"All Shook Up" Pulls Out All the Stops

Every now and then, the rumor that Elvis Presley is alive  and well in Kalamazoo resurfaces. Make it Warsaw, and you’re close! The King has been reincarnated (with a touch of Brando) in the person of Chad, aka Roustabout, the leading character in “All Shook Up,” a musical that blends 25 songs associated with the late Pride of Memphis and a plot based on several works penned by the Bard of Avon, aka Will Shakespeare.

All Shook Up at the Wagon Wheel PlayhouseIt is the current production at the Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre and, judging from the reaction of the nearly full house Thursday evening, it could stay on indefinitely rather than just the scheduled two weeks. Director/choreographer Scott Michaels has pulled out all the stops on this one. The energy level of the extremely talented cast generates enough amps to light a small city. From the opening “Jailhouse Rock” to the “Burning Love” finale, “All Shook Up” leaps from song to dance to song and dance, laughing all the way and, in addition, makes some very definite points about relationships — the good, the bad and the ugly. Michaels turns the small arena stage into a space that rivals an auditorium. His dancers do amazing things. . .and then do them again. Even the scene changes become terpsichorean interludes. There is something going on all the time! The same is true of the scenic design by David Lepor. In his WW design debut, Lepor had created several specific areas — a café, a garage, a museum — for the first act. In the second, the entire stage becomes an abandoned fairgrounds. There is so much attention to detail that it is worth second, third and even tenth looks to check out all the little things that add up to the big picture. Stephen  R. Hollenbeck’s ingenious  costume designs are eye-filling and right on the money. They are the obvious exteriors of some complicated characters. When the town turns from drab to daring, the clothes not only make the man, they make the women, too.  Thomas N. Sterling’s orchestra (nine pieces) again is a real joy, especially in a score with music and lyrics “by varied artists.”  The lighting design by Greg Griffin sharply  highlights the humor. But of course set, costumes, lights and music would not be enough if the cast was not up for the assignment. The young performers take a super-convoluted story line and make the audience able not only to follow each twist, turn and intersection, but love every minute! At the head of this joyous revolution is a leather-clad Jake Klinkhammer as Chad,  who hits town on his motorcycle, lights up the long-dead juke box.— “A broken down juke box means broken down people” — before leading the teens in a rainbow-hued  rock ‘n roll romp. Instantly love struck at the sight of Chad is Natalie Hammer, a lonely young girl in mechanics’ overalls. As played by Caitlin Mesiano, she is absolutely delightful and speaks to anyone who ever pined for a lover who is pining for someone else.  Almost everyone here gets love struck, a state signified by an uncontrollable outburst of the opening bars of “One Night With You,” aimed straight at the object of desire…whoever that may be. Tracking the mis-matched duos to their way to final perfect pairings is two-plus hours of absolute en joyment! With Klinkhammer and Mesiano leading the way, the amazing featured players are Katie McCreary and  Britney Coleman as café owner and daughter respectively; Tiffany Dissette as a museum owner right out of “Mad Men”;  Jennifer Dow as the uptight mayor;  Mike Yocum, as Natalie’s widowed dad;  Nick Laughlin as the perfect “sidekick’; Matthew Dailey as the mayor’s rebellious son; and Andy Robinson as the dorky silent sheriff. Along with the irrepressible ensemble (which NEVER stops),  they make “All Shook Up”   a wonderfully fun ride and a highlight of the season, no matter what comes next. And “That’s All Right” for any age.

“ALL SHOOK UP” plays at 8 p.m. Saturday and Wednesday through next Saturday, at 2 p.m. Sunday and Thursday and 7 p.m. Tuesday in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw.  For reservations, call  267-8041.

Lots of Sting in "Humble Boy"

There are so many examples of dysfunctional relationships in the current South Bend Civic Theatre production of “Humble Boy” that it almost takes more than the two and a half hour running time (including intermission) to figure them out. The drama (which also offers a generous supply of laughs throughout)  by Charlotte Jones premiered in England in 2001 and received the London Critics Award as Best New Play. It opened Friday evening in the studio theatre.

