by Genevieve Heinrich
Cedar Rapids - The current season of SPT Theatre's Tales from The Writers' Room winds to a close this weekend and, appropriately to the theme (Food for Thought) they are ending on a Nightcap. Like all SPT shows, the crowd and the performers were full of energy last night, with that welcoming, familial vibe that always makes the theater space at CSPS Hall feel more like a living room. The evening began with a clever twist: audience participation. Every person in attendance was given a slip of paper with two questions, and teased with the promise that some of the responses would be used later in the show.
This scheme is a tangible representation of what SPT does best - engaging their audiences, making them feel like a valuable part of the action. Their venue at CSPS is a key component of this, as well. In their time there, the intimate feel has only deepened, helped along by CSPS' own close-knit atmosphere. Even the volunteers wax poetic about the joys of being part of that community! It's the sort of collaborative match that artists long for.
The performances in Nightcap were quite typically eclectic. The strengths of the writers shone, although at times it seemed as though they were growing weary of the overarching theme. There were cute concepts that might have worked well as throw-away gags but were instead extended into entire scenes. They played well to the audience, many of whom were howling where I might have groaned. However, even many of the actors seemed to acknowledge the broad humor - there was much more mugging to the audience than usual.
Several skits were absolutely gorgeous standouts in opposition to this criticism. It was frustrating that most of the best work was condensed in the first half of the show, but as always with this ensemble, when they're on, they're ON. "Fairytale Bedtime" was an adorable and well-acted piece, easily my favorite of the night. Guest artists Catherine Blades and Alex Doser slid into these roles with ease; performing as children seemed to help them let go of a bit of stiffness that may have come with being unused to this particular style of performance. Jason Alberty, as their father, was atypically reserved and subtle in his humor and, together, the three had a lovely rapport.
Another standout was "La Buena Vista," more a poem than a sketch (and unfortunately, the only one of this style in the set). A couple of the actors seemed uncomfortable with the difference in performance style required of that sort of recitation, but it was worth it to see the piece done as a "group performance." Solo poetry performance, no matter how good, can sometimes feel static when tossed into the middle of a more dynamic piece. This managed to avoid that, while still honoring the character of the work.
The company as a whole made some interesting choices in Nightcap when it came to integrating their special guests. Some played really well to the guests' strengths - "Witty Drinking," in particular, utilized Blades' and Doser's formidable musical theatre voices in unique and effective (and hilarious) ways. Other attempts worked less well - Blades' voice, though beautiful, was not well-suited to her solo song "Malted Milk," and she seemed to be trying to emulate a style that did not come naturally. One wonderful treat was the chance to hear a lot of vocals from guest guitarist Billy Heller. He managed to hold his own and blend fantastically with Jane Pini on "Dimming of the Day," not an easy feat against a powerhouse voice like hers. More work between the two of them would be a joy to see.
In general, musically, the two instrumentals dominated over any of the vocal work this time around. Speaking of utilizing guest artists, Doser showed of some amazing piano skills in "Nikolai Kapustin's Intermezzo," a perfectly placed diversion that clung gorgeously to the tone of the evening. The second half instrumental, "Apricot Brandy," was far and away the best part of the show post-intermission. With the musical talent that has become a mainstay of these performances, I personally would *love* to see Tales from The Writers' Room expanded to include composers, as well. The familiar tunes are audience favorites, it's true... but it seems a shame to relegate such talent to familiar work.
All in all, Nightcap was a solid close to a fascinating SPT season. CSPS announced last night that season tickets for 2014-15 would be on sale during intermission and after the show, and online by Monday. If you can't make it tonight, consider planning ahead for the next season of this fantastic local tradition. I know I can't wait to see what they have planned going forward!