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High-Energy “In the Heights” is Terrific (Croswell Opera House) July 15, 2017

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There’s a high energy, dancing, hip-hopping, laughing, crying, cheering, whooping production of “In The Heights” that opened last night at the Croswell Opera House and it is terrific.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony-award-winning musical (perhaps you’ve heard of his second: “Hamilton”) centers on family and home and finding your place in a world that is always familiar and always changing. Set in Washington Heights in NYC (its north of the George Washington Bridge for you non-New Yorkers) in the late 2000’s it foreshadows the gentrification that occurred in that area, forcing out its many hispanic and latino immigrants and businesses over the past decade on its way to becoming Manhattan’s hipster-haven.

Debra Ross Calabrese has done a great job of directing this (much larger than it looks) production, and every move and step has a meaning and a purpose. Scenes flow seamlessly from one to the other thanks to Stephanie Busing’s solid set and projection design. Libby Garno’s dance steps are fun and dynamic. Dave Rains does a great job musical directing this cast and leading a fantastic pit orchestra. Costume designer Natalie Kissinger makes everybody look terrific on stage and captures the eclectic look of urban New York City, and Tiff Crutchfield’s lighting design looks beautiful, Chris Goosman’s sound design is very good.

The cast is led by terrific Jonathan Tobar as Usnavi in a Lin-Manuel-like performance that is eery in its similarities and his high energy, and the superb Alaina Kerr as Nina. Benny is played by the always excellent Derrick Jordan, and Usnavi’s love-interest by the wonderful Katelyn Lesle. John Bacarella and Lydia DiDo Schafer are great as Nina’s parents, Anthony Contreras is a fun and energetic Sonny, and Melissa Paschall plays a warm and lovely Abuela. Carissa Villanueva and Libby Garno (who also did the fantastic choreography) are a hoot as salon owner and employee Daniela and Carla. In other roles, CJ Mathis, Rudy Gonzalez and Zachary Flack are all spot-on.

The entire ensemble lifts the energy throughout with a near-constantly choreographed evening. The Dance Ensemble consists of Breah Duschl, Morgan McConnell, Nik Owen, Emily Kapnick, Michael Rywalski, and Xavier Sarabia. Pick one of them and follow their course over the production and you’ll see just how much dancing there is in this show. The rest of the ensemble is also great: Tyaira Smith Adamson, Brok Boze, Leigh Christopher, Lauren DePorre, Emily Ialacci, Merceds Polley, Payton Perry-Radcliffe, Hannah Rowe, and Gabriella Terrones.

Particularly impressive is the work that has gone into diction in this production – great job cast and Dave Rains. In a show that “talks” nearly non-stop in its hip-hop lyrics (“rap” for those of us listening to music long before most of this cast was born) its essential the audience can hear the words, and the work here is very well done.

Also impressive is the massive scale of this show — Debra has filled her stage with so many things going on throughout the stage – near the audience and afar, on stoops, on tenement balconies, in windows. It has a great “New York” feel to it. Good work.

And then there is the Lin-Manuel Miranda score. You can hear the melodies of Hamilton forming here already – when the cast sings about being “powerless” you can already recognize the chord structures and hip-hop rhythms that he brings to full force in his latter piece. Here, its beautifully integrated with salsa and a tuneful beat-filled score. If you aren’t a huge Hamilton fan, rest assured, the majority of this score is still standard broadway show tunes, albeit set to a more urban beat.

“In the Heights” places its emphasis and heart squarely in the realm of “what is home” and “where do you go to find home” and finding that “home is people not a place”…but what a great place Croswell has created here.

Very Highest Recommendation.

A few tickets remain for the rest of the run at Croswell.org. In the Heights runs through July 23rd. I’d suggest you get your tickets immediately.

The Dio’s “Forever Plaid” Serves Up a Tasty Summer Confection (review) June 18, 2017

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Guest Review by Wendy Wright

As sweet as an ice cream sundae, with tight harmonies as dense as a pound cake, the wonderful performances in the Dio’s production of FOREVER PLAID serve as the cherry on top. Walking in to the show all I knew was that it was a review of songs from the era before rock and roll. Little did I know there is a hilarious and enjoyable story attached as well. A quartet of male “teen angels” are brought back to earth after having been taken too soon, so that they can fulfill their dream of performing one last show.

One by one, each character reveals himself and is given a moment in the spotlight.  And one by one, I fell in love with every one of them.  James Fischer as Sparky is a master of comic timing, newcomer Angel Velasco’s Jinx is the picture of delightful innocence, Matthew Wallace as Smudge is a loveable goofball, while holding them all together, almost like a big brother, is Steve DeBruyne’s Franky.

DeBruyne’s direction made the evening seamless and I may have noticed some succulent touches that could have only come from the warped imagination of Assistant Director Dan Morrison. The tightly choreographed moves by Bryana Hall look like they are right out of any real-life 60’s boy-group and the actors carry it off very well. Norma Polk’s costume design looks snappy, and Matthew Tomich does super work with the sound, lighting and projections.  Eileen Obradovich’s prop design works particularly well in the Ed Sullivan sequence. Mix in two musicians (Brian Rose on piano who also has done very good work as Musical Director, and  Leer Sobie on bass) and you have a refreshing milkshake blended to perfection.

There is a reason the Dio returns to this show time after time and you would never know that this incarnation was a last-minute replacement for a different show. The food by chef Jarod was wonderful as always (the fried chicken alone is worth the price of admission). All in all, this is the perfect escape from the summer heat.

FOREVER PLAID continues at the Dio, 135 E Main St, Pinckney, MI through July 23rd. Tickets at 517-672-6009 or online at http://www.diotheatre.com

Very Highest Recommendation

Very Funny “Criminal Hearts” at Ann Arbor Civic Theater (Review) June 18, 2017

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Cami Fussey has directed a very funny production of Jane Martin’s “Criminal Hearts” at Ann Arbor Civic Theater, and you have one more chance to catch it as it only plays this one weekend (the usual Ann Arbor Civic Theater dilemma).

Telling you much about the plot would ruin the twists and turns, but as stated in the program, Bo,  a streetwise burglar breaks into Ata’s apartment which has already been completely emptied out of furniture by her philandering husband, Wib – the two of them, together with getaway driver Robbie, join forces to take Wib for all he’s worth.

With multiple twists and turns, the (very) funny script takes these two oddball women for a ride.

Elisha Kranz is a fine agoraphobic (and that’s only the beginning of it) Ata, and Tomi Dres is a good Bo. The two of them play off of each other well (as should be in a piece that primarily focuses on the two of them). Christopher Ankney makes his stage debut as the funny Robbie, and David Widmayer is hilarious as he creates a strange and nasty Wib.

Cami Fussey has directed the piece with an eye to character development while letting the jokes flow naturally and rapidly — things feel like the characters are discovering these quirks (and strengths) as the audience does, and it all flows nicely — no matter how absolutely bizarre. The 1:40 piece flies by (there is one intermission). Everything looks terrific on the set designed by Cami and built and lit by Scott Fussey.

Stage Managed by Lisa Gavan, Produced by Christopher Ankney, Light and Sound operated by Nate Dewey, and Production Assisted by Dane Larsen.

Today’s educational moment: nobody really knows who playwright “Jane Martin” is — though almost all of his/her works originate at Actors Theatre of Louisville and there is constant speculation online about who the writer (or possible writers) are. The playwright’s name is a disambiguation.

I had a great time, and I think you will too. There’s only one more chance to see it today – this afternoon (sunday June 18th) at AACT’s studio – 322 W. Ann Street — tickets at the door.

Highly Recommended.

 

 

Gorgeous “Camelot” at Encore Musical Theatre Company (Review) June 17, 2017

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There is a gorgeous production of the classic musical Camelot at Encore Musical Theatre Company and it looks and sounds pretty as a picture, with beautiful sets and costumes and Lerner and Loewe’s tune-filled familiar score.

