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“101 Dalmations” musical posts closing notice March 23, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater.
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“101 Dalmations” the musical, has posted a closing notice. It will continue with its current tour, which opens in NYC at Madison Square Garden in a few weeks, and will close on 4/18. All further national tour dates have been cancelled.

This is a shame — I’ve previously written a blog entry on the show. It needed work, and it was not ready for prime time. 101 Dalmations has played at both the Fox Theater in Detroit and Wharton Center in East Lansing during the past few month.

Rachel York, the show’s dynamite shining star, departed the cast on January 31st. Sara Gettelfinger took over the role of  Cruella DeVil and will play the part in NYC. Sad to see another show with 30 cast members and a huge crew close — but the show never achieved its lofty goals, had a week score, and required massive re-do of sets, costumes, and concept (i.e. eliminating adults on stilts) if it wanted to go anywhere. It might have been beyond fixing. At either rate, the producers did not give reason for closing the show.

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“The Boys in the Photograph” stirring new musical in Toronto October 4, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Theatre, Uncategorized.
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The Boys in the Photograph, the reworking of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton’s The Beautiful Game, opened last weekend in Toronto at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. This is a stunning work of theatre not to be missed this season.

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Where The Beautiful Game told the story in big-budget West End style, this is a pared-down, more intimate production. It explains the goings-on more clearly for those of us on this side of the Atlantic. Call this the “Belfast West Side Story” and you have a close approximation of what to expect — a politically/religiously charged romantic story, set amongst the dreams of soccer, with tragedy thrown in. There’s plenty of pop rock score to keep it all abuzz, and a few terrific ballads thrown in as well. There’s a well-choreoraphed Soccer game; star performances from the young leads, and something to think about on the way out the door. The very fine no-name all-Canadian cast is sure to jump-start some of the careers of these young folks, and set a few hearts aflutter (straight and gay) in the audience as well.

In particular, Erica Peck wrings every note of emotion out of the ballad “If This Is What We’re Fighting For.” It’s an instant theatre classic, and hers will be the rendition people remember, the way Betty Buckley’s “Memory” has been passed down in Musical Theatre history or Jennifer Holiday’s “I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” became Dreamgirls’ iconic moment.

Without giving too much away, I can tell you that the story plays out in the late 60’s and early 70’s in Belfast Northern Ireland, amidst the religious and political turmoil of the times. It speaks of love, and the things that keep us human, and the reality of dashed dreams. There are lively anthems and rock songs; and a very gritty love story. It’s about commitment to a cause, as well as those who just try to sit back and stay out of it.

The show is more similar in style to Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind than it is to his mega-musicals like Phantom. Playwright (and novelist and screenwriter) Ben Elton also directs this production – and he knows exactly what he wants from each actor in each scene, and he knows how to make it all play out in a style that keeps it true to its British roots, while making it more accessible to North American audiences. You don’t need to know much about the violence in Belfast before going in, and creative use of video and newsreels explains everything you need to know in between. But a few minutes into the show, you will feel as if you are in an intimate theatre in London, not one in modern day Toronto.

The Royal Alexandra Theatre itself is a jewel — now 102 years old, most of us will remember it as the longtime home of Mamma Mia! in Toronto.

On a final note, some curious changes were made between this production as The Beautiful Game as I saw it in London and The Boys in The Photograph in Toronto, including some musical changes and the dropping of at least one song that had become a standard. I am looking forward to the new cast recording of this production, because of the significant differences in the score. But the final product is a stirring, emotional, and lovely work of musical theatre. And its rare that modern musicals have a heart as big as this one. Very Highly Recommended.

The Boys in The Photograph continues at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until November 1st (unless it is extended, which it very well could be by the time you read this). Go to http://www.Mirvish.com  to buy  tickets.

Bloodless, emotionless Sweeney Todd at Encore October 2, 2009

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When you drain the blood out of Sweeney Todd (the current musical at Encore Musical Theatre Company) you drain the emotion out of the piece as well. When the emotion is gone, there isn’t much to this Sondheim masterpiece.

