Grey Gardens Blooms at Northlight

I spent Saturday in “Grey Gardens.” I admit I have been a great fan of the show, which earned nine Tony Award nominations in 2007 and won three, since seeing one number on the televised awards show. iTunes delivered the cast CD and I was hooked. When the show was announced on the Northlight 2008-09 season, I knew I had to see the entire production. The fact that three Wagon Wheel alums — Ann Whitney, George Keating and Doug Peck — were involved as well as Chicago leading lady Hollis Resnick, sealed the deal, in spite of the fact that the Northlight is in Skokie, Ill., and the production time was November/December. So, in spite of less than favorable reports from the Weather Channel, I headed out Saturday morning having decided, as my grandmother used to say, to “Go to the first (matinee) and stay for the second (evening).” I could not have made a better decision. (I had no problem, except the bitter cold.) I should have gone sooner. I regret that, even with its extended run, “Grey Gardens” will be on stage at the Northlight only through next Sunday. Anyone who loves excellent theater should make the trip!  The 2006 musical based on the documentary about Jackie Kennedy Onasis’ aunt, Edith Bouvier Beale, and her cousin, Edith (“Little Edie”) Beale, opened Off-Broadway in 2006 and, thanks to strong audience and press reaction, moved “uptown” for a brief run.

Grey Gardens at NorthlightThe plot is more Dickens than Burnett and, if the documentary was not readily available (a brief clip is looped in the lobby), it would definitely seem more fiction than fact. But there it is. The first act resembles a light-hearted musical of the 1940s. In their 28-room mansion in East Hampton, Edith Beale (Resnick) and daughter Edie (Tempe Thomas) are in last minute preparations for Little Edie’s engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. (Patrick Sarb). At the piano is George Gould Strong (Keating), Edith’s gay live-in accompanist. Pre-teen nieces Jackie (Grace Etzkorn) and Lee (Arielle Dayan) Bouvier interrupt the rehearsal. Edith’s father, Major Bouvier (Dennis Kelly), instructs the girls (including Edie) on the importance of marrying well and demands Edith not disrupt the proceedings by performing. The last is echoed strongly by Edie and their ambiguous relationship is clear. As they wait for Mr. Beale’s arrival on the 5:15 p.m. train from his Wall Street office, feelings escalate, tensions rise and facts — truth or fiction? — emerge. The result is shattering. End Act I, set in 1941. Begin Act II, set in 1973, still in Grey Gardens, now falling into ruin, where Edith and Little Edie live with more than 50 stray cats and some rabid racoons in an environment condemned by the board of health. Edie (now played by Resnick) and Edith (Whitney) are alone, excepting visits from 17-year-old Jerry (Sarb), whom Edith adores and Edie resents. Both live in their own versions of the past, unable ever to break the neurotic ties that bind. The entire cast (including Sean Blake who plays the Beale butler and his grandson) is outstanding, especially Resnick, who navigates the incredibly emotional waters from mother to daughter with a clear, solid voice that responds to all the demands of the role. She breaks your heart with “Will You” and the wrenching finale “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” earns shocked laughter describing “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” and there is no mistaking Edie’s skewed emotions. Without a doubt, Resnick, winner of 9 Jeff Awards, still is unquestionably Chicago’s No. 1 diva. Right with her is Chicago’s No. 1 character woman. Whitney, who handles two solos and the finale duo very well, is the stubborn, clinging, demanding, senile old woman we all hope we will never become. The duo’s interdependence is palpable and shattering to watch. The rest of the cast plays right up to their level, especially Thomas, Kelly and Keating (who has one of my favorite songs “Drift Away” delivered in a lyrical baritone that proves he sings better than ever). The principals serve as an ensemble in Act II, describing the moulding mansion from “a cat’s eye view” and giving gospel a good go in “Choose to Be Happy.” Peck makes the six member orchestra sound like at least three times as many. You probably won’t hum too many of the songs, which primarily move the plot or expose character, right away. Get the CD. You won’t be able to get the music out of your head. Again, I know it’s short notice, but “Grey Gardens” is more than worth the trip. It’s closer than Indy. Check it out on the Northlight Theatre website.

