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“9 to 5” at Acting Out Productions – Taylor, MI April 23, 2016

Posted by ronannarbor in Community Theater, musical theater, Musicals.
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There’s a new kid in town, and they’re putting on a really entertaining production of “9 to 5 the musical”.


Disclaimer: I usually review community theater productions only when they are something to rave about. In this case, while not a rave and far from technically proficient, I make the rare exception to talk about a new community theater group that you are going to be hearing a lot about in the future.

As their first adult musical (the company has been producing children’s and youth theater for awhile now) Acting Out Productions has wisely chosen a funny recent musical based on the movie that had a modest Broadway run. It offers many parts (especially for women) and is a good choice for a community theater.

It also emphasizes the shortcomings if not done remarkably well. The show itself is entertaining and I found myself laughing multiple times during the evening. I also found myself cringing once  — but let me explain.

First, there is a remarkable performance by John Sartor as egotistical boss Franklin Hart and his interactions with the cast raise everyone’s focus and efforts by two-fold. He’s funny, sings well, and carries some very difficult humorous moments. He also has some lovely heart-patterned boxer shorts.

Next, there is solid direction from Kelly R Lomas, though it could all be tightened up a bit. Still, the vision is clear, and things proceed according to plan.

Third, there is an excellent four-piece combo band that sounds terrific. I might have moved them to far stage right instead of in the center (you might want to rethink where you sit if you are in the middle section, especially the first 4 rows). They make beautiful music together and play through the peppy score with precision.

Fourth, it is so evident how much work and effort went into this first big adult musical for Acting Out. It is truly a labor of love to put together something of this scope — and in general it all works. The cast seem to work together well, there is certainly plenty of encouragement from cast and crew alike (I love listening to people at intermission), and its great to have another community theater in town. As the group becomes better known, they will get a bigger audition pool from which to choose, and there will be less awkwardness overall. Come out and audition for their shows next season!

What doesn’t work? Well, scene changes are far too long. Costumes are designed in a way that they are not easy to change and there are times that the orchestra vamps repeatedly waiting for actors to appear who are changing clothes backstage.  Mics drop in and out throughout. The ensemble tends to stand in straight lines. Some cast members are able to effortlessly do the smart choreography, while others struggle with the basics. Not all ensemble members need to be on stage in all numbers. Speaking of ensemble — disparate ages don’t work well in this production, but lets chalk that up to educational theater and the need for a larger audition pool. There was one cringe-worthy moment when the actor playing Joe (in high school) and Violet have their big love song in Act II (“Let Love Grow”) that nearly made me levitate out of my seat. I understand an appropriately-aged adult plays that part at some performances.

But that was it, and one cringe-worthy moment all evening is pretty good — the show is super entertaining — something they should be very proud of, and I had a good time. (Note: the show runs long, but I blame some of that on the too-long scene changes). I loved the cookies at intermission. I could probably do without the teenagers shouting “50-50 raffle! Last Chance!” inside the theater, especially since there was no way anybody interested would have missed them in the lobby. The theatre itself is lovely — The Royal Majestic Theater is located inside Trillium Academy on Racho Road in Taylor which used to be a performing arts school, so their setup is quite good.

“9 to 5” continues at Acting Out Productions, 15740 Racho Road, Taylor, MI through April 30th. Tickets available at the door. 15.00 per ticket – Cash only.


Memphis lives in me (Thoughts on closing) August 24, 2015

Posted by ronannarbor in Michigan, musical theater, Musicals.
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This isn’t a review. And it isn’t a random entry. This is truly an article about what “Memphis” means to me.

Yesterday, we played our final performance of MEMPHIS the Musical at The Croswell Opera House in Adrian, MI. It was a show that earned rave reviews (two were published right here!) and almost instantaneously became the major theater event of the SE Michigan/NW Ohio theatre scene. It was called “moving”, “electric”, “triumphant”, “joyous”, “energized”. But it also garnered the type of comments that meant much more: “dug deep into the talent pool so underutilized in this area”, “ spiritual”, “inspiring”.