Stephen West is in wonderful vocal form as King Arthur (aka Newt) and Olivia Hernandez returns to the Encore as Guenevere and she is lovely in voice and acting. David Moan (I proclaim “can do anything he wants in any role he wants”) is that good here as well. His Lancelot is filled with self-absorption and (later) moping. His “If Ever I would Leave You” had audible gasps around me — although that might have just been the age of the audience and their familiarity with that particular song. The entire ensemble was spot-on terrific, and there is a particularly well-played Mordred by Tyler Lynch who in turns humorously creates an annoying character as well as the most spirited moments in the second act.

Sarah Tanner has designed a beautiful multilevel set that makes the Encore space look much bigger than it actually is (as she did with Into the Woods and Assassins). Sharon Larkey Urick’s costumes are marvelous and colorful. Daniel Walker’s lighting is bright and makes everything look brilliant on stage. Anne Donevan’s property design is terrific — you try finding that many swords and banners. Daniel Helmer’s fight choreography is fun to watch (though Lancelot could have easily escaped that room several times during that fight) and Matthew Brennan’s choreography is wonderful. That it all works at all is credit to director Dan Cooney who has enthused his cast to look beyond the paper-thin characters and create something of substance, and to Tyler Driskill who, as usual, makes beautiful music happen.

That’s about as glowing a review as I can muster for a show that is on the bottom of my list of classic musicals, and I love classic musicals. It is a dated, old-fashioned, unfocused storyline with reluctant bride Guenevere first appalled then smitten with King Arthur, later appalled then smitten with Lancelot — eventually running off with Lancelot which leads to the most anticlimactic and worst ending of a musical ever.

Lerner and Loewe’s score is often lovely (and sounds great here under the musical direction of Tyler Driskill). This production wisely cuts a good 30-minutes off of the (still) too long musical although the last 30 minutes of the show is still a slog through soap-opera territory. Clocking in at 2:35 it felt like it was much longer.

Whenever I see the show, I read other reviews and hear people talk about “how timely it is in the current political climate.” I don’t see it. It was dated in 1960 and it is very dated in 2017 – bordering on the edge of operetta even in the 60’s. But it is what it is, and what it is is gorgeous in this production. Though if you are not a lover of classic musicals, you’ll leave a bit underwhelmed since the musical theater world has changed significantly since this musical first appeared. There’s also the problematic handling of Guenevere’s character — who makes choices based on what middle aged men wrote, designed, and directed back in the last days of the golden musicals — that is to say, her choices are bizarre and male-centric to say the least.

Still, this is a lovely night of theater – and tickets are selling very fast. I saw the production on a sold-out Thursday night. Get yours now.

Recommended (Highly recommended if you love classic musicals, even if you don’t particularly like Camelot).

Camelot continues at Encore Musical Theatre Company through July 2nd. Tickets at encore theatre.org or 734-268-6200.

Photo courtesy Encore photographed by Michele Anliker.

 

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” takes flight (kinda) at Croswell Opera House (Review) June 11, 2017

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Croswell Opera House launched its 2017 Summer Season with the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang last night, and it’s a neat production of the mega-effects laden show.

Basically following the same storyline (and music with the exception of a couple new numbers) of the movie, Act 1 sets things up, and Act 2 amps up the ante as the action reaches Vulgaria. The musical had a long successful run on London’s West End but not so successful on Broadway. What it did have was an amazing car that flew, tilted, swiveled, and moved up and out over the orchestra as the proscenium filled with stars – there was no denying that no matter what your thoughts about the material itself, that flying car special effect was THE attraction for this show.

Not so much at Croswell’s production, where there is a car, but the action centers more around the human characters, who are brought to life by a vivid cast of performers. The car takes a more peripheral role and I am not sure that is for the better in a musical that is basically ABOUT the car.

Peter Crist plays an excellent Caractacus Potts, paired nicely with Kayla Marsh as Truly Scrumptious. Jeremy and Jemima Potts are precocious and charming Matthew Antalek and Oliva Goosman who are engaging and never cloying. Grandpa Potts is delightfully played by Steve Hillard, though the lyrics of his “Posh” were a bit muffled. Stephen Kiersey is a creepy Childcatcher and Terry Hissong (great to see on stage again!) an endearing Toy Maker. Bruce Hardcastle and Steven Owsley are practically perfect as Boris and Goran the Vulgarian spies (ahem, vulgar spies). While the entire ensemble is solid (although there are too many of them on stage during some of the numbers, cluttering things up a bit) the show is stolen out from everyone else in its second act by Leah Fox as the Baroness and Jeffrey King as the Baron Bomburst. Their flirtatious “Chu-Chi Face” is an absolute scream. Both Leah and Jeffrey turn in performances that are deadpan straightforward in their lunacy and makes it even funnier by contrast. The Baroness accidentally shoots one of her lackeys, and she exclaims an understated (and howlingly funny) “oops”. Bravo.

The Direction by Julianne Dolan and Choreography by Sarah Nowak focus on the human relationships, even during dance numbers. If I have a quibble its that the pacing and line pickup seemed slow through much of the first act (it got better in the second) and scene changes took a bit too long, occasionally stopping the action while nothing happens except for a chunk of set coming in or out.

Costumes by Susan Eversden are truly scrumptious indeed. Wynne Marsh has done her usual excellent musical direction. Tiff Crutchfield’s lighting design is colorful and bright. Sound Design is excellent – thanks to the donors who helped sponsor the new sound system! Patrick Lord’s projection and Scenic Design are well integrated into the production and things look spiffy and bright.

And that car? Well, its there, and its serviceable. It stays very much earth bound. It looks pretty and most of the effects worked, but it needed human assistance a few times making turns and it called for a bit more magic.  Still, overall this is a big beautiful looking production and it shows throughout.

A final aside — to the family sitting next to me, it in NEVER okay to hand out sandwiches in crinkly paper to your kids, pop open soda cans, nor serve potato chips to your kids inside a theater during the show. Never. Basic theater etiquette 101.

Recommended.

Photo taken by Lad Strayer, Croswell Opera House

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang continues at The Croswell Opera House, 129 E. Maumee, Adrian MI through June 25th. Tickets (selling very fast) at croswell.org or 517-264-SHOW.

How to Navigate Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom June 10, 2017

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Pandora is Disney’s latest attraction to open at Walt Disney World in Animal Kindom (in the old Camp Mickey Minnie area of the park, originally reserved for Beastly Kingdom which never materialized).

It’s a gorgeous (small) new area that is based on the James Cameron movie theming, and it consists of two rides, a gift shop, and a quick service restaurant. Its all themed beautifully to the movie visuals – floating islands, waterfalls that seem to come from nowhere, and a variety of Pandora-type plants. It all comes to life at night when things light up (they refer a lot to “bioluminescence” throughout this area).

Ride-wise, the big Kahouna is “Flight of Passage” – a soarin’-type movie/motion simulator in which you sit on the back of a banshee and soar over (and under) the landscape of Pandora. You sit on an individual motorcycle-type seat with 42 of your best friends stacked three deep on three levels, wear 3D glasses, and not just get to see the movie but feel the banshee breathing beneath you. Its ingenious and by far the most state-of-the-art entertainment out there in the theme park world right now. That also means every man, woman, grandma, and child in the park wants to ride it – and the average ride time was 170 minutes my entire rain-storm deluged trip all week. The line does not get shorter at any point in the day and it starts at 110 minutes 15 minutes within park opening.

The other ride is Na’vi River Journey – a pirates of the Caribbean type water ride without the pirates, drops, or splashes. It’s all pretty as you sail along make-believe plants and watch cleverly integrated projections and eventually visit a shawoman who looks eerily like something out of your worst nightmare. But then she is gone and your fellow 8 passengers and yourself are on dry land running to your next attraction.

I suppose someone thought that this might be a relaxing and pretty part of the park – but that illusion is shattered the moment you arrive. Its crowded beyond anything you have experienced at WDW, and it calls to mind the first few months that HPATFJ was the headliner at universal. Disney even uses similar techniques to manage traffic control – and if it gets too crowded, they permit only resort guests and Passholders who have fastpasses into the area for awhile.

To make matters worse, Disney has tiered the fast passes for both rides — meaning you can only select ONE of them per day (and you better do so 60 days in advance, much like some dining options and Frozen Ever After). To do them both, you need to return on two separate days. So what’s someone to do that doesn’t want to spend two days in over-crowded PANDORA.?

Here’s your strategy even on the worst crowded days to ensure you can do everything and be out of there within one hour.

DAK is currently open 8 am to 11 pm (with resort guests and pass holders able to stay until 1 am through the end of July). Don’t let it fool you – the extended hours mean 170 minute waits until 1 am. IT NEVER GETS SHORTER.

ARRIVE at the park one hour before opening. They open about 7:15 to allow you to go to the next rope drop right at Pandora’s entrance. PUSH AND CLAW your way to the front of this line — make sure you are in the front 100 visitors at the rope drop. DO NOT DAWDLE — do not stop to pee, do not get coffee, do not pull to the side to look at fake plants go immediately to the rope drop.

Once the rope drops follow the crowd to the right into the line for Flight of Passage. DO NOT DAWDLE, do not take selfies, do not stop for photos. GO INTO LINE. Enjoy the ride.

ONCE DONE do NOT SPEND TIME IN THE GIFTSHOP but go directly to Na’vi River Journey. The uninformed will have finished this ride and you will not have more than a 20 minute wait, while they now have a 110 minute wait at Flight. Enjoy Na’vi.

NOW you can dawdle — backtrack to the gift shop (get a avatar that looks like you action figure, or a banshee shoulder puppet, very cool). There are far nicer options for girls than for guys at the giftshop apparel-wise. They serve breakfast at the canteen so go enjoy something in the nicely themed quickserve restaurant. AND YOU ARE DONE. Take a few photos and then get out of there and go see real animals.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Satisfying, Enjoyable, First Rate (Review – Ann Arbor Civic Theatre) June 2, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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“DroooooooooD!”

Do you find reading this name to yourself is a little amusing? Bet your lips puckered without your realizing it. Try saying it aloud; bet you can’t without having a little fun with it. At A2CT’s hilarious production of  “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre this weekend, you can think it, say it, sing it, even stand up and shout it at the top of your lungs and you will be in good company. It is encouraged and it is satisfying, much like the performance that surrounds it. It’s no wonder this interactive Rupert Holmes musical won several Tony Awards. It’s that fun.

As the real story goes, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the final novel written by Charles Dickens, who died before completing it, leaving the explanation of the title character’s mysterious disappearance unresolved. However, in the musical, we, the audience, get to affect the show’s ending by voting for the murderer (if, in fact, Drood was murdered) as well as decide the fate of other characters. Actors find out live if they have been selected and they have seconds to step into their role. There is a blackboard in the lobby after the show so that you can see the actual audience vote count as you leave.

The musical is a show within a show so every actor plays two roles: “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is performed by various characters in a London music hall aptly named, Music Hall Royale, in 1892. The music hall story centers around Drood (flawlessly played in trousers by Vanessa Banister), who is affianced from birth to the lovely Rosa Bud (lovely in looks and voice Kimberly Elliott), who is the object of her opium-addicted choirmaster John Jasper’s affection (brilliant Roy Sexton). But Jasper is not the only one who craves the affection of Miss Bud. Ceylonese refuges Neville Landless (Brandon Cave), twin sister Helena (Becca Nowak) and Reverend Crisparkle (Brodie Brockie) have desires of their own. The facial expressions these players give are worth the price of admission. Then there is the drunken cemetery watchman Durdles (Jimmy Dee Arnold) and Deputy (Peter Dannug) who know the whereabouts of the living and the dead. Opium mistress Princess Puffer (Alisa Mutchler Bauer) and Bazzard (Michael Cicirelli) add their own spice to the mystery. As mentioned earlier, all of these characters are portrayed by second-rate Music Hall Royale actors with their own agendas. If any of this is confusing, be assured the Chairman of the Music Hall Royale (Jared Hoffert) will guide you along and make sure you are properly sated in more ways than one [wink wink]. Hoffert is a wonderful master of ceremonies. The supporting cast is a hearty shephard’s pie of talent: Julia Fertel, Ashleigh Glass, Chris Joseph, Kari Nilsen, Sarah Sweeter, Kelly Wade, Heather Wing and Lisa Gavan (Stage Manager, both real and in the Royale), who make the evening that much more satisfying and enjoyable.

The Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre is the perfect venue and the audience is greeted by the cast in character prior to curtain. Director and set designer Ron Baumanis, lighting designer Thom “TJ” Johnson, sound designer Bob Skon, Choreographer Debra Calabrese and costume designer Molly Bourneman complete the atmosphere so you really feel like you have been taken back in time — there are footlights, bustles, old-fashioned drops, and wonderfully zany mis-cues by the “Company” and crew. Great work. There is a surprise set piece build by Patrick Johnson and unique props by Aaron C. Wade. The orchestra, who also play a role within the story, is led by Daniel Bachelis and is first-rate. The show clocks in at 2:30 including the intermission and it is non-stop. There is also a special surprise guest appearance that had the audience laughing and applauding last night, and you’ll find it referenced in the program hidden in plain sight once you do.

Very Highly recommended.

—–Guest Review by Patricia Mazzola

Only three more chances to experience A2CT’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, University of Michigan, Michigan League Building, 911 Fletcher, Ann Arbor.  June 2-3 at 8 pm, June 4 at 2 pm. a2ct.org/tickets, or available at the door. Please note that tickets go off-sale online a few hours before showtime.

Why “Come From Away” should win this year’s Tony for Best Musical (and why “Dear Evan Hansen” should not) May 5, 2017

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On June 11th, 2017, when this year’s Tony Awards are announced, I expect to see “Come From Away” the big winner in the musical category. What? You haven’t even heard of it? Well, you should. And I know there is that ground-swell support from younger folks for “Dear Even Hansen” but here is why that one shouldn’t win.

COME FROM AWAY will most likely win the Best Musical this year. I said so the moment I left the theater the first time I saw it in Toronto, and keep that same opinion after the third time I saw it in NYC. Quite simply, it has the strongest message of the bunch, and the strongest overall musical theater artistry of the bunch. Don’t label it a “9/11 Musical” — it is not. Its a show about a community coming together in the face of a crisis – and it is the only one of the four musicals nominated this year that has those stakes. More so, lets not forget the Tony Awards are also business oriented, it is the sole show of the four nominees that could use the ticket sale boost. That is always a consideration at award time. This is also the only show of the bunch that I left the theater humming any of the tunes.

DEAR EVEN HANSEN has a great score, no doubt about it, even if I never want to hear anyone sing “Waving Through a Window” unless it is in context of the show. It also has young-folks appeal because of the hot-selling cast album. And it also has the most mixed reviews of any of the current musicals nominated. What it got were raves for Ben Platt as Evan, and the score. Expect to see Tony awards for Ben Platt, and the score. But Best Musical? I don’t think so. Without giving away too much, the entire drama of this show is so millennial-centric that it makes no impact on older audiences — the central drama involves a millennial teenager APOLOGIZING for something he did that was dreadfully wrong. That is it. If our millennial audiences find making an apology the most horrifying thing they have to do, then we have done something very wrong in this everyone-gets-a-participation prize and there-are-n0-consequences-for-your-appalling-actions era.

NATASHA AND PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 is a spectacular musical. I loved every minute of it. Telling the central love story of War and Peace in a Russian-cabaret type setting (even the theater interior has been changed to resemble an in-the-round Russian tent) it has made the rounds from off-off to off and now on Broadway. It is also without a doubt the most bizarre and polarizing of the current nominees — people either love it or they hate it, and you can find plenty of both online. The general reaction is, wow, the staging is remarkable, and indeed look for a Tony for best Direction here. But it also leaves a large number of the audience scratching their heads and asking themselves what exactly is going on here (and I don’t mean in that artsy fartsy “Nine” sort of way). That is never a good marker for awards.

GROUNDHOG DAY is terrific. Another show that I simply loved. Andy Karl will give Ben Platt a run for his money for Best Actor, but ultimately Platt will win the day. It has a fun score, though nothing here is as singable as DEH’s terrific score. It has fun scenic design and illusions. But ultimately, it is what it is — a stage version of the movie — albeit it BETTER than the movie. Still, Groundhog Day is slight at best, carries a message of tolerance, but just barely, and while it won the Olivier award last month for Best Musical, that isn’t going to happen here in NYC.

