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Odd, Funny, 70’s comedy “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s” at the Dio (Review) February 5, 2018

Posted by ronannarbor in Plays, The Dio, Theatre.
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Molly Cunningham, Joshua Brown, and Dale Dobson. Photo Credit Michele Ankiker.

The Dio’s current offering “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s” by Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick is far and away the oddest local theater offering of the young season – and it is a hoot. You might be in mind of a mystery, maybe about a murder at a Howard Johnson’s? Well, that is not the case here. Instead, think of this more as an episode of the 70’s “Love Boat” stretched out into a full length comedy. And think of the writing and jokes about the same as those on that little ditty of a tv series (and its not a surprise given the authors backgrounds in writing comedy). It is a bit like a Neil Simon show before rewriting the jokes to makes sure they land right. Or a Benny Hill episode in which the actors need to deliver lines instead of running around the neighborhood.

Take three great actors (outstandingly deadpan Molly Cunningham, spritely and funny Joshua Brown, and the exceptional Dale Dobson as comic foil) and mix in a hilarious set by Matthew Tomic and solid comic-timing direction by Steve Debruyne and you have a very fun way to spend a few hours of dinner and theater. The evening’s menu is inspired — Howard Johnson’s fare!! Its comfort food for cold Michigan evenings.

I don’t want to get into the plot much, except to say that the intermission-less three-scene comedy takes place in the late 70’s at a Howard Johnson Hotel around three holidays — as time passes, you get some insight into the dysfunctional relationships at play between husband and wife, wife and lover, and husband and dentist. Don’t ask. Important to the plot are a bottle of blue nun, a hotel window ledge, a gun, pills, and a surprise for the third scene. None of it is too offensive (though keep in mind these jokes were written in the 70’s so there is a touch of that Love Boat-ness I told you about). But these are equal opportunity jokes. Cunningham gets as many quips and double entendres as the guys, and its all in good fun.

It took a few minutes for the audience to catch on that they were watching a satire comedy, but once they did the show took off and the audience did too. I found myself laughing frequently, not because the lines are particularly that funny, but because the exceptional cast brings them to life in a way that begged me to have as much fun as they were, and it worked.

The show is an oddity that ran for 10 previews and 4 performances in NYC in 1979. I am happy to say that the residency at the Dio will include more performances than their Broadway days — and may it be a happy run! While the show isn’t a masterpiece, neither is it a bomb. I am not sure why it didn’t catch on in NYC, though the plotline about running off with your dentist and leaving your husband probably wasn’t a good idea in post-sexual revolution NYC in 1979.

Forget the silly title, and go spend a few hours with these lunatics.

Recommended.

Murder at the Howard Johnson’s continues at the Dio Dining and Entertainment through March 4th. 177 E Main St, Pinckney, MI 48169 — diotheatre.com or (517) 672-6009 for tickets which sell fast at this venue. Includes dinner.

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Very Funny Wacky-doodle “The Explorers Club” at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre (Review) January 12, 2018

Posted by ronannarbor in Plays, Uncategorized.
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Ann Stoner, Jimmy Dee Arnold, Adam Peterson, Charles Sutherland, Christopher Tiffany, and Thomas Underwood in “The Explorers Club” photo Lisa Gavan

Men’s clubs of late 1800’s London display their wackier side in Nell Benjamin’s farce “The Explorers Club” (Broadway production 2013) at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre which opened last night and runs through January 14th at the Arthur Miller Theater.

At its core, her play (well-directed by Brodie H Brockie and acted by a fine all-around cast) tackles the subject of allowing a woman to join a men’s adventurer’s club because of her discovery of a new native tribe and her presentation of one of their natives to the Queen. You can guess how that goes. It’s a setup that never would have happened in England at that historical time, but then, neither would escaping in a airship that she builds one morning at her family’s house.  That is the sort of evening you are in for, and it is funny, wacky, and fast-paced.

Brockie makes sure that the proceedings never dissolve into slap-stick but remain firmly grounded in witty banter and visual jokes — the best of which are two sequences of drink-serving by newly appointed native bartender (an absolutely hilarious Jimmy Dee Arnold) which involves lots of glass-flinging and catching; and a cigar-smoking sequence in which botanist Lucius realizes long before the others that perhaps his self-made cigars have a touch too much, um, shall we call it organic content.

