Beth Henley’s Wildly Warm-Hearted Southern Comedy ‘The Miss Firecracker Contest’ Premieres At Muhlenberg

Allentown, PA — Beth Henley’s Southern comedy “The Miss Firecracker Contest” opens Feb. 18 at Muhlenberg College, with a cast of six college seniors. Director Francine Roussel says that the cast is ideally suited to convey the play’s themes of accepting ourselves for who we are in order to move ahead in our lives.

“Henley’s themes are really strong, but there is a lightness to her writing,” Roussel says. “The show is a comedy, almost to the point of farce, but at the same time, there are extremely moving moments where the characters are at a precipice, looking at their lives.”

“The Miss Firecracker Contest” runs Feb. 18-22 on the college’s Studio Theatre stage. Tickets and information are available at muhlenberg.edu/theatre and 484-664-3333.

Roussel says she selected the show because college students can relate to it — both those playing the characters and those watching in the audience.

“They are at a point in their lives where they are going to invent their life after college,” she says. “I think the play is at the core of what’s on their minds. What are their dreams? What are their concerns for the future?”

“The Miss Firecracker Contest” tells the story of 25-year-old Carnelle Scott, known around her tiny Mississippi town as “Miss Hot Tamale” for a past that she would like to forget. She’s got flaming red hair, a sparkler between her teeth, tap shoes on her feet, and The Star Spangled Banner on the tape deck, not to mention a burning desire to win the crown in this year’s Miss Firecracker Contest — the annual beauty pageant in her town. Carnelle hopes a Firecracker victory will help her shake her tarnished reputation and leave town in a blaze of glory.

“All these characters are dealing with crucial rites of passage,” Roussel says. “You can laugh out loud, but at the same time realize how desperate the characters really are.”

“The Miss Firecracker Contest” is Henley’s followup to her Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy “Crimes of the Heart.” First produced in 1980, the play also explores themes of femininity and beauty.

Russell Norris plays Delmount, Carnelle’s older cousin who has just been released from an asylum. Norris says he and his character are quite different in many respects, but they are both people at a crossroads, learning all they can before they move forward.

“This process is the perfect culminating experience,” Norris says. “We’re all going out into the professional world so soon, and we’re all in it together. It’s really bringing us together as a cast, and we all have a similar goal to learn as much as we can in this last opportunity, and soak in the experience.”

Norris’s castmate Julia Garber, who plays Carnelle, agrees. But she also points out that, for all the play’s complex and dynamic characters, it is also very funny.

“I think the audience is going to laugh really hard,” Garber says. “It’s not just a crazy, Southern comedy, but a play that has a lot more depth. I can take a lesson from Carnelle to always stay hopeful and believe in myself.”

Muhlenberg College is a liberal arts college of 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa. The college offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theatre and dance. The Princeton Review consistently ranks Muhlenberg’s production program in the top 15 in the nation, and the Fiske Guide to Colleges lists both the theatre and dance programs among the top small college programs in the United States.

Performances of “The Miss Firecracker Contest” are Feb. 18-22: Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for LVAIC faculty and staff. The performance is intended for mature audiences. Tickets and information are available at 484-664-3333 and muhlenberg.edu/theatre.

Muhlenberg Production Of ‘Agamemnon’ Offers Innovative Take On Greek Tragedy

Logo of Muhlenberg College

Logo of Muhlenberg College (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Allentown, PA— The hardest part of directing a play that’s a couple thousand years old isn’t getting your audience to understand the play, says director Matthew Moore. The hard part is making sure they connect with it — and that means finding a way to cut its mythic characters down to human size.

Moore’s production of Aeschylus’ tragedy “Agamemnon” opens Nov. 19 at the Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance Department, where he is a faculty member. He says that his first job as director has been to help a modern audience relate to an ancient tragedy, with its ancient characters and their ancient motivations.

“Ted Hughes has given us a beautiful, poetic, modern translation, so the language isn’t a great challenge for the audience,” Moore says. “The challenge comes from creating these larger-than-life characters on the stage, in a way that makes them and their crazy decisions seem not only real but compelling.”

“Agamemnon” runs Nov. 19-23 on the college’s Studio Theatre stage. Tickets and information are available at http://www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre and 484-664-3333.

Moore says his approach to creating an accessible “Agamemnon” has been highly collaborative — and highly improvisational, to an unusual degree for a theater production. The cast spent the entire first month of rehearsals doing improv and movement work, with guidance from movement consultant Susan Creitz, another Muhlenberg faculty member. Their objective was to find the physical reality of their characters before they started learning their lines.

“The first thing Matt ever said at rehearsal was, ‘This text is a spell, and we are going to learn how to cast it,'” says Kate McMoran, who plays Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s vengeful spouse. “I don’t think I could have even started to the scenes if I hadn’t had the improv movement experience first.”

“Agamemnon” tells a tale of revenge and murder set in the aftermath of the Trojan War. Ten years before, the Greek King Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to gain the necessary winds to sail to Troy. Now he returns victorious — but his fleet and kingdom have been decimated by the war, and the memory of his sacrifice looms large, particularly for his wife, Clytemnestra.

Feigning thankfulness for his safe return, Clytemnestra lures her husband into the bath, where she murders him to avenge her daughter. But justice proves elusive in this primal tale of revenge.

“I am interested in the practice of theater as a continued collaboration,” Moore says. “It doesn’t mean you come and collaborate with me on my vision. It means let’s actually do the work of figuring out what this is together.”

Part of the collaborative process for “Agamemnon” includes the contributions of senior Sean Skahill, who has composed a dark, edgy original score for the production. Skahill also composed music for last fall’s “The Winter’s Tale,” but in a very different style. For “Agamemnon,” he uses a looping station, an electronic device that loops and layers different sounds and instruments to create an improvisational soundscape.

“Matt keeps saying that the play is about the past repeating itself,” Skahill says. “So the looping device really works nicely on a literary level. We keep hearing the past, layered over itself to create more and more complexity.”

Muhlenberg College is a liberal arts college of 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa. The college offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theatre and dance. The Princeton Review consistently ranks Muhlenberg’s production program in the top 15 in the nation, and the Fiske Guide to Colleges lists both the theatre and dance programs among the top small college programs in the United States.

Performances of “Agamemnon” are Nov. 19-23: Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for students and for LVAIC faculty and staff. The performance is intended for mature audiences.

All-Female Cast Brings Feminist Sensibility To Molière’s Comedy ‘The Learned Ladies’

Logo of Muhlenberg College

Logo of Muhlenberg College (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Allentown, PA — In directing Molière’s “The Learned Ladies,” opening Feb. 20 at Muhlenberg College, James Peck had two choices.

He could either let Molière’s 17th century sensibilities take the reins, and produce a play about the absurdity of its female characters’ efforts to educate themselves. Or he could dig a bit deeper, and find the ways in which Molière’s comedy reveals a nobility and bravery in those efforts.

“I can see two versions of this play being produced,” Peck says. “It could certainly be done as a misogynist satire, and some directors really want to steer clear of the play because of that. But I think it more fundamentally — and the version we’re trying to do, certainly — is a play about the ridiculous lengths that men have sometimes gone to in order to keep women from educating themselves.”

In other words, it’s the sexism that’s absurd, rather than the ladies themselves — at least most of the time. In support of this perspective, Peck has cast women in all of the roles, male and female — including his faculty colleague Francine Roussel in the role of Belize.

“I think having an all-female company of women who are themselves ‘learned ladies’ underscores the point,” Peck says. “And to be fair to Molière, often his female characters are the savviest people on the stage. As soon as you start thinking that the women are ridiculous, they do or say something that’s really kind and beautiful and insightful.

“The play is also blindingly funny,” he says. “I mean, these intellectual ideas are important to me, but the humor is as well.”

“The Learned Ladies” runs Feb. 20-23 in the college’s Dorothy Hess Baker Theatre. Broadway lighting designer Rick Fisher, winner of the 2009 Tony Award for his work on “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” is designing the lights for the show as part of a semester-long residency.

For Peck, the project also represented an opportunity to work with Roussel, who returns to the Muhlenberg mainstage for the first time since “Cabaret” in 2005. A native of France, Roussel was among the founders of the Actors Studio in Paris. She has written and performed her own shows, and continues her acting career in France and America. Her numerous film and television credits include “Sex and the City,” “Saturday Night Live,” and Sydney Pollack’s feature film “The Interpreter.” Roussel directs frequently for the Muhlenberg mainstage and teaches acting at Muhlenberg.

“Working with Francine has been an incredible pleasure,” Peck says. “She’s a truly skilled actress. She has really penetrating insight into what’s happening in the scene, as well as tremendous comic timing.”

In his 1672 satire of culture pretentiousness, Molière asks whether a woman can be both a devoted wife and a devoted scholar. Henriette and Clitandre wish to marry. Henriette’s father and uncle are in favor of the match, but the women of her family are obsessed with the allure of salon culture, and wish for her to marry Trissotin, a pompous but mediocre poet. Henriette must decide whether she should live life as a highly educated but unhappy woman, or whether she can continue her education without sacrificing love.

The production features a 1978 translation by acclaimed poet Richard Wilbur, in which “words dance delectably,” according to The New York Times.

The set for the play, designed by Muhlenberg design professor Curtis Dretsch, is a giant armillary sphere — a model of celestial objects consisting of a series of concentric rings that spin around one another. The design concept reflects the characters’ desire literally to map the heavens, and more broadly, to come to a greater understanding of the universe around them.

“The sphere provides unusual playing spaces for the action of the show,” Peck says. “It also serves as the perfect image for the women’s learned enterprises.”

