"Bee" Spells Laughter in WW Finale

Proving once again that some of the best things come in small packages, Warsaw’s Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre is closing its 2010 season with a small-cast show that is a big winner: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The “Bee” began on a small stage Off-Broadway and received such a grea t response that it moved quickly to a bigger house on the Great White Way. Having seen it on both sizes, trust me that it plays much better on a small stage with the audience in close proximity.

The 2005 Tony Award winner for Best Book in a Musical starts off with a bang as the six middle school contestants take their places under the careful eyes former Bee winner Rona Lisa Peretti (Sophie Grimm ) and a vice principal just returned from an enforced leave of absence, Vice Principal Douglas Lanch (Ari Frankel). Each has their own story to tell, their own hidden (and not-so-hidden) agenda and their own unique way of approaching a spelling word. Logainne SchwartzandGrubinierre (Erica Wilpon) writes on her forearm before spelling audibly; Olive Ostrovsky (Kayla Roy) spells into her cupped hand prior to facing the judges; Marcy Park (Caitlin Mesiano), who can speak six languages, steps up rapidly, spells quickly and sits down swiftly; Chip Tolentino (Nick Laughlin) is sabotaged by his “unfortunate distraction”; Leaf Conybear (Matthew Daily) is sure he can’t spell but each word comes out basso profundo; and William Barfee (“that’s BarFAY”) (David Adamick) has a “Magic Foot” with which he writes each word on the floor before spelling aloud. Mitch Mahoney (Zachary McConnell) is the “comfort counselor,” as part of his community service, and greets each eliminated speller with a hug and juice box. Each performance four “spellers” are pre-selected from the audience and are a part of the contest until each is eliminated. How long each remains depends on how long it takes Panch to find a word he/she can’t spell. In charge of the contest, Peretti recalls her win as the happiest moment of her life and Panch reads the word and supplies its origin and a use-in-a-sentence  definition when requested.  His definitions supply the largest and longest laughs throughout Act I.

Putnam Spelling Bee - Wagon Wheel TheatreIf the score is not familiar, each song becomes a treasure in itself as the contestants reveal their hopes, fears and hidden feelings throughout Act II. Each of the performers totally embodies the individual highs and lows of his/her character and succeeds in connecting with the audience almost instantly. Director/choreographer Scott Michaels keeps the pace crackling along while David LePors set, Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s wonderfully quirky costumes and Fritz Bennett’s lighting design enhance the action and the characters as always. The four-member band, lead by musical conductor/keyboardist Thomas N. Sterling, is as good as always and, unfortunately, marks Sterling’s finale at the Wheel. He will be missed.

“THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE” plays Tuesday through Saturday in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations call (574) 267-8041.

"Cymbeline" Shakespearean surprise

Heading into its second decade of producing works by the Bard of Avon, the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival not only has grown into its now-official name (formerly Summer Shakespeare, a title which seemed a bit less formal and/or here-to-stay) but has chosen as its 11th full production one of Shakespeare’s infrequently  produced plays, “Cymbeline.” Surprise, then, that I found this 400-year-old work (first on stsge in 1611) a real delight. Of course, the high standard of all NDSF offerings is still obvious in the external aspects of this production. Costumes, set, lighting, staging and original music are all, as expected, level with the best.

Cymbeline Notre Dame Shakespeare FestivalMinimal research into the origin and heritage of “Cymbeline” reveal that it has been revamped and rearranged act-wise too many times to count since that 17th century debut. So it really doesn’t matter which of its formats has been chosen by director Jay Paul Skelton, since the one on stage through Aug. 29 in the Patricia Decio Theatre in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center is strongly performed and has enough of everything — romance, intrigue, treachery, battles and, in a denoument in the best romance novel tradition, a happy ending. There is little chance of explaining the entire plot in this limited space. Once underway,  however, it is quite easy to follow. The title is the name of an ancient British king (John Neisler) whose only daughter, Imogen (Margie Janiczek), has married a non-royal Posthumus (Wardell Julius Clark) rather than Cloton (Ian Paul Custer), the loutish noble he has chosen for her who just happens to be the son of widowed Cymbeline’s second wife, the also-widowed Queen (Siiri Scott). The Queen, of course, has her own agenda, with all plots leading to the throne. In true Shakespearean tradition, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus, who heads for Italy leaving his faithful servant Pisanio (Christopher McLinden) to keep an eye on Imogen. What he does is help her fake her death so she can follow Posthumus dressed, naturally, as a boy. The plot thickens when Imogen encounters Polydore/Guiderius (Joshua Jeffers) and Cadwal/Arrivagus (Devin Preston) who have lived in a cave in the woods with Belaria (Maureen Gallagher), a former general of Cymbeline’s. Of course, the two boys are brothers Imogen thought dead, kidnapped by Belaria as payback when unjustly accused of treachery. There is more — a lot more  —  but it unfolds with amazing clarity and arrives with final explanations, reunions, pardons and a declaration of peace, all within the last moments of the two-hour (including intermission ) production. Although the action takes place in early England, Wales and Italy, scenic designer Marcus Stephens has created a pseudo Arabian Nights setting, the aim of which, according to program notes, was “to create a timeless world.” Combined with Kevin Dreyer’s lush lighting design which defines each locale and the elegantly graceful and equally defining costumes by Richard E. Donnelly, it definitely achieves its goal. The company combines professional, community and student actors who talents allow them to blend seamlessly (and who deserve extra applause for working on the raked stage, which is probably the reason everyone is barefoot).The realistic fight sequences are directed by Kevin Asselin who also played the villainous Iachimo.  All are listed in the program as “ensemble,” whether they play non-speaking roles or leads. The program bears the slogan “World-class theatre. Right next door.” It could not be more correct.