Not familiar with the show? Well, it is about the birth of rock and roll, based on the black rhythm and blues roots of Memphis underground clubs, and how that sound eventually made it into the mainstream, primarily by way of teenagers and younger listeners who craved that type of upbeat dance music. It led to things like “the generation gap” and took place many years before the 50’s created in “Grease” or the early 60’s of “Hairspray”.

I had the honor of playing the supporting part of Mr Simmons, the radio station (later television station) owner — a great comedic part, and a risk-taker: sure, he was out for money, but he was a businessman who was open-minded enough in 1951 to hire a DJ that spun “colored music” (also known as “race music” at that time), and even permit an all-black television program down the road. When things spin out of control in Act II, he is astute enough to recognize that he needs to get his black performers “home, where they will be safe”.

But there is a secondary storyline — that of white disc jockey Huey Calhoun and his pursuit of black singer Felecia Farrell — and the racial tension that ensues in both the white and black communities when they fall in love with tragic consequences.

You would think that would be enough to keep you entertained, right?

Well, there is an even deeper level of what happened in Adrian this summer — and it was the miracle of a fully integrated cast at Croswell. 19 black cast members. An equal number of white. And that was a small miracle and one that seems like it shouldn’t be something we need to celebrate in 2015 — BUT WE DO.

While I consider Croswell the theater nearest and dearest to my heart I also do shows primarily in Ann Arbor. I’ve never done a show that had an integrated cast in this area. Years ago we did Big River at Ann Arbor Civic Theater with 4 black cast members (it needed about 15). On occasion I’ve gotten one or two diverse auditioners at shows I direct — in Ann Arbor.

Imagine the feat that took place in Adrian with Memphis. When the show was announced last fall, many people raised their eyebrows and thought, “what? where are they going to get that cast?” I hate to admit I was one of those people. In fact, I went up to the artistic director that night and asked her that same question.

But what happened was that people “believed”…starting with Jere Righter and the Board of Directors — they believed they could do it. Director/Choreographer Debra Calabrese believed she could get the cast. She used that belief to round up some of the most talented dancers in the area. Some were local to Adrian, others came from Toledo, in particular from schools of dance and fine arts. While those of us who had already been cast sweated out hearing if the show was on for sure, these people who believed were out there making the impossible happen.

We had an all-cast meeting early in the summer — and that initial meeting set the tone for what was to come. One by one, in groups, and in carpools, the cast arrived. Most had never been to Adrian before, let alone inside the Croswell Opera House. Some had never even been in a musical before. I looked around and found myself surprised and bewildered — there we were, one of the most diverse groups of colors, sizes, shapes, and ages.

Slowly people started talking — we introduced ourselves. We laughed. We sang a round of the curtain call song with our musical director Dave Rains who smiled and said “yeah, that will work”.

And we started to believe too.

The skeptics around SE Michigan were starting to become more vocal when I told them the show was coming together in a way beyond any of our dreams. It couldn’t be. Really? “I heard you’re using offstage singers” (yes, but so do other shows across America). “I heard your lead hasn’t even arrived from NYC yet” (yes, but when she did, the remarkable Tatiana Owens knew every single line of dialogue, blocking, and music). “I heard your spending a lot of time in dance rehearsals” (Well, duh, its a heavy dance musical). “I heard you have two separate casts” (no — we had an integrated cast of black and white performers who were all at rehearsals together every night – it was true that there are numbers that feature only the black cast, and others that feature only the white cast, but many of them featured both).

But the excitement was mounting. Tati arrived, and was instantly welcomed and enveloped by the cast. The show was becoming one big moving cog-and-wheel machine: scenes were landing with the correct emphasis on jokes and balanced with seriousness; dances were taking a shape that I have rarely seen on any local stage — when you have some of the finest dancers available, you can do some of the finest choreography — and they were, and it was.

But something else was happening — this integrated cast was becoming a tight, cohesive family. Black and white. Arriving early every night so that there was time to socialize. Lingering after rehearsals to chat in the parking lot. Grabbing meals together. Texting non-stop. Supporting each other on Facebook during the day — looking forward to the next rehearsal.

