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“Billy Elliot” has Big Night at the 2009 Tonys June 8, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, Theatre.
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As predicted in this blog a month ago (and most blogs about Broadway, lets be fair) Billy Elliot had a big night at the Tony awards last night, winning 10 awards, including Best Musical. The voters took pity on Next to Normal by awarding it Best Score, one of only two major awards that Billy was nominated for that it did not win (costumes was the other – going to the well-deserved Shrek).

08tony.billy.4802David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. Photo NYT, 2009

The boys had a hard time articulating their thank you’s…what would you do if you were 14 in front of that size audience?…and rumor has it all of them will be gone from the show by the end of the year (little boys grow up and their voices change — two new Billies are already in rotation as of this past week in NYC).

Elton John, on the other hand, made a beautifully articulated thank you upon winning Best Musical and acknowledged the artistic team of Next to Normal (a not-so-veiled concession speech for best score).

I’ve blogged before about this brilliant show, so I won’t do so here again — just look down a few posts and you’ll find my thoughts on the show. But I did want to mention that while American audiences and critics were a bit more mixed on the show, the British media and audiences (the origin of this musical is on the West End, not Broadway) have readily appointed Billy Elliot as the finest musical ever written. I can’t really argue with them. I love musicals of all types, but there is something about Billy Elliot that speaks to every single child (and adult) who ever had a parent that told them “No” when they wanted to sing, or dance, or paint, or play an instrument. Told through dance, the story resonates with every single performer who has taken a step on a stage. The Tony Awards well-chosen “Angry Dance” last night was a good sample of emotion expressed through movement in the end of Act I curtain number.

Congratulations to everyone nominated for this year’s Tony’s and all those who weren’t. But my heart goes out to Billy…

For the Record: 2009 Tony Awards for Billy Elliot: Best Musical, Best Actor (David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish), Best Director, Best Featured Actor (Michigan’s Gregory Jbara), Best Set Design, Best Book of a Musical, Best Lighting Design, Best Sound Design, Best Orchestrations, Best Choreography.

Shrek; 9 to 5; Billy Elliot — Broadway Musicals May 10, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Theatre.
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While on a quick weekend trip to NYC this weekend, I had the opportunity to see three top notch musicals, all of them adaptations of movie screenplays…and surprise of surprises not one of them was a clunker — Like The Wedding Singer and Legally Blonde the past few seasons, ¬†Shrek, 9 to 5, and Billy Elliot are all solid adaptations that deserve great audiences and long Broadway runs.

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Lets start with BILLY ELLIOT, THE MUSICAL…I first saw Billy Elliot in London a few seasons ago, a few days before official opening night. I knew that it was going to be an international hit that first viewing, but the Broadway production is even larger, and the cast tighter and more skillful. I had the fortune of seeing Kiril Kulish play Billy Elliot – and his dancing is not fully describable in words; it demands to be seen. Here he is “flying” with his grown up alter-ego (Stephen Hanna).

Billy Elliot Kiril Kulish Stephen HannaBar none, this is absolutely the finest musical currently playing in New York. The audience routinely leaps to its feet to applaud young Billy in the many many many dance numbers – from jazz to ballet to tap. And Kiril is up to all of them. Supported by a top-notch cast this production just soars. Run do not walk to get tickets. The tour isn’t going to look like this. It can’t. The showmanship on display in this huge theatre with it’s huge soaring proscenium arch high above the house can’t be replicated anywhere else. When Billy flies, he truly flies in this theatre — and it is worth every penny. This is one of those shows that is worth flying in to New York for, even if it is the only thing you do while you are there.

For families — absolutely do NOT bring your under 10’s to this show — it is laden with coarse language, adult themes, and region-specific dialogue. It is not at all geared toward children in the audience, and while those preteen and older will be enchanted, it is NOT, repeat NOT a family musical.

My money for the Tony for Best-Just-About-Everything-This-Year gets bet on Billy Elliot — it might even surpass The Producers (and should) for Tony gold.

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At the Broadway Theatre, you’ll find another musical that has settled in for the longrun. SHREK THE MUSICAL is fun, tuneful, colorful, hilarious, and a bit green. There is whiz-bang technical wizardry on stage here, as are some dandy performances (in particular Christopher Sieber and Brian D’Arcy James). I wasn’t sure about this one going in, although friends who had seen it had all mutually agreed that they loved it. Well guess what – it IS that good.

shrek-cp-w5982417shrek2The sets and costumes are colorful and terrifically realized. The lighting design pops. The makeup affects are outstanding. One word of warning, though; just like the original movies on which this musical is based, this is not a musical for Tiny Tots– parents should use discretion when deciding upon a family outing — if you’ve seen the movie and the kids are okay with it, ask yourself will they be okay with those same situations front and center, live and in person.

In a year the Billy Elliot is sure to dominate all of the Tony Awards, Shrek’s nomination for Best Musical is a fit accolade for this superior entertainment. Modern day Music Hall meets Slapstick Comedy and Brian D’Arcy James exquisite and emotional Shrek ties it all into one entertaining night out.