It is all set on Patrick Johnson’s gorgeous set, one of the finest I have seen at the Arthur Miller,  which itself has been reformulated in a semi-proscenium format (though not the same as the last time they used a proscenium format). Its a rare chance to see a show at the theater that is not in thrust-format. Everyone looks great in Jamee and Abigail Zielke’s costumes and Brice O’Neal’s lighting.

The cast is very good indeed, and their timing and shenanigans demonstrate a nice interplay of individual characters and ensemble interaction. While everyone is strong, the aforementioned Jimmy Dee Arnold and bit-part-chew-the-scenery Patrick Johnson in the later goings of the play are standouts. Adam Peterson plays Lucius, the club president; Jared Hoffert is newly returned from expedition Harry Percy; Ann Stoner plays Phllida; Tom Underwood plays snake-toting Cope while Christopher Tiffany plays guinea-pig toting Walling; Charles Sutherland is bible-thumping Sloane and Larry Rusinsky plays the Queen’s representative Sir Bernard Humphries (I told you that presentation of the native to the Queen doesn’t go well).

There are some problems inherent to the play, so just turn off your thinking cap and enjoy the antics of these buffoons (not the least of which is a sequence in which the entire group heads off to their visit with the queen, the remaining cast have what seems like a page of dialogue, before the entire group returns from their disastrous visit minutes later). Let’s just call that writers liberty and enjoy what it is — a wacky almost Monty-Pythonish look at this Club — one which you will be sworn into anyway at the start of the show by director Brockie, so you might as well go along with the flow.

It’s a very funny theatrical evening – well done – and well played, Ann Arbor Civic Theater. “Your Drink, Sir!”

Highly Recommended.

“The Explorers Club” continues at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre through January 14th. a2ct.org/tickets or 734-971-2228, or available at the door. 

Clever Creepy Cool “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” at the Dio (review) November 25, 2017

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The Dio has a delicious Christmas treat in store for you this year (and I’m not just talking about Chef Jarrod’s holiday-themed pre-show meal!) in the form of Tom Mula’s adaptation of his own book, Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol. It’s an entirely different take on the familiar Dickens Christmas tale, and it is fun, cleverly conceived, a bit creepy in its telling, and ultimately quite cool.

Sonja Marquis directs the very energetic show’s four actors (left to right in photo above, Victor McDermott, Matthew Wallace, Elizabeth Fritsch, and Mark Vukelic) and makes great use of the space for this romp through (not always) Dickensian territory. Set, Lighting, and Sound design by Matt Tomich are terrific throughout.

In order to rid himself of the chains he has forged through life, link by link, Jacob Marley is assigned the unenviable task of reforming his partner Scrooge — the first act basically sets this up, the second plays fast and loose with the original Christmas Carol tale — not always taking a straight path, but always entertaining. We find out about Marley’s own ghosts (take it or leave it, purists), and his interactions with the world around him. You think Scrooge was a baddy?

Matthew Wallace turns in a strong multi-faceted performance that is much more difficult than it looks to the audience – and he does a terrific job. The rest of the cast plays everyone else (the four play 18 roles all told). The original production of the play was done as a one-man-show and was later adapted for a 4-member cast and has met holiday acclaim nationwide. I can’t think of four better performers than those on stage here. From spirit guides, to ghosts, to Dickens’s characters from the novella, to all the other assorted roles played here, the cast is uniformly good and the energy is palpable in this show that never slows down.

Part tragedy, part comedy, part holiday play, part morality tale, you’re in for a very entertaining evening at the Dio. The show is different, and  it is not like all the other fare out there, and despite its bizarre journey, you’ll still go home feeling quite filled with holiday spirit — and that’s what a show at Christmas time is all about, right?  (Well, that and turkey and ham for dinner, right? Thanks Jarrod!).

Highly Recommended.

Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol continues through December 31st at the Dio Theatre in Pinckney, MI. Tickets (selling out very quickly) can be had at diotheatre.com or 517-672-6009.

 

“The Family Digs” at Croswell Opera House — a great way to inaugurate new studio (review) October 15, 2017

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Terrence Hissong’s very funny new family comedy “The Family Digs” opened this weekend to inaugurate the new Croswell Opera House studio theatre (which also doubles as a rehearsal space and you would be hard-pressed to recognize the place). The production is co-produced by Croswell Opera House and Westfall-Hissong production company.

Doug Miller’s spot-on direction and set design result in a fast-paced premier production in the studio, and he has a terrific cast to direct here.

