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“Evita” – University of Michigan Musical Theatre Program October 17, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, Theatre.
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“Evita”, currently running at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre at the University of Michigan is a musical theatre diamond. Presented by the Musical Theatre department, it is as slick as a Broadway tour, and as tight as a college production can be.

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The production reaffirms that the only current professional caliber musical theatre being presented in Ann Arbor is being done by the UM Musical Theatre program. Let me state up front that I love big-budget proscenium-theatre musicals with full orchestras. Especially when they are done right.

Under the expert direction of Linda Goodrich, the show plays out exactly as it should — a fast, straight-forward Act I, followed by an ever-increasingly more emotional Act II, through to the tear-jerker ending. “Buenos Aires” and “A New Argentina” remain Act One’s highlights, while “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and “Rainbow Tour” are clearly Act Two’s forte pieces.

To be sure, this is a problematic work of musical theatre. The Peron story doesn’t really play out true to reality, and follows a “spin” on her biography that bends the truth, and is mean-spirited at that. The Broadway production catapulted Patty LuPone to stardom (ironically, she will be performing here later this year).

But this production is simply first rate, from the fine performances of Desi Oakley (Eva) and Carlos Valdes (Che) to the smaller ensemble parts. The costumes, sets, lighting, choreography, sound, and orchestra are professional and slick. In short, everything a production of the show should be. Linda Goodrich and her design team have made the theatre feel twice the size that it is, and the simple (but beautifully designed) tiered set makes the proscenium arch feel far higher than it is. This is just plain old great design work. The costumes here, like in the original Broadway production, instantly make an indelible impression – separating class, age, and social rank – and make scene changes seamless and fluid without set changes. Can I add that Desi gets to wear the most stunning clothing I’ve seen in a show this season? By the time Eva reaches her Rainbow Tour, you are utterly transported to a different time and place. By that point in the story, the emotion has also kicked into high gear and it’s a race to the conclusion. Brava to both Ms. Oakley as well as Linda Goodrich’s fine pacing and direction.

This is a love it or hate it work of theatre. The same can’t be said of the production, and I loved it. Unfortunately, unless you already have tickets, you won’t be seeing this one. Every performance has been sold out for weeks.

On a final note, can we consider this show now “done” here locally? Civic, Encore, UM, EMU, Croswell…

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Bloodless, emotionless Sweeney Todd at Encore October 2, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Theatre.
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When you drain the blood out of Sweeney Todd (the current musical at Encore Musical Theatre Company) you drain the emotion out of the piece as well. When the emotion is gone, there isn’t much to this Sondheim masterpiece.

9524_1232198718816_1044573288_727973_5653003_nWalter O’Neil (Sweeney Todd) and Sarah Litzsinger (Mrs. Lovett) “By the Sea”

9524_1232831294630_1044573288_729856_6393171_nSteve DeBruyne (Anthony) and Thalia Schramm (Johanna) — “Kiss Me”

There are some fine things going on this production, but suspense is not one of them. Perhaps the three people in the audience who have never seen this musical, nor the movie adaptation, might find some surprise in the clever book and lyrics, but those of us who know this show backwards and forwards certainly will not.

Entering the theatre, you are at once surrounded by Dan Walkers’s marvelous set. Appropriately subdued and surprisingly colorful when needed, this is a wonderful approach to the set in this blackbox setting. And Kudos to Encore for making everything look great! I loved that the air conditioning vent has now been painted black, and that it looks more like a “theatre” with every visit!

The Sweeney Orchestra is the finest I have heard at the Encore! Congratulations! The 9-piece ensemble plays in-tune, and sounds wonderful — oh that Sondheim music. I did miss the factory whistle in the score, and the production was plagued with the now-typical problem of actors being unable to hear the orchestra, and entrances not being together as they can’t see the conductor. I have to compliment both musical director Tyler Driskill and his entire cast for the best diction I have ever heard in a production of Sweeney (and trust me, I’ve seen dozens of them – professional, amateur, and even high school).

Sarah Litzsinger makes a fine Mrs. Lovett; Walter O’Neil a fine Sweeney. Their scenes together are fun. Mind you, not creepy, but fun. Sue Booth performs wonderful work as The Beggar Woman — how wonderful to see her singing on stage again! Steve DeBruyne proves that there is nothing he can do wrong playing almost any role you might throw at him, including nicely acted Anthony here, and Thalia Schramm is a pretty (if very healthy and not-at-all pale) Johanna.  Paul Hopper turns in an appropriately dry Judge, but Jeff Steinhauer struggles with the difficult score and is generally too nice as the Beadle.

Uneven performances are turned in by others. Scott Longpre at times is just fine at Tobias, at others, not so much. The same can be said of John Sartor’s Pirelli which is over the top, but uneven throughout. I did enjoy his scene in Sweeney’s parlor, though. And Longpre turns in a lovely “Not While I’m Around”.

The ensemble is similar to Okalahoma’s — generally too young, not all of the cast members up to the difficult Sondheim score, and generally of community theatre quality. So far, I have been unimpressed by Encore’s aim to integrate the “best” community based actors with the professionals on stage. In just about every performance I have seen there, the professionals and community ensemble do not mesh well together, and there are large gaps in quality between them.

So that brings me to other issues with the show: this production is one in which the average age of the Londoners seems to be about 15. There are not enough adult men. Most of the visitors to Sweeney’s barber chair are too young to have sprouted whiskers themselves. The show is female-heavy, forcing the few men in the ensemble to play multiple roles – even when they follow one scene to the next: in the most glaring instance, a cast-member just killed on the barber chair is suddenly alive and talking in the very next scene on stage. The entire non-professional cast suffers from pitch problems.

Then there are the costumes. I don’t know what the production team was thinking in mixing modern-day clothing with period pieces, but it doesn’t work. I’ve directed dozens of musicals myself, and partaken in many shows where this “out of time” costuming works — Sweeney Todd is not one of them. Tobias wears t-shirts that announce “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixor” and later “Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies”.  The Ensemble is dressed in costumes that look like leftovers from the chorus of Carrie, the Musical. Sweeney looks like a Pirate. Later he wears sunglasses.

Particularly jarring are Johanna’s costumes — lines don’t even make sense the way she is dressed. Playing her own mother earlier in the show, she wears a daydress. Huh? Later, as Johanna, she wears a prep school uniform. If she’s wearing a prep school uniform, it’s implied she is going to school. If she is going to prep school, she is leaving the house — something that Johanna would never be permitted to do by the Judge.

This leads to a greater problem: There is no sense that Johanna is “trapped” in her life with the Judge — in fact, she sings “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” in front of a staircase that would easily take her away from the abusive Judge. Later, instead of Anthony climbing upstairs to see her on her balcony, she uses those same stairs to walk down to the street to meet him. At another point in the production, the Judge’s house moves mysteriously from stage left to stage right. Huh?

My favorite moment? The physical comedy of Sarah Litzsinger’s “By the Sea’ and the wonderfully funny little surprise on her “Oh that was lovely” line just after. Precious comedy that.

But finally — it all boils down to the strange artistic direction choices made in the show. The directing here is uneven — better in intimate moments, but utterly baffling in others. Cast members singing counterpoint in the trio holding choir folders? Exits and entrances from directions that don’t make sense?

And that brings me to the blood. Or lack of blood. Or any creepiness factor at all. This is the G-rated version of Sweeney. Seriously, I’ve seen high school productions of this show that were creepier and scarier. I’m not sure what the problem here is. Is Encore afraid of alienating their Dexter-based audience? Do they not trust that we can handle this show as an audience? If not, why do a show that involves murder, and killing people with a razor knife? Murders are bloodless and clean. Actors stand up and walk away from the chair rather than falling through the trap in the floor. Sweeney’s knife never once glistens with blood.

And Mrs.Lovett never once contemplates strangling Tobias with the knitted muffler she places around his neck.

Without the suspense, the drama is sapped out of the show. That leaves you with an unemotional ending, one in which the audience doesn’t care who has lived and who has died, because we have not been asked to share in the journey — we haven’t cringed at Sweeney’s dark humor as the show progresses, and we haven’t felt Mrs. Lovett’s guilt. Somewhere under that makeup, we need to see that she is trapped in her own big lie, and ultimately feel her humanness and frailty in the final moments. Otherwise, there’s just an oven.

