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Hit Parade

Memphis theaters stage superb productions of Proof, Red, and Les Miz.


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Set in Chicago, Proof aims to measure the distance between genius and insanity while telling the story of Catherine (Jillian Barron), the daughter of a brilliant, recently deceased mathematician, who must prove that an important mathematical breakthrough originated with her, not with her mentally-ill father.

The relationships in Proof are emotionally raw and excruciatingly real. Before she says a word, you can read the fatigue and depression in Barron's posture. As Claire, her parachute sibling whose support over the years has been primarily financial, Taylor Wood drops in from New York like the last great superpower, well-intentioned and willing to do whatever it takes to fix problems that may or may not exist, in a landscape she barely understands.

Stephen Garrett's comic sensibilities serve him well as a younger mathematician attempting to begin a relationship with Catherine, while sifting through her father's papers. He charms through the smarm enduring this Kate's onslaughts like a modern-day Petruchio.

I've seen Sam Weakley do more detailed character work in shows like August: Osage County. But he's never been any more effective than he is as the too-real memory of a loving parent, broken by forces beyond his control.

Through September 22nd

Red, at Circuit Playhouse, begins with a dimming of the lights. Blackness swallows color in a way that the Mark Rothko of playwright John Logan's imagination says he fears like he fears death. But the colors return, more vibrant than ever when the light comes up on Tony Isbell giving what may be the strongest performance of his acting career. There he is, front stage center: Rothko, the opinionated, self-infatuated abstract expressionist painter whose work and ideas will be celebrated and challenged over the course of one vigorous act.

"What do you see?" he asks at length, and so it begins.

Red, a study in conflict, contrast, and irony, opens a window onto Rothko's world after the artist has been offered $35,000 — a vast sum for the mid-1950s — to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons, a high-end New York restaurant. Now the uncompromising artist who criticized Picasso's "ugly pots" is forced to confront the commodification of his own work.

This slight biographical sketch, which, structurally speaking, owes a lot to commercial musicals like Always Patsy Cline, leaves us with the impression that we've experienced something rich, real, and rewarding. It's pop art for playgoers: the great Rothko condemned to live forever inside a commodified hell.

Christopher Joel Onken delivers a nice, understated performance as Ken, the younger artist hired to make coffee and prime Rothko's canvases. And Isbell's performance as one of the 20th century's most influential artists is not to be missed.

Through September 15th

The grandest thing about Playhouse on the Square's triumphant production of Les Misérables is its relative modesty. Mark Guirguis' scenic design is too useful and sturdy to inspire much awe. Sets are subtle and constructed with actors top-of-mind, not the theater tourists. Instead of investing in technological marvels, director Gary John La Rosa has doubled down on the power of good singing, unfussy acting, and clear storytelling. The big payoff is an evening of genuine intimacy from a show that usually overwhelms.

Performances by leads and chorus members alike are first-rate and fully packed. Jordan Nichols wears the role of Marius like a comfortable suit. Regional favorites Ken Zimmerman and Courtney Oliver are deliciously seedy as Thenardier and his Madame. Claire Hayner is uncommonly vulnerable as Fantine, and Michael Detroit gives a strong, no-nonsense performance as Javert, who stalks Jean Valjean across decades. This is Valjean's show, of course, and with his powerful build and angel's voice, Philip Andrew Himebook makes that perfectly clear every time he walks on stage.

Playhouse's Les Misérables isn't just populated with great voices. These are voices — human and orchestral — that sound fantastic together.

Through September 15th

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