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“Evita” – University of Michigan Musical Theatre Program October 17, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, Theatre.
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“Evita”, currently running at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre at the University of Michigan is a musical theatre diamond. Presented by the Musical Theatre department, it is as slick as a Broadway tour, and as tight as a college production can be.


The production reaffirms that the only current professional caliber musical theatre being presented in Ann Arbor is being done by the UM Musical Theatre program. Let me state up front that I love big-budget proscenium-theatre musicals with full orchestras. Especially when they are done right.

Under the expert direction of Linda Goodrich, the show plays out exactly as it should — a fast, straight-forward Act I, followed by an ever-increasingly more emotional Act II, through to the tear-jerker ending. “Buenos Aires” and “A New Argentina” remain Act One’s highlights, while “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and “Rainbow Tour” are clearly Act Two’s forte pieces.

To be sure, this is a problematic work of musical theatre. The Peron story doesn’t really play out true to reality, and follows a “spin” on her biography that bends the truth, and is mean-spirited at that. The Broadway production catapulted Patty LuPone to stardom (ironically, she will be performing here later this year).

But this production is simply first rate, from the fine performances of Desi Oakley (Eva) and Carlos Valdes (Che) to the smaller ensemble parts. The costumes, sets, lighting, choreography, sound, and orchestra are professional and slick. In short, everything a production of the show should be. Linda Goodrich and her design team have made the theatre feel twice the size that it is, and the simple (but beautifully designed) tiered set makes the proscenium arch feel far higher than it is. This is just plain old great design work. The costumes here, like in the original Broadway production, instantly make an indelible impression – separating class, age, and social rank – and make scene changes seamless and fluid without set changes. Can I add that Desi gets to wear the most stunning clothing I’ve seen in a show this season? By the time Eva reaches her Rainbow Tour, you are utterly transported to a different time and place. By that point in the story, the emotion has also kicked into high gear and it’s a race to the conclusion. Brava to both Ms. Oakley as well as Linda Goodrich’s fine pacing and direction.

This is a love it or hate it work of theatre. The same can’t be said of the production, and I loved it. Unfortunately, unless you already have tickets, you won’t be seeing this one. Every performance has been sold out for weeks.

On a final note, can we consider this show now “done” here locally? Civic, Encore, UM, EMU, Croswell…

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

Posted by ronannarbor in Theatre.
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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:


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.