‘ Civil War’ Hauntingly Relevant

The relevance of revisiting this country’s most deadly inner-struggle in the light of today’s political polarization  became increasingly apparent as The Barn Theatre’s season-opening production, “The Civil War,”  unfolded Tuesday evening on the stage of the Augusta, MI playhouse.

Under the direction of Barn producer Brendan Ragotzy, “The Civil War” is not your ordinary musical.

Soldiers of the North (left from center) and the Confederacy (right from center) pause during The Barn Theatre production of THE CIVIL WAR.

It does have a score, by Frank Wildhorn (‘Jekyll and Hyde,” ”The Scarlet Pimpernel”) with book and lyrics by Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy, but the physical action definitely is kept to a minimum.

The music is a combination of the rhythms of the late 1800s — gospel, country and folk — and some of the “dialogue” comes straight from the icons of the period — Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth — but the strength of its passion comes from the thoughts and feelings of the typical foot soldiers, the women they left behind and the slaves they were fighting over, either to free or to keep in bondage.

Slaves Bessie (Shinnerrie Jackson) and Clayton (Rendell Debose) dream of freedom in The Barn Theatre production of THE CIVIL WAE.

As the story of the horrific confrontations begins and continues to escalate, it is presented primarily as a staged concert, with sharply spare action on a “playing field” as divided as the North and South.

There is minimal dialogue but lots and lots of music and, happily, a goodly number of excellent voices!

The many of the vocal solo strengths belong to the “slaves,” a sextet of individuals who blended beautifully when it was required and delivered impassioned solos, especially Shinnerrie Jackson, Rendell Debose and Ryan Carter Johnson. Michael Fisher was effective as Frederick Douglass.

The Union troops are led by guest artist Robert Newman who sets the scene for the coming conflict in “Brother. My Brother.” The Rebel officer who longs for “Virginia” is Patrick Hunter, with guest artist Fee Waybill as a grizzled Confederate officer attached to “This Old Gray Coat.”

A score of young faces on both sides of the battle lines are especially

Infantry soldiers (from left, Miguel Ragel Wilson, Christian Edwards, Clay Miller and Derek Cuildey) in The Barn Theatre production of THE CIVIL WAR.

effective in underscoring the massive number of casualties (more than 660,000 by the war’s end), the stolid poignancy with which they cloaked their yearnings for home and family and their struggle to accept the inevitable.

Barn favorite Charlie King put his guitar/banjo expertise to good use as a Union soldier whose defiant picking is aimed at keeping flagging spirits as high as possible.

On the home front, the effect of the carnage on those who stood and waited for the outcome and crushing aftermath is in the hands and voices of four women — all designated as Sarah — who stood strong both in victory and crushing defeat.

Most of the characters are identified, even in solos,  only as Slaves or Union or Confederate Soldiers, so it is difficult to give individual credit. Luckily, although some are vocally stronger and more secure, all are equal to their assigned roles and their “sides,” easily identified by blue or gray uniforms.

The playing space is divided into platform levels. One side is hung with Confederate flags and the other, with more familiar Union banners. The center playing area is divided between stars and stripes.

Space is obviously limited and actually not necessary, especially when the two armies march out at the same time, almost touching before turning away. The physical proximity adds another layer to the story.

In the manner of Ken Burns’ PBS epic on this war, the background is frequently filled with photos of Civil War battles and casualties, emphasizing the utter despair of the conflict.

Under the direction of pianist/conductor John Jay Espino, the six member orchestra hits just the right notes to underscore the fluctuating emotions as the war continues.

The end does not come with high kicks and happy bows but “The Civil War” is the perfect theatrical vehicle to remind us of what was and what cannot be again.

“THE CIVIL WAR” plays through Sunday in the playhouse on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit WWW.barntheatreschool.org

 

 

 

 

 

Seuss Tale Wagon Wheel Opener

Wagon Wheel Theatre (aka Center for the Arts) opened its 2018 season Wednesday with two hours of color, spirit and humor delivered in a family-friendly package titled “Seussical” (the musical).

