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Memphis lives in me (Thoughts on closing) August 24, 2015

Posted by ronannarbor in Michigan, musical theater, Musicals.
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This isn’t a review. And it isn’t a random entry. This is truly an article about what “Memphis” means to me.

Yesterday, we played our final performance of MEMPHIS the Musical at The Croswell Opera House in Adrian, MI. It was a show that earned rave reviews (two were published right here!) and almost instantaneously became the major theater event of the SE Michigan/NW Ohio theatre scene. It was called “moving”, “electric”, “triumphant”, “joyous”, “energized”. But it also garnered the type of comments that meant much more: “dug deep into the talent pool so underutilized in this area”, “ spiritual”, “inspiring”.

Not familiar with the show? Well, it is about the birth of rock and roll, based on the black rhythm and blues roots of Memphis underground clubs, and how that sound eventually made it into the mainstream, primarily by way of teenagers and younger listeners who craved that type of upbeat dance music. It led to things like “the generation gap” and took place many years before the 50’s created in “Grease” or the early 60’s of “Hairspray”.

I had the honor of playing the supporting part of Mr Simmons, the radio station (later television station) owner — a great comedic part, and a risk-taker: sure, he was out for money, but he was a businessman who was open-minded enough in 1951 to hire a DJ that spun “colored music” (also known as “race music” at that time), and even permit an all-black television program down the road. When things spin out of control in Act II, he is astute enough to recognize that he needs to get his black performers “home, where they will be safe”.

But there is a secondary storyline — that of white disc jockey Huey Calhoun and his pursuit of black singer Felecia Farrell — and the racial tension that ensues in both the white and black communities when they fall in love with tragic consequences.

You would think that would be enough to keep you entertained, right?

Well, there is an even deeper level of what happened in Adrian this summer — and it was the miracle of a fully integrated cast at Croswell. 19 black cast members. An equal number of white. And that was a small miracle and one that seems like it shouldn’t be something we need to celebrate in 2015 — BUT WE DO.

While I consider Croswell the theater nearest and dearest to my heart I also do shows primarily in Ann Arbor. I’ve never done a show that had an integrated cast in this area. Years ago we did Big River at Ann Arbor Civic Theater with 4 black cast members (it needed about 15). On occasion I’ve gotten one or two diverse auditioners at shows I direct — in Ann Arbor.

Imagine the feat that took place in Adrian with Memphis. When the show was announced last fall, many people raised their eyebrows and thought, “what? where are they going to get that cast?” I hate to admit I was one of those people. In fact, I went up to the artistic director that night and asked her that same question.

But what happened was that people “believed”…starting with Jere Righter and the Board of Directors — they believed they could do it. Director/Choreographer Debra Calabrese believed she could get the cast. She used that belief to round up some of the most talented dancers in the area. Some were local to Adrian, others came from Toledo, in particular from schools of dance and fine arts. While those of us who had already been cast sweated out hearing if the show was on for sure, these people who believed were out there making the impossible happen.

We had an all-cast meeting early in the summer — and that initial meeting set the tone for what was to come. One by one, in groups, and in carpools, the cast arrived. Most had never been to Adrian before, let alone inside the Croswell Opera House. Some had never even been in a musical before. I looked around and found myself surprised and bewildered — there we were, one of the most diverse groups of colors, sizes, shapes, and ages.

Slowly people started talking — we introduced ourselves. We laughed. We sang a round of the curtain call song with our musical director Dave Rains who smiled and said “yeah, that will work”.

And we started to believe too.

The skeptics around SE Michigan were starting to become more vocal when I told them the show was coming together in a way beyond any of our dreams. It couldn’t be. Really? “I heard you’re using offstage singers” (yes, but so do other shows across America). “I heard your lead hasn’t even arrived from NYC yet” (yes, but when she did, the remarkable Tatiana Owens knew every single line of dialogue, blocking, and music). “I heard your spending a lot of time in dance rehearsals” (Well, duh, its a heavy dance musical). “I heard you have two separate casts” (no — we had an integrated cast of black and white performers who were all at rehearsals together every night – it was true that there are numbers that feature only the black cast, and others that feature only the white cast, but many of them featured both).

