Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Death and Deception in the Windy City

I went to see the W. Kessler Ltd. production of Chicago at Thalia Mara Hall last night, and I had a BLAST! The cast is dynamite for this show, with some cast members coming direct from Broadway. Michelle Dejean was wonderful as the incorrigible Roxie Hart; she played all of her scenes for everything they were worth. She also had a fabulous singing voice, and her moves weren't too bad, either. I LOVED her in "Roxie," "We Both Reached for the Gun," and "Nowadays." Brenda Braxton was also very convincing as Velma Kelly; she shined particularly bright in "Cell Block Tango," "I Can't Do It Alone," and "Class."

Carol Woods was very entertaining as Matron "Mama" Morton. She had such great stage presence. Even though she didn't do much dancing, she projected great energy and had total command of the audience during "When You're Good to Mama" and "Class." You gotta love a good Mama.

Tom Wopat played Billy Flynn, and I was surprised to hear that he has a beautiful singing voice. I also thought he did an admirable job in his scenes with the other actors. His delivery was very polished. (Except for one scene, the courtroom scene. He got a little tickled on stage, and the whole audience cracked up for a minute. It was a great moment.) I was hoping that Billy Flynn would do a little more dancing (who would object to seeing Tom Wopat shaking his tail feathers?), but, alas, that was not to be.

I thought it was a very strong production, especially considering that these poor professionals are touring, which takes alot of energy out of the performers and technicians. Bravo!

The next Kessler show at Thalia Mara Hall will be Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! on Nov. 29 and 30.

Recent Reads

While I was on vacation, I bought P.S. I Love You, by Cecelia Ahern, to read on the plane and in hotel rooms. It fit the bill perfectly. Holly, the primary character in the book, is a young widow who has lost her husband, Gerry, far too soon to a terrible disease. Gerry, who knew that he was going to die, prepared a series of letters for Holly, with explicit instructions for her to follow each month for the entire first year after his death. Gerry has Holly sing at a karoke bar, get a new job, and holiday in Spain with her girlfriends. Each step brings Holly a little more back into her normal life, and by the end of the book, she's begun to deal with the loss of her husband. What's great about this book is that the story moves quickly along, with Holly's friends providing some hilarious comic relief. I remember several lines that made me laugh out loud. (After a night of drinking, Holly phones one of her married friends. Her friend replies, "My name is Sharon, I think . . . The man beside me in bed seems to think I know him." Holly can hear Sharon's husband guffawing in the background.) This is not deep reading, and you won't be scratching your head or re-reading passages trying to tease out the author's meaning. But sometimes, that's exactly the kind of book I want. (Particularly when I'm lazing on the beach or languidly reading over afternoon coffee.) The book reads quickly, and I enjoyed every page.

I also used two great books, Frommer's Arizona 2005 and Insight Guide: Arizona and the Grand Canyon, to plan my trip. You can read my reviews on these books online at Amazon.com.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

I'm a changed woman!

Get off your tukkus right now and call the Millsaps Players. You have to, if you want to see Metamorphoses, which is playing tonight and Sunday; they are having to turn people away at the door because the demand for seats far outstrips the supply. (The show is presented thrust-style, with all the chairs and risers on stage around the set. This naturally limits seating. RESERVE your tickets, because they are in short supply at the door.)

I went to see this production last night, and I am SO glad I did. The script, written by Mary Zimmerman, is based on the ancient myths of Ovid. Directed at Millsaps by Sam Sparks, this show features a large cast of very capable student actors. Water plays a central role in this production, and the scenic construction crew for the show built a shallow pool in the center of the stage. The pool is used in almost every scene.

The cast of 16 did an admirable job portraying all of the characters we know from the ancient myths. Fred Willis, a sophomore who I loved in last season in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, was a standout as Silenus (a follower of Bacchus) and Vertumnus, God of Springtime. (WHY is Fred Willis so good? I'm not quite sure I know. Although I don't know him personally, I think it is because he is a good-natured person in real life, and this translates into his roles on stage. I always find my self laughing WITH him, not laughing AT him. In other words, I always know that Fred himself is in on the joke. He has a remarkable, accessible, approachable quality.)

