“The Wedding Singer” – Dexter Community Players….or, how to make a community theater production look like a million bucks… July 27, 2011Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals.
Tags: community theater, Dexter Community Players, The Wedding Singer musical
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I’ve just completed directing and choreographing a weekend run of THE WEDDING SINGER, the musical, for Dexter Community Players in Dexter, MI. Not to toot my own horn, but the single most heard comment in the audience (besides what a fun show) was how professional the show looked and sounded. This is not a review. This is a blog entry about what goes into directing a show that looks and sounds as professional as you can make it.
1. Make sure you have great leads — in this case, Andrew Buckshaw (Robbie Hart) is a musical theater student, sure to be a future Broadway performer. Katherine Kujala (Julia Sullivan) is a recent graduate of University of Michigan’s Opera program, already an established performer. Almost all of the supporting cast are or were musical theater, or vocal performance majors.
2. Keep the set simple, fast to move, and streamlined. In community theater, unless you have a half million dollar budget, you can’t even come close to approximating the multi-million dollar Broadway sets. So you do elements of them: you make sure that they fly and move quickly; and you make sure that the show doesn’t stop to wait for set changes. Use fades, not blackouts. Stack sets that fly behind each other. Have more than one person on flyrails so things can move at the same time. Enlist cast members in helping with set changes. Keep it moving.
3. Get the best orchestra and sound designer you can get. We had an 11-piece orchestra under the direction of John Tartaglia that was composed of a mix of music professionals and the very best students we could find. Nothing says “amateur theater” like a bad orchestra. So make sure that it is not. The orchestra was the single most expensive aspect of this entire production. It also sounded like a professional pit orchestra. You get what you pay for. Our sound designer (Patrick Schrock) is an expert in blending vocal sound on stage with rock music in the pit. If you can’t hear every word, you don’t have a show.
4. Simplify choreography. Make sure that you give the ensemble steps that they can perform — your show is as good as it’s weakest link. Your choreography can be brilliant, but if only a few cast members can perform it, you have nothing. Keep the steps simple, repetitive, and throw in some fun steps that they enjoy doing and will take the time to learn. In this case, I rewrote large portions of choreography before even teaching the steps.
5. Light it. Make sure you have a terrific lighting designer. Kent Sprague is a lighting design major at Wooster College in Ohio. Not only does he have an eye for good, focused lighting, but he has a playful sense of color and design. In a show where lighting substitutes for sets, at times, you better make sure that lighting looks fantastic.
6. Make sure you have the details right. If the show calls for a mirror ball, make sure you have a mirror ball. If water needs to cascade onto a cast member, make sure you have an effect that works on stage, and “reads” in the house. If a dumpster is your most important set piece, you better make sure that dumpster looks like a dumpster. If your leads need matching jackets, make sure they have matching jackets.
7. Expect to spend more money than you originally budgeted. Nothing comes in under budget. Ever. Build in a slush fund, or make sure that your design team has deeper pockets than your budget allows.
8. Surround yourself with the best staff you can get — from designers to techies, make sure you have the best people you can find to fill each important role. Have regular production team meetings. Even with the best intentions, expect some miscommunications and work together to resolve difficulties. Have a great producer (Francyn Chomic). Stay in communication with the Board.
9. Stay calm and enthused. Not every rehearsal is going to run as smoothly as you like. There will be plenty of drama that arises offstage. These are actors and “theater people” — expect it!…Stay calm, easy going, and confident.
10. Remember that this is community theater. People expect it to look and sound like community theater, based on their past experiences. When they see something that looks and sounds professional instead, you’ll stun them. In this case, the production really fell into the category of “pre-professional”, given the quality and experience of the staff and most of the tech crew. Pat yourself on the back for a job well-done, and hope the next production at the theater will maintain the same high caliber. Create a new benchmark with each show, and keep the quality up.
Damn Yankees strikes out at Croswell Opera House (Review) August 22, 2010Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Theatre.
Tags: community theater, Croswell Opera House, Damn Yankees, mark DiPietro
In the past, Croswell has been the sole not-fully Equity regional theater that I have reviewed in this blog. I do so for a reason — they quite simply present the best musical theatre being produced on a non-professional (or educational, read University of Michigan) basis in the area.
