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Home for the Holidays, Dionysus Theatre, Review December 22, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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Looks like Steve DeBruyne and Matthew Tomich have found (at least temporarily) a home for Dionysus Theatre at the Hartland High School auditorium — and its in a small beautiful space with professional amenities that theater companies envy. Its also a short 25 minute drive north of Ann Arbor (half the distance to Croswell for those who head there regularly) and they can use your support.

In a house that holds several hundred, only a handful were in attendance last night for their delightful original musical HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS — think “Bing Crosby Christmas Special” and its about all you need to know about the evening. Its a jolly Christmas-song filled entertaining two hours complete with surprise appearance by He Who Drives A Sleigh.

15 member cast and 5 piece orchestra weave an enchanting holiday spell as they tell their story interspersing on-stage and back-stage antics at a Christmas Eve holiday show. Familiar holiday tunes (some used very effectively here) abound, and there is plenty of great singing, dancing, and all-around fun. Look for a special appearance by “star” Liz Jaffe.

In a uniformly solid cast, Steve DeBruyne, Liz Jaffe, Marlene Inman-Reilly and Sarah Brown are particular standouts, but the entire cast is strong. Steve DeBruyne’s direction is fluid; Brian E. Buckner’s vocal arrangements and band are terrific; and Michelle Marzejon’s choreography fits the bill. There is nice setwork by Phil Harmer, and overall technical touches are very good — much more “ready for prime time” than another local professional theater when they launched a few seasons ago. Also look for one of those special appearances that I covet — Anne Bauman arrives on stage in Act II, sings one song, and calls it a night. My kind of featured role!

But, it appears that Livingston County doesn’t exactly know what to do with a new theater company — so there is lots of education that needs to be done in this community about theater attendance (and behavior inside the theater, which does not include talking, texting, and eating meals). This is a theater that deserves your support — and its only a short drive away from Ann Arbor, and a hop-and-a-skip from points north. Get off at 59, make your first left, and follow the signs to the new High School. But more importantly, help support this new theater company which promises great things. Their next production, the musical 9 to 5 will have better name recognition and hopefully draw from a larger base — but their current holiday offering is a family-friendly holiday treat that goes down easily. Take some time out during this last weekend of their performances and pack up your car and head to Hartland for HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS.

For tickets, call (517) 672-6009 or buy them online at http://www.diotheatre.com — or just buy your tickets at the door.

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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

Christopher Columbus! Dexter’s Encore presents lovely “Little Women” (Review) February 5, 2011

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals.
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Watching lead actress Katie Hardy’s transformation from teenage Jo Marsh to the observant adult writer that looks back at it all is one of the joys in this intimate staging of the recent Broadway musical LITTLE WOMEN. In a production that is generally well-cast, she stands out in the role originally created by Sutton Foster in a way that shines brightly on Encores stage. But what happens around her is the stuff that makes it all so interesting.

Those of us who have read the book know that the many movie and stage versions of the story are largely hit-or-miss; and the same can be said of this 2005 musical version: plot points are catapulted, omitted, or made greater or less than their relevance in the book. Sometimes it all feels a bit like connecting the dots as one story leads to another and we race to the penultimate drama including Beth (won’t give it away here for the handful of people who don’t know the story) and our ultimate happy ending. There’s a whole misbegotten trip to Cape Cod that doesn’t really exist, but it works to wring the requisite tears out of the demographic teenage girl audience, and on the Broadway stage was the only scene which allowed cyclorama light to shine through the gloom to counterbalance the drama.

That being said, this production in Dexter is a sure-handed directorial debut for Steve DeBruyne, who does particularly good work with the intimate moments of the show (and there are plenty of them).  The Marsh sisters scenes together are all one would expect, and sometimes a bit more. Sure plot points are dropped like hot potatoes in the “Can’t we all just get along” theme that develops early on in the proceedings. But it’s all for one and one for all.

Another breakout performances comes from Rusty Mewha as Professor Bhaer, and his “Small Umbrella in the Rain” with Hardy near the end of the show is the true musical core of the show. An earlier moment between Jo and Beth (Cara AnnMarie in a lovely performance) “Some Things are Meant to Be” is beautifully staged and acted in one, and the nearness to the audience makes the emotion universal. Hardy’s own meant-to-be-showstopper moment “Astonishing” closes out the first act with a wallop down front and center.

Anne Bauman displays excellent acting chops as Aunt March (although shouldn’t have been used as Mrs. Kirk later in the production). Thalia Schramm (Meg) and Madison Deadman (Amy) complete the Marsh sister quartet admirably.

Not all of the casting is as good. There are age disparities in some of the performers, and a jarring performance of Laurie by Sean Widener who seems to be acting in his own musical at times. The energy in some of those scenes is skewed toward farce, and it feels out of place.

And where Leo Babcock’s period-perfect set, and Colleen Meyer’s costumes are lovely; the music aspects of this musical are not. The full orchestra is pared down to two keyboards and two percussion, and it sounds anemic and under-nourished. The energy required to support the large ballads and songs dissipates, and more than one number ends with a fizzle rather than with a bang. Musical Director Jill Quagliata does better work with her soloists and duets than with the full vocal support required in larger ensemble numbers. Note the fizzle at the end of “Our Finest Dreams” for example. Stage picture = pretty. Vocal support – pfitzzz. For sure, one of the problems here is the actors’s inability to see the conductor during this very difficult score.

Lighting is also hit or miss. Actors valiantly hit their marks, while lights struggle to keep up; and at times there are no transitions or fades — full darkness leads to full stage up lighting; spotlights suddenly appear with no crossfade in the background (and in the case of “Astonishing” too early). Scene changes take a bit too long and add five minutes to a show that is already long (2:50 on opening night — the Broadway production ran 2:40). Granted, some of this can not be avoided in a theater that can not fly scenery.

But that brings me back to Katie Hardy. She is the emotional, vocal, and acting core of this show, and her work as Jo is excellent. The intimacy of the Encore stage allows her emotions to show throughout; from perplexed to agitated; from teen to adult. By the time Jo and Professor Bhaer stand beneath their umbrella and sing of differences “as a woman and a man”, her ability to convey contained emotion and Mewha’s ability to suddenly explode with pent-up energy create one of Encore’s finest musical moments.

LITTLE WOMEN continues at the Encore Musical Theater Company through February 27th. For tickets call 734-268-6200 or visit theencoretheatre.org

Terrific DeBruyne, Cuppone, and Hissong in “Damn Yankees” Encore Theater, Dexter. October 22, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, musical theater, Theatre.
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This isn’t really a review. I just wanted to take a moment to say that I had the opportunity to see “Damn Yankees” at Encore Musical Theater in Dexter last night.

I thought special mention must be made of the excellent work that Steve DeBruyne (Joe), MaryJo Cuppone (Lola), and Tobin Hissong (Applegate) turn in here. Steve has become an Encore favorite with a strong voice and terrific acting skills, and charming stage presence. MaryJo continues with a string of entertaining performances in lead female roles wearing jumpsuits (wink, wink…sorry, MaryJo, I had to!) and she makes a terrific Lola, even if the show is cleaned up to within an inch of Playhouse Disney-ism…and Tobin Hissong creates a droll and nuanced Applegate that is hilarious to watch throughout.

Terrific work, folks!

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!