Say It with Lots of Music

There is no better way to express emotion than with a song. Proof of this was displayed in two different formats last weekend. The connection was beautiful music performed by beautiful voices. The first  was a solo cabaret (her first) at Chicago’s Davenport’s by former Michiana soprano Cheryl Szucits. FYI: Davenport’s is one of THE cabaret venues in the Windy City. This was Cheryl’s weekend and, as long time fans John Shoup, Penny Meyer, Dorothy Szuits (Cheryl’s mom) and me headed into the rain. destination Davenport’s. Having seen Cheryl on stage for Elkhart Civic Theatre and South Bend Civic as well as at Brian Barr’s popular Mishawaka piano bar, I was always aware of her vocal ability.  But, as many know, there is a lot between just producing the notes, no matter how beautifully,  and interpreting the song. Therefore I have to say that, although the beautiful face was the same, the voice was bigger, richer and full of whatever emotion was evoked by a particular set of lyrics, not to mention displaying admirable control and shading and the ability to go from a belt to a lingering pianissimo with enviable ease.

The program was titled “Borrowed Time: The Life and Music of Nancy LaMott” and Cheryl emphasized the similarities between her life and that of LaMott, musically and via a brief narrative. Having always been a fan of the late Midland, Mich., native, it was a play list that, for me, was compiled of one happily familiar tune after the other. And the music could not have been interpreted or sung better than it was by Cheryl, with excellent support from pianist Joshua Kartes. “Listen to My Heart,” LaMott’s signature song, “Just in Time for Christmas” and “I’ll Be Here with You” were only three that brought more than just one tear to the eye. The fact that Cheryl’s father had passed away less than three weeks earlier made her sensitive performance even more impressive. Obviously, this was just the first of many! Will keep you posted. The perfect finale to this musical weekend was a tribute concert honoring Roy Hine Sunday evening at the Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre in Warsaw. If there was any doubt about the impact of Hine, who served as artistic director for more than a decade, on the performers who spent a summer (or summers) with him, their remembrances dispelled it instantly. Thirteen performers took the stage to share some of their memories and recreate musical moments at the Wheel. For any who were in the audience during the “original” past productions, it was a tangible reminder of the incredible talent Hine brought together during his years in Warsaw. In an evening of highlights, among the most memorable were Mike Yocum delivering a bravura solo on turn which incorporated all the salesmen in “The Music Man’s” opening “Rock Island Line”; Jennie Sophia sailing through Rodgers and Hammerstein duets with Adrian Agular and nailing perfectly “Ice Cream” from “She Loves Me;” too-long absent Robert Joseph Miller pondering “If Life Were Like the Movies;” and Crystal VanArtsdalen, usually seen in the ensemble, belting “Give Me a Chance to Sing Melody.” Who knew? VanArtsdalen and WW leading ladies Brianna Borger and Jennifer Dow were responsible for putting the concert together. When the company gathered for the finale, “What I Did For Love” and Roy’s favorite holiday song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” there was no doubt that his spirit was in the house.

Winterlude celebrates with music

It’s only about an hour and a half long (plus intermission), but the annual holiday celebration by Elkhart Civic Theatre which opens tonight at the Bristol Opera House is time well spent. It’s titled “Winterlude: A Celebration of Holiday Cheer” and it more than lives up to its name. Granted, this is one production that is unashamedly sentimental. After all, ’tis the season. But this year’s combination of veterans and newcomers, adults and youngsters, gives the show an informal “welcome to the family” feeling as well as being very entertaining.

The there are 11 in the adult ensemble and the children’s group numbers six, although a few of the younger adults join with the “children” from time to time.  There is no doubt that the adult group contains some very fine voices, a few of which participate in this show only during the year. Undoubtedly, ECT would like to have them on stage more frequently, but is happy to welcome them “home for the holidays.” Soprano Sheryl Noblitt was a member of the first holiday singfest, then titled “A Season Serenade,” and has been in most (or all?) for the past decade. Baritone Michael Cripe is no stranger to ECT and South Bend Civic Audiences and his duet with first-timer Kristen Riggs on “Winter Wonderland” is a highlight of the first act. Riggs and Jeff Peat are the hidden treasures of this “Winterlude.” Noblitt and Peat are outstanding in blending “The Little Drummer Boy” with “Peace on Earth” and his full baritone warms the room with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Riggs echoes everyone’s wishes in “Grownup Christmas List.”  There is no doubt that John Shoup can sing — actually one wonders at times if there is anything he can’t do — but his discovery of “Christmas Cliches” adds another tune to the list of holiday must-hears, and he does full justice to “The Christmas Waltz,” danced by Noblitt and Cripe. Anyone who saw “Seussical” or “Once on This Island” is well aware that Wanzetta Arnett can literally raise the rafters. When she digs into “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” backed by the ensemble, or with a trio-ala-“Dreamgirls” in motion on “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” you have gotten your money’s worth! The young people hold their own, with Lincoln Bowers and Carson Collins (who played the leading role of Jojo in “Seussical”) delivering poignant solos, Preston Waggoner handling the one-liners and the girls delivering solid work throughout. Pianist Miriam Houck and drummer Mark Swendsen are “the Musicians” and they are all that is needed.  Jeffrey Barrick’s lovely snow drop, framed by trees and garlands trimmed with white lights all combine to make a lovely “Winterlude.” Performances are at 8 p.m. today and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Opera House on Vistula Street in Downtown Bristol. Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for students and senior citizens. Call 848-4116 and at the box office.

