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Philadelphia Spotlight: May 2005

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Savion Glover in Improvography II
(Photo © Len Irish)
Gay marriage, carnivorous barbers, dancing gangs, a tap dancing sensation, and a baseball all-star emerging from the closet are just a few of the subjects being examined on Philadelphia Area stages this May. The season has been picking up steam in the past few months and to end the year on a strong note (and entice would-be subscribers for the 2005-6 campaign), the theater companies have stocked their shows with award-winning performers and directors. If you want to see the best local theater has to offer, this is the month to do it.

If you thought you had to travel to Massachusetts to experience gay marriage, visit The Daylight Zone's production of Avow (May 6-21). Penned by Bill C. Davis, the play examines the difficulties faced by contemporary gay couples hoping to publicly acknowledge their love. Featuring a progressive church priest whose religious vows are in conflict with his personal beliefs, a family coming to terms with an alternative lifestyle, and a couple whose love is being threatened by external factors, Avow explores one of the most politically divisive issues of our day.

If Fred Astaire's elegant, slinky-smooth style is your only mental image of tap, check out Savion Glover's Improvography II (May 10-15). Accompanied by his four-piece jazz band, the show includes selections from Glover's original 2003 Improvography production. Electrifyingly spontaneous and enormously charismatic, as a child Glover appeared on Broadway in the criminally underappreciated Black & Blue. Later he established himself as a world-class choreographer with the lauded Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. Glover is one of the most original performers working today. The guy is so unprompted, not even he knows what he is going to do next.

Look for the Philadelphia Theatre Company's upcoming production of Take Me Out (May 13-June 19) to be a major player at next fall's Barrymore Awards ceremony. Richard Greenberg's marvelous play focuses on a star baseball player who shocks the sports world (and his teammates) when he announces he's gay. A perceptive and humorous examination of masculinity, sexuality, and homophobia in sports, the Broadway production was fast, high-powered, and incredibly entertaining. PTC director James Christy is taking a more human approach. It's an approach that served him well on PTC's award-winning production of The Laramie Project, and while Take Me Out is a different ballgame entirely, the production (which has been extended due to excessive ticket demand) is already generating considerable buzz.

A poignant examination of two mismatched couples, Christopher Shinn's Four (May 17-June 5) explores the loss of sexual innocence and our sometimes desperate attempts to make contact with another soul. Produced by the always-fascinating Azuka Theatre Collective, director Kevin Glaccum's production stars Frank X, the brilliant local actor whose recent performance in Lantern Theater's Much Ado about Nothing ranked among the year's best.

If you are a fan of Stephen Sondheim, you may already know that he is celebrating his 75th birthday. What you may not know is that two of the legendary composer/lyricist's best-known works will open in a span of two days.

In a production that could well end up being attended by over 100,000 theatergoers, the Walnut Street Theatre's revival of West Side Story (May 17-July 24) has already been extended due to unprecedented ticket demand. An urban ballet based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the musical's original artistic team included choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, librettist Arthur Laurents, and a young lyricist named Sondheim. Director Bruce Lumpkin's huge production at the Walnut includes a cast of 30 with Christina DeCicco and Michael Gillis starring as the tragic young lovers. The Walnut's mainstage season has been particularly strong this year and a winning Story would provide further evidence that the city's largest company has rebounded from the artistic doldrums it was once mired in.

At the Arden Theatre Company, director Terrence J. Nolen stages Sondheim's award-winning classic Sweeney Todd (May 19-June 19). First produced by the Arden at its old home on Ludlow Street, Nolen's earlier staging of the musical was a landmark production in the company's history. Now Nolen returns to Todd in a production that will be one of the most ambitious in the Arden's 20-year history. Featuring a nine-piece orchestra and a cast of 19 led by Mary Martello and Thom Sesma as the lovesick shopkeeper and the ruthless "Demon Barber of Fleet Street," Todd calls for a completely new arrangement of the theater's playing space. And if you want to be really close to the action, you can even sit on the stage.

After Wilma Theater co-artistic director Jiri Zizka read Outrage, 27-year-old Itamar Moses' expose on campus politics, he announced the play a rare "sort of intellectual comedy, clever, surprising, deeply emotional and seemingly impossible to stage." An exceedingly innovative director, Zizka is always looking for a challenge. We will have to wait and see if Zizka and company's production (May 18-June 19) can meet the challenges of Moses' unique play, but I wouldn't bet against it.

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