ECT Tells Lovely Musical Tale

Long ago and far away — which is another way to begin a fairy tale — there was a young girl named Belle who, to save her father, ventured into the woods and into the life of an enchanted Beast.

Her story, which began centuries ago in a classic French fairy tale, has survived time and translation into one of the most popular theatrical musicals of all time.

Belle (Sarah Holaway, right center) faces The Beast (Nicholas Hidde-Halsey, on chair) as the rest of his enchanted household looks on. From left are Cogsworth (Kevin Smith), Mrs. Potts (Amber Pauls), Babette (Rachael Hall) and Lumiere (Cameron Ponce) in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. (Photo by David Dufour)

Elkhart Civic Theatre’s production of Disney’s “Beauty and The Beast” opened a too-short (one weekend) run Friday evening in the Goshen College Umble Center.

Under the direction of ECT’s multi-talented artistic/technical director John Shoup, the change of venue from ECT’s home at the Bristol Opera House added size to this production both in cast and scenic requirements.

The result is, actually, more than expected.

The cast of more than 50 is headed by Sarah Holaway as the spunky village girl who is determined to live life her own way, and Nicholas Hidde-Halsey as the tragic Beast who eventually changes her mind.

Maurice (Stephen M. Salisbury) is attacked by wolves in the woods in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. (Photos by Mel Moore)

Holaway creates a totally delightful Belle, with a clear and warm soprano that makes her solos especially lovely. Her interactions with her slightly eccentric father Maurice (Stephen M. Salisbury) , her egocentric suitor Gaston (Christian Elias) and the roaring Beast all go to form a female well ahead of her time.

Hidde-Halsey wears his beast-face well, going from really bad-tempered animal to shyly  sympathetic gentleman without losing his head. He performs the transition vocally and there is no doubt of his reformation.

Around them swirl a bevy of fantastic characters — some enchanted and some almost too human. In the former category are Cameron Ponce as Lumiere, a maître ‘d/candelabra  losing his light; Kevin Smith as Cogsworth, a head butler/grandfather clock afraid of running down; Rachel Hall as Babette, a French maid/feather duster upset at her increasing feathers; and Amber Pauls as Mrs. Potts, housekeeper/teapot concerned with everyone’s happiness especially her young son Chip (Lincoln Bontrager) who has become a part of her tea cart.

The Beast (Nicholas Hidde-Halsey) is angry when Belle (Sarah Holaway) refuses to dine with him in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

On the other side, Elias is a Gaston you recognize immediately, even when he announces “I use antlers in all of my decorating!” His bragging description of “Me,” is an audience favorite.  At his side (or on the floor) is Zach Rivers,  his faithful sidekick (literally) LeFou who racks up more pratfalls in the name of “friendship” than one of the stooges.  Both delight in planning evil, as evidenced by their plot with asylum head man Monsieur D’Arque (a menacing Scott Fowler).

Lumiere (Cameron Ponce, center) andMfrs. Potts (Amber Pauls) attempt to teach The Beast (Nicholas Hidde-Halsey) manners in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST,

All of the “baddies” obviously have a great time as would-be spoilers of the eventual happy ending.

The score by Alan Mencken, book by Linda Wolverton and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice all are given their proper due by principals, instrumentalists and chorus alike.

Fans of the movie (animated or real-life) may be a bit apprehensive when it’s time for the big blockbuster “Be Our Guest.”

No worries!

Shoup, orchestra director Brian Mast and choreographers Jackiejo Brewers and Matthew Manley have seen to that, with, of course, sharp and enthusiastic participation from the entire ensemble, musicians and unseen (but oh-so-necessary) production people.

I dare you not to cheer!

The not-so-hidden message here, as in all Disney stories, is the struggle to be yourself no matter what and to stand up for whom you love and what you believe.

Who said this was only a fairy tale?

