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David Moan and Emmi Bills shine in “Big Fish” scaled-down version at Encore (Review) April 28, 2018

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In 2015, author John August and music writer Andrew Lippa created a scaled-down (“12 chairs”) version of their Broadway musical “Big Fish” for smaller venues. It replaces some songs and rearranges some scenes but is intended as an alternative for smaller venues with smaller casts. More on this later. That smaller scaled-down version is on display at Encore Musical Theatre Company and I have some thoughts on that.

Telling the story of tall-tale telling Edward Bloom (David Moan) in which he is always the hero of his own stories, his pre-death reconciliation with his son (who is trying to figure out all these tall tales) and Edward’s lifelong love for his wife (Emmi Bills), the musical takes a trip through family-dysfunction-land on its way to its very satisfying ending. Director Thalia Schramm has done a great job of keeping things feeling fresh and natural.

The star here is David Moan who is spectacular in going from older Edward to younger Edward – his acting, singing, and dancing are terrific and he is fully immersed in his character throughout. Similarly in terrific form is Emmi Bills as Sandra – she has a great voice and gets to carry the show’s most emotional scene (“I don’t Need a Roof”) and for both it seems almost effortless to go from teenagers to older adults and back and forth.

The rest of the cast is solid, with one glaring mis-cast, and some mugging that rubbed me the wrong way from a few of the ensemble. But they function as a true ensemble and they sound terrific under Leah Fox’s excellent musical and vocal direction, but are somewhat sloppier with the overly-fussy choreography which almost always steals focus from the main characters – example, just as Edward and Karl the Giant begin their traveling step, the ensemble is suddenly on top and in front of them, spoiling their moment. The wonderful exception to that is the Witch’s “I Know What you Want” which has the magic required to make that scene work well.

Kristen Gribbin’s set is serviceable, and Dustin Miller’s lights and projections look great. Sharon Urick’s costumes are spot on, as are Anne Donevan’s properties.

And now your musical theatre lesson for today: Talking about the show, and not just this production, the scaled down version of the show is not good. That is my opinion of course, but I know this show as intimately as my own hand — every line of dialogue, every song, every stage direction — and I was slated to direct/choreograph the full version of the musical for another theatre a few seasons ago before UM Musket jumped in and stole our rights out from us even though we had paid for the show a year in advance – but that is a story for a different day. That being said, I saw the Broadway production three times and the tryout twice and there is a big difference between Big Fish and Big Fish 12 Chairs Version.

The original production gains its strength by telling the tall-tale stories right out of the gate, and is filled with stage magic and large ensemble numbers that slowly allow the family story underneath to occasionally bubble to the surface until it reaches its emotional climax in the second act. This is similar in style and tone to Daniel Wallace’s book on which the movie and musical are based.

The 12 Chairs Version removes all of the large ensemble numbers and replaces some songs with others. (You can hear them at the end of the original Broadway cast recording, as they went into and out of the show until it was frozen just weeks before opening). In fact the show that people saw in Chicago during its pre-Broadway tryout was very different from the final version in NYC.

And that, for me, is a problem with this scaled-down production: it focuses on the family drama from the opening – a rearranged placement of a scene that occurs later in the show in the original — and it sets up too much family dynamic right from the start. In the original, until the moment the show takes its more serious turn, the production is based on Older Edward telling tall tales to his son, Younger Edward, as these tales spin to life…there are a few short interspersed adult segments to give you glimpses of what has gone wrong…but the reveal is far different and more impactful. In the rearranged version, the adult father-son estrangement is telescoped from the opening sequence and it all leads to what feels like television dramatics. For me, the requisite tears did not flow, because there was no moment of realization. And Young Edward is left stranded as an afterthought.

OK — lesson over. That being said. Encore has a solid production that looks great. Your personal reaction to the scaled down version of the show will depend on your familiarity with the more magical original. But by all means, go see this show for those remarkable performances by Moan and Bills. I wasn’t fully transported to tall-tale Alabama, but the two of them at least got me partway there.


