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Dreary “A Little Night Music” – Broadway, Review April 25, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater.
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Study this picture:

If that set design looks good to you, evokes romanticism, and draws you in , by all sakes go see the revival of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Walter Kerr Theatre. It is, incidentally, the same set you will be staring at for three long hours.

A transfer from London’s Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre Company (Sunday in the Park, La Cage aux Folles). the production is lifeless and dreary, despite a first-rate cast.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is terrific as Desire Armfeldt. The production is lucky to have Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt. And the rest of the cast is fine. I had a little trouble with Aaron Lazar’s Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, stereotyping a part that is already stereotyped, but even that can be overlooked.

What can’t be overlooked is a production that has a horrible production design, music that is slowed-down in tempo to the point of a dirge, and such murky lighting that for long sections of ensemble you watch shapes move about in the near dark. The opening waltz with all characters mingling and intermingling with their partners is murky to the point that you can’t even recognize who is who. Sloppy, dark, and dreary. When we finally arrive in the country for Act II, you are still staring at the same dusty-mirrored drawing room walls. Might as well have stayed in the city.

I adore A Little Night Music. I’ve directed it before, and I’ve appeared in two separate productions. The current Broadway revival is a tremendous letdown, and pales in comparison to other professional (and some amateur!) productions of the show.

See it if you must, but you have been warned. The couple next to me both fell asleep during act I and were gone during act II. I had a hard time staying focused on the long production without anything visual to look at, and I know every line in this show.

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Stunning “Ragtime” at University of Michigan Musical Theatre Program (Review) April 17, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Entertainment, musical theater, Theatre.
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The University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre Program has another stunning success on their hands. As usual, all performances are sold out, so beg, borrow, or take up any friend’s offer of an extra ticket to see this wonderful production. Seen on sold-out Friday night, this production proves once again why it is one of the top such programs in the country.

(Top) The entire cast of RAGTIME. (Bottom) Hava Kaplan, A.J. Holmes (photos courtesy of University of Michigan, 2010)

RAGTIME is one of those shows that stirs the soul (even though you are fully aware you are being shamelessly manipulated by the plot and storyline) and makes you feel something throughout it’s three hour run. From the extraordinary opening number featuring the full ensemble, to the stirring small-family unit finale. It’s one of my 10 favorite modern musicals. I saw it in the final weeks of it’s many-month Toronto development pre-Broadway, and couldn’t fall asleep for hours after walking back to my hotel room. The same thing occurred last night. Not without its problems (Grandfather has been whittled down to an afterthought, and a major character dies and is replaced by a new spouse with three lines of dialogue), the show is none-the-less spot-on in capturing three very different world-view experiences in turn of the century America (the previous turn-of-the-century, that is!).

Director Mark Madama has done a splendid job of directing his very talented ensemble cast (and the show is a true ensemble piece) mixing  large full-stage spectacle with quiet intimate reflective moments. The show’s three hour length never feels too long, nor too hurried. Choreographer Lyndy Franklin Smith does wonders with every musical number, and by the time the show reaches “Gettin’ Ready Rag” you want to jump onstage and join in the fun. Cynthia Kortman Westphal’s musical direction is top-notch and the cast sounds fantastic both individually and in ensemble. Jessica Hahn’s costumes and Dawn Rivard’s wig-work are great. It’s all well-lit and designed by David Neville, and kinda-well sound-mixed by Jim Lillie. The sound occasionally popped and crackled, but not to the point of annoyance nor distraction. That is bound to happen in a show where every single cast member is on a body-mic.

Performance-wise, the true standout in an excellent ensemble cast is A.J. Holmes as Tateh. His voice is terrific, but his acting brings life to this difficult role that ranges from broad energetic moments to quiet internalized grief, where a twinkling in his eye says more than words ever could. Bravo, AJ.

Equally strong performances are presented by clear-voiced Kent Overshown at Coalhouse; Britney Coleman as Sarah; Amanda Choate (Mother); Tyler Brunsman (Father); Joe Carroll (Younger Brother); Marken Greenwood (Emma Goldman) and Alle-Faye Monka (Evelyn Nesbit). The children in the show (Milo Tucker-Meyer and Hava Kaplan) are also terrific.

All of the featured performers are equally strong – and the payoff is a terrific and emotional finale, with a near-instant standing ovation. The script has manipulated you to tears. The cast has manipulated you to that ovation.

My one criticism: with very rare exception, I abhor orchestras on stage. This is not one of those exceptions. I know the recent Broadway trend has been to place the full orchestra on stage (Chicago, the Ragtime revival, Wonderful Town), but I hate it. It detracts from what is happening on stage, and Ragtime is a show that is written in clean, minimalist scenes. To have the percussionist bobbing and weaving across an 8 foot orchestra space, and the harp bopping back and forth while the Tuba player switches from one bright and shiny instrument to another bright and shiny instrument is merely distracting. Don’t get me wrong, they sound fantastic in this production. But in this case, quiet moments on stage that should be actors alone in a spotlight, are backed by distracting orchestra moves in silhouette that pull you out of the moment.