But the excitement was mounting. Tati arrived, and was instantly welcomed and enveloped by the cast. The show was becoming one big moving cog-and-wheel machine: scenes were landing with the correct emphasis on jokes and balanced with seriousness; dances were taking a shape that I have rarely seen on any local stage — when you have some of the finest dancers available, you can do some of the finest choreography — and they were, and it was.

But something else was happening — this integrated cast was becoming a tight, cohesive family. Black and white. Arriving early every night so that there was time to socialize. Lingering after rehearsals to chat in the parking lot. Grabbing meals together. Texting non-stop. Supporting each other on Facebook during the day — looking forward to the next rehearsal.

And everyone believed in this show, and this cast, and the quality. There wasn’t a single person who thought that this was not going to work (or if there was, I was certainly not aware of it).

By the time we got to tech week, we knew we had a hit. The emotions were flowing just right. The invited dress audience was ecstatic. The rest is history — the reviews were stellar, the ticket sales took off and the box office was swamped with calls and online orders and the sellouts followed. There was an outpouring of “Memphis-love”. I joked that my favorite thing was getting home at the end of the night and reading my Facebook feed each night after a show, which had exploded with Memphis posts.

And the audiences were just as diverse as the cast — certainly not 50/50 like the cast itself, but far more diverse than any other audiences I can ever remember at Croswell…and the energy was palpable. I could feel it from the stage. The cast thrived on every audience gasp, and ooh, and ah and reaction to kisses, and broken records, and by the second act it was simply electric in the house. Older cast members shared stories of discrimination and human rights. An older white man in the audience told our director that “he had no idea he had made it so difficult for people back then”.

Absolutely nothing creates that type of energy but live theater. It is why I have been involved with theater since being a young kid. I’ve directed 45 musicals, and I’ve probably been in about an equal number, and I’ve never felt what I did during Memphis, both onstage, and afterwards each night. Audience members stayed and wanted to meet the cast after the show. Audience members stopped us in the parking lot on our way to our cars to take selfies and talk about the show. Adrian was abuzz — reports came from people talking about the show at their hair stylists, at their nail salon, at the library, at Adrian College, and Sienna Heights, at Sauce restaurant. The two topics that dominated Adrian life were the new Buffalo Wild Wings opening near “the mall” and Memphis.

This is a good a time as any to thank the many many audience members that came and supported the show and were moved and told their friends and brought them back to see the show a second time. It is time to thank every single merchant downtown and around the area that displayed a Memphis poster in their windows. Its time to thank people for making everyone feel welcome. And it is time to thank Croswell for supporting something that will hopefully keep diversity alive and well on its stages and audiences.

If there is something I wish comes of this experience for everyone is that those young folks who are growing up in Adrian and thinking that they are somehow different and not welcome — stop, believe, know that you belong, and come audition for future shows. Discover your talents. Discover your uniqueness. Be a part of this big, organic thing that is theater and live performance.

There were more tears backstage on closing night (they actually started the night before already) than I have witnessed at other shows — and that was a tribute not just to the feeling that had been created on stage, and with the intensity of the rehearsal/performance process — but also because this big diverse family was performing together for the last time.

After the show, the tears flowed for real. Cast met audience a final time. Some lingered over a meal and drinks with friends, others went home. I met with a best friend and we couldn’t stop talking about the show. When he later posted a clandestine 10 second clip of the curtain call online, I watched it over and over, probably 20 times. I was having a hard time letting go as well. I felt I didn’t have closure. I wanted to keep these people in my life every single night.

I have 40 new friends, and I can’t wait to see what they do next — be that in Toledo, Ann Arbor, Adrian, or wherever. I can’t wait to see these folks again. We took a spiritual journey together. Cast, crew, orchestra, artistic staff. I know I will work with many of them again.

I believe this is the start of something wonderful.


Croswell’s “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” is one of their best summer shows ever (Review) August 11, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Community Theater, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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I am starting with ticket information for Croswell Opera house — online at croswell.org, or by phone at 517-264-7469. Quit reading — go order tickets — then come back.

Erin Satchell Yuen as Milly, and Steven Antalek as Adam (photo copyright Croswell Opera House)

Croswell Opera House opened one of their finest musicals ever last night — the adapted-from-the-movie musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The show pinpoints exactly everything that Croswell does right — a great cast with a pitch-perfect full orchestra, a fine set and costumes, more talent on stage and behind than the Pontipee boys could shake a rope at, and a rousing standing-ovation audience pleaser to boot.

Based on the favorite 1954 Hollywood musical, the show follows the Pontipee clan brothers as they seek out wives for themselves in 1850’s Oregon. How they go about getting those wives is the tale that is told in the brisk two and a half hour production. There is no definitive script/score for 7B47B, only the one that MTI provides in the moment — and this one is the 2007 revised version (because it sure isn’t the original early’80’s version which I was in almost thirty years ago).

The star of the evening is Jodi Adkins Hissong’s athletic choreography the likes of which the Croswell stage has not seen in many a moon. The Brothers, the Brides, and the supporting cast fly (sometimes literally) through many many numbers, favorites being “Goin’ Courtin'” and the spectacular “Challenge/Cut in Dance” at the harvest social. The latter received extended applause not heard in the house for years.

Erin Satchell Yuen as Milly and Steven Antalek as Adam Pontipee turn in solid performances, and both seem born to play these parts. The Brothers are played by David Blackburn (Benjamin); Ben Andre (Caleb); Ryan Chang (Daniel); Zane Dickerson (Ephraim); Joshua Moller (Frank); and Matthew Pettrey (Gideon). Their camaraderie on stage is equal to their singing and dancing, and they are a joy to behold.  Equally at ease on stage with singing and dancing requirements are the Brides: Samantha Bretz (Alice); Caitlin Christenson (Dorcus); Mary Hofmeister (Ruth); Jocelyn Near (Liza); Emily Kapnick (Martha); and Allison Steele (Sarah).  Together, they are a force to be reckoned with.

The large (but never cluttered) ensemble supports the action, and together with the leads turn in some of the most charismatic and entertaining performances ever at Croswell. The audience was positively abuzz throughout the production, and the standing ovation was well-deserved.

The performers are wrapped in lovely packaging in the form of Rachel Buechele’s colorful costumes; Terrence Hissong’s Scenic Design; and fine efforts in lighting, sound, and technical design. (Note that on opening night, there were both mic-related glitches as well as spotlight-mess that will surely resolve over the coming performances). Stage Manager Kent Sprague has his hands full to be sure, and he keeps things running at a brisk and comfortable pace throughout. Snow falls (both onstage and in the audience); wood splits; crashes resound; the unit-set works perfectly; and it all serves to entertain. Music Director Wynne Marsh keeps everything onstage and in the pit sounding remarkable.

Brian Hissong directs the entire affair with a sure hand, and he gets marvelous things from his performers. Choreography and Directing often overlap, and it appears seamless.

Go see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and enjoy an evening out in beautiful downtown Adrian, MI. Get your tickets immediately before they are all gone — buy them now, thank me later. Its one of the best things I have seen onstage regionally in many years — professional or non-professional.

Obsession at Croswell Opera House a fascinating musical premier (Review, kind of) November 8, 2011

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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First, let me say right off the bat, it’s hard to review a workshop of a new show, even if it is fully staged. Because that is exactly what the production of OBSESSION, the musical (loosely based on Frankenstein) was this past weekend at the Croswell Opera House.

