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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is challenging, compelling, and beautiful at The Dio. (Review) June 18, 2022

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Photo courtesy The Dio Dining and Entertainment

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Simon Stephens award-sweeping play (2013 London, 2015 Broadway) is receiving a gorgeous production at the Dio in Pinckney through mid-July. You should put it on your list of shows that need to be seen this summer — in fact, go to their website and reserve a table right now. 

If you read Mark Haddon’s book upon which the play is based, well, there’s a lot more to this story than there was to that story.

There are multiple stars of this lovely production – the first being Austin McCoy, who gives an exceptional performance as Christopher, a 15-year old with autism spectrum disorder who discovers a neighbor’s dog dead, and sets off to solve the mystery of what happened (which is really just a small part of this fascinating story). You seriously can’t take your eyes off of him, no matter what else is going on around him (often a lot).

The second star is Matt Tomich’s beautiful hand drawn moving projection set and lighting that propels the show quickly and creatively to school, home, train station, London, and even outer space (and later a ridiculously entertaining math problem).

The third star(s) is the outstanding ensemble cast that play, well, everyone else in Christopher’s world – even inanimate objects. Clever direction by Jared Schneider keeps things moving at a fast pace – but not so fast that you don’t find yourself thinking about these compelling stories as things unravel and then re-assemble again. (Anne Bauman, Rachael Cupples, Kelsi Fay, Andrew Gorney, Marlene Inman, Dante Justice, DOnovan Leary, Dan Morrison, and a particulary touching Monica Spencer).

You will quickly see why this play won all those awards. This production will also surely be award winning and it is beautiful.

Costumes are designed by Norma Polk and props by Eileen Obradovich. Steve DeBruyne serves as artistic director. Rachael Cupples also served as assistant director.

This is a challenging and compelling play to be sure. It’s never maudlin, but it doesn’t shy away from ASD challenges and at times it makes some of the scenes intense. There are no easy answers here, and Christopher’s final words in the show wake a feeling we normally don’t want to think about or talk about. Indeed, they don’t talk about it here — and let you decide on your own what you think — ultimately making this show a comedy, or a drama, or a tragedy, depending on your own take-away.

Dinner, as usual, is excellent – and the intermission dessert reminded me of visits with my grandma when I was a kid — altogether perfect for the meal at this show at the Dio! 

Highest Recommendation. 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time continues through July 17th at the Dio, 177 E Main Street, Pinckney MI — tickets at www.DioTheatre.com

Say “I Do, I Do, I Do” to Mamma Mia! at Encore Musical Theatre Company (Review) June 17, 2022

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Yes, I did sneak a photo during the finale on opening night. Sonja Marquis, Keith Kalinowski, Sarah Stevens, David Moan, Anna Elizabeth, Sebastian Gerstner, and the cast of Mamma Mia!

Sophie is getting married. She has three possible dads. That’s about all you need to know about Mamma Mia!, the mega-hit international musical that opened at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter last night. It doesn’t really matter what else happens in this storyline, because it is the ABBA music and the fun and the feel-good evening that it’s really all about. And boy, will you feel good, and you’ll be singing the songs all the next morning as well.

Encore pulls out all the stops in their biggest, slickest musical ever, and I say that in the most enthusiastic way. What a thrill to see a big cast on their stage. It’s the closest you will come to seeing the Broadway show plunked down in the middle of Dexter, with all the bells and whistles (thank Dan Cooney who appeared in the Broadway production, and his choice of Monica Kapoor, also a 7-year veteran of the production, to direct and choreograph.)

What you will see on the Encore stage is the best-choreographed, best-acted production of Mamma Mia! you will ever see locally, and bravo to everyone involved. 

Sarah B. Stevens plays Donna, and Kate Cummings plays her daughter Sophie – about to get married to Sky (Tyler J. Messinger). Stevens and Cummings are superb throughout the evening in their many scenes together and separately. Donna’s best friends from “back when” Rosie and Tanya are played by Sonja Marquis and Anna Elizabeth and they are both fantastic. 

Once the guys arrive (Sebastian Gerstner as Harry, Keith Kalinoswki as Bill, and David Moan as Sam) the evening kicks into high gear. Which one is the father? It doesn’t really matter. Everything is a setup for the spectacular song and dance numbers.

And wow, does this show dance. Kapoor is familiar with every beat, every move, every motion set to music – and I guarantee you that you have not seen this type of choreography in any local production. The cast is really split in two — the adults, who show their singing and acting chops, and the “kids” who explode with energy every time they take the stage in their many musical numbers.

