Media Theatre’s BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY Turns Up the Heat

bridge-icon-photoThe 1992 “light’ musical version of “Fifty Shades of Grey” or close enough.  Media Theatre opens its 2016-17 season with the compelling, alluring tale of forbidden love.

Based on the bestselling novel by Robert James Waller, Broadway’s Jason Robert Brown brings music and lyrics to a love affair in the middle of Iowa. Suddenly Madison County starts to seem like a very exciting place to visit at least for two unlikely strangers.

An adulterous affair isn’t the normal main plot of musicals but the audience soon buys into Francesca’s (Elsa Matthews) sense of an unfulfilled life with a good but boring man, with a headstrong farmer’s personality. Francesca, an Italian war bride won over and brought to America by Bud Johnson (Robert Stineman) soon realizes she left her heart in Naples.  A roving photographer named Robert, (Derek Basthemer) walks into the life of the somewhat comfortably married yet vaguely dissatisfied Francesca and leaves her shaken, stirred and forever changed.

So how does an all too familiar 4-day love affair set to music end up on Broadway? bridgescouple1Take a successful movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep set it to music by an award winning composer( Jason Robert Brown) and earn several 2014 Tony nominations for your work and a popular musical grows legs if only for a few short months.

Media Theatre’s Elsa Matthews and Derek Basthemer sing and act their way into your heart, not particularly for Brown’s memorable music which is not as consistently wonderful as you would hope. This musical weaves a story of country living and values with a sense of freedom, fulfilment and hope that is blindly bound by unexpected love. Matthew’s songs consist of expectations despite the realistic acceptance of captivity and through it alll her voice simply soars!  Wisconsin born Basthemer, making his Media debut, has far less to gamble on his new found love affair which takes him by surprise as well. The fated lovers are near perfect together.

Artistic Director Jesse Cline keeps the sets to a bare minimum to focus the plot and action on the two star crossed lovers. Cline makes effective use of projection screens. A simple yet clever diversion of traveling together on a country road is displayed by a solo front two-seater of a truck with the dirt roads rolling behind as the two trade opening stories and pleasantries.

bridgescouple3bridgeFor those unfamiliar with this story; Francesca’s husband Bud and his two noisy boisterous teenagers Carolyn (Anna Rosenthal/Molly Sorenson) and Michael (Gianni Palmarini, making his first professional appearance), head to the State Fair for a long weekend to compete for a winning title for Carolyn’s prize steer. Robert Kincaid (Basthemer) has been assigned by National Geographic magazine to take pictures of Madison County’s covered bridges and finds himself a bit lost looking for the seventh bridge. With time on her hands and a stranger at her door looking for direction, the story begins. While the story is a bit less seductive and premeditated than Fifty Shades of Gray…more like Fifty Shades of Vanilla, it quickly warms up as the chemistry lesson begins in the kitchen of Francesca.

The script by Marsha Norman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author labors to introduce a sense of the goings on of the town folk of Madison County; the birthplace of actor John Wayne. Act one seems to drag a bit with idle chat and friendly encounters, as we all can figure out where this is heading, with the exception of Francesca’s neighbors Marge and Charlie (played by the likable Faith Yesner and Nick Saverine ) as she speculates cutely on what’s going on next door.  But Act two simmers into a full boil with a string of passionate numbers “One Second & A Million Miles” and a smartly staged “When I’m Gone.”

Basthemer tenor voice is brilliant, even breathtaking! His “It All Fades Away” tops the bridgesrobert2evening and the company finishes with a winning “Always Better,” led by Matthews giving it her all. Clearly it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

BRIDGES OF MADISION COUNTY plays at the Media Theater- State Street, Media Pa. For tickets and more information visit www.mediatheatre.org or call 610.891.0100

 

Photos: Courtesy of Media Theatre

“Dinner and a Show”: Media Pa – Noodi Thai Chef and “Billy Elliot”

Billy ElliotDining on alligator and enjoying boys and men in tutus may not be on your ‘bucket list’, but you only live once!

Steeped in the history of Delaware County, Media has become the life and heart of the region, drawing expanded growth from its unique mixture of authentic and contemporary attitudes. It’s in this setting we find an artful blend of new and traditional, eclectic and sophisticated, international and plain old down-home goodness. Strolling on State Street one can find a variety of food, unique shops and of course, the Media Theater!

