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Cabaret at Cutting Edge Theatre is beautifully done (Review) March 13, 2017

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Chalk up another wonderful musical for Cutting Edge Theatre in Stephanie L Dennehy’s production of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. Seen at its sold-out final performance at the Nederhauser Community Hall in Sylvania, OH, the production was a solid bare-bones show that focused on songs, scenes, and the terrific talent that seems to follow Dennehy wherever she goes.

Let’s start with Jeffrey T. Foor’s remarkable Emcee — never missing a beat and spectacularly entertaining; Follow up with clear-voiced belter Katelyn Lesle as Sally Bowles in a heartbreaking performance. Add a solid Garrett Monasmith as Clifford Bradshaw and a particularly good Callie Keller as Fraulein Kost, whose room seems to be filled with sailors of many shapes and sizes (including some orchestra members, a clever touch!). Sarah Stierman was a fine Fraulein Schneider, and Michael Stierman sang Herr Schultz wonderfully.

The entire ensemble cast was terrific from top to bottom, including many Toledo-area regular performers – here they not only got to sing and dance, but also to frolic in the audience at times, and they seemed to have a great time – but more importantly, they were terrific singer/actor/dancers.

As this company continues to grow and prosper, look for improved set and lighting design – although I have to admit that seeing the show stripped down to the bare essentials like this was thrilling theater.

Highly Recommended.

Cabaret has concluded its run at the Cutting Edge Theatre where it ran from March 10th to the 12th, 2017.



Almost, Maine – terrific theater at AACT (Review) March 13, 2017

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This past weekend, Ann Arbor Civic Theatre presented John Cariani’s play ALMOST, MAINE – and it was COMPLETELY, PERFECT.

I wish I had been able to get a review out after opening night, but I was opening my own show this past weekend so I didn’t get a chance to see the play until its final Sunday performance. None-the-less I didn’t want to let this one slip by.

Kat Walsh did a remarkable job of directing this hilarious (and at times whimsical and romantic and dramatic and heartbreaking and uplifting) production — tightly directed and spot-on throughout — never losing site of its actors, and never making a mis-step at any point. In fact, some of the scenes here were clearer and better directed than any other production of this play that I have seen. Kudos to Kat.

It helps when you have a remarkable cast like the one assembled for this production. By expanding the cast to have different actors portraying the different people (the show can also be done with a handful of people playing all of the different roles), the town of Almost felt well populated and (almost) like you knew every one of them.

Andrew Benson, Elizabeth Docel, Matthew Flickinger, Chris Grimm, Lawrence Havelka, Chris Joseph, Rachel Kohl, Alexandra Berneis, Joe Lopez, Matthew Miller, Scot Mooney, Sara Rose, Codi Sharp, Megan Shiplett, and Michelle Weiss comprised the excellent ensemble cast, and I really can’t point to one over another. There are scenes in the show that I like more than others, but this group of talented actors were each terrific.

Nathan Doud’s set design was sparse and gorgeous – I particularly liked the constellation design on the stage floor. Angeline Fox Maniglia’s costume design was wonderful – and the peeling of layers in one particular scene one of the funniest things I’ve seen in ages (and even funnier because those of us who live in cold climes know exactly what was going on there). Chris Simko’s lighting design was wonderful and tightly integrated into the scene work. In short, this production was beautifully designed and executed.

Congratulations to cast and crew on a wonderful production of Almost, Maine. One that was so cuddly and warm it (almost) made you want to move to that fictional town.

Very Highest Recommendation.

Almost, Maine has concluded it run, which appeared March 9 – 12th 2017 at the Arthur Miller Theatre, presented by Ann Arbor Civic Theatre. 

How a warehouse became “Spring Awakening” (Stagecraft) March 13, 2017

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Every now and then everything comes together in the right venue in the right way at the right time — such is the current production of SPRING AWAKENING I have just directed for 4th Wall in Jackson (it runs through March 25th). The comments we’ve heard most consistently during this remarkable run so far are a) what an amazing cast, and b) what a cool venue!

