'Peter Pan' Flies At The Barn Theatre

Summer seems to be the time for indulging in fantasies.

One of these, the perennially popular tale of “Peter Pan,” the boy who refused to grow up, is alive and very active on stage at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich., where it opened Tuesday evening under the direction of Hans Friedrichs.

Written in 1901 by Sir James M. Barrie, the book became a play in 1904, a Disney animated musical in 1953 and a TV/theatrical musical in 1954. The Mary Martin/Cyril Ritchard production came into the homes of America via TV. It has been repeated periodically, and the musical has become a favorite of theater companies across the world.

One of the big plusses for any company with an accommodating stage (high enough to fly) and a large enough budget (flying is never cheap), is seeing Peter and the Darling children float around the nursery and then fly away to Neverland.

It’s not easy to sing strapped in a harness many feet above the stage floor. Just ask petite Emily Fleming as Peter who has mastered the art of graceful ascent and equally graceful flight patterns. And she is just as charming on land, never overdoing the requisite strutting that marks the egotistic Pan, but adding just the right amount of lonely lad. (Note: The role of Peter has traditionally been played by a girl.)

As Peter’s major adversary in Neverland, Robert Newman brings the “crookedest crook” Capt. Hook to believably (and hilariously) blustering reality. Brandishing his glittering hook, he roars at everyone who stands in his way — excepting, of course, the ever-ticking crocodile. Newman is best known for his multi-decade turn as Josh Lewis in the former CBS daytime drama “Guiding Light.” Since that “Light” went out, he has been active on the musical comedy stage in leading roles around the country as well as guest starring on top TV dramas.

Summer seems to be the time for indulging in fantasies.

One of these, the perennially popular tale of “Peter Pan,” the boy who refused to grow up, is alive and very active on stage at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich., where it opened Tuesday evening under the direction of Hans Friedrichs.

Written in 1901 by Sir James M. Barrie, the book became a play in 1904, a Disney animated musical in 1953 and a TV/theatrical musical in 1954. The Mary Martin/Cyril Ritchard production came into the homes of America via TV. It has been repeated periodically, and the musical has become a favorite of theater companies across the world.

One of the big plusses for any company with an accommodating stage (high enough to fly) and a large enough budget (flying is never cheap), is seeing Peter and the Darling children float around the nursery and then fly away to Neverland.

It’s not easy to sing strapped in a harness many feet above the stage floor. Just ask petite Emily Fleming as Peter who has mastered the art of graceful ascent and equally graceful flight patterns. And she is just as charming on land, never overdoing the requisite strutting that marks the egotistic Pan, but adding just the right amount of lonely lad. (Note: The role of Peter has traditionally been played by a girl.)

As Peter’s major adversary in Neverland, Robert Newman brings the “crookedest crook” Capt. Hook to believably (and hilariously) blustering reality. Brandishing his glittering hook, he roars at everyone who stands in his way — excepting, of course, the ever-ticking crocodile. Newman is best known for his multi-decade turn as Josh Lewis in the former CBS daytime drama “Guiding Light.” Since that “Light” went out, he has been active on the musical comedy stage in leading roles around the country as well as guest starring on top TV dramas.

To those who know him strictly as a dramatic actor, his turn as Hook might be a genuine surprise. Not only does he have a solid baritone, but a real gift for comedy. He obviously is having a really good time as a swashbuckler and that’s contagious!

Melissa Cotton, who has proved she can dance, is also very solid as Wendy, the oldest Darling child and mother-elect of the Lost Boys. She and her siblings Michael (Josh Meredith) and John (Philip David Black) are undeniably too-tall-for-pre-teens but manage returns to adolescence enthusiastically, although Meredith leans too heavily on being the whiney one.

All flew well after thinking “lovely thoughts,” thanks to Hall Associated Flying Effects.

Peter Pan  The Barn Theatre Augusta Mich.The only “adults” in the cast are Penelope Alex as Mrs. Darling (with Newman doubling as Mr. Darling) and longtime Barn veteran Dusty Reeds as the grown up Wendy. Both add a welcome anchor of maturity.

The rest of the ensemble is divided into three parts: Lost Boys, Indians and Pirates, with each providing its own level of shouts and growls and whoops. Julie Grisham as Tiger Lily leads the Indians, forever battling Hook and his crew and dancing ferociously.

