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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.

Outstanding “The Last 5 Years” at Encore (Review) May 27, 2011

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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Steve DeBruyne (Jamie) and Thalia Schramm (Cathy) turn in two excellent performances in Encore’s current offering, Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last 5 Years”. These two performers sing-through 75 minutes of intermission-less ballads, pop songs, and story songs to tell the tale of a 5-year relationship;  her tale beginning at story’s end and working backwards, his starting at the beginning and working towards its end. They meet only once, at the middle of the story during their wedding.

With a simple, effective, and very clever set design (Steven V. Rice), the audience is seated on two sides of the black box theater space, and it works very well for this production. Steven must also be mentioned for his outstanding lighting design — possible the best I have seen in an Encore production.

The orchestra, under the nimble direction of Brian E. Buckner sounds terrific — Brian also plays keyboard, joined by Fran Wakefield on Violin, and Alex Massingill on bass. Director Daniel Cooney keeps the action flowing quickly from scene to scene (assisted by Carrie Jay Sayer, and co-directed by Steve DeBruyne). Thalia Schramm’s costume design is simple and efficient, and works just right for the many scenes and the passage of time.

I particularly enjoyed Steve’s story-song “The Schmuel Song” and Thalia’s “A Summer in Ohio” — which contains the funniest lyric in the show, about the “summer in Ohio with a gay midget named Karl playing Tevye and Porgy”. Those unfamiliar with Jason Robert Brown’s superb score will find that it is beautifully presented here, and it’s so good  that you will want to see the show a second time to admire the expert musical craftsmanship at play in this work.

In short, I loved this production. I loved the performances. And I loved that Encore continues to provide some of the better current musical theater pieces available in the modern repertoire. More of this! Less of Annie!

Go see it. Highly recommended.

The Last 5 Years continues at The Encore Musical Theatre Company through June 5th — 3126 Broad Street, Dexter, MI — 734-268-6200 — http://www.theencoretheatre.org

Forever Plaid at Encore is terrific entertainment (review) April 22, 2011

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals.
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Forever Plaid, which opened tonight at the Encore Musical Theater Company in Dexter, will bring you “plaid tidings”, um, you’ll be “plaid you went”, er…you’ll “boldy go where no plaid has gone before”….

Yeah, okay, it’s that kind of show…and it is terrific. The actors are wonderful, the scenic design spiffy, and the entire evening fun and entertaining. There are even a few stage surprises along the way, and tribute Barb Cullen for another great directing/choreography job at Encore. The pacing is swift, the numbers flow from song to song, and it makes for a great evening of musical theater, with emphasis on the music part.

There isn’t much to the story — Plaids die in car crash, mysteriously re-appear for one last concert together, sing, frolic, and generally make mischievous fun with an evening of early 60’s songs sung in tight harmonies, solos, duets, and combinations. There’s a mirror ball, and bubbles. Lights twinkle merrily in the set (sometimes too merrily).

But oh what plaid tidings the actors bring to this production!

Leo Daignault (Jinx) brings years of Plaid lineage to the show having performed in Boston, San Diego, Tokyo, and Chicago with the show. He’s great in a performance that ranges from subtly nuanced to, well, not subtle or nuanced.

Steve DeBruyne (Frankie) turns in another outstanding Encore performance. Serving as the Plaid’s leader he’s a fine entertainer. New York Agents take note — this actor needs representation!

Phill Harmer (Smudge) is hilarious — I couldn’t stop laughing at his takes, facial expressions, and comic timing. His “Sixteen Tons” is ridiculous. I loved it.

But most of all, I liked Sebastian Gerstner (Sparky) in this production. He’s hard to resist throughout — his eyes twinkle with merriment, he’s a fine actor on top of being a great singer and dancer, and were those tears I saw welling up in the final sequence?  The “my mother/my stepmother” sequence between he and Leo was the comic highlight of the show. Great job.

Kudos also to pianist Brian E. Buckner, and Billy Satterwhite on bass.

“Forever Plaid” holds a special place in my theater heart — my nextdoor neighbor in NYC was Jason Graae of the original production, and I can’t count the number of times I saw the original at Steve McGraw’s in NYC. I am happy to say that, while very different from that production, Encore’s is every bit as entertaining. There’s a bit less dancing, but it’s offset by a bit more heart. And the vocal work is tremendous.

The show is not without one or two slow spots; and the arrival of the cast onstage in their plaid jackets for the final sequence does not have enough emotional resonance, but those are minor quibbles. This is a generally zippy intermission-less 90 minutes of solid entertainment.

Go treat yourself to a spring treat at the Encore. Forever Plaid runs through May 15th, and tickets are available online at theencoretheater.org, or by calling 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.

Terrific DeBruyne, Cuppone, and Hissong in “Damn Yankees” Encore Theater, Dexter. October 22, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, musical theater, Theatre.
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This isn’t really a review. I just wanted to take a moment to say that I had the opportunity to see “Damn Yankees” at Encore Musical Theater in Dexter last night.

I thought special mention must be made of the excellent work that Steve DeBruyne (Joe), MaryJo Cuppone (Lola), and Tobin Hissong (Applegate) turn in here. Steve has become an Encore favorite with a strong voice and terrific acting skills, and charming stage presence. MaryJo continues with a string of entertaining performances in lead female roles wearing jumpsuits (wink, wink…sorry, MaryJo, I had to!) and she makes a terrific Lola, even if the show is cleaned up to within an inch of Playhouse Disney-ism…and Tobin Hissong creates a droll and nuanced Applegate that is hilarious to watch throughout.

Terrific work, folks!

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.


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!