Congratulations to the University of Michigan Musical Theater Program for another fantastic production. Good luck seniors in your annual New York showcase! And to those who don’t hold tickets for the show, this is your reminder (as I did last year after 42nd Street) that tickets go on sale a year in advance, and season tickets as well as individual tickets can be purchased long in advance. And they have to be. This is by-far the highest quality musical theater you will see all year in Ann Arbor. Next spring’s Brigadoon is sure to be an equal stunner.

“101 Dalmations” musical posts closing notice March 23, 2010

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“101 Dalmations” the musical, has posted a closing notice. It will continue with its current tour, which opens in NYC at Madison Square Garden in a few weeks, and will close on 4/18. All further national tour dates have been cancelled.

This is a shame — I’ve previously written a blog entry on the show. It needed work, and it was not ready for prime time. 101 Dalmations has played at both the Fox Theater in Detroit and Wharton Center in East Lansing during the past few month.

Rachel York, the show’s dynamite shining star, departed the cast on January 31st. Sara Gettelfinger took over the role of  Cruella DeVil and will play the part in NYC. Sad to see another show with 30 cast members and a huge crew close — but the show never achieved its lofty goals, had a week score, and required massive re-do of sets, costumes, and concept (i.e. eliminating adults on stilts) if it wanted to go anywhere. It might have been beyond fixing. At either rate, the producers did not give reason for closing the show.

The Addams Family musical – Chicago (Review) – Funky fun! December 21, 2009

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Before even commencing with a review, let me state three things. 1) I LOVED this new musical and had a great time. 2) You will either love it or find yourself being indifferent to it depending on your level of a) appreciation for great performances, music, and stagecraft, and b) your tolerance for quirky lunacy. 3) The New York critics are going to chew this up and spit it out — they tend to be a humorless bunch, but audiences are going to flock to it and love it.

There are big big names associated with The Addams Family musical. It has a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (UM grad). It is choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, and directed and designed by Phelim McDermott & Julian Crouch.

What, you ask? Who are these people? They are some of the most influential professional musical theatre leaders. Sergio choreographed Jersey Boys, Memphis, and Next to Normal. Marshall co-wrote Annie Hall, Sleeper, Manhattan and slew of other Woody Allen movies. Rick wrote Jersey Boys. Phelim and Julian designed and directed Shockheaded Peter and a slew of other international theatre hits. Andrew wrote The Wild Party, john & jen, and all the new songs for the revisal of Your a Good Man Charlie Brown.  This is a singularly sensational group of creators.

The show stars Bebe Neuwirth, Nathan Lane, Terrence Mann, Carolee Carmello, Kevin Chamberlin, Jackie Hoffman, Zachary james, Krysta Rodriguz, Adam Rieger, Wesley Taylor, and a 16 member ensemble. And they are great.

Nathan Lane plays the part of Nathan Lane as only Nathan Lane can. (He plays Gomez with a manic energy, a faux-Spanish accent that comes, goes, and reappears and comes closest to sounding spanish only in his pronunciation of words like “chorizos”). Bebe Neuwirth is a delectable Morticia, and shines in her “Second Banana” number at the top of the second act. She wears a dress that is hard to imagine how difficult it is to get into every evening. Terrence Mann plays straight-laced Mal Beineke, and Carolee Carmello his uptight wife, Alice (in a star-turning role). Jackie Hoffman is a hilarious Grandma, Krystal Rodriguez a wonderful Wednesday, Kevin Chamberlin as excellent an Uncle Fester as you could find, and Zachary James a simply astounding Lurch.

There isn’t much book to speak of: Wednesday (just turned 18) is in love with straight-laced friend from school Lucas (Wesley Taylor) and  is mortified to find that Morticia insists the two families meet for dinner. What follows is a knock-off of the basic storyline of La Cage aux Folles as the two families mix and mingle in the most peculiar of ways, each learning something from the other in the process.

The music here throughout is terrific, and Andrew has written wonderfully clever lyrics. Hopefully the sound system will be a bit clearer on Broadway than it was at times here. The set is remarkable — a series of walls, staircases, and surprisingly large open spaces that move, change, rearrange, and make up the crazy world that is the Addams household. The lighting is noteworthy – there is some very pretty stagework done here by Natasha Katz and her crew. Makeup, puppetry, costuming and special effects throughout are good.