Big Fish continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter, MI through May 20, 2018. Tickets at theencoretheatre.org, 734-268-6200.





Smooth Sailing for the SS American — Anything Goes at Encore (Review) November 26, 2017

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(Photo courtesy Encore Musical Theatre Company, Michele Anliker photographer)

The SS American has set sail at the Encore Musical Theatre Company and I predict nothing but smooth sailing ahead for this lovely production of Anything Goes. There isn’t a Christmas tree in sight, and it is still the brightest holiday musical in town this season.

Olivia Hernandez is a terrific Reno Sweeney and she sings and hoofs with the best of them. Along for the cruise are wonderful Sebastian Gerstner as Billy Crocker, very funny Dan Morrison as Moonface Martin, delightful Emily Hadick as Hope Harcourt, brassy and sassy Elizabeth Jaffe as anybody’s Emma, and a bigger than life and hilarious David Moan as Sir Evelyn Oakley. Supporting them is an excellent ensemble of what could best be described as a who’s who of Encore’s finest.

Thalia Schramm directs with terrific pacing and fine attention to period detail. Musical direction by Tyler Driskill is outstanding (as is his luscious live orchestra); costumes come and go quickly here and look period perfect by Sharon Larkey Urick, Anne Donovan provides some nifty/funny properties, and it all looks great on Kristen Gribbin’s Set with the outstanding lighting design of Tyler Chinn. Sound design by Dustin Miller and Meg Berg is excellent.

But this show truly explodes when it takes to dance — which is a lot. Rachel Costantino has provided terrific material for the many numbers, and the performances are spot-on tight; particularly the great tap number that closes Act I (“Anything Goes”). But also delightful are the smaller two-person numbers. Evelyn and Reno’s “The Gypsy in Me” is a particular favorite. These are two performers at the top of their game and it brings down the house. Gerstner is at the center of many of the dance numbers and he looks and sounds terrific.

You can’t do much better this holiday season than joining this group of zanies as they head across the ocean on the SS American — fully loaded with talent, musicality, and the best dancing in town (even if the ships passengers find there isn’t a celebrity in sight).

Very Highest Recommendation.

Anything Goes continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company through December 23rd. Tickets at theencoretheatre.org or 734-268-6200.


Hilarious and Well-Done 9 to 5 at Encore Musical Theatre Company (Review) August 25, 2017

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When I saw 9 to 5 on Broadway, Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick’s hilarious musical, I thought that for sure it would be done by every theater in the States once it was released…and that hasn’t quite been the case. So it’s with great eagerness that I report that the production now at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter is terrific – it is hilarious, well-polished, and just downright fun.

Based (almost scene by scene) on the 1979 movie, it has a life of its own on stage that makes it infectiously funny. Secretaries rule, Bosses get sent to Bolivia, and snoopy office managers get sent off to take language immersion courses (bien sur). While this entire ensemble is tight and funny, there are some standouts in this cast.

All three lead ladies are wonderful — Stacia Fernandez is a spirited and musical Violet (much more so than Alison Janney in the Broadway production) and her “One of the Boys” is a delight; Alex Koza is alternately sweet and tart as Doralee and knocks “Backwoods Barbie” out of the park; and Thalia Schramm is fussy and endearing and eventually sings a knockout “Get Out and Stay Out” near the end of the show. Its a powerhouse trio doing great work.

Sebastian Gerstner is a wholesome and desirable Joe, younger lover for Violet. Ernest William plays a hysterical boss (Franklin Hart Jr) – his “Here for You” is fantastically funny.

But the night belongs to Sarah Briggs as busybody Roz — she steals every single scene that she is in, in a good way – she mugs, she emotes, she sings, she dances, she prances, she lounges on a desk, she pratfalls, she chews up the scenery and spits it out. “Heart to Hart” is the highlight of the show, and for good reason. I can not wait to see Sarah as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd later this season — in fact, I can’t wait to see her in anything she does.

