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CRITICS' CHOICE: Whole Lotta Theatre Goin' On

Theater in Tennessee has never been busier nor has it been more diverse than what you'll find onstage this weekend throughout the Volunteer State. From frothy and fun summer musicals that are sure to make you think - like All Shook Up at Chaffin's Barn and A Chorus Line at Cumberland County Playhouse - to new plays from Shawn Whitsell (his latest, Songs For Our Sons, premieres at Darkhorse Theatre on Friday night) and emerging playwright Che Pieper (his new script based on the book The Man With the Light in His Window debuts at The Theater Bug this weekend) and a new contemporary play directed by Bethany Langford for Spaghetti Theatre and featuring some of Nashville's finest younger actors...the magic of live theater is all around you...even in this heat and humidity! So pull your seersucker suits and sundresses out of the closet, get all gussied up and make your way to the relative cool of a darkened theater for some midsummer magic!

The cast and crew of Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre have been hard at work whipping All Shook Up in shape for summer audiences and are ready for opening night - tonight, July 23 - at the venerable Barn-like theater out in West Nashville! Will DeVon Buchanan's hip swivels rival The King's? Only time will tell.

Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre - Nashville's venerable entertainment center, which for 49 years has been the theater home to thousands of actors, directors, technicians and artists - previously announced that nine-time First Night Award winner and Chaffin's Barn artistic director Martha Wilkinson is helming the production which includes 2012 First Night Honoree Pam Atha as choreographer, and well-known Nashville musician Michael Holmes as music director.

DeVon Buchanan, who last summer starred in the Barn's production of Ain't Misbehavin' and who will be choreographing the upcoming Street Theatre Company mounting of Heathers the Musical (with Wilkinson directing), leads the cast as Chad, with Jennifer Richmond (last onstage in Nashville Rep's production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) playing Natalie.

All Shook Up is a 2004 American jukebox musical with Elvis Presley music and with a book by Joe DiPietro. The story is based on William Shakespeare's 1602 playTwelfth Night. The musical had a developmental staging at the Goodspeed Musicals May 13-June 6, 2004, with most of the Broadway cast, except for Manley Pope in the lead role of Chad. Christopher Ashley directed, with choreography by Jody Moccia. The musical had a tryout in Chicago from December 19, 2004, through January 24, 2005. After the tryout, changes were made to the finale and to add "a more specific instrumental and vocal voice" for Chad. The musical premiered on Broadway at the Palace Theatre on March 2, 2005 and closed on September 25, 2005 after 213 performances and 33 previews. Directed by Christopher Ashley, with choreography by Ken Roberson, the original Broadway cast included Cheyenne Jackson (Chad), Jenn Gambatese (Natalie Haller/"Ed"), and Jonathan Hadary (Jim Haller).

Among the Elvis Presley songs included in the score, in addition to the title tune, are "Jailhouse Rock," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Roustabout," "One Night With You," "Follow That Dream," "Teddy Bear," "Hound Dog" "That's All Right," "Love Me Tender," "Blue Sueded Shoes," "Don't Be Cruel," "Can't Help Falling in Love," "A Little Less Conversation," "If I Can Dream," "Fools Fall in Love" and "Burning Love."

For reservations for All Shook Up, call the CBDT box office at (615) 646-9977. For further information about the rest of the Chaffin's Barn season, go to www.dinnertheatre.com.

Opening at TPAC's James K. Polk Theatre tonight is The Arts at Center Street's production of local songwriter and playwright Gregg D. Garner's Alien: The Musical, running through July 26.

Tickets for Alien: The Musical are on sale now at the TPAC box office, or by phone at (615) 782-4040. The four-performance engagement includes 7:30 p.m. shows on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; as well as a 3 p.m. show on Sunday.

