King and I really big show

The Premier Arts production of “The King and I,” which played the first of its three performances at the Elco Theatre Friday evening is, to quote the late Ed Sullivan (ask your older friends), “a reeeeely big show.”  Bigger, however, does not always mean better. In fact, this “King and I” — one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Big Five” — is frequently best when The King (Curtis Hill Jr.) and Anna Leonowens (Liberty Morgan Cantzler) are interacting alone. Cantzler has the majority of the production on her slim shoulders and, as the English widow summoned to the court of Siam in the late 1860s to teach King Mongkut’s many children, she is well up to the task. With five solos (plus two reprises), she is on stage most of the time and, when not, obviously is changing costumes. Still, she manages to deliver a sustained, solid and sensitive performance which is, at all times, very believeable. She also has a warm and true soprano which more than does justice to such familiar melodies as “Getting to Know You” and “Hello Young Lovers.” Her  angry soliloquy, “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” delivered after a confrontation with the king, is well done but would be more effective up to tempo. As the autocratic and absolute ruler, Hill reprises the role he created for Elkhart Civic

Theatre in 2000, but here with lots more glitter and eye shadow. He has lost none of the commanding physical presence required for the monarch (a la Yul Brynner). The stance is there, but rapid delivery sometimes results in the loss of dialogue. Whatever the few flaws, there is no doubt he will forever be associated with this character, no matter what roles he may undertake in the future. He IS The King!   The ill-fated lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha are played, according to the program, by Maddy Whitby and Peter Sessions. On Friday evening, however, Whitby, who was in a minor car accident on Wednesday, was replaced by choreographer Ashley Frost, a fact that was not announced to the audience. Hopefully, Whitby will be on stage tonight and Sunday. Frost was a very acceptable substitute and she and Sessions blended well on their two duets, “We Kiss in the Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” Don’t look for the last  in the film version. It was not included, nor were “Shall I Tell You” or “My Lord and Master,” Tuptim’s initial solo. Laurie DuBois was Lady Thiang, first wife to the king and mother of the crown prince, who expresses her feelings about the king in “Something Wonderful.” There are so many “Siamese children” in this production (80 in the children’s ensemble) that one wonders how the King who fathered them all had time to do anything else.  All know where to go and when and how to behave on stage, which definitely is a plus and hopefully will  be put to good use in future productions. But the sheer magnitude of the numbers tends to make them all blur together, unless, of course, you’re a friend or relative, and there were many among the 1,200 people in the Elco Friday evening. The youngsters in featured roles — Jackson Fann as Crown Prince Chulalongcorn, Brayden Cantzler as Louis Leonowens and DeAnn Veatch as Princess Ying Yaowalak — carried off their assignments with aplomb, and the adorable Veatch was a real heartbreaker. Unfortunately, the dancers in the second act ballet, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” were not named in the program (nor were any of the scenes or musical numb ers). So I can say only that Eliza and Co. did a very fine job in the Siamese version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” “The King and I” plays at 7:30 p.m. today and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Elco. Call 293-4469.

King and I is a family affair

For the leading players in the Premier Arts production of “The King and I,” playing next weekend at the Elco Theatre, calling the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical a family show definitely has a double meaning,  especially for the man who portrays the extremely prolific King of Siam.   Not only is Curtis Hill, Jr. recreating the role of the autocratic ruler which he played first in the 2000 Elkhart Civic Theatre production, also in this cast are wife Theresa and all five of the Hills’ children: Halle, 14; Mallory, 12; Curtis III, 10;  Bella, 8; and Abraham, 7.