And everyone believed in this show, and this cast, and the quality. There wasn’t a single person who thought that this was not going to work (or if there was, I was certainly not aware of it).

By the time we got to tech week, we knew we had a hit. The emotions were flowing just right. The invited dress audience was ecstatic. The rest is history — the reviews were stellar, the ticket sales took off and the box office was swamped with calls and online orders and the sellouts followed. There was an outpouring of “Memphis-love”. I joked that my favorite thing was getting home at the end of the night and reading my Facebook feed each night after a show, which had exploded with Memphis posts.

And the audiences were just as diverse as the cast — certainly not 50/50 like the cast itself, but far more diverse than any other audiences I can ever remember at Croswell…and the energy was palpable. I could feel it from the stage. The cast thrived on every audience gasp, and ooh, and ah and reaction to kisses, and broken records, and by the second act it was simply electric in the house. Older cast members shared stories of discrimination and human rights. An older white man in the audience told our director that “he had no idea he had made it so difficult for people back then”.

Absolutely nothing creates that type of energy but live theater. It is why I have been involved with theater since being a young kid. I’ve directed 45 musicals, and I’ve probably been in about an equal number, and I’ve never felt what I did during Memphis, both onstage, and afterwards each night. Audience members stayed and wanted to meet the cast after the show. Audience members stopped us in the parking lot on our way to our cars to take selfies and talk about the show. Adrian was abuzz — reports came from people talking about the show at their hair stylists, at their nail salon, at the library, at Adrian College, and Sienna Heights, at Sauce restaurant. The two topics that dominated Adrian life were the new Buffalo Wild Wings opening near “the mall” and Memphis.

This is a good a time as any to thank the many many audience members that came and supported the show and were moved and told their friends and brought them back to see the show a second time. It is time to thank every single merchant downtown and around the area that displayed a Memphis poster in their windows. Its time to thank people for making everyone feel welcome. And it is time to thank Croswell for supporting something that will hopefully keep diversity alive and well on its stages and audiences.

If there is something I wish comes of this experience for everyone is that those young folks who are growing up in Adrian and thinking that they are somehow different and not welcome — stop, believe, know that you belong, and come audition for future shows. Discover your talents. Discover your uniqueness. Be a part of this big, organic thing that is theater and live performance.

There were more tears backstage on closing night (they actually started the night before already) than I have witnessed at other shows — and that was a tribute not just to the feeling that had been created on stage, and with the intensity of the rehearsal/performance process — but also because this big diverse family was performing together for the last time.

After the show, the tears flowed for real. Cast met audience a final time. Some lingered over a meal and drinks with friends, others went home. I met with a best friend and we couldn’t stop talking about the show. When he later posted a clandestine 10 second clip of the curtain call online, I watched it over and over, probably 20 times. I was having a hard time letting go as well. I felt I didn’t have closure. I wanted to keep these people in my life every single night.

I have 40 new friends, and I can’t wait to see what they do next — be that in Toledo, Ann Arbor, Adrian, or wherever. I can’t wait to see these folks again. We took a spiritual journey together. Cast, crew, orchestra, artistic staff. I know I will work with many of them again.

I believe this is the start of something wonderful.


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.

Lead Performances drive this “Parade” (Peppermint Creek) Review November 15, 2014

Posted by ronannarbor in Michigan, musical theater, Musicals.
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Love it or hate it, any theater company takes a risk when producing the Alfred Uhry/Jason Robert Brown musical “Parade” — it is a hard sell to get an audience to empathize with a jewish factory manager who may or may not have committed the murder and rape of a 13-year old factory worker in 1912 Atlanta, Georgia. You might be familiar with the story from the 1987 movie “The Murder of Mary Phagan” or the 2009 The People v Leo Frank.  Its a challenging and complicated musical to be sure, but one that has Peppermint Creek fortunately sold out throughout its run.

