Theatre Review(s): Young Frank, Mice and Men, & The 39 Steps at NTC

so, here’s the thing about Community Theatres. The obvious thing.

It’s community. Some would say, the opposite of professional.  Often productions are hit and miss, featuring first time thespians who have always wanted to do some acting, but never worked up the courage before NOW.  Production values are spotty – clumsy cardboard sets, props from the wrong era, costumes that actors picked because they are flattering rather than work with the time period. There is usually a lack of a unifying vision, and yes, I’m going to say it, Community Theatre Directors are anything but. They are directing because they’ve put their time into the place, not because they have the chops. Poor and pointless direction is my number one beef with Theatre and that goes for all levels.

So you go to see a community theatre production with eyes wide open, understanding that this is exactly the place for those folks who have always wanted to act to spread their wings. It’s absolutely the place for folks to come together, dress up the barn (or warehouse or old filmhouse) and put on a show. Sure, it’s occasionally frustrating for someone who loves the theatre with a rare and refined passion – but we go. We should, and we must.

And once in a while, ever so often, a show will come along that defies the odds and reminds your smug self to stop being such a snob.

Newnan Theatre Company has opened their 2018-19 Season with a trio of hits. As in, very much the opposite of misses.

The first, on the Mainstage, was a well crafted Of Mice and Men. John Steinbeck’s story of misfits Lennie and George was realized lovingly, carefully, with a realistic set that pushed the boundaries both metaphorical and literal. The cast was to a person solid, delivering truthful performances that brought the heartbreaking story to its inevitable, dreadful conclusion. Frankly its hard to single out anyone, but if I must, then I’ll go with Samuel Knight’s dignified performance as ‘Crooks’; no surprise given his long resume of credits. I’m looking forward to seeing him on stage again soon.

Next up was the utterly delightful The 39 Steps over in the Black Box. Director Mike Funt – who was so brilliant in last season’s Peter and the Starcatcher – took the director’s chair and makes me take back every single nasty thing I’ve ever said about Directors.  I feel pretty confident it was his firm hand and clear sense of what makes a comedy sing that made this a show that I hope no one missed.

The ensemble cast was led by stalwart Jeff Allen, who’s got as good a sense of timing and physical space as any actor south of the city. He was backed up by an absolutely flawless performance by Jennifer Schottstaedt in her several roles as femme fatale and reluctant heroine. If you missed it, well, I’m sorry for you. It was splendid. If you missed it, then you need to know that this brilliant little gem is a reimagining of a Hitchcock mystery movie, where our hero – that’s Jeff – is dragged into skullduggery by a mysterious woman who promptly dies. The hero undertakes the mission whilst being pursued by spies and murderers and the police, a journey that takes him around England, constantly in and out of dangerous trouble and narrow escapes. All this requires a cast of thousands but the genius of the script is that all the secondary parts are played by two other actors making lightning fast costume changes, so… Lance Smith has often been cast as the upright citizen, and he’s certainly the physical type. Here, he gets to pull out his inner clown and run with it and so he does. But I must say the real revelation for me was the marvelous, engaging performance by Josh Hendricks. I’ve reviewed this young fella several times, and chided him for a lack of gravitas in leading roles. Guess what? He’s a character actor. Which in my book is just fine.

Set, costumes, properties – everything worked. Everything.

Finally, we come back to the Mainstage for Young Frankenstein. If you know the movie, you know the story but you may not know that the production was updated for Broadway with song and dance. And while there isn’t a single song that you’ll carry away and find yourself humming a week later, it’s all right. There is also not a single song that disappoints in the moment. All are tuneful and add to the mischief as opposed to distracting from it.

The massive set was delightfully workable, including the Creature’s ‘table’ that artfully descended and ascended into the ‘heavens’.  I found the choreography and chorus that danced it to be right on point. So, kudos to ensemble member Joseph Moore for his dance work. Kudos to Costumes Designer Theresa Bush, and Josh Garrigus for lighting.

In the role of Dr. Frankenstein was Cody Baum, and it’s just not his fault that the late Gene Wilder was so damn brilliant and memorable. Mr. Baum worked with clarity and no small measure of comedic timing. As his Creation, was there anyone more suited for a role than John Caldwell?  Of course not.  The role of faithful if foolish sidekick Igor was beautifully done by Andrew Miller, in the best work I’ve seen him do – utterly delightful.

But. The women took the night. Hannah Beth Porter as the Doc’s fiancee Elizabeth, Megs Free as Inga, and Michelle Mason as Frau Blucher were all in fine voice, tremendous physicality and spotless comedic timing. Just flawless, and completely wonderful.

Three shows so far, and all of them wonderful Each a more than worthy addition to the long list of shows this stalwart little theatre company has put up over its long life. Long may it live.

Newnan Theatre Company – who now owns that building – is off to a great start this season.