Time To Strike Up The Jazz Band

JAZZ ECHOES 2009 Now that the last notes of the 2009 Elkhart Jazz Festival have faded away, here are some of the images I’ll remember. Guitars Times Three My favorite set of the entire weekend was at 3:30 Saturday afternoon in the New Life Community Church when Howard Alden, Joe Cohn and Bucky Pizzarelli created musical magic on their guitars, with a two-number assist from Fumihiko Kono of Yoshimi and Carolina Shout. Maybe it was just the “golden oldies” they played including “Moonglow,” “Tangerine,”“’Til I Had You” and “Three Little Words,” which are, to quote someone, “the music of my life,” but there is something about the sound of those guitars that erases the years. At my age, that’s a welcome thing!

Guitarists (from left) Howard Alden, Bucky Pizzarelli and Joe Cohn acknowledge applause at the end of their set Saturday afternoon in the New Life Community Church.

Also noted that Pizzarelli and Alden are instrumental (pun intended) on the soundtrack of the Sean Penn film, “Sweet and Lowdown.” Alden taught Penn the fingering necessary for the actor to believably portray a guitarist and he even learned to play a couple of tunes. The actual sound, however, was supplied by Alden. Check out the movie which airs periodically on one of the Encore channels. Arriving early for his 1 p.m. Sunday set at the Knights of Columbus stage, Alden shared instruments with a couple of player in BED’s. Standing behind Cohn, he doubled up on Cohn’s guitar strings to produce an duet on one instrument, followed immediately by an assist for BED brass man Dan Barrett. Barrett played his trombone and moved it accordingly while Alden held the slide. Standing In for a Friend Cohn and pianist Rosanno Sportiello were sitting in with Barrett, bassist Joe Forbes and guitarist Eddie Erickson as replacements for BED vocalist Rebecca Kilgore who became ill Friday evening and was taken to Elkhart General Hospital with a kidney infection. Happily, she was released on Sunday in time to head for home. There’s Something About the Beat Those who got up early enough on Saturday morning were treated to a mini-tutorial on the art of playing the drums by jazz master Butch Miles, whose world-wide motto could be “Have cymbals, will travel.” I still cannot fathom how both hands and both feet can move to different beats at the same time. Miles makes it look easy.

Christian Hoskins, 6, of Grand Rapids keeps the beat during Butch Miles’ drum workshop Saturday morning in the Knights of Columbus Hall.

Naming and explaining each of the individual drums and cymbals in a set, he illustrated the theme and variations used in the search for keeping drumming simple but not boring. Among the large group of youngsters and parents watching and listening to learn, no one was more fascinated — or more consistently shadow drumming on a padded stool — than six-year-old Christian Hoskins of Grand Rapids who came for the day specifically to hear Miles. His obviously natural musical ability reminded me of another young boy who could not resist trying out drum set at the Bristol Opera House. That was before he moved on to trumpet and, finally, to piano. Today, Nick Roth is making a name for himself in the world of classical music, but it all began with a couple of sticks … drum sticks, that is. Dancing Duo Not Deterred The annual mini-shows by the “dancing duo” from Chicago were not eliminated by the free stage move from pavement to grass. Indeed, they tripped their light fantastic and changed matching outfits with each session without missing a step, actually finding their own little corners at each and every one of the venues. VETERAN BASSIST GETS WELL-DESERVED HONOR There is absolutely no doubt. The two most important things in John Bany’s world are music (especially jazz) and his family — not necessarily in that order. On Saturday evening, the 63-year-old bassist received accolades and a plaque from the Elkhart Jazz Festival as the 2009 musician honoree. I have to say it was about time!  Bany has played in 21 of the 22 Elkhart festivals and his enthusiasm for the event — and the talent that has made him a natural invitee — were obvious in the special musical set that followed in the New Life Community Church venue (standing in for the Elco which is in the process of being renovated).

With son Martin on drums, Lifetime Achievement Award recipient bassist John Bany demonstrates the skill that has brought him to the Elkhart Jazz Festival 21 of its 22 years.

