Christie thriller a fun evening

A good mystery thriller is one that stands the test of time and no one is the author of more  time-tested mysteries than Agatha Christie.

In book, film or theatrical format, her works have fascinated audiences and readers for close to a century and show no signs of stopping. A case in point is the current Elkhart Civic Theatre production of Dame Agatha’s most popular whodunnit — “And Then There Were None” — which opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House.

The title has changed at least three times since the book was published in 1939,  political correctness being important for a first glance, and some may know it better as “10 Little Indians.” But, as Shakespeare queried, “What’s in a name?” and this play, by any title, is one of which audiences seem never to tire.

The premise is definitely intriguing. Ten people are summoned to an isolated island off the coast of Devon, England. With the exception of the cook and houseman, who are married, they have no connection to one another. The guests are annoyed when it appears the host/hostess is not planning to show up. A nursery rhyme framed above the mantel charts the individual demise of “10 little soldier boys” and a recorded voice cites murders attributed to each of the apprehensive guests who understandably decide it’s time to leave. Unfortunately, there is no boat and no telephone.

A good mystery thriller is one that stands the test of time and no one is the author of more  time-tested mysteries than Agatha Christie.

In book, film or theatrical format, her works have fascinated audiences and readers for close to a century and show no signs of stopping. A case in point is the current Elkhart Civic Theatre production of Dame Agatha’s most popular whodunnit — “And Then There Were None” — which opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House.

The title has changed at least three times since the book was published in 1939,  political correctness being important for a first glance, and some may know it better as “10 Little Indians.” But, as Shakespeare queried, “What’s in a name?” and this play, by any title, is one of which audiences seem never to tire.

The premise is definitely intriguing. Ten people are summoned to an isolated island off the coast of Devon, England. With the exception of the cook and houseman, who are married, they have no connection to one another. The guests are annoyed when it appears the host/hostess is not planning to show up. A nursery rhyme framed above the mantel charts the individual demise of “10 little soldier boys” and a recorded voice cites murders attributed to each of the apprehensive guests who understandably decide it’s time to leave. Unfortunately, there is no boat and no telephone.

These “inconveniences” become increasingly frightening as, one by one, the 10 are eliminated — permanently — each in a manner described in the rhyme. Those remaining realize the killer is among them but this only breeds distrust and soon they are turning on each other.

Not until the final few minutes of this three-act mystery is the real killer revealed. For those familiar with the finale, watching the players get there makes for a fun evening. For those who are not, solving the mystery is equally entertaining.

In the hands of the very capable cast, the secret is safe. This is an ensemble piece, even though several “exit” more quickly than others. Those left standing do excellent work under the direction of Dave Dufour, who has become ECT’s go-to-guy for Agatha Christie. He finds a number of places for humorous “takes” which serve to lighten the dialogue-heavy script.

Each of the characters is well defined by the performers. Dan Cotton and Valerie Ong set the pace as the couple hired for the weekend. Brock Butler is “wizard” as Anthony Marston, a young speedster right out of  F. Scott Fitzgerald. Karen Johnston is properly fanatic as Emily Brent, a rigid spinster who quotes scripture and never drops a stitch.

General MacKenzie, a retired military man who naps frequently and is haunted by memories, is played by Randy Zonker, who also is responsible for the mood-inducing lighting design (and lightning flashes). As secretary Vera Claythorne, Melissa Domiano plays increasingly frantic with a perfect edge. John Hutchings is spot on as Dr. Armstrong, a former surgeon who switched his specialty to nervous disorders.

Dominating the search and discussion are Dave Kempher as Capt. Philip Lombard, who is attracted to Vera and jokes about the macabre events; Carl Weisinger as William Blore a gentleman with several personas (and a very loud jacket); and James Bain as Sir Lawrence Wargrave, a retired jurist who analyzes each death with legal precision.

All do an excellent job of handling the extensive Christie dialogue, keeping the audience aware of each “clue” without telegraphing the ending. Dufour keeps the pace clipping along in true British fashion so the show’s  2 1/2 hour length (including two intermissions) goes by in good fashion.

Again, the set is exactly right for the requirements of the period and the script and is finished (aka “dressed”) perfectly by designer John Shoup. Sound designer Garry Cobbum supplies the requisite thunder.

“AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the opera house on S.R. 120 in Bristol For reservations, call 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays.

‘Buffalo’ is familiar but funny

In the center of the mid-winter blues, a nonsensical roaring comedy can often serve to ward off the chill. Such a one is “Moon Over Buffalo,” currently on stage at South Bend Civic Theatre.
Prolific playwright Ken Ludwig has churned out a goodly number of scripts that bear a striking resemblance to each other. The fact that several are farces of the no-holds-barred variety makes then enjoyable, even on the second or third go-round.

Ludwig, who received a Tony Award for his book for “Crazy for You,” may be better known for “Lend Me A Tenor,” which puts the action behind the scenes at a mid-western opera company. In “Buffalo,” the setting is backstage in a theater in that northern New York city. The locale is different but the premise (not surprisingly) is similar.

A theatrical couple — George and Charlotte Hay— are playing “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Private Lives” in repertory while bemoaning the loss of film roles in a Scarlet Pimpernel sequel to Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson. Charlotte wants to be a movie star. George is happy center stage.

Their daughter, Rosalind, has escaped her parents’ legacy by taking a job in advertising. She returns to introduce her fiance, Howard, a TV weatherman, only to confront her former fiance, Paul, a stage manager and member of the Hay company. Another member-at-large is Charlotte’s nearly deaf mother, Ethel, wardrobe mistress and constant source of irritation to George. Circling the action are Charlotte’s backup suitor attorney, Richard Maynard, and Eileen, an ingenue with whom George has had a brief affair. Actually, the names are irrelevant and can be replaced by those in any other Ludwig farce. The performers who inhabit them, however, are what makes this — or any other — farce gather speed. Director Richard Baxter has assembled a more than competent cast and they obviously relish the increasingly frantic motion of all of their characters. As George and Charlotte, James Jones and Melissa Manier take the lead, making an early entrance with rapier-like swiftness. He is at his best when his affair is discovered and he plunges into the bottle to drown his sorrows. She uses expert timing to make the most of her self-absorbed declarations and where Jones bellows, she delivers icy barbs with stingingly hilarious accuracy and is even more effective for not projecting a consistently high decible level.

In the center of the mid-winter blues, a nonsensical roaring comedy can often serve to ward off the chill. Such a one is “Moon Over Buffalo,” currently on stage at South Bend Civic Theatre.
Prolific playwright Ken Ludwig has churned out a goodly number of scripts that bear a striking resemblance to each other. The fact that several are farces of the no-holds-barred variety makes then enjoyable, even on the second or third go-round.

Ludwig, who received a Tony Award for his book for “Crazy for You,” may be better known for “Lend Me A Tenor,” which puts the action behind the scenes at a mid-western opera company. In “Buffalo,” the setting is backstage in a theater in that northern New York city. The locale is different but the premise (not surprisingly) is similar.

A theatrical couple — George and Charlotte Hay— are playing “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Private Lives” in repertory while bemoaning the loss of film roles in a Scarlet Pimpernel sequel to Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson. Charlotte wants to be a movie star. George is happy center stage.

Their daughter, Rosalind, has escaped her parents’ legacy by taking a job in advertising. She returns to introduce her fiance, Howard, a TV weatherman, only to confront her former fiance, Paul, a stage manager and member of the Hay company. Another member-at-large is Charlotte’s nearly deaf mother, Ethel, wardrobe mistress and constant source of irritation to George. Circling the action are Charlotte’s backup suitor attorney, Richard Maynard, and Eileen, an ingenue with whom George has had a brief affair. Actually, the names are irrelevant and can be replaced by those in any other Ludwig farce. The performers who inhabit them, however, are what makes this — or any other — farce gather speed. Director Richard Baxter has assembled a more than competent cast and they obviously relish the increasingly frantic motion of all of their characters. As George and Charlotte, James Jones and Melissa Manier take the lead, making an early entrance with rapier-like swiftness. He is at his best when his affair is discovered and he plunges into the bottle to drown his sorrows. She uses expert timing to make the most of her self-absorbed declarations and where Jones bellows, she delivers icy barbs with stingingly hilarious accuracy and is even more effective for not projecting a consistently high decible level.

 

As Roz, Abbey Frick enters as the most “normal” member of the Hay clan but blood will tell and she succumbs inevitably to the pull of the stage. Justin Williams’ Paul helps to make her return the right move. Matthew Bell and Carlie Barr as Richard and Eileen are on and off in due course, but there is no doubt they will be collateral damage to the battling Hays. Tamie Ramaker as Ethel has the best lines and delivers them with stolid determination. Brian Wells plays Howard and rightly steals every scene in which he appears. His effort to surprise his prospective in-laws makes for one of the funniest moments in a script full of laughs.
The frantic pace escalates to the final scramble when a Hollywood director is in the audience to scout the Hays for the much-wanted film roles and a still-tipsy George enters as Cyrano while the rest of the company is playing Noel Coward’s sophisticated comedy.
It is a tribute to designer David Chudzinski that the excellent set with its many much-used and much-slammed doors comes through the increasing uproar with no obvious injury.
“MOON OVER BUFFALO” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Feb. 4-5 a d 3 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 6. For reservations, call 234-1112 between noon and 6 p.m. weekdays or visit sbct.org.

A New Look For 2010 EJF

. . .FIVE. . .SIX. . .SEVEN. . .EIGHT. . .

We’re almost within earshot of the first Elkhart Jazz & Blues Festival . No, I’m not really wrong. There were 22 Elkhart Jazz Festivals, but this is the first one to sing the blues.

FYI: The beat actually goes down at 5 p.m. Friday with the opening notes of the Notre Dame Jazz Trio in the Knights of Columbus Hall. Free music is kicked off in high style by Truth in Jazz at 5:30 p.m. on the Civic Plaza where the evening’s lineup features the Latin rhythms of Conjunto followed by Tim Bowman, the Midwest Swing Orchestra and an “open to all” jam session.  (Free is nice, but the crazily unpredictable weather might make getting s jazz pass or session ticket a plus — no rain and no 90 degree heat/humidity inside.)

Area blues aficionados already are familiar with the sounds of Elwood Splinters, Don Savoie and Southside Denny Snyder. Ditto for jazz buffs and Danny Barber. All groups have made Among the familiar faces throughout the weekend will be Dave Bennett with his Benny Goodman-inspired clarinet (and George Raft-inspired  footwear), John Bany and his bass stirring up Jazzberry Jam and definitely the senior member of this year’s assemblage, John Paul “Bucky” Pizarelli and his just-too-marvelous-for-words guitar.

OK. So you might guess I’m kinda prejudiced, which has nothing to do with the fact that Bucky grew up in Patterson, New Jersey, just across the highway from my hometown, or that he still lives in the Garden State with his wife of many decades, or that he is the founder of a musical dynasty that includes his sons John (guitar) and Martin (bass), plus John’s wife, top cabaret singer  Jessica Molaskey, or that Bucky has been coming to the EJF probably longer than any of  the 2010 artists.

The amazing guitar man will celebrate a milestone January 9, an occasion that will be marked by an evening hosted by John and Jessica at New York’s 42nd Street Y titled “Frank and Tony and Peggy and Me: Making Music with the Great Singers — Celebrating Bucky Pizzarelli’s 85th Birthday.” It’s part of the Lyrics & Lyricists 2011 Season and if your travels take you to the Big Apple during the January thaw, it would be the place to be.

Not sure the ticket price for those concerts, but I am sure that even up close you would never be such proximity to Mr. Pizzarelli as at this year’s EJBF. Which is absolutely one of the best things about this event, be it three days or two days or more. For the price of a single session ticket ($10) you can hear  — and see — one of the real greats of the jazz world.

And if you ask very nicely, he might even play a request!

Anyway, whatever your musical tastes, there will be something for everyone downtown this weekend. It may be the Last Friday (and Saturday) but it is guaranteed to be the very best! And dancing in the street is not only permitted, it’s encouraged!

See you downtown!

THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE

Anyone who’s interested  (and even those not so much) knows by now that this year’s Elkhart Jazz Festival has a new look and a new name and may, unless providence or the City of Elkhart steps in, be the very last one as we know it.

