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Summer Dancin’ and Jazzin’

wonderlettesBy George Halas

Summer’s here and the time is right for dancin’ in the streets. They’ll be dancin’ in Chicago…and in…Neenah!

Based on the latest science, The Inquisition calculates that dancing in aisles will be an unavoidable consequence for those who attend the musical, “The Marvelous Wonderettes” at The Jane Bergstrom Fine Arts Theater at St. Mary’s Central in Neenah.

“The Marvelous Wonderettes” is self-described as a 1950’s/60’s jukebox musical.

It begins at the 1958 Springfield High School prom and follows four girls with hopes, dreams, and drama through the next decade to their ten year class reunion. Along the way, the girls perform some of the iconic radio hits of the era such as “Lollipop,” “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me,” “Goodnight Sweetheart,” “Respect,” “Rescue Me,” “Leader of the Pack,” and “Son of a Preacher Man” all sung in four-part harmony. The cast is made up of Crystal Swaim-Vodopija as Cindy Lou, Molly Schlaak as Betty Jean, Kylie Montee as Missy, and Abby Schmidt as Suzy.

This will be the Fox Valley premiere of the musical, but it’s the fourth production for the American Soapbox Theatrical (AST), co-founded by Swaim-Vodopija and Sommer Johnson-Loa – who directed “The Marvelous Wonderettes” – in August 2013. Since then they have been seen on TV, heard on the radio, performed in parades and played several stages in the area. Last summer’s production of “Suds: The Rocking 60’s Musical Soap Opera,” was a hit with local critics and successful enough to generate momentum for this season.

The choreography is handled by Swaim-Vodopija and Schlaak while the music is under the direction of Dorothy Zerbe. 

Swaim-Vodopija, who also includes AST president in her list of titles, is also a freelance singer, choreographer, and private music teacher in Neenah. She has an interesting resume that includes becoming a Walt Disney World Cast Member, recording an EP at Sun Studio in Memphis and performing at Tootsie’s World Famous Orchid Lounge in Nashville as well as starting and running AST. She has been involved with theatre and music for the last 15 years starting with Theatrix where she was given a start and opportunities to do what she loves. She gets to give back these opportunities to young people in the area by including them in all of the AST shows.  

Johnson-Loar, also AST vice-president, is a Menasha resident with a love of music and the arts. She was at the helm as director for “Suds: The Rocking 60’s Musical Soap Opera.” She is also a mom, caregiver, and freelance artist.

Schmidt is a returning cast member from “Suds” and a music teacher in Winneconne Community School District. “She is our strongest comedienne, Swaim-Vodopija said. “She plays a ditzy blonde – the exact opposite of who she is in real life – it’s perfect casting. She’ll be the show stealer.

Montee is a new resident to Oshkosh and an accomplished performer and director.

“She is the glue that holds all the characters together, but on and off stage,’’ Swaim-Vodopija said. “Her solo alone is worth the price of admission.”

“Molly plays the class clown,” Swaim-Vodopija said of Schlaak, who is is from Oshkosh but currently resides in Cederburg where she is a general music teacher. “She provides a lot of unexpected, almost shock humor and she is an incredible vocalist as well.”

Show dates include: Thursday, June 18th at 7 PM, Friday, June 19th at 7 PM and two shows Saturday, June 20th at 2 PM and  7 PM.

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If, in addition to dancing, adding “jazzing your pants off” is a desirable option, The Inquisition strongly recommends hitting Cena on College Avenue in Appleton, on Tuesday nights.

What is on the schedule from 8 – 11 p.m. is vocalist Christine Granatella with Noah Harmon (keyboards) and The Jazz Orgy which usually includes Michael Underwood playing drums and Andy Mertens playing bass and singing.

On any given night, that is more than enough talent and fabulous music.

However, on any given Tuesday at Cena, in the cool vibe style one hopes to hit in a jazz venue, many of the top jazz players in the area are dropping by to play unannounced. It’s not an open mic and it’s not a jam per se, but it’s what you hope happens when you go out to hear jazz. Driven in large part by the versatility of the aforementioned rhythm section, a jazz standard that starts out with a Granatella vocal gets a very different treatment every week as different saxophone, trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, and even violin flavorings mix in, as well as drummers, bass players and keyboards players sittin’ in.

The results are often the kind of jazz that happens when very good players have fun responding improvisationally to one another – never the same but always good. Bartender extraordinaire Brian Leslie improvises like the jazz aficionado he is. Always good.

Some of the players who make the scene at Cena start the evening at Frank’s Pizza Palace playing with The Big Band Reunion; during the summer months, the nine-piece version of the BBR, The Bob Levy Little Big Band, takes over on alternate Tuesdays with a couple of special event performances added for good measure.

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If par chance you are in Oshkosh on a Thursday night looking to dance and grab a piece of that synergistic musical vibe, definitely check out the open mic hosted by Ross Catterton at Barley and Hops on Main Street.

Catterton, who sings, plays guitar, plays saxophones and tells very good jokes for the most part, is worth a visit by himself, but he typically has Mike Malone, one of the Fox Valley’s best drummers, playing with him. While they are both outstanding jazz players, the open mic aspect results in a myriad of styles including pop rock, R&B, dance, blues, etc. Both play in and/or with several of the better bands in the area, so, like Cena, the unannounced players make it special every Thursday. Both have excellent sense of performance pace, and are superb at reading the room and delivering just the right touch.

The Inquisition also reminds everyone to dance and jazz responsibly as well as to avoid exceeding the fun limit.

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