WW "State Fair" Is Fine Family Fare PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Friday, 08 July 2011 15:29

With county fairs celebrating the best of the best in local produce, animals, crafts and arts throughout the summer, and state fairs waiting at the end of the blue ribbon trail, it seems fitting that the mid-season offering by Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre is“ State Fair,” a musical salute to these native American institutions penned by America’s Blue Ribbon musical theater duo, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Having the distinction of being the only R&H musical written specifically for the movies, “State Fair” was born in 1932 as a novel by Phillip Strong. It’s celebration of the family unit and all things solidly USA resulted in at least three film versions and one for the stage.

state fair wagon wheel theatreThe 1933 non-musical movie starred Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor (hope there are some out there who still remember these early superstars). In 1945, R&H added their magical musical touches which, plus Technicolor and a cast of big (at the time) name players, created a hit film. Unfortunately, a “bigger and better” 1962 cinematic offering had no such luck.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 21 August 2012 02:03
Performances Light Barn's "La Mancha" PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Saturday, 02 July 2011 17:24

Many theatrical productions have literary roots, but few reach as far back as those of “Man of La Mancha,,” the musical currently on stage at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich.

Born in the 17th century from the pen of Miguel de Cervantes, the tale of the aged knight errant has crossed the years to become one of the most enduring properties in the history of musical theater.

Robert Newman in Man of La Mancha at The Barn TheatreReportedly based on an incident in the life of the author, it is presented by Cervantes and his servant as a defense in his trial by prisoners of the Spanish Inquisition who threaten to take all his belongings if they find the soldier/author/tax collector guilty. Using the prisoners to play the characters in his tale, he unfolds the story of Don Quixote de La Mancha and his wildly varied adventures and misadventures.

Described as “a musical play,” “Man of La Mancha” was written by Dale Wasserman, first as a 1959 television play and, in 1965, as a musical with score by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion. Winning five Tony Awards including Best Musical, it has seen four Broadway revivals and become a staple of every regional and civic theater group in the country.

Seeing it again for the umpteenth (?) time I was quite surprised to find that something so familiar still had the power to evoke a tear at the final curtain. OK, So it was written that way and its signature anthem, “The Impossible Dream.,” is a real tearjerker, in or out of the production.

But seeing it on a surprisingly drab and sparse set (lots of black curtains and unconvincingly one dimensional stone walls) with static staging and unexpectedly flat lighting only made it clear that the power of this musical play is in the story it tells and the ability of the performers who are charged with bringing it to life.

I’m sure that a goodly portion of the opening night audience came to see leading man Robert Newman, better known to soap fans as the long-suffering hero Josh Lewis in the late CBS daytime drama “The Guiding Light.” Well, if they came to bemoan his loss to the small screen, they stayed — as did everyone in the near capacity audience — to applaud his live-and-in-person dramatic talent and — who knew? — his more-than-adequate vocal ability.

It took only a brief moment for Newman to replace Josh Lewis with Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote. Bridging the gap between television and theater, he delivered a solidly sensitive performance and, as required for the Don, aged rapidly and believably within minutes, sustaining the illusion through comic episodes and dark dramatic moments. And his rendition of “The Impossible Dream” was quite worthy of the extended applause it received.

Newman was not alone in delivering a pleasant surprise. Petite leading lady Penelope Alex created an Aldonza/Dulcinea who faces the ugly reality of her life with courage while hiding a sensitive soul. She does not have a big belt voice but handled the demanding solos with insight and emotional depth,

Barn Equity Company members Roy Brown and Eric Parker portrayed Cervantes’ stubbornly loyal Manservant/Pancho and the cynical Duke/Dr. Carrasco, respectively, with just the required humor and menace. The confrontation between Don Quixote and Carrasco’s Knight of the Mirrors was the production’s visually most impressive moment.

Patrick Hunter doubled as a Captain of the Inquisition and the Padre, and delivered the latter’s “To Each His Dulcinea” and the final “Prayer,” beautifully if, at times, with a bit too much belt. Hans Friedrichs as the Governor/Innkeeper blended disbelief with sympathy in his dealings with the mad knight, although he lacks the rumbling bass baritone needed for “The Dubbing.”

The ensemble became prisoners and a number of characters — including a horse and a mule — in Cervantes’ story, supplying solid vocal support and certainly adequate dance moves. John Jay Espino served as pianist/conductor of the six piece orchestra which did justice to Leigh’s moving score.

Director Brendan Ragotzy also was on stage, joining the cast as a last-minute replacement for an injured muleteer.

"MAN OF LA MANCHA" plays at 5 p.m. today and Sunday and 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through July 10 in the theater on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, Mich. For information and reservations call (269) 731-4121 between 10 a.m. a and 10 p.m. daily.

Last Updated on Saturday, 09 July 2011 19:44
'Escanaba' Begins The Barn's Return PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Thursday, 16 June 2011 20:26

After a summer without a season, The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich., opened its 2011 season Tuesday with a production of Jeff Daniels’ “Escanaba in Love,” a prequel to his “Escanaba in Da Moonlight,” and reportedly the first in an "Escanaba" trilogy.

