jump to navigation

Funny “First Date” musical at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre (review) March 9, 2018

Posted by ronannarbor in Community Theater, musical theater, Theatre.
Tags: ,
comments closed

Drew Benson, Eric VanWasshnova, and Sarah Mazurek in First Date

Photo courtesy Lisa Gavan

During the opening number of “First Date” the ensemble sings it is about “meeting someone you don’t think is fuckin’ tragic”…and that is the starting and ending point for this one-act 2013 Broadway musical. In one funny lyric book writer Austin Winsberg and Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (music and lyrics) summarize what a first date is all about. The production at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre that opened last night follows two people meeting for a first date in a bar, and the mishegas that goes with it. And it is very funny stuff.

First time director Aaron C Wade does a very good job of moving the action from scene to scene and making it all make sense and assuring that everyone on stage has a standout moment. Jokes come fast, insightful moments flit by in a few seconds, and songs take center stage. The two are joined by a bartender/waiter who’d rather be a singer songwriter, the couple’s family members and friends, one hilarious ex, and other random strangers.

Drew Benson is a good choice for Aaron Goldfarb – he sings well, and makes this neurotic character his own — a hard job when it is so intimately tied with Zachary Levi (for whom the role was written). Sarah Mazurek holds her own as Casey Clark, his more adventuresome date for the night. While their scenes together don’t necessarily sizzle, they do have a naturalness and honesty that makes you root for them from the start. Don’t look for heavy material here — this is a fun romcom and it stays strictly in romcom territory for the evening.

Sarah Sweeter is simply fantastic as Allison, Aaron’s ex-fiancée — her moments with him come to life on stage and it is funny stuff. Wil Lewis III has some nice scenes as his friend Gabe, with an award-winning appearance of a leaf blower. ‘Nuf said. Kimberly Lock also has some nice moments as Casey’s friend Lauren.

There is a hard working ensemble that plays all those other parts — Tina Paraventi, Jessica Dodson-Terlep, Wynton Doty, and Eric VanWasshnova.

The production is choreographed by Gayle Martin and Music Directed by Debra Nichols.

There is a good set designed by Wade, with some nifty props and stage dressings by Christine Blossom — it made me crave a Yuengling beer afterwards.  Stage left is occupied by the onstage band with tables scattered around the thrust stage.  Costumes by Molly Borneman are colorful and work well for each character.

Not everything is rosy in date land…the sound at times was garbled and it was hard to tell if that was mic levels or if it was vocal diction problems — or both. The opening number in particular was hard to understand. That will no doubt get ironed out as the weekend progresses. There were some stray notes in the band, although for the most part they sound good. There were also some stray notes in the ensemble choral music – ranging from funny to not at all good. A friend made the comment “they sound great individually, but when they sing together something just goes wrong”. Finally, there is a scene change near the end of the show that takes too long and kills some of the momentum heading into the short final sequence.

Still, I laughed a lot, and often. I had fun and was impressed by how much work went into making this ensemble cast come to life on stage in a show that is difficult to act and sing. It is a breezy 90 minutes of laughs…and laugh you will on a cold winter evening at the Arthur Miller Theatre. Go check it out! UM students, pick up this week’s Passport for the Arts and see the show for free!

First Date continues through March 11th at the Arthur Miller Theatre on University of Michigan’s North Campus. Tickets at the door or at a2ct.org/tickets.

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

Posted by ronannarbor in Plays, Uncategorized.
Tags: , ,
comments closed

Ann Stoner, Jimmy Dee Arnold, Adam Peterson, Charles Sutherland, Christopher Tiffany, and Thomas Underwood in “The Explorers Club” photo Lisa Gavan

Men’s clubs of late 1800’s London display their wackier side in Nell Benjamin’s farce “The Explorers Club” (Broadway production 2013) at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre which opened last night and runs through January 14th at the Arthur Miller Theater.

At its core, her play (well-directed by Brodie H Brockie and acted by a fine all-around cast) tackles the subject of allowing a woman to join a men’s adventurer’s club because of her discovery of a new native tribe and her presentation of one of their natives to the Queen. You can guess how that goes. It’s a setup that never would have happened in England at that historical time, but then, neither would escaping in a airship that she builds one morning at her family’s house.  That is the sort of evening you are in for, and it is funny, wacky, and fast-paced.

