No Pleasant Surprises in 'Gypsy'

At the risk of repeating myself, I will say again that I go to EVERY theatrical production, professional or amateur, hoping to be pleasantly surprised. Most the time, I am. Friday evening, I was not.

It was opening night for the South Bend Civic Theatre production of “Gypsy,” the much-revived musical based on the memoirs of actress/author/ecdysiast (aka stripper) famous in the 1930s and ‘40s as Gypsy Rose Lee.

First on Broadway in 1958, the Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents work starred Ethel Merman as the prototype stage mother who drove her children to stardom whether they wanted it or not. “Gypsy” has returned to Broadway four times since the original, with the role of Mama Rose interpreted by Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone. The 1962 film miscast Rosalind Russell as the dragon matriarch and Bette Midler was equally unsuitable in the 1993 TV production.

It is a story of the frequently seamier side of show biz, which should by no means be a signal to present a shabby, shoddy or embarrassingly unready production. Unfortunately, that is what greeted the opening night audience.

At the risk of repeating myself, I will say again that I go to EVERY theatrical production, professional or amateur, hoping to be pleasantly surprised. Most the time, I am. Friday evening, I was not.

It was opening night for the South Bend Civic Theatre production of “Gypsy,” the much-revived musical based on the memoirs of actress/author/ecdysiast (aka stripper) famous in the 1930s and ‘40s as Gypsy Rose Lee.

First on Broadway in 1958, the Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents work starred Ethel Merman as the prototype stage mother who drove her children to stardom whether they wanted it or not. “Gypsy” has returned to Broadway four times since the original, with the role of Mama Rose interpreted by Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone. The 1962 film miscast Rosalind Russell as the dragon matriarch and Bette Midler was equally unsuitable in the 1993 TV production.

It is a story of the frequently seamier side of show biz, which should by no means be a signal to present a shabby, shoddy or embarrassingly unready production. Unfortunately, that is what greeted the opening night audience.

The burden for this unhappy concoction lies squarely at the feet of director/choreographer Quinton McMutuary, with some of the blame to be shouldered by music director Conner Michael Stigner.

It’s difficult to point to one faction of the production as the primary culprit. The actors hopefully were doing their best. It was up to those in charge to see that the very sloppy production was sharp and pulled together throughout the almost three hour running time. Flailing arms and legs passed for choreography and it did not help that the four huge double-sided panels which served to denote scenic changes could not turn from black to red (or vice versa) without obvious help from several stage hands. Never mind the stand-alone doors that refused to stay shut or the costumes that were unflattering at best or . . . tust too many gaffes to mention. It is the director’s job to catch these errors and eliminate or repair them before the audience takes their seats. It is a job that was not done, at least not by Friday evening.

Gypsy  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThe orchestra, which is still the part of a musical production for which there is no viable place in this auditorium, sat above the stage and was visible almost throughout, with attire being obviously individual choice. It was blaringly intrusive and seemed to function on the theory that it was there to drown out the singers rather than support and accompany them.

Soldiering on, community theater veteran Jenny DeDario never wavered in the incredibly demanding role of Rose. On stage in almost every scene, she frequently won the orchestra battle but didn’t do so well in the costume wars. Daughter Louise, who becomes Gypsy, was played by an unusually stolid Alex Pote.

SBCT man for all roles Steve Chung delivered a very human and very likable Herbie, the candy salesman whose unwavering support of Rose and her girls is almost indestructible. To prove there are no small roles, Debbie Rarick created two entirely different characters with the flick of an accent as a producer’s secretary and a French maid.

There is an unusual number of actors and stage crew of all ages involved in this production. I congratulate them. They did their best.

“GYPSY” plays at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and May 9-10, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and May 11-12 and 3 p.m. Sunday and May 13 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium at 403 N. Main St. For reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.

'Young Frankenstein' Alive With Laughter

In 1931, British actor Colin Clive uttered the immortal words “It’s Alive” and brought to life one of the world’s best-known monsters in the now-classic horror film “Frankenstein.”