That brings me back to COME FROM AWAY. This is the little musical that thought it could, and it did, and it should win. There isn’t a better feel-good musical to be found in NYC right now, and that we share this with a vision created by our Canadian neighbors will go a long way to awards-land next month.

You can’t go wrong seeing any of these shows this season. But you will thank yourself for seeing Come From Away because you will feel something you haven’t at a musical in a long time — hope.

 

 

Charming “Morning’s at Seven” – AACT (review) April 20, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Community Theater, Theatre.
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There is a lovely production of Paul Osborn’s “Morning’s at Seven” (yes, that apostrophe is correct, the title comes from a Browning poem) at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre at the Arthur Miller Theatre on UM’s North Campus this weekend. Under the able direction of TJ Johnson, excellent veteran acting of the show’s older characters, gorgeous set design by Chuck Griffin (built by Gregg Blossom and Alen Fyfe with Christine Blossom) and beautiful lighting of Tiff Crutchfield, the comedy is the essence of “charming”.

Set in 1938 (the play was first performed on Broadway in 1939 with several revivals, radio broadcasts, and a television adaptation) the story concerns 4 aging sisters and their families and is set into motion when “change” rears it’s head. There’s a nice subplot about a middle-aged son bringing his fiancé home for the first time in 12 years (you know where that is going) and the men in the family get plenty of their own antics. In short it is an ideal ensemble piece for veteran actors and Civic has them in abundance here.

The sisters are played by Laurie Atwood, Ellen Finch, Barbara Mackey King, and Lenore Ferber. They are each terrific individually and believable as sisters when together. Long suffering fiancé is nicely played by Melissa Stewart and mamma’s-boy is played by Jay Fischer in a stammering, tic-filled performance that is so realistic it made me wince. Charlie Sutherland will forever live in my memory looking for “the fork” and Theo Polley and Larry Rusinsky are equally delightful.

It is not easy growing old. Families today are a bit more splintered than they were during most of the twentieth century when it wasn’t unusual to have your spinster sister live with you and have family homes next door to each other or just a few blocks away. But what if the boundaries break down — and eccentricities start to become, well, annoying. And then there is the show’s ending…there’s a suitcase, there’s tension, and there is that final moment that makes the entire affair charming as heck.

Cassie Mann’s properties are period perfect, and Molly Borneman outfits everyone nicely. In addition to the terrific building design, there’s an awesome green lawn that covers the Arthur Miller stage. It serves to tie together these family connections where boundaries are not only lacking indoors, but also outdoors where yours is mine and mine is yours…until it isn’t.

Highly Recommended.

Morning’s at Seven continues at the Arthur Miller Theater through Sunday April 23rd. Tickets at a2ct.org/tickets, 734-971-2228, or available at the door.

Go, Go, Go see “Into the Wild” at Encore Musical Theatre (Review) April 15, 2017

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Let me preface this by writing that Into the Wild at the Encore Musical Theatre Company is a developmental premier of a new musical with aspirations to get to Broadway. It will get there eventually and you should see it now while you can. And you should not miss the superstar performance of Conor Ryan, but I will get to that later. While it is technically a workshop of the show, it is hard to call it that because everything here is so well polished that it is almost hard to remember that this is a work-in-progress and will still change and grow over time.

Into the Wild is one of those rare experiences that will stay with you long after you’ve seen the show and it is also by far Encore’s most technologically advanced production to date. With music and lyrics by Niko Tsakalakos, Book and Lyrics by Janet Allard, the musical is bound to leave you thinking and talking. It is a matter of opinion as to whether you believe Christopher McCandless was an explorer and risk-taker off to find himself in the Alaskan wilderness — or if he was an idiot egotist with a death wish and possible mental illness out to spite his conservative family. Fact:  25 years ago, McCandless took off after college and bummed around the US and Mexico until making his way to Alaska, eventually starving after eating potato seeds loaded with neurotoxins that can paralyze a person over time. You might have read the wildly popular book by Jon Krakauer, or seen the movie, or read the amazing New Yorker article about his death a few years ago. But there is no denying that what the authors and musicians have done here is to make you feel empathy toward this misguided young man and his family, no matter what your personal opinion in the matter, and that is no mean feat.