One of the most popular characters is nothing but a gleam of light, with the voice of a xylophone. Tinker Bell, the mischievous fairy who guards Peter Pan and reacts jealously to Wendy’s arrival, earned extended applause as Peter pleaded with the audience to clap hands if they believed in fairies, thus bringing her back to full LED strength.

Matt Shabala leads The Barn orchestra which has improved since the “42nd Street” fiasco, but still has a way to go. Costuming by Michael Wilson Morgan is appropriately ragged and dirt and the “animals” of Neverland — the Lion, the Kangaroo, the balletic Ostrich (Sarah Bomber) and especially Nana (David Rolando), the Darlings’ nurse/sheepdog — all are garbed in keeping with their kind.

The most creative one, however, is the ferocious croc, body divided into segments with a gaping mouth controlled by a sure-seated Indian. He got a great deal of applause and his return was eagerly awaited, especially since the sound of his ticking flywheel meant frantic flight for Hook.

In the set design by Steven Lee Burright has a clever premise that, for me, unfortunately didn’t work. The entire show is played here in the Darling nursery, with the childrens’ beds pulled back when the action goes to Neverland or the Pirate Ship. I assume the idea was that everything was in their imaginations and therefore they really never left home. An interesting premise which might have worked better if the pastel shades of the nursery scrim walls weren’t always so predominant and the entrances and exits were not the bedroom door (up the stairs), Nana’s doghouse and the nursery fireplace. A more definitive lighting design also would have helped.

Whatever, the score is melodic and humorous, the story is familiar and fun and the cast — young and not-so-young alike — brings out the child in all of us.

“PETER PAN” plays through June 25 in The Barn Theatre on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, Mich. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit www.barntheatre.com.

Women Are Winners in Parton Musical

Every female in America who has worked “9 to 5” will find something in the Dolly Parton musical that strikes a familiar chord.

The tuneful tale of three female office workers — their trials and tribulations and how they overcome — opened Wednesday evening at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre. The setting is the 1980s, but there is no doubt that many of the “roadblocks” experienced by Violet, Doralee and Judy are, unfortunately, still around.

Based on the 1980 movie of the same name, “9 to 5 The Musical” benefits from the addition of many more Parton songs, each of which moves the plot or exposes the feelings of the main characters. The title tune is, of course, the most familiar and it is just about impossible to keep the feet still when the excellent WW orchestra led by Thomas N. Stirling strikes up the opening chords.

Violet Newstead (Kira Lace Hawkins) is a widow with a teen-age son, hoping for the promotion that will recognize her professional accomplishments. Doralee Rhodes (Libby Schneider) is a secretary with a husband and the dream of becoming a country singer. Judy Bernly (Lauren Roesner) is the new girl, recently divorced and learning slowly to stand on her own. She has no secretarial skills, in spite of which Violet hires her.

The snake in the office grass is Franklin Hart, Jr. (David Schlumpf), described accurately as a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” and that’s putting it mildly. He is fixated on Doralee who holds off his chasing and groping in order to keep her job. Unfortunately, reluctance to fight back leads others to believe her a willing participant.

9 to 5  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw  INA series of pretty improbable events results in the women holding Hart a captive in his own home. His wife Missy (Heather Dell) is on a cruise, leaving his administrative assistant and office spy Roz Keith (Sarah Jackson), the only one who even notices he is missing. She loves her boss!

Of course, no good deed goes hidden for long but just when it seems that the scheme has failed, like all good musical comedies, everything is right by the finale. (Think “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”)

Along the climb to the top of the corporate ladder — or, at least, to the next pay tier — there is some very excellent singing (this seems to be the year of great voices in Warsaw), some very high-stepping dancing (choreography is by former Wagon Wheeler Marjorie Failoni, asst. choreographer for the Broadway production), and a whole lot of very funny business from the mind of director Andy Robinson, executed with no regard to loss of life or limb (just kidding!) by the no-holds-barred ensemble.

Schlumpf, who opened this season as the scene-stealing Lord Farquaad in “Shrek The Musical,” proves here that tall can be as hilarious as short. Sporting a black handlebar mustache (which he obviously wishes could be twirled), a wicked gleam in his eyes and a killer baritone (too bad Hart’s second act solo was written out to shorten later productions), he is definitely the boss you love to hate!

