"Rent" is Puccini a la MTV

When “Rent” exploded Off-Broadway in on Jan. 25, 1996, the night after the sudden death of its young composer Jonathan Larson, it seemed an unstoppable  musical juggernaut. It moved swiftly to Broadway where it remained for 12 years, earning almost every award known to theater including four Tonys and  a Pulitzer Prize.

Rent at South Bend Civic Theatre Since that time, I have seen this MTV version of Puccini’s beautiful opera “LaBoheme” four times — three professional productions and the current South Bend Civic Theatre offering which opened last weekend and will run through Aug. 8 — as well as the film version which featured most of the original cast. The multiple viewings were not because I was so enamoured of the show that I had to see it again and again. (And there are shows about which I definitely feel that way.) Rather it was so that (a) I might be able to understand the lyrics which, for the most part, still remain a mystery; (b) that I could find at least one memorable melody (and I do NOT consider the second act opener “Seasons of Love” memorable, just unrelenting rather like the title song from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s monochromatic “Aspects of Love”); and (c) that I could find an emotional connection with any of the characters. They are, after all, cold, hungry, addicted, impoverished, angry and lonely and many are fatally ill. I’m still looking.

Rent at South Bend Civic TheatreThe setting is the lower East Side of Manhattan in the days of rampaging HIV/AIDS. The characters are struggling artists —musicians, dancers, filmmakers, singers— all estranged from their biological families who find another family in their fellow  residents of Alphabet City. It is Christmas Eve and the atmosphere is bleak. The leading characters Mark (John Raab), a filmmaker, and Roger (Alex Leachman), a musician, are facing eviction by their landlord and former friend Benjamin (Benny) Coffin III (John Michels).  Mark’s lover Maureen (Stephanie Salisbury), a performance artist,  has left him for JoAnne (Laurisa Le Sure), a lawyer, while Roger, who lost his girlfriend to suicide, is searching for one great song.  He meets the love of his life Mimi (Amada Revero-Aguero), an exotic dancer, when the lights go out. Another friend Collins (Josh Griffin) finds his significant other in Angel (Fernando Gonzalez), a street drummer and drag queen. The outlook for all is less than optomistic, but they soldier on, mostly always in high gear vocally, with a decibel level consistent with that of a rock concert. It is to the credit of the young cast that they can deliver the nearly non-stop high energy belt requirements of the show, which contains very few lines of spoken dialogue. The South Bend cast boasts some excellent voices, namely Raab, Leachman, Salisbury, Revero-Aguero, Griffin and Gonzalez plus ensemble soloists Steve Salisbury, Stephanie Berry, Anna Barncord and Kathleen Raab. They all do better with lyrical diction than most of the casts I have seen, but much of the significant “dialogue” still remains a mystery.

Rent at South Bend Civic Theatre Technical director David Chudzinski delivers an imaginative set which utilizes well every inch of the Warner Theatre stage and the six piece orchestra, under the direction of keyboardist Anthony Beer, is (finally!) completely supportive without being overpowering Director David Case keeps the multi-level action moving and I was thankful for the program notations of location and action preceding each musical scene which gave brief indications of what was going on and who was doing what. I still prefer Puccini.

“RENT” plays Wednesday through Sunday and Aug. 4-8 in the Warner Theatre in the SBCT at 403 N. Main St. South Bend. For show times and reservations, call 234-1112 noon to 6 p.m. weekdays or visit www.sbct.org.

WW Godspell still old but very new

What began as a master’s thesis by Carnegie Mellon University student John Michael Telebak moved Off-Broadway  in 1971 with new music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and, from there, became a staple in the repetoires of regional and civic theater companies everywhere.

