Michigan's "Jersey Boy" To Entertain

KALAMAZOO — A Michigan “Jersey Boy” is coming home to his alma mater for one night only. Western Michigan University alum Eric Gutman, most recently on stage in the Broadway, Chicago and national touring companies of the smash hit “Jersey Boys,” will help Miller Auditorium announce its 2009-2010 season with a special free show beginning at 7:30 p.m. Monday. The title is “Oh, What A Night” and Gutman, speaking from his home in Royal Oak, Mich., promises it will be just that. It’s not the first time he has taken part in the season introduction. He was a part of two “Forbidden Broadway” casts that entertained potential audience members.

Eric GutmanA student in the excellent WMU music theater program, Gutman “always knew I wanted to do this,” he said. “My heart was set on it.” After graduation in 1999, he headed for New York city and auditioned for “Forbidden Broadway.” “I got cast and went with it,” he said. For five years he “was happy doing what I was doing.” Among his credits are “Forbidden Hollywood,” “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” “Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” However, “When you love something as much as you do and it’s constantly a struggle, the love kind of fades away,” he admitted. “It was hard to see friends of mine who were immensely talented and just couldn’t catch a break.”

He moved to the West Coast but, eventually, found himself back in Michigan with wife Sarah, focusing on something other than an acting career. But when the call came for the Chicago company of “Jersey Boys,” he couldn’t resist. “I called in sick at my job in Detroit and went to the audition,” he said. “I sang one song and they said they had nine roles I could play.” They weren’t kidding. During his time as one of the “Boys,” he was in the ensemble and covered the leading roles of Bob Gaudio, Bob Crewe, Tommy DiVito and Nick Massi as well as several featured roles. Confusing? “Never” Gutman said. “Besides, we had cheat sheets back stage.”

In addition to singing and dancing and learning the “tracks” for each role, he plays a number of instruments including guitar, bass and mandolin. Has he seen the last of Frankie Valli & Co? “I hope not,” he said. ” If they call again, I would love to go.”

Now the parents of baby Riley, the Gutmans live in Royal Oak where he is the owner/operator of Two Kings Tickets, which handles tickets for concerts, sporting events and theaters all over the world. But on Monday, he will be wearing his performing hat for an hour-long show that will include 11 songs and stories about life on the road. Take it from someone whose been there.

NOTE: After a video season announcement and the show, a number of Kalamazoo’s best restaurants will provide a buffet in the upper lobby. Tickets are free but reservations are requested (limit of four) at (800) 228-9858 or (269) 387-2300.

Classic Comedy Still Relevant Today

BRISTOL — Take a look at the current Elkhart Civic Theatre production and you’ll have no trouble understanding why “You Can’t Take It With You” has been a favorite of audiences from Broadway to the hinterlands for almost three quarters of a century. The play by Moss Hart and George S. Kauffman received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1937, “Drama” being an all-inclusive term that obviously included comedy, because “You Can’t Take It With You” is a comedy of the highest rank. It provides a large amount of laughs, from chuckles to just plain belly laughs, yet touches the heart with a simple philosophy that would do us all well to remember — especially today.

