"Nunsense" Devilishly Heavenly Fun

WARSAW, In. — Dan Goggins’ “Nunsense” began with a line of nun-based greeting cards which became a cabaret which became one of the longest-running off-Broadway musicals of all time It began in 1985 and subsequently spawned five “sequels,” none of which come close to the original. It would be difficult for any average theater-goer over the age of 12 to have missed a “Nunsense” production, professional or amateur. Being an avid theater-goer, I must have seen at least a dozen, so I can say unreservedly that the “Nunsense” which opened Wednesday evening at the Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre is one of the best — if not THE  best — I’ve ever seen.

Nunsense at the Wagon Wheel Theatre, Warsaw, INUnder the direction of Scott Michaels, who has assembled the perfect cast for this season finale, the five ladies portraying the Little Sisters of Hoboken have talent and timing and use both to create the wackily hilarious individuals who hide diverse talents under their habits. And oh, yes. They certainly can sing! For those who need a slight refresher on the very slight plot: The sisters are among those remaining after a less-than-nutritious vichysoisse prepared by convent chef, Sister Julia, Child of God, sent 52 of their order to their heavenly reward. The sale of greeting cards proved successful enough to pay for 48 burials when an over-confident Mother Superior spent the rest on a DVD player. So. . .four nuns rest in the convent freezer with the New Jersey Department of Health demanding their immediate internment and the live sisters determined to raise the necessary funds through a benefit show. Let the laughs begin! Actually, they begin before the opening chords led by Brother Tom (music director Thomas N. Sterling) and his excellent band of brothers (Farrell Vernon and Sean Rollins) as the sisters chat with audience members urging them to greet the Mother Superior Sister Mary Regina (Beckie Menzie) with an enthusiastic cheer. It is absolutely no problem and only the first of many, many enthusiastic responses to each of the “sisters.” In addition to Menzie, making up the ecclesiastical quintet are Chelsea Waller as Sister Mary Hubert, Mistress of Novices and second in command and looking to move up; Jennifer Dow as Sister Robert Anne,  “streetwise” sister in charge of the convent transportation and show understudy; Ashley Travis as Sister Mary Leo, a novice who aspires to be the first ballerina nun; and Jennie Sophia as Sister Mary Amnesia, who has lost her memory due to a collision with a  crucifix. Each has her own “star turn” in this “Nunsense” and it is absolutely impossible to select any “bests.” Every one is a standout and deserves the rounds of extended applause/cheers. It starts with the ensemble declaring “Nunsense Is Habit Forming” and explaining the sisters’ “Difficult Transition” from tending an island leper colony to the inner shores of Hoboken, but pay attention,  “The Quiz” follows.

Jennie Sophia in Nunsense at the Wagon Wheel Theatre, Warsaw, INAnd indeed there is one, conducted by Sophia, with prizes for correct answers. Her beautifully baffled gaze never falters.   and is never derailed. Travis details, on pointe, the joys of the morning “Benedicite” and she and Waller agree “The Biggest Ain’t the Best.” Dow describes the frustrations of “Playing Second Fiddle” and Sophia delivers a lecture — with the aid (?) of Sister Mary Annette — on the pros and cons of being a nun. Menzie describes growing up in a circus family and reveals she’d like to “Turn Up the Spotlight”and samples — disastrously — a gift box of Jack Daniels Chocolates. The result is definitely one of the show’s funniest moments. Act One ends with Waller and the sisters determined to “Tackle That Temptation Witb a Time Step.” This is only half the fun and I could go on, but you absolutely should see for yourself! Menzie, an award-winning Chicago cabaret ainger/pianist, is amazing in a role that has to be outside her comfort zone! Sophia, Travis and Dow prove again — if any proof is needed after their widely varied performances this season — that they can do just about anything, and Waller ranks right up there with the group of sensational show-stoppers. I defy you to sit still when she leads the  nuns — and much of  the audience — in “Holier Than Thou.” I could swear the roof rose at lease several inches! If you have seen “Nunsense” in any of its forms, don’t hesitate to see this one . . . or see it again. If you’ve never had the pleasure, this is definitely the one.

“Nunsense” plays through Sept. 5 in the arena theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For show times and tickets, call 267-8041 or (866) 823-2618 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com

"The Civil War" Ends Barn Season

AUGUSTA, Mich, — The Barn Theatre has elected to end its 2009 season with a bang — literally. Opening Tuesday evening and playing for one week only is “The Civil War” by Frank Wildhorn whose creative resume includes theatrical melodramas “Jekyll and Hyde” (still popular with regional and civic groups) and “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (better than “J & H” but never as popular), both based on fictional novels. No single work of fiction was needed for “The Civil War.” What it needed originally (it only ran for two months on Broadway) and still needs are cohesive story lines and, here at least, a lot more action.

Barn Theatre, Augusta MI presents "The Civil War"If that sounds like an oxymoron when referring to a mini-opera about the bloodiest time in the history of the United States, it is unfortunately a fact. It is difficult to grasp a thread of the stories of a family from the north and one from the south and the slaves they owned and freed, especially here where director Brendan Ragotzy has opted to have each of several major roles sung by two or three company members. Lisa Ann Morabito, Penelope Alex and especially Brooke Evans have solid soprano voices but having them all sing the character of Sarah is confusing and makes one wonder if there is some hidden meaning to the role other than just letting three of this year’s leading ladies have a crack at it. Except for the role of Bessie, a slave, also given dual personas by Lindsey Aeriel Grimble and the powerfully voiced Alexis J. Rogers, there are only two other solo spots for the ladies. These are handled well by Jenna Petardi as the mother of “Five Boys” who died for the North, and Stephanie C. Forshee who, with Evans and Grimble, sings of “A Candle in the Window” of the White House. Actually, in spite of all the rousing military-themed male solos and chorus numbers, Wildhorn designs his best and most moving melodies for the ladies. All are in good hands — and voices — here. The excellent Aaron Velthouse is taxed with two major roles, Lochran and Bill (happily both northerners), which he delivers with as much separation of character as possible and a lot of excellent vocal work. Barn favorite Eric Parker is Pierce, a Virginian colonel and Lochran’s Confederate counterpart. It is a pleasure to listen to both, singly and in duets. Two other Northern solo spots are delivered strongly and smoothly by Alex Kip and Kevin White.

Barn Theatre, Augusta MI presents "The Civil War"Byron Glenn Willis is Frederick Douglas, the voice of the slaves, and the quintet of black singers who play all the roles from the slave block to eventual freedom, sing powerfully if sometimes unintelligibly. It would help to understand the lyrics, but possibly this is a sound problem that will be solved quickly. “Star” Fee Waybill is a Confederate soldier with one country-rock number and two ensemble appearances. The designation should go to Parker and Velthouse. There are some lovely melodies in “The Civil War” which is played out on a stage divided, North being primarily stage right and South, stage left. Appropriate flags hang at each side of the playing area with the back wall reserved for a continuous Civil War slide show ala Ken Burns and PBS. Unfortunately,the action moves at about the same pace, with singers inevitably winding up in a line — up or down stage — with very little action en route. The orchestra is supportive and not overwhelming with the exception of several of the spoken passages, primarily texts from Lincoln and Douglas. The final words are so over-ridden that the desired dramatic effect unfortunately is compromised.

 

“The Civil War” plays at 8:30 p.m. through Friday, 6 and 9 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday in the theater on M-96 west of Augusta. Tickets are $29. For reservations and information, call (269) 731-4121.

Twelfth Night Marks Decade for ND Shakespeare

SOUTH BEND —OK. This is about a Shakespeare production at Notre Dame. WAIT! Before you check out YouTube, hear me out. If your closest acquaintance with The Bard has been modernized  “based on” films like “10 Things I Hate About You” (“The Taming of the Shrew”) and “Forbidden Planet” (“The Tempest”) or Kenneth Branaugh’s  more recent interpretations, it’s time to shake the idea that Shakespeare is only for the nerds and those intellectually inclined. And the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival’s current offering, “Twelfth Night” or “What You Will” is just the ticket — and I mean that literally.

Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival production of 12th NightTo mark it’s 10th season (has it really been a decade?), the selection powers-that-be have chosen one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s comedies and one that incorporates one of his favorite themes — identical siblings parted by a natural disaster who each believe the other dead and whose reunion provides the grand finale and the unraveling of several frantically entwined storylines. To say that this production is better than its predecessors would not be true. To say that it continues  — and extends — the high level of production and performance excellence set by all nine past shows is enough to mark it “not to be missed.” Internationally known director David H. Bell (making his NDSF debut), leads a cast of outstanding professional and non-professional actors and a creative team that never ceases to amaze. His “Twelfth Night” extracts every ounce of romance (real and imagined) and every pound of comedy (verbal and physical)  from the multi-level text and the talented performers. Although Shakespeare set this last of his romantic comedies in Illyria, on the Mediterranean coast, director Bell has opted to place it in Russia, noting the “resonances with Chekov comedy” in which the “illusion of romance is important.” It works well in that locale, with a major assist from the revolving setting by Marcus Stephens which turns Olivia’s dachau to an all-purpose forest, and the original music by music director Daniel Green. His melodies support several of the play’s best known speeches (“O Mistress mine…”) as well as serving to set the scene. Music and musicians are well integrated, moving the action along both smoothly and lyrically. From the opening thunder crack to the bittersweet finale, even if you fail to assimilate all the dialogue, there is no doubt as to the meaning. Interesting to note that one of the major roles — the girl Viola who must masquerade as Cesario in order to survive alone — is played by a Northwestern University senior, dimpled Maggie Donnelly, who holds her own in professional company. Not an easy task when caught between Chicago actress Lesley Bevan as Countess Olivia, who falls in love with Cesario, and  New York’s Christopher Kelly as Duke Orsino, who is pursuing Olivia but  becomes the object of Viola’s affection, an emotion he returns but denies until her brother Sebastian (ND grad Matthew Goodrich) turns up alive and well and ready  to help the siblings pair properly with respective others. Matt Edmonds, another Northwestern senior is a certified scene stealer as Feste, a jester, who views the entanglements through a shrewdly jaunced eye, being both a part of and separate from them, which gives his character a frequently mournful edge. He also sings and  plays accordion  (reportedly learned for this production.) The comedic highlights of  “Twelth Night” are  generated by Sir Toby Belch, played with delightfully infectious deviltry by Broadway veteran Frank Kopyc; his accomplices in “crime,” Maria (Olivia’s maid), award-winning Chicago actress Cindy Gold;  Fabian (another servant), South Bend actor Greg Melton; and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (foppish friend of Sir Toby), another Chicago veteran Christopher McLinden. With Feste they plot against Olivia’s  pompous steward Malvolio, preying on his vanity and conceit to create one of the evening’s most hilarious visuals. Malvolio is created beautifully by Donald Carrier, a veteran of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, making him by turns completely ridiculous and completely sympathetic. Completing the cast are Elkhartan Paul Hanft  doubling as a sea captain and, later, as a priest;  South Bend Civic’s Mary Ann Moran, and a number of college students. Among the definitely unexpected delights of this “Twelth Night” are “ducks” and “divers” (assisted by Robert Steel’s sound design) and some awesomely extensive swordplay, staged by fight director Kevin Asselin. “Twelfth Night” plays through Aug. 30 in the Decio Theatre in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. For show times and tickets, call 631-2800 or visit  http://shakespeare.nd.edu.

WW Cast Presents Simon at His Best

WARSAW — There is no doubt that Neil Simon is absolute champion of  theatrical one-liners. It is a title he won first in 1961 with “Come Blow Your Horn” and cemented forever in ’65 with the seeming indestructable “The Odd Couple.” If his touch has waned in recent efforts, it was at its height in a trio of plays that combined his spot-on wit with bittersweet nostalgia. The semi-autobiographical Eugene Trilogy began in 1983 with the best of the three plays, “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” As currently reincarnated at the Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre, it is a real tribute to Simon’s ability to turn the ordinary moments in everyday life into theatrical gems that cannot help but strike a familiar chord in everyone, no matter the ages.

