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Fiendishly Marvelous “Sweeney Todd” at Encore Musical Theatre Company (Review) September 29, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” is back at the Encore Musical Theatre Company, and it has arrived with a vengeance. You better get your tickets right now before the word of mouth and rave reviews send sales soaring — as best they should for this superior production.

Set in a 40’s London factory, Encore’s players “tell the tale” just beautifully, and with such terrific vocal direction and orchestra blend (by the always terrific Tyler Driskill) that you understand every word. And while Sondheim himself would cringe at the use of the term “opera” to describe this piece, that is, in essence, exactly what it is.

Staged non-traditionally in a fully immersive environment in which the audience surrounds the stage on three sides at various levels, and where actors interact in the aisles and stairways throughout, this is a whiz-bang production both directed and designed by the adroit and skilled Matthew Brennan, with actual scenic execution  by Sarah Tanner, Lighting Design by Tyler Chinn, Costume Design by Sharon Larkey Urick, Properties Design by Anne Donevan, and Sound Design by Chris Goosman and Joshua Thorington. I list all of these folks first because they are inseparable and they have done a tremendous job of bringing the technical aspects of this stunning production to fruition.

The show is nothing if you don’t have remarkable leads – and this production sure does. David Moan is exquisite as Sweeney Todd – his voice and acting are remarkable and lend the character both an eeriness and a liveliness that blend well in the intimate setting. Its a great performance and will resonate with you long after the evening has reached its grisly conclusion. Sarah Briggs is one of the best Mrs Lovett’s you could ever imagine. She is able to instantly convey humor, horror, and pity (sometimes at the same time) and she captures every moment with thoughtful acting and great vocal work. As the first act’s black and white schema bleeds away into a more colorful second act, so do their interactive moments which grow to a crescendo in the final moments. Well, that’s the play and we wouldn’t want to give it away, right? Though I doubt many of the folks going to see this musical don’t know that it ends badly for these two.

Sebastian Gerstner sounds great as Anthony, and Emily Hadick is lovely as Johanna. The couple have the musical’s prettiest songs and they are very up to the task. Emily Rogers is spot-on as the Beggar Woman and sings and acts beautifully. Keith Kalinowski is excellent as always as Judge Turpin (and what a joy to hear his very well acted and sung “Ladies in their Sensitivities Mea Culpa”, almost universally cut from productions) — though you might not know from the staging that he is committing self-flagellation unless you are already familiar with the show (but now you know).

Dan Johnson is very good as the Beadle, and his sometimes befuddled look on stage lends itself well to this multifaceted role, subservient to the Judge while trying to represent decorum and order at the same time to the outside world. Jamie Colburn is an entertaining Pirelli. Toby (“Nothing’s Gonna Harm You”) is well-performed by Billy Eric Robinson, though twice the size of Mrs Lovett, you never really get a strong sense of menace or that he is in any imminent type of danger. In fact, that is a running theme throughout the evening — while favoring character over menace, you never quite get a sense of your heart quickening or the hair standing up on your arms, like you do at some other productions of “Sweeney Todd”. Everything is kept to a symbolic minimum here but it works very well in this staging.

The entire ensemble is strong and the vocal work is outstanding. Most of these folks have played leads in other Encore shows and on other area stages so its like a who’s who of local theater: Logan Balcom, Nick Casella, James Fischer, Leah Fox, Bryana Hall, Angela Hench, Marlene Inman, Michael Jones, Chris Joseph, Gayle Martin, Dan Morrison, and Alexandra Reynolds populate the town, play all of the assorted characters from quirky to sympathetic, and carry chairs around. A lot. Leah Fox plays a mean accordion in a brilliant staging concept.

Oh, there is blood. Plenty of it in the second act. THANK YOU! The Encore’s last iteration of this show was a bloodless affair. There is plenty of it here, and it is well-staged and realistic. Although keeping with the evenings staging, everything is ultimately done symbolically. There is no tipping chair that dumps a body through the stage floor, down a slide, and into the bakehouse below.

