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High-Energy “In the Heights” is Terrific (Croswell Opera House) July 15, 2017

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There’s a high energy, dancing, hip-hopping, laughing, crying, cheering, whooping production of “In The Heights” that opened last night at the Croswell Opera House and it is terrific.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony-award-winning musical (perhaps you’ve heard of his second: “Hamilton”) centers on family and home and finding your place in a world that is always familiar and always changing. Set in Washington Heights in NYC (its north of the George Washington Bridge for you non-New Yorkers) in the late 2000’s it foreshadows the gentrification that occurred in that area, forcing out its many hispanic and latino immigrants and businesses over the past decade on its way to becoming Manhattan’s hipster-haven.

Debra Ross Calabrese has done a great job of directing this (much larger than it looks) production, and every move and step has a meaning and a purpose. Scenes flow seamlessly from one to the other thanks to Stephanie Busing’s solid set and projection design. Libby Garno’s dance steps are fun and dynamic. Dave Rains does a great job musical directing this cast and leading a fantastic pit orchestra. Costume designer Natalie Kissinger makes everybody look terrific on stage and captures the eclectic look of urban New York City, and Tiff Crutchfield’s lighting design looks beautiful, Chris Goosman’s sound design is very good.

The cast is led by terrific Jonathan Tobar as Usnavi in a Lin-Manuel-like performance that is eery in its similarities and his high energy, and the superb Alaina Kerr as Nina. Benny is played by the always excellent Derrick Jordan, and Usnavi’s love-interest by the wonderful Katelyn Lesle. John Bacarella and Lydia DiDo Schafer are great as Nina’s parents, Anthony Contreras is a fun and energetic Sonny, and Melissa Paschall plays a warm and lovely Abuela. Carissa Villanueva and Libby Garno (who also did the fantastic choreography) are a hoot as salon owner and employee Daniela and Carla. In other roles, CJ Mathis, Rudy Gonzalez and Zachary Flack are all spot-on.

The entire ensemble lifts the energy throughout with a near-constantly choreographed evening. The Dance Ensemble consists of Breah Duschl, Morgan McConnell, Nik Owen, Emily Kapnick, Michael Rywalski, and Xavier Sarabia. Pick one of them and follow their course over the production and you’ll see just how much dancing there is in this show. The rest of the ensemble is also great: Tyaira Smith Adamson, Brok Boze, Leigh Christopher, Lauren DePorre, Emily Ialacci, Merceds Polley, Payton Perry-Radcliffe, Hannah Rowe, and Gabriella Terrones.

Particularly impressive is the work that has gone into diction in this production – great job cast and Dave Rains. In a show that “talks” nearly non-stop in its hip-hop lyrics (“rap” for those of us listening to music long before most of this cast was born) its essential the audience can hear the words, and the work here is very well done.

Also impressive is the massive scale of this show — Debra has filled her stage with so many things going on throughout the stage – near the audience and afar, on stoops, on tenement balconies, in windows. It has a great “New York” feel to it. Good work.

And then there is the Lin-Manuel Miranda score. You can hear the melodies of Hamilton forming here already – when the cast sings about being “powerless” you can already recognize the chord structures and hip-hop rhythms that he brings to full force in his latter piece. Here, its beautifully integrated with salsa and a tuneful beat-filled score. If you aren’t a huge Hamilton fan, rest assured, the majority of this score is still standard broadway show tunes, albeit set to a more urban beat.

“In the Heights” places its emphasis and heart squarely in the realm of “what is home” and “where do you go to find home” and finding that “home is people not a place”…but what a great place Croswell has created here.

Very Highest Recommendation.

A few tickets remain for the rest of the run at Croswell.org. In the Heights runs through July 23rd. I’d suggest you get your tickets immediately.

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

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals, Uncategorized.
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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.

 

How to Navigate Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom June 10, 2017

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Pandora is Disney’s latest attraction to open at Walt Disney World in Animal Kindom (in the old Camp Mickey Minnie area of the park, originally reserved for Beastly Kingdom which never materialized).

It’s a gorgeous (small) new area that is based on the James Cameron movie theming, and it consists of two rides, a gift shop, and a quick service restaurant. Its all themed beautifully to the movie visuals – floating islands, waterfalls that seem to come from nowhere, and a variety of Pandora-type plants. It all comes to life at night when things light up (they refer a lot to “bioluminescence” throughout this area).

Ride-wise, the big Kahouna is “Flight of Passage” – a soarin’-type movie/motion simulator in which you sit on the back of a banshee and soar over (and under) the landscape of Pandora. You sit on an individual motorcycle-type seat with 42 of your best friends stacked three deep on three levels, wear 3D glasses, and not just get to see the movie but feel the banshee breathing beneath you. Its ingenious and by far the most state-of-the-art entertainment out there in the theme park world right now. That also means every man, woman, grandma, and child in the park wants to ride it – and the average ride time was 170 minutes my entire rain-storm deluged trip all week. The line does not get shorter at any point in the day and it starts at 110 minutes 15 minutes within park opening.

The other ride is Na’vi River Journey – a pirates of the Caribbean type water ride without the pirates, drops, or splashes. It’s all pretty as you sail along make-believe plants and watch cleverly integrated projections and eventually visit a shawoman who looks eerily like something out of your worst nightmare. But then she is gone and your fellow 8 passengers and yourself are on dry land running to your next attraction.

I suppose someone thought that this might be a relaxing and pretty part of the park – but that illusion is shattered the moment you arrive. Its crowded beyond anything you have experienced at WDW, and it calls to mind the first few months that HPATFJ was the headliner at universal. Disney even uses similar techniques to manage traffic control – and if it gets too crowded, they permit only resort guests and Passholders who have fastpasses into the area for awhile.

To make matters worse, Disney has tiered the fast passes for both rides — meaning you can only select ONE of them per day (and you better do so 60 days in advance, much like some dining options and Frozen Ever After). To do them both, you need to return on two separate days. So what’s someone to do that doesn’t want to spend two days in over-crowded PANDORA.?

Here’s your strategy even on the worst crowded days to ensure you can do everything and be out of there within one hour.

DAK is currently open 8 am to 11 pm (with resort guests and pass holders able to stay until 1 am through the end of July). Don’t let it fool you – the extended hours mean 170 minute waits until 1 am. IT NEVER GETS SHORTER.

ARRIVE at the park one hour before opening. They open about 7:15 to allow you to go to the next rope drop right at Pandora’s entrance. PUSH AND CLAW your way to the front of this line — make sure you are in the front 100 visitors at the rope drop. DO NOT DAWDLE — do not stop to pee, do not get coffee, do not pull to the side to look at fake plants go immediately to the rope drop.

Once the rope drops follow the crowd to the right into the line for Flight of Passage. DO NOT DAWDLE, do not take selfies, do not stop for photos. GO INTO LINE. Enjoy the ride.

ONCE DONE do NOT SPEND TIME IN THE GIFTSHOP but go directly to Na’vi River Journey. The uninformed will have finished this ride and you will not have more than a 20 minute wait, while they now have a 110 minute wait at Flight. Enjoy Na’vi.

NOW you can dawdle — backtrack to the gift shop (get a avatar that looks like you action figure, or a banshee shoulder puppet, very cool). There are far nicer options for girls than for guys at the giftshop apparel-wise. They serve breakfast at the canteen so go enjoy something in the nicely themed quickserve restaurant. AND YOU ARE DONE. Take a few photos and then get out of there and go see real animals.

A weekend of regional theater offerings in SE Michigan February 26, 2017

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It was a busy weekend of theater going:

URINETOWN, currently being presented by Ridgedale Players in Troy, is funny and audience-pleasing. There is a terrific performance by Kevin Kaminski as Bobby Strong, and Bridget Styles is a very good Hope Cladwell. The set is spiffy with fast scene changes. Not everything is always smooth sailing (who thought it was a good idea not to use mics for the show which is entirely language dependent?) but the show is fun, and there is energy to spare. Drew Dyer needs underwear under his Office Barrel short shorts, but its all in good fun, I guess — though that was a bit more than I needed to see…but once seen it can’t be unseen.

