Color Purple – a Multi-Hued Musical

Miller Auditorium at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo opened its 2010-2011 season Tuesday evening with the first of its Broadway in Western Michigan series, the musical “The Color Purple.” For those not there, this was — to quote another musical — a “one night only” performance. It was an excellent non-Equity production of the big musical (11 Tony nominations) that ran for more than two years on Broadway. I note this difference, because there is always a question about non-Equity shows, the answer to which frequently falls on the side of “if it’s not Equity (union), it can’t be too good.”

I must say I have seen touring productions that definitely fell in that category. But lately, the more youthful casts have made up in talent and enthusiasm for the lack of rich production values,  a good thing, since almost 100 percent of the tours are non-Equity. The reason, of course, is the cost. Having seen “Purple” in New York, I can say that the the only real difference in this scaled-down tour is in the much more minimal sets. The 12 principal players are just as ably supported by  13 hard-working ensemble members who change costumes and personas frequently as the scenes require — from devout church goers to juke joint revelers to African tribal natives. The show, based on Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, was preceded by 20 years by Stephen Spielberg’s 1985 film version, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey. The role of Celie, for which LaChanze earned a Tony Award as best actress, is, to quote my grandmother “a real gut-buster!”

color purple miller auditoriumAs Celie, young Dayna Jarae Dantzler is required not only to age 40 years from first curtain to last, but must believably deliver the personal changes as the abused 14-year-old (two children by her father who gave them away at birth) moves from terrified slavey to strong and emotionally emancipated woman. She is in almost every scene and is vocally awesome, belting defiance to the rafters, softly comforting her newborn baby or wondering at the awakening of a new kind of love. It is a tour de force role and Dantzler handles it with impressive depth and ease. The featured cast members are equally impressive. Most especially the always-audience-favorite character of Sofia, played with show-stopping hutzpah by Pam Trotter;  Mister, Celie’s arrogantly abusive husband, in which Edward C. Smith transitions beautifully from the man you have to hate to one who deserves forgiveness; Taprena Augustine as the object of Mister’s affection, Shug Avery, a singer with a raging libido and a lot of problems; Lee Edward Colston II is Harpo, Celie’s stepson and Sofia’s husband; and a trio of hilariously snarky Church Ladies who Nesha Ward, Virlinda Stanton and Deaun Parker bring to gossipy perfection.

color purple miller auditoriumThere are many others and, unfortunately, the second act is way too long  and too slow or, perhaps, it is just that most of the drama is in Act I (excepting Celie’s Thanksgiving emancipation proclamation), and by the final picnic, the quick fix of all the problems, with everyone paired off for a Pollyanna-ish ending, still seems forced. Next up in the Broadway series at Miller is “Legally Blonde” which will stop over Oct. 14-15, “Spring Awakening,” another one-night-only must-see, Nov. 4; Blue Man Group, Feb, 15-16.;  and”Monty Python’s Spamalot,” May 10-11. No question, however, the real biggie for this Miller season is “Wicked,” which will fly into Kalamazoo Dec. 1-12. Tickets available now at  (269) 387-2300. Check out the complete season lineup at www.Miller Auditorium.com. It includes Bob Dylan,  the Russian National Ballet Theatre, Last Comic Standing, Jazz Masters with Kurt Elling, David Sedaris, Michael Flatley’s “Lord of the Dance” and Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two Woman Show. NOTE: All of these are one-night-only.

Farndale…Macbeth- Unorganized Chaos

It’s always interesting to see something for the first time and the past few seasons at South Bend Civic Theatre have provided that opportunity more than once. For the most part, the “debut’ productions have been enjoyable and, at best, are on the list of “we’d like to see that one again.” The current production, however, falls into neither category.

The title, “Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of … Macbeth,” kind of says it all. The farce by David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr. is one in a series which replaces “Macbeth” with a varied number of other titles including “A Christmas Carol,” “The Mikado” and “Murder at Checkmate Manor.” Possibly it would be easier to follow if the underlying play was a bit more familiar. As it is, if you have no working knowledge of the Shakespearean tragedy, you have already have one strike against you. The second is delivered by the frantically fevered antics of the cast, which is undeniably hard-working and obviously committed to giving its all for laughs. Farce, however,  must be as crisply detailed as any serious drama in order to obtain the desired results. Pratfalls, pies in the face and actors in drag are all very well but, bottom line, farce is organized chaos. When the former is absent, only the latter remains.

