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All the Worlds of Stage: Mike Schulz and Thom White Discuss Area Theatre in 2011 - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
Theatre - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Thursday, 15 December 2011 11:53

Shane Rumpza, Nate Curlott, Emily Briggs, and Ian Sodawasser in The Wizard of OzWhere on the “love it/hate it” scale do you fall on Countryside’s other show this summer, The Wizard of Oz?

I don’t mind stagings of The Wizard of Oz. I mean, I’ve seen the movie umpteen times; it is a family tradition to watch it every year. But I think it’s nice to see it on stage, because of the nostalgia, and because you get some of that sense of childhood magic by seeing it in a different way.

What’s unfortunate about the stage version, though, is that there’s some silliness added that kind of taints the ... I don’t know, the purity of it? Or your memories of it? Just a little bit. The stage version isn’t bad, but it does change the tone of the material in some ways.

Did Countryside keep the infamous “Jitterbug” number?

They did. And actually, that’s one of my favorite numbers. It’s not in the movie, but I just love that song! And Countryside’s cast had so much fun with it; that was the best dance number in the production. I think what happened with that number was there were people cast in the show who couldn’t necessarily dance well, and so [choreographer] Christina Myatt took these somewhat simple steps and made them look like they were a little more difficult, and a little more interesting. And the cast members seemed to have a blast with that.

Well, one of the first things you’re taught in a dance number is that it’s all about the face. Audiences really aren’t looking at your feet so much; they’re looking at your smile. So even if you’re not having fun, look like you’re having fun, and it’ll sell.

Smile, baby! ” [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] How about New Era Dinner Theatre’s Once Upon a Mattress? Do you like that show in general?

I do! That one’s probably becoming “classical” in terms of musical theatre, right?

I think so. It’s been around for about 50 years.

I adore that show. It’s so sweet, and so happy and cheery ... except for the out-of-wedlock pregnancy, of course. [Laughs.] And the songs are so fantastically singable. There are several soundtracks that I listen to over and over and over, and that is one of them.

But I’d never seen a show by that theatre group before. I didn’t know what to expect, and it was in a church, which I thought was odd. For a moment, I was like, “Oh boy, this might not go well ... !” But it really was good!

ensemble members in Sweet CharityI saw a production of Guys & Dolls that New Era did two years ago, which was absolutely delightful, and it looked like everyone was having a ball being there – on stage and in the audience.

So did this one.

So while you were reviewing all these shows this summer, I was reviewing productions at the Timber Lake Playhouse. I know trips there don’t really work out with your schedule, but you’ve got to get out to Timber Lake at some point.

I have to say that I’m jealous, because I did read all your reviews of Timber Lake, and almost all of them you really liked.

I did. And I’d never seen Sweet Charity before. What a great time! I mean, I hate the script, but that’s Neil Simon grating on my nerves. But the music is so good. And seriously, Timber Lake’s “Rich Man’s Frug”? Most awesome dance number I’ve ever seen in my life. It was just unbelievable.

I’m partial to “Rhythm of Life.” I didn’t see Timber Lake’s show, but I love that song.

Yeah, “Rhythm of Life” was awesome. And “Big Spender.” I went a little apeshit over that show, actually. And like with your experience at Clinton, Timber Lake had this ridiculously talented ensemble that kind of blew me away every two weeks. Sunset Boulevard was amazing. Did you see the photos of that set?

Yes . Incredible.

The Spitfire Grill is this beautiful book musical that I love, and their production of it was excellent. Red Herring was a farcical comedy, a genre I generally don’t care for, and it was so well done. Derek Bertelsen directed the hell out of that show. The only one I didn’t like, in fact, was Children of Eden.

And you got comments about it!

ensemble members in Children of Eden[Laughs.] That weekend, as I recall, we were both kind of battling for who got the most comments on his review.

Negative comments. Yeah.

So let’s talk about negative comments. Because for a couple of days there, after raving about four Timber Lake shows in a row, all of a sudden I was The Enemy in some people’s eyes, and obviously didn’t want Timber Lake, as an organization, to succeed. [Laughs.] I never heard any complaints from anyone at Timber Lake about that review, but some of their fans sure weren’t happy.