To say that this production is excellent is an understatement. It is most likely the best production of this musical you are likely to see locally. It is a marvelous interpretation by a masterful director who well understands that you will never be able to stage the production like it was originally staged on the Broadway stage in this small house. So instead he takes what might be seen as a shortcoming and transforms the entire theater into something special. I loved the addition of “skylights” in the Encore’s ceiling and fans and electrical equipment to the walls to lend a sense of being a real space. The show is organic and feels like the building was  purpose-built for this production, rather than the other way around. (For the uninitiated, the original Broadway production actually imported the workings of a real factory from London to the stage of the Gershwin (then Uris) Theater).

I will leave it to the theater goer to ponder what’s up with the organ-versions of show tunes both before the show and during intermission (some of which are from the golden era of musicals, not from the 40’s). It left me scratching my head.

Very Highest Recommendation.

Sweeney Todd runs through October 22nd at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter MI. Tickets at theencoretheatre.org or 734-268-6200. Get them while you can. This is a don’t-miss production.











Gorgeous “Camelot” at Encore Musical Theatre Company (Review) June 17, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals, Uncategorized.
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There is a gorgeous production of the classic musical Camelot at Encore Musical Theatre Company and it looks and sounds pretty as a picture, with beautiful sets and costumes and Lerner and Loewe’s tune-filled familiar score.

Stephen West is in wonderful vocal form as King Arthur (aka Newt) and Olivia Hernandez returns to the Encore as Guenevere and she is lovely in voice and acting. David Moan (I proclaim “can do anything he wants in any role he wants”) is that good here as well. His Lancelot is filled with self-absorption and (later) moping. His “If Ever I would Leave You” had audible gasps around me — although that might have just been the age of the audience and their familiarity with that particular song. The entire ensemble was spot-on terrific, and there is a particularly well-played Mordred by Tyler Lynch who in turns humorously creates an annoying character as well as the most spirited moments in the second act.

Sarah Tanner has designed a beautiful multilevel set that makes the Encore space look much bigger than it actually is (as she did with Into the Woods and Assassins). Sharon Larkey Urick’s costumes are marvelous and colorful. Daniel Walker’s lighting is bright and makes everything look brilliant on stage. Anne Donevan’s property design is terrific — you try finding that many swords and banners. Daniel Helmer’s fight choreography is fun to watch (though Lancelot could have easily escaped that room several times during that fight) and Matthew Brennan’s choreography is wonderful. That it all works at all is credit to director Dan Cooney who has enthused his cast to look beyond the paper-thin characters and create something of substance, and to Tyler Driskill who, as usual, makes beautiful music happen.

That’s about as glowing a review as I can muster for a show that is on the bottom of my list of classic musicals, and I love classic musicals. It is a dated, old-fashioned, unfocused storyline with reluctant bride Guenevere first appalled then smitten with King Arthur, later appalled then smitten with Lancelot — eventually running off with Lancelot which leads to the most anticlimactic and worst ending of a musical ever.

Lerner and Loewe’s score is often lovely (and sounds great here under the musical direction of Tyler Driskill). This production wisely cuts a good 30-minutes off of the (still) too long musical although the last 30 minutes of the show is still a slog through soap-opera territory. Clocking in at 2:35 it felt like it was much longer.

Whenever I see the show, I read other reviews and hear people talk about “how timely it is in the current political climate.” I don’t see it. It was dated in 1960 and it is very dated in 2017 – bordering on the edge of operetta even in the 60’s. But it is what it is, and what it is is gorgeous in this production. Though if you are not a lover of classic musicals, you’ll leave a bit underwhelmed since the musical theater world has changed significantly since this musical first appeared. There’s also the problematic handling of Guenevere’s character — who makes choices based on what middle aged men wrote, designed, and directed back in the last days of the golden musicals — that is to say, her choices are bizarre and male-centric to say the least.

Still, this is a lovely night of theater – and tickets are selling very fast. I saw the production on a sold-out Thursday night. Get yours now.

Recommended (Highly recommended if you love classic musicals, even if you don’t particularly like Camelot).