Regina Renee Warren in Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society's Production of ... MacbethIn addition, the cast fights another losing battle: the acoustics — or lack thereof — in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium. How well the audience hears/understands what is being said depends entirely on which way the actor is facing. Any turn away and dialogue becomes completely unintelligible. Intermittent English accents don’t help. From  primary players  (Regina Renee Warren as guild chairwoman Mrs. Reece/Lady Macduff, Sara Bartlett as Thelma Shaw/Macbeth, Jim Bain as stage manager/Lady Macbeth, Roy Bronkema as Farndale producer Plummer, and Doug Streich as increasingly tipsy festival adjudicator George Peach)  to geriatric stage hands (Lee Town, Michelle Bain) to all other multiple-role actors (Jonnie and Seyhan Kilic, Becki Faunce, Carlie Barr, Andrea Smiddy Talkington,  and Randy Colt) all fight valiantly. Unfortunately they don’t see Birnam wood coming.

“FARNDALE AVENUE. . . MACBETH” plays at 8 p.m. today through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the theater at 403 N. Main St. Reservations: 234-1112.

ECT's 'Beau Jest' a Gentle Comedy

As defined in Webster, “beau jest” means “good joke” which is just what is delivered — in quantity — in the current Elkhart Civic Theatre production titled “Beau Jest.” The romantic comedy by James Sherman definitely is light on its feet and, even though the ending is never in doubt, offers a laugh-filled evening en route to the happy outcome. You don’t have to think about a thing. Just sit back and enjoy the gently humorous situations. They are more than obvious, but even when you know where they’re going, suspend disbelief for the moment (about two hours including intermissions) and enjoy the ride.

Sarah Goldman (Lauren Hodges) is a Jewish kindergarten teacher in Chicago. Her current boyfriend  — wait for it — Chris Cringle (Daniel Ray Johnson) is in advertising and is not Jewish, a fact which raised major objections from her parents and prompted Sarah to tell them she and Chris had broken up (they hadn’t) and invent a new Jewish beau. When mom Miriam (Annette Dillworth Kaczanowski) and dad Abe (Bob Franklin) insist on meeting him, Sarah hires an actor to portray the non-existent Dr. David Steinberg. Unfortunately, the faux beau, Bob Schroeder (Ricky Fields), is not Jewish either. He is, however, a good enough actor to “pass,” thanks to roles in “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Cabaret,” and even fools Sarah’s therapist brother Joel (Michael J. Case), at least for a while. You can see the ending coming almost from Bob’s first entrance, but getting there in this low-keyed comedy is definitely a lot of fun thanks to the interaction of the solid cast. Hodges’ quick thinking as the parental inquisition accelerates is beautifully done as is her confusion when gratitude for Bob’s help turns to something more. Fields’ reactions to the deepening entanglements of his medical  — and personal —persona evoke justifiable laughter. The parents are saved from uncomfortably obvious stereotype by the performances of  Franklin and Kaczanowski, and all handle the required seder readings and prayers believably. Case’s therapist is slow to spot the romantic charade but garners his own share of laughter when he finally realizes what’s going on. Johnson is long-suffering and eventually, of course,  a good loser.

Beau Jest at Elkhart Civic TheatreSarah’s apartment is a perfect match for the character and the attention to detail is a trademark of set designer John Shoup. Director Tim Yoder, who played the role of Bob/Dr. Dave in the 1994 ECT production, does as well from the other side of the footlights as he did on stage.

During the opening night performance, three new Lifetime members were announced. Two were a part of the “Beau Jest” production staff:  Randy Zonker designed the lights as he has done for many ECT shows and Cheryl Waldman, a 35-year music director, director and actor, served as pronunciation and cultural guide. Completing the trio was Jill Hill Stoll,  longtime orchestra member. All  were cited for their contributions to the theater.

“BEAU JEST” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on S.R. 120 in Bristol. For reservations, call 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays.