Juke-Box Musical For Fans Of '80s Rock

For lovers of rock music who just can’t get out of the ‘80s, you have until Aug. 9 to visit The Barn Theatre in Augusts, MI for two hours-plus of tunes from that decade literally “mashed” together in an ear-shattering production titled “Rock of Ages.”

It is a tribute to the decline of originality in the world of musical theater, but obviously not a deterrent to ticket-buyers. It played more than 2,300 performances on Broadway and now is permanently in residence in Las Vegas.

The “score,” in which many of the songs are literally mashed together, does not contain one song original to the show. Instead, all are classic rock hits from the 1980s, easily identifiable to fans of the era, even though only the ballads are lyrically decipherable.

It is the perfect example of a jukebox musical — existing taking music and forcing it around a totally (and ridiculously) contrived “plot.” Which is not to say that the predominantly young company at The Barn does not give it their all.

In leading roles, Kevin Robert White, Michael Tuck, Eric Parker, Jamey Grisham and Julie Grisham never let down for a minute, even under the weight of some of the ugliest and most ludicrous wigs since Halloween. They obviously can belt vocally and let no chances go under-sung.

Rock of Ages  The Barn Theatre  Augusta, MIThe band is on stage throughout as Arsenal, the band with which rock star Stacee Jax (Jamey G.) is about to connections. He is convinced by Dennis Dupree (Parker), owner of The Bourbon Club, to play his final concert in the club. Aspiring songwriter Drew Boley (Tuck), a Bourbon busboy, is encouraged by new waitress Sherrie Christian (Julie G.), who is falling in love with him, to follow his dream of opening for Arsenal.

Taking her on a date to the Hollywood Hills, Drew (who loves her) ruins the budding relationship by saying they should just be friends. This makes Sherrie so angry that she has sex with Jaxx in the Bourbon men’s room.

Drew, who has opened for Arsenal and scored a record contract from a producer in the audience, knows what Sherrie did and drops her, as does Jaxx who has her fired. She winds up in the nearby Venus Club where owner Justice Charlier (Penelope Alex) convinces her that stripping is the easy way to make money.

Rock of Ages The Barn Theatre Augusta MIMeanwhile, developer Hertz Klinemann (Charlie King) and son Franz (Hans Friedrichs) are about to bulldoze everything on the Sunset Strip, including the Bourbon Club, to make way for a mall. Against this plan is the mayor’s secretary Regina Koontz (Kasady Kwiatkowska) who leads protesters to save the strip.

Along the way Dennis’ assistant Lonny Barnett (White), who also serves as narrator, and Dennis discover they are in love.

All this — and a lot more — is played out to appropriate ‘80s rock hits by Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Steve Perry, Pat Benetar and many others, although not the title tune either in hymn form or from Def Leppard. Fans of the music obviously have to overlook the laughably unbelievable book by Chris D’Arienzo and just go with the flow, which stops more often than it starts.

The multi-level set by Shy Iverson covers many locations but primarily seems to serve as a workout site for the unidentified young man who constantly exits and enters on a variety of levels to bring on/take off props and set pieces. He deserves applause for knowing just when and where he is to be.

We got tired just watching him!

ROCK OF AGES’ plays through Aug. 9 in the theater on M60 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121.

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Green Day Album As Musical Theatre

In the 1986, two friends formed a punk rock band which they called Sweet Children.

Now a quartet of musicians known as Green Day, they have been at the top of the pop music scene for almost three decades, are one of the world’s best-selling bands of all time and a 2015 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Among their top albums is a rock opera titled “American Idiot.” Released in 2004, it followed in the footsteps (or tracks) of other album-first, stage-musical-second — “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Who’s Tommy,”

In 2010, with an expanded story line, new characters and a couple of songs from a later album, “American Idiot” opened on Broadway where it played for a year, winning Tony Awards for scenic and lighting design and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.

“American Idiot” opened last Tuesday at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI to an audience filled (as all, I suppose, will be) with Green Day fans who obviously (and enthusiastically) enjoyed the theatricalization of the award-winning album.

American Idiot  The Barn Theatre Augusta MIAt an hour and a half with no intermission, is it not difficult even for a non-Green Day fan to enjoy. Three of The Barn’s hard-working performers — Kevin Robert White, Jamey Grisham and Michael Tuck — portray the “idiots” who decide to leave their humdrum hometown — Jingletown — to experience LIFE!

Actually Will (Grisham) never makes it past the city line as girlfriend Heather (Bethany Edlund) presents him with a reason to stay, at least for nine months.

In the large and wicked metropolis, Tunny (Tuck) becomes disenchanted quite rapidly and turns to the safety (?) and discipline of the Army where he loses a leg and finds, in a nurse, The Extraordinary Girl (Sarah Lazar).

Johnny (White) wanders the city looking for a girl glimpsed in a window and, with the help of his alter-ego St. Jimmy (Jake Rura) and heroin, stirs up enough courage to find Whatshername (Samantha Rickard).

The experiences of the three rise and fall before reaching their respective conclusions which certainly are not all happy endings but allow at least a glimmer of hope.

American Idiot  The Barn Theatre  Augusta, MIBeing a Green Day fan, indeed knowing the music of Green Day at all, is not required to enjoy “American Idiot” — but, understandably, it helps in following the storyline which can get lost in the full-power vocals.

The six piece rock band, under the direction of keyboardist Matt Shabala, is on stage throughout and, for the most part, its music is driving but not overpowering.

A large turntable divided in three segments is center stage and moves the action from one location to another easily, also providing ramps and levels on which the singer/dancers move freely.

The entire ensemble replicates the drive of the instrumentalists, most especially White, Gresham (who is choreographer) and Tuck and their respective female partners. They never slow down. At times the lyrics are lost but, like that energetic hare, “American Idiot” just keeps on ticking.

The framework of the “plot” is a series of 10 letters written by Will, which chronicle their adventures from the wish to escape to the need to return home.

If you are a Green Day fan, this is for you. If you are not, it is a solid introduction to their music.

“AMERICAN IDIOT” plays through Saturday in the theater on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121.

'Zombie Prom' Goes For Laughs, Not Chills

The huge success of the AMC series “The Walking Dead” has spawned a rash of new TV shows featuring major characters who are — or are destined to become — undead.

Zombie Prom Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol INEntertainment-wise, however, this is nothing new.

In addition to the list of zombie-focused movies from “Night of the Living Dead” to “World War Z,” the late 1990s offered a zombie show with a different beat — “Zombie Prom” — which opened Friday evening in the Bristol Opera House.

The Elkhart Civic Theatre production offers laughs rather than chills and delivers a very lively evening with a show whose main character is a deadly green. It is two hours (including intermission) of great fun for all ages, zombie-lovers or not.

The premise is, of course, ridiculous but in the midst of music and dance it still manages to make some very solid statements about communication, education, integration and tell-all journalism.

Set in the 1950s, primarily in the halls of Enrico Fermi High School, the plot focuses on Jonny (no h) Warner (Andrew Daeger), the resident rebel and all-around wild kid, and his ill-fated romance with Toffee (Maddie Williams), the blonde-haired good girl (sound familiar???).

Of course, her parents object and, in despair, Jonny rides his motorcycle into the toxic waste dump at the nearby Francis Gary Powers nuclear power plant. His remains are encased in lead and dumped in international waters.

Think that is the end of the romance?

Of course not!

Zombie Prom Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol INIn spite of the urging of her friends — Candy (Jane Payton), Coco (Sarah Nolan) and Ginger (Bethany Wirick) — to return to a social life, Toffee cannot forget Jonny — even after three weeks — and keeps hearing him calling to her. It comes as no surprise that he suddenly emerges from her school locker, although he is now a lovely shade of green. The surprise is that he wants to return to school and get his diploma.

Very vocal opposition to this idea comes in the form of principal Delilah Strict (multi-talented Kristen Kinder) who not only refuses his request but threatens all manner of punishment to any who support him, citing the “Rules, Regulations and Respect” required of all students.

Zombie Prom Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol INIn Jonny’s corner are his three buddies — Joey (Dan Murakowski), Josh (Robert Clark) and Jake (Matthew Manley — who enlist the aid of sleazy reporter (check the jacket!) Eddie Flagrante (Geoff Trowbridge) of Expose magazine who has a hidden connection to Miss Strict.

Under the direction of Brock Butler, assisted by Stephanie Yoder, with music and vocal direction by Heidi Ferris, the high energy level of the youth-oriented cast never flags. From the opening at “Enrico Fermi High” to the final title tune, the pace is best when the ensemble, or any segment thereof, is singing and dancing.

This is especially true when Miss Smart is on stage. A veteran performer, Kinder is a standout whether reinforcing the school rules (“No zombies! No zombies! Case closed!”) or recalling her too-brief interlude with Eddie in the wonderfully satirical tango “Expose” or gleefully threatening the student body with sanctions.

With Butler and Becki Visker, she also choreographed several of the dances, all of which are executed with contagious enthusiasm.

For the students, the recurring question is “Where Do We Go From Here?” There is no all-inclusive answer but, for the duration of the prom at least, everyone dead or alive, finds his/her own happy ending.

“ZOMBIE PROM” plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on SR 120 in Bristol. For reservations, call (574) 848-4116 or visit www.elkhartcivictheatre.org.

New Look At A Fiendishly Familiar Family

“They’re creepy and they’re kooky,

           Mysterious and spooky,

They’re altogether ooky,

            The Addams Family.

Their house is a museum

            When people come to see-um,

They really are a scre-um

            The Addams Family.

   (neat, sweet, petite)

So get a witch’s shawl on,

            A broomstick you can crawl on

We’re going to make a call on

            The Addams Family!”

The familiar theme for the TV version of Charles Addams’ famous cartoons in The New Yorker magazine is heard only briefly in composer Andrew Lippa’s score for the musical comedy which opened Wednesday evening in Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre.

The Addams Family Wabgon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INIn 1938, a young cartoonist named Charles Addams saw the first of his dark depictions of a bizarre family published in the New Yorker. Since then, these creations have traveled world-wide, in many forms. The latest bears the title of the original macabre group (and of the artist), “The Addams Family.”

In the hands of director/choreographer Scott Michaels and his super-talented company and production crews, it translates to “a darkly magical evening, frequently hilarious and always entertaining, for the entire family.”

Those who remember the 1960’s TV show will find the theme immediately, as music director Thomas N. Stirling leads the excellent orchestra in the overture, the only place where it is revisited. And there was no need to encourage the opening night audience to “snap” in the proper place. It seems a reflex action!

The initial meeting with the family — Gomez (Danny Burgos), Morticia (Ellen Jenders), Wednesday (Clara Cox), Pugsley (Nicholas Lowman), Uncle Fester (Scott Fuss), Grandma (Jennifer Dow), and Lurch (Andy Robinson) — as they wait in the cemetery to call up their ancestors for the annual reunion (“When You’re An Addams”), is like revisiting old friends, albeit those with a tendency to the grisly and the gruesome.

Not only do the WW Addamses recreate the cartoon characters to a T physically, but they embody the smilingly sinister personae in a manner that makes Morticia’s anticipation of death (“Just Around The Corner”) or Pugsley’s fear of losing his sibling torturer (“What If?”) if not normal at least understandable ‑ in context, of course.

The Addams Family Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw INTheir bizarre lifestyle is put to the test when Wenesday invites her “normal” boyfriend, Lucas Beineke (Keaton Eckhoff), and his parents, Mal (Jordan Edwin Andre) and Alice (Kira Lace Hawkins, home for dinner.

Revisiting the journalistic originals (the book is by “Jersey Boys” writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman) by both leading players and the super-hard-working ensemble (aka Ancestors) is more proof that the singing/dancing/acting company can take any role and, from opening night to opening night, create entirely different and believable people and places.

It is obvious that the principal players are delighted to be inhabiting such off-beat characters.

The Addams Family Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw INAs Gomez, Burgos brandishes his sword with a flourish and makes it clear that his family, especially his wife, comes first. When forced into a lie, his despair is increasingly evident. Morticia glides through life with a definite set of values, convoluted as they may be, and Jenders is deliciously decadent, even when pulling the heads off a bouquet of roses. Their “Tango De Amor” is one high spot among many.

Cox is stubbornly defiant as one Addams determined to have “One Normal Night” with Eckhoff who, in turn, is determined to prove he is “Crazier Than You” (love the flight of the arrow!).

Lowman’s Pugsley brings out the dark side of any teenager and his actions during the family dinner result hilariously in the “Full Disclosure” of everyone’s hidden secrets.

Hawkins delivers a real show-stopper as the wife who is “Waiting” for romance in her marriage.

Undeniable audience favorites are Dow and Robinson, but who doesn’t love Grandma and Lurch! Fuss is equally engaging as he yearns for his astral love, “The Moon and Me.”

Wrap it all up in the amazing costumes of designer Stephen R. Hollenbeck (the generations of Addamses represented in the Ancestors’ garb are too many to count), and play it out on Ray Zupp’s ghostly set, beautifully (and eerily) lit by Patrick Chan, and top it off with Michaels’ always-dazzling choreography and the result is another outstanding production from the very best summer theater in this — or any other — part of the country.

“THE ADDAMS FAMILY” plays through Saturday in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041

'Birdie' Puts A Happy Face On Everyone

Back in the late 1950s, those old enough to remember will agree that one of the major happenings was the induction into the U.S. Army of Pvt. Elvis Presley.

Not only did that upset millions of American teenagers, it soon spawned something even more rare: An original Broadway show.

“Bye Bye Birdie” first entered the world of musical comedy in 1960 and it hasn’t stopped yet. For those who, since that time, have seen too many productions to be up for one more, now is definitely the time to take another look.

The “Birdie” that opened Wednesday evening at the Wagon Wheel Center For the Arts in Warsaw is definitely the one at which to look.

Bye Bye Birdie  Wagon Wheel Center Warsaw INUnder the crisp direction of WW veteran Tony Humrichouser, with Lesa Denklau’s see-it-to-believe-it choreography, it is bright, fast, colorful and sharply done and offers the perfect family-that-stays-together show for the season.

Parents will find more than a grain of truth in the plight of Harry and Doris MacAfee (Andy Robinson and Kira Lace Hawkins) of Sweet Apple, Ohio, who find their lives literally turned upside down with the announcement that rock star Conrad Birdie (Jordan Andre) has selected their daughter Kim (Audrey Kennedy) to receive “One Last Kiss” from him before he leaves for basic training.

Bye Bye Birdie Wagon Wheel Center Warsaw INTheir opposition melts when they learn the kiss will be delivered during “The Ed Sullivan Show,” with all the family on TV for the event.

Actually, the kiss is a publicity stunt engineered by Conrad’s manager Albert Peterson (Scott Fuss) and Albert’s secretary/girlfriend Rose Alvarez (Ellen Jenders) in one last push to save the AlMaeLou recording company and, Rose hopes, to get Albert away from his incredibly clinging, hilariously martyred mother Mae (Kristen Yasenchak), who gives new meaning to the poor me syndrome.

En route to the inevitable happy ending (this was a ‘60s musical, remember) the WW stage is filled with wonderfully upbeat songs and dances, solo and ensemble, guaranteed to bring smiles throughout the two-hour (plus intermission AND announcements!) production.

Bye Bye Birdie Wagon Wheel Center Warsaw INHighlights — and there are almost too many to count — begin with “The Telephone Hour,” which finds all the Sweet Apple teens tying up the phone lines in the excitement of Kim’s pinning by boyfriend Hugo Peabody (Tom Sweeney), and “Honestly Sincere,” in which a gold-clad Conrad meets his swooning (remember that?) fans.

The MacAfees’ plight is hilariously depicted in “Kids,” and there is no doubt the second act showstopper is delivered by Jenders who declares her independence in “Spanish Rose,” a solo dance well worth the price of admission.

The talented cast delivers yet another solid production which is happily played on Michael Higgins colorfully layered set, wrapped in Stephen H. Hollenbeck’s always right-on costumes (love Harry MacAfee’s pjs!) and supported from first note to final chord by music director Thomas N. Stirling’s excellent orchestra. (Note: Don’t look for a title tune. That was written strictly for the 1963 film.) It is a pleasure to listen to a small orchestra make every “Overture” the best way to start the show.

When “Bye Bye Birdie” first opened on Broadway, it received a Tony Award as Best Musical. The Wagon Wheel production makes the reasons for this easy to understand

“BYE BYE BIRDIE” plays through Saturday in the Center at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit www.wagonwheelcenter.org.

The Medium Gets The Message in 'Ghost'

In 1987, Patrick Swayze dirty-danced his way into cinema stardom. Never one to repeat himself, he followed this in 1990 with a definitely different role in another blockbuster film “Ghost.”

Two decades later, theatrical producers jumped aboard the “Let’s turn a movie into a stage musical” bandwagon and “Ghost the musical” hit the boards in London and Broadway, never, unfortunately, recreating its cinematic success.

The stage production, however, makes for an entertaining evening as evidenced by the latest effort at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI where “Ghost the musical” opened Tuesday evening.

Fans who became enchanted with a ghostly Swayze’s frantic attempts to warn his lady love of impending danger from his killer, will find the same frustrating storyline at The Barn, enacted by Jamey Grisham as the dead-but-not-departed Sam, Brooke Evans as his greatly-grieving girlfriend Molly, Michael Tuck as their not-to-be-trusted buddy Carl and last, but certainly not least, Shinnerie Jackson as Oda Mae Brown, a pseudo-psychic who conjures up a lot more than she bargained for.

Ghost The Musical The Barn Theatre Augusta MIWatching Ms. Jackson in action is a major reason for watching this production. In the role that earned Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar, she takes a back seat to nobody. Safely ensconced in her Harlem habitat, she delivers messages that fit whatever profiles she can glean from her not-so-subtle questions to believing clients.

When she erupts with “Are You a Believer?” the energy level erupts along with her. She has excellent comic timing and her reactions to, and conversations with, the unseen Sam pick up the pace and give a much-needed boost to the frequently funereal (no pun intended) tempo of the piece. Her struggle with a forced donation is a gem as is her realization that she finally has made an actual contact with the spirit world.

Grisham, who also serves as choreographer assisted by Julie Grisham, mainly stands in a blue (ghostly) light and observes. His attempts to reconnect with the “real” world are well done and well-timed with the requisite sound effects. His other-worldly interaction with the Subway Ghost (Laron Hudson), who delivers his “Focus” rap with spectral fisticuffs, is painfully effective.

Ghost The Musical The Barn Theatre Augusta, MIAs Molly, the talented Evans has little to do but cry about her lost love in a limited wardrobe meant to underscore the fact that artists live in blue jeans and tank tops. She assigned several of the show’s easily forgettable ballads which even extensive straight line belting cannot save. And there is little connection between her and Grisham.

Outside of Jackson, the best voice in the show belongs to Tuck, who creates a former friend slipping faster and faster into desperate enmity. His “hellish” end was not nearly “hellish” enough.

Under the direction of Hans Friedrichs, the hard-working ensemble morphs from ghosts to office workers to medical personnel to subway riders and much more without missing a costume change or a beat in the frequently robotic choreography.

The set, designed by Shy Iverson, works well given the many locations required although on opening night several props and set pieces had to be added/removed after action had begun. Lighting and sound are well synchronized and also play an important part in setting whatever atmosphere is necessary.

Under the direction of Matt Shabala, the orchestra is supportive and handles the score well, given the only song that emerges in memory is one from the film: “Unchained Melody.” The rest of the music is easily forgotten.

GHOST The Musical” plays through July 12 in the theater on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121