When approached by theater owners Marjy and Gary Minix about directing, we chose Spring Awakening partly because its a great fit for the talented younger actors that comprise the company — but also because it seemed the perfect venue for the show. Located on the second floor of a retail/warehouse type building on S. Mechanic in Jackson, MI, it conveyed the “industrial” look and feel I wanted. With no audience member more than 8 feet away from the stage, it was the intimate sort of location you might find in NYC for a pre-Broadway workshop. Say, of a show like Spring Awakening.

When I first saw the space last summer, it looked like this:

My imagination ran wild and very shortly I had a set design in place:

As the actors rehearsed and the show began to take shape, so did the acting space — and by early February it had taken this form already:

Those were the basics of the set — a stage platform for the band, with two steps that run around it for acting areas (from the outset, the idea was sort of  an alt-rock concert “unplugged”.) The musical director decided on keyboard, percussion, bass, and guitar – and the show was born.

Before adding lights, everything had taken shape:

And a few nights later, once the lights and sound had been added, we had what became Spring Awakening — as you have always seen it but never seen it…with the cast scattered through the audience in seats, and a participation experience that makes the show feel visceral and real. The sound is terrific, with every word audible. But the style of the show is inimitable, and called for the industrial look we employed.  Mama who bore me explodes in light, while the Song of Purple Summer turns neon purple:

Experience the show yourself for the next two weeks:

Spring Awakening, 4th Wall Downtown – 218 S. Mechanic, Jackson, MI. Tickets very limited, call (517) 414-4436 to reserve. Limited to no more than 50 audience per performance.

A weekend of regional theater offerings in SE Michigan February 26, 2017

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It was a busy weekend of theater going:

URINETOWN, currently being presented by Ridgedale Players in Troy, is funny and audience-pleasing. There is a terrific performance by Kevin Kaminski as Bobby Strong, and Bridget Styles is a very good Hope Cladwell. The set is spiffy with fast scene changes. Not everything is always smooth sailing (who thought it was a good idea not to use mics for the show which is entirely language dependent?) but the show is fun, and there is energy to spare. Drew Dyer needs underwear under his Office Barrel short shorts, but its all in good fun, I guess — though that was a bit more than I needed to see…but once seen it can’t be unseen.

Siena Heights University presented a picture-perfect production of SHE LOVES ME. Kerry Graves directed a valentine of a musical, with standout performances by Becca Nowak as Ilona, Patrick Wallace as Georg, and all around excellent ensemble work by the entire cast. I particularly liked Jordan Hayes-Devloo’s Arpad. Dan Walker’s beautiful turntable set helped the action move silently and quickly from scene to scene. I’d go on gushing about this really pretty production, but it has already closed.

I also very much liked David Francis Kiley’s I’LL BE SEEING YOU – a play that he wrote based on his grandparents love letters back and forth from the US and Europe during WWII. Featuring music of the era sung by Marlene Inman and Robby Griswold and lovely slide work by Anne Kiley. Christina McKim (natalie Rose Sevick at alternate performances) and John DeMerell were touching as Billee and Charles. It has been fun watching this show develop from workshop to final production. I loved it.

Last weekend, a few other shows were on the agenda and I am remiss in not mentioning them here. Sarah Nowak presented SASSY BUUT CLASSY, and evening of cabaret in Adrian. Not only was she joined by some terrific backup singers and a great band, but she got engaged at the Saturday evening performance that I was attending. Congratulations and best wishes to you and yours, Sarah. The evenings raised some much-needed funds for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

And I saw a performance of HEATHERS during the final weekend of that production at Peppermint Creek in Lansing. So happy to see PC continue to take risks and present fare that is a bit edgier. The show was well done with a great cast, led by Adam Woolsey as DJ and Ellie Weise as Veronica. Emma Kron-Deacon played a terrific Heather Chandler. There were some minor miscasts in this production, but it was well-directed and choreographed, well-paced, and the sold-out audiences ate it up. Note to theater mom a few seats down — it is NEVER OKAY to take photos of your daughter during the show every time she is onstage with your iPhone.

Lively and funny “Barefoot in the Park” at The Dio (Review) February 13, 2017

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The Dio is offering a lively and funny mid-winter treat in Neil Simon’s first mega-hit “Barefoot in the Park.”

