Here's The High School Musical That Started It All

WARSAW – On Jan. 20, 2006, the Walt Disney organization via the Disney Channel premiered an original movie musical about high school students titled (with obviously minimal creativity) “High School Musical.” I saw it that night. Wednesday evening, I saw it again. This time it was the live theatrical version on stage at theWagon Wheel Theatre. With luck, I shall avoid it for at least another four years. Not that the WW version was not up to that company’s usual standard of excellence. Far from it. I would say the cast which is, with few exceptions, certainly above high school age, did a remarkable job of recreating the teenage characters. Their voices are solid, their dancing is sharp and unflagging and their ability to deliver the frequently awkward dialogue with absolute conviction is to be applauded.  I have no problem with the WW company (although on opening night the technical aspect was unusually iffy).

My problem is with the material, a problem obviously not shared by the very large number of pre-teens, teens, parents and grandparents who cheered the handsome basketball jock and his unlikely love, the newly-transferred math and science geek, yet also had rousing final applause for the drama-crazed siblings whose devious plots were foiled at the 11th hour by jocks and geeks working together. The storyline (and I use that word loosely) is reportedly based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” although the closest connection here to that immortal tragedy seems to be in the title of the East High School musical for which jock Troy Bolton (Jake Thomas Klinkhammer) and geek Gabriella Montez (Mary Joe Duggan) eventually audition —”Juliet and Romeo.” Actually, ‘HSM” (everybody knows its name) is more akin to another nickname — “Grease Lite.” And therein lies its saving grace. Unlike the incredibly popular 1972 Broadway musical (which played for eight years before heading out to countless tours, regional and school productions and eventual Broadway revivals), “HSM” is squeeky clean, dialogue and message-wise. Gabriella and Troy have only to follow the “Start of Something New” to realize “Then There Was You and Me” and conclude “We’re All In This Together” and true (or, at least, high school) love conquers all, with everyone still upright.  The message of “Grease” is diametrically opposed (drink, smoke, have sex, blow off studies and join a gang), leaving the best thing about that earlier show its score.

Unfortunately, the score of “HSM” (which credits 11 different composers) is pretty much forgettable,  even though sung and played very well throughout. This show deserves all its applause because of the excellent cast. Klinkhammer is Efron-with-muscles. Duggan is sweet and sassy without being soppy.  Rachel MacIsaacs’ Sharpay andDavid Glenwright’s brother Ryan are deliciously devious and dance up a storm. Adrianna Parson as math club prez Taylor is perfectly mis-matched with Troy’s second-in-command Zachary McConnell as Chad and Brandon Springman is hilarious as Zeke, a sharp shooter with a hidden talent. Must admit, the”Auditions” number is one I could see again. It looked so familiar! “Senior”roles go to Andy Robinson as Coach Bolton and Jennifer Shepherd as drama teacher Ms. Darbus, whose primary assignment is to keep the sports vs. arts friction going. When you go — and if you have a youngster or are out of the loop because you’ve never seen it, you will go — pay special attention to the young ensemble members who are members of the WW Stars of  Tomorrow ensemble. They really are in high school.

Director/choreographer Scott Michael keeps every ball in the air from minute one (with unavoidable slow-downs for those pesky ballads), and the fast-paced dances will leave you gasping for breath. As noted, Thomas N. Stirling’s  six member orchestra is excellent and Stephen Hollenbeck costumes the Wildcat rooters in appropriately brilliant hues. “High School Musical” plays through July 11 in the theater at 2517 E. Center St., Warsaw. Performances at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For information and reservations, call 267-8041,