“BEAUTY AND THE BEAST” plays 7:30 tonight and Saturday and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in the Goshen College Umble Center. For tickets, visitwwww.w.elhartcivicthegor the Umble Center box office.

 

 

 

 

Black Comedy Strikes at Family Relationships

South Bend Civic Theatre opened its 2018 season last month with “Boeing Boeing,” a traditional farce with lots of girls, lots of doors, lots of mistaken identities and a fairly happy ending..

Its second offering, which opened Friday evening in the Warner Studio Theatre, is another farce.

The fact that these plays share the same dramatic designation is the only similarity.

“God of Carnage,” by Pulitzer Prize-wining playwright Yasmina Reza, definitely lives up to its description. It is a “black comedy,” which has nothing to do with the ethnicity of its characters but everything to do with its type of humor.

Set in an upper-middle-class apartment in Brooklyn, the 2009 Tony Award-winning Best Play focuses on the meeting of two sets of parents, ostensibly to bring a civil conclusion to a physical encounter between their young sons.

Benjamin Raleigh, the son of Alan (Bill Svelmoe) and Annette (Colleen Dabler), has attacked Henry Novak, son of Michael (Vincent Bilancio) and Veronica (Abbey Platt), with a stick, resulting in breaking his two front teeth.

The Novaks, especially Veronica, are determined to find a way for Benjamin to make amends civilly, a conclusion which, at first, seems fairly agreeable to all. Gradually, however, the cracks in the polite façade begin to appear and widen until, by the end of the evening, the parents have resorted to the physical violence they were trying to avoid for their sons.

Alan, a lawyer representing a pharmaceutical company in a major case, is constantly on his cellphone which increasingly angers Annette until she finally loses control and deals with it frantically.

Veronica maintains her composure the longest until Annette’s increasing panic attack results (spoiler alert for those with weak stomachs) in her vomiting all over Veronica’s precious books.

Meanwhile, Michael’s revelations that 1) he was a member of a teen gang and 2) that the annoying click of his daughter’s hamster wheel led him to dump the unwanted rodent out in the middle of the street, lead to adverse reactions from all.

Throughout the 80-minute (no intermission) production, the layers of each individual’s character are stripped away, revealing the basic instincts for carnage that are universally destructive and obviously intrinsic to all.

Mark Allen Carter directs the increasing warfare which the cast creates with appropriately horrific relish. Smelvoe embodies the 21st century man who is undeniably — and frantically — lost without his cellphone. Bilancio is too much of a 1920s gangster type to be believably matched with Platt who maintains her composure until the disgusting (if uncontrollable) assault on her beloved books. Dabler is constantly teetering on the edge of a panic attack and her voice sharpens to an ear-splitting screech as the violence increases.

One of the most frightening things about “God of Carnage” is its display of the uncontrollable rage that simmers just below the surface of controlled and polite communication. Here it is played for laughs and, I suppose, if we didn’t laugh we would have to look at how uncomfortably familiar it is.

The set design, which is uncredited, is rather spare, no doubt in anticipation of the unusual punishment it must take with each performance. The pre-show music, Taylor Swift’s “Mean,” is the perfect lead-in to the carnage to follow.

“GOD OF CARNAGE’ plays through March 3 in the South Bend Civic Theater Warner Studio Theatre, 403 S. Main St. For performance times and reservations call (574) 234-1112.

 

 

 

 

 

Humor Airborn in SBCT Season Opener

“FARCE: a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including rude characterizations and ludicrously improbably situations.”

That’s for anyone who thinks the current South Bend Civic Theatre production of “Boeing-Boeing” has anything to do with the airline industry.

Well, actually it does, peripherally, but only in the persons of three stewardesses, each employed by a different airline — Janine Felder-Kahn as Gabriella (Italy), Sarah Myers as Gloria (America) and Dawn Marie Hagerty (Germany) — and Bernard (Dean Palmer) the bachelor architect who is engaged to all three and has no plans for marriage to any one.

