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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

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SNOW CANCELLATIONS SE Michigan Fri 02/18 February 9, 2018

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***************************************************
SNOWMAGEDDON THEATER UPDATE for FRI 2/9
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Dark Tonight:
Williamston Theatre – Our Lady of Poison
Purple Rose – Flint
Penny Seats – Edges
Hillberry Theatre – The Colored Museum
Puzzle Piece Theatre – Crimes of the Heart
Dexter Community Players – Alice in Wonderland
Tipping Point – Every Brilliant Thing
Horizon Performing Arts – Disaster the Musical

Performing Tonight:
The Dio – Murder at the Howard Johnsons
Encore Musical Theatre – Million Dollar Quartet
Theater Nova – Constellations
Fisher Theater – Finding Neverland
Stranahan – Beautiful

Updating as I get notification (last update 4:50 pm)

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.

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

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

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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. 

Beautiful and gut-wrenching “Finding Neverland” at Wharton Center, East Lansing (Tour Review) December 13, 2017

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A beautiful touring production of “Finding Neverland” opened at East Lansing’s Wharton Center last night as it continues across the US following a solid Broadway run.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the story of this musical. If not, it follows JM Barrie’s creation of the stage play Peter Pan, based on his romance with Sylvia LLewelyn Davies and her children, drawing inspiration and ideas from them, as well as others in his life, including his mentor and theater impresario Charles Forhman.

Finding Neverland is about your imagination, and believing in yourself and those around you — but even more-so, it is about grief, and death, and finding strength in yourself, friends, and family, to go on with life, to see the beauty around you, and to reach for your dreams.

Barrie here is played by the remarkable Billy Harrigan Tighe and he is the most athletic and best dancer I have seen in this role (previously Matthew Morrison and Kevin Kern). His voice soars on Gary Barlow’s many ballads and pop numbers, as does that of the lovely Lael Van Keuren as Sylvia – here, interpreted as warmer and more socially engaged than in the Broadway production. Karen Murphy is outstanding as Sylvia’s mother, and never lets the requisite dourness overwhelm sadness and caring. Matthew Quinn took on the role of Frohman/Captain Hook and was wonderful last evening. He has terrific stage presence and a full voice. This part is normally played by John Davidson, but I can’t imagine anyone else filling those boots better. The entire ensemble is superb in their dance numbers and songs and the many characters they fill, from house servants to characters in Peter Pan.

All four of the Llewelyn Davies children are outstanding, including Ann Arbor’s own Connor Jameson Casey. The children rotate from performance to performance, but these are lovely full-bodied performances that never become too cute or too cloying. It all comes to a head in the gut-wrenching “When Your Feet don’t touch the ground” as Barrie counsels Peter to keep his thoughts (and emotions) above the clouds while Peter frets that he is forever tethered to reality. Its a lovely number that brings out the first big wave of hankies in the audience. But never fear, there are at least three more major tear-spillers to come and I won’t give those away.

Intact from the Broadway production are Diane Paulus’s very good direction, Mia Michaels clever choreography, Scott Pask’s beautiful set design with projections by Jon Driscoll and Lighting by Kenneth Posner. And never fear, the “air sculpting” of Daniel Wurtzel is here, and when the time comes, it looks magnificent in the Wharton Center’s tall proscenium.

For Broadway fans of the show, you will note that the first 20 minutes of the show is completely rewritten from the Broadway production — gone are the original “If the World turned upside Down” (it appears briefly later) and the rock-infused “Everyone in London is Here” performed post opening night — instead, characters are introduced in Kensington Gardens and action flows directly into the park scene, omitting opening night completely save for a few lines from Frohman. Instead, there is a peppy and clever opening number “Welcome to London” (new) and “My Imagination” which appears on the cover-album of songs from the show performed by celebrities (John Legend sings that one). This will no doubt be the version of the show that is released eventually for nationwide performance to other groups, so you’re seeing it here first. Still, I have never seen a Broadway show go out on tour with such an extensive re-write of the opening, especially when it worked well as it is on Broadway for 18 months.

