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This 'Lady' just a few answers short

Carolyn Michel captures Ann Landers’ great sense of humor, even though her career as a newspaper columnist seems less than stage-worthy.

American Stage

Carolyn Michel captures Ann Landers’ great sense of humor, even though her career as a newspaper columnist seems less than stage-worthy.

Carolyn Michel gives a ravishing performance as Ann Landers (a.k.a. Eppie Lederer) in The Lady With All the Answers, David Rambo's play about the advice columnist at American Stage. Unfortunately, the one woman-show isn't very dramatic, because it pivots on the supremely undramatic act of writing a newspaper column. Set in 1975 in her posh apartment on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, it mainly involves Landers struggling at an electric typewriter to compose "the most important column of my career," as she announced a painful change in her life with readers.

I have seen Michel in many productions through the years, mainly at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, and I can't think of a role she has inhabited so well as the doyenne of the lovelorn, an eminence Landers shared with her identical twin, Pauline Phillips of "Dear Abby" fame (the sisters' feud is dutifully referenced). Michel has the columnist's bubbly good humor ("20 lashes with a wet noodle" was her famous catchphrase for an apology) down pat, as well as her raspy laugh. However, the letters she quotes — on subjects from how to hang toilet paper to homosexuality — were more interesting in print over morning coffee than on stage.

The Lady With All the Answers runs through Sunday at American Stage, St. Petersburg. $25. (727) 823-7529; americanstage.org.

Political playwright: Suzanne Willett deserves a lot of credit for Red Pepper, her play about the 1950 Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat from Florida, between incumbent Claude Pepper and his conqueror, George Smathers. This epic encounter foreshadowed the polarizing politics of today — Pepper was an ardent New Dealer; Smathers espoused limited government, along with McCarthy-style red-baiting — and Willett is smart to recognize its relevance and theatrical potential.

The debut production of Red Pepper, now at Venue Theatre, features some excellent actors, especially Dana Kovar as Mildred Pepper, a sharp-witted counsel to her folksy, populist husband (Jared O'Roark), and Michael McGreevy, who gives a deliciously malevolent performance as Ed Ball, the St. Joe Paper Company power broker who ruled Florida from a Jacksonville hotel room.

Willett shrewdly delves into the personal relationships among the Peppers, the opportunistic Smathers (Tom Bronson), Ball and their operatives, but her play has a disjointed quality because it is chopped into so many brief scenes (19 scenes in the first act alone). The staging (the playwright was the uncredited director) is much too busy, with a little table being lugged on and off for nearly every scene change.

Incidentally, there is a new book out on 1950 Senate campaign, Red Pepper and Gorgeous George by James C. Clark (University Press of Florida).

Red Pepper runs through Oct. 22 at Venue Theatre, Pinellas Park. $7, $15. (727) 822-6194; redpeppertheplay.com

Russian soprano: Anna Netrebko is the diva of the moment. On Sept. 26, she starred in the Metropolitan Opera's season-opening production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena to, for the most part, extravagant praise. Now opera fans worldwide will be able to enjoy the production broadcast live from the Met in HD to movie theaters in the U.S. and 53 other countries — including, for the first time, Netrebko's native Russia. Starting at 12:55 p.m. Saturday, the performance is beamed into a half-dozen bay area theaters. Information: metopera.org/hdlive.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

This 'Lady' just a few answers short 10/11/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 12, 2011 8:15am]

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