Down and Dirty with the Bridesmaids

SOUTH BEND —Even if you’ve never been a bridesmaid (plus all the men in the audience), you’ve heard enough jokes about the outfits demanded by the bride for her “ladies in waiting” to sympathize with “5 Women Wearing the Same Dress,” the characters in the current South Bend Civic Theatre production which opened Friday evening in the Warner Studio Theatre. Playwright Alan Ball, who earned an Oscar for his 2000 screenplay “American Beauty” and is listed as producer/director/writer for the HBO hits “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood,” is a native of Atlanta, GA. Not surprising then that he  turned his pen to a “Steel Magnolias”—style situation (although one man intrudes in the end) for this 1993 play. The primary difference is the tone of the women — more Joan Rivers than Dinah Shore. The setting is a society wedding reception at the home of the bride in Knoxville, Tenn., specifically the bedroom of the bride’s sister, Meredith Marlow (Carlie Barr), where she and her fellow attendents gather to drink, dish, do drugs and generally dissect the bride and several of the male guests.

Bridesmades at South Bend Civic TheatreIn addition to sister Meredith, a tough-talking, pot-smoking hippie wannabe, making up the quintet of bridesmaids are Frances (Nicole Brinkmann Reeves), the bride’s naive, religious cousin;  Trisha (Consuela Gabrielle Howell), the bride’s former best friend, described by the bride’s mother as “the reigning queen of bad reputations,”  whose many sexual connections have never resulted in a guy who measures up;  Georgeanne (Stephanie J. Salisbury), middle school “ugly sidekick” of the bride now unhappily-married to”the biggest piece of wet toast I ever met” and connected throughout to a champagne bottle; and Mindy (Amelia Sinnott), the groom’s outspoken lesbian sister. The only man is Griffen Lyle Davenport III, aka Tripp (Steven M. Cole), an usher obviously brought on after two hours of male-bashing as a reminder that all guys are not bad.. The women all  have a connection to Tommy Valentine, a promiscuous but unseen guest who is a major topic of conversation and lustful reminiscences.

As the evening progresses, the obvious question becomes why these five were selected as bridesmaids. All have little or no use for the bride, whom one describes as “a rich, white, Republican bitch.” As their bonding increases, they find closer connections to each other.  All the actors in this ensemble piece are more than credible, given the very surface roles which they manage to imbue with depth and believability, avoiding major maudlin pitfalls and cliches and sidestepping the roads to caricature..  Ball seems to have wanted to leave no stone unturned. Among the many topics that are given surface treatment during the evening are faith, sex, relationships, sex, child abuse, sex, self-respect, sex, fidelity, sexuality and, of course, sex. The script is full of sitcom situations which evoke much laughter and it is to the credit of the company and director Kevin Dreyer that these are played well and are less blatantly obvious than they could be.  The setting by Inseung Park provides the right notes for this dissecting of the bridal traditions. My only objection: I have seen bridesmaids dresses and hats that make these look at least moderately wearable. They don’t seem to warrant all the complaining.

“5 Women  Wearing the Same Dress” plays Thursday through Sunday. For reservations, see the SBCT website link listed here. Note: The script contains a generous helping of  profanity. Those who are upset by this should be forewarned.

Michigan's "Jersey Boy" To Entertain

KALAMAZOO — A Michigan “Jersey Boy” is coming home to his alma mater for one night only. Western Michigan University alum Eric Gutman, most recently on stage in the Broadway, Chicago and national touring companies of the smash hit “Jersey Boys,” will help Miller Auditorium announce its 2009-2010 season with a special free show beginning at 7:30 p.m. Monday. The title is “Oh, What A Night” and Gutman, speaking from his home in Royal Oak, Mich., promises it will be just that. It’s not the first time he has taken part in the season introduction. He was a part of two “Forbidden Broadway” casts that entertained potential audience members.

Eric GutmanA student in the excellent WMU music theater program, Gutman “always knew I wanted to do this,” he said. “My heart was set on it.” After graduation in 1999, he headed for New York city and auditioned for “Forbidden Broadway.” “I got cast and went with it,” he said. For five years he “was happy doing what I was doing.” Among his credits are “Forbidden Hollywood,” “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” “Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” However, “When you love something as much as you do and it’s constantly a struggle, the love kind of fades away,” he admitted. “It was hard to see friends of mine who were immensely talented and just couldn’t catch a break.”

He moved to the West Coast but, eventually, found himself back in Michigan with wife Sarah, focusing on something other than an acting career. But when the call came for the Chicago company of “Jersey Boys,” he couldn’t resist. “I called in sick at my job in Detroit and went to the audition,” he said. “I sang one song and they said they had nine roles I could play.” They weren’t kidding. During his time as one of the “Boys,” he was in the ensemble and covered the leading roles of Bob Gaudio, Bob Crewe, Tommy DiVito and Nick Massi as well as several featured roles. Confusing? “Never” Gutman said. “Besides, we had cheat sheets back stage.”