Barn offers another Joseph in Michigan

AUGUSTA, Mich. — This must be the season for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Having renewed acquaintance with the early Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical pastiche last week at a different theater, it was interesting to view another production, this time at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich., which chose a more traditional interpretation. The now-obligatory children’s choir (there was none in the original or early productions) is first on, following the Narrator (played and sung the first week by Brooke Evans and next week by Lisa Marie Morabito). They listen attentively to the Prologue, then take their places at each side of the raised frame in which some of the story is played out.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Barn Theatre, Augusta, MIIn addition to the all-important Narrator and the 16 young choristers, the cast includes Joseph (properly ingenuous Kevin White), dad Jacob (heavily bearded Gregg Rehrig), light-in-the-sandals Potiphar (Steven Lee Burright), his licentious spouse (leggy Katrina Chizek),  Pharoah (Eric Petersen in a “final Vegas concert” tight white jumpsuit complete with studded wide belt, cape, high collar, wig and shades),  also the royal Butler and Baker , 13 assorted wives, guards and “hairy Ishmaelites” and, last but certainly never least, Joseph’s 11 less-than-supportive brothers. They are, of course, the villains of the story, assignments which they filled with glee, especially when selling their naive brother into slavery.  But even in Egypt, Joseph overcame his handicaps, even when languishing in jail.  As the lyrics say, “We read the book and you come out on top.” There is no doubt that energetic is the key word to this production. Directed by Eric Parker with choreography by Kevin Field, the only moments in which it slowed to a fast walk were Joseph’s jailhouse lament, “Close Every Door,” the Narrator’s “Pharoah’s Story” and the final  “Any Dream Will Do” which actually isn’t final as the frantic “Magamix” follows.  “Joseph” is a mini-opera, basically about 70 minute in length, with as much schtick as possible inserted wherever it might fit to lengthen the show.  At The Barn, this is partially accomplished by Petersen’s descent into the audience to share the secrets of the Pharoah’s hip action with a couple of chosen members. Luckily, he hit upon two good sports.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Barn Theatre, Augusta, MIThere is a lot of gold in Egypt here, especially in the  glittering costumes by Michael Wilson Morgan, and there are numerous sight gags — seven years of plenty as giant boxes of corn flakes — but the primary plus of this “Joseph” is the voices.    Evans could raise the roof with no effort and her excellent diction is an asset when she must sing the story. White is a most appealing Joseph and the solo brothers — Eric Morris, Patrick Hunter and Alex Kip — handle their assignments solidly. And they all also dance. . .and dance . . .and dance, with a little hand jive thrown in frequently for good measure. The finales of both acts are almost an assault on the senses, with everyone in the choir  and cast on stage and no one standing still and the orchestra going for a mega-decible level. “Go, Go, Go Joseph” lacked only a disco ball for a complete return to the ’60s. It was solidly psychedelic and the enthusiastic audience loved every minute.

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” plays through June 28. Shows at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 6 and 9 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $29. For reservations and information, call (269) 731-4121 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily or visit www.barntheatre.com.

Rodgers Musical is Director's Final Bow

NAPPANEE — It’s been a long time since we headed for Nappanee and a production at the Amish Acres Round Barn Theatre. The reason for this is well-known to those who know me but not appropriate to go into here. Enough to say that, to paraphrase an old and dear friend: We certainly were pleasantly surprised. The production, which runs through July 12 in tandem with the perennial Round Barn offering of “Plain & Fancy,” is Mary Rodgers’ delightful musical take on a familiar fairy tale. “Once Upon A Mattress” uses the story of “The Princess and The Pea” as a base, but here the characters are more wacky than classic.

Once Upon A Mattress - Amish AcresUnder the direction of the talented Jeremy Littlejohn, the show that made a star of Carol Burnett almost 50 years ago, is still as charming and funny as it was then. Not an easy task.  Any vehicle built around a particular personality (think “Funny Girl”) faces the job of finding an acceptable substitute.

Littlejohn cast company member Jackie Wolter as Princess Winifred the Woebegone, a role as daunting as the lady’s would-be suitor Prince Dauntless the Drab (a rubber-legged Ryan Hazelback).  Wolter is rather too attractive to be “woebegone,” but delivers all the expected comic turns — and delivers them with a powerful belt voice. She is definitely not “Shy.” The supporting players do very well with their off-kilter assignments. Crystal Day VanArtsdalen an abrasively funny  Queen Aggravain, a character who more than lives up to her name. With self-pitying dialogue that is almost non-stop and a Machiavellian mindset, she serves up some hilarious moments scheming to discredit yet another possible daughter-in-law. Scott Emerick delivers his “dialogue” without words as King Septimus the Silent, but there is never any doubt about his meaning. Karen Courliss and Jim DeSelm are the requisite young lovers Lady Larken and Sir Harry and both look good and sing easily and well. Daniel Switzer is lyrically articulate as the Minstrel who serves as the narrator of the piece. He sets up the storyline and, with the Jester (a Harlequin-garbed Wesley Atkinson), obviously enjoys two of the show’s comedy numbers. Don Hart is the badly-wigged Wizard, who longingly recalls his days as a vaudeville magician. The remaining five members in the cast of 14 , do double and sometimes triple duty as required by few doing the jobs many, a primary drawback in Round Barn productions. Here, however, Littlejohn has managed to direct the action so that the stage seems almost full when the entire company is on. It doesn’t hurt that all have very strong voices and more than do justice to Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard and mother of Adam Guettel) music. A major improvement is the replacement of the woefully inadequate “orchestras” of past seasons with recorded tracks. Works well here. Wonder about Gilbert & Sullivan. The minimal (several moveable pillars and some medieval pennants) set with appropriate set pieces works adequately and Littlejohn also is responsible for choreography and lighting design. There’s nothing like having a triple threat which is why it’s the Round Barn’s loss that it will no longer have Littlejohn’s multi-talents. The economy was given as the reason for “down-sizing” this singer/actor/director but there is no doubt that he went out on a high note, theatrically, one which the Nappanee theater will be hard pressed to hit again. (Note: Before heading out for undoubtedly greener theatrical pastures, Jeremy will be on stage in Memorial High School July 31-Aug. 1 in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of “Footloose.”)