By the end, there is a wedding, though not exactly what you might expect and the audience is up on its feet for the final dance-along numbers. It just plain old works. And when you see a production that is professionally directed, choreographed, acted, and designed, you can appreciate a show that is far better than you might recall, especially if you have only seen the movie. 

Set Design by Sarah Tanner is outstanding, as is Nikki Belenski’s lighting design (and Will Myers projections). Sharon Larkey Urick’s costume design is spot on. Anne Donevan provides a million props (I exaggerate, but only a little) and Chris Goosman’s sound design deftly juggles a large orchestra and performers. Musical Direction is under the always-capable and talented direction of Tyler Driskill. The technical aspects of this production simply shine.

Very highest recommendation, Get your tickets now as every performance is sure to sell out.

Mamma Mia! continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company until July 17th. Tickets at theencoretheatre.org

Women send “Company” soaring at Croswell (review) May 21, 2022

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Aiyanna Fivecoat (Kathy), Lauren Goyer (April), and Sydney Bramlett (Marta) in Company at Croswell Opera House. Photo courtesy Croswell Opera House.

Opening the 2022 Broadway Season at Croswell Opera House, Stephen Sondheim’s Company is a great way to launch the summer season at Michigan’s oldest theater! Before reading further, get your tickets now at croswell.org — the show only runs through Sunday — and you should see it. 

Bobby is the sole single person among his circle of closest friends in NYC. In what was a daring departure in musical theater in 1970, the show doesn’t follow a straightforward storyline – rather it takes it’s time exploring the couples’ relationships as well as their ongoing urging for Bobby to couple up rather than continue to live the (gasp) single life at his 35th birthday. Of course, Bobby has daliances with other single women who enter and leave his life. There is not much more I am going to say about the script, since it’s up to you to discover who you relate to, who you don’t. and what you think as the show winds through it’s course.

But it’s the women in Bobby’s life that make this production soar — and I mean soar. Take, for example, Leah Fox who turns in the evening’s funniest performance as marriage-shy personally neurotic Amy in “Getting Married Today”. It’s the strongest performance I have seen from her already strong career in musical theater. And then there is Julia Hoffert as karate-wielding, “I can’t I’m on a diet” Sarah whose vocals and physical shtick shine throughout the evening (watch her delighfully munching on brownies in the background at times). Maya Gangadharan turns in a masterful performance as Joanne, and her “Ladies Who Lunch” is spot-on perfect. Lauren Goyer is delighful as flight attendant April (whom Bobby occasionally calls May, or June). 

You will have your favorites too – and it all looks great on the Croswell stage, with projections making for rapid and stylistic backgrounds as the show moves from apartment to apartment, club to bedroom. Meghan C Hakes returns to Adrian to direct and choreograph. The staging of “Side by Side by Side” and “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is particulary good. The superb 13-piece orchestra is under the direction of musical director Adam P. Miller.

This is an adult show to be sure though there is nothing in it that would prevent you from bringing your mid-teens on up — though they might not be super invested in these adult relationships and there is a fair share of blunt sex talk, drugs, and language. It also has a fair smattering of 70’s lingo that adults will get but younger audiences might not. This was a show that was fairly shocking and controversial to it’s 1970’s audiences although the impact has all been watered down over the years. 

Very highly recommended.

Company continues at Croswell Opera House, Adrian, MI through May 22nd. croswell.org for tickets. 

Josh Gates Live! (Detroit) review May 9, 2022

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It’s hard to say anything but nice things about the delightfully entertaining archeologist/adventurer/actor Josh Gates (host of Discovery’s Expedition Unknown). But the entire “Live” appearance is built around his charisma and his stories – believe them or not.

Ardent followers of his TV show (myself included) know that he is a highly enthused explorer in pre-scripted “expeditions” to find treasures and (lately) ghosts. And of course, he never finds much of anything, but he has a relaxed and involved style in presenting stories about historic figures and their (most often) lost treasures — DB Cooper, Captain Kidd, sunken ships and lost voyages, etc. Sometimes he finds nails or canisters suggesting the historical figure was there at one time — at others (a recent opening of an Egyptian crypt with a mummy inside!) are carefully orchestrated press releases for other archeological groups – and sometimes border on defiling the crypt/ruin (they drilled holes in a Mayan temple to “look for gold”). Josh is surrounded by a superb television team that makes it look like he himself is leading these explorations — when in reality he’s a talkative (and sometimes smart-alecky) narrator at best.