Brockie makes sure that the proceedings never dissolve into slap-stick but remain firmly grounded in witty banter and visual jokes — the best of which are two sequences of drink-serving by newly appointed native bartender (an absolutely hilarious Jimmy Dee Arnold) which involves lots of glass-flinging and catching; and a cigar-smoking sequence in which botanist Lucius realizes long before the others that perhaps his self-made cigars have a touch too much, um, shall we call it organic content.

It is all set on Patrick Johnson’s gorgeous set, one of the finest I have seen at the Arthur Miller,  which itself has been reformulated in a semi-proscenium format (though not the same as the last time they used a proscenium format). Its a rare chance to see a show at the theater that is not in thrust-format. Everyone looks great in Jamee and Abigail Zielke’s costumes and Brice O’Neal’s lighting.

The cast is very good indeed, and their timing and shenanigans demonstrate a nice interplay of individual characters and ensemble interaction. While everyone is strong, the aforementioned Jimmy Dee Arnold and bit-part-chew-the-scenery Patrick Johnson in the later goings of the play are standouts. Adam Peterson plays Lucius, the club president; Jared Hoffert is newly returned from expedition Harry Percy; Ann Stoner plays Phllida; Tom Underwood plays snake-toting Cope while Christopher Tiffany plays guinea-pig toting Walling; Charles Sutherland is bible-thumping Sloane and Larry Rusinsky plays the Queen’s representative Sir Bernard Humphries (I told you that presentation of the native to the Queen doesn’t go well).

There are some problems inherent to the play, so just turn off your thinking cap and enjoy the antics of these buffoons (not the least of which is a sequence in which the entire group heads off to their visit with the queen, the remaining cast have what seems like a page of dialogue, before the entire group returns from their disastrous visit minutes later). Let’s just call that writers liberty and enjoy what it is — a wacky almost Monty-Pythonish look at this Club — one which you will be sworn into anyway at the start of the show by director Brockie, so you might as well go along with the flow.

It’s a very funny theatrical evening – well done – and well played, Ann Arbor Civic Theater. “Your Drink, Sir!”

Highly Recommended.

“The Explorers Club” continues at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre through January 14th. a2ct.org/tickets or 734-971-2228, or available at the door. 

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

Posted by ronannarbor in Community Theater, musical theater, Musicals.
Tags: , , ,
comments closed

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.



Very Funny “Criminal Hearts” at Ann Arbor Civic Theater (Review) June 18, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Community Theater, Plays, Theatre.
Tags: , ,
comments closed

Cami Fussey has directed a very funny production of Jane Martin’s “Criminal Hearts” at Ann Arbor Civic Theater, and you have one more chance to catch it as it only plays this one weekend (the usual Ann Arbor Civic Theater dilemma).

Telling you much about the plot would ruin the twists and turns, but as stated in the program, Bo,  a streetwise burglar breaks into Ata’s apartment which has already been completely emptied out of furniture by her philandering husband, Wib – the two of them, together with getaway driver Robbie, join forces to take Wib for all he’s worth.

With multiple twists and turns, the (very) funny script takes these two oddball women for a ride.

Elisha Kranz is a fine agoraphobic (and that’s only the beginning of it) Ata, and Tomi Dres is a good Bo. The two of them play off of each other well (as should be in a piece that primarily focuses on the two of them). Christopher Ankney makes his stage debut as the funny Robbie, and David Widmayer is hilarious as he creates a strange and nasty Wib.

Cami Fussey has directed the piece with an eye to character development while letting the jokes flow naturally and rapidly — things feel like the characters are discovering these quirks (and strengths) as the audience does, and it all flows nicely — no matter how absolutely bizarre. The 1:40 piece flies by (there is one intermission). Everything looks terrific on the set designed by Cami and built and lit by Scott Fussey.

Stage Managed by Lisa Gavan, Produced by Christopher Ankney, Light and Sound operated by Nate Dewey, and Production Assisted by Dane Larsen.

Today’s educational moment: nobody really knows who playwright “Jane Martin” is — though almost all of his/her works originate at Actors Theatre of Louisville and there is constant speculation online about who the writer (or possible writers) are. The playwright’s name is a disambiguation.

I had a great time, and I think you will too. There’s only one more chance to see it today – this afternoon (sunday June 18th) at AACT’s studio – 322 W. Ann Street — tickets at the door.

Highly Recommended.



Charming “Morning’s at Seven” – AACT (review) April 20, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Community Theater, Theatre.
Tags: ,
comments closed

There is a lovely production of Paul Osborn’s “Morning’s at Seven” (yes, that apostrophe is correct, the title comes from a Browning poem) at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre at the Arthur Miller Theatre on UM’s North Campus this weekend. Under the able direction of TJ Johnson, excellent veteran acting of the show’s older characters, gorgeous set design by Chuck Griffin (built by Gregg Blossom and Alen Fyfe with Christine Blossom) and beautiful lighting of Tiff Crutchfield, the comedy is the essence of “charming”.

Set in 1938 (the play was first performed on Broadway in 1939 with several revivals, radio broadcasts, and a television adaptation) the story concerns 4 aging sisters and their families and is set into motion when “change” rears it’s head. There’s a nice subplot about a middle-aged son bringing his fiancé home for the first time in 12 years (you know where that is going) and the men in the family get plenty of their own antics. In short it is an ideal ensemble piece for veteran actors and Civic has them in abundance here.

The sisters are played by Laurie Atwood, Ellen Finch, Barbara Mackey King, and Lenore Ferber. They are each terrific individually and believable as sisters when together. Long suffering fiancé is nicely played by Melissa Stewart and mamma’s-boy is played by Jay Fischer in a stammering, tic-filled performance that is so realistic it made me wince. Charlie Sutherland will forever live in my memory looking for “the fork” and Theo Polley and Larry Rusinsky are equally delightful.

It is not easy growing old. Families today are a bit more splintered than they were during most of the twentieth century when it wasn’t unusual to have your spinster sister live with you and have family homes next door to each other or just a few blocks away. But what if the boundaries break down — and eccentricities start to become, well, annoying. And then there is the show’s ending…there’s a suitcase, there’s tension, and there is that final moment that makes the entire affair charming as heck.

Cassie Mann’s properties are period perfect, and Molly Borneman outfits everyone nicely. In addition to the terrific building design, there’s an awesome green lawn that covers the Arthur Miller stage. It serves to tie together these family connections where boundaries are not only lacking indoors, but also outdoors where yours is mine and mine is yours…until it isn’t.

Highly Recommended.

Morning’s at Seven continues at the Arthur Miller Theater through Sunday April 23rd. Tickets at a2ct.org/tickets, 734-971-2228, or available at the door.

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

Posted by ronannarbor in Plays, Theatre.
Tags: , ,
comments closed

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. 

AACT’s “Company” is solid, entertaining (review) January 8, 2016

Posted by ronannarbor in Community Theater, Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals.
Tags: ,
comments closed

Love it or hate it, Sondheim and Furth’s musical “Company” makes a solid and entertaining appearance at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre this weekend. Tinkered with more than any other of Sondheim’s shows, the current version of the script isn’t necessarily the best, but it is what MTI has chosen to license. Ann Arbor Civic Theater takes some liberties with it that further water-down the central dilemma, but its nothing if not entertaining.

I am not going to review the script — you either know it, or don’t. There isn’t much to it — diverse vignettes tying together a loose story of a guy not sure why all his married friends want him to couple up as well. Back in 1972 when originally written, it had some resonance with upscale New Yorkers who attend musical theater (even then the reviews were not all positive). As rewritten more recently, with our changing sexual mores and gender fluidity, the question really is no longer why is he not coupled-up, but why would he want to be?

There are some truly terrific cast members in director Rachel Francisco’s production. Some have mighty voices (Robert Griswold as Bobby, Trisha Fountain as Jenny, Amy Bogetto-Weinraub as Joanne). Others have mighty acting skills (Nick Boyer as Peter, Marci Rosenberg as Amy). Rounding out the strong ensemble cast are Jodi-Renee Giron as Sarah, Paul Clark as Harry, Madison Merlanti as Susan, James Christie as David, Amanda Bynum as “Paula”, Matt Steward as Larry, Kate Papachristou as as Marta, Kimberly Elliott as April, and Chris Joseph as “Kevin”.

Jennifer Goltz has done her usual excellent work as musical director, and the 4-piece jazz-infused orchestra sounds both larger than it is, and provides lovely music throughout.

