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“Anastasia the musical” is lush, sumptuous, melodic, satisfying. (Review) April 1, 2017

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Disney animated films found competition when Twentieth Century Fox released Anastasia with its beautiful artwork and tuneful score. It has become the favorite of many, and like Newsies, its timing was ripe for parents that needed a VCR to put in their tape player that the kids, in particular girls, could watch over and over to keep them occupied. Even if it had Rasputin as a dead bad guy whose hands and nose kept falling off. The Broadway stage musical is based both on that animated feature as well as the 50’s live action Anastasia (same story, no moldy Rasputin).

That’s a long winded introduction, but what is on stage at the Broadhurst Theatre is lush, sumptuous, melodic, and very highly satisfying. It is one of the finest musicals of this season, even seen in preview.

Animated feature lovers need not worry – Ahrens and Flaherty’s hits “Journey to the Past” and “Once Upon a December” make it onstage intact. Some liberties (for the better) were taken with “A Rumor in St Petersburg”, and this score is augmented by two dozen new songs that are Ahrens and Flaherty at their best – unlike Rocky a few seasons back, this is a melodic and beautiful score that will send you off to iTunes as soon as it is released for download.

Terrence McNally has done a masterful job in rewriting the script so that it resembles an adult musical rather than an animated feature, and better incorporates the horrors of history in Russia at the time (1907, 1917, and 1927). He has created a new foil for Anastasia, Gleb, a party official out to insure that all Romanovs are indeed dead.

Christy Altomare is excellent as Anastasia, and she grows the character over the course of the evening and her transformation into princess for the final scenes is breathtaking. Derek Klena is fine as Dimitri, though the chemistry is far better with Gleb, played by the outstanding Ramin Karimloo, and if you don’t know who he is then you better do a Google search because your musical theater knowledge is lacking. John Bolton is exquisite as Vlad, and uber-talented Caroline O’Connor is outstanding as Countess Lily once the proceedings reach Paris. Mary Beth Piel does a very nice job as Dowager Empress (although her song in Act 2, “Close the Door” should be cut).

But where this musical excels is in the superior sets and costumes (and projections). It has been many years since Broadway has seen a musical this lush and sumptuous. I stopped counting Linda Cho’s amazing costumes and changes. The clothing is stunning, and the “Last Dance of the Romanovs” (later reprised in the ghostly and heartbreaking “Once Upon a December”) is breathtaking.

Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge and Projection Designer Aaron Rhyne have created the type of set that makes you ooh and ahh at many points — a train that hurtles along the tracks toward the audience, and then later away. A turntable that allows for almost instant scene changes. Windows that display snow, and shatter during attacks, and a marvelous reveal of Paris at the end of the first act.

When everything reaches Paris for act two, the show comes alive with life, primarily led by singer dancer Caroline O’Connor and John Bolton.

If there are flaws they are hard to spot here. The show flows beautifully from scene to scene, costumes come one after the other, and the set holds surprises throughout. The addition of Gleb is superb, and I have to admit that I was truly moved by the love triangle created by Gleb/Anastasia/Dmitri.

This is a musical not to be missed. It is one of the most satisfying all-around musicals of the season.

Highest Recommendation.

Quirky “Amelie the musical” is entertaining but lightweight (Review) April 1, 2017

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The movie of Amelie is held by many of us near and dear to our hearts — at it’s heart it is a romantic comedy but it also has something to say about being alone, or not, or being different, or not. Movie fans, rest assured, the musical version maintains the spirit of the film and it doesn’t detract from what is already there. You won’t be disillusioned. But you might be a bit disappointed. You just can’t do on stage what can be done with film, and that applies to this new musical at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

Amelie is a well-done 100-minute intermissionless evening of quirkiness and romantic comedy – populated with a Paris made up of the most charming characters you could ever meet, and none of the drug addicts, pickpockets, prostitutes, and downright rude denizens you actually meet on some of the sidestreets of Montmartre.

Phillipa Soo (Hamilton) is lovely as Amelie. She is charming and, well, quirky. Adam Chandler-Berat is very good as romantic foil Nino, although it feels like he just isn’t given enough to do (and for much of the show he is a member of the ensemble). The small ensemble cast is up to the task of playing quirky, and they do so with energy and talent.

Oh, did I mention the show is quirky? If you are not a fan of quirkiness, probably best to stay away from this one. The audience responded admirably throughout the show, hooting and hollering at requisite times as we are want to do now at musicals geared toward younger audiences and gave the show a standing ovation, just proving that every show now gets a standing ovation, even those that don’t quite deserve it.

The music by Daniel Messe and Lyrics by Nathan Tyson and Daniel Messe are serviceable and melodic, although instantly forgettable. I can’t remember a single tune forty minutes after the performance has ended. The Book by Craig Lucas has been adapted well from the screenplay. The colorful and “quirky” set by David Zinn is lovely. Pam MacKinnon has done a fine job directing the production and insuring that everything is cute and quirky.

Hey don’t get me wrong, this is a good show. And its going to run for awhile. Which lets you wait to see it after you’ve seen the bigger and better shows first and not worry that it is going to disappear. I’m not a personal fan of quirkiness. A little of it goes a long way – and I lump it into that group of musicals (including the similar though more melodic Amour) that are, well, too quirky for me. I was not the target audience for sure, but even I found things I liked and laughed consistently during the production. Having never been a Hamilton fan, nor a fan of Phillipa Soo or anyone else from that cast, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about — but apparently she has a “following”.

Kind of recommended – but see Come From Away, Dear Evan Hansen, Groundhog Day, or Anastasia first. Unless of course you want half a musical, and then you are good to go.

 

 

War Paint goes nowhere (review) April 1, 2017

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There are two remarkable diva-proportion performances in the new musical War Paint, and it goes without saying that Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole turn in stunning performances playing Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden and their lifelong feud.

But that’s where the interest stopped for me. In fact, its one of the very few musicals I have every started to feel drowsy at. There’s very little to this story except two headstrong independent women rising to acclaim creating cosmetic lines in the 30’s and 40’s and watching that crumble in the 50’s and 60’s along with marriages and friendships. And really, that’s it. Nothing seems to go anywhere in this musical. Even the ending doesn’t go anywhere.

There’s a great score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (Grey Gardens), and a wonderful set by David Korins. The standout here is the gorgeous costume design by Catherine Zuber. Wow.

Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is serviceable but really there’s very little of it; and Michael Greif has directed everything with a sure hand and a professional touch.

But to be honest, two hours of this 2:30 show (including intermission) is Patti and Christine standing in spotlights, or sitting in spotlights, singing straight out to the audience. Sometimes alone. Sometimes in duets. There isn’t much there there.

The audience was comprised of almost entirely 60-and-over women, their haggard looking husbands, and gay men. Seriously, I think that was the entire demographic at my performance. It has never taken me longer to get out of a theater given the clientele’s age than it did at this theater, and never have I wanted to get out more quickly.

Recommended only for fans of Patti Lupone, Christine Ebersole, or the few people who are really interested in this cosmetics tale.

Not recommended.

Fantastic “Groundhog Day the Musical” (Review) April 1, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals.
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Seen at a preview, Groundhog Day is off and running and it is fantastic. It has already been honed in its rave-worthy West End run, so this is a pretty simple transfer from London – though there is nothing simple about this show.

A big kudos goes to star Andy Karl, who is going to give Ben Platt a run for his money at Tony time. The non-stop energy of this remarkable actor (Rocky, Drood, Legally Blonde) is on full display for the show’s 2:40 run time – and it is nowhere on display better than the frenetic Act two number “Hope” which combines remarkable staging, stagecraft, and illusions as he appears in bed over and over seemingly having disappeared at other places on the stage — a superstar turn and it is not to be missed for this role in which weatherman Phil Connors is forced to live and relive the same day continuously.

But then there is the excellent ensemble cast, led by (potential) love interest Rita (Barrett Doss) and an entire city populated with perky, peppy Punxsutawney residents that hit their marks time and again and again and again in an ever-swirling design of rubiks-cube like set pieces that assemble over and over and over in different configurations in different places.

The remarkable stagecraft is created by set designer Rob Howell and it can’t be separated from Matthew Warchus’s controlled and finely honed direction, and Peter Darling’s great choreography. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone is exceptional. Your eye goes exactly where director Warchus wants it to go – and that is no understatement nor an easy job when at times the characters find themselves on tilt-a-whirls and parties, and parades, and celebrations. BRAVO.

Tim Minchin’s music is far better here than it was in Matilda. He has created a score that is at once repetitive and rift-filled as required by the show’s repeating motif, but also melodic and soaring when need be. Andy Karl gets a lot of rock tunes that lift his voice out and up and into the Pennsylvania snowscape. Barrett Doss gets the ballads. And the ensemble gets everything else (including a lovely song about being stuck in routines and expectations even if you are not stuck in time, “Playing Nancy” by the striking Rebecca Faulkenberry.)