“Boeing Boeing” was written by Marc Camoletti in 1962 and enjoyed a multi-year run in London before heading to Broadway in 1965 for a very short stay. Returning to London in 2007 and NYC in 2008, it clocked respectable runs primarily on the Tony Award-winning performance of Mark Rylance.

In this era of #MeToo, its misogynistic “hero” seems out of place, as do the eager females who accept his attentions.

Bernard is living, to quote Ricky Martin, La Vida Loca, until the introduction of a new bigger, faster jet airliner, the Boeing 747, into each of their schedules precipitates a major collision.

With the help of his stoic French housekeeper Berthe (Maureen Wojciechowski), and the timetable of all airlines (there were many more in the early 1960s), Bernard is able to keep track of the landings and departures for each of his “fiancés,” ensuring that their flight paths never cross or even come close.

Of course, it being a farce, the crossing — even criss-crossing — of paths is inevitable, exacerbated by the surprise arrival of Robert (Russell Pluta), an old friend of Bernard’s, who is determined to break out of the monotonous routine of his Wisconsin lifestyle.

No surprise, Robert is impressed by — and envious of — the smooth operation of Bernard’s high-flying operation. Until, that is, he is thrust into running said operation and flight paths become increasingly entangled.

No surprise, being a farce it doesn’t take long for the jet fuel to hit the fan, landing all the “stewardii” in the same place (Bernard’s apartment) at the same time with the same thing on their minds — spending a quiet evening at home with their fiancé.

Of course, “quiet” is definitely not a word one associates with “farce” and the decibel level increases with the opening (and closing) of each bedroom door (there is one for each airline).

Under direction of Alex Bobbs, the sextet of players works hard at keeping all the trajectories as separate as possible. The levels, both physical and audible, escalate in proportion to the nearness of the finale.

Production designer Dutch Weismann has created a large and elegant apartment complete with a stunning view of the Eifel Tower and appropriately sturdy doors. All the on-set art, beautifully done by local artists, is for sale

BOEING BOEING plays through Jan. 28 in the Wilson Auditorium, 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. weekdays

Rocky Tech Mars SB 'Christmas Story'

In 1983, a little movie based on semi-fictional incidents in books by Hoosier author Jean Shepherd was released.

Titled “A Christmas Story,” it came into the film world without too much notice and remained that way until 1997 when the Turner Broadcasting System opted to fill Christmas Eve/Day with marathon reruns on its TV channels.

The resurrection — and increased popularity — of this family-based film has not only continued to this day but has expanded to include theatrical versions — with and without music.

The non–musical version opened a four-weekend run Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Auditorium.

A Christmas Story South Bend (IN) Civc TheatreThe production, directed by Bill Heimann and featuring a bravura performance by Art Kopec and a gaggle of kids, is unfortunately less than smooth, especially in the technical department.

Turning a film (or book) that segues from reality to fantasy as the older son dreams of himself as the hero in a variety of situations, always accompanied by his longed-for Christmas present — “a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model with a compass in the stock and ‘this thing which tells time’ (a sundial)” — is no easy task.

Ralphie (Jack Elliott) is nothing if not creative in the pursuit of his dream gift. He is, however, thwarted at every turn and haunted by the universal warning “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

Kopec is Ralph or Ralphie as an adult. He has the Herculean task of narrating the entire tale. After a shaky start with a bombastically shotgun delivery, he settles in and down to a persona that never seems out of place no matter the hectic proceedings. He is a solid presence that weaves each incident, real or imagined, together with the warmth of a memory softened with the passage of time.

Ralphie’s dad, The Old Man (Don Elliott), remains way over the top, so that when his “Major Award” arrives his exuberance is only slightly above his daily decibel level. In contrast, his Mother (Alexandria Cooper) is so low key as to be mostly a whisper. Their on-again/off-again battle with the leg lamp is a humorous twist.

