Fall/Winter Round-Up: Theatre and Dance
By Marc Shulgold
Well, the leaves have finally turned, which means that fall is finally upon us, bringing a bevy of performing arts events. Here’s a sampling of programs that proudly embrace the unusual, the unexpected, the uncompromising. In other words, typical Tier III stuff.
PHAMALy Theatre Company
I hear the same reaction from audience members all the time,” says PHAMALy executive director Chris Silberman. “They tell me the performers’ disabilities are the first thing you notice — and the first thing you forget.
Which is the whole point. This is a unique ensemble: There’s nothing like it on this scale in the entire country. The only requirement for membership is that each actor has some sort of disability, be it loss of hearing, sight, ability to walk, an emotional disorder, loss of limb — you name it. For close to 25 years, performers have joyfully soared past their disabilities (no need to call them handicaps, thank you), sharing their talents in original productions that range from slapstick to dark humor to poignant storytelling. This anniversary season kicks off with two shows: the 6th annual collection of playful skits known as Vox Phamalia, and a new reworking of that beloved holiday movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, created by longtime artistic director Steve Wilson. The roster of performers changes with each production, Silberman explained, noting with not a touch of irony, “This is not a standing company.” Auditions are held and applicants are assigned to one of four training workshops held in partnership with the Denver Center Theatre Company’s training program. Graduates then become principles or extras in PHAMALy productions.
The concept has remained the same through the years, but in 2013 the mission has become more focused, Silberman noted. “Our goal now is to inspire people to re-envision disabilities through professional theater.” Such was, no doubt, instantly accomplished last season for those who attended Fiddler on the Roof, in which the title character played the fiddle with only one complete arm. “Re-thinking attitudes toward those whose limbs and bodies and senses and minds are not perfect applies to the performers as well as their audiences,” he said. Company members emerge from their onstage experiences with a more elevated self-image. And theater-goers head home with fresh views of people — and of themselves. “We invite audiences to enter the world of disability,” Silberman said. “We’ve seen how awareness and acceptance happens in steps. It’s an evolving process. It sometimes takes a while for us to see the humanity of the performers.”
Silberman predicted that Wilson’s re-telling of It’s a Wonderful Life will be “one of the most remembered PHAMALy pieces. For one thing, it’s the first holiday show we’ve done.” Like Vox Phamalia, it may turn out to be an annual offering. As for Vox, the mood, as is customary, will be light and fun and unblushingly self-deprecating — an approach made obvious by this year’s title: GIMP Nation (Silberman declined to give away what GIMP stands for). Under the direction of Edith Weiss, the actors will be writing and performing their own sketches, among them a spoof of Sex and the City (one can only imagine!). Even after 25 years, PHAMALy keeps spreading its wings. Audience numbers have increased steadily: The first version of Vox drew 100 people, while last year’s attracted over 800. Its annual budget is now $500,000 — including $100,000 from the SCFD — inspiring the company to think big. “Touring has become a top priority, along with continuing to build a statewide presence,” Silberman said. As its Web site declares, PHAMALy is dedicated to presenting “Theatre with PossABILITY.”
PHAMALy performs Vox Phamalia: GIMP Nation Oct. 24-Nov. 3 in the Work/Space at the Laundry, 2701 Lawrence St., Denver, and It’s a Wonderful Life Dec. 5-22 in the Aurora Fox Theatre, 9900 E. Colfax Ave. Information: phamaly.org or (303) 575-0005.
Buntport Theater Company
The only thing crazier than a show by Buntport, one supposes, is a creative get-together by company members. “Someone pitches an idea, and then its group mayhem,” reported longtime Buntporter Hanna Duggan. “Whoever has the most fleshed-out idea usually wins. After all these years, you can pretty much tell which idea is best.” Group mayhem might explain the origin of the satirical ensemble’s upcoming show, Electra Onion Eater, Buntport’s version of Sophocles’ Electra. Now, about the show’s quirky title… Simple explanation: “Lately, we’ve all become interested in onions, which make you cry when you peel them. We went to Wikipedia and started reading about onions. Electra was quite a crybaby in the play. I mean, c’mon –get over it, lady!” Such is the world of Buntport, where similarly bizarre concepts have been converted into deliciously funny theatrical evenings for 15 years. But it’s not all mindless nose-thumbing, Duggan stressed. “No, this Electra is not a parody. It’s just our take on it. We’ll use some characters from the original, but it’s set in the 1970s — or in no particular time period.”
For the past 13 years, Buntport has held forth in a performing space that’s so off the beaten path that first-time theater-goers usually drive past it a couple of times. Which makes sense: Offbeat theater should require a bit of a search. Same goes for the company’s work ethic. “We create our own obstructions,” Duggan said. “Anytime things get stale, we throw in a monkey wrench.” Pure zaniness, however, can occasionally become wearying — something that Duggan and her cohorts understand. There’s an underlying Buntport philosophy. “We do have a negative approach to (the subject matter) we present, but we think it’s the best kind of funny to show how people really are.” Indeed, who better for us to laugh at than ourselves?
