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Hunchback of Notre Dame – Garden Theatre, Winter Garden (Review) May 12, 2018

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There is a gorgeous production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame currently running at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden and you owe yourself a trip to see it. This is the version based on the Disney film, but expanded with the darker original Victor Hugo source material, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and book by Peter Parnell.

The excellent 15-member ensemble cast performs a tightly paced well directed and choreographed (kudos to Rob Win Anderson) production. It is all performed on Joe Klug’s lovely set, and beautifully lit by Erin Miner. There’s no doubt about it — this is a huge, at times stunning, production.

E. Mani Cadet is a strong Claude Frollo – charged with raising his dead brother’s deformed son Quasimodo hidden away in Notre Dame’s bell tower. Matt Rothenberg turns in an all-around superb performance as Quasimodo. Enter Captain Phoebus, newly appointed parish guard (outstanding vocalist Benjamin Ludwig) and gypsy woman Esmeralda whom the trio fawn over and eventually fall in love with (a great triple threat Aria J Seckel) and ultimately are willing to die for.

Tom Blasco’s wonderful gargoyle puppets are as human as the “humans” and are adeptly controlled and voiced by Christina Disla, Amanda Decker, Ben Lamoureux, and Tamir Navarro. Esteban Vilchez is an energetic Clopin, and the rest of the ensemble cast turn in fine performances in their many roles (Bradley Mack, Michael Cleary, Marissa Volpe, Christopher Loyd, Darryl Pickett, Marla Gideos). This is a group that works well together and their vocal work is luscious, under the direction of Chris Endsley.

Hunchback has had a long developmental history and never made it to Broadway (though it had a critically acclaimed run at Papermill Playhouse). That comes as no surprise. While filled with soaring melodies and some of Menken’s most beautiful power ballads, the material is Disney’s darkest offering. Don’t let that scare you or your family away – just be aware that the second act turns dark and tragic with no happy ending in site but an important lesson in tolerance and niceness toward our fellow man.

I loved this expertly crafted production, and the cast easily won me over. There’s a magical thing that occurs when your director can get a chuckle out of a flute-playing background performer, while moments later making you tear up from a puppet gargoyle’s facial expression. No, really.

Very Highest Revommendation

The Hunchback of Notre Dame continues through May 27th at the Garden Theatre, 160 W Plant Street, Winter Garden FL, 34787. Tickets at gardentheatre.org or 407-877-4736

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David Moan and Emmi Bills shine in “Big Fish” scaled-down version at Encore (Review) April 28, 2018

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In 2015, author John August and music writer Andrew Lippa created a scaled-down (“12 chairs”) version of their Broadway musical “Big Fish” for smaller venues. It replaces some songs and rearranges some scenes but is intended as an alternative for smaller venues with smaller casts. More on this later. That smaller scaled-down version is on display at Encore Musical Theatre Company and I have some thoughts on that.

Telling the story of tall-tale telling Edward Bloom (David Moan) in which he is always the hero of his own stories, his pre-death reconciliation with his son (who is trying to figure out all these tall tales) and Edward’s lifelong love for his wife (Emmi Bills), the musical takes a trip through family-dysfunction-land on its way to its very satisfying ending. Director Thalia Schramm has done a great job of keeping things feeling fresh and natural.

The star here is David Moan who is spectacular in going from older Edward to younger Edward – his acting, singing, and dancing are terrific and he is fully immersed in his character throughout. Similarly in terrific form is Emmi Bills as Sandra – she has a great voice and gets to carry the show’s most emotional scene (“I don’t Need a Roof”) and for both it seems almost effortless to go from teenagers to older adults and back and forth.

The rest of the cast is solid, with one glaring mis-cast, and some mugging that rubbed me the wrong way from a few of the ensemble. But they function as a true ensemble and they sound terrific under Leah Fox’s excellent musical and vocal direction, but are somewhat sloppier with the overly-fussy choreography which almost always steals focus from the main characters – example, just as Edward and Karl the Giant begin their traveling step, the ensemble is suddenly on top and in front of them, spoiling their moment. The wonderful exception to that is the Witch’s “I Know What you Want” which has the magic required to make that scene work well.

