Humor, Love In ECT Season Opener

There is not a lot of physical action in “Finishing School,” the award-winning original play that opened the Elkhart Civic Theatre 2017-18 season Friday evening in the Bristol Opera House.

This is not surprising.

The setting, to quote playwright Elaine Liner, is “a small park with a bench next to a nice senior living facility in Texas.” The two male members of the four-person cast are residents. — and seniors — hence the minimal action.

There is, however, a good deal of dialogue, most of which drew resounding laughter from the near capacity audience.

No surprise there either.

“Finishing School” is described as “A two-act comedy about life’s second act.” Definitely an accurate description. Its appeal, however, easily spans generations.

Al (Dave Dufour) is in his late ‘60s, a fairly recent resident moved in by his son and daughter-in-law, a fact that he clearly resents.

His new best pal is Wizzer (Gail Janssen), who is hovering around 90, confined to a wheel chair and has a tendency to drop off to sleep “every few minutes.”

Their daily routine consists of reading the obituary page, discussing other residents and, with Al as “pusher,” trips to the Dollar Store for soda and candy bars and avoiding “the cave,” aka the Memory Care Cove, destination for those with fading recall.

The relationship between the two is warmly combative, obviously bonded in the shared trials of geriatrics and instantly protective.

Testing its strength is the appearance of Minnie McManus, (Melissa Auvil), 30ish, daughter of a recently deceased resident. She arrives to meet her mother to deal with her father’s belongings and strikes up a friendly conversation with Al, Wizzer being mostly asleep, who is definitely attracted.

A new dimension is added when Al meets Minnie’s mom, Shirley (Sandra Woodiwiss), and age becomes less of a problem.

Finishing School Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INThroughout, the conversations between Al and Wizzer offer audience members the opportunity to laugh loud and long at subjects that are not often laughable. When tossed around by two elderly gents, the humor definitely rises to the top and offers a universal release.

Obviously, a play in which three of the four characters are past the half-century mark requires actors at least close to the characters’ ages. Old age makeup can only do so much.

This means the performers must be able to deal with one of the pitfalls of old age, sometimes any age — faulty memory.

On opening night, at least, the gaps signaling searches for lines were, for the most part, well-covered, with the playwright’s naturally easy language surviving to trigger another laugh.

The bulk of dialogue is carried by Dufour, who not only has most of the short, snappy comebacks but delivers dauntingly long patches of dialogue that uncover the man behind the comedian. He handles all very well.

Finishing School Elkhart Civic Theatre Elkhart INJanssen’s difficult assignment is to nod off believably, all the while being alert to his wakeup lines., an assignment even more difficult considering the similarity of his dialogue. Wizzer’s recounting of his memory test engenders one of the biggest and most sustained laughs in the show.

Some of the funniest bits are offered off stage as The Voice of the senior facility recites daily menus, entertainment options and rules, many of which are too familiar.

Newcomers Auvil and Woodiwiss show no signs of being newcomers to the ECT stage, creating warm and believable characters who offer a look at the outside of senior living.

Director Kevin Egelsky sets a gentle pace for the elderly characters which gives the audience permission to fully enjoy Liner’s sometimes too-close-for-comfort dialogue.

As always, the set designed and built by artistic director John Shoup is just right, with Texas trees and mid-century-era streetlights obvious just over the stone wall of the nearby park.

Unlike other more harsh depictions of senior facility life, “Finishing School” offers an up-side that allows one to look at what’s next for us all with humor and love.

“’FINISHING SCHOOL” plays at 7:30 p,m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on SR120 in Bristol. For reservations, call 848-4116 or visit elkhartcivictheatre.org.

Musical Trio Turns Back Time

It was a musical homecoming for two of the performers in “The Vegas Rat Pack,” which opened a one-week run Tuesday at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI.

Bruce Hammond and Seth Abrams, both Barnies during the 1990’s, are center stage as two music legends — Frank Sinatra (Hammond) and Dean Martin (Abrams). Completing the famous trio in the show conceived by Hammond and Abrams is Kenny Jones as the multi-talented Sammy Davis Jr.

Their original show offered audience members their own musical homecoming, as the three — individually and together — offered a look back at the songs they made famous, many of which have become an integral part the American songbook.

All three have strong voices and obviously enjoy reinventing the melodies which easily carried listeners back to the 1950s-60s.

It was an unashamedly nostalgic program, filled with pop ballads, show tunes and up tempo songs which frequently found audience members singing (or hmming) along.

It was that kind of an evening.

After a down-home opening by Barn regular Charlie King and his guitar, the trio offered a rousing rendition of “I’m Gonna Live ‘Til I Die” followed by “Luck Be A Lady,” then turned the spotlight over to Abrams.

