Cast Does Well With Sondheim Fable

In the world of musical theater today, there is no greater talent than that of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. His body of work is complex and impressive and his subjects range from murderous barbers to presidential assassins to fairy tale characters.

In 2010, his 80th birthday was the occasion for concert celebrations by theatrical superstars and, since then, a rash of productions by professional, regional and community theaters. Among these is South Bend Civic Theatre which opened its production of Sondheim’s award-winning fantasy “Into The Woods” Friday evening.

There is no doubt that producing a Sondheim show offers more than its share of challenges. His complex rhythms and sharply defined lyrics have delighted audiences for more than half a century. For the unwary, they also are filled with many musical and dramatic pitfalls as the journey progresses.

In the world of musical theater today, there is no greater talent than that of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. His body of work is complex and impressive and his subjects range from murderous barbers to presidential assassins to fairy tale characters.

In 2010, his 80th birthday was the occasion for concert celebrations by theatrical superstars and, since then, a rash of productions by professional, regional and community theaters. Among these is South Bend Civic Theatre which opened its production of Sondheim’s award-winning fantasy “Into The Woods” Friday evening.

There is no doubt that producing a Sondheim show offers more than its share of challenges. His complex rhythms and sharply defined lyrics have delighted audiences for more than half a century. For the unwary, they also are filled with many musical and dramatic pitfalls as the journey progresses.

Directors Stephen and Stephanie Salisbury have shared the task of guiding an extremely talented cast along the paths in this Woods. Casting is, of course, the first hurdle in the race to a successful production. The right people in the right parts are a major part of a successful show. Happily, the Salisburys Into The Woods  South Bend Civic Theatre South Bend INmade all the right choices.

The leading characters have excellent voices and the dramatic ability to lend credence to their “make believe” characters. In primary roles are Kristen Riggs as Cinderella; Steven Russell as the Baker; Caitlin O’Brien as the Baker’s Wife; Sean Leyes as Jack; Natalie MacRae as Little Red Riding Hood; Jennifer Medich as the Witch; Amy Barker as Rapunzel; Justin Hissey as Rapunzel’s Prince; Jacob Medich as Cinderella’s Prince and The Wolf; and Thomas Eiser as the Mysterious Man/Narrator. Some have extensive theatrical resumes. Some are relative newcomers. All fit together very well as do the 10 other characters who complete the cast (with a special bovine bow to Kelly Loughlin for a mooo-ving Milky White).

Unlike previous SBCT musicals, the choice here was to go with “live” voices. It was the right choice. These voices are good enough and strong enough to be heard without the use of individual body mikes which too often are plagued with imbalance or loud feedback.

Also in a “first” for the theater, there is no “live” orchestra, only musical director Rebecca Wilson at the keyboard and Stephen Salisbury leading the Live Assist music program — and the live singers — from above the auditorium. The software program provides the rest of a full orchestra. There are times when the instrumentation tends to obscure the lyrics, but volume is a matter of adjustment and what a difference the orchestral accompaniment makes!

Into the Woods South Bend Civic Theatre South Bend INFor those unfamiliar with the libretto, “Into the Woods” takes four stories from Grimm’s Fairy Tales — Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk — and entwines them with that of the Baker and his Wife, a couple cursed by the Witch next door to a childless life. To lift her spell, they are sent to find four items, after which she promises them a child. Naturally, they must go into the woods to find them and along the way all paths — and stories — cross and criss cross before the end of Act One!

Act Two takes place a year later and looks at what happens to “happily ever after.” Even though all have had their wishes come true, the results are not what they imagined. As they struggle to find their way through a darkening woods, coping with losses, fears and anger, a resolution is finally clear: “No one is alone.” The survivors face an uncertain future but are no longer afraid of what lies in the woods, having discovered “Everything you learn there will help when you return there.”

The only off note in this production is the failure to find a really workable stage setting. Acknowledging that many locales must be at least suggested, it is unfortunate that squeaky wheels, wavering suspended flats and unwieldy set pieces are the rule rather than the exception.