Still, when it was announced he would be appearing live, I put on my shepherd’s sundial neckless and sat rapt for 90 minutes at a packed Masonic Temple Theater to hear about his stories and adventures.

The first thing you notice is that he is taller and thinner than he appears on tv — of course, on Expedition Unknown he is usually the only (on-screen) American surrounded by thin Europeans or Egyptians. The next thing you notice is how his conversational style really is like that on the series. Over the course of the evening he tells stories about his adventures, close calls, boring month long trips that are edited down into exciting 40 minute episodes, and most recently his (bizarre) fascination with ghosts and supernatural. He was the impetus for the spinoff series Expedition X — “what was that!” — tv at it’s most unbelievable and hokum of the first order.

Unfortunately he spent too much time discussing his supernatural obsession, and he lost me for most of that section – though from the reactions around me there are clearly those who think that is more interesting than his actual archeological adventures. Different strokes for different folks.

I did have a VIP package and would have met him, were it not for the hundreds of other people at the VIP event, so no thanks, hero or no hero.

If you get the opportunity to see him live, do so! It’s rare that we get to see someone like Josh Gates in person, away from the tv screen, and away from the cameras — but he’s also an actor of the first order, so expect your evening to sound like a memorized script (because it is).

Expedition Unknown returns to Discovery Channel on May 25th.

Recent Movie Reviews April 17, 2022

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Downton Abbey: A New Era is exactly what you expect…a continuation of the same story you have been familiar with all these years. It looks great. Character stories are familiar and while it won’t win any Downton converts, its a nice two hour diversion for already existing fans. There are zero surprises here, but I found it lovely.

The Duke truly is ridiculously charming. It’s a bit like a BBC tv show, but this British film tells the outlandish tale of a Goya held hostage in exchange for free tv for pensioners and elderly in 1961 England. A great cast, a great script, and great directing (his last film) by Roger Michell. 5 star alternate adult programming to Dr Strange this weekend.

DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is a mess, in both a good and bad way, and you should see it. It hops from MCU world to world, some recognizable, some not. Having seen WandaVision helps, because you’ll be lost in some places if you have not (having seen Loki doesn’t hurt either). Raimi does solid work here, but the CGI team does better work. It’s hard to connect with any of these people — but there is no doubt this is a continuation of the Avengers films, not the diversions we’ve had in-between. The film does commit the ultimate movie crime though: several times it stops and feels like people are making a movie. You’ll see what I mean. Because, come on, admit it, you’re going to go see it. It deserves to be seen in iMax, EMax, Dolby, or whatever the biggest loudest screen is that you have near you. Small town folks — go see it on a big town. 4/5 stars for MCU fans – 3/5 stars for your partners you’re going to drag to go see it. There is a mid-credit and end-of-credit scene, so don’t go rushing out (they’re fun). And being Raimi there is a touch of horror in the movie — mostly toward the end — but nothing out of the realm of other Marvel movies. Still, maybe a bit too intense for the wee ones, who you should leave at home (they will be completely lost anyway unless they have seen every Marvel movie to date).

The Northman is a deeply moody, gorgeously visual, ultra-violent (seriously leave the kids and squeamish folks at home) Norse take on Hamlet – kind of – steeped in Northern European mythology and battles for land and just sheer dominance. The blood flows freely here – both literally and metaphorically. Highly Recommended for mature audiences. May not be your type of thing.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent – I had an immeasurably wonderful time at this film. Nick Cage gets to send-up every role he has ever played, but he’s fantastically upstaged at every turn by Pedro Pascal who has quickly turned into my favorite actor – his resume is as long as Nick’s at this point. Highly recommended. 5/5

Everything Everywhere All at Once – I waited awhile to post my thoughts on this film until people had the chance to see it and make up their own mind about it. I personally hated everything about this film – it was frenetic and unevenly paced; the storyline had an insignificant family drama payoff not worthy of the metaverse, and it gave me a migraine reading the subtitles with progressive glasses with the constant motion in the background. I thought all of the actors (whom I adore) were wasted in this bizarre film. I know I differ from 97% of the critics and 90% of the audiences on this one, and that’s rare for me – but I was very clearly not the target market for this unrealistic and agitating film.

