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Joseph Baker - Page 4

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 Reviews: Theatre Memphis Spikes the Eggnog with A CHRISTMAS CAROL
December 12, 2014

As my hand was turning to mincemeat while writing personal notes in Christmas card after Christmas card, I persevered, knowing that at the end of my travails there would be a reward: A much anticipated performance of Theatre Memphis' annual 'gift' to Memphis, Charles Dickens' venerable A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I must admit: I have not attended every performance of that classic since its inception. I have, however, infrequently stopped to hang my wreath at its door; and I've seen some fine 'Ebeneezers' over the years (I recall a former teaching colleague, Tom Ford, offering a tight, clipped interpretation and, of course, one of the best and most frequent of the actors donning those tattered gloves, Memphis acting favorite Barry Fuller). As I wrote card after card, I began to think about all the other interpretations of A CHRISTMAS CAROL that I have encountered through the years - Seymour Hicks; Reginald Owen (in the role MGM intended for an ailing Lionel Barrymore, who had become famous for his radio performance and who would have, no doubt, been superior; a not-all-that-bad consolation prize was his equally tight-fisted 'Mr. Potter' in Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE); Orson Welles (in a Mercury Theatre radio performance); Sir Ralph Richardson (a beautiful audio recording); Alastair Sim (in the early 1950's British film and offering my favorite interpretation of the role; Danny Peary, in his fascinating ALTERNATE OSCARS, selects him as Best Actor for that performance); and, certainly, George C. Scott, in what was considered to be the version to end all versions. (And does anyone recall Jim Backus' 'Mr. Magoo' in a delightful animated musical television special back in the 1960's?)

BWW Reviews: Playhouse Has a Right to 'Crow' About PETER PAN
December 8, 2014

Having witnessed the stultifying, bloated NBC production of PETER PAN LIVE (what were the 'powers that be' thinking would hold a child's attention span for three hours, however padded with yet more Peter Pan plugs from Walmart?), I was reluctant to attend Playhouse on the Square's annual production of the James Barrie children's classic. I am probably one of the handful of reviewers to recall the 1955 NBC production (and later one as well) with the legendary pairing of Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard (whose fruity, overly ripe 'Captain Hook' would make Johnny Depp's 'Jack Sparrow' seem more like a white collar executive). As an IPad-free child inured to black and white fare, it hardly mattered that Mary Martin was, to put it politely, mature; that the production values were clunky; that the wires and 'Tinker' herself were glaringly apparent. In short, I was captivated. Yet, Martin possessed the kind of spunk and spontaneity that made us children believe (not to mention that she had the kind of singing voice that made her a legendary Broadway performer, as evidenced by SOUTH PACIFIC and SOUND OF MUSIC). She could make a child want to fly. Allison Williams, last evening's 'Peter,' lacked that optimistic boyishness (though she had the tomboyish Hilary Swank look 'nailed') and, despite having a pleasant enough voice, often seemed out of breath; but Chrisopher Walken, whom I like and who I initially thought would be inspired casting, seemed to have wandered in from a cocktail party hosted by zombies. His dancing made that of the Monster in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN seem as nimble as that of Fred Astaire. Despite the wonderful lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and despite the 'ear candy' musical score by Mark Charlalp and Jule Stein, those long, middle stretches in Neverland made me wonder if it would Neverend.

BWW Reviews: Circuit Playhouse Rubs Noses With the SANDERS
December 1, 2014

SANDERS FAMILY CHRISTMAS Sweetly Blends the Serious and the Silly

BWW Reviews: New Moon Shines With WOMAN IN BLACK
November 10, 2014

BWW Reviews: Theatre Memphis Dusts Off TINTYPES
November 6, 2014

Not too many seasons back, at Theatre Works I saw a charming review of turn-of-the-century musical numbers (by the likes of Irving Berlin and others) entitled SIMPLE MELODIES. The songs were rendered by a small but talented ensemble, and I so enjoyed it that I returned more than once - basically, because I wanted to treat friends who I knew would appreciate it as much as I did. With Theatre Memphis' TINTYPES, conceived by Mary Kyte with Mel Marvin and Gary Pearle, and charmingly directed (often with a 'knowing wink') by Kell Christie, I may just have to contact those friends once again.

BWW Reviews: The Orpheum Thinks ONCE Is Not Enough
October 29, 2014

Despite the fact that I am a great lover of cinema, the film version of ONCE (2006) somehow eluded me; now, the musical stage adaptation, with music by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova and a book by Enda Walsh, is affording Memphians an 'off season' 'pub crawl' at the historic Orpheum Theatre - and though I have never been particularly fond of Irish whimsy (Barry Fitzgerald's coy old priest in GOING MY WAY is probably the source of that), and though PBS repeats of performances of clarion-voiced Irish lasses sawing away at violins and Riverdancers send me reaching for the remote, I am happy to report that . . . I finally 'get it.' ONCE is a refreshingly 'laid back' vehicle for a musical; its often wistful, incisive, perceptive numbers are an intimate alternative to the often overblown showstoppers of larger musicals.