Camelot continues at Encore Musical Theatre Company through July 2nd. Tickets at encore theatre.org or 734-268-6200.

Photo courtesy Encore photographed by Michele Anliker.


Go, Go, Go see “Into the Wild” at Encore Musical Theatre (Review) April 15, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals.
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Let me preface this by writing that Into the Wild at the Encore Musical Theatre Company is a developmental premier of a new musical with aspirations to get to Broadway. It will get there eventually and you should see it now while you can. And you should not miss the superstar performance of Conor Ryan, but I will get to that later. While it is technically a workshop of the show, it is hard to call it that because everything here is so well polished that it is almost hard to remember that this is a work-in-progress and will still change and grow over time.

Into the Wild is one of those rare experiences that will stay with you long after you’ve seen the show and it is also by far Encore’s most technologically advanced production to date. With music and lyrics by Niko Tsakalakos, Book and Lyrics by Janet Allard, the musical is bound to leave you thinking and talking. It is a matter of opinion as to whether you believe Christopher McCandless was an explorer and risk-taker off to find himself in the Alaskan wilderness — or if he was an idiot egotist with a death wish and possible mental illness out to spite his conservative family. Fact:  25 years ago, McCandless took off after college and bummed around the US and Mexico until making his way to Alaska, eventually starving after eating potato seeds loaded with neurotoxins that can paralyze a person over time. You might have read the wildly popular book by Jon Krakauer, or seen the movie, or read the amazing New Yorker article about his death a few years ago. But there is no denying that what the authors and musicians have done here is to make you feel empathy toward this misguided young man and his family, no matter what your personal opinion in the matter, and that is no mean feat.

Conor Ryan is simply remarkable as Chris. He is the beginning and the end of the show and everything outstanding in between. He’s already a NY theater star, graduating from UM’s musical theater program a few years ago (remember him as Valjean?) and immediately going into Cinderella on Broadway, and then co-starring with Kate Baldwin (as well as recording the new cast album) in John & Jen. Here, his vocals and acting soar – literally at one point – and it was a wise decision to bring this young soon-to-be-superstar to Dexter for this premier. Conor’s vocals are exquisite and his acting is superior all around. You should not miss this performance, because he is the Next Big Thing but also because he IS that talented. Sarah Briggs and Greg Bailey play his parents, and they are spot-on in their roles, and their songs. Young Chris is played by local child wonder Connor Casey, and he eschews cute-as-a-buttonness for a bitterness and edge that can already be seen in the character as a child. Nice work. Other folks that get caught up in the mess that is Chris McCandless include Daniel A Helmer who mixes humor and warmth in his roles, especially that of Wayne;  Gayle E Martin as Jan who brings some powerhouse vocals to her songs, especially “Forgiveness” in the Second Act; Alexandra Reynolds who is sweet and personable as Tracy; the versatile Matthew Pecek in multiple roles; and Mike Szymanski as substitute father-figure Russ.

Tyler Driskill serves as musical director as well as pianist and conductor of the outstanding 6-piece combo band. Vocals throughout are excellent, diction is great, and harmonies soar and land just where you expect. There were tears in audience members eyes, as well as a few of the performers, by the time the show reaches the sad ending and “Live Before you Die”. I particularly liked that the band was visible with the wall removed, instead of tucked away in the back room. Brian Usifer’s arrangements and orchestrations sound great.

This is a good time to mention that score — Oh My God fantastic. This is a show that deserves a studio recording as soon as possible — get it out there, let people listen to it in their cars and on their iPhones, and sing along at top voice — it is that kind of score. Allard and Tsakalakos have created music and lyrics that could easily hold its own against any of the current bumper crop of new musical Broadway scores this season. I fully expect it to be in competition for a Tony sometime very soon. I loved it, and actually found myself humming “Alaska” on my way to the car. Can’t remember the last time I could do THAT after a new show. This is like discovering something very special and precious, and while it will still be developed and is sure to change a bit, the score is utterly fantastic. In the capable hands of the musicians on stage at Encore, it takes flight.