What really makes this particular production soar is the outstanding lead performances by Adam Woolsey as Leo, and Mary Maurer as his wife Lucille. Individually and together, their vocals and acting soar, and make this a compelling piece of musical theater. I’ve seen Adam in several productions now, and the work here surpasses anything he has done previously, and comes unexpectedly — that the show works here is in large part due to his subdued and empathic performance. There is also very solid vocal work from up-and-comer Ben Cassidy as Frankie Epps (among other small roles).

If you don’t already have a ticket, you won’t be able to see this remarkable singing performance — but look for other works by Peppermint Creek in Lansing — I’m particularly looking forward to seeing the local premier of the off-Broadway Pasek and Paul musical “Dogfight” this spring.

Kudos to a theater company willing to take risks — and not perform the “same old stuff” — and what better way to see that rewarded but sold-out houses.


Downriver Actors Guild gets a new home (and puts on a great Superstar) June 14, 2014

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Downriver Actors Guild in Wyandotte (that’s 38 minutes away to the southeast for you Ann Arbor folks) have much to celebrate in their new home — The Theater on Avenue at 2656 Biddle Avenue.

Born in only 6 months in an abandoned warehouse (about 4 times the size of the Encore in Dexter), the theater has come to life these past two weekends with a great production of John Sartor’s directed Jesus Christ Superstar, a show he knows well. This isn’t so much a review of the show (except to say its terrific and go see it if you can get a ticket), but a kudos to the new theater building itself. Paid for by donations and in-kind services, the theater was clearly a labor of love for the good folks involved.

Raked seating for 208 in comfortable theatre seats donated by the Dearborn Players Guild provides good views of the moderately sized stage. The 50 member cast easily fit on the stage and its multi-tiered set designed by Leo Babcock. The orchestra had its own area on stage right, and while sound issues are still being worked out is a good solution for fitting musicians into a limited theater space.

Lighting is superb — Dave Reynolds puts on a show with the new equipment, and it is colorful and lights the space well. He’s even brought in a couple moving units for this production, which allows not only movement of light and color on stage, but occasional splashes of light in the audience as well, in keeping with the show’s rock-opera look and feel.

The lobby is spacious and the bathrooms are gorgeous — thanks to Sartor Tile. And it is abuzz with life — there’s a bake sale preshow and during intermission, and a 50/50 raffle going strong. There are also photos of the entire cast and people were busy circulating throughout the area. Its a great space, and it will be comfortable and out of the elements on cold winter nights.

And finally, there is plentiful parking in the lots behind and around the theater, and how great is it to have a theater literally across the street from a Tim Hortons/Cold Stone Creamery. Arrive an hour early and go grab a sweet cream cone.

Congratulations on the launch of a beautiful civic theater space – one that many other community theaters (and some professional ones) will be envious of.  It wouldn’t be fair to end this without listing the people and affiliations involved in making this happen, so to the best of my knowledge they are:

Many many donors at all levels of giving…Dearborn Players Guild, Dearborn…Daly-Merritt Properties, Wyandotte…the Babcock Design Studios, Saline…Wagner Structural Solutions, Howell…McDowell & Associates, Ferndale…Sartor Tile, Dearborn Hts…Denken Engineered Electric, Madison Hts…Murrell Plumbing, Canton…Temperature Control, Wyandotte…Gandol Door, Romulus…Advance Plumbing, Detroit…Virginia Tile, Troy…Total Facility Storage, Wyandotte…Wyandotte Mini Storage, Wyandotte…Ryan Building Materials, Southfield.



Croswell’s “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” is one of their best summer shows ever (Review) August 11, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Community Theater, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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I am starting with ticket information for Croswell Opera house — online at croswell.org, or by phone at 517-264-7469. Quit reading — go order tickets — then come back.

Erin Satchell Yuen as Milly, and Steven Antalek as Adam (photo copyright Croswell Opera House)

Croswell Opera House opened one of their finest musicals ever last night — the adapted-from-the-movie musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The show pinpoints exactly everything that Croswell does right — a great cast with a pitch-perfect full orchestra, a fine set and costumes, more talent on stage and behind than the Pontipee boys could shake a rope at, and a rousing standing-ovation audience pleaser to boot.

Based on the favorite 1954 Hollywood musical, the show follows the Pontipee clan brothers as they seek out wives for themselves in 1850’s Oregon. How they go about getting those wives is the tale that is told in the brisk two and a half hour production. There is no definitive script/score for 7B47B, only the one that MTI provides in the moment — and this one is the 2007 revised version (because it sure isn’t the original early’80’s version which I was in almost thirty years ago).

The star of the evening is Jodi Adkins Hissong’s athletic choreography the likes of which the Croswell stage has not seen in many a moon. The Brothers, the Brides, and the supporting cast fly (sometimes literally) through many many numbers, favorites being “Goin’ Courtin'” and the spectacular “Challenge/Cut in Dance” at the harvest social. The latter received extended applause not heard in the house for years.

Erin Satchell Yuen as Milly and Steven Antalek as Adam Pontipee turn in solid performances, and both seem born to play these parts. The Brothers are played by David Blackburn (Benjamin); Ben Andre (Caleb); Ryan Chang (Daniel); Zane Dickerson (Ephraim); Joshua Moller (Frank); and Matthew Pettrey (Gideon). Their camaraderie on stage is equal to their singing and dancing, and they are a joy to behold.  Equally at ease on stage with singing and dancing requirements are the Brides: Samantha Bretz (Alice); Caitlin Christenson (Dorcus); Mary Hofmeister (Ruth); Jocelyn Near (Liza); Emily Kapnick (Martha); and Allison Steele (Sarah).  Together, they are a force to be reckoned with.

The large (but never cluttered) ensemble supports the action, and together with the leads turn in some of the most charismatic and entertaining performances ever at Croswell. The audience was positively abuzz throughout the production, and the standing ovation was well-deserved.

The performers are wrapped in lovely packaging in the form of Rachel Buechele’s colorful costumes; Terrence Hissong’s Scenic Design; and fine efforts in lighting, sound, and technical design. (Note that on opening night, there were both mic-related glitches as well as spotlight-mess that will surely resolve over the coming performances). Stage Manager Kent Sprague has his hands full to be sure, and he keeps things running at a brisk and comfortable pace throughout. Snow falls (both onstage and in the audience); wood splits; crashes resound; the unit-set works perfectly; and it all serves to entertain. Music Director Wynne Marsh keeps everything onstage and in the pit sounding remarkable.

Brian Hissong directs the entire affair with a sure hand, and he gets marvelous things from his performers. Choreography and Directing often overlap, and it appears seamless.

Go see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and enjoy an evening out in beautiful downtown Adrian, MI. Get your tickets immediately before they are all gone — buy them now, thank me later. Its one of the best things I have seen onstage regionally in many years — professional or non-professional.

Obsession at Croswell Opera House a fascinating musical premier (Review, kind of) November 8, 2011

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First, let me say right off the bat, it’s hard to review a workshop of a new show, even if it is fully staged. Because that is exactly what the production of OBSESSION, the musical (loosely based on Frankenstein) was this past weekend at the Croswell Opera House.

Fully staged and realized, the production was a fascinating look at a new musical in progress — originally written as a symphony and presented in Adrian, and now adapted as a stage musical, Betsy and Michael Lackey’s lyrical and tuneful musical takes risks not often seen at the local level. And how fortunate that Croswell Opera House was willing to take that risk to help develop this show.

I am not going to comment too much on the production itself, because if I did, I would end up in a long diatribe about how poorly directed it was, but how lovely it all looked and sounded. Let future directors find the humor and nuance in the script and score, and better manage the stage action.

What I will comment on are the tremendous performances, and the very strong musical score. Top to bottom the cast was top-notch and demonstrated excellent vocal technique. Michael Lackey (Henry/Monster); Eric Parker (Victor); Katy Kujala (Elizabeth); and Mackenzie Dryer (Justine) sang strong, confident roles. Deeply rooted in opera, the score demands a tremendous amount from the cast, and this group of performers delivered.

The score is particularly tuneful and sometimes outright stunning: “What I’d Give” has a lyrical line that ranks with the best Broadway-type pop ballads, but the entire score is lovely to listen to. The lyrics are clever and have a subtle sense of humor (not captured well in this production). The Croswell sound system made it difficult to understand some of the lyrics, particularly in the choral numbers. The show leans more toward the style of “Jekyll and Hyde” than more serious poperettas.

Is the show ready for prime time? No. Is it well on its way, yes. I would love to see the show again, after some tweeks have been made. My own thoughts as to improvements:

– There is too much music; scene changes occur rapidly (seconds) but musical rifts run for minutes with no action on stage. Some of this could be covered with better direction, but there is still too much of it. Standardize scene change music so that it cuts off once the scene has been changed, not continue just for the sake of continuing.

-The Entr’Acte is too long. Pull the main theme, add a countermelody, and roar to a quick finish. Two mintues is great. 5 minutes is too long.

-Eliminate the narration by the lead (Victor). Either incorporate it into the choral numbers, or eliminate it completely. With the exception of one or two short moments where action can be identified otherwise, the narration is superfluous and repetitive.

-Pay attention to the choral action: too many maids and butlers on stage just to sing choral backup is never a good idea. Put the chorus into the orchestra pit and let them sing backup. Find a better way to incorporate your ensemble onstage without just putting them on, and pulling them off. Its getting there –but its not there.

Overall, this was a fascinating and very well performed production that hopefully will lead to the necessary tweaks and future productions. I’d love to listen to this score over and over again, it’s sumptuous. But listening to versus seeing a show are two different things. It needs work, but it shows beyond tremendous potential — it deserves to be fixed and developed. Congrats to all involved — and keep working at this piece: there is really good here. It just needs some TLC.

HAIRSPRAY at Croswell Opera House (Review) June 19, 2011

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Hairspray, the Tony winning musical with book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, Music by Marc Shaiman, and Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman has quickly become the most overproduced musical in the current amateur musical circuit — at last count, this is the 28th or 29th production of it in the state of Michigan alone, with 14 more productions scheduled in the state through the end of the summer — And it’s no surprise that the show has become the darling of the community theater circuit: it has a large cast, more parts for younger folks than adults; and a peppy, upbeat 60’s infused pop score. It’s the Bye Bye Birdie of the new era.

But I can bet that none of them are as super as the production currently onstage at the Croswell Opera House in Adrian.

Leading the way are superb performances by every lead in this production. Bridget Harrington is a fine Tracy Turnblad. Lucas A. Wells a pitch-perfect Link Larkin. Eric Swanson is hilarious as Edna Turnblad, and every other supporting player here is in top form.

The set and lighting design are colorful, professional, and everything moves quickly under the direction of Chris Sancho-Beckman and dances appropriately under the choreography of Debra Ross Calabrese. There are a few minor quibbles — the turnbald household platform is a bit too large and a bit too downstage for several large numbers, making things a bit cramped. The sound varies depending on where you sit in the house — too far right and too far left, you’ll primarily hear the orchestra through the side proscenium speakers at the expense of the vocals. The center seems just about right.

The entire production sparkles and you’ll leave not only remembering the songs, but also the messages behind the show: and that is what has made this show work since its early days, and why it won those Tonys to begin with.

Hairspray continues at the Croswell Opera House through June 26th.


Outstanding “The Last 5 Years” at Encore (Review) May 27, 2011

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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Steve DeBruyne (Jamie) and Thalia Schramm (Cathy) turn in two excellent performances in Encore’s current offering, Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last 5 Years”. These two performers sing-through 75 minutes of intermission-less ballads, pop songs, and story songs to tell the tale of a 5-year relationship;  her tale beginning at story’s end and working backwards, his starting at the beginning and working towards its end. They meet only once, at the middle of the story during their wedding.

With a simple, effective, and very clever set design (Steven V. Rice), the audience is seated on two sides of the black box theater space, and it works very well for this production. Steven must also be mentioned for his outstanding lighting design — possible the best I have seen in an Encore production.

