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Encore’s “South Pacific” Steps it up a Notch (Review) June 5, 2015

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals.
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Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, The Sound of Music and South Pacific are my favorites. The former is as fresh as the day it was written. The latter has seen better days. But there is no doubting that Encore Musical Theatre Company’s production (seen in preview) is beautiful and well-done…in fact, it steps up the quality of larger-scale shows at Encore by not just one, but many notches.


Nellie Forbush goes about meeting Emile, crowing about it in song, then washing him out of her hair, then falling for him, then breaking up, then waiting for him to return from a secret mission…and well, that is about the gist of it.

Marlene Inman is an excellent Nellie, who with her classical vocal training matches Stephen West’s Emile throughout the evening without ever becoming overshadowed by him. Whether she is singing about being a cockeyed optimist, or joyously expounding that she’s in love with a wonderful guy, Marlene is a wonder.

Stephen West plays Emile de Becque pretty much as you would expect — proud ex-Frenchman, honest to a fault, and a little off his head in love. His voice soars in the intimate Encore space.

Bloody Mary is played by a very fine Gayle Martin. Her performance is spot-on perfect. Matthew Brennen is simply marvelous as Luther Billis — in song, dance, and acting — its a great performance from a terrific performer. He had the sold-out preview audience eating out of his hand.

Dashing Lt Joseph Cable is played by Sebastian Gerstner in a straight-forward honest performance, and Liat is well performed by Teola Lutsker. That their love story is left to languish can be blamed on writers Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan who had no idea that the catalyst of a relationship 70 years down the road will not be “marry or face a bleak future” — the same can be said of Emile and Nellie of course, and it is.

The entire supporting cast is excellent — though multiple times in the show, it cries out for a much much larger ensemble. The troup deployment at the end is particularly weak with such a small cast. It looks a bit more like they are heading off to some R&R rather than facing war on the next island over…But that is a minor point here — the cast is well utilized, and both the men and the women deliver in song and acting. There isn’t a weak cast member in the bunch.

Daniel C Walker’s set is functional and colorful — moreso than many past Encore endeavors, and I solute that!…a bright sunny island setting, and a moody colorful Bali Ha’i make for a happy me. I am certain that the one unfortunate cloud in the background will be repainted before tonight.

Matthew Brennan’s choreography works well without ever feeling forced, and Sharon Larkey Urick’s costumes are period-gorgeous. The 7-piece orchestra sounds superb, and the sound design for the show is terrific. (The show was musically directed by R MacKenzie Lewis, and Brian Rose serves as conductor).

Director Carla Milarch keeps everything rolling along on schedule…Act I with it’s song after song…Act II with it’s war-story and no original songs for the last 40 minutes (another 70-year old criticism of the show). It all plays out as expected, and histrionics are kept to a minimum (which is great, cause I’ve seen plenty of productions of South Pacific ruined by screaming Liat’s and overwrought military personnel). She uses a gentle touch here, and it works well in the intimate space. The show is long and clocks in at 2:45 with intermission, though that was standard for the day when written.

The sole letdown is not the production, nor the cast, nor the beautiful things going on here — its just that the world has changed so much that what happens on stage in this story just doesn’t “matter” anymore — it has a dated script that insists that love and marriage are vital, and without marriage a woman is nothing and alone in the world. I think we all know that isn’t true now — as it wasn’t then — but there it is. And that basic storyline is very exposed when its 9 feet away from the audience. The show’s political message (look quickly, it comes and goes in a 1-minute-40-second song in act II “You’ve Got to be carefully taught”) is handled adeptly here, but the message barely resonates. (The song was so controversial in the 50’s that it caused a national debate about what songs are appropriate for the theatre stage). The story of interracial marriage is dated, especially as it drives the entire storyline and was the entire raison d’etre for the musical in the first place.

Still, this is an excellent production of South Pacific and you should make efforts to see it. Nostalgia for us oldsters…something new for the youngsters, even if it no longer carries much emotional heft…and beautiful performances all around make for the best “large scale” musical in Encore’s history to date.

