“Pump Boys and Dinettes” at Village Theatre

Now just sit back, relax, and get ready for a trip to the hinterlands, along one of those old highways that go through small towns in the United States. In “Pump Boys and Dinettes” you’ve stopped along Route 57 where the auto garage boys and the diner girls from across the road are ready to knock your socks off with their brand of country, rock, and bluegrass.

There’s a thin story line here. The songs refer to love, life and camaraderie in the hinterlands, but this show is all about the music, and the music is simply fantastic. The cast includes seven highly talented actors/musicians, most of whom play more than one instrument. Of course there are many guitars and drums, and a piano, but you’ll also hear banjo, ukuleles, harmonica, cello, bass fiddle, mandolin, kazoo, and tambourines.

The entire cast deserves kudos, but Levi Kreis as the piano man is simply unbelievable. No one should be able to play the piano that well. It is not surprising that he has won Tony and Outer Critics Circle awards in New York.

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Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Conceived by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann, the show first opened off Broadway in 1981 then quickly moved to Broadway, then Chicago, London, and it’s still playing in theatres around the United States. Brandon Ivie directed this Village production and R.J. Tancioco was in charge of music. Andrea Bryn Bush imagined and created the concepts for the diner and garage that so aptly set the scene.

Geoff Korf’s lighting truly gives the production added razzle-dazzle. The various lighting devises are clearly visible to the audience. They, too, are stars of the show as they swivel, turn on and off, change colors, and sweep out into the theatre. The effects are spectacular.

This is theatre as rollicking good fun with great music performed by a fine cast. No brain food here, the sounds and experience are quite enough.

Through Oct. 23 at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, 303 Front St. N., Issaquah, and from Oct. 28 to November 20 at the Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett, 425-257-8600 or VillageTheatre.org

“The Royale” at ACT

For those of us old enough to remember the names Joe Louis, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, and so many others, the idea of having the sport of boxing exist without having any African Americans participate in its championships is almost inconceivable. Yet when Jack Johnson broke the color barrier in 1908 and won the world championship, it was an astounding event.

Championships were for white guys. Blacks had no place in them in the regrettable Jim Crow days of our national history. But Jack Johnson wasn’t a man to be put off. He was good! He knew it; his handlers knew it. The country, however, wasn’t ready to accept it. Despite that unsavory climate, Johnson’s promoter was all for “The Fight of the Century.” Let the reigning white heavyweight champion tough it out in the ring with Johnson as his opponent.

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Photo by Dawn Schaefer

“The Royale” by Marco Ramirez retrieves that history and looks at the psychological and social issues that surround it. All the action takes place on Carey Wong’s realistically conceived boxing ring that takes up most of the stage here. There Jarrod M. Smith as the magnificent to look at Jay Jackson (the fictional Jack Johnson) trains, argues for his rights, strategizes with his handlers, and must wrestle with the possibility that his win could have serious social fall out that could be most dangerous for other people of color.

Director Ameenah Kaplan has wisely capitalized on the playwright’s desire to make the story, not its trappings, central here. No elaborate sets, no music except the pounding of hands against flesh and gloves against punching bag and the rhythmic clapping and pounding of feet. When Jay’s sister comes to visit him, to warn him about, remind him of the potential repercussions of his win, it’s just the two of them in intense and somewhat tragic discussion. This minimalism works to intensify the emotional power of the piece.

The cast members work well together. Lorenzo Roberts as Jay’s sparring partner effectively combines bravado with reticence. R Hamilton Wright and G. Valmont Thomas, the handlers who strategize to make Jay’s and their dreams come true offer just the right firmness mixed with affection and respect. And Zenobia Taylor, the sister who has, perhaps, a better read on society than does Jay, roils with emotions and fear of the repercussions of this fight yet never loses her elegance.

The story is powerful. The issues are still with us. The presentation is finely honed, and it’s well worth seeing.

Through Oct. 9, at ACT Theatre 700 Union St., Seattle, (206 292-7676 or acttheatre.org).

“The Winter’s Tale” Presented by Seattle Shakespeare

Pardon me if I wax lyrical, but this version of “The Winter’s Tale” directed by Sheila Daniels is one of the best Shakespeare productions I’ve seen in a long time. Let’s begin with the set. You walk into the theatre where the curtains are open and the stage is fully visible. On it are a very few wooden risers with oriental rugs thrown over them. Unevenly placed toward the back of the stage are a number of very tall, narrow wooden rectangles covered in what appears to be tapestries. Simple but so effective!

The story is an old one: husband thinks his pregnant wife is having an affair with his good friend, banishes the sweet innocent and destroys their lives, but by the end of the play, almost all is well. Darragh Kennan as King Leontes, the jealous husband manifests his mistaken notion with overwhelming, believable emotion. He offers the most powerful example of the jealous husband you’re likely to see on local stages any time soon. In his hands, jealousy and madness become one.

Brenda Joyner as the wrongly accused pregnant wife Hermione, begins the play as a charming and playful innocent then transforms into a destroyed, disbelieving victim. She too is outstanding in the role. The entire cast plays their roles with aplomb.

As I noted, equally important in the success of this production are the set (Tommer Peterson) and the lighting (Reed Nakayama). Those background rectangles that make up the set morph from interior backdrops to outdoor scenes, to abstractions. The lights play on them with both subtlety and intensity. The effect is thrilling. It is elegant simplicity that just gets better and better as the play progresses.

