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
WW "State Fair" Is Fine Family Fare PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Friday, 08 July 2011 15:29

With county fairs celebrating the best of the best in local produce, animals, crafts and arts throughout the summer, and state fairs waiting at the end of the blue ribbon trail, it seems fitting that the mid-season offering by Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre is“ State Fair,” a musical salute to these native American institutions penned by America’s Blue Ribbon musical theater duo, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Having the distinction of being the only R&H musical written specifically for the movies, “State Fair” was born in 1932 as a novel by Phillip Strong. It’s celebration of the family unit and all things solidly USA resulted in at least three film versions and one for the stage.

state fair wagon wheel theatreThe 1933 non-musical movie starred Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor (hope there are some out there who still remember these early superstars). In 1945, R&H added their magical musical touches which, plus Technicolor and a cast of big (at the time) name players, created a hit film. Unfortunately, a “bigger and better” 1962 cinematic offering had no such luck.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 21 August 2012 02:03
Performances Light Barn's "La Mancha" PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Saturday, 02 July 2011 17:24

Many theatrical productions have literary roots, but few reach as far back as those of “Man of La Mancha,,” the musical currently on stage at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich.

Born in the 17th century from the pen of Miguel de Cervantes, the tale of the aged knight errant has crossed the years to become one of the most enduring properties in the history of musical theater.

Robert Newman in Man of La Mancha at The Barn TheatreReportedly based on an incident in the life of the author, it is presented by Cervantes and his servant as a defense in his trial by prisoners of the Spanish Inquisition who threaten to take all his belongings if they find the soldier/author/tax collector guilty. Using the prisoners to play the characters in his tale, he unfolds the story of Don Quixote de La Mancha and his wildly varied adventures and misadventures.

Described as “a musical play,” “Man of La Mancha” was written by Dale Wasserman, first as a 1959 television play and, in 1965, as a musical with score by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion. Winning five Tony Awards including Best Musical, it has seen four Broadway revivals and become a staple of every regional and civic theater group in the country.

Seeing it again for the umpteenth (?) time I was quite surprised to find that something so familiar still had the power to evoke a tear at the final curtain. OK, So it was written that way and its signature anthem, “The Impossible Dream.,” is a real tearjerker, in or out of the production.

But seeing it on a surprisingly drab and sparse set (lots of black curtains and unconvincingly one dimensional stone walls) with static staging and unexpectedly flat lighting only made it clear that the power of this musical play is in the story it tells and the ability of the performers who are charged with bringing it to life.

I’m sure that a goodly portion of the opening night audience came to see leading man Robert Newman, better known to soap fans as the long-suffering hero Josh Lewis in the late CBS daytime drama “The Guiding Light.” Well, if they came to bemoan his loss to the small screen, they stayed — as did everyone in the near capacity audience — to applaud his live-and-in-person dramatic talent and — who knew? — his more-than-adequate vocal ability.

It took only a brief moment for Newman to replace Josh Lewis with Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote. Bridging the gap between television and theater, he delivered a solidly sensitive performance and, as required for the Don, aged rapidly and believably within minutes, sustaining the illusion through comic episodes and dark dramatic moments. And his rendition of “The Impossible Dream” was quite worthy of the extended applause it received.

Newman was not alone in delivering a pleasant surprise. Petite leading lady Penelope Alex created an Aldonza/Dulcinea who faces the ugly reality of her life with courage while hiding a sensitive soul. She does not have a big belt voice but handled the demanding solos with insight and emotional depth,

Barn Equity Company members Roy Brown and Eric Parker portrayed Cervantes’ stubbornly loyal Manservant/Pancho and the cynical Duke/Dr. Carrasco, respectively, with just the required humor and menace. The confrontation between Don Quixote and Carrasco’s Knight of the Mirrors was the production’s visually most impressive moment.

Patrick Hunter doubled as a Captain of the Inquisition and the Padre, and delivered the latter’s “To Each His Dulcinea” and the final “Prayer,” beautifully if, at times, with a bit too much belt. Hans Friedrichs as the Governor/Innkeeper blended disbelief with sympathy in his dealings with the mad knight, although he lacks the rumbling bass baritone needed for “The Dubbing.”

The ensemble became prisoners and a number of characters — including a horse and a mule — in Cervantes’ story, supplying solid vocal support and certainly adequate dance moves. John Jay Espino served as pianist/conductor of the six piece orchestra which did justice to Leigh’s moving score.

Director Brendan Ragotzy also was on stage, joining the cast as a last-minute replacement for an injured muleteer.

"MAN OF LA MANCHA" plays at 5 p.m. today and Sunday and 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through July 10 in the theater on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, Mich. For information and reservations call (269) 731-4121 between 10 a.m. a and 10 p.m. daily.

Last Updated on Saturday, 09 July 2011 19:44
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