BWW Reviews: The Denver Center's THE GREAT WALL STORY - Historically Delightful!
The Denver Center presents a delightful homage to Colorado history with the world premiere of GREAT WALL STORY, playing now through April 22nd. Okay, here's the freak (newspaper speak for "very short story"): On a slow news day in 1899, three Denver reporters decide to dream up a hoax ("Facts can be created!"). Their banner headline? "GREAT CHINESE WALL DOOMED! PEKING SEEKS WORLD TRADE!" When the story gains massive attention and ignites an international incident, eyebrows are raised, including those of sensationalist newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who sends a fact checker to Denver to get to the truth. Will the alliance of the reporters and the lie hold strong? Or will it unravel at the hands of a gorgeous stranger? Based on actual events, Lloyd Suh's fast paced, high-spirited play is a timely examination of the power of the media.
I know that intro sounds serious, and there are some serious notes in the show, but this is really a funny and lighthearted play that highlights the technological promises of a new century and offers a fascinating glimpse into Denver history. Here's the nut graf (nutshell paragraph): The hoax began with four Denver newshawks (newspaper reporters), Al Stevens, Jack Tournay, John Lewis, and Hal Wilshire (not featured in the show), each a representative of the four Denver newspapers at the time – the Post, the Republican, the Times, and the Rocky Mountain News. The four men met by chance at Denver's Union Station, where they were camped out hoping to spot someone of prominence who could become a subject for a news story. Yes, these guys were early paparazzi. Seeing no celebrities and frustrated with no story in sight and deadlines due, Stevens allegedly remarked, "I don't know what you guys are going to do, but I'm going to fake it. It won't hurt anybody, so what the Devil!" The others agreed to concoct a story and began discussing possible ideas. Stories of heiress kidnappings and company takeovers just didn't seem interesting enough and could potentially pique doubts in the local public's mind. The men then began talking in terms of international intrigue – Germany, Russia, Japan, and… China. The legend goes that John Lewis grew excited and exclaimed, "That's it, the Great Wall of China! Must be fifty years since that old pile's been in the news. Let's build our story around it. Let's do the Chinese a real favor. Let's tear the old pile down!"
But that is NOT the rest of the story (thank you, Paul Harvey). If it were, we wouldn't have this outstanding play! There's a very good reason this show was a 2011 Colorado New Play Summit official selection. In addition to being a great historic play, it's also a bittersweet tribute to our sadly defunct Rocky Mountain News and declining Denver Post. The three reporters in this interpretation reminded me of The Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy and were energetically hilarious together. The inventive invented plot twists (thanks to Ms. Swallow) had me wishing intermission would hurry up and be over so we could get back to the show. The only issue I had with the script was the scenes dealing with the father and son. While they were endearing, it felt a little off, which interrupted the fast pace of the plot. I wonder if it would have read better if the son were a tomboy daughter instead. Overall, however, the show put a big ol' smile on my face. It is hard to believe with the extensive research put into this story that playwright Lloyd Suh is not a Colorado native, but from the flatlands of Indiana. Indeed, "You have to look past the surface to get to the heart of the story!" Well done, Mr. Suh!
Christopher Kelly holds his own and is engaging and conflicted in the lead role of newshawk Jack Tournay. His internal struggle with this deception is palpable and real, and his monologue at Eddie Gardner's house heartbreaking and outstanding. Veteran actor Mike Hartman as the immoral reporter, John King, is superb, as usual. His passion for this role is obvious in his gestures and expressions. Larry Paulsen turns out to be a real human chameleon, playing six distinctive roles, each with his own unique personality. Personally, I think he should receive his standard pay x sex (that's Latin for "six," people – get your mind out of the gutter). Denver Center veteran, John Hutton, is stellar and humorous as cutthroat newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer. Merritt Janson, in her Denver Center debut as the ambitious Harriet Sparrow, is simply fabulous, exuding magnetism and confidence as the only female character. Also in his debut is Jacob Stevens, who portrays bumbling reporter Al Stevens with aplomb.
The peek-a-boo set by designer Lisa M. Orzolek is magnificent, with a broadsheet newspaper facade and old school feel; turn of the century props support the time and place to complete the historic feel. The projection design by El Armstrong offers subtle support to the historical location of the play as well, filling the stage with old photos of Denver landmarks and industrialized facades. Toss in thoughtful lighting design by Jane Spencer and sounds effects by William Burns and the set really comes alive! Costume designer Angela Balogh Calin drapes our actors in time-appropriate and professional vintage costumes (I especially loved the dresses). Major kudos need to go out to Calin for Paulsen's myriad and varied character costumes – I couldn't believe it was the same actor. Director Art Manke has put together an outstanding cast, with flawless ebb and flow in action and delivery. Superbly done!
If you love history, news, Denver (or all of the above), get the scoop at the Denver Center and read all about it! GREAT WALL STORY is repeating itself now through April 22nd at the Ricketson Theatre. For tickets or information, contact the Denver Center at 303-893-4100 or online at www.denvercenter.org.
PHOTO CREDIT: Vicki Kerr