Whether the blood is real (like in the original Broadway production – which went through buckets of red dyed corn syrup every night) or implied in it’s creepy simplicity (one bucket being poured into the other in the recent Broadway revival) there needs to be something. Anything. Make me feel some level of discomfort. Let me wonder how they did it. Let me see the glimmer of red blood as Sweeney flicks his knife through the air. Let me hear the blood pouring from bucket to bucket as the audience goes “yuck” in unison. Anything.

Sweeney Todd continues at the Encore Theatre through October 18th. Tickets an be purchased at http://www.theencoretheatre.org or by calling 734-268-6200. The box office is at 3126 Broad Street in Dexter. Call for box office hours.

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On a related note — I want nothing but success for the Encore. Sorry if some of the reviews sound harsh, but when you set out to achieve a lofty goal of professional musical theatre, you shouldn’t need to be judged by community theatre standards.

That being said — the theatre is in need of several things. First — adult men! Please audition for future shows at the Encore! I know you’re out there — I’ve cast you in my musicals. Drag your butt to Dexter and audition.

Second, the theatre can use some donations: black paint (lots of things on walls still need to be painted). Black heavy-duty power extension cords for lighting (black only please, not orange, not green, not blue). A tv monitor system: this includes a tv for the house so that the cast can see the conductor, and cameras at the back of the house so the conductor can see the cast, and cameras in the pit, so that the actors can see the conductor. I’m sure they could use some other things as well — give the theatre a call and see how you can pitch in! Let’s make this work; it’s a gem in the making, and let’s see what we can do to make it even better!

On a final note to the Encore: I will not be reviewing ANNIE, your next production. I’ve seen enough (and directed enough) community theatre productions of this show to last me a lifetime. I am sure it will bring you a bucket load of money from your audiences, and will keep the family-friendly audiences in Dexter happy. But count me out. The professional tours of the show come through Detroit every couple years. That’s the only versions of Annie I am willing to watch anymore. Good luck with your production, see you at 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee!

And that’s the view from Ann Arbor today…

OKLAHOMA! at Encore Musical Theatre Company August 7, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Entertainment, Theatre.
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One step forward, two steps back…just when GUYS AND DOLLS and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS started to turn the corner for professionalism, along comes OKLAHOMA, now playing at Encore Musical Theater Company, in Dexter, MI.

6088_1194988028572_1044573288_608083_2260876_nSebastian Gerstner as Will Parker, Sarah Litzinger as Ado Annie, and Steve DeBruyne as Ali Hakim (Photos courtesy Encore Musical Theatre Company)

6088_1194807824067_1044573288_607508_1036278_nLiz Griffith as Laurey and Rusty Mewha as Curly

There is good, and there is bad in Encore’s OKLAHOMA. There is no ugly, and that is a really good sign of ongoing good work by this company. But the show proves too much community and too little professional theater in the long run. I didn’t expect to enjoy this production, and it was better than I expected. Not because I don’t like the show, or because I don’t like Encore (I like them very much); but because Oklahoma is just not a suitable show for this small venue.

First the good: Sebastian Gerstner (Will Parker) and Sarah Litzsinger (Ado Annie) are fabulous. Their scenes together have spark, and MSU student Gerstner holds his own with the professional leads in this production. Steve DeBruyne is adorable as Ali Hakim and has quickly become an Encore audience favorite. The three of them provide the highpoints in this production, and there are many of them.

Liz Griffith (UM Musical Theater program graduate) is very good as Laurey. She sings beautifully, and brings a 3rd dimension to this difficult role. The same can not be said of Rusty Mewba as Curly. While he looks great, and sings well, the performance is flat and there is just no spark between the two of them. Contrast this with the sassy and colorful performances of Gerstner and Litzsinger, and you have a show where the secondary leads overshadow the ones we should be rooting for. I liked Gavriel Savit as Jud, but he comes across more as teddy bear than he does evil. Some of the psychology of this character that makes him both sad and scary is missing in this performance.

The set is very fine — if too big for the theatre. It serves well throughout the production…but more on this later. Much was made by the director of the “earthy real aspects of the show”….I dunno, this show looked exactly like every other production of the show I’ve seen — with many similarities to the recent West End production. Sound and lighting is generally good.

Director Barbara F. Cullen (this time co-directed by Jon Huffman) does a very good job with the pacing. The directing and choreography are serviceable, if familiar. That it comes in at 2 1/2 hours including an intermission is nothing short of miraculous for this otherwise very long show.

