The Barn Tries Original Rock Musical

Not every theatrical producer has the opportunity to write, direct and produce his own musical, especially one based on his favorite musical genre.

That opportunity has been taken by Brendan Ragotzy producer of The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI where “Raunch and Roll,” with book by Ragotzy and original music by Troy Benton, Gary Cherone, Richard Marx and Fee Waybill, opened Tuesday evening for a one-week run.

This is the third Ragotzy original produced at The Barn, which has been in the Ragotzy family since it was begun by Brendan’s parents, Jack and Betty Ragotzy, more than 66 years ago. He and wife Penelope Alex Ragotzy have been the keepers of this theatrical flame since the elder couple passed away. Brendan’s earlier musicals had historical characters as the flawed heroes and the settings were the old west with one side trip to Hollywood. One was reworked and returned for a second run several years later.

I would not recommend this for “Raunch and Roll.”

Not every theatrical producer has the opportunity to write, direct and produce his own musical, especially one based on his favorite musical genre.

That opportunity has been taken by Brendan Ragotzy producer of The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI where “Raunch and Roll,” with book by Ragotzy and original music by Troy Benton, Gary Cherone, Richard Marx and Fee Waybill, opened Tuesday evening for a one-week run.

This is the third Ragotzy original produced at The Barn, which has been in the Ragotzy family since it was begun by Brendan’s parents, Jack and Betty Ragotzy, more than 66 years ago. He and wife Penelope Alex Ragotzy have been the keepers of this theatrical flame since the elder couple passed away. Brendan’s earlier musicals had historical characters as the flawed heroes and the settings were the old west with one side trip to Hollywood. One was reworked and returned for a second run several years later.

I would not recommend this for “Raunch and Roll.”

Initially, I was put off by the title. When assured that the “Raunch” was minimal (language obviously doesn’t count), we decided to take a chance. Something new is always interesting, even if the author’s track record is, at best, shakey. I admit that during the “golden age” of R&R, I was less than interested in groups with abstract names and really loud sound tracks. My friend, however, admitted hearing every rocker who came through Bloomington during her undergrad days at IU, so I relied on her expertise for the second act, which was a rock concert.Raunch and Roll The Barn Theatre Augusta MI

She noted that part of the explosive ambiance of a rock concert was knowing the words to every song and joining in spontaneously. Difficult to do here when hearing the five “concert” tunes for the first time, especially since the mushy sound system completely negated any chance of understanding the lyrics, although I am sure that was never reallyimportant. Even the title, which the audience was encouraged to shout every few seconds when the tune appeared in the lineup, failed to recreate the real thing believably. 

I looked at Act 1, for which there was absolutely no music at all, excepting blasts of recorded guitars to cover the frequent scene changes.

It began (and stayed) at a very low energy level, with heroine Roxy Starr (Penelope Alex), a”really big” rock star, waiting with her manager Carl Weinstein (Eric Parker) for her doctor (Steven Lee Burright) to deliver the final opinion on the success or failure of her three year treatment for cancer. He took forever to announce that she had only six months to a year to live. From then on, her bucket list was to make up to the local band she dumped on her way to stardom, to reconnect with her church-going mother (KalamazooRaunch and Roll The Barn Theatre Augusta MI actress Sharon Williams) and John, the son she gave up at birth (Jacob Ragotzy), and to spread her rockstar savings among his parents Tommy and Christine Tucker (Roy Brown and Emily Fleming) and band members whose bitterness at her decades-old desertion was overcome quickly by the size of her checks. Her final concert also managed to save from demolition the theater in which she initially played. Can you say cliche?

Unfortunately, in spite of the earnest performances by all concerned, there was never a suspension of disbelief, no matter how many times Roxy threw up. Contrived was the keyword, with stilted dialogue and pontifical declarations, especially by Parker as the designated wise man. As a plus, however, the band members — Brown, Jamey Grisham, Charlie King, Benton, Scott Marcus and Nicholas J. Pearson — were excellent rockers and Alex gave the vocals her all. Hopefully, the sound problem will be corrected soon enough to at least allow this week’s audiences the opportunity to hear what she is singing.

“RAUNCH AND ROLL” plays through Sunday in the theater on M96 between Augusta and Galesburg, MI. Tickets are $34. For show times and reservations call (269) 731-4545.  

 

 

WW Ends On High Note With Berlin Revue

The minute you open the program of the Wagon Wheel Theatre production of “I Love A Piano,” the initial reaction is disbelief. 

On the two center pages it lists the songs by Irving Berlin that make up this musical revue and officially end the WW summer season. Spanning the years from Berlin’s first songs in 1910 to his official retirement in 1974, his output — music AND lyrics — was staggering. Not only because the final count is around 1,500 songs, but because so very many have become a part of our national heritage and, at the risk of sounding corny, a part of the fabric of our lives.

The sextet of singer/dancers who take the audience through the decades of Berlin music are talented performers well up to the task of offering almost non-stop vocals (and dances) for two hours (including intermission). Jennifer Dow, Hillary Smith, Kira Lace Hawkins, Stephen Anthony, David Schlumpf and Dan Smith have been a part of the WW company this season and, if their names are not immediately familiar, their faces and voices will be.

WW artistic director Scott Michaels also choreographed the review, a much more daunting assignment than creating dances for a book show. I mean, they NEVER stop! When not on stage in solo or ensemble numbers, cast members are off stage changing not only designer Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s period-appropriate costumes but wig designer Dow’s also period-appropriate coiffures (girls only). The decades swirl around an upright piano, the centerpiece for Michael Higgins’ flexible set. The always excellent orchestra, under the direction of Thomas N. Sterling, gets exactly the right sound for everything from ragtime to lush ballads and show tunes to pop songs.

The minute you open the program of the Wagon Wheel Theatre production of “I Love A Piano,” the initial reaction is disbelief. 

On the two center pages it lists the songs by Irving Berlin that make up this musical revue and officially end the WW summer season. Spanning the years from Berlin’s first songs in 1910 to his official retirement in 1974, his output — music AND lyrics — was staggering. Not only because the final count is around 1,500 songs, but because so very many have become a part of our national heritage and, at the risk of sounding corny, a part of the fabric of our lives.

The sextet of singer/dancers who take the audience through the decades of Berlin music are talented performers well up to the task of offering almost non-stop vocals (and dances) for two hours (including intermission). Jennifer Dow, Hillary Smith, Kira Lace Hawkins, Stephen Anthony, David Schlumpf and Dan Smith have been a part of the WW company this season and, if their names are not immediately familiar, their faces and voices will be.

WW artistic director Scott Michaels also choreographed the review, a much more daunting assignment than creating dances for a book show. I mean, they NEVER stop! When not on stage in solo or ensemble numbers, cast members are off stage changing not only designer Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s period-appropriate costumes but wig designer Dow’s also period-appropriate coiffures (girls only). The decades swirl around an upright piano, the centerpiece for Michael Higgins’ flexible set. The always excellent orchestra, under the direction of Thomas N. Sterling, gets exactly the right sound for everything from ragtime to lush ballads and show tunes to pop songs.

I Love A Piano  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw  INThere are a great many in this lineup that you will recognize quickly and many that will be new, even though decades old. There may even be some that you will be surprised to find were written by Berlin. Fans of Fred and Ginger (Astaire and Rogers) will find toes tapping to “Puttin’ On The Ritz” (or the “Young Frankenstein” version). Whatever. “Cheek to Cheek,” “Let’s Face the Music (And Dance),” “Change Partners,” “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,”  “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” and Berlin’s first big hit (at age 20) “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” will bring smiles of recognition to your face.

The music recalls the emotions of good times and bad, from the Jazz Age of the Roaring 20s through the Great Depression of the ’30s to the songs of World War II — “I Left My Heart At the Stage Door Canteen,” “Any Bonds Today,” “What’ll I Do,” “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning,” “This Is The Army” and the song that has become the unofficial national anthem, “God Bless America.” Written in 1917, it was introduced in 1938 by Kate Smith who was looking for a song to mark the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day (aka nkw as Veterans Day).

This is the finale of Act !. Begun as a solo by the powerfully-voiced Hawkins, the melody was taken up by the rest of the ensemble and the power of this simple elemental piece brought the opening night audience spontaniously to its feet. And many were singing along. Berlin was quoted as saying “…a patriotic song is an emotion and you must not embarrass an audience with it.” No chance of that here.

George Gershwin, himself no slouch as a composer, called Irving Berlin “The greatest songwriter that has ever lived.” His sentiment was echoed by Jerome Kern who declared “He (Berlin) IS American music.”

As presented by the talented WW ensemble, the sampling of Berlin’s seemingly endless songbook proves the statement by composer Douglas Moore, “Berlin immortalized in his songs what we say, what we think about and what we believe.”

There is no doubt that this will be true for decades to come. If you don’t believe it, just listen to his music.

“I LOVE A PIANO: Aa irving Berlin Revue” plays through Aug.25 in the theater at 2517 E.Center Street in Warsaw. For show times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or (866) 823-2618 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.org.

Barn Visits Skewed World Of Python

First, let’s get one thing straight, or as close to straight as this show allows: You do NOT have to be a faithful follower of Monty Python to completely enjoy the wild and wacky humor of “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”

What you do need, at least on some level, is a sense of humor.

The 2004 theatrical version of the British group’s 1975 film (“Monty Python and The Holy Grain”) opened Tuesday evening at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI and all the laughs were still there and in very good shape.

Of course, my favorite is the Killer Rabbit, while my theater buddy really prefers Not Dead Fred. But then there are the Knights Who Say Ni, the Lady of the Lake and her Laker Girls, the French Taunter and the insanely skewed bits which somehow, under the direction of Hans Friedrichs, come together to form a wildly disjointed scenario which manages to be wildly funny.

If the aforementioned strike no familiar chords on your humorous bone, this would be a good time to head to Michigan for a closer look. The premise is too simple. When the initial setting (Moose Village, Finland where Finnish Folk are celebrating with the “Fisch Schlapping Song,” a traditional merry dance in which the title is taken literally) is returned to its proper locale, England, the focus returns (at least sporadically) to the recentlyl crowned King Arthur (Fee Waybill) who is recruiting knights for his round table.

First, let’s get one thing straight, or as close to straight as this show allows: You do NOT have to be a faithful follower of Monty Python to completely enjoy the wild and wacky humor of “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”

What you do need, at least on some level, is a sense of humor.

The 2004 theatrical version of the British group’s 1975 film (“Monty Python and The Holy Grain”) opened Tuesday evening at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI and all the laughs were still there and in very good shape.

Of course, my favorite is the Killer Rabbit, while my theater buddy really prefers Not Dead Fred. But then there are the Knights Who Say Ni, the Lady of the Lake and her Laker Girls, the French Taunter and the insanely skewed bits which somehow, under the direction of Hans Friedrichs, come together to form a wildly disjointed scenario which manages to be wildly funny.

If the aforementioned strike no familiar chords on your humorous bone, this would be a good time to head to Michigan for a closer look. The premise is too simple. When the initial setting (Moose Village, Finland where Finnish Folk are celebrating with the “Fisch Schlapping Song,” a traditional merry dance in which the title is taken literally) is returned to its proper locale, England, the focus returns (at least sporadically) to the recentlyl crowned King Arthur (Fee Waybill) who is recruiting knights for his round table.

Spamalot  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MIArthur is accompanied by his faithful squire Patsy (Roy Brown), who not only carries their worldly goods on his back but provides equine sound effects by two coconut halves which go from walk to gallop on command. His quest results in enlisting Sir Robin (Kevin Robert White), Sir Lancelot (Patrick Hunter), Sir Dennis/Galahad (Lance Fletke) and Sir Bedevere (Nicholas J. Pearson) as well as Sir Not Appearing (Barn veteran Eric Parker serving as stage manager). 

Arthur’s sword, Excaliber, is presented to him by the Lady of the Lake (Amy Harpenau) who cheers him on with the aid of her Laker Girls (pun intended!) and lets it be known that she is the Diva of the show! One of the funniest bits is the duet between Sir Galahad and the Lady, “The Song That Goes Like This,” an unmistakable sendup of the unending ballads in Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. After charging through “a dark and extremely expensive forest,” they come to the castle of Prince Herbert (Ethen Eichenbaum), who is definitely a very strange royal.

The absurdity of the characters and the situations is displayed with a healthy topping of British humor make keeping a straight face the actors’ most difficult assignment. Company members are only off stage for as long as it takes them to change their costumes and characters. This they accomplish in very quick order and all, especially the featured “knights,” do a sterling job!

With one exception, the company rises above and beyond to bring this Python panic home in good style. Unfortunately, Waybill’s mournful hangdog expression, which always seems to be searching for the next line, never changes and his king is a definitely out of sync with the happily high-stepping inhabitants of this “Spamalot.”

 Especially in British humor, the words are essential. The hilarious lyrics in “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” and “Always Look on The Bright Side of Life” (“borrowed” from “The Life of Brian”) are prime examples. With White (in the former) and Brown (in the latter) every bit of sharp satire shines brightly. And Harpenau proves she deserves center stage for “The Diva’s Lament.”

The shape-shifting stage set by Steven Lee Burright takes the knights from castle to forest to cave (of the aforementioned Killer Rabbit) and even allows for a visit from God. Costumes (by Michael Wilson Morgan) and the small-but-mighty orchestra led by John Jay Espino fill in any gaps. Jamey Grisham choreographed the lively dance numbers and penciled on a mustache as the French flinger of epithets. No surprise that book and lyrics are by Python original Eric Idle who, for those who followed the Olympics right through the closing ceremonies, was on screen in the stadium to again advise looking on the bright side of life.

“Monty Python’s Spamalot” makes that much easier to do.

MONTY PYTHON’S SPAMALOT” plays through Aug. 26 in the theater on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For show times and reservations call (269) 731-4121 between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily or visit www.barntheatre.com 

Coward Flies High in WW 'Blithe Spirit'

Reportedly written in just five days by Noel Coward, one of Britain’s most sophisticated playwrights, “Blithe Spirit” has maintained its popularity since first produced in 1941.

The current production at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre is a sterling example of why the play, categorized as a “drawing room comedy,” has maintained it’s place in the hierarchy of classics.

With a talented cast, each at the top of his/her theatrical game, a mood-setting scenic design and just the right amount of music, this “Blithe Spirit” lives up to its title and, for this reviewer, reaffirms the success of dialogue as a primary comedic instrument, albeit well-placed and deftly directed dialogue a la Noel Coward.

Reportedly written in just five days by Noel Coward, one of Britain’s most sophisticated playwrights, “Blithe Spirit” has maintained its popularity since first produced in 1941.

The current production at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre is a sterling example of why the play, categorized as a “drawing room comedy,” has maintained it’s place in the hierarchy of classics.

With a talented cast, each at the top of his/her theatrical game, a mood-setting scenic design and just the right amount of music, this “Blithe Spirit” lives up to its title and, for this reviewer, reaffirms the success of dialogue as a primary comedic instrument, albeit well-placed and deftly directed dialogue a la Noel Coward.

Company members David Schlumpf, Stephen Anthony, Jennifer Dow, Hillary Smith, Kira Lace Hawkins and Annie Yokom are joined by long-time WW favorite Ann Whitney in this fast-paced production directed by Andy Robinson and Ben Dicke.

Schlumpf is Charles Condomine (the character most like Coward), an author in search of inspiration for his next mystery novel for which he has only the title, “The Unseen.”

In this search he and second wife Ruth (Dow) have invited the village mystic Madame Arcati (Whitney) for dinner in the hopes, as Charles puts it, of watching “a professional imposter” at work. Neighbors (and fellow skeptics) Dr. George Bradman (Anthony) and wife Violet (Smith) round out the required number for a séance. Also on hand is Edith (Yokom), the Condomine’s maid, formerly in the British navy, who does everything “double time.”

The evening has unexpected consequences as the séance results in the reappearance — to Charles only — of his dead wife Elvira (Hawkins). Attempts to return Elvira to “the other side” have equally unexpected outcomes.

No secret that the success of any Coward play depends on the ability of the players to disseminate his briskly brittle dialogue with as much believability as possible, an assignment with which the WW cast has no problem.

Blithe Spirit  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw INDow and Schlumpf are a perfect couple, smooth and unpeturbable until the sly spirit, who has her own unearthly agenda, short circuits their familiar lines of communication. But Coward’s couples fight with flair and the duo never falters in keeping the antagonistic tempo at a gallop. His defense of his late spouse only serves to fuel Ruth’s frustration and anger.

Hawkins is a delight as the still self-centered wraith whose aim is to reclaim her husband. Floating through the drawing room, she delights in being the source of their increasing antagonism.

Madame Arcati is a role that fits Whitney like the proverbial glove. Whether putting skeptics in their place or recounting her life as a medium or preparing for a séance and a trance with unforeseen results, there is no doubt her belief in her “gift” is real. Her attempts to make contact with the unseen, unheard spirit — and her frustrated inability to dematerialize the ghost — are hilarious.

As the dinner guests, and eager participants in the séance, Anthony and Smith are unflappably British, rolling with stolid aplomb at every unexpected turn.

Blithe Spirit Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INYokom’s Edith is the lynchpin to the mystery and from her first fast-paced sprint to her final exit, she delivers a character that always strives to put her best foot forward.

Set for this production in the summer of 1961, the time is well mirrored in the women’s costumes, excepting the extreme outfit of Madame Arcati who, for some reason, seems to have a burlap bag hanging off each hip.

The music mentioned earlier is a 78 rpm record of Irving Berlin’s “Always,” which not only is pertinent to the plot but possibly a reference to the next WW production, a review of Berlin’s music titled “I Love A Piano.”

The directors assured me it was only a ghostly coincidence.

“BLITHE SPIRIT” plays through Aug. 11 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For show times and reservations, call (574)267-8041 or (866) 823-2618 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.org.