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Come From Away the musical is the best new show of the season (Review) March 31, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals.
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I saw Come From Away in Toronto pre-Broadway twice, and have already reviewed it, but wanted to add a few words about the Broadway production which has now opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

When I left the theater in Toronto, I posted on Facebook that I had just left the Best Musical of the season feeling like I haven’t felt leaving a theater in, well, ever. 12 actors and an on-stage band play hundreds of different people both in the small Newfoundland town of Gander as well as the “plane people” when the events of 9/11 close down airports and flight for 4 days leaving 7000 people stranded in the small town where there were fewer residents than visitors. The town banded together to gather supplies and extend hospitality to the plane people while everyone watched the events on tv, finding out about what had happened almost two days later than the rest of us.

You would think this would be a heavy drama – but it is not — its a celebration of small town life, supporting your fellow man, and the joy that can come of new relationships and friendships banding together in the face of terror.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s music almost never stops, as the songs play out in pop rock, folksy, almost blue-grassy sequences. The 12-person cast feels like you are watching 40, playing hundreds of parts. And there isn’t a weak performance in the entire group.

This is simply stunning theater work and you should not miss it. The standing ovation even before the final refrain had been sung points to the audience reaction to this intermissionless 110 minute show.

Mark my words, Evan Hansen, a few blocks away, will be waving through his window while Come From Away collects the lion’s share of awards in a few months. Its remarkable theater.

Very Highest Recommendation – Not to be Missed.


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Broadway — Avoid at all costs (Review of preview) March 31, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals.
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It is so rare I need to write something like this, but this is more an expose than it is a review. Seen in a preview this week, the show should just shutter right now and rethink everything before proceeding. As is, this is a show to be avoided at all costs, unless you are interested in a flop of Carrie proportions, in which case use TKTS, TDF, or whatever other cheap method you can come across to grab a ticket and watch this musical self-implode.

While I recognize that this was a preview, there is absolutely nothing they can currently do to save this show short of a complete rethink. In short, what’s wrong?

1)The run time is currently 2:50 – that’s like Les Mis and this is no Les Mis. Both acts are too long, and Act I is almost interminable.

2) I’m not sure who decided it was a good idea to cut the kids in the show and recast them with adult actors. It’s a terrible idea. (Note: This show originated on the West End in London where kids played all the correct parts). Only Charlie (a very solid Ryan Sell at my performance) was the sole exception. He’s one of three alternating Charlie’s. I’m not sure why there are three — it’s not that demanding a part.

3) The set design: Oh My Fucking God. You go into the show expecting some degree of spectacle, otherwise why do this show? So the best thing to do is show you some photos. Since I couldn’t take any in the theater, of course, of the current production, I have drawn some of them and these are completely accurate and not exaggerated. The decision to go with a minimalistic approach is terrible. Every one of the Broadway sets should be scrapped and rethought. Heck, pay any amount you can and bring over the West End tour sets. Anything is better than what you get here for 148.00 a seat.  So lets proceed with two examples:

Here’s the London “Gate” set (note the children in the cast)


Here’s the Broadway “Gate” set (note the, well, nothingness of it all)

And Here’s the “Big Reveal” In Act II

And Here it is on Broadway. I kid you not. Almost the entire second Act, with the exception with small rolling wagons that carry on Oompa Loompas (cute) and some small set pieces, is played in an empty room. Nothing is even projected on the walls other than a few fireworks or lighting designs here and there.

Yeah — that pretty much tells you all you need to know right there. The Glass Elevator sequence is pretty. For three minutes.

4) Apparently audiences in London complained that they had cut all of the songs from the original movie and left only the (not all that good) Marc Shaiman tunes with the exception of  Pure Imagination sung in the glass elevator. Here They are ALL BACK and all they do is add 20 minutes to the already too-long show. Oh the audience clapped and some sang along to “Candy Man”; “Ive got a Golden Ticket”; “Pure Imagination”; “The Oompa Loompa song”.  Either you trust your material, or you do not, and here, they clearly do not.

5) For a show designed for children, the children’s sequences are far too violent. Veruca gets quartered by ballet-dancing Squirrels (yeah, I’m not even going to go there except to say the performers are really good). Violet almost rolled off the edge of the stage at my performance, were it not for her very alert father. Mike TV is portrayed as an obnoxious millennial teenager with an iPhone. Well, at least they got that character right.

6) Which kind of brings up the question of time and location. WHERE is this taking place? There are no British accents being used, so where are they? Pennsylvania? And WHEN is it? Is it the 50’s? The 70’s? Modern Day? I guess it doesn’t matter since you don’t know where you are anyway.

Ive never heard louder banging and clanging from backstage than during my performance. Sure its a preview and the intermission was 25 minutes long. But you kind of expect that — but not the banging and clanging going on backstage installing those ridiculous walls and the ceiling unit.

Joshua Bergasse has designed great choreography, so that’s a plus. Jack O’Brien has done what he can as director. I would have walked away. Sound is generally good and the orchestra sounds great. Japhy Weideman’s lighting design is as sparse as Mark Thompson’s horrendous set design, although his costume design is quite good.

I’m just going to say that I don’t think there is anything that can derail and fix this train barreling along to a deadly opening night. Get ready for the critic reviews for this one. The press is going to kill this show.  I would shut this down for four weeks and do anything possible to bring in the West End sets, recast the adults with kids, and fix what is already a pretty weak show even with these additional flaws.

Not at all recommended, in fact its my first review in 7 years to include the phrase AVOID.

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

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

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

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

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

Highly Recommended.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very Highest Recommendation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before adding lights, everything had taken shape:

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

Experience the show yourself for the next two weeks:

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