Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Monday, March 11, 2013

John Porter: "Make the time to check out 'Breast in Show'."

From Mondo Johnny:

Breast In Show Powerful and Funny
by John Porter

While the subject of breast cancer might seem unusual subject for a musical, but BREAST IN SHOW turns a healing light on the darkness and the outcome, while mixed, is generally satisfying. The show, produced by Carol Piersol in Partnership with Virginia Repertory Theatre is being staged at the Willow Lawn Theatre and running through March 19. Director Billy Christopher Maupin has assembled an ensemble of six strong performers and singers and the script takes the audience on a truly emotional ride.

All six performers: Andrew Hamm, Brittany D. Simmons, Chloe Williams, Jeanie Rule, Lauren Leinhass-Cook, and Russell Rowland play multiple roles, all of whom have been affected by breast cancer. Most play patients, even one of the men for the play explores many of the myths and truths about the disease.

The strongest part of the play, aside from the subject matter, is the music. The music and lyrics are by Joan Cushing and she takes on the confusion that accompanies learning one has breast cancer in a song called, I think, “The Blah Blah Song.” I say “I think” because unfortunately there is no list of songs in the program. 

While the new patients ask questions, all they hear from the doctors is rhythmic blah blah blah and thus learn very little about their condition.

Another stand out song is the Kander and Ebb inspired “Chemo Café” as the group welcomes a new member to the circle of friends undergoing chemotherapy. Jennifer Hammond’s choreography at this point may be hampered by having her dancers in rolling chairs and attached to iv units, but she makes the most of it and the song really hits home.

A couple of other songs that really resonated were “Normal Someday,” a quartet of two married couples sharing their dreams of having a normal life. Rowland’s deep baritone is particularly expressive and when coupled with Leinhass-Cook’s quiet pleas, the song wrings out a great deal of emotion.

A big laugh however is provided with “Dr. Honniwell,” a risqué ditty from Jeanie Rule to her oncologist.

Laughter is a big part of BREAST IN SHOW and that makes the play more human. If this had been an 84-minute unrelenting drama, it would have been difficult for many to take. I doubt you can find any person on this earth who hasn’t been touched by cancer, and if you do that person should count themselves blessed beyond belief. So, with every audience member potentially reflecting on their own memories and emotions, the humor allows us to release the tension just a little bit.

One weaker portion of the play is the book by Lisa Hayes. I felt the script was almost there – it still has a few rough edges that can be smoothed out further to make the show even stronger. Telling several stories at once is a great device, but sometimes things don’t come together as well. For example, Andrew Hamm has two nice moments as a breast cancer husband in a support group setting. Both are very quick, but easily could have been used to a greater power as a further commenting on what his wife was going through – or used as a longer monologue. But two vignettes separated as they lose their power.

Hamm does have a couple of great moments; one in particular is Fabulous Freddy who brings wigs and prosthetics to the chemo café. Jeanie Rule has a great supporting moment as Aunt Bonnie, a loving but misguided family member.

One of the more powerful moments of the play is Lauren Leinhaas-Cook’s emotional meltdown and the effect on the audience was heart rending.

Musical Director Kim Fox and her two musicians, Derrick Englert on bass, and Scott Milstead on drums provide a rich sound. Lynne M. Hartman’s lights are good as she moves us around the stage and from scene to scene in the blink of an eye. Nikki Wragg and Maupin have designed a nice collection of costumes.

The fragility of life is deftly explored in BREAST IN SHOW, but it is tempered with good songs, a little silliness, and a great deal of hope. I hope the limited run production will not be lost in the avalanche of good theatre  that has been running around Richmond.

Make the time to check this out.

(As always, I copy entire reviews on this blog for archival purposes only.)


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