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Quirky “Amelie the musical” is entertaining but lightweight (Review) April 1, 2017

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The movie of Amelie is held by many of us near and dear to our hearts — at it’s heart it is a romantic comedy but it also has something to say about being alone, or not, or being different, or not. Movie fans, rest assured, the musical version maintains the spirit of the film and it doesn’t detract from what is already there. You won’t be disillusioned. But you might be a bit disappointed. You just can’t do on stage what can be done with film, and that applies to this new musical at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

Amelie is a well-done 100-minute intermissionless evening of quirkiness and romantic comedy – populated with a Paris made up of the most charming characters you could ever meet, and none of the drug addicts, pickpockets, prostitutes, and downright rude denizens you actually meet on some of the sidestreets of Montmartre.

Phillipa Soo (Hamilton) is lovely as Amelie. She is charming and, well, quirky. Adam Chandler-Berat is very good as romantic foil Nino, although it feels like he just isn’t given enough to do (and for much of the show he is a member of the ensemble). The small ensemble cast is up to the task of playing quirky, and they do so with energy and talent.

Oh, did I mention the show is quirky? If you are not a fan of quirkiness, probably best to stay away from this one. The audience responded admirably throughout the show, hooting and hollering at requisite times as we are want to do now at musicals geared toward younger audiences and gave the show a standing ovation, just proving that every show now gets a standing ovation, even those that don’t quite deserve it.

The music by Daniel Messe and Lyrics by Nathan Tyson and Daniel Messe are serviceable and melodic, although instantly forgettable. I can’t remember a single tune forty minutes after the performance has ended. The Book by Craig Lucas has been adapted well from the screenplay. The colorful and “quirky” set by David Zinn is lovely. Pam MacKinnon has done a fine job directing the production and insuring that everything is cute and quirky.

Hey don’t get me wrong, this is a good show. And its going to run for awhile. Which lets you wait to see it after you’ve seen the bigger and better shows first and not worry that it is going to disappear. I’m not a personal fan of quirkiness. A little of it goes a long way – and I lump it into that group of musicals (including the similar though more melodic Amour) that are, well, too quirky for me. I was not the target audience for sure, but even I found things I liked and laughed consistently during the production. Having never been a Hamilton fan, nor a fan of Phillipa Soo or anyone else from that cast, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about — but apparently she has a “following”.

Kind of recommended – but see Come From Away, Dear Evan Hansen, Groundhog Day, or Anastasia first. Unless of course you want half a musical, and then you are good to go.

 

 

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War Paint goes nowhere (review) April 1, 2017

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There are two remarkable diva-proportion performances in the new musical War Paint, and it goes without saying that Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole turn in stunning performances playing Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden and their lifelong feud.

But that’s where the interest stopped for me. In fact, its one of the very few musicals I have every started to feel drowsy at. There’s very little to this story except two headstrong independent women rising to acclaim creating cosmetic lines in the 30’s and 40’s and watching that crumble in the 50’s and 60’s along with marriages and friendships. And really, that’s it. Nothing seems to go anywhere in this musical. Even the ending doesn’t go anywhere.

There’s a great score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (Grey Gardens), and a wonderful set by David Korins. The standout here is the gorgeous costume design by Catherine Zuber. Wow.

Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is serviceable but really there’s very little of it; and Michael Greif has directed everything with a sure hand and a professional touch.

But to be honest, two hours of this 2:30 show (including intermission) is Patti and Christine standing in spotlights, or sitting in spotlights, singing straight out to the audience. Sometimes alone. Sometimes in duets. There isn’t much there there.

The audience was comprised of almost entirely 60-and-over women, their haggard looking husbands, and gay men. Seriously, I think that was the entire demographic at my performance. It has never taken me longer to get out of a theater given the clientele’s age than it did at this theater, and never have I wanted to get out more quickly.

Recommended only for fans of Patti Lupone, Christine Ebersole, or the few people who are really interested in this cosmetics tale.

