Heritage Square is still Loud and proud

For the past two decades — ever since T.J. Mullin took over the space where William Oakley had been mounting melodramas — Heritage Square has produced some of this town's most consistent entertainment. Over the years, Mullin and his actors have developed a style and approach all their own, producing scripted plays with great dollops of audience interaction and improvisation built into them — not comedy-club-style improvisation, and not the tiny, tightly controlled snippets of audience involvement you sometimes find in other venues, but a genuine two-way communication that makes all the people in the place feel like comfortable old friends. This approach seems artless, but in fact it takes tremendous poise and talent for the actors to retain control while appearing continually on the verge of losing it. Each performer takes a different tack: Mullin maintains a quiet, friendly dignity, like the host of a rather subdued party, right up until the moment he cuts loose with a series of zany antics; Rory Pierce plays it halfway straight, which makes his sorties into sashaying cross-dressing doubly funny; Alex Crawford — a grandfather who's performed on this stage since Oakley's day and can still do the splits — moves skillfully between hamming and wry self-effacement; musical director Randy Johnson is so talented and playful that you find yourself grinning whenever you look in his direction; Eric Weinstein rounds out the orchestra with self-effacing skill.

Still, easily half the pleasure of going to Heritage is watching Annie Dwyer, who chooses to stay fairly low-key for the latest production, Garage Sale Loud: This Is It, but is still the most unpredictable member of the gang, always poised on the lip of chaos: Will she steal enough drinks from patrons to drink herself into a coma? Who in the audience will she choose for her ferocious flirtations, and just how outrageously will she insult his female companion? Garage Sale Loud is the latest installment in what's essentially a musical review with a thin, sustaining plot line and the word "loud" in the title. The conceit is that Mullin and Dwyer are siblings, and they're reliving their youth — teenage band rehearsals, high-school reunions. This time, their mom is moving into a retirement home and they're trying to sell off all the stuff left in the garage. They're joined by Pierce, who says he bought the house over the Internet; Crawford, who has apparently just wandered by; and the family's onetime lawn boy, Charlie (an expressive Charlie Schmidt), wearing the same tiny shorts he must have worn at fifteen.

It only takes a stray phrase or turn in the action for everyone to burst into song: "Blowin' in the Wind," "Blue Moon," "Help," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "I Get Around" — a promiscuous mishmash of hits from various decades, apparently picked because the performers happen to like them. Mullin does a hilarious impression of Mick Jagger singing "Jumping Jack Flash"; Crawford rocks on James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)"; Pierce's tongue gets a heavy workout as he impersonates Kiss. The most mind-blowing number is Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," with Pierce, Mullin and Schmidt as a leotard-clad chorus. The only thing missing from these numbers is a second female voice: Dwyer's duets with Johnette Toye — a gifted physical comedienne with a sweet soprano — were the high points of several previous Louds, and the Mamas and Papas' "Words of Love" really does require a Michelle.

Heritage Square has a devoted following; during intermission, you can hear audience members comparing this year's Loud to those of years past, song by song. But the group has been hit hard by the economic downturn, and it's imperative that it attract new fans. So Heritage managers are mulling ways to convince Denver residents that Golden really isn't so far away, wondering if they can attract younger viewers without losing the essence of what they do. Which, night after night, is create community and share laughter. That may sound corny, but like so much you depend on to add meaning and texture to life — dusty corner bookshops, diners where the waitress knows your name and calls you "hon," a dish your mother made all the time but that you cannot figure out how to reproduce — you tend not to value these things until you realize they're lost. Let's not lose this one.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman