Elkhart Jazz Festival Back With a Bang

The old and the new mingled with great success last weekend as the 2011 Elkhart Jazz Festival rebounded from near-extinction in 2010 to an event that can only be described as an unqualified success.

Even the weather smiled — make that beamed — on the efforts of the volunteer committee that worked long and hard to resuscitate the festival which floundered almost fatally last year. Obviously, someone remembered the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The near-perfect clime Saturday and Sunday made it a pleasure to stroll the several blocks that held musical venues. OK, Friday evening was a bit chilly, but nothing that a good sweatshirt couldn’t handle. Aside from that, who could ask for anything more?

No doubt the addition of three stages inside the Lerner Theatre was a big draw. It was reminiscent of the early days of the EJF, when the hotel on the now-grassy area between Main, Franklin and High Streets (sorry, to me the only Central Park is in the middle of Manhattan) contained three performance areas, plus a pub where musicians gathered “after hours” just to jam. Now the theater itself, plus two spaces upstairs created by the division of the Crystal Ballroom, allowed listeners with the proper credentials (i.e. passes) to take in all manner of music without having to leave the building.

On the Civic Plaza, the free stage offered a generous mix of big bands and smaller combos, with several groups “for free” that also played in the ticketed locations.

The torn-up section of Main Street was a blessing and a curse. It certainly was an eyesore but did prevent the appearance of an unsanctioned party bar which was definitely jarring and intrusive in several years past. Hope that will be the case even when the street returns.

All in all, this EJF lived up to its theme, “Never Better!”

FAVORITES OLD AND NEW

There were many familiar faces among this year’s invited musicians including Butch Miles, Eddie Metz, Dave Bennett, Joan Collaso, Bill Allred, Jena Mammina, Terry Myers, Pat Mallinger, Jon-Erik Kellso and my continuing favorite and fellow New Jersey-ite, Bucky Pizzarelli.

Remembering back when Bennett was the new kid on the block along with emerging jazz pianist teenage Taylor Eigsti, I have to say that one of the best things about this event is the possibility of walking into a venue and discovering something — or someone — musically new and wonderful.

This was the case with 18-year-old singer/pianist Ariel Pocock, who arrived with a list of major awards already to her credit and a growing reputation, neither of which completely prepared her audiences (which grew substantially as word spread) for her amazing ability at the piano and the microphone. Throughout the weekend, I heard her vocals described as reminiscent of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell and Carmen Macrae but, bottom line, Ariel Pocock sounds/plays like nobody but herself.

Talking to the slender brunette after a set in the Lerner Ballroom 1 (the larger of the two second floor stages) revealed no sign of ego, just a quiet young lady who began on violin at age 4. “I guess I noodled around on the piano at about 8,” she said. “My teacher made the difference when I started jazz.”

Ariel Pocock plays at the 2011 Elkhart Jazz FestivalYoung Ariel listened to Mel Torme and George Shearing rather than Brittany Spears, she admitted with a chuckle, and declared Seattle “is the best place to be a high school musician.”

The opportunity to travel “is great,” she said enthusiastically, describing Japan as “super cool.” She loves coming to new places and meeting “a lot of musicians,” and admits sometimes she can practice all day and, infrequently, not at all. “But I never heard anyone look back and say I wish I had not practiced.”

Ariel doesn’t ignore the classics which she plays “for technique” and certainly can read music but obviously prefers jazz because “I like to make things up.”

In the fall, she will go from the cool and damp of Washington state to the sun and sand of Florida as a freshman at the University of Miami. The reason for the coastal shift? She will continue studying there with Shelly Berg, who also lists Eigisti among his talented students.

Ariel has another local connection. Her father David, an executive with Yamaha, has been a fan of Elkhart pianist Nicholas Roth for a number of years. It was he who was instrumental in providing the 9-ft. concert grand on which Nick played “Rhapsody in Blue” under the baton of Maestro Robert Spano during the June 16 concert which officially opened the Lerner Theatre.

For any who failed to sit in on at least one of Ariel’s EJF scheduled sets, you can check out her amazing talent on — what else? — YouTube. It won’t be the same, but hopefully she will be back next year for the Elkhart Jazz Festival’s Silver Anniversary celebration.

On Sunday afternoon, Ariel and bass player John Bany joined another festival first-timer and major crowd pleaser, Alfonso Ponticelli Swing Gitan, for a haunting Bany original titled “Gypsy Boy” for which he supplied the bass and she, the vocal.

The quartet, described as “Chicago’s premier gypsy-jazz band” was another group whose following grew throughout the weekend and which, I hope, will return in 2012. With two guitars, one violin and a stand-up bass, Swing Gitan lit a musical fire under a number of old standards as well as several originals. The term “flying fingers” does little to describe the way lead guitarist’s Ponticelli’s digits moved like lightening to deliver “Back Home in Indiana” to an enthusiastic crowd

Not surprisingly, that tune was on the playlists of many varied groups who delivered it in their own styles throughout the weekend. Needless to say, all were received with much applause.

