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Hilarious and Winning “Spelling Bee” is Encore’s best… February 5, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, musical theater, Theatre.
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“The 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee”, which opened tonight at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter is simply their best production to date.

The 25th Annual company: Chris Shewchenko, Christine Bunuan, Jeffreu James BinneySteve DeBruyne, Thalia Schramm, Sonja Marquis, Colleen Elizabeth Meyer, Evan Williams, Elizabeth Jaffe, Tobin Hissong

The seam between professional and amateur performers is non-existant here, and the ensemble company is top-notch without a weak link in the bunch. Breezily paced at an hour and forty-five minutes without an intermission by director Dan Cooney and choreographer Barbara F. Cullen, the show is just what the doctor ordered for a cold Michigan winter’s night (though you might consider leaving the kiddies at home for this one — while this is about kids in a spelling bee, it’s strictly in an adult entertainment vein.)

As the evening progresses, you will find yourself rooting for your favorites. Some of them might even be your family or business associates, since there are 4 audience volunteers per performance who join in the fun on-stage and get eliminated one by one (its guaranteed!)  Perhaps it will be Chip (audience favorite and charming Steve DeBruyne), or Logainne (a terrific Liz Jaffe). Maybe you’ll like no-nonsense Marcy (Christine Bunuan) or new-comer Olive (Thalia Schramm in another great performance at Encore). But maybe you go more for the colorful types: Coneybear (a stunning performance from Evan Williams) or magic-footed William Barfee (Jeffrey James Binnay).  The cast is rounded out by sure performances by the “adults”, Colleen Meyer, Tobin Hissong, Chris Shewchenko, and Sonja Marquis.

There is a dandy set by Toni Auletti, and the orchestra sounds great under the capable direction of CT Hollis.

Throw in a hilarious book by Rachel Sheinkin, great lyrics and passable music by William Finn, and a quirky and funny cast, and you have a show that is literally, at times, side-splitting hysterical. There’s a reason this show won a handful of Tony Awards a few years ago. Encore kept me laughing for the entire evening, and that is what this show is all about. Rate this 4 out of 4 stars.

Grab your tickets while you can at theencoretheatre.org, or by phone at 734-268-6200.  The show runs through February 21st.

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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

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, Theatre.
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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!

No Joke, Guys & Dolls at Encore is Super April 3, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Theatre.
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OK, let me start this by saying, I really hate the musical Guys & Dolls — it’s boring to watch, it seems endless, and it’s always more fun to perform in than to watch its (almost) three hour length. It’s overdone, and would be my last choice of a musical if I were asked to pick something exciting for a company to perform.

That being said — Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter MI is putting on a dandy production of the show. It’s everything their initial offering, Evita, was not.

From direction to choreography, lighting, set design, and costumes, this show sings and works hard to entertain. The leads are super, and there is a much more fluid transition from Professional actors to amateurs in this well-done production.

Using the same basic scaffolding set, completely redesigned and reimagined from Evita, the show sparkles from start to finish.

Sure, there are still some clunkers in the show — the orchestra was consistently out of tune — a bigger problem in Evita, but still problematic here – complete with a few trumpet blats that were quite noticeable on opening night — note to Brian: cut the overture — it highlights an out of sync orchestra that all the best piano playing in the world can’t overcome…

The cast is small — too small for the show. It doesn’t have enough guys, and it shows. A few weeks after casting, Encore was still sending out e-mail notices seeking more guys for the show. Apparently not too many answered the call….curiously, the show is too low on Dolls as well and could have easily used another 4 men and 4 women.

Director/Choreographer Barbara Cullen fills the blackbox space admirably with well directed, and well-thought-out movement. Much better than Evita which was both too small and too large for the space.

Some of the casting is inconsistent, but none of it as jarringly community theatre as Encore’s last production. Here, the ensemble is used efficiently, they sing and move well, and except for one or two truly hammy line readings, is indeed more professional in caliber.

Holly Davis makes a fine Adelaide — Thalia Schramm a fine Sarah.  Tobin Hissong is very funny in the part of Nathan Detroit. The real standout here is sultry-voiced baritone Paul Jason Green as Sky Masterson. His performance is musical theatre perfection. His scenes together with Thalia are warm, heartfelt, and their crooning together superb.

Remember that name: Paul Jason Green.

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Opening night had at least one third of an empty house — and based on people’s experience with Evita, you know why — they are waiting to see the reviews for this time-worn and haggard piece of musical theatre that has been performed recently by at least 13 different theatres within a 20 mile radius in the last few years…..well, you get the idea.

Who picked this season for Encore??

GO SEE THE SHOW! It’s Super, and it is a fine evening of theatre. Encore has moved from Community Theatre schlock to semi-professional theatre with this outing. I am very happy to report this, since Evita was appalling.

No joke — it won me over within the magic first 15 minutes and kept me there consistently throughout the evening.

For the Record…GUYS & DOLLS (recent production, not all productions included):

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre (2006) – Young People’s Theatre (2008) – University of Michigan Musical Theatre Program (2003) – Park Players Plymouth (2003) – Ann Arbor Pioneer High School (2002) – Washtenaw Community College Musical Theatre Program (2001) – University of Michigan Musket (1999) – Saline Area Players (1999) – Croswell Opera House (1997) – Eastern Michigan University (1997)- Ann Arbor Huron High School (1995)…

And that is the view from Ann Arbor today…