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.

A Midsummer Nightmare

A new — or re-newed — group is making its maiden voyage into the world of community theater this weekend with the Osceola Community Theatre production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Does the word “Titanic” ring a bell?

Unlike the “unsinkable” liner, there are so many danger signals here that one can only hope there are enough lifeboats to go around.

First: Don’t ever attempt Shakespeare without actors — and a director — who have some understanding of the play — what it is and where it  is going — and at least a minimum command of the language. Just rattling off a string of words without any idea of what is behind them or what they mean, in the context of the period, results in what my grandmother used to call gobbledegook.

Midsummers Night Dream

Second: Make sure at least the primary players have the ability to make themselves heard — and understood — beyond the end of the playing area. The audience usually deserves the chance to know what’s going on, although here it doesn’t seem to matter. Not helping was a motor, which sounded like one for a heating system or a large refrigerator, which cut in and out frequently and completely drowned out most of the voices.


Third: Take aim at a style for the production and make sure it works — consistently. Allowing the two ingénues to scream at each other while their respective swains are battling it out literally and loudly right being them is a shot at farce that results in the need for earplugs. In com

There are several cast members who definitely have potential — the men playing Bottom (Scot Shepley) and Demetrius (Steven Cole) and the females portraying Puck (Abby Jeffirs), Titania (Kristen Baker) and Helena (Kelsey Suwarsky — who needs to turn both volume and delivery speed down several notches) . They seem to be the victims of skewed direction — or lack thereof. — and deserve the opportunity to try again.

The costumes were adequate (loved the fairies wings!) except for Oberon who looked more like a pilgrim wandering in the desert than a magical king of the fairies.

The lighting, obviously due to the extreme limitations of the performance space which is a very small altar space, was dependent on one large follow spot which illuminated the players in one central area.

Believe it or not, this has been very difficult to write. I am always in favor or new theaters and new talent and would much prefer to see them start well, specifically with something they can handle. I give them credit for the effort, but just because it’s Shakespeare, doesn’t mean anyone can do it.

Hepefully, the next offering from the OCT will be something easier to stage in their limited facility and one which actors and audience will have less difficulty delivering.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” plays at 7:30 p.m. today and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Harry Housour Performing Arts Center, 3134 Apple Road, Osceola. check www.osceolatheatre.com

New Harmony 2009 Revisited

Returning to a place where you have had a very good experience is not always the best thing to do. . .except when that place is New Harmony and the experience is the New Harmony Project.

The Project has been held for 23 years in this unbelievably green southwest Indiana location. It’s purpose has always been the same: To help playwrights develop new works that “offer hope and show respect for the positive values of life.” To this end, writers, actors, directors and dramaturgs head for this very southern Indiana town the last two weeks May bringing their creative energy and their talent . I visited the New Harmony Project for the first time last year, because daughter Deirdre Lovejoy was one of the actors. When she was asked to return, there was no doubt I would want to be there as well. Of course, I only went for the final week and all I did was listen, but to a confirmed theater buff, there was no greater place to be. In the first place, New Harmony itself is a popular vacation destination. You won’t find a nightclub or a thrill ride anywhere, but turning back the clock in a town that was founded by the Harmony Society, a religious sect, in 1814. The Harmonists came from Pennsylvania and returned there in 1825 after selling the town to a Scottish social reformer and education pioneer who collected notable thinkers and scientists to the banks of the Wabash River. What you will find is a serene environment where bicycles and golf carts are the primary modes of transportation, where night really falls darkly and you can feel stress easing away. It’s a popular spot for weddings and conferences the year round. It’s the perfect place to concentrate on your objective

Returning to a place where you have had a very good experience is not always the best thing to do. . .except when that place is New Harmony and the experience is the New Harmony Project.

The Project has been held for 23 years in this unbelievably green southwest Indiana location. It’s purpose has always been the same: To help playwrights develop new works that “offer hope and show respect for the positive values of life.” To this end, writers, actors, directors and dramaturgs head for this very southern Indiana town the last two weeks May bringing their creative energy and their talent . I visited the New Harmony Project for the first time last year, because daughter Deirdre Lovejoy was one of the actors. When she was asked to return, there was no doubt I would want to be there as well. Of course, I only went for the final week and all I did was listen, but to a confirmed theater buff, there was no greater place to be. In the first place, New Harmony itself is a popular vacation destination. You won’t find a nightclub or a thrill ride anywhere, but turning back the clock in a town that was founded by the Harmony Society, a religious sect, in 1814. The Harmonists came from Pennsylvania and returned there in 1825 after selling the town to a Scottish social reformer and education pioneer who collected notable thinkers and scientists to the banks of the Wabash River. What you will find is a serene environment where bicycles and golf carts are the primary modes of transportation, where night really falls darkly and you can feel stress easing away. It’s a popular spot for weddings and conferences the year round. It’s the perfect place to concentrate on your objective

With the Project, the objective has been to read, re-read and re-re-read scripts, both for stage and screen, with the aim of polishing them as much as possible within the two week period. This is accomplished by bringing to the table (literally) professional actors, a director and a dramaturg for each script. The selection process begins with a call for new scripts, more than 100 are submitted annually. A 10 page synopsis for each is read by a committee which then narrows the field and requests full scripts. These, usually 20, are read and discussed.new harmony table read

For 2009, four were chosen for “full development” and two others, for one-time reads. I sat in on the former process for two scripts At the tables, all those involved shared ideas, suggestions and comments on the works in progress. Rewrites were done daily, with changes printed off on different color paper so that, in one case, the final script look rather like a rainbow. Words, sentences, paragraphs and even entire scenes were reshaped overnight. Watching this process was indeed humbling and a bit awe-inspiring.. There were morning and afternoon rehearsals for all four, the location of each announced by Project Director Joel Grynheim during the lunch and dinner in the New Harmony Inn dining room. The evenings were open for first reads, parties, writers discussions, and (my favorite) the annual Harmon-anny, during which talents other than writing — mainly musical — were shared. In the middle of the final week, high school students with an interest in drama were invited to spend the day, sit in on rehearsals and participate in discussions. I sat in on a musical theater workshop given by two award-winning musicians, Debra Barsha and Lance Thorne, who wowed the students during their two sessions to such an extent that none of the young people wanted to leave.

 Debra Barsha and Lance Thorne At each, the students were asked to write down their thoughts on whatever they wanted. No surprise, the majority chose feelings, relationships and the future. Taking their papers at random, Barsha and Thorne created songs from each one, some uptempo, some ballads and all utterly amazing. One, which they titled “The ABCs of Love,” was taken a step further and included (with credit to the young “lyricist,” who was present) in the final program, “A Taste of 2009,” presented Saturday evening during a benefit dinner for sponsors, donors and the all-volunteer board members of the New Harmony Project. From the last Thursday night through Saturday, readings of the four full development scripts were open to the public, which also was invited to share opinions. Thanks to the electronic age, one of the selected writers who was unable to attend, was video conferenced via laptop cameras with her director and cast, sharing thoughts and emailing suggested rewrites. The positive energy throughout sent even this on-looker home with the assurance that good theater, positive theater was — and would continue to be — eternally green, rather like New Harmony.

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.

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.