Conor Ryan is simply remarkable as Chris. He is the beginning and the end of the show and everything outstanding in between. He’s already a NY theater star, graduating from UM’s musical theater program a few years ago (remember him as Valjean?) and immediately going into Cinderella on Broadway, and then co-starring with Kate Baldwin (as well as recording the new cast album) in John & Jen. Here, his vocals and acting soar – literally at one point – and it was a wise decision to bring this young soon-to-be-superstar to Dexter for this premier. Conor’s vocals are exquisite and his acting is superior all around. You should not miss this performance, because he is the Next Big Thing but also because he IS that talented. Sarah Briggs and Greg Bailey play his parents, and they are spot-on in their roles, and their songs. Young Chris is played by local child wonder Connor Casey, and he eschews cute-as-a-buttonness for a bitterness and edge that can already be seen in the character as a child. Nice work. Other folks that get caught up in the mess that is Chris McCandless include Daniel A Helmer who mixes humor and warmth in his roles, especially that of Wayne;  Gayle E Martin as Jan who brings some powerhouse vocals to her songs, especially “Forgiveness” in the Second Act; Alexandra Reynolds who is sweet and personable as Tracy; the versatile Matthew Pecek in multiple roles; and Mike Szymanski as substitute father-figure Russ.

Tyler Driskill serves as musical director as well as pianist and conductor of the outstanding 6-piece combo band. Vocals throughout are excellent, diction is great, and harmonies soar and land just where you expect. There were tears in audience members eyes, as well as a few of the performers, by the time the show reaches the sad ending and “Live Before you Die”. I particularly liked that the band was visible with the wall removed, instead of tucked away in the back room. Brian Usifer’s arrangements and orchestrations sound great.

This is a good time to mention that score — Oh My God fantastic. This is a show that deserves a studio recording as soon as possible — get it out there, let people listen to it in their cars and on their iPhones, and sing along at top voice — it is that kind of score. Allard and Tsakalakos have created music and lyrics that could easily hold its own against any of the current bumper crop of new musical Broadway scores this season. I fully expect it to be in competition for a Tony sometime very soon. I loved it, and actually found myself humming “Alaska” on my way to the car. Can’t remember the last time I could do THAT after a new show. This is like discovering something very special and precious, and while it will still be developed and is sure to change a bit, the score is utterly fantastic. In the capable hands of the musicians on stage at Encore, it takes flight.

Then there is the artistic and technical end of things. – WOWSA. Director Mia Walker keeps things moving swiftly and makes good use of the multilevel set. The set design/projection design by Stephanie Busing is breathtaking: the projections here are beautifully interwoven with the story and later break your heart as you see “Day 99, Day 100, Day 101” approach. Robert Perry does excellent work lighting it all – things look brighter and more colorful than any show I can remember at Encore. Jenna Brand’s costume design is perfect, and inquiring minds want to know: “how did he change onstage from his shorts to the long pants without anyone noticing”?  Anne Donevan’s properties are outstanding – from boat oars, to hiking equipment, cookouts, bars, books – it is also all cleverly concealed on stage so that it appears as you need it and disappears virtually unnoticeably. Sound design by Chris Goosman and Terry Williams is terrific.  In short, this is the finest and most complicated technical production Encore has endeavored to produce, and it works spectacularly well.

While I almost hate to mention it, the show itself runs a bit too long and could use some tightening and shaping – and (I hate to say it) more musical cuts. Currently clocking in at 2:45 with the intermission, it needs some work which I am sure it will get as things move along in this development production and whatever next step this musical takes.

I have no doubt the final step will be Broadway. It deserves to be there. It will get there. And I’ll be there to review it all over again once it opens in New York. Congratulations to everyone involved with this production, I am going back to see it again before it leaves Dexter en route to points East.

Very Highest Recommendation.

Into the Wild’s developmental  premier continues at Encore Musical Theatre Company through May 7th. 3126 Broad Street, Dexter Michigan. Tickets at http://www.theencoretheatre.org or by calling 734-268-6200.