Reviews 
(text reprinted from original review)

 

Les Misérables

Directed and Designed by Joel Froomkin
Executive Produced/Musical Supervision by Richard Najuch
Different Stages Theater – Huntington, Indiana

WHATZUP Magazine, December 11, 2014
'"Powerful Performances in Les Mis"
by Jennifer Poiry-Prough

Huntington’s Different Stages Theater ends its freshman season with the beloved musical Les Misérables. The musical is based on the Victor Hugo novel about an excon who gains redemption after breaking parole, stealing silver from a bishop and being entrusted by the bishop to use the silver to turn his life around. He changes his identity, adopts an orphan girl and is constantly pursued by a law officer hell-bent on justice, no matter how morally unjust it might be. The story has been compared to Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, A Christmas Carol. In both, the protagonist has lost faith in humanity, but a small, underprivileged child helps them recover their belief in goodness and love. 

This production promised an intimate setting with strong, professional voices and acting, and youthful passion for the show. It does not disappoint. 

The performers faced a number of obstacles on opening night. In addition to being a technically challenging production with nonstop singing, constant movement, stage combat and lots and lots of wigs, there were sound balance issues and a small, quiet (albeit appreciative) audience. The audience was hesitant to applaud, even after numbers that were designed to allow them to, but this did not seem to dampen the cast’s enthusiasm or energy.

Landon Sholar is a perfect Jean Valjean.  Last summer, according to his program bio, he became the youngest actor to play the role as a professional. This is his third time in the role, and he completely embodies the aging, beleaguered ex-con who turns away from God and back again. More than any other actor in the show, Sholar seems to connect directly with the audience. 

Robert Teasdale is likewise perfect as his foil, Inspector Javert. Tall and imposing, Teasdale brings a touching vulnerability to Javert, who suffers from a tragic sense of justice. He speak-sings the beginning of his song “Stars,” but as the number progresses, the lines become longer and more powerful as Javert becomes more resolute in his conviction that he is who he is. No matter the cost, he must punish Valjean for his crimes. 

Particularly passionate in his role is Charlie Tingen as the student revolutionary Enjolras. He is operatic and almost too intense for such a small stage, but as a leader who convinces a bunch of privileged “schoolboys” to give their lives for the rights of the oppressed poor, the elevated performance is appropriate. 

Melissa Weyn and Brooke Anne Quintana as Fantine and Eponine respectively, have beautiful, rich voices. Raynah Tyler plays Young Cosette. She is tiny and adorable but sings her solo “Castle on a Cloud” with poise and professionalism, especially for someone so young 

Raynah Tyler played Young Cosette on opening night (she alternates with another young actress, Naomi Vincenti). Amelia Story plays the little boy Gavroche with spunk and perfect comedic timing. She got one of the show’s biggest laughs on opening night during a confrontation with Javert. But the biggest laughs rightly go to the story’s comedic villains, the Thernardiers. Played by Matt Hill and the show’s choreographer Erin Baltsar, the duo are gleefully and deliciously evil. 

The entire ensemble is strong, with everyone having their moments to shine. British accents were used well by the cast with varying dialects by the different classes. The men’s chorus were difficult to understand during the prologue, partly due to overly loud orchestration, but the women’s diction was, collectively, impeccable. The student revolutionaries have a believable camaraderie and you truly feel their heartbreak as members of their band begin to fall. 

The costumes were constructed by Cat Lovejoy and are quite beautiful. The set, designed by artistic director Joel Froomkin, and the lighting, designed by Jacob Ziegler, allow the stage to transform into many different settings. Walls open and close, the barricade comes together like a 3D puzzle, and Javert’s fate is portrayed cleverly. 

Many of the cast members have appeared in other productions of Les Misérables, and their youthful passion shines through. Once the kinks are worked out of the sound system, I have no doubt this production will be one that northeast Indiana theater audiences talk about for years to come. 

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Below lists a sampling of Facebook comments about Different Stages production of Les Misérables

"This production of Les Mis absolutely blew me away. I was in awe of the incredible talent and fantastic production. Without question worth the 4 hour drive from Chicago (and I'll make that drive again for whatever amazing show you present next!) Bravo!!!"

"This production and cast is AMAZING. Joel and Rich keep putting out first class productions. It is well worth the time and money to see. IF you have the chance to see the final show Sunday night December 21st GO SEE IT!"