Fantastic Beasts: The secrets of Dumbledore — I wanted so much to love this. I did not. I wanted so much to “return to the magic”. It has less magic than any of the previous world of Harry Potter films. And we already found out Dumbledore’s secret in part 2 so the title is a bit of a tease. Mads is no match for the now-cancelled Johnny. It’s a “meh” pre-summer could-have-been blockbuster. See it in IMAX or Dolby. It will disappear when the new Dr Strange arrives a few weeks hence. C at best. I suspect it will be on HBOmax within 6 weeks. This was meant to be a 5-picture prequel from the Harry Potter gang, but it is going to fail miserably at the box office, and I suspect this is the end of the Fantastic Beasts journey. I think the movie makers thought the same, because there is a three minute tacked-on ending that ties everything up in a neat bow. Well, almost everything. Anything you care about, anyway. 

Ambulance is solid Michael Bay fun, even if there is a bit too much of it at 2 hours 15 minutes. Mostly car chases, lots of guns ablazing, and fast action. The acting is solid. There are plenty of explosions to keep Michael Bay fans happy. You wont remember most of the film when you leave, but you wont leave disappointed either. My audience loved it and reacted to action sequences throughout. Recommended, just dont go in expecting art. It feels a bit like a shoot-em-up family drama crossed with Speed. 

Morbius is a bad movie. There, I’ve said it. I wanted to like it but dd not and it will please neither Marvel fans nor vampire fans. Its probably fine if you have nothing else to see and want to be reminded of how good the Venom movies are not. Is it just me or is Jared Leto just getting weirder and weirder? 2/5 stars. Not recommended.

Here’s my take on the Academy Awards by way of the Best Picture nominees:

“Belfast,” was my favorite movie of the year. It fires on every cylinder. It will probably win best original screenplay. I’m rooting for it as an upset winner, but I am pretty sure it won’t win.

“CODA,” once the underdog, is looking like Best Picture this year. I loved this movie and will be happy if it wins.

“Don’t Look Up,” the star-powered super liberal look at the end of the world by comet got drubbed by the critics even though it gets everything about stupid people right. I don’t think it will win anything tonight.

 “Drive My Car,” is a three hour Japanese movie that I could barely sit through. It doesn’t stand a chance, especially after the backlash about a foreign film winning last year’s Academy Award.

 “Dune,” is going to walk away with just about every technical award, but it is a misfit in the best picture category until part II is released two years from now, then we might be talking about a different story.

 “King Richard,” is another movie that isn’t going to go far tonight, but I do expect Will Smith to win best actor.

 “Licorice Pizza,” was a great movie, and it was lucky just to be nominated.

 “Nightmare Alley, ” was another great movie but it wouldn’t have been nominated if Guillermo del Toro wasn’t attached to the project.

 “The Power of the Dog” was a surprising front-runner for awhile (I hated this movie with a passion, but I often hate the Best Picture winners).

 “West Side Story.” is another big ticket nominee that isn’t going to win anything except an assured best featured actress award for Ariana DeBose.

I very much enjoyed The Lost City. Tatum and Bullock have chemistry to spare, Radcliffe is great as a bad guy. Pitt appears for a few minutes. It’s a direct rip-off of Romancing The Stone and several other movies but it is funny, the rom-com segments have heart, and while not everything lands, much of the film is spot on terrific. Go, get popcorn, have fun. Recommended. 4/5 stars. A minute into the credits there’s a short funny scene so don’t spring out of your seat and leave.

I’ve mentioned it before, but there’s nothing better for a lousy weather weekend than last year’s Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, a ridiculous comedy I have probably watched 11 times now. The jokes are hit and miss but Wiig and Mumolo are fantastic, as is Jamie Dornan. And don’t blink or you’ll miss the Mouse Orchestra. The strings need work but the rest of you can have cheese.

The Batman is 3 hours long. It has an A-list outstanding cast. It will sell a gazillion tickets and as word of mouth gets out will sell a gazillion more. Get your advance tickets NOW if you want to see it opening weekend. I thought it was fantastic film-making and while not as good as The Dark Knight it is still the next best Batman movie made. It feels long and it feels over-edited so as not to offend anyone. It’s a darker vision to be sure, but it works even if it’s not much fun. It’s serious and gloomy. Art design is consistently excellent and sometimes exceptional. Pattinson is fantastic. Seriously. 5/5 stars.

I saw Cyrano so long ago last year that I almost forgot it opens wide today (still only playing primarily on art screens and specialty AMC screens)….first, Yes, its “that” Cyrano that opened at Goodspeed Opera House years ago, eventually played off-Broadway, and was shopped around forever before it was picked up as a movie. And no, it does not have Frank WIldhorn’s great score for his own Cyrano, but a bland pop rock score written specifically for this production by a rock band…and yes, Peter Dinklage is really good, but not right for the part (his wife wrote it and produced it)…and no, I didn’t really like anything else in this movie. The scenic design and costumes and cinematography all feel a bit flat (and in many instances evidently edited to cut out modern day buildings and things in backgrounds)…Its a decent waste of time, but that’s about it. Of course, this is a memory of a film I now saw 4 months ago. But it is what it is. 3/5 stars. Average at best.

