Classic Comedy Still Fresh And Funny

There’s a song by Peter Allen that declares “Everything old is new again.”

The proof of this opened Wednesday at the Wagon Wheel Theatre in Warsaw with its production of the 1939 comic classic “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

Written by two of the best in their era and beyond — George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart — it tells of the enforced stay (via an icy fall and an injured hip) of a famous author/radio personality in the home of a Mesalia, Ohio, factory owner and of the major chaos which ensues. It is December 1939 and Scrooge, aka Sheridan Whiteside, is not feeling the love.

Based on a slightly similar incident in the Hart home, the lineup of characters includes several based on theatrical personalities well known in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

The Man Who Came to Dinner Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INIf you can guess who they are, you are as old as I, but in this show, directed sharply and at a required rapid pace by Ben Dicke, it doesn’t make any difference if you can or not.

They are hilarious no matter who they were/are.

In the center of the increasing whirlwind sits (literally) Whiteside, played with wonderfully appropriate stentorian bravado by Robert J. (Bob) Miller. The world, no matter where it is at any given moment, revolves around him and he definitely thinks this is the way it should be.

Commandeering the home of Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Stanley, played with increasing frustration by Chuckie Benson and Lottie Prevenost, he virtually sentences them to the upper floor and continues with his life as usual.

At his side (initially) is his trusted secretary Maggie Cutler (Elaine Cotter), while several in the Stanley household — daughter June (Kayla Eilers), son Richard (Noah Keiserman), butler John (Sea Watkinson) and cook Sarah (Aria Braswell) — are looked upon favorably, as are local newsman Bert Jefferson (Joey Birchler), a playwright-in-waiting who goes rather wildly overboard for Maggie, and Mr. Stanley’s sister, Harriet (Ruby Marie Gibbs), an other-worldly spinster who floats in and out of Whiteside’s frantic reality in a world of her own.a

Not-so-gentle treatment is afforded Miss Preen (Laura Plyler), the unfortunate nurse in charge of the recalcitrant patient (her exit speech is worth the wait and received well-deserved applause) , and Dr. Bradley (Evan Duff), a physician with a literary aspirations and a good deal of patience (pun intended!).

The Man Who Came to Dinner Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INDashing in and out of the Whiteside bedside are Professor Metz (Keaton Eckhoff), delivering a “buggy” gift; Banjo (Scott Fuss), a wildly wacky comedian; Beverly Carlton (Barrett Riggins), playwright with a flair for music and imitation; and Lorraine Sheldon (Lexi Carter), film femme fatale on the prowl.

From the outset, Whiteside is more than rude to everyone. Receiving a welcoming gift of calves foot jelly from a local matron, he snarls “Made from her own foot, I have no doubt.”

And that’s when he’s feeling charitable.

The insults fly fast and furiously but there is no profanity and each gets the laugh it deserves, primarily thanks to the sharp delivery of the wheelchair-bound central figure, the reactions of his captive targets and the determinaiton with which he plots — and co-conspirators augment his plans.

Miller maneuvers his wheelchair deftly around the comfortable living room set designed by Jacki Anderson, shouting orders and shooting barbs with gleeful abandon. He is the man you love to hate and, when the snow clears, the final blow — to quote Gilbert and Sullivan — fits the crime.

It is two hours-plus and most of that time is filled with laughs. After more than three-quarters of a century, this man is still one of the funniest dinner guests in theater history.

Trust me. This is one you don’t want to miss.

“THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER” plays through Aug. 6 in the theater at 2515 E. Center St. in Warsaw. For show times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit

Life Under The Sea A La Walt Disney

With the opening of The Barn Theatre production of “The Little Mermaid” Tuesday evening, it seems that this is definitely a Disney summer, theatrically speaking.

“Beauty and The Beast” has already come and gone with “Mary Poppins” waiting for good weather.

The tale of Ariel, youngest daughter of King Triton, is based on Hans Christian Anderson’s classic story of the watery miss who dreamed of a life on land, as retold by Disney animators in 1989 and eventually reimagined for the stage. Unlike the Anderson original, it has a typically Disney happy ending, much to the relief of small fans everywhere.

The tuneful depiction has gone through several changes since it opened on Broadway in 2008, most of them aimed at creating an undersea location that is, if not completely believable, at least lovely to look at.

The Barn’s 30-fathoms deep setting uses a projected background of bubbles (also expressed “live” from an overhead bubble machine), side cutouts resembling lacy seaweed and several “merpeople” holding sea green/blue lengths of shimmering material stretched between two stakes.

