News Column

Icons galore at the PAC

November 13, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 13--Local theatergoers are in luck. In the next few days, the Performing Arts Center will host three visiting stage productions: "Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience" on Sunday, "Million Dollar Quartet" on Monday and "The Graduate" on Tuesday.

That's in addition to the many local productions going on around the same time, from "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" at The Spot in Arroyo Grande to "Mary Poppins" at PCPA Theaterfest in Santa Maria.

Here's a rundown of all three productions coming to the PAC:

Potty about Harry Potter

It's been 15 years since the first book in J.K. Rowling's immensely popular Harry Potter fantasy series was published in the United States.

Since then, the magical adventures of a spectacles-sporting boy wizard have inspired eight movies, 11 video games and an Orlando, Fla., theme park attraction, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Now there's another, albeit unofficial, spinoff: "Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience -- A Parody by Dan and Jeff."

"It's still so popular," said actor Delme Thomas, noting that audience members often attend shows dressed in Hogwarts finery. "People just can't get enough of it."

Created by British comedians Daniel Clarkson and Jeff Turner, "Potted Potter" condenses -- or "pots" -- all seven Harry Potter books into a zany, zippy 70-minute show.

James Percy plays a serious-minded expert in all things Harry Potter, while Thomas plays his underprepared friend, who fills in the sizable gaps in his own knowledge of the franchise with references to "The Chronicles of Narnia," "The Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars." (In reality, Thomas has been a Harry Potter fan since age 14.)

Together, the two endeavor to retell the entire series using songs, props and audience participation. Improvisation ensures that the show changes every time they perform it.

"It's very fast-paced, very intense," said Thomas, who plays all the characters in the show aside from Harry himself. "There's not much time for me to do massive costume changes, (so) it's a lot of me running around putting on various hats. ..."

His favorite character is Professor Snape, the dour potions teacher who seemingly despises Harry and his friends.

"He's a bit evil but he's a bit camp as well," Thomas said.

Although you don't have to be a Harry Potter fan to join in the all-ages fun, Thomas said it helps.

"All the people who are involved (with the show) really love the story and the films and the books," he said.

Making musical history

Music historian Colin Escott can trace the birth of rock 'n' roll back to Dec. 4, 1956.

That's when Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley gathered at Sun Records Studios in Memphis, Tenn., for a legendary jam session. Their impromptu get-together is the inspiration behind the jukebox musical Escott wrote with Floyd Mutrux, "Million Dollar Quartet."

Nominated for three Tony Awards, "Million Dollar Quartet" premiered on Broadway in 2010. Escott and Mutrux also co-wrote the musical "Baby It's You!" which features the music of 1960s girl group The Shirelles and tells the story of Scepter Records founder Florence Greenberg.

According to Escott, the Million Dollar Quartet represents a "cultural flashpoint" in rock history.

"These days, if there's a superstar get-together, it's usually midwifed by press secretaries and managers. It feels so dreadfully contrived," said the author, whose books include "Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n' Roll."

In the case of the Million Dollar Quartet, Perkins was in the studio to record some new material. Sun label owner Sam Phillips brought in his latest acquisition, Lewis, to play piano.

Cash and Presley -- current and former Sun artists, respectively -- dropped by during the session.

"They just sang what they felt like singing," Escott said, including country, gospel and rockabilly tunes. "It was music we made for the joy of making music."

"Million Dollar Quartet" includes some of the songs the musicians performed in 1956, as well as many of their better known hits, including Cash's "Walk the Line," Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" and Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire."

"We really wanted to make it more than a greatest hits show. We really wanted to give folks some sense of where this music came from," Escott said.

That's why casting is "very key," he added, noting that James Barry, John Countryman, Tyler Hunter and Scott Moreau weren't necessarily selected for their physical resemblance to their real-life counterparts.

"What we want is guys who can channel what those (musicians) were like at that point in their lives," Escott said. "It was all so fresh and new to them."

Cross-generational tale

When "The Graduate" opened in theaters in 1967, the movie spoke directly to an entire generation of aimless, angst-filled young people alienated by their parents and their peers. But in many ways, director Brian Kite said, the story speaks to modern audiences as well.

"This is about someone in their 20s trying to figure out what to do next with their life. There's a war going on somewhere. The government is a mess ..." said Kite, who helms L.A. Theatre Works' touring stage production of "The Graduate." "That could be current and relevant to so many people."

Adapted for the stage by Terry Johnson, "The Graduate" centers on Benjamin Braddock (Brian Tichnell), whose recent college graduation leaves him with serious concerns about his future.

He starts sleeping with the wife of his father's business partner, Mrs. Robinson (Heidi Dippold), only to find himself falling in love with her daughter, Elaine (Jill Renner).

Meanwhile, Mrs. Robinson has "her own struggles with being stuck in a loveless marriage," Kite said.

As the director explained, this version of "The Graduate" combines the format of a traditional radio play -- in which actors speak directly into microphones, rather than to each other -- with more theatrical elements such as costumes and set pieces.

"The incredible thing about radio theater is you get to really lose yourself in the characters and the acting," he said. "You really get to see them go on that journey."

Although the stripped-down stage version doesn't have the advantage of locations and lavish sets, it does inspire more creative storytelling.

For instance, when Ben and Mrs. Robinson consummate their lust for the first time, audience members watch their shadowy silhouettes through an illuminated bed sheet held up by his parents. A sound effects specialist simulates the sound of a squeaking mattress with egg crates.

"We get right down to the essence of it all," Kite said.

IF YOU GO

"Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience"

2 and 5 p.m. Sunday

$29.20 to $59

"Million Dollar Quartet"

7:30 p.m. Monday

$48 to $88

L.A. Theatre Works: "The Graduate"

7:30 p.m. Tuesday

$22.50 to $44

Cohan Center, Cal Poly

756-4849 or www.pacslo.org

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.

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