9524_1232198718816_1044573288_727973_5653003_nWalter O’Neil (Sweeney Todd) and Sarah Litzsinger (Mrs. Lovett) “By the Sea”

9524_1232831294630_1044573288_729856_6393171_nSteve DeBruyne (Anthony) and Thalia Schramm (Johanna) — “Kiss Me”

There are some fine things going on this production, but suspense is not one of them. Perhaps the three people in the audience who have never seen this musical, nor the movie adaptation, might find some surprise in the clever book and lyrics, but those of us who know this show backwards and forwards certainly will not.

Entering the theatre, you are at once surrounded by Dan Walkers’s marvelous set. Appropriately subdued and surprisingly colorful when needed, this is a wonderful approach to the set in this blackbox setting. And Kudos to Encore for making everything look great! I loved that the air conditioning vent has now been painted black, and that it looks more like a “theatre” with every visit!

The Sweeney Orchestra is the finest I have heard at the Encore! Congratulations! The 9-piece ensemble plays in-tune, and sounds wonderful — oh that Sondheim music. I did miss the factory whistle in the score, and the production was plagued with the now-typical problem of actors being unable to hear the orchestra, and entrances not being together as they can’t see the conductor. I have to compliment both musical director Tyler Driskill and his entire cast for the best diction I have ever heard in a production of Sweeney (and trust me, I’ve seen dozens of them – professional, amateur, and even high school).

Sarah Litzsinger makes a fine Mrs. Lovett; Walter O’Neil a fine Sweeney. Their scenes together are fun. Mind you, not creepy, but fun. Sue Booth performs wonderful work as The Beggar Woman — how wonderful to see her singing on stage again! Steve DeBruyne proves that there is nothing he can do wrong playing almost any role you might throw at him, including nicely acted Anthony here, and Thalia Schramm is a pretty (if very healthy and not-at-all pale) Johanna.  Paul Hopper turns in an appropriately dry Judge, but Jeff Steinhauer struggles with the difficult score and is generally too nice as the Beadle.

Uneven performances are turned in by others. Scott Longpre at times is just fine at Tobias, at others, not so much. The same can be said of John Sartor’s Pirelli which is over the top, but uneven throughout. I did enjoy his scene in Sweeney’s parlor, though. And Longpre turns in a lovely “Not While I’m Around”.

The ensemble is similar to Okalahoma’s — generally too young, not all of the cast members up to the difficult Sondheim score, and generally of community theatre quality. So far, I have been unimpressed by Encore’s aim to integrate the “best” community based actors with the professionals on stage. In just about every performance I have seen there, the professionals and community ensemble do not mesh well together, and there are large gaps in quality between them.

So that brings me to other issues with the show: this production is one in which the average age of the Londoners seems to be about 15. There are not enough adult men. Most of the visitors to Sweeney’s barber chair are too young to have sprouted whiskers themselves. The show is female-heavy, forcing the few men in the ensemble to play multiple roles – even when they follow one scene to the next: in the most glaring instance, a cast-member just killed on the barber chair is suddenly alive and talking in the very next scene on stage. The entire non-professional cast suffers from pitch problems.

Then there are the costumes. I don’t know what the production team was thinking in mixing modern-day clothing with period pieces, but it doesn’t work. I’ve directed dozens of musicals myself, and partaken in many shows where this “out of time” costuming works — Sweeney Todd is not one of them. Tobias wears t-shirts that announce “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixor” and later “Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies”.  The Ensemble is dressed in costumes that look like leftovers from the chorus of Carrie, the Musical. Sweeney looks like a Pirate. Later he wears sunglasses.

Particularly jarring are Johanna’s costumes — lines don’t even make sense the way she is dressed. Playing her own mother earlier in the show, she wears a daydress. Huh? Later, as Johanna, she wears a prep school uniform. If she’s wearing a prep school uniform, it’s implied she is going to school. If she is going to prep school, she is leaving the house — something that Johanna would never be permitted to do by the Judge.

This leads to a greater problem: There is no sense that Johanna is “trapped” in her life with the Judge — in fact, she sings “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” in front of a staircase that would easily take her away from the abusive Judge. Later, instead of Anthony climbing upstairs to see her on her balcony, she uses those same stairs to walk down to the street to meet him. At another point in the production, the Judge’s house moves mysteriously from stage left to stage right. Huh?

My favorite moment? The physical comedy of Sarah Litzsinger’s “By the Sea’ and the wonderfully funny little surprise on her “Oh that was lovely” line just after. Precious comedy that.