I go on record as stating that I loved Finding Neverland in NYC, and I love it in its tour version. I particularly enjoyed Billy Harrigan Tighe’s performance as Barrie — in fact, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of him. But Neverland is just a good solid “modern” but “classic” American book musical. It doesn’t depend on spectacle, although there is some, and it doesn’t depend on music alone, although it sounds great; but it does depend on solid story-telling, and it has that here in spades. I found both Finding Neverland and An American in Paris to be far stronger musicals than Fun Home which won the Tony in 2015. What a joy to have had them both at Wharton Center in the first half of this touring season.

If you are cold-hearted and a dour-puss to begin with, this is probably not the show for you. But if you are like me, and are ready for an evening of laughter, entertainment, and some heartfelt and shamelessly manipulated emotion, you will love this beautiful production of Finding Neverland, performed with loving care, the second star from the right.

Very Highest Recommendation

Finding Neverland continues at the Wharton Center through December 17th. It returns to Detroit’s Fisher Theatre from February 6-18th.

Laugh Your Seasonal Cares Away with “The Year Without a Panto Claus” at Theatre Nova December 4, 2017

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Guest review by Wendy Wright

If you love slapstick, song and dance and sly political humor, then you need to run down to the Yellow Barn, where Theatre Nova is staging its annual Christmas “Panto” based on the classic holiday story “The Year Without a Santa Claus” called (what else) “The Year Without a Panto Claus”. As in past years this original piece is written by Founding Artistic Director, Carla Milarch and her frequent music collaborator R. MacKenzie Lewis. The direction is provided by Melissa Freilich.

If you are unfamiliar with this British Christmas tradition, Milarch described it perfectly in an interview she did recently with Emily Slomovits for the Ann Arbor District Library’s Pulp:

“I always describe a panto as a mash-up of a musical comedy, stand-up comedy, a vaudeville act, and an old-fashioned melodrama, with a heaping helping of The Three Stooges thrown in. There’s a good deal of falling down, chases, booing the villain, cheering the hero, political humor, and jokes — and, of course, candy for the kids.”

In summarizing this year’s show, Milarch continues:

“The premise of the play is that 2017 has been a bummer of a year, and Santa, like many of us, is starting to feel too depressed to carry on with life as usual. So, he decides to cancel Christmas. Jingle and Jangle the elves then set off on a hilarious journey to parts hither and yon to find some Christmas spirit to get Santa back in the saddle.”

Those who remember the characters of the Heat Miser and the Snow Miser will find a striking similarity between them and a couple of politicians who faced off a year ago. The new lyrics penned for Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and (my personal favorite) Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”, will bring a chuckle or two.

The trio of actors playing multiple roles this year are Lisa Michaels, Ramona (Lucius) Burns and Scott Screws each of whom bringing their individual strengths to the stage. Michaels has a lovely singing voice, Burns can establish a real connection with the audience, while Screws has some wonderful comic timing. Alternating in the role of young Iggy are William Powers and Coleman Grengs. I was lucky enough to see Mr. Powers who, although only in fourth grade, has a list of professional credits and is clearly his mother (Milarch) and father’s (Phil Powers) son. He has presence and poise well beyond his years. Also joining the cast for each performance will be a different special guest. I saw the local duo Gemini who performed a song.

The sets by Forrest Hejkal, lights by Allan McMillan and costumes by Cal Schwartz are colorful and work well. The props by Becky Fox are fun and original. Director Freilich keeps the pace lively during the nonstop 100 minutes and I’m sure the lag in some of the more complicated transitions will smooth themselves out as the run continues.

The audience of all ages was smiling ear to ear. If you’re looking for some holiday fun for the entire family, this is the place to be.

Recommended

“The Year Without a Panto Clause” runs Dec. 1-31 at Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor. For tickets and more information, visit theatrenova.org.

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.

 

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.

 

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).