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'blue' Is A Very Pleasant Surprise PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Wednesday, 25 January 2012 20:00

If I am not familiar with a play, I usually go into the theater remembering a phrase standard with an old first-nighter friend: “Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

blue  south bend civic theatre  south bend inSometimes we are and sometimes not. With the current South Bend Civic Theatre production of “blue,” a play by Charles Randolph-Wright with music by Nona Hendryx and lyrics by the author and composer, it was definitely the former.

Not that the scenario has not been played out frequently on stage. Dysfunctional families have been a standard with writers from the ancient Greeks to the present day. The first line of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” sets the scene for the tragedy to follow: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

 Not that “blue” is a tragedy. In fact, under the hand of guest director Ron OJ Parson, it contains a fair number of comic figures and situations, with a denoument that, if not completely expected, still supplies a surprising if soap opera-ish twist.

 The setting is Kent, a small community in South Carolina. The characters, each of whom has his/her own set of secrets, are members of the Clark family, plus one initial outsider and one very real musical memory.

 The mother, Peggy (Natalie Davis Mller), is an elegant former model who moves from one project to another while ruling her quiet husband Samuel Jr. (Paul Bertha) and her two sons, Samuel III (Shaylon Wright) and young Reuben (double cast and played easily on opening night by Ian Coates and by Gilbert Michel as the adult Reuben), with an iron hand in her decidedly velvet gloves. The family is wealthy thanks to their ownership of the flourishing (and only) black funeral home in town. It provides the upper middle class lifestyle so important to Peggy. Her pretense of “elegance” is underscored by her Friday night dinners, culinary extravaganzas which she orders, transfers to her own dishes and swears she has cooked them herself.

blue  south bend civic theatre  south bend IN The barb under her mink is mother-in-law Tillie Clark (Diane Gammage), who delights in skewering the matron’s pretentions. Peggy also objects to son Sam’s current significant other, LaTonya Dinkins (Laurisa LeSure), whose dress and manner mark her from the down side of Peggy’s social register. Her antagonism evaporates quickly, however, when she discovers LaTonya is an intense fan of Blue Williams (Ben Little), a singer whose vocals are a constant part of Peggy’s life. LaTonya instantly becomes a project and is welcomed to the family.

 There is no timeline for intermission but between Acts 1 and 2, things have obviously changed and it is at least 10 years later. Sam’s Afro has been cut to an acceptable length and Reuben, who spent his youth practicing the trumpet to please his mother, returns home in blue jeans with dredlocks which he refuses to cut, even when Peggy’s longtime project, her family on the cover of Ebony magazine, is about to be realized.

 The final scenes of the 2 ½ hour show are rife with confrontations, parents to children and siblings to each other, and a confession that explains many things too easily.

 The cast is solid, with a silver-coiffed Gammage the primary scene-stealer, refusing to be intimidated by her controlling daughter-in-law and delivering barbs soto voce with hilarious accuracy. The trim and vocally smooth Little, whose acappella vocals ala Barry White and slow motion movements are consistently right on, is never intrusive but accentuates the underlying emotions that swirl beneath the Carters’ public façade. Bertha creates a quietly strong persona who sees his family’s flaws and deals with them for the good of all. Coates is a delight as the wise-beyond-his-years youngster.

 The set design by Jacee Rohick provides the perfect background for the family, with the stage crew deserving applause for its swift and complete change of the interior during the one brief intermission. The unfortunate acoustics in the mainstage auditorium still prove a stumbling block for the actors. Dalogue is lost to whichever side of the house they turn away from.

 “blue” will be presented through February 5 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium in the theater at 403 N. Main St. Times and tickets prices vary. For information and reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org

Last Updated on Friday, 17 February 2012 03:08
 
Simon At Home In 'Brighton Beach' PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Wednesday, 18 January 2012 20:39

For more than a half century, playwright Neil Simon has made a successful career of hitting the funnybones of audiences around the world.

Brighton Beach Memoirs Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol;One of his best plays, which combines the rapid one-liners for which he became famous via “The Odd Couple,” Come Blow Your Horn” and “Barefoot in The Park,” is on stage through Sunday in the Bristol Opera House.

The Elkhart Civic Theatre production of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” not only has the acerbic wit of the master but is genuinely touching and hits home with anyone who has ever been part of a family. The first play in a series unofficially known as the “Eugene Trilogy,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is semi-autobiographical and, with “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound,” charts the life of Eugene Morris Jerome from angst-filled puberty to early experiences in the wild world of comedy.

From the minute the lights go up on young Eugene imaging himself as the star pitcher for his beloved New York Yankees (and giving his Aunt Blanche a headache by his bouncing fast ball) you can believe the young boy who declares he is blamed for everything that goes wrong — even the impending war in Europe. Eugene’s cryptic asides echo the thoughts of anyone who sees himself as the family scapegoat, no matter the circumstances and, in his quest to see a naked woman, discovers that “lust and guilt are closely related.”

Brighton Beach Memoirs Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol INEugene is in the hands of an excellent young actor, Memorial High School junior Daniel Daher, who brings the teenager to agonizingly hilarious life as he stumbles through the bewildering maze of puberty and family (with the infallible (?) guidance of his older brother Stanley, played by Brock Butler with just the right blend of elder sibling arrogance and still-young uncertainty). In the Jerome household, the titular head is father Jack (an appropriately weary Dave Dufour), a garment cutter whose supplementary job as a salesman of novelties has just disappeared, but — as in the majority of families — it is mother Kate (Melissa Domiano) who steers the ship.

Domiano’s characterization makes a solid connection, especially with mothers who struggle to keep the family together while keeping often conflicting emotions under wraps. Kate is complex and Domiano delivers the many facets of her personality in an empathetic package.

Kate’s widowed sister Blanche Norton and Blanche’s daughters Laurie and Nora are part of the extended Jerome family. As portrayed by Valerie Ong, Molly Hill and Lydia Coppedge, respectively, they create a trio of familial guests who deal in varying degrees with the gratitude and resentment their situation engenders, both in themselves and their relatives/hosts.

The highs and lows in the Jerome household in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, during a week in September 1937 are a microcosm of events that could take place in any family. In the hands of Neil Simon and the excellent ECT cast, they are hilariously moving and definitely believable.

Director John Hutchings and assistant director Carl Wiesinger develop the nuances of family relationships — sibling to sibling and parent to child — and get an admirable degree of realism from each cast member. It certainly doesn’t hurt that their “dramedy” is played out on another of artistic director John Shoup’s ultra livable sets. The attention to detail (a very important word in Shoup’s theatrical vocabulary) in every corner of the Jerome house is amazing and puts a living/dining room, two upstairs bedrooms, a porch and a bathroom on the small opera house stage with seeming ease. It’s the little things that make a difference.

“BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on Ind. 120 in Bristol. Running time: 2 ½ hours including intermission. For tickets: 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 31 January 2012 04:09
 
Marley Looks at Old Scrooge PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Tuesday, 06 December 2011 06:01

It took Charles Dickens only six weeks to write “A Christmas Carol.”

Published Dec. 17, 1843, there was no way the Victorian novelist could have predicted its amazing longevity or its effect on the celebration of the holiday itself.

South Bend Civic Theatre Christmas Carol Scrooge & MarleyIn the past 168 years, Dickens novella has never been out of print. It has been the basis for 28 movies, from silent films to Technicolor musicals, as well as for an opera, too many television versions and at least one ballet and a symphony. 

But who’s counting? The aim now, it seems, is to come up with a new angle for the very familiar story. Among the latest is one being presented through Dec. 18 by South Bend Civic Theatre: “A Christmas Carol: Scrooge & Marley.” The theatrical “hook” for this particular version is telling it through the eyes of Jacob Marley.

Even though the first words of the book are “Marley was dead,” playwright Israel Horovitz has opted to bring him back into the world of the living — at least in a ghostly form. In fact, the audience in the Warner Mainstage Auditorium is greeted first with the sight of Marley (Greg Melton) climbing out of his coffin, hollow cheeks, green complexion, bandaged head, clanking chains, echoing moans and all. Given the current fascination with zombies, vampires and werewolves, it seemed quite fitting.

In an opening that, more so than most adaptations, takes a great deal of the dialogue directly from Dickens’ text, the gangly ghost notes that what follows will play out the “Scroogey” side of the carol. He then proceeds to direct attention to the counting house of Scrooge & Marley on Christmas Eve, and the action begins.

There are no major variations in the familiar storyline, but the hardworking cast (most of the performers play two roles plus serve as members of the caroling ensemble) seemed to shift easily from one character to another, with appropriate wigs and costumes aiding the transformations. Only Marley, Scrooge (Allan W. Holody), Tiny Tim (adorable Brendan Siwik whose clear delivery happily sent “God bless us every one” to the last seat in the house) and, for some reason, Martha Cratchett (Clare Costello), had the luxury of focusing only on one role.


South Bend Civic Theatre Christmas Carol Scrooge & MarleyWhat makes this “Carol” interesting enough to hold the attention even of those who know the plot by heart are the very “special effects” that pop up (sometimes literally) throughout the two-hour production.

Spirits emerging from (and returning to) a smoking fireplace, a shift-shaping door knocker, a variety of Christmas trees, a good deal of thunder and lightening, a well-lit gravestone, flashes of fire and a Spirit of Christmas Yet To Be that is well worth the wait! (Note: Marley’s Act 2 entrance through the audience is a real shocker, especially for two with seats on the aisle.)

There are shifting groups of carolers who cover scene changes and generally pop up throughout with songs of the season. Their harmonies are good and easily listenable. The numerous and varied locations required are well delineated in David Chudzynski’s multi-level set design and the changing atmospheres are equally well defined via Mark Abram-Copenhaver’s lighting design. Credit also must go to sound designer John Jung-Zimmerman who is responsible for, among other things, Marley’s menacingly sepulchral tones.

The cast handles their respective assignments very well, with special applause to Melton and Holody who sustain their characters with intelligence and emotion; to Roy Bronkema who is a sympathetic Bob Cratchett and a very jolly Fezziwig; and to Christmas Past (Natalie Rarick) and Present (Bill Johnson), both of whom had other roles in addition to creating ghostly apparitions, although I could easily have done without Johnson’s disgusting hygienics as pawnbroker Old Joe.

Just moving a cast of 31 around the stage is incredibly daunting. Director Jewel Abram-Copenhaver rises to the challenge with seasonably entertaining results.

“A CHRISTMAS CAROL: SCROOGE & MARLEY” plays evenings Wednesdays through Saturdays with Sunday matinees to Dec. 18. For performance times and reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.

Last Updated on Thursday, 08 December 2011 02:40
 
Willson Musical Not Quite A Miracle PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Friday, 09 December 2011 18:44

Once the holiday season begins there’s one thing you can be sure of: before it ends you will have the chance to see many holiday-themed shows.

Wagon Wheel Theatre  Miracle on 34th StreetOn stage, on TV or on the silver screen, most are varied productions of the same story as the “classics” eventually go from print to film to stage play to musical, stage and film. How you get your dose of Christmas cheer is your choice, but be aware that not all are the same, even if they share a namel.

Such is the case with “Here’s Love,” which opened Friday at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre.

Initially, that was the title given the musical version of the now-classic 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street.” It opened on Broadway in October 1963, played thru July 1964 and departed. When it reappeared it had adopted the movie title (adding “The Musical”), probably for more instant recognition.

It’s pedigree is impressive. Book, music and lyrics are by Meredith Willson, who performed the same triple threat in 1957 with “The Music Man,” a stage and screen blockbuster, and again in 1960 with “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”

Only natural to figure that another musical would follow in the timesteps of its older siblings, which just goes to show that lightning may strike twice but three strikes can mean you’re out.

In spite of an excellent production directed by WW artistic director Scott Michaels, who also is responsible for the outstanding choreography, the theatrical script has a hard edge which shifts the tone from the film’s sweet and kind-hearted feeling to one that is uncomfortably cynical. Even the comic roles are way off the wall.

The score is well-handled by the eight piece orchestra under the direction of Thomas N. Stirling, and the voices, both solo and ensemble, are up to the high WW standard. The problem, with one exception, is that the songs are easily forgettable. The exception is “Pinecones and Hollyberries,” a lovely duet between Kris Kringle (Robert J. Miller) and young Susan Walker (Lauren Housel) which harkens back to “gentler Christmas times.” It incorporates one of Willson’s earlier seasonal melodies, “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas,” and definitely is worth the Act II reprise.

Wagon Wheel Theatre  Miracle on 34th StreetMiller, who could double anywhere as Old St. Nick (the beard is real), infuses his character with ingratiating warmth and Claus-worthy charm. His duet with young Sadie Lemon as Hendrika, a little European refugee, is delivered in believable Dutch (on both parts) and is a lovely highlight of the show.

