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Charming “A Christmas Story the Musical” at Encore (Review) November 27, 2022

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The Encore Musical Theatre Company wishes you a Merry Christmas by way of their wonderful production of “A Christmas Story the musical”, based on the movie, with book by Joseph Robinette and Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Everything in this production just clicks and even brings a tear to your eye on occasion in this charming musical telling of the annual favorite. From sets to costumes to lighting and acting the production is fantastic. The orchestra is particularly wonderful, under the direction of R. Mackenzie Lewis. Artistic Director Dan Cooney does a very fine job of making this show sing, move along quickly, and charm. Choreographer Jillian Hopper creates fun numbers for both the adults and the kids. The many many many many costumes by Marilee Dechart (adults) and Sandee Koski (kids) are terrific. Anne Donevan creates fun and period appropriate props. It plays out on Shane Cinal’s double-decker set.

But the real charmers here are the cast members. Gavin Cooney is really great as Ralphie upon whom the entire production turns. Jessica Grové as mother and David Moan as the old man are superb, and even more superb in their scenes together. Cora Steiger is a hoot as Randy. This is a stage family that feels like a real family (and two of them are!…Lolly Cooney also appears in the kids ensemble). 

The many kids in the show are personable, funny, strong singers and movers, and look like they are having the time of their lives. The adult ensemble is also strong and get to play everything from neighbors and friends, to Higbee’s department store elves. Alley Ellis turns in a particularly good performance as Miss Shields the teacher, as does Brian Cowan who plays a warm and entertaining Jean Shepherd (Narrator). 

But the show revolves around the family at the center of it all and this is where this production finds it’s strong beating heart. Only a Scrooge will not find themselves tearing up a bit in the show’s final moments…or perhaps during Grové’s “Just Like That” – one of the finest songs written about the small moments that go into being a mother (and why the song has become a staple on Broadway radio programming). 

Highest Recommendation.

A Christmas Story the Musical runs at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter MI through December 18th. Tickets at theencoretheatre.org or 734-268-6200.

Lovely Little Women, The Dio, Review November 20, 2022

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Back in 2005, Sutton Foster created a stirring Jo March in the short lived Broadway musical Little Women, written by Allan Knee, Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, and Music by Jason Howland. The audience was faced with a beautiful act curtain upon entering, with handwritten pages of Jo’s “Little Women” book, and I was entranced by the entire production, including Maureen McGovern as Marmee. It ran less than six months but garnered a sizable following because of its lush old-fashioned score and rising star Foster and her big belt numbers in the show.

In 2011 I reviewed a production that Steve DeBruyne directed at Encore Musical Theatre Company. Last night it was my pleasure to see a new and very different production also helmed by Steve at The Dio. 

Most likely you know the story – the four March Sisters are alone in Concord while their father is off serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. It spends very little time focusing on wartime, rather focusing on the small (and large) family events in the March family – their romances, their squabbles, and one heartbreaking death. 

The production plays out on Matt Tomich’s beautiful double-decker set; with lively direction by DeBruyne and graceful choreography by Grace Nulson. Performed to a track, the crisp musical direction is by Lisa Merte. Costumes by Normal Polk, wig design by Chloe Grisa, and Props by Eileen Obradovich are lovely. It’s a very large production to be sure, but it moves quickly and professionally from scene to scene in the limited space. The final sequence in the garden is particularly nice. If there is a technical squabble, it is that the actors sometimes struggle to match their songs to the pacing of the tracked music rather than singing more naturally and having the orchestra follow them – which results in some occasional pacing issues.

The cast is uniformly superb – Anna Dreslinki Cooke makes a lively and funny Jo March and her sisters Beth (Anne Koziara), Amy (Maddie Ringvelski) and Meg (Sarah Brown) are outstanding in their respective roles. Marlene Inmann gets to sing Marmee’s fantastic songs and she is remarkable. Anne Bauman plays a snide and fun Aunt March and doubles as Mrs Kirk in the boarding house in New York.  The men are equally impressive: Steve DeBruyne as John Brooke, Tyler J Messinger as Laurie, Dan Morrison as his father Mr Lawrence, and Sam Wright as Professor Bhaer (you know where that storyline is going from his first lines) are all good in their parts.

As we left the theater last night, we emerged to a winter wonderland of fresh snow – and the evening (dinner, show, friends, and snow) was, in the words of the most famous song from the show, astonishing.           

Highly Recommended.

Little Women continues at The Dio through December 23rd although all performanes are sold out. You can check for cancellations through the theater by phone only (517) 672-6009

A reminder on reviews October 25, 2022

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I am usually overwhelmed with requests to review shows in SE Michigan. I can only review a limited number per month. Just a rundown on reviews:

I review primarily musicals, but occasionally plays are not out of the question. In general I need to want to see the show, so that usually excludes smaller works that have not been produced on Broadway or hold some unique quality.