Having been around since the first EJF more than two decades ago, and being kind of resistant to change (you know how us old foggies are!),  I’m not sure how this is going to play out, but I’ve decided to give it a chance and hope for the best.

First: This year’s event has been cut back to two days — actually, one afternoon (Saturday) and two evening (Friday and Saturday)  sessions plus a Sunday morning plaza concert by the T. Hadley Gospel Choir.

Second: There is only one free stage this year. Happy to say, however, that it will be back where it belongs —on the Civic Plaza. The others are inside at  the New Life Community  Church, the Knights of Columbus and the 227 Stage (all the same as last year) plus Mad Anthony’s and the Chamber of Commerce. This eliminates the “free” music available to those who just hung around the former tent stages without having to buy a ticket.  Oops. I forgot. There will be a second free stage featuring local musicians  in the beer tent on Main Street between Mad Anthony’s and the 523 Club. For the most part, however, if you want to hear the big names you have to pay.

Third: Making it easier to accomplish the last, ticket prices have been reduced across the board, from the  patron price (now $150) to the Jazz Pass ($85) and session passes at $35 for evenings and $20 for afternoon. This year, a $10 single session ticket will admit you to any one paid venue that isn’t over capacity. Tickets and information will be available at the Chamber of Commerce (on Main between Franklin and Marion Streets) while food vendors remain on the Civic Plaza and a beer tent (without music) on High Street.

Fourth: Some familiar names are missing in the lineup of musicians, most noticeably Tim Cunningham, who filled the Plaza and kept it jumping on Saturday night, and a service band — Army, Air Force or Navy — which frequently kicked the festival off on a high note Friday evening and could only play in a venue that was free and open to everyone. There are, however, enough excellent returnees to keep jazz fans very happy. These include Bucky Pizzarelli, this time with his quartet; Dave Bennett, also with his quartet; the Rob Parton Big Band and the Rebecca Kilgore Quartet (formerly B.E.D.).

Fifth: (And the last for today) Due to the demise of the annual August blues festival, the EJF has become EJBF, with a number of blues bands on stage throughout the event, a majority being featured in Mad Anthony’s.

SHORT TAKES ON SOME NEW ARTISTS

Actually, these artists are “new” only in the sense that it will be their first appearances at the festival. In fact, a number of them have been on the Michiana music scene for quite a while. Am thinking of the Elwood Splinters Blues Band, Southside Denny Snyder, the Notre Dame Jazz Trio and Danny Barber’s Jazz Cats.

Vocalist Jenna Mammina appeared at Goshen College as a part of its performing arts series a year or so ago while Truth in Jazz and Vibenation have been Civic Plaza performers in the past.

Hailey NiswangerAmong the “first-time first-timers” are Hailey Niswanger — a native of Houston, Texas, currently at home in Portland, Ore., she is studying jazz performance at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship. She plays alto and soprano sax, clarinet and flute and, for a young lady who just turned 20, has a dazzling list of credits on her resume as well as her own CD “Confeddie.”  Check her out Friday evening at 10 p.m. in New Life Community Church.

Tim Bowman — The Detroit native is a jazz guitarist “similar in style to Tim Cunningham,” according to EJBF press blurbs.  One of 12 children, he was inspired by a church guitarist at age 11 and moved between gospel and jazz for a number of years. For six years, he was with The Wynans as musician and music director. His voluntary hiatus from the music business was interrupted when his wife suggested he put together his own CD. That was the first of five. Tim’s EJBF debut will be at 9 p.m. Friday on the Civic Plaza.

conjuntoConjunto —  Formed in 2001 by violinist James Sanders, conjunto means “group” and the six member ensemble has roots in Chicago and brings together the rhythms of Cuban, Puerto Rican and jazz in “an ongoing exploration of the confluence of jazz and Afro-Latin standards with original compositions and arrangements,” which is more than enough to make me want to hear what they have to play beginning at 7 p.m. Friday on the Civic Plaza.

Jean Prosper Trio — Prosper, originally from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, emigrated to Canada where he studied at the Royal Conservatory. The jazz pianist and his group have released three CDs and, if you can’t get enough of his music at this festival, you can always visit the Kalewes Jazz Club which he owns in Benton Harbor, Mich. The trio makes its festival debut at 7 p.m. Friday in the Pathway Assemble of God.