SeussIn case the name is familiar, it certainly should be.

Jojo (Jacob Crater, on bed) is encouraged to “Think!” by the Cat in The Hat (Logan Foster) in the Wagon Wheel Theatre production of SEUSSICAL. (Photos by Ascott Michaels)

Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) is responsible for creating many of the most memorable characters in children’s literature. About 18 are featured or, at least , mentioned in this theatrical assemblage, with book, music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.

The action (and there is plenty of it!) begins with the appearance of one of the best known of all Seuss creations — The Cat in The Hat (Logan Foster) — who pops up (literally) to make young Jojo (Jacob Crater) aware of all “The Things You Can Think”. The Cat introduces him to the residents of Whoville, led by Mr.Mayor (Michael Pacholski) and Mrs. Mayor (Kira Lace Hawkins), and the inhabitants of the Jungle of Nool.

Included in last are Horton the Elephant (Grayson Samuels), Gertrude McFuzz (Allsun O‘Malley), Maysie La Bird (Juliette Redden), the Sour Kangaroo (De’jah Jervai), the Wickersham Brothers (Nick Case, Ian Laudano and Ahmad Ratliff) and the Bird Girls (Ashlyn Maddox, Jessica Mintr and Laura Plyler).

Horton the Elephant (Grayson Samuels) sits on Maysie La Bird’s egg to keep a promise in the Wagon Wheel Theatre production of SEUSSICAL.

The Cat, as it turns out, has no qualms about leading Jojo into trouble which lands him (briefly) in the military school of General Genghis Kahn Schmitz (Michael Yocum) who believes it’s war that makes a boy a man!

On his own, Jojo meets another lonely soul, Horton, who cannot say no to a cry for help and winds up holding the tiny town of Whoville on the top or a clover and sitting on Maysie’s egg while she  “takes a short break” to Palm Beach.

The further adventures of Horton, Jojo, Gertrude McFuzz and their friends and adversaries in the jungle are recreated delightfully by the talented WW company. Under the direction of Scott Michaels, who also is responsible for the amazingly non-stop choreography, the story of the steadfast Horton (“an elephant’s faithful 100 percent!”) and Jojo, who discovers the power of “Think,” is the icing on the cake of life lessons , who has a rather applicible to all — except that they are even more enjoyable when sung and danced.

As always. Michaels & Co. (on and off stage) deliver a top quality theatrical product which translates to a highly enjoyable evening (or matinee) for children of all ages.

Scenic designer Mike Higgins (with a look-back at the first “Seussical” design by the late Roy Hine),  creates a world that hovers somewhere between a colorful playground and a Christmas celebration.

Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s wildly inventive costumes (including a bunch of black-lit Hunches)  are, of course, in neon shades that threaten to glow without the assistance of Seif Salotto-Cristobal’s magical lighting design. Especially love the Bird Girls’ hosiery and the lemon yellow coats/dresses for all the Whos!

The primarily up-beat score is in the excellent hands of conductor/keyboardist Thomas N. Sterling and the 10 musicians who make up his always top orchestra.

Horton the Elephant (Grayson Samuels) is captured by hunters and sold to the Circus McGurkus in the Wagon Wheel Theatre production of SEUSSICal.

Vocally, the WW ‘18 company is up to the high standards which have been established over the decades. Ensemble or solo work, all fit the criteria for singing/dancers (or dancing/singers).

This is standard fare for WW but in this company a number of the performers have yet to enter high school. Check their precision in the dance numbers and read the lyrics on their lips. They don’t miss a beat or a syllable!

The leading role of Jojo is in the capable person of 12-year-old Crater who handles the difficult and extended assignment like an — I was going to say like an adult but  — like a professional. He and Horton bond believably and withstand the machinations of the selfish Mayse and the slyly nasty Cat.

In the Jungle of Nool or Whoville or Solla Sollew or The Universe, Jojo, Horton, the Cat and all their friends are exhilarating examples of what can happen when you “THINK!”

SEUSSICAL  plays through June 9 in the theater at 2517 E. Center St.in Warsaw.. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041.

 

 

 

 

 

ECT Comedy Offers Classic Twist

Take a TV star who doesn’t care for Hamlet, add his girlfriend/fiance who thinks Shakespeare is the greatest and mix well with the all-too-lively ghost of the theatrical star known for his portrayal of the Prince of Denmark.

Realtor/mediumFelicia Dantine (Victoria Lauren Gural, center) conducts a seance for (from left: Lillian Troy (Stacey Nickel), Deirdre McDavey (Jac

The result is “I Hate Hamlet,” a comedy with a soulful touch by Paul Rudnick, which opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House.

The Elkhart Civic Theatre production, directed by Demaree Dufour-Noneman and assisted by Melissa Auvil, has a goodly number of laughs and, in the process, offers a few things for your consideration.

Among these: which is more important, money or  integrity — specifically artistic integrity ? This is the dilemma facing Andrew Rally (Ryan Yeager).

Having come to New York to play the leading role in the annual summer Shakespeare in the Park production, this year of “Hamlet,” the TV actor finds himself definitely having second thoughts, primarily because, as he declares strongly to girlfriend Deirdre McDavey (Jacqueline Kelly-Cogdell), he doesn’t like Shakespeare and, most specifically, he hates Hamlet!

The ghost of John Barrymore (Keith Sarber, right) explains life and the theater to Andrew Rally (Ryan Yeager) in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of I HATE HAMLET.

It doesn’t help that real estate agent Felicia Dantine (Victoria Lauren Gural) has rented him the apartment in which John Barrymore lived which he was playing the role on Broadway.

Enter Andrew’s agent, Lillian Troy (Stacey Nickel), who recalls her brief-but-intense affair with Barrymore in that very apartment. When Felicia reveals that she also is a medium, the women decide to have a séance hoping for the spirit of Barrymore to convince Andrew to play the role.

A bell tolls and Barrymore (Keith Sarber) appears  — in costume  — but only to Andrew, and the battle begins.

Stirring the pot is the arrival of Gary Peter Lefkowitz (Andrew Miller), a writer/producer friend of Andrew’s, with an offer he is sure the actor can’t refuse.Will a new TV show and a big paycheck wipe out the actor’s determination to play Hamlet? Or will his old insecurity win out and send him back to TV?It takes about two hours to determine the answer which involves not only some snappy one-liners but also some familiar Shakespearean dialogue.

Theatrical agent Lillian Troy (Stacey Nickel) reconnects with the ghost of John Barrymore (Keith Sarber) to recall shared memories and share a waltz in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of I HATE HAMLET.

Sarber is obviously having a good time recreating one of the best-known (and wildest) of the famous theatrical clan. He and Yeager spar sharply with both dialogue and fencing foils.

Since the setting is present day New York City, the determination of Deirdre to go no further than kissing with her boyfriend seems rather unrealistic, but does underscore his eagerness to learn from Barrymore’s apprenticeship on and off stage.

Yeager makes his reluctance to play Hamlet before a live audience more than understandable. His disgruntled “No sex. And Shakespeare. It’s just like high school” earned a sympathetic laugh.

In one of the quieter and most touching moments, Barrymore convinces Lillian that he also recalls their brief encounter and the duo share memories and a brief waltz.

Ready to play Shakespeare’s Danish Prince, actor Andrew Ralliy (Ryan Yeager, right) refuses a big offer from his friend producer Gary Peter Lefkowitz (Andrew Miller) in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of I HATE HAMLET.

Gural and Miller represent the garish elements of both coasts well enough to prove it’s better in the middle.

Set designer John Shoup’s modern-to-medieval apartment fits both requirements and morphs fairly easily from the former to match Andrew’s increasing attachment to the latter.

(Note: Tiny program print and muted light make program notes difficult to read in  the auditorium. Take one home and enjoy it after the fact.)

I HATE HAMLET plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Oper House, SR 120 in Bristol  For information and reservations, call (574) 848-4116 11 am to 5:30 p.m. weekdays.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Nerd’ Is Not Your Usual Farce

All you have to do is read the list of characters in the South Bend Civic Theatre production of “The Nerd” to realize that this is not your usual farce.