The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented by EJF talent coordinator Van Young, a longtime Bany friend and fan, and its appreciative inscription  underscored the standing ovation the musician received from the audience that filled the hall. It was even more special to Bany as his entire family —wife Nancy, daughter Lisa Bany-Winters an author of children’s theater books and improv teacher at Chicago’s Second City, and his two grandchildren who have dubbed him Grandpa Jazz — was in the crowd.  Son Martin, a drummer,  played the set with his dad, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and pianist Rosanno Sportiello. The list of  musicians with whom Bany has performed during his 60-year career (he started playing at age 3), is long and prestigious, but association is only a small part of Bany’s story. His bassist history goes back many generations  (he thinks “maybe seven”)  but only caught up with  him when he was 16. He looks back fondly on the summer in which he was introduced to “girls, booze, cars, smoking and the bass.” After two years in a Catholic seminary, he entered Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati where “I hit two notes on a bass and that was it.”  His geneologic connection, however, has to be partly responsible for his natural ability. Without benefit of formal lessons, in three months of playing “I sounded like my dad,” Bany said. Being unable then to read music, it didn’t hurt that his older brother sat behind him in the school band. “He pointed to where I started (in the music) and that was all I needed,” Bany said with his ever-present chuckle. It never occurred to him that he would be anything except a professional musician. He began working in November (after the summer of his musical epiphany) and, for all practical purposes, has been working ever since.  Age was not a problem. “I mastered looking self-assured,” he recalled. “Nobody could tell what I was doing. I just blended in with the rest of the band and kept on playing. I always came close.” Not to discourage young musicians from studying the basics, Bany is quick to note that he “learned to read the notes” later and eventually studied with many outstanding players including Harold Robert, principal bassist with the Cincinnati Symphony. “I was playing eight hours a day,” he said. “I loved playing not practicing.  I never got to be a good sight reader but that’s not most important in a jazz band. I could read everything in the bass register and anyway it’s mostly all quarter notes. Eighth notes freak me out!” He memorized the music when playing with a symphony and there, too, “I could memorizes faster with my ears than with my eyes.” He was serious about classical music and declared “Jazz and classical music are like Siamese twins that are fused at the Bach.” But it was always improv that held the most challenge — and satisfaction. “You just throw the ball up in the air and you don’t know where it will land,” he said with the joy of a players who always makes the right catch. No accident that, over the years, Bany has always been put in charge of jam sessions. He recalls most fondly the early EJF impromptu sessions in the pool area of the now-gone City Center hotel which housed five EJF stages. The “pool party” was always Saturday night after the last regularly scheduled set. “Eddie Higgins, Butch (Miles) and I would set up on stage and others would line up to step up and solo. The crowd filled the area and hung over the balcony raili
ng to hear us,” Bany said, with no little touch of nostalgia. “It was great.” (Note: This year he organized a jam session at the KofC Hall from midnight ’til 2 a.m. Sunday.) Although he admits “I sometimes worry about the future of jazz,” Bany refuses to consider his art form “an endangered species.” “It can be rediscovered by the young,” he declared. “And the cycle starts all over again.” The number of young people at the festival was very heartening to the veteran player. Like the rest of the ’09 musicians, Bany has high praise for the EJF. “It’s been my favorite festival since the beginning,” says the man who should know. “It’s the way they treat us (the musicians) and the food and the fans. It’s an ideal mixture of the old and the new. It’s like an old home week.” As far as the Elkhart Jazz Festival is concerned, the feeling is definitely mutual. To read a list of Bany’s extensive (and on-growing) musical accomplishments, check his website. Enough to say that you can catch him and some of his fellows every Sunday night at Andy’s Jazz Club, on East Hubbard Street in Chicago. CENTRAL PARK EJF DEBUT  HAS ITS UP AND DOWNS The sun was hot, the breeze was slight and the sound of music wafted faintly through the air. It was Friday afternoon and the official opening of the 22nd Elkhart Jazz Festival.

Crowds gather for the first free stage in “Central Park” to open the 22nd annual Elkhart Jazz Festival Friday.

At first, things didn’t seem quite right. Especially to those who had been coming for years and whose favorite place was somewhere on level Main Street. Now located on what the city is calling “Central Park” (not to be confused with the real one in mid-town Manhattan), the validity of using the sloping grassy area as the free stage location will be determined after this EJF. There is no doubt that it poses definite problems for the elderly and physically handicapped who have difficulty maneuvering its ups and downs. “Two years ago, I had a husband in a wheelchair,” said Betty Kegerreis, longtime drummer with the Elkhart Municipal Band. “I wouldn’t have been able to get him to the grass. And not everyone can make the stairs.” Longtime attendee Sally Roth was among those who noted that on the Civic Plaza, the location of  food vendors and the choice of many as a place to sit and eat, you couldn’t hear the music. The giant speakers obviously were not aimed in a direction to make this happen. They were, however, in much closer proximity to park listeners which made some wish for ear plugs. The sound trucks, parked in past years along the east side of Main Street, were positioned in front of the free stage tent, blocking views and taking up a large flat section of grass that could have been used by listeners. Ditto for a smaller truck that blocked the west side of the stage and the sound boards that also obstructed views. Hopefully, these problems will be addressed and taken care of if the free tent is to remain on the grass.