Newlyweds Corie and Paul Bratter (Mary Dilworth and Peter Crist) have just moved into their 5th Floor walkup in New York City, and the comedy quickly mines the travails of too-small, overpriced, crumbling starter apartments, surprise visit by Mother (Sonja Marquis) and quirky neighbor Victor Velasco (Dan Morrison), along with telephone installer Steve DeBruyne and Delivery man Stephen Dean.

Directed by Greg Bailey, the production breezes by with its one-liners and jokes.  There are terrific performances all around, and  the cast play off of each other well. Marquis in particular brings a genuine feel to Mrs Banks that is funny and refreshing. Dilworth and Crist play off of each other well in both more loving as well as angrier scenes.

Matt Tomich has designed an excellent set which looks unlike anything else you have ever seen at The Dio. Dominated by a center stage skylight (used to terrific effect in some very funny sequences) his lighting also looks terrific throughout, but in particular during some lovely moments with light shining in through the skylight.

Costumes look terrific, although I did have a minor quibble with a few prop items that were not period correct. I did like the condensation of three acts into two as well as the cleverly staged furniture arriving with Velasco supervising.

Greg Bailey’s program note states that one of the goals for the show was to bring warm hearted, funny theater to Livingston County. That the Dio has done terrifically well with Barefoot in the Park. Glad to see local theaters rediscovering this comedy – Ann Arbor Civic Theatre did an award-winning production of it last season as well. I enjoyed both of these productions in different ways. Chef Jarod’s pre-show meal, as usual, is tasty and filling. The New York cheesecake ice cream at dessert time was a particular treat.

You’ll find yourself laughing heartily at this Barefoot, and its well done fun.


Barefoot in the Park continues at The Dio through March 5th. diotheatre.com or (517) 672-6009




This “Chicago” will Blow You Away – Downriver Actors Guild (Review) January 22, 2017

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Downriver Actors Guild is on a roll — now comes Kander and Ebb’s great musical Chicago, a rollicking good time in a spectacular production directed by Denny Connors and Choreographed by Betsy Genrich, with Musical Direction by Melanie Aue. This is not-to-be-missed musical theater brought to you by way of our friends in Wyandotte.

Both Paige Wisniewski and Spencer Genrich are remarkable in their roles of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly respectively. They sing, dance, crack jokes, and entertain in number after number and still have energy to spare for the synchronized fosse-esque “Hot Honey Rag” finale. Note that this production uses the revisal script still currently running on Broadway and on tour. Brava.

Leo McMaster is a dashing Billy Flynn and Lucinda Chavez is a hilarious Mama Morton. But wait, there’s a super-surprise in store for you later when Samuel Xavier lets loose in “Mr. Cellophane” as Amos Hart. His performance is downright amazing. Welcome home, Sam.

The entire ensemble is super-charged, and the choreography and vocal work is excellent. There are no mis-steps here, and the show simply sounds and looks spectacular. Credit also Joel Bias for the terrific lighting and sound. Costumes by Debbie Aue and Rebecca McKinney look spot-on, and the on-stage band couldn’t be better under the direction of David Waggoner.

Everything moves at lighting pace – and Connors and Genrich understand how to keep it all moving. This is entertainment, originally billed as a “new musical vaudeville” in 1975. Updated for audiences used to faster pace and higher thrills, the revisal ramps up the dance, the jokes, and the flash. But all the familiar songs are there — “All that Jazz”, “Nowadays”, “Give Em the Old Razzle Dazzle” — And dazzle us they do.

This is a production that you simply should not miss. Tickets, probably sparse at this point, are available online at downriveractorsguild.net – don’t hesitate. Chicago runs through January 29th at The Theatre on the Avenue, 2656 Biddle Avenue, Wyandotte.

Very Highest Recommendation

Spring Awakening at Dexter Community Players January 21, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Community Theater, musical theater, Musicals.
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DCP is currently presenting Spring Awakening, the 2006 Steven Sater/Duncan Sheik alt-rock musical that won a slew of Tony awards and was recently revived to acclaim.