Brighton Beach Memoirs - Wagon Wheel PlayhouseThe script is only half of the complete package. The actors portraying each character must be believable and honest in bringing their roles to life and making the written word natural. All meet this challenge very successfully . . . and with just the right touch of Brooklyn in their delivery. The title says it all. “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is set in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, N.Y. and the “memoirs” are narrated by Eugene Morris Jerome (an amazing Cameron Carter). It is 1937 and, for the family of Jack and Kate Jerome (Michael Yocum and Jennie Sophia) times are hard. Living with the Jeromes and their sons Stanley (Adrian Aguilar), 18, and Eugene, 14, are Kate’s widowed sister Blanche Morton (Jen Dow) and her daughters Laurie (Tara Rusinack), 13, and Nora (Ashley Travis), 16. Things are literally too close for comfort and the fraying dynamics of family relationships are delineated with familiar Simon humor and  dramatic friction. Eugene faces the hardships of being the family scapegoat stoically  and with long-suffering weariness. He always knows what’s coming. Although he is not the youngest, Laurie has a “fluttering” heart which she plays for maximum effect when the occasion arises and which the petite Ms. Rusinack does to a perfectly bratty ‘T.’ Instead, he escapes in his dreams of playing for the New York Yankees or becoming a writer. In the grip of puberty and raging hormones, he expects to take the blame for anything and everything, fantasizes about Nora and only hopes to see a naked woman before he dies. For help in realizing this fantasy, he turns to Stanley, who has problems of his own.  Being one of the family’s two breadwinners, Stanley is on the verge of losing his job because of standing up for a fellow employee but solves this crisis of conscience only to face an even more disastrous one — gambling away the paycheck on which the family relies and facing his  ailing father with the news. The multi-level connection between the brothers is played expertly  by Carter and Aguilar who manage the evening’s most sustained laughter as Stanley explains Eugene’s wet dream and the universality of “whacking off,” a fact the young teen is horrified to believe, especially when applied to their father and even President Roosevelt.

Brighton Beach Memoirs - Wagon Wheel PlayhouseThe adults have problems of their own. Kate is increasingly resentful of having to carry the burden of two families while Jack is upset at losing his second job, without which that burden will become insurmountable. Blanche feels the resentment but is unable to break away or to make any decisions for herself or her daughters. Nora is furious when her proposal to quit school and try for a theatrical job receives negative responses. No surprise that the anger and resentments boil over before peace is restored. The triumph of family is executed masterfully by Simon and the excellent WW ensemble with the guidance of directors Ben Dicke and Andy Robinson who find the heart of this beginning and leave the audience definitely wanting more. “Brighton Beach Memoirs” plays through Aug. 22 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street, Warsaw.  For performance times and tickets call 267-8041 or (866) 823-2618 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com.

The Barn Paddles Down the "Big River"

AUGUSTA, Mich.—Take a legendary American humorist and an award-winning country singer/songwriter, put them together and the result  is “Big River,” a musical by the late Roger Miller, adapted from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain ne Samuel Clemens. Tuesday evening, The Barn Theatre opened its production of this musical journey, a multi (7)-Tony Award winning show that, for some reason, rarely returns to touring, regional or community stages. Whatever the reasons, The Barn production offers a laugh-filled look at the adventures of Huck (Kevin White) and Jim (Todd M. Kryger), a runaway slave hoping to make it to the free city of Cairo, Ill.

Big River at the Barn Theatre in Augusta, MIThe music ranges from up tempo —”A Hand for the Hog,” is delivered by an increasingly rowdy Eric Morris as Tom Sawyer —to temperate ballads; “Leavin’s Not The Only Way to Go,” a trio with Huck, Jim and Mary Jane Wilkes (Jessica Malashevich) , “River in The Rain” and “Muddy Water.” White, who is on stage and in motion almost continually through the 2 hour 40 minute show, delivers a solid but happily not overdone portrait of the boy who yearns for a free life and holds the bonds of friendship lasting. Not only does he sing six of the show’s 17 songs (including three solos), he also serves as narrator of the piece, stepping out of the ongoing action to deliver his own interpretation of the situation. Kryger is a large and solid anchor for the eager Huck and his equally large basso is well-served in their duets as well as in “Free at Last.” He is the calming influence in the duo’s sometimes frantic escapades, Delivering such a sympathetic character makes it much more difficult to hear the word “nigger” applied to him as it is frequently. I know it was common in the show’s time setting (1840) but it made us increasingly uncomfortable. Maybe that was the point. The comic highlight of this “River” is Eric Parker as The Duke who, with Gregg Rehrigg as The King, cons his way up and down the river selling highly potent patent medicine. Parker is a skilled comedian who knows just when to hit a line and when to throw one away for maximum effect. Evidence of this is obvious in the sequence in which the con men seek to swindle a recent widow and he has been introduced as a deaf mute. With a few squeeks and rolling eyes, he steals the scene. He and Rehrigg let it all hang out in “The Royal Nonesuch.” The nine-piece orchestra under the direction of John Jay Espino do justice to Miller’s score, complete with harmonica and fiddle. The choreography by Kevin Field was appropriately energetic as delivered by the 20-plus ensemble members most of whom played several roles. Much of the “action” takes place on a small raft as Huck and Jim float down the Mississippi. Understandably, movement here is minimal. This makes it more important for movement to return when the narrative hits the shore. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen The soloists merely stand in place during the emotional ballads (which are not enhanced by the bland lighting design) which makes the second act seem twice as long as it actually is.

