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Saints and Sinners 

Theater review: Tenderloin

click to enlarge Eric R. Hill, Greer Gillespie and G. Richard Ames
  • Eric R. Hill, Greer Gillespie and G. Richard Ames

The growing popularity of the annual Blackfly Festival is one reason Vermonters ask, “How do you get there from here?” about the tiny, unincorporated village of Adamant. And, for nearly 70 summers, music connoisseurs have quietly found their way to the central Vermont hamlet to enjoy classical concerts from piano students and world-renowned teachers at the Adamant Music School. Less well known than the pests and pianists, the theater company QuarryWorks provides a third motivation to go.

Many theater troupes in Vermont make stage magic in all kinds of creaky converted structures — barns, churches, town halls. QuarryWorks performs in a fantastic venue: the Phillips Experimental Theater, a true black-box space. Audience capacity is 50, and the “worst” seat in the house is just 10 yards from the stage.

QuarryWorks capitalizes on the considerable strengths of its environs for the musical Tenderloin (1960), the opening production of this summer’s season. Excellent acoustics and sight lines draw the audience into the ensemble’s energetic execution of playful tunes and cornball comedy.

The play opens with a fiery sermon by the Reverend Dr. Brock. It’s New York City in the 1890s, and there’s a whole lotta sinning going on. The Rev gets especially revved up about Manhattan’s red-light district — “a present-day Sodom and Gomorrah” — called the Tenderloin. Brothels and gambling and corruption, oh my! Doc Brock’s preaching rattles the cops and pols on the take, as well as the hardworking “working girls.”

Scandal-sheet reporter Tommy Howatt joins the church choir with a covert mission to spy on the holy rollers. The shady sergeant who profits nicely from the Tenderloin’s vice wants Tommy to dig up dirt to use against Brock. But the prim parson really does live an upright life. He extols, in song, the joys of “Good Clean Fun” such as taffy pulls and weenie roasts. Seriously.

Tommy is touched by the earnestness of Brock and his parishioners, and he soon falls for sweet church member Laura. But his budding connection to the do-gooders conflicts with obligations to his bad-boy buds on the street. Battle lines surrounding the Tenderloin, once clear, begin to blur as newfound relationships take priority over principles.

Director Michael John Suchomel does a remarkable job employing an ensemble of 10 to cover the show’s dozens of roles. (Tenderloin’s Broadway premiere boasted a 44-person cast.) Only three lead actors play a single character: the preacher, reporter and cop. The other performers double and triple up as sinners and saints, wearing base layers of black as they change costume elements between song-and-dance numbers.

Costumer Charis Churchill crafted clever details that allow the actors to transform their appearance quickly and dramatically. Demure female parishioners hitch up long, black skirts to reveal racy fishnets, and peel back black leotard tops to show scanty camisoles. Voilà! Church ladies become ladies of the evening. Changes take place quietly onstage, with performers sitting on stools facing away from the audience. Countless costume swaps happen during the show, but Suchomel carefully orchestrates the dressing and undressing so it doesn’t distract from the action.

Tenderloin features some catchy tunes with a fun, faux-1890s flair. Music director Eliza Thomas on keyboards and Sean Beatty on percussion stylishly render the score. They play from an upper level above and slightly behind the stage, which means the singers hear them easily and project clearly above the instrumentation.

Whether singing or sermonizing, G. Richard Ames plays Rev. Brock with power and conviction. His eyes beam with piety and his voice booms with righteousness. Ames’ expressive, expansive bass vocals resonate in the cozy space.

Eric R. Hill, as Tommy, also has nice pipes, with a warm tone and lyrical technique. He paints a broad comic picture of his character, who wears under the strain of trying to manipulate both sides. Hill’s voice pairs beautifully in duets with both Ames and Lynne Dumais, who plays Tommy’s love interest, Laura. Dumais brings freshness and sincerity to her portrait of Laura. And when she hikes up her skirt to become her bordello character, Margie, she makes quite the high-octane hooker.

Part of the charm of this production is the diversity of the cast, many of whom have been performing at QuarryWorks for years. The ensemble ranges in age from early twentysomething to AARP-member-for-a-while-now. Lucy Howard portrays gray-haired call girl Gertie with delicious feistiness, seducing a young john (played delightfully by Thomas Hunt) by slipping him a mickey. Go, grandma!

If the quirky fest for the spring pest has so far been your only reason for venturing to Adamant, consider an evening at QuarryWorks. Most theatergoers come early and picnic in the idyllic setting: The Phillips sits next to an old granite quarry, now a lovely pond. (Another building on the site contains vintage photos detailing the mining history of the town, which used to be called, ahem, Sodom.) Picnic tables overlook the spectacular view. BYO bug spray, however, or you-know-who will picnic on you.

Want to see for yourself?

Tenderloin, directed by Michael John Suchomel and produced by Frank Suchomel. QuarryWorks, Phillips Experimental Theater at the Adamant Music School. July 21 through 24 at 7:30 p.m.; July 23 and 24 at 2 p.m. Free. Reservations, 229-6978.

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