Fully staged and realized, the production was a fascinating look at a new musical in progress — originally written as a symphony and presented in Adrian, and now adapted as a stage musical, Betsy and Michael Lackey’s lyrical and tuneful musical takes risks not often seen at the local level. And how fortunate that Croswell Opera House was willing to take that risk to help develop this show.

I am not going to comment too much on the production itself, because if I did, I would end up in a long diatribe about how poorly directed it was, but how lovely it all looked and sounded. Let future directors find the humor and nuance in the script and score, and better manage the stage action.

What I will comment on are the tremendous performances, and the very strong musical score. Top to bottom the cast was top-notch and demonstrated excellent vocal technique. Michael Lackey (Henry/Monster); Eric Parker (Victor); Katy Kujala (Elizabeth); and Mackenzie Dryer (Justine) sang strong, confident roles. Deeply rooted in opera, the score demands a tremendous amount from the cast, and this group of performers delivered.

The score is particularly tuneful and sometimes outright stunning: “What I’d Give” has a lyrical line that ranks with the best Broadway-type pop ballads, but the entire score is lovely to listen to. The lyrics are clever and have a subtle sense of humor (not captured well in this production). The Croswell sound system made it difficult to understand some of the lyrics, particularly in the choral numbers. The show leans more toward the style of “Jekyll and Hyde” than more serious poperettas.

Is the show ready for prime time? No. Is it well on its way, yes. I would love to see the show again, after some tweeks have been made. My own thoughts as to improvements:

– There is too much music; scene changes occur rapidly (seconds) but musical rifts run for minutes with no action on stage. Some of this could be covered with better direction, but there is still too much of it. Standardize scene change music so that it cuts off once the scene has been changed, not continue just for the sake of continuing.

-The Entr’Acte is too long. Pull the main theme, add a countermelody, and roar to a quick finish. Two mintues is great. 5 minutes is too long.

-Eliminate the narration by the lead (Victor). Either incorporate it into the choral numbers, or eliminate it completely. With the exception of one or two short moments where action can be identified otherwise, the narration is superfluous and repetitive.

-Pay attention to the choral action: too many maids and butlers on stage just to sing choral backup is never a good idea. Put the chorus into the orchestra pit and let them sing backup. Find a better way to incorporate your ensemble onstage without just putting them on, and pulling them off. Its getting there –but its not there.

Overall, this was a fascinating and very well performed production that hopefully will lead to the necessary tweaks and future productions. I’d love to listen to this score over and over again, it’s sumptuous. But listening to versus seeing a show are two different things. It needs work, but it shows beyond tremendous potential — it deserves to be fixed and developed. Congrats to all involved — and keep working at this piece: there is really good here. It just needs some TLC.

HAIRSPRAY at Croswell Opera House (Review) June 19, 2011

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals.
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Hairspray, the Tony winning musical with book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, Music by Marc Shaiman, and Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman has quickly become the most overproduced musical in the current amateur musical circuit — at last count, this is the 28th or 29th production of it in the state of Michigan alone, with 14 more productions scheduled in the state through the end of the summer — And it’s no surprise that the show has become the darling of the community theater circuit: it has a large cast, more parts for younger folks than adults; and a peppy, upbeat 60’s infused pop score. It’s the Bye Bye Birdie of the new era.

But I can bet that none of them are as super as the production currently onstage at the Croswell Opera House in Adrian.

Leading the way are superb performances by every lead in this production. Bridget Harrington is a fine Tracy Turnblad. Lucas A. Wells a pitch-perfect Link Larkin. Eric Swanson is hilarious as Edna Turnblad, and every other supporting player here is in top form.