Uncharted is a fun adventure film that falls in the National Treasure ilk…it has better toys, but half the intelligence. Actors fine. Story fine. Action fine. Ticks off all the standard action adventure checkboxes. Stars the massively over-rated but teenage girl friendly Tom Holland. 3/5 stars. Fine for a snowy afternoon. Generic maps! Tuxedoes! Auction house! Motor boats!

DOG (seen this morning in press preview) is a fun crowd-pleasing dog-lovers story of a roadtrip to try to get to a funeral. SO — for the first 95 percent it’s a roll-around and frolic with one of the screen’s most adorable and camera-ready dogs (actually 3 dogs). The last 5 percent is maudlin stuff. But 95% is still a big A from me. Recommended. Note: If you don’t like dogs you will HATE this movie. Seriously. There’s war and PTSD and scary “what will happen to the dog” stuff…but you know where it goes from the first scene. Light profanity. DO NOT buy one of these gorgeous dogs. They are dangerous, need incredible amounts of training and attention, and are absolutely inappropriate around children or other dogs.

Loved Death on the Nile…you probably already know whodoneit…but it’s a beautiful slow-paced leisurely scenic cruise to the ending. And most likely the last of the Branagh Peroit films. Beautifully dressed beautiful actors in beautifully designed sets committing beautiful Murder. Highly recommended.

Exceptional Gutenberg The musical at the Dio is the funniest show you’ve never seen before April 9, 2022

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Richard Payton and David Moan, photo Dio Dining and Entertainment

The best 17 shows west of the Hudson are on display in the single “Gutenberg The Musical” at The Dio theater in Pinckney. Brilliantly executed by stars Richard Payton and David Moan, hilariously directed by Steve Debruyne, with musical direction by Brian Buckner, the show is a non-stop laugh-fest the likes of which has not been seen in a very long time.

I can not recommend this show more highly — it’s a slice of heavenly comedy pie that will have you relaxed and highly entertained, and you might leave the theater with your sides hurting a bit from having laughed so hard all night. Five stars. 

There are sequences so funny that you haven’t finished laughing before the next big laugh comes along right on top of it —such is Scott Brown and Anthony King’s (Beetlejuice the musical) outrageous book, music, and lyrics. 

There’s not much to the concept: two writers/musicans/actors present a “workshop” of their musical, Gutenberg, where they play the cast of thousands, each indicated by a lettered cap (for example Drunk 1 and Drunk 2 in the stunning photo of Payton and Moan above). Having found a dearth of information about Gutenberg on Google, they set out to create a work of “historical fiction” which includes a satan-worshiping monk and his gentle (but dumb) sidekick; a printing press; a beautiful (but dumb) wine-stomper with the subtle name of Helvetica, and all the denizens of the town of Schlimmer, Germany, who are funny, funnier, and funniest (and mostly dumb). There are take-offs of so many Broadway musicals you can’t count them all – and you’ll learn a bit about writing a musical too (like what a “want song” is, along with the most convoluted definition of “metaphor” you’ve ever heard.)

Moan and Payton make the most of these roles, including characters such as the anti-semitic flower-girl (it’s their “purpose” to lend weight to their show), market stall sellers, townsfolk, and even a dead baby (don’t ask – just go watch). Everyone lives in a run-down medieval German town where all the roofs are made of dirty thatch. The show soars above it all (one time literally) and it is an absolute hoot.  The actors put on an acting class in clowning, singing, instantly transforming from one character (and emotion) to another, at times interchangeably playing the characters as needed to accomodate other stage business (which is your favorite, Payton’s Helvetica, or Moan’s Helvetica?)

They are also experts at improvisation if things go wrong (a hat goes flying, a cat goes flying) or if an audience member blurts out a comment (Moan: “Its just such excellent writing.”)

Brian Buckner plays the third character, not only musically directing the show, but appearing onstage playing piano throughout. His character is dry, funny, and adds another layer to the entire evening.  

There is a reason that many of my New York friends consider “Gutenberg The Musical” their favorite off-broadway show. It is easy to see why. It’s two hour runtime is a bit long, but you will never feel time passing in this show — intermission comes all too soon, and the “serious finale” will even find you singing along as you digest nonsense about “eating your dreams”. 