Alex Bosworth was, as always, wonderful in her role as Myrrha, the daughter of a king cursed by Aprhodite to love her own father. She also displayed some deft movement work as Hunger and as one of Posiedon's aides. If she decides to pursue acting as a career, I think she could go far.

John Forrest Douglas was hilarious as Phaeton, son of Apollo. He played the "spoiled son of a major god" role to the hilt, and his use of sunglasses, sunscreen, and a beach float didn't hurt the humor. He was a hit with the audience. I also noticed David Lind, a freshman from San Antonio, in this production. Lind also cunningly found the humor in his dialogue, and he ended up being one of the most entertaining performers on stage in his turns as Midas' Servant and Philemon. I'm going to keep my eye on him; I think we can expect more great performances from this young actor.

Director Sam Sparks did a brave thing, choosing to direct this show. The script itself has a very presentational style, and it runs the risk of being quite dry. However, through his innovative vision of costume, humor, and lighting (kudos to Brent Lefavor, Lighting Designer, and Kacee Foote Phillips, Costumer) the show remains engaging and interesting throughout. (The story of Psyche and Eros is particularly beautiful. Light and costume make such a moving statement here; It's one of the visual images of the show that I will carry with me.) I continue to be impressed with Sparks' talent.

Ok, and lastly - why this show ranks as a must-see for me: Metamophoses is unlike any show you will see in Jackson's theatre market. Because the Millsaps Players are a college company, whose primary objective is to educate their student actors/technicians and expose them to different types of theatre, they are not at the mercy of ticket sales as much as other companies in the metro area. In other words, the bulk of their funding comes from other sources, so if you don't buy a ticket, they won't go under. What that introduces is a level of risk that other theatres, dependent on ticket sales, rarely achieve in this market. So, go already. It will be something new, fresh, and different, born of young minds and experienced hands. In addition, the production is well done and gorgeous to look at.

Tickets are $10 general admission and $8 for students and seniors. You must RESERVE your tickets. Call 974-1321 to do so, and pray that there are still some left in the show's limited run. Remaining shows are today, October 22, at 7:30 p.m., and tomorrow, October 23, at 2:00 p.m. You can check out the entire season of the Millsaps Players by visiting their web site.

Friday, October 21, 2005

But it's so slimming . . .

I went to see The Woman in Black at New Stage Theatre last night. The show is a spooky ghost story, in honor of the Halloween season, and the script is by Stephen Mallatratt, based on the novel by Susan Hill. Pat Benton directed this show, which was brave. Basically, there is no set, and there are few elaborate costumes (although there was one coat with a little cape at the top - Oh, how I wish I could wear a cape in real life without being branded a drama queen!). The strength of the show rests in the script and the actors.

The standout in the cast was Charles Fraser. Fraser plays Mr. Kipps, a man who has experienced a haunting and wants to tell his story, thereby putting it to rest. Throughout the play, Fraser deftly switches between characters, playing by turns a friendly townsperson, a bartender, a taciturn horseman, and a head solicitor. Some of his vocal and gestural work in these different personalities was quite entertaining to watch. William Hickman plays a professional actor, a man that Kipps hires to help him relate the story to family and friends. In the early scenes Hickman's character comes across as totally full of himself. I liked him better as the show went on, and he began to develop an appreciation for Kipps. Still, some of his most emotional moments on stage did seem a bit strained, particularly a breakdown at a locked door (I couldn't figure out why on earth he wanted to get in there so badly) and a moment when he is overcome by the ghost of the Woman in Black (the technical values are already working overtime in this scene is his favor. Maybe he should have kept his own contribution more minimal in this moment, letting the lights and sound do their job? Not sure on this one how I would have played it.) Emily Wright, who unfortunately has no live lines (no pun intended), plays the ghostly Woman in Black.

This play is a true ghost story, in the tradition of works like Turn of the Screw. Much of the horror in the script is born of the storyteller's own mind, as he is converted from one who staunchly does not believe in ghosts to one who has been too terrified to do anything but believe. I honestly am not a fan of horror flicks and slasher films; I get nightmares and find difficulty wiping the scenes of carnage from my mind. However, this play makes a wonderful alternative. It is not horrifying, but it is spooky and eerie in a non-threatening way. (It fits my Halloween bill perfectly, and it won't keep me up at night!)

The technical values that I noticed most were lighting (designed by Jim Pettis) and sound. (Unfortunately, the technician who managed the sound for this production was not noted in the program. It's a pity, because sound was one of the most important technical aspects of the show.) These two elements create a variety of environments for the characters - a London office, a train, a small-town pub, a creepy old house, and a windswept marsh. Because the set is so minimal, sound and lights do alot of heavy lifting to set the stage, and I thought the technicians in charge of these elements did a great job. Michael Guidry, who I've followed with interest during his education at Millsaps, served as the stage manager. Sam Sparks, another Millsaps alum, is set designer and production manager for this show. (By the by, Sam directed another show, Metamorphoses, which is running this weekend at Millsaps. I am going to try to get by there tonight to see it.)

The show does not run long, and it is definitely worth seeing. I enjoyed it, and I recommend it as a great way to get into the Halloween mood! The Woman in Black will be performed from now until October 30th, and tickets are$22 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. To order tickets, call the box office at 601-948-3531.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Trip report, continued - The Grand Canyon

We arrived at the Grand Canyon through the south entrance in the early afternoon. Before checking into Yavapai Lodge East (which would turn out to be an almost ideal home base for us), we turned onto Desert View Drive. We pulled over at the first lookout point and marveled. Nothing really prepares you for your first look at the Grand Canyon. It is not so much what is there, but what ISN'T there. The canyon is a wonder of negative space.

After we caught our breath, we checked into Yavapai Lodge East. We chose it because it was NOT in Grand Canyon Village (we hate crowds) and because the lodge rooms had recently been remodeled. We weren't disappointed. Our bed was large, our pillows were fluffly, and we had a big-screen television. (The latter was particularly important to my traveling companion.)

That evening, we headed to the Yavapai Observation Point for sunset. We watched the sunset with maybe about five other tourists, so there was plenty of room to spread out and enjoy the evening show in privacy. Although the observation building was closed, great weather and comfortable outdoor benches encouraged a snuggle. We even saw a condor soar overhead. It was truly a picture-perfect moment.

After the sunset, we decided to walk the two miles on the Rim Trail to Grand Canyon Village. As we walked, the sky darkened and the stars came out. (Luckily, we'd remembered to bring our flashlights.) We were about halfway to the village when six ram appeared on the trail ahead of us: one adult male, three adult females, and two younglings! We moved to one side of the trail and pretended to be otherwise occupied. They slowly, hesitantly clopped past us. It was magical!

When we arrived in Grand Canyon Village, we headed to the cocktail lounge at El Tovar. I enjoyed a prickly pear margarita, and we split an appetizer. Feeling totally gratified, we caught the shuttle back to Yavapai and slept like babies.

The following day, I awoke early and took the shuttle to Mojave Point. I proceeded to walk the four miles back to Grand Canyon Village on the Rim Trail. It was an easy but fun hike, and I saw very few other hikers along the trail. (There were lots of people at each of the lookout points, but almost no one in between. I deduced that most tourists took the shuttle to each lookout point, got out to snap pictures, and got right back on the shuttle. Almost no one was actually hiking the Rim Trail.) It was a great hike - not very taxing, lots of great views, and plenty of privacy to commune with nature.

I finished up with an early dinner at the Arizona Room. We didn't have to wait for a table, and service was friendly and fast. I had the fish - YUM! I found that the people-watching from the restaurant's picture windows was almost as entertaining as the view of the canyon!

The following day, we enjoyed an air tour of the canyon. We chose to book a 40-50 minute plane tour with Air Grand Canyon, and I am so glad that we did! When I saw the plane, I had my doubts. It was a seven-seater, and I'd never flown in anything that small before. However, I summoned my courage and boarded. I didn't understand how vast the canyon was until I saw it from above. It is very long, very wide, and it has many smaller canyons on all sides of it. The flight was such an exhilirating experience. I'm so glad that I didn't chicken out!

We spent a little time shopping at Hopi House, exploring Kolb's Studio and Lookout Studio, and seeing what there was to see in Grand Canyon Village (mostly other tourists). On our way out of the canyon, we decided to take Desert View Drive, which was a wonderful idea. We got new views of the canyon, and we were also able to check out Desert View Watchtower, which was a fun stop for us.

