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Broadway reviews: Electrifying HADESTOWN, Fun BE MORE CHILL, Divisive OKLAHOMA! March 24, 2019

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Note that Be More Chill has opened, Hadestown and Oklahoma! are still in previews, though both are transfers to Broadway, the former from the West End, the latter from an Off-Broadway run at St Ann’s Warehouse last year.

HADESTOWN, at the Walter Kerr Theatre, is quite simply the most electrifying musical I have seen since the original Spring Awakening in 2006. It’s exactly what you would expect from the creators of Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 but it actually has more in common with Spring Awakening, A group of denizens of a New Orleans jazz club tell the interwoven stories of Greek mythology’s Orpheus and Eurydice, and Hades and Persephone. If you know your mythology, you know how it plays out (kind of). If you don’t you probably should NOT go read up on them, because part of the journey is learning the story as you go. The remarkable cast plays out the story on a gorgeous multi-turntable-elevator set (at one point entirely disassembling) and it contains one memorable stage picture after another. The score blends pop, jazz, rock, Broadway, alt-rock, and blues. 

But it is about much more than that — it’s about finding your artistic identity; taking chances despite the risks; trusting others while believing in yourself, and most of all, it is about how the history of story telling can convey real human emotion whether that is in ancient times, or the very real present. It’s about why we have told those stories for thousands of years, and how they still resonate today. 

Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada play the younger lovers, and Patrick Page and Amber Gray (amazing) the elder part-time pair. André de Shields narrates and takes the part of Hermes. There are three Fates, a kind of Pointer Sisters trio of singers/guides, and a five member Greek Chorus (though the orchestra also joins in from time to time.)

By the time Orpheus descends into the underground to rescue his beloved Eurydice, the show increasingly integrates lighting design and set design with story and music to create a fully immersive musical that is visceral. You feel the energy pulsate to the music as it builds, and there were stunned gasps at several critical moments – because the audience is fully along for this journey and so in-tune with the feelings that you can’t help but recognize yourself in these 2600 year old Greek gods. And that’s a miracle in itself.

I can’t see anything else opening this season that will beat Hadestown in almost any category at awards time. Music, Lyrics and Book by Anaïs Mitchell, Developed and Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Very Highest Recommendation.

BE MORE CHILL opened at the Lyceum Theatre after a successful off-Broadway run. This is the show that went viral among high school and college theater kids from the original album and YouTube videos. “Michael in the Bathroom” has become a standard audition song for boys character parts. Don’t know the story? What if thre was a pill you could take that made you instantly “cool”. Yeah, that’s basically it. And there is very little “chill” here – it’s a frenetic, fast-paced, sometimes slapped-together-feeling musical about high school’s travails, horrors, and triumphs. It is also a lot of fun, and the older audience members around me enjoyed it as much as their teenagers who they were stuck paying 149.00 a ticket for. 

Seriously, I don’t know if there is much more that I can say about it. The show is funny, cleverly staged in primary colors, and Joe Iconis’s tuneful but unremarkable songs are sold by a terrific but interchangeable cast. I’m not sure how long it’s primarily high-school age target-market will keep this show running, so see it now if you want to. You will have fun. I liked it and thought it was better than I had expected.

High Schools are already permitted to perform the show (and have been for two years) and as these things go, it’s not the strongest high school show either. But it’s a cleaner alternative to Heathers and Grease, so I suppose it wll run its course, probably sooner rather than later. In short, this is a off-Broadway musical that has somehow made it to Broadway, but probably would do better in the long-run back off-Broadway.

Finally on this trip, there was Daniel Fish’s brilliant but divisive OKLAHOMA! at Circle in the Square. There is no way to soft-soap this one: audiences will either love or hate this experimental street-theater take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical. Fish has said he wants modern audiences to “hear” the dialogue, and the lyrics, and to interpret it in a new way.

