'Les Miserables' Best Seen On Stage

Tuesday night we drove to the Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo to check out the 25th Anniversary Tour of one of the last centuries most enduring theatrical phenomenon.

“Les Miserables” was written by French author Victor Hugo in 1862. It was in five volumes. Since 1934 it has been the subject, in various adaptations, of nine feature films, including the cinematic version of the Broadway musical which opened to mixed reviews on Christmas Day.

With music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, the Cameron Macintosh production (clocking in at close to three hours) seems, like its fellow blockbuster “The Phantom of the Opera,” destined to be the show that will never close.

And after another look, at least my fifth at various productions from professional to high school, I have to say rightly so.

This “anniversary” presentation, however, obviously needed something different to warrant mounting another full-scale production. The “difference” was the elimination of the original’s most unique scenic innovations — the turntable.

Filling almost the entire center stage, it facilitated the flow of one scene into another, much as the powerful score shifted focus on locales and characters with changing musical themes.

The anniversary show has opted for projections of paintings by Hugo which fill the center of the stage, flanked by two-story towers which served as entrances to various locations and a number of large set pieces (i.e the iron gate to Jean Valjean’s final home and the barricade) which roll on and off as needed.

They work, of course, but have made this production like any big Broadway show and I, for one, really missed the impressive and effective flow supplied by the turntable. (Have to say that seeing bodies stacked in a cart is much less effective dramatically than watching the barricade slowly turn to reveal the fallen students still clinging to its crude construction, even in death). Sorry, but it’s all about theatrical impact.

That said, seeing “Les Miserables” on it’s original home — THE STAGE — and hearing the stirring score sung by obviously excellent and well-trained voices with lush and moving instrumental support from a FULL ORCHESTRA (something almost unheard of in this day of two keyboards and a drum), it was easy to understand why this show SHOULD be seen in this setting, with or without turntable.

The names of the outstanding cast, which is very large, are not well known here but one look at the impressive program bios, which list only a small portion of each individual’s work-to-date, and there is no doubt that the company IS this show.

Must cite Peter Lockyer (Jean Valjean), whose transformation from bitter thief to loving father is the lynchpin on which the story turns, and Andrew Varela (Javert), the single-minded policeman whose dogged pursuit of Valjean proves his own undoing. Each man has, in the course of the evening, a number of dramatic and difficult solos, plus equally demanding dramatic sequences. They could not have been better suited and deserved the spontaneous cheers which followed eac.

Fantine (Geneviieve Leclerc) and Eponine (Briana Carlson-Goodman) scored solidly as ladies who loved and lost, as did the dastardly Theniardiers (Shawna M. Hamric and Timothy Gulan), who, like the cockroach, survive everything, and students led by Enjolras (Jason Forbach) and Marius (Devin Ilaw). There are too many others in the large ensemble to list. Enough to say that each does his/her own part in bringing “Les Miserables” to life yet again.

Go see the movie if you want. The stage is where this musical really lives, and for a lot longer than “One Day More”!

“LES MISERABLES” plays in Miller Auditorium at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, through Sunday. Curtain times vary. Ticket prices range from 38 to $78 but are available for 50 percent off seats remaining for Friday matinee. Call (269)387-2300 or (800) 228-9858.

This Farce Definitely Necessary

I am known, sometimes unfortunately, for making definite declarations of my likes and dislikes. Theatrically speaking, one of the latter is farce.

This is to admit that there are exceptions to every rule. One hilarious exception opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Mainstage Auditorium.

Titled “Unnecessary Farce,” it was written by Chicago actor Paul Slade Smith. Given my feelings about the genre, some really killer headlines were rolling around in my head in advance of the performance.

After about five minutes they vanished, much like the heroine’s costume.

Perhaps the fact that I had never seen it before played a part in my inability to stop laughing, especially as the bumbling antics escalated. I am inclined, however, to credit the spot-on timing elicited by director Richard Baxter from his septet of obviously dedicated actors.

Whoever said “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” knew what they were talking about, especially as it relates to the comic part. Will not even begin to try and outline the plot, because plot is the least of the worries in putting together a successful farce. Suffice it to say that the fit of actors and roles could not have been better here.

