WW Gives New Life To Classic Musical PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Saturday, 20 June 2015 15:20

Sometimes putting a classic musical on a season can be an invitation to disaster, especially if, because of the physical demands of its book, score and choreography, that musical is almost, in at least one of these areas, a sure bet to fail — or at least to stumble badly.

Don’t tell that to director/choreographer Scott Michaels and the cast of the Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts production of “West Side Story,” which opened Wednesday night in the Warsaw arena theater.

West Side Story Wagon Wheel Center Warsaw INI really don’t have to say more than get your tickets while there are still some available. You’ll have to wait a very long time to see as thrilling a production of this modern day “Romeo and Juliet” which, sadly, is as relevant today at it was almost 60 years ago.

Based on a concept by Jerome Robbins, a multi-award-winning director/choreographer in both musical theater and ballet, “West Side Story” offers a score by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents., all award winners in their own genres.

But having a theatrical pedigree doesn’t mean a company can just “mail it in.” In fact, the bar is set even higher and the demands are constant.

It took 10 years for Robbins to bring “WSS” to the stage and 10 years for him to assemble what turned out to be the perfect team.

In Warsaw, director Michaels already has the best choreographer in the Midwest and, in Thomas N. Stirling, a musical director who leads his 13-piece orchestra surely through the emotional nuances of Bernstein’s score.

The rest of the WW production team delivers its usual excellence in Stephen B. Hollenbeck’s character detailing (and very danceable) costumes, Sara Gosses’ mood enhancing lighting and Michael Higgins’ spare but exact set design. Sound man Chris Pollnow keeps the right balance between singer/actors and instrumentalists and production stage manage Caitlin Denney Turner and her crew make the many scene changes swiftly and silently.

All provide the perfect setting for the incredibly talented WW cast. For the original Broadway production, Robbins requested — and got — eight weeks for dance rehearsals rather than the usual four. Michaels & Co. did it in two and very obviously without missing a beat!

West Side Stopry Waon Wheel Center Warsaw INFrom the minute the Jets, led by Sean Watkinson as Riff, and the Sharks, led by Danny Burgos as Bernardo, hit the stage, the air crackles with barely contained hostility. They dance their emotions — and then they sing and dance again, holding nothing back.

Into this maelstrom, articulated by the breathtaking “Dance at the Gym,” come Tony (Jordan Andre), former leader of the Jets, and Maria (Allsun O’Malley), sister of Bernardo. It is love at first sight and their instant connection is delivered lyrically by two of the finest voices at WW this season. They more than do justice to the familiar solos and duets., especially the “Balcony Scene” (“Tonight”) and “One Hand, One Heart.”

On the fiery side is Anita (Monica Brown), Bernardo’s girl, who makes no secret of her feelings, leading the Shark girls in the wonderfully biting “America.” (NOTE: Former Wagon Wheeler Karen Olivo won a Tony Award for her Anita in the 2009 revival.)

The Jets hit the nail on the head with their view of police in “Gee, Officer Krupke.”

The powerful “Tonight” quintet, the angry “Rumble,” the haunting “Somewhere” ballet and the tragically spare finale (oh come on, you must know how this ends!!) are only a few of the familiar highlights which can be a joy to see and hear — or not.

In this production, there is no need to worry. ”Somewhere,” Robbins & Co. are smiling!

“WEST SIDE STORY” plays through June 27 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit

Barn Musical Works Hard For Little PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Wednesday, 17 June 2015 18:08

One day in 1934, an east wind stirred by the pen of P.L. Travers blew a magical nanny to London’s 17 Cherry Tree Lane.

That nanny was Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins  Th Barn Theatre Augusta MIOver the next 54 years, seven more books recounting her adventures were published, establishing the no-nonsense lady firmly in the childhood (and adult) libraries of millions of readers world-wide.

In addition, she served as the central character for a 1964 Walt Disney film and a theatrical musical which played in London’s West End for three years before crossing the pond to begin a seven year run on Broadway.

Walt Disney’s “Mary Poppins,” opened Tuesday night at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI. Unfortunately it takes a lot more than “A Spoonful of Sugar” to make this production go — anywhere.