The idea here is that the audience members are guests at a box social, where the story plays out on a stage filled with tables with picnic fixins on them. At times they are incorporated into the blocking (Will Parker lies on a table at one point, fanning the lid of a chili pot at Ado Annie). At another, the female cast shuck corn in a hilarious sequence.  There are long portions where lights do not go down at all in the thrust theater; and others where dialogue is delivered in blackout for minutes at a time. There is video woven in, mostly facial close-ups. And Dream Laurie is danced by a young black woman in a silver oversized t-shirt that reads Baby Dream Baby. The entire ballet “story” is lost in the modern dance and really, except for a lot of prancing and preening, and some terrific athleticism, there is zero correlation to the story and it is also the only place in the show where the music dissolves into screeches of electric guitar that obscure the melody line. This sequence is by far the most controversial of the reinterpretations made by Fish. 

This is not Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. This is Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma, and it is dark, brooding, ominous, and ultimately very bloody. (Gone are the subtler knives used in the original, replaced by guns throughout).  This hyper-realism will either rock your boat, or you will leave at intermission. (My performance had numerous walk-outs during the break – while the rest of us ate vegan chili and cornbread on stage). 

The cast is stripped down to 12. The orchestra is reduced to 7 pieces and while it has a “country bluegrass” sort of sound to it, it does not change any of the actual songs, lyrics, dialogue, or underscores. The tonal change makes it feel more natural, and strangely, just as lush. The cast is diverse racially and Ado Annie is played by an actress in a wheel chair.

Performances range from exceptional to wooden, although that is not the fault of the remarkable cast, but rather their staging. This is a production that feels very much “directed” but the cast are game and play their parts with skill and talent. Even when they sometimes sit around in chairs, not interacting with each other. Or play guitar while they sing. Or do a big upbeat finale while dressed in blood-splattered wedding clothes. 

Never dull, I sat riveted, completely appreciating what Fish is doing with the piece. At the same time, I wished I was seeing a standard version of the show. Though to be fair, I probably wouldn’t have bought tickets to a standard revival of the musical – and I think that proves Fish’s point right there. Theater educators and those who enjoy fresh takes on shows should make it a point to see the show You will either love it or hate it, but you will never be bored at this production. Daniel Fish is brilliant – though his work isn’t for everyone.

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The Polar Express is the worst Christmas movie ever. December 22, 2018

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“I may be just an old railroader but”…The Polar Express movie (2004) is one of the worst Christmas movies ever.

1. The CGI, while relatively good for the train and the scenery, is horrible with faces. As a result, the people all look, well, creepy. Tom Hanks and Josh Hutcherson notwithstanding, its frigging terrible.

2. Those elves! OMG! Talk about creepy. “I’ll take care of this…truuuust me”. Gives me shivvers every time I hear that creature-elf say that to Billy then he rips the box out of his hands.

3. The songs. Believe is a lovely Christmas song. It put Josh Groban on the map nationally. But the soaring and repetitive score doesn’t match the action at all.

4. Santa! What the heck is wrong with Santa! He looks like he melted somewhere along the way.

6. That strange “Santa Claus is coming to Town” sung by the elves. No, really, it’s the strangest thing ever. 

7. Billy’s animation. He’s always in the background moving his head around like he doesn’t have a good view. 

8. Obnoxious Good Girl. Enough said. Talk about “know it alls”. 

9. Know-It-All-Kid is the only one that really gets what’s going on – and they treat him like the antagonist??

10. “The FIrst GIft of Christmas” — a bell. Really? Rich self-entitled kid from Grand Rapids only wants a bell? What the hell?

11. The whole story. Train conductor lures children onto a train in the middle of the night to go to the North Pole? Want some hot chocolate little boy?

12. Hot hot hot chocolate. Where the heck did these waiters all come from? Never seen again and clearly not onboard the train when they are walking end to end. Um, did they just jump off the train? Did the conductor push them off?

13. I believe the girl saying “I didn’t do it” before I believe those creepy elves sitting in judgement. Everyone is the worst. Never trust an elf.

14. A train would never glide on ice like that – it would just tip over and kill everyone on board.

15. That train keeps changing sizes. Sometimes it has 10 cars. Sometimes, 6. Sometimes 3. Whatever.

16. Learn, Count on, Lead, Believe. Ha! Hahahahahaha. What are they teaching these kids? It’s nothing I need know. 

17. Don’t eat blue snow.

Practically Perfect “Mary Poppins Returns” (review) December 20, 2018

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The greatly awaited Mary Poppins Returns has opened – and despite a few mis-steps, it is another instant Disney classic and one of the best pictures of the year.