Most familiar of Dino’s hits in this segment were “That’s Amore,” “Ain’t That A Kick in The Head” and “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.” Abrams was much more active than the laid-back ccrooner but his forays into the audience were obviously popular.

Vegas Rat Pack  The Barn Theatre Ajugusta MI“Candy Man” and “What Kind of Fool Am I” were standouts when Jones took the stage, horn-rimmed glasses and all. His time center stage also featured impersonations including Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Durante and his solo finale was one of Davis’ musical trademarks, “Mr. Bojangles.”

Jones was an enthusiastic favorite of the audience and, like Hammond, came close to capturing the essence of Davis’ persona.

The Chairman of the Board — Francis Albert Sinatra — took the spotlight for a good deal of the second act and,

when MC King introduced his set as “saving the best for last,” he was not exaggerating too much.

The quiet command of the stage that Sinatra exuded was replicated here, as was the silky voice that made every phrase sound effortless.

From his extensive repertoire came melodies that turned back the time clock and made this listener long for that a smoother, sweeter time. “Come Fly With Me,” “One For My Baby,” “Strangers In The Night,” “Witchcraft,” “All The Way,” “Chicago” (recreated as “Augusta”), “That’s Life” and “New York, New York” were just a few of the reasons he could have gone on singing all night.

Personally, I could have used more music rather than the rather lame comedy bits that peppered the script.

The band, made up of local musicians under the direction of John Jay Espino, offered instrumental support and the minimal stage set left a lot of room for the music.

“THE VEGAS RAT PACK” plays through Sunday in The Barn Theatre on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For show times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121. There is special pricing for this show only.

WW 'Normal' Powerfully Honest Production

Say the words “musical theater” and “mental illness” and what you have would never be mistaken as the combination for a theatrical production.

Unless it would be, as the current Wagon Wheel Theatre production of “next to normal” proves over and over and over again, an incredibly powerful and honest look at a problem facing millions today.

The first look finds Diana Goodman (Kira Lace Hawkins), her husband Dan (David Schlmpf), and their daughter Natalie, (Laura Plyler) getting ready for “Just Another Day.” He is getting dressed, Natalie is getting ready for school and Diana is making sandwiches for their lunch and talking to their son, Gabe (Keaton Eckhoff)..

Normal, right? Until you see the bread is spread out on the kitchen floor and no one sees or hears Gabe except Diana.

A look beneath the surface shows that family especially and friends are affected by Diana’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder and this Pulitzer Prize/Tony Award-winning musical drama by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) pulls no punches.

next to normal Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INA visit to her physician, Dr. Madden (Riley McFarland), results in an “adjustment” to Diana’s multi-multi-multi pill regimen and, eventually, referral to a psychiatrist, Dr. Fine (also McFarland), and a different treatment method (no pills).

A near-fatal incident leads finally to a recommendation for ECT — electric shock therapy. Diana refuses until Dan, worn down after dealing for 16 years with her increasing depression and hallucinations, convinces her that this is their last chance.

At school practicing for her piano recital, Natalie meets Henry (Mike Cefalo), a fellow student who is attracted to her (“Perfect for You”). Considering her home life, she is more than reluctant to begin any relationship. She pushes him away and, determined to have her own life, begins experimenting with her mother’s pills.

The reality of this libretto is chilling but demands close attention. What makes it very listenable is that practically everything is sung.

Which leads to the major plus here i— the absolutely outstanding cast and orchestra. They work tandem to allow every word to sink in and this is no easy task. Having seen this show twice in New York City, I can state with certainty that this sextet of talented singer/actors holds its own against any in the Big Apple or on tour.

At the center of Diana’s world is the always amazing Kira Lace Hawkins who continues to completely inhabit each and every character she portrays and tops the layered individuals with a voice that is rich and broad and sure and a joy to listen to.

Her incredibly wrenching internal journey is shared in varying degrees by Schlumpf and Plyler, whose strong and soaring voices make the depth of their shifting emotions painfully apparent— anger, resentment, grief, fear, frustration, sorrow and, above all, love are components in their kaleidoscopic interactions.

Stirring the pot from somewhere “beyond,” Eckhoff offers a charismatic call to a world without pain where serenity is the key. He urges his mother to join him.nest to normal  Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw IN

As Natalie’s lifeline, Cefalo is a typical teen, determined to help but not quite sure just how to go about it.

Representing the medical community, McFarland delivers two sides of treatment — pharmaceutical and psychiatric — with precision (his litany of drugs is

frighteningly hilarious) and appropriately concerned detachment.

The award-winning score is safe and a thing of beauty in the voices of director Scott Michaels’ hand-picked cast. In solos or ensemble pieces, they combine excellent vocal work and touchingly real characterizations.