“The Learned Ladies” will be performed Feb. 20-23: Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for patrons 17 and under. Performances are in the Dorothy Hess Baker Theatre, in the Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown. Information and tickets are available at 484-664-3333 or www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre.

Muhlenberg College’s Theatre & Dance Department offers one of the top-rated college performance programs in the country, according to the Princeton Review rankings. Muhlenebrg is a liberal arts college of more than 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa., offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in theatre and dance. It has been named annually among the Fiske Guide to Colleges’ top 20 small college programs in the United States.

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Muhlenberg College Presents Bat Boy: The Musical

A Review of Bat Boy: The Musical

By Roy Keeler

I attended my first Muhlenberg College production Friday night, October 23rd, as a reviewer for Bat Boy: The Musical.  Unfortunately, I have never attended any events at Muhlenberg before.  The campus was easy to find and I had no trouble parking.  Directions on the college website were excellent.

I read that the Theatre Arts Department is the number four ranked undergraduate theatre program in the United States by The Princeton Review 2009 so I had certain expectations based on this fact.  Otherwise, I was not sure what to expect.

Bat Boy is playing in the Baker Theatre, Trexler Pavilion.  The Pavilion, from the outside, is modern and impressive.  I eagerly made my way to the box office and picked up my ticket.  After a brief wait the doors opened and I was able to find my seat.  The theatre itself is very nice with comfortable seats, clearly marked rows and seat numbers.  The seating is stadium style which allows for unobstructed viewing.  My seat was in the orchestra section, row G, seat 15.  Dead center stage.

While we waited for the show to begin I browsed through the program and had a chance to look around.  I think the set is imaginative and fits the story very well.

The “Sheriff” made a few comments about cell phones and without further delay we began.  At the time I didn’t understand who the Sheriff was but that became clear in a few minutes.

The story takes place in Hope Falls, West Virginia, population 500.  The time is the present. Without going into too much detail the basic premise of the story is Bat Boy is found by Rick, Ron and Ruthie Taylor in a local cave.  Bat Boy is more animal than human at this point in the story and he bites Ruthie when the Taylor kids try to “make friends”.  Rick and Ron subdue Bat Boy, take Ruthie to the hospital and turn Bay Boy over to the Sheriff.  The Sheriff takes Bat Boy to Dr. Parker, the local vet, to be “put down”.

Bat Boy is put in a cage until Dr. Parker returns home.  Mrs. Parker and her daughter have their own ideas about what to do with Bat Boy.  Bat Boy starts out as a “pet” and ends up becoming part of the family.  The story progresses from there but you will have to go see Bat Boy to find out what happens!

There are two acts with a short intermission.  The intermission ends in an unusual way when some of the characters walk back onto the stage and other characters come down the aisle through the audience.  There is no formal end to the intermission or beginning of the second act.  It is funny and strangely appropriate.  Nothing about this production is ordinary

Bat Boy is a horror musical.  I was not at all familiar with this production and was not sure what to expect.  I was not the only person who felt this way.  During intermission several people around me were talking and stated they had similar feelings.  After watching the first act they were discussing how the story really draws you in and that the music is “catchy” and something you would be humming for days (I still am).

One of the funniest things about Bat Boy is the use of males to play female characters (think Benny Hill or Monty Python). Several cast members have multiple parts and watching them transition in and out of different characters/genders is hysterical and very well done.  Nick Flatto and Gabriel Martinez are absolutely brilliant.  While Bat Boy is very funny, it carries a message of tolerance and acceptance that comes through loud and clear.

The lead characters are excellent actors and superb vocalists.  Jeramie Mayes as Bat Boy, Denise Ozer as Meredith Parker, Eric Thompson as Dr. Parker and Leah Holleran as Shelly Parker are all to be commended for their outstanding performances.

The minor characters and the ensemble do a fantastic job as well.  Erik Fiebiger, as Pan, delivers a powerful vocal performance.  I was disappointed he only had one number.

The music is challenging and the cast rises to the occasion.  The orchestra is first rate!  This is a professional quality production that flows seamlessly from scene to scene.  The cast seems to be enjoying themselves which adds to the campy fun.

The costumes, lighting and choreography are excellent.  The Directors and Production Staff are all deserving of high praise for the attention to detail that make this production a big success.

I highly recommend this musical as a great way to enjoy the Halloween season and see a quality theatrical production in the Lehigh Valley.  Area residents should take advantage of having this gem in their backyard and support the arts at Muhlenberg College.  I give Bat Boy thumbs up!

Many thanks to Shawn Proctor, Marketing Director for allowing me to attend and review Bat Boy.

This production is recommended for mature audiences over age 14.

Muhlenberg College is located at 2400 W. Chew Street, Allentown, PA 18104.

For more details:

Voice: 484-664-3333

Website: http://www.muhlenberg.edu/depts/theatre/2tickets.html