But finally — it all boils down to the strange artistic direction choices made in the show. The directing here is uneven — better in intimate moments, but utterly baffling in others. Cast members singing counterpoint in the trio holding choir folders? Exits and entrances from directions that don’t make sense?

And that brings me to the blood. Or lack of blood. Or any creepiness factor at all. This is the G-rated version of Sweeney. Seriously, I’ve seen high school productions of this show that were creepier and scarier. I’m not sure what the problem here is. Is Encore afraid of alienating their Dexter-based audience? Do they not trust that we can handle this show as an audience? If not, why do a show that involves murder, and killing people with a razor knife? Murders are bloodless and clean. Actors stand up and walk away from the chair rather than falling through the trap in the floor. Sweeney’s knife never once glistens with blood.

And Mrs.Lovett never once contemplates strangling Tobias with the knitted muffler she places around his neck.

Without the suspense, the drama is sapped out of the show. That leaves you with an unemotional ending, one in which the audience doesn’t care who has lived and who has died, because we have not been asked to share in the journey — we haven’t cringed at Sweeney’s dark humor as the show progresses, and we haven’t felt Mrs. Lovett’s guilt. Somewhere under that makeup, we need to see that she is trapped in her own big lie, and ultimately feel her humanness and frailty in the final moments. Otherwise, there’s just an oven.

Whether the blood is real (like in the original Broadway production – which went through buckets of red dyed corn syrup every night) or implied in it’s creepy simplicity (one bucket being poured into the other in the recent Broadway revival) there needs to be something. Anything. Make me feel some level of discomfort. Let me wonder how they did it. Let me see the glimmer of red blood as Sweeney flicks his knife through the air. Let me hear the blood pouring from bucket to bucket as the audience goes “yuck” in unison. Anything.

Sweeney Todd continues at the Encore Theatre through October 18th. Tickets an be purchased at http://www.theencoretheatre.org or by calling 734-268-6200. The box office is at 3126 Broad Street in Dexter. Call for box office hours.

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On a related note — I want nothing but success for the Encore. Sorry if some of the reviews sound harsh, but when you set out to achieve a lofty goal of professional musical theatre, you shouldn’t need to be judged by community theatre standards.

That being said — the theatre is in need of several things. First — adult men! Please audition for future shows at the Encore! I know you’re out there — I’ve cast you in my musicals. Drag your butt to Dexter and audition.

Second, the theatre can use some donations: black paint (lots of things on walls still need to be painted). Black heavy-duty power extension cords for lighting (black only please, not orange, not green, not blue). A tv monitor system: this includes a tv for the house so that the cast can see the conductor, and cameras at the back of the house so the conductor can see the cast, and cameras in the pit, so that the actors can see the conductor. I’m sure they could use some other things as well — give the theatre a call and see how you can pitch in! Let’s make this work; it’s a gem in the making, and let’s see what we can do to make it even better!

On a final note to the Encore: I will not be reviewing ANNIE, your next production. I’ve seen enough (and directed enough) community theatre productions of this show to last me a lifetime. I am sure it will bring you a bucket load of money from your audiences, and will keep the family-friendly audiences in Dexter happy. But count me out. The professional tours of the show come through Detroit every couple years. That’s the only versions of Annie I am willing to watch anymore. Good luck with your production, see you at 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee!

And that’s the view from Ann Arbor today…

OKLAHOMA! at Encore Musical Theatre Company August 7, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Entertainment, Theatre.
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One step forward, two steps back…just when GUYS AND DOLLS and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS started to turn the corner for professionalism, along comes OKLAHOMA, now playing at Encore Musical Theater Company, in Dexter, MI.

6088_1194988028572_1044573288_608083_2260876_nSebastian Gerstner as Will Parker, Sarah Litzinger as Ado Annie, and Steve DeBruyne as Ali Hakim (Photos courtesy Encore Musical Theatre Company)

6088_1194807824067_1044573288_607508_1036278_nLiz Griffith as Laurey and Rusty Mewha as Curly

There is good, and there is bad in Encore’s OKLAHOMA. There is no ugly, and that is a really good sign of ongoing good work by this company. But the show proves too much community and too little professional theater in the long run. I didn’t expect to enjoy this production, and it was better than I expected. Not because I don’t like the show, or because I don’t like Encore (I like them very much); but because Oklahoma is just not a suitable show for this small venue.