You’re in for an evening of great acting, singing, and dancing, and a very funny production that looks fantastic on Sarah Tanner’s set; with great costumes by Sharon Larkey Urick; wonderful musical direction and orchestra under the direction of R. MacKenzie Lewis; Nifty properties by Anne Donevan (bonus points for Doralee’s cowgirl lunch box); Chris Goosman’s subtle sound design; and Daniel Walker’s lighting. It all moves at lightning clip under the capable direction of Ray Frewen. Meredith Steinke creates fun and fluid choreography.

Go, Laugh. Have fun. I’m a bit late to the game as I was otherwise engaged playing a lead in another show opposite this one — glad I caught it last night. You have a few more chances this weekend.

Very Highly Recommended.

9 to 5 continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company through July 27th. Tickets at theencoretheatre.org or 734-268-6200





“Guys on Ice” at Encore is funny, quirky, and has heart January 30, 2015

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If your favorite shows are “Oklahoma” and “Brigadoon” you are probably not the target market for Guys on Ice, the current offering at Encore Musical Theatre Company — but for the rest of us, it is funny, quirky, and sometimes shows heart.

A huge hit throughout Wisconsin theatres, and even with some previous local productions here in Michigan, the show is a series of jokes and songs about ice fishing, living in the frozen north (hey, we can relate to that here in Michigan , right?) and relationships — all loosely tied together when Marvin (Tim Brayman) gets a call from a local tv fishing show host who wants to visit his shack. Quickly calling on his best friend Lloyd (a terrific Peter John Riopelle) the two set off for a day of ice fishing, talking, joking, and story-telling — all while trying to avoid the local pest Ernie the Moocher (hilarious Keith Kalinowski).

The entire show feels a bit like you are watching public access television (remember Garth and Wayne on Wayne’s World on SNL?) and that is part of the fun of the piece. It never takes itself too seriously, and it balances laugh out loud moments and total groaners with aplomb.

There isn’t a single hummable tune except for Lloyd’s ballad “Everything is New”, but the focus here isn’t on the music — its on the lyrics and the jokes contained therein — some of the oddest rhyme schemes you are bound to hear in many a long year…though by the time you get to the “halftime show” and its “Leinie’s is the best beer” number, you have either gone along for the ride or you are sitting dumbfounded by what you are watching. If you are in the latter category, you can win a Leinie by answering some astoundingly easy halftime questions!

There is also a strong familiarity with many of the scenarios…you kind of find yourself thinking things like “I remember my grandfather talking about that”, or “my uncle does this every weekend in Milwaukee”. That commonality will ring true for just about anyone having grown up in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, or Ohio.

It is hard to define the target market for this musical: it doesn’t really call to your typical musical audience — it is a bit too tame for a guys night out, and it is a bit too odd for a ladies night out…and yet neither group should avoid getting tickets for Guys on Ice — you’ll find yourself laughing, and clapping, and groaning…and you could do far worse on an icy cold winter night in Michigan…then head over to Aubree’s after the show for a pizza and a Leinie!….(note: I have no idea if Aubree’s actually carries Leinenkugel, it just, um, sounded good)…

Recommended. Seen at final preview on 1/29/15.

Guys on Ice continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company, 3126 Broad Street, Dexter, MI through February 22nd — theencoretheatre.org or 734-268-6200 for tickets.

Encore has Company (review) September 27, 2013

Posted by ronannarbor in Community Theater, musical theater, Musicals.
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Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical Company is now onstage at Dexter’s Encore, with some wonderful casting and a great vocal and acting performance by Steve DeBruyne.

