Barn 'Streetcar' Right On Track

I have a dear friend whose favorite line — when going to see a show which might or might not provide a good theatrical evening — was “Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

This, I am hesitant to say, was my state of mind as the curtain went up on The Barn Theatre production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Three hours later, however, I unconditionally joined the rest of the opening night audience in offering the fine cast a standing ovation, something that does not come easily for me. This is not traditional summer theater fare, but it is a classic play solidly done and deserves to be seen.

Don’t let the three hour running time (including intermissions) deter you from seeing this sharply directed, sensitively performed and very involving production. It is Williams, a playwright known for his extended prose, and, written in 1947, it comes from the era of three-act plays. Here, however, even if you are a great fan of the 1951 Marlon Brando/Vivian Leigh multi-Oscar winning film or have seen the play itself more than once and know exactly how the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama plays out, this production will keep you awake and involved.

First I must credit guest director Dee Dee Sandt, herself a former Barnie, whose sure hand guided the fine cast through the frequently turgid waters of Williams’ prose. The pace never lessens and the familiar characters never become stereotypes (kudos to Eric Parker for making Stanley Kowalski’s “Stellllllaaaah” definitely his own creation) or caricatures. Rather they take on individual personas.

Cast in the pivotal, multi-layered role of Blanche duBois, who arrives in New Orleans’ French Quarter via the title’s streetcar, is longtime Barn leading lady Penelope Alex, known primarily for her comic timing in the frequent farces which are audience favorites at the Augusta, Mich., theater. Her portrayal of the fading southern belle, a former English teacher walking a fine line between fact and fantasy, is sensitively and sympathetically drawn. Revelation of her past results in rejection by her flawed beau and a brutal attack by her brother-in-law which, when all else has failed, makes Blanche’s final harrowing escape into the world of illusion wrenching but necessary for survival.

Parker’s Stanley is arrogant, egocentric and extremely possessive of things he perceives as his own — his house, his liquor, his wife — and he instantly sees Blanche as a threat and an intruder in his domain. His harsh treatment, which culminates in rape, finally removes her from his world.

blanche  streetcar  barn theatreStella, Blanche’s “baby sister” and Stanley’s wife, is beautifully underplayed by Meg Schneider. Caught between two dysfunctional factions, she struggles to do the right thing but, inevitably, must believe the lie in order to retain her sanity

Mitch is one of Stanley’s bowling, beer drinking, poker playing buddies. In the talented hands of Roy Brown, he is more of a gentleman than the others and Blanche’s insistence on courteous behaviour intrigues him. With the discovery of her deception, hurt becomes anger but, even so, rage is tinged with sorrowful regret.

The Kowalski’s upstairs neighbors are played by Melissa Cotton and Hans Friedrichs. They mirror the younger couple’s passionate, combative relationship, making the distance between the French Quarter and the social structure of Blanche’s memory an even wider abyss. . (Note: The film version, made under Hays office restrictions, sends Stella upstairs with her baby at the finale vowing never to go back and eliminates mention of the homosexuality of Blanche’s young husband, whose suicide haunts her more and more frequently.)

The set works well but the lighting design allows for too much light in scenes that are meant to be dark and makes the harsh effect of removing Blanche’s Japanese lantern almost negligible.

The many emotions that surge visibly and invisibly throughout “Streetcar” make it a drama that still speaks to audiences almost 65 years after its creation. The Barn Theatre production is one example of why it continues to survive.

“A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE” plays through Aug. 7 in the theater on M-62 between Galesburg and Augusta, Mich. For reservations and performance times, call (269) 731-4121 between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily.

South Bend Offers Another "Hairspray"

This is turning out to be the summer of “Hairspray” and, given the continuing popularity of the theatrical version of John Waters’ 1988 film, it undoubtedly will also be the fall, winter and spring.

