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Downriver Actors Guild gets a new home (and puts on a great Superstar) June 14, 2014

Posted by ronannarbor in Community Theater, Theatre.
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Downriver Actors Guild in Wyandotte (that’s 38 minutes away to the southeast for you Ann Arbor folks) have much to celebrate in their new home — The Theater on Avenue at 2656 Biddle Avenue.

Born in only 6 months in an abandoned warehouse (about 4 times the size of the Encore in Dexter), the theater has come to life these past two weekends with a great production of John Sartor’s directed Jesus Christ Superstar, a show he knows well. This isn’t so much a review of the show (except to say its terrific and go see it if you can get a ticket), but a kudos to the new theater building itself. Paid for by donations and in-kind services, the theater was clearly a labor of love for the good folks involved.

Raked seating for 208 in comfortable theatre seats donated by the Dearborn Players Guild provides good views of the moderately sized stage. The 50 member cast easily fit on the stage and its multi-tiered set designed by Leo Babcock. The orchestra had its own area on stage right, and while sound issues are still being worked out is a good solution for fitting musicians into a limited theater space.

Lighting is superb — Dave Reynolds puts on a show with the new equipment, and it is colorful and lights the space well. He’s even brought in a couple moving units for this production, which allows not only movement of light and color on stage, but occasional splashes of light in the audience as well, in keeping with the show’s rock-opera look and feel.

The lobby is spacious and the bathrooms are gorgeous — thanks to Sartor Tile. And it is abuzz with life — there’s a bake sale preshow and during intermission, and a 50/50 raffle going strong. There are also photos of the entire cast and people were busy circulating throughout the area. Its a great space, and it will be comfortable and out of the elements on cold winter nights.

And finally, there is plentiful parking in the lots behind and around the theater, and how great is it to have a theater literally across the street from a Tim Hortons/Cold Stone Creamery. Arrive an hour early and go grab a sweet cream cone.

Congratulations on the launch of a beautiful civic theater space – one that many other community theaters (and some professional ones) will be envious of.  It wouldn’t be fair to end this without listing the people and affiliations involved in making this happen, so to the best of my knowledge they are:

Many many donors at all levels of giving…Dearborn Players Guild, Dearborn…Daly-Merritt Properties, Wyandotte…the Babcock Design Studios, Saline…Wagner Structural Solutions, Howell…McDowell & Associates, Ferndale…Sartor Tile, Dearborn Hts…Denken Engineered Electric, Madison Hts…Murrell Plumbing, Canton…Temperature Control, Wyandotte…Gandol Door, Romulus…Advance Plumbing, Detroit…Virginia Tile, Troy…Total Facility Storage, Wyandotte…Wyandotte Mini Storage, Wyandotte…Ryan Building Materials, Southfield.



“The Wedding Singer” – Dexter Community Players….or, how to make a community theater production look like a million bucks… July 27, 2011

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals.
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I’ve just completed directing and choreographing a weekend run of THE WEDDING SINGER, the musical, for Dexter Community Players in Dexter, MI. Not to toot my own horn, but the single most heard comment in the audience (besides what a fun show) was how professional the show looked and sounded. This is not a review. This is a blog entry about what goes into directing a show that looks and sounds as professional as you can make it.

1. Make sure you have great leads — in this case, Andrew Buckshaw (Robbie Hart) is a musical theater student, sure to be a future Broadway performer. Katherine Kujala (Julia Sullivan) is a recent graduate of University of Michigan’s Opera program, already an established performer. Almost all of the supporting cast are or were musical theater, or vocal performance majors.

2. Keep the set simple, fast to move, and streamlined. In community theater, unless you have a half million dollar budget, you can’t even come close to approximating the multi-million dollar Broadway sets. So you do elements of them: you make sure that they fly and move quickly; and you make sure that the show doesn’t stop to wait for set changes.  Use fades, not blackouts. Stack sets that fly behind each other. Have more than one person on flyrails so things can move at the same time. Enlist cast members in helping with set changes. Keep it moving.

3. Get the best orchestra and sound designer you can get. We had an 11-piece orchestra under the direction of John Tartaglia that was composed of a mix of music professionals and the very best students we could find. Nothing says “amateur theater” like a bad orchestra. So make sure that it is not. The orchestra was the single most expensive aspect of this entire production. It also sounded like a professional pit orchestra. You get what you pay for. Our sound designer (Patrick Schrock) is an expert in blending vocal sound on stage with rock music in the pit. If you can’t hear every word, you don’t have a show.

4. Simplify choreography. Make sure that you give the ensemble steps that they can perform — your show is as good as it’s weakest link. Your choreography can be brilliant, but if only a few cast members can perform it, you have nothing. Keep the steps simple, repetitive, and throw in some fun steps that they enjoy doing and will take the time to learn. In this case, I rewrote large portions of choreography before even teaching the steps.

5. Light it. Make sure you have a terrific lighting designer. Kent Sprague is a lighting design major at Wooster College in Ohio. Not only does he have an eye for good, focused lighting, but he has a playful sense of color and design. In a show where lighting substitutes for sets, at times, you better make sure that lighting looks fantastic.

6. Make sure you have the details right. If the show calls for a mirror ball, make sure you have a mirror ball. If water needs to cascade onto a cast member, make sure you have an effect that works on stage, and “reads” in the house. If a dumpster is your most important set piece, you better make sure that dumpster looks like a dumpster. If your leads need matching jackets, make sure they have matching jackets.

7. Expect to spend more money than you originally budgeted. Nothing comes in under budget. Ever. Build in a slush fund, or make sure that your design team has deeper pockets than your budget allows.

8. Surround yourself with the best staff you can get — from designers to techies, make sure you have the best people you can find to fill each important role. Have regular production team meetings. Even with the best intentions, expect some miscommunications and work together to resolve difficulties. Have a great producer (Francyn Chomic). Stay in communication with the Board.

9. Stay calm and enthused. Not every rehearsal is going to run as smoothly as you like. There will be plenty of drama that arises offstage. These are actors and “theater people” — expect it!…Stay calm, easy going, and confident.

10. Remember that this is community theater. People expect it to look and sound like community theater, based on their past experiences. When they see something that looks and sounds professional instead, you’ll stun them. In this case, the production really fell into the category of “pre-professional”, given the quality and experience of the staff and most of the tech crew. Pat yourself on the back for a job well-done, and hope the next production at the theater will maintain the same high caliber. Create a new benchmark with each show, and keep the quality up.

Damn Yankees strikes out at Croswell Opera House (Review) August 22, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Theatre.
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In the past, Croswell has been the sole not-fully Equity regional theater that I have reviewed in this blog. I do so for a reason — they quite simply present the best musical theatre being produced on a non-professional (or educational, read University of Michigan) basis in the area.

I can’t do a full review for Damn Yankees because I left before intermission. This is sloppy work, and screams community theatre from the getgo. The continuity mistakes in turning the Washington Senators into the Detroit Tigers are consistent and the concept here does not work. I’ve seen this concept work once at the Huntington Playhouse in Bay Village, OH many years ago. It doesn’t work here in Adrian.

Costuming is poor, the sets passable at best, and the production numbers have no life. The (very small) men’s ensemble tries. It tries hard. It does not succeed. The women fare better overall.  The sound, as it has been all summer, was poor.

The show comes to life only when Mark DiPietro appears, He is superb as Applegate. Sorry, Mark — I couldn’t make it through this (long) show.

Damn Yankees strikes out. It’s a cliche. But its an apt cliche for this production. Looking forward to future performances at Croswell, but I can’t recommend this one.

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