For “Mattress” information and reservations, call 773-3722.

Wagon Wheel Puts New Life in Old Joseph

WARSAW — The best thing about “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is that every production can be different. In the case of the one that opened Wednesday at the Wagon Wheel Theater to a highly enthusiastic audience of 700+, it can be hilariously and wonderfully unique.  The little (15 minutes) pop opera that could has had a long life — and expansion — since its inception in 1968. With several Broadway productions to its credit plus an incredibly popular national tour starring Donny Osmond, it is one show that will never go out of style.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Wagon Wheel Playhouse, Warsaw INBut if you think you’ve seen (or heard) it one time too many, the WW production will make you think again. With an energetic cast that includes  2009 company members as well as a dozen talented pre-teens, this “Joseph” never stops. The trick here is to see if you can spot how many of the marvelously campy inserts director/choreographer Scott Michaels has incorporated into the familiar tale. I’m certainly not going to list them all. That would spoil the fun.  Enough to say that, from the opening sequence when The Narrator (Erica Wilpon) guides her group of students through a natural history museum, the fun begins (think Indiana Jones). . . and it never stops.  There are quick-take salutes to Bollywood, to a popular dance show, to a famous WWII statue, to a modern dance style, to . . . but you should discover the rest yourself.  It goes without saying that the usual WW excellence shines throughout. The orchestra, under the direction of  Thomas N. Sterling, provides outstanding support for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s non-stop music (virtually all of Tim Rice’s “dialogue” is sung). The production values — set, lights and sound —are spot on, with  a special standing ovation for Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s dazzling costumes. Not only did he design them, he and his crew of two built (made) them all, a daunting assignment carried out with maximum effect and with incredible attention to detail.  As usual, Michaels’ choreography is outstanding, making the small arena stage seem to expand to at least twice its size, with this year’s crop of singer/dancers more than up to the demands of his inventions and Webber’s music.  Wilpon, who carries a majority of the vocals, delivers with a strong belt voice that is best in the mid-to-upper range. As Joseph, Brandon Springman is naive and handsome, as required, and has a solid mellow baritone. John Rapson’s Pharoah is properly Elvisian, complete with required lyrical mumbles. Enough cannot be said for Joseph’s 11 brothers and dad who frequently doff their desert robes to portray other characters. and are equally solid in Israel or Egypt. Ditto the four young ladies who sing and dance as wives, camels (read the shirts!), Pharoah fans and more. Special nod to Rachel MacIsaac as the ardent Mrs. Potiphar. The youngsters who form the tour group each take part in one of the scenes and, again, check their shirts. Before the show, members of the WW Youth Theatre program take the stage to offer a preview of the next production, “High School Musical.” If the rest of the season lives up to its opening production, Wagon Wheel is in for a wonderful summer!

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat plays through June 20. Tickets are $30 for adults; $16 for students age 13 through college and $12 for age 12 and younger. Call (866) 823-2618 or (574) 267-8041 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com.

New Laughs from Old Comedians

SOUTH BEND — In the heydays of vaudeville and burlesque, comedy teams were featured on the bills of most every theater in the country.  Most of the duos were men and, according to available information, most of them got along off stage as well as on. There were exceptions, however. One such team forms the basis for Neil Simon’s ninth comedy, “The Sunshine Boys,” which opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Mainstage Auditorium.

