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All the Worlds of Stage: Mike Schulz and Thom White Discuss Area Theatre in 2011 PDF Print E-mail
Theatre - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Thursday, 15 December 2011 11:53

Tom Walljasper, Kristin Gilbert, and John Payonk in HairsprayThe Reader's chief theatre reviewer, Thom White, saw and wrote about 52 area stage productions in 2011. I saw 39 and reviewed 12. Obviously, during our second-annual breakfast chat on the Year in Theatre, there was a bit to talk about.


Let’s start by discussing [the] Circa ’21 [Dinner Playhouse], which went with a theme of musicals all set in the ’50s and ’60s this past season. Did that work for you?

I thought it was kind of risky, because if you see this ’50s theme in one show, and then you have to see a ’50s-themed show again, and again, it could’ve been too much. But some of the shows were really spectacular. And because there’s at least two months between new openings at Circa, it didn’t feel like, “Oh, it’s the ’50s again.”

Two of the Circa shows I saw this year were All Shook Up and Hairspray, both of which were such a good time, and shared a lot of the same performers. You had Heather Beck, and Deidra Grace, and Tom Walljasper, and Jennifer Weingarten ... . Jennifer Weingarten who I’m in love with now, by the way.

Me, too. [Laughs.]

That was the third different production of All Shook Up I’d seen, and I’m still crazy about it, even though I’m not a huge Elvis fan. You aren’t either, right?

No, I don’t really care for Elvis. I like some of his music. But I didn’t mind it at all in All Shook Up. That show was just so much fun, and I thought the production value at Circa with that one – especially the set and lights when they visit the amusement park – was visually stunning. They just really sold that show.

Courtney Crouse (as the Fonz) and ensemble members in Happy Days: A New MusicalWith your Hairspray review, you told me recently that you maybe didn’t give the show as much credit as you should have.

Well, what happened was that when I walked in the door, I had a few staff members say, “This is the best thing Circa’s ever done.” They weren’t saying, “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen at Circa”; it was, “This is the best thing Circa’s ever done.” But I still remember amazing productions from the late ’80s and early ’90s. They did a production of Big River that I remember vividly it was so magical. So “the best thing Circa’s ever done”? That’s a tall order.

And so as much as I try to go into a show without expectations, I could not leave that expectation behind. I was expecting this stunning, perfect production, and instead I saw all these cracks in it that I might have overlooked before, or glossed over ... . Things that wouldn’t have been as relevant if I hadn’t been told, “This is the best thing Circa’s ever done!”

So my review, I think, came off as too much of my pointing at the cracks. And I specifically regret the line “While the entire show doesn’t deserve the standing ovation it was given, the final number does.” That, I think, was really too harsh. I personally have very high standards for standing ovations. They’re overused, and there are too many nights when I sit in the theatre and the audience is on their feet at the end and I think, “No, there’s no way they think this deserves a standing O.” But with that line, I think it was offensive to the audience that gave Hairspray the standing ovation.

As least you mentioned that the show’s last number, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” deserved one, because that number was insane. It was off-the-charts good.

Absolutely. They really did an exceptional job on the choreography and the energy and the costumes ... . It was fantastic.

Circa also produced the ’50s and ’60s revue The Marvelous Wonderettes. What are your general thoughts on jukebox musicals?

Those, I think, can be a tough sell, because if you don’t like the music included in the jukebox, you’re probably not gonna like the show. Like, “Well, they’re doing a great job performing, but I still don’t care for the music.” With The Marvelous Wonderettes, though, I did. It was all these songs I would have wanted to hear from that era. It was obvious that the show had a cobbled-together plot that was just an excuse to do these songs, but it was forgivable because the show was fun.

How about Happy Days: A New Musical?

I really wanted to like Happy Days. I remember watching the show when I was young, and I like the idea of turning familiar shows into musicals, but I thought that the script for that one ... . I just don’t think the musical was written with the feel of the sitcom. I know it was written by people behind the sitcom, and I still think it was a noble effort to try it, but it was just campy in the wrong way. I mean, Mrs. Cunningham’s tap number was ridiculous.

Tom Taylor, Jillian Prefach, Jessica Sheridan, Brad Hauskins, Marc Ciemiewicz, Janos Horvath, and Sunshine Woolison-Ramsey in Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells[Laughs.] In your review, you mentioned – and I agree with you completely – that the Fonz’s songs were all either generic, musical-comedy ballads or up-tempo numbers. Which would’ve been fine, but they didn’t sound like him.

No. I liked the character of the Fonz in the musical, but he was not Arthur Fonzarelli. I think the cast and the crew and the director did their best. The problem was the material.

Circa also produces three kids’ shows every year, and you saw all of them in 2011.

You know, someone was telling me the other day that they think adults shouldn’t be reviewing children’s shows, because adults aren’t the target audience. And I agree and disagree with that. Of course, the target audience is the kids. But if the adults can have just as good of a time as their kids, that’s way better than if you’re just enduring it. And Alexander [& the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day] was a great show, regardless of age. A great show. Just so exuberant. The actor playing Alexander [Mark Ciemiwicz] was so endearing, and so adorable.

And Junie B. [in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells] may be my favorite children’s show of the year. The actors seemed to be having lots of fun being brats. And I don’t know if they’re in the script, or if it was [director] Kimberly Furness’ idea, but there were some hilarious pop-culture references. I took Madison [the eight-year-old daughter of Thom’s partner Matt] to see the show, and I laughed out loud, I think, more than she did. I mean, a Styx reference? What kid listens to Styx? That was fantastic.

With kids’ shows, I think you go into them with a different mindset. You allow for more silliness and more romping, raucous fun, and I think that’s what helps make them more fun. Maybe that silliness should happen with more adult shows.

Nicole Ferguson and Brian Cowing in High FidelityWe were talking about how often we saw the same actors at Circa this year, so let’s talk about the performers at the Clinton Showboat. It seemed like you pretty much wanted to propose to them.

[Laughs.] Exactly! And now that it’s legal in Iowa ... ! [Laughs.] No, I was just really impressed with that ensemble of actors ... . They had a great summer. That’s what I love about the Showboat, is getting to see the same actors doing so many different roles in succession. You can really get an idea of their range – and if they have it or not. Of course, we often see the same actors over and over here in the Quad Cities, but their shows may be months apart. The Showboat is like a microcosm – a quick little glimpse at an actor’s range over two months.

And this summer, the strength of these actors, I think, was in their ability to just let go. Instead of being, like, “I really want people to take me seriously,” they were, “Let’s just let loose.” They were having fun, and we were having fun watching them, and it was just fantastic.

One show I really regretted missing was High Fidelity, because I love that movie and I’ve been so curious about the musical.

I haven’t seen the movie, but that musical is just a great blend of silly and serious, and there’s a really nice range of music. All the songs are original, but each song is based on the style of an existing rock star. There was a Joan Jett-ish song, in particular, that I really liked.

I also remember you adoring The Drowsy Chaperone, which I actually saw, and loved, at [Quad City] Music Guild this summer, and which I saw twice at St. Ambrose [University] last fall. That show really works for me.

Me, too.

Mackenna Janz and Allison Winkel in AnnieIs that one your favorite from the summer at Clinton?

I think so. But that’s a tough question, because the productions were all so good at the Showboat this year that it’s hard to pick a favorite. Altar Boyz was fantastic. High Fidelity was just stellar. But I think Drowsy Chaperone wins by a nose just for its “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” celebration of bad, B-movie kind of material. Or B-theatre, I guess you’d say? It’s just such a great show. And the actor in the lead, who played Man in Chair [Brian LeTraunik], played it in such a touching way. He was just in love with this terrible musical that he was telling us about. It was very sweet, in contrast with the silly craziness going on on-stage.

At Clinton, you also got to see Annie again. Or rather, had to see Annie again.

[Laughs.] Yes. I’m not generally a fan. But I enjoyed that production.

So what it is like for you when you have to review these shows that, by nature, you just don’t like? Is it really hard to get motivated to see them?

Kind of. I always want to go with a positive attitude, so I try to avoid any expectations about any specific shows. I really do think to myself, “I’m going to this production, and I’m going to enjoy it,” and from there, things go up or down.

But it is harder with shows like Joseph [& the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat] or Annie, where I’m just so tired of them. So with those shows, I really have to think, “I’m going to ignore the fact that I’m tired of the show, and really focus on the individual performances, whether or not I really want to hear ‘The sun will come out tomorrow’ for a 15th time.”

[Laughs.] On the opposite end of the spectrum – and scooting away from Clinton – Countryside Community Theatre staged Gypsy this summer, which I think you’ve called your favorite musical-theatre classic.


Christina Myatt in GypsyDo you get nervous about seeing shows that you really, really love? Is there a kind of “Don’t mess up my show!” feeling there, or are you just excited?

It’s the opposite of going to see, like, an Annie. I just think, “I’m gonna see my favorite show!”

I really liked Countryside’s Gypsy, as I know you did, and I had never seen it in any form. I knew a lot of the songs, of course, but I’d never seen the stage version, or the movie, so it was all kind of fresh for me.

It’s long ... .

It is long. But it’s so rich and meaty that it kind of needs three hours.

And it has such strong female roles. One who’s strong from beginning to end – Mama Rose – and then Louise, who grows in strength. I think that’s what’s so fantastic about the show, is watching Louise grow in the midst of this monster of a woman, but a monster who’s not hated. You know, you’re cringing at some of the things she does, but you still kind of like her. It is Toddlers & Tiaras, you know? [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Yes. In extremis. I thought Christina Myatt did a hell of a good job as Mama Rose –


– and I loved Kelsey Nagel, too. I mean, she started out so in-character as Louise – so soft-spoken and shy – that I was like, “Is she gonna be able to pull this role off?” Because Louise really has to step up and take charge by the end. But Kelsey absolutely nailed it.

I thought the same thing. I was totally buying her timidity and thought, “She’s never gonna be able to do this.” And she did.