In addition to singing and dancing and learning the “tracks” for each role, he plays a number of instruments including guitar, bass and mandolin. Has he seen the last of Frankie Valli & Co? “I hope not,” he said. ” If they call again, I would love to go.”

Now the parents of baby Riley, the Gutmans live in Royal Oak where he is the owner/operator of Two Kings Tickets, which handles tickets for concerts, sporting events and theaters all over the world. But on Monday, he will be wearing his performing hat for an hour-long show that will include 11 songs and stories about life on the road. Take it from someone whose been there.

NOTE: After a video season announcement and the show, a number of Kalamazoo’s best restaurants will provide a buffet in the upper lobby. Tickets are free but reservations are requested (limit of four) at (800) 228-9858 or (269) 387-2300.

Classic Comedy Still Relevant Today

BRISTOL — Take a look at the current Elkhart Civic Theatre production and you’ll have no trouble understanding why “You Can’t Take It With You” has been a favorite of audiences from Broadway to the hinterlands for almost three quarters of a century. The play by Moss Hart and George S. Kauffman received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1937, “Drama” being an all-inclusive term that obviously included comedy, because “You Can’t Take It With You” is a comedy of the highest rank. It provides a large amount of laughs, from chuckles to just plain belly laughs, yet touches the heart with a simple philosophy that would do us all well to remember — especially today.

Elkhart Civic Theatre presents You Can't Take It With YouLiving — well, not really but they certainly could — in John Jay Shoup’s marvelous recreation of the grand old houses of the 1920s-30s, cosy enough to embrace a small family but flexible enough to hold those who happen along and decide to stay, the 1937 Sycamores seem at first glance to be ditzy enough to populate a modern sitcom. Mom Penny (Karen Johnston) alternates between painting and playwriting, both of which she does not well but enthusiastically (the latter began when a typewriter was delivered by mistake). In the basement of their New York home, dad Paul (Dave Hoien) and Mr. De Pinna (Scott Fowler), who came to deliver ice eight years ago and just stayed on, create bigger and better fireworks.. Daughter Essie Carmichael (Karen Hoover) is a determinded if untalented ballerina and baker of Love Dream cookies which hubby Ed (Peter Sessions) distributes, along with various (and slightly seditious) slogans run off on his hand-turned printing press. He also accompanies her terpsichorean efforts on the xylophone. Reba (Kellie Kelleher) and her boyfriend Donald (Brock Butler) are the Sycamore’s couple-of-all-works and part of their extended family, as is Boris Kolenkhov (Rick Nymeyer), a Russian emigre and Essie’s ballet teacher. Dropping in are an alcoholic actress Gay Wellington (Geneele Crump), and Kolenkov’s cousin, the Grand Dutchess Olga Katrina (Amy Pawlosky), who has gone from the Czar’s court to waitressing in Child’s Restaurant. As the core of “sanity” in this eccentric maelstrom are Gandpa Martin Vanderhoff (Carl Wiesinger), who left Wall Street 35 years ago determined just to have fun and devotes his time to attending commencement ceremonies and catching snakes, and Penny and Paul’s daughter, Alice (Kristen Riggs), who works on Wall Street and is in love with her boss Tony Kirby Jr. (Ricky Fields). Soon after action in the three-act play begins, they become engaged. The next step is for the families to meet. When, despite Alice’s best efforts, the elder Kirbys (Tom Doughty and Mary Toll) come to dinner on the wrong night, the result — literally — is explosive!

Elkhart Civic Theatre presents You Can't Take It With YouDirector Penny Meyers and assistant director Annette Kaczkowski do a solid job of keeping the flow of traffic moving as swiftly as possible with a cast of 20 (including Doug Streich in an hysterical bit and FBI men Bill Heimann, Cameron Ponce, Jim Hess and Garret Nisely). Not an simple task with a set full to overflowing with props and furniture (and scene-stealing kittens), all required but not easy to work around. They manage well. The cast, from those with walk-ons to one-scene bits to major roles, handle their assignments well. The slightly off-center characters earn their laughs, as does the Kauffman and Hart dialogue which, aside from period references (Kay Francis, “The Good Earth,” “Peg O’ My Heart,” Child’s, Rasputin, Eleanor Roosevelt), is amazingly relevant today, especially Grandpa’s take on the IRS. Weisinger, playing a character much older then himself, had me convinced that the key words to a stress-free life are relax and enjoy. Riggs does an excellent job of conveying Alice’s dilemma: she loves Tony and her family and can’t see them ever meshing. Fields delivers a believable fiance, not always the easiest thing in amateur theater. Hoover, an obvious audience favorite, flaps like an ostrich and delivers unending flat-footed leaps and twirls. Sessions is always in the moment, listening to what’s happening and reacting, but never over-reacting, which is a danger for some. The Kirbys are a delight, from entrance to exit, especially when playing THE game. Open minds and open hearts are the key to this family, as they are to all families. It’s nice that “You Can’t Take It With You” takes the stage every few years to remind us.

Tickets for the final weekend (Friday through Sunday) are scarce. To make reservations, call 848-4116 from 1:30 to 5 weekdays or check the ECT website link here.