Swinging at the EJF are (from left) Jim and Esther Buchanan of Elkhart and Bernard and Kathy Blanda of Mishawaka. nd Bernard and Kathy Blanda of Ma

Rocky and Johanna Giglio took advantage of their plaza parking spot by sitting in their car to hear the Airmen of Note, the second group scheduled Friday for the free stage.  Two couples, Jim and Esther Buchanan of Elkhart and Bernard and Kathy Blanda of Mishawaka, were on the porch swing beyond the stage, enjoying a lessening of the heat. However, “It used to be nicer on Main Street,” Jim said and the others nodded. As the 9 p.m. start time for Tim Cunningham, perennial plaza stage favorite, approached, the grassy hill was filled  with those who had brought their own folding chairs (the 400-seat tent was always full) and/or blankets and the adjoining beer tent grew more and more lively. By the end of his set, the grass crowd was melting away and the beer tent was heading for last call. The real test of the new venue will be daytime, when relief from the sun is a constantly moving goal.

This Game Is in Very Good Hands

Several months ago I attended the opening production in the 2008-09 season of an excellent regional theater. Friday night, I attended the  opening of the current Elkhart Civic Theatre production. Both were presenting the same play: “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure,” by Steven Dietz, based on two stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s not often that I can say the “amateur” production was as good — or better — than the professional show. This is one time. Granted, the regional production had all the bells and whistles, set-wise: Elevators, scrims, fog, a movable suspended bridge, walls that glided on and off, platforms that rose from the stage floor … it was so amazing that what I came away remembering was the set. Not that the acting was not good, but it was definitely overwhelmed by the constantly moving design.

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The King of Bohemia (Carl Wiesinger, left) brings a case to Sherlock Holmes (Rick Ellis, right) and Dr. Watson (Jim Bain) in
When ECT announced this show, my immediate reaction was “They’ll never be able to pull it off.” OK. I was wrong. Without the use of electronics, designer John Jay Shoup covered all the bases (aka required scene locations) with amazing ease AND without any loss of identification or distracting from the action. Electronics were replaced by good old-fashioned manpower in the form of the hard-working stage crew, costumed appropriately as servants in the period (1893) whose presence on stage during scene changes seemed very natural. It would be worth the price of admission just to check out the set. Most fortunately, the performances more than live up to the demands of the dialogue-heavy script. As the title character, Rick Ellis returns to the ECT stage with a vengeance — and the ability to turn the quixotic Holmes into a believable man, one whose powers of observation find answers in the most minute details. His methodical analysis is “elementary,” and Ellis plays the shifting moods well, portraying the master detective as, finally, an all too vulnerable man who cannot resist the thrill of the chase. “The game’s afoot, Watson!” he declares, adding prophetically “And it is a dangerous one.” “You see but you do not observe,” he scolds Dr. Watson, played by James Bain in an ECT debut that makes one hope for many return performances. Watson serves as best friend, sidekick and narrator, moving the action from Holmes’s London home on Baker Street to a lodge in Europe to the Swiss alps and back to London. He is the lynchpin for the mercurial Holmes and is solid without being bumbling or boring. The relationship between the two is obvious. To quote “Jerry Maguire,” they complete each other. It is a connection established immediately between the two, marred only by Holmes’ longtime battle with the evil Prof. Moriarty (Bob Franklin), a criminal mastermind who draws the detective out of retirement for one last confrontation. Franklin addresses the role with appropriately malevolent glee. Carl Weisinger is The King of Bohemia, a monarch whose nearing nuptials are threatened by a  photograph of the King with a former mistress, opera diva Irene Adler (Julie Castello), who just happens to be the love of Holmes’ life. In agreeing to retrieve the photo, Holmes’ puts himself squarely in Moriarty’s path, one that can only end in disaster. Aiding Moriarty are his “right hand man” Sid Prince (Tony Venable) and siblings James and Madge Larrabee (Dave Hoien and Karen Hoover), all of whom supply welcome comic touches. The shifting story lines (the play is based on two stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem) make focus necessary on both side of the footlights.  Director Dave Dufour has kept his actors’ eyes on the prize, resulting in a winning experience for cast, crew and audience. “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” plays at 8 p.m. today and next Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. and at the box office.

Grey Gardens Blooms at Northlight

I spent Saturday in “Grey Gardens.” I admit I have been a great fan of the show, which earned nine Tony Award nominations in 2007 and won three, since seeing one number on the televised awards show. iTunes delivered the cast CD and I was hooked. When the show was announced on the Northlight 2008-09 season, I knew I had to see the entire production. The fact that three Wagon Wheel alums — Ann Whitney, George Keating and Doug Peck — were involved as well as Chicago leading lady Hollis Resnick, sealed the deal, in spite of the fact that the Northlight is in Skokie, Ill., and the production time was November/December. So, in spite of less than favorable reports from the Weather Channel, I headed out Saturday morning having decided, as my grandmother used to say, to “Go to the first (matinee) and stay for the second (evening).” I could not have made a better decision. (I had no problem, except the bitter cold.) I should have gone sooner. I regret that, even with its extended run, “Grey Gardens” will be on stage at the Northlight only through next Sunday. Anyone who loves excellent theater should make the trip!  The 2006 musical based on the documentary about Jackie Kennedy Onasis’ aunt, Edith Bouvier Beale, and her cousin, Edith (“Little Edie”) Beale, opened Off-Broadway in 2006 and, thanks to strong audience and press reaction, moved “uptown” for a brief run.

Grey Gardens at NorthlightThe plot is more Dickens than Burnett and, if the documentary was not readily available (a brief clip is looped in the lobby), it would definitely seem more fiction than fact. But there it is. The first act resembles a light-hearted musical of the 1940s. In their 28-room mansion in East Hampton, Edith Beale (Resnick) and daughter Edie (Tempe Thomas) are in last minute preparations for Little Edie’s engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. (Patrick Sarb). At the piano is George Gould Strong (Keating), Edith’s gay live-in accompanist. Pre-teen nieces Jackie (Grace Etzkorn) and Lee (Arielle Dayan) Bouvier interrupt the rehearsal. Edith’s father, Major Bouvier (Dennis Kelly), instructs the girls (including Edie) on the importance of marrying well and demands Edith not disrupt the proceedings by performing. The last is echoed strongly by Edie and their ambiguous relationship is clear. As they wait for Mr. Beale’s arrival on the 5:15 p.m. train from his Wall Street office, feelings escalate, tensions rise and facts — truth or fiction? — emerge. The result is shattering. End Act I, set in 1941. Begin Act II, set in 1973, still in Grey Gardens, now falling into ruin, where Edith and Little Edie live with more than 50 stray cats and some rabid racoons in an environment condemned by the board of health. Edie (now played by Resnick) and Edith (Whitney) are alone, excepting visits from 17-year-old Jerry (Sarb), whom Edith adores and Edie resents. Both live in their own versions of the past, unable ever to break the neurotic ties that bind. The entire cast (including Sean Blake who plays the Beale butler and his grandson) is outstanding, especially Resnick, who navigates the incredibly emotional waters from mother to daughter with a clear, solid voice that responds to all the demands of the role. She breaks your heart with “Will You” and the wrenching finale “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” earns shocked laughter describing “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” and there is no mistaking Edie’s skewed emotions. Without a doubt, Resnick, winner of 9 Jeff Awards, still is unquestionably Chicago’s No. 1 diva. Right with her is Chicago’s No. 1 character woman. Whitney, who handles two solos and the finale duo very well, is the stubborn, clinging, demanding, senile old woman we all hope we will never become. The duo’s interdependence is palpable and shattering to watch. The rest of the cast plays right up to their level, especially Thomas, Kelly and Keating (who has one of my favorite songs “Drift Away” delivered in a lyrical baritone that proves he sings better than ever). The principals serve as an ensemble in Act II, describing the moulding mansion from “a cat’s eye view” and giving gospel a good go in “Choose to Be Happy.” Peck makes the six member orchestra sound like at least three times as many. You probably won’t hum too many of the songs, which primarily move the plot or expose character, right away. Get the CD. You won’t be able to get the music out of your head. Again, I know it’s short notice, but “Grey Gardens” is more than worth the trip. It’s closer than Indy. Check it out on the Northlight Theatre website.

Say It with Lots of Music

There is no better way to express emotion than with a song. Proof of this was displayed in two different formats last weekend. The connection was beautiful music performed by beautiful voices. The first  was a solo cabaret (her first) at Chicago’s Davenport’s by former Michiana soprano Cheryl Szucits. FYI: Davenport’s is one of THE cabaret venues in the Windy City. This was Cheryl’s weekend and, as long time fans John Shoup, Penny Meyer, Dorothy Szuits (Cheryl’s mom) and me headed into the rain. destination Davenport’s. Having seen Cheryl on stage for Elkhart Civic Theatre and South Bend Civic as well as at Brian Barr’s popular Mishawaka piano bar, I was always aware of her vocal ability.  But, as many know, there is a lot between just producing the notes, no matter how beautifully,  and interpreting the song. Therefore I have to say that, although the beautiful face was the same, the voice was bigger, richer and full of whatever emotion was evoked by a particular set of lyrics, not to mention displaying admirable control and shading and the ability to go from a belt to a lingering pianissimo with enviable ease.

