Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Two shows for the price of one: A stunning evening at JET; Puzzle Piece continues to impress

Lauren LaStrada and Alvin Waddles

With a vacation planned earlier this month, a sinus infection and a few personal weekend obligations, my theater-going adventures were rather limited in October - and as a result, a lot of fine work was regrettably missed. (I'm especially disappointed I couldn't squeeze The Ringwald's Rocky Horror Show featuring personal favorites Suzy Jacokes as Dr. Frank N Furter and Dyan Bailey as Magenta into my schedule; I heard they were great!) But the two shows I did see, both on their closing weekends, were memorable endeavors that should give critics plenty to think about when it comes to honoring the best shows and performances of the 2017-18 season.

And I'll start with the show I saw most recently. And it was a doozy!

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Lauren LaStrada

I thought I was attending a musical when I took my seat this past Saturday evening at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield. Instead, I was transported back to the year 1959 where I found myself in a small bar in Philadelphia where noted jazz artist Billie Holiday was about to star in what would become one of her final performances before her death just a few months later. Only 44 at the time of her passing, Holiday - who had battled drug and alcohol addiction for many years - had recently been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, and her appearance at the club would put both the brilliance of her art and the ill effects of the disease on full display for all to see.

And that is what theatergoers - or should I say, concertgoers - experienced at JET, thanks to sensitive direction by Lynch Travis and one of the most amazing performances I've seen in ages by the gorgeous and uber-talented Lauren LaStrada (also known in the community as Lisa Lauren Smith, in case the last name doesn't ring a bell).

LaStrada doesn't just play Holiday; she becomes her. So much so, that Holiday's unique wordsmithing and vocalizing seems natural to LaStrada; it's not LaStrada singing to us, but Holiday. And that means LaStrada's performance is not an impersonation - at least not in the traditional sense; rather, it's as if Holiday's spirit has taken over the body of the actress and been given a chance to perform in public one last time.

More impressive than the 14 songs utilized in the show is how LaStrada handles the narrative. In print, Lanie Robertson's script comes off as a bit flat - as if you're reading entries from Wikipedia. But working with director Travis, LaStrada becomes a storyteller, whose warm and passionate delivery is filled with raw, emotional honesty. And so it becomes Holiday who is reliving her life's stories for us - its ups and downs; the good times and the bad - and not LaStrada pretending it's her life.

So, no, what I attended at JET this past Saturday was not a play or a musical. Rather, I experienced a true work of art that showed what can happen when you match the perfect artist with the perfect project (and director) that allowed the actress to rise above the craft to become...

Three days later I still can't find the perfect word or phrase to finish that sentence. Special doesn't do it justice. Nor do memorable or unique. But I suspect everyone in the audience that night understands what I mean, as they jumped to their feet immediately after the performance and would not stop clapping until LaStrada took to the microphone and offered a heartfelt "thank you" to the crowd - which endeared her even more to us.

This wasn't a one-person show, however, and I would be in error if I didn't comment on - gush over? - the incredible contributions of music director, pianist and performer Alvin Waddles. Celebrated worldwide as a pianist, composer singer and director, the legendary Waddles pulls double duty in the show: as musical director and as Jimmy Powers, Holiday's on-stage accompanist. Every time I've heard Waddles work his magic on the keyboard, I've been amazed and enthralled, and this show is no exception. Every song he plays looks effortless, and certain numbers defy logic. ("How can his fingers move so fast," I wondered more than once.) And the fact that the score is written for three musicians and JET went with only one didn't matter; they weren't missed, thanks to Waddles' brilliant artistry. (To be honest, in my humble opinion, it made the overall experience much more real for me, since the bar in the script is described as "seedy" - which means it very likely wouldn't have been able to afford a trio that night.)

But equally important as his keyboard skills was his performance as Powers. His facial expressions - especially as Holiday becomes more shaky and inebriated as the night wears on - were priceless. And midway through the show he got his own moment in the spotlight - which I understand changed nightly. If only the producers had recorded every performance! What a treat it would be! (I'd pay for a recording of that!)

All of the show's technical elements were fine, especially the lighting design by Neil Koivu. And although the uncredited set design was the polar opposite of what the script called for, it worked for Travis' production, which was nothing but a class act from start to finish. (UPDATE: The set was designed by Elspeth Williams, JET's resident designer.)

The Bottom Line: JET's first show of the season is already the high bar that every other show of the year must reach!

Information about The Jewish Ensemble Theatre's 2017-18 season can be found HERE.

Alvin Waddles

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Craig Ester in "The People's Temple"

I've kept an eye on Puzzle Piece Theatre since the first time I met producing artistic director (and founder) D.B. Schroeder sometime in late 2012 or early '13. His was - at the time - a very unusual story: A theater artist from Chicago moved here to produce theater (and be closer to his wife's family). Since I've been around the business, it traditionally works the other way. So that alone intrigued me.

So too did his approach to storytelling. This was a group that came into the market wanting to tell bold, important stories from the viewpoints of the artists who create them - and that's just what they've done since they first took to the stage with Show and Tell back in February 2013.

But they also wanted to tell stories others were not. In that, too, they've been successful, as only a handful of the company's shows have had name recognition.

And that includes its most recent show, which tackles a subject I suspect most theaters would hesitate to produce.

If I asked how many of my readers were familiar with Jonestown and the People's Temple, I suspect people my age (older than dirt) would recollect something about it. Younger folks, though, may not - despite its impact on our country's history and its relevance to today's political discourse.

The People's Temple, then, tells the story of the messianic rise and deadly downfall of American preacher Jim Jones and his attempt to build a socialist Utopia in the South African nation of Guyana. Written by Leigh Fondakowski in a collaborative fashion similar to that used by the creators of The Laramie Project, the script attempts to portray as accurately as possible the thoughts, feelings and actions of those who participated in or were impacted by Jones' work and actions.

It's a tough script, to be sure, as 10 actors bring five times as many characters to life throughout the show (which tends to be a shortcoming of the production, as it's not always easy to know which character an actor is bringing forward at any given time).

But it's a powerful script powerfully presented. That's especially true of the show's emotionally numbing second act that picks up speed as it drives fearlessly towards its inevitable conclusion. And by show's end you can't help but ask yourself the question director Schroeder likely wants you to consider: How could so many people fall for the Utopian dream espoused by their charismatic leader, especially when evidence of its flaws were plain to see? And how does this apply to today's political climate whereby American voters blindly follow the political candidates of their choice with little or no critical thinking of their own to help make wise decisions?

Under Schroeder's careful direction, his production becomes a true ensemble piece, with all 10 actors sharing the spotlight. It's always a pleasure to see Connie Cowper on stage; she's especially impactful as the mother of three daughters who move to Jonestown. Actor Steve Xander Carson continues to grow as an actor, as he is one of the best at creating four unique characters and keeping them visually and vocally separate from one another. That's also true of Linda Rabin Hammell, Karen Minard and Laura Heikkinen.

As with all Puzzle Piece shows, the production has a slim, tight budget but doesn't feel that way. And the space it shares with Slipstream Theatre Initiative is well utilized.

The Bottom Line: Puzzle Piece Theatre once again shows us why it's become an asset to our theater community with yet another important story that's told well.

To learn more about Puzzle Piece Theatre, click HERE.


  1. Thank you so much for continuing to support local theater. . Chris Bremer’s vision in matching this piece to the talents of Ms Smith and Mr Waddles shouldn’t be overlooked. As Artistic Director at JET, He knew we could find the right people for the job, right here in the Metro.

    Lynch R Travid