“CYMBELINE” will be presented through Aug. 29 in the theater on the University of Notre Dame campus. Tickets are $12 to $35.  For times and reservations, call 631-2800.

Drama Circles Life and Death

Goshen’s New World Arts theater is the place to go for productions that primarily are “not your grandmother’s” kind of shows, and it is good to have such a company when you want to see something besides Neil Simon and/or R&H. Some of its selections are very good, some not so, but they all tackle subjects that most community theaters, which keep their eyes on the box office bottom line,  wouldn’t  consider.

Love Lies Bleeding at New Arts Theatre, Goshen, INFriday evening (appropriately the 13th), NWA offered “Love Lies Bleeding,” a contemporary piece by Don DeLillo. The title refers to a flower common to the Southwest as well as to the struggle facing three characters who must make a decision about the future — long or short — of its major protagonist: an artist  in his senior years who has suffered two paralyzing strokes and now exists in “a persistent vegetative state.” Gathered around Alex (Jeff Blair) are his current (fourth) and very young wife Lia (Stephanie Honderich),  his age appropriate second wife Toinette (AnnMarie Kneebone), and Sean (Jaron Kennel), the son of his first marriage and his “only blood relative.” Together and separately they share memories of Alex and recall the ties that bind. . .or not. The arguments are nothing that have not been/are being debated in the courts, the press, the pulpit and the theater (think Dr. Kevorkian, “Wit” and “Whose Life Is It Anyway?”). As always, any answer is not definitive. Toinette and Sean favor providing Alex with a morphine-assisted immediate demise. Lia  is against it initially but, if not completely convinced, goes along with the majority decision. Alex, of course, has no say although he does leave his chair and enter the action to converse in absentia with each of his wives and even relives his glory days as an artist with Toinette. “Love Lies Bleeding” was presented originally in 2005 by a contemporary theater in Boise, Idaho and moved to Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and Washington’s Kennedy Center in 2006. This production is its Michiana premiere. The setting is minimal, both past and present, and the dialogue more representative of a debate than anything resembling impassioned pleas. Each character has its say, with Alex popping into the scene and back to his sedentary chairbound position as needed. The fault is not with the actors, who carry out their respective assignments competently. It is with the script which treats a subject that, because of its very nature, calls up deep emotions, with almost complete and dispassionate stoicism. Next up at NWA is “The Pillowmam.” a play by Martin McDonagh scheduled  appropriately for the Halloween season, which is guaranteed to be anything but stoic!

“LOVE LIES BLEEDING” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the theater on Second Street (entrance and parking on Third Street) in Goshen.

"St Louis" Easy on the Eyes and Ears

This seems to be the week for turning back the clock — theatrically speaking — at least one century. The current Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre production, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” is set in 1895 London. It plays through Aug. 14. There are only two opportunities left, however, to catch Elkhart Civic Theatre’s summer blockbuster musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” set in that city in 1903-04, which plays tonight and Sunday afternoon in the Jimtown High School auditorium. “Earnest” displays the wicked wit of playwright Oscar Wilde. “St. Louis”— a 1989 Broadway musical based on the 1944 film — is filled from overture to skyrocketing finale with a warm look at the Smiths, a middle class family in a midwestern city which is  about to become, as one of the children puts it, “The center of the universe,” thanks to the 1904 World’s Fair.

ECT presents Meet Me in St LouisThis production has one of the best orchestras ever heard in a community theater pit. From the opening  measures from the excellent brass section, it was possible to settle back and just enjoy the production without fear of the unfortunately too-common off notes. Under the director of Mark Swenden, the 14-piece orchestra was an integral and positive part of the show, supporting singers and dancers, providing melodic cover for the many scene changes and offering an overture and entre act that were worth listening to on their own. Visually, director Michael Cripe and set designer John Jay Shoup collaborated to recreate the Smith home with its attendant architectural curls and flourishes, allowing it to open and close as needed to move the action from interior to exterior.  Cripe and Dawn Blessing are responsible for the creation and visual impact of the many costumes, elegant and colorful and moving easily whether on a trolley ride (and there definitely is a moving trolley!) or at a Christmas ball. Cripe also has assembled one of the strongest vocal casts in recent memory. Kristen Riggs as Esther Smith takes on the role that is a signature for Judy Garland and makes it her own. Not only does her warm soprano add lustre to “The Boy Next Door” and “A Merry Little Christmas,” she blends beautifully with Jacob Medich as John Truitt, that boy and the object of her affections, in a duet “You Are For Loving,” which is not in the film.  The duo also hits just the right notes in their slowly blossoming romance and Riggs interacts with other Smith family members as if they really were her own.

