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Sunday
May262019

Review: Mill Town Players Baptist Women Touch the Heart

Greg Wilson/Anderson Observer

“You’re not supposed to understand, you’re Baptist.”

This line from the second act of “First Baptist of Ivy Gap,” could not be a better tagline in this latest offering from The Mill Town Players. 

Photo Escobar PhotographyBut you don't have to be Baptist to enjoy this two-act play which kicks off in 1945, with the 75th anniversary celebration of the church and concludes in 1970 as they plan to mark 100 years of First Baptist Ivy Gap. 

As the play begins in 1945, six women are gathering at the church to roll bandages for the war effort. Five of the women are, in one way or another pillars of the church, and the sixth eager to become a Baptist and a member of their fellowship.

But while preparing for their act of mercy, preparations are also under way for First Baptist Ivy Gap’s 50th anniversary celebration. Not party, a celebration, as Edith is quick to remind the women Baptists don’t have parties.

Libby Riggins shines as the ageless Edith, the pastor’s wife, and serves as a kind of master of ceremonies, keeping not only the story, but the stories of the other women moving. Riggins’ movements, voice and temperament bring a sassy attitude to the long-suffering wife of a pastor who gets little respect. Edith does what many pastors’ wives have done for more than a century, she runs the church while her husband preaches on Sunday. The women who are paying attention are the only ones who recognize her effort. 

If you grew up in practically any denomination in the Deep South during the last half of the last century, these women will either be familiar to you, or you are likely a man who was never allowed (or never bothered) to look behind the scenes. 

Meanwhile Mae Ellen, the church organist who can’t wait to leave Ivy Gap, is less diplomatic than the others about what’s wrong the the church, the town and those who live in it.

DeAnna Gregory brings an authenticity to a role which could easily have drifted into caricature. Mae Ellen loves going “off the bulletin” to play her own versions of the hymns, even changing the words to update the text. She is first to say what almost everyone else is thinking, without a hint of real malice, all the while constantly begging to be fired. Mae Ellen also manages to link the younger women, including Edith, in overlooking tradition and rules.  

Her interactions with Olene, in a lively and energetic performance by Alyssa McMillan as the wanna-be Hollywood starlet ready to leave town today, offer some of the play’s silliest (and funniest) moments as at least some of the older church ladies aren’t sure what to make of them and their song and dance routine. Olene follows her dream to Hollywood, only to find it more a nightmare, before landing a long-running job in the land that Baptists forgot - Las Vegas. Olene’s demonstration of her “Madame Midnight” dance gets more eye rolls than blushes, though, from her long-time friends at Ivy Gap. She breaks all the rules but still is welcomed home as if she never left. 

Those rules were primarily the domain of Vera, the church aristocrat played with pearls and cat-eye glasses snooty perfection by Nancy Burkard. Vera might be the most recognizable church goer, the one who is affluent, tithes and always carries a pocket full of first stones. She expects deference, and wants no part of fun or real fellowship with the other women. Her gear shift to redemption in the second act finally brings her some measure of connection, even if it is a little prickly. 

Luby, Fran Eckert’s widow worried with grief, sets the tone for the first act as a smothering mother waiting for her only son to return from the war. She is the very real reminder that the bandages are for real people, and hopes, but doubts her prayers are enough to bring her son home safe. Eckert brings a quiet, mourning counter tone of solemnity to a story that otherwise could have turned into regional farce. Her redemption and transformation are believable, thanks to a fine performance. 

Her son’s safety is also foremost, but secretly, on the mind of Sammy, the young non-Baptist outsider played by Ryvers Martin. Sammy is more rural than the townsfolk of Ivy Gap, and wants to fit in so badly she jumps at any chance to join in, including Baptism. Martin gives heart to the wounded Sammy, and nails the most radical transformation of any of the characters after 25 years have passed.   

The growth, or lack thereof, of these women provides an excellent second act, and the good opening-night crowd was engaged throughout.  

As always, the set for this play was spot on, thanks to Will Ragland. The Mill Town Players are widely known as having the best staging of any company in the Upstate, and “First Baptist of Ivy Gap” is no exception. 

"First Baptist of Ivy Gap” has seven more shows, Sunday at 3 p.m., and Friday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and June 2 at 3 p.m., and June 6-9.

For more information visit Mill Town Players

Friday
May242019

Market Theatre Bonnie & Clyde Bold, Ambitious

By Paul Hyde/Anderson Observer

The Market Theatre Company is nothing if not bold and ambitious.

As many Upstate theaters go for the familiar and safe, the Market Theatre goes for broke.

That’s certainly true of the theater’s dynamic production of “Bonnie & Clyde” that opened last week and continues through June 2.Photo Escobar Photography

There’s risk in presenting a big but lesser-known show for the first time in the Upstate. (This production may be a South Carolina premiere, too.) But the gamble pays off, thanks to an appealing musical score and an attractive, strong-voiced cast.

