Runyon Characters Back At The Barn

The late Damon Runyon is known best as a writer and author of many short stories which conjure up images of brightly garbed Broadway characters best known by descriptive nicknames and a distinctive manner of speech.

Runyon was a newspaper reporter and award-winning sports writer whose colorful creations remain unique. These are the stories and personalities which supplied the basis for one of the theater’s best-loved and most frequently produced musical comedies, ‘Guys and Dolls.”

It debuted on Broadway in 1951 and saw three successful revivals — 1976, 1994 and 2005 — plus unending productions in every regional and civic theater across the country. Subitled “A Musical Fable of Broadway,” it is now on stage at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI..

With the bright lights of Broadway and the elusive rumblings of “The Oldest Established (Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York)” underscoring the action, it is filled with delightfully off-center guys (gamblers and police) and dolls (nightclub entertainers and mission workers), each of whom pursues his/her ambitions with admirable determination.

Guys and Dolls  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MIThe book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser are incredibly well tuned in to the Runyonesque vibe, dialogue, lyric and character-wise.

With a cast of characters that includes Sky Masterson (Eric Parker), Nathan Detroit (Robin Haynes), Harry the Horse (John Jay Espino), Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Patrick Hunter), Benny Southstreet (Sam Massey), Rusty Charlie (Jamey Grisham) and Big Jule (Charlie King), the plot revolves around Nathan’s need for $1,000 to secure a location for his floating crap game, and on Sister Sarah Brown’s (Hannah Eakin) need to produce a goodly number of “genuine sinners” for her midnight prayer meeting at the Save-A-Soul Mission..

To insure the former, Nathan bets Sky that he cannot take Sister Sarah to dinner. To insure the latter, she agrees to go, not knowing that the dinner will be in Havana.

Meanwhile, Nathan is dealing with his lack of location (for the game) and his 14-year engagement to Miss Adelaide (Brooke Evans), headliner at the Hot Box nightclub. She is dealing with a 14-year psychosomatic head cold and has already assured her mother they are married, with a large number of children.

Guys and Dolls  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MIAdd to this a colorful array of Runyon’s Broadway characters all “lookin’ for action” in Nathan’s crap game and a police lieutenant Brannigan (Matt Ruehlman) determined to shut it down and you have a wonderfully off-beat mix, all set to the marvelous Loesser score.

The primary problem here, on opening night at least, was the obvious lack of rehearsal time for the too-loud, too-off key, mostly-brass orchestra. From the opening notes of the overture, familiarly known as “post time,” it was obvious this was going to be a bumpy ride. And it didn’t get any better.

In any production, the first step to a successful endgame is casting, matching the right actor with the right role as closely as possible. Even when the performer is good, he/she may not be the right one for a particular part.

The mis-matching was evident here. There was no connection between Sky and Sarah, who oversang all her solo work, and their romantic involvement was embarrassing at best. Most of the gamblers took mugging to a new level, forgetting these are written as characters not caricatures.

One successful pairing is that of Adelaide and Nathan who happily remembered that less is more and managed a definitely sweet aura even in their hilariously love me/love me not duet “Sue Me.” Evans has the most familiar song, “Adelaide’s Lament,” which she handled well, sneezes and all, while Haynes’ frequently frantic Nathan always walked the fine line between real and cartoonish with appreciated ease..

Director Hans Friedrichs, who also played Sarah’s uncle Arvide Abernathy, probably should have cast a stronger “sheep’s eye” on the entire flock.

All in all, however, it’s difficult to keep a good classic down and most of the audience seemed to be having a good time.

“GUYS AND DOLLS” plays through July 3 in the theater on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit

Relationships Focus Of Ensemble Production

What’s in a name?

The title of The Acting Ensembles’s current production, which opened Friday evening in Studio 217, might — as Shakespeare would say — give you pause.

A prize-winning comedy/drama by British playwright Mike Bartlett, the four-character study in relationships is titled “Cock.”

OK, so the program cover illustrates it in one way with a black-and-white design of two roosters obviously fighting. Among the many dictionary definitions are a faucet valve, a gun hammer and the jaunty tilt of a hat. None reference male genitalia which, however, seems to be the first connection most people make.

That’s unfortunate if it keeps anyone from seeing the clever, caustic and frequently comedic play which holds the attention completely for its 90-minute, no intermission, playing time.

Done as the playwright instructs, with no set, no props, no furniture, no specific costuming and no specific time frame, it allows everything to be focused on the participants, or should I say combatants, because that is precisely what they are. If not at first, then definitely at last.