Elkhart Civic Theatre presents You Can't Take It With YouLiving — well, not really but they certainly could — in John Jay Shoup’s marvelous recreation of the grand old houses of the 1920s-30s, cosy enough to embrace a small family but flexible enough to hold those who happen along and decide to stay, the 1937 Sycamores seem at first glance to be ditzy enough to populate a modern sitcom. Mom Penny (Karen Johnston) alternates between painting and playwriting, both of which she does not well but enthusiastically (the latter began when a typewriter was delivered by mistake). In the basement of their New York home, dad Paul (Dave Hoien) and Mr. De Pinna (Scott Fowler), who came to deliver ice eight years ago and just stayed on, create bigger and better fireworks.. Daughter Essie Carmichael (Karen Hoover) is a determinded if untalented ballerina and baker of Love Dream cookies which hubby Ed (Peter Sessions) distributes, along with various (and slightly seditious) slogans run off on his hand-turned printing press. He also accompanies her terpsichorean efforts on the xylophone. Reba (Kellie Kelleher) and her boyfriend Donald (Brock Butler) are the Sycamore’s couple-of-all-works and part of their extended family, as is Boris Kolenkhov (Rick Nymeyer), a Russian emigre and Essie’s ballet teacher. Dropping in are an alcoholic actress Gay Wellington (Geneele Crump), and Kolenkov’s cousin, the Grand Dutchess Olga Katrina (Amy Pawlosky), who has gone from the Czar’s court to waitressing in Child’s Restaurant. As the core of “sanity” in this eccentric maelstrom are Gandpa Martin Vanderhoff (Carl Wiesinger), who left Wall Street 35 years ago determined just to have fun and devotes his time to attending commencement ceremonies and catching snakes, and Penny and Paul’s daughter, Alice (Kristen Riggs), who works on Wall Street and is in love with her boss Tony Kirby Jr. (Ricky Fields). Soon after action in the three-act play begins, they become engaged. The next step is for the families to meet. When, despite Alice’s best efforts, the elder Kirbys (Tom Doughty and Mary Toll) come to dinner on the wrong night, the result — literally — is explosive!

Elkhart Civic Theatre presents You Can't Take It With YouDirector Penny Meyers and assistant director Annette Kaczkowski do a solid job of keeping the flow of traffic moving as swiftly as possible with a cast of 20 (including Doug Streich in an hysterical bit and FBI men Bill Heimann, Cameron Ponce, Jim Hess and Garret Nisely). Not an simple task with a set full to overflowing with props and furniture (and scene-stealing kittens), all required but not easy to work around. They manage well. The cast, from those with walk-ons to one-scene bits to major roles, handle their assignments well. The slightly off-center characters earn their laughs, as does the Kauffman and Hart dialogue which, aside from period references (Kay Francis, “The Good Earth,” “Peg O’ My Heart,” Child’s, Rasputin, Eleanor Roosevelt), is amazingly relevant today, especially Grandpa’s take on the IRS. Weisinger, playing a character much older then himself, had me convinced that the key words to a stress-free life are relax and enjoy. Riggs does an excellent job of conveying Alice’s dilemma: she loves Tony and her family and can’t see them ever meshing. Fields delivers a believable fiance, not always the easiest thing in amateur theater. Hoover, an obvious audience favorite, flaps like an ostrich and delivers unending flat-footed leaps and twirls. Sessions is always in the moment, listening to what’s happening and reacting, but never over-reacting, which is a danger for some. The Kirbys are a delight, from entrance to exit, especially when playing THE game. Open minds and open hearts are the key to this family, as they are to all families. It’s nice that “You Can’t Take It With You” takes the stage every few years to remind us.

Tickets for the final weekend (Friday through Sunday) are scarce. To make reservations, call 848-4116 from 1:30 to 5 weekdays or check the ECT website link here.

Seeing What They Want to See

SOUTH BEND — An ancient world is crafted carefully and beautifully in the South Bend Civic Theatre production of “Rashomon,” playing Wednesday through Sunday in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium. Based on two short stories written in 1915 and 1921 by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, its most familiar incarnation is the 1950 film by Japanese master Akira Kurosawa. The play by Fay and Michael Kanin followed in 1959, with Rod Steiger as the Bandit and his then-wife Claire Bloom as the Wife. Set at the Rashomon Gate (the castle gate) at the entrance to the city of Kyoto about 1,000 years ago, it nevertheless carries a timeless truth, delivered by the Wigmaker (Kathleen Carnavan-Martin) who serves throughout as sort of chorus/conscience. “People see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear,” she says to a Woodcutter (Kyle Curtis) and a disillusioned Priest (Nathaniel Smith), understandably confused after listening to several versions of the same crime.