The frame on which the frequently mindless activity is hung concerns a sting operation set up in adjoining motel rooms. The aim is to catch a mayor in the act of receiving payoffs for city contracts. The “trappers” are a veteran-but-bumbling cop (Tucker Curtis), his bumblingly over-eager rookie sidekick (Eva Cavadini) and the whistle-blowing accountant (Trisha Himmelein). Their target is the obviously innocent mayor (Jason Gresl).

On the other side of the sting is a mysterious killer for the Scottish Clan (“that’s clan with a C”) known as the Highland Hitman (Matthew Bell) and an even more mysterious mob boss known only as Big Mac. Somewhere in between is FBI Agent Frank (Bill Svelmoe), and the mayor’s wife (Mary Toll), tottering in and out in search of her husband.

I am known, sometimes unfortunately, for making definite declarations of my likes and dislikes. Theatrically speaking, one of the latter is farce.

This is to admit that there are exceptions to every rule. One hilarious exception opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Mainstage Auditorium.

Titled “Unnecessary Farce,” it was written by Chicago actor Paul Slade Smith. Given my feelings about the genre, some really killer headlines were rolling around in my head in advance of the performance.

After about five minutes they vanished, much like the heroine’s costume.

Perhaps the fact that I had never seen it before played a part in my inability to stop laughing, especially as the bumbling antics escalated. I am inclined, however, to credit the spot-on timing elicited by director Richard Baxter from his septet of obviously dedicated actors.

Whoever said “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” knew what they were talking about, especially as it relates to the comic part. Will not even begin to try and outline the plot, because plot is the least of the worries in putting together a successful farce. Suffice it to say that the fit of actors and roles could not have been better here.

The frame on which the frequently mindless activity is hung concerns a sting operation set up in adjoining motel rooms. The aim is to catch a mayor in the act of receiving payoffs for city contracts. The “trappers” are a veteran-but-bumbling cop (Tucker Curtis), his bumblingly over-eager rookie sidekick (Eva Cavadini) and the whistle-blowing accountant (Trisha Himmelein). Their target is the obviously innocent mayor (Jason Gresl).

On the other side of the sting is a mysterious killer for the Scottish Clan (“that’s clan with a C”) known as the Highland Hitman (Matthew Bell) and an even more mysterious mob boss known only as Big Mac. Somewhere in between is FBI Agent Frank (Bill Svelmoe), and the mayor’s wife (Mary Toll), tottering in and out in search of her husband.

Unnecessary Farce South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreIn the course of the action, the requisite number of doors (eight, if I remember correctly) take more punishment than a test model at a GM plant, and cast members take their own share of hard knocks. All without missing a beat.

It really would be difficult to select one actor at the top of the heap (literally.) Interaction is a necessity and every character interacts with every other with crackling accuracy, both physically and verbally.

Special kudos to Curtis and Himmelein for spending most of the playing time (no pun in tended) in their underwear; to Bell for his wonderfully Scottish rants and his “pipes;” to Gresl for perfect “deer-in-the-headlights” expressions; to Svelmoe for hilarious ambivalence; to Toll for turning inocuous into ingenious; and to Cavadini for delivering the most tortuous escape efforts AND for her rapid-fire “translation” of the Highland Hitman’s most involved rant, an effort that earned spontaneous applause from the obviously delighted audience (myself included)!

OK. Before I really go overboard, know that my initial “ugly” impression of Jacee Rohick’s “motel” set turned to admiration as the action progressed. It definitely says $24.99 per night, tops.

There are only two more weekends to catch this “Unnecessary Farce” (the title becomes very clear with Bell’s final exit rant). If you are beginning to feel the winter blues creeping in, I can’t think of a better way to hold them at bay, at least for two hours!

“UNNECESSARY FARCE” plays at 7:30 p.m.Wednesday and Thursday and Jan. 30-31, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Feb. 1-2 and 3 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 3 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorim at 403 N. Main Street, South Bend. For reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.

Few Tunes, Lotsa Bodies in '40s-Style Mystery

Remember the days when murder mysteries were all about secret passages, multiple suspects, bumbling detectives and unknown killers who could be any of the guests isolated in an old mansion during a wild storm?

Those were the good old days and that’s what its all about in “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940,” which opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House.

The Elkhart Civic Theatre production has no shortage of oddball characters and each is equally suspect as the bodies start to pile up. There may be little music but there are murders aplenty and a lot of people who are not what they propose to be.