The orchestra, under the nimble direction of Brian E. Buckner sounds terrific — Brian also plays keyboard, joined by Fran Wakefield on Violin, and Alex Massingill on bass. Director Daniel Cooney keeps the action flowing quickly from scene to scene (assisted by Carrie Jay Sayer, and co-directed by Steve DeBruyne). Thalia Schramm’s costume design is simple and efficient, and works just right for the many scenes and the passage of time.

I particularly enjoyed Steve’s story-song “The Schmuel Song” and Thalia’s “A Summer in Ohio” — which contains the funniest lyric in the show, about the “summer in Ohio with a gay midget named Karl playing Tevye and Porgy”. Those unfamiliar with Jason Robert Brown’s superb score will find that it is beautifully presented here, and it’s so good  that you will want to see the show a second time to admire the expert musical craftsmanship at play in this work.

In short, I loved this production. I loved the performances. And I loved that Encore continues to provide some of the better current musical theater pieces available in the modern repertoire. More of this! Less of Annie!

Go see it. Highly recommended.

The Last 5 Years continues at The Encore Musical Theatre Company through June 5th — 3126 Broad Street, Dexter, MI — 734-268-6200 — http://www.theencoretheatre.org

Forever Plaid at Encore is terrific entertainment (review) April 22, 2011

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Forever Plaid, which opened tonight at the Encore Musical Theater Company in Dexter, will bring you “plaid tidings”, um, you’ll be “plaid you went”, er…you’ll “boldy go where no plaid has gone before”….

Yeah, okay, it’s that kind of show…and it is terrific. The actors are wonderful, the scenic design spiffy, and the entire evening fun and entertaining. There are even a few stage surprises along the way, and tribute Barb Cullen for another great directing/choreography job at Encore. The pacing is swift, the numbers flow from song to song, and it makes for a great evening of musical theater, with emphasis on the music part.

There isn’t much to the story — Plaids die in car crash, mysteriously re-appear for one last concert together, sing, frolic, and generally make mischievous fun with an evening of early 60’s songs sung in tight harmonies, solos, duets, and combinations. There’s a mirror ball, and bubbles. Lights twinkle merrily in the set (sometimes too merrily).

But oh what plaid tidings the actors bring to this production!

Leo Daignault (Jinx) brings years of Plaid lineage to the show having performed in Boston, San Diego, Tokyo, and Chicago with the show. He’s great in a performance that ranges from subtly nuanced to, well, not subtle or nuanced.

Steve DeBruyne (Frankie) turns in another outstanding Encore performance. Serving as the Plaid’s leader he’s a fine entertainer. New York Agents take note — this actor needs representation!

Phill Harmer (Smudge) is hilarious — I couldn’t stop laughing at his takes, facial expressions, and comic timing. His “Sixteen Tons” is ridiculous. I loved it.

But most of all, I liked Sebastian Gerstner (Sparky) in this production. He’s hard to resist throughout — his eyes twinkle with merriment, he’s a fine actor on top of being a great singer and dancer, and were those tears I saw welling up in the final sequence?  The “my mother/my stepmother” sequence between he and Leo was the comic highlight of the show. Great job.

Kudos also to pianist Brian E. Buckner, and Billy Satterwhite on bass.

“Forever Plaid” holds a special place in my theater heart — my nextdoor neighbor in NYC was Jason Graae of the original production, and I can’t count the number of times I saw the original at Steve McGraw’s in NYC. I am happy to say that, while very different from that production, Encore’s is every bit as entertaining. There’s a bit less dancing, but it’s offset by a bit more heart. And the vocal work is tremendous.

The show is not without one or two slow spots; and the arrival of the cast onstage in their plaid jackets for the final sequence does not have enough emotional resonance, but those are minor quibbles. This is a generally zippy intermission-less 90 minutes of solid entertainment.

Go treat yourself to a spring treat at the Encore. Forever Plaid runs through May 15th, and tickets are available online at theencoretheater.org, or by calling 734-268-6200.