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True to its Name, Croswell’s Forum is A Funny Thing (Review) August 15, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Croswell Opera House, Michigan, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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Guest Review by Devon Barrett

To the uninitiated, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the 1962 musical comedy by Stephen Sondheim, currently playing at the Croswell Opera House in Adrian, sounds like something that would be anything but funny.

Because, honestly, the list of characters looks like a laundry list of things nobody really wants to talk about: courtesans. Slaves. A nagging wife. A henpecked husband who spends 2/3 of the show considering adultery. A pompous, self-aggrandizing military captain. A young woman whose only skill is being “lovely.”

But when you weave them all together into a plot (the literary kind and the devious kind), that includes a couple of hilarious musical numbers, an epic, mind-boggling full-cast chase scene, and a happy ending with a delightful, surprising twist I guarantee you won’t see coming, well, you’ve got yourself a comedy.

The show opens with Pseudolus, a slave in the House of Senex, and the show’s buoyant instigator-in-chief, played by Jared Hoffert who could not be more perfect for the role. He introduces us to the three Proteans, played by John Bacarella, Mark Hyre, and A.J. Howard, who toggle between roles—as slaves, soldiers, and, in that epic chase scene I mentioned earlier, courtesan-catchers—so rapidly that you start to wonder whether they’ve all got body doubles hiding in the wings.

The year is 200-ish B.C. The place: a residential street in ancient Rome. And the deal: Pseudolus will be granted freedom if he can get his young master Hero (played by Xavier Sarabia, who sings through a boyish, crinkly-eyed grin perfectly befitting his character’s innocence), hooked up with Philia, the virginal, empty-headed courtesan-next-door (played by Emily Hribar, who has a lovely, clear voice, and a gentle presence) before Hero’s parents, Senex and Domina, return from visiting the in-laws.

Hero’s proud, domineering mother Domina and her namby-pamby husband Senex are played by Julia Hoffert and Ron Baumanis, respectively. Senex’s lighthearted joy and light-footed dancing during “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” was his standout moment. And Domina’s moment came in the form of a deliberate, fourth-wall-breaking evil-eye during the second act, when she unexpectedly burst back onto the scene, eliciting a gasp and a whooshing chorus of “uh-oh’s” from the audience, who knew stuff was about to hit the fan. She stood, alone, center stage, for two or three beats, staring right out at Orchestra Center with one eyebrow raised as if to say, “Excuse me? Uh-oh? I am a strong woman who knows what she wants in life and you say UH-OH when I enter the room?” Reader, IT. WAS. FANTASTIC.

Possibly the best part of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, is that it employs nearly every comedic device available, and every character gets a chance to partake.

Marcus Lycus, Senex’s neighbor to the left, is in the business of selling beautiful young women. Played by Stephen Kiersey, Lycus isn’t the slimy salesman-of-women you would expect him to be. He’s kind of a wuss, and his fear of facing one of his powerful clients—a captain named Miles Gloriosus, who we’ll discuss later—sets the show up for its first case of mistaken identity: when Pseudolus impersonates Lycus while Lycus hides in his home and, later, runs around with a cloak over his head pretending to be a leper.

The six courtesans (played by Jessica Adams, Tara Althaus, Madeline Auth, Jamie Lynn Buechele, Beth Felerski, and Sarah Nowak) of the House of Marcus Lycus each get a chance to show off their…er…skills to poor Pseudolus, who tries to play it cool as they dance, perform tricks, caress his hair, and in some cases, sensually threaten him with a whip. Their costumes, designed by Meg McNamee, were colorful and fun, and perfectly befitting of each of their personas.

Senex’s neighbor to the right, Erronius, played by William E. McCloskey, who is no stranger to the role, has his moment in the sun in the second act as his running gag (no spoilers! Witness it for yourself!) keeps time during the utter chaos playing out onstage.

Miles Gloriosus, the pompous Roman army captain who stands in the way of Hero’s chance at marrying Philia, is a sight to behold in his shiny, silver, chiseled armor. Played by Cordell Smith, Miles Gloriosus inflates his greatness at just about everything, but Smith’s rendition of “Bring Me My Bride” requires no inflation…it’s just great.