Picking up a few decades after the original, Michael and Jane Banks are all grown up – he’s a bank teller but wannabe artist, and she’s a social reformer (its mentioned once and never referred to again). Michael’s wife has recently died, he’s finding it difficult to manage the house, the children, and the mortgage (gasp), and it’s high time Mary returns to help. Just like the original, Mary returns more to help the adults than the kids. But the kids are the ones that get to have a great time.

In a uniformly excellent cast, Emily Blunt is practically perfect as Mary, which should come as no surprise at all to those who have followed her career, including musicals. Lin-Manuel Miranda is terrific as lamplighter Jack (and emotion-lighter for Jane, who otherwise kinda has little do to in this movie) and his musical theater roots are on full display in both his lovely mellow singing voice (yes, singing, not hip-hop rapping – well, almost not rapping but I’ll get to that) and his hoofing! Tap, modern, jazz, Broadway, he gets to do it all here and he’s terrific. 

Ben Whishaw is outstanding as Michael. His sad eyes occasionally twinkle in recognition of his childhood adventures with Mary, and he has a lovely understated singing voice. When things take flight in the penultimate scene, he literally makes you believe his anxiety has been left earthbound while he soars skyward. Emily Mortimer is a solid and spunky Jane. 

There are several great cameo appearances, and while some have been publicized (Meryl Streep) others are a terrific surprise so I won’t spoil that here. Streep, for the record, gets to play a fun and zany character that is saddled with the absolutely worst song in the movie (oh, I’ll get to THAT as well). Colin Firth plays a dynamite bad guy. Julie Walters is fun as the maid.

Disney pulls out all the stops in Broadway director/choreographer Rob Marshall’s production. The sets and costumes look great, and there is nostalgic fun in mixing live-action with animation (and wow, has it come a long way since 1964) but also some true  movie magic once they start mixing live action, animation, AND CGI at the same time. It’s great work.

It makes you almost (almost) forget the dreadful hip hop segment that Miranda performs while books become magical stairsteps. I think people know my thoughts on hip hop, and it’s no different here. On the other hand, his show-stopping “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” gets it just right.

That brings me to the one downside of the affair – Marc Shaiman’s lackluster forgettable score. Shaiman is an expert at making things “sound” like the 60’s which fits the style of the movie completely – just like he did with Hairspray and Catch me If You Can. What he can’t do here is create a single hummable tune. So while the score “sounds” a bit like the original, it comes nowhere near to the powerhouse score that lifted Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke into musical heaven. In fact, I found myself humming Step in Time as I left the theater, not anything from this movie. And there are two horrendous mis-steps…the first, the aforementioned hip hop sequence in “A Cover is not the Book”, an otherwise perfectly serviceable, if forgetable, montage of music-hall songs. But that is nothing compared to the dreadful “Turning Turtle” that Streep is saddled with. I’m not even going to bore you with the details there – you’ll see for yourself and shake your head.

It’s not often that you get an audience of movie reviewers clapping midstream, and cheering along with the action, so on the general movie front, Mary Poppins Returns succeeds grandly.

I just wish it had a score that made it Best Picture worthy. As it is, it’s just Best Picture Nominee worthy. 

Very Highly Recommended.

Incredible vocals send “next to normal” soaring (Review, Croswell Opera House) October 20, 2018

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Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s award-winning musical next to normal is on soaring vocal display at Croswell Opera House where it opened last night and runs through October 28th.

The outstanding cast is comprised of Natalie Kissinger as Diana, Joe Nolan as her husband Dan, Dominic Seipenko as son Gabe, Emily Courcy as daughter Natalie, Andrew Buckshaw as the doctors Madden and Fine, and Jonathan Stelzer as Natalie’s boyfriend Henry. Each is strong individually, but also help create powerhouse vocals when they appear together.

Without giving away too much (although I suppose most theater goer’s know the storyline by now) it concerns a suburban family dealing with mom’s mental illness and the ways different people cope with grief. It’s probably also not giving away too much to mention that the show was originally called “Feeling Electric” during its pre-Broadway workshops before being renamed next to normal. 