WW Carol celebrates the season

It would not be Christmas without Ebenezer Scrooge. In spite of all the adjunct holiday characters — Charlie Brown, the Grinch, George Bailey, Ralphie Parker et al — who appear annually in various Christmas stories, the hands-down favorite is old Mr. Scrooge and his overnight redemption. There have been many versions since Charles Dickens penned the tale in December 1843 to earn money to pay off his debts. There are more than a dozen movies/TV films of the story, with Scrooge played by a really diverse list of actors, real and animated. My favorite is the B&W 1951 British movie starring Alistair Sim, but that’s beside the point. In 1994, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Lynn Ahrens combined to turn the classic into a musical, which played every Christmas season for 10 years in the theater at Madison Square Garden, N.Y.

On Friday, this version returned to the stage at the Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre in Warsaw (it was first produced there in 2004) and, without exception, it is the best holiday production of this season. Let me count the ways. First there are the voices. Forget about good solo voices on principals only. Every member of the cast has what it takes to be center stage, even though some are primarily only in the ensemble. Solos are memorable and the chorus numbers blow you away. Then there is the plus that is always award-winning director Scott Michaels’ choreography and the fleet-footed dancers who turn his directions into dazzling production numbers, making the relatively small dance area seem to quadruple in size. There are young people in the cast, several who must be in elementary or middle school at most. All are amazingly professional, in crowd scenes or as featured characters — Stone Rager as Tiny Tim, tiny Lauren Housel as Fan, Derek Grose as 12-year-old Scrooge, Lucas Thomas as Jonathan and clear-voiced Tara Rusinack a motherless child — and they never miss a beat or a lyric or an entrance and stay in character throughout, something with which many adults have a problem. They are a real delight. Then there are the “leading players” — dashing John Hannes and equally dashing Jace Nichols who portray (among other things) the dapper ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively; Adrian Aguilar as the hard-working Bob Cratchit; Mike Yocum as the chain-rattling ghost of Jacob Marley; Lars Hagland and the irrepressible Briana Borger as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig; Jennifer Dow as Ebenezer’s one-time fiance Emily; David Lepor as Scrooge’s forgiving nephew Fred; and, of course, the founder of the feast, Mr. Scrooge, played with an appropriately wavery baritone and Grinchly growl by Burke Frey. The costumes by Stephen R. Hollenbeck are period-perfect and bright as the ribbons on a Christmas package (excepting, of course, for Marley and his ghoulish spectres). Thomas Stirling leads the seven piece orchestra confidently through the show’s 15 numbers and Fritz Bennett’s lighting design is as atmospheric as always. Sound designer Chris Pollinow makes it possible for everyone to be heard  — and understood. Wagon Wheel regulars may find the set familiar.  It is the one designed for the ’04 production by the late Roy Hine, with necessary touch ups by technical director Michael Higgins. Vocally, visually, instrumentally and dance-wise, this “Christmas Carol”  definitely is an abundance of riches! If it doesn’t put you in the holiday mood, you need to see three spirits! “A Christmas Carol” plays Friday through Sunday and Dec. 19-21. For show times and ticket prices/reservations, check the website listed above.

A Christmas Story from film to stage

Twenty four hours, that’s the amount of time,  beginning Christmas Eve, that the story of Ralphie Parker airs on TNT, a marathon that began in 1997 and, like that “frightul” weather, shows no sign of stopping. The movie, based on short stories by Jean Shepherd, premiered on Thanksgiving 1983 and its popularity has increased since then. The theatrical adaptation of “A Christmas Story” is the newcomer. Written in 2000, it now is a the holiday choice of those companies brave enough to face off with the film version. The only such company in the Michiana area to date is South Bend Civic Theatre which still has two weekends to go on its four-weekend run.

All the familiar scenes are there and, even though I will always prefer Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon, Peter Billingsley and the rest of the inhabitants of Hohman IN. (aka Hammond but here presented as South Bend), the local version has several assets including the two-story set which immediately gives the feel of a 1940s middle class home. Designed by Phil Patnaude, it is versatile enough to encompass several locations, both inside and outside the Parker home, with special applause for the department store’s “Santa slide.”  The actors, of necessity, bear some resemblence to the film’s cast. They do this well, especially the young actors — Alex Kilmore as the beleaguered Ralphie, Soren Campbell as his younger brother Randy, Brandon Myers as his triple-dog-dare buddy Flick, Braidon Nutting as Schwartz, Billy Miller as bully Scut Farkas, Lea Melton as Ralphie’s would-be girlfriend Esther Jane Alberry and Madison Schmucker as class feminist Helen Weathers. They also recreate the characters successfully beyond the physical appearance. Kilmore is empathetic as the pre-teen whose only wish is for “an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.” His every request elicits the same response “You’ll shoot your eye out” but his determination is laudable and his responses, heartwarming. The film has an off-screen narrator in the voice of author Shepherd. The play chooses to have the older Ralph represented in person. Here, as played by Mark Moriarty, he is obtrusively in the midst of every scene, delivering the subliminal dialogue in shotgun fashion. It is a memory play, not a sporting event.   Miller is every kid’s nightmare and his comuppence earns applause and, when Meyers advances to the frosty flagpole, tongue outstretched, the immediate urge is to warn him off. We wait instead for the inevitable hilarious result. Ralph’s dad, referred to as The Old Man, his mom, identified simply as Mother, are adequately represented by Greg Melton and Nicole Brinkman Reeves and Jennie DeDario is crisply assertive as Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields. Seven performances of “A Christmas Story” remain. For show times and ticket information/reservations, check the SBCT website above.

Idol winner Ain't Misbehavin'

It was only the second season for “American Idol,” when a contestant dubbed the “Velvet Teddy Bear” soloed his way to the top prize. Ruben Studdard  took the title in the 2003 competition, arguably the most controversial in the brief history of the blockbuster show, beating out Clay Aiken by a mere (considering the millions of recorded votes) 130,000 votes. The years since then have been up and down for Studdard, plagued by lawsuits and disappointing record sales. But the old saying about not keeping a good (and talented) guy down definitely applies here.

Currently, Studdard is headlining the 30th anniversary tour of “Ain’t Misbehavin”, the award-winning show based on the music of the great Fats Waller. It will be on stage at Western Michigan University’s Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo for performances at 3 and 8 p.m. Sunday.   He also is looking forward to the release of his fourth (and currently unitled) album in May and, in June, married Surata Zuri McCants, with whom he plans to open a spa and salon next year in his home town of Birmingham, Ala. And if that’s not enough on one plate, he is looking at the possibility of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” joining the growing list of revivals headed back to Broadway.  Why, when a production of “Porgy and Bess” at Alabama A&M University (where he majored in voice studies) was his only previous experience with “book” shows, did he opt for this one, and to tour in the bargain. “I wanted to do something different,” Studdard said, calling briefly from the tour stop in Akron, Ohio. “Ain’t Misbehavin” cetainly is. His role is “closely patterned after Fats,” but, he explained, “All the cast members play particular parts of his personality.” The cast includes a couple of Studdard’s competitors from “Idol” season two — Frenchie Davis and Trenyce — and audience members may be surprised by the fact that, according to the singer, he can dance, a requirement in most musicals but especially in this which has a small cast and finds the big baritone involved in most of the numbers. Although he reportedly dropped 70 pounds on a diet and fitness program, keeping the weight off is not so easy on the road and, not surprisingly, “I’ve gained a couple of pounds,” he admitted, adding “It’s hard to diet on tour, but I’m going to get back in to it.” Of his upcoming album, he said “It will be a different kind of music,” explaining “That’s difficult to do on a label run by the most influential man in music, Clive Davis. You don’t get a chance to sing what you want. Now I’m more able to do my own kind of music.” He hopes it will be the kind to which listeners — and buyers — respond. Maybe even a little Fats Waller. For tickets to “Ain’t Misbehavin'” call (269) 387-2300 or (800) 228-9858 or visit Prices range from $25 to $50.