This production breaks with traditional staging and as such is somewhat hard to review since the convention of having the singers/performers always on stage with the band entering scenes as needed and singing backup throughout is somewhat different here — that changes the alt-rock-concert approach to more one of a standard book musical and I’m not sure that works. There are also specific themes of  disconnection, dissimulation, unconnectedness and misunderstanding that are incorrectly addressed here. I won’t go into that – there are 110 years of doctoral dissertations written on Wedekinds original source material play.

DCP has assembled an excellent cast of singers in a reduced-size cast that for the most part works well. They are consistently overwhelmed by the orchestra throughout, whether that is solos or ensemble numbers, sound here is problematic throughout. Mics dropped in and out during the first half but seemed better in the second half. A general note: crank your vocalists up absolutely as loudly as possible without getting feedback. No need to sound natural in this setting, just crank out the sound because this show is about the lyrics and when you can’t make them out, well…

There’s a great performance by Laura Chodoroff as Wendla — she is a young performer that I have always loved directing, and I have always hoped there would be an appropriate larger part for her, and this is it. Her acting is spot on, and her vocal work here is terrific. Also great is Chris Joseph as Moritz. He delivers powerhouse vocals and an angst-ridden character that you feel for as the drama progresses. Matt Wallace has a good voice but seemed totally uncommitted as Melchior and had little chemistry with Wendla. His later scenes were better when they were more self-centered…albeit his mic was working by that point too.

Costumes by Kristi Kuick look great. Lighting cues were frequently missed and sometimes missing altogether on the wide stage. Brian Rose’s musical direction is terrific and his band sounds fantastic, if far too loud for the space.

Spring Awakening continues through January 29th at Copland Auditorium in Dexter Michigan. http://www.dextercommunityplayers.org for tickets.



Avenue A Capella Auditions January 16, 2017

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Caught up in the acapella craze yet? Well if you are a vocalist and you like acapella music, here’s your chance! Wyandotte’s Downriver Actors Guild has a terrific group now going on its second season called Avenue A Capella and they are holding replacement auditions on February 12th beginning at 6:00 pm. The group recently presented a very professional full-concert production in November and also contributed to DAG’s holiday show in December.

While a-capella music groups have been around through the ages (singing without instrumental accompaniment), their recent popularity has been buoyed by the movies Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2, the Broadway musical In Transit, and frequent use of a-capella sequences on Glee.

To audition, send an email to melaniemdspartans@gmail.com — she’ll set up an appointment time for you. Join the fun, learn some new vocal skills, or use yours to contribute to a great group of singers. I had the pleasure of attending their concert back in November and had a blast. While still a young group, they already had the sound of a much more experienced ensemble. Give credit to musical director Melanie Aue and her experience singing a-capella at Michigan State University, a skill which is readily apparent in her work with Avenue A Capella.


Fantastic “Dear Evan Hansen” and Acapella “In Transit” on Broadway (Reviews) December 15, 2016

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals.
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There’s a new force of nature in the musical theater world and his name is Ben Platt who has arrived in a mail-the-Tony-to-him-now performance as the title character in “Dear Evan Hansen” at the Music Box Theatre — able to play both a lonely, communication-inept, misfit teenager and alternately explode in self-assured musical numbers with a voice that makes you drop your jaw this is a performance to be treasured…and it will be come award time.
The show itself has been very quiet in advertising what it is about, and for good reason, because like the (very similar) Next to Normal it is better to discover it’s many layers of family drama as the musical slowly explores themes of loneliness, grief, outsiders, outliers, lies, depression, and the pain of teenage angst when you find yourself unable to “fit in” even on social media (constant ticker tapes of which flicker and advance on the stages many screens).

The cast of 8 are remarkable performers, and they have terrific material to work with from writer Steven Levenson and music/lyrics by Benjamin Pasek & Justin Paul — front stacked with the explosive “Waving Through a Window” and “For Forever”. Director Michael Greif lets the show play out primarily downstage center, and the on-stage orchestra adds a feeling of urgency to everything. The very high-tech set and projections by David Korins and Peter Nigrini as well as the outstanding lighting by Japhy Weideman will not be forgotten at award time either.—-I can’t say much more in favor of this excellent new musical except that you should try to get tickets — if you can. It’s sold solid for months.