'Hairspray' Winner at Wagon Wheel

In the past several decades, the trend on Broadway has been to take popular films and turn them into theatrical musicals. If there were some musical numbers in the film score, more were added to make the stage version acceptable. Some of these “transfers” worked, especially those from the Disney organization. Some did not (“Urban Cowboy,” “The Catered Affair”).

One that not only survived the transition with amazing success but returned the favor by becoming a real movie musical is the current offering at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre — “Hairspray.”

Set in the ‘60s, the story of Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblad and her battles with weight and segregation originated in the 1988 movie written and directed by John Waters. At first glance, it doesn’t seem the stuff of which popular musicals are made. But look at little closer.

At WW, the happily uptempo score by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman is well-integrated with the book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan and brought explosively to life by director/choreographer Scott Michaels and his talented cast.

From the first notes of “Good Morning Baltimore,” the show is infused with the positive energy of Lauren Turner’s Tracy, an overweight teen whose dream is to dance on the TV dance show of host Corney Collins (David Schlumpf). Determined to achieve her goal despite genetically transferred averdupois from her mother Edna (Robert J. Miller — that’s right!), she faces the hostility of show producer Velma Von Tussle (Lauren Roesner) and the prejudice of daughter Amber Von Tussle (Mary Little) and her thin, whites-only fellow dancers.

Initially she is supported only by her friend Penny Pingletom (Cassie Levine), but eventually finds her views — which now are widened to include integrated dancing and not just “Negro Day” — are shared by Seaweed J. Stubbs (Kevin J. Watson II), his sister Little Inez (Jalise Wilson), his mom, Motormouth Maybelle (Kathrine Thomas) and, surprisingly, by Link Larkin (Stephen Anthony), Amber’s boyfriend and Elvis wannabe, and Collins himself.

As the Miss Teenage Hairspray Contest nears, tension mounts and everything builds to the (literally) explosive finale.

This “Hairspray” is 2 and ¼ hours (plus intermission) of fun, which also delivers some important lessons to a ‘60s beat, lessons which unfortunately need periodic relearning. Possibly the mark is hit best by Sophie Grimm as Penny’s prejudiced mom Prudy (one of her three distinctly different characters). Finding her daughter and Seaweed in the bedroom, Prudy is shocked to silence, then cries “Colored in the house!” exiting with the wail “We’ll never sell it now!”

As Tracy, Turner may not be as large physically as others who have played this role, but she delivers the character and her purpose with unbounding energy and a solid performance. And I love (and remember) that hair!

There is no lack of vocal prowess in this cast! Roesner offers a powerhouse  rendition of “Velma’s Revenge” and Thomas literally stops the show with “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

Now back to Miller, who is returning to the WW stage after too long an absence and removed his facial hair to don Edna’s flamboyant costumes (designer Stephen R. Hollenbeck at his best) and towering red wig! Obviously, it’s difficult to completely forget that this is a large man in a lot of sequins AND heels, but it’s not difficult to completely be on board with Edna’s emerging self-assurance and devotion to her family. As her confidence grows, so does her connection to the audience who relate to this character unconditionally.

Part of the suspension of disbelief about Edna, is the consistently solid support given by Michael Yocum as her husband, Wilbur Turnblad, owner of the Hardy Har Hut, who dreams of a chain of joke shops. Their duet, “You’re Timeless to Me,” is one of the show’s loveliest moments.

Production-wise, Hollenbeck has gathered exactly the right colors and shapes to re-energize ‘’60’s, also recalled by David Lepor’s angular set design. Conductor Thomas N. Stirling is again at the keyboard of the excellent eight-piece orchestra and company member Jennifer Dow not only dances and sings but is responsible for all the period-proper beehive wigs!

I guarantee that as the lights fade on the final bows, you will find “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

“HAIRSPRAY” plays at 8 p.m. today and Saturday and Wednesday through July 1; 2 p.m. Sunday; and 7 p.m. Tuesday in the theater at 2517 E. Center St., Warsaw. For reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com,ol

'Escanaba' Begins The Barn's Return

After a summer without a season, The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich., opened its 2011 season Tuesday with a production of Jeff Daniels’ “Escanaba in Love,” a prequel to his “Escanaba in Da Moonlight,” and reportedly the first in an “Escanaba” trilogy.

“Escanaba in Love” has the same setting — the Soady family deer camp in Michigan’s upper peninsula on the opening day of deer season — and some of the same characters, although the youngster of “Love” is the patriarch of “Moonlight.” It’s kind of like I’m my own grandpa.

“Escanaba in Da Moonlight” has been produced three times at The Barn since 2003 and, having seen it each time, I have to say that it is one of those comedies that is just as funny with each subsequent production as it is at the first viewing.

“Escanaba in Love” is much lower on the comic scale and heads into more serious aspects of Soady life and love with the laughs generated primarily by below-the-belt humor which the opening night audience found hilarious. The first “Escanaba” cast was 99 percent male, which made the earthy situations more palatable. Not so much here where they are generated by a new wife who trims her toenails with her teeth, combs her eyebrows with a toothbrush, drinks more than the men and can’t resist any opportunity to jump on her new hubby.