The Sunshine Boys at Sough Bend Civic Theatre“The Sunshine Boys” opened on Broadway in 1972, the year in which it is set. It starred Sam Levene and Jack Albertson. The 1975 film had Walter Mathau and George Burns. The 1997 revival starred TV’s “Odd Couple,”  Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. Possibly the most star-studded production was done for TV in 1997. The cast was headed by Woody Allen and Peter Falk  with  Michael McKean, Liev Schreiber, Edie Falco, Sarah Jessica Parker and Whoopi Goldberg. Willie Clark (Jim Coppens) and Al Lewis (Gary Oesch) were partners for 43 years as the Sunshine Boys.  During those years their relationship changed and, in fact, they never spoke during their last year on stage. They have not seen each other in more than a decade. Willie lives alone in an apartment in New York and Al, with his daughter in New Jersey. Willie’s nephew, Ben Silverman (Scot Shepley), visits every Wednesday.  He works for CBS which is planning a special on the history of comedy. It is Ben’s assignment to convince his uncle to reunite with his former partner for their best-known sketch “The Doctor Is In.” It’s a thankless task. Al has said yes. Willie definitely says no. As Ben brings the belligerent duo closer to a shaky agreement, old resentments and hostilities surface, all with hilarious results.  Arranging the furniture for rehearsal comes down to a matter of inches and line delivery is the cause for a fight. Willie says “Enter.” Al says the line is “Come in.”  Willie says Al spits his “t”s. Each has to be right. And so it goes. The journey to the ironic solution gives the audience a look at what was funny back then, much of which in the hands of Coppens and Oesch, is equally funny today. “Words with ‘k’ are funny,” Willie says to Ben, illustrating with “Chicken, pickle, cookie are funny; Cleveland and Maryland are not.” He’s right. Rehearsing their sketch at the TV studio, the obligatory well-endowed nurse (Megan Michele) and the patient (Joshua Andrew Dickson) are obliging straight men but even there the cantankerous Willie causes an uproar. He winds up at home with a cranky nurse (Kathleen Canavan-Martin) who is definitely not obliging. In vaudeville, as in modern day comedy, timing is everything.  Coppens and Oesch have it down to a science. Coppens especially delivers the painful loneliness of a proud man, determined not to go gently.  His surly exterior covers resentment at having to rely on others and at being in a world where there is no longer too much at which to laugh. Oesch does well as the straight man who has secrets of his own and Shepley is appropriately frustrated, angry and sympathetic. The set, designed by director Vincent Bilancio and David Chudzynski, is appropriately run down and carries bittersweet mementoes of past engagements.

“The Sunshine Boys” plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. For reservations, call 234-1112 from noon to 6  p.m. weekdays.

Hats! Salutes the 50+Ladies

BRISTOL — It’s all about being 50 and believing that the best is yet to come. This is the primary message of “Hats!” the musical that opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House. The seven women in the Elkhart Civic Theatre cast use talent and determination to get that point across. “50 is the youth of old age,” says one and it’s obvious that feeling/looking good and being older and wiser are the positives attached to entering the fifth decade whose key words are “Fun” and “Friendship.” The very thin storyline that joins the basic monologues together is tied to a 50th birthday party for Mary Anne (Julie Herrli Castello) who dreads turning the “big 5-0” and counts down her remaining “one hour and 12 minutes” at 49 with mounting dread.