There are several reasons for this attraction: the music by Marc Shaiman, with lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is both energizing and listenable; Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan created a book in which several serious issues are wrapped in the palatable cover of humor; and the characters are larger than life, several of them literally, but realistic enough to find their marks.

All these are present in the South Bend Civic Theatre production currently on stage in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorum. The only thing lacking is a really sharp production.

The cast, directed by Sara Bartlett, works hard but once again looses the battle with the defects of the auditorium. Sound, no matter how many baffles are placed in the vast dome, is iffy and any chance of understanding dialogue or lyrics vanishes when the actor turns away.

“Hairspray” is set in the ‘60s and much is made of the difference between the teenage “ins” and “outs,” part of which depends on the size of the beehive hairdos. Unfortunately, there are a lot a “bumps” but not one real beehive to be seen.

Kacie Colleen Mercer is young Tracy Turnblad, whose only desire is to dance on the Corny Collins (Jared Wagner) TV show, an “American Bandstand” knock-off . Its producer, Velma Von Tussle (Meribeth Saunders), a former Miss Baltimore Crabs, is intent on retaining show segregation and making sure her daughter Amber (Taylor Calderone) is center stage and winner of the upcoming Miss Teenage Hairspray contest.

hairspray duo  south bend civic theatreStanding behind Tracy are her parents, Wilbur (Jim Jones) and Edna (Jon Beck), who also support her desire to promote the show’s integration because “Integration is the New Frontier”, and her best friend (and fellow “out”) Penny Pingleton (the consistantly funny Madeline Eastman). Along the way, Tracy meets Linc Larkin (Dominic Go), Amber’s boyfriend and an aspiring singer/songwriter in search of a recording contract, and finds new friends in Seaweed J. Stubbs (Brandon Harper), and his mother, Motormouth Maybelle (Sheila LeSure), who join Tracy in her attempt at integratioln.

The featured performers all deliver solid vocals with LeSure outstanding in declaring “I Know Where I’ve Been” as well as the mocking “Big, Blonde, Beautiful.” Mercer’s opening “Good Morning Baltimore” is set as her wakeup solo. t finds her in a Hannibal Lector-style standup bed with the cover obviously held in place by a member of the stage crew.

When not in use, platforms at each side of the stage are shielded by sliding flats painted to resemble Baltimore streets. Audience members seated on either the right or left side of the auditorium, however, have clear views of crew members changing platform furniture and set dressings on opposite sides, drawing focus from the action front stage. The same is true of set pieces not on stage but clearly visible in the wings.

It is little things that do make a difference.

It’s no secret that Edna is always played by a large man. Beck does a creditable job but Johnson plays hubby Wilbur in twitchy, gawking vaudeville comic style which gets a lot of laughs but precludes any tenderness from their duet “You’re Timeless to Me.”

“HAIRSPRAY” plays through Aug. 7 in the theater at 403 N. Main Street. Show times and ticket prices vary. For information and reservations call (574) 234-1112 or go online at

Wagon Wheel Rides on "Big River"

Take literary legend Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and country music singer/songwriter Roger Miller, mix with the talented company at the Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre and the result is “Big River,” the multi-Tony Award-winning musical based on Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which is on stage in Warsaw through July 30.

If that paragraph seemed a bit wordy, blame it on William Hauptman’s theatrical adaptation of Twain’s novel, which actually is the downside of any production of this show. Narrated by Huck, it describes his many adventures in pre-Civil War Mississippi and there are many — actually many, many, many — of them.

Portrayed by Nick Laughlin, teenage Huckleberry Finn is anxious to avoid school and his frequently brutal, always drunk Pap (Andy Robinson) and eager to participate in the elaborately involved schemes dreamed up by his good friend Tom Sawyer (Stephen Anthony). Following Tom’s lead, he creates a scenario — using a lot of pig’s blood — designed to indicate foul play and allow his escape to a small nearby island.