The Dio serves your dinner now, rather than using a buffet line, and quite frankly I liked that a lot. Remember to tip your waiter! (Even the actors remind you!)

The production is assistant directed by Amy Schumacher, Choreographed (clever!) by Rachael Cupples. Matt Tomich designed the set, lighting, and sound and makes a very complicated set-up feel simple and clean. Costumes are by Norma Polk and the (many) props are by Eileen Obradovich. 

Gutenberg The Musical continues through May 8th at the Dio, 177 E Main St, Pinckney, MI 48169, (517) 672-6009, diotheatre.com – reservations (tables of 2 or 4) required. Masks are optional. 

God-Awful “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” on NBC December 10, 2020

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About 15 years ago or so, I wrote a scathing review for the stage musical “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” after I saw it on Broadway. I hated it then — and I hated NBC’s adaptation of the stage musical.

This is all you need to see to get an idea of this monstrosity.

Adapted from the UK Tour from last year, with some tweaks, and starring Matthew Morrison (in a completely thankless role any good actor could have played, but NBC might not have bankrolled) the show is a flop from top to bottom. Narrated by a grown up dog, who occasionally interacts with his younger self, the live show is 80 minutes of ennui and unnecessary musical numbers, some of which don’t even make sense. Stretched out to two hours with commercials its enough to send you plunging a dagger into your television.

Look, I’m not going to tear this all down again which I hated doing the first time around. I’ll just say that any attempt to do a stage show in 2020 is better than none. Except maybe in this instance. I might understand if they had done a tv version of the (very very good) Elf, the musical — but then, that’s a show that is still raking in big bucks on its yearly tours and in its many regional, community, and youth theater productions. But taking the piece of shit “Grinch” and making it into a “television spectacular” makes you appreciate the brilliant work that Ahrens and Flaherty did with their 1-minute tribute in Seussical, the musical.

I am so glad I DVR’d the show last night so I could watch it today (and fast forward through all commercials and parts of the show – hey, don’t blame me, some of the songs are indistinguishable from the commercials themselves). For what it’s worth – the cute set pieces are virtually intact from the stage production (well, they are the tour sets so they should be) with a few nice touches added for the television production. The lights and colors and costuming are fine. The “additional songs” are horrible. The Grinch theme always works, even in this rotten adaptation.

After watching this morning, this sent me directly to the fridge to make Stouffers mac and cheese and eat a couple entemann’s donuts to get the taste of this Grinch out of my mouth. I think I actually yelled at the tv at one point: “what a stupid directing decision!”

I’d give it zero stars if I could. Instead, I’ll give it one for the cute christmas tree with the paper star on top.

Little spirit and no magic in Christmas events…but it’s all part of the dumpster fire of 2020 December 6, 2020

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Greenfield Village Holiday Nights

I should preface this post by stating that this is the first time in twenty-five years I haven’t spent at least a week at Walt Disney World before Christmas. So right off the bat, much of my idea of “magical holiday” is right out the window…but that being said, here’s a look around what’s happening in the Detroit area…

The Lights Before Christmas at the Toledo Zoo — always a highlight of the holiday season, the lights at the Toledo Zoo are ablaze nightly and they are as pretty as ever. There’s the giant tree, the dancing lights (two locations this year!), and the beautiful bent-metal moving animal tableaux lights. What there isn’t is anything Christmasy beyond that. Oh, they have some food stands near the old mammals building, but no interior food or dining. There are no special holiday menus, and there is no strolling and sipping on hot chocolate. The Pizza stand near the wolves is open and had a big line. There’s also no trainride, or quite frankly almost anything in the entire Africa area – though the carousel is open and some nights (it was closed on my night) there is a model train display you can look at through windows. But most surprisingly, what has always made the Lights Before Christmas at the Toledo Zoo so special has been that all the animal displays have been open and you could go see them while you were also checking out the lights. Not so this year. WIth the exception of a few displays almost all the animals were tucked away for safe keeping in their warm homes with empty displays — I’d estimate 85% of the animals are off limits this year. It’s the most unmagical experience I’ve had at this event. Masks are required everywhere at the event under all circumstances (not a requirement except indoors and where you can’t physically distance on normal zoo days). I found about 90% of the visitors were following the mask rules once they were actually inside the park. 