What I loved – well, “loved” – in those Children of Eden comments was the one that was like, “Didn’t you go to Sunday school? If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” And then that person proceeded to say nothing but mean things about you.

What was interesting is that those comments were attacks that could have been tempered with, “I disagree with you, but I liked the show because of this ... .” In my opinion, that would’ve been okay. I don’t mind comments where people disagree with me.

Of course. That’s part of what the comments section is for. “What do you think?”

But when the comments become personal, that’s when it becomes tough to take. My review is an opinion. An obviously, some people don’t get that, and take it too personally.

You got comments yourself that weekend, on your review of Genesius Guild’s The Wasps. But those weren’t comments about you being mean about a production, right? Those were about something that was heard – or misheard – during the production.

Yeah. I was kind of blindsided by the comments on that one. Someone talked to me a few weeks ago and said that some Genesius Guild people were still talking about it.

Tyler Henning, James Alt, Pat Flaherty, Todd Schwartz, and Earl Strupp in King LearDo you feel compelled to respond to Web-site comments? I know you generally don’t, but do you feel like you want to explain yourself when people write in? Are you cool with letting things stand?

My first reaction when I read a comment is that I want to respond. And then I have a rule that I need to stop and breathe and wait it out. You know, it would be too easy to get argumentative in the comments section, so I just try to avoid it.

[Laughs.] I do have my own blog, and there have been a couple times where I was just infuriated by a particular comment, and went to my personal blog – which I sort of treat as my journal – just to type out my thoughts. Because I need to get them out. I don’t necessarily have to say things to a specific person, but I can’t just leave something unsaid.

So with a couple of the comments, I wrote out long “I disagree with this point and this point ... ” responses in my blog. Not in an angry way, but just as a way to explain myself. Forgetting that other people can read it. [Laughs.] And then I found out that some those involved actually did read my blog.

[Laughs.] Did you get upset responses to your blog comments, then?

No. I actually got a personal apology on one of them.

Well, there are some class acts out there. I thought the casts for the Genesius Guild shows I saw this summer were fantastic overall. I really enjoyed James Alt. He played the Fool in King Lear and Grumio in [The] Taming of the Shrew, and I think you saw him in The Wasps.

Oh, yeah!

But there were a lot of performances I adored. Angela Rathman and Jim Loula in Taming, and Lauren VanSpeybroeck in Lear ... and Pat Flaherty as Lear, of course. God. That was insane. It was nice being able to split reviewing duties with you at Genesius Guild this summer. What are your thoughts on reviewing classical theatre these days? Last year, when you started writing for us, you were still getting your feet wet.

To be honest, I was thankful that you reviewed the Shakespeares this summer. Because I’ve heard from some Genesius Guilders that feel a reviewer should be fully knowledgeable about Shakespeare in order to write about a Shakespeare show. I want to be clear that it’s just a few members who’ve said that to me; I don’t think that’s the overall Genesius Guild attitude at all. But I only studied Shakespeare in high school. And that was, you know, a few years ago. [Laughs.] So I did appreciate you taking on the Shakespeares.

In general, though, I’m feeling better about it [reviewing classical theatre]. And I always read a synopsis of the show beforehand, so if I’m having trouble understanding the lines specifically, at least I know what’s going on. And then if I understand the lines, all the better.

Jeb Makula, Denise Yoder, and Kitty Israel in TartuffeOn the subject of classical theatre, let’s talk about the Prenzie Players. I thought Adam Overberg and Stephanie Moeller, as Romeo & Juliet, were phenomenal. Those were two of the smartest interpretations of those roles I’d ever seen.

Yeah. It wasn’t the typical presentation of “two star-crossed lovers.” The way I interpreted it as I was watching – whether or not it was meant that way – was that Juliet was trying to get back at her parents by seeing Romeo, and was not fully enamored with him until later on. He was in love with her, but she was kind of using him, it seemed. And I thought that was brilliant, whether intended or not.

But I remember the show being really long. I was a little uncomfortable in that chair. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] It was long. For some reason, I thought that particular Shakespeare was zippier than it actually is. Tartuffe, though, was a tight two hours.

You know, I really like Molière. I was in a production of The Miser in Chicago a few years ago, which was when I was first introduced to him, and I just really jibed with his humor. But I forget I like Molière until I see his work again. [Laughs.] And Tartuffe was just so much fun. So much fun.