Godspell at Wagon Wheel Theatre, Warsaw, INIn case the title eludes you, it is “Godspell,” the high inventive production of which opened Wednesday at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre, proving once again that anything old can be very new again. Trust me. This is not your mother’s “Godspell.” From the highly creative mind of director Tony Humrichouser with solid assists from musical director Thomas N. Stirling, choreographer Lesa Dencklau, lighting designer Greg Griffin, some modern technology and a non-stop cast of 10, it is a very new look at an old favorite. Godspell is the Anglo-Saxon word for gospel and, loosely translated, means “good word.” The words here are very good and very familiar. The series of actions come from the Bible, primarily from the Gospel of Saint Matthew (with a definite assist from the Gospel of Saint Luke), and as the parables unfold, they mark the life and teachings of Christ from baptism to resurrection. Gone is the clown-style makeup usually donned early on by the eight singer/dancer/actors portraying disciples. Black and white are the only costume colors for all save Jesus (Benjamin Maters), who adds a blue shirt. Jake Klinkhammer in the dual role of John the Baptist/Judas sports suspenders and a snappy fedora and is obviously more stylishly slick than the others, but still in white shirt and black trousers. And they are the only ones with character names. The others use their given names.

Godspell at Wagon Wheel Theatre, Warsaw, INOne of the definite challenges to any production of “Godspell” is to create a new atmosphere while retaining the unchanging  messages. Humrichouser achieves this with the use of four very large video screen which change images according to the action or emotions on stage. “Alas For You” features a montage of faces, some better known than others, each proclaiming innoccnce. Musical underscores-for-emphasis include many melodic themes — Charlie Brown, Looney Tunes, “Law & Order,” “The Godfather,” “Chariots of Fire” — and even a tip of the toes to Tina Turner as Katie McCreary unleashes her roof-raising belt voice in “O Bless The Lord” a la “Proud Mary.” Tony’s twist on “Turn Back, O Man,” which traditionally has the singer slinking through the audiences, instead keeps Sophie Grimm center stage while ensemble members imitate an Egyptian-style frieze. There is a great deal of laugh-out-loud humor in this “Godspell,” which offers ensemble members many opportunities to showcase their comedic abilities, while the sobering endgame brings the action — and the music — to a much more dramatic level. There is NEVER a doubt about their vocal talent. In solos, duets or choral work, they stand individually or blend beautifully, as required. With Klinkhammer, Maters, Grimm and McCreary, ensemble members are Erica Wilpon, Ashley Travis, Nick Laughlin, Caitlin Mesiano, Matthew Dailey and Zachary McConnell. Each has an opportunity to shine and each makes the most of it, creating a “Godspell” to remember.

“GODSPELL” plays Sunday and Tuesday through Saturday in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street. For tickets and show times, call 267-8041 or (866) 823-2618 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com.

"Proof" Proposes Fascinating Theory

“Proof,” an award-winning drama by David Auburn, is the latest offering at Goshen’s New World Arts and proves (no pun intended) that some of the best things, theatrically speaking, come in small packages. With a cast of four and one basic set, the story of  Catherine (Emily Shenk), her father Robert (Darryl Gillikin), her sister Claire (Libby Unruh) and Hal (Aaron Schwinn) makes for a fascinating evening. The title refers to several kinds of proof, all of which are important to Catherine, who  literally is fighting for her sanity and her independence.

Proof at New World StagesAt her home near the University of Chicago, she celebrates her 25th birthday awaiting her older sister’s arrival from New York for the funeral of their father, in his 20s a ground-breaking mathematician who fought dementia in his later years. Following in his academic footsteps, and afraid she is following his mental descent, Catherine left school to care for Robert during the final five years of his life when, excepting one nine month period, reality and all semblance of rational thought slipped quickly away. With Claire’s authoritative arrival comes the announcement that she plans to sell the family home and wants her sister to return with her to New York where she and her fiance can take care of her. As Catherine faces this challenge, Hal, her father’s former graduate student now a teacher himself, arrives to search the mathematician’s notebooks in search of anything of importance. After going through more than 100 books of “gibberish,” he finds a different sort of equation with Catherine.  This immediately precedes his discovery of one notebook that contains “historic proof”of a theory about prime numbers. A shocking relevation by Catherine leads to the final determination of  her ability to care for herself and for her father’s legacy.