Rashomon at South Bend Civic TheatreThe basic story is the same. A famous Bandit (Scot Shepley) falls upon a Samuri (C.J. Nwokah) and his Wife (Emilija Nahas) traveling through the forest. The Wife is raped and her husband ends up dead, but was the rape really rape and just how did the husband die? The reenactments by the participants, plus an additional one by the Woodcutter, who was an observer, are presented from each one’s point of view, with help from the Stage Keeper (Seyhan Kilic). As in the classic Japanese theater, the Stage Keeper delivers all the sound effects from thunder to a crow to a baby, plays (or supplies) all the “supporting” roles including the Bride’s mother, a horse and a medium through whom the dead Samurai delivers his version, and distributes costumes pieces when required. No surprise, each version has a number of similar incidents yet each presents the teller as the wronged person. During several, there are vigorous duels between the Samuri and the Bandit, all well-staged by, I assume, director Jim Geisel as there is no program credit for a fight choreographer. Each of the actors delivers a strong performance, with Shepley’s Bandit truly frightening and Carnavan-Martin’s Wigmaker walking well the thin line between seer and psychotic. The costume design and construction by Jonnie Kilic and Lois Veen and the scenic and lighting design by David Chudzynski, plus the mood-inducing sound plot, work beautifully together. There is no credit given for makeup, but there should be. It is well done on each of the seven actors and adds much to the essence of time and place created by the imposing set and costuming. “Rashomon” is Geisel’s directorial debut for SBCT. He delivers a complete package which hopefully is the first of many.

For ticket information, see the SBCT link on this page. “Rashomon&quote; is performed without intermission.

Looking at life through "Art"

NAPPANEE — The mainstage season of Amish Acres’ Round Barn Theatere is several weeks away, but what may be the best production of its year is currently in the Locke Meeting House, tucked away at the rear of the gift shop adjacent to the theater. On the small, back-to-basics stage, the award-winning play “Art” is in the more than capable hands of a trio of actors — Sam Brown, Joe Ford and Jeremy Littlejohn. All three will be familiar to regular Round Barn audience members, although Jeremy is more often in the director’s chair and Joe, on stage in Chicago. Together they do an excellent job of recreating the protagonists in Yasmine Reza’s 1998 play, which is often described as a comedy but definitely has enough sharply dark moments to question that label. Whatever you want to call it, “Art” is a 90-minute examination of both the limits of friendship and the definition of art.

Art at Amish AcresSerge (Brown), a dermatologist with a penchant for art, has purchased a new painting which he eagerly displays for his friend of 15 years Marc (Ford), an aeronautical engineer. Marc’s reaction to the work — a white painted canvas with some barely discernible white lines across it — and more especially to the purchase price — $200,000 — is to laugh uncontrollably, call it a joke and label it “crap.” Serge, not surprisingly, is less than pleased and defends his acquisition. The arguments move from the painting to more personal moments and, in the way of all verbal battles, cutting words are said in increasing anger. Their friend Yvan (Littlejohn) is focused on his upcoming wedding and his hated new job as a stationery salesman. Basically an insecure person, he tries his best to placate both his friends and, naturally, winds up the target for their anger. “Why,” he asks, “Do we see each other if we hate each other?” It seems that fractured friendships are unavoidable, but a saving gesture mends them, at least temporarily. The personalities of the friends are sharply detailed in the performances as their characters are, by turn, sympathetic and abrasive. It is impossible to hear the fast-paced dialogue without something hitting home. And there are plenty of laughs, possibly of recognition. Here the point of contention is art. In reality it could be anything.

Art” plays at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For reservations, call 773-3722.