Make no mistake here — this is a show filled with lunacy and lighthearted fun. The jokes come rapidly, and sometimes too quickly. Many of them fall flat. This is broad comedy, and it’s delivered and performed splendidly by this fine cast. There is much that is instantly familiar to watchers of the tv show and movies, but it does not stick to that formula — rather, it is composed of a series of vignettes, jokes, and scenes based on the cartoons of Charles Addams, and not intended in any way to resemble what is already known. Thing appears momentarily, and so does Cousin Itt, but they aren’t recurring characters.

Uncle Fester flies (twice!); Grandma curses up a storm; Pugsley creates mischief; Wednesday tortures her brother but is also intrigued by the big wide world out there for the taking; and Lurch makes you laugh in every scene he is in.

Does it need some work? A little. I am confident it will be fixed by the New York opening. The lightbulb in Fester’s mouth is great. When the ensemble echos it, it’s just stupid. That needs to be cut. Some of the jokes need to be fixed and just fall flat. Bebe needs to drop her character voice when singing and just sing. Nathan needs to be toned down a bit more, and someone needs to work with him on his Spanish accent, but I’m not sure he’s an actor amenable to a lot of coaching — at either rate, he needs to be reeled in a bit. Some of the ensemble need to be pulled back into the background a bit more and not dance in One while the leads are in One. The show itself never feels too slow, and is a breezy 2 1/2 hours, so it’s just right for an evening of Broadway entertainment. But it does need those jokes to be fixed.

But there are brilliantly creative moments here as well: a tassel falling off the act curtain and running away…Fester flying to the moon…well-staged sword-play, and some great surprises.

In short, I truly loved this musical. I saw it with two seasoned musical theatre fans, and they both loved it too. The Chicago media was split — The Sun Herald gave the show a 4-star rave. The Tribune a 2-star average rating. The New York media will most likely split on this as well — but one thing was clear: the audience adored the show. It got a rousing standing ovation for the cast, and people left the theatre in a great mood. And that is a very good thing in this poor political and financial climate. I’ve read a few blog entries where people either loved it or were indifferent to it as well — and I think that is how this one is going to play out. Another friend said that he was surprised I liked the show, his friends had walked out at intermission. Well let me tell you, I did not see one person leave at the sold-out snowy Sunday afternoon performance that we saw in Chicago. I saw a very happy audience that was positively abuzz with laughter during intermission and back in their seats ready to go for Act 2. I also saw a long line of frozen theatre goers waiting in the cancellation line for possible tickets for the performance. I smell a big fat hit. I am going to go out on a limb and say, this show is at a point in its development that it is already critic proof.

If you live in the regional area — see if you can get to The Addams Family — and go have a great time. It’s also generally family-friendly though it does skew to an adult audience. The full website for the show is here: http://www.theaddamsfamilymusical.com/

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UPDATED 12/29/09 — It has just been announced that Jerry Zaks will be brought in to review and fix the parts of the show that are not currently working! This is great new, and perhaps he will do a good job of reigning in Nathan Lane since they are buddies who have worked together before. For the NYT article, see this link:     http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/29/theater/29addams.html?ref=arts

And that’s the view from Ann Arbor today.

Patti Lupone at Hill Auditorium — Review November 21, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Entertainment, Theatre.
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The first of the fall’s big local Broadway Events occured last night at Hill Auditorium, presented by the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan — Patti Lupone in concert (“Coulda Woulda Shoulda”).

Comprised of songs she has sung in Broadway productions, songs she could have sung, and songs she made her own with a special twist, the two-hour evening was thrilling, entertaining, and reminded the audience just what a Broadway Diva Patti truly is.

Starting the evening off by shouting “Go Blue” followed by an anti-OSU slur, she had the crowd in the palm of her hand from the first moments — what followed was pure Broadway at it’s best. “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” continues to amaze, and a set in which she sang songs normally performed by men on stage was fun and edgy.

The years have mellowed Patti. Her stories between song sets are tamer, and less obscenity-strewn. I’ve seen her perform many many times live now — on stage in Evita, Sunset Boulevard, Gypsy, Anything Goes…on stage with her cabaret show at NYC’s Bottom Line on two occasions, and in several other performances in NYC. She no longer shares stories of intoxicated travels while performing on cruise ships. This is a more refined Patti — a Patti that has literally seen it all, and then some.

She’s been performing the Coulda Woulda Shoulda concert now since 2007, alternating performances with her Patti Live concert, and a shared evening with Mandy Patinkin. No matter which incarnation of her concert you see, she’s a force to be reckoned with, and remains one of America’s musical theatre treasures.

Ann Arbor was treated to a taste of what makes her special — and what makes Broadway special. I rode out a migraine through the show, because she is a diva not to be missed. Brava Patti, Brava. Oh, and I agree….the Buckeyes DO suck…

And that’s the view from Ann Arbor today.

