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'Jersey Boys' Still The Best of Broadway

I always love it when I go to the theater with really high expectations and 2 ½ hours later find that they have been exceeded.

Last week, this happened. Actually I should say it happened — again.

The mega-hit musical “Jersey Boys” opened Tuesday evening in Miller Auditorium on the campus of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo where it will play through April 1.

I say again because Wednesday’s media night performance was the fifth time I have had the pleasure of seeing — and hearing — the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. I have no problem admitting that it is still my very favorite feel-good musical. And that has nothing to do with the fact that I am — and always will be — a very proud Jersey Girl, although I guess that should be Jersey Senior.

Whatever, It makes no difference your age or place of origin, I dare anyone to sit through this production and hear this music and not have to fight the urge to sing along, clap (in rhythm) and even, at the stops-all-out finale, jump up and move with the boys! This is no “jukebox musical” rather a musical biography which follows highs and lows of four kids from Jersey who found their sound and became one of the hottest musical groups of the 60s. And every scene is loaded with their familiar hits.

I always love it when I go to the theater with really high expectations and 2 ½ hours later find that they have been exceeded.

Last week, this happened. Actually I should say it happened — again.

The mega-hit musical “Jersey Boys” opened Tuesday evening in Miller Auditorium on the campus of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo where it will play through April 1.

I say again because Wednesday’s media night performance was the fifth time I have had the pleasure of seeing — and hearing — the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. I have no problem admitting that it is still my very favorite feel-good musical. And that has nothing to do with the fact that I am — and always will be — a very proud Jersey Girl, although I guess that should be Jersey Senior.

Whatever, It makes no difference your age or place of origin, I dare anyone to sit through this production and hear this music and not have to fight the urge to sing along, clap (in rhythm) and even, at the stops-all-out finale, jump up and move with the boys! This is no “jukebox musical” rather a musical biography which follows highs and lows of four kids from Jersey who found their sound and became one of the hottest musical groups of the 60s. And every scene is loaded with their familiar hits.

I must admit that I knew “Jersey Boys” would be a super hit before it went to Broadway. My first look (and listen) was in the summer of 2004 during its explosive “maiden voyage” at the La Jolla (CA) Playhouse where the run had been extended three times. I saw it again in 2005 in New York (where it is still among the top five grossing shows) and twice during its initial run in Chicago. Every time, even though by number five there weree no surprises, it made me want to stand and cheer.

Whatever is the magic of “Jersey Boys” — the fast-moving book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice or the old/new songs by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe or THAT SOUND which every combination of stage Seasons manages to make a spot-on recreation of the originals — that magic is alive and well in the excellent cast, orchestra and crew of the second national tour.

Whether you are familiar with the sound of the Four Seasons and of Frankie Valli, it doesn’t make any difference. The high energy entertainment jumps across the footlights from the opening notes of “Oh What A Night” sung in French where the song is at the top of the modern charts. Tommy DeVito (Colby Foytik) steps into the spotlight to begin the history which started on a street corner in Belleville New Jersey. As the narrative unfolds, he shares the narration with Nick Massi Brandon Andrus), Bob Gaudio (Jason Kappus) and Frankie (Brad Weinstock) as they go through the seasons of their on and off-stage relationships.

jersey boys tour miller auditorium kalamazoo michThe razor-sharp choreography keeps the energy high as does the intensity of the performances, dramatically and vocally. With the exception Barry Anderson who plays Bob Crewe, Four Seasons’ producer and lyricist with composer Gaudio, every member of the talented cast plays numerous roles quickly and believably and without missing a step or a note or a costume-and-wig change, The three ladies of the ensemble — Natalie Gallo, Ruby Lewis,and Kaleigh Cronin — work non-stop throughout, singing, dancing and portraying the various females who moved in and out of the quartet’s lives. Thomas Fiscella is appropriately ominous as a mobster but switches convincingly to other characters throughout.

The topping on this Italian banquet is the set, complete with steel walkway and stairs, moving bandstand and large pop-art style comic strip art. As the settings change from the street to a recording studio to a TV show to various clubs, the moves are made with silent precision, allowing the story to advance quickly. And the lighting and special effects put the emphasis where it belongs.

This is an Equity production so it makes no attempt to cut costs by down-grading talent or production values. What is on stage in Miller is what you will see in New York or in Chicago when this tour sets down in the Windy City next month for its third run.

The only difference is in the price of tickets. Miller, which is a wonderful auditorium, easily accessible, with a great sound system and comfortable seats, is drastically lower at all levels.

If you want to see these “Jersey Boys,” it’s time to head to Kalamazoo.

“JERSEY BOYS” plays through Sunday in Miller Auditorium on the campus of Western Michigan University off Stadium Drive in Kalamazoo. For times and reservations, call (269) 387-2300 or 1 (800) 228-9858 or visit www.millerauditorium.com

ECT's 'Bee' Is Spelled 'Hilarious'

‘Tis the season of scholastic spelldowns, so the current Elkhart Civic Theatre production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” could not be more in keeping with the time.

The six semi-finalists in the eagerly awaited theatrical match are ready for the challenge, but each comes with his/her own set of stumbling blocks and/or offbeat aids, all of which are guaranteed to make this the funniest Bee ever.

In addition to the scripted contestants, four or five older “students” are solicited from each audience and have the opportunity to test their skills. No surprise that none make it to the final two..

Representing Putnam County schools are Chip Tolentino (Douglas J. Lunn, Ph.D.) , who wears his Boy Scout uniform displaying every available badge; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Maddie Williams), whose pink suit and defiant attitude fit her attraction to a long list of causes; Leaf Coneybear (Brent Graber), a superhero wannabe complete with flowing red cape and football helmet; William Barfee (Brock Butler), angered by the continued mispronunciation of his name (“It’s Bar-FAY’), he keeps everything underfoot; Marcy Park (Ann Stebelton) speaks six languages and seems supremely self-confident; and Olive Ostrovsky (Kristen Riggs), who found a friend in her dictionary and waits for her dad to arrive with the required entrance fee.

putnam county spelling bee elkhat civic theatreIn charge of the Bee are Rona Lisa Perretti (Julia ,Castello), a former Bee champion who enjoys reliving her triumph(she correctly spelled scyzyfus), and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Tim Yoder), returning as the official “pronouncer,” after a five year absence due to an “unfortunate incident.” As each contestant is eliminated, he/she is met by Mitch Mahoney (Joshua J. Padgett), doing his community service as the official Comfort Counselor, who gives each “loser”a hug and a juice box.

Each contestant reveals something of his/her backstory as the Bee progresses and, as interpreted by the talented ECT cast, each is not only fittingly funny but undeniably touching and especially appropriate now, when school focus is anti- bullying. All are exaggerated for emphasis, but it is impossible not to find a familiar face among the bumbling Bees.

This “Spelling Bee” began as an improvisational play before working its way up to Broadway and two Tony Awards. There is no doubt that requests from spellers for word origin, definition and especially use in a sentence often receive improved answers from the quick-witted Panch.

There is a moment in the spotlight for each character and they make the most of it, with special applause to Butler for inhabiting the show’s best known speller and making it his own,, and to Riggs, for finding just the right blend of comedy and tragedy and delivering it all in a clear, never-miss soprano. Lunn’s hilarious interpretation of “Chip’s Lament” is priceless as are the goody bags he tosses defiantly into the audience and Graber’s Coneybear is a spot on portrait of every youngster used to being less-than-first who is amazed and delighted at just “being.’ Williams’ introduction of her two dads is touching, as is her handling of their very different personas. Stebelton is right on as the officious know-it-all who secretly longs for permission to fail.

As the Bee progresses, everyone will root for their own favorite. The really good thing is that everyone — on and off stage — is a winner!

The Bee is held in the gymnasium of the Putnam County Piranhas, designed by John Shoup and lit by Randy Zonker. Mark Swendsen is music director with Kim Dooley vocal director and Joy Freude ,choreographer.

“THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE” will be presented at 8 p.m. today and Saturday and March 30-31, and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House. For reservations and information, call 848-4116 from 1 to 5:30 p.m. weekdays.

New Twists to Early Hitchock Classic

Who knew that adding laughs (and subtracting actors) to/from a classic Hitchock movie would be just what was needed to turn the suspense drama into a wildly slapstick comedy?

Obviously playwright Patrick Barlow, who took the master of mystery’s 1935 spy thriller “The 39 Steps” (adapted from a 1913 novel by John Buchan), based it on a concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon and came out with Monty Python does Hitchcock.

It couldn’t be more bizarre or more fun!!

Under the direction of Richard Baxter, the talented four member cast (plus four essential “stage hands”) of the current South Bend Civic Theatre production takes on the film scenario at a gallop. Aaron Nichols is the only actor who plays the same role throughout. As Richard Hannay, a bored Englishman who longs for some adventure in his life, he is the perfect example of “don’t ask for what you want, you may get it.”

At the theater, he watches the performance of the amazing Mr. Memory and finds himself in the company of Annabella Schmidt (one of the three roles played by Abbey Frick, the only female in the cast), who says she is being followed and winds up in his apartment. Her safety is short-lived, however. She expires with a knife in her back, but not before uttering warnings about the “39 steps.”

Hannay becomes the only suspect in her murder and, as the police close in, is forced to run for his life. The flight takes him aboard a speeding train, through the Scottish moors, into a Scottish inn and a castle, through a  political rally and, finally, back to the theater. During much of his journey, he is attached — literally— to Pamela, a young lady who first refuses to believe him but then becomes an ally.

In this frantic chase, dozens of other characters cross Hannay’s path. According to notes there are between 96 and 146, depending on the choices of the director and actors. Here, all are played by Matthew Bell and Mark Moriarty, listed as Clown 1 and Clown 2. But these clowns wear no red noses or floppy shoes. Rather in the course of the chase they portray policemen, shady characters, salesmen, German spies, Scottish innkeepers and vaudeville entertainers, to list just a few. And many within seconds of each other. The fact that several of these are women only adds to the hilarity. 

The duo is adept at switching accents and attitudes to fit each of the required personas. Nothing fazes them in defining their individual characters. They slip from surly farmer and frustrated wife to evil German mastermind and slinky spouse with hilarious ease. There are too many variations to keep track of. All are easily distinguished and each change adds to the growing number of well-deserved laughs.

The 39 Steps South Bend Civic TheatreNichols does an excellent job of portraying an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances. He has just the right amount of unflappable English poise mixed with a fine-tuned comic turn which allows him to handle the mostly absurd situations (and locations) with an above-it-all attitude which only rarely descends to the human level. Frick’s three females are well delineated and supply the femme fatale as well as the innocent heroine.

Director Baxter has opted to incorporate an “On-Stage Crew” of four to serve as scene changers. They handle the involved requirements smartly and undoubtedly will quicken the pace as the production goes on.

“The 39 Steps” claims to be the longest-running play on Broadway and earned six Tony Award nominations, winning for best lighting and best sound design. Even this far from the Great White Way, it is easy to see why.

NOTE: Hitchcock fans may want to keep track of the references to his films both in visuals and musical excerpts throughout the play. We definitely caught five but others found more. It’s all part of the mystery.

“THE 39 STEPS” plays through March 18 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium in the theater at 403 N. Main Street in South Bend. For show times and reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org