Hawkins is again a triple threat! Singing, dancing and acting, her character is the strongest of the trio and she delivers beautifully on all counts. Whether dreaming of being “One of the Boys” or giving in to a romance with Joe (Matt Hill), a younger colleague (“Let Love 9 to 5 Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw INGrow”), she infuses what could be a stock character with warmth, humor and determination.

There is no doubt that Schneider’s Doralee is the Broadway version of show creator Dolly Parton. Blonde curls bobbing, pink knit skirt and sweater hugging every curve and southern accent softening each word, she details her history well in “Backwoods Barbie” and, never losing that familiar Parton smile, is a real audience favorite.

Roesner is the newcomer, several years back fashion-wise and in corporate world experience. Her on-the-job education is interesting and, when she finally stands on her own (“Get Out and Stay Out”), her vocal eviction of her slimy ex is a ceiling raiser and almost too much of a belt.

A crowd pleaser, Jackson is hilarious as she vamps her absent boss in “Heart to Hart,” a soapy serenade to a skank which makes her odd attachment almost understandable. And in the “no small parts” department, kudos to Leigh Ellen Jones for a very convincing tippler.

The production values are up to the usual excellence of a Wagon Wheel show. An added touch is a special video appearance by — but you can check that out yourself.

”9 TO 5” plays through June 29 in the arena theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.org.

Let's Hear It From The Girls!

If your instant visualization of a jazz musician is a middle-aged gentleman, possibly with a receding hairline, a slightly wrinkled face and a constantly tapping toe, visualize again!

Nothing could be farther from the reality of two of the most talented jazz musicians being featured in the Elkhart Jazz Festival 2013.

Both are young, very talented, very attractive and very well-versed on the subject of jazz — past and present — and undoubtedly will play an important part in its future.

The only difference is that Bria Skonberg plays trumpet and flugelhorn and Ariel Pocock can be found at the piano.

Both will be familiar to regular visitors at past EJFs.

Bria came to the 2009 EJF as a member of the west coast sextet Mighty Aphrodite, an all-girl group which was a definite plus that year. She not only played but sang. Today she leads the Bria Skonberg Quintet and has changed her “coast of residence” to New York City.

If your instant visualization of a jazz musician is a middle-aged gentleman, possibly with a receding hairline, a slightly wrinkled face and a constantly tapping toe, visualize again!

Nothing could be farther from the reality of two of the most talented jazz musicians being featured in the Elkhart Jazz Festival 2013.

Both are young, very talented, very attractive and very well-versed on the subject of jazz — past and present — and undoubtedly will play an important part in its future.

The only difference is that Bria Skonberg plays trumpet and flugelhorn and Ariel Pocock can be found at the piano.

Both will be familiar to regular visitors at past EJFs.

Bria came to the 2009 EJF as a member of the west coast sextet Mighty Aphrodite, an all-girl group which was a definite plus that year. She not only played but sang. Today she leads the Bria Skonberg Quintet and has changed her “coast of residence” to New York City.

She made the move from British Columbia in the fall of 2010. “I came to New York for its resources,” she said. When contemplating a change, “I thought of moving maybe to Los Angeles or New Orleans, but New York is the most challenging,” Bria explained, adding that, in the course of playing many jazz festivals she got to know many musicians who told her to go to New York.

Ariel Pocock at the Elkhart (IN) Jazz Festival“Music from all over the world is here,” she said. “I’ve been trying to pick and choose what to do and what to learn. I feel like a sponge, absorbing so much. I’m getting better at my instrument. I want to keep pushing myself in different ways, checking out all kinds of music, not just jazz.”

At the EJF, the quintet will be doing a lot of the arrangements Bria has put together, originals or old jazz songs done in a new and interesting way.

“I do all the arranging,” said the young blonde who could pass for a model. “The hardest part (after her move to NY) was finding musicians who are versatile enough to play a variety of styles — and who are available to play.”

She found a good fit with Random Act Records. The Florida-based company produced her last CD in April 2010. Random Act also appealed to Bria because it donates 10 percent of all on-line sales to the charity of her choice. No surprise, the Jazz Foundation of America benefits from “So Is The Day.”

“I am lucky to have this kind of opportunity at this time of my life,” Bria said. “Things are continually getting better.”

As for the future, “I would like to be identified as somebody who has ideals,” she said. “Honoring the traditions and not forgetting where you came from but still pushing the envelope.”

