Theatre in Review

There has never been a better Broadway marriage of story and storyteller – until Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, three decades later, anyway – than Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and songsmith Roger Miller. Floating between aching country ballads, soulful slave spirituals, and the side-splitting novelty tunes that made Miller famous, Big River brought an American classic about century-old America into the 20th century, earning seven Tony Awards in the process. And now through October 15, Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana, ferries Huck, Jim, and their story of friendship and freedom to today’s audiences, showing that the stories and the struggles of America haven’t changed all that much.

While Twain’s tale is titled for its teller – the author’s most famous creation – Huck Finn was the original Nick Carraway, in that he is best when playing narrator for the other characters and their quandaries. And in TATC’s production of Big River, James Romney’s Huck is just such a narrator. Romney’s work is fine – his voice is strong, his acting is as well, and he’s got boyish charm galore – but it’s when he allows the rest of the cast to shine that he’s at his best, supporting each of the people we meet along the Mississippi as they spin their yarns, share their pain, and make us chuckle.

The first people we meet are the orchestra, led by pianist and musical director, Bill Underwood. Part of the simple but gorgeous set, the group fits right into the rural riverside, playing guitars, mandolins, accordion, harmonica, and even the jaw harp. Their accompaniment throughout is just the right balance of polished and down home; they’re part of the set and part of the spectacle, bringing the surroundings to life without stealing the show.

Huck’s fellow townsfolk enter as the opening overture plays, each dancing and playing percussion – washboard, shakers, the tambourine. Liz Chidester’s stern Miss Watson is a favorite, a spinsterly hoot. And Kyle Quinlivan’s Tom Sawyer, who will reappear throughout, starts us off expecting a comical adventure, more puckish even than Huck as he leads the local lads in the energetic “We Are the Boys.”

Another member of Huck’s St. Petersburg is town drunkard and the boy’s old man, Pap Finn, played by Bret Tuomi. His swaggering, staggering rendition of the bluesy “Guv’ment” is the first real showstopper. Tuomi later retakes the stage as the King, a conman whose partner in crime, the Duke played by Jason Richards, struts and preens and malaprops his way into the townspeople’s pockets and the audience’s hearts, a highlight being a ludicrous Shakespearean soliloquy. Seeing grifters hoodwink the general populace for their own gain has never been so much fun – or, sadly, so timely.

But even as the cast entertains, the darkest side of humanity is always present. The ensemble cast playing slaves – slaves in Huck’s hometown, and those enslaved on down the river – give the show gravitas not just with their singing, but by their mere presence. Adhana Reid delivers a lovely hymn, “How Blest We Are,” while Camille Robinson provides a highlight in the reprise of “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine.” But early on, as Jim and Huck hear voices from the other bank sing the lament, “The Crossing,” Jim knows these are escaped slaves who’ve been recaptured simply from the sound of their voices. And because Jim tells us, we know this, too. And we hurt right along with him.

Blessed with a big, beautiful voice, and an even bigger and more beautiful presence, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, as Jim, is the heart of this production, just as Jim is the heart of the book and the musical. Whether cleaning a catfish or chained to a cabin, whether telling of his daughter’s scarlet fever or telling tall tales to Huck aboard their raft, we feel for and with and through Butler-Duplessis’ Jim. This culminates in his rendition of Roger Miller’s finest gospel tune – and perhaps the finest tune Miller ever wrote – “Free at Last.” Shackled there on center stage, Butler-Duplessis shows us the sorrow this man has seen and hints at the hope that freedom may bring.

But perhaps for this writer, the most powerful moment comes at the end of the first act. As Huck joins the shysters in plotting their latest scheme in “When the Sun Goes Down in the South,” Jim returns to the show’s main theme, the yearning, churning “Muddy Water.” Jonathan Butler-Deplessis’ solo soars over his raftmates’ shenanigans, in a plea for freedom, for justice, for life. In 1800's Missouri or in modern times, there is injustice and there are those who stand against it. Yesterday and today, there is good and there is evil. And in that moment, I sure got the shivers as TATC’s Big River allows the good to rise above.

Big River is being performed at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN through October 15th. For more show information visit www.theatreatthecenter.com. A Wonderful Life: The Musical begins November 16th.

Published in Theatre in Review

Linda Fortunato, Artistic Director of Theatre at the Center (TATC), Northwest Indiana’s only professional theater company, has announced the mainstage titles for TATC’s 2018 Season.  
 
Fortunato will direct three of the five productions, including Steel Magnolias, which will launch the 2018 season. Forever Plaid and The Lady with All the Answers are the spring and summer shows. In the fall, Fortunato will also direct Ghost The Musical, a stage adaptation of the 1990 Academy-Award winning film. Closing the 2018 season, she will direct and choreograph Meredith Willson’s Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical inspired by the 1947 classic film.
 
Steel Magnolias (February 22 – March 25, 2018) is a hilarious and heart-warming play set in a Louisiana beauty shop. It follows the hopes, dreams, triumphs and tragedies of six colorful characters and inspired the 1989 film which starred Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine and Dolly Parton. It’s a story exploring the bond between a mother and daughter, and friendships of those who feel like family.
 
Spring welcomes Forever Plaid (May 3 – June 3, 2018), one of the most popular and beloved of musical revues. “The Plaids” are a quirky quartet of high school chums in the spotlight for the biggest performance of their lives. Their spirited antics and comic banter weave together such hits as “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Heart and Soul” and “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” in this playful tribute to the close harmony of “guy groups” of the 1950’s.
 
An up-close and personal introduction to the real Ann Landers awaits audiences in The Lady with All the Answers (July 12 – August 12, 2018).  Popular advice columnist Ann Landers had a life which seemed letter-perfect. With more than 90 million readers each day, she had a quick wit which could be comical and creative, as well as sharp and shocking, all in the same sentence. The play unfolds in Landers’ Lakeshore Drive apartment in 1975 where she shares some of her most fascinating stories as she prepares to write the most difficult column of her career.
 
In the fall, Ghost The Musical (September 13 – October 14, 2018) is the musical adaptation of the 1990 Academy-Award winning film sharing the love story of Sam and Molly. After Sam’s untimely death, he tries to protect Molly from an unknown threat. In an attempt to communicate with her, he enlists the help of a storefront psychic to hilarious and harrowing effect. This tale about the power of love features a score by Grammy Award winning songwriters Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, and includes the classic “Unchained Melody.”
 
The holidays are celebrated with Meredith Willson’s Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical (November 15 – December 23, 2018), from the composer of The Music Man. Inspired by the beloved 1947 film, audiences will enjoy the gift of music and laughter. After Santa encounters a skeptical little girl during the season of sharing and caring, a message about the importance of believing is made clear to all. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” became famous as one the memorable songs in this joyous favorite for all ages.
 
“In choosing Theatre at the Center’s 2018 season, I wanted to create a blend of different styles to engage our audience,” Fortunato said.
 
“Through intimate plays, a beloved musical revue, a new musical, and a holiday classic, we will explore the bonds of friendship and family, of loves lost and found, and meet strangers who feel like family. I hope our audiences will laugh heartily, maybe cry a little, and enjoy some favorite music and songs as they join us for both familiar stories and new ones, as well.” 
 
Founded in 1991, the 410 seat Theatre at the Center is a year-round professional theater at its home at The Center for Visual and Performing Arts, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Indiana. Theatre at the Center is the only professional theater company in Northwest Indiana, offering downtown caliber performance in an accessible venue with plenty of free parking. Theatre at the Center is located off I-80/94, just 35 minutes from downtown Chicago.
 
Renewal for existing Season Subscriptions begins Aug. 20 and continues through Sept. 24, with sales for new Season Subscription patrons beginning Oct. 10. Individual tickets for any of the five mainstage shows of the new 2018 Season are on sale beginning Dec. 12.
 
Theatre at the Center mainstage show performances are 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 3:00 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays and select Thursday and Sunday evenings.  Individual ticket prices range from $42 - $46.  To purchase individual tickets, including the remaining shows of the 2017 Season, call the Box Office at 219-836-3255 or Tickets.com at 800-511-1552.   Group discounts are available for groups of 11 or more and gift certificates are also available. For more information about Theatre at the Center, visit www.TheatreAtTheCenter.com.

Published in Upcoming Theatre

Another TV classic has found itself in a musical, this time being The Beverly Hillbillies. Credited as one of the most popular shows of all time, The Beverly Hillbillies aired from 1962 through 1971 and told the story of a backwoods family that found wealth in oil and then migrated to stuffy Beverly Hills where they were completely out of their element. Most of us are already familiar with the Clampett clan headed by the all too honest and often naïve Jed and his short-tempered nevertheless often sweet Granny, who would choose eating possum innards any day over y’alls favorite fine dining establishments. Jed’s daughter, tomboy yet bombshell Elly May is along for the ride with his ever so gullible nephew Jethro, who is as dumb as dumb gets – and we love him for it.

elly mayTheatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana (30 minutes from downtown Chicago) has taken on the world premiere of “The Beverly Hillbillies – The Musical” where our favorite family from the sticks will grace the stage through August 10th. The book is shared by the team of Tony-nominated David Rogers, who passed away before its completion, and daughter Amanda, who took over from where her father left off. Composer Gregg Opelka was then called in to handle the music and lyrics. The final result is a lukewarm comedy with a wide assortment of songs, some hitting and some missing. One of the more memorable numbers comes as  Act One’s closing number - “Stamp It Like A Clampett”, a rootin’ tootin’ hoedown- throw-down that gets the audience clapping their hands and stomping their feet. Thereis just enough intrigue in the storyline to keep it interesting as the Clampetts are getting hustled for some of their millions by a couple of quirky grifters and there is just enough Beverly Hillbilly-esque humor to bring out a plausible amount of laughs.

As sure as Granny’s cooking is sure to cure what ails ya, Theatre at the Center puts forth a strong cast for this production. Local theatre trouper and Jeff-Award winner James Harms leads the way as “Jed” while Kelly Anne Clark can be downright adorable at times as “Granny”. The Clampetts are rounded out with fellow Jeff-Award winner Summer Smart romping around as the innocent, wide-eyed and button poppin’ “Elly May”, while John Stemberg gets his dumb on as likeable and simple “Jethro”. Thanks to this talented foursome, we have an assemblage of heartwarming country bumpkins who are still capable of occasionally tugging at our heartstrings despite not having the strongest of material to work with.

The show does have a strong visual presence as it is set inside a large mansion complete with more than ample square footage for the actors to freely frolic around. Its defining prop also makes a welcomed appearance much to the audience’s delight – the Clampett’s famous jalopy complete with Granny aboard her rocking chair in the bed of the truck as seen in the TV series’ opening credits.

The Beverly Hillbillies – The Musical, directed by David Perkovich, has just the adequate share of happy-as-a-raccoon-up-to-its-knees-in-vittles moments and downhome fun to keep it on the cusp of sufficiently entertaining, making it hard to imagine this becoming a musical comedy that will go down in theatre history.

For tickets and/or more information on The Beverly Hillbillies – The Musical, visit http://www.theatreatthecenter.com/ or call 219-836-3255.      

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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