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Barn 'Streetcar' Right On Track PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Thursday, 28 July 2011 20:15

I have a dear friend whose favorite line — when going to see a show which might or might not provide a good theatrical evening — was “Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

This, I am hesitant to say, was my state of mind as the curtain went up on The Barn Theatre production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Three hours later, however, I unconditionally joined the rest of the opening night audience in offering the fine cast a standing ovation, something that does not come easily for me. This is not traditional summer theater fare, but it is a classic play solidly done and deserves to be seen.

streetcar named desire  the barn theatreDon’t let the three hour running time (including intermissions) deter you from seeing this sharply directed, sensitively performed and very involving production. It is Williams, a playwright known for his extended prose, and, written in 1947, it comes from the era of three-act plays. Here, however, even if you are a great fan of the 1951 Marlon Brando/Vivian Leigh multi-Oscar winning film or have seen the play itself more than once and know exactly how the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama plays out, this production will keep you awake and involved.

First I must credit guest director Dee Dee Sandt, herself a former Barnie, whose sure hand guided the fine cast through the frequently turgid waters of Williams’ prose. The pace never lessens and the familiar characters never become stereotypes (kudos to Eric Parker for making Stanley Kowalski’s “Stellllllaaaah” definitely his own creation) or caricatures. Rather they take on individual personas.

Cast in the pivotal, multi-layered role of Blanche duBois, who arrives in New Orleans’ French Quarter via the title’s streetcar, is longtime Barn leading lady Penelope Alex, known primarily for her comic timing in the frequent farces which are audience favorites at the Augusta, Mich., theater. Her portrayal of the fading southern belle, a former English teacher walking a fine line between fact and fantasy, is sensitively and sympathetically drawn. Revelation of her past results in rejection by her flawed beau and a brutal attack by her brother-in-law which, when all else has failed, makes Blanche’s final harrowing escape into the world of illusion wrenching but necessary for survival.

Parker’s Stanley is arrogant, egocentric and extremely possessive of things he perceives as his own — his house, his liquor, his wife — and he instantly sees Blanche as a threat and an intruder in his domain. His harsh treatment, which culminates in rape, finally removes her from his world.


blanche  streetcar  barn theatreStella, Blanche’s “baby sister” and Stanley’s wife, is beautifully underplayed by Meg Schneider. Caught between two dysfunctional factions, she struggles to do the right thing but, inevitably, must believe the lie in order to retain her sanity


Mitch is one of Stanley’s bowling, beer drinking, poker playing buddies. In the talented hands of Roy Brown, he is more of a gentleman than the others and Blanche’s insistence on courteous behaviour intrigues him. With the discovery of her deception, hurt becomes anger but, even so, rage is tinged with sorrowful regret.

The Kowalski’s upstairs neighbors are played by Melissa Cotton and Hans Friedrichs. They mirror the younger couple’s passionate, combative relationship, making the distance between the French Quarter and the social structure of Blanche’s memory an even wider abyss. . (Note: The film version, made under Hays office restrictions, sends Stella upstairs with her baby at the finale vowing never to go back and eliminates mention of the homosexuality of Blanche’s young husband, whose suicide haunts her more and more frequently.)

The set works well but the lighting design allows for too much light in scenes that are meant to be dark and makes the harsh effect of removing Blanche’s Japanese lantern almost negligible.

The many emotions that surge visibly and invisibly throughout “Streetcar” make it a drama that still speaks to audiences almost 65 years after its creation. The Barn Theatre production is one example of why it continues to survive.

“A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE” plays through Aug. 7 in the theater on M-62 between Galesburg and Augusta, Mich. For reservations and performance times, call (269) 731-4121 between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily.

Last Updated on Thursday, 28 July 2011 21:10
 
South Bend Offers Another "Hairspray" PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Monday, 25 July 2011 18:33

This is turning out to be the summer of “Hairspray” and, given the continuing popularity of the theatrical version of John Waters’ 1988 film, it undoubtedly will also be the fall, winter and spring.

hairspray  south bend civic theatreThere are several reasons for this attraction: the music by Marc Shaiman, with lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is both energizing and listenable; Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan created a book in which several serious issues are wrapped in the palatable cover of humor; and the characters are larger than life, several of them literally, but realistic enough to find their marks.

All these are present in the South Bend Civic Theatre production currently on stage in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorum. The only thing lacking is a really sharp production.

The cast, directed by Sara Bartlett, works hard but once again looses the battle with the defects of the auditorium. Sound, no matter how many baffles are placed in the vast dome, is iffy and any chance of understanding dialogue or lyrics vanishes when the actor turns away.

“Hairspray” is set in the ‘60s and much is made of the difference between the teenage “ins” and “outs,” part of which depends on the size of the beehive hairdos. Unfortunately, there are a lot a “bumps” but not one real beehive to be seen.

Kacie Colleen Mercer is young Tracy Turnblad, whose only desire is to dance on the Corny Collins (Jared Wagner) TV show, an “American Bandstand” knock-off . Its producer, Velma Von Tussle (Meribeth Saunders), a former Miss Baltimore Crabs, is intent on retaining show segregation and making sure her daughter Amber (Taylor Calderone) is center stage and winner of the upcoming Miss Teenage Hairspray contest.

hairspray duo  south bend civic theatreStanding behind Tracy are her parents, Wilbur (Jim Jones) and Edna (Jon Beck), who also support her desire to promote the show’s integration because “Integration is the New Frontier”, and her best friend (and fellow “out”) Penny Pingleton (the consistantly funny Madeline Eastman). Along the way, Tracy meets Linc Larkin (Dominic Go), Amber’s boyfriend and an aspiring singer/songwriter in search of a recording contract, and finds new friends in Seaweed J. Stubbs (Brandon Harper), and his mother, Motormouth Maybelle (Sheila LeSure), who join Tracy in her attempt at integratioln.

The featured performers all deliver solid vocals with LeSure outstanding in declaring “I Know Where I’ve Been” as well as the mocking “Big, Blonde, Beautiful.” Mercer’s opening “Good Morning Baltimore” is set as her wakeup solo. t finds her in a Hannibal Lector-style standup bed with the cover obviously held in place by a member of the stage crew.

When not in use, platforms at each side of the stage are shielded by sliding flats painted to resemble Baltimore streets. Audience members seated on either the right or left side of the auditorium, however, have clear views of crew members changing platform furniture and set dressings on opposite sides, drawing focus from the action front stage. The same is true of set pieces not on stage but clearly visible in the wings.

It is little things that do make a difference.

It’s no secret that Edna is always played by a large man. Beck does a creditable job but Johnson plays hubby Wilbur in twitchy, gawking vaudeville comic style which gets a lot of laughs but precludes any tenderness from their duet “You’re Timeless to Me.”

“HAIRSPRAY” plays through Aug. 7 in the theater at 403 N. Main Street. Show times and ticket prices vary. For information and reservations call (574) 234-1112 or go online at sbct.org.

Last Updated on Monday, 25 July 2011 19:12
 
Wagon Wheel Rides on "Big River" PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Friday, 22 July 2011 18:33

Take literary legend Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and country music singer/songwriter Roger Miller, mix with the talented company at the Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre and the result is “Big River,” the multi-Tony Award-winning musical based on Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which is on stage in Warsaw through July 30.

If that paragraph seemed a bit wordy, blame it on William Hauptman’s theatrical adaptation of Twain’s novel, which actually is the downside of any production of this show. Narrated by Huck, it describes his many adventures in pre-Civil War Mississippi and there are many — actually many, many, many — of them.

Big River  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Roger MillerPortrayed by Nick Laughlin, teenage Huckleberry Finn is anxious to avoid school and his frequently brutal, always drunk Pap (Andy Robinson) and eager to participate in the elaborately involved schemes dreamed up by his good friend Tom Sawyer (Stephen Anthony). Following Tom’s lead, he creates a scenario — using a lot of pig’s blood — designed to indicate foul play and allow his escape to a small nearby island.

There he finds he is not alone. Jim (Monte Howell), a slave belonging to the Widow Douglas (Lauren Roesner) and her sister Miss Watson (Sophie Grimm), is running away to avoid being sold and is heading north in the hope of earning enough money to buy freedom for his wife and two children. Jim and Huck share a raft down the Mississippi River and, before their journey ends, have encountered a wide assortment of people, good and bad. Especially on the bad side are two con men, The Duke (David Schlumpf) and The King (Ben Maters), who force Huck to be a part of their nefarious schemes and plan to sell Jim back into slavery.

To reach the finale takes 2 1//2 hours, a not-unusual running time for a musical but, as the ballad-heavy second act goes on, it just seems longer. Actually, the music is a major plus for “Big River,” but most of the rousing up-tempo numbers are delivered in act one by the residents of St. Petersburg (“Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?”), by Tom Sawyer’s Gang (“The Boys”) and by Huck , The Duke and The King (“When the Sun Goes Down in the South”).

Director Scott Michaels’ super-sharp choreography continues to dazzle as interpreted by the high-stepping ensemble and I wished for more of the same in act two. After the opening, “The Royal Nonesuch,” and the wacky “Arkansas,” delivered with barefoot abandon by Max Chucker, it was a parade of slow tunes and reprises of slow tunes as slaves mourned their captivity, a family about-to-be-fleeced by the fake royals, mourned the loss of a father, and Huck and Jim parted ways.

These are lovely in themselves, and I believe several of the ballads (“River in The Rain,” ”Worlds Apart,” “Leavin’s Not the Only Way to Go”) became country hits in their own right, but without even the flicker of a hoedown in between, they are too much of a good thing. That and Hauptman’s insistence on having Huck detail every incident in his travels, makes for a too-long second act .

big river wagon wheel theatre  roger millerThe fault here is certainly not with the talented company, Laughlin handles his extensive dialogue with unflagging enthusiasm. It is sadly shocking to hear how Huck struggles with himself about helping Jim, a fact he initially perceives as wrong. His slow realization of the unjust horrors of slavery and his determination to help his friend don’t fail to make a point that is relevant today.

The featured players are solid, dramatically , vocally and choreographically, and the company members required to play two or more parts — Robinson, Michael Yocum, Chucker and Roesner — carry each of their several roles with individual distinction.

Michaels puts every inch of the intricate set, designed by the late Roy Hines, to good use, with Huck and Jim’s river ride especially impressive. Lighting designer Greg Griffin makes sure that— sunlight, moonlight or fog — the necessary atmosphere is achieved.

Two of the WWT’s hidden (i.e. not on stage) treasures — music director/arranger/keyboardist Thomas N. Stirling and costume designer/creator Stephen R. Hollenbeck — once again deliver the goods, instrumentally and materially. Added to Michaels’ direction, it creates a really professional production.

Prior to the performance, Michaels announced the 2012 WWT season: “Peter Pan,” “Legally Blonde,” “Carousel,” “Chicago,” “Blithe Spirit” and “I Love A Piano.” Season tickets are on sale now.

“BIG RIVER” plays through July 30 in the theater at 2517 E. Center St. Performance times vary. For reservations and information, call (574) 267-8041.

Last Updated on Friday, 22 July 2011 19:26
 
'Chicago' One of Kander and Ebb's Best PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Thursday, 14 July 2011 05:17

“Chicago: The Musical,” on stage through July 24 at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich., has the distinction of being the longest running revival in the history of Broadway — 1996 to the present and beyond.

It more than outlived its original production in 1975, ostensibly because attitudes towards celebrity criminals have changed considerably. It is still going strong in spite of — or possibly thanks to — the 2002 Oscar winning film version. Productions at any level — national, regional, local — still exhibit box office magic.

Chicago  Barn Theatre  Augusta, Mich.Listening to the excellent Barn orchestra deliver John Kander’s brassily hypnotic score, it’s impossible not to be drawn in. The satirical tale of two Windy City killers and how they won acquittal and vaudeville stardom is much more believable today than it was in 1926 when a Chicago Tribune reporter combined her columns on the trials of two accused murderesses into a play. With only one exception, the 1942 movie “Roxie Hart,” all have had “Chicago” in the title.

I have to admit that Kander and his late partner, Fred Ebb, are two of my very favorite musical theater composers and “Chicago” is one of their best collaborations. Add to that the choreographic genius of Bob Fosse and the result is a winner. Fosse stamped his style on this show and it is impossible to do a good “Chicago” without at least attempting to follow in his dance shoes.

Barn choreographer Jamey Grisham (who also plays murder victim Fred Casely) gives it a shot but I missed the really tight wedge formations and razor sharp hands, heads, legs and pelvic thrusts that characterize a good Fosse-style show. Giving the amount of rehearsal time allowed these productions — two weeks — it is possible that these will really come together during the run. The production number coming the closest is the opening “All That Jazz,” given a real high voltage delivery by the ensemble led by Katrina Chizek as Velma Kelly. Chizek, looking very Catherina Zeta Jones in a sleek bobbed black wig, is closest to the lean and leggy dancers Fosse preferred. Vocally, she is the strongest of the featured females and hits her marks every time.

Competing with Velma for the legal maneuverings of lawyer Billy Flynn (Eric Parker) is Roxie Hart (Emily May Smith). Roxie and Flynn have their comic timing in peak form as he speaks for his client in “We Both Reached for The Gun.” Parker, a Barn veteran, is in fine voice and obviously enjoys chewing the scenery as the barrister who only cares about “love.” He handled an on-stage costume snafu hilariously opening night — and without dropping character. Petite Smith was the victim of mushy mic syndrome plus songs at the bottom of her vocal range, making her difficult to hear. She creates a feisty killer, however, even managing to evoke sympathy when verbally destroying her mild-mannered husband Amos (who also is her real-life hubby Roy Brown).

Chicago  Barn Theatre Augusta, Mich.Brown delivered a sadly sympathetic “Mr. Cellophane,” donning a bib and jacket reminiscent of famed clown Emmet Kelly (without the white face makeup) for his signature song. His character is always an audience favorite and that holds true herel

Have to say my favorite number is the sizzling “Cell Block Tango,” in which the “ladies” of Cook County Jail explain their reasons for homicide. The “unveiling” of reporter Mary Sunshine (Vincent Ester) continues to surprise audiences although I have to wonder why. Jenna Petardi is Matron Mamma Morton who can arrange anything — for a price.

Although there are chase lights around the proscenium arch and the entrance at the top of the center stage platform, there is very little done to create excitement with lighting in any of the numbers. This is unfortunate because the set is, of necessity, abstract and predominantly black. Costuming is minimal (lots of garter belts and bustiers) as required.

“CHICAGO” plays at 8:30 p.m. today through Saturday and July 19-24 a d 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and July 23-24 in the theater on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, Mich. For reservations and information, call (269) 731-4121.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 July 2011 17:09
 
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