Beginning in the late 1800s, when Irish immigrants lived on average only six years after arriving in the new world, Alien: The Musical tells the story of the Dolan family during their initial years in New York. When the narrative continues to present-day California, their story collides with "Mexican" immigrants who work in the kitchen at O'Neil's Irish Pub and Restaurant. An unexpected twist plunges Irish and Latinos into a conflict that makes us question what it means to be human, and what it means to love and create a hospitable world for those alienated by our ideals and need for security.

"I wanted to explore the difficult issues related to race, immigration, labor, and discrimination, but not with a typical response. This story is my contribution to the discussion," Garner said. "Societies' historical amnesia is the disease that causes us to repeat the mistakes of our past. Our failure to remember is our refusal to accept our vulnerable condition as human beings - that we're all the same, and we all need a chance - to have life."

In three acts, a cast of 43 players animate the story that spans over 100 years and examines the political issues and social realities connected to migration. Themes of class struggle, race, power, and generativity come to life in the intersecting stories of the two families, said Garner, who wrote Alien: The Musical on a plane to Nashville from Africa, composing songs by quietly singing into his iPhone.

Alien: The Musical features over a dozen original songs in four different musical styles (Irish, Folk, Latino, Pop), written and composed by Garner.

Shawn Whitsell

In response to recent events in our society and the world in which we live, Nashville playwright/director/actor and producer Shawn Whitsell presents his latest work, via his production company The Destiny Theatre Experience: Songs For Our Sons, which opens tonight.

Running July 23-25 at Darkhorse Theater, 4610 Charlotte Avenue, Whitsell describes his evocative new play thusly: "A response to recent events and conversations surrounding race, gender, faith and identity, Songs For Our Sons sheds light on issues that affect African American communities, specifically young black males. Through a series of vignettes, the piece tackles racial profiling and police brutality, gang violence, poverty, mass incarceration and domestic terrorism."

Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. each evening and tickets are $10 at the box office prior to curtain for this sure to be provocative play, which should engender a good deal of thoughtful conversation both before and after.

Whitsell, a First Night Star Award winner in 2012, is one of the hardest working theater artists to be found anywhere and Nashville audiences are proud to claim him as their own. He consistently produces new shows that are up-to-the-minutes reflections of contemporary life and they should not be missed.

Founded just a few years ago by the hard-working and ambitious Cori Laemmel, The Theater Bug has proven to be the ideal training ground for young theaterati, producing some of the most amazing young talents to be found on the boards in Nashville. To wit: emerging playwright Che Pieper who won this summer's playwriting competition with his adaptation of the bookThe Man With the Light in His Window.

Pieper's original play will be given its world premiere production this Friday and Saturday night at The Theater Bug, 4809 Gallatin Pike. Curtain's at 7 p.m. both nights, and tickets are $5.

Pieper was winner of a Theater Bug-sponsored Young Playwrights Competition in which playwrights 18 and under were asked to submit an original one act that runs 30 minutes and is not a musical. Pieces had to be appropriate for actors ages 6-18 and cater to a cast of 15-25. The winning piece was workshopped with Theater Bug staff, local playwrights and actors, then rehearsed and will be performed this weekend. Playwrights were asked to be a part of the one-week rehearsal process.

Pieper's play is based on a short story by the same name, and tells the story of a young boy who becomes fascinated by the mysterious comings-and-goings of his next door neighbor. Get out and support new works, something of which Nashville can be justifiably proud.

Britt Hancock and René Pulliam

The ultimate "Singular Sensation," A Chorus Line, will dance its way onto the Cumberland County Playhouse Mainstage Friday night in a stirring new production, directed and choreographed by René Pulliam.

This groundbreaking Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is for anyone who has ever put it all on the line, whether for a dream, for attention, for approval, or for love. The show follows 17 would-be dancers in their quest to make the cut for a new Broadway musical. It's what they've worked for - with every drop of sweat, every hour of training, every day of their lives - for the chance to do what they've always dreamed of. One by one, they come forward to share the stories of their lives, putting themselves on the line to get a job in the line. When they're done, so is the audition; and onlyeight remain. Winner of nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Score and Book, A Chorus Line is a complex fusion of dance, song and drama, filled with dazzling songs like "I Hope I Get It," "At the Ballet," "What I Did for Love" and "One."