Not recommended.

Fantastic “Groundhog Day the Musical” (Review) April 1, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals.
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Seen at a preview, Groundhog Day is off and running and it is fantastic. It has already been honed in its rave-worthy West End run, so this is a pretty simple transfer from London – though there is nothing simple about this show.

A big kudos goes to star Andy Karl, who is going to give Ben Platt a run for his money at Tony time. The non-stop energy of this remarkable actor (Rocky, Drood, Legally Blonde) is on full display for the show’s 2:40 run time – and it is nowhere on display better than the frenetic Act two number “Hope” which combines remarkable staging, stagecraft, and illusions as he appears in bed over and over seemingly having disappeared at other places on the stage — a superstar turn and it is not to be missed for this role in which weatherman Phil Connors is forced to live and relive the same day continuously.

But then there is the excellent ensemble cast, led by (potential) love interest Rita (Barrett Doss) and an entire city populated with perky, peppy Punxsutawney residents that hit their marks time and again and again and again in an ever-swirling design of rubiks-cube like set pieces that assemble over and over and over in different configurations in different places.

The remarkable stagecraft is created by set designer Rob Howell and it can’t be separated from Matthew Warchus’s controlled and finely honed direction, and Peter Darling’s great choreography. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone is exceptional. Your eye goes exactly where director Warchus wants it to go – and that is no understatement nor an easy job when at times the characters find themselves on tilt-a-whirls and parties, and parades, and celebrations. BRAVO.

Tim Minchin’s music is far better here than it was in Matilda. He has created a score that is at once repetitive and rift-filled as required by the show’s repeating motif, but also melodic and soaring when need be. Andy Karl gets a lot of rock tunes that lift his voice out and up and into the Pennsylvania snowscape. Barrett Doss gets the ballads. And the ensemble gets everything else (including a lovely song about being stuck in routines and expectations even if you are not stuck in time, “Playing Nancy” by the striking Rebecca Faulkenberry.)

In a season of Broadway hits and misses, Groundhog Day the Musical is one of the shining stars. Don’t miss it.

Very Highest Recommendation. Now playing at the August Wilson Theatre, New York.

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

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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

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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)

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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.

Fantastic “Dear Evan Hansen” and Acapella “In Transit” on Broadway (Reviews) December 15, 2016

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There’s a new force of nature in the musical theater world and his name is Ben Platt who has arrived in a mail-the-Tony-to-him-now performance as the title character in “Dear Evan Hansen” at the Music Box Theatre — able to play both a lonely, communication-inept, misfit teenager and alternately explode in self-assured musical numbers with a voice that makes you drop your jaw this is a performance to be treasured…and it will be come award time.
The show itself has been very quiet in advertising what it is about, and for good reason, because like the (very similar) Next to Normal it is better to discover it’s many layers of family drama as the musical slowly explores themes of loneliness, grief, outsiders, outliers, lies, depression, and the pain of teenage angst when you find yourself unable to “fit in” even on social media (constant ticker tapes of which flicker and advance on the stages many screens).

The cast of 8 are remarkable performers, and they have terrific material to work with from writer Steven Levenson and music/lyrics by Benjamin Pasek & Justin Paul — front stacked with the explosive “Waving Through a Window” and “For Forever”. Director Michael Greif lets the show play out primarily downstage center, and the on-stage orchestra adds a feeling of urgency to everything. The very high-tech set and projections by David Korins and Peter Nigrini as well as the outstanding lighting by Japhy Weideman will not be forgotten at award time either.—-I can’t say much more in favor of this excellent new musical except that you should try to get tickets — if you can. It’s sold solid for months.