The arrival of Big (so-called because she wants to love the whole world) Betty Balou (Erin Oechsel), new bride of 18-year-old Albert Soady Jr. (Patrick Hunter), throws a monkey wrench into the opening day plans of her new father-in-law Albert Soady Sr. (Eric Parker), his father Alphonse Soady (Charlie King), and their friend “Salty” Jim Negamanee (Roy Brown). The older men, ready for Jr. to bag his first buck, are astounded that he has not brought his gun, an oversight he explains by saying that he is going into the army the next day. He then toasts his new wife, waiting outside in the truck. It was love at first sight, he declares, then reveals he won her in a kissing contest at the Porcelain Bar and doesn’t want to go off to war without ever being with a woman.

Enter Big Betty, garbed in animal pelts, boots and many pair of socks, scratching and swearing, just like one of the boys. To say that Sr. is shocked is putting it mildly. He then attempts to convince his son that this love will never last, recounting the ways in which he wooed his late wife whose fishing prowess was shadowed only by her refusal to ever take the fish off the hook.

Throughout this, the boys are drinking the traditional Sweet Sap Whiskey (which Betty proceeds to down in great quantities), feeding the “gas” jar with pennies and trying to convince Jr. that his hasty marriage is a big mistake. They fail, even when her decidedly shady past is revealed. Her final big catch, however, saves her marriage and wins her father-in-law’s approval.

The ensemble cast works well under the direction of Hans Friedrichs and establishes solidly individual characters, but the humor sometimes tends to be mean-spirited and frequently to be coarse. It is not intended for children.

“ESCANABA IN LOVE” plays at 8:30 p.m. today and Saturday and Tuesday through June 25 and 5 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and June 26 at The Barn Theatre on M-96 between Augusta and Galesburg, Mich. For information and reservations: (269) 731-4121 or visit www.barntheatre.com.

Disney's 'Tarzan' Wagon Wheel Opener

In 1912, British author Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote “Tarzan The Ape Man,” the first of his 24 books about an orphaned English baby brought up by a tribe of apes.

Six years later, silent film star Elmo Lincoln swung through the southern California trees in the first of more than 100 movies about the redoubtable jungle man. If Lincoln was the original, the most famous film Tarzan was Olympic swimming star Johnny Weissmuller, who donned the loincloth in a dozen of the increasingly implausible films. Finally, the jungle man became the star of Walt Disney’s 1999 animated feature. From there it was a short swing of seven years to bring it to the musical theater stage.

Undoubtedly the hope was to follow other long-lasting Disney stage successes such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Mary Poppins” and “The Lion King.” It’s theatrical life, however, more closely resembled that of the less successful “Aida” and “The Little Mermaid.” Never one to give up, Disney Theatrical Productions has reworked and revamped the Phil Collins/Henry Hwang musical with an eye to tours and regional productions. The first performance with the revised script is the 2011 season opener at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre.

Unfortunately, even the excellence of the WW production can’t do much to save this book (uncredited except for a “based on” reference to Burroughs) which brings nothing to the too-familiar tale and this score which, except for the Act II opener “Trashin’ the Camp,” can only be described as repetitive and boring. Production excellence was wasted on this material. Conversely, production excellence is the only thing that makes it worth seeing.

The set design by David Lepor instantly said “jungle,” with bungee cords, climb-able “trees” and plenty of ropes for swinging all around the arena stage. Greg Griffin’s lighting design did more than set the proper mood, although the 100 degree heat of Wednesday’s opening night played havoc with the lights and the air conditioning, creating kind of an on-again/off-again jungle atmosphere.

Once again, Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s costumes hit the hairy apes right on their shaggy heads, with the English explorers properly attired in period outfits. Thomas N. Stirling leads the fine eight-piece orchestra. Director/choreographer Scott Michaels gives the production every lift he can and, as usual, the talented young company delivers the goods physically and vocally, with only one familiar Tarzan call. 

Heading the excellent cast are Brian Martin as the young man caught between two worlds; Alex Finke as Jane, the British anthropologist who discovers more than a new species of plant life; Michael Yocum as her scientist father; and David Schlumpf as their expedition’s shady guide. On the jungle side are Brittany Coleman as Tarzan’s loving gorilla mom; Ben Matters as his less-than-loving dad; Noah James Ricketts as his wild and wacky sidekick; and Brian O’Donnell as the title character as a young boy. The eight hard-working tribe members create one of the most athletic ensembles on the WW stage to date. 

If the material had lived up to the performers and production values here, this “Tarzan the Stage Musical” might have been rewarding all the way around. Unfortunately it seems that — original or revised edition — “Tarzan” is best on the screen or the printed page.

DISNEY’S “TARZAN — A Stage Musical Based on the Disney Film” plays at 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Thursday in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For reservations and information call (574) 267-8041 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com