A Christmas Story  South Bend (IN ) Civic TheatreThe schoolmates of Ralphie and his younger brother Randy (John Potts) are almost consistently too soft and too fast vocally, always a problem for young actors, which could be at least partially remedied by having them face a bit to the audience and slow down.

Brayden Goddard and Zac Richardson as Ralphie’s best friends Flick and Schwartz, respectively, are happily audible as is Blake Allison as the school bully Scut Farkas who gets his well-deserved comeuppance when Ralphie finally snaps.

The set, which centers around the Parker home, extends to both side of the large (and I have to say cumbersome) stage, allowing Ralphie’s fantasies to be played in front of the house. The works well until the school classroom appears, with a large desk for the teacher, Miss Shields (Shelly Overgaard). Bringing the desk on and off, which happens at least twice, should stop the show, but not for the usual show-stopping reasons. It is so loud everything else is drowned out, including Kopec‘s continuing dialogue.

There goes whatever mood has been achieved.

Cannot believe this only happened at the performance we attended which begs the question, why did the director do nothing to silence the thundering desk? As with the too-abrupt starts and stops of the intermittent music, these are fixable problems that should not have seen opening night.

It is never entertaining to see hard-working actors undermined by sloppy technical work.

“A CHRISTMAS STORY” plays through Dec. 23 in the SBCT Wilson Auditorium, 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For information and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit sbct.org.

 

Christmas Classic Set To Music

Like many other now-classic Christmas stories, “Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical” came to the theatrical stage following a film.

The Meredith Willson (that’s right, “The Music Man” Meredith Willson) holiday musical, which opened a three weekend run in Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre Friday evening, began back in 1947 as a very popular “straight” family movie from 20th Century Fox which went for the Christmas gold again with a repeat in 1994.

In between movies were a 1973 made-for-TV version and Willson’s 1963 musical, initially titled “Here’s Love.”

All of which goes to prove you change the format and the title but you can’t keep a good Christmas story down.

First, let’s agree that lightening doesn’t often strike twice and this “Miracle” is a far cry from River City. What it is is a familiar and traditionally heart-warming story about the real meaning of Christmas, which ups the sentimental quotient considerably via pleasant but not memorable melodies.

As always Wagon Wheel director Scott Michaels has assembled a solid cast led by Robert Joseph Miller as Kris Kringle (Yes, Virginia, that beard is real!); Cordelia Grandon as Susan Walker, the pre-teen who doesn’t believe in Santa; Jennifer Dow as her mother, Doris, a divorcee with a lot of bitter memories and a lack of belief in anything she can’t see, taste or touch; and Nathan Robert Pecchia as Fred Gaily, a warm-hearted lawyer who comes to Susan’s aid and Santa’s defense. His warm baritone is a plus throughout. Dow and Pecchia have the task of making their unlikely relationship seem likely, in spite of a script that doesn’t help.

In addition to Santa, audience favorites are Chuckie Benson as Marvin Shellhammer, a toadying Macy’s employee, and Mike Yocum as his equally bombastic boss R.H. Macy. Together they put the “far out” in farce, with Benson doing double time in the prat fall department.

Miracle on 34th St. Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INThe rather uneven scenario jumps from up-tempo ensemble numbers (“Big Ca-Lown Balloons.” “Plastic Alligators,” “Here’s Love,” “That Man Over There Is Santa Claus” and “My State, My Kansas”) to introspective solo ballads (“You Don’t Know,” “Doris’ Look” and “Love Come Take Me Away), the last being the most fish-out-of-water finale of any musical in recent memory, in spite of being well delivered. I kept waiting for more balloons!

Grandon handles well the role of pragmatic young girl who finds belief in her heart and helps Kris recharge his own.

Miller does a fine job of balancing Santa’s interaction with unbelieving adults and definitely believing children, especially in “Bugles,” sung with Parker Ralstin, an adorable scene stealer as Hendrika, a little Dutch girl who can’t speak English. His introduction to Susan of the (“Imagi-Nation”) speaks to all ages as he encourages her to “Expect Things to Happen.”

