The Countess of Monte Cristo (Actors’ Theatre of Columbus – Columbus, OH)


“Evil deeds cost the doers in the end,” says the bitter and jealous Fernanda Mondego just before she finalizes plans to basically destroy the life of Amelie Dantes. Little does Fernanda know how prophetic her words would be, as the wronged Amelie Dantes will one day return with power and vengeance on her mind as The Countess of Monte Cristo, the Actors’ Theatre of Columbus production currently being performed in Schiller Park. Based on the Alexander Dumas classic The Count of Monte Cristo, this adaptation by artistic director Philip J. Hickman and co-director Jennifer Feather Youngblood reimagines the story with a woman as the lead, shifting the locus of power within the story from male to female, presenting a different portrait of what female revenge can look like to those of us familiar with it only from Stephen King’s Carrie.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Amelie Dantes has her world turned upside down when she is imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit through the efforts of Danglars, an envious captain; the aforementioned Fernanda Mondego, a bartender with her eyes set on nabbing Merced Herrera, Amelie’s fiancée; and Villefort, a Magistrate with family secrets to hide. Each has something to gain by getting Amelie out of the picture, but they don’t count on her meeting and being tutored by Abbess Faria in prison, escaping her life sentence after fourteen years, or claiming a hidden fortune; this enables her to return with the wealth and influence necessary to exact veiled revenge on each of them.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

I was completely unfamiliar with the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo before seeing this production, which was both a blessing and a curse. The story was new and fresh to me as a result, but it was also quite difficult to follow at points. The summary I’ve presented here doesn’t go into the pirates, kidnapping, the involvement of the daughters of the Countess’s enemies, the cargo ship business, and several incriminating letters that fall into the wrong hands. The intricacies of the story may not be completely clear (I thought of the business with the letters as simply a MacGuffin, a trigger for the plot), but the overall theme of female empowerment and growth is very much in evidence. It is clear that Amelie’s enemies don’t recognize her upon her return, and it is indeed interesting to see how the Countess infiltrates their lives to bring about their ruin.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

It must be a special kind of challenge to perform outdoors with unpredictable weather and technical aberrations (one performance I attended was plagued with intermittent static) and still find a way to tell the story. This talented cast manages to perform grandly to reach an audience spread out over the park on lawn chairs and blankets without appearing to be yelling or overacting, no small feat considering this material or venue. Standouts in the cast are McLane Nagy as Amelie Dantes, the Countess of Monte Cristo; Kasey Leah Meininger as the conniving Fernanda Mondego; James Harper as Merced Herrera, Amelie’s handsome but doomed former fiancée; Derek Faraji as Ali, Amelie’s faithful companion; and Catherine Cryan as both the nurturing Abbess Faria and the caustic Madame Villefort (wife of one of Amelie’s enemies).

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Ms. Nagy is sweet and unassuming as Amelie, plaintively stating, “I am a woman. I wouldn’t presume to concern myself with matters of state,” during her interrogation; her metamorphoses into the formidable Countess is complete when she wails, “I die, and all forgiveness with me!” Ms. Nagy brings an athletic agility necessary for us to believe in her journey, and yet her heart isn’t frozen; “I would never wish to instill vengeance in your heart,” she says to a daughter of one of her enemies, her delivery making clear the burden that kind of anger can have on a person.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Ms. Meininger’s Fernanda is boldly conniving, forcing Amelie out of the picture to claim Merced for herself. The way that she embraces Merced from behind as she coos to manipulate him into framing his fiancée demonstrates that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants, making her ultimate comeuppance all the more enjoyable to witness. Ms. Meininger has a bigger than life performance style uniquely suited to playing such a heartless villain the audience loves to hate.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Mr. Harper’s Merced is powerless to resist Fernanda, but his internal agony at having played a part in Amelie’s imprisonment shows in his posture and movement when he returns to the story. Mr. Harper can play conquered without appearing weak or simple, turning his anguish inward at himself; as such, he comes off as the only one of Amelie’s enemies with any kind of conscience. His breakdown when the Countess reveals herself to be Amelie is devastatingly intense, his actions those of a tortured soul.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Mr. Faraji as Ali submits to the Countess’s wishes and yet is not a subservient person; he chooses to do her bidding instead of coming off as obligated. It’s clear from Mr. Faraji’s gaze this his character’s respect for his mistress blossoms into love as he assists in her quest. Ali emerges as the kind of ally we should all be so lucky to have, his interactions with the Countess revealing a genuine affection for her and her plight; he was also wronged in his past when he was sold by Merced, so helping her enact revenge supports his motive as well.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Ms. Cryan makes the most out of playing Abbess Faria, the knowledgable tutor who becomes a surrogate mother to Amelie in prison. She is able to convey a maternal warmth that is welcoming while still being a force to reckon with; she teaches Amelie how to fence and quizzes her on Latin because these are the only gifts she has to give while they are both imprisoned. Ms. Cryan and Ms. Nagy are able to share moments together on stage that feel intimate and quite personal even across an audience spread about on the grass. Ms. Cryan’s touching performance as Abbess Faria is nearly matched when she reappears as Madame Villefort, a woman so morally bankrupt that the idea of poisoning her family in the pursuit of wealth and power seems like a good idea. Her Madame Villefort sinks to depths that are startling in their disregard for human life, and the audience reacts with glee when her husband Gerard Villefort (played menacingly by her real-life husband, Ken Erney) turns on her in the end.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

It’s nice to see smaller character parts imbued with the kind of life that Elizabeth Harelick, Michael Carozza, and Cat McAlpine bring to them, demonstrating that there are no small parts, just small actors. Ms. Harelick is giddy with madness as de Bouville, the mistress of a prison; Mr. Carozza brings wide-eyed comedy to the fore as Peppino, a thickly-accented member of the Countess’s gang; and Ms. McAlpine uses her substantial height and imposing presence as both Marie and Pastrini, and then switches things up again as Louise, an unexpected romantic interest for Eugenie Danglars (Maggie Turek). 

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Directors Adam Simon and Jennifer Feather Youngblood have their work cut out for them with a plot of this complexity and size. The show is a bit rocky at first, opening with a pantomimed scene in a bar with music in the background, all of it going on far too long before we get to some substantial dialogue. Too many scenes end awkwardly, with a lull before the next scene begins. When this break is to denote a passage of time it’s understandable, but too often it just slows down the action. The three daughters of Amelie’s enemies (Mary Paige Rieffel as Alberta Herrera, Myia Eren as Valentine Villefort, and Maggie Turek as Eugenie Danglars) are also presented in a manner conducive to generating confusion, each with brown hair styled up and similar costume coloring. This isn’t so much a problem up close, but much of the audience is spread far out from the stage where the similarities between their appearance is amplified. The personalities of the characters are all quite different, but more care should be taken to help them stand apart as it just adds confusion to an already densely plotted story.
Photo: Jerri Shafer

I find it odd that as Amelie gains power and wealth that she becomes more masculine in appearance. She begins as a pretty young bride on her wedding day, is reduced to rags while in prison, reappears as the Countess in an Arabian-inspired hooded cloak covering what looks like lounging pajamas, and at last has her hair pinned back and is dressing in a suit like a man. This conceit reminds me of a moment in the film Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy Michaels first appears to audition for a strong female role in a soap opera and is rebuffed as being “too soft and genteel” by the director. “You want some gross caricature of a woman to prove some idiotic point that power makes women masculine or masculine women are ugly,” Mr. Hoffman says as Ms. Michaels, wagging a finger with, “Well shame on the woman who lets you do that or any woman that lets you do that!” It’s this stereotype that I feel is being perpetuated in the visual transformation of Amelie’s character in this piece. Why couldn’t she have grown more glamorous and beautifully stylish as each bit of retribution is delivered, showing how power and strength can also still be incredibly feminine and alluring? Images of dangerous but strong women from old ’40s noir films come to mind when I think of the ways Amelie as the Countess is able to manipulate events in her favor once she returns to her old stomping ground, except she doesn’t rely on sex to do it (another stereotype). The costumes that Ms. Nagy wears as the Countess are often quite ornate and attractive; I just don’t agree with the way femininity is drained from her appearance as her strength increases.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Despite some storytelling and design shortcomings, The Countess of Monte Cristo is a lively production that only improves as it continues to play out. Some familiarity with the plot of the original story might help those who might otherwise stumble to connect all of the plot threads (I saw it twice and still didn’t catch everything); still, there is enough action, drama, and raw emotion on display to keep a crowd of hundreds focused on the stage. This is the kind of show that is worth seeing for its cast, a veritable “who’s who” of some of the best actors in Columbus. These performers work together to create an experience that is more than the sum of its parts, and Actors’ Theatre of Columbus is to be commended on tackling such a complicated tale with this fresh reworking that emerges as a real crowd pleaser.

*** out of ****

The Countess of Monte Cristo continues through to July 17th in Schiller Park at 1069 Jaeger Street, and more information can be found at http://theactorstheatre.org/2016-season/the-countess-of-monte-cristo/

Photo: Jerri Shafer
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Big River (Standing Room Only [SRO] – Columbus, OH)

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By order of the author.” – Mark Twain

That quote is inside the program for Standing Room Only’s foot-tapping production of Big River, a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What’s funny is the story does have a moral, plot, and a motive, but I guess Mr. Twain would prefer his audience just enjoy what happens rather than try to make sense of it; and enjoyable it is, especially in this Tony award-winning musical adaptation with songs by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Susan Loar (Widow Douglas), Caleb Baker (Huck Finn), Brandon Buchanan (Jim), and Kris Wilson (Miss Watson)

The time is 1844, and the place is the Deep South. It is before the Civil War, and slavery is still legal. Huck Finn fills us in on how he and Tom Sawyer now have money in the bank, and how he is just aching to get out on his own while living with the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson. Huck’s alcoholic and abusive father smells money and takes back custody of Huck. It isn’t long before Huck takes matters into his own hands, starting off on a series of adventures with Jim, a runaway slave, and encountering a team of con men (a “King” and a “Duke”) that get them into nothing but trouble. Through it all, Huck grows as a person and works to find a way back home while keeping Jim from being enslaved again.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Brandon Buchanan (Jim) and Caleb Baker (Huck Finn)

Caleb Baker is a curious choice as Huck Finn; he appears to be easily twice the age of the character he is playing, and he underplays his part to a large extent. In some ways, this works just fine because there are many supporting actors who more than make their mark in the berth his performance leaves open. This relaxed approach to Huck also makes Mr. Baker’s strong renditions of “Worlds Apart” and “River in the Rain” (both duets with the sublime Brandon Buchanan) feel all the more significant when his voice and manner rise to the occasion of the moment.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Caleb Baker (Huck Finn) and Thor Collard (Pap Finn)

Standouts in the supporting cast are the aforementioned Brandon Buchanan as Jim, the slave, bringing dignity and sweetness to a tricky part; Thor Collard playing a variety of slimy characters from Pap Finn to Silas with delicious aggression; Ryan Kopycinski as Ben Rogers and a part of the ensemble, comfortably as backwoods-ish as possible; Nyla Nyamweya as the daughter of a slave named Alice, performing an electrifying solo of “How Blest We Are”; and John Feather as the con man King and Judge Thatcher.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Wilma Hatton (Alice), Nyla Nyamweya (Alice’s daughter), and Akia Williams

Dee Shepherd directs this show efficiently, maintaining a steady sprint that could easily be held back by large sets and too many props. Ms. Shepherd allows her actors to spread out and tell the story largely on their own with some well-placed sound effects, some interesting lighting choices (a raft that figures largely in the play has its perimeter defined by the lighting), and a truly excellent small band lead by music director Chipper Snow. The bluegrass-themed score by Roger Miller is adeptly performed with Jordan Shear on the violin, Ted Reich on the harmonica, Robert W. Loar on percussion and bass, and Josh Dillingham on guitar; each of these talented men earn a shout out. The Van Fleet Theatre can be tricky sound wise, but this is one production where the singing can be heard perfectly (save for two performers who shall go unnamed) even with the band playing off to the right.

Photo: Jerri Shafer


Big River is more enjoyable in this small production by Standing Room Only than I remember from seeing the 2003 Broadway revival. It’s still an episodic show with perhaps one vignette too many, but this Big River is also surprisingly rousing in its crowd scenes, and I found myself humming songs that had not caught my attention from seeing the show previously. Even though Mr. Twain said there was no moral in this story, I beg to differ; seeing Huck Finn’s growth from seeing Jim as just a slave to a fully rounded person with the ability to feel and care “just like a white person” is still unfortunately relevant. We’ve come a long way socially, but these stories that illustrate the way it was less than two hundred years ago in this country are still very important to tell, especially as long as a malaise of inequality still hangs over this great country of ours. Go see Standing Room Only’s Big River for the music and the fun, but leave with the message.

*** 1/4 out of ****

Big River continues through to May 7th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.srotheatre.org/big-river1.html

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Thoroughly Modern Millie (Imagine Productions – Columbus, OH)

Thoroughly Modern Millie has an interesting lineage; the musical play is based on the 1967 musical film starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing. Only two songs from the film have been retained (the maddeningly hummable title song and Jimmy) while the rest of the score is original with music by Jeanine Tesori (she just won a long overdue Tony for Fun Home) and lyrics by Dick Scanlon, who also wrote the book along with film scribe Richard Morris. Premiering on Broadway in 2002, Thoroughly Modern Millie would run for over two years, win six Tony Awards (including Best Musical), and go on to perhaps greater success as a popular property licensed for performance by high schools and community theatres across the country.

Thoroughly Modern Millie is set in 1922 in Manhattan where country girl Millie Dillmount has arrived to find a husband, with her sights set on marrying a rich boss – as soon as she can find one. Along the way she meets naive orphan Miss Dorothy Brown, poor big kid Jimmy Smith, society matron Muzzy Van Hossmere, handsome but distant businessman Trevor Graydon, and evil whiter slaver Mrs. Meers. Will Millie learn to marry for love or money? Well, the answer is obvious, but the fun is in seeing how she comes to the conclusion.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Meredith Zahn as Millie
Meredith Zahn makes for a snappy Millie Dillmount, lively without appearing to suffer from a thyroid condition like Sutton Foster did on Broadway (yes, I know she won the Tony for it, but I think that her overzealousness was a bit tough to take in person). Meredith’s voice is pure and strong, and she blends in nicely when necessary with the other tenants of the Hotel Priscilla, all wearing their smart fashions with ease. Costume coordinator Jackie Farbeann really outdid herself in recreating the period without being too on the nose.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Kathy Taylor as Mrs. Meers

Kathy Taylor is a delicious Mrs. Meers, so abhorrently conniving that you almost want her to succeed with her current business plan to see just what she might come up with next. Her cohorts Ching Ho (Dante DiNucci) and Bun Foo (Sharon Kibe) understandably cower under her domination, and their dialogue appears in English in projections that appear to the right and left above the stage and are for the most part well timed. The portrayal of Mrs. Meers and her staff has been a problem going back to the film as they speak in broken English and appear to be Asian stereotypes. Mrs. Meers admits to being a frustrated former actress who lapses into her lisp whenever her boarders are present (she’s playing a part to them, albeit badly), but effort has been made to make her Asian helpers sympathetic. Whether this is all offensive is tough to say – it didn’t bother me or the audience, but none of us were Asian as far as I could see.

Hannah Berry is a standout as Muzzy Van Hossmere with an incredibly strong voice, beautiful teeth, and a calming demeanor. Chad Anderson as Trevor Graydon has the matinee idol looks down, even if he sometimes gets a bit tongue-tied. Ann Johnson as Miss Dorothy Brown is sweet without being saccharine, and one can see why Millie would forgive her for most anything. Jared Joseph does double duty performing as Jimmy Smith with plenty of charm while also being musical director for the show; I’m sure he has more than a little something to do with how great the orchestra sounds.

The main set piece is a rotating platform that has interchangeable panels to transform from the lobby of the Hotel Priscilla to Trevor Graydon’s office to the estate of wealthy Muzzy Van Hossmere. The settings are suggested by designs and signs in place of elaborate sets, and it is the perfect way to use this space. There are even doors on the platform that swing off to the side to represent the rooms within the hotel! Scenic designers Alex McDougal-Webber and Riley Hutchinson deserve some special prize for pulling this one off.

As I mentioned previously, the orchestra sounds really terrific with nary a stray note to be heard, well conducted by Abby Zeszotek above and to the left of the stage. The placement of the orchestra obviously requires some amplification, and this is one of the few areas for improvement – it’s just too loud. When the singers and the orchestra are going full force, the volume level is too high to keep everything intelligible. Less is more, especially in such a small venue. 

Still, director and choreographer Rose Babington has breathed fresh life into this production, packing so much onto a comparatively small stage. Even the flaws in the book (is it just me or does everything get resolved rather quickly and easily at the end?) are easy to overlook when there is such energy and life to glide past them. I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed the play so much, either on Broadway or on tour, and I urge everyone looking to enjoy a lively, funny musical to book a stool at Wall Street to catch this one before it’s gone.

***/ out of ****

Thoroughly Modern Millie continues through to August 2 at Wall Street in Columbus, OH, and more information can be found at http://www.imaginecolumbus.org/thoroughly-modern-millie.html