Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Bestest, Most Beautifulest Beast

The Bestest Most Beatifulest Beast
By Tom Wachunas

Woe is me! Oh horror of horrors, dilemma most dire! I’m fresh out of apt descriptors. Snappy, crackling and popping adjectives have settled like mush to the bottom of my once seemingly bottomless word bowl. Vivacious verbosity vanishes quicker than I can type multi-syllabic hyperboles. It’s gotten to the point where it’s practically a foregone conclusion that any musical theater production offered by the Players Guild on its main stage will be a bona fide, jaw-dropping hit. Just when I thought last season’s Peter Pan blockbuster finale was as high as the bar might get, along comes Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

So it gets to be a challenge in finding fresh ways to assign the ebullient praises it deserves. Maybe math is the way. Superb squared, or marvelous musical magic to the power of ten. In any event, Players Guild Artistic Director Josh Erichsen (who designed the set), and Guild Resident Director, Jon Tisevich, knew they had their hands full in committing to deliver this show. To tame a beast indeed. It has become a widely acclaimed, legendary classic in the entertainment world since first appearing as an Academy Award-winning animated film in 1991, then going on to become the sixth-longest running production in Broadway history. Here, the Guild team - also including Technical Director Craig Betz and Resident Costume Designer Susie Smith - has been eminently successful in adapting the show to a necessarily more modest budget and stage while still managing to respect its heroic-yet-intimate character, as well as its epic look.

Erichsen’s set is a perfectly elegant and tastefully uncluttered backdrop to show off the ingenious spectacle of Smith’s costume work. And the performers who fill out those costumes do so with remarkable panache, aided in many scenes by the razor-sharp and witty choreography by Kim Karam. Particularly memorable is the raucous “Gaston” song, set in a tavern where the ensemble cast performs a mesmerizing, intricately percussive hand dance of clashing beer steins.

Tisevich has proven once again his uncanny ability to recognize the right individuals for a role, and then draw out the very best they can deliver as singers and actors. Everyone here brings their ‘A’ game. Andrew Donaldson turns in an appropriately muscular interpretation of the Beast – a convincing picture of loneliness, anger, and impatience gradually changing to tenderness.

In the pivotal role of Gaston, who wants to marry Belle, Barry DeBois is a wonder to behold. It’s almost scary how accurately he’s nailed the narcissistic bully whose megalomania is as hilarious and ludicrous as it is (in the end) tragic. The only factor in preventing his ego from completely flying into the stratosphere is his trusty, fawning companion, Lefou. And as Lefou, Justin Woody pours himself into the character with slapstick abandon, bringing bright new meaning to “sidekick.”

Residents of the Beast’s castle are under a curse that slowly morphs them into objects. John Popa plays Lumiere, a lamp, with dandyish glee. He’s every bit the French womanizer, and his saucy sweetness is an amusing counterpart to his compatriot, Cogsworth, a clock. In that role, Daryl Robinson is both droll and delightfully sour in his frenetic musings. Kathy Snyder plays the teapot, Mrs. Potts, with a palpable warmth (cold tea just won’t do) that carries well into her crisp singing of the title song.

Yet, as famous theme songs go, the dramatic turning point – the lyrical center of this story – is best stated when Belle sings “A Change In Me.” In her role as Belle, Courtney Vignos demonstrates conclusively that she’s truly come of age in real life as a stellar presence in our midst. Her singing and acting here are, in a word, astonishing. In “A Change In Me,” all her character’s vulnerability and fears dissipate in a cathartic moment, an epiphany of self-awareness when she joyously realizes her capacity to really love, to really know another’s heart.

All truly great theatre hinges on the successful combination of inspiring, relevant theatrical literature, and inspired construction of its physical parts – sights, sounds, people, and action. It’s all here. It all adds up. Times ten.

Photo: Courtney Vignos as Belle, and Andrew Donaldson as the Beast.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, through June 14 at the Players Guild Theatre, Canton Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Convivial Confluence

A Convivial Confluence
By Tom Wachunas

Maybe having just one juror of awards for the Canton Artists League Spring Show at the Canton Museum of Art wasn’t the wisest of decisions. After all, the task of evaluating 89 pieces of art and designating four “winners” (along with a maddeningly sparse number of honorable mentions) seems too daunting for a single individual, and thus intrinsically limited in scope. In shrinking the already problematic jurying process, some artists may, no doubt, be denied a well-deserved award. In the end, nationally prominent watercolorist and instructor Jerry Zelinskas chose some works that - while certainly pleasing to the eye and of impeccable technical quality (with one glaring exception) - would not have made it on to my tally card at all had I been in his shoes. C’est la vie.

To be fair, it should be noted that this is not a juried show in the traditional sense. The entries weren’t pre-filtered to qualify for exhibition. So in that sense this is a substantially democratic cross section of local artists in varying stages of development. In this democracy, however, not all works of art are created equal. Consequently, pieces by very accomplished artists are mounted right alongside those of passionate practitioners still learning the rudiments and subtleties of their respective mediums. Here the raw rub elbows with the refined, and the wonder of it all is that such a mingling could be presented with any with real fluidity. That’s a testament to the skill and sensitivity of Canton Museum curator Lynnda Arrasmith. The benefit to viewers is a fairly comprehensive look at the sheer creative energy that abounds in the greater Canton area. And the benefit to participating artists is an opportunity to see how well their works hold up in a formal museum setting. A win-win, to be sure.

