WW Gives New Life To Classic Musical

Sometimes putting a classic musical on a season can be an invitation to disaster, especially if, because of the physical demands of its book, score and choreography, that musical is almost, in at least one of these areas, a sure bet to fail — or at least to stumble badly.

Don’t tell that to director/choreographer Scott Michaels and the cast of the Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts production of “West Side Story,” which opened Wednesday night in the Warsaw arena theater.

I really don’t have to say more than get your tickets while there are still some available. You’ll have to wait a very long time to see as thrilling a production of this modern day “Romeo and Juliet” which, sadly, is as relevant today at it was almost 60 years ago.

Based on a concept by Jerome Robbins, a multi-award-winning director/choreographer in both musical theater and ballet, “West Side Story” offers a score by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents., all award winners in their own genres.

But having a theatrical pedigree doesn’t mean a company can just “mail it in.” In fact, the bar is set even higher and the demands are constant.

It took 10 years for Robbins to bring “WSS” to the stage and 10 years for him to assemble what turned out to be the perfect team.

In Warsaw, director Michaels already has the best choreographer in the Midwest and, in Thomas N. Stirling, a musical director who leads his 13-piece orchestra surely through the emotional nuances of Bernstein’s score.

The rest of the WW production team delivers its usual excellence in Stephen B. Hollenbeck’s character detailing (and very danceable) costumes, Sara Gosses’ mood enhancing lighting and Michael Higgins’ spare but exact set design. Sound man Chris Pollnow keeps the right balance between singer/actors and instrumentalists and production stage manage Caitlin Denney Turner and her crew make the many scene changes swiftly and silently.

All provide the perfect setting for the incredibly talented WW cast. For the original Broadway production, Robbins requested — and got — eight weeks for dance rehearsals rather than the usual four. Michaels & Co. did it in two and very obviously without missing a beat!

West Side Stopry Waon Wheel Center Warsaw INFrom the minute the Jets, led by Sean Watkinson as Riff, and the Sharks, led by Danny Burgos as Bernardo, hit the stage, the air crackles with barely contained hostility. They dance their emotions — and then they sing and dance again, holding nothing back.

Into this maelstrom, articulated by the breathtaking “Dance at the Gym,” come Tony (Jordan Andre), former leader of the Jets, and Maria (Allsun O’Malley), sister of Bernardo. It is love at first sight and their instant connection is delivered lyrically by two of the finest voices at WW this season. They more than do justice to the familiar solos and duets., especially the “Balcony Scene” (“Tonight”) and “One Hand, One Heart.”

On the fiery side is Anita (Monica Brown), Bernardo’s girl, who makes no secret of her feelings, leading the Shark girls in the wonderfully biting “America.” (NOTE: Former Wagon Wheeler Karen Olivo won a Tony Award for her Anita in the 2009 revival.)

The Jets hit the nail on the head with their view of police in “Gee, Officer Krupke.”

The powerful “Tonight” quintet, the angry “Rumble,” the haunting “Somewhere” ballet and the tragically spare finale (oh come on, you must know how this ends!!) are only a few of the familiar highlights which can be a joy to see and hear — or not.

In this production, there is no need to worry. ”Somewhere,” Robbins & Co. are smiling!

“WEST SIDE STORY” plays through June 27 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com

Barn Musical Works Hard For Little

One day in 1934, an east wind stirred by the pen of P.L. Travers blew a magical nanny to London’s 17 Cherry Tree Lane.

That nanny was Mary Poppins.

Over the next 54 years, seven more books recounting her adventures were published, establishing the no-nonsense lady firmly in the childhood (and adult) libraries of millions of readers world-wide.

In addition, she served as the central character for a 1964 Walt Disney film and a theatrical musical which played in London’s West End for three years before crossing the pond to begin a seven year run on Broadway.

Walt Disney’s “Mary Poppins,” opened Tuesday night at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI. Unfortunately it takes a lot more than “A Spoonful of Sugar” to make this production go — anywhere.

In the leading role, a red-coated Hannah Eakin works valiantly to project Mary’s “spit-spot” persona. Her “magic” is limited due to the physical restrictions of the stage, but she does create a warm character. Musically she has no problem with Mary’s vocal assignments and is heard well in spite of the orchestra.

Mary Poppins  The Barn Theatre Augusta MIThe seven-piece ensemble led by pianist Matt Shabala stumbled loudly through the Sherman brothers’ tuneful score, frequently laying out as if to locate their places in the music. During the big ensemble numbers, the dancers earned props just to stay with the choreography, getting little or no support from the orchestra. It also did a great job of playing OVER dialogue.

