American Players Theatre closes in on winner of Ides of March Madness bracket

Aaron Conklin provides updates on the theater-themed showdown, a last-call for 'Prom,' birthday shoutouts and his suggestion on what to watch next
Apt Ides Of March Madness
Photo courtesy of American Players Theatre

Who’s your dark horse? While the rest of the nation is busy bemoaning its busted brackets for the NCAA’s College Basketball Tournament, fans of American Players Theatre find themselves following a very different — and frankly, very bizarre — throwdown. Our local classical theater company concocted its own Ides of March Madness bracket, filled with matchup pairings from Shakespeare plays both familiar and obscure, with theater fans deciding who advances and who heads home. It’s a clever conceit, although I could wish Brenda DeVita and company had followed a more traditional seeding formula: A first-round matchup between Romeo & Juliet and Beatrice & Benedick from “Much Ado About Nothing” felt more like an Elite Eight throwdown between Duke and Arkansas than the typical blue blood vs. mid-major mismatch you’d expect. (Bad news for the heady young lovers: APT fans must be remembering David Daniel and Colleen Madden’s turns as Beatrice and Benedick from 2014.) And some of the entries seemingly had less chance to advance in this dance than play-in fodder: Pisanio & Imogen from “Cymbeline” were more who? than Norfolk State.

This Bard-centered tournament is completing its second round of voting on APT’s Facebook and Instagram feeds as of today, with weekday voting on later rounds to follow beginning next week. Hamlet and Ophelia are probably the Duke University of the surviving field, but maybe true March Madness will yet prevail: May we suggest the Witches from “MacBeth”?

Last call for ‘Prom’

The Prom

Photo by Deen Van Meer

Photo by Deen Van Meer

Given all the ways “The Prom” shouldn’t work — the notion of a group of liberal Broadway actors in need of a PR boost swooping in to enlighten a conservative Indiana community that has canceled a high school dance rather than let a local lesbian attend with her date feels both cringey and self-congratulatory — the touring Broadway production playing at Overture Center through this Sunday mostly manages to make it all seem like a big ol’ self-affirming lark.

Credit goes to Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin’s book, which isn’t afraid to take as many shots at the pompous Broadway divas, like Dee Dee (Courtney Balan, playing the role Meryl Streep rocked in Ryan Murphy’s inferior movie version) as those small-minded Midwestern rubes. (Dee Dee’s forced to endure the heartland horrors of a monster truck rally and an Applebee’s. OMG!) The show’s more heartfelt numbers pack an impressive punch, especially “Unruly Heart,” a near-acoustic number delivered by awkward teen Emma (Kaden Kearney) and “Alyssa Green,” sung with force and heart by Kalyn West as Emma’s painfully closeted partner.

Emma and Alyssa’s story is far more human and compelling than watching a quartet of narcissists stumble their way to self-discovery. And “Love Thy Neighbor,” a number in which a Broadway bro convinces a group of surly Indiana teens to instantly shed their bigotry and homophobia by singing about a few uncomfortable inconsistencies in the Old Testament feels like the biggest fantasy to hit the Broadway stage since “Cats.” That said, it’s all but impossible not to embrace the joy of watching everyone dancing happily at the end.

Happy Birthday x2!
Happy birthday to Forward Theatre Co. — the local troupe celebrates its 13th this year — and also Forward’s artistic director, Jennifer Uphoff Gray (no guesses on age here), who celebrated her own birthday later this week. Hopefully the cake was dramatic in both cases.

Play to Watch
In that celebratory spirit, April’s Play to Watch slot goes to Forward’s production of “Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy.” Playwright Sarah Gancher tells the tale of an agency whose employees are dedicated to spreading political misinformation on the internet. It feels very of-the-moment, even though the moment in question actually occurred more than two years ago. The cast includes APT stalwart Sarah Day and local stand-up legend Casem AbuLughod, both of whom are pros at broad comedies like this. It’s the final show of Forward’s 2021-22 season, and it opens April 21 in the Overture Center Playhouse.

Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.

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