On a more personal note, in viewing this exhibit I felt gently pulled along, as if on a river journey, stopping many times to come ashore and more closely savor some particular islands of interest. There are the elegant and mysterious, lyrical entries by Dr. Fredlee Votaw; the technical watercolor mastery of Ted Lawson; the intricate, boldy composed abstraction of Bette Elliott; the equally bold (though distinctly less cerebral than Elliott’s), tactile and muscular abstraction of Isabel Zaldivar. Then there’s “Venice Shop Window,” a small oil by Pam LaRocco. It’s a gem of fluid brushwork- a haunting visual poem about the exotica she depicts with rich, earthy hues. Gem-like, too, are the two small watercolor night scenes by Nick Lanzalotta, each composed around a strongly-placed diagonal shoreline. For all of their almost folk-art approach in design and execution, they possess a sophisticated and inviting sense of drama.

But nowhere was my journey more arresting than along the rear wall of the gallery. From clear across the room, “Grand Finale,” a sizeable oil by Kristine Wyler, beckons like a window on a mythic sunset, recalling the heroic paintings of the Hudson River School. Draw closer, the paint itself seems to be on fire. Closer still, the liquidity of the rippled clouds is all but upstaged by the delicate handling of the wispy, dark treetops. Linger too long here, though, and you might miss the even more engaging and spectacular subtleties of Wyler’s smaller sunset masterpiece next to it, “Captiva Sunset.” With its many passages of enthralling brushwork, and its classically pristine surface, the painting speaks eloquently to the ineffable power of art to transport both heart and mind. And like much of this show, it spreads an illuminating joy.

The 2009 Canton Artists League Spring Show at the Canton Museum of Art/ 1001 Market Ave. North, Canton / through June 21 / (330) 453 -7666. For more information about Canton Artists League (CAL) projects, or membership, please visit the CAL web site at www.cal.cannet.com

Photo: “Captiva Sunset” by Kristine Wyler, oil, 18’’ x 24”

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Little Gallery That Could

The Little Art Gallery That Could
By Tom Wachunas

A total of 130 works by 74 Stark County artists were submitted for the 67th Annual May Show at North Canton’s Little Art Gallery. The jurors selected 26 entries for the exhibit. After seeing the show, I was left edified for the most part, though with a lingering question: Where are the abstractionists? By that I mean artists who make works that are conceptually abstract in the purest sense of the word. The few pieces here that come close are really better termed a kind of hybrid of expressionism and impressionism.

Isabel Zaldivar’s “Red Volcano Rocks” is a loose, heavy, and tactile acrylic foray into landscape that seems to sacrifice promising color passages for explosive painterly energy. It’s a trade-off that causes the picture to get muddled. Her watercolor, “The Blue Stone Pot,” on the other hand, is a more thoughtful distribution of color, and fuses spontaneity with bold variations in shape, all effectively held together with intricate “accidents” of the medium. More organized and compelling in its color dynamic, too, is Gene Barber’s mixed media “Past Dreams.” The linear details that emerge from his lush, fiery field of glowing hot colors successfully draw you in to “read” them.

That’s not the case with the “writing” details visible in the show’s only fly in an otherwise pleasurable ointment. “Text Messages & ‘O’ Faces,” a large acrylic by Jack Valentine and Stefanie Hilles, is one of those disastrous experiments that makes me wonder seriously what the artists – and worse, the jurors - were thinking. Suffice to say that here is a dreadful mix of half-discernible graffiti swirling in a sea of multi-colored mud. It’s a far and surprising cry from Valentine’s first-place winner in the three-dimensional category, a ceramic and mixed-media sculpture called “Bob.” That piece is a fascinating if not enigmatic form that brings to mind a vase morphing into something that might be found under the hood of a clown’s car.

I certainly don’t mean to imply by my opening question that a successful group show is contingent upon a healthy dose of abstract works. In fact this show is a tantalizing mix of styles and content, even if it is predominantly a show of representational work. Best-in-show honors went to Ted Lawson for his electrifying watercolor, “Freak Street Kathmandu.” It’s a finely balanced, excellently drawn composition that captures all the exotic vitality and seething visual data the title implies.

In this age of post-modernism’s penchant for cosmetic and arbitrary re-statements of 20th century art movements, painters like Frank Dale and Michelle Mulligan might seem like anomalies or lonely standard-bearers of forgotten traditions. It’s particularly gratifying to see their work here – Dale, for his oil portrait “Tricia,” (second place winner in oil and acrylic category), and Mulligan for her oils “Beaujolais” and “Gracie,” both garnering honorable mentions. These are magical, achingly elegant works executed in the tradition of the Flemish masters of the 15th and 16th centuries. Ironically enough, amid the often tiresome (though not largely in this show) bric-a-brac and brouhaha of contemporary art, these masterful entries by Dale and Mulligan are resplendently fresh.

A particularly surprising work to me is an honorable-mention watercolor by Judi Longacre called “Sheer Delight.” This is perhaps the strongest piece I’ve yet seen by her, and a sure sign of real growth and confidence on her part. It’s a deceivingly simple composition that deftly contrasts the organic torso with a striped ground, delicately balanced with a light touch of fine lace. And aptly titled.

Noteworthy here is the installation of the show. For starters, the newly floored gallery, along with its exquisite track lighting, is as elegant an art gallery as you’ll find in the greater Canton area. And curator Elizabeth Blakemore has done her finest job to date in hanging it – no small feat when considering the wide range and sheer number of works to tastefully display in a gallery where the only thing lacking now is more space.

Photo: “Sheer Delight” watercolor by Judi Longacre, one of 26 entries in the 67th Annual May Show at the Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library. Exhibition on view through May 31, 2009. Phone: (330) 499 – 4712 ext. 312
Gallery info: gallery@northcantonlibrary.org