Actually, as Dr. Henry Frankenstein, Clive uttered those words eight times —and although he was the first, he certainly has not been the last.

The movie was based on the 1818 book by Mary Shelley. It brought fame and a life-long association, wanted or not, to actor Boris Karloff, who created The Monster (which was NOT named Frankenstein).

In the decades since, countless “sequels” and “re-imagined” versions of the original have been filmed, with probably the best known being “Young Frankenstein,” by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, which put a wildly comic face on the story and its characters.

Never one to let sleeping monsters lie, Brooks wrote music and lyrics and teamed with Thomas Meehan on the book to turn the 1974 movie into a theatrical musical. It came to Broadway in 2007 and hit the road in 2009.

In 1931, British actor Colin Clive uttered the immortal words “It’s Alive” and brought to life one of the world’s best-known monsters in the now-classic horror film “Frankenstein.”

Actually, as Dr. Henry Frankenstein, Clive uttered those words eight times —and although he was the first, he certainly has not been the last.

The movie was based on the 1818 book by Mary Shelley. It brought fame and a life-long association, wanted or not, to actor Boris Karloff, who created The Monster (which was NOT named Frankenstein).

In the decades since, countless “sequels” and “re-imagined” versions of the original have been filmed, with probably the best known being “Young Frankenstein,” by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, which put a wildly comic face on the story and its characters.

Never one to let sleeping monsters lie, Brooks wrote music and lyrics and teamed with Thomas Meehan on the book to turn the 1974 movie into a theatrical musical. It came to Broadway in 2007 and hit the road in 2009.

Last night ”The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein” (its official title) came to Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo where it will be “alive” for one more performance at 7:30 p.m. this evening.

Being a fan of the Brooks movie (but not of “The Producers,” another Brooks film which he segued into a theatrical musical), I went with few expectations. I was much more than pleasantly surprised!

Young Frankenstein Tour Miller Auditorium KalamazooThis “Young Frankenstein,” although obviously scaled down production-wise from the New York run, is blessed with a super-talented cast that I would bet is every bit as good as the original performers, and most are up there with the movie players.

Heading the gleefully ghoulish group in a beautifully timed performance is A.J. Holmes as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, (“It is Fronken-steen!!”) grandson of the original monster-maker. Traveling to Transylvania on the death of his grandfather, he leaves behind his untouchable society fiancé Elizabeth (Lexie Dorsett) but finds a strange servant Igor (“That’s Eye-gor”) (Christopher Timson) waiting — at Track 29 in the Transylvania Station —Right! These are the jokes and they come fast and furiously from the wild-haired doctor and the hump-shifting Igor.

Add Inga (Elizabeth Pawloski), a well-endowed medical assistant eager to help the doctor in any way possible, and (cue the horses!) Frau Blucher (Pat Sibley), the housekeeper and girlfriend of the late Victor Frankenstein, and despite Frederick’s protests, the creation of The Monster (Rory Donovan) is inevitable. And he is well worth waiting for, “A.B. Normal” brain, green skin, towering shoes and all.

Of course, the villagers are still rioting, led by Inspector Kemp (Britt Hancock who also plays the blind monk visited by The Monster), whose snappy salute is as mechanical as his determination to rid the town of Frankensteins.

The Brooks score is fast-paced (Holmes’ first song “The Brain” is a true tongue-twister which he spits out with aplomb) and also has some lovely melodies. OK, so the most familiar is by Irving Berlin, but this musical would be sorely lacking if the doctor and The Monster and, indeed, the entire company, did not stop the show with a blisteringly extended tap to “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”

Dorsett has a killer voice (and shape to match). Her rendition of “Don’t Touch Me” is sharply hilarious as is her surrender to “Deep Love.”. Pawloski is equally talented as a singer and dancer. From her introductory “Roll in The Hay” to her slow split on the gurney while telling Frankenstein to “Listen to Your Heart,” she is consistently excellent.

The entire young company consistently delivers, both vocally and in the many ensemble dance numbers for which James Gray recreated the original choreography of Tony Award winner Susan Stroman.