The program was titled “Borrowed Time: The Life and Music of Nancy LaMott” and Cheryl emphasized the similarities between her life and that of LaMott, musically and via a brief narrative. Having always been a fan of the late Midland, Mich., native, it was a play list that, for me, was compiled of one happily familiar tune after the other. And the music could not have been interpreted or sung better than it was by Cheryl, with excellent support from pianist Joshua Kartes. “Listen to My Heart,” LaMott’s signature song, “Just in Time for Christmas” and “I’ll Be Here with You” were only three that brought more than just one tear to the eye. The fact that Cheryl’s father had passed away less than three weeks earlier made her sensitive performance even more impressive. Obviously, this was just the first of many! Will keep you posted. The perfect finale to this musical weekend was a tribute concert honoring Roy Hine Sunday evening at the Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre in Warsaw. If there was any doubt about the impact of Hine, who served as artistic director for more than a decade, on the performers who spent a summer (or summers) with him, their remembrances dispelled it instantly. Thirteen performers took the stage to share some of their memories and recreate musical moments at the Wheel. For any who were in the audience during the “original” past productions, it was a tangible reminder of the incredible talent Hine brought together during his years in Warsaw. In an evening of highlights, among the most memorable were Mike Yocum delivering a bravura solo on turn which incorporated all the salesmen in “The Music Man’s” opening “Rock Island Line”; Jennie Sophia sailing through Rodgers and Hammerstein duets with Adrian Agular and nailing perfectly “Ice Cream” from “She Loves Me;” too-long absent Robert Joseph Miller pondering “If Life Were Like the Movies;” and Crystal VanArtsdalen, usually seen in the ensemble, belting “Give Me a Chance to Sing Melody.” Who knew? VanArtsdalen and WW leading ladies Brianna Borger and Jennifer Dow were responsible for putting the concert together. When the company gathered for the finale, “What I Did For Love” and Roy’s favorite holiday song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” there was no doubt that his spirit was in the house.

Winterlude celebrates with music

It’s only about an hour and a half long (plus intermission), but the annual holiday celebration by Elkhart Civic Theatre which opens tonight at the Bristol Opera House is time well spent. It’s titled “Winterlude: A Celebration of Holiday Cheer” and it more than lives up to its name. Granted, this is one production that is unashamedly sentimental. After all, ’tis the season. But this year’s combination of veterans and newcomers, adults and youngsters, gives the show an informal “welcome to the family” feeling as well as being very entertaining.

The there are 11 in the adult ensemble and the children’s group numbers six, although a few of the younger adults join with the “children” from time to time.  There is no doubt that the adult group contains some very fine voices, a few of which participate in this show only during the year. Undoubtedly, ECT would like to have them on stage more frequently, but is happy to welcome them “home for the holidays.” Soprano Sheryl Noblitt was a member of the first holiday singfest, then titled “A Season Serenade,” and has been in most (or all?) for the past decade. Baritone Michael Cripe is no stranger to ECT and South Bend Civic Audiences and his duet with first-timer Kristen Riggs on “Winter Wonderland” is a highlight of the first act. Riggs and Jeff Peat are the hidden treasures of this “Winterlude.” Noblitt and Peat are outstanding in blending “The Little Drummer Boy” with “Peace on Earth” and his full baritone warms the room with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Riggs echoes everyone’s wishes in “Grownup Christmas List.”  There is no doubt that John Shoup can sing — actually one wonders at times if there is anything he can’t do — but his discovery of “Christmas Cliches” adds another tune to the list of holiday must-hears, and he does full justice to “The Christmas Waltz,” danced by Noblitt and Cripe. Anyone who saw “Seussical” or “Once on This Island” is well aware that Wanzetta Arnett can literally raise the rafters. When she digs into “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” backed by the ensemble, or with a trio-ala-“Dreamgirls” in motion on “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” you have gotten your money’s worth! The young people hold their own, with Lincoln Bowers and Carson Collins (who played the leading role of Jojo in “Seussical”) delivering poignant solos, Preston Waggoner handling the one-liners and the girls delivering solid work throughout. Pianist Miriam Houck and drummer Mark Swendsen are “the Musicians” and they are all that is needed.  Jeffrey Barrick’s lovely snow drop, framed by trees and garlands trimmed with white lights all combine to make a lovely “Winterlude.” Performances are at 8 p.m. today and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Opera House on Vistula Street in Downtown Bristol. Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for students and senior citizens. Call 848-4116 and at the box office.

WW Carol celebrates the season

It would not be Christmas without Ebenezer Scrooge. In spite of all the adjunct holiday characters — Charlie Brown, the Grinch, George Bailey, Ralphie Parker et al — who appear annually in various Christmas stories, the hands-down favorite is old Mr. Scrooge and his overnight redemption. There have been many versions since Charles Dickens penned the tale in December 1843 to earn money to pay off his debts. There are more than a dozen movies/TV films of the story, with Scrooge played by a really diverse list of actors, real and animated. My favorite is the B&W 1951 British movie starring Alistair Sim, but that’s beside the point. In 1994, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Lynn Ahrens combined to turn the classic into a musical, which played every Christmas season for 10 years in the theater at Madison Square Garden, N.Y.

On Friday, this version returned to the stage at the Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre in Warsaw (it was first produced there in 2004) and, without exception, it is the best holiday production of this season. Let me count the ways. First there are the voices. Forget about good solo voices on principals only. Every member of the cast has what it takes to be center stage, even though some are primarily only in the ensemble. Solos are memorable and the chorus numbers blow you away. Then there is the plus that is always award-winning director Scott Michaels’ choreography and the fleet-footed dancers who turn his directions into dazzling production numbers, making the relatively small dance area seem to quadruple in size. There are young people in the cast, several who must be in elementary or middle school at most. All are amazingly professional, in crowd scenes or as featured characters — Stone Rager as Tiny Tim, tiny Lauren Housel as Fan, Derek Grose as 12-year-old Scrooge, Lucas Thomas as Jonathan and clear-voiced Tara Rusinack a motherless child — and they never miss a beat or a lyric or an entrance and stay in character throughout, something with which many adults have a problem. They are a real delight. Then there are the “leading players” — dashing John Hannes and equally dashing Jace Nichols who portray (among other things) the dapper ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively; Adrian Aguilar as the hard-working Bob Cratchit; Mike Yocum as the chain-rattling ghost of Jacob Marley; Lars Hagland and the irrepressible Briana Borger as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig; Jennifer Dow as Ebenezer’s one-time fiance Emily; David Lepor as Scrooge’s forgiving nephew Fred; and, of course, the founder of the feast, Mr. Scrooge, played with an appropriately wavery baritone and Grinchly growl by Burke Frey. The costumes by Stephen R. Hollenbeck are period-perfect and bright as the ribbons on a Christmas package (excepting, of course, for Marley and his ghoulish spectres). Thomas Stirling leads the seven piece orchestra confidently through the show’s 15 numbers and Fritz Bennett’s lighting design is as atmospheric as always. Sound designer Chris Pollinow makes it possible for everyone to be heard  — and understood. Wagon Wheel regulars may find the set familiar.  It is the one designed for the ’04 production by the late Roy Hine, with necessary touch ups by technical director Michael Higgins. Vocally, visually, instrumentally and dance-wise, this “Christmas Carol”  definitely is an abundance of riches! If it doesn’t put you in the holiday mood, you need to see three spirits! “A Christmas Carol” plays Friday through Sunday and Dec. 19-21. For show times and ticket prices/reservations, check the website listed above.

A Christmas Story from film to stage

Twenty four hours, that’s the amount of time,  beginning Christmas Eve, that the story of Ralphie Parker airs on TNT, a marathon that began in 1997 and, like that “frightul” weather, shows no sign of stopping. The movie, based on short stories by Jean Shepherd, premiered on Thanksgiving 1983 and its popularity has increased since then. The theatrical adaptation of “A Christmas Story” is the newcomer. Written in 2000, it now is a the holiday choice of those companies brave enough to face off with the film version. The only such company in the Michiana area to date is South Bend Civic Theatre which still has two weekends to go on its four-weekend run.

All the familiar scenes are there and, even though I will always prefer Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon, Peter Billingsley and the rest of the inhabitants of Hohman IN. (aka Hammond but here presented as South Bend), the local version has several assets including the two-story set which immediately gives the feel of a 1940s middle class home. Designed by Phil Patnaude, it is versatile enough to encompass several locations, both inside and outside the Parker home, with special applause for the department store’s “Santa slide.”  The actors, of necessity, bear some resemblence to the film’s cast. They do this well, especially the young actors — Alex Kilmore as the beleaguered Ralphie, Soren Campbell as his younger brother Randy, Brandon Myers as his triple-dog-dare buddy Flick, Braidon Nutting as Schwartz, Billy Miller as bully Scut Farkas, Lea Melton as Ralphie’s would-be girlfriend Esther Jane Alberry and Madison Schmucker as class feminist Helen Weathers. They also recreate the characters successfully beyond the physical appearance. Kilmore is empathetic as the pre-teen whose only wish is for “an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.” His every request elicits the same response “You’ll shoot your eye out” but his determination is laudable and his responses, heartwarming. The film has an off-screen narrator in the voice of author Shepherd. The play chooses to have the older Ralph represented in person. Here, as played by Mark Moriarty, he is obtrusively in the midst of every scene, delivering the subliminal dialogue in shotgun fashion. It is a memory play, not a sporting event.   Miller is every kid’s nightmare and his comuppence earns applause and, when Meyers advances to the frosty flagpole, tongue outstretched, the immediate urge is to warn him off. We wait instead for the inevitable hilarious result. Ralph’s dad, referred to as The Old Man, his mom, identified simply as Mother, are adequately represented by Greg Melton and Nicole Brinkman Reeves and Jennie DeDario is crisply assertive as Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields. Seven performances of “A Christmas Story” remain. For show times and ticket information/reservations, check the SBCT website above.

