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…