Directing and choreographing the production is René Pulliam, head of the BFA program in Musical Theatre at the University of Mississippi. Ms. Pulliam has directed and/or choreographed hundreds of musicals across the United States, including the West Coast premieres of Smile, Closer than Ever, and Over Here. Britt Hancock, who most recently directed Mary Poppins, returns to the stage to play Zach, the choreographer of A Chorus Line's untitled musical. Hancock first met Pulliam at the University of Mississippi, where he earned his BFA.

"René directed and choreographed our A Chorus Linewhen I played Mike, a dancer on the line," says Hancock, "and in a way, having her here at the Playhouse to direct me as Zach in this exciting new production feels like I've come full circle. It's an honor and a joy to be working with my friend and mentor once again."

The rest of the cast features many CCP favorites, along with plenty of faces that are new to Playhouse audiences: Daniel Black as Al, Cory Clark as Mark, Kevin Corkum as Mike, Jensen Crain as Kristine, Jake Delaney as Greg, John Dobbratz as Don, Molly Dobbs as Val, DeAnna Etchison as Bebe, Donald Frison as Richie, newcomer Charity Ruth Haskins as Cassie, Katherine Walker Hillas Sheila, newcomer William Hoshida as Bobby, Lina Lee as Connie, Lindsey Mapes as Judy, Jennie Nasser as Maggie, Leila Nelson as Diana, Chaz Sanders as Paul and Caitlin Schaub as Laurie; along with Darbi Banegas as Tricia, Malachi Banegas as Tom, Alli Crain as Lois, Kate Louise Prender as Vicki, Evan Price as Frank, Michael Ruff as Butch and Chance Wall as Roy.

Bethany Langford helms the latest production from Nashville's Spaghetti Theatre, featuring some of the city's leading younger actors in A Bright New Boise running for two weekends at Channel to Channel Art Gallery, 427 Chestnut STreet, Suite 302B.

Langford's cast features ambitious younger actors who have emerged from Belmont University's critically acclaimed theater program, including Grace Kelly Mason, Lauren Knoop, Miles Gatrell and AEvar Jonsson along with ACT 1, Circle Players and Music City Theatre Company veteran Bradley Moore in the leading role.

In the bleak, corporate break room of a craft store in Idaho, someone is summoning The Rapture. Will, who has fled his rural hometown after a scandal at his Evangelical church, comes to the Hobby Lobby, not only for employment, but also to rekindle a relationship with Alex, his brooding teenage son, whom he gave up for adoption several years ago. Alex works there along with Leroy, his adopted brother and protector, and Anna, a hapless young woman who reads bland fiction but hopes for dramatic endings.

As their manager, foul-mouthed Pauline, tries ceaselessly to find order (and profit) in the chaos of small business, these lost souls of the Hobby Lobby confront an unyielding world through the beige-tinted impossibility of modern faith.Samuel D. Hunter's A Bright New Boise is a earnest comedy about the meager profits of modern faith.

Performances are July 24-26 at 7:30 p.m. and August 1-2 at 7:30 p.m., with a special Late Night performance on July 31 at 11 p.m. Tickets are $10 (Opening night tickets are $5) and anyone who brings a program from another play running the same weekend will receive half price tickets.

Michael J. Parker and Andy Griggs

Those wacky denizens of Texas' third smallest town are back whooping it up onstage in Gaslight Dinner Theatre's production of Tuna Does Vegas, through Saturday, starring Andy Griggs and Michael J. Parker as all the town's residents and some new characters they meet in Sin City! Neither berg may ever recover, not to mention the audience. This fourth and final foray into Lone Star State eccentricity enjoys a sidesplitting Middle Tennessee premiere at the Gaslight Dinner Theatre.