BWW Reviews: Voices of the South Goes the DISTANCE
October 27, 2014

If anyone ever told me that, on a Saturday night, I would be watching a play about an elderly woman suffering from the horrors of Alzheimer's Disease, I would question that person's sanity. However, having 'sung the praises' of actor/playwright Jerre Dye on more than one occasion, and having read a couple of rapturous local reviews, I decided to forgo a nearby musical concert by Luna Nova ( a musical venue I have ardently supported) and see Mr. Dye's DISTANCE at Voices of the South. I was not disappointed. Legendary actress Bette Davis famously proclaimed, 'Old age ain't no place for sissies' (and she knew well the truth of that, having suffered strokes, a mastectomy, and, worse, the betrayal of a daughter); compound 'old age' with Alzheimer's or dementia, and you can magnify the truth of that tenfold.

BWW Reviews: Theatre Memphis Spit-Polishes THE HEIRESS
October 24, 2014

THE HEIRESS, Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 1947 adaptation of Henry James' WASHINGTON SQUARE and currently occupying the Lohrey Stage at Theatre Memphis, has had a long and steady run on stages throughout the world - and why not? Tightly corseted, polite to a fault, and observing proprieties, this intelligently written script captures the essence of the James source material without the convoluted, complex sentences that, alas, repel many readers. As tautly drawn as the material on one of the samplers for which its heroine is noted, when one of the characters punctuates the prevailing politeness with a barbed or telling line of dialogue, it's as if a sharp and jagged blade suddenly ripped through the fabric of the needlework itself. All this play needs for a successful run is a handsome set, period costumes - and four or five gifted players.

BWW Reviews: Circuit Playhouse Remembers THE FANTASTICKS
October 13, 2014

Just a few weeks ago I was dodging a falling chandelier at the Orpheum's staging of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA; at the 'Phantom Event' held prior to the play, I was reminded of all the physical (as well as fiscal) requirements for properly staging this production. I kept thinking, 'How many small, financially strapped towns would breathe a sigh of relief if the proceeds from such a production were to come their way?' Well, that's one extreme of theatre. Tonight I was exposed to the opposite; Circuit Playhouse's production of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones' allegorical THE FANTASTICKS reminded me of Thornton Wilder's minimalism in the staging of OUR TOWN. If musicals like PHANTOM and LES MISERABLES are the 'central air' of theatre, THE FANTASTICKS is rather like a quaint little oscillating fan. Yet, its breeze can be refreshing.

BWW Reviews: Playhouse Offers ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS - and Numerous Laughs
October 3, 2014

With its emphasis on improvisation, stock characters, and a genial carnival atmosphere, the Commedia dell' arte (dating back as early as the 16th century) has never had much appeal to me; I generally find the productions thumb-twiddling after a while. I certainly had my reservations about Playhouse on the Square's current production, ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS, adapted by British playwright Richard Bean from a 1743 play by Venetian Carlo Goldoni. However, as much as I cringe at the thought of a play written in this tradition, at the opposite end I am very much a fan of British humor at its silliest - from the 1930's and 40's comedies of Will Hay (who, at least in a number of films, utilized his own kind of stock company) to the sketches of Benny Hill and Rowan Atkinson's delightful MR. BEAN (and wasn't there a group called MONTY PYTHON?) That said, Mr. Bean's sublimely silly little take on the Goldoni play, removed in time and place to early 1960's Brighton, has a plot that bounces from corner to corner of the proscenium like a ping pong ball on Ritalin.

BWW Reviews: 'Don't Sit Under the Chandelier with Anyone Else But Me' - PHANTOM Haunts the Orpheum
September 29, 2014

When Gaston Leroux published THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA back in 1911, little did he realize the numerous chandeliers that would come crashing down through the decades, and I've witnessed a good number of them. First, in 1925, there was 'the Man of a Thousand Faces,' Lon Chaney, Sr., who frightened poor Mary Philbin (a well-done version, even IF the film was silent); then, for Universal in 1941, Claude Rains (Bette Davis' favorite co-star) was a more subdued vocal coach for soprano Susanna Foster (a wooden Nelson Eddy, alas, is a greater impending horror as 'Raoul'). I could go on - even Herbert Lom, the actor who was the harried police superior to Peter Sellers' 'Inspector Clousseau,' took a swing on the old light fixture. (And let us not forget diminutive Paul Williams in the slightly askew PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.) All of these pale, of course, in comparison to the legendary interpretation by Michael Crawford in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which first brought the audience to its feet in 1986.

