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“Corktown” (review) – Purple Rose, Chelsea MI January 30, 2011

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Entertainment, Theatre.
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Your enjoyment of “Corktown” at Purple Rose Theater will be directly related to your enjoyment of a) sharp, thoughtful dialogue, b) gangster stories with lots of blood, and c) suspension of belief in the “reality” of this storyline.

Michael Brian Ogden has written dialogue that snaps, crackles, pops, and sometimes just lets things sit still for a moment of contemplation. Things aren’t all what they seem, and there are enough twists and turns to keep you off-kilter throughout the second act.

There are some plausibility problems — a woman who is next-to-dead suddenly wakes and is talking and cracking jokes moments later…some of the Detroit references work well, others not so much (there is a lovely piece of dialogue from Tom Whalen extolling the virtues of the abandoned Detroit train station that has a haunting charm). The entire play feels like it belongs in New Jersey, not Detroit, although the recent tv-series Detroit 1-8-7 also takes these liberties with its scripts. The production feels overly long, and I might have removed the intermission and just allowed the piece to play out to its twisty conclusion.

Without giving away too much (except to say that I vacillated between both liking and not-liking this play throughout the afternoon) the story concerns a hitman (“but nobody calls them that anymore”) who falls in love with one of his not-quite-dead victims. This sets into motion the meyhem of the (very bloody) second act. Now, before you are scared away by the (let me say it again, very bloody) second act, it’s partly serious, it’s partly funny, and it’s always entertaining. Don’t let it turn you off. Unless you are extraordinarily squeamish, there isn’t much to worry about here.

Overall, it’s a very fine production with terrific direction by Guy Sanville, a great set by Bartley Bauer, and otherwise very solid production design across the board.

The cast is uniformly fine. Michael Brian Ogden (Laurence) has a dual-role as both the shows author as well as playing one of its characters. It’s the type of thing that he did before with Bleeding Red at Purple Rose a few seasons ago. Here he plays second banana to main protagonist Matthew David (Joey). Into this mix add PR regulars Stacie Hadgikosti (Jenny), Tom Whalen (Cobb) and trainees Jonathan Hunt Sell (Brian) and Nicholas LaGrassa (Christy). The set and props really become the seventh character in the show, so I must mention the horrendous task of cleaning it all up afterwards each night that befalls Stage Manager Stephanie Buck and her crew. Yuck.

There are some very funny touches throughout here — although at it’s core, it’s a off-kilter love story and drama. Ogden’s dialogue is particularly good when he involves friendly banter between Laurence and Joey. It’s those moments that the script comes to life more than others. Their dialogue sizzles alone, together, in overlaps, and in the unspoken moments. Bravo.

I left the theater feeling better about the piece than I did halfway through the first act, so stick this one out. And DO NOT give away the ending to your friends. But if you are the type who prefers light romantic comedy, you better sit this one out.

To Michael Brian Ogden: bring on more. Keep writing. I can’t wait to see your next piece. Invite me to your next new script reading!. You are a tremendous local talent that we are all be proud of.

(Photo courtesy Purple Rose Theater from Program cover)

CITY OF ANGELS at Croswell is jazzy and “reel” fun… August 1, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, Theatre.
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Croswell Opera House has a doozy of a show in the Tony-winning CITY OF ANGELS currently playing in Adrian.

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Considered by many to be Cy Coleman’s best score, from the rhythmic driving beat with scat vocal quartet accompaniment to the patter of “Everybody’s gotta be somewhere” and the lush jazzy “It needs work” the score is a masterwork, that sounds utterly fantastic in the hands of musical director Jonathan Sills and his more than able orchestra. It’s more than just accompaniment in this show, it’s the drive and energy to which the piece is set, and it delivers from start to finish.

The cast is top notch – with special kudos to UM vocal performance student Joshua Glassman as writer Stine, whose vocal training is evident from his first note through his last, where his voice projects naturally and cleanly without ever seeming forced, even in big belt numbers like “Funny”. It’s a joy to hear, and this young man has a long successful career before him. See (and hear) him here first.

It helps that he and James Swendsen (alter-ego detective Stone) have a natural chemistry together on stage — they play off of each other in a fashion that truly delineates the creator/creature line and makes for a fun flip when the lines get blurred in later goings. Swendsen has a more pop-oriented sound to his voice, and the two of them match remarkably well vocally in their scenes together.