Barn choreographer Jamey Grisham plays Bert, Mary’s longtime friend and companion on her “outings.” His sidewalk artist/chimney sweep was not strong but managed to keep smiling, even upside down in the “Pippin-esque” gymnastics-in-the-air for “Step In Time.”

The ensemble interpretation of “Supercalifragilistic…etc” was certainly enthusiastic but most resembled an homage to the Village People.

As Mr. Banks, Richard Marlatt turned the family patriarch into a nasty, pompous and very unlikable man, with no time for his children and no thought for his wife.

As Mrs. Banks, Barn veteran Brooke Evans did her best as a rather too pliant woman who, given Mr. Banks’ tendency to blame her loudly for everything, would have been justified in crowning him with his favorite vase.

The Banks’ children are in almost every scene. As Jane and Michael, Riley Em VanDerVelde and Daniel Sturdy, respectively, were present and knew their lines and blocking but frequently were too rushed or too soft to be understood.

Mary Poppins  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MIVeteran performers Penelope Alex and Kevin Robert White were notable for turning very small roles (no small actors!) into definite characters as the Banks’s disgruntled kitchen help.

Ditto one of the show’s villains, Miss Andrews, Mr. Banks’ “Holy Terror” of a nanny, supposedly the reason for his unfeeling adulthood. The energy went up 100 percent when Jackie Gubow hurled herself into “Brimstone and Treacle,” her remedy for everything.

The set design by Shy Iverson was based stylistically on Mary Shepard’s original illustrations for Travers’ books. The painted hanging panels were artistically correct but required much pushing and pulling to get them on and off as did the angled beams for the nursery and the many other set pieces.

The costumes were an eclectic mix. Mrs. Banks was consigned to plain blouse and brown skirts while the children were more unkempt than any well-bred young Brit of the period. Mary’s white “Jolly Holiday” dress sported a large hole in skirt and most of the hems were, at best, uneven while the Bird Woman’s costume evoked the Wicked Witch of the West.

Special effects played a very large part in the show’s professional success. Here, they are limited to a coat tree which Mary pulls from her red carpet bag and a couple of across-stage “flights.”

The production is under the direction of Dee Sandt and, to be fair, the opening night audience enjoyed it.

“MARY POPPINS” plays through June 28 in the theatre on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit www.barntheatreschool.org

In 'Love Letters' It Only Takes Two

“Love Letters,” the two-character drama by A.R. Gurney which opened an abbreviated one-week run Tuesday at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI, is a deceptively simple theatrical offering.

There is no set, only two desks, side-by-side, each holding a folder and a glass of water with pitcher. There are no props to speak of, excepting the glass, pitcher and the pages in the folder which holds the script for the play (a Pulitzer Prize finalist).

There are no costume changes, very few lighting variations and minimal movement, yet the lives of two people are created from notes, cards and letters exchanged throghout the years.

What then, you may ask, is the attraction of this piece for the many acting duos, famous and not, who have settled down to breathe life into Gurney’s protagonists?

On the surface, one would say it’s because there is little or no rehearsal time required and no memorization.      But ask actors Robert Newman and Penelope Alex who share the stage at The Barn, and somewhere in their answers would be facing the challenge of bringing to life two people whose relationship covers half a century without the benefit of old age makeup or (upright) body language.

They do it all while seated at their respective desks. No standing allowed, except walking on and off the stage.

Love Letters  The Barn Theatre Augusta MIThe fascination is watching their characters grow from elementary school age to definitely senior citizens; of feeling the shifts in their relationship as financial, emotional and physical changes play definite parts in their friendship.

The roller coaster highs and lows of their lives never seem to find them in the same space at the same ti yet their connection is constant.

There may be no memorization required, but as Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, Alex and Newman never appeared to be reading from their scripts, so well defined and clearly delineated were the shifts as time and circumstances repeatedly brought them together and kept them apart.

Both grew up in a restricted, segregated community where money and family were the keys. She was wealthy and always the rebel, an artist who cared little for the opinion of others until it was too late. And she hated writing letters. He had the ancestry but not the money until he headed into banking and politics, almost tragically aware of what others thought. And he was in love with writing.

Their eventual resolution was inevitable.

The talented actors nuanced their multi-aged characters with honesty, warmth and a solid core. In addition to being a thoroughly entertaining evening, it was a lesson in what can be done by two excellent actors with minimal externalization and a solid mastery of their craft.

”LOVE LETTERS” plays through Sunday in the theater on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121.

Michaels & Co. Create Magical 'Mermaid'

From the Wonderful World of Walt Disney have come stories to delight all ages, primarily in animation.

Most recently, the enchanted drawings have taken solid form as theatrical musicals, coming to life yet again but with live actors rather than cartoon figures telling the stories.

