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Fiendishly Marvelous “Sweeney Todd” at Encore Musical Theatre Company (Review) September 29, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” is back at the Encore Musical Theatre Company, and it has arrived with a vengeance. You better get your tickets right now before the word of mouth and rave reviews send sales soaring — as best they should for this superior production.

Set in a 40’s London factory, Encore’s players “tell the tale” just beautifully, and with such terrific vocal direction and orchestra blend (by the always terrific Tyler Driskill) that you understand every word. And while Sondheim himself would cringe at the use of the term “opera” to describe this piece, that is, in essence, exactly what it is.

Staged non-traditionally in a fully immersive environment in which the audience surrounds the stage on three sides at various levels, and where actors interact in the aisles and stairways throughout, this is a whiz-bang production both directed and designed by the adroit and skilled Matthew Brennan, with actual scenic execution  by Sarah Tanner, Lighting Design by Tyler Chinn, Costume Design by Sharon Larkey Urick, Properties Design by Anne Donevan, and Sound Design by Chris Goosman and Joshua Thorington. I list all of these folks first because they are inseparable and they have done a tremendous job of bringing the technical aspects of this stunning production to fruition.

The show is nothing if you don’t have remarkable leads – and this production sure does. David Moan is exquisite as Sweeney Todd – his voice and acting are remarkable and lend the character both an eeriness and a liveliness that blend well in the intimate setting. Its a great performance and will resonate with you long after the evening has reached its grisly conclusion. Sarah Briggs is one of the best Mrs Lovett’s you could ever imagine. She is able to instantly convey humor, horror, and pity (sometimes at the same time) and she captures every moment with thoughtful acting and great vocal work. As the first act’s black and white schema bleeds away into a more colorful second act, so do their interactive moments which grow to a crescendo in the final moments. Well, that’s the play and we wouldn’t want to give it away, right? Though I doubt many of the folks going to see this musical don’t know that it ends badly for these two.

Sebastian Gerstner sounds great as Anthony, and Emily Hadick is lovely as Johanna. The couple have the musical’s prettiest songs and they are very up to the task. Emily Rogers is spot-on as the Beggar Woman and sings and acts beautifully. Keith Kalinowski is excellent as always as Judge Turpin (and what a joy to hear his very well acted and sung “Ladies in their Sensitivities Mea Culpa”, almost universally cut from productions) — though you might not know from the staging that he is committing self-flagellation unless you are already familiar with the show (but now you know).

Dan Johnson is very good as the Beadle, and his sometimes befuddled look on stage lends itself well to this multifaceted role, subservient to the Judge while trying to represent decorum and order at the same time to the outside world. Jamie Colburn is an entertaining Pirelli. Toby (“Nothing’s Gonna Harm You”) is well-performed by Billy Eric Robinson, though twice the size of Mrs Lovett, you never really get a strong sense of menace or that he is in any imminent type of danger. In fact, that is a running theme throughout the evening — while favoring character over menace, you never quite get a sense of your heart quickening or the hair standing up on your arms, like you do at some other productions of “Sweeney Todd”. Everything is kept to a symbolic minimum here but it works very well in this staging.

The entire ensemble is strong and the vocal work is outstanding. Most of these folks have played leads in other Encore shows and on other area stages so its like a who’s who of local theater: Logan Balcom, Nick Casella, James Fischer, Leah Fox, Bryana Hall, Angela Hench, Marlene Inman, Michael Jones, Chris Joseph, Gayle Martin, Dan Morrison, and Alexandra Reynolds populate the town, play all of the assorted characters from quirky to sympathetic, and carry chairs around. A lot. Leah Fox plays a mean accordion in a brilliant staging concept.

Oh, there is blood. Plenty of it in the second act. THANK YOU! The Encore’s last iteration of this show was a bloodless affair. There is plenty of it here, and it is well-staged and realistic. Although keeping with the evenings staging, everything is ultimately done symbolically. There is no tipping chair that dumps a body through the stage floor, down a slide, and into the bakehouse below.

To say that this production is excellent is an understatement. It is most likely the best production of this musical you are likely to see locally. It is a marvelous interpretation by a masterful director who well understands that you will never be able to stage the production like it was originally staged on the Broadway stage in this small house. So instead he takes what might be seen as a shortcoming and transforms the entire theater into something special. I loved the addition of “skylights” in the Encore’s ceiling and fans and electrical equipment to the walls to lend a sense of being a real space. The show is organic and feels like the building was  purpose-built for this production, rather than the other way around. (For the uninitiated, the original Broadway production actually imported the workings of a real factory from London to the stage of the Gershwin (then Uris) Theater).