Actually, I’m not at all sure there is such a thing as a “regular” farce because that would, by designation, have to be extremely irregular.

Its difficult to say who is more sur[rised at this dinner party in the South Bend Theatre production of THE NERD. (From left: Shelly Overgaard, Dave Kempher, Brian Nolan, Nicholas Hidde-Halsey, Sarah Myers and Tate Grendt) (Photos by Peter Ringenberg)
Anyway, what is going on in Larry Shue’s utterly ridiculous scenario is, no matter what, good for a large number of laughs which Friday’s opening night audience in the Wilson Auditorium certainly supplied.

Possibly it is just the sight of five adults behaving more than oddly playing a game that might, in a pinch, be suitable for toddlers.

And it is pretty funny.

The tangled plotline circles around architect Willum Cubbert (Dave Kempher) and his two live-in friends. Tansy McGinnis (Shelly Overgaard), is about to leave their happy home in Terre Haute, IN., to take a job as a TV weather girl in Washington, D.C., In love with Willum, she hopes her move will jolt him into action, romantically speaking.

Axel Hammond (Brian Nolan), the third part of their triangle, is a sharp-tongued drama critic and self-described curmudgeon who was briefly engaged to Tansy and now enjoys sitting back and making caustic remarks.

The party doesn’t quite go as planned with an irate Waldgrave (Tate Gerndt, center) expressing his anger in the South Bend Civic Theatre production of THE NERD,. (From left areShelly Overgaard, Brian Nolan, Gerndt, Dave Kempher, Sarah Myers and Clara Moran Walton)

The trio is expecting Willumn’s client, Warnock Walgrave (Tate Gerndt), his wife Clelia (Sarah Myers) and their young son Thor (Clara Moran Walton), for dinner. Willum is designing a hotel for Warnock (“Call me Ticki”) and the two have different ideas on how it should look.

Into the dinner party comes the unexpected guest, Rick Steadman (Nicholas Hidde-Halsey), a fellow Vietnam veteran of Willum’s who saved the architect’s life. They have never met but Willum feels he owes Rick a great deal .

It’s a feeling that allows Rick to literally take over Willum’s dinner party — and his life, settling in for the long haul as, one by one, the others find his crass behavior more than they can handle.

Willum (Dave Kepher, center) explains to Tansy (Shelly Overgaard) why the dinner is so important as All (Brian Nolan) listens in the South Bend Civic Theatre production of THE NERD,

No one, however, refuses to play Rick’s wild and messy games (“Shoes and Socks” — use your imagination) and he continues to settle in for a long stay. When Willum has finally had too much, he attempts to oust his nerdy guest with some bizarre games of his own!

The players obviously are having a good time with their off-beat characters, a feeling that transmits itself to the audience. It is to their credit that no one breaks character!

Underneath all the craziness lie a few sobering questions: How far should gratitude go? How far should friendship excuse bad behavior? How long should relationships be ignored?

Not enough to overcome the laughs, but something to think about when the last bit of cottage cheese has flown.

Rick Steadman (Nicholas Hidde-Halsey, center) thinks he has found new best friends, but Tansy (Shelly Overgaard) and Willum (Dave Kempher) don’t agree in the South Bend Civic Theatre production of THE NERD.

The off-the-wall scenario is played out on an appropriately middle-class set — complete with necessarily sturdy doors (this is a farce, you know) by designer and scenic artist Jeff Barrick. It fills the wide proscenium of the auditorium and provides the actors plenty of room in which to “play.” Most of the time, however, they are grouped around the octagonal coffee table playing the game.

The eclectic furniture around the table for some reason includes one molded-plastic chair into which Tansy climbs with obvious difficulty. Its purpose is revealed when another uses It, but it seems a long way to go for a short laugh.

Sound-wise, the recent work done on the auditorium sound system is worth whatever it cost! The actors are miked and every word comes through as clear as a bell.

Under the direction of Leigh Taylor and assistant director Laura Moran Walton , the action moves crisply and quickly, stopping frequently for laughs!

Even if you find most farces as un-funny as I do, you won’t be able to stop laughing at this Nerd.

“THE NERD” plays Wednesday through Sunday in the Marjorie H. and James M. Wilson Auditorium, 403 N. Main St., South Bend For information and reservations call (574) 234-1112

 

 

 

Murder, Mirth Mixed In Mystery

If you think Sherlock Holmes is nothing to laugh at, take a look at the current Elkhart Civic Theatre production,

 

Dr.Mortimer (Tony Venable (right) tells Sherlock Holmes (Chad Harms, left) and Dr. Watson (Deron Bergstresser) about strange happenings in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of BASKERVILLE.

“Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” which opened Friday evening in the Bristol Opera House, delivers everything its title implies and something more.

Penned by Ken Ludwig, one of the most prolific playwrights of farce in modern theatrical history, and based on a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of the most prolific authors of mysteries of the 19th-20th centuries, and you can check your disbelief at the door en route to discovering who dunnit.

Ludwig has taken Conan Doyle’s most famous characters ·— Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson — and one of his most famous novels (he only wrote four, the rest were short stories) — “The Hound of the Baskerville” — and put (or should I say “twisted”) them together. The result is a fast-paced theatrical entertainment.

Actually, for three of the five-member cast, this ”Baskerville” is not only fast but definitely furious!

The action opens quietly enough with Dr. Watson (Deron Bergstresser), who also serves as narrator, detailing to Holmes (Chad Harms) how he determined the owner of a walking stick left in their flat by using the detective’s method of “observation, forensic science and logical reasoning.”

Dr. Watson (Deron Bergstresser, left) Sherlock Holmes (Chad Harms, center) and Inspector Lestrade (Bonnie MacGowan) are on the trail of a ghostly hound in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of BASKERVILLE. (Photos by Mel Moore)

Listening calmly, Holmes then proceeds to prove his friend incorrect in every detail. Their discussion is interrupted by Dr. Mortimer (Tony Venable) who brings the duo a challenging narrative which combines a bit of Baskerville family history, the death of Sir Hugo Baskerville (Bonnie MacGovern) and the recent (and similar) death of Sir Charles Baskerville ( MacGovern again) which could — or could not — mean the same end for the his son, the current title-holder, Sir Henry Baskerville (right, also MacGovern).

Mortimer is asking for advice as to whether or not to tell Sir Henry as Sir Hugo’s death occurred in the same way (throat ripped out by giant hound) as Sir Charles’.

Holmes agrees to meet Sir Henry who arrives with tales of warning phone call and missing boots, new and old.

Holmes is intrigued. With Watson, of course, he heads for Baskerville Hall where the eerie fun is just beginning and the game is now afoot!

In case this doesn’t make it obvious, the remaining 40 characters are played by the remaining three cast members — Venable, MacGovern and Jenna Ladd — with little regard for character age or gender. Harms and Bergstresser remain firmly Holmes and Watson, with the exception of a disguise or two.

Sherlock Holmes (Chad Harms, second from right) and Dr. Watson (Deron Bergstresser, right0 check with two of Holmes’ street agents (from left Tony Venable and Jenna Ladd) in. the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of BASKERVILLE.

In addition to matching Holmes with the proper explanation of ghostly dog days on the Devonshire moors, the fun in this production is watching the muti-role actors morphing from one character to another and keeping track of just which one they are at which time.

Not only costumes but voices, accents (some of which are a bit difficult to decipher) and even facial hair must be changed to go with the appropriate persona..

Credit for the facility with which these changes are made must go not only to the actors but to the small but indispensible group of dressers who assist in each swift change, some of which take place in the space of only a sentence or two.

Adding to the fun is the presence of on stage “Foley artists” who are responsible for each bell, whistle, wind and howl, in short for every sound required by the script. . For those unfamiliar with the term “Foley,” it is in honor of Jack Foley, the first sound effects artist.

The projections on the back of the bi-level set take the action easily from London’s 221B Baker Street to the echoing chambers of Baskerville Hall to the dark and dangerous moors.