The most popular of these have been “The Lion King,” “Beauty and The Beast” and “The Little Mermaid.” The last, based on the 1837 tale by Hans Christian Anderson and the 1989 Disney cartoon, received its area premiere Wednesday evening at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Center.

The Little Mermaid  Wagon Wheel Center Warsaw INIf you think the transition from animated film to live action was disappointing, just ask any one of the SRO audience members. From toddlers to senior citizens, they were captivated by the sparkling undersea world of Ariel (Audrey Kennedy), youngest of King Triton’s (Danny Burgos) seven daughters, and her friends Scuttle (Keaton Eckhoff), a gossipy seagull, and Flounder (Parker Irwin), an adorable finny fish.

Along with Sebastian (George Vickers V), a crimson crustacean, they try to keep Ariel from following her heart to terra firma and human Prince Eric (Angel Lozada), whose life she saved in a savage storm.

Forbidden by Triton from human contact, Ariel listens to the whispers — make that hisses — of Flotsam (Nick Pelaccio) and Jetsam (Alex Dorf), electric eels serving Triton’s evil sister, Ursula (Kristen Yanenchak), the sea witch. Ursula envies Ariel’s magical voice and plots to regain all of Triton’s kingdom.

To this end, she strikes a deal with the lovestruck mermaid and . . . . but this is a fairy tale and, in spite of Anderson’s original ending, in the Disney version everyone winds up smiling. And, of course, singing.

The Little Mermaid  Wagon Wheel Center  Warsaw INI don’t like to keep saying that director/choreographer Scott Michaels has done it again, but this time, he has more than done it, creating a truly enchanted kingdom where mermaid princesses sing and dance in sparkling sequins (thanks to costume designer Stephen R. Hollenbeck!), a sailing vessel cracks in a thunderous storm, and all manner of sea creatures swirl, crawl and “swim” “Under the Sea.”

The LIttle Mermaid Wagon Wheel Center Warsaw INAs usual, the ensemble dance numbers are dazzling and the 2015 company seems overloaded with talent! Kennedy, about to enter her sophomore year in college, has a clear, strong voice (singing “Part of Your World” while “swimming” in a harness over the stage — Do Not Try This At Home!) and a completely winning personality. She is the center of this world and carries the leading role with charm and talent.

As all Disney heroes, Lozada is required to look regal and sing well, completing both assignments more than satisfactorily.

It is obvious that Yasenchak revels in being the really bad girl, plotting deliciously with her eels, gloating at her moment of triumph and disappearing with amphibian fury when “Daddy’s Little Angel” finally has the upper fin.

There is no doubt, however, that the sea creatures, good and bad, are audience favorites. Vickers & Co. deliver genuine show stoppers in both “Under the Sea” and “Kiss The Girl” with amazing costumes, lighting, choreography and aerial acrobatics. The eels are fascinatingly sinister and Irwin (12) displays the stage presence of an actor twice his age.

Have to mention Asher Dubin who cuts quite a swath (literally) in his one scene as Chef Louis, frantically determined to serve Sebastian as an entrée.

Thomas N. Sterling conducts the excellent 13 piece orchestra which, on opening night, was silenced briefly by an electrical outage.

It is a tribute to the magic of this “Mermaid” that the entire audience remained seated — and quiet— as Michaels and the technical crew worked quickly to restore power to the orchestra pit.

I could go on but, unfortunately, it’s really not fair. Few if any seats remain for the rest of the run. But it never hurts to try.

“THE LITTLE MERMAID” plays through June 13 in the center at 2517 E. Center St. Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call 267-8041 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com

Soadys Are Hunting Again In Escanaba

There are certain shows that can guarantee a positive audience response. One of these, as The Barn Theatre has found out, is Jeff Daniels’ comedy “Escanaba in da Moonlight.”

The Barn opened its fourth production of the Yooper laughfest Tuesday evening. Since 2003, The Barn has found a visit with the Soady family to be a sure shot in the right direction.

Having seen all four productions, I agree with producer Brendan Ragotzy (who also served as director) that there are certain scenes when laughter is inevitable, even when you know what’s coming.

And the return of Barn veterans Eric Parker and Roy Brown doesn’t hurt either.

Joining them in the Soady deer camp to await the dawn of opening day — hunting-wise — are Jamey Grisham, Nicholas Barakos, Robin Nuyen and (briefly) Samantha Rickard.

Parker is Reuben Soady, oldest of the two Soady brothers, hoping to break what he considers his buck-less “curse” and avoid being “the oldest Soady in recorded history never to have shot a buck.”

Escanaba in da Moonlight  The Barn Theatre Augusta MITo this end, he interrupts time-honored Soady traditions including pasties as the evening meal. Instead he serves a liquid concoction made by his wife, Ojibwa native Wolf Moon Dance, to drink for good luck and advises his fellow hunters to sprinkle themselves with porcupine urine to attract the deer.

Into this gathering rushes Jimmer Negamanee from Menomanee (Brown), famous locally for being a returned alien abductee — UFOs visit frequently in the UP, according to dad Albert Soady (Nuyen). Jimmer declares his Chevy has …. exploded and warns of supernatural events to come.

Brother Remnar (Gresham) is against change until events — the traditional home-brewed Sweet Sap Whskey is more syrup than whiskey and the euchre cards are all 2s, 3s and 4s — convince him, reluctantly, to try Reuben’s remedies.

Further proof of other-worldly doings arrives in the person of DNR agent Tom T. Treado (Barakos) whose behavior is more than extreme.

Will Reuben get his buck? Is God really on the ridge or is it the Bearwalk? Things always turn out well but it is always much fun getting there.

The brothers Soady and Jimmer ease into their familiar roles with hilarious authenticity. The more ridiculous the situation, the more they take us right along for the ride. As the DNR man, Barakas is in properly straight-laced underwear.

This is a first time for Nuyen, who serves as narrator of the events as well as participant. He begins the action with a long-winded introduction of terms and details of life “above the bridge.” In his hands, the pacing suffers, getting the action off to a too-slow start and bringing it to a halt when injected mid-scene. Hopefully, this will pick up as the one-week-only run proceeds.

The familiar set is faithfully recreated with the especially effective silhouette of trees surrounding the rustic cabin providing a “middle of the woods” effect.

“ESCANABA IN DA MOONLIGHT” plays through Sunday in the theater on M96 between Augusta and Galesburg. For show times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit www.barntheatreschool.org

Baseball Comedy As A Life Lesson

Back in the 1940s (and I do remember them), many of the popular plays were comedies with few characters — excepting, of course, those by Kauffman and Hart who crammed as many people on stage as possible.

The comedy which Elkhart Civic Theatre opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House is definitely among the former. “Home Games” is a warm-hearted look at families, relationships and the little things in life that count.

It was written by Tom Ziegler, a professor at Washington and Lee University who describes himself as “a teacher who writes” rather than “a writer who teaches.”  Whatever that difference may be, Ziegler has turned out a number of low-keyed plays, several of which (including “Home Games”) have found their ways to off-Broadway houses and unanimous if not thunderous praise.

The action, such as it is, centers around Mertie Mae (Mert) Tucker (played with ingenuous charm by Amie Kron),  an unmarried lady of 37, who lives in an apartment in New York’s Washington Heights and is the sole support for P.K., a blind cat, and P.B., a rescued bird, and her father, Anton (“Tony”) Tucker (David Robey).

It is 1985 and Mert is a dispatcher with the trucking company for which her father drove until an accident left him in a coma.

Homne Games Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol INA former professional ballplayer, he now lives in a baseball world, specifically amid the New York Yankees in 1955, the one season when he played for the team, primarily from the bench. About to be traded to Cleveland, he opted to retire but, in his head, is still  a Yankee catcher.

At home now, he spends much of his time in one-sided conversations with manager Casey Stengel as well as cheering on his team mates, including Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle, suited in a Yankees shirt and his “lucky” BVDs.

He assigns Yankee personas to everyone in his life including Mert, who is his Casey Stengel. When a young man follows Mert home from her night school class in English lit, he becomes Mickey Mantle.

Initially, Frank Whitfield (Joseph Schroeder) seems to be fairly well-adjusted and “normal” by society’s standards. He describes himself as “a conservative capitalist,” complete with fiancé and parents who find a college degree important. It gradually becomes clear, however, that he is indeed a candidate for “Mert’s home for the helpless.”

Watching these three square pegs searching for the right fit in a world of round holes makes for a gently entertaining evening.

Opening night the pace was slow and an electronic glitch left the actors shouting from the hall rather than speaking through the non-working intercom, but anyone familiar with a sports addict will relate to Tony’s emotional rise and fall as the Yanks face their longtime pennant enemies, the Brooklyn Dodgers. And anyone who cares for a damaged relative or friend will applaud Mert’s unswerving devotion to her dad and her undeniable resilience in the face of a “will he/won’t he” relationship.

Home Games  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol  INThe rest will cheer for Frank to make the “right” decision, whatever that may be. I didn’t see it coming but, upon reflection, agreed with Ziegler that it was the best for all.

As always, the set designed by John Shoup is undeniably livable if a little “country” in color.

Calling the plays, director Tony Venable was assisted by Josh Padgett. If not a home run, ‘Home Games” is a sure three bagger.

“HOME GAMES” will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House. For reservations, call 848-4116 or visit elkhartcivictheatre.org