Idol winner Ain't Misbehavin'

It was only the second season for “American Idol,” when a contestant dubbed the “Velvet Teddy Bear” soloed his way to the top prize. Ruben Studdard  took the title in the 2003 competition, arguably the most controversial in the brief history of the blockbuster show, beating out Clay Aiken by a mere (considering the millions of recorded votes) 130,000 votes. The years since then have been up and down for Studdard, plagued by lawsuits and disappointing record sales. But the old saying about not keeping a good (and talented) guy down definitely applies here.

Currently, Studdard is headlining the 30th anniversary tour of “Ain’t Misbehavin”, the award-winning show based on the music of the great Fats Waller. It will be on stage at Western Michigan University’s Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo for performances at 3 and 8 p.m. Sunday.   He also is looking forward to the release of his fourth (and currently unitled) album in May and, in June, married Surata Zuri McCants, with whom he plans to open a spa and salon next year in his home town of Birmingham, Ala. And if that’s not enough on one plate, he is looking at the possibility of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” joining the growing list of revivals headed back to Broadway.  Why, when a production of “Porgy and Bess” at Alabama A&M University (where he majored in voice studies) was his only previous experience with “book” shows, did he opt for this one, and to tour in the bargain. “I wanted to do something different,” Studdard said, calling briefly from the tour stop in Akron, Ohio. “Ain’t Misbehavin” cetainly is. His role is “closely patterned after Fats,” but, he explained, “All the cast members play particular parts of his personality.” The cast includes a couple of Studdard’s competitors from “Idol” season two — Frenchie Davis and Trenyce — and audience members may be surprised by the fact that, according to the singer, he can dance, a requirement in most musicals but especially in this which has a small cast and finds the big baritone involved in most of the numbers. Although he reportedly dropped 70 pounds on a diet and fitness program, keeping the weight off is not so easy on the road and, not surprisingly, “I’ve gained a couple of pounds,” he admitted, adding “It’s hard to diet on tour, but I’m going to get back in to it.” Of his upcoming album, he said “It will be a different kind of music,” explaining “That’s difficult to do on a label run by the most influential man in music, Clive Davis. You don’t get a chance to sing what you want. Now I’m more able to do my own kind of music.” He hopes it will be the kind to which listeners — and buyers — respond. Maybe even a little Fats Waller. For tickets to “Ain’t Misbehavin'” call (269) 387-2300 or (800) 228-9858 or visit www.millerauditorium.com. Prices range from $25 to $50.

King and I really big show

The Premier Arts production of “The King and I,” which played the first of its three performances at the Elco Theatre Friday evening is, to quote the late Ed Sullivan (ask your older friends), “a reeeeely big show.”  Bigger, however, does not always mean better. In fact, this “King and I” — one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Big Five” — is frequently best when The King (Curtis Hill Jr.) and Anna Leonowens (Liberty Morgan Cantzler) are interacting alone. Cantzler has the majority of the production on her slim shoulders and, as the English widow summoned to the court of Siam in the late 1860s to teach King Mongkut’s many children, she is well up to the task. With five solos (plus two reprises), she is on stage most of the time and, when not, obviously is changing costumes. Still, she manages to deliver a sustained, solid and sensitive performance which is, at all times, very believeable. She also has a warm and true soprano which more than does justice to such familiar melodies as “Getting to Know You” and “Hello Young Lovers.” Her  angry soliloquy, “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” delivered after a confrontation with the king, is well done but would be more effective up to tempo. As the autocratic and absolute ruler, Hill reprises the role he created for Elkhart Civic

Theatre in 2000, but here with lots more glitter and eye shadow. He has lost none of the commanding physical presence required for the monarch (a la Yul Brynner). The stance is there, but rapid delivery sometimes results in the loss of dialogue. Whatever the few flaws, there is no doubt he will forever be associated with this character, no matter what roles he may undertake in the future. He IS The King!   The ill-fated lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha are played, according to the program, by Maddy Whitby and Peter Sessions. On Friday evening, however, Whitby, who was in a minor car accident on Wednesday, was replaced by choreographer Ashley Frost, a fact that was not announced to the audience. Hopefully, Whitby will be on stage tonight and Sunday. Frost was a very acceptable substitute and she and Sessions blended well on their two duets, “We Kiss in the Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” Don’t look for the last  in the film version. It was not included, nor were “Shall I Tell You” or “My Lord and Master,” Tuptim’s initial solo. Laurie DuBois was Lady Thiang, first wife to the king and mother of the crown prince, who expresses her feelings about the king in “Something Wonderful.” There are so many “Siamese children” in this production (80 in the children’s ensemble) that one wonders how the King who fathered them all had time to do anything else.  All know where to go and when and how to behave on stage, which definitely is a plus and hopefully will  be put to good use in future productions. But the sheer magnitude of the numbers tends to make them all blur together, unless, of course, you’re a friend or relative, and there were many among the 1,200 people in the Elco Friday evening. The youngsters in featured roles — Jackson Fann as Crown Prince Chulalongcorn, Brayden Cantzler as Louis Leonowens and DeAnn Veatch as Princess Ying Yaowalak — carried off their assignments with aplomb, and the adorable Veatch was a real heartbreaker. Unfortunately, the dancers in the second act ballet, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” were not named in the program (nor were any of the scenes or musical numb ers). So I can say only that Eliza and Co. did a very fine job in the Siamese version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” “The King and I” plays at 7:30 p.m. today and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Elco. Call 293-4469.