The same is true of the outstanding instrumentalists in conductor Thomas N. Sterling’s orchestra.

In Michael Higgins’ set design, the angular metal steps, platforms and catwalks that connect the many areas in the two-story set sometimes pose a bit of a sight problem but certainly represent well the twists and turns in the minds of all.

This show is not the average man’s definition of a musical but it is one that doubtless will reach a place in everyone’s mind and heart. And it is one that, especially in this day and age, should be seen.

Like Diana, most would agree that maybe being next to normal is not so bad after all.

NEXT TO NORMAL plays through Sunday in the Wagon Wheel Theatre, 2517 E. Center St., Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041.

Tuskegee Airmen Face Frustrating Battles

An important part of United States history, frequently neglected in recounting “the big picture,” is the part played by the Tuskegee Airmen in the ultimately successful conclusion of World War II.

A small segment of this part is the subject of “Black Eagles,” a play by Leslie Lee directed by Deb Swerman, which opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Barbara K. Warner Studio Theatre.

Using the flashback format as the framework for the story (based on fact) of dedicated airmen who studied and trained at Alabama’s Tuskegee University Air Field, the action begins in Washington, D.C. at a 1989 reunion of pilots from the 99th Fighter Squadron.

After a little backslapping and a few ”can you top this” reminiscences by older veterans Clark (Rev. Terrell A/ Jackson), Nolan (Charles Payne) and Leon (David Smith), it shifts to 1944 Italy where their counterparts, the same-but-young — and understandably frustrated — pilots are stationed and chomping at the bit to see some real killing action.

Their assignments as pursuit pilots, escorting white bomber crews to their targets with orders to stay with them no matter what, leave the young airmen ready to undertake any challenge in order to see a bit of actual action.

Exacerbating this is the fact that the Army Air Corps, as indeed all the military forces, was segregated. What was true at home was true in the service and, in spite of several declarations made by the pilots, nothing would change in their immediate future.

As they wait for news of their next assignment, the six pilots — Clarke (SSG. SSteven Wilbur), Roscoe (Ben Little), Nolan (Eric Ways), Buddy (Anderson Chimutu), Leon (Kenneth Taylor) and Othel (DeLorean Gammage) — share hopes, dreams and realities. Since this is a diverse group, the friction level also rises, even about such obviously unrealistic topics as which one is Lena Horne’s boyfriend.

Black Eagles  South Bend (IN) Civic TheaatreWhen the opportunity to become fighter pilots and each gets a “kill,” their enthusiasm is understandable. The brief look at the relationship between Buddy and Pia (Mahaffa Tompson), an Italian girl, seems extraneous.

The script does not offer many looks at why each man became a pilot or where he hopes to go when the war is over or what his family is like. What little backstory there is is supplied by the actors themselves, some SBCT veterans and some newcomers.

All acquit themselves well with special applause to Little who not only plays Roscoe but Julius, the pilot’s ventriloquism dummy and the focus of much of the play’s humor.

The awkward atmosphere that arises when two white pilots, Dave (Cam Matteson) and Roy (Miller), drop in to meet the men they have heard so much about, eventually vanishes incrementally with each gulp as they share a bottle of cognac.

It is a difficult scene to make real, especially in the close quarters of the black box theater, and it is to the credit of the company that it feels very natural.

The entrance of General Lucas (Curt Goodrich) with a paper listing the rules of segregation definitely is a major disruption. In spite of his command, the black pilots refuse to sign. The white pilots silently slip away.

Black Eagles  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreNothing had changed and would not begin to for several years until President Truman signed an executive order aimed at ending military segregation.

But, as the Tuskegee airmen must have known, that was only the beginning. It may have become better in the military but the struggle for equality was barely begun in 1944 and continues today.

The necessity of learning and relearning this lesson is underscored by the trials of these Black Eagles.

BLACK EAGLES plays through Aug. 20 in the studio theater at 215W. Madison St. , South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112.

Sondheim + WW = Musical Theatre Magic

Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theater has led the pack this summer with a lineup of widely varied productions, all beautifully done.

Now, in the final show of the scheduled season, it seems it has saved the best for last.

It is no secret that my very favorite musical theater composer is Stephen Sondheim. I would, in fact, go miles to see/hear anything with which he is connected..

I have a Top Five list of favorites, at the very top of which (or, at least , in the number two spot) is ‘Into The Woods,” Sondheim’s version of fractured fairy tales, a collaboration with playwright James Lapine.

Not only is it a brilliant blending of familiar childhood favorites, but it is filled with a wildly weird assortment of characters, melodies that will not leave your head and a solid list of words — or phrases — to live by.