Humble Boy at South Bend Civic Theatre“Humble Boy” certainly offers salutes to Britain’s favorite playwrights from Shakespeare to Tom Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourn. To create the new-but-old characters, director Kevin Dreyer has assembled some of the top actors in SBCT’s roster — Deborah Girasek-Chuczinski, David Chudzinski and Mary Ann Moran. Completing the cast are Roy Bronkema, Jenny Dolph and Scot Shepley. In the title role of Felix Humble, Shepley carries  much of  the narrative in a daunting assignment which demands portraying a character who is a theoretical astrophysicist with mother issues,  a lack of social graces, a weight problem and a frequent stutter. Arriving home from Cambridge for the funeral of his father,  he runs away at his time to deliver a eulogy and discovers that his mother has gotten rid of all his father’s belongings, including his hive of bees, and is preparing to marry George Pye (Chudzinski), a crude alcoholic who is the opposite of Felix’ father, who points out that the union would make them the “Humble Pyes.” Felix’ icily unemotional mother Flora (Girasek-Chudzinski) has little sympathy for her obviously challenged son, preferring instead to have everyone revolve around her. She definitely is the queen bee of this particular hive a la the 1955 Joan Crawford film.

Humble Boy at South Bend Civic TheatreBuzzing — or fluttering — around the Humble family paramater is Mercy Lott (Moran), an eager-to-please single woman who serves Flora with almost slavish devotion. She is the mousy woman always taken for granted. When her cup of humiliation finally runs over, Mercy lets loose with a blistering diatribe that received well-deserved applause on opening night.  Rounding out the list of losers is Rosie Pye (Dolph), George’s daughter and Felix’ former lover. Their affair, from which he ran when it became too intense, resulted in a daughter, about which he was never told. Sorting out the various attachments, Felix receives an assist  from Jim (Bronkema), a now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t character who finally helps mother and son discover the root of their relationship. Chudzinski obviously relishes chewing the scenery (in this case the lovely garden created by set designer Chudzinski) and delivers the boorishness of George with great gusto.  Girasek-Chudzinski handles Flora’s unexpected 180 degree turn believably  and is touching when her “Eureka” moment arrives. Lighting and sound also are excellent in this production and Dreyer keeps the action as brisk as possible, considering the considerable twitching and agonized soul searching in which the protagonist is required to indulge.

“HUMBLE BOY” plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Warner Studio Theatre, 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For reservations, 234-1112 from noon to 6 p.m. weekdays or visit www.sbct.org

Wall Street, Jane Austen Satisfying Combo

First, let me admit that in spite of the continuing focus on the uncertain status of finance in general and Wall Street in particular, I may be one of the few who had no clue of the definition of “monetizing.” So “Monetizing Emma,” the title of the current  New World Arts production, was not something I instantly connected to investments. Learning that connection watching the Midwest premiere of Felipe Ossa’s clever and decidedly humorous play was both entertaining and enlightening.

Monetizing Emma at New World Arts, Goshen, INThe New World Dictionary defines the verb “monetize” as to “convert into or express in the form of currency.”  In this case, what is being converted by Genius Trust Fund  employees Tony D’Orazio (Brian Perkins) and Colleen Shaw (Lisa Caskey) is not actually a “what” but a “who,” specifically Emma Dorfman (Ashley Pilmore), a brilliant young student in whose potentially lucrative future the duo sees profit via monetizing her potential. Unfortunately, Emma is painfully shy and initially wants no part of their plan. She escapes the harassment of  fellow students, Annie Diamond (Alexa Koyfman) and Vanessa Clay (Laura Dolezal), and the grandiose dreams of her self-absorbed mother Caroline (Julie Keim) by conversing on the internet as Kitty Gordon. Her “pen pal,”  Elizabeth Woodbury, is someone she has never met but who shares her style of communication a la Emma’s favorite author Jane Austen. Colleen first discovers Emma’s potential, but loses interest when the indecisive teen decides to drop out of the GT scholarship competition. Tony fills the gap and, as the top fund exec decides to feature Emma as its “Bond Girl,” she becomes “the face that launched a thousand portfolios” and a serious bone of contention between the two obviously shallow competitors. The way in which the determined girl made her way through and out of the seemingly unending maze and went happily towards her own dreams earned applause from the opening night audience. As Emma,  Pilmore delivered an outstanding performance, morphing believably from mousey introvert to cool and self-confident young woman. She supplied empathetic depth to a role that could easily have been one-dimensional. It made watching her navigate the pitfalls of the financial world a real pleasure. Koyfman and Dolezal were the perfect bully-and-toady combo, a match underscored by their Goth-like makeup and costuming. Keim’s maternal about-face was uncomfortably too true while Perkins and Caskey sliced away at each other only to find that lies and deceit are their own reward. The minimal set — four folding chairs  and two screens on which slides are projected to define changing locations— worked as well as possible for the small space but would have been less jarring if the many changes had been done by lifting rather than dragging the metal chairs on the wooden floors. Also, with the exception of Pilmore, the players more often than not lacked vocal projection, something that should be addressed before performances June 25-26 in Chicago’s Dream Theatre Company.