In the second act we meet Perdita (Jasmine Jean Sim), the now grown-up daughter of King Leontes and Queen Hermione. As a baby she was set adrift in a basket in the hopes of saving her from Leontes’ wrath. A simple shepherd found and raised her.

Now if you know anything about Shakespeare, you know that she will be reunited with her parents and all will be well in the end. But getting to that end requires a reversal of the emotions of the first act. That act was grim! Somewhat horrifying!

Act II is lightness and merriment. MJ Sieber masterfully orchestrates much of the humor. The simple peasants celebrate their flocks and harvest with songs and dances. Perdita is charming, innocent, lovely. In the end love wins out. She’s returned to her parents, and the audience can leave happy and well entertained.

Through Oct. 2, Seattle Shakespeare Company, at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., (206 733-8222 or seattleshakespeare.org).

“Bad Apples” Now Showing at ACT’s Falls Theatre

“We tortured him for 16 days before he died. It was then we found out he was on our side.”

Shocking! Horrifying! Oh yes! “Bad Apples by Jim Leonard isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s an ode to the “banality of evil” to use Hannah Arendt’s words. It takes a hard look at reasonable people committing unreasonable atrocities. Certainly much of the torture American soldiers perpetrated on suspects in the Baghdad prison, Abu Ghraib, was extreme. It doesn’t matter that the stressed American soldiers were living in horrible and dangerous circumstances. Actually these soldiers weren’t even regular military. They were modestly trained National Guard members.

And what were the rules for interrogating suspected enemy informants or combatants? One might infer that there were no rules in Abu Ghraib. When no rules exist, people easily lose their civilized patina and behavior degenerates. It becomes a pervasive phenomenon. Director John Langs makes sure his production gives audiences the fullest sense of that breakdown.

There’s not much to enjoy in an isolated prison camp in wartime, so sex becomes a major recreational form. Carlton Byrd as Chuck, the super handsome, supper buff, super self-confident soldier manages to get all he wants and more. He and the rest of the cast are, for the most part, spellbinding. But note that Byrd and a number of the other actors are from out of town. They appeared in the original Los Angeles production. Seattle actors fill out the cast.

“Bad Apples” is a rock musical that explores the conditions, the backgrounds of the soldiers, and their interrelationships. The music and lyrics by Beth Thornley and Rob Cairns thunder through the auditorium, providing the appropriate mood for army maneuvers, romantic intervals, obscene cruelty, and leisure time. It’s potent but there’s almost too much of it.

We all know that many of our servicemen and women are from the south. It is unfortunate, however, to portray almost all the enlisted men and women here as southern country boys and girls with limited education and sophistication. Of course the armed services provides a pathway for young people who have no other options, but there was just a bit too much attention here to stereotypic southern yokels.

The play itself is overlong. Its messages are incredibly powerful, but they might have been presented just as effectively in a shortened form. At three hours it was too much for me. But if you like your theatre long and loud, you’ll find much to please you here.

Through Sept. 25 at the Falls Theatre at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle, (206 292-7676 or acttheatre.org).

“One Man, Two Guvnors” Produced by Sound Theatre Company

There’s no hyperbole in the label “the funniest show on the planet” that’s been affixed to Richard Bean’s English comedy “One Man, Two Guvnors.” Never have I heard any play generate such sustained laughter as this one does.

It’s very loosely based on the 18th C. Goldini play “Servant for Two Masters,” yet there isn’t a genre of humor that’s not cleverly woven into this script. Of course there’s a whiff of commedia del arte. but there’s also a touch of the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, farce, slapstick, pantomime and more. But there’s so much more than funny lines. You’ll find wry physical humor and clever gymnastics woven in to match the verbal laugh lines.

It’s an example of just how good the Sound Theatre Company is that it can pull this off. This is not an easy play to produce, especially in a space as small as the Center Theatre. The acting has to be superb. Many of the actors have to be gymnasts as well as thespians. Timing has to be perfect. With twelve actors cavorting around the stage in a play where physical humor is a strong component, there’s no room for sloppiness. Director Ken Michels has honed his cast to a finely polished ensemble.

The play originated in England and it needs the English accents. The cast does them well, but for American ears some of the language can be confusing. That’s the only negative issue with this wonderful production

David Roby. Photo by Ken Holmes

David Roby. Photo by Ken Holmes

I won’t even try to summarize the plot with all its complications. Of course there’s a thwarted love angle, and there’s a touch of criminality. There is music, very good music with some unexpected instruments to accompany Elijah Pasco’s piano and Jon Brenner’s bass and guitar. There are songs, especially noteworthy are those by Daniel Stoltenberg (who also play guitar) and Madison Jade Jones.

Just know that almost every aspect of this production is funny. The cast, led by David Roby, is universally good. Roby, himself, is phenomenal as he tries to serve his two Guvnors. If you love to laugh, this is for you.

Through August 27, at the Center Theatre in the Armory, at Seattle Center, (BrownPaperTickets.com).

On August 20 at 2:00 pm, the theatre is offered an autistic friendly performance. If you or a member of your family would enjoy this “Sensory Friendly” performance use the code SOUNDFRIEND at BrownPaperTickets.com