ATLANTIC BEACH EXPERIMENTAL THEATRE REVIEW
A DUAL CRITICS REVIEW BY DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre,ABET, opened its first production of 2017 with “Celebration,” a spectacular musical which will remain on stage through February 5th. For reservations, visit www.abettheatre.com or call 904-249-7177.
“Celebration” is unique: a musical fable unlike any you have previously seen in a theatre. You probably do know the composers: Tom Jones (words) and Harvey Schmidt (music) are famous for their 1960 hit “The Fantasticks,” which ran Off-Broadway for 42 years, with 17,182 performances. The original production closed in 2002; a 2006 revival is still running Off-Broadway.
In contrast, “Celebration” opened on Broadway in 1969 and closed after a brief run of 109 performances; the consensus of commentators was that the offering was too avant-garde to achieve popular success. We don’t know who directed it back then, but we can say that with the current polished production, directed by Dave Alan Thomas, Jacksonville’s ABET is offering an exciting evening of theatre and living up to its experimental aspirations; in the words of the director, the play is filled with “metaphor, symbolism, and allegory.”
The story is that of an orphaned youth, and is played by Franklin Ritch with marvelous deadpan humor in his first singing role. Orphan is searching for a new home when he meets Potemkin, the narrator, who explains that the world is coming to an end and she wants to have a party, a New Year’s party, to celebrate being alive. The worldly-wise and multi-talented Potemkin is portrayed by Milan Alley, who was recently seen in the 5 & Dime Theatre Company’s production of “Let’s Kill Greg,” an original play by Franklin Ritch. Ms. Milan has an assertive on-stage presence and speaking voice; attributes needed for her forceful character.
Newcomer Katherine Herndon is making her ABET debut and is dazzling as Angel, a beautiful young woman with wings; she wants to be an entertainer and joins Orphan and Potemkin in their party planning. The final principal character is Mr. Rich and yes, he is rich and represents the older generation. As played by Robert Banks, he somewhat reminds us of a prominent politician who is currently receiving national attention. Banks is a true comedian who applies his talents fully to the role. He is a versatile performer we recall seeing previously as the Pharaoh in Aida at Players by the Sea.
The other seven members of members are the Revelers, who log as much time on the stage as the principals. During the course of the evening, they wear many costumes and over one hundred different masks. The masks were created by retired art teacher Rebecca Williams, who constructed and hand-painted most of them. The talented Revelers included Brian Keith Champion, Lucas Hopper, Matt Krieger, Sara Beth Sohn, Amy Tillotson, Laurel Wilson and Kimberly Cooper York.
The colorful hundred-plus costumes contributed much to the visual enjoyment of this musical; Costume Designer Amy Tillotson and Costumers Amy Hancock and Jane LaRoque spent many hours working on this aspect.
Robin Brazelton was the Music Director and was also on Piano, Damon Martin was the Band Director and was also on Bass; the musicians played flawlessly and included Stephanie Batson (Harpsichord), Jacob Schuman (Guitar), Jack Miller Percussion) and Susan Roche (Xylophone and Vocals).
Choreographer Katie Raulerson worked closely with Director Thomas to create the dancing, filled with allusions to ancient ceremonies and rituals. This is Katie’s last planned show in Jacksonville, as she has moved to New York to further her career.
To sum up “Celebration” is a story about life and its struggles, and is filled with sixteen songs which convey the major themes; the songs are excellent. Titles include “Survive,” “My Garden,” and “Winter & Summer.”
Additional members of Production Team include: Celia Frank (Executive Director, ABET), Dave Alan Thomas (Director/Set Design), Bryan Frank (Light/Sound Design) Gordon Frank and Betsy Totten Darnell, (Light/Sound Tech) Randy Lessen (Stage Manager), April Bolden (Backstage Tech).