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Inman and company send Bridges soaring (The Dio – Review) April 8, 2017

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About two years ago, I spent an elated evening on Broadway watching and listening to Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale sing Jason Robert Brown’s masterwork score in the musical The Bridges of Madison County. There’s similar musical magic on display at the Dio. Bridges is a production that can clearly be considered The Dio’s best yet in what is quickly becoming a string of excellent productions at the venue in Pinckney. From the show’s excellent leads to ensemble and Matthew Tomich’s gorgeous puzzle-like set and lighting design, the evening flows seemlessly from scene to scene under Steve DeBruyne’s fast-paced direction.
You probably know the story – married Italian housewife Francesca meets Robert, a handsome and exciting photographer on assignment taking shots of local covered bridges. While her husband and kids are away at the state fair for a few days, she has a surprising fling that results in an unexpected proposition and a decision she must make. That’s all I’m saying about it. You either buy in or you don’t (and that was the dilemma on Broadway – the show’s target market is probably exactly the age of people struggling with their own domestic dramas at home and it is pretty hard to sell a show about adultery, no matter how well received). The show itself is also a bit unbalanced, with a too-long first act and a power-ballad filled second act. 
But there is no denying the exceptional Tony-winning Jason Robert Brown score — it is one of the finest musical theater scores in the past decade, and here it is handled expertly under the very talented vocal skills of Marlene Inman as Francesca and the solid Jon McHatton as Robert. On the few occasions that the outstanding ensemble joins in, the score simply soars into the stratosphere and resonates somewhere over Iowa itself. Brian Buckner’s musical direction is top-notch, though the balance is sometimes off between orchestra and singers. In one sequence (“Home Before You Know it”) women’s vocals overpowered men’s vocals and dialogue got muddied and lost, although things got significantly better afterwards. 
Madison Merlanti sings a lovely “Another Life” (the show’s standout signature tune), and strong performances are also turned in by Julianne Roberts as daughter Carolyn, James Fischer as son Michael, and Andrew Gorney as husband Bud. Carrie Jay Sayer is terrific as nosy neighbor Marge, and the entire ensemble is excellent.
The standout, however, is the remarkable Marlene Inman in a performance you should not miss. Jon McHatton seems a bit too young for Robert but is handsome and sings beautifully. As expected “Before and After You/ One Second and a Million Miles” is the musical apex of the evening and it does not disappoint. 
Whether you like the storyline itself or not, this is a musical not to be missed and a vocal score to be cherished. Congratulations to the Dio for bringing this challenging and rewarding piece to local audiences. 
Highest Recommendation. 
The Bridges of Madison County continues at the Dio, 177 E Main St, Pinckney Mi through May 21st. Tickets at Diotheatre.com or (517) 672-6009

The Drowsy Chaperone at The Dio will Lift you Up (Review) September 5, 2015

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What do you do when you feel a bit melancholy, bored, needing to escape for a little? If you love getting lost in a book, a selection of music, or resort to food during those moments, make your way to The Dio in Pinckney. Man in Chair knows exactly how you feel and will take you with him on a rollicking madcap ride, including dinner.

The Drowsy Chaperone, with book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, is a delight. Dio co-owner Steve DeBruyne serves up the delicious fun, both literally as your waiter and figuratively as a performer/director. This one-act musical comedy takes place in the living room of a solitary man who plays his favorite record album, the fictional musical Drowsy Chaperone, to distract himself from his lonely day. When the record is playing, the musical comes to life on stage as the man watches gleefully from his comfy chair, lifting the record player arm between numbers to speak directly to the audience as he offers up his own very opinionated commentary on the plot, characters and actors themselves. Though The Drowsy Chaperone debuted in Toronto in 1998, it wasn’t until it’s opening on Broadway in 2006, after some revisions, when it received its due praise, winning five Tony Awards and seven Drama Desk Awards.

While there are some outstanding performances, the show truly shines as an ensemble work, with each performer giving their character its exaggerated due diligence, beginning with Man In Chair as played by loveable Patrick O’Reilly who sets the tone. Dan Morrison as the theatrical producer/agent Mr. Feldzieg is a stand out as is The Chaperone herself, played by Marlene Inman. I wish there was more to see and hear from characters Underling (played by Dale Dobson as the straight man in the zany lot) and Trix (played by Bryana Hall whose lovely voice was sometimes difficult to hear above the ensemble). I have to say the costumes are a character of their own and deserve their own standing ovation for their genuine period style and detail from glitzy headbands to gartered stockings, thanks to Costume Designer Norma Polk. The set has several clever touches I will not ruin for you by describing. The show was tight and moved at a good pace, including intentional “awkward” pauses.

