Familiar Road Not Easily Traveled In 'The Wiz' PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Wednesday, 02 April 2014 19:26

In 1975, Broadway welcomed a new version of one of the most popular movie musicals of all time, “The Wizard of Oz.”

The Wiz  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreTitled “The Wiz” it offered music and lyric by Charlie Smalls and a book by William F. Brown. Like the 1939 movie, it was taken from L. Frank Baum’s classic tale, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

Unlike the M-G-M film, however, it featured an all African-American cast and a score that definitely reflected its designation as a “super soul musical.”

After a shaky start, the 1975 production garnered eight Tony Award nominations and won seven, all in major categories, and played for more than 1,500 performances.

In 1984, a revival played for only 13.

On Friday evening South Bend Civic Theatre opened its production of “The Wiz.” Unfortunately, it is more ’84 than ’75.

In spite of a cast that boasted some excellent vocal talent, the voices were overpowered almost consistently by the high decibel level set for the recorded score, an electronic hazard with which the hard-working company should not have to deal.

The Wiz  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatrePacing, until the arrival of the Wicked Witch, aka Evillene, at the beginning of Act 2, was slow. Even the arrival of Dorothy’s friends-in-need — Scarecrow (Brandon Harper), Tinman (Pierre Cooks) and Lion (Jason Johnson) — did little to energize the proceedings.

All three work hard but are undone by the unforgiving acoustics of the cavernous Wilson Mainstage Theatre. Their solo efforts are appreciated but mostly unintelligible. Ditto the ensemble work, the exception being “Ease On Down the Road.” “The Wiz” answer to “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” is an up-tempo traveling song with a contagious beat which the quartet delivers with increasing gusto, and which features Cooks’ tap break.

The Wiz  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreFortunately, their costumes — and the sometimes-wild outfits sported by the various witches and Ozians — add spice (and lots of glitter)  to the proceedings.

A highlight of Act 1 is the Tornado, danced with whirling abandon by Jordian Cooper. Toto, brown and white and stuffed solidly, is tossed away early on and never seen again.

SBCT veteran Laurisa LeSure works hard as Addaperle, Good Witch of the South, who has trouble landing her spells, and the aforementioned Evillene (Jasmine Dennie) is a real show-stopper demanding of her quavering underlings “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.”

As Dorothy, Makeda Grier has a strong, clear voice and handled her extensive vocal assignments with power. She would be able to do much more if she were not fighting the instrumentation level.

Quinton McMutuary begins as Uncle Henry and then plays the Wizard. He has a strong voice but there is very little magic in his stoic portrayal. Banitha Vinscon as Glinda arrives on a familiar balcony (see “The Clean House”) amidst a shower of stars (some of David Chudzynski’s lighting effects are fairly spectacular) and her “Believe in Yourself” solidly reinforces the show’s unchanging message.

The Wiz South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreDorothy’s final “Home” is the best known “single,” and Grier sends it out with strength and clarity. No small feat after a trip to the Emerald City. Finally, clicking together her silver slippers (no Red Shoes here), she returns to Kansas.

The way to Oz is strewn with the bodies of crew members moving a double stair open and shut, up and down, and all around the stage. There is no doubt it is a necessary set piece but it rumbles disconcertingly and breaks whatever mood the actors have been able to establish. The same goes for the giant hanging flat which squeeks and sways annoyingly.

Guest director Chris Carter has, according to his program bio, a wealth of experience as an actor/director/choreographer in plays and musicals. Sadly, it is not evidenced in this production.

“THE WIZ’ plays through April 13 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium in the theater at 403 N. Main St. South Bend. For performance times and reservations call 234-1112 or online at

South Bend Civic's 'The Clean House' Shines PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Thursday, 13 March 2014 14:35

There are times in theater when it all comes together; when script, cast, director, set, costumes, lights, etc. combine to create what is a perfect — or nearly perfect — production.

The Clean House South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThese times are few and far between —and even fewer and farther in what is somewhat condescendingly referred to as an “amateur production.” There is, however, nothing remotely amateur in any area about the current South Bend Civic Theatre production of Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House,” on stage through March 23 in the Warner Studio Theatre.

It is extremely difficult to slip this play, a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist, into a single category. It is full of humor and heart-wrenching drama, a love story on many levels and definitely a compendium of complex relationships, with emotions and situations that change in the flick of a dust cloth or a punch line.

The Clean House South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreIf the situations seem at first distorted and characters more at home in a theater of the absurd, wait…but not for long. Within a few pages of dialogue or a few scenes, everything seems to be absolutely as it should be.

It certainly helps that director Jim Geisel has collected the perfect quintet of players, and that he has led them through Ruhl’s whimsical exercise of love, loss and house cleaning with a deft touch.

At the center of the house — set in “a metaphysical Connecticut“— is Matilde, a Brazilian girl imported by married doctors Charles and Lane as a housekeeper. The only problem is, Matilde would rather make up jokes than clean. Lane’s sister Virginia, however, loves to clean. She offers to clean the house, allowing Mathilde time to work on her perfect joke.

Needless to say, Lane is not happy with this arrangement. But it is the least of her worries when Charles announces he has fallen instantly in love with a patient, an older woman with cancer on whom he has performed a mastectomy, and he is leaving.

The Clean House  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThe ensemble cast works seamlessly together, allowing the flow of the dialogue and the shifting positions of the characters to happen naturally.  This is no easy job for Matilde. As played by the very talented April Sellers, she is the catalyst and the solution and delivers the jokes — in Portugese (the language of Brazil) — so easily it is difficult to believe that she is not a native.

The sisters, played by Lucinda Moriarty as Lane and Mary Ann Moran as Virginia, are as unlike — and as alike — as many siblings. They are by turn combative and supportive and, like Sellers, give their characters real depth beneath the frequently abrupt dialogue.

Bill Svelmoe, a veteran of many shows this year, delivers a wonderfully empathetic Charles. He tries valiantly to make his wife understand his instant and irrevocable connection with Ana and, in the end, goes on a seemingly ridiculous quest for a cure. Marybeth Saunders makes a lovely Ana, who understands everyone’s emotions — and Mathilde’s language — and has the strength to deal with the inevitable in her own way

The Clean House South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThe twists and turns in this house, seemingly outrageous at times and then seem so obviously right that you are drawn into their orbit. The cast gives special thanks to Ana Maria Goulet for her assistance with the language which definitely sounds as if they all knew what they were saying.

The action, which moves in several locations, is played on a basic all-white set with all-white furniture and a sometimes-moonlit balcony upstage center. David Chudzynski’s set design is elegantly graceful and completely functional and whatever it is supposed to be. The shifting actions — and emotions — are underscored and heightened by Lloyd Whitmer’s lighting design. The costuming is appropriate to the characters and situations.

This is a “don’t miss” production and seating is definitely limited. You may not die laughing, as Mathilde is certain her parents did, but you will admit that it could happen — and it’s a lovely way to go.

THE CLEAN HOUSE plays at 7:30 (yes, 7:30) p.m. today through Saturday and March 19-22 and 2 p.m. March 16 in the Warner Studio Theatre at 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.or

Sondheim Classic Looks At Marriage PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Tuesday, 11 March 2014 03:34

In the world of musical theater, composer Stephen Sondheim is generally acknowledged as its greatest living exponent.  His works are not easy to produce, yet seem to bring out the very best in the singer/actors who sign on to give life to his many multi-layered characters.

Company  Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol IN Opera HouseThe latest local theater group to take up the challenge of Sondheim is Elkhart Civic Theatre which opened its production of “Company” Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House.

Company  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol  INProduced first in 1970, with award-winning “updated” revivals in 1995 and 2006, “Company” was the first of Sondheim’s musicals (seven of them Tony Award-winners) to hit the Broadway stage. In keeping with the composer/lyricist’s penchant for off-beat plots and story lines, it is best described as a “concept musical.” Don’t expect a beginning/middle/end to this tale of bachelor Bobby, 35, and the five couples (and several single girlfriends) who can’t resist the urge to propel him towards matrimony.

Based on 11 one-act plays by George Furth, who wrote the book for “Company,” it goes inside the relationships of Bobby’s “married friends,” while he plays interested observer. Each pair has problems of its own. Each manages to deal with them in its own way, all the while encouraging Bobby to take a leap of faith and find out what he’s missing.

Some of Sondheim’s loveliest melodies heighten the score of “Company,” as well as some of his sharpest lyrics. If I had any complaint about Friday’s performance it is that the excellent soloists who were razor-sharp on those lyrics, frequently were obscured by the rather harsh piano.

Company  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol  INThe “through line” in ”Company” is Bobby, who interacts with — and eventually reacts to — his friends. He has three of the show’s biggest and most demanding solos, the best known of which is “Being Alive.” It is a difficult role, dramatically and vocally, and the ECT production is more than fortunate to have it safely in the hands and voice of Jacob Medich. He walks the fine line between observer and participant with charm and his rich baritone is unfailingly up to the lyrical task.

Probably the most familiar solo in “Company” is “The Ladies Who Lunch,” a brilliant chastisement of women possibly more appropriate to those in the show’s original 1970’s time frame than to those of today. It is delivered with power and acid accuracy by Susan South as the jaded Joanne, who also gleefully shatters marital myths with “The Little Things You Do Together.”

Each of the couples has its own method of dealing with the intricacies of married life including, in one case, divorce. Portraying the diverse duos are Stephanie Yoder and Patrick Farren as addictive combatants Sarah and Harry; Stephanie Honderich and Sean Leyes as experimental tokers Jenny and David; Natalie MacRae and Brock Butler as happily uncoupled Susan and Peter; Kristen Riggs and Joe Beauregard as maybe-married Amy and Paul; and John Shoup as Larry, Joanne’s tolerant spouse.

The three young ladies with excellent voices and seemingly endless patience are Bobby’s girlfriends — Sarah Rogers as Marta, Mandie Mickelson as Kathy and Rachel Raska as April. Each provides her own insight into the frustrating search for a willing bachelor.

Sondheim’s score features marvelously intricate ensemble numbers, difficult to sing and, in lesser productions, frequently even more difficult to hear. From the opening title song to the extended “Side by Side by Side” which begins the second act, these voices fuse well and the overall blend is just right.

Company  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol  INAs always, much of the pleasure of Sondheim lies in the lyrics. Listen carefully to “Sorry-Grateful,” “You Could Drive A Person Crazy,” “Poor Baby” and “Getting Married Today” and find the truth behind the beautifully-crafted words. The last, especially as done by Riggs, is frantically, hilariously poignant and relates to many altar-bound singles..

“Company” is directed sharply by Stephanie J. Salisbury, assisted by Stephen M. Salisbury, a couple who obviously has found the secret to working together successfully. Heidi Ferris handled the formidable task of vocal and music directing with well-crafted choreography and movement created by Jerry O’Boyle.

Scenic artist Jeffrey Barrick recreated the large abstract painting of New York City, a location which plays an important part in the action, with Shoup serving as scenic designer.  The few off notes were in the costuming (Bobby’s diamond-design sweater), the unfortunately intrusive changing of set pieces, and the jarring Miley Cyrus “wrecking ball” reference which was not even close Sondheim.

“Company” is classic Sondheim and the ECT production provides the opportunity to enjoy one of the gems of the modern American musical theater.