Ariel debuted here two years ago and instantly became one of the talented teens about whom Jazz Festival audiences have a proprietary air. She headed a trio then and now, but the 2013 musicians in the Ariel Pocock Trio are her fellow students at the University of Miami where she will be a junior and is a continuing student of jazz great Shelly Berg (also an EJF favorite!) working toward her degree in jazz performance.

Her dad David, who she describes as “very important” in her musical upbringing, was her piano teacher when she began studying at age eight. Even after more than a decade, “I’m just scratching the surface,” she said.

Although classes take up most of her time, Ariel has been performing during the summer at such prestigious venues as the Stanford Jazz Workshop and the Iowa City Jazz Festival.

The importance of music in the schools is a priority to Ariel who, through UofM, was working last year with an after-school program at a middle school in downtown Miami. This year, she will be teaching her own vocal and jazz combos and master classes at the Stanford camps.

This month — June — marks another milestone for the young pianist. Her first CD, “Touchstone,” was released. On it are “some originals as well as covers for Randy Newman and James Taylor tunes arranged for the jazz trio.”

With her focus primarily on performing, Ariel admits she likes live performing best. “I don’t prefer singing over playing or vice versa,” she said. “But I spend most of my time on the piano.”

Visitors to the 2013 EJF can hear both Bria and Ariel on a number of stages from the Civic Plaza “freebie” to the Lerner Theatre Mainstage and several other ticket-required rooms throughout the weekend.

Check the free Schedule of Events for times and places for all festival concerts.

See you at Big Time Jazzmatazz!

Music And (Tap) Dance Beat The Blues

Back in the days of the Great Depression, Americans found some relief at the movies, especially when a musical comedy was heading the bill. One of the really big cinematic hits of 1933 was a musical which survived that depression and, in the current “slump,: is still a great way to lift your spirits.

“42nd Street” is now live and currently on stage at The Barn Theatre in Kalamazoo, Mich., where the all-singing, all-dancing, all-comedy show opened the 2013 season Tuesday evening under the direction of Hans Friederichs.

OK. The dialogue written by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble for the 1980 Tony Award-winning Best Musical (and Tony-winning Best Revival in 2001) is happily as consistently corny as the plot, but the score by Harry Warren and Al Dublin is wonderfully familiar and contains songs that have become a part of the Great American Songbook.

It’s time to suspend disbelief — bigtime!

Maybe you won’t believe that little Peggy Sawyer (Melissa Cotton) from Allentown, Pa., could come to New York and immediately land in the chorus of a new musical “Pretty Lady,” being produced and directed by Broadway legend Julian Marsh (Eric Parker). The show is his chance to overcome a series of flops and he is forced to accept fading diva Dorothy Brock (Penelope Alex) as its leading lady because her boyfriend, Kiddie Kar King Abner Dillon (Roy Brown), is bankrolling the production.

Maybe it seems improbable that Dorothy breaks her ankle the night before opening and Peggy is the only one who can replace her. Can she learn 25 pages of dialogue, 10 dance numbers and six songs in 36 hours? Hey, this is show business. Of course she can!

Back in the days of the Great Depression, Americans found some relief at the movies, especially when a musical comedy was heading the bill. One of the really big cinematic hits of 1933 was a musical which survived that depression and, in the current “slump,: is still a great way to lift your spirits.

“42nd Street” is now live and currently on stage at The Barn Theatre in Kalamazoo, Mich., where the all-singing, all-dancing, all-comedy show opened the 2013 season Tuesday evening under the direction of Hans Friederichs.

OK. The dialogue written by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble for the 1980 Tony Award-winning Best Musical (and Tony-winning Best Revival in 2001) is happily as consistently corny as the plot, but the score by Harry Warren and Al Dublin is wonderfully familiar and contains songs that have become a part of the Great American Songbook.

It’s time to suspend disbelief — bigtime!

Maybe you won’t believe that little Peggy Sawyer (Melissa Cotton) from Allentown, Pa., could come to New York and immediately land in the chorus of a new musical “Pretty Lady,” being produced and directed by Broadway legend Julian Marsh (Eric Parker). The show is his chance to overcome a series of flops and he is forced to accept fading diva Dorothy Brock (Penelope Alex) as its leading lady because her boyfriend, Kiddie Kar King Abner Dillon (Roy Brown), is bankrolling the production.