Will the Real Bride Please Stand

BRISTOL — It comes as no surprise to those who know me that farce is about my least favorite form of theater. That said, the hard-working cast of playwright Robin Hawdon’s venture into the wild world of who-did-what-to-whom-and-with-whom-and-why — “Perfect Wedding” — is a fun way to spend two hours if you have a tolerance for the same-old/same-old. After the first half hour, that’s what every farce becomes: Different twists on the same story delivered at increasingly breakneck speed — and with a multitude of additional flourishes — by each of the major characters. In “Perfect Wedding,” those twists are less mean-spirited and bathroom humor-sourced than in many, although it is more Ray Cooney than Ken Ludwig. The small cast deserves large cheers for its delivery of this dizzying dialogue without much hesitation while managing to keep everyone in their properly convoluted character-of-the-moment. It is a rather daunting task and they accomplish it with applaudable flair, also managing to wait for the many laughs, a feat without which the laughs soon fade in the fear of losing dialogue. The only pitfall is overdoing the line deliveries or attitudes that evoke the most reaction. What can be funny at first, soon becomes repetitive and annoying, turning character into caricature.

Bill (Peter Sessions) is about to be married. On the morning of his wedding day, he wakes up in the bridal suite very hungover and with a naked woman in his bed. He has no idea who she is or how she got there or what went on between them. All he knows is that the clock is ticking and he has only a few hours to get it together. Enter Tom (Ricky Fields), his best man, a take-charge kind of guy who sets about to help his friend emerge from his impending pre-nuptial catastrophe. Of course, his efforts, which include many mistaken identities (a mainstay of all farces everywhere as is the extremely long arm of coincidence), lots of close calls, slamming doors and several people who could not possibly be as oblivious as they seem. But hey, it’s a farce so suspension of disbelief is a major requirement. The initially naked woman is Judy (Stephanie Zonker), who heads for the bathroom at Tom’s arrival. Next on the scene is Rachel (April Sellers), a bride who is nothing if not in charge. She is followed by the hotel chambermaid Julie (Jen Shenk) who comes to clean up and stays to make a real mess of everything. Finally, the bride’s mother (Lorri Krull) enters with the gown and hopes for a “Perfect wedding.” It isn’t easy, but by the final blackout, each one is paired with his/her appropriate other and lots of “big moments” lie ahead. Director Randy Zonker keeps his sextet of players in good form, going from slow walk (the groggy awakening) to a trot (the best man) to a canter (the bride-to-be) to a gallop (the chambermaid) to a full out run (the mother of the bride). With all finally assembled and accounted for, mayhem ensues, much to the delight of the opening night audience. “Perfect Wedding” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House. Tickets: 848-4116.

Getting Ready to Make Disney Magic

Students in the Goshen High School auditorium are focused intently on the energetic woman standing at center stage. Director Marcia Yost is giving notes  to the cast and crew of the upcoming GHS production of “Beauty and The Beast” before one of the final dress rehearsals.

beauty and the beast - goshen high school The show, based on the original Walt Disney animated feature, went to Broadway in 1994 and was an instant hit. Since then it has, in spite of its many production “challenges,” become a favorite of community theaters and schools across the country. One never, it seems, gets tired of the tale of Belle and her Beast and the romantic transformation that led to happily ever after. For Yost, however, producing this musical after it has made the rounds of other groups  and schools in this area is not true to form. She was the first to lead led her team through the premiere production of the high school version of “Les Miserables” and tried for “Beauty” when it was initially released for amateur production. But timing is everything and those rights went to John Glenn High School. Yost instead produced a high-flying “Peter Pan.” “After that we did ‘Godspell,’ an ensemble show,” the dynamic director recalled. “And then one thing led to another and a couple of area theaters and schools had done it (‘Beauty and The Beast’) and we decided to wait.” Obviously the time is right and, as usual, Yost & Co. are pulling out all the stops.

beauty and the beast - goshen high schoolIn one part of the auditorium,  Jacob Greaser is being turned into the Beast and Katie Neeb Miller goes over her lines as Belle. Justin Lehman and Elisabeth Kleinsmith check their elaborate costumes as Cogsworth the butler/clock and Mrs. Potts, housekeeper/teapot, respectively, while Luke Jacobs displays Gaston’s muscles and Tell Williams prepares for the many stage falls required of LeFou.

beauty and the beast - goshen high schoolScenic designer Rich Snyder did not make it easy on himself or his construction crew. He designed and built a rotating central block (shades of ‘Les Mis’) that turns from the village marketplace to the palace of the Beast and back again easily and, more important, silently. Expanding the playing area, one side of the stage becomes Belle’s palace room and the other, the Beast’s tower where the enchanted rose is drooping. Drops and set pieces define the additional locations — the village inn, the forest and Belle’s home.

beauty and the beast - goshen high schoolAdd to this the costuming —not only for the many villagers but for the enchanted inhabitants of the palace who gradually become “objects” as the spell increases — plus props, wigs, makeup, black lights, fog machines,  a trickling fountain, live mikes for each of the primary performers and, in the grand finale, an airborne transformation courtesy of ZFX Flying Effects, and you have a production of grand proportions. And that doesn’t include the 85 young people in the singing/dancing/acting cast and Sue Ellington’s orchestra. “We encourage them to give all they’ve got,” Yost said of her students. “They don’t realize how much they have down deep. We don’t want them to disappoint themselves.” Talking to the assembled company, her final instructions were “Work a plan … you’ll have a plan and that’s how good theater happens.””Beauty and The Beast” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and March 19-21 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday and March 22 in the GHS auditorium. Tickets are $9 for adults and $7 for children and students through high school with senior citizen prices for Sunday matinees. FCor reservations, 533-7674 or 533-8651, ext. 2518.

beauty and the beast - goshen high school

Old Favorite Cabaret Hits High/Low Notes

First, I have to say that”Cabaret,” the Kander and Ebb musical set in pre-war Germany, is one of my all-time favorite musicals. Possibly that’s because the story and I, in one form or another (pun intended), go back almost 60 years, the latest incarnation being the current South Bend Civic Theatre production which opened Friday evening in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium. I missed the actual point of origin. It was “Goodbye to Berlin,” one of the two short novels making up Christopher Isherwood’s 1946  “Berlin Stories.”  I caught up in 1951 when my  summer season in Woodstock, N.Y. included John Van Druten’s play “I Am A Camera,” based on that novel. That non-musical story of expatriate Sally Bowles, her life and loves, became a b&w movie in 1955, with Broadway star Julie Harris repeating her role. Neither stage nor film version were noticeably successful but, as every musical lover knows, sometimes all it takes is a couple of good tunes. “I Am a Camera” was followed to the stage a few years later by “Cabaret,” the musical version by one of my favorite songwriting teams (see above). The 1966 multi-Tony Award winner was memorable not only for a cast that included Joel Grey, Jack Gilford and the musical icon Lotte Lenya but also for the fact that my matinee ticket — in the 7th row of the orchestra — cost $7.

