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A Chorus Line, Croswell Opera House (Review)…good but uneven July 12, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Theatre.
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I have to preface this review by stating that A Chorus Line is probably my favorite musical of all time. Its written perfectly: it hits the jugular for musical theater performers like no other show ever had before it’s initial run, and none has since. The choreography is pointed, clean, familiar and fast paced. And the entire evening holds together in a way that was groundbreaking at the time. It is also dated, but forgivable when done as a period piece (oh, to say that about this show!)

Croswell Opera House is currently presenting a decent production of the show, and for non-Chorus Line fans, probably a more assessable production than many. But it is not without its problems.

The Ensemble is generally good — there are better performers and there are weaker performers, but they are both directed and choreographed appropriately to form a blended ensemble unit. Since this show is a true ensemble piece, I will not pull out any individual performances for comment, except for the exceptional Lindsey Denham in the difficult role of Cassie. Her performance is equal to any professional Broadway performer in the role. Other featured roles vary from fantastic to average.

Everything looks great set and costume wise, and the lighting is effective and well-timed to the performance.

The sound is poor. Microphones pop, crackle, and even sputter out. In this instance, it is NOT the fault of the soundboard, who do a very good job of making sure no sound cues are missed. Rather, it is the elements in the body mics themselves — problematic in every Croswell show the past year or two, and very problematic here when you add near-constant body-movement to the mix. I know elements are expensive, but good ones are invaluable to your sound design. Someone please donate a few thousand dollars to Croswell so they can fix this.

Jonathan Sills has done his usual methodical and professional job with the vocalists and with his terrific orchestra.

Director Matthew Bowland does a serviceable job of moving everyone about the stage and creating stage pictures that are reminiscent of the original production while having his own style. Where things go wrong is the pacing of non-musical portions of the show. The pacing is too slow. Line pick-up is terrific in some segments, and not so in others. Characters are given too much time to think and reflect on stage, not a part of this show. The show should clock in at 1:50 without an intermission. Here it clocks in at 2:20 WITH an intermission (more on that appalling intermission later).

The choreography is well done. Debra Calabrese has done a good job of recreating original steps for the show, while keeping the flavor of the more difficult original choreography. Nobody looks terribly out of step, and the better dancers blend well with the weaker dancers. (There are a few weaker dancers, but only a trained choreographer would really spot that). I applaud her work.

Now onto that appalling intermission.  A Chorus Line is written to be performed without an intermission. It is done that way on purpose. Michael Bennett directed/choreographed his shows so that they flew at lighting pace, and in the instance of A Chorus Line, so that the audience could not catch its breath fully as one number and scene follows the other. There is no time for reflection intended in the script. Just like the auditioners, the audience is swept along in the drama without time to fully ponder what they have just seen — rather to experience that same movement that pushes the auditions along. Individual thoughts and experiences are heartfelt and resonate with some audience members. Others do not. But no matter what, the show needs to barrel along like a locomotive building up speed until that final stage tableux when the chosen rejoice. That is the magic of A Chorus Line.

That magic is ruined here. In the middle of the show, Zach announces “a 15 minute break”, and viola, intermission. This completely kills the integrity of the piece and ruins the pacing. It also allows the audience too much time to reflect on what they have seen, ruining the theatrical experience. There is already an intermission written into the show for the performers and musicians during the extended Paul sequence. That was deliberately built into the show at that point.

I blame this totally on the member/s of the production team that decided that the misbegotten idea of adding an intermission was a good one. Since I do not know who made that decision, I can only place the blame on Croswell. This can be salvaged by eliminating that intermission from the remaining performances.

Overall, the show is generally well-done; if not perfect. It continues through July 18th at Croswell Opera House, Adrian Michigan. Tickets: 517-264-7469, or online at croswell.org

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Excellent “Will Rogers Follies” at Croswell Opera House – Review June 21, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Theatre.
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There are some shows that any theater in Michigan best leave to Croswell with it’s big budget and full orchestra. One of those shows is The Will Rogers Follies which makes its second appearance at COH in the past 15 years. And its a doozy.

Kent Sheridan and some of the ensemble of The Will Rogers Follies

Kent Sheridan not only returns to star as Will Rogers (and a great performance it is), but also directs the fast-paced but long (2 hours 45 minutes) production. You won’t feel any of that time pass slowly, the show is immensely entertaining.

The cast is super from top to bottom, and does a fantastic job integrating professional performances with those of amateurs. Kent knows how to highlight the strongest performers, and he and Ashley Nowak (Betty Rogers) have fine chemistry together. Lucy Hagedorn turns in a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-of-her performance as Ziegfeld’s Favorite (watch her with the horse – your eyes will tear up with laughter). William McCloskey makes a fine and ornery Clem Rogers.

The ensemble is terrific — and they are beautifully outfitted by Mary Scott. This is a huge-budget show for sets and costumes, and it all shows in this fine-looking production. Scenic Designer Robert Soller has created workable sets, and the show flows from scene to scene with not a glitch that I saw.

Less fortunate is the lighting  which is well-designed, but which sometimes lags behind the performers. It overall looks quite good once things slow down. The wonderful multi-colored staircase works well throughout the show, and recreates the original Broadway set quite adequately.

Kristi Davis recreates the original Broadway choreography quite well. A few steps have been adapted here and there for the cast, but for the most part, is identical to what people saw in NYC (and apparently all regional productions of this show — I have now seen the show in NYC, Phoenix, Adrian twice, and on tour in SF, and the choreography has been near-identical in every production).

“Our Favorite Son” is a true show-stopper. Congratulations to the entire ensemble for this amazing number. It’s worth the price of admission. But so is the rest of the show. It is that good.