The story is part of American folklore: Bonnie and Clyde, two restless young Texans, find love and adventure by becoming outlaws in Depression-era America.

The show traces the two from their starry-eyed youth, with Clyde idolizing Al Capone and Billy the Kid, and Bonnie more innocently longing to be movie star Clara Bow, the “It Girl.” For both Bonnie and Clyde, fame is their ticket out of dirt-poor drudgery.

Later, robbing banks and stores – and killing a few people along the way – Bonnie and Clyde become folk heroes, a symbol of resistance to an American system (fat cats, the church and government) that had abandoned a desperate, starving populace. 

For a story of mayhem and murder, Ivan Menchell’s book also offers flashes of surprising humor – as when Bonnie and Clyde bicker over who deserves top billing in their illegal exploits.

Frank Wildhorn, best known for “Jekyll and Hyde,” created an eclectic score for “Bonnie & Clyde” that encompasses jazz, blues, gospel, country-western, rockabilly and pop-style power ballads.

Director Dalton Cole brings focus, clarity and momentum to the Market Theatre production. Caitlin Browne provides the lively choreography.  

Mariel Zmarzly and Matt Groves, as Bonne and Clyde, make a fetching couple of young bandits, negotiating Wildhorn’s sometimes high-flying songs with ease. They’re young actors, a reminder that Bonnie and Clyde were barely out of their teens when they embarked on their criminal careers.

Zmarzly caresses the suave ballad “How ’Bout A Dance” and soars on the heart-tugging “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad,” the latter a pop Liebestod in which Bonnie imagines the lovers dying together.  

Groves is an affable outlaw, brimming with swaggering self-confidence and cutting loose on rousing uptempo numbers like “Raise a Little Hell.”

The opulent-voiced Lauren Renner is a standout as Blanche Barrow, Clyde’s sister-in-law. When Renner joins with Zmarzly for the tear-jerker “You Love Who You Love” – about fateful romance – it’s an episode of musical theater transcendence.

Jonathan Long plays Clyde’s brother, Buck Barrow, with gusto, sturdy in voice and stage presence.

Camila Escobar glows with charisma as the Young Bonnie. Gregory Middleton brings restless energy to the role of Young Clyde.

Cam Johnston does a fine turn as Ted, a cop hankering after Bonnie but unable to compete with the roguish appeal of Clyde.

Ken Thomason, as the Preacher, leads the chorus in the spirited “God’s Arms Are Always Open.”

The production features a solid ensemble of more than a dozen. Joshua VanderVeen is responsible for the tight musical preparation.

The production uses recorded music that serves the production well.

One caveat: Don Black’s lyrics could be more crisply articulated throughout the show.

Theater-goers should note: The dialogue includes some strong language.

For tickets to the Market Theatre’s compelling production of “Bonnie & Clyde,” call 864-729-2999 or visit the website the www.marketanderson.org.

Paul Hyde, a longtime Upstate journalist, writes about the arts for the Anderson Observer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

Friday
May242019

Market Theatre Shoots Up Stage with Bonnie & Clyde

Friday
May242019

Spoleto Kicks Off 43rd Season in Charleston

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Charleston is opening 17 days of operas, plays, chamber music and jazz Friday as the world-renowned Spoleto Festival USA returns.

The 43rd season of the arts festival kicks off Friday at noon with the opening ceremony from Charleston City Hall. It will run through June 9.

The spotlighted performance is the opera "Salome." Spoleto plans a contemporary retelling of the 1905 Richard Strauss opera. It is based on an Oscar Wilde play of the same name about the Biblical story of the woman who asked for the head of John the Baptist.

The Spoleto Festival USA choir will join the festival's orchestra and the Charleston Symphony for a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's St. John Passion on June 4.

The festival is also celebrating the 10th anniversary of Geoff Nuttall's role as director of the festival's chamber music program.

Spoleto General Director Nigel Redden said Nuttall has 11 eclectic chamber music programs scheduled through the festival.

Four of Nuttall's programs include a mystery performance, where the violinist won't reveal the artists or the selections played until the concert. Nuttall said that is a nod to the man he replaced in 2009, Charles Wadsworth.

"The eclecticism of the series as a whole really started with Charles, though he never announced the programs ahead of the concerts. The audience's trust in his programming was such an inspiration to me. So this year, I'm working on a tip-of-the-hat to him and bringing some elements of surprise back," Nuttall said.

The festival will take place in 11 indoor and outdoor venues.

Redden said his goal is to continue Spoleto's long tradition of mixing old, traditional works with a modern twist.

"For the 43rd season, the programming continues to transcend time and place, with long-heralded masterworks alongside world premieres and reimagined classics — fitting for the festival's setting in Charleston, an ever-evolving metropolis steeped in a rich and complex history," Redden said.

Thursday
May232019

Mill Town Players Kick Off "First Baptist Ivy Gap" Tomorrow