"Made the short drive to Huntington last night an saw an amazing and outstanding production of Les Mis-! Wonderful, Awesome! The Cast, the singing, the sets - completely outstanding Broadway quality"

"Amazing show last night! I didn't expect such a Broadway caliber performance from a small theater company, but Oh My Goodness did you guys deliver! I found myself drawn in and positively moved to tears on more than one occasion! Thank you for the best show I have seen all year! I am telling everyone that I know about you and I myself will be returning in the future!"

"Amazing show this evening! From the incredible voices, to the professional sets--Les Miserable is so worth seeing!"

"Joel Just a quick message to say congratulation on another wonderful production. It was all perfection. Thank you so much for a wonderful evening. If you haven't seen this yet. Do yourself a favor and get your tickets now. You will not be disappointed."

"This was my 4th time seeing Les Mis on stage. I first saw it at The Embassy in Fort Wayne, next during my one and only trip to NYC, and again in Chicago. Never, until THIS production, did I actually come to know and understand the heart of the characters ………. Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine, Eponine, Marius………. In this theater there are NO bad seats - there is no where that you are not THERE on the barricade, in the hell Fantine is living, feeling the angst of Valjean’s “Bring Him Home” and Eponine’s “On My Own”. And, I must give a shout out to the Thenardier’s - they are phenomenal! If you are fortunate enough to have experienced the work of Joel Froomkin and Richard Julian Najuch, expectations are high based on prior extraordinary productions. Even so, no one could have imagined the magnificence of this production. Different-Stages, YOUR ‘Les Misérables is a beautiful epic heart-stopping version of this most beloved musical in history. Congratulations and gratitude to all who helped to create this masterpiece !"

"Had a fabulous evening at The New Huntington Theatre production of Les Miserables! The sets, production, and performances were outstanding and the venue was a restored movie theater. There were several great moments with the actor's portrayals and the lighting provided some special moments. Having seen Les Miz at Clowes Hall and London, England, I was impressed with Different Stages Theater."

"Different Stages at the New Huntington Theater have done it again. Actually, they've outdone themselves with their production of Les Miserables. Our community is certainly blessed to have a professional theater company doing great work at a very high level. Thanks to Richard Julian Najuch, Joel Froomkin and everyone else involved at Different Stages. Please don't miss this show!"

"I feel so blessed that I've been able to enjoy the genius of Joel Froomkin and Rich Najuch since they've been in Huntington. With each production, I tell myself that they can't possibly top their previous performance, and once again they have managed to do it. I went to see "Les Miserables" on Friday at The New Huntington Theatre and was knocked out by the performance. The way they are able to transform the stage is an amazing feat of imagination. The acting by the Different Stages troupe is the equal of any group you will see anywhere. Joel and Rich have assembled this cast from across the country and they have found some impressive talent - again. There are seats available for the remainder of the run, so don't let the opportunity to see a world-class production slip past you. All I can say is that you shouldn't miss this show. Trust me."

"Last night I was lucky enough to see the extraordinary production of Les Miserables at The New Huntington Theatre! Just when I think there is absolutely no way they could top their previous productions, they prove me wrong and stage a performance that is breath-taking. I was mesmerized as I sat in the audience and heard voices that sounded like angels and saw staging that rivals anything I've seen anywhere and that includes Broadway! The cast, the crew and the costumes were stupendous and I certainly am running out of words to describe how I feel about every production coming out of this theatre. Let me finish with this thought, Les Miserables is comparable to a priceless Faberge egg. You have this beautiful creation and when you open it up the craftsmanship and jewels on the inside continue to astound you! Kudos to Joel and Rich, you are truly "Masters of the House!"

"I had the privilege of experiencing Les Mes yesterday. Yes Joel and Rich have done it again! A superior production. The cast was perfectly cast for their roles. Music and choreography were perfectly in sync. The most incredible thing that rich and Joel present is the seamless transition between scenes. The technical aspects of the large towering platforms moving effortlessly about the stage were incredible. Great job guys. Please if you don't have tickets please attend. Broadway in Huntington!"


Moonlight and Magnolias

Directed and Designed by Joel Froomkin
Executive Produced by Richard Najuch
Different Stages Theater – Huntington, Indiana

 WHATZUP Magazine, August 21, 2014
'"New Huntington Stage Shines Again"
by Jennifer Poiry-Prough

Moonlight and Magnolias, a sort of “historic farce” by Ron Hutchison, is the sophomore offering by Different Stages Theater in Huntington. The four person comedy features actors from the company’s inaugural production, The Sound of Music, and the production is just as polished and entertaining as last month’s musical was.

Like The Sound of Music, the play is set in 1938 when the air crackled with pre-war tensions. But Moonlight and Magnolias is set in Hollywood and is based on the ridiculous, but true story of how the screenplay to Gone with the Wind was written. 

