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Joseph Baker I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from 1971 until 2007. When I retired, I was Chairman of the English Department and moderator of the Film Society. I have always been involved in the arts, and upon retirement I pursued my interests in painting (watercolors, acrylics, oils) and sketching (charcoal, pen and ink, graphite), ultimately resulting in a one-man show at WKNO Gallery in 2013. Having taught American, British, and World Drama, I have always had an interest in local theatre; and my reviews of plays at such venues as Theatre Memphis, Playhouse on the Square, and Circuit Playhouse have been posted on FACEBOOK and CALLBOARD in Memphis.



BWW Review: Playhouse's MEMPHIS THE MUSICAL Comes 'Home'
May 9, 2016

When Director and Co-Choreographer Jordan Nichols first saw and enjoyed MEMPHIS THE MUSICAL, he knew that he just had to stage a production in the city itself; as polished and entertaining as it was, it needed just a little something . . . 'an infusion of Memphis grit.' In Playhouse on the Square's powerful, pulsating production of the musical, he has achieved just that. Memphians are very proud and protective of their musical heritage, and though originators Joe DiPietro and David Bryan have not attempted to portray real persons and events, their knowledge of the early 'rock and roll' era and its personalities has resulted in a satisfying approximation. Having few musical gifts outside a kazoo, I could nonetheless play 'Six Degrees of Elvis Presley' with some confidence: My third cousin was Bill Black, bassist for Elvis Presley in those early days; and my first cousin's brother-in-law was cult rockabilly musician Charlie Feathers ('Tongue-tied Jill'). I remember enjoying disc jockey Dewey Phillips (on whom MEMPHIS protagonist 'Huey Calhoun' is based) and his outsized personality, and anyone with any knowledge of Sun Studios and the early careers of Jerry Lee Lewis (who shocked an older generation with his marriage to a younger cousin), Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley know that these artists came from humble ('cracker,' in the play) beginnings. These icons always acknowledged their debt to black gospel and blues musicians. All of that, together with racism and interracial relationships, surfaces in MEMPHIS.

BWW Review: Ah-choo! Theatre Memphis Gets HAY FEVER
May 6, 2016

BWW Review: CentreStage's AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE - And Just What Would Ibsen Write About Flint, Michigan?
May 2, 2016

As the curtain prepares to close on the theatre season in Memphis, 'tried and true' standards -- A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE at Germantown Community Theatre and HAY FEVER at Theatre Memphis -- are competing stage to stage with powerhouse musicals -- MEMPHIS THE MUSICAL at Playhouse on the Square. Easy to overlook is CentreStage Theatre's 'small scale' but timely production of Henrik Ibsen's AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, staged at the Evergreen Theatre. While the intimate confines of that particular venue necessarily limit the production values that might be found elsewhere, the themes and surprising ironic twists, as well as the commitment of Director Marler Stone and his ensemble, are as relevant and riveting as an audience might wish -- Just how much 'truth' should be shared with the public? When funds go 'head to head' with environmental and health concerns, which will out? When democracy is allowed to go 'full steam ahead,' are there inherent dangers? Frankly, the play -- written decades ago -- reminds me how far ahead of his time Ibsen was as a writer.

BWW Review: Hattiloo Theatre's MARCUS; OR THE SECRET OF SWEET Offers Dreams for Some, Nightmares for Others
April 18, 2016

On the surface, Hattiloo Theatre's streamlined production of Tarrell Alvin McCraney's MARCUS; OR THE SECRET OF SWEET might seem a variation on a familiar theme: A young man troubled by dreams and conflicted about his identity seems to 'hit a brick wall' when he turns to others to try discover why he is, what he is -- 'sweet,' a kind of code word for homosexuality. That might seem a facile enough summary of what this play is about, but to shrug one's shoulders and miss this committed little production would be to miss also the fascinating journey in which it is couched.

BWW Review: Circuit Entrances With PINKALICIOUS THE MUSICAL
March 28, 2016

I remember when, in the 1930's Shirley Temple vehicle POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL, poor Jack Haley and Alice Faye had to implore, 'You've Gotta Each Your Spinach, Baby'; and in Circuit's charming (and short) production of PINKALICIOUS THE MUSICAL, with Book and Lyrics by Elizabeth and Victoria Kern and Music by John Gregor, poor 'Mr. and Mrs. Pinkerton' (gleefully played by Marc Gill and Brooke Papritz) have a similar problem with their daughter 'Pinkalicious' (the engaging Carly Crawford, A.K.A. 'Peter Pan' during the Christmas holidays). It seems that the color-preoccupied pint-sizer has a condition known as 'Pinkititis,' wrought by an immoderate obsession with . . . dare I say it? . . . pink cupcakes -- MUDDY'S BAKERY, GIGI'S CUPCAKES, lock your doors!