There he finds he is not alone. Jim (Monte Howell), a slave belonging to the Widow Douglas (Lauren Roesner) and her sister Miss Watson (Sophie Grimm), is running away to avoid being sold and is heading north in the hope of earning enough money to buy freedom for his wife and two children. Jim and Huck share a raft down the Mississippi River and, before their journey ends, have encountered a wide assortment of people, good and bad. Especially on the bad side are two con men, The Duke (David Schlumpf) and The King (Ben Maters), who force Huck to be a part of their nefarious schemes and plan to sell Jim back into slavery.

To reach the finale takes 2 1//2 hours, a not-unusual running time for a musical but, as the ballad-heavy second act goes on, it just seems longer. Actually, the music is a major plus for “Big River,” but most of the rousing up-tempo numbers are delivered in act one by the residents of St. Petersburg (“Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?”), by Tom Sawyer’s Gang (“The Boys”) and by Huck , The Duke and The King (“When the Sun Goes Down in the South”).

Director Scott Michaels’ super-sharp choreography continues to dazzle as interpreted by the high-stepping ensemble and I wished for more of the same in act two. After the opening, “The Royal Nonesuch,” and the wacky “Arkansas,” delivered with barefoot abandon by Max Chucker, it was a parade of slow tunes and reprises of slow tunes as slaves mourned their captivity, a family about-to-be-fleeced by the fake royals, mourned the loss of a father, and Huck and Jim parted ways.

These are lovely in themselves, and I believe several of the ballads (“River in The Rain,” ”Worlds Apart,” “Leavin’s Not the Only Way to Go”) became country hits in their own right, but without even the flicker of a hoedown in between, they are too much of a good thing. That and Hauptman’s insistence on having Huck detail every incident in his travels, makes for a too-long second act .

big river wagon wheel theatre  roger millerThe fault here is certainly not with the talented company, Laughlin handles his extensive dialogue with unflagging enthusiasm. It is sadly shocking to hear how Huck struggles with himself about helping Jim, a fact he initially perceives as wrong. His slow realization of the unjust horrors of slavery and his determination to help his friend don’t fail to make a point that is relevant today.

The featured players are solid, dramatically , vocally and choreographically, and the company members required to play two or more parts — Robinson, Michael Yocum, Chucker and Roesner — carry each of their several roles with individual distinction.

Michaels puts every inch of the intricate set, designed by the late Roy Hines, to good use, with Huck and Jim’s river ride especially impressive. Lighting designer Greg Griffin makes sure that— sunlight, moonlight or fog — the necessary atmosphere is achieved.

Two of the WWT’s hidden (i.e. not on stage) treasures — music director/arranger/keyboardist Thomas N. Stirling and costume designer/creator Stephen R. Hollenbeck — once again deliver the goods, instrumentally and materially. Added to Michaels’ direction, it creates a really professional production.

Prior to the performance, Michaels announced the 2012 WWT season: “Peter Pan,” “Legally Blonde,” “Carousel,” “Chicago,” “Blithe Spirit” and “I Love A Piano.” Season tickets are on sale now.

“BIG RIVER” plays through July 30 in the theater at 2517 E. Center St. Performance times vary. For reservations and information, call (574) 267-8041.

'Chicago' One of Kander and Ebb's Best

“Chicago: The Musical,” on stage through July 24 at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich., has the distinction of being the longest running revival in the history of Broadway — 1996 to the present and beyond.

It more than outlived its original production in 1975, ostensibly because attitudes towards celebrity criminals have changed considerably. It is still going strong in spite of — or possibly thanks to — the 2002 Oscar winning film version. Productions at any level — national, regional, local — still exhibit box office magic.

Listening to the excellent Barn orchestra deliver John Kander’s brassily hypnotic score, it’s impossible not to be drawn in. The satirical tale of two Windy City killers and how they won acquittal and vaudeville stardom is much more believable today than it was in 1926 when a Chicago Tribune reporter combined her columns on the trials of two accused murderesses into a play. With only one exception, the 1942 movie “Roxie Hart,” all have had “Chicago” in the title.

