Lots Of Life, Laughs In This Creature

Back in the early 19th century — undoubtedly on a dark and stormy night — young Mary Shelley, wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, created one of the most enduring creatures in English literature.

Her book was titled “Frankenstein.” The name referred to Dr. Victor Frankenstein, not the undead monster cobbled together with various limbs from the definitely dead with whom it is definitely associated.

Through the centuries, the story of the doctor and his creation has lived and grown into a wide (and wild) variety of incarnations in plays, movies and television shows. Among the most famous is the 1931 film which made a star of Boris Karloff and gave cinematic dialogue one of its most famous lines: “It’s alive! It’s alive.”

The latest theatrical view of The Monster is indeed alive and well and much more hilarious than horrible. To be honest, I much prefer it to the over-Tonyed “The Producers,” also the work of the wildly creative Mel Brooks. (Note: The script contains a good amount of double entendre and a lot not so double.)

“The New Mel Brooks Musical YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN” opened Tuesday evening at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI. It is the last show — and may well be the best — of the 2013 season.

Young Frankenstein  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MIBased on Brooks’ now-cult-classic 1974 film, “Young Frankenstein,” the 2007 Broadway hit borrows a monk, adds songs and a buxom lab assistant and definitely gives a new twist to the doctor’s fiancée, all with the aim of making something old new again.

To judge from the frequent interruptions for applause from the opening night audience, Brooks — and The Barn cast — definitely succeeded.

In the title role of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (“That’s Fronk-en-steen!”), Kevin Robert White does a fine job creating the highly ethical grandson of the original stitcher who, when all is said and done, can’t resist the urge to join the family business. He puts the emphasis on all the right syllables and, once off at a break-neck pace (“There Is Nothing Like The Brain”), never falters, not even for The Barn bats which spent much of act one looking for a way out!

As The Monster with a soft heart and a giant foot on the downbeat, Eric Parker returns to his favorite color (he spent the last two weeks in Shrek green) to deliver a character who needs no words to convey his feelings. In his case, a groan is worth a thousand words!

The undisputed show-stopper here is Penelope Alex as Frau (cue the horses!) Blucher, housekeeper of the castle. Every look and move are perfectly timed to support her depiction of a wildly wacky woman in mourning. When she revealed “He Vas My Boyfriend,” the sustained applause was more than well-deserved.

Young Frankenstein The Barn Theatre  Augusta MIAnother audience favorite (and rightfully so) is the talented Roy Brown in the cowl (and shifting hump) of Igor (”That’s Eye-gor”), faithful assistant to the doctor. His duet with White (“Together Again for the First Time”) is a highlight of their meeting — on Track 29 of the Transylvania Station. !?!Right!?! It is Brooks humor and it just keeps coming!.

Petite Emily Fleming, flying earlier this season as Peter Pan, flies again, this time without wires, as Elizabeth, fast-moving fiancée of Dr. Frankenstein. Her push-me, pull-you solo, “Please Don’t Touch Me,” keeps the already fast action rolling along. Her recognition of “Deep Love,” is an about-face equally well-delivered. With Parker and Philip David Black, who plays a ghostly Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Fleming shares “best voice” honors.

Bethany Edlund is Inga, the accommodating lab assistant, who begins her relationship with the doctor via a “Roll in the Hay,” advises him to “Listen to Your Heart” and joins him — and the Monster and Igor and the villagers of Transylvania Heights — in “Puttin’ On The Ritz.”

Completing the array of familiar characters is Patrick Hunter as Inspector Hans Kemp, village policeman who lost two limbs to the Monster. Describing the price of artificial replacements, he declares “It cost me an arm and a leg!”

And there you have it. About two and a half hours of music and laughs — lots of laughs — with only a few flaws.

On the down side, the scrim used to mask busy cast members moving set pieces, props and furniture behind the actors, rattles annoyingly in its metal rigging and fails to mask anything once the spotlights hit. The wigs need to have the webbing across actors’ foreheads covered and there is a great deal of breaking the fourth wall as characters run up and down the aisles.

These, however, are minor irritations. A story that has lived for almost 200 years is definitely using the right brain!

“The New Mel Brooks Musical YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN” plays through Sept. 1 in the theater on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For show times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121.

Plaids Return To Share Humor, Harmony

Wa-a-a-a-y back in the late 1940s and early ‘50s — before the jarring arrival of rap and hip-hop and iron-lunged singers whose approach to every song was higher and louder — there was a period of harmony in the American Songbook, a period marked by the close musical cooperation of quartets of singers, mostly boys, who left their definitive sounds echoing through the history of popular music.

If you remember them, the Wagon Wheel Theatre production of “Forever Plaid,” which opened Wednesday evening on the Warsaw stage, will be a short (less than two hours including intermission), melody-filled trip to a time that inevitably is recalled as better than it was.