The Little Mermaid  The Barn Theatre Augusta MIMost impressive is the creation of rolling waves which break gently in the calmer scenes and as ragingly as possible in the storms.

The other problem facing all productions is that of making the merpeople move silkily through their H2O environment. No one really expects them to “swim,” but the use of three mermen to lift and carry Ariel in every entrance/exit is rather disconcerting, especially since all other underwater folk stand upright in their finny garb and shuffle cautiously on and off.

Wearing Ariel’s fish tail and requisite red wig, Melissa Cotton Hunter does her best to add motion in a costume that, until Act 2, keeps her movement restricted to wherever she is placed. Her warm soprano served her well in her familiar solos “Part of Your World” and “If Only” and her “odd-mermaid-out” family situation translated well to human conditions.

Choreographer Jamey Grisham is Prince Eric, the typical stiff-but-smitten Disney hero, who ignores what is silently in front of him in his search for “Her Voice.”

The Little Mermaid  The Barn Theatre Augusta MINo surprise, the audience favorites here are the marine creatures (well, it is Disney after all), good and evil, and the definitely all-evil sea witch Ursula, played with delicious anticipation (and assisted wavering of her octopus-like tentacles) by Penelope Alex, always great to watch — in any wig!

That her malevolent plan will fail is (again, Disney) a given, but watching her spin her aquatic web with the sinuous assistance of her electric eel henchfish Flotsam (Brooke Evans) and Jetsam (Nicholas R. Whittaker) is much fun.

So is watching Ariel’s friends Sebastian (Michael Fisher), a Jamaican crab; Scuttle (Quinn Moran), a dyslexic seagull; and Flounder (Kasady Kwiatkowska), a fishy puppet a la “Avenue Q,” scramble to save her.

Moran leads a trio of “gulls” in a high energy tap,”Positoovity,” designed to pump up Ariel’s drooping self confidence. It is a highlight of Act 2 along with Patrick Hunter as Chef Louis in a frantic chase aimed at putting Sebastian on the dinner table.

The Little Mermaid The Barn Theatre Augusta MIUndoubtedly the most familiar song in Menken’s score is “Under The Sea,” sung by Sebastian and a large group of sea creatures. It is designed to remind Ariel of the wonders of a watery life. Unfortunately, the lyrics here are unintelligible. Time for Disney diction!!

Eric Parker’s King Triton, father of Ariel and her six rainbow-hued sisters and brother of Ursula, is all too human as the conflicted parent whose authority is contested.

Overall, the marine atmosphere is achieved, the ensemble numbers are solid and the costuming, human and not, is satisfyingly colorful. Conductor/keyboardist Matt Shabala controls his four-piece orchestra well and it supports rather than overpowers.

Under the direction of Hans Friedrichs, this “Mermaid” moves along swimmingly (oops!), coming in at a satisfactory (for young audience members) two hours plus intermission.

“Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID” plays through July 31 in the theater on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For show times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit

Herman Heroine Never Gets Old

There are many memorable ladies in the world of musical theater and among the best known is one of the creations of composer/lyricist Jerry Herman: Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi.

She is constantly recreated on stages around the world, the latest area incarnation being the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of “Hello, Dolly!” which opened Friday evening in the Bristol Opera House.

Even if you have never seen the entire production it’s a sure bet you can at least hum the title tune, possibly thanks to the late Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong whose recording took it to the top of the ‘60’s pop charts..

The original Broadway production opened in 1964, won 10 of the 11 Tony Awards for which it was nominated, played more than 2,800 performances and made a star of Carol Channing, who played her signature role again in two of the three Broadway revivals.

Based on Thornton Wilder’s 1938 farce “The Merchant of Yonkers” which became his 1958 farce ‘The Matchmaker,” the story of the meddling widow whose expertise in fixing everyone’s problems leads to innumerable mix-ups before the predictable happy endings still has a universal appeal, not the least of it due to its bubblingly tuneful score.

Hello, ,Dolly!  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INThe ECT production, under the direction of Jerry O’Boyle, is an excellent example of what community theater does best: Creating a cohesive company with available talent.

The assignment of creating the indefatigable Mrs. Levi is handled with laudable aplomb by Rachel Raska. Distributing “business” cards which declare her available for matchmaking, dance lessons and anything in between, she advances to her ultimate goal of making the “well-known half-a-millionaire,” miserly, misogynistic Horace Vandergelder of Yonkers, N.Y. (a properly dour David Dufour), her next husband.

The bravado she displays during her not-so-subtle assault is tempered with pleas for a sign of approval from her late spouse and a score of hummable melodies to mark the way.