I have to admit that Kander and his late partner, Fred Ebb, are two of my very favorite musical theater composers and “Chicago” is one of their best collaborations. Add to that the choreographic genius of Bob Fosse and the result is a winner. Fosse stamped his style on this show and it is impossible to do a good “Chicago” without at least attempting to follow in his dance shoes.

Barn choreographer Jamey Grisham (who also plays murder victim Fred Casely) gives it a shot but I missed the really tight wedge formations and razor sharp hands, heads, legs and pelvic thrusts that characterize a good Fosse-style show. Giving the amount of rehearsal time allowed these productions — two weeks — it is possible that these will really come together during the run. The production number coming the closest is the opening “All That Jazz,” given a real high voltage delivery by the ensemble led by Katrina Chizek as Velma Kelly. Chizek, looking very Catherina Zeta Jones in a sleek bobbed black wig, is closest to the lean and leggy dancers Fosse preferred. Vocally, she is the strongest of the featured females and hits her marks every time.

Competing with Velma for the legal maneuverings of lawyer Billy Flynn (Eric Parker) is Roxie Hart (Emily May Smith). Roxie and Flynn have their comic timing in peak form as he speaks for his client in “We Both Reached for The Gun.” Parker, a Barn veteran, is in fine voice and obviously enjoys chewing the scenery as the barrister who only cares about “love.” He handled an on-stage costume snafu hilariously opening night — and without dropping character. Petite Smith was the victim of mushy mic syndrome plus songs at the bottom of her vocal range, making her difficult to hear. She creates a feisty killer, however, even managing to evoke sympathy when verbally destroying her mild-mannered husband Amos (who also is her real-life hubby Roy Brown).

Chicago  Barn Theatre Augusta, Mich.Brown delivered a sadly sympathetic “Mr. Cellophane,” donning a bib and jacket reminiscent of famed clown Emmet Kelly (without the white face makeup) for his signature song. His character is always an audience favorite and that holds true herel

Have to say my favorite number is the sizzling “Cell Block Tango,” in which the “ladies” of Cook County Jail explain their reasons for homicide. The “unveiling” of reporter Mary Sunshine (Vincent Ester) continues to surprise audiences although I have to wonder why. Jenna Petardi is Matron Mamma Morton who can arrange anything — for a price.

Although there are chase lights around the proscenium arch and the entrance at the top of the center stage platform, there is very little done to create excitement with lighting in any of the numbers. This is unfortunate because the set is, of necessity, abstract and predominantly black. Costuming is minimal (lots of garter belts and bustiers) as required.

“CHICAGO” plays at 8:30 p.m. today through Saturday and July 19-24 a d 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and July 23-24 in the theater on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, Mich. For reservations and information, call (269) 731-4121.


WW "State Fair" Is Fine Family Fare

With county fairs celebrating the best of the best in local produce, animals, crafts and arts throughout the summer, and state fairs waiting at the end of the blue ribbon trail, it seems fitting that the mid-season offering by Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre is“ State Fair,” a musical salute to these native American institutions penned by America’s Blue Ribbon musical theater duo, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Having the distinction of being the only R&H musical written specifically for the movies, “State Fair” was born in 1932 as a novel by Phillip Strong. It’s celebration of the family unit and all things solidly USA resulted in at least three film versions and one for the stage.

The 1933 non-musical movie starred Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor (hope there are some out there who still remember these early superstars). In 1945, R&H added their magical musical touches which, plus Technicolor and a cast of big (at the time) name players, created a hit film. Unfortunately, a “bigger and better” 1962 cinematic offering had no such luck.

