Life Lessons Set To Music On 'Avenue Q' PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Thursday, 09 June 2016 16:39

Who said puppets are just for children?

Avenue Q  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MICertainly not composer/lyricist Robert Lopez or writer Jeff Whitty or the cast and crew of “Avenue Q,” the Tony Award-winning musical that opened the 70th season (and a short one-week-only run) Tuesday evening at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI.

“Avenue Q” Opened Off Broadway in March 2003, moved to Broadway in July, won three of the top Tony Awards and played there through September 2009. In October it returned to Off Broadway where it still plays today.

Talk about a popular show!

The Barn production shows just why.

Under the solid direction of Eric Parker, 11 puppets and 10 humans offer a delightfully insightful look at the pros and cons of young adulthood as lived on Avenue Q.

For whatever reason, three adults are puppetless throughout while six create create 10 almost larger-than-life characters. Seven are rod puppets and four, hand puppets which frequently require two puppeteers. One “extra’ adult, Samantha Rickard, fills in several “bodies.”

Avenue Q  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MIFor those who have never seen “Avenue Q,” the fact that the actors/puppeteers are highly visible at all times, moving and speaking/singing for their characters, might seem a definite distraction.

The puppets and human characters completely ignore the puppeteers and, after a very short time, so does the audience.

The show conjures memories of “Sesame Street” with a generous dash of “South Park,” but it is definitely its own . The primary protagonist is Princeton (Sam Balzac), a recent college graduate looking for a purpose and a cheap place to live. Meeting building superintendent Gary Coleman (Shinnerrie Jackson) he takes an apartment and meets the rest of his neighbors: Brian (Charlie King), an aspiring standup comic. and his Japanese fiancé Christmas Eve (Jasmine Ejan) a clientless therapist; roommates Rod (Balzac) a Republican banker, and out-of-work Nicky (Patrick Hunter); Trekkie Monster (Hunter), a growly hermit who spends his days searching for internet porn; and Kate Monster (Melissa Cotton), an assistant kindergarten teacher who dreams of opening her own Monstersori school.

Avenue Q  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MIIn pursuit of his “Purpose.” Princeton meets the Bad Idea Bears (Brook Evans and Hans Friedrichs), who resemble cuddly Care Bears but have mischief on their minds, and Lucy the Slut (Cotton), a sleazy singer who aims her lyrics at Princeton, much to the annoyance of Kate Monster who , with Princeton, is enjoying a number of Long Island Iced Teas.

Their hazy night on the town, which includes hilariously noisy naked puppet sex, has unhappy consequences including breakups, rebounds, unemployment and homelessness.

Under the puppet guises and a wonderfully singable score, “Avenue Q” touches on a wealth of problems including sex, racism, pornography, commitment and homosexuality with a little ”Schadenfreude” (look it up, it’s more common than you think!) thrown in.

Avenue Q  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MIThe outstanding cast makes the most of every situation, human or puppet. Cotton does an amazing “double take,” going from innocent to worldly with a flip of her hair (and her hip). Balzac’s characters are closer in temperament, but he differentiates beautifully, all without skipping a beat or dropping a line!

Hunter is perfect as both whiney sponger and grumbling monster. Jackson is a great grinning Coleman and the petite Ejan is delightful as the “crabby old bitch,” a title she embraces with enthusiasm.

The scenic design by Michael Wilson Morgan works well, with windows and doors, upstairs and down, operating smoothly.

Pianist/conductor Matt Shabala leads a solid instrumental quintet. There is at times a bit of overplaying, but that could be corrected by the sound operator.

All in all, a stroll down Avenue Q is a great way to spend an evening, but leave the children at home.

“AVENUE Q” plays through Sunday in the theater on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit

Murderous Farce Features Holmes Twist PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Tuesday, 07 June 2016 18:58

Since his first Broadway hit in 1989, prolific playwright Ken Ludwig has kept most of this country’s regional — and community — theaters well-supplied in entertaining fare.

GThe Games' Afoot Sojuth Bend (N) Civic TheatreMost of it is strictly no-nonsense — make that plenty of nonsense — farce (“Lend Me A Tenor”) while several set the pratfalls to music (“Crazy For You”).

The Ludwig offering that opened Friday evening in the South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Theatre

mixes holiday merriment with murder. From it’s title, “The Game’s Afoot or Holmes for the Holidays,” it doesn’t take much to deduce that the rough-and-tumble action will be laced with mayhem or that the detail-minded detective will be Sherlock Holmes as played by actor William Gillette.

Actually, it’s Bill Svelmoe playing Gillette playing Holmes.

The Game's Afoot South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreGillette was a Broadway actor /director/playwright at the turn of the century. With the permission of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle he wrote a four-act drama starring himself as Holmes. Over the course of 30 years, he played the character more than1,300 times and is responsible for Holmes’ signature deerstalker cap and Meerschaum pipe.

The setting for Ludwig’s mystery/farce is Gillette’s Connecticut castle (still a tourist attraction) to which he has invited the cast of his play for a holiday — and to determine who shot at him during a recent performance. He plans to answer this question in true Holmesian fashion.

Under the direction of Tucker Curtis, the eight-member cast features mostly area theater veterans. Led by Svelmoe they are Mary Ann Moran as the actor’s mother Martha Gillette; Mark Moriarty as his best friend Felix Geisel; Lucinda Gary Moriarty as Felix’ wife Madge; Casey St. Aubin as leading man Simon Bright; Grace Lazarz as Simon’s girlfriend Aggie Wheeler; Kate Telesca Banks as drama critic Daria Chase; and Laurisa LeSure as police Inspector Goring.

The Game's Afoot  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreDuring the course of the evening, one is murdered and the others, when not confessing to the crime, run around literally in circles trying to find the killer.

Damon Mroczak’s scenic design covers a lot of territory. The set contains several “hidden features” including a suit of armor which serves as an intercom and a trophy wall which doubles as a bar (and body hiding place).

The action opens on a theater stage where the company is playing Shakespeare but as the action is in front of the Gillette drawing room set, it takes a while to realize that it is not taking place in that room.

The location changes to the mansion which features a giant art deco something high above the sliding doors to the patio. I suppose it was a window but it really was a distraction. On the second level, the door frames should have been taller as anyone going in or out had to stoop to avoid hitting his/her head. For the Christmas setting, there were only a few decorations and no tree.

As for the actors, they were again fighting the playing space which tends to swallow all dialogue not aimed directly at the audience. Crisper diction and projection is a must.

It seemed that there were only two vocal levels: shouting or mumbling. Svelmoe and Mark Moriarty shouted a good deal, primarily at each other. They were at their best when trying desperately to find a place to hide the corpse.

LeSure was so soft as to be completely unintelligible. Banks stood out as the caustic, sarcastic newspaper columnist who seemed to have everybody’s number.

THE GAME’S AFOOT or Holmes for the Holidays” run has been extended through June 18 in the theater at 403 N. Main St. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit

Beautiful Fairy Tale Beautifully Enacted PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Friday, 03 June 2016 19:40

Children of all ages love a good fairy tale, never more so than when it is set to music and receives the magic Disney touch.

Beauty and the Beast Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INAdd to that fairly faultless direction and choreography by artistic director Scott Michaels and you have the current Wagon Wheel Theatre production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.”

Based on the 1991 animated Disney film with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice and a stage book by Linda Woolverton, it continues to be — after “The Lion King,” — the most popular in the Disney cartoon-to-live action repertoire.

And the most widely toured.

And the most frequently done in schools and community theaters.

Beauty and the Beast Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INAs always, the WW production faces the challenge of comparison at all levels and, again as always, comes out on top.

It goes without saying that conductor Thomas N. Sterling’s 11-piece orchestra makes the entire score — from overture/prologue to finale— worthy of listening to on its own.

Add to that another area in which Michaels & Co. seem to excel — character-perfect casting.

Even if you have seen this musical many times (and many in the near-capacity opening night audience obviously had), you will find layers of emotion underneath the excellent singing and dancing.

In the title roles are Elaine Cotter as Belle and Joey Birchler as The Beast. Living in separate worlds, they nonetheless share the stigma of being “oddballs” in less than understanding communities. She deals with it by living in other worlds through books; he takes his frustration out on his equally frustrated underlings.

Cotter, who last season played Jo in the WW production of “Little Women,” again creates a determined young woman who stands against adversity and beside her slightly-wacky inventor dad Maurice (Andy Robinson). She has a strong, clear soprano which lyrically expresses her gradual change in feelings towards her captor.

Beauty and the Beast Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INIn his WW debut, Birchler has the difficult task of being loudly intimidating on the outside and quietly frightened on the inside, with a lion-like crouch and a roaring façade masking his increasing fear of remaining a beast forever. He expresses this in the Act 1 finale “If I Can’t Love Her,” a demanding solo which follows the ensemble’s show-stopping “Be Our Guest.” a daunting juxtaposition which Birchler handles with impressive power and obvious empathy.

The comic relief here is in many excellent hands. First on the scene are Gaston (Charlie Patterson) and his happily battered sidekick LeFou (Barrett Riggins). If Patterson has fewer bulging biceps than his animated persona, he makes up for it with a smug swagger and a baritone that can shake the rafters (or antlers) when he extols his many exaggerated attributes (“Gaston”).

Riggins has the unenviable task of being his human punching bag, with frequent hits timed to a clapstick and a super-flexible body that turns each hit into a pratfall and earns extended laughter.

