Shaw 'shocker' not scandalous today

More than a century ago, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” a drama by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was banned before it opened, due to the “scandalous” subject matter. When it finally was produced eight years later, in 1902,  the reviews were universally negative. Its premiere production in New York City in 1905 was interrupted by the police who arrested the cast and crew. Even though all were released, the shameful aura surrounding the tale of a successful madam was difficult to escape.

Today, however, the production currently on stage at New World Arts hardly evokes a hint of the former scandal. The times, they definitely have changed! Mrs. Warren is a typical Shaw heroine. She has done what was necessary to provide financial security and independence for herself and to give her daughter money, clothes, an excellent education and a life above reproach: She began as a prostitute and, seeing where most of the money from this life was made, became  the owner/operator of several high class “private hotels” in major cities throughout Europe. She has kept her lifestyle from her daughter, Vivie, who has seen little of her mother throughout her life. When the two meet here, their shifting relationship — and the influence of the several men in their lifes —is the focus of the  play. As shocking as Shaw’s characters and themes were at the turn of the 20th century, it is a sad commentary on today’s lifestyle that they shock hardly at all. The hypocrisy of Vivie’s attitude towards her mother’s vocation, which vanishes when she learns of Kitty Warren’s difficult life and returns full force when she realizes her mother has no wish to give up her “career,” could be the plot of any modern drama, while the reactions of the “gentlemen” seem no more unusual than the headlines of supermarket tabloids. The NWA cast handles Shaw’s lengthy dialogue intelligently and as easily as possible. Tiny Julie Keim has the title role with Tara Schaefer as Vivie; Mike Honderich is Mr. Praed, an advocate of art and beauty as opposed to commercialism; Geoffrey Owens is the Rev. Samuel Gardner, a clergyman with a hidden sins; Ricky Fields is his son Frank, a diletante suitor for Vivie’s hand; and Chuck Bower is Sir George Crofts, an original investor in Kitty’s business who nevertheless proposes to Vivie. The women’s costumes do little for either, with the outfit (and ridiculous hat) assigned to Mrs. Warren more fitting for a Pick-A-Little lady than a successful business woman and Vivie’s skirt sporting a line of pins in the hem. These are things that can be addressed, as is the set. Having seen the first NWA production of this season, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” I am aware that it is possible to put a real set on the small stage. A black box setting is fine for shows like “The Pillowman,” but Shaw deserves more than a couple of non-period chairs, a ridiculously low bench and three double-sided flats propped up against the curtains to indicate interior locations. Production values — set, lights, costumes and props—are integral parts of any show and, given the venue, should be addressed with as much attention to detail as possible.

“MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION”  plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Nov. 19-20 in the theater at 211 S. Main Street in  Goshen. Tickets at the door.

'White Christmas' holiday classic

Since it left the pen of Irving Berlin in 1940, “White Christmas” has become the best-selling song of all time and is the only one to have produced a movie and a Broadway musical, both named for that tune. The power of the Berlin holiday tune is evidenced by the current Elkhart Civic Theatre production of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” which opened Friday evening and was sold out even before it began. The audience is invited to sing along at the beginning and the finale and I would bet there were few if any who could not respond to that request.

It’s a show to put you in the holiday spirit and definitely is one the entire family can enjoy. The 1954 technicolor movie starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen and the decidedly thin plot was obviously taken, with some modification, from the 1942 Crosby/Astaire classic, “Holiday Inn.” The theatrical version puts the ownership of the Vermont inn in the hands of a retired Army general (Charles Arnold). When former soldiers now successful entertainers Bob Wallace (Vincent Kelly) and Phil Davis (Tom Myers) arrive at the inn in pursuit of a sister song and dance team Betty (Stephanie Yoder) and Judy (Alexandra Pote) Haynes, they discover their former commander is facing bankruptcy. No surprise, they use their show biz contacts to put on a big show which, after romantic entanglements are sorted out, brings solvency to the general and true love to Bob and Betty and Phil and Judy — and all to the strains of some of Berlin’s loveliest music. Among this productions highlights are “Snow,” sung by the entire company on a train to Vermont; “Sisters,” both female and male versions; “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” a good idea at any season;  “I Love a Piano,” a show-stopper that gets the second act off to a flying start; and, of course, the title tune. In addition there are lesser known melodies that are well worth hearing: “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun,” a lament by the sisters and the general’s housekeeper Martha (Julie Herrli Castello), and “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” sung by Castello and, later, by the general’s granddaughter Susan (Jacqueline Kelley Cogdell). Special applause for Tom Doughty who does a very funny Percy Kilbride. The costume design by Dawn Blessing fills the stage with holiday cheer, especially in the red and white finale and the black and white “Piano” number. The quartet of choreographers and the dancers who execute their steps make each of the numbers — ensemble or individual — absolute fun to watch. Director Michael Cripe keeps the pace crisp. The soloists are up to the vocal challenges, delivering music and lyrics clearly and smoothly. The orchestra was much too loud opening night, covering singers and at time less than supportive of the dancers.