Do not, however, let that stop you from taking this journey. The music, the message and the outstanding cast make it well worth the trip.

“INTO THE WOODS” plays through Aug. 12 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium in the theater at 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (57) 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org 

Young People Shine In Youth-Only Shows

I always love it when I am “pleasantly surprised” (in quotes because I borrowed it from someone else) at the theater.

I love it even more when my expectations are exceeded.

That being true, you can imagine how delighted I was to find that the latest production by the Young Actors Workshop at the Wagon Wheel Theatre both surprised me and way exceeded my expectations which, I admit, were rather high.

It was the annual YAW show, a one-performance-only mid-season event, performed on the existing stage set and chosen for its adaptability to said set. This year directors Andy Robinson and Kira Lace Hawkins (both WW ‘12 company members) chose “Honk!” an absolutely delightful musical setting for the Hans Christian Anderson tale of “The Ugly Duckling.” With the addition of tall weeds and cattails, it worked beautifully with the “senior” setting for “Carousel.”

This was the third YAW production I have seen. The first time I went was in 2010, because Elkhart Civic Theatre had done “Once on This Island” and I had difficulty believing that young performers could handle the mostly-music show.

Which just goes to prove that even I can be wrong.

It was amazing. Even more so was last year’s selection, Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” also mostly-music but ramped up to the enth degree with intertwining melody lines and tongue-twisting lyrics and absolutely no room for error.

After that, I was pretty sure that there was nothing those young people could not do, but then again, casts are different every year and strong performers come and go. And the show is put up in only 10 days, which raises the difficulty factor and makes the finished product even more amazing.

No need to worry. “Honk!” proved to be an absolutely delightful, glitch-less show. The leading players had beautifully strong voices and the ability to make fantasy characters come to life. And the chorus, all playing assorted animals, never missed an entrance or a beat

In addition, for the first time they were accompanied by a live orchestra of equally young musicians!

Honk! Wagon Wheel Youth Theatre Workshop Warsaw INAs well as making for a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, the show offered a very heartening look at where performers, players and production staff might be coming from in the future.

Not that Wagon Wheel is the only theater that has a unit which uses young people only. There is one at South Bend Civic and another at Elkhart Civic. Have not seen an SBCT production, but judging from the excerpts presented Saturday evening during the Arts Everywhere Performing Arts Series annual program at Potawtomi Park, those young people also can hold their own. Their upcoming musical is “All Shook Up.”

Have seen several of the ECTeam (Elkhart Civic’s name for its youth theater) productions and I can vouch for their top quality. “Charlotte’s Web” was delightful and “Seussical Jr.” was outstanding! This year, the musical will be “Honk Jr.” and the play, “Ramona Quimby.”

Check the websites of all organizations for show dates, times, tickets, etc., but be aware they usually are presented for one performance or one weekend only.

Premier Arts also has performances by young people, usually the matinees of whatever adult production is on the main stage. I have never seen one (more on that later) so I can’t judge the quality.

Enough to say that whatever involves young people in the performing arts has got to be a plus, with long-lasting effects. You just may be looking at the stars of tomorrow!

WW 'Chicago' Hits All The Right Notes

You must excuse me while I consult my thesaurus in search of additional laudatory adjectives for the current Wagon Wheel Theatre production of “Chicago.”

To paraphrase Johnny Mercer, “It’s just too marvelous for words!” And that is an understatement!

Let me begin my saying that “Chicago” is one of my very favorite musicals and I have seen it too many times in too many incarnations not to be just a bit wary of any new production.

I should remember, however, that when director/choreographer Scott Michaels promises to “knock your socks off” it’s not just an empty threat.

Of course, he has a lot of help from WW’s fantastic costume designer Stephen R. Hollenbeck and its equally marvelous music director Thomas N. Sterling, lighting designer Greg Griffin and sound man Chris Pollnow, but as everyone knows, the buck (sorry Harry!) stops at the door of the director.