Then there is the artistic and technical end of things. – WOWSA. Director Mia Walker keeps things moving swiftly and makes good use of the multilevel set. The set design/projection design by Stephanie Busing is breathtaking: the projections here are beautifully interwoven with the story and later break your heart as you see “Day 99, Day 100, Day 101” approach. Robert Perry does excellent work lighting it all – things look brighter and more colorful than any show I can remember at Encore. Jenna Brand’s costume design is perfect, and inquiring minds want to know: “how did he change onstage from his shorts to the long pants without anyone noticing”?  Anne Donevan’s properties are outstanding – from boat oars, to hiking equipment, cookouts, bars, books – it is also all cleverly concealed on stage so that it appears as you need it and disappears virtually unnoticeably. Sound design by Chris Goosman and Terry Williams is terrific.  In short, this is the finest and most complicated technical production Encore has endeavored to produce, and it works spectacularly well.

While I almost hate to mention it, the show itself runs a bit too long and could use some tightening and shaping – and (I hate to say it) more musical cuts. Currently clocking in at 2:45 with the intermission, it needs some work which I am sure it will get as things move along in this development production and whatever next step this musical takes.

I have no doubt the final step will be Broadway. It deserves to be there. It will get there. And I’ll be there to review it all over again once it opens in New York. Congratulations to everyone involved with this production, I am going back to see it again before it leaves Dexter en route to points East.

Very Highest Recommendation.

Into the Wild’s developmental  premier continues at Encore Musical Theatre Company through May 7th. 3126 Broad Street, Dexter Michigan. Tickets at http://www.theencoretheatre.org or by calling 734-268-6200.

Fun and highly entertaining The Full Monty at Encore (Review) October 8, 2016

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If you want to have a fantastic evening of laughs and great musical theater, grab your tickets now for the hilarious The Full Monty at Encore Musical Theatre Company and have a great time cheering on the guys as they work toward “the full monty” at an amateur men’s strip production. You probably already know the story (either from the movie or the musical – this is the third production I have seen in the past year) — down on his luck unemployed Jerry and his chubby buddy Dave see how much money there is to be made off of the sex-starved women of blue-collar Buffalo and plan their own strip show – along come depressed mama’s boy Malcom, middle-aged Harold, big black man Horse, and energetic Ethan. Will they or won’t they. That is the question that drives the entire musical, and you already know that it is really about the show’s last 5 minutes.

Getting there, though, is great fun in this production. Credit Matthew Brennan (choreographing and co-directing with Thalia Schramm) for bringing this show to lively life in its many dance and movement sequences and his wonderful from top down cast.

Eric Parker is outstanding as Jerry — his singing and dancing is top notch, and what a pleasure to see him on the Encore stage — he takes command each time he appears, and his scenes with his son are particularly affecting. Greg Bailey shows terrific range as his buddy Dave – and has some great stage moments. Thalia Schramm plays his wife Georgie with compassion. Luciana Piazza nicely plays Jerry’s ex- wife Pam, and Alejandro Cantu is terrific as their 12-year old son Nathan, wise beyond his years yet wanting all the things a normal kid wants. Brendan Bachman is hilarious as Teddy, Pam’s new nerdy boy friend.

Dan Morrison turns in a great performance as Harold, and his wife Nicki is played to the edge of hilarity by Sarah Briggs in a role that you will not be able to stop laughing at, even after the show.

Matthew Pecek, quickly becoming an Ann Arbor area favorite, is terrific as Ethan, and his moments with hugely entertaining Brendan Kelly are among the nicest in this production. Jordan Harris is wonderful as Horse. Gayle E Martin plays a show-stealing Jeanette (the piano player with the mouth of a sailor) and her deadpan delivery had me literally holding my stomach with laughter pains (“I can’t play any slower!”)

The rest of the ensemble is awesome in their roles – from Colby Orton as Keno, to the entire rest of the team: Tim Brayman, Kasey Donnelly, Bryanna Hall, Kristin McSweeney, and Bennett Waymann.