Housel avoids any hint of brattiness as the young girl brought up to believe only what she can “see, smell, taste or touch.” As Susan’s realist mother Doris Walker, Jennifer Dow again proves that she is one of WW’s hidden treasures. Unfortunately, this script makes Fred Gaily (Michael Mott) a very brash ex-Marine who wants to be a lawyer. His relationship with Doris is fast and furious and not very romantic.

The performers, both adults and children, do their best to keep the parade moving along briskly, but I kept hoping a barbershop quartet would stroll through.

“MIRACLE ON 34th STREET, the musical” plays through December 18 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For performances dates and times and reservations, call (574) 269-7996 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.org

 

 

 

Last Updated on Friday, 09 December 2011 19:24
 
Theatrical 'Strangers' Not Hitchcock PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Wednesday, 02 November 2011 19:34

Warning to Alfred Hitchcock fans: Do not expect to see his thriller “Strangers on a Train” recreated in the current South Bend Civic Theatre production of the play by the same name.

strangers on a train south bend civic theatreCraig Warner’s theatrical version is closer to Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel but the suspenseful twists and turns of the 1951 film have been replaced by endless monologues by the psychotic killer which, to quote another play, “do not so much rouse as stupefy,” and by plot machinations that are ridiculous to say the least and definitely unbelievable. One can only suspend disbelief for so long.

The “action” in Warner’s drama begins, as does the film, when two strangers meet on a train (ergo the title). Charles Bruno (Rob Buck) strikes up a mostly one-sided conversation with architect Guy Haines (Richard Isaacson). Guy reads his book (Plato) while Bruno pontificates about white (good) horses and black (evil) horses and the grey in-betweens which make up most of the population. It is his theory that everyone has a god and a murderer inside him and that, give proper motivation, anyone will commit a criminal act.

It is this motivation he proceeds to propose to Haines. As each has a person in his life he wishes to be rid of, they will swap murders. Since they are strangers, there will be no connection. Haines takes Bruno’s proposal as a morbid joke and laughingly agrees. The joke turns deadly when Haines’ wife is killed. From that point on, Bruno evidently abandons his theory of safety as strangers.

In several less-than-believable scenes, he appears as an uninvited guest at the architect’s wedding to Anne Faulkner (Heather Marks), later manipulating an invitation to spend the night in the couple’s home when Haines is out of town, later encouraging the young architect to build the couple’s dream home plus one for him just down the street and finally threatening to tell all if Haines does not fulfill his part of the “bargain.” When Haines finally is driven to comply — the most unbelievable act of all — his life becomes a nightmare.

Enter Arthur Gerard (Tucker Curtis), a private investigator hired by Bruno’s father (Guy’s target) who has been rehired by his doting mother, Elsie Bruno (Andrea Smiddy), to catch her husband’s killer. A most unbelievable plot twist occurs when, in true Colombo fashion, Gerard discovers the truth. The plot then reaches a really ludicrous climax in “the old railroad yard” (there’s that train again!). The finale is completely ridiculous.

strangers on a train south bend civic theatreThe urge to laugh, however, had little to do with the performances which, for the most part, were more than adequate, with special notice to Isaacson, Smiddy and Curtis. Buck is assigned the thankless task of delivering Warner’s psychological diatribes. I can only suspect that the book also hinted at the uncomfortable, too-close relationship between adult Bruno and his mother and the obsessive turn by Bruno as he stalks Haines, but it cannot make the eventual fates of each of the characters any less contrived.

Completing the cast are Jason Gresl as Frank Myers, one of Haines’ fellow architects, and Jeff Starkey as Robert Treacher, a long-time friend who urges him to follow his dream of building “a white bridge with a span like an angel’s wings.”

The multi-level set designates many locations, all well defined. The cold color scheme is in keeping with the general tone of the script. Veteran director Craig McNab keeps the pace up as much as possible but it’s difficult to make a super flyer out of a steam engine.

“STRANGERS ON A TRAIN” plays at 7:30 p.m. today and Nov. 9; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Nov. 11-12; and 3 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 13 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium of the theater at 403 N. Main Street, South Bend. For reservations and information, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.


Last Updated on Thursday, 08 December 2011 02:45
 
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