I can’t finish the review without mentioning the poor sound. Throughout the production mics popped, creaked, moaned, and in more than one instance you could hear people talking backstage on their mics which were not turned down by the soundboard. In other instances, the balance of sound was not well-modulated from the board — younger members of the cast were overamplified while older more mature voices were not as prominent resulting in occasionally poor blend through the sound system. It’s difficult to mic a 26-member cast, but it shouldn’t be that difficult for a production of this caliber.

Go see this show. Its a wonderful way to spend an evening or afternoon, and you will absolutely love Kent Sheridan as Will Rogers. He continues his long line of appearance as Will in this strong Croswell production. And bring a friend. They will love the show, and if they’ve never seen the Croswell Opera House they will surely come back for more in the future.

An excellent production. The show continues through June 27th. Croswell Opera House, 129 E. Maumee St., Adrian, MI 49221. Tickets: 517-264-7469 or online at Croswell.org

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).

Superb cast salvages “The Producers” at Croswell Opera House June 22, 2009

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First — there are huge fans of Mel Brooks’ musical THE PRODUCERS, and there are those who are not (me) 12 Tonys notwithstanding (I voted for “The Full Monty”). It’s an actor’s dream to perform these roles — its another task entirely to sit for three hours in an audience being inundated with mean-spiritedness.

The Producers is an example of a show that worked so well on Broadway with its primarily NYC-based audiences; and a show that faltered in its national tour, and eventually closed when NYC audiences dissipated and it needed to rely on tourists, who didn’t find it as funny nor as entertaining as the apparently more-informed NYC audiences did. It also relied on the star power of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick — two performances permanently burned into the retinas of audience goers for these roles.

That being said — the cast at Croswell Opera House is as superb as you can expect in an amateur production of the show. Steve Antalek is a fine Max Bialystock, and Patrick Toth a fine Leo Bloom (even if he is 15 years too young for the role). Lucy Hagedorn shines as Ulla, and Jim Craig is a funny Roger DeBris. Special kudos to Jesse Montie who has a pitch-perfect interpretation of Carmen Ghia, and Stephen Smith’s athletic Franz (another actor who is at least 20 years too young for the part).

There is also more good: the orchestra sounds wonderful under the direction of Jonathan Sills, and the costumes by Susan Eversden are literally stunning.

But then there is the bad: the sound is spotty with several mic problems during the course of the performance – but more importantly, some totally missing mic-work — solo lines are inaudible in the house; important lines in songs disappear; and when the ensemble sings one primarily hears only the leads who are on body mics. The opening number is a cacophony of mumbo-jumbo that even those of us who know every word of this show had a hard time making out. “We wanted to stand up and hiss….we’ve seen shit, but never like this” was completely unintelligible, and it’s one of the funniest lines in the show.

The choreography is lacking. “I want to be a producer” is sloppy and poorly choreographed. The taps can not be heard through most of the number, and this is the one place in the show where clean, efficient tapping is required. It’s not the girls fault — they do what they can with a mess of tap steps that do nothing to emphasize the rhythm of the song nor to build to any type of climax. Time steps and shuffles alone do not make for a Broadway tap number. “Springtime for Hitler” is inherently funny — the choreography in this production does nothing to build the number to what it could be; and at times seems to work against it by forcing motions into space that doesn’t fit. The swastika-dance looks great on a big stage when a mirror can be flown in to show the “Busby Berkley” effect of the swastika rotating on stage…here, it just looks like messy marching.

Then there is the ugly: the set design. This is just plain old gawd-awful. It ranges from serviceable (Roger’s apartment) to Junior-High quality (the scenes outside the theatre; and the “Springtime for Hitler” sign that flies in at the end of Act I — which is so awful that Junior High quality might be giving it too much credit.) The paint is not thick enough on the canvas drops, and light shines through from behind (a problem that plagued last year’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Croswell also). The lettering throughout is sloppy and unprofessional. The lettering for the Whitehall and Marks backdrop looks like a high school cheerleading sign hanging in a hallway. The set design is cringe-inducing in it’s awfulness. Even the better pieces have problems — Roger’s apartment doesn’t fit together well on stage (or they missed their marks during the Sunday afternoon performance that I saw) and the lovely Little Old Ladyland heart is fronted by a poorly painted sloppy looking bench.

Therein lies the crux of the matter — The Producers, despite spoofing the “worst show ever” can’t LOOK like the worst show ever. It’s a budget-squashing show that is far more expensive than it looks in the finished product, and it is exactly because of that budget that the show works in professional venues.

What Croswell has is a fine ensemble cast that is stunningly costumed standing in a shell of a set — and it doesn’t work that way. Sloppy graphics and lettering, poorly painted drops, and slow-moving scene changes undo the effort that the cast has put into this show.

I laughed. I know the show inside and out. Everything that worked in this show worked because of the fine and funny script, the great singing voices, and the fine direction of Mark DePietro whose sense of timing, comedy, and efficient stage-work is clearly seen throughout the show. I wish I could say more positive things about the show, but I can’t.  Perhaps my expectations of the Croswell have become too high over the years — but they SHOULD be that high — this is the best Summer Stock in the region.

For the record, Croswell is the only non-professional theatre where I would personally audition for a show. My heart is in directing and choreography, not in performance. But I respect certain directors and some specific shows. I was in last year’s Croswell production of Titanic, the Musical, because it is one of my favorite shows. I was indeed cast in this production of The Producers, but chose not to participate for personal reasons. I look forward to auditioning at Croswell again if the right combination of show and director comes along down the road and my schedule permits. I am also a supporting member of the Croswell Opera House.

There are a slew of other productions of THE PRODUCERS slated for local venues, including one in Ann Arbor this fall. Word of warning to all of them — this is going to be the most expensive musical you have ever produced, and if you don’t have the money to spend, tread carefully.