Marshall as Mushnik, the flower shop owner. With incredible make-up, a slight bend in his back and a shuffle in his step, one would have surmised that Mr. Marshall enjoys playing parts 50 years his senior, and along with his diction, was a great Mushnik. Kudos also go to Orin, played by Tim Stephens, and the actors behind the scenes, Robbie Dietrich, Josh Davis and Dillon Poff, who mastered and puppeteered the carnivorous green human-eating machine.

Also to be mentioned, the “Company,” the “Dancers”, and the technical crew. The set was beautiful and well placed. As for one of my only complaints, I remember a time back when, when actors could be heard over the musical backgrounds, but now it seems commonplace for the music to drown out the actors and sometimes they cannot be heard, this was the case here.

The very next night, March 12, I attended the “Wizard of Oz” at Oakland High, to use a cliché, “the WONDERFUL Wizard of Oz.” This was the first time I had watched the stage play, so I had nothing to base it on except the classic movie with Judy Garland. I was literally mesmerized by the cast of students and the ability of the crew to change the scenes (especially using the backdrop for effect), as there were lots and lots of sets and prop. My deepest bows to Tara Hutson as Dorothy; not only is she a great actor, but her solo was terrific. You made Miss Garland proud. This show also made great use of Toto as a real dog, and in certain scenes a stuffed animal, very clever, so bows as well to “Scooter.”

The Scarecrow, played by Chris Cloar, the Tin Man, played by Stuart Pounders, and the Cowardly Lion played by Carl Glenn, were all magical, incredible and awesome. Mr. Glenn stole the show; I knew he would, with his stage antics, and the young man must have watched Bert Lahr (the original) over and over . . . well, perhaps once, knowing Carl’s talents. His movements, his timing and his methodical voice were simply eerie; it was as if the ghost of Mr. Lahr himself was on the stage. One scene, which brought the house down, was when reference was made to “his father taking him to a mountain peak, and showing the young cub all the land below” . . . “one day this will all be yours, son,” to which the Cowardly Lion starting sobbing. Asked what was wrong, his line was “I’m afraid of heights.” Of course this was in reference to the “Lion King” and “Simba”, but it made me wonder if Mr. Glenn didn’t add the line for the incredulous humor. Whatever, it worked.

I enjoyed the Jitterbugs, but I am sure Louis B. Meyer was turning over in his grave. I also was impressed with the Wicked Witch, Jade Figgins and all the Munchkins. The lighting and sound were good, but once again, the orchestra saw to it to drown out the actors on occasion. Why do they have to be so loud? They are just as good being softer.

The entire cast was just wonderful, and my heartfelt thanks to Director April Gunter for coming to me after the show and thanking me for attending.

The following week was my first time at Riverdale High to see a production. My deepest thanks to Director Mary Ellen Richardson for coming into the lobby personally before the show to introduce herself, thank me for being there, and also handed me a flyer about the Theatre Camp the school is hosting in June. Impressive!

“Annie” was a most delightful play at RHS. Maggie Richardson had the starring role and was awesome as the little red-headed orphan. Her voice is melodious; her solos were beautiful. My bows to Caitlyn Wilson as Miss Hannigan; her comedic timing was perfect and she was great as the orphanage director. My hat is also off to Earle Gresham, who made a great Daddy Warbucks. A note to Andrew Coomes, who played President Franklin Roosevelt: I saw a number of grandparents in the audience tear up every time you came on stage. The man was very important and very much loved by that generation, and you portrayed him with obvious respect and dignity. Good job. The costuming was notable in this play, and the crew did a terrific job on the scenery and set. This time, the orchestra was soft enough so you could hear the actors, I was very pleased with the music. I also enjoyed the tableau during the New York City number, and hearing Blake Cox’s solo, who was Bert Healy in the play. All in all, a terrific job by everyone, and I enjoyed watching it.

Murfreesboro Little Theatre, once again, outdid itself, having to put more chairs out on opening night, thus another sell-out, for “How I Learned to Drive,” which opened Friday, March 19. This dark and touching subject matter, which had very little to do with a teenage girl learning to drive by her uncle, and more on which gear she was having to shift sitting in the driver’s seat, literally. Painful, provocative, and a show which made you think on the way home, Director Shane Lowery put together an ensemble of actors that could do no wrong. The play, written by Paula Vogel, was set in the 1960s but is just as real and meaningful in today’s world.