I will leave it to the theater goer to ponder what’s up with the organ-versions of show tunes both before the show and during intermission (some of which are from the golden era of musicals, not from the 40’s). It left me scratching my head.

Very Highest Recommendation.

Sweeney Todd runs through October 22nd at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter MI. Tickets at theencoretheatre.org or 734-268-6200. Get them while you can. This is a don’t-miss production.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Assassins at Encore Musical Theatre Company is can’t miss musical theater (review) June 11, 2016

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Assassins-32

Photo by Michele Anliker

Every now and again, my role as a musical theater director and reviewer compels me to launch into teaching mode — and that mode was fully activated while watching the breathtaking production of Assassins at Encore Musical Theatre Company that opened last night.

See it because you owe yourself a chance to see this remarkable (and rarely produced) Sondheim musical. It is not without its flaws as a show, but it certainly is one of the landmarks of American musical theater and you should know it (things barrel along at lighting speed, and then bog down a bit in a very speechy book depository scene). While on the surface, it is about misguided people who shot or tried to shoot American Presidents, it is really much more than that — and you’ll find something that strikes you personally, from family dysfunction to mental illness and civil activism. At its core, it is about people making decisions — in this case very poor decisions — and you’ll find those decisions alternately compelling and repulsive, but never uninteresting. Sondheim has written some wonderful material for this musical, and it is a score you should know.

See it because it is one of the most professional productions Encore has yet produced. What a year this has been for this theater! And what a cast. Beautifully directed by Matthew Brennan (who also takes on the role of The Balladeer/Lee Harvey Oswald) and superbly musical directed by Tyler Driskill, the cast is superb. From the exceptional performance of John Wilkes Booth by David Moan to the creepy fantastic performance of James Fischer as John Hinckley, this is a cast that is in top form. Songs develop naturally out of scenes. Book scenes engage the audience and make you care about the characters, as repulsive as some of them are. Every lead and ensemble member has a specific role, a specific story to tell, and they are excellent.

See it because of Sarah Tanner’s beautiful set design, and Tyler Chinn’s wonderful lighting — the best I have seen in an Encore show. This is the first time I have seen ensemble groups and actors individually isolated on stage in their own pools of light, and it looks fantastic. Also see it because of Sharon Larkey Urick’s excellent costuming, and Anne Donevan’s property work which, both by necessity of the show, span several time periods and eras.

See it because Encore should be presenting more shows like this. If you are seriously interested in musical theater, you will be thrilled to see Encore taking a risk and producing something that will turn off some of its target audience and stop playing it safe by presenting family friendly fare. Its about time the theater has started to present some edgier material (Assassins joins last fall’s Bonnie and Clyde and the upcoming The Full Monty this fall as essential adult entertainment.) These are the types of shows that will advance Encore into a different category — that of modern music theater which spans many topics and interest levels, and will allow it to compete with every other theater in SE Michigan that has, for years, already produced edgier fare — and by edgy, I mean normal modern musical theater which is no longer designed to cater only to family audiences. The very Dexter family sitting behind me said after the show, “Well that wasn’t a show I liked very much”…and THAT is exactly why some of the members of this local audience need to be educated as to what current musical theater is about, what it says about our human condition, and how music is now integrated into drama.

Bravo to Encore for taking the risk and presenting an evening of musical theater that is breathtaking. Clocking in at 100 intermission-less minutes, it is a fascinating look at a weird slice of American history — attention has been paid.

Highest Recommendation.

Assassins continues at the Encore Musical Theatre Company through July 3rd. 3126 Broad Street, Dexter MI.  Tickets at theEncoreTheatre.org or 734-268-6200

 

 

 

 

 

Merrily We Roll Along – Menier Chocolate Factory US screening (review) October 26, 2013

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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First, thank you to Fathom Productions for bringing the West End musical version of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along to American audiences — sold out in NYC, 30 people in the theater here in Ann Arbor… its a great risk, and a tremendous thank you.

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Second — I directed this same version of the show many years ago here in Ann Arbor. Just like this past week, it left me scratching my head…its a show with such a terrific score, and such a horrific book.  The late Ron Fracker and I specifically wanted to pick a show that would be assessable to the student actors in his musical theater program. We learned only after contracts had been signed that the original Broadway version was no longer available, only the uber-serious York Theater revisal. And so it went. I thought we did a darn good job — and compared to what I saw at the theater this past week, we did a DAMN good job.

Third — I don’t get the rave reviews this show got in London. It was certainly a very well directed and acted production of the problematic show — but it certainly wasn’t any better than any American version of the show I have seen. A great production of a bad show is still a mediocre evening overall.

