Review: Lessons from a summer of outdoor theatre in the time of COVID – John Moore

Almost Heaven - John Moore Review

by John Moore (Senior Arts Journalist – Arvada Center)

Those companies that got out of the box deepened relationships with grateful audiences. Those that grow stagnant do so to their own peril.

…Not every live offering was so limited by crowd size. The Littleton Town Hall Arts Center had big plans to present a late-winter indoor production of the John Denver biography “Almost Heaven” on an indoor set accompanied by a provocative, original video underscore. When the shutdown ended those grand plans, Town Hall moved the production outdoors to the picturesque environs of nearby Hudson Gardens, which can accommodate about 70 on its expansive grounds.

By the time the run ends on October 11, Town Hall will have managed to sate about 1,500 of its audiences’ theatre fixes. Yes, that only represents about half the crowd size for a single performance of any big Broadway musical downtown. But then again, there aren’t all that many theatergoers who have so far shown much willingness to venture out to any production right now (inside or out). But those who have are being richly rewarded. At such a lousy time, you have to appreciate the opportunity to take in an early fall sunset in a garden while birds fly overhead and you’re listening to lyrics like: “I guess he’d rather be in Colorado; he’d rather spend his time out where the sky looks like a pearl after a rain.”

In every case, the thing that made those efforts special is the very thing that only came about through active problem-solving. Each of those environments enhanced the storytelling experience, and our understanding of the language or the lyrics. I would not have wanted to watch any of them indoors…

Review: Pivoting with Nick Sugar and the Town Hall Arts Center – John Moore

by John Moore (Senior Arts Journalist, Arvada Center)

How a lovely outdoor musical experience grew out of necessity and innovation

‘Almost Heaven’ was scheduled to open inside the Town Hall Arts Center on April 3 when rehearsals were shut down by the pandemic on March 13. What a strange set of circumstances that allowed for the musical to be reimagined as an outdoor, botanic experience at sunset that perfectly matches the tenor of John Denver’s music. Director Nick Sugar talks about it.

What are you doing to pivot?
We were shuttered during our third week of rehearsal. When I realized this was going to be much worse than expected, my first conversation with Town Hall was that “Almost Heaven” was the show that needed to open our theatre back up when the time came. The music is inspirational. It is the spirit of our community at Town Hall. “Almost Heaven” is Colorado. This version at Hudson Gardens is not the theatrical production that we had envisioned. It is not being performed on the set that was designed and completed on our stage. However, being able to see and hear these amazing singers without their masks on is joyous. “Almost Heaven” gives us all hope.

Why are you doing it?
All of us at Town Hall were invested in the show physically and emotionally. The cast was committed to the show as well. If I had to re-cast several performers, or if the Town Hall team felt it weren’t appropriate material to be doing for our first venture back, “Almost Heaven” would not be happening. Putting up a production takes a lot of work. Getting “Almost Heaven” up at Hudson Gardens has taken even more hard work, dedication and determination, and that work will continue throughout the run. After every performance, the band, lights, tent and sound have to be set-up and taken down each night.

Is there a timeline for programming to return to the indoor theatre?
It’s pointless to even speculate right now. Town Hall was lucky enough to be able to pivot with “Almost Heaven.” Hopefully, we can continue to pivot successfully with our next production.

Words of encouragement for others who are now pivoting their way through 2020?
We as a theater community are hurting. We have lost wages and jobs. We are re-learning, growing and trying to survive. Be brave and stay strong. We are a creative group of people. Create. We will pivot.

“Pivoting With …” is a new, ongoing series talking with members of the Colorado theatre community about how they are adapting to changes in their creative and personal lives as the COVID pandemic continues.

Review: Enjoy an outside chance for live theater – Littleton Independent

by Sonya Ellingboe (Littleton Independent)

“Almost Heaven: The Songs of John Denver” is an appropriate title for Town Hall Arts Center’s production at Hudson Gardens, running through Oct. 11. The lawn next to the blooming Rose Garden is marked with “pods” that hold a blanket or up to four chairs, inviting a relaxed audience to enjoy a LIVE performance with five singers/“Storytellers” and a four-piece band. The air is sweet and the audience happy to be there.

Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., who understandably took on the stage name of John Denver, was born in New Mexico and gained international recognition as a composer, songwriter and performer before his untimely death as he solo-piloted his own airplane and crashed.

Harold Thau is credited with the concept for this appealing show and Jeff Waxman for the orchestrations and vocal arrangements in the production. The program says: “songs by John Denver and others,” but the “others” are not spelled out.

Skillfully interwoven are familiar songs such as “Rocky Mountain High,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” “I Guess I’d Rather Be in Colorado,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and more … easy listening. Some audience members brought a picnic, while others just relaxed and visited before the performance and during a brief intermission. (No food was on sale at the venue, though it may be during the daytime shows at the trail entrance …)

Performers include Town Hall repeat-performers Matt LaFontaine, Mark Middlebrooks, Alison Mueller and Zach Stanley, as well as area newcomer Tasha Waters, who recently relocated from Philadelphia.

The atmosphere is laid-back and fragrant.

Director/choreographer Nick Sugar has created nice patterns of movement for these Storytellers, but they can’t be dancing on lumpy grass as they might on a wooden stage floor.

Voices blend smoothly and each singer is a solo-quality performer as well — what a joy to experience this on a lovely summer-into-fall evening outside!

Donna Debrecini leads the musicians: Mitch Jervis on guitar, Scott Alan Smith with bass, banjo and harmonica, and percussionist Larry Ziehl, filling that delicious night air with music.

Review: Almost Heaven – Boulder Magazine

by Beki Pineda (Boulder Magazine)

ALMOST HEAVEN – Songs by John Denver and others; Vocal arrangements and orchestrations by Jeff Waxman; based on an original concept from Harold Thau; Directed by Nick Sugar. Produced by Town Hall Arts Center (presented at Hudson Gardens, 6115 South Santa Fe Drive, Denver) through October 11. Tickets available at 303-794-2787 or townhallartscenter.org.

As I sat on the lawn at Hudson Gardens listening to the beautiful music of John Denver soar into the summer evening, I was struck by the idea that I didn’t really know John Denver’s music. Oh, I knew all the popular stuff that got played on the radio (“Country Boy,” “Annie’s Song,” “Rocky Mountain High,” etc.). But I had never really explored his albums and the songs that reflected his personal philosophy. His catalog of music is so much deeper and thoughtful than the average listener realizes. He wrote from the heart about the loneliness of living in a city (“Fly Away”), his own weaknesses and uncertainties (“I’m Sorry,” “Looking for Space”), the beauty of a country childhood (“Montana,” “Matthew”). His song “For You” is the perfect wedding song in its expression of love and devotion.

The unanswered questions he asks in “Weapons” are especially relevant today. “Why are we still making weapons? Why keep on feeding the war machine? How can it be that we’re still fighting each other?”

But more than anything, John celebrated the world in all its wonders and invited his listeners to do the same. “Calypso” asks us to “live in the service of life and the living” and to acknowledge that to “live on the land, we must learn from the sea.” “I Guess He’d Rather be in Colorado” mourns for all those folk who have to live in a city, rather than in the wild beauty of Colorado. “Montana” sings a mother’s prayer for her son that Montana teaches him to be a man. John’s last song was “Yellowstone” – an ode to the wilderness that even includes the cry of a wolf in the lyrics. He wrote this song for an episode of the Nature TV series that explored the untamed parts of our land.

His life and his music is given glorious homage in the performances of the five singers and four musicians who bring it to life in the Hudson Gardens production. Thanks to the wizardry of Curt Behm, the Sound Designer, and his assistant, Board Operator Matthew Dugger, the music “fills up our senses” and echoes into the night. Simple costumes supplied by Designer Linda Morken brought back the homespun look that John adopted. The administrative staff at Town Hall created a pleasant socially-distanced way for the audience to enjoy every aspect of the evening without getting too close to one another.