Then there’s Hysterium, played by John MacNaughton. Hysterium and Pseudolus spend a great deal of time together throughout the show, and Hoffert and MacNaughton play off of one another so brilliantly. As Pseudolus’ plot to affiance Hero and Philia goes further and further off the rails, Pseudolus himself continues to roll with the punches, while Hysterium, despite his insistence to the contrary, grows increasingly…well…hysterical.

And so, too, does the audience. Because, bottom line, Forum is funny, and it doesn’t even need to try to be anything else.

Directed by Mark DiPietro, with musical direction by Jonathan Sills, choreography by Delle Clair, and scenic design by Leo Babcock, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs through Sunday, August 20th at the Croswell Opera House, Michigan’s oldest theatre, located in downtown Adrian. If you haven’t been to the Croswell since its major renovation (or—HORRORS—if you haven’t been there at all!) now is the time. It is truly a sight to behold.

A Funny Thing Happened on the way To The Forum runs through August 20th. Tickets at Croswell.org

The Dio’s “Forever Plaid” Serves Up a Tasty Summer Confection (review) June 18, 2017

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Guest Review by Wendy Wright

As sweet as an ice cream sundae, with tight harmonies as dense as a pound cake, the wonderful performances in the Dio’s production of FOREVER PLAID serve as the cherry on top. Walking in to the show all I knew was that it was a review of songs from the era before rock and roll. Little did I know there is a hilarious and enjoyable story attached as well. A quartet of male “teen angels” are brought back to earth after having been taken too soon, so that they can fulfill their dream of performing one last show.

One by one, each character reveals himself and is given a moment in the spotlight.  And one by one, I fell in love with every one of them.  James Fischer as Sparky is a master of comic timing, newcomer Angel Velasco’s Jinx is the picture of delightful innocence, Matthew Wallace as Smudge is a loveable goofball, while holding them all together, almost like a big brother, is Steve DeBruyne’s Franky.

DeBruyne’s direction made the evening seamless and I may have noticed some succulent touches that could have only come from the warped imagination of Assistant Director Dan Morrison. The tightly choreographed moves by Bryana Hall look like they are right out of any real-life 60’s boy-group and the actors carry it off very well. Norma Polk’s costume design looks snappy, and Matthew Tomich does super work with the sound, lighting and projections.  Eileen Obradovich’s prop design works particularly well in the Ed Sullivan sequence. Mix in two musicians (Brian Rose on piano who also has done very good work as Musical Director, and  Leer Sobie on bass) and you have a refreshing milkshake blended to perfection.

There is a reason the Dio returns to this show time after time and you would never know that this incarnation was a last-minute replacement for a different show. The food by chef Jarod was wonderful as always (the fried chicken alone is worth the price of admission). All in all, this is the perfect escape from the summer heat.

FOREVER PLAID continues at the Dio, 135 E Main St, Pinckney, MI through July 23rd. Tickets at 517-672-6009 or online at http://www.diotheatre.com

Very Highest Recommendation

Gorgeous “Camelot” at Encore Musical Theatre Company (Review) June 17, 2017

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There is a gorgeous production of the classic musical Camelot at Encore Musical Theatre Company and it looks and sounds pretty as a picture, with beautiful sets and costumes and Lerner and Loewe’s tune-filled familiar score.

Stephen West is in wonderful vocal form as King Arthur (aka Newt) and Olivia Hernandez returns to the Encore as Guenevere and she is lovely in voice and acting. David Moan (I proclaim “can do anything he wants in any role he wants”) is that good here as well. His Lancelot is filled with self-absorption and (later) moping. His “If Ever I would Leave You” had audible gasps around me — although that might have just been the age of the audience and their familiarity with that particular song. The entire ensemble was spot-on terrific, and there is a particularly well-played Mordred by Tyler Lynch who in turns humorously creates an annoying character as well as the most spirited moments in the second act.