John Bishop’s whodunit is most obviously based on murder mystery movies circa 1940s (Bob Hope and Abbott and Costello more than Nick and Nora). It definitely takes almost the entire 2 ¼ hours to figure out exactly who did what to whom and why.

Under the direction of Dave Dufour, ECT’s man for all melodramas, the action begins silently — with a murder that remains conveniently undiscovered for quite a while — and gains volume as each suspect is introduced.

The premise, outlined early on while the corpse is still in the closet, is a backers’ audition for a proposed musical, “White House Merry-Go-Round.” Location is the Chappaqua, N.Y. mansion of wealthy Elsa Von Grossenknueten (Annette Kaczanowski), a potential investor and enthusiastic amateur sleuth, and her maid, Helsa Wensel (Elise Davis), a former cabaret performer.

The cast arrives as Elsa and police detective Patrick Kelly (Dan Cotton) go over their plan to apprehend the Stage Door Slasher whose last homicidal rampage resulted in the deaths of three cast members in ”Manhattan Holiday,” the only musical by ultra flamboyant composer Roger Hopewell (Geoff Trowbridge, who wrote the music for the script-supplied words) and non-stop tippler and lyricist Bernice Roth (Geneele Crump) to fail.

[caption id="attachment_436" align="alignleft" width=""]Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 Elkhart Civic TheatreComic Eddie McCuen (Tony Venable) wants to get going but singer Nikki Crandall (Corrinne Reed) can’t seem to make up her mind in this scene from the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1940.[/caption]

Remember the days when murder mysteries were all about secret passages, multiple suspects, bumbling detectives and unknown killers who could be any of the guests isolated in an old mansion during a wild storm?

Those were the good old days and that’s what its all about in “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940,” which opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House.

The Elkhart Civic Theatre production has no shortage of oddball characters and each is equally suspect as the bodies start to pile up. There may be little music but there are murders aplenty and a lot of people who are not what they propose to be.

John Bishop’s whodunit is most obviously based on murder mystery movies circa 1940s (Bob Hope and Abbott and Costello more than Nick and Nora). It definitely takes almost the entire 2 ¼ hours to figure out exactly who did what to whom and why.

Under the direction of Dave Dufour, ECT’s man for all melodramas, the action begins silently — with a murder that remains conveniently undiscovered for quite a while — and gains volume as each suspect is introduced.

The premise, outlined early on while the corpse is still in the closet, is a backers’ audition for a proposed musical, “White House Merry-Go-Round.” Location is the Chappaqua, N.Y. mansion of wealthy Elsa Von Grossenknueten (Annette Kaczanowski), a potential investor and enthusiastic amateur sleuth, and her maid, Helsa Wensel (Elise Davis), a former cabaret performer.

The cast arrives as Elsa and police detective Patrick Kelly (Dan Cotton) go over their plan to apprehend the Stage Door Slasher whose last homicidal rampage resulted in the deaths of three cast members in ”Manhattan Holiday,” the only musical by ultra flamboyant composer Roger Hopewell (Geoff Trowbridge, who wrote the music for the script-supplied words) and non-stop tippler and lyricist Bernice Roth (Geneele Crump) to fail.

Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 Elkhart Civic Theatre

Completing the ensemble are: Patrick O’Reilly (Joshua D. Padgett), Irish tenor of dubious origin and vocal ability; Marjorie Baverstock (Valerie Ong), producer obsessed with new words (“devoon”); Ken de la Maize (Dave Kempher), director of many star-studded but unreleased films; Nikki Crandall (Corinne Reed), singer/actress; and Eddie McCuen (Tony Venable), replacement comedian and only guest not a veteran of Hopewell/Roth musicals.

In addition to the search for the mad slasher, Nazi saboteurs are reported along the coast and seem to have infiltrated the many hidden tunnels of the Von Grossenkneuten manse. Tensions rise as the storm rages, lights flicker on and off, participants vanish and reappear (or not) as more and more secret passages are discovered and the body count grows.

Cast members obviously relish the opportunity to chew the scenery while accents come and go as often as the victims. Most keep the camp at a manageable level, although one is so far over the top as to be much less than funny.

When the villains are finally uncovered, there is no point in retracing the clues to figure out how and why they got there. This murder mystery is just for comedy and there are enough genuine laughs to make it all worth while.

My favorite moment? (This could be called a spoiler but … nah, read on) A desk pen controls one of the panels which opens and closes every time it is moved. About to sign a contract, Roth takes up the pen and, as the panel swings open yet again, doesn’t miss a beat exclaiming “That is SO annoying.”

As always, the set design by John Shoup is believably livable, secret passages, upright piano, French doors and all. And, again as always, Dufour underscores the action with just the right “dark and stormy night” music and, with assistant director/lighting designer Randy Zonker, injects light changes that say “okay to laugh here.”

Actually, after the first body hits the. . .closet, no one has to be told.

“THE MUSICAL COMEDY MURDERS OF 1040” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on SR 120 in Bristol. For reservations, call 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays or visit www.elkhartcivictheatre.org

Having 'Tea' With A Film Legend

Performing a monologue is perhaps the most difficult assignment given an actor. When that monologue is play-length, it can be even more daunting.

If the vocal and physical characteristics required for this transformation are left up to the imagination and interpretation of the performer, it may be slightly less difficult. However when the character is an international celebrity and favorite of impressionists world-wide, the challenge escalates.

Such is the challenge is met and delivered handily in the Warner Studio Theatre of South Bend Civic Theatre where veteran actress Mary Ann Moran is inviting her audiences to “Tea at Five” with legendary star Katherine Hepburn.

Under the direction of Kevin Dreyer, in a setting designed by Jacee Rohlck and properly decorated by Teri Szynski, Moran shares thoughts and memories in the convincing guise of the multi-Academy Award winning Hepburn for an hour and 45 minutes — plus intermission.

The break comes, not only to afford Moran a slight respite, but to shift the time line from Hepburn at 38 to Hepburn at 76, still at home in Fenwick, Conn.

Performing a monologue is perhaps the most difficult assignment given an actor. When that monologue is play-length, it can be even more daunting.

If the vocal and physical characteristics required for this transformation are left up to the imagination and interpretation of the performer, it may be slightly less difficult. However when the character is an international celebrity and favorite of impressionists world-wide, the challenge escalates.

Such is the challenge is met and delivered handily in the Warner Studio Theatre of South Bend Civic Theatre where veteran actress Mary Ann Moran is inviting her audiences to “Tea at Five” with legendary star Katherine Hepburn.

Under the direction of Kevin Dreyer, in a setting designed by Jacee Rohlck and properly decorated by Teri Szynski, Moran shares thoughts and memories in the convincing guise of the multi-Academy Award winning Hepburn for an hour and 45 minutes — plus intermission.

The break comes, not only to afford Moran a slight respite, but to shift the time line from Hepburn at 38 to Hepburn at 76, still at home in Fenwick, Conn.

Act One finds the actress in retreat, feeling the effects of several box office flops and a return to the stage that resulted in another failure, earning one review that described her acting as “running the gamut from A to B.” Focusing on winning the role of Scarlett O’Hara as a way back, she is shattered by its loss to “Vivien…who?” and only slightly encouraged by receiving the script for a new play titled “The Philadelphia Story.”

End of Act One.

Tea at Five  South Bend Civic Theatre South Bend INAct Two begins 45 years later. Feeling it is time to end her career, painfully recalling the losses in her life and dealing with a more-irritating-than-debilitating broken ankle and the increase of a tremor she declares is not Parkinson’s but a genetic condition, she nevertheless regains the staunch never-say-die attitude which continued to stand her in good stead until her death, in Fenwick, at age 96. Finally, her answer to the latest challenge is a resounding “Yes!”

Rather than attempt a full-fledged imitation of Hepburn’s familiar New England accent, Moran injects the distinctive lilt only infrequently, relying instead on creating the formidable lady’s undeniable New England backbone and her unmistakable star quality.

The text by Matthew Lombardo offers numerous opportunities to glance below the “stiff upper lip” exterior to the sensitive woman whose loyalty, once given, was unshakable but whose self-esteem was frequently at risk.

An incredibly domineering father, the suicide of her beloved older brother and her lifelong love affair with married — and also domineering — Spencer Tracy are undeniable as factors in her on-and-off screen life.

If Moran’s voice could be more strident at times (Hepburn had no qualms about raising her decibel level sharply when necessary), she succeeds in capturing the essence of one of the most unforgettable legends in movie history and holds the full attention of her audience throughout.

Calla lillys, anyone?

“TEA AT FIVE” plays in added performances at 2 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Sunday in the Warner Studio Theatre, 403 N. Main St. South Bend. For reservations and information, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.