South Pacific continues through July 3 and tickets are selling very very fast. Get yours now before the performance you want is sold out. TheEncoretheatre.org or 734-268-6200




Fiddler on the Roof at Encore Musical Theatre Company is hit-and-miss (Review) July 13, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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Tevye (Stephen West) and family in Fiddler on the Roof (photo courtesy Encore Musical Theatre Company)

Fiddler on the Roof opened at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter, MI last night, and if the crowd response was anything like it will be throughout the run, Encore has another hit musical on its hands and you should get your tickets now.

Full disclosure: I am not a proponent of large proscenium-theater based musicals being crammed into black boxes with reduced orchestrations. That being said, this is the best “large cast” musical that Encore has presented in their theater space. That is both a compliment and a liability.

Guest Equity actor Stephen West is spectacular in his role of Tevye. The show belongs to him, and he commands your attention in every scene he is in. His voice resonates throughout the theater, and his charisma is infectious. He also has the acting chops to make the journey memorable from beginning to end. Do not miss this performance.

The leads in Fiddler are consistently good to excellent…among the standouts are strong performances by all three of-age daughters as played by Katherine Kujala (Tzeitel), Clare Lauer (Hodel) and Hannah Clague (Chava). Marlene Inman-Reilly holds her own as Tevye’s wife Golde, and their scenes together are musical theater gold indeed. “Do You Love Me?” is a highlight of the evening. Sebastian Gerstner turns in a dynamic performance as Perchik (and makes the most of being saddled with the musical’s worst song, “Now I have Everything”). Also good are Judy Dery as Yente the matchmaker; Tim Brayman as Lazar-Wolf; and John Hummel as Motel.

The Ensemble here is good, but insufficient. There is that liability I spoke of earlier. The show is lacking at least 8 men. I don’t blame this at all on Encore, but our over-saturated big-musical market in the Ann Arbor area where men who can sing and dance are at a premium and spread over at least 7 other musicals this summer.  When Encore veers from smaller musicals, they are in the same boat as all the other community theaters in the area: beg, borrow, plead, and cajole to get enough men into the ensemble. Want to know how to help out guys?  AUDITION!…But Fiddler is probably not the best choice for this small space. The Original Broadway Cast and 70‘s and 90’s revivals included 45 members. The 2004 revival 40. The Encore production 25.

This results in curious moments like the Rabbi’s son drinking in the inn…and awkward costume/makeup changes like Jesse Barfield playing Russian Fyedka in one scene, and a bearded local in the next. Awkward. It also leads to a less-than-compelling “To Life” in the Inn — there aren’t enough men to cover both the Russian and the local factions, and the ensemble is out of breath after their dance number so that vocal highlights are missing throughout. Other ensemble scenes work better, but are generally hit-or-miss.

Toni Auletti has designed a beautiful woodwork village set; and the integration of Marc Chagall imagery works well. Costumes are generally serviceable, with more attention paid to the leads, and less to the ensemble. Lighting is good. Cheryl Van Duzen’s 5-piece orchestra sounds wonderful, though anemic. The Fiddler orchestrations are written for 19 pieces, and reduced to 10. 5 just is insufficient for this large musical.

There are some curious directing choices that have been made by director/choreographer Barbara Cullen. The use of the Fiddler on stage works in some scenes, while it is intrusive in others. Emily Slomovits is an accomplished violinist, and she is fun to watch on stage (usually). Scene changes are “danced” which is a brilliant addition in Act One, but becomes intrusive in later goings as things turn more serious. Things in Act One work generally better than those in Act Two as it makes its slow slogging march to the inevitable conclusion, shedding daughters as it goes. That isn’t Encore’s fault, nor the directors, but a function of the show itself. While the cast hits its marks in the bits of business required, Jewish (and Russian) intonations and accents come and go, and there is a sense that many in the cast are going through the motions and mannerisms without really understanding why they are doing them –and nobody touches a Mezuzah when entering through doorways in this very religious community. This is a very white-bread Jewish community to say the least.

But I save the most glaring problem for last. I don’t know why a decision was made to end Act One after Tevye’s Dream rather than as written to end after the wedding and the Russian demonstration. This is a glaring problem and I have never seen this done with Fiddler. One loses the passage of time, and the intended drama of the piece. Its a mistake.

Fiddler on The Roof continues at Encore Musical Theatre Company through August 12th. Tickets are available at the theater box office at 3126 Broad Street; by phone at 734-268-6200 or online at theencoretheatre.org