Here's a sampling of my review: "Directed with an eye for the sight gag and comic timing still be polished at showtime by Gaslight major domo Greg Frey, Tuna Does Vegas affords diners and theater-goers the opportunity to do double duty: Take a visit to the always entertaining Tuna in the first act, with a side jaunt to Vegas in the play's second stanza. The script is not as smart and clever as the original Greater Tuna, but there's enough good-natured humor to be found to keep you riveted to your seat in anticipation of what's to come next.

"Audiences have been treated to the Tuna Texans since 1981 and in that time they've entered the Southern theater vernacular with equal parts grace and wit, with enough outlandish behavior and situations to satisfy even the most discerning visitor. The citizenry's Vegas exploits and endeavors may not have the charm of earlier outings, but Tuna Does Vegas offers plenty of laughs."

For reservations, call the Gaslight box office at (615) 740-5600 or go online at www.gaslightdinnertheatre.org.

Joel Diggs and Ashley Bishop Diggs

First Night's 2015 season gets under way in earnest Monday night, July 27, with Nashville's Big Reveal: The First Night Preview Party at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre.

The First Night Honors' Class of 2015 will be revealed at Monday night's event, beginning at 6 p.m., featuring entertainment by the casts of some of the summer's biggest musicals throughout Tennessee.

In addition to the 2015 First Night Honorees, the names of this year's First Night Star Award winners and the Most Promising Actors will be announced during the event, which will be co-hosted by Britt Byrd, Joy Tilley Perryman, Kim Thornton Nygren, Ashley Bishop Diggs and Joel Diggs. They will join First Night producer/choreographer Kate Adams and founder and executive producer Jeffrey Ellis in revealing the names of the theaterati who will be in the spotlight during this year's First Night gala in September.

Among productions represented during the cocktail party (a cash bar will be offered, along with complimentary hors d'oeuvres) are Circle Players' upcoming American Idiot, The Larry Keeton Theatre's production of Nunsense, VWA Theatricals' The Last Five Years, Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre's All Shook Up, Arts Center of Cannon County's Ghost the Musical and Bring It On the Musical, and Murfreesboro's Center for the Arts' West Side Story. In addition, Janet Holeman, who starred as Mother in Circle Players' Ragtime, will perform "Back to Before" from that critically lauded production.

Among performers slated to appear are Delaney Amatrudo, Luke Denison, Audrey Johnson, Brooke Leigh Davis, Corey Shadd, Crystal Kurek, Jessica Hunter, Matthew Hayes Hunter, Gerold Oliver, Allison Hall, Kyle Henry, Maryam Muhammad, Justin Boyd, Julia Nettles, Taylor Novak, Nathan Stultz, Connor Weaver, Andrew Hosale, Shane Kopischke, Sam Kell, Bryan Lelek, Steven Griffin and Mindy Tolbert.

First Night's musical director Micah Snow, producer Vickie Bailey and red carpet diva Cary Street will also be on hand for the festivities.

The event is free and open to the public, beginning at 6 p.m. at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, 8204 Highway 100, Nashville. And you can buy your tickets to the September 20 First Night Honors Gala at a reduced price!

After four critically acclaimed seasons, Nashville's Blackbird Theater has opened what company founders Greg Greene and Wes Driver call their "magnum opus," the new musical Myth, running through July 26 at the Hillsboro High School Theatre in Green Hills.

Set in the world of Greek mythos, this is the story of how and why the gods were cast from Mt. Olympus. Written by Blackbird founders Driver and Greene, with music composed by Michael Slayton, chair of composition at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music, Myth will have its world premiere in Music City USA, featuring an all-star cast of Nashville performers.

The show's plotline is described by its creators: "The princess of Athens and the prince of Thebes are to be married. But an oracle portends doom. The mortals challenge the Fates. The gods intervene. And what follows is an impassioned tale of surprising romances, unlikely heroes, and, of course, the incomparable gods in all of their majestic, decadent glory."

Here's a heads-up from my review: "To give credit where credit is indeed due: Wes Driver and Greg Greene, with the creation of Blackbird Theatre, have given Nashville audiences some of the finest theater of the past five years, consistently providing thoughtful and provocative drama and music to a public clamoring for more intellectual pursuits amid the confines of a darkened theater. From their first production - Twilight of the Gods, an original comedy/drama/fantasy that has proven a favorite of theater companies all over the country - to their most recent project, they have continued to push the creative envelope and to challenge viewers to think. On top of those lofty aspirations, Messrs. Driver and Green are good men, gentlemen to a fault, warm and friendly, clever and quick.

"All of that is prelude, of course, to the thoughts swirling throughout my brain about their latest offering, Myth, a new musical now in its world premiere engagement at the Hillsboro High School Theatre (which, ironically, is just down the street from my home, making my assassination all the more convenient for those who will find this review distressing), running through July 26. Despite its pedigree - with book and lyrics by Driver and Greene (they started writing it, according to program notes, in 2004) and music by Michael Slayton - and despite my fervent hope that I would absolutely love it, Myth is cumbersome and overwrought, coming in at a self-indulgent and interminable three hours and 11 minutes."

Among the principals for Myth are: Corrine Bupp, Darci Wantiez, Winston Harless, Ronnie Meek, Tony Nappo, Brad Brown, Scott Stewart, Will Miranne, Patrick Kramer, Preston Orr, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva, Caroline Davis, David Arnold, JJ Rodgers, Mallory Mundy, Kristopher Wente, Catherine Birdsong and Tadd Himelrick. Members of the chorus include Ashley Glore, Taylor Chew, Melissa Garner Campbell, Morgan Lamberth, Leslie Marberry, Elizabeth Wuellner, LaDarra Jackel, Jocelyn Kasper, Tyler Osboure, Randal Cooper, Scott Patrick Wilson, Elijah Wallace, Jess Darnell and Brad Forrister.

Tickets for this limited engagement of Myth are available at blackbirdnashville.com. This production is recommended for ages 13 and above.

Logan Dowlen

Lakewood Theater Company's Play On!, which opened last weekend, continues through Sunday, August 2.

Directed by Kurt Grabenstein, Play On! is described as the hilarious story of a theater group trying desperately to put on a play despite the maddening interference of a haughty author who keeps revising the script. Act I is a rehearsal of the dreadful show, Act II is the near disastrous dress rehearsal, and the final act is the actual performance in which anything that can go wrong does. When the author decides to give a speech on the state of the modern theatre during the curtain calls, the audience is treated to a madcap climax to a thoroughly hilarious romp.

Play On! stars Kathleen Jaffe as Aggie, the put-upon stage manager; Heather Alexander as Gerry, the frazzled director; Patrick Goedicke and Meigie Mabry as Henry and Polly Benish, the theatre's power couple; Elise Jardine as Smitty, the teenager missing her exams for the show; John Carpenter as Saul Watson, the snarky and devious villain; Logan Dowlen as Billy, the dashing leading man; Samantha Brannoch as Violet, the beautiful ingénue; Doreen Gibson as Louise, the deadpan sound and lighting tech; and Drew Ann Borsos as Phyllis Montague, the fledgling author with a taste for interfering all the time.

Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Ticket prices are $14 for adults, and $10 students/seniors/military. Tickets can be obtained at www.TicketsNashville.com; a limited amount of reservations are available through the Lakewood box office at 615-847-0934. Group rates are available. Lakewood Theatre Company is located at 2211 Old Hickory Blvd., Old Hickory.

West Side Story photo by Natasha Jones

Murfreesboro's The Center for the Arts' West Side Story, the revolutionary Tony Award-winning production that forever changed American musical theater, has proven to be so popular with theater-goers that a couple of extra performances have been added to its run. Two matinee performances have been added at 2 p.m. on both Saturday, July 25, and Saturday, August 1. The show closes August 2.