Kristen Gribbin’s set is serviceable, and Dustin Miller’s lights and projections look great. Sharon Urick’s costumes are spot on, as are Anne Donevan’s properties.

And now your musical theatre lesson for today: Talking about the show, and not just this production, the scaled down version of the show is not good. That is my opinion of course, but I know this show as intimately as my own hand — every line of dialogue, every song, every stage direction — and I was slated to direct/choreograph the full version of the musical for another theatre a few seasons ago before UM Musket jumped in and stole our rights out from us even though we had paid for the show a year in advance – but that is a story for a different day. That being said, I saw the Broadway production three times and the tryout twice and there is a big difference between Big Fish and Big Fish 12 Chairs Version.

The original production gains its strength by telling the tall-tale stories right out of the gate, and is filled with stage magic and large ensemble numbers that slowly allow the family story underneath to occasionally bubble to the surface until it reaches its emotional climax in the second act. This is similar in style and tone to Daniel Wallace’s book on which the movie and musical are based.

The 12 Chairs Version removes all of the large ensemble numbers and replaces some songs with others. (You can hear them at the end of the original Broadway cast recording, as they went into and out of the show until it was frozen just weeks before opening). In fact the show that people saw in Chicago during its pre-Broadway tryout was very different from the final version in NYC.

And that, for me, is a problem with this scaled-down production: it focuses on the family drama from the opening – a rearranged placement of a scene that occurs later in the show in the original — and it sets up too much family dynamic right from the start. In the original, until the moment the show takes its more serious turn, the production is based on Older Edward telling tall tales to his son, Younger Edward, as these tales spin to life…there are a few short interspersed adult segments to give you glimpses of what has gone wrong…but the reveal is far different and more impactful. In the rearranged version, the adult father-son estrangement is telescoped from the opening sequence and it all leads to what feels like television dramatics. For me, the requisite tears did not flow, because there was no moment of realization. And Young Edward is left stranded as an afterthought.

OK — lesson over. That being said. Encore has a solid production that looks great. Your personal reaction to the scaled down version of the show will depend on your familiarity with the more magical original. But by all means, go see this show for those remarkable performances by Moan and Bills. I wasn’t fully transported to tall-tale Alabama, but the two of them at least got me partway there.

Recommended.

Big Fish continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter, MI through May 20, 2018. Tickets at theencoretheatre.org, 734-268-6200.

 

 

 

 

Enthralling and Delightful “Daddy Long Legs” at the Dio Theatre (Review) April 6, 2018

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The Dio Theatre opened the Michigan premier of the 2015 Off-Broadway musical “Daddy Long Legs” last night and it is delightful and gorgeous, and you can expect to see it all over the local theatre awards later this year.

Beautifully performed by Emily Hadick and Alexander Benoit, with lovely orchestrations under the capable direction of Brian Rose, the musical, based on the early 1900’s book by Jean Webster,  tells the story of “the oldest orphan in the John Gier Home” who unexpectedly gets a full-ride to college by a trustee of the orphanage — under the stipulation that she write him letters about her experiences but that he will not write back. Under the impression that he is an octogenarian and possibly bald, she does just that for four years, unaware that he is the rich handsome stranger that has come into her life through a classmate. ultimately leading to love. Daddy Long Legs refers to her nickname for the trustee, as all she glimpsed before he left was a tall, thin man. 

The story is rich and fulfilling (much like Mark Vukelic’s delicious meal pre-show). Emily Hadick, already having made a name for herself as the lovely Johanna and spunky Hope in Encore’s Sweeney Todd and Anything Goes, is exquisite in every scene and every song. The Dio’s new sound system makes every word important and intelligible, and she invests heart and soul in her role as Jerusha, the orphan student. She can play innocent, and she can play coy, sometimes at the same time, but its all underscored by an intelligence that the audience quickly falls for, and later roots for when things take a turn.

Similarly, Alexander Benoit, with his smooth tenor voice and his good looks makes for a terrific Jervis and his facial expressions give away much of the underlying drama and turmoil, as he wrestles with his own unexpected feelings for Jerusha. He is able to find the comedy in the scenes, and is sometimes left on his own while she sings about her experiences – but you never for a moment, lose the fact that he is absorbed in her letters as his love for her grows.

By the time they meet, the audience is enthralled with both of them – and I don’t think it gives away too much to say that by the time the musical reaches its romantic conclusion that the audience has been charmed and excited going along for this ride.

One of the remarkable things about this very modern musical is that it never loses its early 1900’s look and feel – and the music never turns to pop. It’s a classic musical-theater type score and you might find yourself going to iTunes afterwards to download the cast album. With Music and Lyrics by Paul Gordon and a book by John Caird based on Webster’s novel, you can’t go wrong with a pre-show listen either. Filled with lovely ballads and tuneful songs, I have found myself listening to this musical over and over for many months. I was thrilled to finally see it with its book and storyline on stage.

Everything looks beautiful on Matt Tomich’s V-shaped set which he also lights with stunning colors. Direction by Steve DeBruyne is fluid and makes great use of the angle of the design. He brings out strong emotional ties between Hadick and Benoit, and a scene played atop a hillside is particularly stirring. He is assistant directed by Anne Bauman. Costumes by Norma Polk are beautiful, as are the lovely props assembled by Eileen Obradovich.

You should stop reading this right now, go to diotheatre.com on your computer, and order tickets now because you won’t see a more delightful musical this spring – and it makes for a terrific date-night or family outing.

Very Highest Recommendation.

Daddy Long Legs continues at the Dio Theatre, Pinckney MI through May 20th. Reservations online at diotheatre.com or 517-672-6009.

Archiving reviews 09/01/18 March 31, 2018

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Hey theater friends! If you like a review, or want to copy and paste your review into your own notes, please do so by September 01. 2018 at which time I will be cleaning up the site and making it fresh and accessible for more reviews and cool stuff.

Over the course of the last 10 years, the site has filled up with hundreds of posts and has become unmanageable at my end.

You’ve been warned.

 

Funny “First Date” musical at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre (review) March 9, 2018

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Drew Benson, Eric VanWasshnova, and Sarah Mazurek in First Date

Photo courtesy Lisa Gavan

During the opening number of “First Date” the ensemble sings it is about “meeting someone you don’t think is fuckin’ tragic”…and that is the starting and ending point for this one-act 2013 Broadway musical. In one funny lyric book writer Austin Winsberg and Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (music and lyrics) summarize what a first date is all about. The production at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre that opened last night follows two people meeting for a first date in a bar, and the mishegas that goes with it. And it is very funny stuff.

First time director Aaron C Wade does a very good job of moving the action from scene to scene and making it all make sense and assuring that everyone on stage has a standout moment. Jokes come fast, insightful moments flit by in a few seconds, and songs take center stage. The two are joined by a bartender/waiter who’d rather be a singer songwriter, the couple’s family members and friends, one hilarious ex, and other random strangers.

Drew Benson is a good choice for Aaron Goldfarb – he sings well, and makes this neurotic character his own — a hard job when it is so intimately tied with Zachary Levi (for whom the role was written). Sarah Mazurek holds her own as Casey Clark, his more adventuresome date for the night. While their scenes together don’t necessarily sizzle, they do have a naturalness and honesty that makes you root for them from the start. Don’t look for heavy material here — this is a fun romcom and it stays strictly in romcom territory for the evening.

Sarah Sweeter is simply fantastic as Allison, Aaron’s ex-fiancée — her moments with him come to life on stage and it is funny stuff. Wil Lewis III has some nice scenes as his friend Gabe, with an award-winning appearance of a leaf blower. ‘Nuf said. Kimberly Lock also has some nice moments as Casey’s friend Lauren.

There is a hard working ensemble that plays all those other parts — Tina Paraventi, Jessica Dodson-Terlep, Wynton Doty, and Eric VanWasshnova.

The production is choreographed by Gayle Martin and Music Directed by Debra Nichols.

There is a good set designed by Wade, with some nifty props and stage dressings by Christine Blossom — it made me crave a Yuengling beer afterwards.  Stage left is occupied by the onstage band with tables scattered around the thrust stage.  Costumes by Molly Borneman are colorful and work well for each character.

Not everything is rosy in date land…the sound at times was garbled and it was hard to tell if that was mic levels or if it was vocal diction problems — or both. The opening number in particular was hard to understand. That will no doubt get ironed out as the weekend progresses. There were some stray notes in the band, although for the most part they sound good. There were also some stray notes in the ensemble choral music – ranging from funny to not at all good. A friend made the comment “they sound great individually, but when they sing together something just goes wrong”. Finally, there is a scene change near the end of the show that takes too long and kills some of the momentum heading into the short final sequence.

Still, I laughed a lot, and often. I had fun and was impressed by how much work went into making this ensemble cast come to life on stage in a show that is difficult to act and sing. It is a breezy 90 minutes of laughs…and laugh you will on a cold winter evening at the Arthur Miller Theatre. Go check it out! UM students, pick up this week’s Passport for the Arts and see the show for free!

First Date continues through March 11th at the Arthur Miller Theatre on University of Michigan’s North Campus. Tickets at the door or at a2ct.org/tickets.

This Groovin’ Production of “Or,” Will Light Your Fire (Review) February 20, 2018

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Reviewed by Wendy Wright

I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s taken me this long to make it to the Kickshaw Theatre and boy have I been missing out. Founder Lynn Lammers and her associates are creating the next big thing in the Southeastern Michigan theater scene and you really need to check it out. Their latest production of Liz Duffy Adams’s titillating Or, directed by Suzi Regan is a joy, as are her trio of actors.

Loosely based on real historical figures, Aphra Behn is England’s first female professional playwright…and a spy. She’s just quit the espionage business to write her first play, and she’s on deadline when her former lover blazes in with enemies on his heels. To complicate things, the city’s hottest actress, Nell Gwynne, is getting awfully friendly, and, for that matter, so is the king—as in Charles II. Set in Restoration England, this playful farce is a rush of mad-cap antics, gender bending, and rollicking intrigue. Against a background of a long drawn out war and a counter-culture of free love, cross dressing, and pastoral lyricism, the 1660s look a lot like the 1960s in this neo-Restoration comedy.

I’m surprised the play is not produced more as It has the look and feel of a Restoration comedy without the huge cast and elaborate sets and costumes. The themes are timeless, and it’s wild and sexy and just plain fun. Additionally, it provides a tour de force for three actors, two of whom take on multiple roles.

The success of the piece depends primarily on the actress playing Aphra and in Vanessa Swanson, Regan has hit the jackpot. It’s virtually impossible to take your eyes off her. The strength and earthiness she brings to the role is intoxicating. Mary Dillworth and Daniel A. Helmer play multiple roles with varying degrees of success. Helmer transforms from King Charles to William Scot and back again seamlessly in mere seconds like he is born to it. Dillworth’s rendition of the notorious Nell Gwynne seems a little too naïve, but her Lady Davenant brings down the house (thanks in no small part to costumer Em Rossi).

Director Regan keeps the pacing swift (clocking in at 80 minutes with no intermission) but takes too tame an approach for my taste. Rossi’s costumes are beautiful and intertwine the 1660’s with touches of the 1960’s in an understated way (love the puka shell necklace!), Lammer’s props are clever (the purple lens glasses are groovy!), Quintessa Gallinat’s century jumping preshow songs fun, and the intricate requirements of the set and lights handled deftly by Aaron Delnay and Heather Brown respectively.

My advice is to run down to the Kickshaw to see a wonderful version of a show that you probably don’t know but should!

Highly Recommended.

Or, is recommended for ages 14+ and continues at 8pm on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and at 4pm on Sundays, February 15 – March 4 at the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth, 704 Airport Blvd, Ann Arbor, MI 48108. Tickets at http://www.kickshawtheatre.org.

