Memories of Melody Top: Remembering Milwaukee's Summer Stock Theatre

Melody Top's hit production of CHICAGO achieved full circle status on Tuesday, July 9, 1980 when the chief critic for the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper that first published Maurine Dallas Watkins' reports about Windy City crime in the 1920s, printed a rave review of the Milwaukee premiere. While the libretto was slightly altered as not to offend the Top's family-friendly patrons, the show still worked as a strong satire of criminals as celebrities. As Mandan remarked to his audiences, "Aren't you glad you live in Milwaukee and not in Chicago, where all that dirty stuff is going on?"

Chicago at Melody Top

Robert Mandan, with Nancy McClould at his left, performs "All I Care About" in CHICAGO (1980). Photo from the collection of Nancy McCloud.

Melody Top's CHICAGO is top tent in Milwaukee

By Richard Christiansen, Critic at Large, the Chicago Tribune, Tuesday, July 9, 1980

Summer stock, a once-flourishing form of theater in Chicago, hasn't been seen much around here since the 1960s. The days of seven or eight musicals crammed into a big-tent theater for three months long since have given way in the area to a more settled, year-round season.

In Milwaukee, however, the domed Melody Top Theater, with its 2,150 seats and striped awning tent flaps, still carries on the summer theater tradition, offering for its 18th season a total of eight musicals, from June 3 through September 21.

While most theaters now take more rehearsal time and play their shows for longer engagements, Melody Top is cranking out a new show every two weeks, already having presented THE WIZ and WHERE'S CHARLEY? and now into the middle of the run for its third production of the season, CHICAGO.

At its worst, on a steamy night and with a stumbling show, summer stock can be miserable, but when it clicks, as it does with CHICAGO, it leads to a friendly, communal experience all too rare in most theaters.

CHICAGO, originally staged in 1975 on Broadway, is the story of Roxie Hart, the dumb chorus girl whose trial for the murder of her lover becomes a publicity circus in Chicago of the 1920s.

In the original version, Roxie and her Cook County Jail buddy, Velma Kelly, were played by Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. In Milwaukee, the roles are taken by April Shawhan and Louisa Flaningam, with guest star Robert Mandan – whose face, if not name, is familiar in the role of Chester Tate on the TV series SOAP – appearing as Billy Flynn, their flamboyant lawyer.

Shawhan, with big-eyed stare and a duck walk, and Flaningam, with lungs of leather and voice of brass, provide most of the song and dance, while Mandan, whose pacing is a little too slow for musical comedy, adds some nice hammy flourishes as their slippery, silver-tongued attorney.

Victor Raider-Wexler, a solid professional, is Roxie's hapless husband, Amos; Geri Grad is the tough jail matron; and T. Hanson is an expert Mary Sunshine, the trilling sob sister who does a surprising strip tease at the trial.

Musical director Donald Yap, a Melody Top stalwart, keeps the songs jumping; and the show's singing-dancing ensemble – always the final test of a summer stock production – gives plenty of energy and drive to director-choreographer George Bunt's musical numbers, which have been neatly adapted for the in-the-round staging from Bob Fosse's originals.

When Fosse directed CHICAGO, he invested its story of phony celebrities and media events with his own brand of show biz cynicism. Most of that nasty, kinky quality has vanished from the Melody Top production. It's now a very jolly show, but with some bite and a little raunchiness still left in its satire.

It also is, in typical Melody Top style, a quite lavish production, filled with costumes, flashing lights, and amazingly smooth, swift scene changes.

Future productions are HELLO, DOLLY! with Jo Anne Worley, July 15-27; SOUTH PACIFIC with John Saxon, July 29 – August 10; CAN-CAN with Sue Ane Langdon and John Phillip Law, August 12-24; THE STUDENT PRINCE with Jack Gilford, August 26 – September 7; and GREASE, September 9-21.

Webmaster's note: John Saxon was replaced by Giorgio Tozzi in SOUTH PACIFIC this season.

Michael Hayward-Jones in Chicago at Melody Top

Michael Hayward-Jones as a member of the jury in CHICAGO (1980).

The verdict is in – he's a man of many faces

By Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel, Monday, July 7, 1980

One man with a boxful of wigs, hats and scarfs plays all 12 members of the jury that acquits Roxie Hart of murder in Melody Top Theater's current production of CHICAGO.

The mime/clown jury fits the circus Roxie's attorney makes of the trial.

