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Little House on the Prairie, The Musical: Wholesome, lovely, and pure (Review) December 4, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, Theatre.
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Something very rare happened at the Fox Theatre last night in Detroit. I walked to the Box Office at intermission to get a ticket to see the show a second time for later in the weekend. Little House on the Prairie, the Musical, is wholesome, lovely, and pure. It brings something to the musical theatre that hasn’t been seen in a long, long time — a STORY, told simply, with a great cast, costumes, set, and fully geared to the entire family.

Granted, this is not West Side Story. The tale being told here is simple, humorous, and lively. It’s family theatre, and it’s fine. Seen only a few weeks after the not-ready-for-primetime “101 Dalmations, the musical”, Little House is a breath of fresh air – and I mean that in the best way.

While the musical follows the written books, not the tv show, everything here will be familiar (at least to 30-somethings and up). But there is a wonderful story for your young ones to follow as well. The audience was rapt to the show from start to finish, and I have to admit, there are some big tears by the end of the show — I dare you not to well up. I dare you, because you SHOULD well-up — it’s directed beautifully and performed pitch-perfectly to the style and size of the show, and the emotions are perfectly manipulated for you. I’m a big fan of gratuitous emotional manipulation if it is done right — and here it is done right — it sneaks up on you and catches you with a lump in your throat for most of Act II (which is stronger, by the way, than Act I).

Once again, the Fox Theatre proves to be the wrong venue for the production – and was more than half empty at the performance I saw. This is a musical that deserves to be seen. It came to town with great word of mouth from audiences, and critical word of mouth from theatre folks I know. Well, they’re Scrooges if they can’t take a family-classic and enjoy it for a couple hours. I loved it. As I stated before, I loved it so much I’m going back to see it again.

If you saw the musical version of LITTLE WOMEN a few seasons ago, you’ll instantly be familiar with the style of story theatre employed here — props become other objects, set changes and technical objects are kept to a minimum, and the musical focuses on the story at play.

The music is lovely — it evokes Americana at it’s best; though like Aaron Copland or Charles Ives, it soon fades away from memory. But it’s integrated well with the lyrics, and it sweeps you along on, well, the prairie. The art design is perfect for the show, and reminds you that life used to be lived on a much larger canvas than it is now. And the cast itself is one of the most appealing I’ve seen in a long time.

Highly recommended — and I mean that in the most genuine, wholesome, lovely, purest way. This is clean-cut American musical theatre, and it deserves to be seen. Forget the cynics, just get your tickets. It’s here through Sunday. There is nothing objectionable for your little ones (though you might have to explain some of the storyline to them on the way home). Let me just warn you — if you think “Rent” is the best musical ever written, you are going to absolutely hate this musical — call it the anti-Rent…it’s the kind of show that was a dime a dozen in the 50’s — the musicals I grew up on, and the musicals that I consider the “heart” of musical comedy.

And that’s the view from Ann Arbor today.

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101 Dalmations, the Musical — Review November 23, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Entertainment, Pets, Theatre.
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There are three reasons to see 101 DALMATIONS, THE MUSICAL….1) Rachel York, 2) Rachel York, and 3) Rachel York. Playing Cruella DeVil she has enough energy for three shows — look out Glenn Close, your nemesis has arrived.

Rachel York in 101 Dalmations, The Musical.

Cast, kids, and Dogs in 101 Dalmations, the Musical

Ok, now that I got that out of the way, I can honestly say that I enjoyed the musical more than I should have. Any new musical is always better than no new musicals. But 101 Dalmations is not ready for prime time. It’s a shame — they have a lot going for them, including a great musical score, good performances all around, some very enthusiastic kids in the cast, and that knock-out performance by Rachel York.

But it has a lot of problems too. Seen in the Sunday afternoon performance at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, in a half-empty house, the audience young and old was squirming in their seats by mid-Act One. The 5-year olds were mostly OUT of their seats by that point.

And there’s the problem — when the show works well it appeals to both kids and adults. When it is at its worst, even the adults have a hard time sitting still. There is too much talk — WAY too much talk — like a half hour too much talk in this 2-hour musical. And there is actually too much music too!…It’s a terrific score that mixes in all styles of musical comedy-style songs, but there is too much of it. ┬áTrim the show to 90 minutes without an intermission, and you’ll have yourself a tight family entertainment.

Then there are the stilt problems. To make the “dogs” (played by people) look smaller, the rest of the cast is on 15 inch stilts. It looks terrible. While the sets are creatively skewed to make everything look like you are looking at it from a dogs-eye view, the stilts themselves are ridiculous. Two performers fell during this performance — and I have to admit by the middle of the first act, I started to watch the stilt walkers (and dancers) to see who else might go down, sort of the same way you watch figure skaters, to see who falls on their butt. That was enough to distract me from what might otherwise be some fine moments. I’d suggest they cut the stilts and work on creative use of costumes to achieve the same effect.

And then there is the other major problem — there aren’t enough dogs. Sure the kids are cute when they dance — and the Bark Chain is particularly well handled. The directing is generally sound. But the real dogs are reserved for dog tricks at the end of the acts, and there isn’t enough — the tricks are fun! A dog pees and flowers grow. They have charisma — the entire audience comes to life while they are on stage. It’s too bad that the rest of the show doesn’t have that kind of spark of life.

Which brings me back to Rachel York. She chews up the scenery, sings her heart out, flays her arms and legs and manages to stay balanced, and just seems to be having the time of her life. Her demise is strange — I understand why they handle it the way they do — it IS a family musical with lots of children in the audience after all…but it’s an anti-climatic end to an otherwise great stage performance.

To save yourself two hours — you can see Rachel York perform her entire number called “Hot” here: http://www.the101dalmatiansmusical.com/index.html

I liked the show. I hope they take the time to fix it as it travels across the country prior to a three-week engagement at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden. It’s not ready for a full-time Broadway production. It’s a shame. There are a lot of good actors and technicians at work here. But in the long-run, it needs work, lots of it, and more real dogs. Even if they do nothing else but cross the stage from time to time with the actors.

Despite that, the audience really seemed to have a great time. The chatter at intermission wasn’t bad – people genuinely liked the show. And there sure is a dearth of decent family-oriented musicals these days. The audience reviews at Ticketmaster.com, for example, are almost all entirely A’s and B’s. That’s pretty darn good!…And you actually do leave the theatre humming the theme song. That’s not bad either.

In a surreal moment – the show ended at the same time the Lions game ended down the street. Lions fans and families with toddlers mixed on Woodward in what can only be described as Detroit at its finest.