The Detroit Zoo Lights makes no qualms about not having their animal displays open. In fact, the lights only fill the far east side of the park near the entrances and anything beyond there is off limits anyway. The same lack of Christmas spirit is apparent at the Detroit Zoo, but the lights are glorious. They have beautiful displays, artistically arranged, and the colors!  The worst part about this experience is the parking. Unless you are in the earliest group (and you won’t be seeing any lights unless you can stand sitting around until at least 5:00) the parking will be as far away from the entrance as the actual scope of the zoo lights. Masks are required everywhere. Nobody wore masks until they were entering the queue lines but inside I found that almost all of the visitors were wearing their masks. The Detroit Zoo Lights has always been a beautiful event, and I didn’t expect to find much Christmas spirit here beyond that, and that is exactly what I did not find. 

Holiday Nights at Greenfield Village. Outside of Walt Disney World, the Greenfield Village Christmas evenings have always been my favorite holiday event anywhere. With it’s clip-clopping of horse hooves as they give “sleigh rides” and the carolers, and the model-T Ford cars beep beeping their way around the village with guests, and chestnuts roasting on open fires, and the ice skating pond, and the shows and attractions, and the ability to go inside the houses and see the beautiful Americana historical Christmas displays, and of course, that amazing Christmas Dinner in the Eagle Tavern on a cold, snowy night. So — now imagine an event where there were a few masked-up carolers kind of keeping their distance from everyone, no skating rink, no horses or cars or sounds of the holidays except piped-in music here and there, no shows or attractions, no dinner at Eagle Tavern, and the only way to see the decorations in the houses was to look in the windows or doors – no entrance permitted.  Santa did make his appearance atop the Robert Frost house, but it wasn’t the real Santa. This was one of the most miserable freezing cold evenings I’ve spent in the Village. Oh the people were amazing — from the ticket takers to the masked-up docents trying to explain what each house had inside! That you couldn’t go in! Small clumps of family visitors mostly wore their masks, but there were a lot of people not wearing their masks in between further spread-out things to see as they made their frozen way around the Village. I managed to make it an hour before I called it a day. There is food in the Taste of History building and some scattered booths. And as usual, there is a greenery shop for outlandishly overpriced wreaths. They were selling like hotcakes though. One plus: the gift shop is open for holiday shopping and there are some really unique lovely items there. I have to say that I have yet to find a mask or noseclip that works that keeps my eyeglasses from completely steaming over – so when I do an outdoor event I have my choice of taking my eyeglasses off every couple minutes to let them unsteam, or putting them in my pocket and going blind and getting a migraine after half an hour. 

MIS Christmas lights — this is brilliant! I packed up the dog and we went for a ride to see the lights at the Michigan International Speedway. You enter from Michigan Avenue, and there are no reservations so the line to get in was longer than the actual drive through the attraction. As a single driver with dog, it was impossible to stop or slow the car to take a single photo, or the hillbilly in the F350 behind me would have probably rammed right into me. And as a single driver, my experience was basically drive and look at what is straight in front of you, sometimes blocked by the rear lights of the car ahead of me. But the lights are gorgeous, and this event makes no pretense that you are going to do anything but drive and look at lights. Its similar to the Wayne County light display, without the pretty park you drive through but with a lot more lights — in fact, you could probably see this from the space station it’s that big and there are that many lights. I kept thinking how much nicer it would have been if it wasn’t in a parking lot at Michigan International Speedway — but the lights are gorgeous and its well worth the drive out some evening. You can get your own hot chocolate or beverages at the McDonalds in Clinton on your way down Michigan Ave, and since you are in your own car, no worry about masks here — though the employees also didn’t seem to worry about masks. Most wore them around their necks to pull up in case they were spotted by authorities. But it doesn’t matter here, you are in your own closed window car. If you open your windows for some fresh air, you’ll get a great whiff of the exhaust from the 1998 mini-van in front of you. 

As to Walt Disney World — I had made reservations to go for a weekend just before Thanksgiving. Delta cancelled my flight back on Sunday night and the next available seat was on Thursday. Yes — four days until they could find a seat to accomodate me and the 130 other passengers all looking for return seats on already sold-out flights. All I have to say is, good luck flyers when the winter weather cancellations start to roll in. I’m avoiding flying at all costs until the spring. 

Forgotten Musicals: Legs Diamond October 13, 2020

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals.
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Peter Allen and the cast of Legs Diamond in 1988 – photo by Martha Swope

In a new series on forgotten musicals – today’s first entry is Legs Diamond — the misbegotten Peter Allen musical. You can readily find the cast album (it was more afordable to record a show in the 80’s when it flopped but someone still ponied up the cash to record the show). While it was out of print for decades, it is now available in iTunes and elsewhere. 