Our first stop is Noodi Thai Chef Restaurant on the corner of State & Monroe. My IMAG0237newly found passion for Thai cuisine first brought me to this quaint place that thrives to provide an authentic and diverse menu and warm inviting atmosphere. The extensive menu includes 18 noodle entrees, 6 fried rice dishes as well as unique Chef Selections such as “Winning Alligator” and “Young Girl on Fire” Relax; it’s a deliciously prepared roasted hen.

IMAG0239We were treated to two freshly prepared meals starting with Tom Yum (lemon grass soup) and Wild mushroom soup, followed by Vietnamese Rolls of chicken and shrimp. Main entrees were Mango Curry (Chicken, Shrimp, Mango chunks in a coconut yellow sauce) and Bangkok Eggplant (Shrimp, Chicken, and Asian Eggplant in a ginger-soy sauce)

Noodi Thai is located at 42 East State St. Media Pa. For more information visit www.thaicheftoday.com or call 610.892.8710

Now, on to the show! Media Theatre’s Billy Elliot

Billy Elliot: The Musical” is the 10-time Tony winner which has its regional both billyspremiere at The Media Theatre. The 2005 musical with a score by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall propels the story of the boy who has a desire to be a dancer rather than a boxer in a Welsh mining town in the 1980’s. It all takes place during a miner’s strike which convinces the boy even more to be all he can be and is an inspirational musical focusing on individuality and following your personal passion. Media Theater’s Artistic Director Jesse Cline and director/choreographer Geoffrey Goldberg went all out searching for talent in Manhattan for young actors who could not only fulfill the show’s requirement of ballet and tap, but also would be able to carry the score and add depth to the gravity of the characters. What a treat to find Philadelphia area talent in Media’s Brandon Ranalli and West Chester’s Gunar Daniels, both 13, share the role of Billy Elliot

Anna-Connors-as-Mrs.-Wilkinson-with-Ballet-GirlsBilly Elliot possesses a powerful poignant plot with compelling characters, a unique yet unremarkable score and dazzling dance scenes. The show opened on Broadway in 2008 and went on to win 10 Tony Awards, and has been playing to sold-out houses on the road for years. At this performance Gunar Daniels dazzles the audience as Billy breaks out from a shaky start in a room filled with aspiring young female ballerinas and finds his ‘sea legs’ sending him soaring into the air by the end of Act One. billygunardancetwistDaniels, a competitive gymnast now a member of the Professional Ballet Division at the Rock School Philadelphia, has little problem with the required routine for this ambitious production. Ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, played wonderfully by Anne Connors is willing to extend herself to encourage the boy to pursue his natural abilities much to the chagrin of Billy’s coal mining father played by Zachary Wobensmith.

There is much to love about the characters and the actors who portray them from the delightful little ballet girls to Billy’s best friend Michael played to near perfection by Philly favorite JD Triolo who brings much needed humor and warmth to the gritty story of a boy who’s lost his young mum (Elisa Matthews) in death, a bitter father, an angry older brother (Garrison Carpenter) an endearing, eccentric grandmother (Susan Wefel) and an overbearing boxing coach (Kelly Briggs). Media Theater regulars prove their versatility time and again with standout performances by the “triple-threat” Triolo, the always whimsical Wefel as well as the multi-talented Anne Connors. Wobensmith wins the crowd with his transformation from tough love dad to a caring father who can really croon a tune!

The musical production does not allow enough time to fully grasp the back story of relationships and the language is unexpectedly raw considering that almost half the cast are young children. Still this is not a reflection on the presentation but on Hall’s book. Scenic Designer Mathew Miller creates impressive fluid sets of corrugated metal, beams and stairs. I especially enjoyed the set and lighting choices that simulate the coal mine entrance. Lighting designer Troy Martin O’Shia does an excellent job spotlighting and panning the cast to generate the various moods and energy of the show.

“Billy Elliot” will now play through January 10, with the extension week having evening performances at 7pm Wednesday through Saturday, a Saturday matinee at 2pm, and Sunday matinee at 3pm. For tickets, call 610-891-0100 or visit mediatheatre.org.

Media Theater Photos: Laurie Briglia

Media Theatre’s “Gypsy” Truly Entertains You!

Media Gypsy LogoMedia Theatre opens their 2015-16 season with the Sondheim favorite “Gypsy” and wows the crowd!  In as much as “Funny Girl” showcases Fanny Brice; “Gypsy” spotlights Mamma Rose and for local power house actress Krissy Fraelich well, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”.