Proof at New World StagesThe NWA is fortunate to have found Shenk, a Bethany Christian High School senior, for the major role. She delivers a strong performance, delivering the many facets of the conflicted young woman honestly and believeably, no small accomplishment, especially in a teenager. Her fellow players make up a very solid and intelligent ensemble, especially Gillikin who, it becomes apparent, is a spirited character. The setting, the porch of the family home in a Chicago suburb, is minimal and doesn’t add much to the essence of the play. The lighting is adequate, although too deliberately dim for the opening scene. There is, however, one very annoying aspect. The screen door screeches at every exit and entrance, whether part of the action or during a scene change. If it was meant to support  the delapidated condition of the house, that was accomplished by the torn screen. The noise become increasingly mood-shattering and was not fair to the work being done by the actors. I would have been glad to provide an oil can.

“PROOF” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and July 23-24 in  the theater  on Main Street in Goshen. Entrance from Third Street. Tickets at the box office or call(800) 838-3006.

"The Music Man" Marches/Dances On

For more than half a century, Prof. Harold Hill has led the citizens of River City, Iowa (and the rest of the planet) on a joyous march via Meredith Willson’s musical comedy classic “The Music Man.” The third 2010 production on the Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre’s Warsaw stage follows the infectious 1950s rock ‘n roll rhythms of Elvis (in “All Shook Up”) with equally infectious  melodies which make the  early 20th century an era that appears much better than today. No matter how many times one sees this gem, either on stage or the 1962 film which follows the Broadway score-and-script almost to the letter, it is one show that bears many return visits.

The Music Man at the Wagon Wheel TheatreActually, I defy anyone to see “The Music Man” and reach the deliberately cacophonous finale without a wide grin on his/her face. The grins begin immediately as the lights go up on a Rock Island Line railroad car filled with disgruntled traveling salesmen bemoaning that one who “doesn’t know the territory” is giving them all a bad reputation. The challenge posed by the “Iowa Stubborn” inhabitants of River City is eagerly accepted by Hill (Ari Frenkel), who plans to convince the population they have “Trouble” which can only be overcome by the formation of a boys’ band. He, of course, will supply the music, instruments and uniforms — for a price. The only hitch in his well-oiled plan, beside suspicious Mayor Shinn (Andy Robinson), is doubting piano teacher Marian Paroo (Caroline Kobylarz). She  resists Hill’s charm in spite of the frequent warnings by her widowed mother (Danielle Robertson) that “He could be your very last chance.” One by one, Hill finds the chink in each River Citian’s armor and moves steadily toward closing his deal. Of course, when the last train leaves the junction, it is the salesman who finds himself with his foot caught in the door. The way to Hill’s final sale is paved with unabashedly feel good music, beautifully interpreted by an excellent ensemble of young (and a little older) singers and dancers.

The Music Man at the Wagon Wheel TheatreA personal favorite is the barbershop quartet created by Hill from quarreling school board members  played by Phil Randall, Mike Lewis, Jerry Frush and Jim Geller (who harmonize off stage as The Chaingang). They raise their voices at the drop of a pitch pipe in some of the show’s loveliest melodies including “Sincere,” “Lida Rose” and “It’s You.” Their “wives,” definitely resembling cheeping hens, deliver “Pickalittle” with great glee, led by the mayor’s wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Jennifer Shepherd). The ladies devotion to del Sartre creates a Grecian urn unlike anything found in Pompeii. Ashley Travis as the Shinn’s oldest daughter, Zaneeta, is paired with Zachary McConnell as town bad boy Tommy Dijlas. They lead the dancers in director Scott Michaels’ beautifully high-stepping choreography, made all the more eye-filling by Stephen K. Hollenbeck’s cotton candy-hued  costumes. The “cute” factor is well-handled by Lauren Housel as Amaryllis and Dustin Barkley as Winthrop Paroo. They display an admirable degree of professionalism as do the other seven youngsters who also are River City pre-teens. Leading the parade are Kobylarz and Frenkel. She displays a beautiful soprano, obviously classically trained, delivers her solo assignments and duets with ease and believably details Marian’s segue from hostile to lovestruck. Frenkel is a capable salesman although he displays little of the charismatic charm that is Hill’s primary asset. They blend well in the show’s best-known ballad “‘Till There Was You.”

“THE MUSIC MAN” plays through July 17 in the theater at 2517 E. Center St., Warsaw. For show times and reservations: 267-8041 or (866) 823-2618 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com