The set and lighting design are colorful, professional, and everything moves quickly under the direction of Chris Sancho-Beckman and dances appropriately under the choreography of Debra Ross Calabrese. There are a few minor quibbles — the turnbald household platform is a bit too large and a bit too downstage for several large numbers, making things a bit cramped. The sound varies depending on where you sit in the house — too far right and too far left, you’ll primarily hear the orchestra through the side proscenium speakers at the expense of the vocals. The center seems just about right.

The entire production sparkles and you’ll leave not only remembering the songs, but also the messages behind the show: and that is what has made this show work since its early days, and why it won those Tonys to begin with.

Hairspray continues at the Croswell Opera House through June 26th.


CITY OF ANGELS at Croswell is jazzy and “reel” fun… August 1, 2009

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Croswell Opera House has a doozy of a show in the Tony-winning CITY OF ANGELS currently playing in Adrian.


Considered by many to be Cy Coleman’s best score, from the rhythmic driving beat with scat vocal quartet accompaniment to the patter of “Everybody’s gotta be somewhere” and the lush jazzy “It needs work” the score is a masterwork, that sounds utterly fantastic in the hands of musical director Jonathan Sills and his more than able orchestra. It’s more than just accompaniment in this show, it’s the drive and energy to which the piece is set, and it delivers from start to finish.

The cast is top notch – with special kudos to UM vocal performance student Joshua Glassman as writer Stine, whose vocal training is evident from his first note through his last, where his voice projects naturally and cleanly without ever seeming forced, even in big belt numbers like “Funny”. It’s a joy to hear, and this young man has a long successful career before him. See (and hear) him here first.

It helps that he and James Swendsen (alter-ego detective Stone) have a natural chemistry together on stage — they play off of each other in a fashion that truly delineates the creator/creature line and makes for a fun flip when the lines get blurred in later goings. Swendsen has a more pop-oriented sound to his voice, and the two of them match remarkably well vocally in their scenes together.

The women fare equally well in Sarah Lynne Nowak’s Donna/Oolie  and Emily Tyrybon’s Alaura/Carla. Both have terrific stage presence and voices to match.

Bruce Hardcastle turns in an energetic performance as Buddy/Irwin. In a role that threatens to carom out of control on each turn, it doesn’t, and remains funny and consistently on character throughout. Other supporting players range from great (the quartet) to good. There are a few missed notes here and there by supporting players, but nothing that distracts from the overall skill level of this adept cast.

The set looks great and works well with it’s split level design, the show moves rapidly from scene to scene and set changes don’t miss a beat, and the lighting is appropriately bright and colorful for color-scenes and moody and shadow-strewn for the Black and White “movie” scenes. What originally seems a bit murky and dark in the opening sequences eventually establishes a visual design that just plain old works as the show progresses.

That it all hangs together so well, and so cleanly, is the wonderful work of director/choreographer Stephanie L. Stephan. She understands that this is a difficult story to follow, and directs with large, masterful strokes that allow the audience to easily follow the action on stage. No mean feat, considering the many plot turns, and the stage-convention of switching back and forth from real-life to alter-ego movie action throughout using the same actors. This was achieved on Broadway through miraculous (and at that time ground-breaking) instantaneous ability to drain color out of sets and costumes through lighting and paint technique. Here it is up to the director to make it work, and it works terrifically.  This is a very difficult musical to design and produce, as other theaters can attest, from the passable production at University of Michigan a few seasons ago, to the disastrous Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production many years ago. Make no mistakes, this current production is in a league of its own. Congratulations.

The script and lyrics are smart and funny, with enough suspense thrown in to make it all work. I saw the production in its original Broadway run several times, and it becomes smarter and wittier with each viewing. Mix-in the tremendous musical score, the great performances, and swirl it all around by a top notch director and crew, and you have a tasty, jazzy, funny musical comedy treat at Croswell Opera House this summer, my favorite by far of this season’s offerings — not just at Croswell, but anywhere regionally this summer.

City of Angels continues this weekend and next weekend. Tickets at croswell.org or 517-264-SHOW(7469).