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Forgotten Musicals: Legs Diamond October 13, 2020

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals.
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Peter Allen and the cast of Legs Diamond in 1988 – photo by Martha Swope

In a new series on forgotten musicals – today’s first entry is Legs Diamond — the misbegotten Peter Allen musical. You can readily find the cast album (it was more afordable to record a show in the 80’s when it flopped but someone still ponied up the cash to record the show). While it was out of print for decades, it is now available in iTunes and elsewhere. 

On my birthday in 1989, I went to see Legs Diamond at the Mark Hellinger theater, now a church (in fact, the Nederlanders considered the show such a flop, as were most shows that played  at the massive but beautiful Hellinger, that they announced even before the show was cancelled that they would be off-loading the theater, which caused a minor ticket run on the show to try to save the theater itself). They lost and 31 years later it is still a church. I knew the reviews were terrible (Frank Rich considered the evenings most palbable drama “Peter Allen wondering what to do with his hands”) but I love shows like that – often finding things that I love in them.

In this case, the show had much to love. Peter Allen, at the height of his popularity, had written a ego-project, starring himself, as real-life gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond. Never mind that Legs had been gunned down in his early 30’s, was virtually unknown as a gangster, and Allen was in his mid-40’s (and looked it) by the time the show opened. Never mind that Allen’s partner Greg had died 4 years earlier and some of the songs were clearly written as love songs to him. Never mind that he pulled several trunk songs out for cabaret singer Julie Wilson to perform that he had written for his ex-wife/beard’s mother twenty years earlier — but Judy Garland had the poor taste to die before recording any of them. Never mind that the entire gangster-who-liked-to-dance was ridiculous in the first place — or the fact that Peter Allen was a terrible dancer and a horrendous actor — there he was! Live on stage! In a brand new book musical (by Harvey Fierstien!).

He was the single most problematic part of the show — the book was decent (if not funny and rewritten and rewritten so many times the musical ended up having the longest pre-opening tryout on record — longer than the two month run of the show). The musical score was quite excellent. The cast album is one you can listen to over and over, and 5 of the songs, including one that had been cut, were incorporated in The Boy From Oz for Hugh Jackman. The costumes and set design were spectacular, and the hard working cast was uniformly excellent. It was a big, old-fashioned musical that was massive in size and right in tune with what audiences would normally want to see in a 5 million dollar budget musical.

But there was Allen, who by this point was widely known to be gay, had loyal followers from his always-sold-out Radio City extravaganzas, and was dying – both literally in life and figuratively on stage each night. (He  really died a few years afterwards). But here he was playing against his flamboyant stage personna in playing a quirky real-life gangster. As prievews progressed, so did the spangles and beads on his gangster suits to the point he looked ludicrous, but matched what his audiences expected. The show was given a happy ending, and everything else is history.

Allen wasn’t a strong singer, couldn’t act at all, and could barely dance. Performers were staged dancing around him while he sang center stage, or while being flown in — (actually it was a double but he never gave him credit) — he was unrecognizable as a gangster — but when he exploded in song, his audiences went wild. It’s the only show I can remember seeing before Wicked where audiences hooted and hollered after every major Allen number.  He was larger than life. His numbers with superstar Julie Wilson were the standouts in the show. 

Listening to the cast album you might be surprised by how many tunes you recognize – and you would have no concept of what this show actually looked like had you not seen it. You wouldn’t be aware of the adulating audiences, or chorus girls in gigantic champaigne glasses, or costumes with more feathers and sequins and glitter than actual clothing material, 

When the show closed in early February the show was guaranteed it would never be performed again by any professional or amateur theater company because all of the orchestrations disappeared. Sort of like Evita’s body – though they were never recovered. 

A few years ago, a theater company in LA had the orchestrations rewritten meticulously by musicians listening to the cast album – the only remaining record. The show has subsequently been performed in concert version by several other groups. But there is nothing that compared to seeing Peter Allen (!!!) live on stage at the Mark Hellinger singing his own songs, romancing Julie Wilson, and having the time of his life. That’s what happens when you have more money than you know what to do with it. And that was one of my happiest memories of seeing a show on my birthday. Legs Diamond was among the best of the 80’s bad musicals. And that is saying something. 

CATS is weird, but CATS is CATS, and the dancing is outstanding. And I didn’t hate it. December 20, 2019

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It’s very rare that I write a review that totally seems to contradict the mainstream movie critics, but this review of CATS is one of them.

Not that it’s a good movie — but it’s a very solid adaptation/interpretation of the stage musical. If you do not love musical theater, then for God’s sake stay away from this Andrew Lloyd Webber atrocity. But if you do love musical theater, and especially if you love dance, you will find very much to admire in this movie – complete with a sure-fire Oscar nomination for Jennifer Hudson, whose “Memory” is simply stunning.

Let me acknowledge up front that I love the stage musical and saw it many times in its original Broadway run, on the West End (faithfully captured for video and streaming at BroadwayHD), the revival with its many UM Musical Theater grads, and on tour. I might have even performed Mungojerrie at one point along the line (evidence is classified). 

The show has always been problematic – but one thing that was never problematic either then or now was that the musical brought dance back to musical theater – something only rare productions (A Chorus Line, 42nd Street) were doing at the time. Then along came CATS with its popular score, and its weird mix of ballet, tap, jazz, modern Broadway dance, with a touch of British music hall thrown in. It was an instant hit and ran for years.

Let me get this out of the way – Tom Hopper was the absolutely wrong choice to direct this movie, though I suppose it would not have gotten the green light if a name like Hopper had not been attached. His use of closeups when we should be in full stage, and weird sweeps toward the performers rather than away from them is distracting and wrong for this script.

And the CGI is distracting and terrible – though not as terrible as in the original teaser trailers. Still, it’s enough that you want to pull your hair out at times. It might have been less eerie if they had costumed most of the cast, rather than putting CGI fur on their entire bodies. Believe me, Robbie Fairchild and Idris Elba would have still looked like hunks even in costumes. 

Sure there is star power — a lot of it — and each gets featured in their own number. Already mentioned are Jennifer Hudson and Idris Elba, but there are empathic Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, pop-centric but fitting right in Taylor Swift, and funny James Cordon and Rebel Wilson — there’s no trick casting here – they are all good in their stereotypical roles, and there are no Les Miserables type embarrassments in the vocal/acting departments. Cats has never been sublte. Why settle for actors that are subtle?

But where the show explodes is in its dance numbers. Robbie Fairchild and Francesca Hayward are ballet dancers that are a joy to watch – Laurie Davidson is great as Mr Mistoffelees, Steven McRae is outstanding doing his tap number for Skimbleshanks. Danny Collins and Naomhi Morgan are great as Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. 

The score is also beautifully reorchestrated and lush. It “sounds” Broadway and less tinny than the original West End arrangements.

Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton, In the Heights, Bandstand) takes a look at the original choreograpy and expands it with strong hiphop and ballet woven into its dance tapestry. It just works. 

I suggest we all take a step back and forget about the weird and unnecessary CGI fur and sets, and remember that this is a damn musical about people playing CATS for two hours. Seriously, What do you expect? But let’s not take a step back from something Hopper has well-continued here from the original…you do not forget throughout that these are people doing incredible work – vocally, and particularly in dance. And that is the way this show was designed. You are not supposed to think, for an instant, that these are real cats. And that is where the CGI goes wrong and errs on the “real cats” look. Its a mark of people not believing in their material. 

Hey, really, I would much rather rewatch the stage production on BroadwayHD any day. But I am not going to lambast this work for something some critics are making out to be a disaster.

It is far from a disaster. It’s CATS. Now and forever. (Ugh). 

Outstanding The Addams Family at Osceola Arts (Review – Kissimmee, FL) October 5, 2019

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There’s a stunning production of The Addams Family musical at Osceola Arts running through October 13th. 

I’m going to be honest, I was skeptical prior to arrival (except of course for the excellent word of mouth the show has been getting around Orlando) but I have seen this musical in different theaters over the past few years probably ten times (in addition to the original Broadway production and it’s tour). None of those productions fully captured the magic of the Broadway production until this one at Osceola Arts.

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Beutifully directed by Dominic Del Brocco, the show flies along at excellent pace, with outstanding comic timing throughout. Leads and ensemble are excellent. It helps that this production limits the Addams Ancestors to a group of 7 (11 on Broadway, and usually dozens in other school and community productions) so that each of them has something important to do. 

Kim Cole’s choreography is interesting and crisply performed – there isn’t a missed beat in this cast. Morticia’s numbers are particularly well done. 

Ah, Morticia! Mahalia Gronigan is the quintessential Morticia Addams – acting, dancing, singing. Sometimes she need do nothing but make the look — you know, that Morticia look — and the laughs are already flowing. Yan Diaz is hilarious as Gomez, and he carries the bulk of the evening’s slapstick and songs. His scenes together with Mahalia are musical theatre perfection. Grace Gustino is a great Wednesday Addams and Christopher Robinson turns in a strong performance as her boyfriend Lucas. Elijah Gragg and Sarah Marshall are terrific as his uptight parents. Supporting parts are all strong, played by Garrett Williams, Cindy Barnum, and Michael Lupo. A particular favorite of mine in this production was Pugsley, (played by a high school student rather than the usual child actor) Logan Clinger who brought both an unexpected vulnerability but also twisted adult knowingness to his role. 

The Addams Ancestors were tightly performed and danced by Parker Bradford, Joey Green, Sean Hancock, Lauren Hutchinsonm Samantha Kestenbaum, Corinne Posner, and Hannah Zwemer. 

Everything plays out on a superb set designed by Cliff Price — his multi-tiered set works perfectly for the production, is filled with eye-popping detail, and helps make everything flow well on stage. It all looks and feels, well, Addams-y.

This is top-tier work by all involved and even if you have seen the show before, it is highly worth a visit to this loonyness performed and produced better than you have seen it anywhere else. 

Very highest recommendation.

The Addams Family continues at Osceola Arts, through October 13th, 2411 E Irlo Bronson Memorial Hwy, Kissimmee, FL 34744 – tickets: OsceolaArts.org

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Enthralling and Delightful “Daddy Long Legs” at the Dio Theatre (Review) April 6, 2018

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The Dio Theatre opened the Michigan premier of the 2015 Off-Broadway musical “Daddy Long Legs” last night and it is delightful and gorgeous, and you can expect to see it all over the local theatre awards later this year.

Beautifully performed by Emily Hadick and Alexander Benoit, with lovely orchestrations under the capable direction of Brian Rose, the musical, based on the early 1900’s book by Jean Webster,  tells the story of “the oldest orphan in the John Gier Home” who unexpectedly gets a full-ride to college by a trustee of the orphanage — under the stipulation that she write him letters about her experiences but that he will not write back. Under the impression that he is an octogenarian and possibly bald, she does just that for four years, unaware that he is the rich handsome stranger that has come into her life through a classmate. ultimately leading to love. Daddy Long Legs refers to her nickname for the trustee, as all she glimpsed before he left was a tall, thin man. 

The story is rich and fulfilling (much like Mark Vukelic’s delicious meal pre-show). Emily Hadick, already having made a name for herself as the lovely Johanna and spunky Hope in Encore’s Sweeney Todd and Anything Goes, is exquisite in every scene and every song. The Dio’s new sound system makes every word important and intelligible, and she invests heart and soul in her role as Jerusha, the orphan student. She can play innocent, and she can play coy, sometimes at the same time, but its all underscored by an intelligence that the audience quickly falls for, and later roots for when things take a turn.

Similarly, Alexander Benoit, with his smooth tenor voice and his good looks makes for a terrific Jervis and his facial expressions give away much of the underlying drama and turmoil, as he wrestles with his own unexpected feelings for Jerusha. He is able to find the comedy in the scenes, and is sometimes left on his own while she sings about her experiences – but you never for a moment, lose the fact that he is absorbed in her letters as his love for her grows.

By the time they meet, the audience is enthralled with both of them – and I don’t think it gives away too much to say that by the time the musical reaches its romantic conclusion that the audience has been charmed and excited going along for this ride.

One of the remarkable things about this very modern musical is that it never loses its early 1900’s look and feel – and the music never turns to pop. It’s a classic musical-theater type score and you might find yourself going to iTunes afterwards to download the cast album. With Music and Lyrics by Paul Gordon and a book by John Caird based on Webster’s novel, you can’t go wrong with a pre-show listen either. Filled with lovely ballads and tuneful songs, I have found myself listening to this musical over and over for many months. I was thrilled to finally see it with its book and storyline on stage.

Everything looks beautiful on Matt Tomich’s V-shaped set which he also lights with stunning colors. Direction by Steve DeBruyne is fluid and makes great use of the angle of the design. He brings out strong emotional ties between Hadick and Benoit, and a scene played atop a hillside is particularly stirring. He is assistant directed by Anne Bauman. Costumes by Norma Polk are beautiful, as are the lovely props assembled by Eileen Obradovich.

You should stop reading this right now, go to diotheatre.com on your computer, and order tickets now because you won’t see a more delightful musical this spring – and it makes for a terrific date-night or family outing.

Very Highest Recommendation.

Daddy Long Legs continues at the Dio Theatre, Pinckney MI through May 20th. Reservations online at diotheatre.com or 517-672-6009.

Funny “First Date” musical at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre (review) March 9, 2018

Posted by ronannarbor in Community Theater, musical theater, Theatre.
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Drew Benson, Eric VanWasshnova, and Sarah Mazurek in First Date

Photo courtesy Lisa Gavan

During the opening number of “First Date” the ensemble sings it is about “meeting someone you don’t think is fuckin’ tragic”…and that is the starting and ending point for this one-act 2013 Broadway musical. In one funny lyric book writer Austin Winsberg and Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (music and lyrics) summarize what a first date is all about. The production at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre that opened last night follows two people meeting for a first date in a bar, and the mishegas that goes with it. And it is very funny stuff.

First time director Aaron C Wade does a very good job of moving the action from scene to scene and making it all make sense and assuring that everyone on stage has a standout moment. Jokes come fast, insightful moments flit by in a few seconds, and songs take center stage. The two are joined by a bartender/waiter who’d rather be a singer songwriter, the couple’s family members and friends, one hilarious ex, and other random strangers.

Drew Benson is a good choice for Aaron Goldfarb – he sings well, and makes this neurotic character his own — a hard job when it is so intimately tied with Zachary Levi (for whom the role was written). Sarah Mazurek holds her own as Casey Clark, his more adventuresome date for the night. While their scenes together don’t necessarily sizzle, they do have a naturalness and honesty that makes you root for them from the start. Don’t look for heavy material here — this is a fun romcom and it stays strictly in romcom territory for the evening.

Sarah Sweeter is simply fantastic as Allison, Aaron’s ex-fiancée — her moments with him come to life on stage and it is funny stuff. Wil Lewis III has some nice scenes as his friend Gabe, with an award-winning appearance of a leaf blower. ‘Nuf said. Kimberly Lock also has some nice moments as Casey’s friend Lauren.

There is a hard working ensemble that plays all those other parts — Tina Paraventi, Jessica Dodson-Terlep, Wynton Doty, and Eric VanWasshnova.

The production is choreographed by Gayle Martin and Music Directed by Debra Nichols.

There is a good set designed by Wade, with some nifty props and stage dressings by Christine Blossom — it made me crave a Yuengling beer afterwards.  Stage left is occupied by the onstage band with tables scattered around the thrust stage.  Costumes by Molly Borneman are colorful and work well for each character.

Not everything is rosy in date land…the sound at times was garbled and it was hard to tell if that was mic levels or if it was vocal diction problems — or both. The opening number in particular was hard to understand. That will no doubt get ironed out as the weekend progresses. There were some stray notes in the band, although for the most part they sound good. There were also some stray notes in the ensemble choral music – ranging from funny to not at all good. A friend made the comment “they sound great individually, but when they sing together something just goes wrong”. Finally, there is a scene change near the end of the show that takes too long and kills some of the momentum heading into the short final sequence.

Still, I laughed a lot, and often. I had fun and was impressed by how much work went into making this ensemble cast come to life on stage in a show that is difficult to act and sing. It is a breezy 90 minutes of laughs…and laugh you will on a cold winter evening at the Arthur Miller Theatre. Go check it out! UM students, pick up this week’s Passport for the Arts and see the show for free!

First Date continues through March 11th at the Arthur Miller Theatre on University of Michigan’s North Campus. Tickets at the door or at a2ct.org/tickets.

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.