But this night belonged to John and to the singers who brought him back to us for a couple of hours. Matt LaFontaine, Mark Middlebrook, Alison Mueller, Zach Stanley, and newcomer Tasha Waters have some of the strongest and most melodious voices you will ever hear. The beautiful arrangements designed by Jeff Waxman gave ample opportunity for amazing solo work and even more amazing harmonies. I have to give special kudos to Mark Middlebrook’s rendering of “For You.” I think I could die happy if someone sang that song to me with so much feeling. Each song was celebrated with enthusiasm and joy. Everyone looked and sounded like they were having so much fun bringing the music to the audience. What a wonderful way to spend a summer’s evening!
There is very limited seating and a short run. My advice is to go on line immediately and get one of the tickets for the remaining performances before the buzz about the beauty of this show sells it out. I hope the evening has the same effect on other audience members that it had on me. I started searching for the John Denver music I hadn’t heard and added them to my play list. As John sang in “Poems, Prayers and Promises,” “It’s been a good life all in all.”

A WOW factor of 9.5!!

Review: ‘Barefoot in the Park’ is iconic crowd-pleaser – Littleton Independent

Barefoot in the Park - Town Hall Arts Center

by Sonya Ellingboe (Littleton Independent)

Lights go up on an empty apartment in an old brownstone on East 48th Street in New York City. It’s February 1963. Only the kitchen is furnished. A restless young woman enters and stuffs things into the refrigerator as she tidies up a bit. Suitcases are in the room. We meet Corie Bratter (Lynzee Jones), the somewhat ditzy resident newlywed, who has rented this chilly fifth-floor space for herself and new husband, Paul (Tim Howard), an already-a-bit-stuffy lawyer.

She awaits Bloomingdales’ furniture delivery — and the next years of her life…

The audience settles in for “Barefoot in the Park,” a favorite comedy by American playwright Neil Simon (1927-2018). Many theater companies across the nation are honoring the late, always-popular Simon this season, with performances of his works — more than 30 plays, plus as many television scripts.

Stomping and puffing is heard. It’s the telephone repairman (Giovanni Roselli), here to hook them up and assign a phone number. Imagine! Her own number …

A winded Paul appears next — those stairs are an ongoing issue. Each character’s response is different.

The phone guy leaves and a brief lovey-dovey interlude is followed by arguing. He wants to work. She wants to play … More steps on the stairs announce the arrival of Corie’s mother (the always-entertaining Annie Dwyer).

Amusing Neil Simon-crafted conversation continues and eventually the quirky upstairs neighbor Victor Velasco (Tom Mullin) appears to add another voice and color to the scene. They decide to head to Staten Island for dinner, where something with flaming brandy is said to be on the menu … They return full of Greek wine and still talking, talking …

Director Bob Wells, a comic himself, has shaped this popular Simon work into an entertaining evening for audiences at Littleton’s Town Hall Arts Center, and it runs through March 22. Wells’ directors’ notes say it opened in October 1963 and played 1,530 performances, until June 1967 — and it’s been a steady favorite since. “In 1963, Simon became the only living playwright to have a New York City theater named after him, when the Alvin Theatre on Broadway was named The Neil Simon Theatre,” Wells continues.

Wells also added a quote from comedic actor Nathan Lane; “Neil often said … he was writing dramas with comic moments in them. The most important thing with his material was to always play it as you would a serious play and allow Neil to do his work.”

Review: Barefoot in the Park – Boulder Magazine

by Beki Pineda (Boulder Magazine)

Written by Neil Simon; Directed by Robert Wells.

All of you must remember the young and beautiful Jane Fonda and Robert Redford who brought this charming story to the public’s attention in 1967, one of their five movies together. Or maybe some of you were lucky enough to see Redford and Elizabeth Ashley in the original 1963 Broadway production. Regardless whenever you see a Neil Simon play on the callboard, you know you are in for a treat. His ability to put both heartfelt dialogue and snappy zingers together in the same speech never fails to delight. In this particular script, he takes the tiniest bit of plot and wraps it in charming whimsy.

Town Hall put together a winning cast for this revival. The young newlyweds are played to local favorites Tim Howard and Lynzee Jones. Lynzee’s elfin Corie has a slightly manic energy that plays sweetly against Tim’s more conservative and laid back Paul. As in most marital discord, their expectations of each other are slightly unreasonable and, foregoing stubborn pride, could be resolved easily. But nothing makes for more fun on stage than a comic argument.