Seen at the final preview, the cast is strong, and they sound great. The couples work well together. Sonja Marquis and Greg Bailey are a fun Sarah and Harry. Marlene Inman-Reilly and Andrew Gorney make for a fine Susan and Peter. Jenny and David are well-portrayed by Emily Rogers and Pete Podolski. Katie Lietz and Jess Alexander are both excellent as Amy and Paul. Wendy Katz Hiller and Mark Bernstein turn in strong performances as Joanne and Larry. Annemarie Friedo, Bryana Hall, and Elsa Harchick round out the cast as Marta, Kathy, and April — who turn in fine vocal and acting performances, but who are given the evening’s oddest choreography and movement.

The production as a whole looks good on Leo Babcock’s set and in Sharon Urick’s costumes. Hopefully, by the time the show opens they will have sorted out the lighting miscues and the sound which was hit or miss and which caused many of Sondheim’s clever lyrics to be swallowed up. It doesn’t help that director/choreographer Paul Hopper has the cast doing odd milling and marching movements during the intricate patter-based vocal passages. You hear every other phrase as they alternately face toward and away from the audience. This is certainly not the fault of Tyler Driskill who has done good musical direction here, and whose ensemble sounds very good.

The direction and pacing are slow, and it makes for a long evening. The fine cast saves the production. Overall, this is not one of Encore’s best, despite superb performers (who sometimes seem like they are making up their own blocking as they go) and in which the already too-long evening is drawn out even longer with curious blocking.

Maybe we’ve been over-saturated with Company here in SE Michigan for awhile — personally this is the 5th local production of Company I have seen in as many years. Quite frankly, some of the other local productions have been stronger (and tighter).

Company won Tony Awards in 1971 for Best Book, Music, Lyrics and Musical. It was up against The Me Nobody Knows and The Rothschilds. Enough said.

Overall, you won’t dislike this Company — you just might not walk away from it overly awed by the production.


Company continues through October 20th. Tickets:  http://www.theencoretheatre.org


Fiddler on the Roof at Encore Musical Theatre Company is hit-and-miss (Review) July 13, 2012

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Tevye (Stephen West) and family in Fiddler on the Roof (photo courtesy Encore Musical Theatre Company)

Fiddler on the Roof opened at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter, MI last night, and if the crowd response was anything like it will be throughout the run, Encore has another hit musical on its hands and you should get your tickets now.

Full disclosure: I am not a proponent of large proscenium-theater based musicals being crammed into black boxes with reduced orchestrations. That being said, this is the best “large cast” musical that Encore has presented in their theater space. That is both a compliment and a liability.

Guest Equity actor Stephen West is spectacular in his role of Tevye. The show belongs to him, and he commands your attention in every scene he is in. His voice resonates throughout the theater, and his charisma is infectious. He also has the acting chops to make the journey memorable from beginning to end. Do not miss this performance.

The leads in Fiddler are consistently good to excellent…among the standouts are strong performances by all three of-age daughters as played by Katherine Kujala (Tzeitel), Clare Lauer (Hodel) and Hannah Clague (Chava). Marlene Inman-Reilly holds her own as Tevye’s wife Golde, and their scenes together are musical theater gold indeed. “Do You Love Me?” is a highlight of the evening. Sebastian Gerstner turns in a dynamic performance as Perchik (and makes the most of being saddled with the musical’s worst song, “Now I have Everything”). Also good are Judy Dery as Yente the matchmaker; Tim Brayman as Lazar-Wolf; and John Hummel as Motel.

The Ensemble here is good, but insufficient. There is that liability I spoke of earlier. The show is lacking at least 8 men. I don’t blame this at all on Encore, but our over-saturated big-musical market in the Ann Arbor area where men who can sing and dance are at a premium and spread over at least 7 other musicals this summer.  When Encore veers from smaller musicals, they are in the same boat as all the other community theaters in the area: beg, borrow, plead, and cajole to get enough men into the ensemble. Want to know how to help out guys?  AUDITION!…But Fiddler is probably not the best choice for this small space. The Original Broadway Cast and 70‘s and 90’s revivals included 45 members. The 2004 revival 40. The Encore production 25.