Siena Heights University presented a picture-perfect production of SHE LOVES ME. Kerry Graves directed a valentine of a musical, with standout performances by Becca Nowak as Ilona, Patrick Wallace as Georg, and all around excellent ensemble work by the entire cast. I particularly liked Jordan Hayes-Devloo’s Arpad. Dan Walker’s beautiful turntable set helped the action move silently and quickly from scene to scene. I’d go on gushing about this really pretty production, but it has already closed.

I also very much liked David Francis Kiley’s I’LL BE SEEING YOU – a play that he wrote based on his grandparents love letters back and forth from the US and Europe during WWII. Featuring music of the era sung by Marlene Inman and Robby Griswold and lovely slide work by Anne Kiley. Christina McKim (natalie Rose Sevick at alternate performances) and John DeMerell were touching as Billee and Charles. It has been fun watching this show develop from workshop to final production. I loved it.

Last weekend, a few other shows were on the agenda and I am remiss in not mentioning them here. Sarah Nowak presented SASSY BUUT CLASSY, and evening of cabaret in Adrian. Not only was she joined by some terrific backup singers and a great band, but she got engaged at the Saturday evening performance that I was attending. Congratulations and best wishes to you and yours, Sarah. The evenings raised some much-needed funds for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

And I saw a performance of HEATHERS during the final weekend of that production at Peppermint Creek in Lansing. So happy to see PC continue to take risks and present fare that is a bit edgier. The show was well done with a great cast, led by Adam Woolsey as DJ and Ellie Weise as Veronica. Emma Kron-Deacon played a terrific Heather Chandler. There were some minor miscasts in this production, but it was well-directed and choreographed, well-paced, and the sold-out audiences ate it up. Note to theater mom a few seats down — it is NEVER OKAY to take photos of your daughter during the show every time she is onstage with your iPhone.

This HMS Pinafore is smooth sailing at UMGASS April 9, 2016

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Guest review by Wendy Wright

Let me preface this by admitting that I do not consider myself a Gilbert and Sullivan fan or a fan of opera in general. The only other time I have seen a U of M Gilbert and Sullivan Society production was decades ago when I was in elementary school. That being said, with the current production of H.M.S Pinafore (which continues through Sunday), I can’t say I’ve become a devotee, but I can understand why some people come back year after year.

In brief the story revolves around Josephine (Adina Triolo), the Captain’s (Phillip Rhodes) daughter, who falls for lowly sailor Ralph Rackstraw (an outstanding Tom Cilluffo), but duty demands that she marry the lofty Sir Joseph Porter (Don Regan) instead. The mysterious Little Buttercup (Lori Gould) carries a deeply held secret which involves mistaken identities and reversal of fortunes that ensures that true love will prevail.

Director, David Andrews keeps the pace brisk and the choreography by Beth Shippey Ballback and Phillip Rhodes is fun and doesn’t push the multigenerational cast beyond their abilities. I loved the gorgeous set by Laura Strowe and the colorful and detailed costumes by Marilyn Gouin.

But the reason most people see a Gilbert and Sullivan production is for the music and music director Ezra Donner does not disappoint. Under his direction the large orchestra is nuanced and does not overpower the singers and the chorus sounds terrific. Triolo has a beautiful voice and Cilluffo is a star. His voice actually gave me goosebumps. Another standout is the comic character turn by Andrew Burgmayer as Dick Deadeye (I had the honor of sitting near his proud parents and had the opportunity to tell them how much I enjoyed his performance).

So though, I don’t think Gilbert and Sullivan is particularly my cup of tea. As a big Shakespeare fan who has seen many of his shows multiple times and loves making a pilgrimage to Stratford every summer, I can understand those who have such a passionate devotion to this other pair of Brits. If you are a fan of G & S, I think this version of Pinafore will not disappoint.

HMS Pinafore continues at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater through April 10th with matinees both Saturday and Sunday. Tickets at the door or online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2494971

Touring production of ‘Jackie Robinson’ comes to the Croswell stage February 17, 2016

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The life of Jackie Robinson, the pioneering athlete who helped end racial segregation in professional baseball, will be dramatized for young audiences at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, at the Croswell Opera House in Adrian.

