42nd Street at Encore is Grand, Grand, Grand

Have you ever left the theater so in awe of what you just watched that you wish the box office was still open so that you can get tickets to return? That was my reaction as I left 42nd Street at Encore Musical Theatre Company. My second thought was, how did they fit that giant Broadway tour of 42nd Street onto the Encore stage. But it’s not a tour. It is all locally produced and created. But really, it is pure Broadway.

The lion’s share of the credit goes to Scott Thompson. The cast from top to bottom shine and rise to his demanding choreography and direction. Bravo.

If you don’t know what 42nd Street is about, you and I are probably not friends. It’s the musical for musical lovers. A Ziegfeld era director is mounting a big new Broadway musical and it follows the show’s development from auditions to opening night. Along the way you meet a new chorine, old diva vet, established “juvenile” tenor, the writer and composer, and a whole lot of fun mayhem.

David Moan plays Julian Marsh, director extraordinaire, and he is as usual perfect for the role. Sarah B Stevens turns in a jaw-dropping performance as Dorothy Brock the diva and steals every scene she is in. Young chorine Peggy Sawyer is played by Allison Bell and she is delightful with a clear, beautiful, singing voice and outstanding tap and dance ability. Supporting parts are perfectly cast and are played by Sebastian Gerstner, Gayle E Martin, Keith Kalinowski, Bobby MacDonell, and John Bixler. 

Sarah Tanner creates a picture-perfect set based on the Broadway original. The show is built around large set pieces: backstage at two theaters, the train station, a Pullman sleeper, a cocktail party, performances on stage and it’s all there and it looks perfect. Projections by Dave Early and lighting by Nikki Belenski look spectacular. This is the highest tech show Encore has ever done, and it shows in every scene.

Costumes by Marilee Dechart assisted by what seems to be a small army are stunning and there are hundreds of them. Add hats and wigs and everything looks glamorous and true to period. The many many props are handled perfectly by Anne Donevan. 

But what is a musical without music, and R Mackenzie Lewis handles this with aplomb. His Orchestra sounds four times their size and vocal work is terrific throughout. “Lullaby of Broadway” is electrifying choral work.

Scott Thompson has re-created many of the original dance numbers crafted by Gower Champion, later adapted by Randy Skinner. The dancing here is simply outstanding. This cast is unbelievably talented, and you will absolutely be thrilled by what you see here.

I have to say in closing that 42nd Street is my all-time favorite musical. Whether you are seeing it for the first time, or in my case, probably the 20th if not more, you will be astounded by this production.  Get your tickets now they will not last. Reviewed at final dress tech 06/01/23.

42nd Street runs at the Encore Musical Theatre Company through June 25th. theencoretheatre.org, (734) 268-6200

Dreamy, stellar Once on This Island at Encore (Review)

Photo Credit: Michele Anliker

There is a stellar production of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, the Ahrens and Flaherty musical, currently being presented by Encore Musical Theatre Company and I urge you to get tickets now for this limited run production, You won’t see a better production of it anywhere – in fact, it is Broadway worthy, and I’ve seen both previous Broadway productions of the show.

From the moment you enter the theater, with it’s hurricane tossed belongings surrounding you, to the final seconds of Part of Us (Why We Tell The Story) you will be immersed in a tale of love, despair, fortune, and the circle of life. Once on this Island is many people’s favorite musical – while others have never heard of it. Think Little Mermaid set in the Caribbean. Haiti in specific, although this tale weaves its spell much closer to the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale than the Disney Little Mermaid with Arial and Sabastian, including a darker ending. But don’t let that scare you away – this is a musical appropriate for all ages and at 85 minutes you won’t have to worry about losing your young one’s interest. Or your older loved ones insterest either.

Natalie Kaye Clater directs and choreographs with aplomb as the musical spins the tale of orphan Ti Moune (outstanding Leah Wilson) as she grows up having been rescued by Mama Euralie (Bryanna Hall) and Tonton Julian (Mike Sandusky), rescues a rich islander after a car crash (sultry and  passionate Jason Rodriguez), and goes on a journey to take care of him (and fall in love) in the city aided by the “gods” – Papa Ge (Marcus Calderon), Agwe (Dante Murray), Erzulie (Aurora Penepacker) and Asaka (Christina Turner). I could write a paragraph each on these outstanding performances.