First the good: Sebastian Gerstner (Will Parker) and Sarah Litzsinger (Ado Annie) are fabulous. Their scenes together have spark, and MSU student Gerstner holds his own with the professional leads in this production. Steve DeBruyne is adorable as Ali Hakim and has quickly become an Encore audience favorite. The three of them provide the highpoints in this production, and there are many of them.

Liz Griffith (UM Musical Theater program graduate) is very good as Laurey. She sings beautifully, and brings a 3rd dimension to this difficult role. The same can not be said of Rusty Mewba as Curly. While he looks great, and sings well, the performance is flat and there is just no spark between the two of them. Contrast this with the sassy and colorful performances of Gerstner and Litzsinger, and you have a show where the secondary leads overshadow the ones we should be rooting for. I liked Gavriel Savit as Jud, but he comes across more as teddy bear than he does evil. Some of the psychology of this character that makes him both sad and scary is missing in this performance.

The set is very fine — if too big for the theatre. It serves well throughout the production…but more on this later. Much was made by the director of the “earthy real aspects of the show”….I dunno, this show looked exactly like every other production of the show I’ve seen — with many similarities to the recent West End production. Sound and lighting is generally good.

Director Barbara F. Cullen (this time co-directed by Jon Huffman) does a very good job with the pacing. The directing and choreography are serviceable, if familiar. That it comes in at 2 1/2 hours including an intermission is nothing short of miraculous for this otherwise very long show.

Then there is the bad: and some of this is beyond the control of the actors or the director — first, if any American musical screams of wide open spaces and the sheer joy of running through plains and dancing uninhibitedly, it’s Oklahoma. The Encore space is just plain old too small for the large scope of this show. The cast is too small. The entire thing looks cramped on the Encore stage – and instead of wide open spaces, things begin to feel claustrophobic as the show progresses. It works well in Jud’s Smokehouse, but starts to show its smallness during the dream ballet. By the time we get to the penultimate song, “Oklahoma” has folded in on itself rather than celebrating the wide open American west. It doesn’t help that the shiny metal air conditioning vent serves as the proscenium frame and shines on the ceiling. Please paint this black! Please!

Second, it is difficult to listen to a Rodgers and Hammerstein score played by a miniscule orchestra that is out of tune, and which sometimes drags down the pace of the production. Sure, its impractical to have a large orchestra in this small space — but shouldn’t that be a consideration at the time the season is being selected?  At points in the show, the cast on stage entirely drowns out the orchestra. At other times, they can’t hear each other well and entrances are not together. This has consistently been a problem this entire season, and the Encore needs to look at options to fix this (like a television monitor system, or selecting shows that can place the orchestra on the stage itself).

The supporting cast and ensemble are generally community theatre quality. Performers range from good to poor with its corresponding timing and line readings. The men’s ensemble fares better than the women’s which is too young and too weak vocally to compare with the professional cast members in the show. “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” is the highlight of the first act –partly because it showcases the wonderful Mr. Gerstner, and partly because the men generally fare better in the song and dance aspects of this show. The choreography is creative and they make the most of this short number (albeit, missing taps — sigh….)

My favorite moment: Sarah Litzsinger’s face — the utter joy she expresses — when the fight breaks out during “Farmer and the Cowman”. It made my night.

You can do worse than OKLAHOMA this summer at the Encore. It’s entertaining and well paced. The leads are generally good, and the show is what it is. But you could do better too (see CITY OF ANGELS at the Croswell Opera House for example).

OKLAHOMA continues at Encore Thursdays through Sundays until August 23rd. Call 734-268-6200 for tickets, or purchase them online at http://www.theencoretheatre.org

Professional Musical Theatre – Detroit Regional 2009-2010 June 28, 2009

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Broadway is alive and well across the region during the coming musical theatre season. Note that the following list is not comprehensive, and it does not include any community theatre listings nor small venues, only professional theatre in full-sized houses. I have included UM and MSU seasons at the end. This includes Detroit musical theatre venues, as well as those within a short drive of Detroit.  Particularly noteworthy this season is the pre-Broadway tryout of The Addams Family in Chicago this fall — starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. Also noteworthy is this fall’s The Boys in the Photograph in Toronto, a reworking of the Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Beautiful Game.

