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Encore’s Extraordinary “Into the Woods” (review) August 21, 2015

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals.
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There is probably very little I can say that hasn’t already been written about Encore Musical Theatre Company’s Into the Woods — simply, it’s brilliant, original, and the best musical they have presented.


I, for one can tell you that I am sick and tired of Into the Woods — I’ve seen every one of its various Broadway professional versions and every local high school, junior high, community theatre and church-basement theatre has done it. But this production had me smiling in delight — and when a show that you know every single word and lyric to can do that after all these years, there is something special going on indeed.

The casting is superior from top to bottom…from Jessica Grové’s superb Witch, to Baker and Baker’s Wife Matthew Brennan and Thalia V. Schramm, to Princes and Wolf (Peter Crist and Sebastian Gerstner…pictured above singing “Agony”). Throw in excellent performances by Jeff Steinhauer (Mysterious Man and Cinderella’s Stepmother – yes, you read that right), Katrina Stribley as Cinderella, Hannah Hesseltine as Little Red, and Elliot Styles as Jack. Top them off with fantastic supporting players Maggie Malaney as Rapunzel, Cassi Mikat and Maggie Williams as Florinda and Lucinda, Emily Rogers as Jack’s Mother, Ari Axelrod as the Steward, and a hilarious Tim Brayman as Milky White (yes, you read that right too).

Director Dan Cooney sets it all in the mysterious and shadowy eaves of an old attic — and the set design itself (by Sarah Tanner) adds a level of drama to the proceedings — light shines through the wooden slats, and illuminates glimpses of things happening throughout — the fully integrated ensemble cast are on stage almost the entire evening and serve as a greek chorus at times — emphasizing words, watching proceedings, providing sound effects. It all works remarkably well. Also fully integrated into the show is the onstage orchestra – with musical director/pianist Tyler Driskill moved around the stage as needed, and the remainder of the orchestra on stage left. The sound is remarkable.

Matthew Brennan’s choreography is organic and never overwhelms the numbers, nor the intended purpose of the staging. People here do not dance just to dance. Daniel Walker’s lighting evokes mood better in this production than anything I have seen at Encore to date. Sharon Larkey Urick’s costumes look lovely, and Anne Donevan has gathered eclectic and interesting properties that serve multiple purposes throughout.

Witness the creative use of light to create the Giant…the clever use of simple props to convey Milky White’s adventures…the “found properties” qualities of ladders and woven material that convey beanstalks and towers. It is flawless work.

Absolutely do not miss Into the Woods — you’ll leave the theatre feeling like you’ve seen something brilliant — and you have.

Very Highly Recommended — nay, demanded that you attend.

Into the Woods continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company through August 30th. For tickets call 734-268-6200 or visit http://www.theencoretheatre.org. I understand there are still some tickets remaining for the final weekend.

Tuneful, delightful “Christmas Caroled!” at Encore (Review) November 29, 2014

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals.
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There is a lot to like about the new musical, Christmas Caroled at the Encore Musical Theatre Company, not the least of which is a superb ensemble cast that makes some really terrific music together.

A framing mechanism that finds a grumpy down-on-his-luck Abner Z Scruggs (get it?) falling asleep and dreaming about his work as a tv-variety entertainer in 1964, gives way to the majority of the 75 minute show, which takes place on that very same Christmas tv “special” – remember those? Songs are sung, jokes are told, and lessons are learned. While the book itself is a work-in-progress for writer/Director Dan Cooney and co-writer Dayle Ann Hunt, there is no doubt what the star of this show is — and that is the music and dance that comprise the tv special itself. Its great to see something new and original, and I’m looking forward to seeing the inevitable changes to the book down the road.

There are warm performances here from Pete Podalski and William Stutts Jr as the show’s co-hosts, and lovely vocal work by Jess Alexander and Mahalia Greenway. Sebastian Gerstner and Callen Snyder comprise the male “show” ensemble, while Bryana Hall, Erika Jost, Colleen Kartheiser, and Teola Lutsker are the female show ensemble. Mike Szymanski and Tim Brayman play smaller parts in the “studio”. Music director Chris Rayis (keyboard) does excellent work with the vocals arranged by R. MacKenzie Lewis of 27 seasonal holiday songs, supplemented by Billy Harrington (percussion), and Andrew Ewing (reeds).

There’s a lovely set that converts from rundown apartment to shiny TV studio set by Dan Walker, though the lighting seems murky and underlit in some sequences. Sharon Larkey Urick has designed nifty costumes for the studio cast, though the fit is not great on a couple of the men.  Kristi Davis has created choreography that fits the period well, and is very clean in its lines and execution. Frosty makes an appearance! Overall, the imagery created by Cooney and Davis captures everything that you remember from those tv shows from the 60’s and 70’s. Jess Alexander looks eerily like Bing Crosby in one of the sequences, with his knit cap and scarf, though I am pretty sure that the goatee on Mr Stutts is not period-correct.