Other cast members play various other parts and serve as a greek chorus throughout as the tale is being told to a young girl, who doubles as Little Ti Moune (a very cute Lizzie Dziku). Cali HIll, David Magumba, Jeremiah Porter, Nataki Rennie are wonders at singing, dancing, and acting their respective roles. I can not say enough good things about this exceptional cast and Encore’s fortune to have them all on the stage together weaving this magic. 

Frank E. Pitts musical direction is wonderous – the sounds this cast produces are nothing short of perfect. Ahrens and Flaherty write beautiful and tuneful songs, but singing them is another story – the arrangements are difficult and tight harmonies are essential – and the sound here is pitch perfect. The orchestra sounds three times the size it is, and they work together to create beautiful music. Kudos also to the sound folks, Chris Goosman and Jessica Lynn. Anne Donovan’s props are realistic and fun, and Sarah Tanner’s set is perfect for the space and show. Lighting design by Nikki Belenski and projections by Dave Early look lush and colorful and help evoke the mood in each location.  Marilee Dechart’s costumes are just right for the look of the show and it’s islanders, and fun when creating the gods characters. Keeping it all moving along swiftly and professionally are Danielle Bluteau, Jada McCarthy, Kathryn McIntyre, Molly Omar, and Kate Vanhorn. 

Expect this production to be among the top award winners at the end of the year – which is admittedly still young. Still, I have never seen nor heard a production of this musical regionally that is as stunning as this one. 

My very highest recommendation. SEE THIS SHOW. It’s a late Valentine to Southeast Michigan theater audiences. 

Once on This Island continues through March 12th in Dexter MI – tickets at TheEncoreTheatre.org   

The Violet Hour at The Dio – a night out with a high thinking factor. (Review)

One of the things that I like best about reviewing a show is when a theater takes a risk with the material. You might like it, you might hate it, you might not get it. But it is something new and it is something worthwhile.

The Dio is currently producing such a play — The Violet Hour by Richard Greenberg (“Take Me Out”). At first what seems like a standard period piece with a slight sci-fi twist (a mysterious machine appears at a publisher’s office) turns into a mysterious, funny, and tragic tale in the second act. Listen closely. Follow the characters and their mini-dramas closely, because as the story plays out (not in any means tidy) people only know information up to a certain point. And they learn that information at a certain point. And not at the same time.

You may or may not piece it all together at once — and oh, to be a fly on the wall in the cars on the way home as people discuss their theories, who knew what when, and in the end, what the heck happened?

Matthew Tomich’s set is gorgeous, as always, and has the genuine look and feel of a NYC office building. Steve DeBruyne’s directing is fluid and fast where it needs to be, slow when you need to really listen. Food as always is outstanding. Norma Polk’s costumes are wonderful (though one character needs to remember socks next time) and Eileen Obradovich does a great job with the props — reams and reams and reams of paper among them.

The cast is very good, if a bit stylized in approach. I particularly liked Ami McClenon’s Jessie. You’ll have your favorite too — among them Dante Justice as John, the publishing house owner; Dan Morrison as Gidger, his assistant (his future disappears – but why?); college friend Denny (Alexander Cousins); and his girlfriend Rosamund (Lauren Landman). 

Clues for the novice: watch the tickets (LOOK at the tickets), pay attention to the dates in future years, and listen to early declarative statements of each character. 

The Violet Hour is currently being adapted into a musical. The studio recording is now available — it is beautiful. But do not listen to it before seeing the show, because it gives away plot points.

And to those who didn’t get it — talk to your friends on the way home. Argue about it. Think about it. That’s what you should do. You might be confused, but you won’t not have an opinion. And that is exactly what the play is meant to do.

The Violet Hour continues through February 26th at the Dio.

Charming “A Christmas Story the Musical” at Encore (Review)

The Encore Musical Theatre Company wishes you a Merry Christmas by way of their wonderful production of “A Christmas Story the musical”, based on the movie, with book by Joseph Robinette and Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Everything in this production just clicks and even brings a tear to your eye on occasion in this charming musical telling of the annual favorite. From sets to costumes to lighting and acting the production is fantastic. The orchestra is particularly wonderful, under the direction of R. Mackenzie Lewis. Artistic Director Dan Cooney does a very fine job of making this show sing, move along quickly, and charm. Choreographer Jillian Hopper creates fun numbers for both the adults and the kids. The many many many many costumes by Marilee Dechart (adults) and Sandee Koski (kids) are terrific. Anne Donevan creates fun and period appropriate props. It plays out on Shane Cinal’s double-decker set.