Sarah Tanner has designed a beautiful multilevel set that makes the Encore space look much bigger than it actually is (as she did with Into the Woods and Assassins). Sharon Larkey Urick’s costumes are marvelous and colorful. Daniel Walker’s lighting is bright and makes everything look brilliant on stage. Anne Donevan’s property design is terrific — you try finding that many swords and banners. Daniel Helmer’s fight choreography is fun to watch (though Lancelot could have easily escaped that room several times during that fight) and Matthew Brennan’s choreography is wonderful. That it all works at all is credit to director Dan Cooney who has enthused his cast to look beyond the paper-thin characters and create something of substance, and to Tyler Driskill who, as usual, makes beautiful music happen.

That’s about as glowing a review as I can muster for a show that is on the bottom of my list of classic musicals, and I love classic musicals. It is a dated, old-fashioned, unfocused storyline with reluctant bride Guenevere first appalled then smitten with King Arthur, later appalled then smitten with Lancelot — eventually running off with Lancelot which leads to the most anticlimactic and worst ending of a musical ever.

Lerner and Loewe’s score is often lovely (and sounds great here under the musical direction of Tyler Driskill). This production wisely cuts a good 30-minutes off of the (still) too long musical although the last 30 minutes of the show is still a slog through soap-opera territory. Clocking in at 2:35 it felt like it was much longer.

Whenever I see the show, I read other reviews and hear people talk about “how timely it is in the current political climate.” I don’t see it. It was dated in 1960 and it is very dated in 2017 – bordering on the edge of operetta even in the 60’s. But it is what it is, and what it is is gorgeous in this production. Though if you are not a lover of classic musicals, you’ll leave a bit underwhelmed since the musical theater world has changed significantly since this musical first appeared. There’s also the problematic handling of Guenevere’s character — who makes choices based on what middle aged men wrote, designed, and directed back in the last days of the golden musicals — that is to say, her choices are bizarre and male-centric to say the least.

Still, this is a lovely night of theater – and tickets are selling very fast. I saw the production on a sold-out Thursday night. Get yours now.

Recommended (Highly recommended if you love classic musicals, even if you don’t particularly like Camelot).

Camelot continues at Encore Musical Theatre Company through July 2nd. Tickets at encore theatre.org or 734-268-6200.

Photo courtesy Encore photographed by Michele Anliker.

 

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” takes flight (kinda) at Croswell Opera House (Review) June 11, 2017

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Croswell Opera House launched its 2017 Summer Season with the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang last night, and it’s a neat production of the mega-effects laden show.

Basically following the same storyline (and music with the exception of a couple new numbers) of the movie, Act 1 sets things up, and Act 2 amps up the ante as the action reaches Vulgaria. The musical had a long successful run on London’s West End but not so successful on Broadway. What it did have was an amazing car that flew, tilted, swiveled, and moved up and out over the orchestra as the proscenium filled with stars – there was no denying that no matter what your thoughts about the material itself, that flying car special effect was THE attraction for this show.

Not so much at Croswell’s production, where there is a car, but the action centers more around the human characters, who are brought to life by a vivid cast of performers. The car takes a more peripheral role and I am not sure that is for the better in a musical that is basically ABOUT the car.

Peter Crist plays an excellent Caractacus Potts, paired nicely with Kayla Marsh as Truly Scrumptious. Jeremy and Jemima Potts are precocious and charming Matthew Antalek and Oliva Goosman who are engaging and never cloying. Grandpa Potts is delightfully played by Steve Hillard, though the lyrics of his “Posh” were a bit muffled. Stephen Kiersey is a creepy Childcatcher and Terry Hissong (great to see on stage again!) an endearing Toy Maker. Bruce Hardcastle and Steven Owsley are practically perfect as Boris and Goran the Vulgarian spies (ahem, vulgar spies). While the entire ensemble is solid (although there are too many of them on stage during some of the numbers, cluttering things up a bit) the show is stolen out from everyone else in its second act by Leah Fox as the Baroness and Jeffrey King as the Baron Bomburst. Their flirtatious “Chu-Chi Face” is an absolute scream. Both Leah and Jeffrey turn in performances that are deadpan straightforward in their lunacy and makes it even funnier by contrast. The Baroness accidentally shoots one of her lackeys, and she exclaims an understated (and howlingly funny) “oops”. Bravo.