Smart comedy, Buntport’s specialty, requires smart people. And, Duggan pointed out, company members are well-educated. “We all went to Colorado College. That’s how we met. We graduated between 1992 and 2001.” Since her mother was a theater teacher at East High, it’s easy to see how the performing bug infected Duggan. Though most of Buntport’s repertory consists of comedic adaptations, there are other delights on the calendar. Plans are underway to remount Jugged Rabbit Stew, a musical about “love, deception and Salisbury Steak Hungry Mann TV dinners.” There’s the ongoing family show, Duck Duck Dupe, wherein three tales are acted out — but only two are based on truth! Another ongoing series is The Great Debate, consisting of teams arguing over such serious issues as Horseshoes or Hand Grenades, Beatles or Beetles, Fried Egg or Your Brain on Drugs, Hamantasch or Latke. Inquiring minds want to know. They also want to laugh, and Buntport is there for us. “The most important thing,” Duggan reminded, “is we’re having fun.”
Buntport Theater performs Electra Onion Eater at 8 p.m., opening Nov. 1 and continuing Thursdays-Saturdays through Nov. 23. Duck Duck Dupe runs the second Saturday of each month (e.g., Nov. 9, Dec. 14), while The Great Debate is presented on the third Tuesday each month (Nov. 19, Dec. 17). The theater is located at 717 Lipan St., Denver, 80204. Information: (720) 946-1388 or Buntport.com.
Northglenn Youth Theatre
There are few things cuter than youngsters dressing up in costumes. Makes you smile. But let’s get serious. We’re not talking adorable trick-or-treaters here — we’re talking serious theater. One of the nation’s leading youth programs, to be exact. The record of Northglenn Youth Theatre (NYT) speaks for itself: It’s been the most decorated such program in Colorado for six years running. And let’s look nationally: In an award ceremony held in September at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix, last season’s NYT offerings won awards for Isaac Sprague (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, lead actor in a musical), Maya Claridge (Alice in Wonderland, lead actress, junior division) and for the full ensemble of Alice. Plus nominations in nine categories. Submissions came from 100 different theaters in more than 50 cities — 300 productions in all. One can hear the pride in Michael Stricker’s voice as he talks about this ambitious program. Stricker, Cultural Programs and Senior Center Supervisor at the Northglenn Recreation Center, also serves as director of the Northglenn Arts & Humanities Foundation. But his heart belongs to the talented young actors of NYT. Getting into that select group is quite a challenge, he noted.
“It’s a pretty rigorous process. They come from all over, as far away as Denver’s School of the Arts. For example, we had 90 kids audition for Shrek.“
Yes, the upcoming production is Shrek the Musical, an ambitious show requiring a cast of 53, plus numerous special effects, such as a dragon and a growing nose for Pinocchio.
But the biggest trick, Stricker noted, was securing the rights to the hit show. “It just opened up for youth theater productions, and we grabbed it. There’s a lot that will go into staging this show. We’ll be using canned music, but we do need to provide 90 costumes.” No surprise that there are plenty of backstage moms and dads willing to volunteer (overbearing parents have not been a problem, Stricker emphasized). Not that the kids need babysitters. Cast members range from 8 to 18, and even the first-timers become seasoned performers very quickly. “We find talent in every age group,” Stricker noted. For 20 years, NYT has been performing in the North Denver Metro region, and is now housed in the DL Parsons Theatre. This is not kid’s stuff, mind you. Consider that recent presentations included the Elton John extravaganza Aida and Stephen Sondheim’s sophisticated musical Into the Woods. All under the gentle, loving hand of director Kimberly Jongejan (but her young charges must watch out for her mean alter ego, Bianca!). With a budget of $60,000 ($20,000 from the SCFD), NYT is able to mount full-blooded productions performed by some of the brightest young talents in the region. Audiences of all ages have long been delighted by each of the company’s three annual presentations. But there’s more to NYT than dress-up and play-acting. “Our goal is to educate and enlighten kids,” Stricker said.
Northglenn Youth Theatre presents Shrek the Musical Nov. 15, 16, 22, 23 at 7 p.m.; Nov. 17 and 24 at 2 p.m. and Nov. 20-21 at 10 a.m. in the DL Parsons Theatre, 11801 Community Center Drive, Northglenn 80233. Information: (303) 450-8800 or northglenn.org/theatreperformances.