I can’t do a full review for Damn Yankees because I left before intermission. This is sloppy work, and screams community theatre from the getgo. The continuity mistakes in turning the Washington Senators into the Detroit Tigers are consistent and the concept here does not work. I’ve seen this concept work once at the Huntington Playhouse in Bay Village, OH many years ago. It doesn’t work here in Adrian.
Costuming is poor, the sets passable at best, and the production numbers have no life. The (very small) men’s ensemble tries. It tries hard. It does not succeed. The women fare better overall. The sound, as it has been all summer, was poor.
The show comes to life only when Mark DiPietro appears, He is superb as Applegate. Sorry, Mark — I couldn’t make it through this (long) show.
Damn Yankees strikes out. It’s a cliche. But its an apt cliche for this production. Looking forward to future performances at Croswell, but I can’t recommend this one.
OKLAHOMA! at Encore Musical Theatre Company August 7, 2009Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Entertainment, Theatre.
Tags: Ann Arbor, Barbara Cullen, community theater, Encore, Encore Musical Theatre Company, Gavriel Savit, Liz Griffith, MI, Michigan Theatre, musical, musical theater, Oklahoma!, professional theater, Rusty Mewba, Sarah Litzsinger, Sebastian Gerstner
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One step forward, two steps back…just when GUYS AND DOLLS and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS started to turn the corner for professionalism, along comes OKLAHOMA, now playing at Encore Musical Theater Company, in Dexter, MI.
Sebastian Gerstner as Will Parker, Sarah Litzinger as Ado Annie, and Steve DeBruyne as Ali Hakim (Photos courtesy Encore Musical Theatre Company)
Liz Griffith as Laurey and Rusty Mewha as Curly
There is good, and there is bad in Encore’s OKLAHOMA. There is no ugly, and that is a really good sign of ongoing good work by this company. But the show proves too much community and too little professional theater in the long run. I didn’t expect to enjoy this production, and it was better than I expected. Not because I don’t like the show, or because I don’t like Encore (I like them very much); but because Oklahoma is just not a suitable show for this small venue.
First the good: Sebastian Gerstner (Will Parker) and Sarah Litzsinger (Ado Annie) are fabulous. Their scenes together have spark, and MSU student Gerstner holds his own with the professional leads in this production. Steve DeBruyne is adorable as Ali Hakim and has quickly become an Encore audience favorite. The three of them provide the highpoints in this production, and there are many of them.
Liz Griffith (UM Musical Theater program graduate) is very good as Laurey. She sings beautifully, and brings a 3rd dimension to this difficult role. The same can not be said of Rusty Mewba as Curly. While he looks great, and sings well, the performance is flat and there is just no spark between the two of them. Contrast this with the sassy and colorful performances of Gerstner and Litzsinger, and you have a show where the secondary leads overshadow the ones we should be rooting for. I liked Gavriel Savit as Jud, but he comes across more as teddy bear than he does evil. Some of the psychology of this character that makes him both sad and scary is missing in this performance.
The set is very fine — if too big for the theatre. It serves well throughout the production…but more on this later. Much was made by the director of the “earthy real aspects of the show”….I dunno, this show looked exactly like every other production of the show I’ve seen — with many similarities to the recent West End production. Sound and lighting is generally good.
Director Barbara F. Cullen (this time co-directed by Jon Huffman) does a very good job with the pacing. The directing and choreography are serviceable, if familiar. That it comes in at 2 1/2 hours including an intermission is nothing short of miraculous for this otherwise very long show.
Then there is the bad: and some of this is beyond the control of the actors or the director — first, if any American musical screams of wide open spaces and the sheer joy of running through plains and dancing uninhibitedly, it’s Oklahoma. The Encore space is just plain old too small for the large scope of this show. The cast is too small. The entire thing looks cramped on the Encore stage – and instead of wide open spaces, things begin to feel claustrophobic as the show progresses. It works well in Jud’s Smokehouse, but starts to show its smallness during the dream ballet. By the time we get to the penultimate song, “Oklahoma” has folded in on itself rather than celebrating the wide open American west. It doesn’t help that the shiny metal air conditioning vent serves as the proscenium frame and shines on the ceiling. Please paint this black! Please!
Second, it is difficult to listen to a Rodgers and Hammerstein score played by a miniscule orchestra that is out of tune, and which sometimes drags down the pace of the production. Sure, its impractical to have a large orchestra in this small space — but shouldn’t that be a consideration at the time the season is being selected? At points in the show, the cast on stage entirely drowns out the orchestra. At other times, they can’t hear each other well and entrances are not together. This has consistently been a problem this entire season, and the Encore needs to look at options to fix this (like a television monitor system, or selecting shows that can place the orchestra on the stage itself).
The supporting cast and ensemble are generally community theatre quality. Performers range from good to poor with its corresponding timing and line readings. The men’s ensemble fares better than the women’s which is too young and too weak vocally to compare with the professional cast members in the show. “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” is the highlight of the first act –partly because it showcases the wonderful Mr. Gerstner, and partly because the men generally fare better in the song and dance aspects of this show. The choreography is creative and they make the most of this short number (albeit, missing taps — sigh….)
My favorite moment: Sarah Litzsinger’s face — the utter joy she expresses — when the fight breaks out during “Farmer and the Cowman”. It made my night.
You can do worse than OKLAHOMA this summer at the Encore. It’s entertaining and well paced. The leads are generally good, and the show is what it is. But you could do better too (see CITY OF ANGELS at the Croswell Opera House for example).
OKLAHOMA continues at Encore Thursdays through Sundays until August 23rd. Call 734-268-6200 for tickets, or purchase them online at http://www.theencoretheatre.org
On the current state of musical theater locally… February 7, 2009Posted by ronannarbor in Theatre.
Tags: Ann Arbor, Blackbird theater, Chicago theater, Cleveland theater, community theater, Detroit, Detroit theater, EMU theater, Encore, Lansing theater, musical theater, Performance Network, professional theater, Purple Rose, Toronto theater
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This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the premier production of the new “professional” Encore Musical Theatre Company’s EVITA in Dexter, Michigan.
First, the theatre itself is nice. It needs some makeup – like hiding or painting everything on the ceiling black, including the heating/air conditioning ducts and vents. Apparently, they got a 40,000 dollar donation of heating/cooling. That is awesome! But it needs to be hidden. Similarly the lighting needs to be adjusted, and the spotlight moved so that it avoids hitting lights and sound equipment and throw shadows on actors faces. That can all be ironed out as the season progresses.
But then things get worse. The production itself was little more than a community theatre production with several good Equity leads. The show was directed as if it were in proscenium rather than a blackbox theatre, and it was both too large for the space and too small to do the show justice. JESSICA GROVE (Eva) and DAN COOLEY (Che) were the standouts here, with kudos to STEVE DEBRUYNE (Migaldi and assorted parts) as well. THALIA SCHRAMM (Mistress) is an up-and comer (good in the recent A2CT FOLLIES as well). JOHN SARTOR, though handsome, was forgettable as Peron. The ensemble was utterly distracting and in over their heads; and the musical direction was spotty. The orchestra was woeful — and was in tune only when keyboards were in use without any other instruments. Musical entrances were consistently missed (the theatre needs a video system with television so the actors and the backstage musical director can see each other). In general, the show was well-directed. The choreography was interesting and fun (although completely too difficult for the community-based ensemble, that neither looked, nor moved, like dancers capable of doing strenuous stage dance).
And therein today’s rant — if you want to do professional musical theatre, you have to do it right. The Encore Theatre space itself is lovely for smaller shows and cabaret. That’s where their focus should be at this point. Forget the big blockbuster musicals that smack of community theatre (and some of it, frankly, much better in the area — see Croswell Opera House for example). Focus on smaller, 4-6 cast member ensemble musicals. Romance/Romance; The Last Five Years; Baby; They’re Playing Our Song; Weird Romance; Oh Coward; etc. This would be a lovely space for Passion, or The Light in the Piazza, or Floyd Collins. Anything but big shows.
I’m already frightened by their announcement that the coming two shows will be GUYS AND DOLLS and OKLAHAMA….What??? Those are both big-proscenium dance shows. EVITA has proven that can’t and shouldn’t be done in this space. And the ensemble here proves that you can’t rely on small-town talent alone to fill out a professional theatre ensemble. Sorry folks — despite some lovely voices and some good dancers (some, not most), this is not professional theatre quality.
The choice of the shows themselves is problematic. Are Dan and Company aware that GUYS AND DOLLS has been presented by every single community, college, high school, youth, and church basement theatre in Ann Arbor and environs in the last 10 years? Who wants to see this show, professional or not professional? It’s always more fun for the actors than the audience, but all the potential actors have already done this show!
I was honestly quite sad after seeing EVITA and seeing this attempt at professional musical theatre fall far short. It wasn’t for lack of effort. Dan and Company have put a tremendous amount of energy and heart into their efforts. I’ve been wanting to launch a professional musical theatre here in Ann Arbor for years, but there is just plain old no space to do normal proscenium-based large orchestra musical theatre here in Ann Arbor. None of the existing theatres can grant access for more than a week at at time, and are scheduled years in advance. And unlike most other communities across America, the high school auditorium access is non-existent (did you know, for example, that in the Ann Arbor school system, if you rent a theatre for a week, if one of the high school clubs decides they want to use the auditorium for a meeting one night the Renter is OUT OF LUCK and is thrown out while the club meets!).
This leaves plenty of room for chamber-musical companies like Encore to fill the void. But what you get is not what you expect — and not in a good way either. As it is, their first production is just another community theatre show, with good leads, and worse overall production values.
An example can be made of Performance Network’s recent attempts at musical theatre. SHE LOVES ME was the perfect professional musical theatre production a few seasons ago. MAN OF LAMANCHA was too small (I hate when theaters rip out the chorus, cut the dance numbers, cut the orchestra and still call it a “musical”); and THE BAKERS WIFE showed what happens when you try to do a big proscenium show in a cramped space with a female lead who can’t carry the part. Encore can learn from Performance Network’s mistakes.
There are a couple other shows of note that should probably be mentioned…ANNIE GET YOUR GUN presented by Burns Park Players at Tappan Middle School is exactly what all their other shows have always been — enthusiastic, big, far too many cast members, and completely entertaining as a community-based experience. Be warned, if you don’t live in Burns Park, you are kind of an afterthought in the audience…meanwhile, over at Eastern Michigan University, REEFER MADNESS is lighting up the stage (so to speak)….dare you not to laugh yourself silly…
Non-musical wise; THE GRAPES OF WRATH at Blackbird did a two-night staged reading of the masterwork. It deserves a full staging at some point. Bart Bund and company continue to do the most innovative theatre this side of Performance Network before it went professional and started selling out to more crowd-friendly works. Michelle Mountain continues to chew up the scenery (and I mean that in the absolute best way) at Purple Rose in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. This performance deserves to be seen and savored — if this were on Broadway, hers would be a shoo-in for Best Actress. Hats off to Purple Rose for consistently the best acting and ensemble work in southeast Michigan.
I saw EVITA with a dear friend who is also theatre-savvy and we both agreed that with the tremendous amount of professional musical theatre tour shows available within a few hour drive of Ann Arbor, it makes it increasingly difficult to settle for the mediocrity of the local community theatre musical scene, or for that matter, even recent “professional” attempts at local musical theatre. To truly see professional musical theatre, you need to have a truly fully-staged professional musical.
For the record, Detroit is currently hosting SPAMALOT and just completed runs of WICKED; AVENUE Q; A CHORUS LINE and IRVING BERLIN’S WHITE CHRISTMAS. Coming up are MOVIN’OUT; SWEENEY TODD; FIDDLER ON THE ROOF; ANNIE; RENT; GREASE; and JERSEY BOYS. A few hours away, in Toronto, you can see DIRTY DANCING THE STAGE SHOW; THE SOUND OF MUSIC; WE WILL ROCK YOU and JERSEY BOYS. A few hours away in Chicago, you can see JERSEY BOYS, DIRTY DANCING and XANADU, and coming soon: MARY POPPINS, LEGALLY BLONDE, and SPRING AWAKENING. Lansing’s Wharton Center is hosting SPRING AWAKENING’s national tour in just a few weeks. Two hours away in Cleveland, you could have seen A CHORUS LINE or LEGALLY BLONDE this fall, and MARY POPPINS and SPRING AWAKENING this spring and summer.
It makes the head spin. There is always a place for community theatre, since it has such strong volunteer roots, and it has educational purpose. But it’s a different story when you start calling yourself “professional.”
Bar none, the only “professional” quality musical theatre productions in Ann Arbor are being presented by the University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre Program. Go see one of their fully-staged productions and you will immediately spot the difference between professional and amateur-quality musical theatre.
And that is the current state of musical theatre locally…