You will not be disappointed with the menu either. Don’t be fooled by the basic offerings because Chef Jarod’s signature flash-fried chicken is every bit as wonderful as you may have heard and the dessert is simply scrumptious. You can view the menu on their website. Dietary-restrictive patrons have options as well. Call the box office ahead of time for special requests but, by all means, call. Get tickets. You won’t regret it.

Performances run through October 18th. The Dio Theatre, 177 East Main Street, Pinckney, MI. 517-672-6009 or online at diotheatre.com

Highly Recommended.

—- Thank you to Patricia Mazzola for the guest review of The Drowsy Chaperone! Please note that this was a review of the final preview performance of The Drowsy Chaperone on Thursday September 3rd.

Wedding-filled “Always a Bridesmaid at the Dio (review) July 5, 2015

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Watching a Jones Hope Wooten comedy is a bit like sitting back and binge watching four episodes of your favorite new television sitcom.

Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten, collectively know as Jones Hope Wooten, have written many comedies, including the Dio’s current offering “Always a Bridesmaid” (one of their most performed shows, after “The Dixie Swim Club”, which the Dio has also presented in the past). Coming from the rich world of television comedies (including The Golden Girls), their writing is always crisp, easily relatable, and truly funny.

And when its presented as well as the Dio’s current production, there is nothing better than sitting back and letting everything just entertain you for a few hours. Here, we follow a group of women over 7 years and their weddings — they have made a vow it appears that they will always appear in each others weddings as bridesmaids. It is instantly recognizable material, from the reluctant no-longer-a-debutante to the drunk bride’s speech at a wedding. And there are more weddings over the years than there are characters.

Steve DeBruyne directs this swiftly-paced comedy and the one-liners fly fast and furious. Anne Dilworth gets things started as the tipsy bride and ties together each segment with a short introduction that becomes increasingly boozy as it goes along. Her Mother is played by Nancy Penvose who is quick becoming one of my favorite local actors. She doesn’t miss a beat as the shenanigans of four separate weddings ensue – each the subject of subsequent scenes of the play . The entire ensemble cast is terrific, including Fran Potasnik, Sonja Marquis, Wendy Hedstrom, and Amy Morrisey.

The simple but appropriate set is designed by Matthew Tomich, as is the lighting design. Norma Polk does her usual excellent work with costumes — and wait till you see what she has in store when “elegant French dresses” are called for in Episode 3, I mean Scene 3.

Chef Jarod has prepared a wonderful dinner to start things off on the right foot — of his delicious chicken, vegetable lasagna, mixed vegetables, and an excellent salad bar (you could stuff yourself on the salad alone, with its mixed meats, cheeses, and other toppings). Dessert is served during intermission. (Don’t forget to tip your waiter/performer!).

The Dio continues its string of excellent productions and tasty (filling) dinners with “Always a Bridesmaid”, and you will have a great time. The production continues through August 2nd. Tickets online at diotheatre.com or by phone at 517-672-6009  177 E. Main Street, Pinckney, MI.

Recommended.

Remarkable “Violet” at The Dio Theatre (Review) April 5, 2015

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The musical “Violet” by Brian Crawley and Jeanine Tesori has taken residence at The Dio Theatre in Pinckney for the next six weeks, and it is their strongest offering yet.

Violet

Led by a remarkable performance by Mahalia Greenway in the title role, this is a musical that has already claimed a place in musical theater history, Off-Broadway 1997, and on Broadway just this past season. Telling the story of a woman with a scar on her face from an accident in childhood, it follows two storylines as she goes off to Tulsa to seek a televangelist whom she believes will heal her scars, while simultaneously revealing to the audience how things went down in the first place. Her father is played by Andrew Gorney in another very strong outing at The Dio, while (at my performance) 8th grader Lilly Rosenberg was excellent in the role of Young Violet.

Of course, it all leads to the inevitable conclusion that beauty lies within, but getting to that point is what makes this story so interesting. The score is primarily comprised of country pop and gospel tunes (perhaps you’ve heard “Raise Me Up” on Sirius XM’s On Broadway where it gets a lot of play). Mahalia Greenway brings a depth of acting as well as singing to the role of Violet as she makes her journey — and what a journey it is.

