Saturday, March 8, 2014

REVIEW: Shining Star Graces "Number the Stars" from North End Players

You may be familiar with the stage play made from "The Diary of Anne Frank," or the story of Corrie ten Boom's plight in "The Hiding Place," and have some knowledge of the many atrocities of the Nazis during the Holocaust of World War II. "Number the Stars" covers similar territory from a different perspective--that of a non-Jewish girl aiding the escape of Danish Jews.

Two things you need to know about the title of this Newberry Award-winning story. 1) The Bible says the God has numbered the stars (every one of them) and that, 2) God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars.

During the German occupation of Denmark in World War II, the Nazis closed down Jewish-owned businesses and began to round up the Jews for relocation to concentration camps for the final solution. Danish freedom fighters of all ages risked everything in daring, hurried attempts to rescue the entire Jewish population. In this stirring new play, young Annemarie and Kirsti Johansen face soldiers, interrogations, fierce dogs, personal danger, the loss of loved ones and their own fears as they try to help their friend Ellen Rosen escape across the ocean to Sweden and safely. Courage, faith, ingenuity and even their fledgling acting skills eventually win the day. All the drama, pathos, adventure, terror and humor that have made Lois Lowry's  "Number the Stars" a national best seller (and winner of the Newberry Award and the American Library Association Book of the Year Award) come to life in this powerful adaptation by Dr. Douglas W. Larche.

I liked the play, now I have to read the book.

"I will always wear the Star of David in my heart."

The Stars

Ably and creatively directed by Sue Harris, the show features several players from Southwest Washington, namely she and her talented family. Husband JJ, son Jim and that firecracker daughter Amelia I enjoyed so much in NEPs 2013 production of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" are performing. There is a cast of twenty, twenty-one if you count Strider (he's one of them ranger types), who is a German Shepherd.

Mercy McVicker (left) as Annamarie and Belanna Winborne (right) as
Ellen Rosen in "Number the Stars." Photo by JJ Harris.
The cast consisted of a mix of talents, most did well enough. It was a good play to introduce newbie actors as there where several bit roles. Only a few actors (the six leads) are required to carry the show. Mercy McVicker (as Annemarie Johansen), Amelia Harris (as Kirstie Johansen), Torrie Tanner (as Inge Johansen), JJ Harris (as Papa Johansen) and Nathan Larrabee (as Peter Johansen) all did quite well. As did Belanna Winborne understudying Maeve O'Conner in the role of Ellen Rosen, the Jewish girl the Johansen family save. Winborne played the part so well you would have no idea she was the understudy if not told.

Nathan Larrabee performed strongly in his role as a leader of the underground resistance and his closing soliloquy was especially moving and sincere. I enjoyed JJ Harris in his secondary role as a Nazi officer more than his role as Papa. Third-grader Amelia Harris--just as button cute as she was in her last show, but twice as good (in a much bigger part)--was an expressive ball of energy.

But, mercy, mercy, mercy, the real shining star of the show was 13-year-old home-schooler, Mercy McVicker, an amazing performer with a certain future in acting. She is one to keep your eye on. She reminded me very much of a younger version of local superstar actress Ashlee Waldbauer (whom we've reviewed numerous times). I believe the two could play one another at different ages since they both look similar and have the same magical energy.

The Numbers

I have some issues with the production values and, therefore, I have mixed feelings about the attempt. On the one hand this play is very much worth presenting for the message and quality writing. On the other hand, as a period piece with seven different sets (locales), it is a big challenge for community theater. It would be expensive to get it done 100% right. As it was, many of the furnishings/set dressings were out of place.

Costumes (by Sue Harris) and properties were often misfits. Things like mall store-logoed shopping bags and 1960's suitcases, polyester suits, black nylons and snowflake fleece slippers in a 1930's setting are just cringe-able to me. But then, I realize how hard and expensive it would be to get it perfect and I have to be forgiving. I can't blame them for wanting to present this play, I do, too (but I just wouldn't unless I could be more authentic).

That said, the set (design by JJ Harris) was well laid out and a rather ingenious. The changes, though, could have been smoother; the show ran close to ninety minutes (not counting the intermission) and should have run at eighty. Then again there are seven sets and twenty-one scenes to deal with. I did like the sound design.

The lighting (by Dennis Stevens) was okay. The stage was evenly lit, but again there were challenges such as LED PARs not controlled with the proper dimmer system, occasional blinding light in the eyes of the audience, etc.. (I imagine they could use funding for a better lighting desk.) Colors were good.

Now, put aside those picky issues (that's me) and consider seeing this play for the great story, writing and message. The hope and inspiration it will give you. And the joy you will derive from seeing the young talent (especially Mercy McVicker). Tell 'em the SW Washington STAR sent you.

Evening performances: doors open at 7 p.m.; curtain at 7:30 p.m.  The theater is at The Bert Mann Theatre at The Abbey, 7600 N. Hereford Avenue, Portland, Ore.  Box Office Reservations: 503-705-2088. This is the show's second weekend, you can see it today, Saturday, March 8 at 2 p.m. or 7:30 p.m; or next Friday or Saturday, March 14 or 15 at 7:30 p.m. only. Details and tickets can be found here.

Review by Gregory E. Zschomler
Photo, by JJ Harris, provided.

No comments:

Post a Comment