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Finally, I had zero expectations for 9 TO 5 THE MUSICAL going into the Marquis Theatre. I was pleasantly surprised by the comic and tuneful performances, and the absolutely amazing set. Allison Janney and Mark Kudish both deserve their well-earned Tony Nominations (for Best Actress and Best Featured Actor), as does Dolly Parton’s songs and lyrics. Country pop lives on Broadway!

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The script is virtually intact from the 1979 movie, with the same jokes and the same punchlines — even the goofy “stealing the body in the hospital” sequence. But you expect no less.

What the real revelation here is the set, and I have to say as a Director and as a Set Designer, this technical team’s omission from the Tony Awards borders on criminal. Future generations will look back at this musical (and they WILL look back – as this is sure to be performed by every high school and community theatre from Peoria to Eureka in future years to come) as the groundbreaking set design that finally integrated both a standard fly system and video screen with the newest trend: popup scenery that rises from lifts in the stage — not just platforms, entire set pieces. It is so well done here that the motion never stops — the set and choreography so intricately integrated that you fear the performers will disappear into holes in the floor — yet there they are, fresh and perky throughout as massive pieces of wall, columns, and ceilings swing and move and rotate and assemble and reassemble and put you in an entirely new location within seconds. This set design is one of the most superior I have seen in a musical probably ever. TONY COMMITTEE TAKE NOTE: YOU HAVE MADE A GRAVE MISTAKE IN THIS OMISSION.

Oh, and Allison Janney is all that and a cup of milk. Not a singer, not a dancer, she sings and dances well and brings comic timing and stage presence to the Lily Tomlin role throughout the evening. Marc Kudish deserves his Tony nomination as well for his over-the-top performance, as well as his willingness to play foil to the three ladies of the office as he gets roped, tied, hung, flung, flown in, flown out, dressed to the nines, stripped to boxers, and still look like he is having the absolute time of his life.

All three of these shows will have long healthy runs on Broadway. None of them will look the same on tour  and are all worth seeing in New York. Billy Elliot is designed to tug at your heart and make you cry (and you will Рover and over throughout the evening). Shrek unexpectedly brings a tear or two (Hey, Let Your Freak Flag Fly cast!!!) and 9 to 5 will wow you with sheer entertainment and technical wizardry beyond anything seen on the Broadway Stage to date.

A couple subtle notes: Encore Musical Theatre (Dexter) bigwig DAN COONEY plays Dick in 9 to 5. He’s fine in an important but small role. University of Michigan graduate Jeremy Davis gets to have fun in the show as well.

Support Broadway, our actors, directors, musicians and stage designers and technicians. GO SEE A LIVE SHOW.

Why Elton John’s AIDA by YPT was so good…If I do say so myself May 3, 2009

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Audiences saw one fine production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s AIDA presented by Young People’s Theatre at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre last weekend. In fact, it looked better than most community and high school productions in the region….but why?

First — talent — YPT is a pay-to-play young people’s organization that draws some of the best young talent in the tri-county area. Cast members came from Ann Arbor, Dexter, Chelsea, Tecumseh. Pinkney, Hamburg, Brighton, Canton, Plymouth, Northville….I might have missed a few. That allows the group to choose the best of the best. Sure, it was still a few guys short, but with 10 other musicals being present concurrently around the area, we were still lucky to get the great talent we got.

Second — money — the budgets for YPT’s musicals easily approach 20K per production — three times the budget of Ann Arbor Civic Theatre musicals, for instance. As a result, the shows look and sound spectacular:

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Third — top notch staffing — from Ron Baumanis directing, to Brian Buckner’s musical direction and Sadie Yarrington’s musical direction, everything about this staff is professional — including lighting designer David Pickel (who also serves as one of the Lydia Mendelssohn house managers) and stage manager Meredith Tierney. Ane Richter is the producer for the shows. This comes at a cost — the professional staff is all paid. But you get what you pay for. If you want a professional-sounding orchestra, you pay them. If you want professional artistic direction, you pay for it. (This is where my SSDC membership kicks in — the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers is my theatre union, and it assures you are getting the finest direction in the profession, and not just community-theatre level direction.)

Fourth — material. Young People’s Theatre is just that. It’s musical theatre for young people, it’s not “children’s theatre”. If I see one more production of Jack and the Beanstalk or The Emperors New Clothes presented by 14 year olds I will explode. High School and Middle School students are already looking for professional theatre development. Those who are interested in theatre as a profession deserve exposure to good adult works. In the past few years, YPT has presented Aida, Jekyll & Hyde, Grease, Joseph, Annie, Fame, One on This Island, Guys and Dolls, Into the Woods and many others. If you get great material to work with, you normally get great talent auditioning. Couple that with a great production and artistic staff and you get youth theatre that isn’t children’s theatre.

Fifth — family. YPT was started by families more than 30 years ago. It continues to incorporate family members across the board, from building sets, costumes, and props, to working backstage and behind the scenes. Cast parties and events include families throughout, and one of the most frequent comments heard around YPT is “this was the first thing our family did together since our kids were in elementary school.” It’s a fun and supportive experience for everyone involved.

I’ll leave you with a few more photos from AIDA today…and happily gloat about another fine musical theatre production by YPT last weekend, one I’m very proud of having directed, and one for which I am thankful for all the talented kids, parents, and artistic professional staff.

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