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.

Music Of Queen Rocks At The Barn

In this age of frequent revivals, the term “juke box musical” has become too familiar.

It describes an “original” show whose “score” is cobbled together with existing songs and a “plot” that serves only to provide them with a flimsy framework.

That said, these musicals have large followings among those who find them a melodic passport to their younger days.

Among the most specific of these is “We Will Rock You,” a kind of “1984” meets “Heartbreak Hotel.” With music and lyrics by Queen and a story and script by Ben Elton, it opened Tuesday evening at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI.

I say “specific” because, unlike “Motown “ or “Rock of Ages” which feature music by diverse composers, the music here is attributed solely to the 1970- 80s rock band — and the plot to a variety of sci-fi and fantasy films.

We Will Rock You The Barn Theatre Augusta, MIIf none of these genres strikes your fancy, the way to enjoy “We Will Rock You”(and take it from a limited-Queen fan, you CAN enjoy it) is just to sit back and let the music (what else?) rock you!

The enthusiastic Barn company obviously enjoys its assignment, with primary kudos going to the most wildly wacky characters — Brit (Chase Gray) and Oz (Dani Apple), the two chief Bohemians (underground rockers waiting for the Dreamer), and the Killer Queen (Penelope Alex), ruler of iPlanet and its controlling Globalsoft Corp., and her chief henchman Khashoggi (Eric Parker).

Conformity is the law of the day with musical instruments forbidden and rock music, unknown.

Two rebellious teens— Galileo (Quinn Moran) and Scaramouche (Samantha Rickarad) — break out of the robotic Gaga Kids pack. They eventually join with the Bohemians and their chief, Buddy (a very solid Hans Friedrichs), who guards the relic Vie-day-O (aka Video) which he believes holds the key to returning rock.

We  Will Rock You The Barn Theatre Augusta MIAll Bohemians take their names from those on the tattered posters in their hideout, the Hard Rock Café. Brit is short for Britany Spears, Oz for Ozzie Osborne and on and on and on….

Once the Bohemians shake their brain freeze and find their way to “the place of the living rock,” guitar riffs win the day, Khashoggi sinks into the wherever, dark glasses glowing green, the Queen is vanquished and rock rules!

Along the way, thanks to solid vocals and instrumentals, even those not familiar with lesser-known Queen works will enjoy the kitschy goings-on.

Easily recognizable are “Killer Queen,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (I was surprised by that one, too), “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.” Lest we forget — one major hit that was not in the “score” gets an all-inclusive production after the curtain call: What else? “ Bohemian Rhapsody!”

The stage set is minimal, a couple of platforms, lighting towers, a giant projection screen and proscenium ladders; costuming (for Bohemians) is raggy and (for Gaga Kids), uniform (literally). The most stand-out ensemble is the one worn off and on by the Killer Queen, turned on or off!

Directed by Brendan Ragotzy, with musical direction by Matt Shabala, the 2 ½ hour tribute to Queen can be enjoyed by anyone, even with no teen-age connection whatsoever to the British group.

Interesting to know that, although the show played for 10 years in its initial theater in London and has toured the world several times, it never made it to Broadway.

So in case it never does, this is your chance to go back (or ahead) to revisit the fantasy world of Queen!

It will rock you!

WE WILL ROCK YOU” plays through July 23 in the theater on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121.

Dickens' Whodunnit Lets Audience Help

Solving “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is the primary objective of the multiple Tony Award-winning musical which opened Wednesday evening in Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre.

Based on an unfinished novel by the Victorian era’s best known and most prolific writer, Charles Dickens, it offers audiences the opportunity to participate in the final outcome of the mystery: Is Edwin Drood dead or is he not? Is it a murder or is it not? And if it is, who is the murderer?

Under the aegis of guest director Tony Humrichouser, the arena stage is the Music Hall Royale, complete with gaslit playing areas and a willing company of talented performers who venture into the audience before the show begins to recreate the comraderie of a 19th century playhouse, complete with instructions on how to react whenever the title is pronounced.

The biggest “gimmick” of this mystery is its dangling denoument.

Dickens, who died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 58, left no instructions as to which of his colorful characters would be named the killer so, about halfway through the second act, The Chairman (Mike Yocum) stops the action and asks the audience to vote for its preferred villain.

As you might suspect, this can be different with each performance and puts the pressure on the primary characters as to what is to follow when he or she is named, specifically performing an individual ”Murderer’s Confession.”

Not that being named by the crowd means any special perks, but each of the characters obviously has a great deal of fun recruiting his/her fans.

The character of The Chairman is not strictly Dickens but was created by author/composer/lyricist Rupert Holmes as a player and narrator of the frequently convoluted plotline. He also introduces each of the actors to the audience by their real/professional names as well as the names of their characters. It is a daunting assignment which Yocum carries off with appropriate panache.

The Myster of Edwin Drood Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw INFirst up is John Jasper (Riley McFarland), the local choirmaster and Edwin’s uncle who also lusts after Miss Rosa Bud (Kelly Britt), his music pupil and Edwin’s fiancé. There is no doubt that Jasper is a most wonderfully hissable villain (McFarland obviously loves it and I kept waiting for the twirling mustache). His problem is described hilariously in his solo “A Man Could Go Quite Mad.”.

Edwin, as was the custom in that era, is played by a “Lead Boy,” always a female, here in the person of the very excellent Elaine Cotter. Britt, as the much sought-after Rosa Bud, is beautifully fluttery and delivers a soaring soprano (“Moonfall”). She is the obvious heroine while Princess Puffer (Leanne Antonio) represents the dark side (“The Wages of Sin”) as mistress of the local opium den. Like the others, she is not quite what she seems.

The Mystery of  Edwin Drood  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw INFilling the suspect list are The Rev. Crisparkle (Andy Robinson), his frustrated assistant Bazzard (Evan Kinnane), the Landless twins Helena (Sarah Ariel Brown) and Neville (Britton Hollingsworth) recently immigrated from “Ceylon,” Durdles the gravedigger (Michael Bradley) and his son Durdles the Second (Blake R. Bojewski).

All have secrets and motives (some stronger than others) for doing the dirty deed but which one is the real killer? It totally depends on what the audience wants, which is half the fun of “Edwin Drood.”

The other half is watching the company unravel the serpentine thread of Dickens-via-Holmes. It is no easy task which may be one of the reasons this show is only infrequently produced.

They meet the challenge well, although frequently understanding the lyrics is a problem

In addition to the period set by designer David Lepor, the richly colorful costumes by Stephen R. Hollenbeck and the corkscrew curls of the wigs by Jennifer Dow — all of which are major assets in visually turning back the clock — the award-winning score is solidly interpreted by guest musical conductor Alyssa Kay Thompson and her nine-member orchestra.

On opening night a misfire from the fog machine enveloped the entire stage in a too-realistic London brown-out during which Princess Puffer continued her solo — completely fogged in (or out) — without missing a beat.

The dark side of “Edwin Drood” was, however, quite literally too dark. The atmospheric lighting design, aimed at recreating London’s murky nighttime, unfortunately left soloists faceless. Undoubtedly, more light has been shed on that problem.

“THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD” plays through July 8 in the theater at 2517 E. Center St. in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations call (574) 267-8041 or visit www.wagonwheelcenter.org

Music Of Buddy Holly Fills The Barn

Charles Hardin Holley of Lubbock, Texas, dropped the last “e” and became everybody’s “Buddy” during his too-brief life in the emerging world of rock ‘n roll.

His story, as told in “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” opened Tuesday evening on the stage of The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI. It was the first of what has now become a familiar theatrical genre known as the “jukebox musical.”

If some of the characters may be composites and the chronology sometimes a bit difficult to follow, there is nothing lacking in the music which, on Tuesday, was obviously more than familiar to the enthusiastic audience.

The show is directed by rock ‘n roll aficionado Brendan Ragotzy

The title role is played by guest artist Andy Christopher who, coincidentally, was working as an EMT in Lubbock, Texas when he auditioned for the part. That was 2010 and he has been Buddy Holly ever since.

Tall and lanky with dark curly hair and the requisite horn-rimmed glasses (needed or not), Christopher obviously is comfortable with his theatrical persona, a character into which he definitely warmed up as the action progressed.

It is to his credit that he avoided any semblance of caricature, a trap into which some of his fellow “rockers” unfortunately stumbled.

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story  The Barn Theatre  Augusta. MIThe focus here, as it should be, is on Holly. His focus, after opening for Elvis Presley three times, shifted from gospel and country to rock. Determined to do “My music, my way,” he moved from Nashville to a producer in Clovis, N.M. and, seemingly without missing a beat, turned out “That’ll Be The Day.”

The rest, as they say too often, is history.

This show, written by Alan James, of necessity gives short shrift to all the details in Holly’s life, concentrating instead on the music and the one love of his life, Maria Elena Santiago (a very compassionate Andrea Arvanigian), whom he met and married in less than a day.

Even though everyone on stage and off obviously knows the tragic ending to the story, the only sense of foreboding is felt by his wife who reportedly dreams about a ball of fire in the sky.

That ball became a reality in February 1959, just two years after Holly’s break into rock ‘n roll stardom, when a private plane crashed killing the pilot, Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. Here the mention of it is bookended by “Rave On!” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Oh Boy,” which allow no time for tears. (all I could think of was Don McLean and “American Pie”)

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story  The Barn Theatre Augusta MIObviously the most important ingredients in any jukebox musical are the singers and THE BAND. Here the four piece band, under the direction of Barn music director Matt Shabala , fits the bill without dropping a note (although at times it as so loud they could have dropped several and I couldn’t have told the difference.).

Christopher provides his own guitar riffs and also sings well and offers several rock steps without breaking a leg!

A vocal standout is Emily Agy as “Marlena,” a mix of the many singer/mc’s at the Apollo Theatre. She rocks the hall with “Shout!” proving that tall talent can live in short bodies.

The joke about Buddy’s meal-obsessed mom wears thin after a while and other relationships — Buddy’s early manager Norman Petty and wife Vi (Eric Parker and Penelioe Alex) and Lubbock dj Hipsockets Duncan (Hans Friedrichs) — come and go fairly quickly, but the music goes on and on and on and, after all, that’s what the people came to hear/see.

Scenic designer Samantha Snow deserves applause for the music-themed set with features sound booths stage left and right and a revolving sheet music panel which allows quick changes of locale (except for the crew member pulling the rope to make it change0.

The downside to this production is the in-and-out sound which is blasting during musical numbers and, at too many times, disappears during dialogue, leaving us to ponder what is being said.

Never mind.

Buddy Holly is center stage surrounded by the Crickets (Quinn Moran and Alex Crossland) and friends and Clear Lake is eclipsed by a wonderful wave of music.

BUDDY: THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY plays through July 9 in The Barn Theatre on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For performance times and reservations call (269) 731-4121.