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

Posted by ronannarbor in Theatre.
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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.

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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

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals.
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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.

Great Balls of Fire! “Million Dollar Quartet” rocks the Encore (Review) February 4, 2018

Posted by ronannarbor in Million Dollar Quartet, musical theater, Musicals, The Encore Musical Theatre Company.
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Million Dollar Quartet – Photo credit: Michele Anliker

Based on an actual jam session at Sun Records in December of 1956 (the real recording is currently called The Complete Million Dollar Quartet, though it has had other names), this musical chronicles the impromptu session where Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley all wind up in Sam Phillips studio at the same time. Along for the ride is Presley’s singer-girlfriend Dyanne (in real life Marilyn Evans, who was not a singer, so Dyanne is made up here). In the actual jam session they sang Christmas carols and popular songs at the time. Here, they are replaced by some of their most famous songs. It all works well, though the book spends more time explaining the story than telling it.

What follows at the Encore Musical Theatre Company is a whiz-bang evening of 50’s Rock and Roll with the performers playing their own instruments. In this intimate venue, you feel like you are in the studio itself, and it is exciting musical theater. There isn’t much of a story. Phillips tries to re-sign Cash not knowing he’s already signed with Columbia, youthful Presley has already left Sun and signed with RCA Victor, Carl Perkins can’t find that second hit (though we all know he eventually does) and Jerry Lee Lewis’s career is about to take off. This show is about the music, and that arrives in spades. From “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” its all here.

Encore has assembled a remarkable cast. Alex Canty is great as Carl Perkins, as is Stephen Shore as Johnny Cash. Josh White is terrific as Elvis, and Marek Sapieyevski simply brings down the house as Jerry Lee Lewis. Kaitlyn Weickel gets her own moments to shine, and Jim Walke plays a genuine and natural Sam Phillips. Orchestra members R MacKenize Lewis (who also did the fine musical direction) on bass, and Billy Harrington on drums fill out the remainder of the ensemble.  I’ll go out on a limb to say that this is far and away the most professional production that Encore has presented to date and I loved it.

The beautiful recording studio set is designed by Thalia Schramm and Greg Brand — oh my gosh that recording booth! There is excellent and colorful Lighting by Dustin Miller. Properties by Anne Donevan are exceptional. Excellent costumes are designed by Sharon Larkey Urick. Sound design is good, if a bit subdued, by Dustin Miller, Tera Woolley and Chris Goosman. (If you are worried that the band is going to be too loud, it’s not — in fact, it needs cranking up — and at my performance, Sapieyevski’s body mic was not turned up enough). It’s all nicely directed by Tobin Hissong who keeps the action moving at a steady pace and comfortable tone. Overall great work here by all.

It should be noted that the four leads are an assembled cast of professionals who have all played these parts in Million Dollar Quartet before at other theaters nationwide. That’s a real boon for The Encore — these are fine performers that local audiences would otherwise not see. It is also a remarkably difficult musical to present, since the four not only need to (somewhat) resemble their characters, they also need to be able to play their own instruments, and they are all outstanding at doing both.

The reaction to the show was ecstatic – and it hits the target market well. These are songs that we’ve grown up with, that we sing at karaoke bars, that we turn up when they come on the radio, and some of which we haven’t heard in decades. It is a nostalgic and rock and roll filled trip down memory lane when lyrics had meaning and songs had tunes and catchy riffs…and this show catches them in their younger years: before Elvis sold out completely, Lewis built up his stardom, Perkins became the king of rockabilly, and Cash became an international superstar.

Very Highest Recommendation.

Million Dollar Quartet runs through February 25th at The Encore Musical Theatre Company, tickets at theencoretheatre.org, 734-268-6200, and at the Box Office, 3126 Broad Street, Dexter, MI