'Wonderettes' Sing Back The Years

In the beginning there was “The Taffetas” (1988), followed closely by “Forever Plaid” (1990), the only male entry. The last in the nostalgia-based, strictly-singing., small-cast musicals was “The Marvelous Wonderettes” (1999), which opened Wednesday evening in Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre.

Considering WW’s major success with its productions of “Plaid,” it’s only puzzling that “The Marvelous Wonderettes” has not made an appearance before this.

That said, the ladies are worth the wait.

There is no doubt that all “mini-musicals” are saddled with obviously contrived plots devised solely to facilitate the insertion of as many “golden oldies” as possible.

There is no attempt at being believable in any area — excepting the music. Here the quality of the solo voices as well as their blend is what counts. It’s what makes it worth sitting for the two hours it takes the Wonderettes to deliver about 30 songs. All are designed to take you back to a melodic youth or let the youngsters hear the tunes that helped mom and dad (or grandma and grandpa) fall in — and out — of love back in “the good old days.”

Director/choreographer Scott Michaels has his work cut out for him, creating movements for each number that are different yet similar and keeping the action moving along. As always, he delivers.

In this melodic time travel he has the talented Wonderettes — Leigh Ellen Jones as Cindy Lou, Kira Lace Hawkins as Missy, Sarah Jackson as Betty Jean and Jennifer Dow as Suzy — with which to work. And they succeed in creating definitely individual characters and turning back the clock whether the tempos from conductor/keyboardist Thomas Stirling and his outstanding “band of five” are up or down.

The storyline is tangled, beginning with the Wonderettes last-minute call to entertain at their 1958 high school prom. They reveal the prom theme, “Marvelous Dreams,” and announce voting (by one section of the audience) will determine the prom queen who will then choose her king.

There is an on-going rivalry between best friends Betty Jean and Cindy Lou and it becomes obvious that Suzy is dating the boy running the lights while Missy has a crush on Mr. Lee, the teacher who led the group to the cheerleading finals. (NOTE: Mr. Lee is chosen from the gentlemen sitting in the front row as is Mrs. MacPhearson, the English teacher who counts prom ballots.)

The second act is at the 10 year reunion. Suzy is married and expecting and both she and Betty Jean are having marital problems. Missy is still hoping for a proposal and Betty Jean and Cindy Lou are still feuding.

The Marvelous Wonderettes Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INAnd that’s just for starters.

But no matter how flimsy the plot (and who expects believability?) the important part is the music and, from start to finish, it is solid.

Each of the quartet has at least one solo, proving all have solid voices, but their four-part harmony is the most remarkable. Difficult to deliver side-by-side, it is even more impressive when done from the four corners of scene designer Jacki Andersen’s nostalgically prom-in-the-gym setting.

Costume designer Stephen R. Hollenbeck finishes the official summer season with wonderfully decade-spanning costumes that recreate the colors and styles of the time. And the great wigs by Dow are the icing on the pastel ensembles.

There is no doubt many of the songs will bring back memories, good or not-so-good. “Mr. Sandman,” “Allegheny Moon,” “Stupid Cupid,” “Secret Love,” “Wedding  Bell Blues,” It’s My Party,” “Son of A Preacher Man” and “Respect” are only a few of the hits from the 1950’s and ‘60’s found in the repertoire of “The Marvelous Wonderettes.”

Whether you could sing along with every tune or are just hearing them for the first time, the Wonderettes make them marvelous.

“THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES” plays through Aug. 23 in the arena theater at 2515 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.org

'Hair' At The Barn For Musical Love-In

In 1967, a show was born in Joe Papp’s Public Theatre — the first non-Shakespeare production in that space — that was destined to change the face of musical theater.

It moved to Broadway in 1968, settled in for a four-year run and has never stopped filling the stages of theaters, professional and non, around the world.

The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich., opened its fifth production of that show Tuesday evening. In case you can’t “name that show,” it was/is “Hair,” aka “The American Tribal Love Rock Musical.”

“Hair’ was/is unique. Called the “first concept musical,” it had little or no plot but musically addressed numerous problems facing America including racism, drugs, sexual repression, free love. environmental destruction, poverty, corruption in government, violence at home and, certainly not least, the Vietnam War and its conscripted army.

The almost non-stop score came to define the term “rock musical” and, through the years, has ebbed and flowed almost as much as the political and social climate of the United States.

In its infancy, it undoubtedly was a forceful shocker. The famous nude scene (all of about 20 seconds) and language (songs include “Hashish,” “Sodomy” and “Colored Spade”) met with active protest against touring productions. South Bend’s Morris Civic refused to book the show and angry religious groups picketed and/or boycotted its appearance..

Hair  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MILooking back (after all it has been 47 years!), it is not so much a protest of current ills as a memory play with intermittent jabs of reality. Book and lyrics are by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, who frequently took the roles leading of Berger and Claude, respectively, and who claimed those characters were modeled on themselves.

Whatever one remembers from the original script, it is the music that has remained rather unforgettable. Many of the songs — “Aquarius,” “Let The Sunshine,” “Good Morning, Starshine,” “Easy to Be Hard,” “Frank Mills” and, of course, the title song — may not be at the forefront of your memory but once The Barn cast starts singing, they are front and center.

There are several main roles at the core of The Tribe (which utilizes the entire apprentice company plus). Choreographer Jamey Grisham is Claude, the newest Tribe member whose only wish is to be “invisible.” Kevin Robert White, who also serves as bar show accompanist, is Berger, Tribe leader and protest instigator. Both have, along with the rest of the group, extremely long and shaggy wigs and a lot of music to sing.

Hair  The Barn Theatre  Augusta   MIOther soloists are Melissa Cotton as Sheila, Eric Tsuchiyama as Woof, Khnemi Menu-Ra as Hud, Dallyn Brunck as Jennie, Donica Lynn as Dionne, Anna Segatti as Crissy, Nicholas Fuqua as Walter, Dwayne Everett Johnson as Ronny and Patrick Hunter as a tourist (in drag!). Senior members portray parents (Eric Parker and Penelope Alex), policemen (Bruce Hammond and a beard-less Charlie King) and a tourist (Hans Friedrichs).

Most are on stage most of the time, which adds up to a large number to put on the not-over-large stage. Luckily they have to lie or sit down (primarily on each other) for a good portion of that time. The costuming is almost too similar and too clean to be actual period, but it serves the purpose.

The just-off-stage band, which precedes the opening with an ear-shattering rendition of the national anthem a la Jimi Hendricks, plays almost constantly. Until the opening night sound levels are adjusted and balanced, they just drown out the ensemble and the soloists.

When lyrics provide 99 per cent of what storyline or character background there is, the inability to hear them really leaves the audience wondering what’s going on. And hand mikes definitely do not help! Spoken dialogue is little better as projection seems not a priority. Only Parker, Alex and Hunter are able to reach the back of the house.

Many in the opening night audience were a) fans of the show or b) fondly reminiscent of the ‘60s, and many obviously enjoyed the chance to be a part of the “all-dance” “Be-in” after the somber finale. A goodly number of “tie dye” shirts, flowers and headbands were evident but there were no elephant bell jeans in the lot.

HAIR” continues through Aug. 17 at The Barn Theatre on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For performance times and reservations, call (269)  73`-4121 or visit www.barntheatre.com.

Island Weekend Turns Deadly

There’s no doubt about it. Everybody loves a good mystery.

There also is no doubt that nobody wrote a good mystery better than Agatha Christie.

Among her prolific output, which included 66 mystery novels and 153 short stories, are novels that became plays which have track records as enviable as her written words.

One of the most popular, “And Then There Were None,” opened Wednesday evening at the Wagon Wheel Theatre in Warsaw to a large and enthusiastic audience.

And Then There Were None Elkhart Civic Theatre Warsaw INIt began as a novel in 1939 (without the assistance of Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple or any of Christie’s other super sleuths) and underwent several title changes in the name of political correctness. Finally settling on the one approved by Christie, it came to Broadway in 1944 and has been the basis for four feature films over a period of almost 50 years.

Whatever the name, the suspense never changes.

In his pre-show remarks, WW artistic director Scott Michaels requested that the last five minutes of the action not be revealed to “outsiders” (i.e. those who hadn’t seen the show). A reasonable request considering what transpires in that time but, as we learned, it really doesn’t matter whether or not you know “who dunnit” (we already did), the tautly wrapped action pulls you in and keeps you as the deadly plot unfolds.

This is due to the excellent cast, the sharp direction by Andy Robinson and Ben Dicke, both WW veteran actors and directors, and the desire to see how murderous actions play out “live!”

And Then There Were None Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INThe premise is perfect. Ten strangers are gathered by invitation to a house on Soldier Island off the coast of Devon, England. It is not yet “a dark and stormy night,” but it certainly is getting there. The hosts, however, are not and won’t be coming until the next day.

Waiting to greet the guests are the caretakers Mr. and Mrs. Rogers (Jennifer Dow and Kyle Timson). First to arrive are Vera Claythorne (Kira Lace Hawkins), Philip Lombard (Matthew Janisse) and Anthony Marston (Jeremy Seiner),  followed by William Blore (Javier Ferreira), General MacKenzie (Dan Smith), Emily Brent (Kristin Ysenchak), Sir Lawrence Wargrave (Mike Yocum) and Dr. Armstrong (Scott Fuss).

After delivering the guests, Fred Narracort (Lucas Thomas) sails back to the mainland, leaving them to question the reasons for their invitations since there seem to be no mutual connections.

The reasons become chillingly clear as Rogers, on instructions from the missing host, plays a recording which accuses them all — individually — of murders.

As polite conversations turn pointedly personal, each declares him/herself innocent of the charges. Tempers begin to fray — and flare — rapidly. Soon the deadly intent of the gathering — to kill each guest one by one according to methods outlined in a child’s nursery rhyme — becomes chillingly obvious.

But they are the only ones there, with no way off or on the island. So. . .who is the killer and will he/she be discovered before all life is gone?

Guess you’ll just have to find out for yourselves and, in the process, really enjoy some fine character work by WW company members. All are exactly right for the secretive personas they portray. There are few extraneous histrionics, no melodramatic mustache twirls or gnashing of teeth and, for the most part, accents remain in place as part of solid characters.

In short, the ensemble is the thing in this drama and that applies not only to those on stage but to the production staff as well. With a suggestively excellent circular set design by Michael Higgins, some frequently frightening lighting designed by Patrick Chan and Michaels, mood-sustaining music by sound designer Chris Pollnow and, of course, the proper period costumes by Stephen R. Hollenbeck, the entire event is a real tribute to its famous author — and guarantees a very suspenseful evening, even if you do know who did it.

Just don’t tell!

“AGATHA CHRISTIE’S AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” plays through Aug. 9 in the Wagon Wheel Theatre, 2515 E. Center St., Warsaw, IN.  For performance times and reservations, call 267-8041 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.org.