Elkhart Civic Theatre presents Meet Me In St LouisAmong the eight songs written to augment the movie score are “Whenever I’m With You,” a peacemaking tune that connects all the family members; “A Day in New York,” in which Mr. Smith (Richard Fansler) paints a picture his family doesn’t buy; “The Luck of the Irish,” with Katie (Jennifer Medich), the Smith’s Irish maid, offering romantic advice to Esther and her elder sister, Rose (Alex Pote); and “Wasn’t It Fun?” as Fansler and Stephanie Yoder as Mrs. Smith recall their years together. Pote is another lovely soprano who is a pleasure to watch as well as listen to. The younger siblings — Amelia Greene as Tootie and McKenna Kaczanowski as Agnes — handle their assignments like veterans, especially in the Halloween sequence. The men of the family — Fansler, Tyler Miller as son Lon and Charles Arnold as Grandpa Prophater — and Justin Williams as Rose’s about-to-be-fiance Warren Sheffield, also are strong vocally, with Fansler’s vocal outline of Manhattan a real show-stopper. Then, of course, there is the trolley, which does run on stage more than once while the hardworking stage crew disposes of the Smith house. And the 1904 Fair fireworks do not disappoint. Technology is wonderful! Whether you’re a fan of the film or have never seen it, this production bridges the years between screen and stage and does it with lovely music and heartwarming fun, making this St. Louis the perfect place for a family outing.

‘MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS” plays at 7:30 p.m. today and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Jimtown High School auditorium. Tickets at the door.

Witty Wilde Survives Test of Time

When a play survives more than 150 years and is known less for being a “classic” than for being a sharply witty and still relevant comedy, it’s obviously one that should be seen. Such a play is “The Importance of Being Earnest,” a brilliant, satirical look at the follies and foibles of the English upper class at the turn of the century — the 19th century, that is — by Oscar Wilde, one of only two playwrights of that era whose works still are played and replayed today. The other is George Bernard Shaw.

The Importance of Beign Earnest at Wagon Wheel Theatre“Earnest,” which premiered in London in February 1895, is the one non-musical (I would say straight play but there is little straight about this production) on the Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre 2010 season. Actually, Wilde’s final theatrical work has been called “a verbal opera,” so lyrically does his crisply-paced dialogue ebb and flow and most often hit the mark square on. Wilde’s mark was the society in which he lived and he was frequently less than subtle in his barbs.”That is the whole truth, pure and simple,” says John (Jack) Worthing (Nick Laughlin).  “The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” replies his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Ari Frenkel). “Modern life would be very tedious if it were either and modern literature would be a complete impossibility.” The two gentlemen compare romantic personas. Jack reveals that he is called Earnest in town and Jack when at his Manor House in the country, while Algernon relies on a conveniently  ill friend Bunbury, whenever he wishes to escape tiresome social obligations. Bunbury, of course, is a complete fabrication but he serves a purpose. Jack is enamoured of Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Caitlin Mesiano), who is watched closely by her mother Lady Bracknell (Dannielle Robertson), an arbiter of all things socially acceptable. “Never speak disrespectfully of society,” she declares. “”Only people who can’t get into it do that.” Algernon, meanwhile, is determined to meet Jack’s ward, Cecily Cardew (Kayla Roy), who lives in the country. As each woos his lady, they discover that the two girls share one fixation: a determination to fall in love with someone named Earnest. Both men schedule baptisms in a rush to become Earnest, enlisting the aid of the Rev. Canon Chasuble (Dave Adamick). He harbors a secret admiration for Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism (Sophie Grimm), a woman with a connection to Lady Bracknell and a certain missing handbag. Hovering on the periphery  of  the social swirl are Lane, Algernon’s manservant (Matt Gottlieb), and Merriman, Jack’s manservant, (Zachary McConnell).

The Importance of Beign Earnest at Wagon Wheel TheatreEveryone is paired correctly by the final blackout, although Jack mourns the fact that “It is a terrible thing for a men to discover that all of his life he has been telling nothing but the truth.” Directors Ben Dicke and Andy Robinson added  a great deal of physical comedy  a la The Three Stooges which obviously entertained the opening night audience but turned the gentlemen into foolish fops. Ensemble songs at the opening  set the scene (“London Town”) and added a nice ending touch (Noel Coward’s  “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”). At times the girls were difficult to understand, although their English accents were the most believable, but Lady Bracknell lacked the commanding presence that should immediately identify her as a force to be reckoned with. The use of instrumental music from Gilbert and Sullivan”s “The Pirates of Penzance” made the scene changes a delightful and viable part of the production.

“THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST” plays through Aug. 14 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For show times and reservations, call 267-8041.