Superb cast salvages “The Producers” at Croswell Opera House June 22, 2009

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First — there are huge fans of Mel Brooks’ musical THE PRODUCERS, and there are those who are not (me) 12 Tonys notwithstanding (I voted for “The Full Monty”). It’s an actor’s dream to perform these roles — its another task entirely to sit for three hours in an audience being inundated with mean-spiritedness.

The Producers is an example of a show that worked so well on Broadway with its primarily NYC-based audiences; and a show that faltered in its national tour, and eventually closed when NYC audiences dissipated and it needed to rely on tourists, who didn’t find it as funny nor as entertaining as the apparently more-informed NYC audiences did. It also relied on the star power of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick — two performances permanently burned into the retinas of audience goers for these roles.

That being said — the cast at Croswell Opera House is as superb as you can expect in an amateur production of the show. Steve Antalek is a fine Max Bialystock, and Patrick Toth a fine Leo Bloom (even if he is 15 years too young for the role). Lucy Hagedorn shines as Ulla, and Jim Craig is a funny Roger DeBris. Special kudos to Jesse Montie who has a pitch-perfect interpretation of Carmen Ghia, and Stephen Smith’s athletic Franz (another actor who is at least 20 years too young for the part).

There is also more good: the orchestra sounds wonderful under the direction of Jonathan Sills, and the costumes by Susan Eversden are literally stunning.

But then there is the bad: the sound is spotty with several mic problems during the course of the performance – but more importantly, some totally missing mic-work — solo lines are inaudible in the house; important lines in songs disappear; and when the ensemble sings one primarily hears only the leads who are on body mics. The opening number is a cacophony of mumbo-jumbo that even those of us who know every word of this show had a hard time making out. “We wanted to stand up and hiss….we’ve seen shit, but never like this” was completely unintelligible, and it’s one of the funniest lines in the show.

The choreography is lacking. “I want to be a producer” is sloppy and poorly choreographed. The taps can not be heard through most of the number, and this is the one place in the show where clean, efficient tapping is required. It’s not the girls fault — they do what they can with a mess of tap steps that do nothing to emphasize the rhythm of the song nor to build to any type of climax. Time steps and shuffles alone do not make for a Broadway tap number. “Springtime for Hitler” is inherently funny — the choreography in this production does nothing to build the number to what it could be; and at times seems to work against it by forcing motions into space that doesn’t fit. The swastika-dance looks great on a big stage when a mirror can be flown in to show the “Busby Berkley” effect of the swastika rotating on stage…here, it just looks like messy marching.

Then there is the ugly: the set design. This is just plain old gawd-awful. It ranges from serviceable (Roger’s apartment) to Junior-High quality (the scenes outside the theatre; and the “Springtime for Hitler” sign that flies in at the end of Act I — which is so awful that Junior High quality might be giving it too much credit.) The paint is not thick enough on the canvas drops, and light shines through from behind (a problem that plagued last year’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Croswell also). The lettering throughout is sloppy and unprofessional. The lettering for the Whitehall and Marks backdrop looks like a high school cheerleading sign hanging in a hallway. The set design is cringe-inducing in it’s awfulness. Even the better pieces have problems — Roger’s apartment doesn’t fit together well on stage (or they missed their marks during the Sunday afternoon performance that I saw) and the lovely Little Old Ladyland heart is fronted by a poorly painted sloppy looking bench.

Therein lies the crux of the matter — The Producers, despite spoofing the “worst show ever” can’t LOOK like the worst show ever. It’s a budget-squashing show that is far more expensive than it looks in the finished product, and it is exactly because of that budget that the show works in professional venues.

What Croswell has is a fine ensemble cast that is stunningly costumed standing in a shell of a set — and it doesn’t work that way. Sloppy graphics and lettering, poorly painted drops, and slow-moving scene changes undo the effort that the cast has put into this show.

I laughed. I know the show inside and out. Everything that worked in this show worked because of the fine and funny script, the great singing voices, and the fine direction of Mark DePietro whose sense of timing, comedy, and efficient stage-work is clearly seen throughout the show. I wish I could say more positive things about the show, but I can’t.  Perhaps my expectations of the Croswell have become too high over the years — but they SHOULD be that high — this is the best Summer Stock in the region.

For the record, Croswell is the only non-professional theatre where I would personally audition for a show. My heart is in directing and choreography, not in performance. But I respect certain directors and some specific shows. I was in last year’s Croswell production of Titanic, the Musical, because it is one of my favorite shows. I was indeed cast in this production of The Producers, but chose not to participate for personal reasons. I look forward to auditioning at Croswell again if the right combination of show and director comes along down the road and my schedule permits. I am also a supporting member of the Croswell Opera House.

There are a slew of other productions of THE PRODUCERS slated for local venues, including one in Ann Arbor this fall. Word of warning to all of them — this is going to be the most expensive musical you have ever produced, and if you don’t have the money to spend, tread carefully.