I am happy to accept a pair of comps but I traditionally pay for my own tickets. Attendance does not guarantee a review.

If you are a professional theater I will review the show good or bad. If you are an amateur theater I will review it if it is of top quality and deserves a review. I will traditionally not review amateur theater that is not of top quality. I will rarely if ever review educational theater unless it’s a college theater preparatory program.

Finally, I will neither attend nor review productions where masks are required as neither the CDC nor AEA require them at this time. This impacts only a small handful of theaters still enforcing antiquated protocols.

Catch a lovely Peter and the Starcatcher at Croswell (Review) October 15, 2022

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Ben Bascuk as Peter leads the cast in a scene from “Peter and the Starcatcher” at the Croswell Opera House. Next to him is Reed Schwieterman; surrounding, from left to right, are Virginia Atkinson, Kai Mattoon, Conner Raymond, Meg McNamee, Aaron Treadway, Peter Crist, Kylie McElrath, Terry Hissong, Luke Gorsuch, Molly Humphries, Eric Stone, Gage Sterling and Ella Flumignan.Photo courtesy Ashlee Sayles Croswell Opera House c 2022

Peter and the Starcatcher, winner of 5 Tony awards in 2012 and oft-produced nationwide opened last night at the Croswell Opera House and it is a lovely evening of theater, music, color, storytelling, and maybe a slight tear in your eye. 

Based on the 2004 children’s book, the story tells of two ships crossing the sea to deliver something of rare value in a chest. What follows is story theater of the highest order as tale after tale spins out a quick succession of backstories for Peter Pan, Mrs Darling, Captain Hook, the crocodile, the lost boys, Neverland, and even Tinkerbell. 

There’s lovely stagecraft in this production, and star-stuff sequences are particularly pretty. But stagecraft is all secondary in this show to the performances themselves, and they are terrific here. Julianne Dolan directs, Todd Schreiber musical directs, and Dean Shullick choreographs a terrific cast of 15 actors of all ages and two musicians. 

While it’s not a musical, there is a lot of music, both songs and underscoring. While it’s not a dance show, there is dance. While it’s not a drama, there is drama. While it is not a pure comedy, there is a tremendous amount of comedy. There’s a reason this show is staged nationwide by casts of all ages and experience levels. 

Ben Bascuk (Peter), Kylie McElrath (Molly), and Peter Crist (Black Stache) are tremendous leads of power and talent. They are supported by a who’s who of Croswell Opera House performers (only one of whom is making their Croswell debut) and they are all fantastic. 

I was particularly fond of Crist’s Black Stache, as he chews the scenery, his fake mustache, and ultimately, well you find out why Captain Hook has an, um, hook. Always fantastic to see Terry Hissong onstage and his Smee is funny and touching. 

If you have seen Starcatcher before, do not hesitate to see it again – this production is noteworthy for its great performances but also the color and splashes of whimsy created by scenic/lighting designer Crosby Slupe, and costume designer Alexandria Szczotka.  If you have never seen Starcatcher before, by all means check it out and find out why it has quickly become one of America’s favorite plays.

Peter and the Starcatcher continues through October 23rd at Croswell Opera House, downtown Adrian, MI. Tickets at croswell.org

Lyle Lyle Crocodile, and Amsterdam October 7, 2022

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Lyle Lyle Crocodile (4/5 stars) is a terrific, tuneful, and fun family movie that all ages will enjoy. They sort of hide the fact that it is a musical in its trailers. The songs (sung by Shawn Mendes) are by Pasek and Paul and they are catchy and you’ll find yourself buying the album after the movie. I really enjoyed Lyle. (note: no crocodiles or cats were harmed in this movie, because no real crocodiles or cats appear — the CGI is remarkable). It’s not a great film, but it’s a good one, and its just the kind of thing I wish we had more of right now.

Amsterdam (4/5 stars) is a love-it-or-hate-it star studded murder mystery from director David O Russell, who loves broken people and you get lots of that here. It takes place between the world wars, and I loved this film, which plays out like a novel – alternating voices from character to character, and introducing a huge variety of actors (everyone wants to work with O Russell). If you are not a fan of slow-moving, character driven stories, this won’t be for you, and critics overall are divided. I loved it. It looks magnificent in IMAX and everything feels larger than life. Christian Bale is magnificent. If you are a fan of Taylor Swift she appears in the film. If you are not a fan of Taylor Swift, you’ll enjoy the scene about 10 minutes in. This is a great movie weekend! Go out, see something, and have fun at the movies!

Everybody say Yeah to Kinky Boots (Review – Croswell Opera House) September 19, 2022

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Guest review by Patty Mazzola. Photo courtesy Croswell Opera House.

If you haven’t yet purchased tickets for “Kinky Boots,” at The Croswell Opera House, September 16th-25th, what are you waiting for? With a book by Tony-winner Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Tony- and Grammy-winner Cyndi Lauper, the show hits all the right notes and so does the local production team and cast. Go see it!

Based on the 2005 British film of the same name, the story follows Charlie Price, a simpleton, who having begrudgingly inherited his father’s failing shoe factory, finds his true self through an unlikely partnership with a drag queen. The factory–and essentially the entire small town–go from unstable to unstoppable in their fight to keep food on the table and shoes, er boots, on their feet. The factory goes from being in the red to seeing red to embracing red in all its kinky glory.

I have no other KB production to compare this one to, but I’m very pleased my first experience was at the Croswell. Those who have seen a previous production already knew what a joyful experience it would be; you could feel the electricity in the audience even before the curtain went up. The entire cast was so fully invested in their characters, including British accents, that I was somewhat transported. Director/Choreographer Debra Ross Calabrese, Conductor Adam P. Miller and the entire creative team presented a tight production; every note, entrance, step, and look had meaning, from the beautiful opening harmonies to the final exuberant number. Scenic Designer Doug Miller created a [dare I say] “soleful” factory set with so much depth that, along with the lighting (designed by Crosby Slupe) and the detailed set dressing, the audience could feel the importance and weight the factory carries in the townsfolk livelihood. Then the factory transforms into a glittering stage show in seconds, with a colorful boost from Costume Designer Tallie Carter.

There is no question about the talents of seasoned performers Leonard Harris (Lola/Simon) and Dan Clair (Charlie) whose touching duet, “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” is tragically beautiful. Dara Pardon (Lauren) is fantastic as another character you find yourself rooting for. In fact, the whole supporting cast, including Lauren Goyer (Nicola), Ron Baumanis (George), Wesley Grudzien (Harry), Taylor Goodin (Trish), Rachel Ogger(Pat), Phil Skeldon (Mr. Price), Thomas J. Koch II (Don) and Byron Taulton (Simon Sr.) each have their moments to shine. Young Lola and Charlie (Trae Wesson and Alex Coumoundouros respectively) will surprise you with their mature performances and agility. Jarrod Alexander, Mikey Del Vecchio, Domonique Glover and Skye Rodriguez are so spectacular as the Angels. Take me to the Land of Lola, anytime, anywhere.

This show will absolutely raise you up. And who doesn’t need a lift these days? I highly recommend this production. Everybody Say Yeah!

Kinky Boots continues at Croswell Opera House through September 25th – croswell.org

“Medieval” is a violent but fascinating film September 6, 2022

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Medieval (called Jan Źiźka internationally) arrives in time to salvage an early September weekend with original programming. Set in the early days of Czech Bohemian hero Jan Źiźka’s formative mercenary years, it’s a story most Americans are not at all familiar with.

In the early 1400’s the Catholic Church is in such disarray that there are two popes…one in Italy and one in France. In order to install a new King, the Holy Roman Empire needs the blessing of the Italian Pope. Źiźka and his men are paid to protect King Wenceslas on his journey, but things fall apart right from the getgo. See, there’s another King who also wants to be crowned by the Pope. What follows is an origin story for Źiźka based on familial revenge, a kidnapped lady in waiting, and shifting allegiances in the very volatile Bohemian world.

Źiźka was known for innovative “modern” warfare techniques and these are on full display here in bone-crunching, smoke-filled, violent sequences not for the squeamish. But there is more at play here. The film beautifully illustrates the horrors of war not when hoards of thousands skirmish with opposing hoards of thousands…but rather how battles are won a few dozen warriors at a time. It’s intimate and dangerous and ultimately grisly and violent.

The cast is uniformly solid with particularly good performances by Michael Caine and Matthew Goode. Sophie Lowe holds her own against the ridiculous men around her, and Ben Foster brings his serious sense of acting to his leading role.

Medieval is the most expensive Czech film ever made, although it was only bankrolled with an English speaking cast. So there is that.

I left highly satisfied, even if the final act gets a bit Shakespearean by its conclusion. Not recommended for those who have light stomachs for grim, bloody, decapitating violence, but if you stick with this, I think you will also feel fulfilled by this captivating tale. And it will probably send you to Google these people, some real, some added for the story.
Recommended. Opens Sept 9th nationwide and overseas.

Beast is an okay thriller/adventure film. August 16, 2022

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Idris Elba packs up his two daughters after the death of their mother for a fun-filled African savannah vacation. There is playful banter and “serious talk” as they set off on their adventure. Unfortunately, there is a large lion on the loose in the vicinity of their camp, and its mad and out for blood.

