To drink green beer. To vomit green beer. To pinch fellow green-beer drinkers who are not wearing an article of green clothing. Let's face it, this is the stuff of Saint Patrick's Day. But that's in the rest of the nation. In Miami there are about two bars that attract would-be bagpipers and other enthusiasts looking for an excuse to drink. For this reason I'm not sure why Mad Cat would choose this as the theme for its second production at Miami Light Project's Light Box Studio. Shepherd's Pie traces the life of Saint Patrick, formerly known as Maewyn (Michael Vines), the son of Cal and Conchessa Suckit (Pamela Roza and Jennifer Lehr) and grandson of a minister. Uninterested in the fire and brimstone of his family's religious leanings, he leaves home, has an encounter with some evil forces, and is banished to the hills to live with the sheep. Occasionally he receives a few one-line prophecies via Victor (Ivonne Azurdia), a belching, cigarette-smoking angel just trying to earn his feckin' wings.
Mad Cat already demonstrated that a largely commercial celebration can be cause for comedy with its first production, Helluva Halloween, a hilarious parody of slasher movies with a South Beach twist. That said, Helluva St. Patrick's Day (a.k.a. Shepherd's Pie) is a helluva good time. From The Brady Bunch to The Silence of the Lambs, the pop-cultural references are legion and quite clever. Five microphones in front of a barren stage, a couch, several hats, and minimal props make up the setting for a stand-up-comedy-style production. The actors are dressed grungily and portray a variety of sadistic, sarcastic, roughhousing pagans. Oh yes, and a herd of sheep. Nate Rausch's sound effects and curious musical mixes keep the format from growing stagnant.
Artistic director Paul Tei has chosen his company well. The Mad Cat Players are funny and energetic, and their theater's MO quickly is becoming known for its spontaneity, physicality, and irreverence. As Maewyn, Vines manages to create a character who is amusing. He's not just a comedy act amid innumerable pop-cultural references and sound bites. In an expandable green top hat and zebra-skin jacket, Ken Clement is appropriately self-mocking and Rodney Dangerfield-esque as the narrator. Whether playing a rich Beverly Hills brat in GableStage's Popcorn or a neurotic Polly Purebred in Helluva Halloween, Jennifer Lehr consistently stands out. She is a self-contained actress: Nothing spills over into her character of the moment, and that is evident in Shepherd's Pie more than in any other of her work. Lehr succeeds in a succinct portrayal of myriad characters, from the tight-ass rosary-clutching mother of Maewyn to a roller-skating servant. This troupe of actors definitely is the highlight of the show.
The story of Maewyn/Patrick's rise to sainthood is interesting enough at first, but too much quality time with him and the sheep and then Patrick's tedious conversion of himself and 10,000 others become drawn out, even when articulated to a funky bass beat. Although the script, written by Azurdia and Tei, is fresh and comic, all the laughs in the world cannot disguise the fact that this is not a plot but rather a timeline. Even funny jokes hanging on a threadbare story line weigh down a performance if it goes on too long, as Shepherd's Pie does. Easter is just around the corner, and though I know this crew could pull it off, I hope I won't be witness to an updated Crucifixion (in zebra-skin jacket?) with several thug bunnies off to the side throwing stones. Like anyone else I love a helluva good time, but I am hungry to see what the Mad Cat Player will do with a more challenging script.
There's a different type of good time going on over at the Shores Performing Arts Theater, where the musical Storyville is now being produced. Granted it does have all the components of a Life magazine spread: the cute kid in his knickers and cap, playing hooky and hanging out at the docks; the jaded cabaret singer; the heavyset vodou mama; the country boy come to town to make it big -- not to mention the multitalented/multiracial palette of prostitutes for hire. Storyville was the red-light district that prospered just two blocks from New Orleans' French Quarter between 1899, when it was created by city ordinance, and 1917, when it was abolished by the federal government owing to increasing violence and the death of a U.S. Navy officer. The plot is nothing new: Boy meets girl, boy wants girl, boy must battle many evil forces (among them his own stupidity) before he finally gets girl. Butch "Cobra" Brown (Adrian Bailey), heavyweight boxer turned trumpet player, is new in town and looking to make his name as a jazz musician. He meets and falls in love with Tigre Savoy (La Tanya Hall), a cabaret singer who is raising a son, Punchie (Tristan Montague), on her own while trying to keep one step ahead of the corruption around her. What is exciting about Storyville is the caliber of performers and musicians who unite to deliver a three-hour show packed with compelling characters, high-quality music, and a dynamic stage presence.
All the core members of Storyville have extensive stage credits, including Broadway experience, and it shows. Countess Dolly (Ernestine Jackson) reigns over the opening funeral procession and the entire production. As the brothel's madam and the consort of good ol' boy and New Orleans kingpin Commissioner Mickey P. Mulligan (Murray Gaby), Jackson displays a presence both commanding and regal.
Storyville's central conflict arises from the struggle between two incompatible bed partners: success and dignity. This theme of selling out plants the seeds that really took root in groundbreaking musicals such as Michael Bennett's Dreamgirls, the story of a black singing group that rises from the ghetto to national fame and fortune in the Sixties. (Hall also starred in a national production of Dreamgirls.) Although Storyville is much less complex than a show like Dreamgirls, the actors and director Marion J. Caffey are masterful creators of character. Each character has a distinct persona and musical voice that converts the stage into a veritable feast of colorful personae and outstanding singing voices. In one number, "Makin' It," the sophisticated but fiery Tigre has a run-in with the diva of all prostitutes, FiFi (Myiia Watson-Davis). Watson-Davis's gritty, soulful voice grabbing at Hall's more classically trained sound makes for a devastating duel, as FiFi spits out: "We're all whore to someone." As Butch, Bailey also shows his force as both a dancer and a singer. His timing is impeccable and his movements surprisingly smooth for such a large man. When Butch belts out his passions for Tigre and for jazz in tunes like "Feel That Jazz" and "Rollin' up the River," his deep baritone voice leaves nothing in its wake.
It's a treat to have the constant presence of a seven-piece band, conducted by pianist William Foster McDaniel with musical arrangements by Danny Holgate. Live music is vital to any musical performance but it's indispensable to such a jazz-infused show. The visual presence of the band creates the feeling of bustling activity and spontaneity for which the red-light district was known.
The dancers possess the skill and energy that mark a talented chorus. Technically speaking the dance numbers are not incredibly intricate, but each actress assumes her persona and area of sexual expertise in a number called "The Blue Book" and maintains this character throughout the performance while managing to stay part of a unified and energetic group.
The standout number of the night is undeniably Big Mama (Katura) doing "The Best Is Yet to Be," in which she implores Tigre to relinquish her obstinacy and make up with Butch. Pummeling Tigre and the audience with wave after wave of electrifying gospel power, Katura brings down the house.
At the end of Storyville, Tigre, Butch, and Punchie are headed off to make their own fortune as performers on the riverboats -- a happy ending we are eager to believe because we like the characters so much. While it's true the play doesn't reveal anything new to us about the time and place, the tremendous talent Caffey has assembled does remind us that a musical with outstanding showmanship and music can still find its way to South Florida's stages.
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