Red Hats at Elkhart Civic TheatreEnter members of the Red Hat Society to shatter the image of 50 as old age by sharing their stories and songs, each leading to the final premise that putting on a Red Hat is the key to a new lease on life. No surprise. It takes only an hour and a half (plus intermission) for Mary Anne to abandon her fears and throw her Red Hat in their ring.   If it seems that this particular show would appeal only to females of a certain age (and beyond), that is not entirely true, although it will mean more to Red Hatters than to “outside” observers. Still, the score, which is a conglomeration of tunes by some well-known women including Pam Tillis, Melissa Manchester, Gretchen Cryer, Carol Hall and Kathie Lee Gifford, is character and theme appropriate and holds some lovely ballads as well as catchy up-tempo tunes. Vocally, the septet members do much better individually than as an ensemble. Delivering the songs which go with their character monologues are DeAnna L. (Williams) Carl as Duchess, Jenny DeDario as Princess, Diane Hollis as Contessa, Paula Rast Nichols as Lady, Joan Troyer as Baroness and  Pam Weinland as Dame. Castello offers her own solos and spends much of her time chatting with Rudy Red Hat (a puppet voiced by Hollis) whose observations connect the dots — or should I say hats. Each shares the ways in which approaching middle age seemed frightening and the ways in which they conquered their fears. Nichols and DeDario are particularly affecting in delivering quietly powerful ballads with Hollis and Troyer shaking and kicking geriatric fears away via salsa and country tempos, respectively.  In bright red feathers, Carl belts the blues and Weinland strikes a familiar chord  describing her empty nest.  Not surprisingly, “Hats!”  contains an abundance of  age-directed phrases: “Age is a state of mind  and if you don’t mind, no one will”; “Truth is growing up about getting old”; “Age doesn’t matter unless you’re a cheese” but as baby boomers head to social security,there is no denying that these deserve to be said . . . and heard. The pastel-dominated set, designed by John Jay Shoup and painted by Jeffrey Barrick,  fits each segment perfectly and the three piece “orchestra,” led by keyboardist Miriam Houck with drummer Mel Moore and bass guitarist Ann Noble, is just right. The sometimes dazzling and always appropriate costumes were designed by Dawn Blessing.

Perhaps fittingly, “Hats!” is directed by Michael Cripe.  It continues at the Opera House Friday through Sunday and June 19-20. See ECT link here for times and ticket information.

Something Very Fishy at The Barn

AUGUSTA, Mich. — An hilarious look at all things  aquaticaly icy is offered in “Guys on Ice: The Ice fishing Musical,” which opened a two-week run (through June 14) and the 2009 season at The Barn Theatre. Reportedly commissioned by the state of Wisconsin to mark its sesquicentennial, it features a score of definitely show-specific melodies, from ballads to up-tempo, and a very hard working cast of two, plus a brief third who primarily provides the “Half Time Show” and a quartet of attractive young ladies who move the set, sing backup and generally fill in whenever a visual is required (including a bikini-clad car washer).

Guys on Ice at the Barn Theatre, Augusta, MIThe duo is two of the Barn’s best — Eric Parker and Eric  Petersen — who sing, dance, create believable comic characters, deliver “Fargo”-ish accents and obviously delight in telling a host of jokes better described as “groaners.” They also ignore the heat of the stage lights costumed in heavy jumpsuits and, in Petersen’s case, a knit cap. The scene is an ice fishing shanty on a frozen lake  somewhere in Wisconsin. “The ice is 17 inches thick” a radio commentator announces at the opening, also noting “The temperature is -7 degrees and the wind chill -36,” making it a wonderful day to sit in the shack around a  “Wishing Hole” with buckets of bait and a lot of beer Marvin (Parker) is a bachelor and his buddy Lloyd (Petersen), married-but-temporarily-separated. They are in the shack fishing and awaiting the arrival of the host of a TV fishing show who wants to interview Marvin. As they sit and wait and fish and drink beer, the talk (and sing) about their favorite topics: Bait, the Green Pay Packers, beer, fish and women — not necessarily in that order. They sing the praises of snowmobile suits (probably the show’s funniest duet complete with bodyslapping “choreography”), tout fish as “Da Miracle Food,” delete their supply of brews (“Twelve Beers in a Twelve Pack”) and ponder how to spend “Your Last Day on Earth.” Parker and Petersen never stop and their fish-focused men are the source of well-earned laughter. Their excellent singing voices certainly are not challenged by the score, but they blend beautifully and go from poignant (“The One That Got Away”) to rock (“The King”) with ease. Steven Lee Burright is Ernie, described as “a moocher,” and after his brief visits to the shanty, always leaves with more than he came in with. His “Half Time Show” engages the audience and obviously is there to extend the length of the show which is about 90 minutes, plus intermission. He also designed the revolving shanty. Author Fred Alley and composer James Kaplan are no threat to Kander and Ebb, but under Dusty Reeds direction, a visit to the “Guys on Ice” is  as much fun as “hooking a big one.”

“Guys on Ice: The Ice Fishing Musical” plays at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 6 and 9 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $29. Call (269) 731-4121 for reservations. The Barn Theatre is on M-62 in Augusta, Mich.