A Chorus Line National Tour 2018 (brief review, Fox Theatre Detroit) February 18, 2018

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Broadway Tour, musical theater, Musicals.
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I only have time for a short review of A CHORUS LINE national tour 2018. Seen at yesterday’s matinee at the Fox Theatre, Detroit — the show is a faithful recreation of the staging and original choreography of the 1975 original Broadway production. It looks good. Sound was bad at the Fox. Dancing was terrific though not all the singers are strong. This is my favorite musical, but it is showing its age. Stagecraft has come a long way since that time, but the first time the mirrors revolve you know this is lovingly recreated. Don’t hesitate to see it – it’s a time capsule back to 1975 Broadway.

The show is doing short runs and one-offs nationwide. Yesterday’s two performances at the Fox were your only chance to see it here locally.

 

 

Great Armstong, Johnson, and Kaminski in “Merrily We Roll Along” – Ringwald (review) February 17, 2018

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There’s a terrific cast romping its way across the (nearly bare) Ringwald stage in their current production of George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along (based on the play by Kaufman and Hart). I write this review from the viewpoint of having previously directed a production of this musical myself.

There’s not much to the problematic book: Charlie, Frank, and Mary are friends who meet on a rooftop in NY, become bosom buddies and watch each others mistakes in love, marriage, work, business, and ultimately part ways as bitter adults (all the way in their 40’s!). The catch is, the show runs backwards – starting in the 70’s and ending in the 50’s. It was so confusing for original Broadway audiences that they added sweatshirts with their character names on them and spiffy things like “Past Wife”, “Boss”, “Next wife”. It ran one week. The rewritten show was presented by the York Theatre Company in the early 90’s and that version has become somewhat of a success. The recent London revival of the show was a smash success and was telecast in the USA by Fathom.

The time period here is very well defined by some great projection work by Dyan Bailey, and some wonderful costumes by Vince Kelley. I think we can all agree that we want a pair of Frank’s pants. It all plays out on a nearly bare stage with some accents, though I have to admit I’m getting a bit tired of the “no set” approach for the last few musicals at Ringwald. Painted grey, everything looks eerie, the exact effect you dont want in the background for this already bitter material.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that Sondheim has crafted his best score for this show. It was an instant smash recording when released in the late 70’s and most theatre folks of a certain age grew up having memorized every single one of these remarkable songs — the revisal adds many additional “explanatory sequences” which are neither here nor there.

It is very well musically directed by CT Hollis and the vocal work here is impressive across the entire cast. Directing falls pretty flat with a lot of standing around and basic moves; and choreography doesn’t impress though the cast performs their steps well, with the exception of “Hey Old Friend” which finally brings some life to the proceedings.

But what does make a solid impression is how good the performances here are. Kevin Kaminski is great as Charley, Kyle Johnson is a very strong Frank, and Ashlee Armstrong is outstanding as Mary (even if the requisite audience tears don’t fall in the otherwise heartbreaking marriage sequence because of the lack of isolation of characters, too much distance between them on stage, and too much movement in the background from the ensemble). Still, they are very fine performances and the show comes to life when the three are together. An artistic decision was made to leave the three of them on the rooftop by themselves at the end of the show without the ensemble – it underlines the central triad, but I miss seeing the youthful enthusiasm of the entire cast on stage at the end as written.

A few other liberties have been taken with the show, some for the better (goodbye Frankie Jr) and some just head-scratching odd.

Other great performances are created by Liz Schultz who is a wonderful sharp-as-a-tack-comic-timing Gussie and Jordan Gagnon as Beth. The ensemble as a whole is very good, and my favorite stage moment was probably Matthew Wallace’s spot-on lounge piano player.

I know this book inside and out, so my experience was probably different from most. If you don’t know the show at all, its a great introduction to this work – one of Sondheim’s rare failures that has taken on a life of its own. Just don’t expect a revelatory experience, and there isn’t much of a payoff when its all said and done.  But revel in these remarkable performances as they roll along in a show itself that occasionally demonstrates sputters, fits, and starts.