Support Broadway. Go see a Broadway show.

BROADWAY IN DETROIT 2009-2010

Ethel Merman’s Broadway (Gem Theatre) Sept 9 – Dec 31

Phantom of the Opera (Detroit Opera House) Sept 8 – Sept 27th

Legally Blond (Fisher) Oct 15 – Nov 01

Jersey Boys (Fisher) Dec 17 – Jan 23

The Wizard of Oz (Fisher) Jan 29-Feb 14

Young Frankenstein (Detroit Opera House) Feb 23 – March 14

Spring Awakening (Fisher) April 20 – May 09

OLYMPIA ENTERTAINMENT DETROIT (Fox) 2009-2010

101 Dalmations, The Musical  Nov 17-22

Little House on the Prairie, The Musical  Dec 1 – 5

Jesus Christ Superstar with Ted Neeley, Feb 14

STRANAHAN THEATRE TOLEDO  2009-2010

The Wedding Singer Oct 1 – 4

The Drowsy Chaperone Jan 14 – 17

The Rat Pack is Back Feb 25 – 28

Wicked March 31 – April 18

BROADWAY IN CHICAGO 2009-2010

Jersey Boys (Bank of America Theatre) Open ended run

Spring Awakening (Oriental Theatre) Aug 04 – 16

Cats (Cadillac Palace) Oct 13 – 18

Young Frankenstein (Cadillac Palace) Nov 3 – Dec 13

The Addams Family Pre-Broadway tryout (Oriental Theatre) Nov 13 – Jan 10

In the Heights (Cadillac Palace) Dec 15 – Jan 03

Dreamgirls (Cadillac Palace) Jan 19 – 31

Mamma Mia! Jan 19-24

Annie  Jan 19-24

The 101 Dalmations Pre-Broadway tryout (Oriental Theatre) Feb 16 – 28

Billy Elliot (March 18 – this is a sit-down)

Beauty and the Beast (Mar 23 – Apr 4)

Shrek The Musical (Oriental Theatre) July 13 – Sept 5 (unconfirmed: this will be a sit-down)

MACOMB CENTER

Tap Dogs – Oct 24

Menopause the Musical – Jan 15-16

Camelot – Jan 30

A Year With Frog and Toad – Mar 7

Forbidden Broadway 25th Ann tour – Apr 17

PLAYHOUSE SQUARE BROADWAY IN CLEVELAND 2009-2010

Young Frankenstein (Palace) Oct 13-25

Chicago (Palace) Jan 12-24

In the Heights (Palace) Feb 9 – 21

Xanadu (Palace) March 2 – 14

Grease (Palace) May 11 – 23

Fiddler on the Roof (Palace) June 15-27

TORONTO MIRVISH and DANCAP 2009-2010

Jersey Boys (Toronto Centre for the Arts) Open ended run continues

The Sound of Music (Princess of Wales) Open ended run continues

The Boys in the Photograph (aka: The Beautiful Game) (Royal Alexandra) Sep 22 – Nov 1

Rock of Ages (April 20 – June 6)

Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Spring 2010 venue TBA)

Fiddler on the Roof (Dec 2009/Jan 2010 Venue TBA)

Young Frankenstein (Mar/Apr 2010 Venue TBA)

Little House on the Prairie The Musical (Jan/Feb 2010 venue TBA)

THE WHARTON CENTER AT MSU BROADWAY SEASON East Lansing (2009-2010)

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (Dec 8-13)

Young Frankenstein (Feb 2 – 7)

A Chorus Line (April 6 – 11)

South Pacific (Lincoln Center version) April 27- May 2

The 101 Dalmations Pre Broadway Tryout )Jan 26-31)

Phantom of the Opera (May 19 – June 6)

MILLER AUDITORIUM (Kalamazoo) 2009-10 Season

The Wedding Singer (Oct 20-21)

Stomp (Jan 19-20)

Menopause The Musical (Jan 29-31)

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (Feb 23 – 25)

Avenue Q (April 21-22)

UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN MUSICAL THEATRE PROGRAM

Evita (Lydia Mendelssohn) Oct 15 – 18

Ragtime (Power Center) April 15 – 18

MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY THEATRE PROGRAM (Pasant Theatre)

The Rocky Horror Show (Sept 25 – Oct 4)

Rent (April 16 – 25)