Some of the pacing is too slow. Long scenes (the show is very talky) seem dragged out at times even longer than they need to be. The opening number (Company) felt like it was twice as slow as written, and that leads to a less-than-energized opening sequence (which gets much better as the show goes along). Some might call the slower pace leisurely and contemplative — though I am not sure those are qualities that make a production of “Company” soar. At times too much of the staging faces the center section at the expense of house right and left audience seeing backs and sides.

There are fun surprises in the show – and I won’t even begin to describe what Nick Boyer does with a beer bottle.

All in all, it is a very entertaining (though slowish) evening. Recommended.

Company continues at the Arthur Miller Theatre on University of Michigan’s North Campus through Sunday January 10th. Tickets at a2ct.org or at the door.



Challenging and interesting “Women and Wallace” at Ann Arbor Civic Theater (Review) June 27, 2015

Posted by ronannarbor in Theatre.
Tags: ,
comments closed

Director Jared Hoffert has directed a challenging and interesting production of Jonathan Marc Sherman’s one-act play “Women and Wallace” at Ann Arbor Civic Theater.


Told in roughly chronological order, the play follows Wallace, whose mother commits suicide, on his journey to adulthood (it starts with him at 6 years old in 1975, and ends with him at 18 as a college freshman in 1987). Along the way we meet his mother, grandmother, childhood girlfriends, adult girlfriends, and a psychiatrist.

Every cast member of this production is strong, starting with Elijah Cox as Wallace who delivers nuance well, but is also good at the broader comedy of the piece. The women in his life are played by Amanda Burch, Lisa Gavan, Stephanie Laurinec. Megan Shiplett, Candace Ostrander, Madison Fyke, Sophia Saks, and Lauren Goyer — each getting their moment to shine, and turning in very good performances.

Hoffert directs at a leisurely pace that is appropriate to the dramedy — this isn’t a trip that is going anywhere fast, and issues raised will clearly last into Wallace’s future long beyond the show’s end. It is simply staged with movable cubes and props as necessary. He also incorporates a fantastic blend of music — and listen for a particularly hilarious musical interlude after Wallace’s dalliance with an “older woman”.

The language use in the script is remarkable, with Sherman’s keen ear for conversation, and even unspoken moments are important here. You might like Wallace. You might despise him. But you won’t soon forget him, nor the women in his life.

You have two more opportunities to see Women and Wallace — tonight at 8:00 and tomorrow at 2:00 at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s Studio Theatre — 322 West Ann Street. Tickets are available at the door.



Remarkable performances in “Rent” — Ann Arbor Civic Theatre June 9, 2015

Posted by ronannarbor in Community Theater, musical theater, Musicals.
Tags: ,
comments closed

Jonathan Larson’s RENT was presented this past weekend by Ann Arbor Civic Theater at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. Whatever your thoughts are on the show itself (people either love it or hate it), the production featured a remarkable cast of performers, well directed by Glenn Bugala and choreographed by Kat Walsh with excellent musical direction by Tyler Driskill.

Leads for web

Dominic Seipenko performed a spot-on Mark Cohen, never failing to miss both acting and singing notes – he was the heart of this production and well done.

Also extraordinarily good was Lauren Norris as Maureen, matched nicely by Kate Papachristou as Joanne. Norris soared in her numbers, and performed one of the funniest “Leap of Faith”s I think I have ever seen (and I have seen this show way too many times).

Chris Joseph turned in a great performance of Angel, filled with heart and soul. He had the audience eating out of his hand. Similarly excellent were Nickolas Brown as Collins, Paul Clark as Benny, and the entire ensemble who play the other interchangeable roles.

Several performances were not as strong, and vocals suffered — although at times it was hard to tell if that was due to the performers or the muffled sound — the larger the numbers, the worse the sound got. La Vie Boheme worked in solo snippets but was incomprehensible (unless you already knew all the lyrics) once multiple parts were miked.

Bugala’s directorial choices were clever and worked well in this production — in particular a sequence set in the subway during “Santa Fe” (why do both Newsies and Bohemians think that the cesspit that is Sante Fe is a desirable place to go?)

Congratulations to everyone involved with Rent at Ann Arbor Civic Theater. Great to see edgier material alive and well in our local theaters.

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

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals.
Tags: , , ,
comments closed

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.