cabaret-sbcivicI was definitely hooked and remained so through the 1972 Liza Minelli film (in spite of the excision of my favorite characters), the 1987 revival (with Wagon Wheel’s Greg Edelman and Joel Grey) and the most recent Broadway version in 1998, which cast Alan Cumming as the Emcee. It put a decidedly darker and more sexually diverse face on the entire proceedings, something which is only hinted at in the film but which does go back to the play. That ’98 version is making its debut in South Bend. In spite of its “updating,” am not sure it is has any advantage over the original. Neither can be called “family friendly,” dealing however carefully with abortion, prejudice and, in the ’98 version, homosexuality. This is definitely adult fare. The scenic introduction to the SBCT production is impressive: Towering flats in wine and gold, a color scheme carried out in the cabaret tables and bar, are painted with drooping art deco  lillies and, in different configurations,  serve as a backdrop. When moved aside, they reveal a catwalk above center stage flanked by two spiral staircases. Draped on these initially are the Kit Kat Klub Girls and Boys who periodically descend to join the Emcee in entertaining the guests. The girls especially interpret their numbers sharply and with enthusiasm. Throughout, the Emcee (Stephen Bailey) comments sardonically on the action and events swirling outside the club as the dark shadows of Nazi Germany begin to dim the lights of Berlin in the late 1920s. As American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Jordan Mullins) puts it “…it was the end of the world.” The stories of Cliff and Sally Bowles (Stephanie Yoder), a hedonistic, self-destructive Brit who stars in the Kit Kat floorshow, and of Cliff’s pragmatic landlady Fraulein Schneider (Susan South) and her beau Herr Schultz (Steve Chung), a Jewish fruit vendor, are intertwined. Bringing reality sharply into focus are Fraulein Kost (Kristin Apker),  a hardworking lady of the evening, and Ernst Ludwig (Nathaniel Smith), at first Cliff’s friend then only a Nazi. Yoder has a strong voice and does very well vocally with the demands of the role. Mullins, who unfortunately can’t sing,  is an anachronism; a West Side  Jet in a flapper world. Smith and Apker deliver believable characterizations and Bailey works hard to create the androgynous persona required for the Emcee but never quite overcomes a baby face. The chilling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is done with the right  hint of foreboding by  talented young Carson Collins. The very strong points in this “Cabaret” are South and Chung who not only sing well solo and in duets, but create characters that go beyond the script. Their connection is warm, honest and beautifully  delineated. In their hands and voices, a pineapple becomes a beautiful bouquet. Their parting is inevitable and hauntingly sad. There still are problems with the orchestra which, on opening night, frequently had trouble finding the right notes. “Cabaret”continues through March 15. See SBCT link above.  Running time is 3 hours.

Wonka Bars Good to the Last Bite

I don’t usually like to write about things that readers will be unable to see, but I do feel strongly that something must be said about the current ECTeam production of “Willie Wonka Jr.” As a part of the SRO Bristol Opear House audience on Friday evening, I was probably one of the few who had no young friends or relatives in the 75-member cast. That qualifies me to make an unprejudiced observation: It was probably the best youth theater production I have seen. My immediate thought was that most kids shows are appreciated only by friends and family but this one I could recommend to anyone who likes an enjoyable evening of theater. The leading players were outstanding, with special applause for Carson Collins as Charlie, a youngster with an amazing voice and excellent stage presence; Payton Manly as the manipulative Willie Wonka; Daniel Cotton as his co-hort in candy crime; Leigh VanRyn, Michael Salisbury, Erin Weber and Joel Lininger as the ticket holders whose individual flaws lead to their hilariously appropriate downfalls; Dakota Miller, Stephen Mattison, Marilyn Cover and Mallory Jones as their parents; Tim Moon as Charlie’s supportive Grandpa Joe; Stephanie Musser, Callahan Jones and Jill Springer as his other bed-bound grandparents; Alex Slabaugh and Katie Norwood as his parents, and Dayna Arnett as a TV persistant reporter.

Willie Wonka - BristolThese performers took center stage throughout, but possibly the most impressive groups in this musical were the Teen Ensemble and the absolutely delightful Oompa Loompas. Groups of this size are never easy to coordinate, but these young people were right on the money, vocally and dance-wise, and the very youngest Oompa Loompa was an audience favorite with his earnest efforts to stay in step). I have seen many larger adult choruses that did not fare as well. And, since this is one of my pet peeves, I have to say I could understand just about every lyric and all the dialogue. Congratulations! There is no doubt that a good many of these youngsters will be on stage again, not only in ECTeam productions but in mainstage shows at ECT and their respective schools. It’s a real joy to watch them grow. It is programs like this, with talented and caring adult leaders sharing their knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm with the next generation, that keep the joy of theater alive and well, even in the face of the current economy. The shows at 7 p.m. today and 3 p.m. Sunday are sold out, but there are usually some unused tickets. ECT asks anyone who will not be using all the tickets they reserved to please call the box office as there are always people who walk in at the last minute.