If you don’t remember, look on the performances of four talented young singer/dancer/actors as creators (or re-creators) of a humor-filled pastiche which offers a chance to hear what “the old folks” listened to.

Either way, “Forever Plaid” is a very enjoyable evening’s entertainment. The premise, of course, requires complete suspension of disbelief (and then some!).

It begins with the return of Frankie (Matt Hill), Smudge (Kyle Timson), Sparky (Matthew Janisse) and Jinx (Kevin Clay), collectively known as The Plaids, from a fatal accident on the way to pick up their tuxes for their first professional singing engagement in the local airport’s Fusel Lodge.

Deprived then of the opportunity to make their debut, The Plaids are granted another chance to make “the biggest comeback since Lazarus.” Despite Jinx’s instant nosebleed and Smudge’s panic attack, the boys rally and begin with “Three Coins in the Fountain.”

Forever Plaid  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw INFrom there until the final notes of “Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing,” the music (complete with in-tempo and up-tempo “choreography” designed with movements to fit every word) and the wonderfully out-of-step humor are almost convincing enough to make you believe that it was indeed a better time.

Graduates of “The Osterizer School of Harmonic Blends,” The Plaids forego microphones for more familiar rehearsal props, long-handled plumbers’ helpers, to sing “Crazy ‘Bout Ya Baby.” A “Mexican” chorus of “Perfidia” and a tribute to Mr. C (Perry Como) including “Catch A Falling Star,” are highlights of the first act.

Audience involvement is a part of the second act which finds The Plaids“going Caribbean.” “Day-O” and “Matilda” included stringing Christmas lights and singing along on the latter. Keyboardist Thomas N. Stirling, who provides all the accompaniment with bassist Jill Kaufman, took a break then, which put Smudge at the piano and sent Frankie into the crowd to solicit instrumental assistance. The lady who volunteered was more than up to the challenge. She played AND danced with the guys before being made an honorary Plaid.

Those who remember the CBS Sunday evening TV blockbuster “The Ed Sullivan Toast of the Town” laughed for the 3 minutes and 11 seconds it took three Plaids to recreate the most popular of Sullivan’s variety guests while one played “Lady of Spain” on the accordion.

I felt a twinge of sympathy for those who had no memories of this early ratings giant, and I silently identified every performer, from Senor Wences to the dog act.

Finally trading their white dinner jackets for well-earned plaid coats, the quartet accepted their inevitable fate and went out — and up — in a blaze of harmonic glory.

Directed and choreographed by artistic director Scott Michael, and performed on a set designed by the late Roy Hine for the first WW production, this “Forever Plaid” allowed the young (performers) to present the old (songs) in a show that gave the cheering crowd (of all ages) many “Moments to Remember.”

“FOREVER PLAID” will be presented through Aug. 24 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For show times and reservations call 267-8041 or (866) 823-2618 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com

Grouchy Ogre A Hero At The Barn

For area summer and regional theaters, this, it seems, is the season for “Shrek: The Musical,’ and area audiences can’t get enough of it.

The tale of the grouchy green ogre began life in 1990 as a children’s book. In 2004, it hit the silver screen in a popular animated movie. Its third incarnation was in 2008 when it moved to Broadway and, subsequently, to tours around the country.

Children of all ages (and their parents and grandparents) react with love and laughter to the efforts of an unloved ogre’s efforts to rescue a princess — not to awaken her with a kiss but for a really unpleasant royal who wants to marry her for her crown.

At The Barn, veteran singer/actor Eric Parker has found his season’s role as Shrek. It suits perfectly his vocal range and comedic acting talents. Snarling and growling and roaring and — well, if you know anything about Shrek, you know the posterior blast at which he is an expert — he is the hero in villain’s clothing (green, that is). Trumpet-shaped ears twitching and giant belly bouncing in frustrated anger, he is on a quest to regain his beloved swamp for himself ALONE, the last being the key word to his happiness.

For this reason only he finally accedes to the pleas of the fairytale folk, banished to his swamp by the vertically-challenged Lord Farquaad (Kevin Robert White), to “rescue” the Princess Fiona (Melissa Cotton), waiting impatiently in her tower. This, the devious Farquaad has promised, will let the fairytalers return to Shrek The Musical The Barn Theatre Augusta MItheir homes in Duloc, leaving the swamp for Shrek.

On his quest, Shrek is aided (?) by the world’s most irritatingly loquacious Donkey (Bradford Lewis Rolen), definitely not his first choice for a traveling companion. Nevertheless, the duo proceeds towards the “happily ever after” sought for all fairy tales, which definitely means different things to different people.

Any production of “Shrek: The Musical” must be a total company project. The Barn is fortunate in having Parker (at his best!) and Cotton (also giving her best performance of the season) and Rolen (definitely funny and, even better, 99 percent articulate). White has a built-in visual laugh at his first entrance, but his Farquaad is way more fey than necessary to sustain the humor.

