Nothing But Fun In The Barn's 'Whorehouse'

In 1978, Broadway audiences were delighted to discover “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” a musical destination that played there for more than 1,500 performances and is receiving a high-powered revival at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich.,

The fact-based story, which somehow seems even more relevant today, features a tough-but-tender madam, a hot-headed sheriff, a spotlight-seeking TV reporter, a shifty governor, several self-serving politicians, and a lot of hard working girls and their eager “guests” of all ages.

Written by Carol Hall, Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, the score features toe-tapping ensemble numbers, comedic solo spots and heart-touching ballads, all of which are delivered with the requisite attitudes by the talented (and hard-working) cast.

Best Little Whorehouse in Texas  The Barn Theatre Augusta MI The “owner-operator” of the famous Chicken Ranch — so-called because Depression era guests paid with poultry  — is Miss Mona, played by Barn veteran Penelope Alex who seems to get better with each season. A strict employer who requires adherence to an unbreakable set of rules (“A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place”), she nevertheless has “been there, done that” and consequently empathizes with her girls. Her final “Bus From Amarillo” brings everything poignantly full circle.

Miss Mona’s sometime lover and longtime friend, Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, is in the capable hands of guest star Robert Newman. He takes full advantage of the lawman’s penchant for x-rated language , hair-trigger temper and lack of self-control to express himself vigorously, especially when confronting hypocritical politicians. His feelings for the “Good Old Girl” are obvious, even without words.

Turning the spotlight on Miss Mona and her enterprise is publicity-seeking TV Watch Dog Melvin P. Thorpe, delivered with obvious enjoyment by another Barn vet, the always excellent Eric  Parker. Leading his flashlight-carrying Dogettes, he stirs the tempest in the chili pot until there is nowhere to hide.

Vacillating with a flourish is the now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t Governor of Texas, a wonderfully hilarious Bruce Hammond, who offers some slippery tips on doing “The Sidestep.”

Shinnerrie Jackson is Jewel, who looks after Miss Mona and her girls but breaks out long enough to stop the show en route to “24 Hours of Lovin’.”

The newest additions to Miss Mona’s entourage are Angel (Melissa Cotton), already a veteran, and Shy (Briana Biffath), a definite newcomer. Both are welcomed by the girls, who also double as reporters, townspeople, Melvin P. Thorpe Singers and Texas Aggie Angelettes.

Best Little Whorehouse in Texas  The Barn Theatre Augusta MI The last finds Hannah Eakin, Bethany Edlund and Lindsay Maron with Anna Segatti as gravity-defying Imogene Charlene Greene, plus eight supplemental Angelettes, cheering on the team in one of the show’s funniest segments.

There are more than a few show-stopping numbers in “Whorehouse,” not the least of these being “The Aggie Song,” which ends Act One with the winning college football team heading out of the locker room and onto the bus to “heaven,” aka the Chicken Ranch. Led by choreographer Jamey Grisham, the Aggies (who also double throughout) “romp and stomp” in a high-powered routine that absolutely deserved the extended cheers it received.

Best Little Whorehouse in Texas  The Barn Theatre Augusta MI Director Hans Fredrichs keeps the pace exactly as it should be, from fast and furious to slow and serious.

Portraying town officials are Charlie King, Nicholas Fuqua (both also in the on-stage band) and Kevin Robert White, with Patrick Hunter as a senator who gets caught — literally — with his pants down.

Staying behind the counter is Doatsey Mae (Eli Brickey), a waitress who shares her dreams in one of the quieter moments.

Guitarist King also serves as narrator but unfortunately most of his dialogue is unintelligible. Poor balance between himself and the too-loud band is part of the problem but this also made it difficult, early on, to hear the singers.

Whatever the minor, correctable flaws, The Barn’s “Whorehouse” is most definitely the place to visit for a truly fun-filled evening.

You don’t even have to take a chicken!

“THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS” plays through July 6 in the theater on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For show times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit

Fascinating True Tale Stranger Than Fiction

The true story of an all-American con man is the basis for the fast-paced, dance-filled “Catch Me If You Can, The Musical,” which opened Wednesday evening at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre.

The life of young Frank Abagnale Jr. was detailed in his 1980 autobiography which, in 2003, became a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. It went to Broadway in 2011.

The addition of music to the fascinating tale adds greatly to its “enjoyability,”  and the high-stepping Wagon Wheel ensemble kicks the action up a notch with every energy-filled production number.

Catch Me If You Can The Musical Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INThe leading roles of Abagnale Jr. and his FBI pursuer Carl Hanratty are in the capable hands of Jeremy Seiner and Javier Ferreira, respectively. Both have strong, warm voices and both succeed in creating sympathetic, multi-level characters, confirming the old adage that no one is all good or all bad.

Seiner slips and slides his way through a number of careers, smiling all the way. Beginning as a substitute French teacher in a public school (thanks to wearing the blazer from a private school he could not afford to attend), he progresses to forging checks ($2 million before age 20),  then decides to become an airlines pilot (co-pilot actually, he never has to fly), a doctor (no surgeries, just supervising the ER) and a lawyer.

In each, he is accepted without question thanks to a slick gift of gab and the example of his sadly alcoholic father, Frank Sr., (a moving Scott Fuss) whose motto is always “Make Butter Out of Cream.”

As he goes from one profession to the next, the on-going question is “How does he do that??? The same is true theatrically of the swift and silent segues from one location to another and another and another, each one equally established in Terry Julien’s understated set design.

That also is the question as the talented (and incredibly flexible) dancers shift from go-go ladies in fluorescent garb to Vegas-style fan dancers to Pan Am stewardesses (or is that stewardii?) and pilots, to black-hatted government agents to nurses and doctors — all without missing a mind-boggling high kick or a hip snap or a twirl! Director Scott Michaels’ choreography (and the ensemble’s execution) is more than enough reason to catch this production.

Catch Me If You Can The Musical  Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INIn an about-face from her portrayal of “Mary Poppins,” Kira Lace Hawkins dons a blonde wig and a strapless gown and just the right touch of French accent as Frank’s mother whose marriage to his soldier dad was her only way to America. Her revealing  “Don’t Be A Stranger” is beautifully done.

The tie between Frank Jr. and Hanratty is definitely one that binds (“Little Boy Be A Man”). As the agent searches for “The Man Inside the Clues” and his prey continues to live in “Someone Else’s Skin,” they eventually come face to face — briefly — and discover they share a bittersweet connection that finally finds them “Stuck Together (Strange But True).

In the end, it is Frank Jr.’s search for true love (Carolyn Ann Miller) and a “real” family (Mike Yocum and Kristen Yasenchak) that prove his undoing. The desire to shed his false personas and just be himself has not-surprizing consequences.

As always, Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s collection of picture-perfect costumes, Thomas Sterling’s excellent 13-piece orchestra, the plot-appropriate headers and the supporting lighting and sound designs are integral parts of what makes a Wagon Wheel production a consistently great way to spend an evening (or afternoon).

In “Catch Me If You Can,” the usual high quality is wrapped around a production that introduces most audience members to a new show. It is a happy meeting.

“CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, THE MUSICAL’” plays through June 28 in the theater at 2517 E. Center St., Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call 267-8041 or visit

'Mary Poppins' A Wagon Wheel Theatre Delight

In 1934, Australian author P.L. Travers wrote the first of eight books about “Mary Poppins,” a magical nanny whose adventures have been translated through the years into many languages and presented in several theatrical forms.

The latest of these — a musical comedy based on the books and the 1964 Walt Disney film — is receiving its regional premiere at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre.

It opened Wednesday evening to an SRO audience of  — excuse the phrase — children of all ages. (Must say early on that those wishing to attend this rapidly selling-out production, should make their reservations very quickly. You will not be disappointed!)

The award-winning music and lyrics by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, with theatrical additions by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, plus the book by Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame, combine with director Scott Michaels’ always inventive and incredibly amazing choreography and a wonderfully talented cast, for a season—opener that will be difficult to top.

From the moment Bert (the engaging Justin Schuman) emerges from one of the many chimney tops on Cherry Tree Lane to the joyous kite-flying finale 2 ½ hours later, there is one show-stopping moment after another.

Mary Poppins (a “spit-spot” Kira Lace Hawkins) does fly (within the vertical limitations of the arena stage) but the delight in this production is not in special effects but in the energy and talent of the enthusiastic company.

When the “Practically Perfect” nanny unpacks her magic bag to the wonderment of the Banks children Michael (Parker Irwin) and Jane (Brielle Fehlmann), the relief of their parents George (a properly starchy Scott Fuss) and Winifred (an understandably frustrated Jennifer Dow) and the amazement of the Banks’ staff, a bustling housekeeper/cook (Katie Finan) and an accident-prone butler (Javier Ferriera), it is obvious that, eventually, all will be as it should be, even for the statues in the park.

Mary Poppins  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw INThis in spite of the arrival of Mr. Banks’ former nanny, Miss Andrews (one of the diverse characters created by Kristen Yasenchak who also is the Bird Woman), who turns out to be a very unwelcome surprise.

Mary Poppins  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw  INThe adult company is, as always, an A-list group, with special applause to the inexhaustible dancers who play a multitude of roles from townspeople to toys to chimney sweeps — and all without missing a “Step In Time.” NOTE: Watch for Isabelle Awald, already a WW veteran at age 9, who dances an adorable Penguin in “Jolly Holiday” and a “swinging” doll in “Playing the Game.”

And I confess that, throughout the evening, I was most amazed by Fehlmann and Irwin, also pre-teen WW veterans. They have the assurance of much older performers, never drop character, sing well and are always clearly understood. The children play much larger roles in the theatrical version and these two could take it right to Broadway or, at least, on the road.

Praising David Lepor’s flexible, multi-level set, Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s brilliant, period-perfect costume design, Chris Pollnow’s well-balanced sound, Patrick Chan’s mood-inducing

lighting and Thomas N. Sterling’s highly-listenable 10-piece orchestra seems like carrying coals to Newcastle.

The WW production team is first class. No matter how many endless hours it takes, they always arrive at a product that cannot be topped by any theater in the drivable area. AND the many extensive set changes are done swiftly and silently. They are, after all, a part of the show.

The result, to quote Mary Poppins, is “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius!”

“MARY POPPINS” plays through June 14 at the Wagon Wheel Theatre, 2517 E. Center St., Warsaw IN.  For performance times and reservations, call 267-8041 or visit

'Mockingbird' Still Delivers A Strong Truth

Since its publication in 1960, Harper Lee’s only novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “To Kill A Mockingbird,” has never been out of print.

The 1962 film version earned Gregory Peck the only acting Oscar of his career and the American Film Institute named his character, Atticus Finch, the greatest movie hero.

That’s a lot to live up to.

 Since the theatrical version appeared in 1990, however, a good many companies have been giving it a try. South Bend Civic Theatre’s production opened Friday evening in its Wilson Mainstage Theatre for a run that already has added two performances.

To Kill A Mockingbird  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThere is no denying that the characters created by Lee (based on family and friends, especially her father) are recognizable to audiences everywhere, even without Southern connections.

It is easy to observe the actions of Lee’s characters (dramatized by playwright Christopher Sergel) from the safety of an auditorium seat. Less easy when remembering  these people were not so far from “the norm” less than 50 years ago.

As seen through the eyes of three children — Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Therese Klingele), her older brother Jeremy “Jem” (Soren Campbell) and a visiting friend Charles Baker “Dill” Harris (Preston Bolser) —  the ugly events in their small hometown are swiftly recognized as good and bad or, in this case, black and white.

The trial of Tom Robinson (Justin Williams), a black man accused of beating and raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell (Natalie MacRae), can have only one outcome in spite of his obvious innocence, irrefutably presented by his white defense attorney Atticus Finch (Greg Melton).

Atticus is definitely the “good guy” in this cautionary tale, written with such simple humanity that he seems genuinely honest and caring and never too good to be true. Following in Peck’s large footprints is a challenge to the most accomplished actor. Melton gives it a good try.

To Kill A Mockingbird South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreInitially, interaction between himself and the children is stilted and rather awkward, but their dialogue gradually warms and a familial empathy eventually underscores these relationships. In the courtroom, his summation is delivered with just enough intensity to make us believe his client might have a chance, and foregoes overdone theatricality in lieu of deeply-felt sincerity.

Klingele, playing Scout for the second time, has a good grasp of the character but is rather too tall to be physically convincing as a pre-teen. Campbell delivers a sturdy older brother’Mockingbird’ Still and, as the visiting cousin, Bolser’s rapid-fire delivery offers a sharp contrast to his country siblings. It could, however, be slowed for complete comprehension.

Shepley and MacRae as the vengeful Ewells definitely fit the description of “ignorant rednecks.” Foul-mouthed, filthy and obviously fearful of the truth, both do fine jobs of creating characters way out of their comfort zones. Williams’ Tom is the target of their deliberate deception. With stoic acceptance, he rebuts their lies with his truth, obviously knowing, in that atmosphere, that it will do no good.

to Kill A Mockingbird  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreMelissa Manier as Maudie Atkinson serves as narrator for the piece, guiding onlookers through the multi-layers of society in 1935 Maycomb, Ala. She neither judges nor comments but offers one calm voice in the racially-fractured community. Steve Chung’s Sheriff Heck Tate is another voice of reason and Chung turns in his usual solid characterization.

Director Gary Oesch, a former SBCT Atticus Finch, leads the large cast through the tangled web of wrong as right and right as futile. He applaudably has left the offensive “n-word” in as written. The almost casual way in which the townspeople use “nigger” is like a dash of cold water in the face, most especially when it comes from a young boy (Sion Shepley) taunting Jem. It is not an easy thing to hear and instigates some serious soul searching.

Jacee Rohlck’s Southern set design covers the entire stage and transfers from residential area to courtroom cleverly but with much too much banging and clumping as in-coming jurors and onlookers attempt to set it up in the dark. All the while Manier is delivering lengthy transitional dialogue. She had my sympathy.

Another mood-destroying “little thing” was the screen door on the Finch porch which actors just let bang shut.  An easy thing to fix but, when ignored, increasingly annoying.

”TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD” plays through June 8 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium, 403 N. Main Street, South Bend. For reservations and performance times call 234-1112 or visit