The Direction by Julianne Dolan and Choreography by Sarah Nowak focus on the human relationships, even during dance numbers. If I have a quibble its that the pacing and line pickup seemed slow through much of the first act (it got better in the second) and scene changes took a bit too long, occasionally stopping the action while nothing happens except for a chunk of set coming in or out.

Costumes by Susan Eversden are truly scrumptious indeed. Wynne Marsh has done her usual excellent musical direction. Tiff Crutchfield’s lighting design is colorful and bright. Sound Design is excellent – thanks to the donors who helped sponsor the new sound system! Patrick Lord’s projection and Scenic Design are well integrated into the production and things look spiffy and bright.

And that car? Well, its there, and its serviceable. It stays very much earth bound. It looks pretty and most of the effects worked, but it needed human assistance a few times making turns and it called for a bit more magic.  Still, overall this is a big beautiful looking production and it shows throughout.

A final aside — to the family sitting next to me, it in NEVER okay to hand out sandwiches in crinkly paper to your kids, pop open soda cans, nor serve potato chips to your kids inside a theater during the show. Never. Basic theater etiquette 101.

Recommended.

Photo taken by Lad Strayer, Croswell Opera House

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang continues at The Croswell Opera House, 129 E. Maumee, Adrian MI through June 25th. Tickets (selling very fast) at croswell.org or 517-264-SHOW.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Satisfying, Enjoyable, First Rate (Review – Ann Arbor Civic Theatre) June 2, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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“DroooooooooD!”

Do you find reading this name to yourself is a little amusing? Bet your lips puckered without your realizing it. Try saying it aloud; bet you can’t without having a little fun with it. At A2CT’s hilarious production of  “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre this weekend, you can think it, say it, sing it, even stand up and shout it at the top of your lungs and you will be in good company. It is encouraged and it is satisfying, much like the performance that surrounds it. It’s no wonder this interactive Rupert Holmes musical won several Tony Awards. It’s that fun.

As the real story goes, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the final novel written by Charles Dickens, who died before completing it, leaving the explanation of the title character’s mysterious disappearance unresolved. However, in the musical, we, the audience, get to affect the show’s ending by voting for the murderer (if, in fact, Drood was murdered) as well as decide the fate of other characters. Actors find out live if they have been selected and they have seconds to step into their role. There is a blackboard in the lobby after the show so that you can see the actual audience vote count as you leave.

The musical is a show within a show so every actor plays two roles: “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is performed by various characters in a London music hall aptly named, Music Hall Royale, in 1892. The music hall story centers around Drood (flawlessly played in trousers by Vanessa Banister), who is affianced from birth to the lovely Rosa Bud (lovely in looks and voice Kimberly Elliott), who is the object of her opium-addicted choirmaster John Jasper’s affection (brilliant Roy Sexton). But Jasper is not the only one who craves the affection of Miss Bud. Ceylonese refuges Neville Landless (Brandon Cave), twin sister Helena (Becca Nowak) and Reverend Crisparkle (Brodie Brockie) have desires of their own. The facial expressions these players give are worth the price of admission. Then there is the drunken cemetery watchman Durdles (Jimmy Dee Arnold) and Deputy (Peter Dannug) who know the whereabouts of the living and the dead. Opium mistress Princess Puffer (Alisa Mutchler Bauer) and Bazzard (Michael Cicirelli) add their own spice to the mystery. As mentioned earlier, all of these characters are portrayed by second-rate Music Hall Royale actors with their own agendas. If any of this is confusing, be assured the Chairman of the Music Hall Royale (Jared Hoffert) will guide you along and make sure you are properly sated in more ways than one [wink wink]. Hoffert is a wonderful master of ceremonies. The supporting cast is a hearty shephard’s pie of talent: Julia Fertel, Ashleigh Glass, Chris Joseph, Kari Nilsen, Sarah Sweeter, Kelly Wade, Heather Wing and Lisa Gavan (Stage Manager, both real and in the Royale), who make the evening that much more satisfying and enjoyable.

The Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre is the perfect venue and the audience is greeted by the cast in character prior to curtain. Director and set designer Ron Baumanis, lighting designer Thom “TJ” Johnson, sound designer Bob Skon, Choreographer Debra Calabrese and costume designer Molly Bourneman complete the atmosphere so you really feel like you have been taken back in time — there are footlights, bustles, old-fashioned drops, and wonderfully zany mis-cues by the “Company” and crew. Great work. There is a surprise set piece build by Patrick Johnson and unique props by Aaron C. Wade. The orchestra, who also play a role within the story, is led by Daniel Bachelis and is first-rate. The show clocks in at 2:30 including the intermission and it is non-stop. There is also a special surprise guest appearance that had the audience laughing and applauding last night, and you’ll find it referenced in the program hidden in plain sight once you do.

Very Highly recommended.

—–Guest Review by Patricia Mazzola

Only three more chances to experience A2CT’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, University of Michigan, Michigan League Building, 911 Fletcher, Ann Arbor.  June 2-3 at 8 pm, June 4 at 2 pm. a2ct.org/tickets, or available at the door. Please note that tickets go off-sale online a few hours before showtime.

Why “Come From Away” should win this year’s Tony for Best Musical (and why “Dear Evan Hansen” should not) May 5, 2017

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On June 11th, 2017, when this year’s Tony Awards are announced, I expect to see “Come From Away” the big winner in the musical category. What? You haven’t even heard of it? Well, you should. And I know there is that ground-swell support from younger folks for “Dear Even Hansen” but here is why that one shouldn’t win.

COME FROM AWAY will most likely win the Best Musical this year. I said so the moment I left the theater the first time I saw it in Toronto, and keep that same opinion after the third time I saw it in NYC. Quite simply, it has the strongest message of the bunch, and the strongest overall musical theater artistry of the bunch. Don’t label it a “9/11 Musical” — it is not. Its a show about a community coming together in the face of a crisis – and it is the only one of the four musicals nominated this year that has those stakes. More so, lets not forget the Tony Awards are also business oriented, it is the sole show of the four nominees that could use the ticket sale boost. That is always a consideration at award time. This is also the only show of the bunch that I left the theater humming any of the tunes.

DEAR EVEN HANSEN has a great score, no doubt about it, even if I never want to hear anyone sing “Waving Through a Window” unless it is in context of the show. It also has young-folks appeal because of the hot-selling cast album. And it also has the most mixed reviews of any of the current musicals nominated. What it got were raves for Ben Platt as Evan, and the score. Expect to see Tony awards for Ben Platt, and the score. But Best Musical? I don’t think so. Without giving away too much, the entire drama of this show is so millennial-centric that it makes no impact on older audiences — the central drama involves a millennial teenager APOLOGIZING for something he did that was dreadfully wrong. That is it. If our millennial audiences find making an apology the most horrifying thing they have to do, then we have done something very wrong in this everyone-gets-a-participation prize and there-are-n0-consequences-for-your-appalling-actions era.

NATASHA AND PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 is a spectacular musical. I loved every minute of it. Telling the central love story of War and Peace in a Russian-cabaret type setting (even the theater interior has been changed to resemble an in-the-round Russian tent) it has made the rounds from off-off to off and now on Broadway. It is also without a doubt the most bizarre and polarizing of the current nominees — people either love it or they hate it, and you can find plenty of both online. The general reaction is, wow, the staging is remarkable, and indeed look for a Tony for best Direction here. But it also leaves a large number of the audience scratching their heads and asking themselves what exactly is going on here (and I don’t mean in that artsy fartsy “Nine” sort of way). That is never a good marker for awards.

GROUNDHOG DAY is terrific. Another show that I simply loved. Andy Karl will give Ben Platt a run for his money for Best Actor, but ultimately Platt will win the day. It has a fun score, though nothing here is as singable as DEH’s terrific score. It has fun scenic design and illusions. But ultimately, it is what it is — a stage version of the movie — albeit it BETTER than the movie. Still, Groundhog Day is slight at best, carries a message of tolerance, but just barely, and while it won the Olivier award last month for Best Musical, that isn’t going to happen here in NYC.

That brings me back to COME FROM AWAY. This is the little musical that thought it could, and it did, and it should win. There isn’t a better feel-good musical to be found in NYC right now, and that we share this with a vision created by our Canadian neighbors will go a long way to awards-land next month.

You can’t go wrong seeing any of these shows this season. But you will thank yourself for seeing Come From Away because you will feel something you haven’t at a musical in a long time — hope.

 

 

Go, Go, Go see “Into the Wild” at Encore Musical Theatre (Review) April 15, 2017

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Let me preface this by writing that Into the Wild at the Encore Musical Theatre Company is a developmental premier of a new musical with aspirations to get to Broadway. It will get there eventually and you should see it now while you can. And you should not miss the superstar performance of Conor Ryan, but I will get to that later. While it is technically a workshop of the show, it is hard to call it that because everything here is so well polished that it is almost hard to remember that this is a work-in-progress and will still change and grow over time.

Into the Wild is one of those rare experiences that will stay with you long after you’ve seen the show and it is also by far Encore’s most technologically advanced production to date. With music and lyrics by Niko Tsakalakos, Book and Lyrics by Janet Allard, the musical is bound to leave you thinking and talking. It is a matter of opinion as to whether you believe Christopher McCandless was an explorer and risk-taker off to find himself in the Alaskan wilderness — or if he was an idiot egotist with a death wish and possible mental illness out to spite his conservative family. Fact:  25 years ago, McCandless took off after college and bummed around the US and Mexico until making his way to Alaska, eventually starving after eating potato seeds loaded with neurotoxins that can paralyze a person over time. You might have read the wildly popular book by Jon Krakauer, or seen the movie, or read the amazing New Yorker article about his death a few years ago. But there is no denying that what the authors and musicians have done here is to make you feel empathy toward this misguided young man and his family, no matter what your personal opinion in the matter, and that is no mean feat.

Conor Ryan is simply remarkable as Chris. He is the beginning and the end of the show and everything outstanding in between. He’s already a NY theater star, graduating from UM’s musical theater program a few years ago (remember him as Valjean?) and immediately going into Cinderella on Broadway, and then co-starring with Kate Baldwin (as well as recording the new cast album) in John & Jen. Here, his vocals and acting soar – literally at one point – and it was a wise decision to bring this young soon-to-be-superstar to Dexter for this premier. Conor’s vocals are exquisite and his acting is superior all around. You should not miss this performance, because he is the Next Big Thing but also because he IS that talented. Sarah Briggs and Greg Bailey play his parents, and they are spot-on in their roles, and their songs. Young Chris is played by local child wonder Connor Casey, and he eschews cute-as-a-buttonness for a bitterness and edge that can already be seen in the character as a child. Nice work. Other folks that get caught up in the mess that is Chris McCandless include Daniel A Helmer who mixes humor and warmth in his roles, especially that of Wayne;  Gayle E Martin as Jan who brings some powerhouse vocals to her songs, especially “Forgiveness” in the Second Act; Alexandra Reynolds who is sweet and personable as Tracy; the versatile Matthew Pecek in multiple roles; and Mike Szymanski as substitute father-figure Russ.

Tyler Driskill serves as musical director as well as pianist and conductor of the outstanding 6-piece combo band. Vocals throughout are excellent, diction is great, and harmonies soar and land just where you expect. There were tears in audience members eyes, as well as a few of the performers, by the time the show reaches the sad ending and “Live Before you Die”. I particularly liked that the band was visible with the wall removed, instead of tucked away in the back room. Brian Usifer’s arrangements and orchestrations sound great.

This is a good time to mention that score — Oh My God fantastic. This is a show that deserves a studio recording as soon as possible — get it out there, let people listen to it in their cars and on their iPhones, and sing along at top voice — it is that kind of score. Allard and Tsakalakos have created music and lyrics that could easily hold its own against any of the current bumper crop of new musical Broadway scores this season. I fully expect it to be in competition for a Tony sometime very soon. I loved it, and actually found myself humming “Alaska” on my way to the car. Can’t remember the last time I could do THAT after a new show. This is like discovering something very special and precious, and while it will still be developed and is sure to change a bit, the score is utterly fantastic. In the capable hands of the musicians on stage at Encore, it takes flight.

Then there is the artistic and technical end of things. – WOWSA. Director Mia Walker keeps things moving swiftly and makes good use of the multilevel set. The set design/projection design by Stephanie Busing is breathtaking: the projections here are beautifully interwoven with the story and later break your heart as you see “Day 99, Day 100, Day 101” approach. Robert Perry does excellent work lighting it all – things look brighter and more colorful than any show I can remember at Encore. Jenna Brand’s costume design is perfect, and inquiring minds want to know: “how did he change onstage from his shorts to the long pants without anyone noticing”?  Anne Donevan’s properties are outstanding – from boat oars, to hiking equipment, cookouts, bars, books – it is also all cleverly concealed on stage so that it appears as you need it and disappears virtually unnoticeably. Sound design by Chris Goosman and Terry Williams is terrific.  In short, this is the finest and most complicated technical production Encore has endeavored to produce, and it works spectacularly well.

While I almost hate to mention it, the show itself runs a bit too long and could use some tightening and shaping – and (I hate to say it) more musical cuts. Currently clocking in at 2:45 with the intermission, it needs some work which I am sure it will get as things move along in this development production and whatever next step this musical takes.

I have no doubt the final step will be Broadway. It deserves to be there. It will get there. And I’ll be there to review it all over again once it opens in New York. Congratulations to everyone involved with this production, I am going back to see it again before it leaves Dexter en route to points East.

Very Highest Recommendation.

Into the Wild’s developmental  premier continues at Encore Musical Theatre Company through May 7th. 3126 Broad Street, Dexter Michigan. Tickets at http://www.theencoretheatre.org or by calling 734-268-6200.

Inman and company send Bridges soaring (The Dio – Review) April 8, 2017

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About two years ago, I spent an elated evening on Broadway watching and listening to Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale sing Jason Robert Brown’s masterwork score in the musical The Bridges of Madison County. There’s similar musical magic on display at the Dio. Bridges is a production that can clearly be considered The Dio’s best yet in what is quickly becoming a string of excellent productions at the venue in Pinckney. From the show’s excellent leads to ensemble and Matthew Tomich’s gorgeous puzzle-like set and lighting design, the evening flows seemlessly from scene to scene under Steve DeBruyne’s fast-paced direction.
You probably know the story – married Italian housewife Francesca meets Robert, a handsome and exciting photographer on assignment taking shots of local covered bridges. While her husband and kids are away at the state fair for a few days, she has a surprising fling that results in an unexpected proposition and a decision she must make. That’s all I’m saying about it. You either buy in or you don’t (and that was the dilemma on Broadway – the show’s target market is probably exactly the age of people struggling with their own domestic dramas at home and it is pretty hard to sell a show about adultery, no matter how well received). The show itself is also a bit unbalanced, with a too-long first act and a power-ballad filled second act. 
But there is no denying the exceptional Tony-winning Jason Robert Brown score — it is one of the finest musical theater scores in the past decade, and here it is handled expertly under the very talented vocal skills of Marlene Inman as Francesca and the solid Jon McHatton as Robert. On the few occasions that the outstanding ensemble joins in, the score simply soars into the stratosphere and resonates somewhere over Iowa itself. Brian Buckner’s musical direction is top-notch, though the balance is sometimes off between orchestra and singers. In one sequence (“Home Before You Know it”) women’s vocals overpowered men’s vocals and dialogue got muddied and lost, although things got significantly better afterwards. 
Madison Merlanti sings a lovely “Another Life” (the show’s standout signature tune), and strong performances are also turned in by Julianne Roberts as daughter Carolyn, James Fischer as son Michael, and Andrew Gorney as husband Bud. Carrie Jay Sayer is terrific as nosy neighbor Marge, and the entire ensemble is excellent.
The standout, however, is the remarkable Marlene Inman in a performance you should not miss. Jon McHatton seems a bit too young for Robert but is handsome and sings beautifully. As expected “Before and After You/ One Second and a Million Miles” is the musical apex of the evening and it does not disappoint. 
Whether you like the storyline itself or not, this is a musical not to be missed and a vocal score to be cherished. Congratulations to the Dio for bringing this challenging and rewarding piece to local audiences. 
Highest Recommendation. 
The Bridges of Madison County continues at the Dio, 177 E Main St, Pinckney Mi through May 21st. Tickets at Diotheatre.com or (517) 672-6009

