Artfully Edmonds review: New York and Strasburg influences rise for outstanding Phoenix production

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Expressing Willie Program Cover
Now Playing!  The Phoenix Theatre is now staging the production “Expressing Willie” by Rachel Crothers. Tickets here.“Expressing Willie” by Rachel Crothers

Expressing Willie

Directed by Christine Mosere
The Phoenix Theatre
9673 Firdale Ave. SW

Now Playing!

Managing Director of The Phoenix Theatre Christine Mosere several years ago heard the cry of Horace Greeley, “Go West!” and luckily for the Puget Sound theatre community she followed the call.

Moving comfortably among the thespian crowd of Broadway and off-Broadway and Greater Seattle, Mosere directed and played in a number of productions before settling in the Edmonds area and discovering The Phoenix Theatre two years ago.

The “West” looks good on Mosere, if last night’s opening performance of “Expressing Willie” by playwright Rachel Crothers is any indication. With touches of New York’s Broadway talent holding the lead and a set design by a student of the Lee Strasburg Institute, it had to go well for the troupe that specializes in light-hearted fare and whose tag line is “Comedy – without all the drama!”

Mosere’s signature touches were all over the Roaring Twenties-era production, from direction to set design, to opening remarks and a stint as the House bartender. Mosere was in her element last night for the opening as she switched roles, hopping off the stage from emcee duty to the call over her shoulder to the devoted crowd, “The bar is open!” (The Phoenix Theatre serves beer and wine pre-show and during intermission.)

As is the case for most small-house community theatres, cast and crew did double duty for “Expressing Willie.” Stepping in to pull off the grandly-set production were several theatre people possessing glittering credentials starting with Jim Thompson. Returning to the Phoenix stage after a break in his theatre schedule, Thompson brings to The Phoenix his Lee Strasburg Institute training in set design and acting.

The staging of “Expressing Willie” is breathtaking. As patrons take their reserved seats in the intimate Firdale Village theatre, they enter the world of the privileged class. Deco touches reflecting the 1920s blend with velvets from the elegant Gilded Age. Soft peach tones and diffused lighting set the scene for aristocracy as the cast members move about in snooty sophistication, over which one can only laugh.

Mosere is not alone in bringing New York theatre experience to The Phoenix. Dan Jacoby, who quips both onstage and off, also responded to Greeley’s call and also moved West from New York, finding his place at The Phoenix. Coincidentally, Mosere and Jacoby were pals in New York’s theatre district and have found their respective places at The Phoenix, bouncing production ideas off one another.

11. Phoenix Theatre 2015 jPeg

For this production Jacoby along with Melanie Calderwood win the Tony; aided by a spectacular cast. To his immense credit, Jacoby stepped into his role as Willie Smith just one week before opening! As good fortune would have it, he played the same part, under the same director – Christine Mosere – eight years ago in New York.

“Moving around the stage came naturally, I remembered it exactly. The script took some work and memory,” said Jacoby, who does tend toward modesty and the understatement.

As you sit in the audience of “Expressing Willie,” watch not only as each actor delivers his or her lines, but the intensity of the supporting cast. Method acting at its very best. This cast sets the bar for authenticity –  Theatre District caliber!

Examples of the cast’s expertise were reflected from the very beginning as silly little Minnie (played poignantly by Alyssa Kay) romps in excitement over the nouveau riche décor of the Smith mansion, while on the arm of the spectacularly elegant Mrs. Smith (Mary Murfin Bayley).

But when Melanie Calderwood (playing the snobbish Greek chorus and portrait artist Taliaferro) makes her entrance, the gloves are off! Calderwood delivers her lines at a pace that would challenge any world-class typist sitting at an Olivetti – she’s going 120 words per minute. The verbal twists and turns – the swoops and dives – the double entendre and fencing-match spoken slices! How does she do it, production after production?

As Susan Connors, Larry Albert, Lynn Jepson and Madison Rengli take the stage in costumed splendor, the old adage, “The rich – they’re not like us,” comes vividly to mind. The centerpiece line goes to Jacoby, who delivers (in character as Willie Smith), “Nothing they say is real.”

What is real however is the quality of The Phoenix Theatre with Christine Mosere and Melanie Calderwood; Dan Jacoby and all the other cast and crew in the nest as The Phoenix “puts on the Ritz” in this top-notch production.

A ★ ★ ★ ★ ★-star must see!!

For tickets to “Expressing Willie,” proceed to The Phoenix Theatre box office at www.phoenixtheatreedmonds.org.

— By Emily Hill

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