If you have never seen The Full Monty the musical onstage before get yourself to their website to buy tickets now. This is a fantastic production. Even those who have will be surprised by how much dancing and movement there is in this production, and how well it is executed throughout — from tangos in a ballroom dance class, to the final striptease number (lets face it, you come for those last five minutes and when it arrives, it is fabulous).

Very highly recommended. Not for younger audiences.

The Full Monty continues at Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter MI through October 22nd. Tickets at theEncoreTheatre.org or 734-268-6200


Assassins at Encore Musical Theatre Company is can’t miss musical theater (review) June 11, 2016

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Photo by Michele Anliker

Every now and again, my role as a musical theater director and reviewer compels me to launch into teaching mode — and that mode was fully activated while watching the breathtaking production of Assassins at Encore Musical Theatre Company that opened last night.

See it because you owe yourself a chance to see this remarkable (and rarely produced) Sondheim musical. It is not without its flaws as a show, but it certainly is one of the landmarks of American musical theater and you should know it (things barrel along at lighting speed, and then bog down a bit in a very speechy book depository scene). While on the surface, it is about misguided people who shot or tried to shoot American Presidents, it is really much more than that — and you’ll find something that strikes you personally, from family dysfunction to mental illness and civil activism. At its core, it is about people making decisions — in this case very poor decisions — and you’ll find those decisions alternately compelling and repulsive, but never uninteresting. Sondheim has written some wonderful material for this musical, and it is a score you should know.

See it because it is one of the most professional productions Encore has yet produced. What a year this has been for this theater! And what a cast. Beautifully directed by Matthew Brennan (who also takes on the role of The Balladeer/Lee Harvey Oswald) and superbly musical directed by Tyler Driskill, the cast is superb. From the exceptional performance of John Wilkes Booth by David Moan to the creepy fantastic performance of James Fischer as John Hinckley, this is a cast that is in top form. Songs develop naturally out of scenes. Book scenes engage the audience and make you care about the characters, as repulsive as some of them are. Every lead and ensemble member has a specific role, a specific story to tell, and they are excellent.

See it because of Sarah Tanner’s beautiful set design, and Tyler Chinn’s wonderful lighting — the best I have seen in an Encore show. This is the first time I have seen ensemble groups and actors individually isolated on stage in their own pools of light, and it looks fantastic. Also see it because of Sharon Larkey Urick’s excellent costuming, and Anne Donevan’s property work which, both by necessity of the show, span several time periods and eras.

See it because Encore should be presenting more shows like this. If you are seriously interested in musical theater, you will be thrilled to see Encore taking a risk and producing something that will turn off some of its target audience and stop playing it safe by presenting family friendly fare. Its about time the theater has started to present some edgier material (Assassins joins last fall’s Bonnie and Clyde and the upcoming The Full Monty this fall as essential adult entertainment.) These are the types of shows that will advance Encore into a different category — that of modern music theater which spans many topics and interest levels, and will allow it to compete with every other theater in SE Michigan that has, for years, already produced edgier fare — and by edgy, I mean normal modern musical theater which is no longer designed to cater only to family audiences. The very Dexter family sitting behind me said after the show, “Well that wasn’t a show I liked very much”…and THAT is exactly why some of the members of this local audience need to be educated as to what current musical theater is about, what it says about our human condition, and how music is now integrated into drama.

Bravo to Encore for taking the risk and presenting an evening of musical theater that is breathtaking. Clocking in at 100 intermission-less minutes, it is a fascinating look at a weird slice of American history — attention has been paid.

Highest Recommendation.

Assassins continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company through July 3rd. 3126 Broad Street, Dexter MI.  Tickets at theEncoreTheatre.org or 734-268-6200






Family Friendly “The Wizard of Oz” at Encore (review) November 28, 2015

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There’s a fun, family-friendly Wizard of Oz currently on the boards at The Encore Musical Theatre Company. Its not all smooth sailing, but it will please its target market (i.e. families with young kids) and is sure to be a sell-out throughout the holiday season.