But the real charmers here are the cast members. Gavin Cooney is really great as Ralphie upon whom the entire production turns. Jessica Grové as mother and David Moan as the old man are superb, and even more superb in their scenes together. Cora Steiger is a hoot as Randy. This is a stage family that feels like a real family (and two of them are!…Lolly Cooney also appears in the kids ensemble). 

The many kids in the show are personable, funny, strong singers and movers, and look like they are having the time of their lives. The adult ensemble is also strong and get to play everything from neighbors and friends, to Higbee’s department store elves. Alley Ellis turns in a particularly good performance as Miss Shields the teacher, as does Brian Cowan who plays a warm and entertaining Jean Shepherd (Narrator). 

But the show revolves around the family at the center of it all and this is where this production finds it’s strong beating heart. Only a Scrooge will not find themselves tearing up a bit in the show’s final moments…or perhaps during Grové’s “Just Like That” – one of the finest songs written about the small moments that go into being a mother (and why the song has become a staple on Broadway radio programming). 

Highest Recommendation.

A Christmas Story the Musical runs at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter MI through December 18th. Tickets at theencoretheatre.org or 734-268-6200.

Lovely Little Women, The Dio, Review

Back in 2005, Sutton Foster created a stirring Jo March in the short lived Broadway musical Little Women, written by Allan Knee, Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, and Music by Jason Howland. The audience was faced with a beautiful act curtain upon entering, with handwritten pages of Jo’s “Little Women” book, and I was entranced by the entire production, including Maureen McGovern as Marmee. It ran less than six months but garnered a sizable following because of its lush old-fashioned score and rising star Foster and her big belt numbers in the show.

In 2011 I reviewed a production that Steve DeBruyne directed at Encore Musical Theatre Company. Last night it was my pleasure to see a new and very different production also helmed by Steve at The Dio. 

Most likely you know the story – the four March Sisters are alone in Concord while their father is off serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. It spends very little time focusing on wartime, rather focusing on the small (and large) family events in the March family – their romances, their squabbles, and one heartbreaking death. 

The production plays out on Matt Tomich’s beautiful double-decker set; with lively direction by DeBruyne and graceful choreography by Grace Nulson. Performed to a track, the crisp musical direction is by Lisa Merte. Costumes by Normal Polk, wig design by Chloe Grisa, and Props by Eileen Obradovich are lovely. It’s a very large production to be sure, but it moves quickly and professionally from scene to scene in the limited space. The final sequence in the garden is particularly nice. If there is a technical squabble, it is that the actors sometimes struggle to match their songs to the pacing of the tracked music rather than singing more naturally and having the orchestra follow them – which results in some occasional pacing issues.

The cast is uniformly superb – Anna Dreslinki Cooke makes a lively and funny Jo March and her sisters Beth (Anne Koziara), Amy (Maddie Ringvelski) and Meg (Sarah Brown) are outstanding in their respective roles. Marlene Inmann gets to sing Marmee’s fantastic songs and she is remarkable. Anne Bauman plays a snide and fun Aunt March and doubles as Mrs Kirk in the boarding house in New York.  The men are equally impressive: Steve DeBruyne as John Brooke, Tyler J Messinger as Laurie, Dan Morrison as his father Mr Lawrence, and Sam Wright as Professor Bhaer (you know where that storyline is going from his first lines) are all good in their parts.

As we left the theater last night, we emerged to a winter wonderland of fresh snow – and the evening (dinner, show, friends, and snow) was, in the words of the most famous song from the show, astonishing.           

Highly Recommended.

Little Women continues at The Dio through December 23rd although all performanes are sold out. You can check for cancellations through the theater by phone only (517) 672-6009

A reminder on reviews

I am usually overwhelmed with requests to review shows in SE Michigan. I can only review a limited number per month. Just a rundown on reviews:

I review primarily musicals, but occasionally plays are not out of the question. In general I need to want to see the show, so that usually excludes smaller works that have not been produced on Broadway or hold some unique quality.

I am happy to accept a pair of comps but I traditionally pay for my own tickets. Attendance does not guarantee a review.

If you are a professional theater I will review the show good or bad. If you are an amateur theater I will review it if it is of top quality and deserves a review. I will traditionally not review amateur theater that is not of top quality. I will rarely if ever review educational theater unless it’s a college theater preparatory program.

Finally, I will neither attend nor review productions where masks are required as neither the CDC nor AEA require them at this time. This impacts only a small handful of theaters still enforcing antiquated protocols.

Catch a lovely Peter and the Starcatcher at Croswell (Review)

Ben Bascuk as Peter leads the cast in a scene from “Peter and the Starcatcher” at the Croswell Opera House. Next to him is Reed Schwieterman; surrounding, from left to right, are Virginia Atkinson, Kai Mattoon, Conner Raymond, Meg McNamee, Aaron Treadway, Peter Crist, Kylie McElrath, Terry Hissong, Luke Gorsuch, Molly Humphries, Eric Stone, Gage Sterling and Ella Flumignan.Photo courtesy Ashlee Sayles Croswell Opera House c 2022

Peter and the Starcatcher, winner of 5 Tony awards in 2012 and oft-produced nationwide opened last night at the Croswell Opera House and it is a lovely evening of theater, music, color, storytelling, and maybe a slight tear in your eye. 

Based on the 2004 children’s book, the story tells of two ships crossing the sea to deliver something of rare value in a chest. What follows is story theater of the highest order as tale after tale spins out a quick succession of backstories for Peter Pan, Mrs Darling, Captain Hook, the crocodile, the lost boys, Neverland, and even Tinkerbell. 

There’s lovely stagecraft in this production, and star-stuff sequences are particularly pretty. But stagecraft is all secondary in this show to the performances themselves, and they are terrific here. Julianne Dolan directs, Todd Schreiber musical directs, and Dean Shullick choreographs a terrific cast of 15 actors of all ages and two musicians. 

While it’s not a musical, there is a lot of music, both songs and underscoring. While it’s not a dance show, there is dance. While it’s not a drama, there is drama. While it is not a pure comedy, there is a tremendous amount of comedy. There’s a reason this show is staged nationwide by casts of all ages and experience levels. 

Ben Bascuk (Peter), Kylie McElrath (Molly), and Peter Crist (Black Stache) are tremendous leads of power and talent. They are supported by a who’s who of Croswell Opera House performers (only one of whom is making their Croswell debut) and they are all fantastic. 

I was particularly fond of Crist’s Black Stache, as he chews the scenery, his fake mustache, and ultimately, well you find out why Captain Hook has an, um, hook. Always fantastic to see Terry Hissong onstage and his Smee is funny and touching. 

If you have seen Starcatcher before, do not hesitate to see it again – this production is noteworthy for its great performances but also the color and splashes of whimsy created by scenic/lighting designer Crosby Slupe, and costume designer Alexandria Szczotka.  If you have never seen Starcatcher before, by all means check it out and find out why it has quickly become one of America’s favorite plays.

Peter and the Starcatcher continues through October 23rd at Croswell Opera House, downtown Adrian, MI. Tickets at croswell.org

Lyle Lyle Crocodile, and Amsterdam

Lyle Lyle Crocodile (4/5 stars) is a terrific, tuneful, and fun family movie that all ages will enjoy. They sort of hide the fact that it is a musical in its trailers. The songs (sung by Shawn Mendes) are by Pasek and Paul and they are catchy and you’ll find yourself buying the album after the movie. I really enjoyed Lyle. (note: no crocodiles or cats were harmed in this movie, because no real crocodiles or cats appear — the CGI is remarkable). It’s not a great film, but it’s a good one, and its just the kind of thing I wish we had more of right now.

Amsterdam (4/5 stars) is a love-it-or-hate-it star studded murder mystery from director David O Russell, who loves broken people and you get lots of that here. It takes place between the world wars, and I loved this film, which plays out like a novel – alternating voices from character to character, and introducing a huge variety of actors (everyone wants to work with O Russell). If you are not a fan of slow-moving, character driven stories, this won’t be for you, and critics overall are divided. I loved it. It looks magnificent in IMAX and everything feels larger than life. Christian Bale is magnificent. If you are a fan of Taylor Swift she appears in the film. If you are not a fan of Taylor Swift, you’ll enjoy the scene about 10 minutes in. This is a great movie weekend! Go out, see something, and have fun at the movies!

Everybody say Yeah to Kinky Boots (Review – Croswell Opera House)

Guest review by Patty Mazzola. Photo courtesy Croswell Opera House.