In the castle of The Beast is the heart of the familiar show: the enchanted staff gradually becoming The furniture/utensils/etc. With the aid of Stephen R. Hollenback’s equally enchanted costume designs, they are universally audience favorites.

Lumiere (Keaton Eckhoff), the French candelabra, formerly a footman, squabbles with Cogsworth (Scott Fuss), a fussy grandfather clock nee butler, and romances Babette (Lexi Carter), a French maid-turning-feather duster. The diva of the group is Madame De La Grande Bouche (Kira Lace Hawkins), a chiffonier who dreams of better days in grand opera.

Beauty and the Beast Wagon Qheel Theatre Warsaw INThe voice of reason belongs to Mrs. Potts (Lottie Prenevost), the housekeeper becoming a teapot, whose son Chip (Parker Irwin) is the prize cup on her tea cart. She delivers the show’s title song as Beauty and her Beast enjoy a break-through waltz.

Throughout, the talented ensemble becomes villagers, wolves, giggling girls, an angry mob, enchanted objects and whatever else is required (special kudos to the silent winged gargoyles flanking the Beast’s chair) , singing and dancing and moving set pieces all without missing a beat!

The downside to this is the lack of tickets (if any) for the remaining performances. The upside is that this year’s WW company is one of the best and five season shows plus the encore remain in which to check out this talent.

“BEAUTY AND THE BEAST” plays through June 11 in the theater at 2517 E. Center St., Warsaw. Show times vary. For information and reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit

Strong Performances In Powerful Drama PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Wednesday, 18 May 2016 21:05

If you manage to survive infancy, childhood, teenage, young adulthood and middle age with a minimum of medical mishaps, you should reasonably expect to head into what is euphemistically referred to as your “golden years,” right?

Today, unfortunately, the answer too often is — wrong.

The Other Place  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThe shadows of dementia and Alzheimer’s hover over those heading into their final years and, increasingly, over many decidedly younger.

The journey of one woman into this unyielding darkness, and its affect on those in her life, is powerfully played out in the current South Bend Civic Theatre production “The Other Place,” on stage through Sunday in the Warner Theatre.

Juliana Smithton (Melissa Manier), age 52, is a professor-turned-drug company scientist. Speaking at a medical convention, ostensibly in support of a new drug that would help combat neurological diseases, she suddenly loses touch with reality, something she attributes to her belief that she is suffering from a brain tumor. She blames her distraction on seeing a girl in a yellow swimsuit among the male listeners.

The Other Place  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreResisting help from her husband Ian (Roy Bronkema), an oncologist who is uncertain of her self-diagnosis and whom she alternately clings to and pushes away as she struggles to hold on to an ever-elusive reality. She fights therapy and, as her mind wanders, experiences phone conversations from a long lost daughter and struggles to return to “the other place,” a Cape Cod cottage once owned by the family, where she is sure she will find her missing daughter.

An encounter there with the new owner, at first hostile then sympathetic, eventually leads to some realization of what is happening.

Her gradual but inevitable slide is terrifying to her and equally horrific for her husband, the target of her increasingly vitriolic attacks, who struggles for any way to help his wife in a situation he realizes can only become worse.

Playwright Sharr White’s script is deftly crafted to keep the audience in a state of uncertainty as to whether Juliana is experiencing fact or fancy.

Under the sensitive direction of Aaron Nichols, the four member cast creates the shadowy world of mental illness, making the 90-minute (no intermission) a truly emotionally riveting experience.

The most riveting is Manier, whose delusions become her reality with incredibly painful consequences. Her attempts to desperately hang on to the phantoms she believes real are shattering and, in the end, infinitely empathetic. It is a fully realized and emotionally draining portrayal of the onset of “the great darkness,” one of the most frightening conditions in a world full of frightening conditions.

The Other Place  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreBronkema delivers an equally powerful performance as the frustrated husband, stretched to the end of his own rational thinking and suffering helplessly in tandem with his wife.

The roles of the daughter, the therapist and the now-owner of “the other place” are created skillfully by Courtney Qualls who manages to instill each with its own persona. The final scene between the owner and Juliana is truly heartwrenching.

Michael Clarkson as “The Man” creates the son-in-law Juliana accuses of responsibility for her daughter’s disappearance. Or was he?

Jacee Rohick’s textured scenic design sets the solid decking of a summer place against the semi-transparency of floating panels which finally disappear into a triangulated reality.

Two slim streams of sand flow from the ceiling to flank the stage, ending just prior to curtain time. Obviously the elusive and ever-shifting sands of time. Don’t let them run out before seeing this excellent production.

THE OTHER PLACE” runs through Sunday in the South Bend Civic Theatre Warner Theater. For performance times and reservations, call 234-1112 or visit

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