It all plays out on Director Doug Miller’s excellent set, with Tiff Crutchfield’s lighting design. The orchestra sounds superb and is under the direction of outstanding musical director Dave Rains. 

I directed a production of n2n for Ann Arbor Civic Theatre some years ago and know every word and phrase of this show along with their subtext, so I will refrain from mentioning some minor quibbles about some of the staging. I will however mention that in some places actors are in partial (or in a few instances entirely) in shadow near and around the upper level handrail.

In its New York Times review, they referred to the show as a “feel everything musical”, a phrase that was quickly used synonymously with its other advertising blips. And so it is. The show is engaging, intense, at times very funny. It captures a slice of life that many in the audience have coped with related to their own family members or friends, and the ending is not tied neatly into a bow for the audience.

Highly Recommended. Bring tissues.

next ot normal, Croswell Opera House, 129 E Maumee, Adrian, MI – croswell.org for tickets, or 517-264-show, or at the door. 

Spectacular performances in this Gypsy (Review, Garden Theatre, Winter Garden, FL) August 26, 2018

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Gypsy opened a strong run at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden on Friday night, and it proves that even when a good production of the show might be a bit rough around the edges, the show itself gleams and provides a stunner of a showcase for talented performers. There’s a reason this 1959 musical is one of the best musical theater pieces ever written. (I personally consider Gypsy, 4nd Street, and A Chorus Line the all-time three best musicals). 

Based very loosly on stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs, the show is about making it in show business no matter what the personal cost. In this case, it’s Mama Rose who loses her daughters, potential fourth husband, and a score of child actors who eventually leave as their traveling vaudeville act grows stale, vaudeville itself is dying, and the ragtag remainder find themselves in a house of burlesque where second-banana daughter Louise reads lines and eventually steps in to strip becoming an overnight sensation and superstar. Louise later went on to star in several movies (none of them successful) and appear in plays, musicals, and television. That part of the story is entirely omitted here, because this is mostly Mama’s story – Rose is the stage mother of all stage mothers. Gypsy was written by Arthur Laurents (who also did the original direction and choreography), Music was written by Jule Styne, and Lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim. 

There is no doubt what you are getting into from the opening 4 notes of the overture. Therein lies my first concern – but I will get back to that.

Directed and choreographed by Tom Vazzana, the performances here are superb — AEA actors Andrea Canny as Rose (magnificent) and Andrea Stack as Louise (stunning) lead a very strong ensemble cast, although this is probably one of the smallest casts of this production I have seen (and I’ve seen all of the Broadway productions since 1974 and scores of regional productions and the recent West End production). That leaves the Garden Theatre with a dilemma — doubling actors and actresses as teenage kids is tricky when your adult actors are pushing 30 or older. Neither the teen male cast newsboys nor the teen girls cast toreadorables are young enough. I get it, I know. But it doesn’t work. Still, there is talent to spare. Dancer Arcadian Broad turns in a spectacular performance as Tulsa and “All I Need is the Girl” sparkles in a way other numbers don’t.

I wanted to love this production, Instead, I liked it enough, but I wasn’t wowed. 

That orchestra — well, Garden Theatre uses tracked music so nothing here feels authentic. If ever a show calls out for a live orchestra, it’s Gypsy. In fact, traditionally, the orchestra interacts with the performers in the second act. There are also cuts made to the score and to the show itself. Rose doesn’t gather the boys in the first act, they just appear at their first gig — that loses the entire running gag of where they have been assembled from (Tulsa, Yonkers, LA)…and there are cuts in some songs. I mean, I know, the show is long – but cutting ten minutes of it doesn’t make any difference, especially when these songs are so well known.

In particular dance sequences are cut – the newboys tap number never takes place, and other dance numbers are shortened and simplified. That’s great when you don’t have good dancers — but this cast has very good dancers. The very standard strobe-light kids turning into teens dance section is also cut. 

For a musical that takes on a decidedly adult edge in the second act (there is a reason the kids onstage disappear after the first act) this is a very family friendly production, Hilarious strippers Tessie Tura (Cathy Merkel-Roddy), Mazeppa (Wendy Starkand), and Electra (Nathalia Duque) show very little skin, and later the ensemble strippers are entirely cut. The Strip sequence itself is very toned down. Yeah, sure, it conveys the feeling of the action, but it isn’t what’s written. You never get the sense that Gypsy has actually become a stripper instead of just a good actress. The sequence has no seediness. And that is an audience loss. 