At the other end of the extreme is the feather-light “In Transit” at Circle in the Square. Billed as Broadway’s first acapella musical this really is a show all about the vocals — documenting the daily travails of a group of New Yorkers on trains, planes, and busses, it is a glorious advertisement for the good, bad, and ugly aspects of the NY MTA and a favorite moment included a radio-controlled rat carrying a slice of pizza along the track.
The eleven member cast is superb, and includes Justin Guarini, Telly Leung, James Snyder, and Margo Seibert. That’s really about it. I enjoyed the show quite a bit as an ex-New Yorker, but I can’t imagine anyone outside of New Yorkers finding much to care about in the paper-thin mini dramas. Instead, go for the acapella singing because it is exquisite (even if the tunes themselves are instantly forgettable).
The very clever set is designed by Donyale Werle and includes a stage length slip stage which allows for some great scene changes and motion. Director/Choreographer Kathleen Marshall has done an expert job keeping things hopping on the thrust stage, and it is all fun and entertaining without ever really drawing you in. Mostly it just made me wonder: “why”?
Look for heavily discounted tickets, and a short run – if you want to see it, see it now.

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 – Holiday Inn – A Bronx Tale – Come From Away December 1, 2016

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I’ve been remiss and have so many shows to review I am just going to lump them all into one post…

Come From Away (seen pre-Broadway in Toronto, arrives in NYC in February). Okay, I’ll say it here (having not yet seen Dear Evan Hanson) I predict that Come From Away is going to be this year’s Tony winner in many categories, including best Musical — featuring a superb 12-member cast that play both airplane passengers and crew, as well as local Canadians, this musical tells the story of the days starting with 9/11 and the week following when air traffic control closed airspace. Passengers diverted to a Canadian town are treated to some Canadian kindness as they feed them, entertain them, and take them into their homes to house them for the days before airspace is reopened. The musical score is superb, and the cast is outstanding — but what really works here is how riveting this is as theatre — as the (mostly American but also some international) passengers and townspeople discover together what a global tragedy has occurred in the United States. Its undeniably powerful, but also highly entertaining, and its going to win the Tony.

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 (seen at the Imperial theatre, NYC). I go on record as stating that I loved this show more than Hamilton, there I said it. Telling the main love story from “War & Peace”, based on only 70 pages or so of that novel, this atmospheric musical absolutely rocks the Imperial Theatre with a superb Josh Groban in the Pierre role (he sings, plays piano, accordion, and other instruments), and he is excellent. The entire ensemble cast is remarkable in this show without a “stage” — rather, the entire theatre has been transformed into a Russian “cabaret” style performance space, and actors (no matter where you sit) perform in front of you, behind you, around you, and everywhere. Its expertly designed and lit, and one of the best directed musicals I have seen in ages. You will either love it (or some hated it) but you will not be able to deny that there is genius theatre stagecraft and performance on display here.

Holiday Inn, the musical (Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54, NYC). Lets call this one what it is, “White Christmas Lite” — there is beautiful scenic work, singing, dancing, and lots of tap in this family-friendly musical adaptation of the classic holiday movie musical. Some of the production numbers are outstanding. There isn’t anything earth shattering in this production, but you can’t go wrong if you are a lover of standard old-fashioned musical comedy — where the primary emphasis is on the song and dance. I loved it. It isn’t as streamlined as White Christmas was, but it is equally well performed, orchestrated, and executed. It was a welcome early holiday treat for me.

A Bronx Tale, the musical (Longacre Theatre, NYC). If there is a single recent musical that has disappointed me, its A Bronx Tale. With its sure-fire cast, score, direction, art-design and ready-made story (based on the movie) you would think that there would be the makings of a better overall musical than the one currently on display at the Longacre. Its all very well done, and the audience loved it – in fact, it had an instant standing ovation, which only Come From Away garnered more enthusiastic audience response) and yet I couldn’t help feeling that the entire show was paint-by-number. Granted I am not Italian, but the ending didn’t draw any type of emotional response from me (although the movie sure did) – but where the movie made getting to know these gangster families intimate and recognizable, everything here is broadly drawn and even sitting near to the stage didn’t feel all that intimate. Of course the (almost entirely NYC-resident) audience at my performance thought otherwise. Your mileage of course may vary.