WESTAF Shoebox Arts

DramaWatch: Singing at the mall, and other musical moments

Lava Alapai's new comedy "Middletown Mall" features karaoke in the food court. Plus the folk-musical "The Spitfire Grill" and the story of Florence Ballard and The Supremes.

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Kailey Rhodes (left) and Treasure Lunan chillin' in "Middletown Mall." Photo: Owen Carey
Kailey Rhodes (left) and Treasure Lunan chillin’ in “Middletown Mall.” Photo: Owen Carey

On Sunday afternoon I went to CoHo Theatre to catch Third Rail Rep’s premiere production of Portland writer Lava Alapai’s Middletown Mall, and it was the closest I’d been to a big shopping mall since I don’t recall when.

I’m not alone in that. Big gleaming shopping malls, not so very long ago the drivers of American consumer culture, have fallen on hard times: Been to the mostly empty shell of Portland’s Lloyd Center Mall lately? The world has turned, and somehow malls got abandoned in the parking lot.

That makes the largely delightful Middletown Mall, a mostly-comedy with songs, something of a nostalgia piece. Set in the 1990s, when the balance of mall power was shifting from a blend of local and national outlets to dominance by powerhouses such as Barnes & Noble and Sears (remember Sears?) and Starbucks, it focuses on a small group of mall workers who’ve become tight friends, laughing and living and doing karaoke together.

Things fall apart; the shopping center cannot hold. And that gives the laughter and nostalgia of Middletown Mall an almost Chekhovian undercurrent: a sense that these friends’ world is shifting, and there is very little they can do about it. In addition to the friendships the play makes us subtly aware of the sparse economic situation of the mall workers, and of the way that even that tenuous hold on the economic ladder can disappear in a blink.

Director Isaac Lamb has assembled an appealingly likable cast for a play that feels just a bit like a good TV situation comedy. Treasure Lunan and Emmanuel Davis work at Wok This Way, a little food-court home for quick Chinese dishes. Kailey Rhodes runs The Java Junkie, a little local coffee stand on one side of Wok This Way, and on the other side, Alex Ramirez de Cruz holds down the fort at The Book Bin, a little indie shop that’s having a going-out-of-business sale. Reliable veteran Darius Pierce plays the petulant manager of Wok This Way and several other roles, settling amusingly into the roles of dorky boss and corny customer — and, as it turns out, also something more sad and sinister.

Scenic and props designer Alex Meyer creates a creditable atmosphere of mall architecture and design, all bright and crisp and colorful in a step-right-up sort of way, giving the little CoHo space the illusion of mall-style vastness.

That’s echoed, in a way, by Lamb’s direction, which plays big in a small space. I found myself wondering, for the first few minutes, why all the dialogue was so peppy and loud, and then decided that that fit the expansive mall culture to a capital T. The relationships among the mall workers seem genuinely loving, even when they’re squabbling: This is a tribe, not quite yet aware that it’s about to be broken up. Then there are all of those ’90s songs (most of which, pop-musical ignoramus that I am, I didn’t know), which the workers spend a lot of time performing karaoke-style in preparation for a dreamed-of $25,000 television contest payoff: Rhodes and Davis in particular deliver them with simple and appealing style.

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I’m not entirely persuaded that the play’s largely comic qualities are blended seamlessly with the inevitable shock that arrives, but I’m not entirely persuaded that they aren’t, either. Suffice to say there is a jolt, and that the jolt at least on one level makes sense. After many a summer dies the mall. Will it spring back to life again?

Middletown Mall has a relatively short run, continuing through June 9. Catch it while you can — and while you’re at it, order yourself an indie espresso.

Opening this week

From left: Danielle Valentine, Sharon Maroney, and Malia Tippets in the musical "The Spitfire Grill" at Broadway Rose Theatre. Photo: Fletcher Wold
From left: Danielle Valentine, Sharon Maroney, and Malia Tippets in the musical “The Spitfire Grill” at Broadway Rose Theatre. Photo: Fletcher Wold

On Thursday, May 30, the musical-theater specialists of Tigard’s Broadway Rose Theatre open The Spitfire Grill, a show that, like Middletown Mall, blends food and songs into an entertaining theatrical dish. A 2001 play based on a 1996 movie of the same name, Spitfire focuses on Percy Talbott (played here by the talented Malia Tippetts), who is fresh out of prison and looking to start anew.

She finds herself in a small Wisconsin town called Gilead (shades, perhaps unintentionally, of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) and lands a job as a waitress at a rundown diner called The Spitfire Grill, run by a sharp-tongued widow played here by Sharon Maroney, Broadway Rose’s artistic director.