“MONETIZING EMMA” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the New World Arts, 211 S. Main Street, Goshen. Entrance on Third Street. Tickets at the door or call 975-0311.

WW "Cats" still fascinating felines

The theatrical combination of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and poet T.S. Eliot resulted in the first of the musician’s blockbuster musicals, “Cats,” which opened on Broadway in 1982 and has been a favorite of audiences world-wide ever since. The current show at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre, which opened Wednesday evening to an enthusiastic near-capacity audience,  reprises its popular 2004 production and, with director/choreographer Scott Michaels again at the helm, again offers an exciting interpretation of the popular work based on Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”  The set design by the late Roy Hine offers the fluid felines a myriad of levels on which to display the familiar (and then some) movements.

Cats at Wagon Wheel PlayhouseLighting designer Marcus Doshi returned to recreate his marvelously mood-inducing effects and the constant score (there is no spoken dialogue) is beautifully interpreted by conductor/keyboardist Thomas N. Sterling (who also is responsible for the orchestrations) and the six excellent musicians under his baton. The wonderfully creative costumes are the work of designer Stephen R. Hollenbeck and his imaginative staff  who both built and assembled the sleekly furry body suits (no unseemly bulges anywhere!) with Jennifer Dow, who is on stage as Rumpleteazer, responsible for the imaginatively accurate hair, wigs and makeup. All these elements combined to turn the 18 incredibly talented singers/dancers (plus two pit singers) into 20 seemingly boneless animals take the stage (some entering via the audience!) and never let down for the 90 minute (plus intermission and obligatory pre-show announcements) they are on — or frequently above and sometimes under — the stage. There are so many standouts in this A-list cast that it is only fair to give credit to them all.  Tiffany Dissette has what is probably the most familiar role, that of Grizabella, the “Glamour Cat” who has fallen on very hard times. She offers a touching rendition of the show’s best known solo turn, “Memory,” while David Adamick does delightful double duty as the tuxedoed Bustafer Jones and the Gus the “Theatre Cat,” whose past performances include a dazzling operatic turn. Shay Dixon is the magical Mt. Mistoffelees, complete with pyrotechnics, and Andy Robinson uses his impressive basso as Old Deuteronomy, leader of all the Jellicle Cats.

Cats at Wagon Wheel PlayhouseAs for the rest, enough to say that every individual has his/her own personality, cat-wise, and they sing and dance in character, whether center stage, lolling on one of the several catwalks or sliding down the dance  pole. Whether explaining “The Naming of Cats,” celebrating “The Jellicle Ball” or describing any one of the many individual felines, there is not a missed step or off note anywhere. Sound designer Chris Pollnow maintains a good balance between singers and instrumentalists, but solo lyrics still are difficult to understand. Here, however, the emphasis is on character and dance, and both those elements frequently make words unnecessary. Cat “owners” may want to pay special attention of Eliot’s advice on the final “Ad-Dressing of Cats.” It makes one wonder just who owns who. NOTE: A “Cats” background in the lobby offers young audience members the opportunity to don cat ears and furry leg-and-arm bands for a photo in front of a Jellicle moon.