It also echoes everyone’s hope of getting through life’s darkest woods to find a happily ever after.

Being so committed to this piece, I approach every production with hope and fear. Hope that it will at least come close to my expectations and fear that it will not.

Into the Woods  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw INThe minute we walked into the Wagon Wheel Theatre Wednesday evening, I knew the next few hours would exceed my highest expectations.

And I was right!!

Even before the music begins (and director Thomas N. Sterling and his always-excellent orchestra more than do justice to the intricate score), even before that, there is the jaw-dropping set by Ray Zupp (“Young Frankenstein,” “The Addams Family”) that leaves you standing in the lobby, staring over the seats and anxious to get a closer look.

I would say you have to see it to believe it, but…well, you really do! And that’s just the beginning!

The orchestra goes into the pit, announcements are made and the lights finally fade, to rise again on the woods and the inhabitants of its outlying areas:

Jack (Blake Bojewski), his Mother (Kathy Haskins) and Milky White (Grace Robinson), his cow;

Little Red Riding Hood (Allsun O’Malley) and her Granny (Jennifer Dow);

Into thr Eoofd  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw  INCinderella (Sarah Ariel Brown), her stepmother (Leanne Antonio), her stepsisters Lucinda (Dow) and Florinda (Bailee Enderbrock), her father (Mike Yocum) and her Prince (Ben Ahlers);

the Baker (Riley McFarland) and his wife (Kelly Britt);

Rapunzel (Kira Ziringer) and her Prince (Michael Bradley);

plus assorted others — the Witch (Kira Lace Hawkins), the Big Bad Wolf (Ahlers), the Narrator/Mysterious Man (Brett Frazier) and the Steward (Michael Pacholski).

And no one who goes into the woods, comes out of the woods unchanged (or alive).

Put them all together and they make a formidable vocal ensemble, and ensemble work a la Sondheim is nothing if not formidable. Not only do they make it sound easy but, in spite of overlapping melodic lines and lyrics, quite easily understood.

Each of the major players has his/her share of solos and each delivers beautifully! Kira Lace Hawkins (who I now believe can do anything!) is completely unfazed by her opening speed-singing rap, her poignant duet with Ziringer and, of course, her show-stopping “The Last midnight.” And she definitely knows how to make an exit!!!

Britt is a pleasure to listen to in solo or duet and creates a no-nonsense wife who seeks motherhood but, yearning for a bit of romance, finds more than she bargained for.

O’Malley is a delightful Red Riding Hood, skipping into and around danger with naïve abandon., never mind that the Big Bad Wolf is on her trail. As the seductive Wolf, Ahlers sheds his fur to become Cinderella’s Prince and, with Bradley, shares my favorite double duet, “Agony,” which hilariously nails the shifting fancies of princes.

Into the Woods  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw  INBojewski and McFarland have wonderfully rich and strong baritone voices that audibly mark their changes from awkward young men to adult males, determined to come out of the woods on the right paths. It is easy to empathize with their journeys.

Frazier carries the strong narrative and shifts personas slickly to add to the overall mystery and Kathy Hawkins proves that, in or out of the woods, mothers are the same.

Must give applause to Robison. Never seen out of costume, and without singing a note, she gives a great deal of character and personality to long-suffering Milky White.

As always, Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s costumes are the icing on this cake, especially in facilitating the Witch’s transformation. Crowning Hollenbeck’s costumes are Dow’s varied (and secure) wigs, which here help the Witch regain youth and beauty.

“Into The Woods” is directed and choreographed (and the last includes a lot more than dancing here) by WW artistic director Scott Michaels, who continues to set the standards so high they would stop a lesser artist. Michaels just sails right over them!

Behind him — or beside him — are lighting designer Patrick Chan, who seems able to create fantasy with the flick of a switch,; sound designer Chris Pollnow, who supplies the balance between singers and instrumentalists; technical director Jacki Anderson, who makes sure all circuits are clear; production manager Mike Higgins and production stage manager Nick Voight, who is in charge when the lights go up.

Along with their respective crews, they create magic every two weeks of the summer in Warsaw.

Do not miss this one!!

INTO THE WOODS plays through Aug. 19 in the theater at 2517 E. Center St. in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041.

Newsboya Fight The System In 'Newsies'

There’s not a princess in sight as “Newsies” bursts on to the stage of The Barn Theatre where the Disney musical opened Tuesday evening.

Instead the maximum energy is supplied by a bunch of feisty ragamuffins, all ready to sell the day’s copy of the New York World. Lest the audience expect pastels (from Disney), everything is in varying shades if brown, black and grey.

Lining up to buy their daily allotment (for resale to the public), the newsboys are led by Jack Kelly (Jonnie Carpathios), who shares his dreams of going to “Sante Fe” with his crippled best friend and fellow newsboy Crutchie (Justin M. Roth).

The story of their fight for fair treatment — and money — is based on an actual 1899 newsboys strike in New York City — plus a little romance thrown in because, after all, it is a Disney show, complete with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman and book by Harvey Feldstein.

Disney's Newsies The Barn Theatre Augusta MI“Newsies” seems to be the musical of choice this summer, even though it is based on a 1992 film that became a Broadway musical in 2012 and there is, of necessity, very little color in set and costumes.

Except, of course, for the scenes in a vaudeville theatre where headliner Medda Larkin (Samantha Rickard) is a friend for whom Jack paints backdrops.

The jet propulsion in this Disney’s “Newsies” is supplied by the ensemble of urchins who leap, stamp, holler and, at one point, tap like mad, at the drop of a tear sheet (“Carrying the Banner”).

With choreography by James Gresham, who is also a newsboy, the crowd of energetic urchins tears up the boards at the drop of a penny and was received with sustained cheers throughout the 2 ½ hour performance.

Disneh's Newsies The Barn Theatre Augusta MIJack’s love interest is supplied by Katherine Plumber (Kasady Kwiatkowska), an aspiring lady journalist who has her own agenda.

His right hand newsboy is Davey (Nick Barakos) who, with his younger brother Les (Brandon Davis/Henry Dunn — it doesn’t say which one is playing which performance), doesn’t fit the orphan code of the newsboys — they have both parents.

When World owner Joseph Pulitzer (Richard Marlatt), (yes, the Pulitzer Prize Pulitzer!), decides to raise the newsboys cost from 50 to 60 cents per 100 in order to increase circulation (“The Bottom Line”), Jack instigates a strike (“Seize the Day”).

Strikebreakers and police break up the rally and the end finds Crutchie in The Refuge, a juvenile detention center run by the evil Warden Snyder (Charlie King).

Will Jack rescue his friend, defeat the capitalist and win the girl?

If you can’t answer that, you don’t know Disney.

With an unflagging energy that seems never to lessen, Carpathios is indeed the focal point of “Newsies”, but the actual highlights are the equally unflagging newsboys.

On and off the stage and every available table and chair, up and down auditorium aisles and the on-stage stairways of scenic designer Samantha Snow, they accomplished every move with observable glee.

Vocally, their blend was solid and frequently moving.

Among the principals, with the exception of Roth, all seemed inclined to push, frequently resulting in rather unpleasantly harsh tones. This may resolve itself as performances go on and the balance between singers and instrumentalists evens out.

There is no doubt that everyone was doing his/her duty in “Newsies,” even director Hans Friedrichs was called into action. Of course making sure he never relinquished command, he is playwright Fierstein’s deus ex machina — the man on the white horse who saves the day — President Teddy Roosevelt.

Diisney’s “NEWSIES” plays through Aug. 20 in the theater on M96 in Augusta, MI. for performance times and reservations call (269) 731-4121.

TV Stars In Royal Roles At The Barn

One thing to remember while watching the royal machinations of the early Plantagenets currently unfolding on stage at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI is that, while they could have happened, they most likely did not, especially in the format so entertainingly played out by stars Kim Zimmer and Robert Newman.

Like most historical sagas, the James Goldman drama has a basis in fact, well, semi-fact at least, and it also contains a good deal of humor, albeit 12th century humor, which makes it highly entertaining on a modern level.

Fact: King Henry II (Newman) and wife Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Zimmer) had one of history’s most storied love affairs, the result of which was eight children, five boys and three girls. The three living boys (times were hard in the 1100s)— Richard, Geoffrey and John — are the subjects of discussion during the Christmas celebration at Henry’s castle in Chinon, France.

The Lion In Winter  The Barn Theatre Augusta MIThe debate, at time extremely heated, circles around just who will wear the crown once Henry is no more. The king favors John (William Dunn), the youngest; Eleanor’s favorite is Richard (Jamey Gresham), the oldest; and Geoffrey (Jabri Johnson), in the middle, attachés himself to whichever brother seems to be winning — and it fluctuates rapidly and often.

Caught in the middle is Alais (Audrey Morton), half-sister of King Phillip II of France (Quinn Moran), who has been at court since her betrothal to Richard at age 8. That was 7 years ago and she has since become Henry’s mistress,

So you can see there are a lot of problems to be addressed and, hopefully, sorted out before the final candle is extinguished.

Under the direction of Brendan Ragotzy, and following the always-dynamic leading players, the flickering lights illuminate rivalries, passions and not-so-hidden secrets.

Played out on one of Samantha Snow’s best set designs (which puts the “Les Miz” turntable to excellent use), the shifting shadows of Mike McShane’s lighting plan are beautifully soft or sharp as the mood demands.

There was no doubt on Tuesday (opening night) that the audience had come to see the stars. Newman and Zimmer were paired for decades on the former CBS daytime drama ”Guiding Light” but if the aim was to see Josh and Reva “together again,” the fans were at least somewhat disappointed.

The Lion In Winter  The Barn Theatre Augusta MIWhat they got instead were two detailed performances by two experienced actors who. In very short time, became — believably — the multi-layered monarchs of a kingdom in flux.

And if, in theater, familiarity breeds … whatever … it is a real pleasure to watch them work. Feinting, parrying, slashing and stabbing, they provided verbal action to a script that allowed them little chance for physicality.

Both characters admitting they had little love for their offspring, there was no doubt that the fire that brought them together was still at least smoldering, fanned by the determination to be the winner in the intricate maneuverings that would eventually result in a crown.

Henry’s bellowing and blustering is stymied at every turn by Eleanor’s muted machinations. The “boys” prove that, even then, the apples didn’t fall far from the parental trees. Gresham was stoically planted while Dunn shifted with every encounter. Johnson fought a losing battle but was difficult to hear. The same is true of Moran, the slippery sovereign who hoped to win no matter who wore the crown.

As Alais, Morton is the most sympathetic figure and drew a moving portrait of the princess who would be the loser no matter who “wins.”.

It has always been a mystery here that Henry would choose John, a whimpering, whining, cowardly teen, as his successor. Also, if Eleanor was imprisoned for 10 years for her part in the attempted overthrow of Henry in 1173, why not the same for the boys who revolted with her?

Whatever the answer, “The Lion in Winter” at The Barn offers a good chance to see a very entertaining play (historically factual or not) presented by a solid company lead by two of the area’s favorite actors.

THE LION IN WINTER plays through Aug. 6 in the theater on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For show times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121.

Wish Granted Means Big Trouble

It seems obvious.
The message of “big,” the musical that opened Friday evening in the Bristol Opera House, is clear: Don’t ask for what you want — you might get it.

That’s what happens to Josh Baskin, an almost 13-year-old, played in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production by Schmucker Middle School student Eddie Bell.

The 1996 musical, featuring a score by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr and a book by John Weidman, is based on the hit 1988 film starring Tom Hanks

The premise is one to which every youngster — and every parent — can relate.

big  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INJosh and his best buddy Billy Kopecki (Wyatt Katzenberger) are indulging in every kid’s favorite pastime, complaining — about chores, homework, parents,  girls and life in general — and wishing to eliminate all problems by being “big,”

Josh especially is unable to talk to Cynthia Benson (Maddie Hershberger) the girl on whom he has a crush. Frustrated and humiliated, he finds himself facing a carnival machine, Zoltar Speaks. Instructed to “Make A Wish,” he blurts out “I wish I was big.”

When he wakes up the next morning to find that his wish has been granted, he begins a hazardous — and hilarious — journey into the adult world.

big  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INThe suspension of disbelief is helpful for any play, but here it is almost a necessity. As “adult” Josh, Matthew Manley makes believing a no-brainer. Scared and awkward and shy, he gradually blooms in the world of “grown ups,” and his transformation to self-assured executive is delightful and connects with audience members of all ages.

Of course, what allows Josh to transition from teen to 30-something is — what else? — toys!  Sharing a jumping-jack duet on a giant keyboard (the most famous scene from stage and film) with MacMillan (Tony Venable) the head of a floundering toy company, John finds himself in his dream job, testing toys!

As he become increasingly integrated into adulthood, the voice of pre-teen reason is supplied by Billy.  Katzenberger provides a wonderfully no-nonsense best friend who keeps his eye on the prize — finding the new location for Zoltar Speaks and reversing the wish — and tries to provide reality checks for his aging buddy. He is the friend every kid (and adult) should have and delivers a humorously solid characterization.

big  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INThe scenes between Billy and Josh (young and old) are highlights.

Chrissy Herrick is Susan Lawrence, company marketing vice president, who is attracted to Josh and introduces him to some adult games. She has the difficult task of making the attraction believable and does it well.

As Josh’s mom, Karen Payton has one of the show’s loveliest and most touching ballads, “Stop, Time,” which goes straight to the heart of every parent. It is just one in the excellent Maltby and Shire score which contains a goodly number of tunes-that-stick-in-your-head, not the least of which are “Fun!” in which the entire company goes wild in F.A.O. Schwartz; “Stars,” a melody for Josh and Susan’s “sleepover,” and “Cross The Line,” a salute to coming of age no matter what that age may be.

The entire company does well by Jackiejo Brewers’ choreography and soloists and ensemble numbers are solid under the direction of Sandy Hill.

Director John Shoup, who also designed the flexible set which features giant piano keys and appropriate digital backdrops by Jeffrey Barrick, delivers a fast-paced, as-slick-as-possible production, assisted by Leann Reas-Sullivan.

Special note to properties head Susan South for the excellent accumulation of toys!

The bottom line of “big,” which finds Josh finally ready to be a teen again, is the inclusion of something for everyone in its music and script.

It may not be smart to wish for what you want, but that will never stop anyone from asking.

BIG plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House, SR120 in downtown Bristol. For information and reservations, call 848-4116

 

Fun, Fantasy Fill The Road to Oz

It’s one of the best-known movies in the world and it’s iconic theme song is rated No. 1 on the prestigious AFI listing of top 100 movie songs — ever!

If you have to think more than one second to come up with a title, you’ve been out of touch for at least the last 61 years. That’s when it’s TV debut thrust MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz’ back into the public eye, where it has lived comfortably ever since.

So, you may ask, if it is that familiar, why would anyone want to see a local “live action” version when the DVD is close at hand.

I have no conclusive answer but one of the 300+ audience members who obviously enjoyed the South Bend Civic Theatre production which opened Friday evening in the Wilson Auditorium might have his/her own answer.

Undoubtedly among them would be the chance to see friends, neighbors, family members, etc. on stage as some pretty wild characters (and in some pretty wild costumes!).

Or maybe the opportunity to see if monkeys do fly or if a scarecrow, a tin man and a lion can really sing and dance.

Well, the SBCT show allows plenty of chances for the former and some for the latter, but whether or not curiosity is satisfied, there’s no doubt that what’s going on provides a great deal of fun for everyone, even those with no actual “Oz” connection. (I guarantee the ending never changes.)

The ability to suspend disbelief in any show, especially a familiar fantasy, depends on the commitment of the performers. Safe to say that the ages of the cast members posed no difficulty in them becoming the required residents of that Emerald City.

Everybody went green with a vengeance!

Excepting, of course, Dorothy, played with wonderfully wide-eyed honesty by Anastasia Spalding, and her companions on the Yellow Brick Road (which, incidentally, was the only thing missing — nary a brick of any color).

The Wizard of Oz  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreAs her earliest road trip friend, the Scarecrow, Graham Sparks gave new meaning to taking one for the team. Slipping, and falling at the drop of … anything, he literally threw himself into the role of Dorothy’s over-stuffed, empathetic companion Tormenting the straw man are three raucous crows who jeer at his decision to ask the wizard for a brain.

Next up is the immobilized Tinman (Lincoln Weight), whose metal extremities, replacements for his human parts, have rusted in place. With his joints lubricated, he joins the trek to Oz in search of a heart. Wielding his trusty axe, creaking elbows and knees, Wright was appropriately, totteringly robotic.

The Wizard ofz  South Bend (IN) Civic Theatre Last but certainly not least is the roaring Cowardly Lion, portrayed with blustery bravado (and a definite hint of Bert Lahr) by SBCT veteran Nicholas Hidde-Halsey. Shadow boxing with not-yet-faced opponents and roaring at every moving leaf, he is the poster beast for good intention. He could have used more padding and a longer tail but his mane is a curly vision, Of course, his Ozian request is for courage.

Haunting their footsteps is — right! The Wicked Witch of the West, complete with peaked hat and dangerous broomstick. There is no doubt that Dawn Hagerty goes from grouchy Miss Gulch to gleefully evil queen with obvious relish, a cackling laugh that shakes the walls of Oz and an army of Winkies and flying monkeys to carry out her dastardly commands. She is, of course, an audience favorite!

The Wizrd of Oz  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreAs her opposite, Glinda the Good Witch of the North, Natalie MacRae-Waggoner doesn’t exactly float on in a bubble but there are plenty of sparkles around her at all times. She exudes calm in the Munchkin storm center and (spoiler!) is the holder of the happy ending key.

(She also is the owner of Toto, played by Copper MacRae-Waggoner, who is absolutely adorable and one of the best-behaved stage dogs ever.)

Another SBCT veteran, Cecil Eastman, segues slickly from Professor Marvel to that man behind the curtain without missing a beat — or a hot air balloon!

The stage version returns a number cut from the film, “The Jitterbug,” which is a highlight of Callie Anne Lorenz’ choreography.

The production is directed by David Case with musical direction by Roy Bronkema, with many of the cast members playing two and three roles.

And for those who really don’t know, THE song, of course, is “Over the Rainbow” which has survived in tact and on top since written by Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y “Yip“ Harburg almost 80 years ago.

Listen to it again. It says what it takes Dorothy 2 ½ hours to realize: There really is no place like home.

THE WIZARD OF OZ plays through July 30 in the Wilson Auditorium, 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call(574)234-1112.

WW 'Young Frankenstein' Really Alive

They are “Together Again For The First Time” and the result is “Deep Love” for “The Happiest Town In Town.”

These are titles of some of the toe-tapping melodies which fill The New Mel Brooks Musical “Young Frankenstein,” currently on stage at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre.

And to use still another: It’s time to “Join The Family Business” — if, that is, you can stop laughing long enough!

I really couldn’t.

Even before the action shifts from Transylvanian villagers celebrating the funeral of Dr. Victor von Frankenstein (Mike Yocum) to the New York classroom where his grandson, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (“That’s Fronk-en-steen”) is extolling the virtues of “The Brain,” it is almost impossible to stop — laughing, that is.

Anyone who has seen the Mel Brooks movie or the original “Frankenstein,” with bits from its sequel “The Bride of Frankenstein,” will know exactly where director/choreographer Scott Michaels and company are going.

It’s good old-fashioned horror with a wink and a grin and a wonderful score, all by creator Mel Brooks (with help from co-author Thomas Meehan). Even when you can see the jokes coming from a country mile away — “Pardon me, boy. Is this the Translvania station?”

“It is. Can I give you a shine?” — it is impossible not to laugh (or, at least, groan a little).

Never mind the determination of the fastidious Fronkensteen (an absolutely incredible Ben Dicke!) to stay away from grandpa’s Machiavellian manipulations or his pantingly celibate relationship with the vindictively vampish Elizabeth (Kira Lace Hawkins in another devastating performance!).

Young Frankenstein Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INIn the end, curiosity wins and Frederick heads down to THE lab accompanied by his not-so-dumb-blonde lab assistant Inga (McKenzie Kurtz); his henchman Igor (“That’s Eye-Gore”) (Ben Ahler) whose grandfather filled that position with Victor F. and Frau (cue the horses!) Blucher (Jennifer Dow), the violin-playing housekeeper, who goes with the castle and has her own dark secret.

Put them all together, add Michael Bradley as Inspector Hans Kemp, who literally gave an arm and a leg in search of the monster, and Riley McFarland as the blind Hermit whose friendship proves painful , top it off with the Monster (Andy Robinson) him(it)self and the result is 2 ½ hours of solid musical theater plus enough laughs to keep you going for at least several weeks, all the while trying to figure out how a production on a small stage in the middle of Indiana could rival that of a big bucks production on the Great White Way.

Young Frankenstein Wagon  Wheel Theatre Warsaw INThe answer, of course, is talent, something this production has in abundance.

Each of the principal roles is perfectly cast, with Dicke’s endearingly twitchy doctor leading the way — pitch perfect in movement, timing, action, reaction and characterization.

At his side (literally) through all the musical mayhem is Ahlers’ Igor, balancing his shifting hump (”What hump?”) while shuffling along, hooded head bobbing eagerly through many attempts to bring back the good old days of corpse-revival.

As Elizabeth, the literally untouchable girlthe doctor F leaves behind (temporarily) Hawkins pulls out all the stops. Her grand entry “Please Don’t Touch Me” says it all and is a real showstopper.

The same goes for the show’s most familiar number, “Puttin’ On the Ritz” (with apologies to Irving Berlin!), in which Robinson turns loose with his ”creator” and the ensemble in a wildly high-stepping dance. It can’t be easy being green, but he delivers many shades with shifting monsterial ferocity!

Dow wields a mean bow as the original doctor’s more-than-housekeeper. Just the mention of her name elicits an instant reaction from the horses. Kurtz is appealingly dim as the assistant whose laboratory duties literally go above and beyond. The meeting of the blind Hermit and the Monster has always been one section I could easily skip, but McFarland and Robinson make it work.

All are perfectly together under Michaels’ tight direction and always-impressive choreography. With special applause to Robinson for “tapping” in four-inch platforms!

Once again, the WW orchestra under the direction of Thomas N. Sterling is a lushly supportive integral part of the production, as are Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s costumes and Patrick Chan’s excellent lighting design. All the bewigged heads of Transylvania are thanks to designer Dow. Check out Elizabeth’s final headpiece!

Ray Zupp’s set design is deceptively simple but works well in the face of the many, many, many locations and atmospheres it must represent quickly. (Note: A special praise for cast and crew members who run up and down the aisles — in the dark — quickly and quietly with sometimes very heavy set pieces.)

In case it is not obvious, this has been my very favorite show of the summer, of many summers, in fact, and I encourage you all to take advantage of its too-short on-stage life!

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN plays through July 22 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041.