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“Barefoot in the Park” at Ann Arbor Civic Theater is Hilarious Fun (Review) April 22, 2016

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Theatre.
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I don’t think I’ve laughed at a 50 year old comedy more than I did last night at Ann Arbor Civic Theater’s production of Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” — it is a non-stop laughfest, but more than that, it is impeccably acted and directed — a must-see.

Newlyweds Corie and Paul Bratter move into their 5th floor walkup (I lived in one of those in NYC for awhile and can certainly relate to not calling the front stoop a “flight”) — she’s easy going and loving the whole experience, Paul is more of a stuffed-shirt lawyer, later referred to as a fuddy-duddy…(hey, it was in 1963 that this doozy hit the stage). Along for the ride come Corie’s mother, gasping each trip up the stairs; eccentric “upstairs” neighbor Victor; a very funny telephone company man; and a delivery man. Also along for the ride are some of Neil Simon’s funniest jokes and gags, perfectly meted-out over the course of the evening so that even 53 years later everything feels fresh and funny.

It helps that the production has a super director in Wendy Wright. She understands the patterns, both visual and vocal, that keep this show running smoothly and hilariously throughout the evening. Call it “Love American Style” crossed with “The Love Boat” with a touch of “Laugh-In” thrown in.

The ensemble cast is simply superior — Colleen Davis hits all of Corie’s notes just right — Karl Kasischke grows Paul from a fuddy-duddy to just the right level of hysteria toward show’s end and Larry Rusinsky does the same with the initially over-the-top Victor Velasco to mother’s  warm-hearted potential lover — Thom Johnson has a short funny walk-on that garners some big laughs — Theo Polley is a fantastic telephone repair man — and, I save the best for last, Ellen Finch plays a triumphant Ethel Banks (Corie’s mother) in a stage turn that you simply should not miss. This role is easy to overplay, and instead, Finch turns in a delicious and finely nuanced performance that will make you think that your own mother is standing in your fifth floor walkup (6th since she will count the stoop) and making you feel as guilty as hell for doing nothing at all. Bravo.

Cathy Cassar has designed a lovely NYC apartment, Megan Shiplett’s costumes are period perfect, and Zach Johnson has lit it all to make it look shiny and bright. Lisa Gavan’s props are practical and funny, and there’s some great sound design by Wendy Wright — musical selections greet you from the moment you enter, and comment perfectly on the stage action later during the production.

Go. This show is near perfection in timing, acting, and design. You won’t see a better production of this (now) rarely produced comedy. It adds a terrific third Neil Simon production to the already seen “Odd Couples” at The Purple Rose and Tipping Point. “Barefoot in the Park” is Simon’s funniest play — the one that put him on the map on Broadway, and this production should not be missed.

Highest Recommendation.

“Barefoot in the Park”, Ann Arbor Civic Theater, continues through May 24 at the Arthur Miller Theatre, UM’s North Campus, Walgreen Building. Tickets at a2ct.org or at the door.




It Takes a Village…”Shrek” at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre September 13, 2014

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals.
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So — by now, you’ve probably heard about the musical Shrek…or you saw it on Broadway, or on tour…or on endless loop on your tv of the filmed Broadway production…and you know its a huge undertaking.

Leave it to director Wendy Sielaff to pull off the biggest set and costume show that AACT has seen in, well, probably two decades. Quite frankly, as a director at Civic myself, I know the budgets there for musicals are woefully lower than necessary to do a decent job with sets. Its why I choose shows that have minimal set requirements — make them look great, but be careful of that minuscule budget — Not so with Shrek.

First, the show has some great actors in Jeff Steinhauer as the ogre himself; Katrina Linden as love interest Fiona; Arjun Nagpal as Donkey; Nick Rapson as Lord Farquaad; and Linzi Joy Bokor as the voice and embodiment of Dragon…There are also some terrific supporting players (though the cast as a whole skews a bit too far to the very young).  There is also a terrific 9-piece orchestra under the direction of Brian Rose who also served as Musical Director for the show — its great.

And there is your first challenge — Shrek is a show that skews toward younger actors…what do you do when most of the people that audition are in their teens?…Wendy has chosen to overcome this casting challenge by casting actors of similar ages into similar parts — which makes for lots of fun things that they get to do, while allowing the show to barrel ahead…so its okay if your guards are all in their teens — its consistent and its funny and it works — and those actors get to do some funny things!  Next, she casts intact families, making this a family friendly community theater piece not only from the audience but also on stage — witness the Bachman family — all 6 of them in the show…but there are also the Ziegler’s and the Clarks, etc…

Second, the set; in this case, it would have been impossible to build and create this massive set by Civic alone — trust me, I’ve been there…here, the set was originally used in a high school production that Wendy directed last winter — and it works here at AACT. Mike and Wendy Sielaff designed a easily movable set, and it fills (sometimes over-fills) the Lydia Mendelssohn stage well.

Third, the costumes; borrowed, built, blended; sewn; re-sewn — creative and fun, coordinated by Nan Wirth who even got her husband in on the action. Nikki Skrobot designed the clever makeup, Hanna Mauch the hair, Bob Brite and Abbie Gentry the often hilarious properties.

Fourth — to make it all run you need dozens of people behind the scenes — in this case, make that family and friends of cast members, as well as students from Lincoln High School — quite frankly, the show wouldn’t have been possible without this invisible army. Sound Designer Bob Skon does an admirable job keeping mic cues going — Stage Manager Keshia Daisy Oliver has her work cut out for her. Choreographer Kelsey Rose keeps everyone moving nicely on stage. Brad Pritts designed the lighting. Alen Fyfe assistant directed.

Does it all work perfectly — well, in a word no. But I’m not sure it matters — its a fun community theater show, with an emphasis on the village of creative folks necessary to make this type of thing work — and in the end, its a happy affair — the audience clearly loved it, warts and all, and you will have fun time yourself. I was thoroughly entertained, and what’s more, took tremendous pleasure in seeing all these energetic folks work together to create a fun show to entertain you and I…and are clearly having fun themselves.  I’m proud of everyone involved, and its clear the show has sparked a love of theater for many of the wee-ones involved in the show (as well as their brothers and sisters in the audience) and what could be better than that?

Shrek runs at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre through Sept 14th — tickets at a2ct.org or 734-971-0605, or at the door.