All are among the seemingly endless flow of royal offspring who fill the stage during the famous “March of the Siamese Children,” and several are in the second act ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” with Halle as Topsy. Theresa, no surprise, is one of the King’s wives. All of the youngsters have a surprising amount of theatrical experience, via youth theater programs, and all were definite about wanting to do more. Once the bug bites … For Theresa, however, “This is a one time deal, just because it’s a family affair.”  Her role has in past shows has been to help on a production committee or just wait for the young thespians to finish rehearsal. “I love watching their shows,” she said, noting that her only regret is that being on stage, “I won’t be able to see this one.”  The final weeks before opening have left time for nothing but school (all are honor students and in pep programs), dinner and homework, usually done at the theater. ” We’re used to having mom in the audience,” Halle said. “So this is interesting.” And what’s it like, living with the King?  No problem, according to his kids. “This is kind of his personality,” Halle volunteered. It is a personality that dominated his first royal outing and promises to do the same on the Elco’s much larger stage. Not an easy task in the role so completely associated with the late Yul Brynner, who played it for more than 4,000 performances from 1951 almost until his death in 1985. Hill was, and obviously still is, up to the challenge. “I’ve always been a big Yul Brynner fan,” he said. “Even before ‘The King and I.’ I watched him in ‘The 10 Commandments” and ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and thought he was great.” “I am not a theater guy,” Hill declared, but when he saw the ECT audition notice, “I thought if ever it was the time, this was it.”  Recalling his initial experience at the Bristol Opera House, he  has good memories of that production. “The Civic was a much more intimate crowd,” he said, adding “This big stage is better for ‘The King and I’.” The only drawback has been “I remember things from eight years ago,” he said with a chuckle. “I know the part and I know the show. It’s frustrating for some people.” His job as Elkhart County Prosecutor doesn’t allow much time for extra curricular activities, but “Doing a part in this show is much more fun as community service than sitting on a board or a committee.” Especially when the whole family can have fun with him. His Elco co-star is a young and talented theater veteran, Liberty Morgan Cantzler. As Anna Leonowens, she brings her young son Louis to the court of Siam. In keeping with the familial theme (more than 15 families are among the 118 actors and 40 crew members involved in the production), Louis is played by Liberty’s 9-year-old son, Brayden, who, his mother said quickly, auditioned and got the role all on his own.  “In fact,” she added. “He begged me to audition.”

“He was doing stuff (shows) as a baby,” his mother said of the Pinewood Elementary School pep program student. Like the Hill children, his grades do not suffer because of his theater involvement. Unlike Hill, however, Liberty has always wanted to do theater.  She began here. Her first role, at age 4, was a passenger on the liner American in ECT’s first “Anything Goes.” After high school, she went to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, focused on a career in the theater. “I have always wanted to do this,” she said. “There was never a question. I want to do it as much as possible.” She married Sean Cantzler, then a lieutenant in the Navy, with an eye to regional theaters wherever he was stationed. Then Brayden was born and “I wanted to be a mommy,” said the petite blonde. Cantzler left the service and they returned home. After daughter Mady was born, the couple divorced, but theater has always  been Liberty’s through-line.  Now a single mom with a part-time job and going to school full time at Ivy Tech, Liberty’s love of the theater and performing has never wavered. It is a love she has passed on to both her children.  “I know theater helped my brother Seth (Morgan, now working professionally in New York) to focus.” she said. “Brayden is kind antsy. I hoped theater might help him, too. It has.” Next up, a summer production of “Quilters” at Das Dutchman Essenhaus. After that .. anything goes.

“The King and I”   By Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II Presented by Premier Arts and Wachovia Securities Elco Theatre 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday Tickets: $15 adults, $12 students and senior citizens, $10 children to age 10. Call: 293-4469 or visit

