A Retrospective: ‘Yes, Virginia! There is theatre in Rockford!’

By Bill Beard

New things have been happening in the theatre world of Rockford. We have recently seen the advent of several exciting new performance groups offering some challenging productions. This is very encouraging in today’s fragile economy, as artists of all persuasions constantly struggle for funds, friends and favor. The general audience really has no idea just how very difficult it is for any new arts organization to put together the necessary support to find security and success.

The newest group in town calls itself the “Usual Suspects” and is a marvelous menagerie (yes, I meant menagerie….look it up!) of some of our most talented stage favorites, most of whom have enjoyed extensive experience with one of the large long-lived local community theatres, but now have finally decided to spread their wings and look for freer skies and brighter stars. They rather exploded onto the Halloween season last month with a bang, presenting two weekends of The Rocky Horror Show, the cult classic musical which won London’s 1973 Best Musical Award and later served as the basis of the 1975 film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

An outrageous send up of horror B-movies and early science fiction, the musical’s delightfully whacky, glorified tackiness and its stage filled with zany, weirdo characters, offered the sheer escapism that audiences needed, and which would eventually allow it to become the musical theatre phenomenon which it is; and still drawing die-hard faithful fans wherever it is performed.

“Suspects” is developing a solid ensemble of strong local performers, several of whom will be recognized from previous leading roles in other local venues. This production of “The Rocky Horror Show” featured stalwart Christopher Brady in the leading role of Frank’n’Furter, the ‘transvestite transexual from Transylvania‘. Indeed, Brady almost reincarnates the inimitable Tim Curry, who created the film version of the role. Brady was flawless.

The innocent young couple who stumble into Frank’n’Furter’s mysterious old castle on a dark and stormy night, are Erin Brady as the sweet young Janet, and the multi-talented Alex McIntyre as Brad, in a wonderfully stylized characterization. The versatile Ray Fanara in the title role of Rocky, all in gold lame and blond bleach and shiney speedo, certainly filled out his character nicely (He also acts very well). The other leads and much of the ensemble included a marvelous selection of excellent well-known and seasoned performers.

This was “Suspect’s” introductory offering, a bizarre “cult” show, so steeped in crazy traditions and unorthodox challenges, that it requires the brave at heart (or perhaps the weak of mind) to attempt it. It could have been a disaster!  In fact, I had been warned by friends who had already seen it, that the production was just a loud, muddled chaotic mess. But it was not! It was well within the expected “controlled chaos” that a faithful Rocky fanatic fan would expect.

The show is famous (or infamous) for welcoming fans in costume (monsters, drag, almost anything) and allowing those crazy fans to do all the ridiculous and now expected traditional audience participation things; like shout out favorite dialogue lines simultaneously with the actors, or loud insults (some risqué, others not) at any time, or throw glitter, streamers, toilet paper, even toast anywhere in the action (sometimes paper and toast not allowed).

This production had all of that!; and more. But it really stayed within that acceptable “controlled chaos”; and to a knowledgeable audience, it was all just part of the fun. But even though “Rocky” is a great splashy first show, the “Usual Suspects” should be careful that their next production shows their versatility with a more accepted challenge.

Another relatively new group with several notable successes is the Gateway Performing Arts Studio, organized and managed by the mother and son collaboration of Ellen and Andrew Mahan. Both have become active and much in demand, each as directors, Andrew also as dancer, choreographer and performer, Ellen as Executive Director of the Studio, teaching acting and vocal performance.

I had only seen one production this past summer, “Godspell, (Under the big top)” a saturation of circus concept. It was an extremely colorful show with almost an excess of talent, consisting of top performers from local college, high school and community groups. It was widely appreciated by full house audiences; and although criticized as having enough action for a three ring circus, and therefore difficult at times to decide where one’s focus should be, it was obvious that this group was sure to succeed.

So when I heard that they would be doing the Pulitzer-Prize-winning dramatic musical, “Next to Normal”, I knew it would be a test of Gateway’s versatility. I had reviewed the national tour production for ‘Broadway in Chicago’ last year and found it absolutely amazing; and I held my breath that Gateway would compare favorably. Well, they did! A superb job on a demanding challenge.

As the New York Times stated: this isn’t a “feel-good musical…it is a feel-everything musical.” That about sums it up. It is the story of a family struggling to cope with the death of a son and brother, the mother’s bi-polar condition and the devastating impact of mental illness on the family’s psychological state. Doesn’t sound like a musical, does it? But it is! A powerful story with some exciting new music.

This show lays bare the entire range of human emotions. It requires strong first-rate actor-singers; and Gateway found an outstanding cast, capable of handling the depth and diversity of this stunning emotional story. Every one of these actors contributed perfectly to the ensemble unit, particularly Michelle Gottfred in the pivotal role of Diana, the mother. She was superb! Frankly, I felt she was better than Alice Ripley, who did the original Broadway production, Gottfred’s singing voice was excellent and her overall character right on target.

So watch for “Gateway’s” next production. They have become a Rockford “must”.

Finally, I would like to add special kudos to Dr. Deborah Mogford, Director of Rockford University’s Theatre. That department has undergone a marvelous metamorphosis since Dr. Mogford arrived a few years ago, growing from a somewhat mediocre program to an exciting, professionally oriented training/producing organization. Her shows keep getting better and better.

I recently dropped by to see an evening of short absurdist plays, directed by students in an advanced directing class: “No Exit” by Samuel Becket and “The Lesson” by Eugene Ionesco. Both were excellent. The first, “No Exit”, featured the engaging J. P. Fox, a talented Senior BA student. In Ionesco‘s “The Lesson”, the role of The Professor requires superb characterization skills, intense concentration and a consistent creativity. All of these qualities were abundantly displayed by a Rockford College alumnus, Andrew Harth. I have watched this brilliant young actor perform for several years in a variety of roles. He is the consummate comedy actor. But this role requires much more.  Mr. Harth has it all, and gives it all. It will be a shame if this show cannot find another opportunity to be repeated.

So yes, Virginia! There is new theatre in Rockford, lots of it. Hopefully, this will encourage more and larger audiences. Check it out. See a show! Cheers!

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