“WHITE CHRISTMAS” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Nov. 19-20 and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Opera House on S.R. 120 in Bristol. For information on possible cancellations, call 848-4116 or check at the box office before curtain time.

'Spring Awakening' powerful experience

There is an old saying that the more things change, the more they remain the same. For those who need proof, I suggest a visit to “Spring Awakening,” the multi-Tony Award-winning rock musical based on the 1891 German play of the same name. A hit Off-Broadway in 2006, it moved quickly to Broadway in the same year and, in 2007, was nominated for 11 Tonys, winning eight, including those for book, score, direction and best musical. After closing in 2009, the powerful show began a series of national tours, one of which played in Kalamazoo’s Miller Auditorium last Thursday evening (Nov. 7).

Unfortunately it was for  “one night only,” so the purpose of this is to alert music theater fans to the excellence of the production and to advise catching it if it comes to a city within driving distance. It is definitely an adult show which, ironically, is all about teenagers. True, they are teens from more than a century ago and in a different country, but their story is unhappily still current and universal. The angst of the young people struggling with puberty and the frightening feeliings, physical and emotional, which accompany the transition to adulthood and their search for answers from parents and teachers whose responses are primarily harsh and unfeeling. The inevitable results are shattering and, sadly, not unlike many found in today’s society. As a production, this “Spring Awakening” tour is excellent. Vocally and instrumentally, the young cast (and the two adults — Sarah Kleeman and Mark Poppleton — who portray all the male and female characters) is at the top of its game. Leading players Elizabeth Judd as Wendla Bergmann and Christopher Wood as Melchior Gabor, the young lovers whose innocent passion leads to tragedy, are heartbreaking and the same emotion evoked is by their fellow students. All are affecting, as a group and individually, especially Coby Getzug as Mortiz Steifel, haunted by dreams that make sleep unbearable; Courtney Markowitz as  Ilse, cast into a bohemian lifestyle by unfeeling parents; and Aliya Bowles as Martha, living with a sexually abusive father and an unseeing mother. Lighting plays a significant role in the effectiveness of this show, creating moonlight shadows or harsh reality as needed, and the rock music score is lyrically beautiful (“The Mirror-Blue Night”) and harshly driving (“The Bitch of Living”). In addition to regular seating, chairs are on each side of the stage allowing a limited number of audience members to be up close and personal to the action. No matter where you sit, “Spring Awakening” is a powerful theatrical experience.

FYI: The next Broadway show tour at Miller is the blockbuster musical “Wicked.” which will play Dec. 1-12 with best seats available for matinees. For information and reservations: (269) 387-230

Jekyll/Hyde still fascinating fare

One would think that after almost a century and a half, audiences (and readers) would have had their fill of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1868 novella “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” One would be wrong. Case in point: the current South Bend Civic Theatre production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” a more recent theatrical incarnation by Jeffrey Hatcher which, by this time,  is probably sold out, including a pre-opening added performance.

Whatever the attraction of the good. vs. evil scenario, this version offers a new look at the old favorite. Here, the split personalities are played by two actors rather than one who undergoes a painful metamorphosis, initially after drinking a potion of his own creation and then involuntarily, as the dark side of his nature gains power. Under the direction of Jim Geisel, also the man at the helm of several excellent SBCT productions including “Rashomon” and “The Elephant Man,” is it stark and spare, set against the dark walls of the Warner Studio Theatre and illuminated by the excellent performances of the small (seven members) cast, three of which are charged with  creating multiple characters. Like many of the post-Stevenson versions, this one eliminates some of the characters (Dr. Jekyll’s society fiance and her doctor father) and adds others, primarily separating Dr. Henry Jekyll (Ted Manier) and Mr. Edward Hyde (Scot Shepley), the result of Jekyll’s insistent pursuit of the proof — or lack thereof — of a soul. In his scientific search for “the distinction between mind and brain” and the “bestial instinct still within” he finds “rage and serenity” in deadly conflict, with Hyde’s rage finally becoming murderous. As Jekyll determines never to let his alter return, he finds that there is too much of the beast in himself, with death the only way to prevent the reappearance of Mr. Hyde.

From left are Phil Swiecinski, Mark Moriarty, David Chudzynski and Ted Manier in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.;Manier and Shepley are perfectly cast as the alter egos, with the latter evoking sympathy for the evil but tormented persona who finds some peace only with Elizabeth Jelkes (Cheryl Turski), a woman who sees beyond his menacing appearance and comes to love Hyde.  Love, however, definitely does not conquer all. Phil Kwiecinski, another SBCT regular, is Gabriel Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and confidant. David Chudzynski, Deborah Girasek-Chudzynski and Mark Moriarty are charged with portraying a total of 13 characters. Each is completely distinct and apart from the other, with Moriarty taking the multiple accents award! The lone door is two-sided and moves/revolves as needed, the red side being the entrance to Hyde’s dwelling and the other, a neutral brown, to Jekyll’s. That they also may indicate the ways to heaven or hell is left to the mind of the viewer.

‘DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE’ plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Warner Studio Theatre, 403 N. Main Street., South Bend. Reservations: 234-1112.