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

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Broadway Tour.
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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.

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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

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals.
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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).

 

 

Gorgeous “An American in Paris” tour (review) November 16, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Broadway Tour.
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The current tour of “An American in Paris” is now at The Wharton Center in East Lansing, and it is gorgeous from top to bottom. I have previously raved about this musical when I saw it in NYC, and many know my thoughts on the travesty that was awarding “Fun Home” Best Musical 2015 instead of Paris. It’s simply one of the best new musicals out there, and this tour is scrumptious. In some ways it is better than the Broadway incarnation.

You might be familiar with the Gene Kelly movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1951 – and if not, you really should be. Then came a Paris-based production of this musical with its international design team and tour-de-force direction and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon and its eventual transfer to Broadway with most of that cast and production team intact.

To put it simply, just don’t miss this Gershwin-laced, ballet-infused mega-hit. It’s the best dance musical since the original 42nd Street, and it will lift you out of your seat and into musical theater heaven for a few hours.

McGee Maddox dances a wonderful Jerry, and his singing is stronger than that of Bobby Fairchild on Broadway. Also magnificent is Allison Walsh as Lise who dances, sings, and acts beautifully. Matthew Scott is terrific as Adam, as is Ben Michael as Henri and Kirsten Scott as Milo. Bravo, Brava, and all that rot…or Merde as they wish you in France.

The entire supporting ensemble cast is superb, and once the musical launches into its many production numbers, the energy and talent is stratospheric. It is remarkable work by very talented ballet-based dancers.

But its also an evening in which all the scene changes are also choreographed and the set and costume design by Bob Crowley is beautiful (some of the best you will ever see) as is the projection design by 59 Productions, This is a work of art from both a performance as well as a technical design point of view.

Finally, let me mention Christopher Wheeldon again — this isn’t simple stage choreography; this is masterful ballet and it soars in its solos, duets, ensemble intertwining, and every moment of this musical moves – and it will move you or you have a heart of stone. His direction is superior – he knows not only how to move the production along at high energy levels, but guarantees that the audience is looking exactly where he wants you to look. In a full-stage ensemble number, watch how cleverly he manipulates bodies, arms, and legs, so that the audience eye goes directly to some small detail that he wants you to see in the midst of the cast. You won’t miss papa Baurel burst into spontaneous dance, nor mama Baurel do the same and instantly gather herself in repose. Magnificent.

Very Highest Recommendation.

An American in Paris continues at The Wharton Center through November 19th. It returns to Detroit’s Fisher Theatre November 28th through December 10th.

Emotion-filled “Cabaret” at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre (review) October 27, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Community Theater, musical theater, Musicals.
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I’d normally start this review by telling you to go get tickets now for AACT’s “Cabaret” this weekend at the Arthur Miller Theatre, but since the run only has a handful of tickets left for Sunday afternoon, I’ll just start by saying that director Kat Walsh, choreographer Tyler Stickel, and Musical Director Jennifer Goltz have molded a terrific and emotion-filled production that audiences will remember long after the final scene. If you’re lucky to get those final few tickets, you’ll have a great theatrical experience.

Photo by Lisa Gavan

Front-loading this production with an incredible performance by Trish Fountain as the Emcee, and a mesmerizing performance by Laura Dysarczyk, Walsh’s 18-member cast functions as a true ensemble – whether that is performing Stickel’s innovative and excellent choreography, or singing those terrific Kander and Ebb songs (Goltz’s on-stage orchestra is outstanding as is the vocal work here).

You know the story so I’m not even going to repeat it here, except to say that there is also very strong work by Chris Grimm as Cliff, spot-on work by Greg Kovas as Ernst, and a earthy and lovely performance by Jessica Ryder as Fraulein Schneider.  It makes this crumbling pre-nazi Weimar Republic Berlin feel very real indeed.