If you haven’t yet purchased tickets for “Kinky Boots,” at The Croswell Opera House, September 16th-25th, what are you waiting for? With a book by Tony-winner Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Tony- and Grammy-winner Cyndi Lauper, the show hits all the right notes and so does the local production team and cast. Go see it!

Based on the 2005 British film of the same name, the story follows Charlie Price, a simpleton, who having begrudgingly inherited his father’s failing shoe factory, finds his true self through an unlikely partnership with a drag queen. The factory–and essentially the entire small town–go from unstable to unstoppable in their fight to keep food on the table and shoes, er boots, on their feet. The factory goes from being in the red to seeing red to embracing red in all its kinky glory.

I have no other KB production to compare this one to, but I’m very pleased my first experience was at the Croswell. Those who have seen a previous production already knew what a joyful experience it would be; you could feel the electricity in the audience even before the curtain went up. The entire cast was so fully invested in their characters, including British accents, that I was somewhat transported. Director/Choreographer Debra Ross Calabrese, Conductor Adam P. Miller and the entire creative team presented a tight production; every note, entrance, step, and look had meaning, from the beautiful opening harmonies to the final exuberant number. Scenic Designer Doug Miller created a [dare I say] “soleful” factory set with so much depth that, along with the lighting (designed by Crosby Slupe) and the detailed set dressing, the audience could feel the importance and weight the factory carries in the townsfolk livelihood. Then the factory transforms into a glittering stage show in seconds, with a colorful boost from Costume Designer Tallie Carter.

There is no question about the talents of seasoned performers Leonard Harris (Lola/Simon) and Dan Clair (Charlie) whose touching duet, “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” is tragically beautiful. Dara Pardon (Lauren) is fantastic as another character you find yourself rooting for. In fact, the whole supporting cast, including Lauren Goyer (Nicola), Ron Baumanis (George), Wesley Grudzien (Harry), Taylor Goodin (Trish), Rachel Ogger(Pat), Phil Skeldon (Mr. Price), Thomas J. Koch II (Don) and Byron Taulton (Simon Sr.) each have their moments to shine. Young Lola and Charlie (Trae Wesson and Alex Coumoundouros respectively) will surprise you with their mature performances and agility. Jarrod Alexander, Mikey Del Vecchio, Domonique Glover and Skye Rodriguez are so spectacular as the Angels. Take me to the Land of Lola, anytime, anywhere.

This show will absolutely raise you up. And who doesn’t need a lift these days? I highly recommend this production. Everybody Say Yeah!

Kinky Boots continues at Croswell Opera House through September 25th – croswell.org

“Medieval” is a violent but fascinating film

Medieval (called Jan Źiźka internationally) arrives in time to salvage an early September weekend with original programming. Set in the early days of Czech Bohemian hero Jan Źiźka’s formative mercenary years, it’s a story most Americans are not at all familiar with.

In the early 1400’s the Catholic Church is in such disarray that there are two popes…one in Italy and one in France. In order to install a new King, the Holy Roman Empire needs the blessing of the Italian Pope. Źiźka and his men are paid to protect King Wenceslas on his journey, but things fall apart right from the getgo. See, there’s another King who also wants to be crowned by the Pope. What follows is an origin story for Źiźka based on familial revenge, a kidnapped lady in waiting, and shifting allegiances in the very volatile Bohemian world.

Źiźka was known for innovative “modern” warfare techniques and these are on full display here in bone-crunching, smoke-filled, violent sequences not for the squeamish. But there is more at play here. The film beautifully illustrates the horrors of war not when hoards of thousands skirmish with opposing hoards of thousands…but rather how battles are won a few dozen warriors at a time. It’s intimate and dangerous and ultimately grisly and violent.

The cast is uniformly solid with particularly good performances by Michael Caine and Matthew Goode. Sophie Lowe holds her own against the ridiculous men around her, and Ben Foster brings his serious sense of acting to his leading role.

Medieval is the most expensive Czech film ever made, although it was only bankrolled with an English speaking cast. So there is that.

I left highly satisfied, even if the final act gets a bit Shakespearean by its conclusion. Not recommended for those who have light stomachs for grim, bloody, decapitating violence, but if you stick with this, I think you will also feel fulfilled by this captivating tale. And it will probably send you to Google these people, some real, some added for the story.
Recommended. Opens Sept 9th nationwide and overseas.