Willie, Charlie and a whole lotta kids

BRISTOL — For about 45 years, the story of a poor boy whose honesty earns him the best of all childhood rewards — cash and candy, has been a favorite of young readers around the world. It was inevitable that Roald Dahl’s award-winning book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” would make its way to the big screen. It did. Not once but twice, with the original 1971 Gene Wilder film “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” redone in 2005 using the original name and starring Johnny Depp in a Buster Brown hairdo and frightening circular dark glasses. Today, candy czar Willie Wonka and the quintet of young people who win a trip through his factory are on stage, specifically in “Willie Wonka, Jr.” an adaptation for young performers which sticks mainly to the book/’71 film and uses the tuneful score by Anthony Newley. (Note: “Oldsters” will recognize a Sammy Davis Jr. hit among the upbeat melodies.)

Willie Wonka- Brstol
Choreographer Lesli Gibson works with bewigged Oompa Loompas on a dance sequence for
For the past few months, ECTeam, the youth theater arm of Elkhart Civic Theatre, has been working diligently on its production of the junior version, with ECT artistic/technical director John Jay Shoup leading the way (and the large number of volunteers) via set design, lighting design and direction. The results will be on stage at the Bristol Opera House Friday through Sunday. I stopped in at an early dress rehearsal Monday and was properly impressed. Taking a break from building some of the magical props required for the chocolate factory tour, Shoup admitted that, although he has directed many adult shows with large casts, working with 80 youngsters (ages five to 18, chosen from the 130 who auditioned) on the less-than-massive Opera House stage had been, to say the least, “a challenge!” The solution? To divide the primary group into two categories: The Teen Dance Ensemble is featured in Act 1, Willie’s workers, the lime-green-bewigged Oompa Loompas, take the stage in Act 2 and, “If they all line up correctly, they all fit for the finale.” The cast features first-time performers plus those who, considering their ages, have an amazing amount of experience. Not surprisingly, leading roles are in the hands of those with more on-stage time to their credit. Paxton Manley, 15, who doubled as the Preacher and the Town Drunk in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” dons a top hat as the inscrutable Willie Wonka, with Carson Collins, 12, as Charlie Bucket. The St. Thomas School sixth grader played the leading role of Jojo in ECT’s Elco summer production of “Seussical.”

Willie Wonka - BristolBoth the talented young people display a maturity well beyond their years. “I feel at home on the stage,” said Paxton, a Memorial High School freshman. “I really get my rush from performing.” Citing singing as his first love, the tall teen noted “I take every opportunity to perform. The more experience you have, the better you get.” “Willie Wonka Jr.” is the sixth show for Carson who has “always liked acting” and admits wanting to be on the stage since he was three years old. “I like being on the stage and working with the people,” he said. “I like seeing how everything works — sets, props, lights. . . everything. Everyone is positive here. I love it!” That’s what Shoup and fellow adult volunteers like to hear. “We want to make sure this is as good and as educational an experience as possible,” he said, comparing participation in an ECTeam production to being a member of a club in which everyone has the same goal, to present the best show possible and, along the way, to find and make friends who also love to “put on a show”. “The more kids who can get involved in theater, the better,” Shoup said, aware that with young performers come parents, grandparents, siblings, uncles, aunts and friends who not only to buy tickets but become participants themselves. Elijah Lee, 6, came with sister Cadie, 8, and is one of the more energetic Oompa Loompas. “I wanted to see how fun it is,” he said, trying valiantly to keep the slippery strands of the lime green wig out of his eyes. He already was connected to the ECTeam via grandmother Karen Johnson who is assistant director and helped Elijah learn his lines. “I will come back and do more,” Elijah said emphatically, noting — after serious consideration — “The most fun is the finale.”