BWW Review: Emerald Theatre's 1 IN 10 Proves Both Intimate and Universal
March 21, 2016

Just last weekend I saw one of Theatre Memphis' most outstanding musical productions, Stephen Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS. It had everything an audience would want: Wondrous sets and costumes, brilliant singers, imaginative staging. Then, this weekend, I wandered into the quiet intimacy of Emerald Theatre's 1 IN 10, a series of monologues by members of the LGBT community; and though the latter seemed on the surface to have nothing in common with the powerhouse production I saw last week (its set is, frankly, . . . naught), I found that, indeed, there was a shared thought and purpose. After all, the characters in the second act of the Sondheim musical have to assess themselves and their relationships to others; and they have to be comfortable with their lot and come to know themselves. You know what? That's exactly what happens during the course of the 1 IN 10 monologues.

BWW Review: Theatre Memphis Astonishes With INTO THE WOODS
March 14, 2016

Stephen Sondheim himself is kind of a 'GIANT,' if you think about it. Over the last decades he has been responsible for raising the (musical) bar in musical theater with lyrics and music that can take an audience far beyond Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'bright golden haze on the meadow.' SWEENEY TODD, FOLLIES, PACIFIC OVERTURES, COMPANY -- all of these entertain and even challenge an audience; and even though ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, the composer/lyricist isn't just satisfied with that. His INTO THE WOODS (one of my two or three favorite musicals of all time) is evidence of that. Had he only conceived that first act (with that amazing Book by James Lapine), INTO THE WOODS would have had a show complete unto itself: Familiar characters from children's literature -- Cinderella, the Baker and his Wife, Jack (sans his Beanstalk), Rapunzel, and Red Riding- hood -- come alive, and the story of each overlaps with another, all held together by a cohesive Narrator (performed here by the indispensable Joseph Lackie, himself a former 'Sweeney Todd'). If you walked out during intermission, you would have done so with an entirely pleasant level of satisfaction; however, it's that second act that catapults the musical onto an altogether higher plane. By the time the gorgeous 'No One Is Alone' closes the performance, audience members are moved to be reminded that 'sometimes people leave us / Half way through the woods.'

BWW Review: Circuit's PAGEANT Offers 50 Shades of Pink
March 14, 2016

If you decide to attend Circuit Playhouse's production of PAGEANT in the next few weeks, and if you find yourself blushing at some of the eyebrow-raising humor, there's no need for alarm: Pink cheeks will blend right in, as the stage, many of the dresses and gowns, and much of the make-up are redolent with that color. However, the musical tends more toward the 'purple' at times, with innuendo, knowing looks, and pregnant pauses. Nonetheless, Robert Longbottom's lightweight little satire (with Book and Lyrics by Bill Russell and Frank Kelly and Music by Albert Evans) is a relatively harmless (and highly enjoyable) outing.

BWW Review: Playhouse Stages a Large Scale ALL THE WAY
March 7, 2016

'I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er,' says Macbeth in William Shakespeare's tragedy of the same name. I have always felt that these lines could have described President Lyndon Johnson as he doggedly followed his disastrous course in Vietnam. Now, certainly, Johnson was no villain as such; however, to countless Americans, his term in office will be forever marred by his hubristic determination to succeed. For some families touched by tragedy, his very name will be forever reviled. However, in recent years, many historians (such as Doris Kearns Goodwin) have tried to see 'the forest' beyond 'the trees' and have lauded Johnson for effecting legislation that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in voting rights for Blacks. Playhouse on the Square's current production of Robert Schenkkan's ALL THE WAY (recalling LBJ's campaign slogan 'All the way with LBJ') focuses on Johnson's political maneuvers in that arena -- especially as they factor in his desire to be elected as something more than an 'accidental President.'

BWW Review: RIVER CITY Proves That Looking 'Inside' the Box Is As Important as Looking Outside It
February 26, 2016

At one point in Diana Grisanti's sharply written RIVER CITY, in its final weekend at Voices of the South, an older character challenges the 'education' that a fourteen year-old black youth has received at St. Thomas, the Catholic-run orphanage in Louisville: The young man may know history from a white perspective, but does he know anything important about his own black heritage -- and does he know what's happening in 1968, as the black community plans a demonstration to protest the rehiring of a police officer guilty of harassment? (Yes, sadly, the times . . . they aren't always 'a-changin' -- sorry, Mr. Dylan.) I remember an instance when, as a white youngster in a rural town outside Memphis, I first heard the name 'Martin Luther King.' Our school bus had already run, and I was waiting for the bus of my best friend (who happened to be black) to drop him off so that he could rid himself of his books, change clothes, and come out to play. When he descended from the bus, I walked with him down the lane where he lived with his grandparents. I asked him what he had done in school that day, and he replied that he learned who the father of 'his' country was. 'George Washington,' I interrupted. 'No,' he insisted. 'The father of 'his' country was Martin Luther King.' In just a few years, some great strides would be made; however, I am nearing seventy now -- and the ugliness of racism is still omnipresent. Not only does police harassment still dominate the news, but, with the OSCARS being broadcast Sunday evening, there is a planned boycott by a number of black actors and actresses over the lack of racial diversity among the major nominees.

BWW Review: MOTHERS AND SONS - and Son and Lover - Clash at Theatre Memphis' Next Stage
February 15, 2016

In Terrence McNally's MOTHERS AND SONS, now playing at Theatre Memphis' Next Stage, there's something out of place in Jack Yates' smart New York apartment set -- and it has nothing to do with furniture. Rather, it's the presence of Karen Mason Riss's 'Katharine,' who, unannounced, has flown from her home in Dallas to visit 'Cal,' the one-time lover of her long-deceased son 'Andre.' Her anomalous presence is not unlike situating Archie Bunker's armchair in the foyer of the Biltmore. She has arrived with baggage: Not what she uses for travel -- but what she has carried within herself for the last twenty years; and of all times, it's the Christmas season -- and, clutching her fur coat as if it were some time of impenetrable armor, she comes across like some unwelcome Ghost of Christmas Past.

BWW Review: As Much 'Skillduggery' as 'Skullduggery' in A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER at the Orpheum
February 10, 2016

A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER must have been a 'labor of love' for Robert L. Freedman, who wrote the book: After all, it is derived from the brilliant 1949 British comedy classic KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, which benefited immeasurably by performances by Dennis Price, Joan Greenwood, and -- most especially -- the brilliant Alec Guinness, whose impersonation of all the victims was a tour de force. Yet, A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE, with wickedly droll music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, is a deliciously poisonous bon bon all its own. It's as if Joseph Kesselring's ARSENIC AND OLD LACE had somehow melded with Oscar Wilde's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, and somewhere 'up there' (or 'down there,' whatever the case may be) writers like Roald Dahl and directors like Alfred Hitchcock must be smiling at the production currently delighting audiences at the Orpheum.

BWW Review: Circuit's THE OTHER PLACE Is 'Down the Rabbit Hole'
February 8, 2016

Throughout Sunday's matinee of Sharr White's intensely watchable THE OTHER PLACE at Circuit, for some reason I kept thinking of Edgar Allan Poe's 'A Dream Within a Dream' and, particularly, of these lines: 'All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream. / I stand amid the roar / Of a surf-tormented shore, / And I hold within my hand / Grains of the golden sand -- / How few! yet how they creep / Through my fingers to the deep, / While I weep -- while I weep.' THE OTHER PLACE, ably directed by the always dependable Dave Landis, is somewhat constructed like a Chinese puzzle box. Like the main character, a drug company scientist named 'Juliana Smithton' (who, in turn, is married to 'Ian,' an oncologist), the audience is continually challenged with questions of what is real and what is not.

BWW Review: LOVE LETTERS Is GCT's Valentine to the Community
February 8, 2016

In his Sonnet 116, William Shakespeare wrote, 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments' -- and impediments there are aplenty in A.R. Gurney's oft-performed LOVE LETTERS, which Director Anthony Isbell and a sterling, rotating cast of three couples has staged at the intimate Germantown Community Theatre. It's a St. Valentine's gift to the community, to be sure; and as soon as you enter the atmospheric lobby, pay heed to the scattering of deep-red rose petals and the framed quotations of letters from famous lovers -- everyone from John Keats to (even) Oscar Wilde to Johnny Cash. You'll be doing yourself a disservice if you don't, as they establish a real mood for what takes place on stage.