Without giving too much away (its best to see this show not knowing much about it): grown brother and sister Eve and Sunshine (don’t ask, just go with it and find out for yourself) are at wits end when he’s overstayed his welcome in her small apartment. Archeologist father Charles arrives to seek solace when his wife has locked him out of their home. Throw in two of Eve’s work friends Hannah and Sophia with a special proposition and you have the makings of terrific little family comedy that might remind you a bit of your own, especially when you find yourself in cramped quarters.

Meg McNamee is funny neurotic as sister Eve, and J0nathan Stelzer (welcome back to the stage!) is hilarious as Sunshine. Peter Stewart makes for a funny father, beset by a strange malady involving bees. Karen Miller and Emily Allshouse are great in their roles of Eve’s work buddies. Things really start clicking when the interplay between them starts to roll along and Hissong’s use of present day vernacular makes everything feel genuine and real. There are a few twists and turns, and at least a couple surprises in store.

Doug Miller’s set is gorgeous, and looks like a permanent installation rather than the temporary studio set that it is. Lighting by Tiff Crutchfield looks wonderful, both in its use of real apartment lighting, as well as stage lighting.

The Family Digs is a fun piece that I hope finds a good theater life — its a perfect diversion for an evening or afternoon, and its appeal should find a home in regional and community theaters nationwide, starved for good new material with a small cast and modest production needs. I didn’t count but by my estimate the theater holds about 75 people or so, and it was sold out at my performance this afternoon.

I laughed often and had a terrific time at this show, in its wonderful new intimate studio theatre home.

Very Highly Recommended.

The Family Digs continues at Croswell Opera House through October 22nd. Limited tickets available and it is easiest to get them online at http://www.croswell.org 

 

Very Funny “Criminal Hearts” at Ann Arbor Civic Theater (Review) June 18, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Community Theater, Plays, Theatre.
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Cami Fussey has directed a very funny production of Jane Martin’s “Criminal Hearts” at Ann Arbor Civic Theater, and you have one more chance to catch it as it only plays this one weekend (the usual Ann Arbor Civic Theater dilemma).

Telling you much about the plot would ruin the twists and turns, but as stated in the program, Bo,  a streetwise burglar breaks into Ata’s apartment which has already been completely emptied out of furniture by her philandering husband, Wib – the two of them, together with getaway driver Robbie, join forces to take Wib for all he’s worth.

With multiple twists and turns, the (very) funny script takes these two oddball women for a ride.

Elisha Kranz is a fine agoraphobic (and that’s only the beginning of it) Ata, and Tomi Dres is a good Bo. The two of them play off of each other well (as should be in a piece that primarily focuses on the two of them). Christopher Ankney makes his stage debut as the funny Robbie, and David Widmayer is hilarious as he creates a strange and nasty Wib.

Cami Fussey has directed the piece with an eye to character development while letting the jokes flow naturally and rapidly — things feel like the characters are discovering these quirks (and strengths) as the audience does, and it all flows nicely — no matter how absolutely bizarre. The 1:40 piece flies by (there is one intermission). Everything looks terrific on the set designed by Cami and built and lit by Scott Fussey.

Stage Managed by Lisa Gavan, Produced by Christopher Ankney, Light and Sound operated by Nate Dewey, and Production Assisted by Dane Larsen.

Today’s educational moment: nobody really knows who playwright “Jane Martin” is — though almost all of his/her works originate at Actors Theatre of Louisville and there is constant speculation online about who the writer (or possible writers) are. The playwright’s name is a disambiguation.

I had a great time, and I think you will too. There’s only one more chance to see it today – this afternoon (sunday June 18th) at AACT’s studio – 322 W. Ann Street — tickets at the door.

Highly Recommended.

 

 

Almost, Maine – terrific theater at AACT (Review) March 13, 2017

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This past weekend, Ann Arbor Civic Theatre presented John Cariani’s play ALMOST, MAINE – and it was COMPLETELY, PERFECT.

I wish I had been able to get a review out after opening night, but I was opening my own show this past weekend so I didn’t get a chance to see the play until its final Sunday performance. None-the-less I didn’t want to let this one slip by.

Kat Walsh did a remarkable job of directing this hilarious (and at times whimsical and romantic and dramatic and heartbreaking and uplifting) production — tightly directed and spot-on throughout — never losing site of its actors, and never making a mis-step at any point. In fact, some of the scenes here were clearer and better directed than any other production of this play that I have seen. Kudos to Kat.

It helps when you have a remarkable cast like the one assembled for this production. By expanding the cast to have different actors portraying the different people (the show can also be done with a handful of people playing all of the different roles), the town of Almost felt well populated and (almost) like you knew every one of them.

Andrew Benson, Elizabeth Docel, Matthew Flickinger, Chris Grimm, Lawrence Havelka, Chris Joseph, Rachel Kohl, Alexandra Berneis, Joe Lopez, Matthew Miller, Scot Mooney, Sara Rose, Codi Sharp, Megan Shiplett, and Michelle Weiss comprised the excellent ensemble cast, and I really can’t point to one over another. There are scenes in the show that I like more than others, but this group of talented actors were each terrific.

Nathan Doud’s set design was sparse and gorgeous – I particularly liked the constellation design on the stage floor. Angeline Fox Maniglia’s costume design was wonderful – and the peeling of layers in one particular scene one of the funniest things I’ve seen in ages (and even funnier because those of us who live in cold climes know exactly what was going on there). Chris Simko’s lighting design was wonderful and tightly integrated into the scene work. In short, this production was beautifully designed and executed.

Congratulations to cast and crew on a wonderful production of Almost, Maine. One that was so cuddly and warm it (almost) made you want to move to that fictional town.

Very Highest Recommendation.

Almost, Maine has concluded it run, which appeared March 9 – 12th 2017 at the Arthur Miller Theatre, presented by Ann Arbor Civic Theatre. 

Stratford Festival 2016 – A sampler (Reviews) June 18, 2016

Posted by ronannarbor in A Little Night Music, All My Sons, As You Like It, Musicals, Plays, Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Love the play, Stratford Festival 2016, Theatre.
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2016playbill_SIL-N-W_rec

The Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario. Canada) has grown from a small theater-in-a-tent company to one that is the largest, longest, and most varied theater festival in North America. Every year, the company now produces 15 shows in repertory, 4 shows each day from May through October. Unless you are the heartiest of theater goers, one gets a sampling of shows during a typical 2 or three days visit.  On my latest visit, I saw the following:

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE — is everything you would imagine. Very faithfully following the movie script, the production is the American premier of the West End play — in fact, it IS the West End play, complete with the same sets, costumes, and blocking. I’m going to guess that Stratford, in exchange for presenting the show at their festival, will be given the option to produce it on Broadway, where it should move. Its a fun near-three hour romp through Shakespearean London and a disguised love story. I had a great time, as did the audience from the comments after the show. I’m giving this one 4.5 out of 5 stars and highly recommend it. At the Avon Theatre.

ALL MY SONS — the searing drama by Arthur Miller is performed in the round at the Tom Patterson theatre. The production is, in a word, devastating. If you know the show, you’ll find some wonderful nuances here in a superb color-blind-casting production. If you don’t know the show, don’t read about it in advance. You’ll love the drama and by the end of the evening you will feel like you have been eaves-dropping on your neighbors. This is one of the strongest ensemble casts I have ever seen in a Stratford production.  5 Stars out of 5. Highest Recommendation.

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC — is gorgeous. Leave it to Canada to produce the most beautiful productions of American musicals. (the Festivals A CHORUS LINE is also getting raves at the Festival Theater). Starting in a semi-steampunk type city sequence in Act One with its browns and blacks — the show opens up once they head to the Armfeldt manse in the country where colors switch to whites and creams. The cast is super, the music is wonderful, and I loved this production. At the Avon Theatre. 5 stars out of 5. Highest recommendation.

AS YOU LIKE IT — or, “You Won’t Like It” aka “As You Don’t Like It” at the Festival Theatre is terrible. It is presented as an “audience participation” show, complete with audience sometimes holding “tree branches” to create the Forest of Arden, for example — or stars in the balcony to create, well, stars. You get a nice canvas bag of “stuff” you are supposed to use but get to keep when you are done. Friends have already nicknamed it a “barf bag”.  I did get to hold a sheep-sound-maker that I got to turn over every time they said “love” in one sequence with the shepherd, and it was at least funny. Then I left at intermission. If you are 13 years old, you might enjoy the antics which (for better or worse) do clearly help you understand what is going on — not usually a problem with As You Like It. If you are not 13, you will think the show is condescending and tries to make you have “fun” but you are not having “fun” and the participation becomes annoying. This production is the first time I have witnessed people walking out DURING the show. Many more left at intermission, including myself. 1 out of 5 stars. Not Recommended at all.

I’ll update this if I get out to the Festival to see some additional shows this summer.