This results in curious moments like the Rabbi’s son drinking in the inn…and awkward costume/makeup changes like Jesse Barfield playing Russian Fyedka in one scene, and a bearded local in the next. Awkward. It also leads to a less-than-compelling “To Life” in the Inn — there aren’t enough men to cover both the Russian and the local factions, and the ensemble is out of breath after their dance number so that vocal highlights are missing throughout. Other ensemble scenes work better, but are generally hit-or-miss.

Toni Auletti has designed a beautiful woodwork village set; and the integration of Marc Chagall imagery works well. Costumes are generally serviceable, with more attention paid to the leads, and less to the ensemble. Lighting is good. Cheryl Van Duzen’s 5-piece orchestra sounds wonderful, though anemic. The Fiddler orchestrations are written for 19 pieces, and reduced to 10. 5 just is insufficient for this large musical.

There are some curious directing choices that have been made by director/choreographer Barbara Cullen. The use of the Fiddler on stage works in some scenes, while it is intrusive in others. Emily Slomovits is an accomplished violinist, and she is fun to watch on stage (usually). Scene changes are “danced” which is a brilliant addition in Act One, but becomes intrusive in later goings as things turn more serious. Things in Act One work generally better than those in Act Two as it makes its slow slogging march to the inevitable conclusion, shedding daughters as it goes. That isn’t Encore’s fault, nor the directors, but a function of the show itself. While the cast hits its marks in the bits of business required, Jewish (and Russian) intonations and accents come and go, and there is a sense that many in the cast are going through the motions and mannerisms without really understanding why they are doing them –and nobody touches a Mezuzah when entering through doorways in this very religious community. This is a very white-bread Jewish community to say the least.

But I save the most glaring problem for last. I don’t know why a decision was made to end Act One after Tevye’s Dream rather than as written to end after the wedding and the Russian demonstration. This is a glaring problem and I have never seen this done with Fiddler. One loses the passage of time, and the intended drama of the piece. Its a mistake.

Fiddler on The Roof continues at Encore Musical Theatre Company through August 12th. Tickets are available at the theater box office at 3126 Broad Street; by phone at 734-268-6200 or online at theencoretheatre.org

Funny Business at Encore Musical Theatre Company — Nunsense (Review) May 18, 2012

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Back in ’86, I was onstage at the Met Opera House in NYC singing and dancing backup in one of the nation’s first big AIDS fundraisers. Among the stars and large-cast Broadway show ensembles there was a sudden rush of excitement as the habit-attired actresses from then Off-Broadway smash hit Nunsense whipped the audience into a frenzy with their rousing number “Holier Than Thou”.  Amidst the glittering stars including Bette Midler, these actresses had achieved something akin to cult status with one single number.

Something similar  happens at the end of Encore’s NUNSENSE which opened last night in Dexter. After a fast-paced evening of hit-and-miss jokes, skits, and gags, the stage explodes with energy as Amy Smidebush leads the ensemble of superb performers in the rousing “Holier Than Thou” and you can forgive Dan Goggin’s misfires, and take pleasure in the wonderful things he does create. It is really not worth reviewing Nunsense the musical for content since it has entered the amateur  and regional theater reportoire and is done virtually everywhere.

Barbara Cullen’s direction and choreography is fast-paced and fluid; Leo Babcock has designed an excellent parochial-school gymnasium set; George Cullinan’s musical direction is very good and he and his ensemble sound great (no orchestra members are credited in the program); Dan Walker’s lighting works well; an Sharon Larkey Urick’s nun’s habits are both classic and adaptively hilarious. Sue Booth “wrings” the most out of hers, to be sure.