King and I is a family affair

For the leading players in the Premier Arts production of “The King and I,” playing next weekend at the Elco Theatre, calling the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical a family show definitely has a double meaning,  especially for the man who portrays the extremely prolific King of Siam.   Not only is Curtis Hill, Jr. recreating the role of the autocratic ruler which he played first in the 2000 Elkhart Civic Theatre production, also in this cast are wife Theresa and all five of the Hills’ children: Halle, 14; Mallory, 12; Curtis III, 10;  Bella, 8; and Abraham, 7.

All are among the seemingly endless flow of royal offspring who fill the stage during the famous “March of the Siamese Children,” and several are in the second act ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” with Halle as Topsy. Theresa, no surprise, is one of the King’s wives. All of the youngsters have a surprising amount of theatrical experience, via youth theater programs, and all were definite about wanting to do more. Once the bug bites … For Theresa, however, “This is a one time deal, just because it’s a family affair.”  Her role has in past shows has been to help on a production committee or just wait for the young thespians to finish rehearsal. “I love watching their shows,” she said, noting that her only regret is that being on stage, “I won’t be able to see this one.”  The final weeks before opening have left time for nothing but school (all are honor students and in pep programs), dinner and homework, usually done at the theater. ” We’re used to having mom in the audience,” Halle said. “So this is interesting.” And what’s it like, living with the King?  No problem, according to his kids. “This is kind of his personality,” Halle volunteered. It is a personality that dominated his first royal outing and promises to do the same on the Elco’s much larger stage. Not an easy task in the role so completely associated with the late Yul Brynner, who played it for more than 4,000 performances from 1951 almost until his death in 1985. Hill was, and obviously still is, up to the challenge. “I’ve always been a big Yul Brynner fan,” he said. “Even before ‘The King and I.’ I watched him in ‘The 10 Commandments” and ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and thought he was great.” “I am not a theater guy,” Hill declared, but when he saw the ECT audition notice, “I thought if ever it was the time, this was it.”  Recalling his initial experience at the Bristol Opera House, he  has good memories of that production. “The Civic was a much more intimate crowd,” he said, adding “This big stage is better for ‘The King and I’.” The only drawback has been “I remember things from eight years ago,” he said with a chuckle. “I know the part and I know the show. It’s frustrating for some people.” His job as Elkhart County Prosecutor doesn’t allow much time for extra curricular activities, but “Doing a part in this show is much more fun as community service than sitting on a board or a committee.” Especially when the whole family can have fun with him. His Elco co-star is a young and talented theater veteran, Liberty Morgan Cantzler. As Anna Leonowens, she brings her young son Louis to the court of Siam. In keeping with the familial theme (more than 15 families are among the 118 actors and 40 crew members involved in the production), Louis is played by Liberty’s 9-year-old son, Brayden, who, his mother said quickly, auditioned and got the role all on his own.  “In fact,” she added. “He begged me to audition.”

“He was doing stuff (shows) as a baby,” his mother said of the Pinewood Elementary School pep program student. Like the Hill children, his grades do not suffer because of his theater involvement. Unlike Hill, however, Liberty has always wanted to do theater.  She began here. Her first role, at age 4, was a passenger on the liner American in ECT’s first “Anything Goes.” After high school, she went to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, focused on a career in the theater. “I have always wanted to do this,” she said. “There was never a question. I want to do it as much as possible.” She married Sean Cantzler, then a lieutenant in the Navy, with an eye to regional theaters wherever he was stationed. Then Brayden was born and “I wanted to be a mommy,” said the petite blonde. Cantzler left the service and they returned home. After daughter Mady was born, the couple divorced, but theater has always  been Liberty’s through-line.  Now a single mom with a part-time job and going to school full time at Ivy Tech, Liberty’s love of the theater and performing has never wavered. It is a love she has passed on to both her children.  “I know theater helped my brother Seth (Morgan, now working professionally in New York) to focus.” she said. “Brayden is kind antsy. I hoped theater might help him, too. It has.” Next up, a summer production of “Quilters” at Das Dutchman Essenhaus. After that .. anything goes.

“The King and I”   By Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II Presented by Premier Arts and Wachovia Securities Elco Theatre 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday Tickets: $15 adults, $12 students and senior citizens, $10 children to age 10. Call: 293-4469 or visit elcotheatre.com