“Escanaba in Love” has the same setting — the Soady family deer camp in Michigan’s upper peninsula on the opening day of deer season — and some of the same characters, although the youngster of “Love” is the patriarch of “Moonlight.” It’s kind of like I’m my own grandpa.

The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich.“Escanaba in Da Moonlight” has been produced three times at The Barn since 2003 and, having seen it each time, I have to say that it is one of those comedies that is just as funny with each subsequent production as it is at the first viewing.

“Escanaba in Love” is much lower on the comic scale and heads into more serious aspects of Soady life and love with the laughs generated primarily by below-the-belt humor which the opening night audience found hilarious. The first “Escanaba” cast was 99 percent male, which made the earthy situations more palatable. Not so much here where they are generated by a new wife who trims her toenails with her teeth, combs her eyebrows with a toothbrush, drinks more than the men and can’t resist any opportunity to jump on her new hubby.

The arrival of Big (so-called because she wants to love the whole world) Betty Balou (Erin Oechsel), new bride of 18-year-old Albert Soady Jr. (Patrick Hunter), throws a monkey wrench into the opening day plans of her new father-in-law Albert Soady Sr. (Eric Parker), his father Alphonse Soady (Charlie King), and their friend “Salty” Jim Negamanee (Roy Brown). The older men, ready for Jr. to bag his first buck, are astounded that he has not brought his gun, an oversight he explains by saying that he is going into the army the next day. He then toasts his new wife, waiting outside in the truck. It was love at first sight, he declares, then reveals he won her in a kissing contest at the Porcelain Bar and doesn’t want to go off to war without ever being with a woman.

Enter Big Betty, garbed in animal pelts, boots and many pair of socks, scratching and swearing, just like one of the boys. To say that Sr. is shocked is putting it mildly. He then attempts to convince his son that this love will never last, recounting the ways in which he wooed his late wife whose fishing prowess was shadowed only by her refusal to ever take the fish off the hook.

Throughout this, the boys are drinking the traditional Sweet Sap Whiskey (which Betty proceeds to down in great quantities), feeding the “gas” jar with pennies and trying to convince Jr. that his hasty marriage is a big mistake. They fail, even when her decidedly shady past is revealed. Her final big catch, however, saves her marriage and wins her father-in-law’s approval.

The ensemble cast works well under the direction of Hans Friedrichs and establishes solidly individual characters, but the humor sometimes tends to be mean-spirited and frequently to be coarse. It is not intended for children.

“ESCANABA IN LOVE” plays at 8:30 p.m. today and Saturday and Tuesday through June 25 and 5 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and June 26 at The Barn Theatre on M-96 between Augusta and Galesburg, Mich. For information and reservations: (269) 731-4121 or visit

Last Updated on Friday, 17 June 2011 16:07
'Hairspray' Winner at Wagon Wheel PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Friday, 24 June 2011 19:24

In the past several decades, the trend on Broadway has been to take popular films and turn them into theatrical musicals. If there were some musical numbers in the film score, more were added to make the stage version acceptable. Some of these “transfers” worked, especially those from the Disney organization. Some did not (“Urban Cowboy,” “The Catered Affair”).

One that not only survived the transition with amazing success but returned the favor by becoming a real movie musical is the current offering at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre — “Hairspray.”

Hairspray at Warsaw's Wagon Wheel TheatreSet in the ‘60s, the story of Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblad and her battles with weight and segregation originated in the 1988 movie written and directed by John Waters. At first glance, it doesn’t seem the stuff of which popular musicals are made. But look at little closer.

At WW, the happily uptempo score by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman is well-integrated with the book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan and brought explosively to life by director/choreographer Scott Michaels and his talented cast.

From the first notes of “Good Morning Baltimore,” the show is infused with the positive energy of Lauren Turner’s Tracy, an overweight teen whose dream is to dance on the TV dance show of host Corney Collins (David Schlumpf). Determined to achieve her goal despite genetically transferred averdupois from her mother Edna (Robert J. Miller — that’s right!), she faces the hostility of show producer Velma Von Tussle (Lauren Roesner) and the prejudice of daughter Amber Von Tussle (Mary Little) and her thin, whites-only fellow dancers.

Initially she is supported only by her friend Penny Pingletom (Cassie Levine), but eventually finds her views — which now are widened to include integrated dancing and not just “Negro Day” — are shared by Seaweed J. Stubbs (Kevin J. Watson II), his sister Little Inez (Jalise Wilson), his mom, Motormouth Maybelle (Kathrine Thomas) and, surprisingly, by Link Larkin (Stephen Anthony), Amber’s boyfriend and Elvis wannabe, and Collins himself.

As the Miss Teenage Hairspray Contest nears, tension mounts and everything builds to the (literally) explosive finale.

This “Hairspray” is 2 and ¼ hours (plus intermission) of fun, which also delivers some important lessons to a ‘60s beat, lessons which unfortunately need periodic relearning. Possibly the mark is hit best by Sophie Grimm as Penny’s prejudiced mom Prudy (one of her three distinctly different characters). Finding her daughter and Seaweed in the bedroom, Prudy is shocked to silence, then cries “Colored in the house!” exiting with the wail “We’ll never sell it now!”