Leisurely paced (maybe a touch too leisurely at 2:45) there are some terrific moments in this production – I don’t want to give them all away but a sequence in which a young Hitler Youth member defaces a stage curtain is particularly striking. There are a few awkward scene changes that slow the proceedings – but while the production isn’t exactly steamrolling into the nazi era, it is at least unstoppably heading there. For those familiar only with the original production of the 1966 Cabaret it is good to know that this production uses the 1988 revival version – the one that cuts some of the more upbeat music and better integrates Cliff into the storyline, catapulting the final moments into the nazi era. Cabaret has never been a fun-filled Broadway evening out, but the revisal is a no-holds barred, dark, emotional affair. And that is no different in Walsh’s production.

Highly Recommended.

If any tickets remain, or are returned, you can check at the box office day of show. Cabaret continues through Sunday afternoon at the Arthur Miller Theatre on UM’s North Campus. If any tickets remain (Fri and Sat are entirety sold out, a handful remain as of this writing for Sunday afternoon) you best go to a2ct.org to get them.

 

 

“The Bodyguard, the Musical” is fun, entertaining, talent-filled (Review) October 23, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Broadway Tour, musical theater, Musicals.
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First, let me preface this by saying I’ve read many of the reviews for this musical. The original London and most international reviews have been terrific. The show, bypassing Broadway and doing a US tour, has not fared as well in the US reviews. Let me be a British reviewer. I loved this show when seen this week in East Lansing. I don’t get the negative reviews, and I highly recommend the show which is fun, entertaining, and loaded with talent. I guess it comes as no surprise as the aggregate movie critic rating is 32% while the audience rating for the movie is 98%.

The show stars R&B star Deborah Cox as pop star diva Rachel Marron (i.e. Whitney Houston) and TV star Judson Mills as the Bodyguard Frank Farmer (Kevin Costner). Cox is frequently understudied by Jasmin Richardson (who otherwise plays her sister Nicki)  and Mills by Jorge Paniagua (who normally plays :”the Stalker”). You know he’s the stalker because every time he appears the orchestra plays a chord and he appears in a white shaft of light.

Subtle the show is not — and it is based almost word for word, scene for scene on the movie that spurred the Number One hit soundtrack album (which it still holds), to a fault — even the opening shooting (which has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the show). But it’s a 2 hour 15 minute joyride into the amazing soundtrack, and each song is presented performance-style at concerts, nightclubs, etc. It’s not a show where performers stop and sing toward one another. Its a show that transforms instantly and at times brilliantly on Tim Hatley’s gorgeous almost constantly moving light-up set from living rooms to theater stages, and that is exactly as it should be. If you are going to see The Bodyguard because you want to see how the story unfolds you are at the wrong musical.

The Bodyguard has more in common with Mamma Mia, On Your Feet, and other jukebox musicals than standard book musical theater fare. And it works well under Thea Sharrock’s straightforward direction. This is a show that knows its primary audience — and it plays for understanding and clarity throughout — at the loss of subtlety (even then, the older lady sitting next to me was lost for a good portion of Act One). That’s smart theater production and I don’t blame that creative team one bit for doing it that way. After all, this is a show that is primarily geared toward the Whitney Houston songs than anything else.

And the songs are spectacular — with a group of aerobics-toned dancers under the guidance of Karen Bruce, you feel like you are at a concert, at the Academy Awards, at a club. The choreography is terrific, and the dancers are wonderful.

Whether you get Deborah or Jasmin you are in for a treat, it just doesn’t matter with this show. At my performance Paniagua played Frank and he was terrific. Jasmin played Rachel and I loved her. But I will venture to say that the leads are interchangeable.

Sets, costumes, lighting are great. This is really entertaining stuff, and while you might walk away from the show wanting to be a US critic — I urge you to be a British critic and see the musical for what it is worth. I am particularly agitated by the Lansing State Journal review which in essence urged audiences to save their money and not bother with this show — are you kidding me???? Our performance had an instantaneous standing ovation and it wasn’t because every show now gets standing ovations (believe me, I see almost all of them and NO they do not all get standing ovations, and not this enthusiastically).  Clearly, this is a show that is aimed directly at the audiences entertainment dollars and succeeds wildly. Do NOT sit at home and let this one get by you — its a terrific cast performing a high-energy very entertaining production that I loved. And so did the very vocal audience members leaving the theater around me. I just kept hearing “I loved that” over and over — and that is what I would consider a resounding success.