As the audience enters the auditorium prior to the show, video clips of Gone with the Wind screen tests are projected onto the set. Although not addressed in the play itself, this extravagant screen testing process of over 30 of Hollywood’s top actresses was largely a publicity stunt by producer David O. Selznick to fuel public interest in a film that had been stalled due to a lack of script and a lack of funding. 

The play opens three weeks into production, and Selznick is under a lot of pressure. He has no usable script, he’s just fired his director, and the studio owner (who is also his father-in-law) keeps hounding him for a progress report. He brings in prolific screenwriter Ben Hecht to churn out a script. Selznick has removed director Victor Fleming from the set of The Wizard of Oz and brings him on board to help complete the script and direct the picture. Selznick locks them in his office for five days with nothing to eat but bananas and peanuts, while Fleming and Selznick act out the entire 60-chapter story for Hecht who has never even read the book. 

As the days go by, and wads of paper (and banana peels and peanut shells) pile up on the stage, the men grow more and more exhausted, malnourished and punchy. Fleming forages like an animal through the office for food. Hecht’s fingers lock up. Selznick goes catatonic. Even Selznick’s unflappable secretary, Miss Poppenghul, becomes flapped. 

Hecht is the moral compass of the show. A former Chicago reporter who happens to be Jewish, he speaks out against the treatment of slaves in the story and advocates making Scarlett more sympathetic, particularly when she slaps the 10-year-old slave Prissy while Melanie is in childbirth. 

Hecht also provides the play’s audience with an unexpected history lesson on American Jewish oppression in the 1930s. The second act of the script turns slightly didactic, but it does offer an interesting perspective on the era and the struggles encountered by many of Hollywood’s elite, including Selznick and himself.  

But the play is at its most fun when it satirizes the film. The macho Fleming acts out Melanie’s childbirth and Prissy’s “dawdling.” Hecht derisively mocks such trite dialogue as “tomorrow is another day” and refers to Scarlett as an “adulterous, two-timing, slave-driving heroine.” The play also peppers in tidbits of trivia without seeming too “pop-up video.” Fleming describes the Munchkins’ antics on the Oz set, Fleming’s slapping of Judy Garland is referenced, and he dismisses rumors of a men’s room dalliance between Clark Gable and George Cukor. 

The Different Stages actors have an easy chemistry, excellent comedic timing and mastery over the script’s fast-paced, rapid-fire dialogue that echoes that of films of the era. 

David Wiens as Selznick does a fantastic job with his long, heartfelt and sometimes frenetic monologues, and he bears a striking resemblance to Selznick himself. 

Robert Teasdale is a brash and manly Victor Fleming, barking out his lines with confidence and panache. He also has the funniest lines, and he delivers them brilliantly. 

IPFW graduate Nick Tash, as Ben Hecht, walks the fine line of moral righteousness and ambition. He plays the comedic with the serious moments equally well. 

Christy Richardson’s Miss Poppenghul is the classic ultra-competent secretary straight out of a screwball comedy (“Yes-Mr.-Selznick-no-Mr.- Selznick”) and is hilarious as she slowly unravels throughout the course of the play. It’s a small role, but Richardson handles it perfectly and memorably. 

Director Joel Froomkin understands the language and the sound of the 1930s and keeps the pace of the show flowing. His clever set design makes perfect use of the intimate stage space. 

Moonlight and Magnolias proves that the success of their first production was not a fluke. With this mix of talent and heart, and with the support of audiences who appreciate excellent, entertaining and thought provoking theater, Different Stages will be around for a long, long time.


The Sound of Music

Directed and Designed by Joel Froomkin
Executive Produced by Richard Najuch
Different Stages Theater – Huntington, Indiana

 WHATZUP Magazine, July 17, 2014
"A Gift to Northeast Indiana Theatergoers"
by Jennifer Poiry-Prough

One of the great differences between theater goers and the general populace is their ability to differentiate between the movie version of a beloved classic musical and the original stage production. When NBC aired The Sound of Music: Live in December 2013, it was hardcore theater fans who calmly explained to the rest of the internet that Carrie Underwood is not, in fact, Julie Andrews, and the songs were actually in the “right order.”

Granted, live theatre translates awkwardly to the small screen, and the NBC production was, at times, difficult to watch.

The same cannot be said for Different Stages’ gloriously fresh production of The Sound of Music, running through July 27, at the New Huntington Theatre in downtown Huntington.

Does the plot really need to be summarized? Maria, a young, orphaned postulant is sent by her Mother Abbess to serve as governess to the seven unruly children of the wealthy Georg Von Trapp, retired naval captain. Following the death of his wife, Capt. Von Trapp has banished music (and love) from his home. He falls in love with the governess, despite being almost engaged to fellow millionaire Baroness Elsa Schraeder. When he is called back into service under the Nazi regime he despises, he flees with his family over the mountains into Switzerland with the help of his friend Max Detweiler, First Secretary of the Ministry of Education and Culture. You might have seen the movie?

As Maria, Lauren Lukacek is spirited and tomboyish. Her voice is beautiful, and she sneaks in a few understated nods to Julie Andrews’ film performance (holding her hand to her head as she hits the high note in “Do Re Mi,” to name one).

Robert Teasdale’s Capt. Von Trapp is every bit as dashing and debonair as he should be, but when he finally accepts music – and his children’s love – he is heartbreaking.

David Wiens and Stephanie Cowan as Max and Elsa are the perfect balance of smarmy charm (Max) and frosty elegance (Elsa). On a scale from Mildly Sympathetic to Despicable Shrew, Cowan’s baroness falls a little to the right. But unlike her film counterpart, Elsa breaks her engagement to Von Trapp not because of his love for Maria, but because of their differences in political views (he is anti-Nazi, and she is pro-Elsa). Max proves himself not entirely self-serving by helping the Von Trapps escape the Nazis. The look Wiens exchanges with Lukacek and Teasdale as they silently thank him brought me to tears.

Justin Schuman (Rolf) and Rachel Osting (Liesl) are true triple threats in every sense of the word. Their “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” dance, choreographed by [Schuman] and Erin Baltsar, who also plays Sr. Sophia, is a beautiful highlight of the production. Osting also has a droll delivery that is unexpectedly hilarious.

The younger Von Trapp children were cast locally, and it is astonishing that so much talent exists in such small form. Rebecca Short (the sassy Brigitta, who always tells it like it is) and Gabriella Betterly (the adorable, bespectacled Gretl) are standouts, but all the kids (Sam Smiley, Arianna Betterly, Nick Scheiber, and Amelia Story) have their moments to shine.

Becky Rosky plays the Mother Abbess with a gravitas tempered with maternal love. Her concern for the state of the world is written all over her face from the moment she steps on the stage, but she manages to counsel her young postulant and to speak with her on her own level through an old folk song. Her voice is staggeringly beautiful on “Climb Every Mountain,” and her voice blends perfectly with the other nuns’ during “Maria” and the Latin vespers.

Christy Richardson does double duty as Sr. Berthe and the captain’s stoic housekeeper, Frau Schmidt. Fort Wayne actor Jeff Moore plays Franz, the equally stoic butler. Both actors bring out the humor of their roles, and Moore subtly conveys Franz’s gradual acceptance of the Nazi party, despite his obvious affection for the Von Trapps.

It’s easy for today’s audiences to forget the horrors these characters were actually facing. However, Artistic Director Joel Froomkin sets the tone from the moment the lights come up with projected images and sounds from newsreels of 1938. In the second act, following the wedding of Georg and Maria, the set is bathed in a huge red, white and black swastika. The image is unsettling but extremely important for the emotional undertone of the end of the story.

Little reminders of the movie are sprinkled carefully and lovingly throughout the production. A particularly clever staging of the song “I Have Confidence” (which was written for the movie, but is often added to current stage productions) includes a brief (but hilarious) bus ride.

The set, designed by Froomkin, manages to evoke images of both the mountains of Austria and the damaged buildings of war-torn Europe. The stage is small, but set pieces rolled in and out of the back of the set, coupled with projections, create a variety of different locations and moods.

Executive Director Richard Najuch and Artistic Director Joel Froomkin have worked seven years to create Different Stages. Their work is a gift to Huntington and the northeast Indiana region and deserves to be seen by anyone with an appreciation for great storytelling and world-class talent.

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Different Stages Theater received over 85 “Five-Star” reviews for The Sound of Music  

“The best professional production I've seen in the Midwest. A must-see!”

“Audiences at The Sound of Music will hear the sound of laughter, the sound of dancers, the sound of pitch-perfect dialogue, and the sound of hands clapping furiously for this enormously talented cast.  I'd see this Broadway-quality production again”

“5 stars are not enough! This production deserves 10+ stars. Awesome talent - singing and acting”

“The show was worth every second of the drive, every penny of the ticket price, and so, so much more.”

 “... in a word ... Fantastic!”