While she travels by bus from her down-south mountain home, to Tulsa, she discovers that people can be selfish and caddish (Monty, played by director Steve DeBruyne), interesting and enigmatic (visiting actor Luther Rapheal Simon as Flick), open books (Linda Rabin Hammell) or closed ones. The ensemble is very strong, and in addition to the fine performances from these actors, there are also dynamic performances by Lauren Norris as Beale-Street singer Mabel, Peter Crist as the Preacher, Tyler Smith in various roles, Kristen Crockett as gospel singer Lula, and Jeff Steinhauer in  other character parts.  Its a true ensemble that sounds and works well together.

The five-piece backstage orchestra sounds great, though occasionally dialogue was lost at our performance when microphones for singers were at lower levels than the pop ensemble playing behind (and above) them – resulting in some sound balance issues. These resolved as the evening went along.

There is good setwork and good projections by designer Matthew Tomich, and the evening moves smoothly and quickly from scene to scene thanks to director Steve DeBruyne, musical staging by Thalia Schramm,  and their cast working in sync from opening number to last.

This is the strongest offering at the Dio to date — and it is highly recommended. Not only is this a strong production all around, but it is a story-driven musical that you should take the time to check out.

Dinner, as always, is by the talented Chef Jarod and includes his trademark fried chicken and a tasty Jambalaya.

Violet continues at The Dio through May 17th, 177 E Main St, Pinckney, MI, 48169   517-672-6009  diotheatre.com

“Bus Stop” at the Dio…and some yummy chicken… February 7, 2015

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Have you met the denizens of Grace’s diner? What? You haven’t? Either on stage or in the movie? Or on television’s HBO a while back? Well, here’s your chance to catch up with a bunch of strangers learning about love in Dio’s production of William Inge’s Bus Stop (1955).

First, there’s spunky and love-starved Grace, played beautifully by Amy Morrisey — and her fellow waitress, high school straight-A student but naive-in-love Elma (Jacklynn Cherry). Andrew Gorney plays a level-headed and superb Sheriff Will Masters.

Then there are the one-night visiting passengers on Carl’s longhaul bus (a charming Jon King), stuck in the diner overnight while roads ahead are plowed out following a snowstorm (sound like any place you know, Michigan?)…Cheri (solid and sublime Elizabeth Jaffe) who may or may not be running away from love…randy rodeo cowboy Bo (Peter Crist) who may or may not be abducting her (okay, he is, but you know, it’s a romantic comedy) and his mentor Virgil (Stephen Dean). Finally, there is alcoholic Dr Lyman (Steve DeBruyne in a last-minute replacement role – great work, Steve!)

What follows is a mix of humor, drama, and who-will-end-up-with-whom storytelling as only William Inge could have written…with a scrumptious chocolate mousse cake that arrives at your table during intermission created by chef Jarod just in time as you have been listening to all that talk about donuts, pies, burgers, and coffee. The pre-show meal is delicious as always, and features his yummy fried chicken, shepherd’s pie, and fruits and vegetables.

Bus Stop runs through March 1st at the Dio — tickets at http://www.diotheatre.com or 517-672-6009 — 177 E Main St, Pinckney

Luscious Wildhorn score makes Dracula at the Dio soar (review) October 12, 2014

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Running only 150-some performances on Broadway in 2004, Frank Wildhorn’s musical adaptation of Dracula has taken on a life of its own with multiple rewrites in major productions. The revised (better) version is now playing at the Dio Theatre in Pinckney, and you can instantly see what attracted him to the project to begin with — a gothic romance with a rich history and plenty of material to work with.  When I saw the production in NYC, it struck me as one of the most stunning scenic designs and special effects I’ve ever seen on a stage, and recall the lovely score, while at the same time wondering why there is a cowboy in the cast.

New Yorker Joshua David Cavanaugh has a terrific voice and makes the most of the role of Dracula himself. Steve DeBruyne is terrific as Jonathan Harker, especially his song “Before the Summer Ends” towards the end of the show. Jared Schneider is a pitch perfect Renfield, and Andrew Gorney an assured Van Helsing. Cody Musteffe (Dr. Seward), Peter Crist (Morris) and Zak Stratton (Holmwood) are very good in their supporting roles. As to the women, always strong Mahalia Greenway is superb as Lucy, and Sarah Brown sings Mina beautifully. The trio of vampires (Dracula’s “wives” — don’t ask) are well performed by Kristin Reeves, Erin Otteman, Emily Rogers, and Lydia Adams. There’s also a child who fulfills his small part well (Gavin Burwell).