They are joined by everybody’s favorite couple – Annie Dwyer as Corie’s highly dubious and sensitive mother Ethel and TJ Mullin as Victor Velasco, the Bohemian upstairs neighbor. After appearing together on stage together for thirty years, one is the hand, the other is the glove. They just fit together, complementing each other’s authenticity and totally in sync. The celebration they bring to a meeting of opposites that find delight in an older romance warms  your heart. The connection they brought to Herr Schultz and Frau Schneider together in CABARET, a recent show at Town Hall, is echoed in the gentle wooing of Victor and Ethel.

A newcomer to Town Hall, the fifth character in this group is the out-of-breath Telephone Repair Man. Giovanni Roselli makes the most of a small part with his authenticity and genuine concern for this young couple in the middle of their argument. Stagehand Greg Kendall makes a surprise appearance as a package delivery guy. EVERYONE has difficulty with the five flights of stairs it takes to get to their loft.

The charming New York apartment they move into was designed by Michael Duran, built by Mike Haas and his crew, dressed by Rob Costigan and Bob Bauer, with lights provided by Kate Bashore and street sounds and door bells provided by Curt Behm. Special kudos must go to the run crew who, in the fifteen minute intermission, convert an empty flat into a charming nest with time to spare. Also congrats to the person on the crew who rigged the snow drop so that it falls on Paul’s head as he sleeps on the sofa night after night.

A WOW factor of 8!!

Review: Fairy tale characters take stage in show not for kids – Littleton Independent

by Sonya Ellingboe (Littleton Independent)

Fairy tale princesses have long been part and parcel of our literary and social fabric, as they were created from ancient folk tales — and have more recently evolved through Disney films and now, via “Disenchanted,” an off-Broadway hit, which shifts them into feminist folk!

The composer/playwright is Dennis T. Giacino, who developed this new musical with off-Broadway director Fiely Matias, perhaps stepping on some toes along the way …

As lights go up at Town Hall Arts Center in Littleton, where “Disenchanted,” directed and choreographed by the multi-talented Nick Sugar, plays through Feb. 9, we meet Snow White (Abby McInerny), who translates as a leadership star; Cinderella (Lindsay Fuller) and Sleeping Beauty (LuAnn Buckstein) belting a strong “One More Happ’ly Ever After.”

Also featured: Belle, the Beauty who was in love with that Beast — she comes onstage in a straitjacket, crazed by all the strange things she’s encountered — moving plates and saucers and talking furniture, for example. (Jona Alonzo, who also plays the Little Mermaid, is Belle).

The Little Mermaid wants to be back at sea …

From Chinese lore, we meet a different sort of Hua Mulan — and from American legend, a militant Pocahontas (racist commentary?). From the Arabian Nights comes Aladdin’s magic Princess Badroubaldor (all are played by Faith Siobahn Ford).

The Princess Who Kissed the Frog (Anna High) comes via those Brothers Grimm. It’s good to see a black princess here — another swipe at the standard Disney lineup …

All bring issues to the fore — which is probably not how we remember them from story time at the library, school room, the Saturday movies — or at home!

The set consists of the lighted outline of a palace-ish sort of place, with curtained arches. Works well, enhanced by lighting and sound.

But these tales are meant for adult audiences and the language gets a bit raw — so leave those little people at home this time, despite the fairy tale theme. Disney fare, it is not!

A live band sits up to the right, led by Music Director Donna Kolpan Debreceni on keyboards, Sean Case, percussion and Scott Alan Smith, bass — a truly fine addition when budget allows … It really adds to the overall pleasure of live theater in a way that recorded music does not.

This material doesn’t have the overall depth and strength of some of our longtime favorite musicals, so the breadth of the message carries less of a wow factor, but it is sassy and fun — and the performers bring voices and style as they play at being feisty princesses …

We felt that they were happy ever after — or at least on that night!

Review: A trip back in time with ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ – OnStage Colorado

by Blythe Smith (OnStage Colorado)

Littleton Town Hall mounts a solid production of the Christmas-themed show

Meet Me in St. Louis, based on the classic 1944 movie starring Judy Garland, tells the story of a year in the life of the Smith family, set against the backdrop of a city preparing for the opening of the 1904 world’s fair.

Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you might recognize the music — if not “The Trolley Song” (“Clang, clang, clang went the trolley!) or “The Boy Next Door,” then almost certainly “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The play is essentially the movie, adapted for stage.

The story is about the Smiths, an upper middle class, middle American family with a lawyer dad, two teenage daughters, a teenage son, a couple of younger moppets, and an Irish maid. It’s intended to showcase the family in a series of vignettes that give them a chance to sing through the seasons: summertime, Halloween, a Christmas ball. The older son is leaving for college, both teenage daughters are in love, and the younger girls are full of mischief.

A wrench gets thrown in everyone’s lives when dad gets an offer to take a senior role at his firm’s New York office? But can they possibly leave St. Louis? Right before the World’s Fair?

Heavy nostalgia

If you’ve seen the movie, you know how this will end, and if you haven’t, you can probably guess. Groundbreaking this play is not, but it isn’t intended to be. Rather, it’s heavy on vintage nostalgia with enough “Christmas” thrown in to make it holiday appropriate. Clearly, it is of its time. In most modern musicals, the songs drive the plot forward. Here, as in many 1940s productions, it usually feels like they had an idea for a song and worked the plot around to fit it in. In other words, the songs don’t feel very organic. Why, exactly, do they need to sing about a trolley?

Well, they don’t. But singing about trolleys is fun, and that’s the reason they do it.

And the show is fun. The cast has plenty of energy and enthusiasm, and the costuming and be-wigged heroines, singers, and dancers are on point. The show itself is suited to both the venue and the season, as Old Town Littleton has that old time-y feel all lit up for the holidays. And well, ’tis the season after all.

Solid performances

The performances are mostly solid. I particularly liked Anne Jenness as Esther (the Judy Garland Role) and Kara Morrissey as her sister Rose. Jenness in particular has a great voice that is well-showcased here. And I have to mention Macaelle (Mac) Vasquez, who plays the youngest Smith, Tootie — and is only 7 years old. She brings tons of personality to the role and is truly a delight. I can almost hear her parents saying, “We’ve got to get this kid on stage.”

I have always enjoyed the staging at the Town Hall Arts Center, and this production is no exception. The stage is small, which sounds like it should be drawback, but instead usually seems like an asset. They use the space creatively, and it works. The Smiths’ dining room remains on stage for most of the production, with a porch that appears when the action is outside and a cast-propelled trolley that emerges when called for. It all works well and gets the point across.

The show itself is not only holiday-appropriate, but strikes me as particularly family-friendly and well-suited to older school-age children. It’s accessible, easy to understand, and has children who figure prominently in the story. Eight-year-old me would have enjoyed it even for the turn-of-the-century dresses and costuming alone. Perhaps it could make a fun and quirky holiday alternative to the ubiquitous Nutcracker.

Most adults will probably enjoy it too. And if you’re looking for a new ear-worm, I can almost guarantee you’ll leave singing, “Meet me in St. Lou-eee, Lou-eee…”

Review: Family fare comes to area stage for holiday happiness – Littleton Independent

by Sonya Ellingboe (Littleton Independent)

With the 20th century barely under way, St. Louis residents, including the Smith family, were excited at the prospect of the 1904 World’s Fair, which ran from April 30 to Dec. 1, 1904. Also called “The Louisiana Purchase Exposition,” it celebrated the century since that nation-forming transaction was negotiated by Thomas Jefferson and others.

Writer Sally Benson had published a series of “Kensington Stories” stories in 1941 in the New Yorker, which offered the framework for the movie musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the background for the stage musical, with book by Hugh Wheeler and songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.

It’s perfect family fare for the holidays, as presented at Town Hall Arts Center in Littleton through December, with a pleasing score and a story about appealing Smith family members ranging from little Tootie to spirited Grandpa. All are eagerly anticipating the fair, but with different expectations …

There’s “The Boy Next Door” who capture’s Esther Smith’s fancy and the wall-mounted telephone as an aid to romance for sister Rose …

“Clang, clang clang!” The catchy “Trolley Song” presents an issue for scenic designers and is cleverly resolved onstage in this production by experienced designer Michael R. Duran as residents ride and harmonize.

Hanging over the family’s happiness is the prospect of a move to New York City, due to father’s business interests. With romance in the air and reluctance towards change foremost, the family dithers and fusses — and sings.

Casting is strong and voices blend smoothly throughout, with Anne Jenness as teen Esther Smith and Kara Morrissey as older sister Rose, both juggling romances, while brother Lon (Matt Fontaine) bounces through the house, seemingly oblivious to their issues. Wee Tootie Smith (Macaelle Vasquez, a St. Mary’s second-grader) tends to steal her scenes with some regularity and Hadley Brown plays next-in-line sister Agnes.

Caitlin Conklin and Rich Cadwallader are parents of this brood and Town Hall veteran Kevin Walton is good-natured Grandpa Prophater. (Walton has performed, previously with one or another of his now-grownup kids, in many THAC musicals.)

Audiences will enjoy the familiar music and Kelly Kates’ imaginative choreography as the story circles through several sorts of situations and ends up with St. Louis remaining home base after all.

Review: MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS at Town Hall – Denver Theater Perspectives

by Mona Lott (Denver Theater Perspectives)

The St. Louis World fair was in 1904. The film, Meet Me in St. Louis starring the incomparable Judy Garland came out in 1904 and the stage musical based on the movie played in 1989. Town Hall Arts Center has currently staged it in this chaotic, turbulent era of cell phones and the internet and it  provides a stark contrast to life in 2019.

That contrast may be the charm of Meet Me in St. Louis with  music that is rather simplistic, like the times and a book so insipid in it’s cheerful, idealistic presentation of one family’s day to day life on the eve of the St. Louis World Fair that it becomes mind numbing like a Hallmark Channel Christmas Special.

The show is rather unremarkable in that it was only nominated for four Tony Awards and received none. That may be attributed to the story which is severely lacking. A world in which having dinner an hour earlier causes so much bedlam and turmoil, hardly provides the dramatic narrative or emotional complexity that most Broadway successes ensue and most audiences have come to expect.

Even so, there is some comfort in dwelling in this era and relishing in a show so squeaky clean that you can still smell the lye in the water. Town Hall is smart in producing this musical during the holidays. It’s kid friendly and fun for the whole family with no fear at all of any vulgarities or questionable themes.

Given that, THAC gleefully embodies the production and presents it with much aplomb and competency. The cast is rather large for the small theater, but never seems to crowd the stage or overwhelm the space. Bob Wells has staged them with expertise  in such a way as to use the small space to their advantage. The clever staging excels in it’s execution especially during the Trolley song when Scenic Designer Michael R. Duran manages to not only bring one on stage but manages to drive it around with passengers on board and a conductor mapping the way.

Choreographer, Kelly Kates also takes advantage of the cast creating dance numbers that fill the stage with joyful abandon and provide some of the more exciting moments in the show. The choreography is most effective in the finale, when the entire cast gleefully dances in evening gowns and black tie.

Terri Fong-Schmidt can take credit for those, having already provided numerous period costumes throughout the show she meets the challenge head on of putting  all the men in tails during the shows final moments. Her costuming never disappoints in Meet Me in St. Lluis, and provides much of the success in conveying the era and time of the St. Louis World Fair.

Music direction by Donna Kolpan Debreceni is at it’s best, showcasing strong solo  voices and wonderful sound from the ensemble numbers. The accompaniment is prerecorded, but the actors sing with it as if there was an orchestra playing live backstage and it blends seamlessly with the superior singing voices of this cast.

Meet Me in St. Louis at Town Hall Arts Center is sweet and innocent, making it a family outing perfect for those willing to leave the trappings of modern life behind and embrace the simplicity of  1904. Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me at the fair, but if you are looking for an innocent, non-feather ruffling show with an enthusiastic cast, delightful period costumes and some great singing voices, you must meet me at Town Hall Arts Center.

Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas with MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, delighting audiences now through December 29th in Littleton, CO. For tickets or more information, contact the Town Hall Arts Center Box Office by calling 303-794-2787 or online at www.townhallartscenter.org.