What works well? The cast, the set, the costumes, the remarkable projections, and the material itself which is critic and audience-proof. This production uses the British 1987 RSC version of the adaptation of the MGM movie musical (it expands on some of the music and dialogue, though not significantly so). There are terrific performances from Gayle E Martin as the Cowardly Lion, Dan Morrison as the Tinman (who remarkably does not break his neck walking up and down and dancing on the steep raked steps of the set), and Nick Brown as the Scarecrow. There is a fantastic performance from Daniel A Helmer as Professor Marvel/The Guard/The Wizard — and a great video special effect features him larger than life. Wendy Katz Hiller is a fine and nasty Wicked Witch of the West (though beware, the RSC version of the show gives her groaner one-liners, ugh). Lawrence Havelka continues to grow as an actor in the role of Uncle Henry, and audience favorite Lauren Norris has fun in the dual-role of Aunt Em/Glinda. There are rotating Dorothy’s (pretty-voiced Mariah Colby at my performance) with Maeve Donevan and Jennie Rupp at others.  There is a fine (though under-utilized) adult ensemble, and an all-female children’s ensemble of Munchkins.

What doesn’t work that well? An all-female children’s ensemble of Munchkins for one (even at a children’s level, boys are in demand, and there are 18 local holiday productions this season). There is some choreography by Phil  Simmons which doesn’t always create stage magic. And while there is a very detailed multi-level set, it isn’t always well utilized. Characters don’t always “connect”, and there wasn’t an underlying level of emotion – so that by the time you get to Dorothy’s goodbye to Scarecrow, its more of a “whatever”.

But there are excellent (partially rented) costumes and set pieces. The projections are remarkable not only for their style, but for the most technical production ever at Encore. Snow on the poppyfield is magical. The Wizard effect is riveting (even if it did not work later in the show). Oh, and then there is the Winkie Marching song, which I’ve been humming all day.

But problems aside, this is a fun two-hour holiday production, and all the children sitting around me last night were rapt in paying attention to the live story on stage — and really, that’s all you can ask for with a production of The Wizard of Oz. (Well, plus also that Winkie song).

The Wizard of Oz continues at The Encore Musical Theatre Company through December 23rd. Tickets at theencoretheatre.org, or 734-268-6200



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

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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.

Encore’s “South Pacific” Steps it up a Notch (Review) June 5, 2015

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals.
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Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, The Sound of Music and South Pacific are my favorites. The former is as fresh as the day it was written. The latter has seen better days. But there is no doubting that Encore Musical Theatre Company’s production (seen in preview) is beautiful and well-done…in fact, it steps up the quality of larger-scale shows at Encore by not just one, but many notches.


Nellie Forbush goes about meeting Emile, crowing about it in song, then washing him out of her hair, then falling for him, then breaking up, then waiting for him to return from a secret mission…and well, that is about the gist of it.

Marlene Inman is an excellent Nellie, who with her classical vocal training matches Stephen West’s Emile throughout the evening without ever becoming overshadowed by him. Whether she is singing about being a cockeyed optimist, or joyously expounding that she’s in love with a wonderful guy, Marlene is a wonder.

Stephen West plays Emile de Becque pretty much as you would expect — proud ex-Frenchman, honest to a fault, and a little off his head in love. His voice soars in the intimate Encore space.

Bloody Mary is played by a very fine Gayle Martin. Her performance is spot-on perfect. Matthew Brennen is simply marvelous as Luther Billis — in song, dance, and acting — its a great performance from a terrific performer. He had the sold-out preview audience eating out of his hand.

Dashing Lt Joseph Cable is played by Sebastian Gerstner in a straight-forward honest performance, and Liat is well performed by Teola Lutsker. That their love story is left to languish can be blamed on writers Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan who had no idea that the catalyst of a relationship 70 years down the road will not be “marry or face a bleak future” — the same can be said of Emile and Nellie of course, and it is.

The entire supporting cast is excellent — though multiple times in the show, it cries out for a much much larger ensemble. The troup deployment at the end is particularly weak with such a small cast. It looks a bit more like they are heading off to some R&R rather than facing war on the next island over…But that is a minor point here — the cast is well utilized, and both the men and the women deliver in song and acting. There isn’t a weak cast member in the bunch.