Indeed. I loved Andy Curtiss as Madame Pernelle.

That could have gone really wrong. It could’ve established a really ridiculous tone for the show from the start. But I loved the way he played the role somewhat straight. There was no acknowledgment of “I’m a man playing a woman.” It was, “I am a woman.”

Right. He was a fully formed, prissy, schoolmarm-y character. And funny little sounds kept popping out of him.

Those little gasps – “Oh!” – got such laughs from the audience.

And I love that the Prenzies take big chances like that. Sometimes what they go for doesn’t work, but most of the time it’s incredibly inspired.

Yes.

And speaking of risk-takers, let’s move on to the District Theatre-slash-Harrison Hilltop. Let’s start with Sweeney Todd, because as I recall, it took you a while to get into the spirit of seeing such a grand musical in that intimate Hilltop space.

I respect that the District Theatre continues to say that “a show should be bigger than its space.” But I think that should be interpreted more philosophically or emotionally. It shouldn’t be, “Let’s crowd a bunch of people into a space.” I don’t think that’s what they do all the time, but some of their shows have just felt crowded. And I don’t think Sweeney is an intimate show. I like the idea of being intimate with Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney. So to speak. [Laughs.] That intensifies the thrill. But as a whole, the show might have literally been too big for the space.

That being said, I still think there were some fantastic performances in it. The actor who played Tobias [C.J. Langdon] was fascinating. I’d like to see more of him. He totally sold that character’s descent into madness. And I loved Rachelle Walljasper’s take on Mrs. Lovett. In most productions, Mrs. Lovett actually seems to be in control of everything, and kind of plays Sweeney as her puppet. In this version, though, she just seemed so enamored of him that the idea to bake people into meat pies felt like her way to hold on to Sweeney. It wasn’t about trying to build her business. That choice was so unexpected, and really kind of beautiful.

Steve Lasiter (center) and ensemble members in ChicagoSo what do you think of the District Theatre’s relocation from the Harrison Hilltop space to the old Green Room space? Do you like seeing shows there again?

I do, although I really was impressed with what they were doing with the Harrison Hilltop. I think the first thing I saw there was Streetcar Named Desire, and I still think that was perhaps the best use of that space. But I liked that they were adding stadium seating, and I think they were moving in a great direction ... even though it was still a little awkward. I always made sure I used the restroom before getting there, because I did not want to walk across the stage to get to the bathroom. [Laughs.]

But I love the [former] Green Room space. I still think the angle of the seating is too severe – the way you’re looking down at the performance. But I love that there’s that balcony area, and that the staircases are right there, which makes the entrances and exits a lot more fluid.

I agree. The only District show I’ve seen, so far, in the new space is Chicago, but I thought they used the different levels and the staircases beautifully. And I was talking about Sweet Charity’s dance numbers earlier, and considering what you wrote in your review, is Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango” your favorite musical number of the year?

One of the top ones, for sure, right up there with Hairspray’s “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” “Cell Block” is one of my all-time favorite Broadway-musical songs anyway. I like how it tells a story, and it’s got those percussive vocals in the background ... . It’s just a great song, and I thought the District did a fantastic job.

In general, I also didn’t think Chicago felt too crowded at all. There were sometimes a lot of people on that stage, yet the staging didn’t feel constricted.

No. It was one of those shows where the “bigger than the space” mentality worked perfectly. It wasn’t crowded in the space. It was just a big show.

It did feel expansive, and a lot of that came from the performances, of course. Kelly Lohrenz was amazing ... .

And Christina Myatt. Again.

Yes. And I was floored by Tristan [Tapscott]. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such a strong falsetto. I mean, that role [reporter Mary Sunshine] was all falsetto, and note-perfect. I couldn’t believe what he did in that thing.

Oh yeah, he sounded great. And if it’s fair to say, he did a lot of falsetto [as Jesus] in Jesus Christ Superstar, and I don’t think was on-pitch once. You know, I hated to say that in the review, but I had to, because it was so jarring. So then as soon as he opened his mouth in Chicago and I realized he was going to do it all falsetto, I cringed. But then, you’re right, every single note was right on. It was very impressive.