None-the-less none of that really matters here — what matters is that this is a fun and tuneful holiday musical that is sure to keep a smile on your face and even get you feeling a bit verklempt from time to time. And that’s not bad for a Christmas musical at all.

Christmas Caroled continues through December 21st at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter, MI  Tickets at theencoretheatre.org, or 734-268-6200

Superb cast in Encore’s GODSPELL (review) March 31, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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GODSPELL arrived at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter last night, and it is a tribute to director Dan Cooney and his superb cast and musicians that this production ranks right up there among the best, and in some ways superior to the current Broadway production.

This is an earthy revival of the show — and its 70’s roots shine through only momentarily as it runs its fleet two-hour course through many of the parables found in the book of Matthew. Trimming some of the fat; re-ephasizing portions of the show often left to be the dreck that they are; and finding some truly brilliant moments in it all (take the vaudeville quarter-size dancing body puppets as one of those examples), Cooney has brought his own spin to the material, and it all works very well on Encore’s stage (here transformed into a dilapidating old theater by stage designer Leo Babcock).

Let me be the first to say that if you asked my opinion on the ten musicals that rank among the worst ever written that have somehow managed to make it into the popular repertoire, Godspell is one of them. That being said, this production manages to avoid most of the pitfalls usually associated with the show: gone is the opening mumbo-jumbo philosophy section; gone are the ridiculous hand puppets; gone is the glitter and confetti and (thank God) the clown outfits.

Rusty Mewha both acts and sings with brio here as Jesus — in fact, his range just continues to grow and grow in the many shows I have now seen him perform in. Brian Thibault performs a solid Judas. The remainder of the cast is sublime — Brian E. Buckner not only performs but also plays piano in the ensemble; Keith Kalinowski shines in each of his numbers; Sonja Marquis and Amy Smidebush sing to the rafters; Angela Kay Miller and Fatima Poggi hit all the right notes in their various ensemble duties; Charles Lindsay is an angelic-voiced Lamar; and Tara Tomcsik delivers the evenings funniest lines and routines (her tap-dancing opening to Act II is both hilarious and demonstrates masterful control of overblown and very funny tap steps).

As the show works its way through Vaudeville; Grand Opera; Westerns: Gangster Flicks; and even a bit of A Chorus Line, the parables are clearly delineated  stories, and I must say, Cooney has done a fine job of making sure that they are understandable and defined (something that can not be said of the energetic but bombastic current Broadway revival). Barb Cullen’s choreography matches the styles perfectly and blends nicely between movement and stage action. It bears repeating how glad I was that the hand-puppets are nowhere to be seen.

There was an opening night glitch when the voluminous stage smoke effect in Act II set off the building’s fire alarm. The cast didn’t miss a beat and worked their way through a portion of the show with the whining alarm in the background — and it says something that the audience sat raptly involved in the whole thing to the point where the alarm itself was barely discernible.

But this night belonged to Cooney and his cast. They are magnificent.


GODSPELL continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company through April 22. Tickets are available at http://www.theencoretheatre.org or the box office at 3126 Broad Street, Dexter, MI  734-268-6200


“Nevermore” at Encore (Review) March 20, 2011

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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Simply put, Encore Musical Theatre Company’s “Nevermore” is the best production they have presented. Period.

Dan Cooney is exceptional in a role he originally created for the Signature Theater in Arlington, and here both stars and directs. And he is surrounded by a terrific supporting cast of five women. Weaving lyrics adopted from the writings of Edgar Allen Poe into a cohesive whole telling the story of Poe’s demon-driven life and relationships, the music by Matt Conner is melodic, the Book by Grace Barnes is satisfying, and the performances here terrific.

Set design, sound design, lighting design, orchestra, and costume design are all first-rate here, and the entire production can simply be described as Encore’s first all-around professional caliber offering.

Supporting Cooney (as Poe) are outstanding performances from Elizabeth Jaffe (Virginia); Erin Donevan (The Whore); Thalia Schramm (Elmira), Sonja Marquis (Muddy), and Marlene Inman-Reilly (Mother).

But it’s Cooney’s show from start to finish. He strikes just the right note in every single moment of this 90-minute musical and vocally is at the top of his form. His performance is exceptional — look for his name come award-time in Detroit at the end of the season. Bravo.

When Encore first opened its doors a couple seasons ago, this was the type of musical theater most of us had hoped for and envisioned, not the generic community-theater caliber shows they have generally presented. Curiously, they call this a part of their “On the Edge” series when it should be exactly the type of theater that they should always be producing if they truly wish to consider themselves “professional” and put themselves on the map.

Sadly, I saw the closing performance of this production since I was in Europe since it’s opening a few weeks ago. I would happily have seen this show a second time, and brought more friends along to introduce them to the theater. It’s something Encore should be very proud of. At last.

I say, get rid of the “on the edge” monicker, start doing more productions like this, dump the Annie’s and Sound of Music’s and leave those to the community theaters, and start watching audiences arrive from all over the southeast Michigan area.

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.