Maybe it seems improbable that Dorothy breaks her ankle the night before opening and Peggy is the only one who can replace her. Can she learn 25 pages of dialogue, 10 dance numbers and six songs in 36 hours? Hey, this is show business. Of course she can!

In the journey from first rehearsal to opening night, The Barn company throws itself — bodies and voices — into the improbable scenario. The result is two hours and 15 minutes (including intermission) of fun, with a good deal of the credit going to Amy Harpenau who not only plays Anytime Annie but is choreographer for the tap numbers 42nd Street  The Barn Theatre  Augusta Mich.that just keep coming and coming and coming. From solo to quartet to entire ensemble, it is the rhythm of tap shoes that sets the pace for “42nd Street” and, to some degree or other, EVERYBODY TAPS most especially in the glitzy first act finale “We’re In the Money,” the second act show stopper “Lullaby of Broadway” and the all-out title tune. Difficult not to sing along!

Cotton contributes a major share and does it well, not that tap dancing ever looks easy but she makes it look like fun. With her is the show’s co-choreographer, Jamey Grisham, who plays Billy Lawlor, egotistic tenor and self-styled ladies’ man. Two of the production’s show-stopping numbers are in the feet of a quartet of girls — Jillian Weimer, Hannah Eakin, Harpenau and Cotton — who dance to lunch, to the station and to Broadway without missing a beat.

Bethany Edlund and Steven Lee Burright are Maggie Jones and Bert Barry, show writers and comedians. Gregory Thomas Grimes is Andy Lee, the hardworking and frequently frustrated dance director.

The source of his frustration is two fold: the star and the director. Alex, a veteran of many fast-paced Barn farces, is an expert at giving a line just the right twist at just the right time. Her physical comedy is featured perfectly in the feathery fiasco that is the “Shadow Waltz.”

Parker, another Barn veteran, blusters his way through a role that requires going over the top. He has one of the show’s most repeated and most famous lines. Giving Peggy a final pep talk before her hurried debut, he declares “You are going out there a youngster, but you have got to come back a star.”

The only sour note (or notes) in this production come from the pit and the seven piece orchestra under the direction of pianist Matt Shabala. Too frequently too loud and with too many bad notes to make any suggestion of its being well-rehearsed difficult to believe, it is hoped that this group will get it together not only for this show but for the rest of the nearly-all musical season.

“42nd STREET” plays through June 23 in the theater on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta. For reservation and performance times, call (269) 731-4121 or visit www.barntheatre.com

Under The Laughter, Food For Thought

The debate between religion and science has never been so hilariously handled as it is in “End Days,” the comedy by Deborah Zoe Laufer which opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Warner Studio Theatre.

Have no fear that this is a ponderous philosophical discussion between studious opponents. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the laughs come so quickly and frequently it’s difficult to describe the dysfunctions of the Stein family — and neighbor Nelson Steinberg — as any kind of a debate.

Excepting that the idiosyncrasies of the individuals begin to take on familiar— if not rings, then dingles, as they state/plead/demand attention to views that seem at firsdiametrically opposed but which, by the end (which really is the beginning), seem not so far apart.

The premise is ridiculous but unsettlingly familiar. Sylvia Stein (Andrea Smiddy-Schlagel) is a Jew who has converted and found a personal relationship with Jesus (Arthur Gilchrist). He brings her coffee and chats with her in the living room. She is certain the Rapture is coming soon and is determined to take this saving message not only to husband Arthur (Tucker Curtis) and daughter Rachel (Isabelle Gilchrist) but also to the rest of the unsaved population. To this end, she and Jesus head out daily to distribute pamphlets and recruit possible converts in front of the XXX video store.

[caption id="attachment_467" align="alignleft" width=""]End days  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreSylvia Stein (Andres Smiddy-Schlagel) invites young neighbor Nathan Steinberg (Avery Worrell) to assist in her Christian campaign as Jesus (Arthur Gilchrist) packs up some of their books in this scene from END DAYS.[/caption]

The debate between religion and science has never been so hilariously handled as it is in “End Days,” the comedy by Deborah Zoe Laufer which opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Warner Studio Theatre.

Have no fear that this is a ponderous philosophical discussion between studious opponents. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the laughs come so quickly and frequently it’s difficult to describe the dysfunctions of the Stein family — and neighbor Nelson Steinberg — as any kind of a debate.