Then there is the bad: and some of this is beyond the control of the actors or the director — first, if any American musical screams of wide open spaces and the sheer joy of running through plains and dancing uninhibitedly, it’s Oklahoma. The Encore space is just plain old too small for the large scope of this show. The cast is too small. The entire thing looks cramped on the Encore stage – and instead of wide open spaces, things begin to feel claustrophobic as the show progresses. It works well in Jud’s Smokehouse, but starts to show its smallness during the dream ballet. By the time we get to the penultimate song, “Oklahoma” has folded in on itself rather than celebrating the wide open American west. It doesn’t help that the shiny metal air conditioning vent serves as the proscenium frame and shines on the ceiling. Please paint this black! Please!

Second, it is difficult to listen to a Rodgers and Hammerstein score played by a miniscule orchestra that is out of tune, and which sometimes drags down the pace of the production. Sure, its impractical to have a large orchestra in this small space — but shouldn’t that be a consideration at the time the season is being selected?  At points in the show, the cast on stage entirely drowns out the orchestra. At other times, they can’t hear each other well and entrances are not together. This has consistently been a problem this entire season, and the Encore needs to look at options to fix this (like a television monitor system, or selecting shows that can place the orchestra on the stage itself).

The supporting cast and ensemble are generally community theatre quality. Performers range from good to poor with its corresponding timing and line readings. The men’s ensemble fares better than the women’s which is too young and too weak vocally to compare with the professional cast members in the show. “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” is the highlight of the first act –partly because it showcases the wonderful Mr. Gerstner, and partly because the men generally fare better in the song and dance aspects of this show. The choreography is creative and they make the most of this short number (albeit, missing taps — sigh….)

My favorite moment: Sarah Litzsinger’s face — the utter joy she expresses — when the fight breaks out during “Farmer and the Cowman”. It made my night.

You can do worse than OKLAHOMA this summer at the Encore. It’s entertaining and well paced. The leads are generally good, and the show is what it is. But you could do better too (see CITY OF ANGELS at the Croswell Opera House for example).

OKLAHOMA continues at Encore Thursdays through Sundays until August 23rd. Call 734-268-6200 for tickets, or purchase them online at http://www.theencoretheatre.org

Encore’s “Little Shop of Horrors” is a Tasty Early Summer Treat June 5, 2009

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Getting better and better with every show, Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter, MI opened a terrific production of Little Shop of Horrors tonight. Funny, well directed, well performed, and well designed, Little Shop is an early summer treat.

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Steve DeBruyne plays Seymour to nerdish perfection, and I can’t say enough good things about Sarah Litzsinger’s Audrey, who touches all the right notes in a fine performance. A running gag of her facial expressions bring some of the biggest laughs of the night, and her “Somewhere That’s Green” is a study in reserved character craftsmanship. Brava. The entire cast is consistently good, with Paul Hopper (Mushnik) and Jedd Nickerson (Orin) also turning in strong performances.  This is a great ensemble cast.

Special kudos to Michael Lanning, who voices Audrey II with menace, humor, and just the right touch of potty mouth. The coordination of the puppets with his voice is well done. The plant itself, by the way, is terrific. This is the Broadway plant, not designed locally, but imported from New York. It’s a bit cramped in the Encore Space, but it’s a beautiful thing to see it take on a life of it’s own as it grows ever larger (and funnier).

Leo Babcock has designed a terrific set for the show. It works well throughout the production, and looks just right in the small Encore space. Leo has done some beautiful black box theatre work over the years, and his talent and experience shows in this tight and just-right set design.

This is the first show at Encore that has a band that plays in tune, and the blend between them and the cast is just right. Barbara Cullen’s direction and choreography are again good, and she well understands that this work is best directed underplayed to allow the jokes and characters to drive the story without needless overacting. She gets fine performances out of her actors, and the stage pictures look terrific throughout the show.

There were a couple glitches on opening night, nothing that seriously distracted from the overall experience, and which will be ironed out as the show finds its pace and timing. Most notably, there were several missed lighting cues, and some strange spotlight work. And the theatre is still in need of a donation of a tv monitor system so that the actors can see the conductor who is backstage. By the way, Encore — PAINT that air conditioning ductwork black!

This is a high-energy night of theatre, and it’s highly recommended.

Congrats, Encore!