BWW Review: 'Will No One Rid Me of This Troublesome Wife?' Theatre Memphis' THE LION IN WINTER
February 1, 2016

Let's see now -- older married man with mistress, seething ex-wife, resentful and mistrustful offspring -- where was Dr. Phil? Alas, nowhere in sight in Chinon during the Christmas of 1183, as the powerful English king Henry II has released his imprisoned wife (and sparring partner) Eleanor of Aquitaine and allowed her admittance to a family gathering (along with his mistress Alais). Is it for personal or political reasons? Perhaps a bit of both? Henry, great in stature and accomplishments, has to decide which of his sons (none of whom will historically 'measure up') will become the future King of England. It's a Lear-like choice, and poor Henry has 'slim pickings.' With the oldest son dead, the three remaining are a snarling, disgruntled lot -- in one corner (Eleanor's), there's the pillage-prone Richard (later Richard the Lionhearted, who will spend most of his time abroad); in the other (Henry's), there's the pimply, unwashed, and feckless John (later, a famously unpopular king who will be forced to capitulate to baronial pressure and sign a little document known as the Magna Carta). Oh, yes, and then there's the ignored, Machiavellian Geoffrey, mistrusted by both parents and willing to play anyone on the human chessboard.

BWW Review: Green Day's AMERICAN IDIOT Pulsates at Playhouse
January 23, 2016

Now that Peter has returned to Neverland and the good citizens of Tuna have returned their yard ornaments to their garages and attics, Green Day's AMERICAN IDIOT has seen to it that all the kiddies need to be tucked away in bed: Playhouse's electrifying production of the punk rock musical odyssey, with Book and Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong and Book by Michael Mayer, has traded in pirates for pushers; and the result must have Rodgers and Hammerstein scratching their heads in musical heaven and asking the question, 'What in the name of Bali Hai is going on here?' However, if like me, you're primed for some stimulating adult entertainment, you'll find more than your toes tapping in this 'in your face' assault on the idiocy that is America -- that is we the audience.

BWW Review: Trunchbulls of the World, Unite! MATILDA THE MUSICAL Takes Over the Orpheum
January 14, 2016

BWW Review: Theatre Works' BYHALIA, MS Plays 'the Race Card' - But There Are Others Up Its Sleeve
January 11, 2016

Evan Linder's BYHALIA, MS, a winner of the 2014 NewWorks@The Works Playwriting Competition, came about at an interesting time. I had recently heard an interview on NPR featuring Alabama-born Walton Goggins, currently co-starring in Quintin Tarantino's THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Goggins, a gifted actor, made the point that he did not wish to perpetuate the tired old 'let's paint Southerners as uneducated rednecks' point of view that all too often emerges in Hollywood films about the subject; having appreciated his point, I was initially wary of a work about racism entitled BYHALIA, MS. The South, and Mississippi in particular, are easy 'punching bags' for liberals; and yes, the historical past can surely produce numerous examples. There's no way, I thought, that Evan Linder should ever run for Mayor of Byhalia, a small Mississippi town not far from Memphis. However, after seeing the play, I realized that I was guilty of preconceived notions and misconceptions -- a shortcoming shared by black and white characters alike in Mr. Linder's probing, ambitious work.

BWW Review: NEWSIES Is the Orpheum's Latest Edition
December 9, 2015

There was a moment tonight in the Orpheum's presentation of NEWSIES that I envisioned the entire production as an animated feature -- and why not? There was the infectious music of Alan Menken, who long ago set the 'gold standard' for the resurgence of Disney animation beginning with THE LITTLE MERMAID; there was, too, the 'underdog' hero ('Jack Kelley,' played with panache and charisma by Joey Barreiro), who serves as a point of inspiration for a horde of ragtag 'newsies'; and instead of an 'Ariel' or 'Belle,' there was 'Katherine,' the spirited young 'girl reporter,' who, with her independence and ingenuity, could fall right in line with the other young heroines of Disney films.

BWW Review: Playhouse's I LOVE YOU, YOU'RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE Is . . . Nigh Perfect
December 7, 2015

During the Holiday Season, theatregoers looking to dodge 'fairy dust' and seek for something beyond the shadow of the Ghost of Christmas Future might as well have a Christmas stocking with a hole in it. Occasionally, the 'grownups' might find something like the dark and challenging THE SEAFARER, which played to meager audiences a few years back at Circuit; despite an exceptional cast (Tony Isbell, Jim Palmer, et al) and a fine production, this beautiful little play failed to bring in the audiences (it was one of my favorite theatrical experiences). The result is that PETER PAN, A TUNA CHRISTMAS, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and all their Yuletide ilk pretty much dominate the stages -- and why not? They are delightful experiences, eliciting all the joy and sentimentality one craves as the 25th approaches. However, for those who gag on eggnog, Playhouse on the Square has squeezed out a few performances of I LOVE YOU, YOU'RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE, the 'slice of life' musical with Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro and Music by Jimmy Roberts. Ironically, it's Playhouse's 'gift' to those who prefer to leave their Christmas spirit at home.

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