In a season of Broadway hits and misses, Groundhog Day the Musical is one of the shining stars. Don’t miss it.

Very Highest Recommendation. Now playing at the August Wilson Theatre, New York.

Come From Away the musical is the best new show of the season (Review) March 31, 2017

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I saw Come From Away in Toronto pre-Broadway twice, and have already reviewed it, but wanted to add a few words about the Broadway production which has now opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

When I left the theater in Toronto, I posted on Facebook that I had just left the Best Musical of the season feeling like I haven’t felt leaving a theater in, well, ever. 12 actors and an on-stage band play hundreds of different people both in the small Newfoundland town of Gander as well as the “plane people” when the events of 9/11 close down airports and flight for 4 days leaving 7000 people stranded in the small town where there were fewer residents than visitors. The town banded together to gather supplies and extend hospitality to the plane people while everyone watched the events on tv, finding out about what had happened almost two days later than the rest of us.

You would think this would be a heavy drama – but it is not — its a celebration of small town life, supporting your fellow man, and the joy that can come of new relationships and friendships banding together in the face of terror.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s music almost never stops, as the songs play out in pop rock, folksy, almost blue-grassy sequences. The 12-person cast feels like you are watching 40, playing hundreds of parts. And there isn’t a weak performance in the entire group.

This is simply stunning theater work and you should not miss it. The standing ovation even before the final refrain had been sung points to the audience reaction to this intermissionless 110 minute show.

Mark my words, Evan Hansen, a few blocks away, will be waving through his window while Come From Away collects the lion’s share of awards in a few months. Its remarkable theater.

Very Highest Recommendation – Not to be Missed.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Broadway — Avoid at all costs (Review of preview) March 31, 2017

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It is so rare I need to write something like this, but this is more an expose than it is a review. Seen in a preview this week, the show should just shutter right now and rethink everything before proceeding. As is, this is a show to be avoided at all costs, unless you are interested in a flop of Carrie proportions, in which case use TKTS, TDF, or whatever other cheap method you can come across to grab a ticket and watch this musical self-implode.

While I recognize that this was a preview, there is absolutely nothing they can currently do to save this show short of a complete rethink. In short, what’s wrong?

1)The run time is currently 2:50 – that’s like Les Mis and this is no Les Mis. Both acts are too long, and Act I is almost interminable.

2) I’m not sure who decided it was a good idea to cut the kids in the show and recast them with adult actors. It’s a terrible idea. (Note: This show originated on the West End in London where kids played all the correct parts). Only Charlie (a very solid Ryan Sell at my performance) was the sole exception. He’s one of three alternating Charlie’s. I’m not sure why there are three — it’s not that demanding a part.

3) The set design: Oh My Fucking God. You go into the show expecting some degree of spectacle, otherwise why do this show? So the best thing to do is show you some photos. Since I couldn’t take any in the theater, of course, of the current production, I have drawn some of them and these are completely accurate and not exaggerated. The decision to go with a minimalistic approach is terrible. Every one of the Broadway sets should be scrapped and rethought. Heck, pay any amount you can and bring over the West End tour sets. Anything is better than what you get here for 148.00 a seat.  So lets proceed with two examples:

Here’s the London “Gate” set (note the children in the cast)

IMG_2477

Here’s the Broadway “Gate” set (note the, well, nothingness of it all)

And Here’s the “Big Reveal” In Act II

And Here it is on Broadway. I kid you not. Almost the entire second Act, with the exception with small rolling wagons that carry on Oompa Loompas (cute) and some small set pieces, is played in an empty room. Nothing is even projected on the walls other than a few fireworks or lighting designs here and there.

Yeah — that pretty much tells you all you need to know right there. The Glass Elevator sequence is pretty. For three minutes.

4) Apparently audiences in London complained that they had cut all of the songs from the original movie and left only the (not all that good) Marc Shaiman tunes with the exception of  Pure Imagination sung in the glass elevator. Here They are ALL BACK and all they do is add 20 minutes to the already too-long show. Oh the audience clapped and some sang along to “Candy Man”; “Ive got a Golden Ticket”; “Pure Imagination”; “The Oompa Loompa song”.  Either you trust your material, or you do not, and here, they clearly do not.

5) For a show designed for children, the children’s sequences are far too violent. Veruca gets quartered by ballet-dancing Squirrels (yeah, I’m not even going to go there except to say the performers are really good). Violet almost rolled off the edge of the stage at my performance, were it not for her very alert father. Mike TV is portrayed as an obnoxious millennial teenager with an iPhone. Well, at least they got that character right.