During Stack’s lovely “Little Lamb” the actors on stage left move so much that it pulls focus through the entire sequence.  Set changes at times take too long, especially when not much is happening but a group of actors going off and another group already sitting behind the curtain waiting for it to open. Its little things like that that add up to a less than perfect Gypsy.

The set itself is lovely, designed by Joe Klug (who does wonders on this show without a fly system) as is the lighting by Alyx Jacobs. Sound designer Jack Audet does a remarkbale job – you can hear and understand every single word. That actually IS the benefit of using an orchestra track – you can turn it up and down as necessary. 

That seems like a lot of criticism, and to a degree it is — Gypsy is a show that I know so intimately that I am well aware of the cuts and changes made here, Most audience members will not be aware of this. I actually had a very good time at this production, and you will too. It’s a solid professional production, but be aware – it is shortened and toned down. And you might be able to overlook the 30 year old teenagers, but I had a hard time doing so.

Recommended.

Gypsy continues at the Garden Theatre through September 16th. 160 West Plant Street, Winter Garden. Tickets: 407-877-4736 or gardentheatre.org

Xanadu the Musical is Strange Magic in All The Best Ways (Review – Garden Theatre) July 21, 2018

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There is a remarkable new production of Xanadu the Musical at the Garden Theatre, and it is every bit as funny as the Broadway production, while additing its own clever spin to the production numbers.

Douglas Carter Beane’s terrific script throws out almost every line of dialogue from the original movie, and cleverly both pays homage to (while tearing apart) the screenplay – making sure to pay particular attention to Olivia Newton John’s affectations (sighs, accent, breathing). The platinum-selling musical score by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar is basically intact, while adding several extra songs in order to flll out the 90-minute intermissionless show. 

Rob Winn Anderson doesn’t miss a thing in directing this satire/homage/eulogy to Xanadu. Jason Whitehead’s musical direction delivers some great sound from the entire cast. Choreography by Denise Ahlert and Anderson is particulary strong here – and the comic timing of the cast is to die for as they add their individual personality to the numbers. Ahlert also provides the skating direction (um, I’m not giving anything away but you know there is roller skating in this show, right?)

It is 1980 Los Angeles and street artist Sonny has lost his insipiration and will to live (a great Brett McMahon). Enter muse (no really, like the Mount Olympus type of muse) Kira (Clio in disguise) to save the day, fall in love, create art (forbidden) and sing her way into Sonny’s heart (fantastic work by Brittney Santoro). Complications arise when they set off to create a roller disco (you know there is roller skating in this show, right?) and they run into a previous project of Clio’s, Danny Maguire, a smooth-talking and singing real estate tycoon (coolly played by Ron Miles). Throw in two jealous muse-sisters (hilarious Amy Sue Hardy as Melpomone and steal-every-scene-in-a-fantastic-way Hannah McGinley Lemasters as Calliope). Lemasters will make you laugh out loud numerous times in what is far and away one of the funniest performances you are likely to see this summer. She out-Jackie Hoffmans Jackie Hoffman, and that’s quite an accomplishment. The rest of the cast is great as they play everything from other muses to mythical creatures on Mount Olympus to roller disco skaters. They are so intricately woven into the evenings production numbers that they are indistinquishable from the leads. Bravo to Michael Angelini, Amanda Decker, David Kotary, and Ellie Roddy. 

The musical numbers are the stars of the movie – I bet you don’t remember a single line of dialogue from the movie, but you remember Gene Kelly tapping his way through a number, and the great Big Band/ELO mashup where the two groups slide together MGM-movie style. The same is true here, but you’ll definitely go home with a few favorite new lines of dialogue as well.