ECT’s go-to director for tongue-in-cheek mysteries, Dave Dufour, teamed here with lighting designer Randy Zonker, who also acted as stage manager and assistant director.

The result is definitely much more than “elementary.”

“BASKERVILLE: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” plays Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. in the Bristol Opera House on SR 120 in Bristol For information and reservations call 848-4116 weekdays.

 

 

 

 

South Bend Civic Hits The ‘Heights’

I have to begin by saying that this is the kind of review I really don’t like to write.

For two reasons, probably not the ones you think.

Residents of Washington Heights enjoy an evening of dancing in the South Bend Civic Theater production of IN THE HEIGHTS. (Photos by Lauren Mow)

The first is because the subject, South Bend Civic Theatre’s current show, “In The Heights,” which opened Friday evening in the Wilson Auditorium, is  its best musical production to date.

The second is because, in spite of performances added to its scheduled run, as of this weekend all are completely sold out. So if you were holding back to see if your friends liked the show, you are too late for that to make any difference.

Difficult to say what makes an amateur production come together as solidly as this.

Obviously the foundation is the script and score. The former is by Quiara Alegria Hudes, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The show earned four Tony Awards in 2008 including Best Musical.

That does not, however, guarantee a successful production.

So begin with a director, Leah Isabel Tirado (who also plays the pivotal role of Abuela Claudia), an associate director Paul Mow and a choreographer, Jon Martinez, all of whom have extensive backgrounds in professional theater, and you have a great structure on which to build.

Its a celebration in Washington Heights in the South Bend Civic Theatre production of IN THE HEIGHTS.

The “building blocks” they selected to inhabit the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights obviously are top quality. There is not a weak or off-putting voice among the principle players. Jorge Rivera-Herrans is Usnavi, bodega owner who dreams of opening a bar in his native Dominican Republic and Rachel Thomas is Vanessa, who hopes to have her own apartment in the West Village but whose alcoholic mother drinks up all she earns in the beauty shop owned by Daniela (Andrea Deleon) who must move her shop due to increased rent.

 

Nina (Mimi Bell) has dropped out of Stanford and come home which upsets her parents Kevin (Jeffrey Villlorio Santos) and Camilla (Shay Northstine) who are determined to pay for her return to school no matter the cost. They disapprove of her romance with Benny (Samuel Jackson) who works for Kevin in his taxi service.

Around this core, all of whom strongly inhabit their roles vocally, physically and dramatically, are other relatives and friends who work and live in the Heights.

Its morning in Washington Heights and residents begin their day in the South Bend Civic Theatre production of IN THE HEIGHTS.

The show spans three days during which major changes occur, not the least of which is a $96,000 lottery ticket won by the neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia, impressively played and sung byTirado.

From the beginning of a swelteringly hot July 3 through the final realizations on July 5, this block in the Heights is in perpetual motion, blending hip-hop, salsa, soul and Hispanic rhythms that defy audience members to stay still, with ballads that go straight to the heart.

Whether explosive ensemble numbers like the Act 1 fireworks finale and the neighborhood carnival or the introspective solos and duets, the pacing (along with the excellent voices) keeps everyone in tune with the characters.

Principle or ensemble, the 29 company members mark the highs and lows of life in a Latino community with contagious reality.

Kyle Chamberlin’s set design instantly creates the atmosphere of the block, including a view of the bridge, and Matt Dolphy Clark’s lighting design (with fireworks) enhances the feeling of hot summer, day and night.

Roy Bronkema is music director/pianist and Joshua Goines is orchestra conductor/pianist. With six instrumentalists, they happily bridge the gap of playing on both sides of the “street..

Vocally and instrumentally, this production is enhanced by the theater’s new sound system.

“In The Heights,” which most know was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s one before ”Hamilton,” celebrates the uniqueness of the individual and the solidarity of the community in a life-affirming package applicable to everyone everywhere!

IN THE HEIGHTS plays in the South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Auditorium through March 25. All performances are sold out, To add your name to the extensive waiting list, call (574) 234-1112 weekdays.