I very much enjoyed Mark Umbers’ Franklin, Jenna Russell’s Mary, and Damien Humbley’s Charlie. The trio worked well together (even if Russell was a bit pitchy here and there), and you could clearly see the chemistry in their triad. Supporting players were solid. American accents came and went, particularly in the ensemble.

As has been the case since the inception of the show, the Second Act worked better than the first, of course all the best songs are crammed into those final scenes.

Among the more curious moments: editing which kept cutting away from Mary during the reprise of “Not a Day Goes By”…that song is about HER…what the….the extreme close-up of Beth during her original “Not a Day” when she most strained to hit the high notes…the cuts made in “Musical Husbands” at the start of Act II…and the curiously flat “Its our Time” finale.

Again, thank you Fathom — but I don’t get the British 5-star reviews.

 

Encore has Company (review) September 27, 2013

Posted by ronannarbor in Community Theater, musical theater, Musicals.
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Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical Company is now onstage at Dexter’s Encore, with some wonderful casting and a great vocal and acting performance by Steve DeBruyne.

Seen at the final preview, the cast is strong, and they sound great. The couples work well together. Sonja Marquis and Greg Bailey are a fun Sarah and Harry. Marlene Inman-Reilly and Andrew Gorney make for a fine Susan and Peter. Jenny and David are well-portrayed by Emily Rogers and Pete Podolski. Katie Lietz and Jess Alexander are both excellent as Amy and Paul. Wendy Katz Hiller and Mark Bernstein turn in strong performances as Joanne and Larry. Annemarie Friedo, Bryana Hall, and Elsa Harchick round out the cast as Marta, Kathy, and April — who turn in fine vocal and acting performances, but who are given the evening’s oddest choreography and movement.

The production as a whole looks good on Leo Babcock’s set and in Sharon Urick’s costumes. Hopefully, by the time the show opens they will have sorted out the lighting miscues and the sound which was hit or miss and which caused many of Sondheim’s clever lyrics to be swallowed up. It doesn’t help that director/choreographer Paul Hopper has the cast doing odd milling and marching movements during the intricate patter-based vocal passages. You hear every other phrase as they alternately face toward and away from the audience. This is certainly not the fault of Tyler Driskill who has done good musical direction here, and whose ensemble sounds very good.

The direction and pacing are slow, and it makes for a long evening. The fine cast saves the production. Overall, this is not one of Encore’s best, despite superb performers (who sometimes seem like they are making up their own blocking as they go) and in which the already too-long evening is drawn out even longer with curious blocking.

Maybe we’ve been over-saturated with Company here in SE Michigan for awhile — personally this is the 5th local production of Company I have seen in as many years. Quite frankly, some of the other local productions have been stronger (and tighter).

Company won Tony Awards in 1971 for Best Book, Music, Lyrics and Musical. It was up against The Me Nobody Knows and The Rothschilds. Enough said.

Overall, you won’t dislike this Company — you just might not walk away from it overly awed by the production.

 

Company continues through October 20th. Tickets:  http://www.theencoretheatre.org

 

Dreary “A Little Night Music” – Broadway, Review April 25, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater.
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Study this picture:

If that set design looks good to you, evokes romanticism, and draws you in , by all sakes go see the revival of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Walter Kerr Theatre. It is, incidentally, the same set you will be staring at for three long hours.

A transfer from London’s Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre Company (Sunday in the Park, La Cage aux Folles). the production is lifeless and dreary, despite a first-rate cast.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is terrific as Desire Armfeldt. The production is lucky to have Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt. And the rest of the cast is fine. I had a little trouble with Aaron Lazar’s Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, stereotyping a part that is already stereotyped, but even that can be overlooked.

What can’t be overlooked is a production that has a horrible production design, music that is slowed-down in tempo to the point of a dirge, and such murky lighting that for long sections of ensemble you watch shapes move about in the near dark. The opening waltz with all characters mingling and intermingling with their partners is murky to the point that you can’t even recognize who is who. Sloppy, dark, and dreary. When we finally arrive in the country for Act II, you are still staring at the same dusty-mirrored drawing room walls. Might as well have stayed in the city.

I adore A Little Night Music. I’ve directed it before, and I’ve appeared in two separate productions. The current Broadway revival is a tremendous letdown, and pales in comparison to other professional (and some amateur!) productions of the show.

See it if you must, but you have been warned. The couple next to me both fell asleep during act I and were gone during act II. I had a hard time staying focused on the long production without anything visual to look at, and I know every line in this show.

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…