On the way back to Phoenix, we stopped at the Wuptaki National Monument, a Pueblo-style Indian ruin. This was a fabulous stop. You can get up-close and personal with an ancient Indian dwelling. Features include ball courts and a natural blowhole. (Cool air shoots directly out of the ground, with a good bit of force!) There is even one room in the pueblo that you can enter. We really enjoyed this stop.

We stayed our final night in Phoenix at the Fiesta Inn Resort, which had great room service prices! After paying our sizable car rental bill (taxes on rental cars in Arizona, particularly those rented at the airport, are mind-boggling), we flew out the next day! What a great trip!

Trip report, continued - Sedona

After Phoenix, we headed up to Sedona. We decided to take scenic route 89A, which has been voted by Arizonans to be one of the most beautiful drives in the state. We made a beeline from Phoenix to Prescott, where we stopped for lunch and ambled in the idyllic town square. From there, we headed to Sedona.

YIKES. While route 89A is certainly scenic, it can be a bit harrowing for a Mississippi boy and girl who are used to driving on nice, flat, straight roads. The route basically takes drivers up and down mountains, with sharp curves, no notice of oncoming traffic, and precious little between the wheels of the car and a sheer drop-off into a depp, deep abyss!! We kept seeing signs that said things like "Watch for Rocks." We had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, as we drove about 20 miles per hour while fervently muttering Hail Marys. (Needless to say, we stopped at EVERY scenic lookout point. We needed every chance to calm our nerves!) I could not BELIEVE it when we drove through Jerome. Who would build their house perched on a cliff like that?! I do not know how those brave souls manage to sleep at night!

Anyway, we finally made it to Sedona (sigh.), where we checked into Los Abrigados Resort and Spa. This was a wonderful resort, and it is very conveniently located for exploring uptown Sedona. One of the first things I did the next day was hike around Bell Rock. I woke very early in the morning for the hike, and I chose to hike on a week day. As a result, I encountered almost no one on the trail. It felt as though I had the trail all to myself, and I got to watch the sun rise in the sky and light up the red rocks with fiery color. I saw some wildlife on the trail, too. It was a wonderful experience.

I spent some of the day exploring Tlaquepaque, a fascinating open-air shopping center that is directly adjacent to Los Abrigados Resort and Spa. The entire complex is built in an old Spanish style, with stucco arches, beautiful fountains, lots of Mexican tile work, statuary, and well-kept landscaping. There is even a chapel in the shopping center. They have some wonderful shops there. Some shops sell only beads and shells, some only sell music boxes. Many art galleries are located here.

Later that evening, we chose to have dinner at El Portal, an exclusive inn that hosts public dinners on the weekends. The pre-fixed menu was as follows: a creamy pureed vegetable soup, with delicious and beautiful garnishes; a delicious field greens salad with candied pecans, sliced pears, and balsamic vinaigrette; a mango and prickly pear sorbet to cleanse the palate; a rich, fruited duck breast with a wine sauce, mixed vegetables, and wild rice studded with nuts and other little surprises. I washed this all down with a delicious local red wine. Truly one of the great meals of my life.

The next day, we started out with a Pink Jeep Tour - the Broken Arrow Tour. What a thrilling experience! We enjoyed every minute of it. A tour like this gets you up close and personal with the red rocks without the hike. And some of the crazy parts of the road are really fun to ride on! (Especially when someone else is doing the driving!) We loved this tour.

Afterwards, we had fabulous massages at the Los Abrigados Spa. My massage therapist, Jigger, was fantastic. I would return to her for another massage in a heartbeat.

Before leaving Sedona, we stopped at the Chapel of the Holy Cross, an understated chapel that fits in seamlessly with the red rocks surrounding it. There are wonderful views from the chapel, and the actual sanctuary had a simple, peaceful quality that was very engaging. It was a lovely visit, even if the gift shop was a tourist trap.

On our way out of Sedona, we drove through Oak Creek Canyon, which is a beautiful drive. We also stopped at Garland's Indian Jewelry, a shop which had some absolutely beautiful items, very tastefully displayed. My only complaint is that no prices were visible. I generally feel much more comfortable shopping when I know the prices of the items I am inspecting. Otherwise, how am I to know what I can afford and what I can't afford? I found this to be true in many of the shops in Scottsdale as well. Annoying.