Be aware: There are many many many thunder crashes and lightening flashes throughout “Young Frankenstein” but what would a monster musical be without them.

Tickets are still available for this evening’s performance. I would highly recommend this as a great way to check out the genius of Mel Brooks as interpreted by a really brilliant cast.

And laughing is the best way to start the day — even if it happens at night.

“YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN” plays at 7:30 p.m. today in Miller Auditorium at Western Michigan University off Stadium Drive in Kalamazoo. For tickets, call (269) 387-2300 or (800) 228-9858 or visit www.millerauditorium.com. Prices range from $25 to $55.

'Sticks And Bones' Delivers Hard Knocks

The “average American family” comes in for some harsh knocks in “Sticks and Bones,” the 1971-72 Tony Award-winning play by David Rabe which opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Warner Studio Theatre.

Billed as a “black comedy” and directed by one of the area’s finest, Scott Jackson, it is more black than comic and definitely not what you would call a “fun” evening.

It’s aim, however, is to make the viewer think and in that, even 40 years later, it certainly succeeds. One of a trilogy of plays about the Vietnam War by Rabe, a Vietnam veteran, it looks (no pun intended) at the homecoming of a blind vet, the reaction of his family and, conversely, his reaction to their expectations of his returning quickly to a “normal” life

A glance at the program, which lists the primary characters as Ozzie, Harriet, David and Ricky, is the first clue to Rabe’s juxtaposition of the popular 1950-60’s TV show, touted as America’s first “reality” sitcom, with the darkly real situations faced by Vietnam veterans

The “average American family” comes in for some harsh knocks in “Sticks and Bones,” the 1971-72 Tony Award-winning play by David Rabe which opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Warner Studio Theatre.

Billed as a “black comedy” and directed by one of the area’s finest, Scott Jackson, it is more black than comic and definitely not what you would call a “fun” evening.

It’s aim, however, is to make the viewer think and in that, even 40 years later, it certainly succeeds. One of a trilogy of plays about the Vietnam War by Rabe, a Vietnam veteran, it looks (no pun intended) at the homecoming of a blind vet, the reaction of his family and, conversely, his reaction to their expectations of his returning quickly to a “normal” life

A glance at the program, which lists the primary characters as Ozzie, Harriet, David and Ricky, is the first clue to Rabe’s juxtaposition of the popular 1950-60’s TV show, touted as America’s first “reality” sitcom, with the darkly real situations faced by Vietnam veterans

Ozzie (Paul J. Hanft) and Harriet (Melissa Gard) are anxiously awaiting the arrival of David (an excellent Jason L. Clark) escorted by a Sgt.Major (Charlie Florance) whose brusque manner is less than empathetic and who hurries off to make more“deliveries.”

Harriet hovers, offering cookies and coke; Ozzie is eager to make sure his own work on tanks, trucks and jeeps is acknowledged as a part of the war effort; younger brother Ricky (Richard Isaacson) breezes through, guitar in hand and camera ready to catch the family group smiling, not an easy task

sticks and bones South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreFather Donald (Brad Mazick) avoids being part of the initial welcoming committee but returns to attempt a violently unsuccessful reconversion of the bitter David. Behind his reflective glasses, David sees images of the war, especially a young Vietnamese girl, Zung (Amorena Ruffolo), with whom he was involved and who was a victim of the conflict. There is no doubt that while David’s eyes are blind, his family is afflicted with a much deadlier form of darkness as their prejudice and bigotry are peeled away.

To underscore the glossy façade of the era, Jackson uses clips of the commercials of the day — Pepto-Bismol, Kodak, Listerine, etc — which certainly set the time but interrupt the flow of the action. And a laugh track in certain spots was more puzzling than necessary.

“Sticks and Bones” is not a pleasant evening of theater, but it brings home sharply lessons that unfortunately still need to be learned.

“STICKS AND BONES” plays at 7:30 p.m. today and Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the theater at 403 N. Main St. South Bend. For reservations and information, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org