Hello, Dolly!  Elkhart Civic Theatre  BristolAmong her other “clients” are two overworked, underpaid employees in Vandergelder’s feed store, Cornelius Hackl (Jacob Medich) and Barnaby Tucker (Matt Ambrosen). They take advantage of the boss’s absence to have their own adventure — a trip to New York City — with the ladies they meet in a hat shop, widowed owner Irene Molloy (Sandy Hill) and her giggly assistant Minnie Fay (Molly Hill).

Medich has a strong, mellow baritone that is best used in the lovely ballad “It Only Takes A Moment,” and provides solid support in the small ensemble numbers “Elegance” and ”Dancing.”

As assistant director and vocal director, Medich is behind the excellent chorus work in the many all-company numbers including the opening “I Put My Hand In,” “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” “Before The Parade Passes By” and, of course, “Hello, Dolly!” all of which are worth the price of admission.

Hello, Dolly!  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INThe last-named follows “The Waiter’s Gallop,” a deliberately frantic dance number choreographed smartly by Tom Myers that is always a show-stopper, even when, as in this case, it also is a gallop for some waitresses. The mixed group does nothing to lessen the impact of the sharply delineated and extremely energetic dance.

Set in the summer of 1895, the scenic design by John Shoup, who also was a member of the ensemble, signals a delightful return to the “good old days” when memory tends to shade everything in cotton candy hues. It definitely is lovely to look at and, as always, transforms quickly with minimum distraction.

With the exception of Dolly’s traditional red Harmonia Gardens gown, Karen Payton’s costume design follows the same soft color palate. Only the sparkle-infused material used for several of the dresses seems out of time.

O’Boyle opted to use an orchestral sound track which supplies a solid base for solos and chorus numbers — all of which come with their own built-in reprises — as well as filling in scene changes.

It just makes listening to Herman’s award-winning score that much more pleasurable.

“HELLO, DOLLY!” plays Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on SR 120 in Bristol. For show times and reservations, call (574) 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays or visit

Nuns And Music A Heavenly Combination

It seems that, as with children and animals, you can never go wrong with a musical about nuns.

From “The Sound of Music” to the many, many, many incarnations of “Nunsense,” looking into life in a convent has always provided a wealth of source material, most of it tending to the humorous side.

Such a one is “Sister Act” which opened to a near-capacity crowd Wednesday evening at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre.

Unlike the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, which went from the stage to the screen, “Sister Act” began as a successful film comedy using existing pop music to an eventual Broadway success, with a score by composer Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater and additional book material by award-winning playwright Douglas Carter Beane.

The shift in creative team makes little difference in the WW version which, under the aegis of director/choreographer Scott Michaels, has resulted here in two and a half hours of just plain fun.

Whoopi Goldberg is nowhere to be found but Morgan Wood’s Deloris Van Cartier is, if not as quick on the one-liners, much better in the vocal and physical department. She can belt with the best of them and definitely looks like the Van Cartier her chosen stage name implies.

Sister Act  Wagon Wheel Theatre  WArsaw INThe theatrical version, however, gives much more space to the “featured” players, most especially Kira Lace Hawkins as the by-the-book Mother Superior; Elaine Cotter as the unsure Sister Mary Robert; Jennifer Dow as the grumpy-on-the-outside/soft-on-the-inside Sister Mary Lazarus; Cameron Mullin as police sergeant “Sweaty” Eddie; Chuckie Benson as Deloris’murderous ex Curtis Jackson; and his trio of bumbling henchmen — Joey (Joey Birchler), Pablo (Caleb Fath) and T.J. (Evan Duff, a double for Kevin Hart) — who deliver show-stopping renditions (with gestures!) of “When I Find My Baby” and “Lady in the Long Black Dress.”

Sister Act Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INHawkins has, as past seasons have shown, a wonderfully warm and flexible voice and the ability to give credible life to any character, real or make believe. As much as Deloris, she is the anchor of this redemptive tale and their eventual collaboration is “made in heaven.”

Cotter’s clear soprano shows little sign of the uncertainty of her life path and when she regrets “The Life I Never Led” it strikes a responsive chord.

Dow is the glass-half-full nun who literally stops the show when she breaks out in the second act. But you have to see it to appreciate it. No spoilers here.

The same is true for Mullin as Deloris’ high school classmate who earns his nickname and then some in a beautifully loose-limbed declaration “I Could Be That Guy.”

Benson adds a solid third persona to his summer of ’16 repertoire as the South Philly gangsta who is out to silence his former chanteuse.

The WW ensemble again does double and triple duty in the high-stepping, fast-moving dances and creates wonderfully organized mayhem in the final Keystone Cops-style chase.

Sister Act  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw INHaving had a deafening experience this summer with a brass-heavy orchestra, I braced myself, especially for the opening nightclub sequence. Conductor/keyboardist Thomas N. Stirling, however, has his seven instrumentalists right as they should be — supportive, not overpowering.

The set design by Ray Zupp resembles, no surprise, an extended cross, which works well except when soloists venture to the ends of the extensions and are out of their light. Not fatal but annoying.

And, for those who thought a show set primarily in a convent meant a black-and-white costume plot, fa-ged-a-bou-dit. Designer Stephen R. Hollenbeck has loosed his love of sequins on the grand finale when everyone — and that means EVERYONE — sparkles brighter than the frequently-used mirror ball.

It is designed to bring everyone to their feet and, with no coaxing, the opening night hundreds instantly obliged!

SISTER ACT” plays through July 23 in the theater at 2515 E. Center St., Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit

Barn Resurrects Lloyd Webber 'Superstar'

It would be impossible to list the most famous composers of musical theater over the past seven decades and not put Andrew Lloyd Webber somewhere near the top of that list — whether you’re a fan of his music or not.

A goodly number of those on the positive side cheered for the production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” which opened Tuesday evening at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI.

This is the third Barn Theatre production of the ALW blockbuster which first saw theatrical life as a rock opera concept album in 1971. Never one to let a good (i.e. successful) work go unplumbed, “Superstar” was soon morphed into a stage musical followed by a film.

There are those who are very partial to the music but think it best enjoyed only when listened to. Putting a face — or faces — onto the abstract is challenging to say the least and, for the most part, falls short of the music-only concept.

Jesus Chrisst Superstar  The Barn Theatre Augusta MIFor those who like everything visualized — even characters and situations that are better left to one’s own imagination — The Barn has your answer (through July 17).

Under the direction of producer/director Brendan Ragotzy, who also plays Pontius Pilate, the focus is on the final events in the final week in the life of Jesus (played by Jay Poff), beginning with the growing doubts of Judas Iscariot (Eric Parker) as he watches Jesus preach to the then-adoring masses (“Heaven On Their Minds”).

A proponent of “action-first,” Judas fails to understand why Jesus is holding back, believing that his kingdom is of the material kind.

The shifting face the crowd — make that any crowd — is lyrically depicted as they demand to know “What’s The Buzz?” while the temple priests Caiaphas (Charlie King), Annas, (Patrick Hunter) and others are adamant that “Jesus Must Die.”

Even if your last connection with the events of Passion Week was in Sunday school, everyone knows where this story will end. But Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice include some unfamiliar twists to the scenario of this rock opera.

Jesus Christ Superstar  The Barn Theatre Augusta MIWhat if Judas was also a part of the plan to make sure Jesus didn’t avoid his tragic end, a thought that crosses his mind (“Gethsemane”) while the apostles sleep..

But no chance.

After being shuffled from Roman ruler to Hebrew king to priests and back again, finally, at the will of the mob, the mystery reaches it’s foregone conclusion on that inevitable hill, leaving the tragic central figure alone, as he always was, while friends and foes silently slip away.

The Barn production is fairly consistent in doing vocal justice to the score. Eric Parker is a wildly volatile Judas, facing off well with Poff’s cautiously laid-back hero.

Samantha Rickard, in-and-out vocally as Mary Magdaline, has the show’s best known solo ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” She is the only female on stage in a dress, indicative of ?

The ensemble costumes seem to circle around 1968, with the ladies trending towards “Hair” and the men, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” The priests, draped darkly from head to toe and balancing monumentally menacing headgear throughout, most resembled The Knights of Ni from “Spamalot.” The white finale outfits were… puzzling.

One really kampy bit which always stops the show (and did so here) was John Jay Espino and his Vegas-style backup singers in “Herod’s Song.”

As from almost every other theatrical production of this still-popular work, it continues to be obvious that presentation in its original form — a rock opera concept album — is how it can best be appreciated.

Static staging inhibits every “live” production, including the 1975 film version. Set here against a background of outlined sailing ship masts or telephone poles (couldn’t decide which), the throbbingly repetitive chorus pieces seem to prohibit matching choreography and the material appears to overawe performers.

How would you play Jesus???

‘JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR” plays through July 17 in The Barn Theatre on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For information and reservations call (269) 731-4121 or visit

'Ragtime' At WW A Must-See Musical

“Ragtime,”the Tony Award-winning musical which opened Wednesday evening at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre, is the kind of unique entertainment that combines artistry with relevance in the best possible way — wonderful music, timeless book and ageless characters.

Put them all together, add a wildly talented cast of 39 singer-dancer-actors, a 12-member orchestra that never misses a note and a production team that creates the shifting times, locations, wigs and costumes that bring everything into focus and you have a production that deserves to be seen… and seen … and seen again!

And, of course, it never hurts to have this entire endeavor under the sure hand of WW artistic director/choreographer Scott Michaels.

If you have never seen this musical, based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, with book by Terrance McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, it should be at the top of your must-see list.

Ragtime  Wagon Wheel Theatre  warsaw INNominated for 13 Tony Awards in 1998, it won for best book and best original score and barely lost best musical to the Disney blockbuster “The Lion King.”

Because of the production requirements, it is not done often. At the Wagon Wheel, however, it moves across the small round stage like a breath of fresh air.

From the haunting “Opening,” which requires the introduction of the three groups — upper class white suburbanites, African Americans and Eastern-European immigrants, who shift and sway to their particular rhythms and come close but never really completely intermingle. There is no doubt that is definitely an evening to remember.

Just having that many on that stage at one time (and they all are there) is a logistical nightmare but one that Michaels turns into an early show-stopping dream!

Ragtime  Wagon Whel Theatre  Warsaw INIt is again obvious that he doesn’t just choreograph, he paints pictures with people!

From the three groups emerge individual characters who will grab your hearts and your minds, primarily because they are played by much more than the run-of-the-mill cast members usually found in summer fare — excepting, of course, at Wagon Wheel.

Don’t know where to start because each is unique so I’ll begin with me favorites — Mother (Lottie Prenevost), matriarch of the New Rochelle family who emerges from her husband’s (Scott Fuss) shadow when he goes exploring to the North Pole with Admiral Perry, and Tateh (Tony Humrichhouser), the Latvian immigrant who brings his young daughter (Piper Ellis) to America for a better life and encounters more of what they left behind.

Both have strong and colorful voices (as do all the other principals) and connect with the audience at the level of the heart. She because she is not afraid to stand up for what she believes and he, because he will not let circumstances defeat him, In the end, both win out.

Her answer to Father (no one in New Rochelle has names except the Young Boy (Alec Fehlmann),\ who is Edgar), when he returns expecting life to be as it was when he left, is given in “Back to Before,” one of the great solos in the Ahrens/Flaherty score. Prevenost delivers it with an emotional determination that says it all.

Humrichouser has his own heartbreaker in “Gliding.”is dream of a better life reaches rock bottom, he holds his daughter tightly and begins to turn their lives around with the snip of his silhouette scissors. Handkerchiefs were needed all around.

Ragtime  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw  INThe best known “Ragtime” song surely is “On the Wheels of A Dream,” with Sarah (Erica Durham) and Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Chuckie Benson) promising a new and better life to their baby son.

When Irish members of the volunteer fire department descend on Walker’s new Ford, racism rears its ugly head and the halcyon dream is over.

Along the way to the hopefully integrated finale, Young Brother (Charlie Patterson) crushes on Evelyn Nesbit (Kayla Eilers), central figure in the “Crime of the Century,” and finally finds his niche when labor activist Emma Goldman (a determinedly inspiring Kira Lace Hawkins) leads him to Coalhouse. Figures from the turn-of-the-century (1902-1912) including Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Stanford White, Harry K Thaw (see Evelyn Nesbit) and Booker T. Washington come and go, each with his/her own contribution. It is a fascinating array and author McNally fits them all into the giant puzzle that was American one hundred years ago.

The icing layers on this puzzle are the intricate stage design by Michal Higgins, the class-accurate costumes by Stephen R. Hollenbeck topped by Jennifer Dow’s many wigs, the hear-everything sound design by Chris Pollnow and the scene-setting lighting design by Patrick Chan.

Unlike the usual stop-start layout of a musical, “Ragtime” is a very sung-through show and, with the great assemblage of voices and the richly solid orchestra under the direction of conductor/keyboardist Thomas N. Stirling, it really is a must-see/must-hear production.

Ragtime  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw  INDon’t be surprised if it definitely reminds you of today.

I guarantee you will learn a little, laugh a little, cry a little and come out humming a tune — in ragtime, of course!

“RAGTIME” plays through July 9 at the Wagon Wheel Theatre, 2515 E. Center St. in Warsaw. For show times, which vary, and reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit