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Raleigh Little Theatre's Gaddy-Goodwin Theatre is now reopen after its six-month closing for renovations. The Gaddy now has a newly-redesigned lobby that is wheelchair-friendly, with a new expanded box office, and, thanks to a grant from First-Citizens Bank in Raleigh, now sports a solid glass wall at the rear of the lobby, which can be opened in fine weather and offers a truly spectacular view of the Rose Garden below. There are also new installations of equipment backstage that will allow for better use of lighting and sound effects for productions.
To reopen the theater, RLT has chosen a children's musical by the writing team of Ross Mihalko and Donna Swift, Beanstalk! The Musical! – which is, of course, the retelling of the "Jack and the Beanstalk" fairytale. Mihalko and Swift have penned many shows together, all of them based on the fairytales we all know, and even one based on A Christmas Carol, titled The Bullies' Christmas Carol. Beanstalk! features music by Linda Berg, while Mihalko supplies the lyrics.
Beanstalk! is a short one-act, only an hour, with a massive cast for a one-act – 15 in number. Musical accompaniment is by solo piano, and each and every cast member sings and dances throughout the show. Beanstalk! is performed on a two-level stage, ground level being "below the clouds," and the upper level being the land above. This innovative stage design is by Elizabeth Newton. Kathleen Rudolph directs.
Costumes and make-up figure prominently in this show, as several of the actors are non-human. The first of these is the ever-important cow, which gets Jack his magic beans. To portray the cow, Caroline Farmer has been decked out all in white with the required black splotches, one of which half-covers her face. The other two, the Hen Who Lays the Golden Eggs (Zoe Wright) and the Golden Singing Harp (Ellie Faggion), each sport elaborate costumes, one so the hen may actually "lay" a few golden eggs for us, and one so the harp may be, as she is so announced, golden.
In order to keep the story fresh, playwright Mihalko has added a few characters we didn't know. We were ready for the bean seller (Matthew Hurley), but not for the skunk merchant (Grace Kelly), the potpourri merchant (Cole McFaden), or the Limburger cheese merchant (Rian Lee Parker). We were also surprised by The One Who Got Away (Denise Sepic), a crazy lady from above the clouds.
It is best not to confuse Jack and one who could very well have passed for an alter-ego, the Narrator (George Russing). This is true because this story sports not just one, but three different Jacks: Joshua Messmore, Noah Zimmermann, and Matthew Bain. Each one climbs the beanstalk to return with a different prize for his greedy mother (Jacqueline Kelly). Each Jack also confronts the two who live above the clouds, the Giant (Dan Bain) and his wife (Betsy Jones).
I can say with authority (because I've seen most of them) that Raleigh Little Theatre's productions are almost entirely professional grade, despite being a purely amateur theatre house. Unfortunately, Beanstalk! doesn't make the cut. This is true for a couple of reasons. First of all, this isn't a very good play. Explanations are convoluted (the bean seller's story is WAY out there); music for the show is simple and the lyrics are sophomoric; and with only ten songs in the show, only eight of them are original. The other two are "borrowed" from folk songs — namely "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" and a refrain of "Ol' MacDonald's Farm."
The other aspect of this show that doesn't work concerns characterization. I make this statement not as a criticism of the kids, because they were spot-on; I'm referring to the adults in the show. One gets the feeling that this is just a lark for them; there was no evidence of concentration or any attempt at characterization or nuance. The adults flubbed the choreography, stumbled over their lines, and fumbled the scene changes. In some places it was an absolute mess. The kids, on the other hand, supplied tight characters, fine concentration, and a true attention to what they were doing – which showed up their betters all the more. All of the Jacks, especially Joshua Messmore as Jack I, know this play backwards and forwards. Not so their elder cohorts.
I would have wished for a better showing from the adults in the show, one on a par with their younger cast members, but even if this were true, I cannot say it would have saved this play. Even with sterling performances all around, a poor play is still a poor play. The Gaddy, I think, deserved a better opening show for its re-emergence.
Beanstalk! The Musical! continues through Sunday, April 1. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.