A modern retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1950s, West Side Story is the heartbreaking tale of Tony and Maria, star-crossed young lovers caught in a turf war between rival gangs. The well-known musical score full of Latin and Jazz-infused songs includes "Somewhere," "Tonight," "I Feel Pretty," and "America." West Side Story premiered on Broadway in 1957 and is the result of a collaboration between three theatrical luminaries, the book by Tony Award-winner Arthur Laurents, music by Tony and Grammy award-winner Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Tony, Grammy, Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award-winner Stephen Sondheim. The smash hit 1961 film version of West Side Story won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and catapulted the musical to the center of the national conversation. The Center for the Arts' production is directed by Kim Powers, with musical direction by Sam Hagler and choreography by Julie Wilcox.

Appearing as the iconic couple are Corey Shadd as Tony, who audiences just enjoyed as Ted Hinton in Bonnie and Clyde, and Crystal Kurek as Maria. Dakota Green will be portraying Riff, the leader of the Jets, while Timothy Taylor plays Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. Emily Park-Highfield is the fiery Anita. The 37 person cast is comprised mostly of local teenagers and college performers, which excites director Kim Powers: "These kids are the age of the gang members in this show. Watching them learn what this show is really about and how relevant it is to today's race relations has been very rewarding."

West Side Story runs through August 2, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $13 for Seniors, Students and Military and $11 for Children age 12 and under. Tickets can be purchased on the Center's website at www.boroarts.org, by calling (615) 904-2787, or by stopping by The Center during business hours.

"Brrr...it's cold in here...must be some Toros in the atmosphere..." If I had a dollar for every time I've uttered that phrase to my dog, Jessie, when coming in from a cold walk outside during the wintertime! And nothing makes me think of one of my favorite movies more so than that one line from the film version of Bring It On, now brought to life as a musical that's running at Woodbury's Arts Center of Cannon County. Only a couple of performances are left - Bring It On the Musical closes Saturday night!

Bring It On: The Musical takes you on a high-flying journey through friendship, forgiveness and determination. Bring It On: The Musical tells the story of the challenges and unexpected bonds formed through the thrill of extreme competition. With a colorful crew of characters, an exciting fresh sound and explosive dance with aerial stunts, this all new story is sure to be everything you hoped for and nothing like you expected.

Here's some quotage from my review: "The musical's story is not a retread of the movie plot, but instead offers a whole new group of characters dealing with the challenges of high school life while ruthlessly competing for cheerleading glory. Torrence and company have made way for Campbell, Danielle, Skylar and Randall. With its Tony Award-laden creative team turning the story into a Broadway musical, you can rest assured that the dialogue is clever and quick-witted, yet easily understood by audience members of every age group; and the songs are upbeat, robust and do what showtunes need to do (for the most part): propel the story along its way. Let's face it, when you read a program and see dozens of musical numbers listed it can be daunting. However, the pace never slows in Bring It On, the Musical and even before you know it, you're at the show's upbeat, infectious finale ("I Got You").

"Certainly, there are some ridiculous plot points - it's musical theater, people, not rocket surgery - but they just add to the fun and games happening onstage. The characters have just enough edge to keep you on the edge of your seat, engaged in the various and sundry antics of the characters, oftentimes laughing out loud in appreciation of the onstage hijinks.

"Director Chelsea Toombs - along with her musical director Scott Willis and her team of choreographers - have found the right mix of actors, voices, gymnasts to bring the show to life with elan. Cheyenne Clark makes her theater debut as Campbell (she'd sort of be Torrance); a capable singer and tumbler (she unleashes some admirable gymnastic skills late in act two) who does a decent enough acting job, but who we suspect will be even better as the show's run continues for the next two weekends. Lipscomb University theater alumna Shawna Rayford is cast opposite her as her nemesis Danielle, the queen bee of gritty, inner-city Jackson High School. The pair's rivalry seems genuine, which makes their ultimate rapprochement all the more believable. Rayford delivers her songs with confidence and shows off some impressive dance moves in the process."

To get tickets, call The Arts Center of Cannon County at (615) 563-2787 or go to www.artscenterofcc.com.


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