Excepting that the idiosyncrasies of the individuals begin to take on familiar— if not rings, then dingles, as they state/plead/demand attention to views that seem at firsdiametrically opposed but which, by the end (which really is the beginning), seem not so far apart.

The premise is ridiculous but unsettlingly familiar. Sylvia Stein (Andrea Smiddy-Schlagel) is a Jew who has converted and found a personal relationship with Jesus (Arthur Gilchrist). He brings her coffee and chats with her in the living room. She is certain the Rapture is coming soon and is determined to take this saving message not only to husband Arthur (Tucker Curtis) and daughter Rachel (Isabelle Gilchrist) but also to the rest of the unsaved population. To this end, she and Jesus head out daily to distribute pamphlets and recruit possible converts in front of the XXX video store.

End days  South Bend (IN) Civic Theatre

Arthur has not been out of his pajamas (or out of the condo) in many, many months. He cannot motivate himself to do anything but sleep and promise to go grocery shopping (or do anything else) “tomorrow.” Meanwhile the cupboards are, literally, empty, a fact which upsets Rachel to no end. She isolates herself from her parents and any peers until a new neighbor, Nelson Steinberg (Avery Worrell), appears at the door dressed as Elvis and bringing a guitar and a song for Rachel.

Nelson is nothing if not persistent and, in the process of talking non-stop, being positive and looking at every suggestion as “fun,” he discovers a bond with Rachel — math and science — most especially the writings of Stephen Hawking (also Arthur Gilchrist). That wheelchair-bound scientist, it seems, chats with Rachel whenever she takes a “smoking” break. The teens bond over Nelson’s knowledge of the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna and the Large Hadron Collider, facts which break the ice with the heretofore uninterested Rachel. (OK. I looked them up!)

Nelson is a Catholic turned to Judaism for the stepfather who adopted him. He is studying for his bar mitzvah. His attempts at reciting Torah strike a chord with Arthur, who volunteers to help with pronunciation.

The winds of change are in the air but can Sylvia get/keep the family together, especially now that she has determined the date for the Rapture (“It’s Wednesday”). If she can’t, will she stay with them? And what will happen if it comes? Or…if it doesn’t come?

End Days  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThese are some of the hilariously weighty problems solved or, at least, brought to compromise, in “End Days.”

Director Sara Bartlett has very successfully accomplished a most difficult task for any director — assembling the right cast. Considering that two of the major characters are high school students, this could not have been easy. In Gilchrist and Worrell she hit the jackpot!

The duo (he will be a sophomore and she, a freshman at Clay High School) could not be easier and more believable in their roles. He is the wonderfully annoying nudge who blossoms into a saving grace. She is so determinedly icy that there is no doubt a large fire is simmering just below the problem-filled surface.

Curtis and Smiddy-Schlagel take roles way outside the box and turn them into anybody’s parents. He is ridden with guilt for surviving his 65 employees and she is wracked with fear that she will be unworthy or alone when the end comes. Both are uncomfortably — but undeniably — human.

Arthur Gilchrist goes from Jesus to Hawking with a twist of his hair and a flip of his motorized wheelchair and handles both persona quite well.

No matter how you think it all will end, watching “End Days” will definitely give you hope— and a lot of laughs!

“END DAYS” will be presented Wednesday through Sunday in the Warner Studio Theatre (open seating) at South Bend Civic Theatre, 403 N. Main Street, South Bend. For reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org

'Shrek' moves from film to musical stage

Wagon Wheel Theatre opened its 2013 season Wednesday evening with a monster musical aimed at the child in all of us.

“Shrek The Musical” is based on the 2001 Dreamworks film which evolved from William Steig’s 1990 fairytale picture book “Shrek!” There has been little lost in the translations, this one with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori. The theatrical version, however, leans more obviously on the theme of being yourself and proud of it, no matter what.

Under the direction of Scott Michaels, who also is choreographer, the talented cast throws itself energetically into the tale of the swamp-dwelling ogre who winds up with a princess in spite of himself.

There is no question that this production, in addition to the aforementioned talented cast, is helped into the winner’s circle by the amazing outfits designed and built by WW resident costumer Stephen R. Hollenbeck. From the first appearance of young Shrek to the rousing finale in which EVERYONE (and there are many) sings and dances, the outstanding costumes just keep coming.