“Anastasia the musical” is lush, sumptuous, melodic, satisfying. (Review) April 1, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Movies, musical theater, Musicals.
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Disney animated films found competition when Twentieth Century Fox released Anastasia with its beautiful artwork and tuneful score. It has become the favorite of many, and like Newsies, its timing was ripe for parents that needed a VCR to put in their tape player that the kids, in particular girls, could watch over and over to keep them occupied. Even if it had Rasputin as a dead bad guy whose hands and nose kept falling off. The Broadway stage musical is based both on that animated feature as well as the 50’s live action Anastasia (same story, no moldy Rasputin).

That’s a long winded introduction, but what is on stage at the Broadhurst Theatre is lush, sumptuous, melodic, and very highly satisfying. It is one of the finest musicals of this season, even seen in preview.

Animated feature lovers need not worry – Ahrens and Flaherty’s hits “Journey to the Past” and “Once Upon a December” make it onstage intact. Some liberties (for the better) were taken with “A Rumor in St Petersburg”, and this score is augmented by two dozen new songs that are Ahrens and Flaherty at their best – unlike Rocky a few seasons back, this is a melodic and beautiful score that will send you off to iTunes as soon as it is released for download.

Terrence McNally has done a masterful job in rewriting the script so that it resembles an adult musical rather than an animated feature, and better incorporates the horrors of history in Russia at the time (1907, 1917, and 1927). He has created a new foil for Anastasia, Gleb, a party official out to insure that all Romanovs are indeed dead.

Christy Altomare is excellent as Anastasia, and she grows the character over the course of the evening and her transformation into princess for the final scenes is breathtaking. Derek Klena is fine as Dimitri, though the chemistry is far better with Gleb, played by the outstanding Ramin Karimloo, and if you don’t know who he is then you better do a Google search because your musical theater knowledge is lacking. John Bolton is exquisite as Vlad, and uber-talented Caroline O’Connor is outstanding as Countess Lily once the proceedings reach Paris. Mary Beth Piel does a very nice job as Dowager Empress (although her song in Act 2, “Close the Door” should be cut).

But where this musical excels is in the superior sets and costumes (and projections). It has been many years since Broadway has seen a musical this lush and sumptuous. I stopped counting Linda Cho’s amazing costumes and changes. The clothing is stunning, and the “Last Dance of the Romanovs” (later reprised in the ghostly and heartbreaking “Once Upon a December”) is breathtaking.

Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge and Projection Designer Aaron Rhyne have created the type of set that makes you ooh and ahh at many points — a train that hurtles along the tracks toward the audience, and then later away. A turntable that allows for almost instant scene changes. Windows that display snow, and shatter during attacks, and a marvelous reveal of Paris at the end of the first act.

When everything reaches Paris for act two, the show comes alive with life, primarily led by singer dancer Caroline O’Connor and John Bolton.

If there are flaws they are hard to spot here. The show flows beautifully from scene to scene, costumes come one after the other, and the set holds surprises throughout. The addition of Gleb is superb, and I have to admit that I was truly moved by the love triangle created by Gleb/Anastasia/Dmitri.

This is a musical not to be missed. It is one of the most satisfying all-around musicals of the season.

Highest Recommendation.

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

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Movies, musical theater, Musicals.
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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.