Fraelich’s slant on Rose is multi-leveled as the show progresses and her true emotions peek through every now and then in between her obsessive passion for her daughters to succeed as stars. She has tunnel vision, she’s driven, she loves her kids and she is a survivor. Fraelich is joined on stage by Kelly Briggs as Herbie. gyspymamarosecoatBriggs was seen at Media in “Les Miserables”, “The Miracle Worker”, “Hello Dolly”, and “Mame. The two, though opposite bookends, share a lot of chemistry which is brought to the fore with the delightful “Small World.”

Kristine Fraelich’s appeared on Broadway in the original cast of “The Civil War” and in the 1st National Tour of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” as the Narrator. Locally she’s been seen at The Walnut Street Theater, The Arden, and The Eagle. As a mother of three, she knows the devotion and dedication of this career quite well. As Rose she realizes she has failed her daughter just as her own mother failed her…and that destroys Rose. There is a vulnerability to Rose that makes her human, not just some loud and cartoonish parody of a stage mother but it takes some time for this to fully surface.

Roseandlouise_350Gypsy is a 1959 musical with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents. Gypsy is loosely based on the 1957 memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist, and focuses on her mother, Rose, whose name has become synonymous with “the ultimate show business mother.” It follows the dreams and efforts of Rose to raise two daughters to perform onstage and casts an affectionate eye on the hardships of show business life. The character of Louise is based on Lee, and the character of June is based on Lee’s sister, the actress June Havoc.

The musical contains many songs that became popular standards, including “Everything’s Coming up Roses”, “Together (Wherever We Go)”, “Small World”, “Some People”, “Let Me Entertain You”, “All I Need Is the Girl”, and “Rose’s Turn”. It is frequently considered one of the crowning achievements of the mid-20th century’s conventional musical theatre art form, often called the “book musical”.

gypsymamarose_350Sondheim has said of the Rose character: “The fact that she’s monstrous to her daughters and the world is secondary. She’s a very American character, a gallant figure and a life force. Sondheim also noted, “Yet the end of Gypsy is not entirely bleak. Louise comes out a star and forgives her mother. There is hope for her. Rose does confront who she is in ‘Rose’s Turn.’ There is a catharsis. It’s not Rodgers and Hammerstein, but you feel that maybe the mother and daughter will come to an understanding and maybe triumph over Rose’s craziness and Louise’s bitterness.”

Anna Giordano, recently seen in The Media Theatre’s production of “Ghost: The Musical”, returns to portray the adult Louise and Taylor Elise Rector plays the ‘teen’ June. Rose’s young daughters; Young Louise and Baby June are double cast. Cassidy Else and Amia Shavaun share performances as Young Louise, while Media’s own Ava Briglia and Bucks County’s Portia Murphy take on the role of Baby June. Giordano transforms as beautifully as a butterfly from the awkward tom-boyish, pushed aside sister to the seductive Gypsy Rose Lee, who quickly learns her own way of dealing with her persistent, failing mother.

gypsysistersThis Gypsy is in good hands at the experienced direction of Media’s Artistic Director Jesse Cline. Cline keeps the drama high paced without losing the integral character development of the principle characters and seasoned choreographer Dann Dunn keeps the movement flowing effectively throughout the performance. First-class use of basic sets and black and white background screen visuals subtly add to the mood of the era at the hands of Scenic and Lighting Designer Troy Martin O’Shea.gypsymamalouiseherbie

Media makes good use of its youth talent whom many have appeared in various Media shows and for good reason. They’re good! The Newsboys also share performances. Six talented young students from The Media Theatre each perform three or four times per week in groups of three. They are Josh Atkinson, Zachary Divito, Sean O’ Neill, Ben Pedersen, Carter Weiss, and Tim Woodward. Of course, those boys grow up to be the Farmboys in Mama Rose’s act. The older boys are Glenn Britton, Kyle Segarra, and JD Triolo (seen last year in “Addams Family” as Pugsley). The plum role of Tulsa is portrayed by Avery Sobczak.

An outstanding performance is offered by Sobczak’s Tulsa in “All I Need Is The Girl” accompanied by Giordano and receives rousing applause. Those three amusing strippers are Media favorite Jennie Eisenhower (Tessi), Hillary Parker (Mazeppa), and Karen Toto (Electra).

“GYPSY” plays at The Media Theatre, State Street, Media PA from September 23 to November 1, call 610-891-0100 or visit www.mediatheatre.org. for tickets and more information.

Photos by: Laura Briglia