Daniel C Walker’s set is functional and colorful — moreso than many past Encore endeavors, and I solute that!…a bright sunny island setting, and a moody colorful Bali Ha’i make for a happy me. I am certain that the one unfortunate cloud in the background will be repainted before tonight.

Matthew Brennan’s choreography works well without ever feeling forced, and Sharon Larkey Urick’s costumes are period-gorgeous. The 7-piece orchestra sounds superb, and the sound design for the show is terrific. (The show was musically directed by R MacKenzie Lewis, and Brian Rose serves as conductor).

Director Carla Milarch keeps everything rolling along on schedule…Act I with it’s song after song…Act II with it’s war-story and no original songs for the last 40 minutes (another 70-year old criticism of the show). It all plays out as expected, and histrionics are kept to a minimum (which is great, cause I’ve seen plenty of productions of South Pacific ruined by screaming Liat’s and overwrought military personnel). She uses a gentle touch here, and it works well in the intimate space. The show is long and clocks in at 2:45 with intermission, though that was standard for the day when written.

The sole letdown is not the production, nor the cast, nor the beautiful things going on here — its just that the world has changed so much that what happens on stage in this story just doesn’t “matter” anymore — it has a dated script that insists that love and marriage are vital, and without marriage a woman is nothing and alone in the world. I think we all know that isn’t true now — as it wasn’t then — but there it is. And that basic storyline is very exposed when its 9 feet away from the audience. The show’s political message (look quickly, it comes and goes in a 1-minute-40-second song in act II “You’ve Got to be carefully taught”) is handled adeptly here, but the message barely resonates. (The song was so controversial in the 50’s that it caused a national debate about what songs are appropriate for the theatre stage). The story of interracial marriage is dated, especially as it drives the entire storyline and was the entire raison d’etre for the musical in the first place.

Still, this is an excellent production of South Pacific and you should make efforts to see it. Nostalgia for us oldsters…something new for the youngsters, even if it no longer carries much emotional heft…and beautiful performances all around make for the best “large scale” musical in Encore’s history to date.

South Pacific continues through July 3 and tickets are selling very very fast. Get yours now before the performance you want is sold out. TheEncoretheatre.org or 734-268-6200




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

Romantic and Fun “Closer than Ever” at Encore Musical Theatre Company (Dexter) Review May 29, 2014

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals.
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“Closer than Ever” is quite simply, the kind of thing that that Encore Musical Theatre Company does best — small scale musicals with a small, excellent cast, creating good musical theater.

This production is no different — four performers on a bare stage with a piano and stools that comprise the set and lay the framework for a series of songs presented in revue/staged concert format. Some of the music was written directly for the production by Richard Maltby Jr, and David Shire, other songs are culled from other shows they have written, or cut from them (for example, the song “Patterns” was cut from their modest hit “Baby” somewhere halfway through the run).  Together, they tell a story about relationships, being in couples, not being in couples, divorce, death, love, regrets and hopes.

Steve DeBruyne, Mahalia Greenway, Tobin Hissong, and Katherine Kujala create lovely music together, in pairs, in solos, in trios, and every imaginable combination. They also have good stage chemistry with each other.

The show breezes by in two short halves, and it makes for a great date night: bring your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, or combination…or enjoy the show by yourself. It hits every mood just right and has that rare combination of revue: it entertains while keeping you thinking as well.

The show is part of the Encore’s annual weekend fundraiser event — Friday night includes silent and live auctions, wine, and hors d’oeuvres starting at 6:00…but there are also two more performances on Saturday at 3:00 and 8:00 pm.

But make haste — this production only has 4 performances, and opening night has already come and gone. You can get your tickets at theencoretheatre.org, or at 734-268-6200 — but get them — you’ll enjoy this breezy production, and so will whomever you bring with you. It’s a great introduction for an Encore newbie to what makes Encore special…and  repeat visitors will find it to rank among its stronger productions.