But oh what a jolly gaggle of nuns we have in Encore’s very strong all-female cast: The aforementioned Amy Smidebush plays Sister Mary Hubert who is second-banana to Barbara Scanlon’s hilarious Mother Superior Sister Mary Regina. Barbara’s “unexpected discovery” is worth the price of admission by itself. But wait, there is a terrific performance by Mary Rumman as Sister Mary Amnesia (and low and behold, the theater gods have finally smiled upon Encore as they present their first DIRTY JOKE in their otherwise too-family friendly fare…albeit a joke that all 9-year old Catholic boys are well familiar with). And then there is dancing Sister Mary Leo, a spot-on Madison Deadman who as the ensemble’s youngest member brings strong stage presence throughout. Top it all off with the self-assured performance by Sue Booth as Sister Robert Anne and you have a dynamite cast of nuns.

By the way….did you catch that?…Sister MARY Regina….Sister MARY Leo…Sister MARY Amnesia…Sister MARY Hubert…Sister ROBERT Anne…Yeah, the whole night is filled with gags like that. Its almost incomprehensible that Nunsense has spawned not one, but six sequels. But it is what it is — and that makes for a highly entertaining evening of nonsense, er, nunsense….Play on, ladies, play on.

NUNSENSE continues at Encore Musical Theatre Company through June 10th. Tickets can be ordered online at theencoretheatre.org, the box office, or by phone at 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


Slick “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”, Encore Musical Theatre Company (review) February 5, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Detroit, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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This is a good news-bad news review. Before I go further, let me just say that the very talented cast in Encore’s SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE sings well, dances well, and has stage presence to spare. The set looks great. The lighting right on target. The band sounds great. So what goes wrong?

Well…nothing that Encore could do about it, besides maybe pick a better show. I’m not a fan of revues, and that is what Smokey Joe is…two hours of Lieber and Stoller songs in a hodgepodge revue that has no storyline and which resorts to lights-down-lights-up scene changes for transitions. And not all of those songs are good. In fact, many of them are not.

It’s all sort of like watching a cruise ship show — no, it’s exactly like watching a cruise ship show — slick; well done; but ultimately unsatisfying as you head out of the theater and back to the ship’s casino.

The very talented ensemble cast sing, dance, and work very hard to please. It’s hard to single out any exceptions, so let me just say that the (entirely non-equity) cast is composed of Brian E. Buckner, Steve DeBruyne, Sebastian Gerstner, Cara Manor, Terrence D. Owens, Jr., Fatima Poggi, Thalia Shramm, and Amy Smidebush. Mysteriously missing is the 9th cast member the show is written for.

Most of the show glides along just great, with solos, combos and group numbers that feature each cast member individually, as well as in boy and girl groups. Missing is any sense of who these people are, except for very broad strokes that don’t hold as the show progresses. Might as well be variety show numbers following one after the other. I had that same sense after seeing the Broadway production (which inexplicably ran almost 5 years in the 90’s), so it’s not the fault of the hard-working folks at Encore. Some numbers work better than others: “Jailhouse Rock” and “Stand By Me” smolder….while “On Broadway” falls flat, not only because of the over-involved choreography, but also because the vocal mix just doesn’t work (it didn’t work on Broadway either, where it looked like the guys were going to swallow their body mics).

But that’s another thing — if ever a show calls out for body mics, it’s Smokey Joe. Soloists here are sometimes overwhelmed by the (offstage) band, and at other times by their own cast mates. They all sound great, and the blend is very good — but you lose the soloists entirely in places.

Leo Babcock has designed a dandy set with two sweeping curved staircases. Sharon Larkey Urick’s costumes are serviceable without ever really evoking the 50’s or early 60’s. Matthew Tomich’s lighting design is generally spot on (except in one instance where beautifully spot-lit Steve and Thalia are suddenly aglow in full stage brightness that made my pupils spin).

All in all, I would always prefer a book musical (although Encore’s upcoming season of community theater type fare doesn’t make me want to run and buy tickets to any of them), but Smokey Joe’s Cafe is a well-done, well-produced musical revue. In her program note, Barbara F. Cullen states that the show is “so much more than a musical revue”. I beg to differ, and would actually say its the worst kind of musical revue – the type that has nothing but musical numbers and very little heart. That is not to slight this production which is top notch, but exactly what you would expect of a production of this show.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company through February 26th, 3126 Broad Street, Dexter, MI 734-268-6200 or http://www.theencoretheatre.org

Simply put, “The Light in the Piazza” at Encore is their best production to date (Review) September 8, 2011

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Broadway Musicals, Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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Take a superior score and script; add Encore’s strongest singing cast ever; stir in a new sound system and some terrific direction, and you have, quite simply, Encore Musical Theatre Company’s best production to date with “The Light in the Piazza”.

I have to disclose that I am partial to this show to begin with: many friends worked on the Broadway production both on the creative team and on stage. I saw it at the Vivian Beaumont a half a dozen times during it’s run. That being said, this cast is as strong as any I have seen in the show.

The production is Directed by Steve DeBruyne, Music Directed by Brian E. Buckner, Costumes are designed by Sharon Larkey Urick, Sets by Toni Auletti and Lighting by Matthew Tomich. I mention their names up front because it is their work that frames this sparkling production.

The action, played out on a sparse but lovely set, allows the actors to truly shine. And you have never heard a cast like this on the Encore stage. The very difficult score leans heavily toward legit voices (you know, opera voices for those of you not in the biz), and they sound fantastic on the new sound system that mixes the orchestra with the vocals.

I don’t want to give away too much of the storyline for those who don’t know. Suffice it to say it involves a mother (Barbara Scanlon) and her daughter (Stephanie Souza) who travel to Florence in 1953 and where the daughter finds love with a young Italian man (Brian L. Giebler). The will-they-or-wont-they romance plays out in a storyline that heaps levels of surprise and emotion in a deeply layered script that unfolds slowly over the course of the musical and leaves the audience as breathless as the cast by the end of the show.

Barbara Scanlon turns in a mesmerizing performance as Margaret Johnson, and Stephanie Souza plays her daughter Clara with aplomb. Brian Giebler as Fabrizio has a wonderful voice and stage presence to hold his own in a cast in which one cast member delightfully outshines the other throughout the evening. Scott Crownover plays a commanding Signor Naccarelli with Marlene Inman-Reilly turning on the vocal dazzlement as his wife. Sebastian Gerstner and Angela Kay Miller humorously play off of each other as the elder son and his wife. All smaller parts are played by an ensemble that includes Curt Waugh, Gil Bazil, Anne Bauman, Natalie Burdick, Lauren Conley, and Elliott Styles.

The vocal work here is dazzling — notes are hit and resound in the theater space which is superb for this type of show. The tone is exquisite — nothing is sharp, nothing is undertone…everything is right where it needs to be. The very difficult score includes large portions sung in Italian, often in counterpoint to English, and at times instantly alternating between the two. Adam Guettel’s lush score mixes contemporary romantic melodies with more adventuresome musical styles. This is a very difficult score and it is handled here expertly.

The requisite tears come — are they tears of sorrow? Or joy? Do you cry at a wedding? Or does something occur to throw it all out of balance. You’ll have to go see it for yourself, because it all plays out as well as any suspense story you’ve seen. From the romance of a hat blown through the air across a piazza, to the touching moments of a mother learning to come to terms with her own grief — it’s all there.

By all means see this. It is the best production Encore has done to date, and you will kick yourself if you don’t get a chance to experience it. Buy tickets for your parents. Send a pair to your grandparents. Take your husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/best friend. Go see it. I am personally getting tickets to see it again. I loved this production.

The Light in the Piazza continues through October 2nd. Tickets are available at the theater box office (3126 Broad Street, Dexter, MI) by calling (734) 268-6200, or online at http://www.theencoretheatre.org