6) Which kind of brings up the question of time and location. WHERE is this taking place? There are no British accents being used, so where are they? Pennsylvania? And WHEN is it? Is it the 50’s? The 70’s? Modern Day? I guess it doesn’t matter since you don’t know where you are anyway.

Ive never heard louder banging and clanging from backstage than during my performance. Sure its a preview and the intermission was 25 minutes long. But you kind of expect that — but not the banging and clanging going on backstage installing those ridiculous walls and the ceiling unit.

Joshua Bergasse has designed great choreography, so that’s a plus. Jack O’Brien has done what he can as director. I would have walked away. Sound is generally good and the orchestra sounds great. Japhy Weideman’s lighting design is as sparse as Mark Thompson’s horrendous set design, although his costume design is quite good.

I’m just going to say that I don’t think there is anything that can derail and fix this train barreling along to a deadly opening night. Get ready for the critic reviews for this one. The press is going to kill this show.  I would shut this down for four weeks and do anything possible to bring in the West End sets, recast the adults with kids, and fix what is already a pretty weak show even with these additional flaws.

Not at all recommended, in fact its my first review in 7 years to include the phrase AVOID.

Cabaret at Cutting Edge Theatre is beautifully done (Review) March 13, 2017

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Chalk up another wonderful musical for Cutting Edge Theatre in Stephanie L Dennehy’s production of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. Seen at its sold-out final performance at the Nederhauser Community Hall in Sylvania, OH, the production was a solid bare-bones show that focused on songs, scenes, and the terrific talent that seems to follow Dennehy wherever she goes.

Let’s start with Jeffrey T. Foor’s remarkable Emcee — never missing a beat and spectacularly entertaining; Follow up with clear-voiced belter Katelyn Lesle as Sally Bowles in a heartbreaking performance. Add a solid Garrett Monasmith as Clifford Bradshaw and a particularly good Callie Keller as Fraulein Kost, whose room seems to be filled with sailors of many shapes and sizes (including some orchestra members, a clever touch!). Sarah Stierman was a fine Fraulein Schneider, and Michael Stierman sang Herr Schultz wonderfully.

The entire ensemble cast was terrific from top to bottom, including many Toledo-area regular performers – here they not only got to sing and dance, but also to frolic in the audience at times, and they seemed to have a great time – but more importantly, they were terrific singer/actor/dancers.

As this company continues to grow and prosper, look for improved set and lighting design – although I have to admit that seeing the show stripped down to the bare essentials like this was thrilling theater.

Highly Recommended.

Cabaret has concluded its run at the Cutting Edge Theatre where it ran from March 10th to the 12th, 2017.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very Highest Recommendation.

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

How a warehouse became “Spring Awakening” (Stagecraft) March 13, 2017

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Every now and then everything comes together in the right venue in the right way at the right time — such is the current production of SPRING AWAKENING I have just directed for 4th Wall in Jackson (it runs through March 25th). The comments we’ve heard most consistently during this remarkable run so far are a) what an amazing cast, and b) what a cool venue!

When approached by theater owners Marjy and Gary Minix about directing, we chose Spring Awakening partly because its a great fit for the talented younger actors that comprise the company — but also because it seemed the perfect venue for the show. Located on the second floor of a retail/warehouse type building on S. Mechanic in Jackson, MI, it conveyed the “industrial” look and feel I wanted. With no audience member more than 8 feet away from the stage, it was the intimate sort of location you might find in NYC for a pre-Broadway workshop. Say, of a show like Spring Awakening.

When I first saw the space last summer, it looked like this:

My imagination ran wild and very shortly I had a set design in place:

As the actors rehearsed and the show began to take shape, so did the acting space — and by early February it had taken this form already:

Those were the basics of the set — a stage platform for the band, with two steps that run around it for acting areas (from the outset, the idea was sort of  an alt-rock concert “unplugged”.) The musical director decided on keyboard, percussion, bass, and guitar – and the show was born.

Before adding lights, everything had taken shape:

And a few nights later, once the lights and sound had been added, we had what became Spring Awakening — as you have always seen it but never seen it…with the cast scattered through the audience in seats, and a participation experience that makes the show feel visceral and real. The sound is terrific, with every word audible. But the style of the show is inimitable, and called for the industrial look we employed.  Mama who bore me explodes in light, while the Song of Purple Summer turns neon purple:

Experience the show yourself for the next two weeks:

Spring Awakening, 4th Wall Downtown – 218 S. Mechanic, Jackson, MI. Tickets very limited, call (517) 414-4436 to reserve. Limited to no more than 50 audience per performance.

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.