“Charlotte’s Web” Enchants as it Educates

Reviewed by Carolyn Gillespie21408_show_portrait_large

The opening night of Flint Community Players’ Charlotte’s Web was packed with parents and children who swung in to visit – or revisit – that other famous web-slinger and the pig who loved her. Created by E. B. White, by day a writer for The New Yorker magazine, this charming tale has been attracting audiences since it was published in 1952. Several adaptations are available, including a live-action film featuring a cast of A-listers, an animated musical version, this play version, and even a video game. Apparently White’s inspiration came from a pair of incidents in his own life, one involving a sickly pig he nursed when he was a child, and the other, a spider’s egg sack he watched over in his bedroom when he was an adult. Whatever the inspiration, he spun a tale that has caught many a young reader in a delightful web of its own.

Dan Gerics directs the large cast of 24 which includes 18 young people, moving them around the multi-leveled set on FCP’s small stage with good effect. He also joins the band Cavanaugh Plus 2 to provide pre-show and incidental Irish music. The set is handsomely painted with a prominent ingenious web (of course), and a deftly painted sky that is enhanced throughout the evening by Scooter Griffus manipulating the theatre’s meagre lighting equipment. I don’t know whether the script calls for a “sound chorus”, but this little group of six off-stage actors provided live sound effects for the first half of the show. It was a nice touch and I was hoping to hear more from them as the evening proceeded. The costumes created by Laura Kline and her crew appropriately evoke the 1950’s rural setting, and some are very clever indeed! The eponymous spider (Jenna Wells) sports all eight legs that can move in a synchronized fashion. Her initial appearance is quite magical. The Goose (Marissa Cipriani) and Gander (Therese Wofford) are decked out with orange feet and ingenious bills, and Templeton the Rat (Molly Jones) sports a dapper outfit befitting her arrogant, cynical portrayal.

Performances vary in skill level. Clara Usealman does a splendid job as Wilbur the pig with her natural and sympathetic delivery. Charlotte is a worthy hero. She is constantly in motion (is this to mesmerize us?) and handles the awkward task of spinning her messages with some aplomb. I imagine she will become more efficient as the run continues! Fern and Avery Arable light up the stage every time they appear. The three young narrators, Sophia Johnston, Josh Beauchamp, and Edith Pendell do a fine, clear job of storytelling, aiding in the transitions from scene to scene. Many of the adult actors’ performances are quite broad, earning laughter from the children in the audience.

Opening night had its glitches, of course. Latecomers delayed the curtain for 15 minutes, including a false start. When the show finally got underway, the lights came up, but nothing happened for several seconds until the sound chorus kicked in. The soundscape was so charming that I wished they had begun in the dark to set the scene for us. The most pressing concern, however, was that I missed about a third of the dialogue. Admittedly, I was sitting in the back row, but more attention to low volume, under-articulated text, and/or dropping inflections at the end of sentences is never amiss.

If you don’t know the story, you should probably be alerted to the fact that death is a major theme throughout, beginning with the sinister axe with which Mr. Arable intends to kill the runt of the pig’s litter until he is persuaded to spare it – temporarily. The threat of the slaughterhouse constantly hangs over Wilbur’s head, and Charlotte’s impending demise is referenced several times (female spiders do die after depositing their egg sacks). “After all, what’s a life anyway,” says Charlotte. “We’re born, we live a little while, we die.” On the other hand, the themes of friendship and re-birth are even stronger. “Friendship is one of the most satisfying things in the world,” Wilbur muses. And he tends Charlotte’s egg sack until the babies hatch, and three of them take Charlotte’s place in the barn. The web of life continues.

Charlotte’s Web continues tonight and tomorrow (July 14 & 15) @ 2:30pm. Tonight’s performance (July 14) @ 7:30pm will be signed for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. For tickets and more information contact the box office at (810) 441-9302 or reach them online at http://www.flintcommunityplayers.com

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“Oliver!” Runs Through July at FVP

Oliver-Pure-Light-Studios-Graphic-01Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby

It’s a great story, and why wouldn’t it be? Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist has been read and enjoyed for over a hundred years, so when the whole story was set to music over fifty years ago, it’s no surprise that it’s still a hit today.

Fenton Village Players opened their version of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Thursday evening. A large cast, including many talented newcomers, tells this story of an orphaned boy raised in a 1800s English workhouse. It is a musically rich show with lots of chorus numbers and some fine solos.

Nearly ten youngsters make up the group of orphans and thieves that rule this tale of Victorian England’s treatment of the poor and especially the young. Many will remember the character of Fagin, played here by Daniel Ragan. He’s the raffish fellow who takes in homeless kids then turns them into pickpockets and thieves in exchange for a place to belong, food, and unfortunately, fear. Ragan is scary from the beginning but oddly benevolent as well.

Oliver is played by Jackson McDowell, who at 11 debuts with FVP although he brings experience in local theatre musicals elsewhere to this stage. His voice is sweet and his look enchanting especially as he sings the haunting “Where Is Love?”

The real villain of the piece is the brutal Bill Sikes. Brandon Pretty is menacing, dressed in mostly black, as he paces about with a sneer for everyone. His voice however isn’t snarly enough to match his looks.

Brooke Caldwell brings a trio of empathy, energy and enthusiasm to the role of Bill’s girlfriend, Nancy. She is outstanding vocally and manages to portray this complicated character to the hilt. Her performance of “As Long As He Needs Me” is stunning.

Two other soloists need mention. Shiloh Lichowid who sings the plaintive “Boy For Sale”, a perfect showcase for his strong voice, plays Mr. Bumble, the grouchy Workhouse constable. Playing the Artful Dodger, Fagin’s right hand kid and the fellow who finds Oliver on the street, Tony Nelson is spunky and fun as he welcomes Oliver with “Consider Yourself”.

The youngsters are adorable and fun to watch as they move from workhouse kids to street thieves to upper class shoppers and back. Their choruses are rousing and loud as they should be especially in the opener “Food, Glorious Food” and the finale “I’d Do Anything”.

It cannot be easy to wrangle a troupe of this size with many of them children. Director Steve Krupa has done a decent job. The FVP stage isn’t deep but it is wide, so he has taken advantage of that to set scenes and dances handily. Music director Rafeal McDaniel had his work cut out as well. Getting kids to sing and dance with the gusto these children do is no small accomplishment.

There are however a few problems. The music here is prerecorded which inhibits singers and even speakers. Too many times Thursday, there were long waits for the music to finish so the action could continue. Enthusiasm would bubble up now and then but the sound track held everyone in check as they tried to stay inside the tempo.

I am not a fan of canned accompaniment in a full-scale musical. Every show I’ve seen with this music tech has had a problem. Singers should lead and music should accompany them, but when the music is recorded those roles are reversed.

Still, Oliver! is a good show and well worth seeing. The kids are great and the story is one that never gets old. It continues at the Fenton Village Playhouse, 14197 Torrey Road, Fenton MI through July 29. For more information on times and tickets contact the box office at 810-750-7700 or online at www.FentonTheatre.org

 

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One-Act Plays Premier at FVP

Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby30739869_1832615580102359_2271617921729927934_n

There was a world premiere this weekend in Fenton. It wasn’t widely publicized but Fenton Village Players offers a range of theatrical presentations and opportunities and this was one of them. Odyssey and Performer, two one-act plays, were both written and directed by local playwright Joseph Mishler.

Not main stage productions, these two were Second Stage events presented in the smaller activity room of the playhouse. Audience members sat at tables – cabaret style – very close to the actors and the action that took place on an elevated platform.

The first offering, Odyssey, found two veterans, Him (Sean Mueller) and Her (Casey Gross) about to be discharged from the service. It is 1968 and they are Viet Nam veterans with no real desire to leave but with no desire to stay either. Both apparently suffer from PTSD episodes and have holed up in a motel while they try their best to face what their existence will be going forward.

The play unfolded in vignettes with numerous blackouts marking the end of scenes. The conversation between these two makes up the plot as She relives the horror experienced in battlefield nursing while He finds most of his experience nearly too difficult to articulate.

The angst of that time came through in the lines but not so much in the emotion from these two. Gross brought some believable pain to her memories and to her struggle to return to “normal” life. Mueller, however, although clearly describing his character as a gentle young man thrown into a terrifying situation, didn’t bring the same level of reality to his character.

The script seemed to focus on speech and memory rather than movement. With the players on an elevated stage, a creaky one at that, their scene divisions were motivated if noisy. Overall, this trip back in time may not really be such a long way after all. With U.S. soldiers still at war, many are coming home today facing the same dilemmas. Mishler’s play provides heavy food for thought.

The second play, titled Performer, relied on a much lighter premise. Dana Forton (Gina Joy Roemer) is watching an outdoor play at a Dickens Festival when she is approached by a gentleman claiming to be Charles Dickens (Jim Pike). It doesn’t take long for these two to wind up entwined back at her apartment with Dana trying to find out who he really is while Dickens is experiencing culture shock at his sudden time-hop forward.

The idea of time travel is intriguing and his arrival at a Dickens Festival is logically ironic. Dana is an actress and of course “Charlie”(she calls him that) wants to see her perform. Finally it almost happens after they go through too many relationship-cementing scenes and commit to a lifetime together complete with a bed of rose petals.

Unfortunately, there is a wealth of time juxtaposition issues that could have been exploited, but the script spent more time, including too many darkened scene changes, revealing the love affair’s progress. Somewhere along the way, the idea of this really being Charles Dickens faded and that was too bad.

Both actors were good at portraying two people attracted to each other although Pike might have been a bit more proper, or at least English, in his delivery. It was too easy to forget who he was supposed to be.

Roemer was animated and appropriately flamboyant. Great facial expression and enthusiasm brought her character charm and spunk.

Mishler is involved in the Holly Dickens Festival so we understand where the idea may have popped into his head. It is a clever idea, but it just seemed to get bogged down in the affair with only sparse nods paid to time warp issues.

We enjoyed being invited to view these two plays. We are always amazed at the effort and involvement that must go into first writing the script and then trusting actors to interpret your words for the world. It was fun.

 

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CCC’s “Avenue Q” Combines Talent and Dexterity

c8b4e1_249d495af6e2404f8fc775656b808bff~mv2Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby

If we imagine a millennial version of “Sesame Street”, we can begin to understand the musical entertainment and educational appeal of Clio Cast & Crew’s newest production, Avenue Q. Puppet-centric, slightly bawdy but still comically clever, this Tony Award winner written by Jeff Whitty with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx is a must see show! The puppets alone, plus the ease with which they are handled and perform, makes the price of admission worthwhile.

As to the story line, a young man fresh out of college comes to New York with big dreams but no money. Princeton (Josh Bleau) finds that Avenue Q is all he can afford, but that turns out to be a wonderfully diverse place filled with a bunch of funny folk that keep life certainly interesting. A comical number, “It Sucks To Be Me”, introduces the residents including the three non-puppet people, Brian (Steve Yerian), Christmas Eve (Nicole Dunckel), and the super in charge, Gary Coleman (Rolecia Looney). They are joined by the puppets including sweet Kate Monster (Kristen Ann Seeley), Rod (Shane Welch), Nicky (Duane Dunckel) and of course, Princeton.

This is a heavily sung show – one musical number after another with only short vignettes to string them together – but it flows very nicely. It is also broadly issue driven touching on race, homosexuality, and pornography as well as loneliness, excess, and the big one here – Purpose.

We didn’t really find a weak link in this show. Every performer was on top of their game – deftly manipulating puppets even when things went wrong. Most are rod puppets (think Muppets) and Bleau was terrific at covering a broken rod early on. His puppet never missed a gesture. Later poor Princeton had a more extraordinary body part malfunction which we’re pretty sure won’t happen again, but was pretty funny at the time! Bleau handled it all with panache.

We were impressed with Trekkie Monster, the two-man puppet in the upper window. This amazing beast came to life at the hands of Chris Dunckel and Steve Morgan and made a huge impression in the number “The Internet Is For Porn” as he constantly interrupted Kate Monster’s song.

Another outstanding number found Princeton, Kate, Gary, Brian and Christmas Eve discussing the notions that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”.

Just when everything was moving smoothly along came Lucy T. Slut (Jessi Jeane) with her sultry song about being “Special”. This sexy torch singer threw a relationship monkey wrench around for a while, but it was worth it to hear the strength of Jeane’s vocals.

Two others weren’t often heard singing, but the Bad Idea Bears (Jeff Rogner & Aly Olmstead) were a hoot with their temptations and wacky ideas for doing just the wrong thing!

Still, there was always balance such as Little Kate Monster’s lovely ballad “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” that showed off the variety of Seeley’s vocal range. It was a highlight also.

Indeed, the vocal stylings of all three ladies were topnotch. Nicole Dunckel’s “Asian” character was terrific and her vocals soared throughout but especially well singing “The More You Ruv Someone”.

Directors Adam Iaquinto and Stevie Visser are to be commended for assembling this large group of evenly talented performers. Surely the ease of characterization we observed even while manipulating large puppets is a credit to directorial effort. Add to that the fluid movement of a large cast (22) on what was a somewhat depth limited set.

Speaking of the set, the reproduction of a city street in a crowed neighborhood is very well done with three believable apartment doors, stoops, workable windows and a second story picture window for Trekkie.

We could go on and on, but let’s just say, this show was a delightful surprise given that we weren’t sure what to expect. We would warn that this show is billed For Mature Audiences.  As for us old folks, we’d see it again!

Avenue Q continues at Clio Cast & Crew’s Theatre 57, 2220 W. Vienna Rd., Clio through June 17. For information and tickets contact the box office at 810-687-2588 or online at www.cliocastandcrew.com

 

 

 

 

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McCree Tells the African American Story in Drama and Song

Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby

The New McCree Theatre has another winner on their hands with the currently running musical Give Me That Old Time old-time-religion784x407Religion. Unfortunately, today is the final day of the run, but if you hurry, you can still catch it twice at 2:00 and 7:00 pm. Written and produced by the group’s executive director, Charles H. Winfrey, the play’s mission – “To tell the African American Story in the African American Voice” – is accomplished with passion and polished style.

Veteran McCree director Cathye Johnson returned from Missouri specifically to direct this production. Her stamp and style is all over this wonderful show as the eleven players sing, move, dance, emote and generally never miss a beat as they bring various characters to life with ease.

Beginning with chorus numbers of “Old Time Religion” and “Go Down, Moses”, the first solo “Wade in the Water” found Sunkaru Clifford Sykes emerging as a stunning character player. He would do more and be more as the show progressed.

Three women and eight men made up the cast and most were onstage throughout as one song followed the next with short transitional conversations linking them to their place in history. “Slavery ended, but the singing never did.” Terrific numbers like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Amen” marked the end of one era, the emergence of gospel groups, and what is described as the Gospel Highway.

“People Get Ready” launched the quartet style vocals of Sykes, Charles Brown, Fredrick N. Fife and David Lott who first sang as the Pilgrim Travelers. They demonstrated the acapella style known as Jubilee (harmony without instrumental accompaniment) with their pristine rendition of “Shine On Me”.

Barbara Armstrong held her own with two linked songs by Dorothy Love Coates, “Every Day Will Be Sunday” and “You Can’t Hurry God”. She was supported and often gave the floor to the clear vocals of LaToya Massey and Alverine “Motown” Simpson.

Although only appearing in the second half, Dwayne Towns was well received by the Friday audience with his Johnny Taylor rendition of “The Love of God”.

As the show drew to a close, Terence Grundy brought passion and gusto to “Straight Street” and Fife’s wonderful falsetto-style shined with “Walk Around Heaven”.

Friday night’s audience reacted with enthusiasm and delight as this talented cast, abetted by the casual narration of John Vincent, told the Black history story through the music that defined the progressively evolving cultural genres.

Give Me That Old Time Religion performs twice today at 2:00 and 7:00pm. For tickets and information contact the box office at 810-787-2200 or online at http://www.thenewmccreetheatre.com/that-old-time-religion.html

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FCP Closes Season With a “Leap of Faith”

Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby

Flint Community Players winds up their 89th season with this week’s opening of a Leapmusical comedy with a message, Leap of Faith. Based on the 1992 film of the same name, this musical stage version takes an in-depth if slightly disturbing look at the old-fashioned tent revivals. Augmented by song and dance, Alan Menken’s music and Glenn Slater’s lyrics provide some rousing gospel songs as well as a few lovely ballads.

With another play originally scheduled for this spot, Leap of Faith was a last minute replacement. It’s a thought-provoking show with a complicated and interesting cast made up of newcomers and veterans sprinkled liberally about in roles big and small. Still, be aware that, for some, it might be disquieting.

Although used to performing their phony faith-healing revivals in major cities, where large donations flow freely, bogus Christian evangelist Jonas Nightingale (Jason Briggs) and his “choir” find themselves stuck in remote Sweetwater, Kansas. With their fancy Mercedes bus broken down, the troupe decides to stay, take these locals for all they can, fix the bus and scram!

Briggs introduces the action and cast with the enthusiastic mood lifter, “Rise Up!” and is joined with gusto by the choir director Ida Mae (Rolecia Looney) and his sister, Sam (Ava Pietras). Still, we immediately get a strong sense that there is tension in these ranks.

Marla McGowan (Marie Van Horn) arrives to admire the tent and schmooze a bit with Jonas before revealing that she’s the sheriff and he’ll need a costly permit to continue. Her duet, “Fox in the Henhouse”, with Briggs is fun to watch and cleverly sets her character as one to reckon with.

As the story continues, a definite attraction develops between the sheriff and the “preacher” but there’s a glitch that may be difficult to overcome. Marla’s son Jake (Audrey Dupuis) is in a wheelchair and believes Jonas will miraculously cause him to walk again. Dupuis may be the most impressive voice in this show with her clear, crisp delivery of “Like Magic”.

Speaking of musical delivery, this was an ongoing problem in this production Thursday. The offstage live musicians are terrific, but the singers were all wearing microphones set apparently at either “heavy bass” or “ear splitting”. For example, we loved the perkiness and vitality that Pietras brought to her performance, but her songs were problematic. She had no problem with pitch or style, but the mike amplified her voice to the rafters and beyond. This was evident in both “I Can Read You” and even more strident in “Are You on the Bus?”

A voice of reason intrudes as Ida Mae’s son Isaiah (Rafeal McDaniel) arrives to protest his mother’s involvement with the charlatan, Jonas. We loved his “Dancin’ in the Devil’s Shoes” but with his powerful voice, the microphone tended to muffle diction.

McDaniel wasn’t the only one with the diction problem we are blaming on the amplification. Looney was often difficult to understand also. In a heavily sung show, diction is crucial to moving the story along.

We’re not going to tell you where this story of love and corruption ultimately ends, but we will extend kudos to Briggs’ strong performance on “Soliloquy” near the finale, plus applause for Van Horn and Pietras singing the sweet ballad “People Like Us”. Finally, we really must mention the townspeople – best described as a gaggle of theatre veterans and newcomers who add at least a half-gallon of rural spice and gullibility to this “Leap”

Director Delynne M. Miller moves her large cast around with ease even using the aisles and other offstage areas to good advantage, while Musical Director Frank E. Pitts joins a fine ensemble of seven musicians to anchor this show.

Now, should you decide to take a leap yourself, you must head over to the Flint Community Players’ Tom & Bea Nobles Performance Hall, 2462 S. Ballenger Hwy. Flint 48507. Leap of Faith continues today and May 12, 18 & 19 at 7:30 pm and May 13 & 20 at 2:30 pm. For more information and tickets call the box office at 810-441-9302 or find them online at www.flintcommunityplayers.com

 

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FYT’s “The Geranium On The Windowsill Just Died But Teacher You Went Right On” – a Landmark Premiere Musical

Reviewed by Kathleen KirbyGeranium

Does anyone remember those fearful days of elementary school when the teacher seemed to loom over your life, struck fear in your heart over the smallest thing and rejected every reasonable request with a resounding “NO!”?

Well, those days returned Saturday as a full house greeted the opening of Flint Youth Theatre’s amazing musical premiere, The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died But Teacher You Went Right On. Based on the book by Albert Cullum, FYT’s Artistic Director Michael Lluberes wrote both the script and lyrics in collaboration with Jared M. Dembowski who composed the music. What emerges here is 90 minutes of song, skit, comedy and incredibly special youthful performances.

Several aspects make this special, not the least of which is the fact that all nine of the performers are youngsters in either elementary or middle school, and seven of them are in their first show ever with FYT. They perform 21 songs, one after the other, with no less than eight solos, maybe more. Each song points up a moment in the school day beginning with the transition from carefree summer to September and the return to rules that define “Good Boys and Good Girls”.

With every personality represented, each character is unique. As Bobby, Dalton Hartwell sets the tone with his hysterical “Normal” wherein he details how difficult it is for him to just sit still and write. More issues around writing time emerge from Allie MacDonald as Amy. In a strong and lovely voice she sings about the pressures of being considered the smartest with “In The Very First Seat”. Meanwhile, the blackboard comes intriguingly to life as Aidan Allan Riggs (Nick) sings about penmanship in “ABC’s”.

Reading hour prompts a lovely ballad when Katie (Edith Pendell) sings about “The Sound of the Rain”. She puts the first real focus on the Geranium at the back of the classroom – Adrienne Robinson dressed in bright red, and clearly a living thing even if the teacher doesn’t think so.

As Jacob, Joshua Beauchamp finds himself bored with the assigned reading and makes up a story wherein he is a princess while he sings “Jacob’s Story” with wonderful gusto.

Gaby Bader is adorable with her multiple facial expressions and generally exasperated demeanor. She delivers a satirically delightful moment in math class with “You Talk Funny”. Not to be outdone, Joey Urgino (Matthew) cleverly fights with himself after being relegated to the corner where he examines the science of “Good Me/Bad Me”.

Tests bring pressure, but the worst stress might be not being noticed at all. Yasmine Searcy (Olivia) brings this issue plaintively to light with her sweetly sad rendition of “Invisible”.

Performed in the Elgood Theatre, the audience is on three sides of the action and that proximity affords a singular intimacy that can bring those long ago school days back for adults and will surely resonate at least in part with youngsters today.

Just as a side note, while we don’t believe that all teachers are as grouchy and uninvolved with their students these days, the feelings that can be dredged up by an uncaring person in authority are worth examining.

Lluberes, who also directed this effort, and music director David Lindsey both deserve congratulations for bringing this young and often inexperienced troupe to a remarkable level of performance art. They sing nearly the entire show, plus move set pieces, react to projected teacher silhouettes as if they are real, and respond to each other with terrific timing and concentration. The only issue that bothered us a bit was the volume of the piano accompaniment that too often overcame the non-amplified young voices.

Overall, this production is without a doubt a landmark for Flint Youth Theatre. It is impressive, entertaining, pleasing to look at and listen to and, above all, a real emotionally positive moment in time for nine special young people.

The Geranium On The Windowsill Just Died But Teacher You Went Right On continues through May 6. For more information and tickets please contact the box office at 810-237-1530 or online at www.theFYT.org

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