Kisa Watson was just wonderful as Li’l Bit, she made you want to go up and hug her and apologize for anything you had done wrong to her in her lifetime. Her tone, the agony and the dry wit could be felt deep in your chest. On the other side of the coin, Uncle Peck, played by the always terrific Wayman Price, was the demon you wanted to whip senseless, drive a stake into, and hang in a tree with the rope tied around his manhood. The Greek Chorus, making up the rest of the cast of Victoria McKinney, Greg Lowery and Karissa Doyal, were perfect in their monotone, dry, but meaningful dialog, and as said before, could do no wrong. The lighting and sound were great, and the setting and props were well designed with meticulous work put into some of it, for another wonderful piece of work that MLT does so well.

My greatest congratulations to Executive Director George W. Manus Jr., for taking on the establishment and naysayers and opening up a new theater venue here in town. OutFront on Main, at 1511 E. Main St., opens with “And the People Speak: Voices of America,” on Thursday, April 29, amid fanfare, glitz and glamor. Promising dark, controversial and deep thought plays, Mr. Manus states he will be using MTSU students more and mixing mature well-known talent about town with new, fresh faces seldom, if ever, seen on the community stage here. Kudos for that! The theater will hold about 75, and he, Chris Carnett, Eric Douglas and several others have been working tirelessly to finish the new theater before opening date. Mr. Manus has already decided on eight stage plays through the end of the year, and is raising funds and taking donations to obviously enhance the theater experience in Murfreesboro.

Stage theater anywhere is like politics. You have your egos, your competitiveness, your unique style. However, you also have parties fighting each other, petty grievences, the House thinking they are better than the Senate, and vise-versa, and all politicians will say and do anything for your vote up front, also stating they are better than their competition. Theater is no different. I am hoping beyond hope the other stage theaters in town will embrace Executive Director George W. Manus Jr. and his endeavor with Out Front on Main. There is enough raw talent here, in fact, Murfreesboro is rich with theatrical talent (we have four high schools and a major university here overflowing with it) that is untapped and waiting to burst at the seams. Competitiveness of course, is wonderful; bickering and backstabbing are not. Congrats to Mr. Manus, and may Out Front on Main break legs for a long time to come.

My good friend and colleague Tony Lehew will have a feature article in the May Murfreesboro Pulse on OutFront on Main’s endeavors. Also, OutFront on Main will be having an Opening Gala at the theater on Saturday, April 10, at 7 p.m. Food, drink and entertainment . . . come one, come all.

Speaking of Mr. Lehew, his original play, “Everyday Heroes,” opens at, of all places, Liquid Smoke, on Saturday, April 17. This will be the first time in Murfreesboro a stage play about the lives of people in a bar will be produced . . . in a bar. At the north corner of the Square and N. Church, the patrons, the audience mind you, will be literally in a bar, and there will be interaction between the actors and the real paying customers of Liquid Smoke.

This is going to be fun and different. I saw this play at MLT 18 months ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. Don’t miss it. Being directed by Brian M. Booth, I have watched some of the rehearsals, and cannot wait.

Also on tap for April, “Don’t Dress for Dinner,” being directed by Sherry Sunday, opens at MLT on Friday, April 16, for a two-week run, 7 p.m. on Friday/Saturday nights, 2 p.m. matinee on Sundays; be sure and call MLT or go to mltarts.com for tickets. Remember, MLT shows sell out quickly and often.

Siegel High School opens the curtains on “Cats” on Thursday, April 22, at 7 p.m., for a three-night and Sunday afternoon run. This will be my third year of watching Siegel’s student production, and I am always exhausted upon leaving the show. They are that good.

It is hard to believe I’ve been writing for The Pulse for three years now and have seen and reviewed over 100 Rutherford County plays.

The Center for the Arts opens its curtains to “Oliver!” on Friday, April 9, for four incredible weeks. Directed by Cyndie Verbeten, it stars David Cummings, Ben George, Rachael Parker, Gary Davis and Jay Hicks as Oliver. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.

May is going to bring in a tremendous theater article as well in The Pulse. Featured, besides the reviews of April shows, will be something new. St. Clair Senior Center, on Ridgely Avenue, has a cast of actors that are putting on shows four times a year now, and “Make Mine Metamucil” will be playing next month. Be ready for fun reading in the May edition.

See ya’ at the shows!


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