Stories on Stage
Most parents have, at one time or another sat down and read stories to their kids. Sometimes it’s the same darn story, night after night after night. Whether it’s a quick-and-simple shorty (Eric Carle, Margaret Wise Brown, etc.), or a longer book that demands a dramatic interpretation (Beatrix Potter, E.B. White, for instance), reading out loud requires skills. Parental storytellers (and lower-grade school teachers) do get the hang of it, though, learning to assign different voices to each character, pausing for effect, all to turn a simple tale into an exciting adventure — a performance hopefully more engaging than Ted Cruz’s recent Dr. Seuss rendition in the Senate. That’s all very cute and cuddly — but what about grown-up stories? Those require some serious preparation and consummate professionalism, particularly if we’re talking about serious, provocative tales read onstage in front of a paying audience.
“It’s a fine art — matching the right story with the right actor,” Abbe Stutsman admits. “This is much better than books on tape, because (actors) perform the book.”
Stutsman serves as executive director of Stories on Stage, which has been around for a dozen years, originating at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, but since then branching out to Boulder’s Dairy Center and the Santa Fe district’s Su Teatro Cultural Center. The actors — let’s not call them readers, please — are mostly locally based, though guest artists with Hollywood names have appeared now and then. Founded in 2001 by former Dallas-based actor Norma Moore and her actor-husband Randy Moore, Stories on Stage has played before tens of thousands of theater-goers along the Front Range and around the state. Moore stepped down from the artistic directorship in 2010, succeeded by Anthony Powell, a former assistant to Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director Donovan Marley. The concept, Stuttsman said, was inspired by a similar program in New York City, Selected Shorts. But it’s become a beloved Denver institution.
The process begins with Powell and a stack of short stories. “Anthony will read a bunch of them, and one will resonate,” Stutsman explained. “That serves as the theme for the evening, and he’ll look for others like it. The story, then, becomes the germ.” For example, there was the season-opener, “Because I Said So…” As the title suggests, each of the four stories centered on relationships between parents and their children. In December, Denver Center Theater favorites Randy Moore, Jamie Horton and Gabriella Cavallero will perform a holiday program, “Making Merry.” With seasoned talents at her disposal, you’d think that Stuttsman’s job of matching stories and actors would be a snap. Not so. “The tone of the story serves as a guide in choosing a particular actor,” she said, adding that some selections require two actors. Once the texts and onstage talent have been designated, Powell will direct the rehearsals — just as he would a fully staged production.
The focus this season is on Colorado authors, both established and in-the-making. The Enrichment Program at the University of Denver has offered a story-writing course in partnership with Stories on Stage. Also, this season is an exploration of the relationship between the writer and the reader, a collaboration with Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Thus, this popular program is not just about pros performing classic tales. Community outreach is part of the mission. “We have story-writing contests,” Stutsman noted, “and we go into the schools with kids’ programs.” Those include bi-lingual shows, all for 3rd- through 5th-grade students. Operating with an annual budget of $250,000 ($40,000 from SCFD), Stories on Stage presents nine shows each season. Occasionally, participating writers will attend a performance. Their typical reaction, Stutsman reported, is “Wow!”
Stories on Stage presents Readers and Writers, with Rachel Fowler and Geoffrey Kent, at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m., Nov. 9 in the Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center, 721 Santa Fe Dr. The holiday show, Making Merry, with Randy Moore, Gabriella Cavallero and Jamie Horton, will be performed at 2 p.m., Dec. 14 at the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, and at 1:30 and 6:30 p.m., Dec. 15 in the Seawell Ballroom of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Visit their website.
The company presents:
“Avoca — A Tale of Molly Brown,” with live music by the Gossamer Winds Quintet, November 3, 3 p.m., Lakewood Cultural Center, 470 Allison Pkwy.
December 8th, 14th and 15th at 3:00 pm
December 14th at 8:00 pm
All performances will be at the Cleo Parker Robinson Theatre, 119 Park Ave. West.
For information: 303- 945-4388 or visit their website.
Hannah Kahn Dance
Two premieres will be included in “The Get-Go and Other Dances,” with live music by the Colorado Wind Ensemble.
November 15 and 16, 7:30 p.m., at the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder.
Information: 303-444-7328 or visit their website.
Dawson/Wallace Dance Project
The Lakewood-based company presents two holiday programs in December.
Nutcracker in a Nutshell, a youth oriented program
December 11, 17, 18 and 19 – all performances at 10:00 AM, at the Lakewood Cultural Center, 470 South Allison Parkway, Lakewood
For information 303-987-7845 or visit their ticketing page.
The Nutcracker – the full-length ballet
- December 14 at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM
- December 15 at 1:00 PM and 5:00 PM
- December 21 at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM
- December 22 at 1:00 PM and 5:00 PM
- December 23 at 2:00 PM
All performances at the Lakewood Cultural Center, 470 South Allison Parkway, Lakewood
For information 303-987-7845 or visit their ticketing page.