The Spitfire Grill has been an enduring and popular small-scale musical, racking up more than 700 productions worldwide and being praised both for its simple heartfelt storytelling and its folk-inspired score. As Billboard’s review of the original production put it: “In a genre known for being big and brassy, it’s always a pleasure to come across a musical that revels in its quiet moments. That’s why The Spitfire Grill is like a breath of fresh country air.”

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From left: Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross of The Supremes, in the Netherlands in 1965. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
From left: Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross of The Supremes, in the Netherlands in 1965. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Portland playwright Donnie — a.k.a. Don Horn, founder and head honcho of Triangle Productions — brings his newest play, Flo, to Triangle’s stage starting Thursday, May 30. Following Triangle’s successful Off-Broadway run of Donnie’s Make Me Gorgeous!, Margie Boulé’s solo turn as Eleanor Roosevelt in Eleanor, and Topher Payne’s “hidden identity” comedy Perfect Arrangement, Donnie’s Flo tells the story of Florence Ballard, who in 1959, as a 14-year-old singer in Detroit, joined her friends Mary Wilson and Betty McGlown to form The Primettes, a “girl group” to match the male group The Primes, who became famous as The Temptations. Eventually Betty dropped out, Diana Ross joined The Primettes, and they became celebrated hitmakers as The Supremes.

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Donnie digs into the largely undertold evolution of the group that lifted Ross to superstardom. As Triangle puts it: “This musical is about Florence Ballard and her journey. It is hoped it will dispel myths many people thought were true from the musical and movie Dreamgirls and the tragic incident that no woman should go through that changed Flo’s life and those around her forever.”

Abigail Lawrence stars as Flo, Lydia Fleming as Ross, Bri-Sky McKezzie as Mary Wilson, and Kenneth Dembo as Berry Gordy, honcho of the Motown record label.

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Running from Friday, May 31 through June 8 at Shaking the Tree Theatre is Audrey Cefaly’s play Alabaster, a Pulitzer-nominated, all-female play about a woman and her pet goat who are the only survivors of a tornado that rips their town apart. It is, in the playwright’s words, a “darkly comic southern drama (that) explores the meaning and purpose of art and the struggle of the lost and tortured souls that seek to create it.” The Portland production, directed by Willow Jade Norton, also includes “a large community painting party for all ages, and two expressive art therapy workshops; the community is offered to learn practices of healing through art-making.”

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On Saturday Forest Grove’s Theatre in the Grove opens Frederick Knott’s 1966 stage thriller Wait Until Dark, which became a massive hit the following year in its movie version starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman who must use her wits and courage to outsmart a gang of murderous baddies led by a nefarious Alan Arkin.

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Also on Saturday, HART — Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre — opens The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, based on the enormously popular Rick Riordan book about a 12-year-old kid who discovers that Poseidon is his dad, and he’s a demigod. Adventures, of course, (and in this case, songs) ensue.

Coming soon

Andrea Vernae (left) and Lo Steele in Lynn Nottage's "Clyde's," opening at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Michael Davis, courtesy of Syracuse Stage.
Andrea Vernae (left) and Lo Steele in Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s,” opening at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Michael Davis, courtesy of Syracuse Stage.

Clyde’s, by two-time Pulitzer drama winner Lynn Nottage (for Ruined in 2009 and Sweat in 2017), begins previews on Saturday, June 1, at Portland Center Stage and opens officially on June 7. A bit like Middletown Mall and The Spitfire Grill, it’s set in the food world (Clyde’s is a greasy spoon staffed by ex-cons) and is largely a comedy, with some darker touches. It’s a co-production with Syracuse Stage, where it’s alrady played.

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In Ashland, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is getting ready to officially greet summer, beginning preview performances this weekend of this season’s two shows on the open-air Elizabethan stage. A stage adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre begins previews on Friday, May 31, and opens June 14. And Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing, featuring Amy Kim Waschke and John Tufts as the battling lovers Beatrice and Benedick, begins previews on Saturday, June 1, and opens June 15.

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Profile Theatre continues its deep dive into the works of playwright Christopher Oscar Peña with the world premiere of Our Orange Sky, which previews June 6-7 and opens June 8 at Imago Theatre. It’s Profile’s third play by Peña in the past two seasons — a mutually satisfying collaboration for writer and company — following How To Make an American Son and awe/struck. See Marty Hughley’s ArtsWatch interview with Peña here, and Darleen Ortega’s ArtsWatch review of awe/struck here.

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Meanwhile, Matilda: The Musical, which enjoyed a hit run at Portland Playhouse last fall (see Darleen Ortega’s ArtsWatch review here), is coming back for an encore run. Based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel Matilda, the musical returns for a victory lap June 7-30 — and a few performances are already sold out.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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