At the other end of the extreme is the feather-light “In Transit” at Circle in the Square. Billed as Broadway’s first acapella musical this really is a show all about the vocals — documenting the daily travails of a group of New Yorkers on trains, planes, and busses, it is a glorious advertisement for the good, bad, and ugly aspects of the NY MTA and a favorite moment included a radio-controlled rat carrying a slice of pizza along the track.
The eleven member cast is superb, and includes Justin Guarini, Telly Leung, James Snyder, and Margo Seibert. That’s really about it. I enjoyed the show quite a bit as an ex-New Yorker, but I can’t imagine anyone outside of New Yorkers finding much to care about in the paper-thin mini dramas. Instead, go for the acapella singing because it is exquisite (even if the tunes themselves are instantly forgettable).
The very clever set is designed by Donyale Werle and includes a stage length slip stage which allows for some great scene changes and motion. Director/Choreographer Kathleen Marshall has done an expert job keeping things hopping on the thrust stage, and it is all fun and entertaining without ever really drawing you in. Mostly it just made me wonder: “why”?
Look for heavily discounted tickets, and a short run – if you want to see it, see it now.

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 – Holiday Inn – A Bronx Tale – Come From Away December 1, 2016

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I’ve been remiss and have so many shows to review I am just going to lump them all into one post…

Come From Away (seen pre-Broadway in Toronto, arrives in NYC in February). Okay, I’ll say it here (having not yet seen Dear Evan Hanson) I predict that Come From Away is going to be this year’s Tony winner in many categories, including best Musical — featuring a superb 12-member cast that play both airplane passengers and crew, as well as local Canadians, this musical tells the story of the days starting with 9/11 and the week following when air traffic control closed airspace. Passengers diverted to a Canadian town are treated to some Canadian kindness as they feed them, entertain them, and take them into their homes to house them for the days before airspace is reopened. The musical score is superb, and the cast is outstanding — but what really works here is how riveting this is as theatre — as the (mostly American but also some international) passengers and townspeople discover together what a global tragedy has occurred in the United States. Its undeniably powerful, but also highly entertaining, and its going to win the Tony.

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 (seen at the Imperial theatre, NYC). I go on record as stating that I loved this show more than Hamilton, there I said it. Telling the main love story from “War & Peace”, based on only 70 pages or so of that novel, this atmospheric musical absolutely rocks the Imperial Theatre with a superb Josh Groban in the Pierre role (he sings, plays piano, accordion, and other instruments), and he is excellent. The entire ensemble cast is remarkable in this show without a “stage” — rather, the entire theatre has been transformed into a Russian “cabaret” style performance space, and actors (no matter where you sit) perform in front of you, behind you, around you, and everywhere. Its expertly designed and lit, and one of the best directed musicals I have seen in ages. You will either love it (or some hated it) but you will not be able to deny that there is genius theatre stagecraft and performance on display here.

Holiday Inn, the musical (Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54, NYC). Lets call this one what it is, “White Christmas Lite” — there is beautiful scenic work, singing, dancing, and lots of tap in this family-friendly musical adaptation of the classic holiday movie musical. Some of the production numbers are outstanding. There isn’t anything earth shattering in this production, but you can’t go wrong if you are a lover of standard old-fashioned musical comedy — where the primary emphasis is on the song and dance. I loved it. It isn’t as streamlined as White Christmas was, but it is equally well performed, orchestrated, and executed. It was a welcome early holiday treat for me.

A Bronx Tale, the musical (Longacre Theatre, NYC). If there is a single recent musical that has disappointed me, its A Bronx Tale. With its sure-fire cast, score, direction, art-design and ready-made story (based on the movie) you would think that there would be the makings of a better overall musical than the one currently on display at the Longacre. Its all very well done, and the audience loved it – in fact, it had an instant standing ovation, which only Come From Away garnered more enthusiastic audience response) and yet I couldn’t help feeling that the entire show was paint-by-number. Granted I am not Italian, but the ending didn’t draw any type of emotional response from me (although the movie sure did) – but where the movie made getting to know these gangster families intimate and recognizable, everything here is broadly drawn and even sitting near to the stage didn’t feel all that intimate. Of course the (almost entirely NYC-resident) audience at my performance thought otherwise. Your mileage of course may vary.

 

 

Very slick and hilarious “SPAMALOT” at Farmers Alley Theatre, Kalamazoo (review) July 23, 2016

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Farmer’s Alley Theatre is currently presenting their largest show to date. Kalamazoo’s professional theater company has never mounted as large a Broadway musical production as Spamalot, and it is resounding success.

Hilarious from the get-go, it weaves together a fractured tale of King Arthur and his men seeking the Holy Grail. (The musical is primarily based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, although it lifts some sequences from their other movies as well). When it opened in NYC, it brought in a whole new type of audience — one that wasn’t necessarily musical lovers, and it led to a whole new style of musical theater meant for broader audiences (and sometimes putting off seasoned musical theater lovers). Though what’s not to love about Spamalot as it makes its way through 2.5 hours of hilarity at WMU’s Little Theatre.

Director Choreographer Stephen Brotebeck has done an excellent job of keeping everything looking spiffy, moving quickly, and delivering big laughs. Music Director Kellee Love Hazleton’s work is outstanding — in fact, this ensemble cast sounds (and moves) terrifically. W. Douglas Blickle’s set design is outstanding, and it is lit well by Jason Frink. Sarah Mauer’s costumes fill the stage with color and flash.

Dirk Lumbard is an excellent King Arthur — his underplayed facial expressions had me laughing all night. Also outstanding is Zachary Joel Smits in his many roles, but none of them had me laughing harder than his French Taunter (you know, “your mother smells of elderberries….I’m going to fart in your general direction”). Jamila Sabares-Klemm is an exceptional Lady of the Lake and she blows the vocals out of the water during her Vegas sequence. The entire ensemble is excellent – not a week link in the bunch, and the non-stop choreography is funny, fast moving, and very well executed.

This production is also the very best I have seen locally. This is a show that almost every regional and community theatre has picked up by now. But Farmers Alley’s production is by far the best of any that I have seen locally. If you are a Monty Python fan, its well worth the drive to Kalamazoo to see the show. Its sold out this weekend, but there are tickets available for next weekends final shows.

HIGHEST Recommendation. You won’t see it done better anywhere.

Monty Pythons Spamalot continues at Farmers Alley Theatre, at WMU’s Little Theatre through July 31st. farmersalleytheatre.com or 269-343-2727

A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On at Croswell’s “Million Dollar Quartet” (Review) May 15, 2016

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You’d be hard-pressed not to think that the Broadway tour of Million Dollar Quartet has made a stop in Adrian, MI, because this production, launching the 2016 summer season at Croswell Opera House is that terrific.

Start with the remarkable set by Doug Miller. Upon entering the theater, you’re greeted by his car-part-shop-turned-studio set, and its gorgeous. Then the lights come up and the evening is filled with one remarkable song after another, as four talented gents and one uber-talented lady enact the night in 1956 that four of rock-and-roll’s highest profile stars all gathered at Sun Studios to jam (and later, there’s a real-life photo to prove it, which brings some surprising audience tears).

Jonathan Crayne gets the night rolling as Carl Perkins. Add in Phillip Baugh as Johnny Cash. Don’t leave out John Grieco as Jerry Lee Lewis, and top it off with Lawrence Havelka as Elvis Presley. Along for the ride is Presley’s girlfriend Dyanne (Tatiana Owens). The band is rounded out by Tim Prettyman on bass, and Keith Kemner on drums. Director Eric Parker plays Sam Phillips, Sun Records owner, who serves as narrator for the evening. And for anyone who thinks acting is a glamorous job — take into consideration the remarkable talent involved in not only singing, dancing, and acting your way through a show filled with non-stop songs but to actually play the instruments yourselves live on stage. Yes, its remarkable.

What follow are 23 exciting rock-and-roll songs, and a jam-packed megamix finale that will leave you clapping, cheering, and dancing along. (Literally — Jerry Lee Lewis comes into the audience to make sure you are standing and shakin’).

It is a fine fine night indeed — while some numbers rock a bit more than others — there isn’t a dull moment in the show, and you’ll find yourself fully absorbed in one of those “birth of rock and roll” iconic moments (much like last summer’s Memphis). Watch for Grieco’s spot-on Jerry Lee Lewis back-bending theatrics before evening’s end, Johnny Cash’s sultry bass singing, Elvis’s pre-icon swagger, and Perkins straight-out rock and roll. And you’ll leave the theater having not only been enormously entertained, but also having learned a bit about the whole process of early music making.

Credit also Tiff Crutchfield’s excellent lighting; Dave Rains super work as Music Director, Betsy Lackey’s wonderful costumes, and Joe Gozdowski’s exceptional sound design. Director Eric Parker keeps everything moving swiftly and looking utterly professional from top to bottom. Choreographer Meg McNamee gives everyone character-appropriate moves.

You’ll have your favorites — from singers to songs, but you won’t leave disappointed as Million Dollar Quartet rocks the Croswell Opera House.

My only complaint is the addition of an intermission. This show is written and meant to be performed straight through (it is only 100 minutes long) and in this instance the addition of an intermission is particularly glaring as it breaks the integrity of the show when lights simply go out on stage and come up in the house. Boo.  I hope a similarly egregious intermission does not occur in the intermissionless Drowsy Chaperone later this summer.

Highly Recommended.

Million Dollar Quartet continues at the Croswell Opera House, 129 E Maumee St, Adrian, MI through May 22nd. Tickets: croswell.org or 517-264-SHOW

 

 

 

 

 

“Ragtime the Musical” tour is spectacular (Review) May 14, 2016

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Kate Turner (Mother) and Matthew Curiano (Tateh) sing “Our Children” in RAGTIME

Seen on its journey through Toledo’s Stranahan Theater, the newly minted national tour of Ragtime the musical is in a word spectacular.

First, take a top-notch cast making some amazing music together. Next, add a genuinely affecting story (book by Terrence McNally, Music by Stephen Flaherty, and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens), that works no matter how many times you’ve seen the show, and add in a gorgeous set, costume, and lighting design, and it all makes this a great production.

Based on EL Doctorow’s novel, the musical tells the story of a fictional family intertwined with real world historical characters in three social realms — established white America at the turn of the century, an ever increasing influx of European immigrants, and a growing sense of social justice for black Americans. Each of these mini-dramas is clearly defined by its characters, and the stories play out in turn.

The tour is based on the 2009 revival of the musical, rather than the more lavish 1996 original. It uses a reduced cast size, and simpler sets and costumes. But the smaller size of the show doesn’t at all detract from the story — in fact, it might actually enhance the drama. Marcia Milgrom Dodge has directed and choreographed the production with an assured hand and a big heart.

A few performances in particular stand out. First, there is a star-making turn as immigrant Tateh by Matthew Curiano. His vocal and acting work first breaks your heart and later makes you laugh and then cry again (“Our Children” is so well done here).  Also very fine are Kate Turner as Mother, and Chris Sams as Coalhouse Walker Jr. Her “Back to Before” is remarkable, while his “Make Them Hear You” is stunning. As usual “Wheels of a Dream” (sung by Sams and Leslie Jackson as Sarah) is the score’s showcase number.  But every cast member is very strong, and they play interchangeable characters over the course of the musical. Congratulations to all.

The simple but beautiful set design is by Kevin Depinet, the excellent lighting design is by Mike Baldassari, and the gorgeous costume design is by Gail Baldoni. Steven Bishop provides first rate musical direction.

Do not miss this excellent tour.   Highest Recommendation.

For tour schedule, visit http://www.ragtimeontour.com