Budgetary considerations and lack of a fly loft eliminate Broadway’s fabulous flying Pegasus, but the solution here is just as clever, and really, far funnier. I also missed the audience on stage like in the NY production, which adds an entirely different level of awkwardness and bewilderment to the procedings. But those are minor quibbles when you have something as remarkable as this production. Whether you find yourself tapping your toes to “Whenever you’re away from me”; catching to stop yourself from singing along to “Have You Never Been Mellow?”; or wanting to get up out of your seat and dance to “Xanadu” or “All Over the World” this is a great show. It is family friendly although the kids will miss the cultural 80’s references — but then again, I am going to venture to say some of the millenials in the audience will too. 

There’s a reason this little show ran more than 500 performances on Broadway – and the reasons for it’s success are on great display at the Garden Theatre. Sadly, the party has to end on July 29th, so get out to downtown Winter Garden and laugh your evening away. You will love Xanadu. If you’ve seen it before, you will love the spin on the show. If you’ve never seen it, well, you are in for a real treat. 

Very Highest Recommendation. 

Xanadu continues at the Garden Theatre through July 29. Tickets at GardenTheatre,org or 407-877-4736. 160 West Plant Street, Winter Garden, FL  34787.

Remarkable West Side Story at Encore (Review) June 22, 2018

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Photo by Michele Anliker, courtesy Encore Musical Theatre Company.

Encore Musical Theatre Company has a beautiful production of West Side Story that opened tonight and you should order your tickets now. It is unlike anything you have seen in their space before and it’s a summer must-see.

For the first time, that elevated crosswalk in back is gone and the stage has been extended, affording more room for this monster of a musical that looks wonderful on Sarah Tanner’s set. It is also the first time I have seen light and colors used like this in an Encore show. Beautiful work by Dustin D Miller. The usual great costume work of Sharon Larkey Urick and wonderful propwork by Anne Donevan are also on display.

It’s hard to pull out specific performances when you have such an outstanding ensemble cast, correctly age-cast and diverse in nature. However, you will most likely never forget Conor Jordan as Tony and Aurora Penepacker as Maria. Individually they are remarkable, together they raise the production into the world of theater magic.

Also noteworthy is Matthew Brennan’s excellent choreography and Dan Cooney’s intimate direction. Scenes you’ve seen dozens of times resonate differently here. The choreography is firmly based in the world of classic musical theater dance and it looks fantastic.

Tyler Driskill’s musical direction and orchestra are tight and sound fantastic. The penultimate Act 1 number Tonight reprise is glorious choral work.

I have to say I approached WSS with some trepidation because it’s a musical I love and I’ve seen it so many times on large proscenium stages with its original choreography and comfortable predictable scene blocking. I shouldn’t have worried because the production on display at Encore is one of the all-around finest you are likely to see.

Very Highest Recommendation.

West Side Story continues through August 12th at Encore Musical Theatre Company, 3126 Broad Street, Dexter MI — tickets online at theencoretheatre.org or 734-268-6200

Funny Savannah Sipping Society at The Dio (Review) June 15, 2018

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The Dio presents its third Jones Hope Wooten comedy The Savannah Sipping Society and it is a funny, well-acted summer treat. Jesse Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten come from the world of tv sitcoms (The Golden Girls being their most notable) and it is no surprise that their lightweight stage comedies feel a bit like binge-watching a bunch of episodes of a new one that all have the same characters…the snooty one, the carefree one, the funny one, and the one with a dilemma.

Brenda Lane (dilemma), Alisa Mutchler Bauer (snooty), Kez Settle (funny) and Amy Morrisey (carefree) are all talented actors who find just the right level of comedy and humanity in their roles (left to right in photo). Most of the action plays out on the verandah of the snooty one’s Savannah home, and yes, most of the evening they are sipping beverages of the (mostly) alcoholic type.

Norma Polk’s lovely costumes often take a central role here (deliberately). Susan Craves directs with a steady pace that keeps the audience involved. Eileen Obradovich creates excellent props and has the unenviable task of washing all those glasses. Set, Lighting, and Sound Design are excellent by Matt Tomich.

There’s a bit less glue to hold this piece together than the previous outings at The Dio (The Dixie Swim Club and Always a Bridesmaid) but it’s a pleasant and fun show for a summer outing, with a yummy dinner to boot.

Recommended.

The Savannah Sipping Society continues through July 22nd at The Dio, 177 E Main Street, Pinckney, MI 48169. Reservations required: Diotheatre.com or 517-672-6009.

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

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.