The women fare equally well in Sarah Lynne Nowak’s Donna/Oolie  and Emily Tyrybon’s Alaura/Carla. Both have terrific stage presence and voices to match.

Bruce Hardcastle turns in an energetic performance as Buddy/Irwin. In a role that threatens to carom out of control on each turn, it doesn’t, and remains funny and consistently on character throughout. Other supporting players range from great (the quartet) to good. There are a few missed notes here and there by supporting players, but nothing that distracts from the overall skill level of this adept cast.

The set looks great and works well with it’s split level design, the show moves rapidly from scene to scene and set changes don’t miss a beat, and the lighting is appropriately bright and colorful for color-scenes and moody and shadow-strewn for the Black and White “movie” scenes. What originally seems a bit murky and dark in the opening sequences eventually establishes a visual design that just plain old works as the show progresses.

That it all hangs together so well, and so cleanly, is the wonderful work of director/choreographer Stephanie L. Stephan. She understands that this is a difficult story to follow, and directs with large, masterful strokes that allow the audience to easily follow the action on stage. No mean feat, considering the many plot turns, and the stage-convention of switching back and forth from real-life to alter-ego movie action throughout using the same actors. This was achieved on Broadway through miraculous (and at that time ground-breaking) instantaneous ability to drain color out of sets and costumes through lighting and paint technique. Here it is up to the director to make it work, and it works terrifically.  This is a very difficult musical to design and produce, as other theaters can attest, from the passable production at University of Michigan a few seasons ago, to the disastrous Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production many years ago. Make no mistakes, this current production is in a league of its own. Congratulations.

The script and lyrics are smart and funny, with enough suspense thrown in to make it all work. I saw the production in its original Broadway run several times, and it becomes smarter and wittier with each viewing. Mix-in the tremendous musical score, the great performances, and swirl it all around by a top notch director and crew, and you have a tasty, jazzy, funny musical comedy treat at Croswell Opera House this summer, my favorite by far of this season’s offerings — not just at Croswell, but anywhere regionally this summer.

City of Angels continues this weekend and next weekend. Tickets at croswell.org or 517-264-SHOW(7469).

Encore’s “Little Shop of Horrors” is a Tasty Early Summer Treat June 5, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, Theatre.
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Getting better and better with every show, Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter, MI opened a terrific production of Little Shop of Horrors tonight. Funny, well directed, well performed, and well designed, Little Shop is an early summer treat.

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Steve DeBruyne plays Seymour to nerdish perfection, and I can’t say enough good things about Sarah Litzsinger’s Audrey, who touches all the right notes in a fine performance. A running gag of her facial expressions bring some of the biggest laughs of the night, and her “Somewhere That’s Green” is a study in reserved character craftsmanship. Brava. The entire cast is consistently good, with Paul Hopper (Mushnik) and Jedd Nickerson (Orin) also turning in strong performances.  This is a great ensemble cast.

Special kudos to Michael Lanning, who voices Audrey II with menace, humor, and just the right touch of potty mouth. The coordination of the puppets with his voice is well done. The plant itself, by the way, is terrific. This is the Broadway plant, not designed locally, but imported from New York. It’s a bit cramped in the Encore Space, but it’s a beautiful thing to see it take on a life of it’s own as it grows ever larger (and funnier).

Leo Babcock has designed a terrific set for the show. It works well throughout the production, and looks just right in the small Encore space. Leo has done some beautiful black box theatre work over the years, and his talent and experience shows in this tight and just-right set design.

This is the first show at Encore that has a band that plays in tune, and the blend between them and the cast is just right. Barbara Cullen’s direction and choreography are again good, and she well understands that this work is best directed underplayed to allow the jokes and characters to drive the story without needless overacting. She gets fine performances out of her actors, and the stage pictures look terrific throughout the show.

There were a couple glitches on opening night, nothing that seriously distracted from the overall experience, and which will be ironed out as the show finds its pace and timing. Most notably, there were several missed lighting cues, and some strange spotlight work. And the theatre is still in need of a donation of a tv monitor system so that the actors can see the conductor who is backstage. By the way, Encore — PAINT that air conditioning ductwork black!

This is a high-energy night of theatre, and it’s highly recommended.

Congrats, Encore!