Sour Grapes, or The Ladies of the Hood River Horticultural Society and the Flower that Nearly Destroyed Them, Book and Lyrics by Carl Ritchie, Music by Chuck Pelletier; directed by Charles Kondek.
Local theatergoers are being given another unique opportunity to witness, and participate, in a work in progress created through a regional theater. Carl Ritchie, the artistic director of the Copake Theatre Company, has created a tiny, historical musical play with five characters and only one or two sets in collaboration with the Broadway Rose Theatre in Oregon and is workshopping it locally. The show I saw on Saturday night, September 30, is not necessarily the show you might see next week or the week after. In this process change is constant and that's part of the excitement of being there while the process is underway.
Two well-respected local actors (Johnna Murray and Drew Davidson) and three imports from New York (Nancy Auffarth and Lynn Paynter) and California (Ellen Dostal) make up the excellent cast. They are accompanied by a single pianist and they perform the show with scripts in hand, although for many of the major numbers and a few of the scenes they do work without the book. They are in period costumes nicely executed by Helen Schneider and they work on a set designed by Ritchie, along with five high-legged stools.
The thing to remember here is that this work is growing. It's a two-act show that still needs trimming and tweaking and a few re-writes as well, especially in the lyrics. Currently it runs just under two hours with an intermission included. The first act felt a bit long, perhaps just a bit heavy, and the second act felt a bit short. There's a song, heard three times, that never quite works: "Hard to Choose." It is the song most in need of a rethinking. It goes into five-part singing with each voice taking a different tune and lyric and Ritchie has over-simplified some of this making it unpleasant to listen to, almost amateurish - which is not his usual style. The song definitely needs help, especially as it currently ends the first act.
"Amour?" on the other hand is a clever idea that comes off nicely. "Legends of Oregon", in Act Two, is a definite keeper, especially with its delicious three-part harmony for women's voices. Silly as the story is within the song, it could easily break out into small choral arrangements and have its own life elsewhere. "Flatter the Hat," "Friends," "Mother Nature," "If I Had," and "Good Intentions" also shine on their own merits.
If the script has a flaw that needs work it is the over-use of the concept of women's suffrage. Once established it should be restricted and used only where and when absolutely necessary - just before the final scene, perhaps, when voting is an issue on its own merits. The single male character is sometimes dumbed down a bit too much, but he is usually used as an excellent foil for the emotions of the women around him.
Kondek has moved his actors about the stage artfully, but should spend a bit more time on the character delivery of lines with his actors. Ritchie, in the writing, has given them signature phrases, often repeated. Kondek needs to bring them to those repetitions with the necessary differences in intonation that make them truly work as a part of their living selves. Right now they just sound like repetitions.
Murray is excellent in her role of Millie. Her singing gets better and better each time I hear her, especially in her duets and trios with the other women in the show. Dostal is a delight in everything she does; she plays the ingenue-too-old-for-the-role, a difficult dilemma for woman and actress, and she plays it divinely. Auffarth is the villain, although not really. Her difficulty as a character comes through the unspoken intention and she makes a lot of it. She could be a bit stronger, I think, to make her stand out a bit from her friends. Paynter, who joined the show two days before I saw it, does very well with her stand-alone role. She serves as a prompt for much of what takes place in the show and she does it nicely. Davidson, the man in town, is learning the nature of light comedy and making a good stab at it. His solos are fine and his choral work could use a punch up or two in volume, the same problem noted earlier this season in Barrington Stage Company's new show "The Burnt-Part Boys." As an ensemble, they are terrific and really serve the project well.
Barrington Stage Company, by the way, later this month will be presenting "Mame" in much this same style, book in hand, minimal staging, single set and costume. Knowing that, and for a show that doesn't need development, bury any prejudices you may have about "readings" and take this opportunity to visit a work in progress that could go far.
◊ 10-01-06 ◊
Johnna Murray and Nancy Auffarth
Nancy Auffarth, Lynn Paynter, Drew Davidson, Ellen Dostal, Johnna Murray: the cast of SOUR GRAPES
Tickets are $15-18 (general admission), Seniors, Students and Groups $12-15, Children $10 and may be purchased at Dad's Copake Diner in Copake or reservations may be made by calling The Copake Theatre Company @ 518.325.1234 All shows are at the historic Grange in Copake, located on Empire Road (off of Route 7-A) in the center of town. For more information go to their website at www.copaketheatrecompany.com.