And from Sedona - on to the Grand Canyon!

I have returned.

I thought I'd start with a trip report. I'll break it into sections, starting with Phoenix!

What a glorious vacation! We flew into Phoenix on Saturday, and we stayed at the Legacy Golf Resort. It was a fabulous home base for us during our time in Phoenix. (The room had the usual king bed and bath with a sitting room, but we also had a kitchenette with a two-burner stove, a mini-fridge, a microwave, a coffeemaker, a toaster, even and washer and dryer. AND we had a balcony that overlooked the golf course. Beautiful view!) Our first stop? The Fry Bread House, which Frommer's says makes the best Indian taco in the state of Arizona. It was delicious - a fresh, warm, slightly crispy piece of flat fried bread wrapped around beans, lettuce, tomato and cheese. YUM.

On Saturday night, we checked out the Desert Botanical Gardens. What a great place! The plants in Sun Valley are mostly cacti and succulents, with a few feathery trees and bushes. It's so different from what we have in Mississippi. Some of the cacti were in really weird shapes, and some of their forms were twisted and gnarled. We stayed as the sun went down, and we got to see the garden lighting come on, which accentuated the creepy shapes of some of the plants.

We had Mexican food that night at Frank and Lupe's in the Scottsdale area. It was delicious AND cheap! The food there tasted so fresh - lots of fresh tomato, cilantro, lime. (Most of the Mexican food in Mississippi tastes like it comes out of a can.) We loved this place.

The next day, we started out by having brunch at Top of the Rock. It was such a memorable experience! First of all, the views from the restaurant are amazing. Second, they have live music. Third, the food is fabulous. They have everything you can imagine on the buffet, and it's all you can eat! Tons of lunch items, breakfast items, and freshly made omelettes, waffles, and crepes. Plus, they keep the champagne flowing. Although this was a splurge for us, it was definitely worth it.

After brunch, we went to the Heard Museum. They had some of the most beautiful Native American art - handmade pots, clothing, baskets, and kachina dolls. They also had some gorgeous jewelry and hand-carved furniture on display. I especially enjoyed the shaded courtyard, which was punctuated by statuary and two water features. We learned a ton about the Indian cultures that are present in Arizona, and I really feel that going to the Heard Museum early during our vacation enhanced our entire trip to Arizona.

Also in Phoenix, I went for a hike at South Mountain Park. From up in the mountains, you get great views of the city. There are some pretty easy hikes you can take, as well, so there's something for everyone in the park. My hike was a guided one offered by the Legacy Golf Resort, but I would have felt perfectly comfortable hiking alone. Trails are clearly marked, so just bring water, wear a hat, and apply suncreen.

We also found time to shop at Kierland Commons in Scottsdale, and I thought it was a very well-planned retail development. While we were there, we had lunch at the Zinc Bistro. It reminded me so much of Paris, with its name spelled out in tile out front, the long zinc bar, the sidewalk tables and chairs, and the richly decorated interior. I had the mussels and fries, and they served them with a dense, chewy peasant bread to soak up all the delicious sauce. Almost too good to eat! Almost . . . :-)

Afterwards, we headed out to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's former home and architecture school, for a tour. We really enjoyed the tour; the house is quite remarkable. (A quick caveat - the tour we went on was fairly long, about 1.5 hours, and HOT. Bring water and wear suncreen.) It was so interesting to me to learn more about Wright and his philosophies on architecture. I even got to play Wright's old piano. (The instrument is, unfortunately, in very poor condition now. The tour guide spoke at length about how much Wright loved to play; seeing his piano in that condition probably would have broken his heart.) I found the gift shop at Taliesin West to be particularly good. I highly recommend stopping by and picking something up; they have items to suit almost every budget.

We shopped in Old Town Scottsdale to finish off our stay in Phoenix. They have lots of interesting little shops where you can buy Southwestern memorabilia, and there are also quite a few art galleries there. We had a little bite to eat at the Sugar Bowl, a charming little ice cream parlor decorated in pink and white stripes. The Sugar Bowl has apparently been written up several times in the old Family Circle cartoons. (The children of the family were always begging to go there!) The food was delicious and the price was right. (My only gripe - the women's restroom is in serious need of renovation. Yuck.)

Well, that was the first few days of our trip. Whew!