“CATS” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Wednesday through June 19, 7 p.m. Tuesday and 2 p.m. Sunday and Thursday. For ticket information and reservations, call 267-8041 or (866) 823-2618 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com

"The Miracle Worker" Remains Luminous

The end of this month, June 27, is the 130th anniversary of the birth of Helen Keller. It seems only fitting, therefore, that this occasion should be marked by a fine revival of the 1959 play that follows Helen’s transition from darkness into a world  in which she shed a miraculous light. William Gibson’s drama, “The Miracle Worker,” depicts that transition and its production by South Bend Civic Theatre proves that this story, in this theatrical format, loses nothing with the passage of time. (Warning: Handkerchiefs or at least tissues are advisable for the final scene.)

The Miracle Worker at South Bend Civic TheatreHelen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Ala. At 18 months she was stricken by an undiagnosed illness that left her deaf, blind and resultantly mute. She grew up wild and undisciplined, treated by her family almost as a pet. As a last resort, her father hired Annie Sullivan, a student in a Boston, Mass., institute  for the blind, as a teacher/companion for the basically feral child. The struggle between Annie and Helen  (and Annie and Helen’s family) make up the plotline of “The Miracle Worker” which follows them from their meeting when Helen was six to her first breakthrough in understanding. Working with Helen, Annie must contend with Helen’s father, the autocratic Capt. Keller, who is increasingly upset by the turmoil she creates and sets time limits for results, and her too-loving mother Kate, who gives in to her daughter’s every demand. Annie’s efforts to teach the child that the words she is spelling in her hand have meanings are, to say the least, frustrating. The lessons in proper behavior become battlegrounds. The roles of Helen and Annie were made famous on stage and in the 1962 film by Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke and are incredible challenges to the actresses who take on those assignments. In the SBCT production, Heather Marks as Annie sees her task as disciplining her charge without breaking her spirit but opts to forgo the character’s Irish brogue, which softens Annie’s  steely exterior. An amazing second grader, Madeline Varga, is making her stage debut as Helen. She is never out of character, stumbling blindly from house to yard to a dinner table she treats as a feeding trough. This results in one of the plays most famous scenes (and a physical challenge for both actresses). It is a memorable and incredibly moving performance and conveys the child’s frustration, anger and pain at her dark existence as well as the eager mind seeking release.

The Miracle Worker at South Bend Civic TheatreKate Keller is played beautifully by Debbie Rarick. She creates a multi-layered character who struggles with her husband for Helen’s survival and with herself for the strength to keep away when Annie demands complete control in order to facilitate Helen’s learning. She is the perfect Southern lady, with an iron fist in her velvet glove. Completing Helen’s family are Greg Melton as Capt. Keller, Billy Miller as her adult half-brother James, and Mary Jo Tompos, recreating Aunt Ev, a role she played in a previous SBCT “Miracle Worker.” In the “no small actors” category are the six youngsters who play Annie’s blind Boston students plus Percy Dillon as Percy and Miranda Manier as Martha (and understudy for Helen) and a lovely dog (who gets no program credit). The multi-level set by Michaela Duffy fills all requirements and sets the mood perfectly as does the sound design by John Jung-Zimmerman which does much to transition scenes and underscore emotions. Director Mark Abram-Copenhaver and his associate, Jewel Abram-Copenhaver, have done well in recreating a time — and people — that continue to be memorable in the history of America and, indeed, the world.

‘THE MIRACLE WORKER” plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the theater at 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For reservations, call 243-1112 from noon to 6 p.m. weekdays or visit www.sbct.0rg.

"Millie" Sparks the Roaring 20's

When the world as we know it seems to be in less-than-perfect shape, there’s nothing like a look back at the “good old days” to lift the spirits, especially when that look is framed with music and laughter. Such a frame is supplied by Elkhart Civic Theatre in  “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” the 2002 multi-Tony Award winning show that opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House. It combines some of the most familiar echoes of the fabled “Roaring ’20s” and serves them up with generous helpings of toe-tapping tunes, lovely melodies and wildly wacky characters, all of which serve to generate a solid serving of much-needed laughter. The score, by Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlon, includes hilarious homages to Gilbert and Sullivan, Tschaikovsky , Al Jolson and Victor Herbert (via Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy), as well as a major amount of new music created especially for the theatrical version. In  the ECT production, the enthusiastic chorus takes care of a goodly number of these “additions,”  and, for the most part, the rest are in the excellent voices of the leading players.

Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Elkhart Civic TheatreNewcomer (to ECT) Kris Allemang has the title role of Millie Dillmount, a young woman who arrives in the Big Apple from Kansas determined to be a real “modern” woman. The fact that she is mugged upon arrival does nothing to dampen her high spirits and she pursues her goal — finding a rich boss and marrying him— with dogged determination. When things don’t turn out quite according to plan, she adjusts, as any “new woman” would. Allemang lives up to the demands of the role, although the uneven balance between orchestra and vocalist sometimes prevents lyrical understanding. Her energy never wavers. From the enthusiasm of the title tune to the renewal of “Gimme, Gimme,” her final solo, she “soldiers on” very effectively. Jacob Medich as Jimmy Smith, a young New Yorker with no visible means of support who falls for the upwardly mobile “stenog,” and Brock Butler as Mr. Trevor Graydon, her boss and matrimonial target, have no problem with clarity and projection. Medich is increasingly appealing, going from brusque Manhattanite to  obviously-smitten swain. He is a vocal pleasure as is Butler, a composite of all manly men circa 1920,  pipe held firmly in his clenched teeth, chin lifted in a traditional silent film star profile a la John Gilbert (check out TCM). Alex Pote as Miss Dorothy Brown is his feminine counterpart, all Southern charm, graceful (Mary) Pickford poses and almost overwhelming curls. She and Butler offer a striking vocal tribute  to Nelson and Jeanette (complete with gestures) with “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life.” Their duet eventually expands to include Medich and Allemang and the resulting quartet is one of the show’s highlights.

Love is on the edge for  (from left) Miss Dorothy Brown (Alex Pote), Jimmy Smith (Jacob Medich), Millie Dillmount (Kris Allemang) and Mr. Trevor Graydon (Brock Butler) in this scene from "Thoroughly Modern Millie."Comedy kudos go to Scott Fowler and Isaac Sachez as Ching Ho and Bun Foo, unwilling henchmen of the villainous white slaver/vaudeville diva/landlady Mrs. Meers (Mary Norwood). Their conversations, translated in titles above the stage, are hilarious and almost sound authentic. The trio’s rendition of “Muquin” (better known by another name) received well-deserved applause. Completing the list of featured players is Karen Hoover as Muzzy Von Hossmere, wealthy socialite widow and nightclub chantuese a la Texas Guinan. The hard-working chorus takes many roles and most all include singing and dancing as well as creating “modern” women (and men, of course). Tom Myers is responsible for the highly energetic and very effective choreography as well as being in the chorus. Especially check “The Speed Test” and “The Nutty Cracker Suite.” Well done! The wonderfully inventive set by director John Shoup becomes many, many locations, all placed quickly and quietly by stage manager/assistant director Penny Meyers and her crew. Lighting designer Randy Zonker sets the required moods and the drops by Jeffrey Barrick with Michael Ezzell are show-stoppers in themselves. The colorful period costumes, coordinated and constructed by designer Linda Wiesinger, are a definite plus throughout. Miriam Houck is pianist and conducts the five-piece orchestra. “Millie” struggles at times with an excess of dialogue, but Shoup keeps the action moving quickly from one musical number to the next and, to paraphrase Millie “Music has everything to do with it.”

“THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE”  plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and June 18-19 and 3 p.m. June 13 in the Bristol Opera House. Tickets are $15 for adults and $13 for students and senior citizens. For reservations: 848-4116 from 1 to 5:30 p.m. weekdays or visit www.elkhartcivictheatre.org.