Recommended.

Merrily We Roll Along continues at the Ringwald Theatre through March 19th. 22742 Woodward  Ave, Ferndale, MI tickets and more information at: ringwald.com

SNOW CANCELLATIONS SE Michigan Fri 02/18 February 9, 2018

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***************************************************
SNOWMAGEDDON THEATER UPDATE for FRI 2/9
***************************************************
Dark Tonight:
Williamston Theatre – Our Lady of Poison
Purple Rose – Flint
Penny Seats – Edges
Hillberry Theatre – The Colored Museum
Puzzle Piece Theatre – Crimes of the Heart
Dexter Community Players – Alice in Wonderland
Tipping Point – Every Brilliant Thing
Horizon Performing Arts – Disaster the Musical

Performing Tonight:
The Dio – Murder at the Howard Johnsons
Encore Musical Theatre – Million Dollar Quartet
Theater Nova – Constellations
Fisher Theater – Finding Neverland
Stranahan – Beautiful

Updating as I get notification (last update 4:50 pm)

Odd, Funny, 70’s comedy “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s” at the Dio (Review) February 5, 2018

Posted by ronannarbor in Plays, The Dio, Theatre.
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Molly Cunningham, Joshua Brown, and Dale Dobson. Photo Credit Michele Ankiker.

The Dio’s current offering “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s” by Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick is far and away the oddest local theater offering of the young season – and it is a hoot. You might be in mind of a mystery, maybe about a murder at a Howard Johnson’s? Well, that is not the case here. Instead, think of this more as an episode of the 70’s “Love Boat” stretched out into a full length comedy. And think of the writing and jokes about the same as those on that little ditty of a tv series (and its not a surprise given the authors backgrounds in writing comedy). It is a bit like a Neil Simon show before rewriting the jokes to makes sure they land right. Or a Benny Hill episode in which the actors need to deliver lines instead of running around the neighborhood.

Take three great actors (outstandingly deadpan Molly Cunningham, spritely and funny Joshua Brown, and the exceptional Dale Dobson as comic foil) and mix in a hilarious set by Matthew Tomic and solid comic-timing direction by Steve Debruyne and you have a very fun way to spend a few hours of dinner and theater. The evening’s menu is inspired — Howard Johnson’s fare!! Its comfort food for cold Michigan evenings.

I don’t want to get into the plot much, except to say that the intermission-less three-scene comedy takes place in the late 70’s at a Howard Johnson Hotel around three holidays — as time passes, you get some insight into the dysfunctional relationships at play between husband and wife, wife and lover, and husband and dentist. Don’t ask. Important to the plot are a bottle of blue nun, a hotel window ledge, a gun, pills, and a surprise for the third scene. None of it is too offensive (though keep in mind these jokes were written in the 70’s so there is a touch of that Love Boat-ness I told you about). But these are equal opportunity jokes. Cunningham gets as many quips and double entendres as the guys, and its all in good fun.

It took a few minutes for the audience to catch on that they were watching a satire comedy, but once they did the show took off and the audience did too. I found myself laughing frequently, not because the lines are particularly that funny, but because the exceptional cast brings them to life in a way that begged me to have as much fun as they were, and it worked.

The show is an oddity that ran for 10 previews and 4 performances in NYC in 1979. I am happy to say that the residency at the Dio will include more performances than their Broadway days — and may it be a happy run! While the show isn’t a masterpiece, neither is it a bomb. I am not sure why it didn’t catch on in NYC, though the plotline about running off with your dentist and leaving your husband probably wasn’t a good idea in post-sexual revolution NYC in 1979.

Forget the silly title, and go spend a few hours with these lunatics.

Recommended.

Murder at the Howard Johnson’s continues at the Dio Dining and Entertainment through March 4th. 177 E Main St, Pinckney, MI 48169 — diotheatre.com or (517) 672-6009 for tickets which sell fast at this venue. Includes dinner.