The real star of this show is the luscious Wildhorn score (lyrics and book by Christopher Hampton and Don Black) and the Dio’s cast, led by musical director and orchestra conductor Tyler Driskill, sounds vocally wonderful and makes this production soar. The diction is superb, and the balance between orchestra and cast is good. Okay, there’s no flying, and Dracula doesn’t go walking across the ceiling like he did in NYC, but the very interesting set and lighting are designed by Matthew Tomich, and it rises right up to the ceiling playing out on multiple levels. Norma Polk’s many costumes are gorgeous and flow well on stage. Crosses burn, flames fly, and The Dio’s most technically ambitious show yet looks great.

I commend The Dio for taking a risk and producing this little-known musical. When other local theaters are falling back on Annies and Music Mans, its a breath of musical theater heaven to have this strong score on stage here in Michigan.

Ok, now, a bit on the show itself — like some of Wildhorn’s other shows, the music is far better than the material. While most of the original story of Dracula is here, its a bit convoluted — and at other points it helps to know the story well, because it makes leaps from one scene to another without the explanatory information in between. Look, lets be honest: if you are going to see a musical about Dracula, you are not going to be looking for a strong book, and you don’t find it here — the script is, well, in a word, scattered. But the music makes up for it, and Steve DeBruyne’s directing increases tension in a well-paced way. Heck, the director/producer in me wants to grab into this show and salvage the super chamber musical inside from its own overblown excesses…but this show has been rewritten enough. Suffice it to say, go for the music, stay for the story.  And just scratch your head as to why there is a cowboy on stage, and let it go at that.

Chef Jarod has provided a hearty and delicious meal as always, and overall, this is a pleasant way to spend a fall evening or afternoon.

Recommended.

Dracula continues at The Dio through November 2nd. Book your seats now because many performances are selling out and it will get fuller as Halloween approaches. 517-672-6009 or online at diotheatre.com

It’s baa-aack…Forever Plaid at the Dio (Review 2014)…and its delicious August 1, 2014

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Last summer, The Dio made a big opening splash with its production of Forever Plaid…well, its back this summer in a spiffed-up production featuring those lovable dead guys, The Plaids…and its as delicious as ever.

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Returning from last summer are Steve DeBruyne (Frankie a.k.a. Francis) and Thomas Mate (Smudge a.k.a. Smudge). Joining them are Cody Musteffe (Sparky) and Jared Schneider (Jinx). Since most of the production is intact from last summer, you can read that review here:

https://a2view.com/2013/07/13/forever-plaid-gets-dio-theater-off-to-a-terrific-start-in-new-home-

This year’s version features a particularly tight harmony quartet, and their balance is superb. DeBruyne returns to top form, and Mate repeats his pitch-perfect performance from last summer. Musteffe is a strong performer, and Schneider has a nice surprise in store for you a bit down the road in the show.

Costumes are spiced-up since last summer (Norma Polk) and there is some new lighting – including a nice touch at the finale that will leave you smiling (Matthew Tomich). Director Steve Debruyne and Choreographer Cara Manor have added a few additional humorous touches since we last saw these Plaids, and some had me outright howling with laughter.

But rest assured — the oversized toilet plungers are still there, as are Topo Gigio and those straw hats.

Oh, and Chef Jarod’s chicken and Waldorf Salad are to die for — as are his sugar-butter cookies for dessert. Don’t forget to tip your waiter.

FOREVER PLAID continues at the Dio, 135 E Min St, Pinckney, MI through September 7th. Tickets at 517-672-6009 or online at http://www.diotheatre.com

Very Highly Recommended.

“The Dixie Swim Club” at The Dio is sparkling fun (Review) June 7, 2014

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The Dixie Swim Club, by Jones Hope Wooten is the current terrific offering at The Dio in Pinckney.  What, you say? You’ve never heard of Jones Hope Wooten?  Well, Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten are only one of the most produced play-writing teams in America today — and not only that, they are apparently nice people too, as they called Steve DeBruyne and Matthew Tomich at The Dio to wish them luck on their opening this week.

Let me preface this by saying, I love sitcoms — and the best current sitcom is not on TV, it’s at The Dio. And its no wonder, since the playwriting team has prolific television writing credits, including Wooten’s long-running The Golden Girls, and The Five Mrs. Buchanans. It comes as no surprise then that The Dixie Swim Club plays as a mash-up of Steel Magnolias, Designing Women, and The Golden Girls.

Five best friends from college (they were on the swim team) meet up every year at a cottage on North Carolina’s Outer Banks for a not-specificed period of time each summer (it appears to be about 22 minutes per visit – not unlike the actual minutes of a half-hour sitcom). Each of the 4 scenes contains real laugh-out-loud moments, larger-than-life yet still relatable characters, and a “mini-drama”. Its a little like watching four episodes of your favorite tv show back to back. And its a very good tv show at that.

