Silence and song4/6/2016
Few community theaters would take the risk Tallgrass has in “Children of a Lesser God.” The 1986 movie made a star of Marlee Matlin, the first deaf actor to achieve such success, but Hollywood made a Hallmark card of her romance with her speech pathologist. In its original form onstage, “Lesser God” cuts deeper. The central couple struggles with its basic inequality, and the Tallgrass production emphasizes that difference. Three of the players — not just the heroine Sarah — suffer actual hearing disabilities.
Autumn Weaver-Nigro handles the lead with charisma, showing the spunk that helped get her named this year’s Miss Deaf USA. She may work solely in American Sign Language, but she comes across like a rebel. Dylan Heuer, as a fellow-student, struggles to enunciate and yet gets his shoulders into it as he argues for the school to hire deaf faculty. So, too, Annalicia Steele can’t hear what she’s saying, but nonetheless expresses a fluttering infatuation.
Against such rare, brave performances, Scott McMasters has his work cut out for him as Sarah’s teacher and eventual husband.
Still, he pulls us into his downward spiral, from a wisecracking star professor to a tongue-tied abandoned lover. He softens in quite the opposite way as Denise Forney, Sarah’s mother, emerging from bitterness to renewed love. Against a simple set of layered curtains, amid shifting sticks of furniture, the human flailing for connection emerges starkly.
Over at the Playhouse, meanwhile, Director Judy Hart claims its new show is “all about the music.” “Sister Act,” a 2006 reworking of the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle, revels in song and dance and not just Broadway style. Alan Menken, the man behind such Disney hits as “Beauty & the Beast,” worked up a fresh take on of 1970s disco-pop. The songs are new but familiar.
Even in late rehearsal you had to nod along to the groove of the eight-piece band, boosted by Angela Lampe’s vivid costumes and Virgil Kleinhesselink’s sharp lighting. Chris Rozenboom, who plays a lovesick cop, gushes, “It’s just so much fun.”
Rozenboom ought to know, since there’s nothing more fun in the first act than “I Wanna Be That Guy.” The number transforms a Philadelphia slum alley and the bums living there to a nightclub showcase. Though the set never loses its battered bricks and chicken wire, the homeless turn into the Bee Gees and the beat cop to John Travolta.
“The energy is incredible,” says Rozenboom.
Still, the greatest energizer is the lead, Alexandra St. James-Gray. According to Hart, St. James-Gray sang in Chicago clubs, then, after moving to Des Moines, “just showed up for an audition.” Her voice proves perfect, from slinky Donna Summer to a testifying Aretha. She even draws gutbucket wails out of Travis Arvanis, playing a nun so white she glows in the dark.
Players like these allow Hart to harness the music to the story.
“I’m an actor’s director,” she says. “Building a number, layering dance and song — every time it takes us to personality.” CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.
Friday – Saturday, April 8-9, 7:30 p.m.
“Sister Act.” Des Moines Playhouse, dmplayhouse.com.
Wednesday – Saturday, April 6-23, 7:30 p.m. April 10, 17 and 24, 2 p.m.