“Big River” plays through Aug. 23. Shows are 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 between Augusta and Galesburg. Tickets are $29.  Call (269) 731-4121 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily or visit www.barntheatre.com

"Footloose" Fine Family Fare

For a very short span of time, Elkhart Civic Theatre is going “Footloose.” The 2000 theatrical version of the hit 1984 film is the ECT summer production which opened Friday, played Saturday and will make its final appearance at 3 p.m. today in the Elkhart Memorial High School auditorium. It is a show the whole family can enjoy. Even if the movie which made a star of KevinBacon is not on your Top 10 list, it pays to take a look at what an enthusiastic group of “amateurs” can do with a hot score and a plot that admittedly is not Pulitzer material.

Elkhart Civic Theatre presents FootlooseThe group of 70 — cast and crews — follows the beat of Brian Mast’s excellent orchestra and, during the up-tempo numbers, I defy you to keep your toes from tapping. You’ll be surprised  how many of the songs will strike a familiar chord in your memory. Tyler Miller has the leading role of Ren McCormick, a Chicago teen forced to move with his mother to the tiny town of Bomont after his father runs off “to find himself.”  Living with a by-the-book aunt and uncle soon finds him chaffing under the constraints of rural life, especially when there is a strict town law prohibiting dancing and playing rock music. It doesn’t help matters when he is attracted to Ariel Moore (Kristin Riggs), rebellious daughter of the town minister, Shaw Moore (Michael Cripe), primary supporter of the law,  and his wife Vi (Susan Ponce). The reasons behind the law come to light but  Ren, who “Can’t Stand Still,”  leads his fellow students in lobbying for a school dance. If there is any doubt as to which side will prevail,  you haven’t seen many musicals. In the hands of director John Shoup, vocal director Douglas J. Lunn PhD.,  orchestra director Brian Mast, and choreographers Tom Myers, Heather Holland and Dawn Manger (there are a lot of big dance numbers), this production is a showcase for some extremely talented performers. Ariel and her three BFFs, Rusty (Alex Pote), Urleen (Megan Wade) and Wendy Jo (Lauren Parsons), hit a universal teen nerve with “Somebody’s Eyes.” The girls take the lead on two other song and dance numbers: “Holding Out for A Hero” and “Let’s Hear It for the Boys.” Riggs, Ponce and Julie Musser as Ren’s mom Ethel blend beautifully in the ballad “Learning to Be Silent,” which has to hit home with many of the female listeners and is one of the loveliest songs not in the film version. Miller and Riggs do justice to the show’s best known ballad, “Almost Paradise.”

Elkhart Civic Theatre presents FootlooseJay Mast offers a fine comic turn as Ren’s best friend, Willard Hewitt. His detailed report on what “Mama Says,” with backing from the Bomont boys (Tell Williams, Raul Soto and Paxton Manly), listing maternal directives, is a highlight of the second act.  Peter Sessions takes a break from “good guy” roles to play Chuck Cranston, Ariel’s definitely thuggish boy friend, chosen in defiance of her father. As the minister whose grief and anger have set him apart from his wife and daughter,  Cripe delivers a solid characterization and his plea for guidance, “Heaven Help Me” is beautifully sung. The show opens and closes with a high-energy performance of the title song which just may have you dancing all the way home.

“Footloose” plays at 3 p.m. today (Sunday) in the Memorial High School auditorium. Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for students and senior citizens and #10 for youngsters to age 13.  At the door.