It’s a plus that he really looks like Santa!

The “Miracle” ensemble is made up of equal parts adults and children, some very young. Check them out. Each one knows exactly what to do and when to do it and delivers all with enthusiastic fervor and an enviable focus!

NOTE: For those who have no idea what Macy’s and Gimbel’s were, try Google.

“MIRACLE ON 34th STREET: A Musical” plays Friday through Sunday and Dec. 15-17 in the theatre at 251 E. Center St. in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041.

Music Adds To Tale Of Holiday Wish

Ho! Ho! Ho!

There’s a new (?) entry in the “if it’s Christmas it must be …” category of plays, movies and TV shows that resurface annually between Turkey Day and Holly Time..

Joining Dickens’ ghostly “Christmas Carol” and the is-he-or-isn’t-he Santa search in “Miracle on 34th Street” — plus the many lesser incarnations featuring elves, reindeer and talking toys — is one that enters the musical theatre genre by way of the printed word and the silver screen.

“A Christmas Story: The Musical,” opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House and offered area audiences an excellent way to begin the 2017 holiday season.

The Elkhart Civic Theatre cast is a blend of adults and young people delivering the wry humor of author Jean Shepherd (a Hoosier himself) in a well-wrapped package definitely meant to be opened before the Big Day.

Those who, like myself, have at least one TV tuned in 24/7 for the annual Christmas Eve/Day marathon of the 1966 movie might think “Oh well, I’ve seen it before” and, faced with a full holiday season, be inclined to cross the musical off the Xmas to-do list.

A Christmas SAtory the musical Elkhart Civic Theatre Bistol INStop before you make that mark and take it from me — there’s nothing like a live performance to make even the most familiar seem new again.

The opening night audience held a majority of flower-laden friends and relatives. Familial connections aside, it is a completely enjoyable two hours (including intermission) from the overture to the full-cast finale.

There is always at least apprehension when the major character — as well as the many of the ensemble singers and dancers — is primarily pre-teen.

No worries here.

The center of the action is Eddie Bell as the ever-hopeful Ralphie Parker. He takes center stage with the aplomb of a seasoned performer, sings well and with authority, handling Ralphie’s moves from wimp in real life to heroic fantasy, always plotting to achieve his Christmas goal — “A Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot Range Model air rifle with a compass and sundial in the stock.” Bell may not have Peter Billingsley’s big blue eyes but he has a large share of theatrical charisma and the audience is with him every step of the way.

A Christmas Story the musical Elkhart Civic Theatre Brisstol INThe same is true for his Hoosier family. Younger brother Randy (Liam Riggs), Mother (Kristen Kinder) and The Old Man (Brock Butler) all earn high marks for their recreation of the familiar characters, with Kinder especially touching as the mom who keeps balance in the family. Her solos hit home with every mom in the crowd.

Butler, as the hard-working, short-tempered dad whose realizes a dream with his “major award,” does double duty here as hard-working director of the production.

Ralphie’s friends Flick (Cameron Lancaster), recipient of the dreaded “triple dog dare,” and Schwartz (Landon Dean), the object of Ralphie’s self-saving accusation, are at home in their roles as are the “bad guys,” Joshua Hatfield as the universal bully Scut Farkus and Skye Steury as his willing toady Grover Dill.

Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields (Bethany Wirick) steps out of the classroom to demonstrate another side to the constant warning “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.”

The hard-working ensemble is called on to adopt many personas of all ages: Christmas shoppers, students, Santa’s elves and participants in Ralphie’s fantasies. They do it all with ease and enthusiasm, singing and dancing, including tap, no matter what their characters or situations.

A Christmas Story the musical  Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol INLeading the way is a Narrator (Cecil Eastman), a senior version of the young protagonist. He is on hand throughout, describing each scene and frequently offering comments on the various incidents, people and relationships that make up this story..

The Parkers’ house, which definitely carries a Hoosier feel, was designed by ECT artistic/technical director John Shoup who also designed and created the many backdrops.

The 1940s aura is continued nostalgically in the fantasy movie posters by scenic artist Jeffrey Barrick.costuming and the costuming by Linda Weisinger and Dawn Blessing. (I could swear I saw one of my coats from a long ago winter in New Jersey!)

Butler’s co-director, whose dog jumps in for the neighboring “Bumpus hounds,” is April Sellers. Jacob DeLong is choreographer, with tap steps by Kellie MacGowan.

The music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul underscore the time and feeling of the work and are just what the book by Joseph Robinette requires.

Vocal direction is by Heidi Ferris who also plays keyboard for music director/drummer Mark Swensden as does Miriam Houck and guitarist Tyler Crisp.

All hit the bullseye wthout shooting your eye out!!

“A CHRISTMAS STORY: The Musical” is taking the Thanksgiving weekend off but will be home again Dec. 1-3 and 8-10. For information and reservations, call (574) 848-4116 or visit elkhartcivictheatre.org.

Lewis' Comedy Precedes Stand-Up

It’s not often that the author of a play generates as much or more interest than the play itself, but when that author is best known as a standup comic, and the play is his solo effort, I guess it is natural.

It also might have some bearing on the sell-out crowds attending the South Bend Civic Theatre production of “One Slight Hitch.”

The playwright is Lewis Black, the perennially panicked perpetrator of rants against the disintegration of the world with emphasis on the U.S. government.

If the hope that one of these is incorporated in the plot of “One Slight Hitch,” first know that it was written several decades ago (before solo comedy won out) and could have been one of the deciding factors in Black’s turning to outrage.

It is a two-act comedy/farce complete with many slamming doors and characters in underwear.

First about the doors.

On e Slighy Hitch  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThe show is in the Barbara K. Warner Studio Theatre which means that all four sides of the playing area are/can be open. The set in any farce worth its hysteria must contain at least three or four solidly-built, frequently-slammable doors. Not easy to design or build with little to hold on to.

Fortunately, SBCT has a talented artist as set designer/builder/painter for this production. Jeff Barrick’s multiple doors, while rather bland in hue, are solid enough to withstand numerous vigorous slams without even a slight tremor and obviously are a salute to theatrical engineering.

Set in a family home in a suburb of Cincinnati, the décor also bears out one character’s comment that “Ohio is the valium of the Midwest.”

The family in question is made up of a dad, “Doc” Coleman (Brad Mazick), and mom, Delia (Marybeth Saunders), and daughters PB (Karla Levy), a teenager most frequently connected to her Walkman; Melanie (Christine Schrader), a nurse and alcoholic-in –training; and Courtney (Kimberlee Giles), a successful writer and the bride-to-be.

On e Slight Hitch  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreAs the action begins Doc and Delia are counting down her “to-do” list for Courtney’s wedding to wealthy psychology student Harper (Tyler Miller), a list which is driving Delia to distraction as the nuptials are to be held at home in a matter of hours.

Into the increasing maelstrom of pre-wedding activities comes Ryan (Bill Svelmoe), a recovering hippie and would-be writer as well as Courtney’s former boyfriend of 2 ½ years from NYC.

Ryan knows nothing about the wedding. He is hitchhiking across the country and just stopped in to say hello. His reaction to the news that Delia, who left him only a few months ago after making it clear that she never wanted to marry, is about to tie the knot adds to the total confusion. Especially since his primary post-shower costume is a bath towel.

Everyone has his/her opinion on just which man should be the bridegroom and there is a final curtain (or blackout) wedding, but getting there takes much too long.

Possibly this is because the characters are solidly one-dimensional and the script cannot decide whether it wants to be a full-out farce or a comedic message play (see Delia’s Act 2 shift from screamer to caring mother).