As Tracy, Turner may not be as large physically as others who have played this role, but she delivers the character and her purpose with unbounding energy and a solid performance. And I love (and remember) that hair!

There is no lack of vocal prowess in this cast! Roesner offers a powerhouse  rendition of “Velma’s Revenge” and Thomas literally stops the show with “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

Now back to Miller, who is returning to the WW stage after too long an absence and removed his facial hair to don Edna’s flamboyant costumes (designer Stephen R. Hollenbeck at his best) and towering red wig! Obviously, it’s difficult to completely forget that this is a large man in a lot of sequins AND heels, but it’s not difficult to completely be on board with Edna’s emerging self-assurance and devotion to her family. As her confidence grows, so does her connection to the audience who relate to this character unconditionally.

Part of the suspension of disbelief about Edna, is the consistently solid support given by Michael Yocum as her husband, Wilbur Turnblad, owner of the Hardy Har Hut, who dreams of a chain of joke shops. Their duet, “You’re Timeless to Me,” is one of the show’s loveliest moments.

Production-wise, Hollenbeck has gathered exactly the right colors and shapes to re-energize ‘’60’s, also recalled by David Lepor’s angular set design. Conductor Thomas N. Stirling is again at the keyboard of the excellent eight-piece orchestra and company member Jennifer Dow not only dances and sings but is responsible for all the period-proper beehive wigs!

I guarantee that as the lights fade on the final bows, you will find “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

“HAIRSPRAY” plays at 8 p.m. today and Saturday and Wednesday through July 1; 2 p.m. Sunday; and 7 p.m. Tuesday in the theater at 2517 E. Center St., Warsaw. For reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit,ol

Last Updated on Tuesday, 28 June 2011 15:10
Disney's 'Tarzan' Wagon Wheel Opener PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Sunday, 12 June 2011 13:56

In 1912, British author Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote "Tarzan The Ape Man," the first of his 24 books about an orphaned English baby brought up by a tribe of apes.

Six years later, silent film star Elmo Lincoln swung through the southern California trees in the first of more than 100 movies about the redoubtable jungle man. If Lincoln was the original, the most famous film Tarzan was Olympic swimming star Johnny Weissmuller, who donned the loincloth in a dozen of the increasingly implausible films. Finally, the jungle man became the star of Walt Disney's 1999 animated feature. From there it was a short swing of seven years to bring it to the musical theater stage.

Wagon Wheel Playhouse presents Disney's TarzanUndoubtedly the hope was to follow other long-lasting Disney stage successes such as "Beauty and the Beast," "Mary Poppins" and "The Lion King." It's theatrical life, however, more closely resembled that of the less successful "Aida" and "The Little Mermaid." Never one to give up, Disney Theatrical Productions has reworked and revamped the Phil Collins/Henry Hwang musical with an eye to tours and regional productions. The first performance with the revised script is the 2011 season opener at Warsaw's Wagon Wheel Theatre.

Unfortunately, even the excellence of the WW production can't do much to save this book (uncredited except for a "based on" reference to Burroughs) which brings nothing to the too-familiar tale and this score which, except for the Act II opener "Trashin' the Camp," can only be described as repetitive and boring. Production excellence was wasted on this material. Conversely, production excellence is the only thing that makes it worth seeing.

The set design by David Lepor instantly said "jungle," with bungee cords, climb-able "trees" and plenty of ropes for swinging all around the arena stage. Greg Griffin's lighting design did more than set the proper mood, although the 100 degree heat of Wednesday's opening night played havoc with the lights and the air conditioning, creating kind of an on-again/off-again jungle atmosphere.

Once again, Stephen R. Hollenbeck's costumes hit the hairy apes right on their shaggy heads, with the English explorers properly attired in period outfits. Thomas N. Stirling leads the fine eight-piece orchestra. Director/choreographer Scott Michaels gives the production every lift he can and, as usual, the talented young company delivers the goods physically and vocally, with only one familiar Tarzan call. 

Heading the excellent cast are Brian Martin as the young man caught between two worlds; Alex Finke as Jane, the British anthropologist who discovers more than a new species of plant life; Michael Yocum as her scientist father; and David Schlumpf as their expedition's shady guide. On the jungle side are Brittany Coleman as Tarzan's loving gorilla mom; Ben Matters as his less-than-loving dad; Noah James Ricketts as his wild and wacky sidekick; and Brian O'Donnell as the title character as a young boy. The eight hard-working tribe members create one of the most athletic ensembles on the WW stage to date. 

If the material had lived up to the performers and production values here, this "Tarzan the Stage Musical" might have been rewarding all the way around. Unfortunately it seems that — original or revised edition — "Tarzan" is best on the screen or the printed page.

DISNEY'S "TARZAN — A Stage Musical Based on the Disney Film" plays at 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Thursday in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For reservations and information call (574) 267-8041 or visit

Last Updated on Tuesday, 14 June 2011 21:53
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