Wagon Wheel Theatre opened its 2013 season Wednesday evening with a monster musical aimed at the child in all of us.

“Shrek The Musical” is based on the 2001 Dreamworks film which evolved from William Steig’s 1990 fairytale picture book “Shrek!” There has been little lost in the translations, this one with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori. The theatrical version, however, leans more obviously on the theme of being yourself and proud of it, no matter what.

Under the direction of Scott Michaels, who also is choreographer, the talented cast throws itself energetically into the tale of the swamp-dwelling ogre who winds up with a princess in spite of himself.

There is no question that this production, in addition to the aforementioned talented cast, is helped into the winner’s circle by the amazing outfits designed and built by WW resident costumer Stephen R. Hollenbeck. From the first appearance of young Shrek to the rousing finale in which EVERYONE (and there are many) sings and dances, the outstanding costumes just keep coming.

Almost every ensemble member plays at least two roles and, in the process, dons many outfits. The four principal players — Shrek (Matthew Janisse), Princess Fiona (Alexandra Howley), Donkey (Jared Howelton) and Lord Farquaad (David Schlumpf) — pretty much stick with one costume excepting Farquaad who displays several knightly robes. Around them are Fairytale Creatures, villagers, guards and royal personages and, no matter the on-stage time for each, their ensembles — clothes and wigs — are carefully crafted, down to the last detail.

It must be said, however, that costumes, no matter how excellent, do not a musical make. The entire package must contain actors who can sing and/or singers who can act and an ensemble that can sing and dance. At WW, the entire package is there!

Guess it’s not necessary to say that recreating animated movie characters cannot be the easiest thing in the theatrical world. Especially since most of them have incredibly distinctive voices and bodies. Not to worry. Janisse delivers a wonderfully grumpy ogre, green head, horn-shaped ears and all. His rough insistence on a solitary life obviously hides an unhappy hermit and his big baritone goes from blustery to balmy with ease. Howelton has the daunting task of recreating Eddie Murphy’s Donkey and he rises vigorously to the challenge! At times. his non-stop verbal barrage is very difficult to understand, although I’m not sure total clarity is necessary as there is never a doubt as to his meaning!

Shrek The Musical  Wafon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw INHowley creates a strong and feisty Fiona, waiting more and more impatiently for rescue by the “love of her life,” whoever that may be. Her determinedly cheery “Morning Person” is a tribute to all those who wake up laughing and her one-up-ogre/female battle with Shrek (“I Think I Got You”) earned sustained laughter, especially from the younger audience members and definitely not just because of the lyrics but because of two other areas in which they “compete” which have nothing to do with singing.

I have to admit that my very favorite character in this “Shrek” is the teeny, tiny Lord Farquaad, the character I was most certain would not be duplicated with any success, given its vertical challenge. Was I wrong!

From his first entrance “marching” up a WW ramp, Schlumpf was an audience favorite. Snarling or sporting a singularly smarmy smile, he was the villain you love to hate and I, for one, wished the character had more stage time (although I’m not sure his knees could stand it). Crossing his stubby “legs,” shouting orders to his cowering knights and villagers or dreaming up a self-serving plot to capture the crown, he was delightfully evil. His hilariously revealing “Ballad of Farquaad” was a highlight of the second act.

Again, Michaels’ choreography amazes, given the limited area available for dance. He and his dancers turn it into a ballroom or, at least, a studio space. Also again, credit goes to the always-supportive never-overpowering WW orchestra led by conductor Thomas N. Stirling. The multi-location set design by David Lepor and Ray Zupp creates just the right fairy tale feeling, augmented by Sehallah Cristobal’s frequently twinkling lighting design.

And last, but NEVER least, is the big (and I mean BIG) pink dragon, moved into almost-reality by black-clad handlers a la “War Horse.” The Jurassic creature’s vocal prowess is courtesy of Sarah Jackson, seen only as Shrek’s Mama Ogre. It’s appearance is another of the “how do they do that?” moments that happen frequently at the Wheel!

One word of caution: the running time of “Shrek The Musical” is just under three hours.

”SHREK THE MUSICAL” plays tonight and Sunday and Tuesday through Saturday in the theater at 2517 E. Centre Street, Warsaw. For reservations, call 267-8041 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com