“COMPANY” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and March 21, 22 and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House, 210 E. Vistla St. in Bristol.  For reservations, call 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays or visit

'Leading Ladies' A Comedic Gender-Bender PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Wednesday, 22 January 2014 20:14

If there’s nothing like a good laugh to get rid of the post-holiday blues, a look at the current South Bend Civic Theatre production of “Leading Ladies” is just what the doctor ordered.

Leading Ladies South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreFrom the prolific pen of American farce-master Ken Ludwig (“Lend Me A Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo,” et al), the tale of two down-and-out English Shakespearean actors who find their latest get-rich-quick scheme has little to do with the Bard of Avon, begins with a few snickers and ends with literally non-stop guffaws.

Yep. Guffaws. It’s that type of comedy.

No sly satirical quips here. Instead, broad obvious puns, a good deal of slapstick and a dive into the basic laugh-getter of all farces: Guys in drag and gals who can’t  recognize 5 o’clock shadow when they’re staring it in the face — lierally!

Leading Ladies  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreBill Svelmoe and Zach Gassman play Leo Clark and Jack Gable (get it??), two actors reduced to performing “Scenes from Shakespeare” on the Moose Lodge circuit in Pennsylvania.  On the train in search of their next gig, they read an article detailing an elderly widow’s dying search for two long-lost relatives, Steve and Max, who she hasn’t seen since infancy.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention and impersonating the now-adult relatives seems an easy answer. Only one catch: nephews Steve and Max are nieces Stephanie and Maxine. With the aid of theatrical garb, the guys become girls and the con is on.

Anyone who thinks there will be smooth sailing from wig on to wig off obviously has never seen a farce —especially a Ludwig farce! Offering stumbling blocks are Florence (Martha Branson-Banks), the ailing senior who gets a new lease on life; another niece Meg (Christy Burgess), a major fan of the Bard; her too-stuffy-to-be-good fiancé Rev. Duncan (Matt Deitchley); Doc (Casey St. Aubin), who can’t wait to sign the death certificate; his son Butch (Jared Windhauser); and Audrey (Nora Ryan Taylor), a friend of Meg’s serving as Florence’s part-time aide.

Leading Ladies  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreBefore the curtain falls on the proper (?) pairings, everything that can go wrong definitely does and watching the “girls” scramble to maintain their false identities while securing romantic attachments as themselves is familiar farce fodder and certainly one the audience enjoys.

This production moves along snappily under the direction of Leigh Taylor. She has assembled a very solid cast lead by the Ace of Farce, Svelmoe, who should be at the top of every director’s list for casting in this wacky genre. His final "on-again,off-again" is worth the price of admission. Gassman works hard — and successfully — to form the necessary doubles team and the sight of this tall gentleman in a mile-high wig and red patent stilettoes is hilarious, even without dialogue.

The on-again, off-again guys have two very sharp ladies with which to share the stage. Burgess and Taylor hold their own in every situation, with special applause for the latter who does it all — on roller skates.

Deitchley’s Snively Whiplash-like characterization seems a bit much at first but explodes perfectly as the denoument approaches. Branson-Banks is the perfect grandma-who-won’t-die. St. Aubin may be the last physician who makes house calls but really too young for the role. Windhauser lives up to his character’s name.

Set designer David Chudzynski’s scenic triptych (RR car right, two-story home center, Moose Lodge left) works well as the action shifts easily from one locale to another. The furnishings, however, are spare and rather worn for a wealthy home. On opening night, the area rug slipped its tape, a possible problem solved at least temporarily by a quick thinking actor. Any minor glitches were forgotten in Ludwig’s signature Mega-Mix, when the cast, no doubt already winded from its fast-paced 2 ½ hour romp, revisited the entire scenario — in case anyone had forgotten!

NOTE: Remember that ALL shows on the SBCT 2014 season begin at 7:30 pm. with matinees at 2 p.m. One half hour earlier than in previous years. Don’t get caught with your stub down!!

LEADING LADIES plays at 7:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. through Feb. 2 in the Wilson Mainstage Theatre at 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For reservations, call 234-1112 or visit

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