NOTE: You can sample the music of these artists, as well as that of other EJBF artists, the internet via Google or YouTube.

Check the locations and times for these and all the other sessions in Thursday’s Elkhart Truth (plug for the former employer!) and check back here tomorrow!

'Born Yesterday' funny and relevant

It’s very interesting — and unusual — to find a comedy more than half a century old that not only is still funny but whose underlying message is just as relevant today. Such a comedy is the current South Bend Civic Theatre production  “Born Yesterday,” Garson Kanin’s 1946 look at what happens when a “dumb blonde”  gets “smartened up.” [caption id=”attachment_692″ align=”alignright” width=”300″ caption=”Harry Brock (Vincent Bilancio, in red) attacks reporter Paul Verrall (Kyle Curtis) while (from left) Senator Hedges (Dan Driscoll), Eddie Brock (Scot Purkypile) and Ed Devery (Bill Frascella) attempt to intervene in this scene from the South Bend Civic Theatre production of “Born Yesterday.

The blonde is Billie Dawn, a ditzy chorine created on stage and film by Judy Holiday in the mold of characters set before and after by Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe and Carol Channing. You know there is something beneath the peroxide curls and and meeting the right educated man will be just the catalyst to bring that something out. In the SBCT version, the blonde is a redhead but the result is the same. Melissa Chapman comes on slowly, her initial offstage “Whaaaaaaaaat?” is decibels below that of Holiday, but this Billie is just as able to hold her own against the millionaire junkman who took her out of the chorus and now feels he owns her. Her Billie gathers strength slowly but surely and, when push comes to shove, she is not afraid to push back. She creates a very appealing “newborn” and the audience is with her all the way. The Brooklyn accent is not overdone and fits her ingenuous characterization well. (Small detail: even a very ex-chorus girl would know more than two verses of “Anything Goes.”) Initiating her “education” is Harry Brock (Vincent Bilancio), who began as a kid picking up scraps in a wagon in New Jersey to owning junkyards around the country. His eye is on the world market and he is in D.C. to “buy” a senator (Dan Driscoll) who will push through legislature aimed at this goal. Harry is armed with Ed Devery, a former assistant attorney general (Bill Frascella), for smoothing the way, and a less-than-bright cousin Eddie Brock (Scot Purkeypile), who attends to everything else.

It’s very interesting — and unusual — to find a comedy more than half a century old that not only is still funny but whose underlying message is just as relevant today. Such a comedy is the current South Bend Civic Theatre production  “Born Yesterday,” Garson Kanin’s 1946 look at what happens when a “dumb blonde”  gets “smartened up.” Melissa Chapman in Born YesterdayMelissa Chapman in "Born Yesterday"After meeting with the senator and his wife (Jennie DeDario), Brock decides that Billie is “a good kid but a little on the stupid side” and hires reporter Paul Verrall (Kyle Curtis) to smooth her edges for polite society.  The “smoothing” takes Billie into the roots of American democracy, opens her eyes to the reality of Brock’s manipulations and delivers an obviously ageless message about the underside of politics. In the stage and film versions of “Born Yesterday” Brock was physically large. Bilancio, aware of this, notes in his program bio that “size indeed does not matter.” Actually it doesn’t, except when replaced by delivering every line at the top of his voice. Loud does not equate with big and eventually defeats the purpose. Frascella’s attorney — increasingly disgusted by his own actions and masking this with liquor — was more mob  mouthpiece than disillusioned litigator. Curtis is a bit too stuffy at the outset, but warms up as his interest in Billie grows and it’s nice to have one character without a shady agenda. Another on the “shady-less” side is Purkeypile’s devotedly long-suffering dogsbody. With minimal dialogue and great body language, there is no doubt as to his conflicted emotions. For fans of “Born Yesterday,” several scenes are memorable: the gin game between Brock and Billie and Billie’s final triumph and exit line.  These do not disapoint. David Chudzinski’s set design allows the principals — plus minor maids, barbers, bellhops and hotel managers — a wide range of playing area. Only the lack of a bannister on the much-used stairs to the bedroom level made me rather nervous.

“BORN YESTERDAY” 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: 234-1112.