Brotherly Love Shepard style

If you think your family is dysfunctional, take a look at the brothers in “True West.” The 1980 work by playwright/actor Sam Shepard is on stage through Sunday in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Barbara K. Warner Studio Theatre. I guarantee it will have you looking at your own sibling squabbles in a different light. After a beginning in San Francisco, the play was first produced by Chicago’s fledgling Steppenwolf Theatre with John Malkovitch and Gary Sinese as the brothers. Most recently John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in the limited run Broadway revival and even switched roles at different performances. “True West” is very rarely produced by community groups, the obvious reasons being the language (not profane but skewed) of the script and the demands of the two major roles, the brothers Lee and Austin. Lee (the amazing Scott Jackson) has dropped in on Austin (an equally adept Aaron Nichols) after an absence of five years.  Austin, a screenwriter with a wife and family “in the north,” is working on a project he hopes to sell to a producer and house-sitting in Southern California for their mother, on vacation in Alaska. Lee, an alcoholic hustler more inclined to steal than work, has been living alone in the desert and is definitely an unexpected — and increasingly unwelcome — guest. As Lee picks away at his more and more uncomfortable younger brother, he insinuates himself into more and more of Austin’s life, to the point of usurping his place with the producer, Saul Kimmer (Jim Jones), by creating an unrealistic screenplay outline about the new — the “true” — West which Kimmer buys to the extent of dropping Austin’s project when he refuses to write the script for Lee. This is the proverbial straw that exposes the other sides of both brothers. Shepard  has been quoted as saying that he wanted the play “to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided.” He more than exceeded his expectations. By the final blackout, the brothers have completely exchanged personas … or have they? Have their true natures finally surfaced? And, after the last confrontation, where will they go from there? Watching Lee weave an insidious and frighteningly familiar web around his initially compliant brother is like watching a snake charm its prey. Downing beer after beer and circling the struggling writer, Jackson is an hypnotic presence. You want Austin to stand up and throw him out for good. When he does, it is only because the brothers have become the worst of each other.  The inevitable collision is, to say the least, explosive and chaotic. Returning briefly from her cruise, their Mother (Mary Ann Moran) can only survey the wreckage before heading to a hotel and admonish them not to fight in the house.     The juxtaposition of these two fine actors draws you in to this absurd nightmare of sibling rivalry and keeps you riveted.  Whether or not you want to dissect Shepard’s work symbolically, metaphorically or psychologically —  or just sit back and be hilariously horrified at the mayhem — is up to you. There is no doubt that it has been given an excellent production and one that should be seen. The direction is by Leigh Taylor with a “toast” to the hard working props crew. For show times and tickets, check the SBCT website listed here.

New Rhythm for Familiar Tune

The story of the Little Mermaid is among the most popular of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales. It also ranks high with Disney which has turned the story into an animated feature film and a Broadway musical.   Unlike the original, both Disney versions have a happy ending for the mermaid and her prince. Still another telling of the story began off Broadway in 1990 and, although it basically follows the same narrative with different characters, “Once on This Island” is based on “My Love, My Love,” a book by Rosa Guy and is set on a Caribbean island.

The Elkhart Civic Theatre production of “Once on This Island,” the show’s regional premiere, opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House. It is more of an operetta than a standard musical. There is very little spoken dialogue. The show is the creation of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, the duo responsible for “Ragtime,” “Seussical” and “Lucky Stiff,” three very different shows which  serve to underscore their obvious versatility. The ECT cast if 16 (including director/choreographer Tom Myers) is “on” almost constantly, portraying gods, peasants, aristocrats, island animals and even the elements as required. When the chorus sings, the results are definitely outstanding. The story centers around Ti Moune (played as a child by Jacqueline Kelley-Cogdell and as a young girl by Alex Pote), found in a tree after a violent storm by two old peasants (Eula Milon and John Jay Shoup) who save her, adopt her and, eventually, let her go to follow her heart. Of course, that leads her to Daniel (Justin Williams), a young man from the other (aka wealthy) side of the island. Her love, no surprise, is stronger than his, and class trumps romance resulting in the bittersweet denoument. Along the way, Ti Moune is aided (and sometimes deterred) by the island gods — Asaka, the earth mother (Stephanie Yoder); Agwe, god of water (William Diggins); Ezulie, goddess of love (Wanzetta Arnett); and Papa Ge, sly demon of death (Steve Salisbury) — always to irresistible rhythms and hauntingly lovely melodies. Pote does a beautiful job as the young dreamer who follows her heart through wind, rain and prejudice, eventually defying death to save her love. She has a clear, true  voice and meets the heavy vocal demands of the role with easy grace. It is about worth the price of admission to hear — and see —Salisbury and Diggins, both big men with big voices who are at ease on stage and obviously relish their roles. Their fellow “gods” work hard with solos that sometimes are out of their vocal range and sometimes hidden by the orchestra. Which is a concern in this production.  The seven-member instrumental ensemble plays very well.  The problem, as in any theater that has no orchestra pit, is that of balance. Soloists are too often overpowered, definitely detrimental when the Storytellers are speaking the narrative that moves the plotline. I have no solution to this, but it is a problem that plagues all community theaters as well as some with much more experience. Myers’ choreography is engaging and dares you to sit still and Shoup’s silhouetted set pieces, which move on and off as the mood requires, are just right for this fanciful tale.

“Once on This Island” plays Friday through Sunday. Check the web/p>