Playing on a set designed by the late Roy Hine for a WW production of “Cabaret,” Michaels creates atmosphere-plus as he brings to life the Windy City in the Roaring Twenties when prohibition was a way of life and murder was entertainment.

You must excuse me while I consult my thesaurus in search of additional laudatory adjectives for the current Wagon Wheel Theatre production of “Chicago.”

To paraphrase Johnny Mercer, “It’s just too marvelous for words!” And that is an understatement!

Let me begin my saying that “Chicago” is one of my very favorite musicals and I have seen it too many times in too many incarnations not to be just a bit wary of any new production.

I should remember, however, that when director/choreographer Scott Michaels promises to “knock your socks off” it’s not just an empty threat.

Of course, he has a lot of help from WW’s fantastic costume designer Stephen R. Hollenbeck and its equally marvelous music director Thomas N. Sterling, lighting designer Greg Griffin and sound man Chris Pollnow, but as everyone knows, the buck (sorry Harry!) stops at the door of the director.

Playing on a set designed by the late Roy Hine for a WW production of “Cabaret,” Michaels creates atmosphere-plus as he brings to life the Windy City in the Roaring Twenties when prohibition was a way of life and murder was entertainment.

With an excellent 10-piece orchestra playing the heck out of John Kander’s score and an incredible aggregation of singers and dancers doing the same with Fred Ebb’s lyrics and the oh-so-sly book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, there is nothing to be done but sit back and enjoy the ride.

And what a ride it is!

From the opening number, which puts a new twist on “All That Jazz,” to the fiery finale, there is not one solo, duet or chorus number that is not above and beyond expectations, no matter how high the bar is set.

My personal favorite is the “Cell Block Tango” to which has been added wonderful dashes of brilliant color in place of the traditional black-on-black costuming. Ditto the shimmering ensembles and giant feather fans that surround the entrance of super barrister Billy Flynn, played with just the right touch of narcissistic swagger by David Schlumpf.

In this “Chicago,” glitz and glitter are the words of the day. They are, be assured, just the icing on the multi-layered cake of razor sharp dance routines and endlessly breathless vocals. I did not time Schlumpf’s final note at the end of a frenzied
Chicago  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw IN“We Both Reached for the Gun,” but it had everyone in the audience gasping for breath before he finally let it go.

There is no doubt that the focus is most often on Roxie Hart (Erika Henningsen) and Velma Kelly (Hillary Smith), two “merry murderesses” in Cook County Jail. Their tug of war for the celebrity criminal spotlight results in one great song-and-dance routine after another. Individually both are outstanding and when they join forces for a grand finale, it is nothing short of spectacular.

And they are surrounded by a cast as close to perfect as possible. Sarah Jackson takes grey feather boa in hand to lay out the rules of incarcerated behavior and receives one of the many show-stopping ovations for her efforts. Lee Slobotkin is an unbelievably believable Mary Sunshine, the reporter who tries to find “A Little Bit of Good” in everyone. Dan Smith is a pitiable Amos Hart whose efforts to keep his uncaring wife are rewarded by the audience which provides his “exit music.”

And then there is the ensemble, 11 singers and dancers who strike just the right notes and poses needed to underscore the

satirical form of this vaudevillian-style tale. Note: Keep your eyes on the “jury” during Billy Flynn’s summation.

The expertise of the staging throughout is somewhat mind-boggling. No matter where you sit, you won’t miss a thing, not easy to say about a production in-the-round which must play to all sides. This is especially impressive in the Billy/Roxie “press conference.”

The multi-award-winning revival of “Chicago” has been playing on Broadway for a record-breaking 16 years. The Wagon Wheel Theatre production shows just why.

“CHICAGO” plays through July 20 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For show times and tickets, call 1 (866) 823-2618 or on line at www.wagonwheeltheatre.org.

Sour Notes Plague 'Wedding Singer'

There are many components that go into making a good theatrical production. Lacking one or two, a show may survive if the basic product itself is strong. Without a strong product, however, there is little hope for the final result.

Such is the fate of The Barn Theatre’s current production of “The Wedding Singer,” another movie-based musical which literally left me wondering why any group would expend time, talent and money on such a basically weak premise.

It is an accepted fact that any show, professional or amateur, can rise or fall on the strength of its cast. It is also a fact that not every performer, no matter how talented, can be believable in every role. Finding the right fit is everything.

As wedding singer Robbie Hart, Barn veteran Eric Parker works hard to find that fit but, in spite of his excellent baritone, which is best in the show’s few ballads, it just doesn’t work. And his laughably frowsy ‘80’s rocker-style wig doesn’t help.

There are many components that go into making a good theatrical production. Lacking one or two, a show may survive if the basic product itself is strong. Without a strong product, however, there is little hope for the final result.

Such is the fate of The Barn Theatre’s current production of “The Wedding Singer,” another movie-based musical which literally left me wondering why any group would expend time, talent and money on such a basically weak premise.

It is an accepted fact that any show, professional or amateur, can rise or fall on the strength of its cast. It is also a fact that not every performer, no matter how talented, can be believable in every role. Finding the right fit is everything.

As wedding singer Robbie Hart, Barn veteran Eric Parker works hard to find that fit but, in spite of his excellent baritone, which is best in the show’s few ballads, it just doesn’t work. And his laughably frowsy ‘80’s rocker-style wig doesn’t help.

The rest of the company obviously works just as hard, but static direction by Brendan Ragotzy and the wildly repetitive choreography by Jamey Gresham, who also plays Robbie’s too-flamboyantly gay keyboard player, do little to raise the bar even to mid level.

Longtime scenic designer/actress Dusty Reeds plays Robbie’s grandmother and gets to wear many sparkly outfits and deliver some un-grandmotherly lines. As Sammy, another band member, Roy Brown turns in the most likeable character as a guitarist who dreads a return to his job at Orange Julius. His female counterpart, Holly, is played by Samantha Rickard whose primarily low-keyed performance is well done.

Julia (Emily Fleming) is a waitress who begins as Robbie’s friend and moves on to become the object of his affections. She is engaged, however, to Glenn (Patrick Hunter), an overstuffed Wall Street shirt who puts her at the bottom of his “to do” list every time.

By the finale, the right couples are paired, ludicrously with the aid of too many Vegas celebrity impersonators.

Nothing, however, can get this “Wedding Singer” in tune. My advice: Rent the movie.

“THE WEDDING SINGER” plays through July 29 in the theater on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, Mich. For performance times and ticket information, call (269) 731-4121 or visit www.barntheagtre.com.

'Hairspray' Sends Message With A Beat

There is no way to view the current Elkhart Civic Theatre production of “Hairspray” without a smile on your face.

That definitely was the expression of choice at the conclusion of Friday evening’s opening performance in the Bristol Opera House. In fact, the sold-out house responded enthusiastically and frequently throughout the two and a half hour (including intermission) production.

“Hairspray” is another of the movie-to-musical shows which have become prominent in the legitimate theater during the past decade. It is, however, the one that has been the most successful.

The reason for this must lie in the fact that, along with all the fast-paced singing and dancing and comedic moments, “Hairspray” (unlike “Grease”) delivers some very solid and positive messages.

There are 41 in this cast, plus one understudy, many of whom are in — or just out of — their teens. From the moment leading teen Tracy Turnblad (Ashlea Romano) wakes up to say “Good Morning, Baltimore,” the musical action is, with only a few balladic exceptions, in very high gear.

There is no way to view the current Elkhart Civic Theatre production of “Hairspray” without a smile on your face.

That definitely was the expression of choice at the conclusion of Friday evening’s opening performance in the Bristol Opera House. In fact, the sold-out house responded enthusiastically and frequently throughout the two and a half hour (including intermission) production.

“Hairspray” is another of the movie-to-musical shows which have become prominent in the legitimate theater during the past decade. It is, however, the one that has been the most successful.

The reason for this must lie in the fact that, along with all the fast-paced singing and dancing and comedic moments, “Hairspray” (unlike “Grease”) delivers some very solid and positive messages.

There are 41 in this cast, plus one understudy, many of whom are in — or just out of — their teens. From the moment leading teen Tracy Turnblad (Ashlea Romano) wakes up to say “Good Morning, Baltimore,” the musical action is, with only a few balladic exceptions, in very high gear.

Credit for this goes to director/choreographer Tom Myers, who manages to keep all the extensive chorus numbers together with admirable synchronicity. No secret the Opera House stage is small. Creating fast-paced dances that look good within its confines is no easy assignment, but one which Myers completes with excellent results.

Hairspray Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INHe has not one but two ”leading ladies” in the demanding role of Tracy, the overweight teen who dreams of dancing on Baltimore’s “Corny Collins Show” (Byron Brown doing Dick Clark and “American Bandstand”(, She also is an early — and enthusiastic — advocate for integration. Romano is playing the majority of the performances, with Ashley Renee Beadle as the positively positive girl in two.

Behind Tracy is her formidable mom Edna (played by Brock Butler) and her slightly skewed dad Wilbur (Rick Nymeyer). Edna takes in laundry and dreams of designing her own line of large-size dresses. Wilbur owns the Har-De-Har Hut and dreams of a chain of joke stores.

Butler manages to go beyond the gag of man-in-women’s-clothing to the real person in the pumps and feathers. Actually one show-stopper is a duet, “Timeless To Me,” done by Edna and Wilbur who share their secrets for a long and happy marriage.

Tracy’s best friend is Penny Pingleton, played with delightful daffyness by Maddie Williams. When the girls arrive to audition for the Collins show, Tracy meets her long-time crush, show regular Link Larkin, delivered with right-on ‘60s sleekness and an Ipana (right, I am that old! ) smile by Tell Williams IV. Penny falls for Seaweed (lean and lanky Tevin Lancaster) who can only dance on the show once a week —on Negro Day. His mother Motormouth Maybelle (Wanzetta Arnett of the roof-raising voice and killer blonde wig) is a DJ and joins Tracy in her fight for integration.

Hairspray  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol  INThe not-so-friendly opposition is led by Corny Collins TV producer Velma vonTussle (Julie Musser), who recalls her glory days as Miss Baltimore Crabs, and Velma’s daughter Amber (Rachael Hall), a top candidate for Miss Hairspray 1959 and almost engaged to Link.

When Tracy and Maybelle lead a protest march in support of integrating the show, Velma uses her influence to have them all thrown in “The Big Dollhouse.” Out on bail, the protesters’ resolve is flagging when Maybelle rouses them by saying “I know where I’m going because ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’.” Needless to say the good guys win — this is a musical remember.

The “big “ numbers are, of course, impressive and will be even more so if the problem of unintelligible lyrics is solved. It is difficult to focus on diction when the dance is up tempo, but it would definitely help.

Special note to The Dynamites (Dayna Ann-Maria Arnett, Gretchen Logan and Kylie Giger), a Supremes-style trio, which adds its musical comments along the way; to Kiya Bonds who plays Seaweed’s feisty sis Little Inez; and to Stephanie Berry, who handles two roles with excellent difference.

The flexible set is designed by John Shoup to create a number of locations. This requires the stage crew to change platforms at the start of several scenes, which proves distracting.

Congratulations to the costume crew under the direction of Dawn Blessing — especially for Edna’s super-sized outfits! Under the direction of Mark Swendsen, the 7 piece band does an excellent job.

The latest word is that all performances of “Hairspray” are sold out, but it never hurts to call and put your name on the waiting list.

“HAIRSPRAY” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on S.R. 120/ For reservations call 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays.

25 Years And 'Le Jazz' Is Still Hot In Elkhart

Looking out my window and watching my grass turn multi-shades of brown, I couldn’t help thinking what a difference the weather makes.

It’s now a July that is definitely a scorcher. On June 22, the sky was blue and clear and the sun’s warmth tempered by a lovely breeze. It was perfect weather for the official opening of the 25th annual Elkhart Jazz Festival.

Having been around since the first EJF, mostly in an “official” capacity as a reporter for The Elkhart Truth, I think I am qualified to speak to the annual changes, mostly due to the number of “stages” that were/were not available in any given June.

There is no question that the quality of the invited musicians has always been the best the budget could afford. In the more than capable hands of long-time talent coordinator Van Young, every year, no matter what the combinations, there was always something for everyone and frequently more than several somethings.

Initially, the Midway Motor Lodge was the location of at least three stages, with the midnight jam session Saturday in the pool area always a highlight of the weekend. Even when the pool turned green.

When the Midway closed — and please don’t ask exactly when that was as all my programs are in the garage — the search was on to make up for the triple loss. Various empty storefronts on — or right off —Main Street were recruited. Several were used for more than one year but two major problems I
signaled their eventual disappearance: One was acoustical and the other was comfort, for both musicians and listeners. Difficult to keep cool without air conditioning in an enclosed space in Indiana at the end of June.

Lerner Theatre in Elkhart IndianaThe next alternatives were white and portable. Tents of varying sizes were rented and erected in at least two, sometimes three, locations. One, set on the grassy knoll that covered the last vestiges of the Midway, even had plastic windows and portable air conditioners. Unfortunately, the ambience was less than desirable and the legs of the folding chairs sank unevenly into the ground, frequently leaving listeners lopsided. When one EJF chairman decided to take the event from three to two days, it seemed that the once-expanding festival was definitely on the way out.

Then came a musical lifeline called The Lerner.

It took a determined Elkhart businessman to rally a committee with internal and external financial resources. Once in motion, not only did the theater come alive, but its surroundings began to bloom again as well.

It took two years to fully restore the former Elco Theatre to its turn-of-the-century glory, but everyone agrees it was well worth the wait. Especially those EJF workers behind the scenes.

There is no doubt that the outcome of any community-wide project rises and falls on the dedication of its volunteers. And believe me, during some of the EJF’s 25 years, it took more than a little dedication.

Somehow, in spite of years of frequently blistering heat and at least one or two of torrential downpours (I recall going barefoot as the water ran above the curbs), plus internal dissention, shifting committee heads and changes in city administrations, the festival managed, like that non-stop bunny, to keep going on and on and on and on and . . .

More EJF reflections to come.

 

R&H Classic Still Shines on WW Stage

The opening moments of “Carousel,” the current production at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre, build to a visual and orchestral climax that received spontaneous and well-deserved applause from the Wednesday evening audience.

The show’s “Prologue” (aka “The Carousel Waltz”) is admittedly one of the most difficult portions of any production. At almos five minutes in length, it sets the scene and introduces the characters and their connections without words. No wonder that audience interest can stay or go based on its impact.

There was no doubt of the impact in this version of the classic musical. It was indeed theatrical “magic” as the dark and grimy world of Bascombe’s mill was transformed into the glittering and colorful carnival atmosphere with the whirling carousel as the main attraction.

“Carousel” is the second of the “big five” from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. All are based on existing texts, a format which brought much more success to the R&H team than working “from scratch.”

The opening moments of “Carousel,” the current production at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre, build to a visual and orchestral climax that received spontaneous and well-deserved applause from the Wednesday evening audience.

The show’s “Prologue” (aka “The Carousel Waltz”) is admittedly one of the most difficult portions of any production. At almos five minutes in length, it sets the scene and introduces the characters and their connections without words. No wonder that audience interest can stay or go based on its impact.

There was no doubt of the impact in this version of the classic musical. It was indeed theatrical “magic” as the dark and grimy world of Bascombe’s mill was transformed into the glittering and colorful carnival atmosphere with the whirling carousel as the main attraction.

“Carousel” is the second of the “big five” from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. All are based on existing texts, a format which brought much more success to the R&H team than working “from scratch.”

It debuted on Broadway in 1945 and was based on “Liliom” a 1909 play by Hungarian author Ferenc Molnar. Transferring the setting from Budapest to the coast of Maine, R&H created an incredibly lyrical work called by Time magazine “The Best Musical of the 20th Century.”

Whether you agree with that or not, the WW production is definitely on the plus side. Stepping aside from his duties as director/choreographer, artistic director Scott Michaels has turned the reins of this “Carousel” over to annual guest director Tony Humrichouser and guest choreographer Lesa Dencklau. Both are assisted immeasurably by Patrick Chan’s lighting design, Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s wonderfully colorful costumes, Thomas N. Stirling’s always amazing orchestra (there are 10 musicians in the “Carousel” pit and they definitely do justice to the marvelous R&H score), and the outstanding set design (which includes the mill-to-carnival transformation) by the very talented David Lepor.

And, as always, it doesn’t hurt to have a cast full of excellent singers and dancers.

carousel  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw  INLeading them in the vocal department are Annie Yokum as the long-suffering-but-always-true heroine, Julie Jordan, and Matthew Janisse as her swaggering-but-insecure husband, carousel barker Billy Bigelow. Both have excellent voices and more than do justice to the now-classic ballads assigned to their characters. Considering their lightening-swift meeting-to-marriage relationship, however, a more visible connection, emotional and physical, would help in establishing the believability of this instantaneous bond.

“Carousel” scene stealer is Erika Henningsen as Julie’s BFF Carrie Pipperidge, a spunky bundle of 19th century individualism who never takes her eyes off the prize which, in this case, is equally-focused Enoch Snow (Dan Smith), a sturdy gentleman who envisions the growth of his fishing fleet and their family in the delightful duet, “When the Children Are Asleep.”

Among the many melodies that have lives outside of the “Carousel” score are two interpreted here by the very excellent Kira Lace Hawkins as Nettie Fowler. In her hands (and voice), Nettie is the prototype of a rugged New England woman. Whether urging young people to kick up their heels (“June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”) or comforting a stricken Julie (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”), Hawkins never lets her character become caricature and her solid soprano adds depth to the R&H hymn.

An important segment of the second act is Billy’s celestial observance of his teen-age daughter Louise, running on the beach, facing the taunts of her peers and sharing her father’s fascination with the carnival. This is depicted in a ballet and, very happily, the role of Louise is danced with haunting lyricism by young Grace Robinson. Dencklau’s choreography is decidedly more balletic in tone, very positive here and too soft only in the hearty hornpipe “Blow High, Blow Low.”

To those who have seen “Carousel” more times than they care to remember (it is a perennial favorite on community and high school stages), this is a production with which to refresh your memoryin the most positive way.

For those who have never had the pleasure, it is definitely time to take this ride.

“CAROUSEL” plays through June 14 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call 267-8041 or (866) 823-2618 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.org.

New Format, Same Fluffy 'Blonde'

OK. I give up.

Seeing the fluffily foolish entertainment that is “Legally Blonde, The Musical” for the second time in two weeks, I have to admit to enjoying the musical in whatever production format it appears, providing the cast is up to the challenge of almost non-stop vocals and highly energetic dancing.

The “straight stage” version (performed in a traditional venue) opened Tuesday evening at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich. My previous encounter was presented in the round. It seems that the megaton of energy exuded by the primary blonde, Elle Woods (here played with unshakable determination and irresistibly kooky charm by Melissa Cotton) is just about impossible to ignore.

