“Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” – Black Theatre Troupe and “Carmen” – Arizona Opera

This review aired on KBAQ February 8, 2016


Black Theatre Troupe, The Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center
Phoenix, AZ

The Black Theatre Troupe has struggled since they moved to a new Phoenix-financed playhouse on Washington Street that is a chore to reach.  Any theater is entitled to an occasional weak production but when disappointment becomes the rule, I seek other theater companies that might be doing better work to review.

Occasionally, BTT schedules an interesting production like the current “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” playwright James Still’s solo work that pre-dates the 2013 hit movie “The Butler.”  The older play looks at White House Chief Butler Alonzo Fields who served presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower.  Fields heard behind-the-scenes chatter about international issues, his bosses comments about those issues, and met many interesting people.  Still’s play also reveals disturbing racial biases in our chief executives as well as an evolving relationship of respect that grew slowly during Fields’ career.

The challenge with such a play is finding the perfect actor to impersonate the character.  While Walter Belcher works tirelessly, he doesn’t make us care about the insider facts we learn and the play seems long.  Couple Belcher disappointing performance with a sloppy production staged with mediocre monotony by Pasha Yamotahari on a cumbersome multi-level set that makes Belcher walk around in circles to achieve little and that is badly lit leaving Belcher in darkness during critical transitionary scenes.

“Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” continues through February 21.  For tickets, call the Black Theatre Troupe box office at 602-258-8129 or order online at www.blacktheatretroupe.tixato.com/buy.

Grade: D

Arizona Opera, Symphony Hall
Phoenix, AZ

Arizona Opera’s fiery new “Carmen” was something very special because of a sharply defined staging and brilliant singing.  It was especially notable because local audiences were treated to Daniela Mack’s incredible “Carmen.”  Mack will become a major international opera star, a prediction I rarely make.  She sang brilliantly, acted believably, and created a brazenly sexy cigarette girl, a characteristic this legendary opera character must become.  After seeing several dozen “Carmen’s” over time, I’ve never witnessed such a sultry and well-sung performance that soared across the footlights.

The rest of the cast including Karin Wolverton’s shrewdly telling Micaela, Adam Diegel’s soaringly sung Don Jose, and Ryan Kuster’s egocentric Escamillo were all stellar.  Keitaro Harada’s tempo-perfect conducting was exemplary, Tara Faircloth’s spicy staging was theatrically artful and, when combined with rustic scenery, dramatic lighting, and alluring projections this “Carmen” was vibrantly visual.  This stirring “Carmen” took Arizona Opera another giant step toward becoming a major regional opera company.  “Carmen” closed Sunday, February 7 at Symphony Hall.

Grade: A