Highly Recommended.

The Bodyguard completed it’s run at East Lansing’s Wharton Center this past Sunday, but will be back for a two week run in Detroit from January 16th through 24th. Tickets at Ticketmaster and the Fisher Theatre Box Office.

 

 

“Love Never Dies” tour is glorious (Review) October 19, 2017

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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies, is currently making its official US Tour debut in Detroit (it has already played upstate New York and Baltimore in previews, London, Australia, and other world cities) and it is a glorious affair, though your personal like will depend on your love for the characters from the original. While the musical stands alone, you need to have seen the original to understand why these characters capture you from the start to finish in this gorgeous musical.

Yes, that is Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber himself on stage at the Fisher Theatre last night, and yes I did take that photo with my iPhone.

Taking place ten years after the original, the Phantom, having fled Paris, has now set up shop at Coney Island where he is free to present his macabre Phantasma show and he has lured Christine to America under the guise of performing at Hammerstein’s new theatre. But a surprise lies in store. Also in Coney Island are ever-faithful Madame Giri and her daughter Meg, now a rising star at Phantasma. Along for the ride are down-on-his-luck Raoul and their 9 year old son (get it?). What plays out is high drama in opera buffa style, incorporating various musical styles of the era, a few rousing pop ballads, and at least two massively glorious numbers, the opening “Til I Hear You Sing” (which I suspect every musical fan knows by heart by now), and Christine’s title song “Love Never Dies”. There is also a spell-binding duet for the Phantom and Christine when first reunited – first in their hotel room, and then revolving to the hotel balcony – “Beneath a Moonless Sky/Once Upon Another Time” and later another for Raoul and the Phantom — “Why Does She Love Me/Devil Take the Hindmost.”  I give that example because this score is perfectly written – with its ever-building tension, building in classical musical motifs, and slight elements from the original Phantom of the Opera (to remind you this is a continuation of the story) and its very effective.

Its also a musical with a tremendous heart. If you don’t care about these characters, you won’t care about the tragic ending. I won’t tell you more except to say that not all of the main characters make it to the final moments of the story, and those that do will share emotional scars.

None of this would work were it not for the brilliant stagecraft and performances. The Australian production of the show has been basically imported here, including an almost identical design (scaled down a bit, but surely restored to its full glory when the show reaches NYC, the ultimate goal of this tour) from Australian designer Gabriela Tylesova whose sets and costumes are gorgeous, as is Nick Schlieper’s lighting design. Simon Phillips recreates his staging as director, as does choreographer Graeme Murphy AO, both from the Australian production.

But the night belongs to the singers — Meghan Picerno is a fantastic Christine, and she brings down the house several times with her singing here. She’s also a strong performer and you feel a connection to her early on, which is as it should be for dramatic effect later in the proceedings. Normally Gardar Thor Cortes plays the Phantom and I am returning next week to see him. Last night we had a spectacular performance from understudy Bronson Norris Murphy whose voice is fantastic and whom I understand performs this part quite regularly. A performance schedule has not been announced.  Also very strong are Karen Mason as Madame Giri (Love. Her.), Mary Michael Patterson as Meg, Sean Thompson as Raoul, and the rotating Gustave’s (last night Jake Heston Miller). Katrina Kemp, Richard Koons, and Stephen Petrovich round out the featured cast with their emcee-duties – and they are funny, athletic, and always watchable. There is also a 20 member ensemble and they are strong throughout.

There is no falling chandelier here, but there is a magical horseless carriage. There is no fiery scene in a cemetery, but there are plenty of surprises including a macabre and brilliant look at the darker side of Coney Island (“The Beauty Underneath”). And then there is a beautifully realized final scene on an oceanside pier that had gasps from the audience last night. And its a doozy.

Very Highest Recommendation.

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Book by Andrew Lloyd Webber & Ben Elton, with Glenn Slater and Frederick Forsyth. Orchestrations by David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Musical Director Dale Rieling.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies continues at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit through October 29th. Ticketmaster, 800-982-2787, and Box Office. 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very Highly Recommended.

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