"A Chorus Line" is a WW sensation

A show that took musical theater to a completely new level opened on Broadway 34 years ago this month (July). It was “A Chorus Line,” a frequently devastating up-close-and-personal look at Broadway chorus dancers (aka gypsies) — how they got there, why they stay there and just what drives them on.

A Chorus Line at the Wagon Wheel Playhouse, Warsaw, INA non-story comedy/drama, it was  created primarily by director/choreographer Michael Bennett from intense and honest revelations by Broadway dancers. In an informal atmosphere, they shared their stories with Bennett who used them as the basis for a new show. With music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban and a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, “A Chorus Line” burst onto the musical theater scene with an explosive energy and honesty that earned it nine Tony Awards (from 12 nominations) and a 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. That energy and honesty are replicated in the production which opened Wednesday evening in Warsaw’s Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre. On the bare stage, 14 dancers begin the audition process under the demanding eyes of director Zach (John Rapson). Before the final six — three boys, three girls — are selected, the audience has been treated to an in depth glimpse of what makes terpsichoreans tick. There are many laughs, at least one wrenching monologue and more touching moments than can be counted. Happily, all are delivered to maximum effect by this season’s incredibly talented cast under the demanding eye of WW director/choreographer Scott Michaels. Staging this “Chorus Line” is difficult enough on a proscenium (straight line) stage. In the round, the challenge quadruples, at least. With the exception of two monologues, the entire cast is on stage throughout with the exception. There is no scenery and no set pieces (i.e. chairs, tables, etc). Just the performers and the audience. What the dancers (plus director, assistant and four dancers “eliminated” early on) achieve — with a major assist from G.W.L. Griffin’s extensive and extremely effective lighting design and the seven-piece orchestra (the brass had a couple of “iffy” spots but settled in) — is nothing short of phenomenal. Not only do they all dance and sing above and beyond the call, each member creates a character that never wavers from the “line.” Even sitting quietly in the shadows, they remain who they are. There is no question of sitting it out while the soloist works. They are all always there! Of course, the most famous “Chorus Line-r” is Cassie, played by Rachel MacIsaacs, who pleads with Zach (also her ex-lover) for the chance to return to the line after unrewarding experiences in movies. MacIsaac presents her case in a dazzling solo dance “The Music and The Mirror.” This may not be Broadway, but it is as close as it gets!

A Chorus Line at the Wagon Wheel Playhouse, Warsaw, INThe lyrically wrenching “At the Ballet” is interpreted by Jennie Sophia as Sheila the “adult” in the group who covers emotional scars with a brittle exterior;  Adrianna Parson as Maggie, who dreams of dancing with her absentee dad; and Erica Wilpon as Bebe, who realized early on that  being “different” was not what it was about. Kristen French as Kristine and Brandon Springman as her husband Al give new meaning to “having your back” in the comic duet “Sing” while Andrew Laudel’s Mike is every kid who finds himself at home in a different genre. Carleigh Bettiol is Diana, who has two of the show’s most famous songs: “Nothing” and “What I Did for Love,” and sends them home with a strong, rich soprano and dramatic punch. Ryan Castillo’s Paul is heartbreaking as he relates  the painful story of his beginnings in dance. No surprise here that among the many showstoppers, one of the best closes Act 1 as Val explains why a visit to the medical “wizard at Park and 73rd” changed her audition scores — and her life —  from “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” to aces all around. Delivering her message, Ashley Travis is absolutely adorable! The wonderfully woven web of the four-part montage offers visual proof that Michaels is a bit of a genius at moving his dancer/actors constantly in a really small space without sacrificing anyone or anything. Completing the ensemble are Jen Dow, Zachary McConnell, Joe Sepulveda, David Glenwright and Rob Riddle. The eliminated dancers are teens Hannah Bishop, Maddy Mohrman, Shay Dixon and Andrew Johnson. All deserve the standing ovation they received at the finale. In solo turns and as individuals working together, they make this “Chorus Line” memorable. And when they remain in stunned silence as one is carried off with a re-injured knee, possibly marking the end of his dancing career, the words of “What I Did for Love” hit home. It is not a show but for real that these young performers are getting ready to emerge from the collegiate cocoon  and head for the sometimes blinding lights of the Great White Way — wherever they may lead them. There is no doubt. Whatever “the sweetness and the sorrow” ahead, there will be no regrets.

“A Chorus Line” plays through Aug. 8 in theater at 2517 E. Centre Street, Warsaw. Tickets are $30 for adults, $16 for students age 13 through college, and $12 for youngsters through age 12. For show times and reservations, call 267-8041 or (866) 83-2618 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com.

The Who on First/Second/Third with "Tommy"

In 1969, Peter Townshend of the British band The Who wrote a rock opera which was recorded by his group in a double album. It was titled “Tommy.” Six years later, British director Ken Russell took the album to a new format — the movies — rearranged the songs — and the plot — and released it as “The Who’s Tommy.” It took 18 years for that film to become a theatrical production. Re-written again, this time by Townshend and director Des McAnuff, it also shuffled songs and plot and hit Broadway in 1993, eventually earning a total of five Tony Awards and cementing a place for “The Who’s Tommy” in the annals of musical history.

Tommy at the Barn Theatre in Augusta, MIIt is this version that opened Tuesday evening at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich. It may not be strictly an opera, although there is very little dialogue, but it does keep the audience on its toes, if only trying to figure out just exactly what it is trying to say — or sing. Is it an allegory and, if so, does that designation hold true from prologue to finale, or is it just the story of a young boy, struck deaf, dumb and blind by witnessing a murder (and by his parents’ insistence that he didn’t hear or see it and cannot say anything about it) and how he eventually broke out of his catatonic shell, rose to become leader of a cult and finally decided that simple home and family were all he wanted. You really can go a little nuts trying to make “Tommy” fit into any mold. As presented by the talented company at The Barn, it is best just to sit back and recognize much of the score that included several Top 10 singles in the ’70s, especially “Pinball Wizard,” “See Me, Feel Me” and “Tommy Can You Hear Me?” and applaud the excellent vocal talents that recreate the complex characters. From Barn veterans Penelope Alex and Eric Parker as Tommy’s greatly flawed parents, to apprentices Aaron Velthouse as his sadistic Cousin Kevin and guest artist Brooke Evans as the frightening Gypsy (“Acid Queen”), the cast of 30+ gives it their all.  Special applause to Eric Morris as the “Narrator/Tommy” who begins as a figure in the all-important mirror and rides a pinball machine to celebrity status before finally finding freedom. It is a demanding role and Morris delivers a strong performance although sometimes pushing so hard vocally that it becomes harsh and difficult to understand (a requisite when the lyrics tell the story).

Tommy at the Barn Theatre in Augusta, MIMorris is preceded in Tommy’s white suit by two boys, young Jacob Ragotzy and younger Reece Chapman, as Tommy at ages 10 and 4, respectively.  Both do remarkably well, especially Ragotzy, who is abused and literally thrown around by his pedophile Uncle Ernie (Gregg Rehreg) and Cousin Kevin as he struggles to survive puberty, escape his catatonic state and achieve pinball wizardry. The excellent seven piece orchestra, under the direction of John Jay Espino, was a very happy surprise. The rock score was handled with a minimum of blatant blare. Instead, it offered soloists and ensemble the proper support and interpreted the strictly instrumental passages intelligently. The only problem was with the microphones worn by every principal player which tended to muddy their voices in lower ranges. It is a problem that should be under control after one or two more performances. Although I’m still trying to figure out the underlying allegorical meaning of  “The Who’s Tommy,” I’ve decided it’s best just to sit back and listen at face value.

NOTE: There is a very large, very loud explosion in Act II which is not announced prior to the show.  Be prepared.

“The Who’s Tommy” plays  through Aug. 9 with shows at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 6 and 9 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday in the theater on M-96. Tickets are $29, For reservations call (269) 731-4121 daily or visit www.barntheatre.com.

Dated Allen farce not so funny

In 1966, Broadway welcomed “Don’t Drink the Water” a new play by comedian Woody Allen which ran for more than 500 performances and, by all reports, was a popular hit. It later became a film starring Jackie Gleason and was rewritten by Allen in 1994 as a TV movie. The title obviously is the admonition given tourists traveling to foreign countries. After seeing the production which opened this week at The Barn Theatre,  I had to wonder what all the fuss was about. True, comic tastes have changed significantly in the past several decades and not all for the better. But the plot is predictable and definitely dated and the characters, at least as performed here, are so stereotypically one dimensional as to make one wonder if they turned sideways would they disappear.

Don't Drink the Water - Barn TheatreFarce, as anyone who knows me will attest, is my least favorite form of theater. Done well, however, it can be enjoyable.  Possibly I have been spoiled by the past farces on The Barn stage which clipped along so briskly that no one had time to think about the thinness of the plot. The primary key to farce, good or bad (and there are some good ones) is timing. . .timing . . . timing!   Without this, there really is no point in raising the curtain as what follows for the next two hours (which seemed at least twice that long) is deadly dull and without any semblance of requisite light touches.  Here, the thought seems to be that louder is funnier. Wrong!  Especially when there also is the problem of picking up cues. Well-timed pauses and glances can underscore a comic moment . When these are too long and the normal dialogue limps along in spastic spurts, it can (and does) become deadly. Set in an American Embassy in a European country during the cold war, the Russians again are the bad guys, the American tourists (Lisa Ann Morabito, Steven Lee Burright, Olivia Ercolano) seeking refuge are (of course) from Newark, N.J., and are bumbling, obnoxious or dazed, and the embassy is in the charge of a total dolt (Kevin White as the absent ambassador’s looser son). Things go from bad to worse when irate citizens surround the embassy, keeping the tourists prisoners for many weeks. As escape plans involving a Sultan and his wives are made, a revolt seems imminent. Of course, everything is resolved by the final curtain but, by that time, we just wanted it to end. High spots were the performances of Morabito and John Dreher, who was just right as Father Drobney, a priest  who dabbles in magic tricks. Unfortunately,  they weren’t enough.

“Don’t Drink the Water” plays at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 6 and 9 p.m. Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sunday in the theater on M-62 between Augusta and Galesburg, Mich. Tickets are $29. For reservations; (269) 731-4121 or visit www.barntheatre.co

Brigadoon Comes Alive at Wagon Wheel

The highland mists of Scotland hover over the Wagon Wheel Theatre’s arena stage and what emerges is a lyrical fantasy which proves why some musicals never die. “Brigadoon,” the first collaboration by composer Frederick Loewe and playwright/lyricist Alan J. Lerner, is more than 60 years old and one of the most successful and long-lasting of their cooperative works which include “Gigi,” “Camelot” and “My Fair Lady.” As interpreted by director Tony Humrichouser, choreographer Scott Michaels and the immensely talented WW cast, it shows no signs of age. Indeed, it is happily rejuvenated and offers a marvelous reminder that song and dance, plus proper amounts of comedy, romance and drama, are the ingredients for a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theater.

Brigadoon at Wagon Wheel Theatre, Warsaw, IndianaHere, a liberal amount of suspension of disbelief is required as the town of Brigadoon emerges from the mist to the astonished eyes of two New York travelers, and forms the background for an emerging love story that will, by the final blackout, transcend time. Along the way, the audience is treated to some of Lerner and Loewe’s loveliest melodies, happily in the care of outstanding leads, a well-blended chorus and a 10-piece orchestra. From the  mist-filled opening which finds Tommy Albright (John Rapson) and Jeff Douglas (Brandon Springman) lost in the Scottish hills, to the equally mist-filled finale, this “Brigadoon” offers one musical delight after another, most especially because no matter what the tempo, the enjoyment is in the singing. This cast delivers one enjoyment after another. The town, as Tommy and Jeff eventually discover, is the object of a “miracle,” which brings it back to life in the highlands only once every century. To its inhabitants, each awakening is just another day. The only catch: No one from Brigadoon can ever leave or it will disappear forever but — a stranger can stay if he truly loves someone there. OK. So it’s a bit predictable but that never detracts from hearing the amazing Jennie Sophia, as Fiona MacLaren, sing. From “Waiting for My Dearie” to “The Heather on the Hill” to “Almost Like Being in Love” to “From This Day On,” most of which are duets with Rapson’s mellow baritone. Their “Brigadoon”  ballads are lyrical treats. The same is true of the lovely Ashley Travis as the bride-to-be bonnie Jean MacLaren,  a singing/dancing/acting triple threat, and her Brigadoonian fiance  Andrew Laudel as Charlie Dalrymple. His yearning “Come to Me, Bend to Me” is a highlight as are all their dance duets.