Willie Wonka - BristolIn addition to June classes (which have been affected by the disappearance of Genesis grants), ECTeam does two shows a year. A musical like “Willie Wonka Jr.” (next year’s is “Alice in Wonderland”) and a fall play based on classic literature. For 2009, two one-acts based on the lives of the Brothers Grimm and one of their stories have been chosen. Shoup is hoping some of the older players will be a part of the ECT 2009 summer musical, “Footloose,” to be presented July 31-Aug. 2 in the Memorial High School auditoriums. Check out the young “stars of tomorrow” this weekend. A Saturday matinee has been added due to the ticket demand. Call 848-4116 from 1 to 5:30 p.m. weekdays. I guarantee you’ll find the experience “fascinating and delicious!”

Almost, Maine absolutely excellent

Proving once again that the best things frequently come in small packages is the current South Bend Civic Theatre production of “Almost, Maine.” Playing through Sunday in the Warner Studio Theatre, this delightfully warm work by first-time playwright John Cariani looks at the many phases and forms of love — coming and going — through a series of eight vignettes, each enacted by a different couple (and, in one case, plus one). Originally performed by two men and two women who alternated in the 16 roles, the script allows for the cast to number as many as 19 — nine men and 10 women — which is the format used with exceptional success by SBCT. Too often, this would result in several strong duos and, at best, a couple not-so-strong. Here, there are no not-so-strongs in the bunch. Making it even more interesting, several are pairs in real life. But whether connected outside as well as on stage, each twosome makes its playlet totally believable, even when frequently absurd.

almost-maineThe tales are set in a small town in an “unorganized territory” almost in Maine. Its characters drink at the local bar, the Moose Paddy, and obviously know each other outside of their particular relationships. Think “Northern Exposure” or “Men in Trees” without actual connections. From the widow carrying a broken heart to a mismatched duo meeting in the laundry room to a young woman coming home for an answer, each segment is an individual gem. The stories range from the oddly romantic to the semi-slapstick to the bittersweet, with a Prologue/Interlogue/Epilogue encircling them all in a global embrace that shows actions speak louder than. Director Leigh Taylor has led her actors, which include those with a long list of credits and those with few or none, deftly and directly to the heart of each scene. The results, without exception, are delightfully gratifying and right on the money. There is really no set, unless you count the long wide strip of cotton batting stretched across the bottom of the back wall to indicate snow. Each segment has its own set pieces and the “northern lights” are most effective. The rest is done by the actors, and the quirkily wonderful script by Coriani, himself a Tony-nominated actor. It was developed in 2002, premiered in 2004 (appropriately at the Portland Stage Company) and played off Broadway in 2005-06, being named one of the best new plays of the season. The reason for its swift rise in popularity is obvious in the SBCT production. There is no doubt it will be around for many seasons to come. It’s the perfect show for any time, but is especially appropriate as Valentine’s Day draws near. Unfortunately, only five more performances are scheduled (Wednesday through Sunday) and the studio theater has limited seating. My advice is to call now (243-1112) and book a trip to “Almost, Maine.” TRAVELED TO KALAMAZOO Thursday evening to catch the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre production of a rarely-produced Steven Schwartz/Joseph Stein musical “The Baker’s Wife” directed by the Elco’s  Craig Gibson with Elkhart’s Paul Hanft as the Baker. This was the second or third version of the musical which, despite two Broadway productions, never caught on. The music remains lovely and the story rather obvious but the KCT production boasted an excellent orchestra and an ensemble that provided many strong individual performances as well as a full vocal presention.   Hanft, as always, provided the Baker with a fine baritone and was especially convincing in his Act One finale. The premise hangs on the baker’s wife, Genevieve, being believeably much younger than her new husband and thus susceptible to the advances of Dominique, the local stud, thus throwing the bread-obsessed villagers into a panic when their departure kills the baker’s zest for his art. This Genevieve may have been much younger, but her wig gave her the appearance of a matron from “Mad Men”  and her voice was much too heavy for the role. Dominique was too short, too slight and too palid to come anywhere close to being a wild and dangerous ladies man. The necessary connection was nowhere to be found. For fans of this musical, however, it plays one more weekend in the KCT studio theater. For tickets, (269) 343-1313.