There’s lots of blood.

Nicknamed “Jaws on land” months before opening, the moniker isn’t far from wrong. You will most likely figure out who lives and who survives early in the short 90-minute film.

But it’s a fun ride to the conclusion, with Elba getting to star in another action adventure film and he gets to punch a lion. No really, they have him punching a lion. There’s lots of mumbo jumbo about poachers and how the lion is out for revenge against all people now. But really, he punches the lion.

Directed by Baltasar Kormakur, with a script from Ryan Engle, it’s a zippy hour and a half that is a good run time for this film. Expect it to head to streaming video pretty quickly, although there isn’t much else opening for the next few weeks so that it might cling to the box office for awhile.

If you go, beware it is rated R for language, bloody violence, and heart-pounding thrills. Kind of like riding Steel Vengeance at Cedar Point with blood added. It’s up to you to know your kids and their tolerance level for this type of bloody adventure. It’s scary enough that I’d probably leave my under 13’s at home for sure.

End of summer fun, with Bullet Train and The Gray Man (reviews) August 2, 2022

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BULLET TRAIN, set aboard a speeding 180 mph train traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto is an action thriller from David Leitch, the director of the John Wick series. It stars Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, and a handful of other racially diverse actors. This is the last of the big new summer movies this season.

Five assassins are out to get a McGuffin briefcase and the film is colorful, funny, and ultra violent, as you would expect from the director of John Wick. It is based on a Japanese novel, and there is some international controversy since Leitch chose to cast the film with a racially diverse mix of primarily Americans, while the original novel and the story itself take place entirely in Japan with Japanese characters. Make of that what you will.

Bullet Train is rated R, and it will appeal to folks who enjoy films like Fast and Furious but secretly wish those films were far more violent. Its showing exclusively in movie theaters.

THE GRAY MAN is an espionage thriller from the Russo Brothers (Avengers:Endgame, Everything Everywhere All At Once) but less creative than their normal fair. It’s clearly meant to be the first in a franchise series for star Ryan Gosling. There are 11 more novels after this one in the series. 

Think of this as Jason-Bourne Lite. The pieces are all there, but they are not as smart, and not as exciting as the Bourne films. Chris Evans plays an outstanding bad guy, and you will have a hard time associating him with any of the hero movies where he has played Captain America. Bravo to Chris Evans.

The Gray Man is rated PG-13 and will appeal to those who like more standard spy thrillers but secretly wish they were far less interesting. Its playing in select theaters and it’s streaming on Netflix.

Forgotten Musicals Part 2: They’re Playing Our Song (1979) July 24, 2022

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Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz, Photo: Martha Swope

When a show is as huge a hit as They’re Playing Our Song was, you’d think everyone would know it, right? Well, not in this case.

Running for over three years in NYC with major productions in LA and London’s West End, the musical has a storyline based on the real world relationship of Carole Bayer Sager and Neil Simon — with book and lyrics written by the two, and music written by Marvin Hamlish.

Starring comedian Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz, it’s a two-character show with a 6-member backup of “egos” for both Robert and Lucie. While it seems like a small show, it had an enormous set by Douglas W Schmidt including the first use of stage-wide moving projections. 

A movie was planned and sold to Columbia, but never made. Nominated for awards across the board, it won none losing out to Sweeney Todd that same season. Bad timing for the show. (It’s other competition that year? Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Ballroom). It had a terrific tv commercial that ran day and night in NYC.

Neil Simon’s hilarious one-liners were on full display, which came naturally to comedian Robert Klein, with Lucie Arnaz making her Broadway debut with precision timing and a natural comedic style she no doubt learned from her mother (Lucille Ball).

The show had a series of headliners over the years after the original cast left — and there was talk of friction between Klein and Arnaz, the most famous being Klein’s boredom with playing the same role and reciting the same lines night after night, being a standup comedian…Lucy would act by looking at Klein and making eye contact…Robert would act by looking at the audience and playing all the jokes to them. The friction increased throughout the run, although it was never apparent from the audience side of the stage. They remained friends after the show closed. 

Some of the songs are more familiar than the show itself – many of them becoming standards at the time recorded by Jack Lawrence, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, and others. The script itself was reviewed as reflective of Simon’s The Goodbye GIrl and other comedies of the era. 

Rarely produced, it is a show that is appropriate for both large and small theaters, although  some of the laughs and jokes are now dated so it remains strictly a show trapped in time during the late 70’s.

With songs like “If He Really Knew Me”, “I Still Believe in Love”, and “Just for Tonight”, it’s a cast album you really should have in your collection.