A New Name for 2018 Before I get going on this first review of 2018, I wanted to quickly point out that The Burning Theatre Blog has a new name for the new year! In order to better reflect our focus on local theatre here in Knoxville, we've decided to rechristen it: Scruffy City Stagecraft.
The Knoxville Theatre Club hosts this blog and also sponsors the Sounds of Knoxville Theatre Podcast as part of our mission to support the development and enjoyment of local theatre in Knoxville. We feel, like a lot of you, that this is a really special moment in the Knoxville arts community, and we count ourselves lucky to be a part of it.
So, Happy New Year!
Now, on to what you came here for...
Moon Over Buffalo I think its fitting that the first production of the new year be mounted by the city's oldest community theatre arts organization. And with Ken Ludwig's, raucous comedy Moon Over Buffalo, Theatre Knoxville Downtown (now in its 48th season) proves without a doubt that it still knows how to give audiences an evening of classic theatrical fun.
The timbre, themes, and frantic pace of this situational comedy will be recognizable to anyone familiar with early stage and screen humorists like George S. Kaufman, Abe Burrows, Lucile Ball, or Carol Burnett. Set in 1950's Buffalo, New York, the once renowned - now declining - stage actors George and Charlotte Hay are struggling to keep their theatre company afloat. George has recently been involved in a dalliance with the company's young ingenue Eileen, which results in all the usual foreseeable consequences, and the equally foreseeable furious reaction from Charlotte. Enter their daughter Rosalind, who quit the troupe some time ago, but has returned to introduce her parents to her starstruck fiance Howard. When a surprise call from Frank Capra's agent informs them that the acclaimed director will be attending their afternoon matinee, the stage is set for a series of booze-filled misadventures, mistaken identities, slamming doors, and pandemonium in general as George and Charlotte try to to save their company and maybe their marriage.
Director Courtney Woolard, a TKD board member and veteran Knoxville theatre artist, has a true knack for comedy, and her skills are on full displays here. In a play about actors acting like audiences like to think actors act (ie completely and totally bonkers) Woolard somehow manages to keep the stakes dialed up to eleven for the entire show, without running her cast into the trap of emotional monotony. She also blocks the ceaseless frantic traffic across TKD's modest playing space with great dexterity, freeing up her ensemble to sword fight, prat fall, stumble around, and chase each other all over the place.
As the production's leading man, Joseph Jaynes rides the increasingly desperate and degrading experiences of George Hay with unfettered intensity. From the very first moment he bursts onto the stage during a floundering rehearsal of Cyrano de Bergerac, to the play's climactic fiasco, Jaynes portrayal of this likable scoundrel is over the top entertainment in all the best ways. Not to be outdone by her scene partner, Staci Swedeen's Charlotte Hay is vibrant, animated and very funny. With a classic stage pretense akin to the great Jessica Walker, Swedeen executes hairpin emotional transitions with expert timing, driving through the banter between Charlotte and George with a surefooted command of both the text and the audience's attention.
Fresh off her turn as director of TKD's The MousetrapRebecca Gomez returns to the stage as Rosalind Hay. While the character primarily serves as one of the show's romantic leads, and Rosalind spends a great deal of time chasing her father George around, Gomez is to be credited for finding plenty of humor throughout, and her performance during the disastrous play within a play is especially fun to watch. Playing opposite Rosalind is David Snow as the troupe's manager Paul Singer. After having seen Snow in several recent TKD shows I can say that I enjoyed this performance the most. Snow's seems built for the long suffering just-a-bit-less-crazy-than-everyone-around-him character, and he does a terrific job infusing the role with equal parts charisma and humor.
As the delightfully awkward Howard, Chad Wood's dapper leading man appearance, combined with his solid execution of physical humor, and his character's inherent buffoonery all come together in a performance that recalls a young Jerry Lewis. Wood seems to effortlessly balance the absurdity of his character with the absurdity of the situations to create several of the night's most belly laughing moments.
The show's supporting cast includes Debi Weathers as the lovely and naive Eileen, a role is that doesn't allow for much creative latitude, but in which Weathers still crafts several solid bits. Likewise Bill Householder portrays the love struck Richard Maynard, who appears only briefly but memorably. Rounding out the cast is stage veteran Barbara Pfaffe who delights as George Hay's ornery and wily mother in law Ethel.
The costumes by Sarah Campbell are well conceived and executed, as are the wigs and hair by Sandra Herrera. Joe Johnson's lighting design is simple out of necessity, as is Woolard's set design whose most remarkable aspect is that somehow she manages to employ five working entry doors, a sofa, and a desk, onto the TKD stage all at once.
This is a fun and funny evening from beginning to end, and if you're looking for an upbeat way to kick off a new year of theatre in Knoxville, its a great place to start. Moon Over Buffalo runs through January 21. You can get tickets here.
JP Schuffman is the Managing Artistic Director of the Knoxville Theatre Club, and co-author of The Story Story an original theatrical folk tale running March 8-24 at Modern Studio. Click here to learn more!
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