In the leading role, a red-coated Hannah Eakin works valiantly to project Mary’s “spit-spot” persona. Her “magic” is limited due to the physical restrictions of the stage, but she does create a warm character. Musically she has no problem with Mary’s vocal assignments and is heard well in spite of the orchestra.

Mary Poppins  The Barn Theatre Augusta MIThe seven-piece ensemble led by pianist Matt Shabala stumbled loudly through the Sherman brothers’ tuneful score, frequently laying out as if to locate their places in the music. During the big ensemble numbers, the dancers earned props just to stay with the choreography, getting little or no support from the orchestra. It also did a great job of playing OVER dialogue.

Barn choreographer Jamey Grisham plays Bert, Mary’s longtime friend and companion on her “outings.” His sidewalk artist/chimney sweep was not strong but managed to keep smiling, even upside down in the “Pippin-esque” gymnastics-in-the-air for “Step In Time.”

The ensemble interpretation of “Supercalifragilistic...etc” was certainly enthusiastic but most resembled an homage to the Village People.

As Mr. Banks, Richard Marlatt turned the family patriarch into a nasty, pompous and very unlikable man, with no time for his children and no thought for his wife.

As Mrs. Banks, Barn veteran Brooke Evans did her best as a rather too pliant woman who, given Mr. Banks’ tendency to blame her loudly for everything, would have been justified in crowning him with his favorite vase.

The Banks’ children are in almost every scene. As Jane and Michael, Riley Em VanDerVelde and Daniel Sturdy, respectively, were present and knew their lines and blocking but frequently were too rushed or too soft to be understood.

Mary Poppins  The Barn Theatre  Augusta MIVeteran performers Penelope Alex and Kevin Robert White were notable for turning very small roles (no small actors!) into definite characters as the Banks’s disgruntled kitchen help.

Ditto one of the show’s villains, Miss Andrews, Mr. Banks’ “Holy Terror” of a nanny, supposedly the reason for his unfeeling adulthood. The energy went up 100 percent when Jackie Gubow hurled herself into “Brimstone and Treacle,” her remedy for everything.

The set design by Shy Iverson was based stylistically on Mary Shepard’s original illustrations for Travers’ books. The painted hanging panels were artistically correct but required much pushing and pulling to get them on and off as did the angled beams for the nursery and the many other set pieces.

The costumes were an eclectic mix. Mrs. Banks was consigned to plain blouse and brown skirts while the children were more unkempt than any well-bred young Brit of the period. Mary’s white “Jolly Holiday” dress sported a large hole in skirt and most of the hems were, at best, uneven while the Bird Woman’s costume evoked the Wicked Witch of the West.

Special effects played a very large part in the show’s professional success. Here, they are limited to a coat tree which Mary pulls from her red carpet bag and a couple of across-stage “flights.”

The production is under the direction of Dee Sandt and, to be fair, the opening night audience enjoyed it.

“MARY POPPINS” plays through June 28 in the theatre on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit

SBCT 'The Explorers Club' Mines Comedy PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Tuesday, 16 June 2015 15:08

In 1904, a group of scientists and adventurers gathered in New York City to form The Explorers Club. To this day, members are credited with an impressive number of firsts: going to the North Pole, the South Pole, the top of Mt. Everest, the deepest part of the ocean and the moon.

The Explorers Club  Sojuth Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThe club, or at least some of its members, is the focus of a farce of the same name by Nell Benjamin which played off Broadway in 2013. The South Bend Civic Theatre production opened Friday evening in the Warner Theatre.

Directed by Leigh Taylor and featuring some of SBCT’s best actors, creditable period costumes and an absolutely knockout set designed by the always surprising Jacee Rohick, “The Explorer’s Club” is set in 1879 London where it teeters somewhere between farce and melodrama with frequent dollops of theater of the absurd thrown in for good measure.

Some of the humor, no matter in which format, lands well. Some, not so much.

The Explorers Club  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreUnderlying all the exaggerated declarations is one fact: Into this males-only sanctum sanctorum Interim President Lucius Fretway (Ted Manier) wishes to propose for membership — a female. A biologist, he has named a new plant after the lady, Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Melissa Manier), who has just returned from an expedition bringing with her the last member of a lost tribe. He is painted blue, is decorated with feathers and speaks only in his native garble. She calls him Luigi (Mark Moriarty). Luigi displays a hidden talent that solves one of the club’s primary problems (and provides several of the show’s most hilarious moments).

The Explorers Club  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThe membership at large — Prof. Cope (Doug Streich), a herpetologist who wears his pet cobra Rosie around his neck; Prof. Sloan (David Chudzynski), an archeo-theologist whose latest findings prove the lost tribes of Israel wound up in Ireland; and Prof. Walling (S. Overgaard), a zoologist who is attached to Jane, the last of the experimental guinea pigs — are less than agreeable to Fretway’s proposal even as the returning president, explorer Harry Percy (Tucker Curtis), explodes on the scene and, after a look at the attractive Miss Spottte-Hume, obviously considers her for more than membership.

Lest there be any suggestion that Percy’s explorations are more realistic than his fellows, he repeatedly reminds all that he discovered the East Pole and is about to search for the West. He also is known for being the lone survivor of any of his expeditions.

The Explorers Club  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThe catalyst for the eventual mayhem is the form of greeting of Luigi’s tribe: a smack in the face. Startling at best, it is the signal for war when, during his audience with the queen, Luigi delivers an unscheduled

“hello” to her majesty.

News of the planned military reprisal is brought to the club by Sir Bernard Humphries (a wonderfully stiff-upper-lip-ish Craig MacNab), who demands the location of the lost tribe. Phyllida refuses and chaos ensues.

Into the middle of this free-for-all springs Beebe (Thomas Neff), a Percy-survivor-turned-killer-monk whose skill at martial arts is vigorously displayed as he attempts to settle the score.

Costume-wise, his leather shoes, black socks and garters were definitely an anachronism, as was the female portraying one of the professors., complete with mustache and beard. A rather odd note in a play whose major premise is the determination of men to keep women out of their club.

FYI: The actual Explorers Club finally allowed female members in 1981.

THE EXPLORERS CLUB plays through June 28 in the Warner Theatre, 215 West Madison Ave., South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.

In 'Love Letters' It Only Takes Two PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Thursday, 11 June 2015 21:46

“Love Letters,” the two-character drama by A.R. Gurney which opened an abbreviated one-week run Tuesday at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, MI, is a deceptively simple theatrical offering.

Love Letters The Barn Theatre Augusta MIThere is no set, only two desks, side-by-side, each holding a folder and a glass of water with pitcher. There are no props to speak of, excepting the glass, pitcher and the pages in the folder which holds the script for the play (a Pulitzer Prize finalist).

There are no costume changes, very few lighting variations and minimal movement, yet the lives of two people are created from notes, cards and letters exchanged throghout the years.

What then, you may ask, is the attraction of this piece for the many acting duos, famous and not, who have settled down to breathe life into Gurney’s protagonists?

On the surface, one would say it’s because there is little or no rehearsal time required and no memorization.      But ask actors Robert Newman and Penelope Alex who share the stage at The Barn, and somewhere in their answers would be facing the challenge of bringing to life two people whose relationship covers half a century without the benefit of old age makeup or (upright) body language.

They do it all while seated at their respective desks. No standing allowed, except walking on and off the stage.

Love Letters  The Barn Theatre Augusta MIThe fascination is watching their characters grow from elementary school age to definitely senior citizens; of feeling the shifts in their relationship as financial, emotional and physical changes play definite parts in their friendship.

The roller coaster highs and lows of their lives never seem to find them in the same space at the same ti yet their connection is constant.

There may be no memorization required, but as Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, Alex and Newman never appeared to be reading from their scripts, so well defined and clearly delineated were the shifts as time and circumstances repeatedly brought them together and kept them apart.

Both grew up in a restricted, segregated community where money and family were the keys. She was wealthy and always the rebel, an artist who cared little for the opinion of others until it was too late. And she hated writing letters. He had the ancestry but not the money until he headed into banking and politics, almost tragically aware of what others thought. And he was in love with writing.

Their eventual resolution was inevitable.

The talented actors nuanced their multi-aged characters with honesty, warmth and a solid core. In addition to being a thoroughly entertaining evening, it was a lesson in what can be done by two excellent actors with minimal externalization and a solid mastery of their craft.

”LOVE LETTERS” plays through Sunday in the theater on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121.

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