On Their Own Terms

While LTW amuses with the saga of a student and her tutor, Arizona Onstage makes the world a better place with 'Songs'

Tucson theater boasts two winners this week--very different productions that succeed on their own terms.

Educating Rita at Live Theatre Workshop is an intense, two-person production ideal for the cozy confines of its storefront space. Songs for a New World is a more ambitious musical production, the latest offering from Arizona Onstage Productions.

Educating Rita features an outstanding performance by Live Theatre Workshop's executive director, Kristi Loera, in the role of a knowledge-hungry British hairdresser in the 1970s. Loera initially comes on large, mugging her working-class background with a determined excess of expression. Starting over the top gives the actress plenty of room to dial it down to increasing subtlety over the course of the evening, moving from comic broadness to deeper emotions and insight. As her character's world becomes larger, her wardrobe and accent shift, and her gestures become smaller and more sophisticated, effectively mirroring her transformation both intellectually and as a person exercising freedom of choice.

Rita's tutor, Frank, is played by Bill Epstein. His performance, as a cynical academic who has squandered his own creative talent because he lacks the determination of his student, is equally effective. That's not surprising, since Epstein in real life is an English professor at the University of Arizona with no small talent for acting. His role is trickier: Frank is unable to change the sad trajectory of his life, a fate framed by a discussion of Shakespeare's doomed Macbeth. That leaves Epstein in the difficult position of attempting to maintain the audience's sympathies despite Frank's unwillingness to make the right moves, for fear that he would then have to face success. Frank chooses alcoholic dissolution instead.

Epstein manages to stay on this side of the pathos, his tragedy deepened by Rita's own willful transcendence. Epstein's portrayal of Frank's helplessness generates compassion rather than creepiness when he desperately entreats Rita for a romantic relationship that he believes could save him. Director Paul Schumacher helps by generally maintaining a safe physical distance between his two actors as they spar verbally and trade painfully personal details of their lives.

Playwright Willy Russell's late '70s work (he also wrote the 1983 Oscar-nominated screenplay) is weighed down by several now-obscure references to period British pop culture. A joke comparing Rita's initial linguistic affectations to Dalek dialect falls flat for audiences unfamiliar with Dr. Who, a sci-fi TV show ubiquitous in the United Kingdom. Otherwise, the writing is taut and the dialogue witty, with an unerring narrative that blossoms from broad comedy into darker truths about the human condition.

Songs for a New World is a musical revue consisting of 18 songs focused loosely on a theme of moments of decision and change. It features a talented five-member cast, plus a tight five-piece band performing under music director Khris Dodge.

Songs for a New World was up-and-coming playwright and composer Jason Robert Brown's first produced musical, in 1995. His latest work, 13, will premiere on Broadway later this month.

Songs suffers from its highly episodic, mix-disc nature, strung together largely by the composer's style, a vague concept and the mere fact that the songs are all in the same show. The absence of a definable narrative and the lack of linkage between the various numbers weaken the overall structure.

Fortunately, Brown writes some very good songs, and they are graced here by some great performances. The cast features three UA theater grads: Marcus Terrell Smith, Jody Mullen and Liz Cracchiolo, plus Charity LaPonsie and Jacinda Rose Swinehart. Together, they earn special kudos for their complex, five-part harmonies in the ensemble numbers.

Swinehart turns in consistently outstanding solo performances, belting it out first as a trivialized housewife threatening suicide ("Just One Step"), and later vampish as Santa's latest Mrs. Claus, complete with a Marlene Dietrich accent while pleading for attention on Christmas Eve ("Surabaya Santa"). The charismatic Smith also excels in his solos, "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship," "The Steam Train" and "King of the World." Cracchiolo shines on "Stars and the Moon," the show's centerpiece, a Broadway-style meditation about the emptiness of materialism.

The band, which plays onstage throughout the 100-minute production, includes Kyle Jenkins (drums), Liz Spencer (keyboards), Dave Walton (bass) and Tina Walton (percussion). Never showy or distracting, they rock hard when appropriate, then shift gracefully to richer textures for the slower tunes.

Songs for a New World is sometimes staged by churches or other faith-based groups, since the lyrics can be interpreted as religious in a vague, new-age way. There are images of flames, allusions to the power of faith and cautions about the dangers of fear, inequity or hubris. The mere image of a cross, or even different gestures and lighting, could easily place the performance into a vastly different context. However, this straightforward, nonsecular production, directed by Arizona Onstage founder and artistic director Kevin Johnson, avoids any overly preachy interpretations.

Overall, Songs for a New World is bright, entertaining and well worth checking out during its short run.

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