BWW Reviews: MEMBER OF THE WEDDING Has Reception on Theatre Memphis' Next Stage
September 22, 2014

Following the recent triumph of the musical THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and nestled quietly in the more intimate setting of Theatre Memphis' Next Stage, Carson McCullers' touching THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING offers yet another 'Addams Family.' This time, however, the trio of performers who dominate the play - tomboyish 'Frankie' (nee 'Frances'), odd little 'John Henry,' and warm, nurturing 'Berenice' - easily draw the audience members into the world of their kitchen and garden area. It may seem a ridiculous notion, but I couldn't help seeing a similarity between the two plays. In both plays, the main characters are removed from an outside, 'normal' world; and in both plays, there are characters who wish to be seen by others as normal. Yet, THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, despite its moments of humor (and there are many such moments), is full of longing and pain and frustration.

BWW Reviews: Theatre Memphis Nudges Us to Buy Halloween Candy Early with THE ADDAMS FAMILY
September 1, 2014

There's Nothing Dead About Theatre Memphis' Ghoulishly Delightful Production of THE ADDAMS FAMILY

BWW Reviews: BEST OF ENEMIES Enlightens as It Entertains
September 2, 2014

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Circuit Playhouse's production of Mark St. Germain's BEST OF ENEMIES - a civics lesson or an evening at the theatre. As I settled into my seat and gazed at the essentially bare set (a few platforms and chairs), I listened to bits and snatches of speeches and recollections by the likes of Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, and 'ordinary' people affected by the changes wrought by Civil Rights legislation and, in particular, the desegregation of schools. While waiting for the play to begin, I recalled just having seen MARY POPPINS last weekend at Playhouse on the Square; I thought of 'Just a Spoonful of Sugar' making the medicine go down - and considered Playhouse's crowd-pleasing musical version of John Waters' HAIRSPRAY, which drew theatre-hungry crowds just a few weeks ago. Waters, I thought, had the right idea: The seriousness of racial injustice was made delightfully palatable by the sweetness and humor of the songs in that show. I dreaded what was to follow. However, like the main characters of the play I was about to see, I had my own misconceptions, for BEST OF ENEMIES held many surprises for me - and all of them good.

BWW Reviews: MARY POPPINS' Umbrella Soars at Playhouse
August 25, 2014

The lessons of MARY POPPINS are made more palatable by those spoonfuls of sugar.

BWW Reviews: Hattiloo Goes to Haiti for ONCE ON THIS ISLAND
July 28, 2014

Hattiloo Theatre, the shiny 'new kid on the block' in the midtown theatre district of Memphis, has shed its 'ugly duckling' feathers and suddenly become a sleek swan; no longer limited in facilities and seating, it has taken exotic flight with a fanciful musical staging of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's calypso-driven ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, based on Rosa Guy's MY LOVE, MY LOVE; or, THE PEASANT GIRL.

BWW Reviews: POTS at The Works Series Takes a Giant Step with 4000 MILES
July 13, 2014

Amy Herzog's family drama (albeit a drama with a number of very funny moments) 4000 MILES is unobtrusively generating a thoughtful, low-key alternative to the outsized HAIRSPRAY (already a sellout at 'Big Sister' Playhouse on the Square just a block or so away); and it's a safe bet that a number of theatre-going Memphians are already trekking south to DeSoto Family Theatre's epic presentation of LES MISERABLES. However, this intelligent, intimate little piece is currently providing a rewarding alternative at Theatre Works, quietly nestled across from the parking garage at Overton Square.

BWW Reviews: DeSoto Family Theatre Storms the Barricades With LES MIS
July 7, 2014

There were several reasons that I almost denied myself the pleasure of attending DeSoto Family Theatre's new production of Boublil and Schonberg's LES MISERABLES, the epic (and enduring) musical version of Victor Hugo's massive nineteenth century novel. I hereby state my preconceived notions - and hope to explain why I was so ill-opined.

BWW Reviews: The Orpheum Proselytizes - Sort of - With THE BOOK OF MORMON
June 26, 2014

I see them occasionally - white shirts (usually with pockets), black trousers, clean-shaven, and cradling folders and totes. They often are on a corner; at times, they are walking through the parking lots of apartment complexes. They are unfailingly polite; more often than not, they respect our 'Puh-lease'-don't-bother-me looks or our efforts to look as if more important business is calling us elsewhere. These sweet-natured people are usually more interested in our welfare than we ourselves are, and, well, that's nice.

BWW Reviews: Playhouse on the Square Teases Its Beehives in HAIRSPRAY
June 21, 2014

When Playhouse on the Square first showcased the musical version of the giddy John Waters' romp HAIRSPRAY a few seasons back, terpsichorean dynamo Courtney Oliver (as 'Tracy Turnblad') and theatre veteran Ken Zimmerman ('Miss Edna') left the stage each night with clamorous standing ovations for them and their colorful cohorts. I saw it more than once; it was the kind of theatrical experience that not only made you want to see it repeatedly, but one to which you longed to introduce others. I was thrilled to learn not only that HAIRSPRAY would return to end the current season at Playhouse, but that it would also reunite most of the original cast - and would be directed by the ever reliable Dave Landis.