On my birthday in 1989, I went to see Legs Diamond at the Mark Hellinger theater, now a church (in fact, the Nederlanders considered the show such a flop, as were most shows that played  at the massive but beautiful Hellinger, that they announced even before the show was cancelled that they would be off-loading the theater, which caused a minor ticket run on the show to try to save the theater itself). They lost and 31 years later it is still a church. I knew the reviews were terrible (Frank Rich considered the evenings most palbable drama “Peter Allen wondering what to do with his hands”) but I love shows like that – often finding things that I love in them.

In this case, the show had much to love. Peter Allen, at the height of his popularity, had written a ego-project, starring himself, as real-life gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond. Never mind that Legs had been gunned down in his early 30’s, was virtually unknown as a gangster, and Allen was in his mid-40’s (and looked it) by the time the show opened. Never mind that Allen’s partner Greg had died 4 years earlier and some of the songs were clearly written as love songs to him. Never mind that he pulled several trunk songs out for cabaret singer Julie Wilson to perform that he had written for his ex-wife/beard’s mother twenty years earlier — but Judy Garland had the poor taste to die before recording any of them. Never mind that the entire gangster-who-liked-to-dance was ridiculous in the first place — or the fact that Peter Allen was a terrible dancer and a horrendous actor — there he was! Live on stage! In a brand new book musical (by Harvey Fierstien!).

He was the single most problematic part of the show — the book was decent (if not funny and rewritten and rewritten so many times the musical ended up having the longest pre-opening tryout on record — longer than the two month run of the show). The musical score was quite excellent. The cast album is one you can listen to over and over, and 5 of the songs, including one that had been cut, were incorporated in The Boy From Oz for Hugh Jackman. The costumes and set design were spectacular, and the hard working cast was uniformly excellent. It was a big, old-fashioned musical that was massive in size and right in tune with what audiences would normally want to see in a 5 million dollar budget musical.

But there was Allen, who by this point was widely known to be gay, had loyal followers from his always-sold-out Radio City extravaganzas, and was dying – both literally in life and figuratively on stage each night. (He  really died a few years afterwards). But here he was playing against his flamboyant stage personna in playing a quirky real-life gangster. As prievews progressed, so did the spangles and beads on his gangster suits to the point he looked ludicrous, but matched what his audiences expected. The show was given a happy ending, and everything else is history.

Allen wasn’t a strong singer, couldn’t act at all, and could barely dance. Performers were staged dancing around him while he sang center stage, or while being flown in — (actually it was a double but he never gave him credit) — he was unrecognizable as a gangster — but when he exploded in song, his audiences went wild. It’s the only show I can remember seeing before Wicked where audiences hooted and hollered after every major Allen number.  He was larger than life. His numbers with superstar Julie Wilson were the standouts in the show. 

Listening to the cast album you might be surprised by how many tunes you recognize – and you would have no concept of what this show actually looked like had you not seen it. You wouldn’t be aware of the adulating audiences, or chorus girls in gigantic champaigne glasses, or costumes with more feathers and sequins and glitter than actual clothing material, 

When the show closed in early February the show was guaranteed it would never be performed again by any professional or amateur theater company because all of the orchestrations disappeared. Sort of like Evita’s body – though they were never recovered. 

A few years ago, a theater company in LA had the orchestrations rewritten meticulously by musicians listening to the cast album – the only remaining record. The show has subsequently been performed in concert version by several other groups. But there is nothing that compared to seeing Peter Allen (!!!) live on stage at the Mark Hellinger singing his own songs, romancing Julie Wilson, and having the time of his life. That’s what happens when you have more money than you know what to do with it. And that was one of my happiest memories of seeing a show on my birthday. Legs Diamond was among the best of the 80’s bad musicals. And that is saying something. 

Hey, Halloween Fans! October 13, 2020

Posted by ronannarbor in Uncategorized.
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Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and Dexter Community Players are presenting a Halloween Drive-Through event on October 30th and 31st at Domino Farm’s petting zoo! Performers in costume will present three “scenes” sure to make you smile – from zombies to teenagers and aliens invaders…with dance and song thrown in to make your Halloween grin come to life…

Ticket information will be forthcoming – but anyone who wants to participate – from performing, to dressing up, to helping backstage in some fun, socially-distanced “real theater” are invited to send in a volunteer form indicating your interest by midnight on October 14th. You’ll be assigned to scenes or tasks based on your forms.

The link to participate is here:

https://tinyurl.com/y3r5ryx9

You can find out more about the event here:

https://halloweendrive.net