Springman is the cynical voice of the outside world and the comic foil for Meg Brockie (Erica Wilpon), a young lady who finds it difficult to wait for “The Love of My Life” and demonstrates her philosophy very energetically. David Glenwright as the Jean’s rejected suitor Harry Beaton offers a fleet-footed sword dance while the Yocum brothers, Mike and Tim, portray patriarchs of the clans MacLaren and Beaton, respectively. Andrew Dixon is articulate and believable as Mr. Lundie, the schoolmaster who shares the secret of the miracle. All accents are acceptable and, for the most part, sustained throughout. Once again the lovely, layered and right-in-period costumes designed and built by Stephen R. Hollenbeck are the beautifully crafted and colorful accents for this lovely fantasy, The only flaw on Wednesday’s opening night was an unfortunate imbalance in sound between orchestra and dialogue, which undoubtedly has been corrected.

“Brigadoon” will be presented through July 25 in the theater at 2519 E. Center Street, Warsaw. For reservations and information, call 267-8041 or (866) 824-2618 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com

Barn Looks at The Full Monty

In 1997, a British movie about six out of work men in Sheffield, England acquainted Americans with the term, “The Full Monty.” Three years later, it became a Broadway musical, shifted location to Buffalo, N.Y., kept the unemployed steelworkers and retained the premise — job loss can lead men to unusual occupations, if only for one night.

The musical “Full Monty” played 700 performances in New York City and still is extremely popular with regional theaters and community groups which have the manpower — and the electrical power — to pull it off (definitely pun intended).

The Barn Theatre is taking another look at “The Full Monty,” which was a hit for the Augusta, Mich., playhouse in its 2005 season. Two of the ’05 cast members — Eric Parker and Iris Lieberman — are repeating their roles in the show which opened a two-week run Tuesday evening. The “new” cast is up to the challenge, including an apprentice called at the last minute to take over a leading role.

the full monty at the barn theatrePatrick Hunter plays Dave Bukatinsky, an overweight worker and best friend of leading player Jerry Lukowski (Parker), filling in for former company member Eric Petersen who was called to Broadway to take over a role in the hit musical “Shrek.” Despite having only five days notice and being rather too young and not really heavy enough for a character obsessessed with his paunch, Hunter delivers a remarkably solid and believable performance, both dramatically and vocally.

Parker, a longtime Barn favorite, is equally compelling as the angry divorced dad who is desperate for money in order to retain a connection with his young son. Seeing the popularity of the Chippendale show touring Buffalo, Jerry comes up with the idea of disrobing for an audience to make some quick cash.

To organize a group, he enlists other laid off mill workers. First an unwilling Dave and a suicidal Malcolm MacGregor (Aaron Fried), then former supervisor Harold Nichols (Gregg Rehrig), as a dance teacher. Auditions to fill remaining slots are hilarious and result in adding  Noah (Horse) T. Simmons (Stanley White) and Ethan Girard (Alex Kip) whose “qualifications” for the job leave the auditioners speechless.

With Jerry’s young son Nathan (an adorable Jacob Ragotzy) organizing the event and old vaudevillian Jeanette Burmeister (Lieberman) at the piano, the Heavy Metal show lurches to its eventual performance. Along the way, however, Jerry is forced to promise potential ticket buyers “the full monty” (everything off) in order to promote sales.

In addition to the riotous finale “Let It Go,” there are two guaranteed showstopping numbers in “The Full Monty,” Jeanette’s “Showbiz Number” and Horse’s “Big Black Man.” Here they do not disappoint, even though choreography for the latter, as for “Michael Jordan’s Ball” and the finale are rather flat and repetitious.

The women — wives, ex-wives, girlfriends and interested spectators — are handled well by Penelope Alex (in her 100th production at The Barn), Brooke Evans, Jenna Petardi, Estelle Schneider, Katie Mack and Stephanie C. Forshee. The declaration of female equality “It’s A Woman’s World,” definitely strikes home.

The pop/rock score and lyrics by David Yazbek set the up tempo tone from the opening chords and the book by Terrence McNally touches on a multitude of topics including unemployment, parenthood, self-awareness, relationships and friendship.

The set, adapted from the original design, seems unwieldy and unnecessarily noisy his time around, with scene changes less than sharply executed. Possibly the pace will escalate as performances continue, cutting down the opening night three-hour running time.

“The Full Monty” plays through July 12. Shows at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 6 and 9 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday at the theater on M-62 in Augusta, Mich. Tickets are $29. For reservations and information: (269) 731-4121.