The score still lacks anything that I can recall this morning but, at the time, it was totally entertaining. Guess that means you have to be there.

Pink, pink and more pink is the color of every day for Elle and her sisters of Delta Nu Sorority at UCLA. When their collective anticipation of Elle’s engagement to Warner Huntington III (Jamey Grisham, also the show’s choreographer and a dead ringer for film Warner, Matthew Davis) is dashed by his determination to find someone more “Serious,” they muster their considerable forces to send her off in his direction, that being Harvard Law School.

OK. I give up.

Seeing the fluffily foolish entertainment that is “Legally Blonde, The Musical” for the second time in two weeks, I have to admit to enjoying the musical in whatever production format it appears, providing the cast is up to the challenge of almost non-stop vocals and highly energetic dancing.

The “straight stage” version (performed in a traditional venue) opened Tuesday evening at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich. My previous encounter was presented in the round. It seems that the megaton of energy exuded by the primary blonde, Elle Woods (here played with unshakable determination and irresistibly kooky charm by Melissa Cotton) is just about impossible to ignore.

The score still lacks anything that I can recall this morning but, at the time, it was totally entertaining. Guess that means you have to be there.

Pink, pink and more pink is the color of every day for Elle and her sisters of Delta Nu Sorority at UCLA. When their collective anticipation of Elle’s engagement to Warner Huntington III (Jamey Grisham, also the show’s choreographer and a dead ringer for film Warner, Matthew Davis) is dashed by his determination to find someone more “Serious,” they muster their considerable forces to send her off in his direction, that being Harvard Law School.

If your mind boggles at the thought of a stereotypical bimbo blonde entering the sacred halls of Harvard, boggle away. Ellle’s strategy is overwhelming and her live and in-person admissions packet does the trick.

Accompanied by Bruiser (Algernon Edlund), a tiny mixed breed canine (“He’s not a dog. He’s one of the family”), and a Greek Chorus trio (Julie Grisham, Natalie Sparbeck and Samantha Rickard, all equally energized and Valley Girl-ish!) who strongly resemble her best friends in Delta Nu, Elle never loses sight of her goal — to be “a Jackie not a Marilyn” for Warner.

Barn veterans Penelope Alex and Eric Parker demonstrate that older can be at least as good in the roles of Paulette Bonafonte and lawyer/law professor Callahan. Legally Blonde The Barn Theatre Augusta, Mich.Paulette owns the Hair Affair, dreams of a life in Ireland and offers Elle a much-needed ego boost. She also masters one of the show’s most exuberant numbers “Bend and Snap,” Callahan, who demands “Blood in the Water” from his students, finally displays the underside of the legal profession.

Callahan’s assistant, Emmett Forrest (Patrick Hunter, a Luke Wilson lookalike with a killer baritone), is a constant support to the fledgling barrister and finds admiration turning to — well, it’s a musical, what did you expect?

Things come to a head when Callahan’s intern team takes the case of Brooke Wyndham (Bethany Edlund), an exercise guru and Delta Nu, charged with killing her older millionaire husband. Elle brings the real killer to “permanent” justice, wins the case and the right man.

The opening night audience reacted wildly to the appearance of Brendan Ragotzy, Barn producer and husband of Penelope Alex, as Kyle, the UPS delivery man who has a package for Paulette. Another Barn Mr. and Mrs., Roy Brown and Emily Fleming, play Elle’s parents and prove again that there are no small parts!

Hans Freidrichs directed the fast-paced production, with John Jay Espino leading the four-man band. Steven Lee Burrright designed the flexible setting. Costumes were by Michael Wilson Morgan, who might want to check Elle’s shoes. One flew into the audience accidentally during an energetic number and was followed, on purpose, by the other.

Neither loss lessened the “Legally Blonde’s” performance by a snap.

“LEGALLY BLONDE” plays through July 15 in the theater on M60 between Galesburg and Augusta, Mich. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit www.barntheatre.com