The suggested circular arena is a box-like space here which serves equally well as the actors advance and retreat, circle, enter and exit. Round or square, they are caught within the limitations of their lives.

John (Brent Graber) and M (Geoff Trowbridge) have been in an exclusive relationship for an undesignated length of time when M feels the need for taking a break. John protests but eventually agrees.

When M returns, he is carrying the burden of another love affair — with a woman — and is, to quote an old cliché, on the horns of a dilemma. Caught between his feelings for both M and W (Angie Berkshire), John finds himself struggling to make a decision.

“What I am is not more important than who I am” he declares, torn between the two and seemingly unable to choose.

To facilitate a decision, a dinner for three is arranged with M stacking the deck slightly by adding F (Brad Mazick), his father, to the guest list. No surprise as to who’s cause he is supporting.

In the course of the evening, the pros and cons of all manner of relationships are discussed, focusing on identity and sexuality and the part they play in the life and makeup of an individual.

Agree with the outcome or not, under the direction of Melissa Gard, the solid acting quartet delivers a frequently humorous always thought-provoking evening — and one that, unfortunately, you probably will not have the opportunity to see again in this area.”

COCK” plays Thursday through Sunday on The Acting Ensemble Main Stage at Studio 217, 217 S. Michigan St., South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 807-0108 or visit Adult language and content.

Musical Satire Spears Big Business

There are certain musicals that, for one reason or another, stand the test of time. One of these is the current production at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre — “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

Not only did the 1961 Broadway smash hit win seven of the eight Tony Awards for which it was nominated, it also earned the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for drama and, decades later, received successful revivals in 1995 and 2011.

Not bad for a satirical musicalization based on a satirical novel by Shepherd Mead. With a book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser (ironically the only nominee who did not win), it could be compared to “Mad Men” but with the accent strictly on laughs.

The meteoric rise of J. Pierrepont (“Call me Ponty”) Finch (Tom Sweeney) from window washer to chairman of the board of World Wide Wickets is every entry-level employee’s fantasy.

Armed only with a disarming grin and a do-it-yourself handbook for corporate success, Finch is the champion advantage-taker of all time. He never misses the chance to turn a seeming mishap into another step up the ladder and he never looks back.

Neither the machinations of lazy, egotistical Bud Frump (Keaton Eckhoff), the boss’s nephew-by-marriage, or the determined devotion of WWW secretary Rosemary Pilkington (Erica Durham), who has her eyes on another prize (“Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm”), can deter him from his goal.

Starting in the mailroom, he takes advice (“The Company Way”) from its head man Mr. Twimble (Evan Duff) and uses information about the collegiate history (“Grand Old Ivy”) of WWW president J.J.Biggley (Chuckie Benson) How to Succeed in Business Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw INand his after-hours romance (“Love From A Heart of Gold”) with Hedy LaRue (Lottie Prenovost), ex-nightclub cigarette girl and secretary wannabe, to climb ever higher.

Along the way, he alienates fellow executives and ignores Rosemary, even after realizing (“Rosemary”) that he loves her. Nothing cracks his overwhelming self-confidence (“I Believe In You”), not even . . . Sorry. No more spoilers.

If the treatment of women in the workplace (“A Secretary Is Not A Toy”), and the limited goals they set for themselves (“Cinderella Darling”), seems way too unreal, you never worked for a big corporation in the 1950s-60s.

The fact that the secretary’s primary way out of the steno pool was marriage seems (thank goodness!) too far-fetched to be real. Then “The Brotherhood of Man” did not include females.

Enjoy ‘How to Succeed” in its proper satirical context and be glad that today’s office workers have more to focus on than getting a spouse or a bigger office.

Sweeney is believable as the enterprising Finch, with his spotlighted slow-turns as opportunities arise earning increasing laughter. Durham has a warm soprano which tends to become too shrill and rapid with dialogue.

How to Succeed in Business  Wagon Wheel Theagtre  Warsaw INScene stealers are Eckhoff’s clumsily diabolical Bud Frump, who gives nepotism an even worse name, and Laura Plyler’s Smitty, leader of the steno pool and chief advocate of marrying the boss as the way out. Their agony when the pot runs out (“Coffee Break”) is universal!

Andy Robinson’s direction keeps the devious plotlines crackling along, a necessity for a 2 ½+ hour show. The set design by Michael Higgins and Terry Julien seeks to evoke the ‘60s with a header hung with colored discs in a variety of shapes and sizes and a central playing area that, to this reviewer, strongly resembled an Etch A Sketch without the knobs.

Costume anomaly: All the women wear straight skirts except Rosemary whose outfits are a salute to crinoline.

Historical note: The “Voice” of the book, delivered here in properly stentorian tones by Mike Yocum (who also plays Willie Womper), was recorded for the ’95 revival by Walter Cronkite and, for ’11, by Anderson Cooper.

Hmmm. Wonder if they followed its advice?

”HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING” plays through June 25 in the theater at 2515 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit

Scott and Barbra A Winning Combination

Talk about a triumphant return!!!

For many years, actor/director Scott Burkell was one of the primary reasons to travel to The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI every two weeks from June through August.

A mainstay of the core Equity company, he rose to the challenge no matter what the role — from door-slamming farce to heart-wrenching drama, straight play or musical — it seemed there was nothing he couldn’t do (his Riff-Raff was the highlight of many Barn productions of “The Rocky Horror Show”).

When other theatrical commitments drew him away from the Augusta stage, something special was lost..

After more than a dozen years, producer Brandon Ragotzy has succeeded in luring Burkell “home” for the 70th season celebration.

He opened Tuesday evening for one-week-only in “Buyer & Cellar,” delivering a tour-de-force solo performance as Alex More, an out-of-work actor who takes a job for an unnamed employer in Malibu, CA.

When the employer turns out to be Barbra Streisand and the job is tending to the mini-mall in her basement (true!) where she is the only buyer, things get a bit complicated.

In addition to dealing with Barbra’s major-domo Sharon, Alex must handle increasing hostility from his boyfriend Barry who definitely resents Alex’ obvious devotion to the star which grows with her every “shopping trip.”

Buyer & Cellar  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MIThe mall, as described in Streisand’s book “My Passion for Design,” is a fact, which the actor separates from fiction in the opening scene. Also the creation of author Jonathan Tolins are the meetings with Streisand’s husband James Brolin, the wonderfully sly “can you top this” sales duels (or is that duets?) between More and the lady of the manor and the suspiciously overpowering speed with which she accepts his suggestions for her next film.

When he finally is invited to come out of the basement and visit the main house, it is the culmination of his dreams . . . or is it?

There is no intermission in this 90-minute performance and every minute is a real delight. Burkell is a triple threat, master of facial, physical and vocal nuance and each is utilized perfectly under the eye of guest director Jim Gaylord.

There is no set, just a scrim tri-plex which serves as the background for a series of Streisand-oriented projections, and little furniture. Area lighting designates the location of each scene, up or down, in or out.

Nothing else is needed. Burkell does it all. Aside from the entertaining script, the evening is like meeting an old friend and realizing he has only gotten better!

NOTE: Burkell will return Aug. 30 for “Red, White and Tuna” with another Barn veteran Joe Aiello.

“BUYER & CELLAR” plays through Sunday in the theatre on West highway M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or on line at

Life Lessons Set To Music On 'Avenue Q'

Who said puppets are just for children?

Certainly not composer/lyricist Robert Lopez or writer Jeff Whitty or the cast and crew of “Avenue Q,” the Tony Award-winning musical that opened the 70th season (and a short one-week-only run) Tuesday evening at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI.

“Avenue Q” Opened Off Broadway in March 2003, moved to Broadway in July, won three of the top Tony Awards and played there through September 2009. In October it returned to Off Broadway where it still plays today.

Talk about a popular show!

The Barn production shows just why.

Under the solid direction of Eric Parker, 11 puppets and 10 humans offer a delightfully insightful look at the pros and cons of young adulthood as lived on Avenue Q.

For whatever reason, three adults are puppetless throughout while six create create 10 almost larger-than-life characters. Seven are rod puppets and four, hand puppets which frequently require two puppeteers. One “extra’ adult, Samantha Rickard, fills in several “bodies.”

Avenue Q  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MIFor those who have never seen “Avenue Q,” the fact that the actors/puppeteers are highly visible at all times, moving and speaking/singing for their characters, might seem a definite distraction.

The puppets and human characters completely ignore the puppeteers and, after a very short time, so does the audience.

The show conjures memories of “Sesame Street” with a generous dash of “South Park,” but it is definitely its own . The primary protagonist is Princeton (Sam Balzac), a recent college graduate looking for a purpose and a cheap place to live. Meeting building superintendent Gary Coleman (Shinnerrie Jackson) he takes an apartment and meets the rest of his neighbors: Brian (Charlie King), an aspiring standup comic. and his Japanese fiancé Christmas Eve (Jasmine Ejan) a clientless therapist; roommates Rod (Balzac) a Republican banker, and out-of-work Nicky (Patrick Hunter); Trekkie Monster (Hunter), a growly hermit who spends his days searching for internet porn; and Kate Monster (Melissa Cotton), an assistant kindergarten teacher who dreams of opening her own Monstersori school.

Avenue Q  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MIIn pursuit of his “Purpose.” Princeton meets the Bad Idea Bears (Brook Evans and Hans Friedrichs), who resemble cuddly Care Bears but have mischief on their minds, and Lucy the Slut (Cotton), a sleazy singer who aims her lyrics at Princeton, much to the annoyance of Kate Monster who , with Princeton, is enjoying a number of Long Island Iced Teas.

Their hazy night on the town, which includes hilariously noisy naked puppet sex, has unhappy consequences including breakups, rebounds, unemployment and homelessness.

Under the puppet guises and a wonderfully singable score, “Avenue Q” touches on a wealth of problems including sex, racism, pornography, commitment and homosexuality with a little ”Schadenfreude” (look it up, it’s more common than you think!) thrown in.

Avenue Q  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MIThe outstanding cast makes the most of every situation, human or puppet. Cotton does an amazing “double take,” going from innocent to worldly with a flip of her hair (and her hip). Balzac’s characters are closer in temperament, but he differentiates beautifully, all without skipping a beat or dropping a line!

Hunter is perfect as both whiney sponger and grumbling monster. Jackson is a great grinning Coleman and the petite Ejan is delightful as the “crabby old bitch,” a title she embraces with enthusiasm.

The scenic design by Michael Wilson Morgan works well, with windows and doors, upstairs and down, operating smoothly.

Pianist/conductor Matt Shabala leads a solid instrumental quintet. There is at times a bit of overplaying, but that could be corrected by the sound operator.

All in all, a stroll down Avenue Q is a great way to spend an evening, but leave the children at home.

“AVENUE Q” plays through Sunday in the theater on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit

Murderous Farce Features Holmes Twist

Since his first Broadway hit in 1989, prolific playwright Ken Ludwig has kept most of this country’s regional — and community — theaters well-supplied in entertaining fare.

Most of it is strictly no-nonsense — make that plenty of nonsense — farce (“Lend Me A Tenor”) while several set the pratfalls to music (“Crazy For You”).

The Ludwig offering that opened Friday evening in the South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Theatre

mixes holiday merriment with murder. From it’s title, “The Game’s Afoot or Holmes for the Holidays,” it doesn’t take much to deduce that the rough-and-tumble action will be laced with mayhem or that the detail-minded detective will be Sherlock Holmes as played by actor William Gillette.

Actually, it’s Bill Svelmoe playing Gillette playing Holmes.

The Game's Afoot South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreGillette was a Broadway actor /director/playwright at the turn of the century. With the permission of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle he wrote a four-act drama starring himself as Holmes. Over the course of 30 years, he played the character more than1,300 times and is responsible for Holmes’ signature deerstalker cap and Meerschaum pipe.

The setting for Ludwig’s mystery/farce is Gillette’s Connecticut castle (still a tourist attraction) to which he has invited the cast of his play for a holiday — and to determine who shot at him during a recent performance. He plans to answer this question in true Holmesian fashion.

Under the direction of Tucker Curtis, the eight-member cast features mostly area theater veterans. Led by Svelmoe they are Mary Ann Moran as the actor’s mother Martha Gillette; Mark Moriarty as his best friend Felix Geisel; Lucinda Gary Moriarty as Felix’ wife Madge; Casey St. Aubin as leading man Simon Bright; Grace Lazarz as Simon’s girlfriend Aggie Wheeler; Kate Telesca Banks as drama critic Daria Chase; and Laurisa LeSure as police Inspector Goring.

The Game's Afoot  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreDuring the course of the evening, one is murdered and the others, when not confessing to the crime, run around literally in circles trying to find the killer.

Damon Mroczak’s scenic design covers a lot of territory. The set contains several “hidden features” including a suit of armor which serves as an intercom and a trophy wall which doubles as a bar (and body hiding place).

The action opens on a theater stage where the company is playing Shakespeare but as the action is in front of the Gillette drawing room set, it takes a while to realize that it is not taking place in that room.

The location changes to the mansion which features a giant art deco something high above the sliding doors to the patio. I suppose it was a window but it really was a distraction. On the second level, the door frames should have been taller as anyone going in or out had to stoop to avoid hitting his/her head. For the Christmas setting, there were only a few decorations and no tree.

As for the actors, they were again fighting the playing space which tends to swallow all dialogue not aimed directly at the audience. Crisper diction and projection is a must.

It seemed that there were only two vocal levels: shouting or mumbling. Svelmoe and Mark Moriarty shouted a good deal, primarily at each other. They were at their best when trying desperately to find a place to hide the corpse.

LeSure was so soft as to be completely unintelligible. Banks stood out as the caustic, sarcastic newspaper columnist who seemed to have everybody’s number.

THE GAME’S AFOOT or Holmes for the Holidays” run has been extended through June 18 in the theater at 403 N. Main St. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit

Beautiful Fairy Tale Beautifully Enacted

Children of all ages love a good fairy tale, never more so than when it is set to music and receives the magic Disney touch.

Add to that fairly faultless direction and choreography by artistic director Scott Michaels and you have the current Wagon Wheel Theatre production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.”

Based on the 1991 animated Disney film with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice and a stage book by Linda Woolverton, it continues to be — after “The Lion King,” — the most popular in the Disney cartoon-to-live action repertoire.

And the most widely toured.

And the most frequently done in schools and community theaters.

Beauty and the Beast Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INAs always, the WW production faces the challenge of comparison at all levels and, again as always, comes out on top.

It goes without saying that conductor Thomas N. Sterling’s 11-piece orchestra makes the entire score — from overture/prologue to finale— worthy of listening to on its own.

Add to that another area in which Michaels & Co. seem to excel — character-perfect casting.

Even if you have seen this musical many times (and many in the near-capacity opening night audience obviously had), you will find layers of emotion underneath the excellent singing and dancing.

In the title roles are Elaine Cotter as Belle and Joey Birchler as The Beast. Living in separate worlds, they nonetheless share the stigma of being “oddballs” in less than understanding communities. She deals with it by living in other worlds through books; he takes his frustration out on his equally frustrated underlings.

Cotter, who last season played Jo in the WW production of “Little Women,” again creates a determined young woman who stands against adversity and beside her slightly-wacky inventor dad Maurice (Andy Robinson). She has a strong, clear soprano which lyrically expresses her gradual change in feelings towards her captor.

Beauty and the Beast Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INIn his WW debut, Birchler has the difficult task of being loudly intimidating on the outside and quietly frightened on the inside, with a lion-like crouch and a roaring façade masking his increasing fear of remaining a beast forever. He expresses this in the Act 1 finale “If I Can’t Love Her,” a demanding solo which follows the ensemble’s show-stopping “Be Our Guest.” a daunting juxtaposition which Birchler handles with impressive power and obvious empathy.

The comic relief here is in many excellent hands. First on the scene are Gaston (Charlie Patterson) and his happily battered sidekick LeFou (Barrett Riggins). If Patterson has fewer bulging biceps than his animated persona, he makes up for it with a smug swagger and a baritone that can shake the rafters (or antlers) when he extols his many exaggerated attributes (“Gaston”).

Riggins has the unenviable task of being his human punching bag, with frequent hits timed to a clapstick and a super-flexible body that turns each hit into a pratfall and earns extended laughter.

In the castle of The Beast is the heart of the familiar show: the enchanted staff gradually becoming The furniture/utensils/etc. With the aid of Stephen R. Hollenback’s equally enchanted costume designs, they are universally audience favorites.

Lumiere (Keaton Eckhoff), the French candelabra, formerly a footman, squabbles with Cogsworth (Scott Fuss), a fussy grandfather clock nee butler, and romances Babette (Lexi Carter), a French maid-turning-feather duster. The diva of the group is Madame De La Grande Bouche (Kira Lace Hawkins), a chiffonier who dreams of better days in grand opera.

Beauty and the Beast Wagon Qheel Theatre Warsaw INThe voice of reason belongs to Mrs. Potts (Lottie Prenevost), the housekeeper becoming a teapot, whose son Chip (Parker Irwin) is the prize cup on her tea cart. She delivers the show’s title song as Beauty and her Beast enjoy a break-through waltz.

Throughout, the talented ensemble becomes villagers, wolves, giggling girls, an angry mob, enchanted objects and whatever else is required (special kudos to the silent winged gargoyles flanking the Beast’s chair) , singing and dancing and moving set pieces all without missing a beat!

The downside to this is the lack of tickets (if any) for the remaining performances. The upside is that this year’s WW company is one of the best and five season shows plus the encore remain in which to check out this talent.

“BEAUTY AND THE BEAST” plays through June 11 in the theater at 2517 E. Center St., Warsaw. Show times vary. For information and reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit