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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

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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.

A Chorus Line National Tour 2018 (brief review, Fox Theatre Detroit) February 18, 2018

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I only have time for a short review of A CHORUS LINE national tour 2018. Seen at yesterday’s matinee at the Fox Theatre, Detroit — the show is a faithful recreation of the staging and original choreography of the 1975 original Broadway production. It looks good. Sound was bad at the Fox. Dancing was terrific though not all the singers are strong. This is my favorite musical, but it is showing its age. Stagecraft has come a long way since that time, but the first time the mirrors revolve you know this is lovingly recreated. Don’t hesitate to see it – it’s a time capsule back to 1975 Broadway.

The show is doing short runs and one-offs nationwide. Yesterday’s two performances at the Fox were your only chance to see it here locally.

 

 

Great Armstong, Johnson, and Kaminski in “Merrily We Roll Along” – Ringwald (review) February 17, 2018

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There’s a terrific cast romping its way across the (nearly bare) Ringwald stage in their current production of George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along (based on the play by Kaufman and Hart). I write this review from the viewpoint of having previously directed a production of this musical myself.

There’s not much to the problematic book: Charlie, Frank, and Mary are friends who meet on a rooftop in NY, become bosom buddies and watch each others mistakes in love, marriage, work, business, and ultimately part ways as bitter adults (all the way in their 40’s!). The catch is, the show runs backwards – starting in the 70’s and ending in the 50’s. It was so confusing for original Broadway audiences that they added sweatshirts with their character names on them and spiffy things like “Past Wife”, “Boss”, “Next wife”. It ran one week. The rewritten show was presented by the York Theatre Company in the early 90’s and that version has become somewhat of a success. The recent London revival of the show was a smash success and was telecast in the USA by Fathom.

The time period here is very well defined by some great projection work by Dyan Bailey, and some wonderful costumes by Vince Kelley. I think we can all agree that we want a pair of Frank’s pants. It all plays out on a nearly bare stage with some accents, though I have to admit I’m getting a bit tired of the “no set” approach for the last few musicals at Ringwald. Painted grey, everything looks eerie, the exact effect you dont want in the background for this already bitter material.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that Sondheim has crafted his best score for this show. It was an instant smash recording when released in the late 70’s and most theatre folks of a certain age grew up having memorized every single one of these remarkable songs — the revisal adds many additional “explanatory sequences” which are neither here nor there.

It is very well musically directed by CT Hollis and the vocal work here is impressive across the entire cast. Directing falls pretty flat with a lot of standing around and basic moves; and choreography doesn’t impress though the cast performs their steps well, with the exception of “Hey Old Friend” which finally brings some life to the proceedings.

But what does make a solid impression is how good the performances here are. Kevin Kaminski is great as Charley, Kyle Johnson is a very strong Frank, and Ashlee Armstrong is outstanding as Mary (even if the requisite audience tears don’t fall in the otherwise heartbreaking marriage sequence because of the lack of isolation of characters, too much distance between them on stage, and too much movement in the background from the ensemble). Still, they are very fine performances and the show comes to life when the three are together. An artistic decision was made to leave the three of them on the rooftop by themselves at the end of the show without the ensemble – it underlines the central triad, but I miss seeing the youthful enthusiasm of the entire cast on stage at the end as written.

A few other liberties have been taken with the show, some for the better (goodbye Frankie Jr) and some just head-scratching odd.

Other great performances are created by Liz Schultz who is a wonderful sharp-as-a-tack-comic-timing Gussie and Jordan Gagnon as Beth. The ensemble as a whole is very good, and my favorite stage moment was probably Matthew Wallace’s spot-on lounge piano player.

I know this book inside and out, so my experience was probably different from most. If you don’t know the show at all, its a great introduction to this work – one of Sondheim’s rare failures that has taken on a life of its own. Just don’t expect a revelatory experience, and there isn’t much of a payoff when its all said and done.  But revel in these remarkable performances as they roll along in a show itself that occasionally demonstrates sputters, fits, and starts.

Recommended.

Merrily We Roll Along continues at the Ringwald Theatre through March 19th. 22742 Woodward  Ave, Ferndale, MI tickets and more information at: ringwald.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very Highest Recommendation.

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

Smooth Sailing for the SS American — Anything Goes at Encore (Review) November 26, 2017

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(Photo courtesy Encore Musical Theatre Company, Michele Anliker photographer)

The SS American has set sail at the Encore Musical Theatre Company and I predict nothing but smooth sailing ahead for this lovely production of Anything Goes. There isn’t a Christmas tree in sight, and it is still the brightest holiday musical in town this season.

Olivia Hernandez is a terrific Reno Sweeney and she sings and hoofs with the best of them. Along for the cruise are wonderful Sebastian Gerstner as Billy Crocker, very funny Dan Morrison as Moonface Martin, delightful Emily Hadick as Hope Harcourt, brassy and sassy Elizabeth Jaffe as anybody’s Emma, and a bigger than life and hilarious David Moan as Sir Evelyn Oakley. Supporting them is an excellent ensemble of what could best be described as a who’s who of Encore’s finest.

Thalia Schramm directs with terrific pacing and fine attention to period detail. Musical direction by Tyler Driskill is outstanding (as is his luscious live orchestra); costumes come and go quickly here and look period perfect by Sharon Larkey Urick, Anne Donovan provides some nifty/funny properties, and it all looks great on Kristen Gribbin’s Set with the outstanding lighting design of Tyler Chinn. Sound design by Dustin Miller and Meg Berg is excellent.

But this show truly explodes when it takes to dance — which is a lot. Rachel Costantino has provided terrific material for the many numbers, and the performances are spot-on tight; particularly the great tap number that closes Act I (“Anything Goes”). But also delightful are the smaller two-person numbers. Evelyn and Reno’s “The Gypsy in Me” is a particular favorite. These are two performers at the top of their game and it brings down the house. Gerstner is at the center of many of the dance numbers and he looks and sounds terrific.

You can’t do much better this holiday season than joining this group of zanies as they head across the ocean on the SS American — fully loaded with talent, musicality, and the best dancing in town (even if the ships passengers find there isn’t a celebrity in sight).

Very Highest Recommendation.

Anything Goes continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company through December 23rd. Tickets at theencoretheatre.org or 734-268-6200.

 

Once On This Island, Spongebob Squarepants, The Bands Visit (NYC – reviews) November 20, 2017

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This fall trip didn’t bring very many new musicals to sample — and the spring doesn’t look much better but the big blockbusters (Mean Girls, Frozen, and Harry Potter) arrive and I’ll be reviewing those at the end of March). For this trip there was the remarkable Once on this Island, the super-fun Spongebob, and the lovely The Bands Visit.

Seen in order:

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND – Circle in the Square –

Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Michael Arden, choreographed by Camille A Brown, Music Supervisor Chris Fenwick.

Once on This Island arrives in its first Broadway revival since the 1990 original and it is exquisite. It also creates a new superstar performer in Hailey Kilgore as Ti Moune, much the way the original launched the career of LaChanze. Beautifully staged in the round by director-de-jour Arden, it uses as its centerpiece a hurricane that has ripped its way through an unnamed Island in the French Antilles. It has a particular resonance given this fall’s recent devastation. Residents, healthcare workers, and volunteers helping in the cleanup effort take parts in the story being told to a scared little girl. If you don’t know the story, its an Island-flavored take on The Little Mermaid, with the original ending, not the Disney-fied one. If you take your children (and you should) you may need to explain the ending a bit.

The cast is terrific, the sound is luscious, and the choreography is fun. The staging is creative and immersive – actors are around you, in front of you, and at times right next to you — even in the middle of some of the rows! If I have any criticism at all, it feels a bit like the show is cramped in this intimate space and could have used a larger house to spread out a bit — but then you wouldn’t have that experience you get here sitting only feet away from the actors in the very small Circle in the Square. There is something to be said about Lea Salonga talking to you before the show starts, and spending much of the show sitting next to you.

There are some fun surprises in store — like some cross-gender casting for a couple of the Gods. It works very well. Once on this Island is story theater — and what a story you get here. Prepare to cry of course. I found myself welling up in all the expected places, and one unexpected one. I love this show, have directed it in the past, and was very much a fan of every choice the creative team has made here. Michael Arden (who directed Deaf West’s Spring Awakening a couple seasons ago) continues with his creative streak of remarkable musicals. Bravo.

SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS THE BROADWAY MUSICAL – Palace Theatre-

Book by Kyle Jarrow, Original Songs by Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharp & the Magnetic Zeroes, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! at the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants, and T.I.   Conceived and Directed by Tina Landau, Choreography by Christopher Gattelli, Musical Supervision by Tom Kitt.

Ok, let be be upfront about this…I LOVED THIS SHOW. Yeah, you think, Spongebob Squarepants, what the heck, right? Well this is the most fun I have had in a theatre in years. Its a hilarious, strange, creative, over-the-top, tuneful, dance-filled evening of high-energy. You don’t need to be a Spongebob cartoon series fan to love the show (but it helps). Before you get any idea that there are these big weird costumed folks leaping around the stage arena-theater style get that out of your head right how. This show is done very much like You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown – characters wear street clothing stylized to the characters in the cartoon series. Patrick wears shorts and a shirt with a big pompadour. Spongebob wears a yellow shirt and suspenders. Squidward wears a shirt and two pairs of legs ( no really – clever and simple – and later, great in a tap dance number), Sandy wears a white jumpsuit and a big hilarious round wig.

The story is simple: there’s about to be a volcano eruption threatening to destroy Bikini Bottom — the characters have to work together (or apart as Sheldon Plankton would like to destroy things) and that theme is so important right now. Laced with just enough political humor to keep adults on their toes, this is a much much smarter musical than you might think. In fact, its sort of like what Seussical should have been like had it been done right. The music by some of the best current pop rock writers in the business is fun, hilarious, tuneful, and spot on throughout. There is of course, the obligatory “Spongebob Theme Song” during the finale – and its a rocking affair.

Along the way you get some fun set work, great choreography by Gattelli, and wonderful fluid direction by Tina Landau (along with funny interruptions by Pirates of course).  The cast works as a terrific ensemble, but Ethan Slater as Spongebob is superb, as are Danny Skinner as Patrick, Gavin Lee as Squidward, and Lilli Cooper as Sandy. The cast album is already available, but it sounds more alive (and more energetic) on stage.

By the time you get to the finale, you know that mere confetti is not enough — so you get confetti, streamers, bubbles, glitter, and a whole lotta fun. You are hearing this here first — expect a Best Musical nomination at this year’s Tonys. And that is no joke. Three days later I am still telling everyone about this show.

THE BAND’S VISIT,  A NEW MUSICAL – Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek, Book by Itamar Moses. Directed by David Cromer, Choreographed by Patrick McCollum, Musical Direction by Andrea Grody.

One week ago The Band’s Visit opened to almost unanimous raves by the New York media, and less ecstatic audience response — similar to Once. And similar to Once, not much happens here, but what does happen is so lovely you can’t help but admire this piece even if you may feel nothing by the end of the intermissionless 90-minute musical.

Based on the 2007 movie (mostly known for the drama surrounding its ineligibility for the Best Foreign Picture award given most of its dialogue is in English), it concerns an Egyptian police band stranded in a small town in Israel after a travel-snafu when tickets are purchased to a similar sounding town that starts with a B instead of a P. With no bus available until the next morning, the members of the band rely on the kindness of a group of locals who take them in, feed them, and entertain them overnight. Along the way you learn a little about this desert-town’s misfits and I suppose we are supposed to take away from this small group of people who can’t communicate with each other because of language differences that we can recognize ourselves even in these assorted people on the other side of the globe.

That’s a big I suppose. I found myself admiring this gorgeous production (and particularly David Yazbek’s glorious score) while feeling entirely removed and not relating to any of these characters. Let me also say I did not at all like Once, and that won Best Musical so don’t look to me to judge the final outcome of this show (though it is having trouble selling tickets in a tiny house so, there is that). This is a musical in which absolutely nothing happens for 90 minutes. Yeah, its the desert and much is made of staring into the distance, and yearning, and waiting. One of the locals has stood in front of the (never ringing) payphone for two months waiting for a phone call from his girlfriend. Its kinda funny, But not really.

Katrina Lenk turns in a every-bit-the-star performance as an owner of a cafe, and Tony Shalhoub is excellent as a shy widower and conductor of the Police Band. The musical seems to set up some big drama that will be revealed later in the show concerning this man — and nothing happens. Oh, there’s a little bit of melancholy in these broken people, but nothing here that propels any type of exciting story telling. I’m going to say I am in the minority here since most critics have just loved the show and are gushing all over each other in accolades.  Its a lovely show, I admire it greatly, but I could never sit through it again, even at a short 90 minutes (which felt much longer).