The performance is part of the Croswell’s Spectacular Saturday Series for children and families. A free preshow craft will be offered starting at 10 a.m.

Robinson was born in an era when much of American life, including professional sports, was strictly segregated. He broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 when he became the first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was frequently the target of racial slurs and even physical violence.

The educational play is presented by Bright Star Touring Theatre, which has previously visited the Croswell with shows like last year’s “Rosa Parks and Forgotten Friends” and “The Velveteen Rabbit.”

The play will take young audiences on a journey from Robinson’s childhood, including the valuable lessons he learned from his mother, to his successful 10-year career with the Dodgers. Volunteers will even be able to join Robinson on stage as he learns to overcome bullying without violence.

“This is such an inspiring story about finding your talent, following your dreams and never giving up,” said Jere Righter, artistic director of the Croswell.

Righter added that Bright Star Touring Theatre has become a favorite with families who have attended the Croswell’s Spectacular Saturday Series.

“Their shows are meant for kids, but there’s really something for everyone in them,” she said. “I think the parents come away from these shows having enjoyed them just as much as the kids did.”

The play will last just under an hour.

Admission is $5 per person. Tickets may be purchased at the door, by calling 517-264-7469, or by going to croswell.org.

For more information about the show, as well as a downloadable study guide parents and teachers can use to discuss the show with children, visitcroswell.org/jackierobinson.

If you go

What: “Jackie Robinson”
Where: The Croswell Opera House, 129 E. Maumee St., Adrian
When: Saturday, February 27, at 11 a.m. (with free preshow craft starting at 10 a.m.)
Admission: $5 per person
More information: croswell.org

Very strong cast in Dexter’s Hilarious “Avenue Q” (Review) January 16, 2016

Posted by ronannarbor in Community Theater, musical theater, Musicals, Uncategorized.
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There is a very strong cast in Dexter Community Player’s Avenue Q, now running at the Copeland Auditorium in Dexter, Michigan. Ok, I thought, I’ve now seen so many productions of this show, what could another add to the canon? Well, it is a strong, hilarious cast that makes this production soar.

Under the fast-paced direction of Jason Smith and the excellent musical directorship of Jonathan Sills, the production barrels along with it’s outrageous songs (and lyrics), and it’s foul-mouthed over-sexed puppets (this is absolutely NOT a show for kids, no matter how cute those puppets might be).

N. Leo Snow is superb as Princeton, and Jamie Lynn Buechele a knock-out as Kate Monster. Her “Fine Fine Line” is simply sublime as it ends Act I on a bittersweet note. There’s a big big heart beating inside Avenue Q (one of the reasons it won Best Musical over Wicked), and this cast finds that quickly and isn’t afraid to share it throughout. But the entire cast is terrific — witness Erik Olsen’s excellent Nicky, Jared Hoffert’s over-the-top Trekkie Monster, and Katrina Chizek’s Lucy the Slut.

Rounding out the great cast are: Chris Bryant as Brian, Stacey Smith as his wife Christmas Eve and Keshia Daisy Oliver as Gary Coleman (like Sesame Street, they are the three non-puppet “people” that live in the neighborhood); Antonio Argiero as closeted Rod; Mary Rumman as school teacher Mrs Thistletwat; and the other characters (Bad Idea Bears, singing boxes, Ricky, etc): Amanda Burch, Neil Clennan, and Eric Redfern.

Sills’ 6-piece combo band sounds great. The set by David Chapman is Avenue Q pretty. The costumes by Kristi Kuick look sharp. And then there are those amazing puppets.

What didn’t click? Well, sound design is in a word awful. Mics drop in and out consistently (most noticeably on Erik Olsen). Cues are missed throughout so that actors starting speaking offstage are unheard, then come blaring on. There were multiple feedback problems on opening night. Tires squealed instead of a phone ringing. Ironically, the phone rang when a toilet flush is supposed to be heard. The actors cleverly covered those mistakes, but they mar an otherwise excellent production. Also missing on opening night were projections, which I am assured will be there for future shows. I’m hopeful they’ll iron out these problems as the run continues this week and next.

But don’t let that scare you off — this cast is great; and in that small intimate house you can hear (most) of it without the mics. Its a hilarious evening of entertainment that you should not miss.

Highly Recommended.

Avenue Q continues through January 24th at DCP — tickets at dextercommunityplayers.org

 

 

Surprisingly excellent “School of Rock” at the Winter Garden Theatre (Preview review) December 3, 2015

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For the record, School of Rock is still in previews at the Winter Garden Theatre in NYC, though I can’t imagine it isn’t frozen (or close to being frozen) at this point. Seen at the Wednesday Evening Dec 2nd performance, this is a rocking, excellent surprise — and I am going to predict that it gives Hamilton a run for its money at award time.

Featuring almost all of the songs from the original movie, with 14 additional new songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the musical follows the Mike White script pretty closely (re-written for the stage by Julian Fellowes, but don’t worry, you won’t miss any of the signature lines from the movie which all remain). Glenn Slater wrote the additional lyrics for the new songs.

Alex Brightman turns in a superstar performance in the Jack Black role of Dewey Finn (aka Ned once he assumes his “teacher” role). Sierra Boggess turns in a lovely vocal performance as principle Rosalie (though her talent is a bit wasted in this small role), but it is as it should be, because the stars here are Brightman and the kids — and oh, those 13 kids. First, yes, they DO play their own instruments on stage, and the multiracial casting is sublime. Second, you can’t take your eyes off of them — I started picking my favorites, but within a few songs I loved every one of them — and judging from the ecstatic audience reaction last night, so will you. The show receieved a standing ovation before it was even over following their big Battle of the Bands performance.

The entire supporting cast is excellent — but really, it is those kids and the remarkable musical numbers that will keep audiences flocking to the Winter Garden for years, and New York is the perfect market to supply a steady stream of new young talent as these kids grow up and age out of their roles. And you know what, I’ll be back to see them as soon as I can, because I simply loved School of Rock. And you can feel free to take your entire family — the crudity from the movie is toned down, and there isn’t an out-of-place joke that won’t leave you either doubled over or groaning.

It all plays out on a gorgeous accordian-like set that slides, moves, tilts, turns to create school hallways, house interior, classrooms, stages, theatres. The lighting is remarkable for its austerity at the beginning and its outstanding visuals once you hit the rock concert sequence at the end. In fact, its some of the best lighting design I’ve ever seen in a Broadway show (Natasha Katz, of course!).

The last time I felt like this when leaving a theatre was at Kinky Boots — and we all know how that turned out. Expect tony nominations for musical, book, score, Best Actor, lighting, set design, choreography, orchestrations, Scenic design, costume design, sound design.

“The Philadelphia Story” at Ann Arbor Civic Theater – (Review) May 8, 2015

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First, disclosure — I was the marketing liaison for this production, and I did organize the scene changes — that being said, I was not involved in any other way with this production, and since this is my own blog, I can review whatever I want. In the past I have had a guest reviewer, but quite frankly, there isn’t time to do that with only a few more performances at hand…

It is a delight to have The Philadelphia Story back on stage — those of us of a certain age will remember lots of college and community productions of this show, before it went out of fashion many years ago — but it needn’t have…it is just as relevant today as it was in the late 30’s when it was written.  Philip Barry was known for witty patter and his humorous take on society in the 30’s. The Philadelphia Story was written for Kathryn Hepburn for Broadway in 1939, and then gifted to her as a birthday present for the movie version a year later.

Here, Colleen Kartheiser does a great job playing Tracy Lord, society girl on the eve of her second marriage, and the eye-opening journey that ensues when confronted with current beau George Kittredge (solid Adam Weakley), ex-husband CK Dexter Haven (terrific Karl Kasischke), and soulful writer Macauley Connor (excellent Nick Boyer) at the same time. One girl. Three guys. Laughter (and romance) follows. But how those twists and turns follow suit are exactly what makes this show so well written — and why its considered the “original romantic comedy” because of the way the third act plays out in its romantic final moments.

Also terrific is the entire supporting cast, including matriarch Kathleen Beardmore and patriarch Jared Hoffert of the Lord Clan, funny and meddling sister Dinah Megan Shiplett, photographer Alix Berneis (in a subtle underplayed role that makes her story all that more interesting), and additional family, servants, and others (David Angus, Rob Roy, Thom Johnson, Laurie Atwood, Keith Rikli, Lisa Gavan, and Charlie Sutherland.)

It is all played out on a gorgeous revolving set designed by Cathy Cassar, period-gorgeous costumes by Wendy Katz Hiller, period perfect furnishings by Wendy Wright, and nicely lit by Zachary Johnson (I particularly liked the Act II Scene 1 sequence lit outdoors at nightime, with its romantic shadows and surprises lending an almost dreamlike quality to the proceedings.)

Wendy Wright’s direction paces things well, includes plenty of surprises, and makes for a fine evening of theatre — posh enough to depict society life at its best, while adding enough modern-day sensibility to make it all work 75 years later.

A final note: dear audience member the row to my left: if your deaf husband does not understand what is going on, please do NOT explain to him during the show loudly and for all to hear exactly what is going on — oh, and by the way, your interpretation of events wasn’t all that accurate.

I loved the show — you will too. If you are familiar with it already, you will find how remarkably these actors make the roles their own. If you have never seen the show, well you owe it to yourself to see this chestnut in its very pretty incarnation at the Arthur Miller Theater for the rest of this weekend.

Tickets at http://www.a2ct.org/tickets or at the door.

A2CT’s Lucky Stiff is like a warm puppy (Guest Review) March 13, 2015

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A guest review by Wendy Wright!!

—————

A2CT’s Lucky Stiff is Like a Warm Puppy

I must confess upfront that I am a loud and devoted cat fan…dogs, not so much. But A2CT’s production of Lucky Stiff proves that happiness IS a warm puppy. Under the creative and passionate direction of Isaac Ellis, Lucky Stiff sprints along at a break neck speed while keeping the heart intact.

The story revolves around an unassuming English shoe salesman, Harry Witherspoon (Justin Dawes) who is forced to take the embalmed body of his recently murdered Dead Uncle Anthony (Thom Johnson) on a vacation to Monte Carlo. Should he succeed in passing his uncle off as alive, Harry stands to inherit $6,000,000. If not, the money goes to the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn represented by Annabel Glick (Jackie Gubow), or else his uncle’s gun-toting ex, Rita La Porta (Lauren Norris) and her bumbling brother, Vinnie De Ruzzio (Zak Stratton).

The cast is so enthusiastic, well-staged and choreographed (thanks to Ellis and Kat Walsh respectively), that even opening night set and sound problems couldn’t throw them off their game and actually provided some great laughs.

While some of the cast many exude more eagerness than singing ability, the two leading ladies are vocal and acting powerhouses. Jackie Gubow as Annabel Glick combines great comic timing with a beautiful voice, but it’s Lauren Norris’s Rita La Porta that steals the show. Her voice is magnificent, her presence larger than life and her comic fearlessness hysterical. 

You will also spot a different special guest each performance during the nightclub scene in the form of a community luminary. Let’s just hope that the guests to come (Matthew Altruda, Keith Hafner and Ingrid Sheldon) will throw themselves into their parts as completely as current Ann Arbor mayor, Christopher Taylor did on opening night (the man can shake his tail feathers!)

The four piece band under the direction of Jonathan Sills spends the show onstage and sounds great, the costumes by Alix Berneis are adorable and the props by Cassie Mann inventive.

If that isn’t enough, I haven’t even gotten to the DOGS yet. During the preshow and during certain musical numbers a screen above the stage rotates pictures of dogs that are currently available for adoption at the Humane Society of Huron Valley. The partnership is a win-win. The photos really add to the show and I’ll bet more than one of those pups will have found a good home by the end of the weekend (heck, I was tempted and I’m an avowed cat woman).

Credit must also go to A2CT as a whole for continuing to produce these little known gems that you never get to see (a few years ago they tackled another rarity, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater). Other theater companies should take note. Here is a fun, crowd pleasing musical with a manageable cast size. Of course, it might not work as well without an insane genius behind it like Isaac Ellis. 

Lucky Stiff continues tonight and tomorrow at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm at the Arthur Miller Theatre, UM North Campus. Tickets are available by calling (734) 971-0605, at the door or at A2CT.org.