With county fairs celebrating the best of the best in local produce, animals, crafts and arts throughout the summer, and state fairs waiting at the end of the blue ribbon trail, it seems fitting that the mid-season offering by Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre is“ State Fair,” a musical salute to these native American institutions penned by America’s Blue Ribbon musical theater duo, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Having the distinction of being the only R&H musical written specifically for the movies, “State Fair” was born in 1932 as a novel by Phillip Strong. It’s celebration of the family unit and all things solidly USA resulted in at least three film versions and one for the stage.

The 1933 non-musical movie starred Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor (hope there are some out there who still remember these early superstars). In 1945, R&H added their magical musical touches which, plus Technicolor and a cast of big (at the time) name players, created a hit film. Unfortunately, a “bigger and better” 1962 cinematic offering had no such luck.

Since a theatrical version couldn’t rely on real Ferris wheels and midways for atmosphere, the solution in 1996 was to create that atmosphere by adding more songs. Since Hammerstein had died, more songs were included by taking them from the scores of other R&H shows . Some had been cut before debut performances and some were taken from less-than-successful productions. (Yes. Even R&H had some of those!)

In the current lineup, all the original 1945 songs remain, along with seven from other R&H endeavors — “Allegro,” “Pipe Dream,” “Me and Juliet” “and “Oklahoma!” — but however they came together, the cast and outstanding orchestra at WW has used them to create a happily familiar setting

The place is Iowa, the time, 1946, and the focus is on basic values: the young people look up and listen to their parents, and the parents are honest, hardworking and devoted to each other and their offspring.

If some of the vocals have been reassigned in the stage version, the lovely melodies are still there and prove again that this year’s crop of young WW performers has outstanding voices, dance ability and dramatic capabilities. Andy Robinson and Sophie Grimm play Abel and Melissa Frake, parents of Margy (Alex Finke) and Wayne (Stephen Anthony),

Abel is certain his Hampshire boar Blue Boy will be named fair champion and Melissa has hopes of a blue ribbon for her mincemeat. Margy’s dreams of “seeing things that I have never seen with a man I’ve yet to meet” find reality when she meets Pat Gilbert (David Schlumpf), ex-war correspondent who chaffs at covering plebian fair events. Wayne’s disappointment at having to go without his girlfriend fade quickly when he encounters Emily Arden (Britney Coleman), a band singer with Broadway aspirations.

state fair  wagon wheel theatreAll of the featured players provide warmth and reality to their characters. In the ballad department, Finke, Schlumpf, Coleman and Anthony are right on target with both dramatic and vocal interpretations and it’s lovely to hear “It Might As Well Be Spring,” “That’s For Me” and “So Far” reincarnated so beautifully. Coleman gets a lyrical assist from the stage-version–only quartet, The Fairtones.

Robinson and Grimm more than do justice to the more uptempo numbers found only in the theatrical version —“When I Go Out Walking With My Baby” and “Boys and Girls Like You and Me” — proving that fair magic has no age limits. Robinson and his fellow farmers deliver an hilarious tribute to their porcine prodigy   declaring that their pigs are “More Than Just a Friend.”

“Our State Fair,” “It’s A Grand Night For Singing” and “All I Owe Ioway” — serve as reminders that nobody does those “everybody in” chorus numbers like Rodgers & Hammerstein. More than one in the audience was at least humming along!

Once again conductor/keyboardist Thomas N. Stirling has turned nine instrumentalists into a full-out orchestra, with stops along the way for a fair band sound. His orchestrations are the icing on this big bite of fair fare. Ditto the always period-perfect and happily colorful costumes by Stephen R. Hollenback. The scenic design by Michael Higgins moves from farm kitchen to midway and back with amazing ease. The dances designed by choreographer Natalie Malotke evoke more ballet than square dance, but “All I Owe Ioway” is indeed one huge hoedown and provides a rousing spark.

The entire production moves apace under the direction of Tony Humrichouser, making his annual contribution to the long list of Wagon Wheel Theatre hits. Just like the real fairs, it’s definitely family fun !

“STATE FAIR” plays at 8 p.m. today and Saturday and Monday through July 16 and 3 p.m. Sunday n the theater at 2517 E, Center Street in Warsaw. For reservations and information call (574) 267-8041 or visit,

Performances Light Barn's "La Mancha"

Many theatrical productions have literary roots, but few reach as far back as those of “Man of La Mancha,,” the musical currently on stage at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich.

Born in the 17th century from the pen of Miguel de Cervantes, the tale of the aged knight errant has crossed the years to become one of the most enduring properties in the history of musical theater.

Reportedly based on an incident in the life of the author, it is presented by Cervantes and his servant as a defense in his trial by prisoners of the Spanish Inquisition who threaten to take all his belongings if they find the soldier/author/tax collector guilty. Using the prisoners to play the characters in his tale, he unfolds the story of Don Quixote de La Mancha and his wildly varied adventures and misadventures.

Described as “a musical play,” “Man of La Mancha” was written by Dale Wasserman, first as a 1959 television play and, in 1965, as a musical with score by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion. Winning five Tony Awards including Best Musical, it has seen four Broadway revivals and become a staple of every regional and civic theater group in the country.

Seeing it again for the umpteenth (?) time I was quite surprised to find that something so familiar still had the power to evoke a tear at the final curtain. OK, So it was written that way and its signature anthem, “The Impossible Dream.,” is a real tearjerker, in or out of the production.

But seeing it on a surprisingly drab and sparse set (lots of black curtains and unconvincingly one dimensional stone walls) with static staging and unexpectedly flat lighting only made it clear that the power of this musical play is in the story it tells and the ability of the performers who are charged with bringing it to life.

I’m sure that a goodly portion of the opening night audience came to see leading man Robert Newman, better known to soap fans as the long-suffering hero Josh Lewis in the late CBS daytime drama “The Guiding Light.” Well, if they came to bemoan his loss to the small screen, they stayed — as did everyone in the near capacity audience — to applaud his live-and-in-person dramatic talent and — who knew? — his more-than-adequate vocal ability.

It took only a brief moment for Newman to replace Josh Lewis with Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote. Bridging the gap between television and theater, he delivered a solidly sensitive performance and, as required for the Don, aged rapidly and believably within minutes, sustaining the illusion through comic episodes and dark dramatic moments. And his rendition of “The Impossible Dream” was quite worthy of the extended applause it received.

Newman was not alone in delivering a pleasant surprise. Petite leading lady Penelope Alex created an Aldonza/Dulcinea who faces the ugly reality of her life with courage while hiding a sensitive soul. She does not have a big belt voice but handled the demanding solos with insight and emotional depth,

Barn Equity Company members Roy Brown and Eric Parker portrayed Cervantes’ stubbornly loyal Manservant/Pancho and the cynical Duke/Dr. Carrasco, respectively, with just the required humor and menace. The confrontation between Don Quixote and Carrasco’s Knight of the Mirrors was the production’s visually most impressive moment.

Patrick Hunter doubled as a Captain of the Inquisition and the Padre, and delivered the latter’s “To Each His Dulcinea” and the final “Prayer,” beautifully if, at times, with a bit too much belt. Hans Friedrichs as the Governor/Innkeeper blended disbelief with sympathy in his dealings with the mad knight, although he lacks the rumbling bass baritone needed for “The Dubbing.”

The ensemble became prisoners and a number of characters — including a horse and a mule — in Cervantes’ story, supplying solid vocal support and certainly adequate dance moves. John Jay Espino served as pianist/conductor of the six piece orchestra which did justice to Leigh’s moving score.

Director Brendan Ragotzy also was on stage, joining the cast as a last-minute replacement for an injured muleteer.

MAN OF LA MANCHA” plays at 5 p.m. today and Sunday and 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through July 10 in the theater on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, Mich. For information and reservations call (269) 731-4121 between 10 a.m. a and 10 p.m. daily.