 

 

Musical ‘Comedy’ Mixes Murder/Laughter

A serial killer and a New York City detective, both with crippling ”mommy” issues, cross paths in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of “No Way to Treat A Lady.”

Detective Morris Brummel (Zachary Rivers, right) gets a call from a killer (Brent Graber, left) during astressful visit with his mother in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production of NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY. (Photos by Mel Moore)

Based on a 1964 novel by author/screenwriter William Goldman (“The Princess Bride,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “All The President’s Men”), it became a 1968 film starring Rod Steiger and, almost 20 years later, a “musical comedy thriller” with book, music and lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen.

Be advised. This is not your high-stepping, big cast musical.

True, there are almost a dozen characters but they are played by a cast of five who manage to fill the stage as this definitely “black comedy” progresses.

It opens with a deceptively sweet scene as Father Barry Fitzgerald (sound familiar?) pays a call on Mrs. Sullivan, an elderly, recently-widowed parishioner.

But wait. Father Fitzgerald (1940s movie fans will get the reference) is really Christopher “Kit” Gill (Brent Graber), a mediocre actor determined to match the fame of his recently deceased mother, Alexandra Gill (Annette Kaczanowski), with a notice in The New York Times, achieved by any means necessary.

dancer
Christopher “Kit” Gill romances his second victim in Spanish dancer Carmella Tucci (Annette Kaczanowski) in heElkhartCivic Thetre production of NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY.

Unfortunately for Mrs. Sullivan (also played by Ms. Kaczanowski) this means joining her husband, ready or not, with a post-mortem lipstick kiss drawn on her forehead

The homicide case is assigned to Detective Morris Brummell (Zachary Rivers) ,who still lives with his mother Flora (Julie Herrli Castello), definitely a less-than-supportive parent. In the course of his investigation, Morris meets Sarah Stone (Michelle Miller), a tenant in the victim’s building, and immediately falls in love.

Meanwhile Kit, unhappy that his crime has not made The Times, contacts the detective and draws him into his murderous plot, proceeding to up his game via his next victim, Spanish dancer Carmella Tucci (Ms. Kaczanowski again), who has just lost her partner. This time, Kit is disguised as an Arthur Murray (the ‘40s again!) dance instructor. Their tango ends with a deadly kiss.

The homicidal wave continues until ….but no more spoilers here. Enough to say that Ms. Kaczanowski has still one last character to create and Morris has to get his priorities straight.

The score contains some lovely melodies, several with a definitely macabre flavor. Kaczanowski deserves major applause for her swift and definitive segues from character to character, attitudes and accents well in hand. Rivers is properly frustrated, balancing love and duty while struggling to overcome the insecurity developed through years of smothering “mother love.” He and Miller display the show’s best voices and she creates a warmly stubborn young woman who never loses I\sight of her objective.

Detective Morris Brummell (Zachary Rivers) takes his girlfriend Sarah Stone (Michele Miller) on a picnic in the Elkhart Civic Theatre production NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY.

Castello is constantly shrill, making Morris’ desire to get out instantly understandable. As the increasingly frustrated actor/killer, Graber’s desire to one-up his late mother is exacerbated by her scathing remark “Whether you’re a successful killer or an unsuccessful actor, you still can’t get arrested in this town.” His rising anger is the through-line of the story and he handles it well.

The production is directed by John Shoup assisted by Penny Shoup, with vocal direction by Kim Dooley and choreography by Jackiejo Brewers. Keyboardist Miriam Houck is music director with keyboardist Brenda Summers, clarinetist Grace Johnson and percussionist Mark Swendsen.

Director Shoup designed the flexible set which features a portrait of Alexandra by Jeff Barrack and integrated slide designs by Sandy and Brian MacGowan indicating locations in 1970 Manhattan. A stage crew of NYPD’s finest makes quick work of the many scene changes.

NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY plays Friday through Sunday and March 16-17 in the Bristol Opera House on SR 120 in Bristol. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 848-4116 .

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.