Audience seniors will enjoy the familiar ‘80s music shared by good natured PB whose “bottom of the family totem pole” status is obvious even before Delia issues the first of an unending list of her pre-wedding chores .

By the time Courtney makes up her mind, it’s difficult to really care.

The pace is set by director Richard Baxter with costumes by Tania Balve. Tried to remember if they were “period perfect” for the ‘80s but only wound up wondering why Courtney wore the wedding gown.

You might figure it out for yourself if there are any tickets left. The show reportedly is a sellout.

“ONE SLIGHT HITCH” plays through Sunday in the South Bend Civic Warner Studio Theatre. For information and reservations, call (574) 234-1112.

'Sister Act' Nuns Make Heavenly Music

The primary “lost chords” in the theatrical musical based on (and named after) the hit 1992 film “Sister Act” are the original pop songs which the primary character turned into pop hymns.

The South Bend Civic Theatre production, which opened Friday evening in the Wilson Auditorium, features an original score (mostly mediocre) by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater and a much-revised book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane.

The plot is much the same as the film with Danae Watson as aspiring lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier, a role that, unfortunately for anyone who fills it, lies firmly in the shadow of the film’s star Whoopi Goldberg.

Sister Act  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreAs it opens, Deloris is auditioning for a job in the club owned by her boyfriend gangster Curtis Jackson (Allen Roberts II). Angered by his dismissal, she goes to return his gift of a fur piece originally owned by his wife and, with unfortunate timing, witnesses his murder of an “associate” he believes talked about him to the police.

Immediately, Deloris is the object of a murderous search by Curtis and his gang — Joey (Annie Bretz), TJ (Brielle Hall) and Pablo (Cristian Marquez). She runs to the police and finds Lt. Eddie Souther (George Spohter), an old school friend, who immediately puts her in police protection — in a local convent.

She is as unhappy to be there as the Mother Superior (Patty Noonan) is to have her. As Sister Mary Clarence, Deloris is definitely a square peg in a round hole until she is assigned to the mostly out-of-tune convent choir.

With Sister Mary Patrick (Laura Martin), novice Sister Mary Robert (Erin Joines) and current choir leader Sister Mary Lazarus (Connie Chalko), she trains the sisters to sing in tune and in time and they soon add an up-tempo hymn to their Sunday repertoire, much to the horror of the Mother Superior and the delight of Monsignor O’Hara (William Loring), who sees the choir’s new success as a way to revive the about-to-be-demolished church.

This is, indeed, where things look up in “Sister Act.” When the sisters raise their voices in song, the energy level goes heaven-ward and it’s definitely difficult to keep from at least toe-tapping if not clapping in rhythm.

The infectious energy of the nuns’ ensemble makes the price of a ticket more than worthwhile.

sister Act  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreMusical highlights include the three hoods’ “Lady in The Long Black Dress.” the rejuvenated choir’s “Saturday Morning Fever,” Noonan’s retreat “Haven’t Got A Prayer,” and Joines’ plea for guidance “The Life I Never Led.” A standout is the solo work delivered by Calko whose comic delivery is literally head and shoulders above the rest.

Directors Stephen and Stephanie Salisbury keep the pace as brisk as possible and the music right on track in a cast in which many are young stage first-timers and play two and three characters.

The three “hoods, obviously roles written for men, are played here by one man and two women. It works well and is a testimony to doing the best with those who audition, a landmark of community theater. Their trio, “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” delivered on the hunt for Deloris, received well-deserved and sustained applause.

David Chudzynski’s set design goes from secular to sacred with ease but set changes need some rehearsal to achieve the quietest transition possible.

The lingering problem of hearing dialogue is still present in the large, domed Wilson Auditorium although not as obvious in a musical as a straight play. One hopes it will continue to improve.

“SISTER ACT” plays through Oct.1 in the Wilson Auditorium, 215 W. Madison St., South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112.

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.