Collectively and individually, the fairytale folk (including the Kelsey Braman’s Dragon and Jamey Grisham’s Pinocchio) are delightful. Their opening “The Goodbye Song” in which they urge Shrek on his way, and especially the “Freak Flag” are highlights as are the tap dancing rats, the back-up singing three blind mice and the assorted knights and guards.

Parker raises the roof with Shrek’s decision to “Build A Wall” and his duet with Fiona, “I Think I Got You Beat” is a show-stopper (on many levels). Cotton’s strong soprano gives warmth and power to all her vocal assignments and she creates a princess to be reckoned with.

Shrek The Musical  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MIIn this production, applause must go to the costumes (excepting only the Gingerbread Man’s baking sheet which badly needs to be sprayed down or changed for one that is not blinding) and the five-piece band which supplies solid support throughout. The set pieces are designed to do at least double duty and work well considering the frequency with which they must come and go.

Jeanine Tesori’s score is pleasant if not memorable and David Lindsay-Abaire’s book and lyrics offer just the right mixture of satire and slapstick, leaving leeway for director Hans Friedrichs to insert some humor of his own. All in all combining for a very fun evening.

“SHREK: THE MUSICAL” plays through Aug. 18 in the theater on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For show times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit www.barntheatre.com

Theatrical insanity rules in "The Nerd"

There are some shows that should say “Leave rational thinking at the door.”

This would be great advice for those attending the Wagon Wheel Theatre production of “The Nerd,” which opened Wednesday evening in the Warsaw theater. Little if any rational thinking is required for the total enjoyment of this fairly insane farce.

“The Nerd” is one of two comedies by the late Larry Shue, an actor/playwright who died in a plane crash at age 39. After seeing “The Nerd,” one wonders what theatrical insanity he might have created had he lived to a ripe old age.

Never mind. “The Nerd” and his second frantic farce, “The Foreigner,” provide enough laughs to last for decades.

The seven character comedy begins quietly enough with only hints of the full-out riots that are to follow. The setting — which is odd enough — is Terre Haute. The characters’ names also are somewhat deliberately off kilter — Willum, Tansy, Axel, Clelia, Thor and Warnock. The only character with a fairly reasonable designation is Rick Steadman (aka The Nerd).

Nevermind. That is the least of the nonsensical goings-on.

Willum Cubbert (Matthew Janisse) is an architect dealing with the impending departure of his girlfriend Tansy McGinnis (Jennifer Dow) for a Weather Girl job in Washington, D.C., and with the arrival-for-dinner of his newest client Warnock (“Call Me Ticki”) Waldgrave (Kyle Timson) with his wife Clelia (Kira Lace Hawkins) and son Thor (Parker Irwin). Commenting caustically on both the departure and arrivals is Willum’s best friend, theater critic Alex Hammond (Rob Montgomery).

Willum, according to Tansy, could use “a little gumption,” a thought that becomes apparent as the evening goes on. She also, incidentally, challenges Alex to do someone “an anonymous favor,” before she leaves town.

The Nerd  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw  INThe dinner guests are a collective nightmare. Thor, described by Alex as “the poster child for planned parenthood,” is a screaming nightmare (and Irwin delivers some piercing chillers) while Clelia is obviously a nervous wreck (check her crockery-destroying outlet) and Ticki, a dominating blowhard.

Tension mounts but it peaks when Steadman (Matt Hill) arrives. He saved Willum’s life in Vietnam and, it turns out, is on hand because of Willum’s promise to do anything and everything he could for him in the future. The two have not ever come face to face.

Steadman soon proves to be the visitor from Hell and wastes no time in taking over Willum’s party, his apartment and, it seems, his life. Getting rid of Steadman becomes the top priority of Willum, Tansy and Alex. There is no need to try and describe their plots, enough to say that they are increasingly wild and unbelievable — to anyone but Rici.

Under the direction of Tony Humrichhouser, who returns to the Wheel every summer to demonstrate his increasing directorial skills, the cast literally goes crazy with their characters and the galloping plotline. Somewhere in the first act my sides began to ache from laughing and “The Nerd” offered no opportunity to stop.

Everyone obviously is having a great time with his/her respective characters. Montgomery has, some would say, “all the good lines.” Each is a zinger and the actor deposits them accurately and with well-deserved authority. Janisse emerges slowly from his self-effacing cocoon and his point-of-no-return explosion is well-deserved. Dow is properly supportive as the sanest of the bunch and Hawkins turns in another solid characterization as the cowering spouse. Timson’s Ticki is right on as the boss you love to hate. As the adenoidal Steadman, Hill is the personification of his title role, giving new meaning to “Nerd.” He is every host’s worse nightmare and definitely will make you think twice before making a sweeping gesture of “thanks,” no matter how life-saving the incident.

“THE NERD” plays through Aug. 10 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For show times and reservations, call 267-8041 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com