It also fits the personality and energy of Michael Hayward-Jones, the man under the wigs.

"There were three reasons for the jury idea. It was meant to lighten the rather heavy idea of a murder trial, to keep a rather long scene up and to keep me busy," Hayward-Jones explained. "I have to keep busy."

Roxie's jury is basically a white-face clown who takes on added personalities through minimal changes of costume and changes in movement.

The assignment touches on two facets of Hayward-Jones' background. He danced six seasons with the Charleston (West Virginia) Ballet and taught mime as a 4-H counselor and high school teacher.

He also has three seasons of repertory theater to his credit in Detroit and West Virginia and was the lyric tenor for the West Virginia Opera Theater for three seasons.

"I'd say – just as a matter of fact – that I have the most legitimately trained voice in the company," he said. "But you won't hear me sing. I was hired as an actor who could move."

Among the jury members he has devised are a deaf man; a blind man; an old, elegant lady; a shy man; a farmer – "he's the typical macho type" – and "the one I like the best, the floozy with the red wig and a big nail file."

Michael Hayward-Jones as the Jury in Chicago at Melody Top

Two additional jury members created by Michael Hayward-Jones for CHICAGO (1980).

There is nothing subtle about the different characters. Both their makeup and their movements are on the big side.

"I believe in the character and physical area of mime," Hayward-Jones said. "I believe the audience communicates best through seeing."

The many facets of his assignment reflect the many facets of his life.

Dance, opera and the stage all helped Hayward-Jones financially though his schooling, which was concluded with graduation from the Colgate Rochester Seminary in New York.

He has taught on the secondary school and collegiate levels. He has published poetry and philosophical criticism. He works in fabric restoration with the Brooklyn Museum's costume collection and is restoring his 94-year-old home in Brooklyn.

He dropped his ministerial duties after several years of parish service because "I have trouble with the exclusions inherent in dogma."

Hayward-Jones came to Melody Top from the national tour of ON THE 20th CENTURY with Rock Hudson.

However, he has not been anxious about steady employment.

"I like nesting," he explained. "When I'm away from my home, all I can think about is the things I should be doing there."

When being choosy about jobs results in unemployment, Hayward-Jones has his priorities set.

"The important thing is to have our opera and ballet season tickets all paid up," he said. "If things get too tough, we can always walk to the theater."

George Bunt at Melody Top

George Bunt demonstrates a dance move to Ken Ellis during a rehearsal for CHICAGO (1980).

'Top' director keeps troupe in 'time'

By Jay Joslyn, the Milwaukee Sentinel, Friday, June 27, 1980

"I like to create the characters as though they are living in the very special time and special space of the show."

That's how George Bunt has been able to put his very personal stamp on the productions he has directed or choreographed.

The Bunt show opening Tuesday at Melody Top Theater has a very special time and space to consider.

CHICAGO focuses on a group of women being held in prison as suspected murderers in the Roaring '20s.

It was Robert Fosse's attempt to make a statement about our society's concern with celebrity status.

"Roxie Hart allegedly committed murder," Bunt explained. "When she is acquitted, the public makes her a major star – just like we did with the people involved in Watergate."

Fosse conceived the show as a vaudeville in which the points are made in sketches.

"The sketches run right into each other," Bunt said. "Often the last word of one sketch is the first word of the next. Everything has to be choreographed."

Operating in the depths of Chicago's seamy tenderloin, the original show has been remembered as much for its "realistic" language as the gusty performances of its stars.

"I've made it more palatable," Bunt assured. "We've cleaned up the language considerably. But we've kept the flavor."

He has gone a step beyond the call of duty by making his master of ceremonies a kind of censor.

"When things start to get sort of – he has a big fight bell he'll whack," Bunt said. "It is our bleep."

Bunt has two strong performers for the central figures. April Shawhan, playing Roxie, has appeared recently in A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN FILM, REX, as Ado Annie in an OKLAHOMA! revival, as well as in the tour of Fosse's SWEET CHARITY.

Her sidekick is played by Louisa Flaningam, who played Cleo in the recent THE MOST HAPPY FELLA revival on Broadway and, for Fosse, the wife in PIPPIN.

"April has just the right kind of amorality Roxie needs," Bunt described, "and Louisa is a big, beautiful woman with a great voice."

The shyster lawyer, Billy Flynn, is being played by Robert Mandan, the philandering Chester of the outrageous SOAP serial on television. Mandan's appearance in the cast serves as a reunion with Bunt.

They were in the 1968 hit, MAGGIE FLYNN.

Besides Mandan and Bunt, Irene Cara, who played Melody Top's Dorothy in this season's opening, THE WIZ, and the original Dorothy in THE WIZ on Broadway, Stephanie Mills, also were in the cast.

Bunt, a rawhide-skinned, wiry sliver of a man, is a ballet-trained dancer who made his New York debut with the American Ballet Theater when he was 19 years old, 17 years ago.

After two seasons with the ABT – "prophetically, I did RODEO and the other Broadway kind of roles" – he made his Broadway debut in CAMELOT.

While working as a "gypsy" – a Broadway chorus dancer – friends introduced him to Guy Little, currently the producer at Melody Top.

Little had his own Little Theater in Sullivan, Illinois, in 1967 when he turned over the entire summer season to Bunt for his first professional experience as a choreographer.

"He took a chance on me and I'll be everlastingly grateful," Bunt said.

During 1967-1970, he worked as both dancer and choreographer. He was the understudy for Harpo in MINNIE'S BOYS when Bunt decided to make the break.

"I hung up my red shoes and I've been busy ever since," he said.

After he staged WEST SIDE STORY in Westchester, Massachusetts, he noticed that there was a lot of "concert quality dancing" in his choreography and he had his agent get him an assignment to do a jazz ballet for the Princeton (New Jersey) Ballet, a young regional company associated with Princeton University.

The ballet to William Russo's THREE PIECES FOR BLUES BAND AND ORCHESTRA was so well received that the prestigious Houston Ballet has asked him to set it on them.

While ballet choreography is another string in his bow, his usual efforts will keep him busy.

After CHICAGO, he goes to Atlanta's Theater Under the Starts to stage Joe Namath in LI'L ABNER for a tour through the big summer stage circuit.

With Namath on the road, Bunt goes to St. Louis to stage GREASE as the first offering of the brand-new Westport Playhouse.

In the fall, he returns to the Citadel Theater in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to choreograph a new Lionel Bart show about the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

It will be an encore assignment. Last season, he staged the premiere production of Clifford Jones' HEY, MARILYN, which Bunt described as "an opera about Marilyn Monroe, like EVITA and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR were operas."

David Merrick has picked up an option for a Broadway production of HEY, MARILYN.

Production Photos from CHICAGO, July 1 – 13, 1980

(Click on the icons below to enlarge each photo. Use next and previous buttons to navigate images.)

Chicago 1 Chicago 2 Chicago 3 Chicago 4 Chicago 5 Chicago 6 Chicago 8 Chicago 7 Chicago 9 Chicago 10

CHICAGO Cast of Characters

MC:Jim Fredericks
Velma Kelly:Louisa Flaningam
Roxie Hart:April Shawhan
Fred Casely:Rudy Hogenmiller
Sergeant Fogarty:Michael Hayward-Jones
Amos Hart:Victor Raider-Wexler
Liz:Nancy Mueller
Annie:Nancy McCloud
June:Mib Bramlette
Hunyak:Deborah Woodhouse
Mona:Laura Soltis
Martin Harrison:K. David Short
Matron:Geri Grad
Billy Flynn:Robert Mandan
Mary Sunshine:T. (Tom) Hanson
Go-to-Hell Kitty:Laura Soltis
Harry:James K. Seibel
Aaron:James K. Seibel
The Judge:David Larson
Court Clerk:Ken Ellis
Jury:Michael Hayward-Jones
"Me and My Baby" Dancers:Rudy Hogenmiller, Terry Lacy

Ensemble: Ann Arvia, Mib Bramlette, Debra Dominiak, Ken Ellis, Jim Fredericks, Rudy Hogenmiller, Terry Lacy, David Larson, Nancy McCloud, Nancy Mueller, James K. Seibel, K. David Short, Laura Soltis, Deborah Woodhouse

CHICAGO Orchestra. Reeds: John Hibler, Joseph Aaron, Arthur Ulichny. Brass: Norm Wegner, Phil Ruektenwald, Ken Howlett, Jeff Lemke. Keyboard: Stephen Bates. Bass: Tom McGirr. Percussion: Roy Schneider. Banjo: Jack Grassel.

Musical Direction, Donald Yap; Costume Design, Mathew John Hoffmann III; Scenery Design, Craig M. Clipper; and Lighting Design, James R. Riggs.

©2009-2023 D.G.P., Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Please visit the contact information page to address the webmaster.