Steve DeBruyne directs a very assured five-women ensemble cast. Sonja Marquis is the “controlling one”; Amy Morrisey is the “carreer-driven one”; Sarah Burcon is the “flirty one”; Laura Mandernack is the “super-ego one”; and Brenda Lane is the “poor but funny one”.  Think Dorothy, Rose, Blanch, and Sophia….with Julia Sugarbaker mixed in as a special guest star.

All five of the women are terrific in their roles, and the ensemble work here sparkles. Its impossible to point out anyone without mentioning all five — and their interactions feel real, comfortable, and plausible (sort of, in a sitcom sort of way). Its not hard to predict who will end up where 28 years down the road — and there is a bit of pathos thrown in for the final scene that solidifies the “Steel Magnolias” angle…but its a sparkling confection that goes down easily and knows its target market well (women over 40) but which is assessable to husbands, friends, and youngsters as well. Give it a slight PG-rating, though only just for some frank sexual talk.

The show is highly entertaining, and it is no wonder that it has been sweeping the country, produced nation-wide at regional, community, and dinner theaters. It goes down remarkably well after Chef Jarod’s delicious Chicken and Beef Kabobs. Quite frankly, I thought it was all-around terrific (both comedy and kabobs!)

Among many favorite moments, mine occurred during a discussion of none of the ladies getting any younger over the years and Mandernack’s assuring explanation of Noah living to the ripe old age of 950…and of course, “nobody lives to be 950…anymore…”

The Dixie Swim Club continues through July 6th at The Dio, 177 E Main Street, Pinckney, MI 48169. 517-672-6009 — tickets also at http://www.diotheatre.com

Directed by Steve DeBruyne, Lighting, Sound, Stage Management and Set Design by Matthew Tomich, Costumes, Hair, and Makeup Design by Thalia Schramm, Props by Eileen Obradovich, Meal by Chef Jarod.

 

Country fun at The Dio (“Country Roads”) Review April 5, 2014

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There’s a lot of country fun to be found in Leslie Jo Hood’s “Country Roads” which opened at The Dio in Pinckney last night. Let me preface this by saying that this is not a true musical comedy — its a musical entertainment following a typically delicious dinner at the venue.

Here’s my advice: ignore the clunky “book” that sort-of holds the show together — it’s basically a jukebox musical comprised of some great country hits, and some Minnie Pearl and Rodley Brasfield thrown in to boot. The book has something to do with waiting a long time to get your big break (and when it comes, “You Can Go to the End of Your Chain and Bark,” its rather anti-climatic.) It thuds along and serves as the mechanism to tie the songs together, not always successfully.

Instead, go for the music:  Aynsley Martindale and Tim Brayman head up a generally strong ensemble cast that sing their way through songs by some of Country’s best — with a bit of bluegrass and Gospel thrown in for good measure. Aynsley in particular, gets some great songs to perform over the course of the evening, and she’s a joy to listen to.

There are also some strong vocals by Steve DeBruyne (including a great “leg kick” you’ll have to wait for)…Liz Jaffe…Thomas Mate…Emily Rogers…and Thalia Shramm (who I believe in the book is supposed to be the ingenue (?) but that storyline sort of disappears by her next song). The other ensemble members range from terrific to pitchy — Lydia Adams, Franklin Burns, Jared Schneider. Never mind, they follow in rapid succession (particularly in the less-talk and more-singing second act) and if you don’t like one of the songs, another one comes along a few minutes later —  songs range the gamut from Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” to Garth Brook’s “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and everything in between.  Some of the songs would be served better with a verse and chorus, rather than the entire song.

The three-piece band under the direction of Brian Buckner sounds great – and their instrumentals in between songs and during scene changes are ear-catching.

Special kudos to Liz Jaffe’s Minnie Pearl — a total hoot — including an audience singalong where at last night’s performance, this reviewer got a chance to sing “baa baa” during “Old McDonald Had a Farm”…

The evening runs long (the show starts immediately after everyone has finished dinner, so our performance started a bit late and ended a bit late) and there are some judicious cuts that can (and should) be made for future productions of this show (I would start by combining all the “Grand Old Opry” flashback stuff in Act I into one 5 minute medley rather than distinct songs, and moving the Patriotic Medley to the finale) — but consider this another “workshop” for “Country Roads” and go have a hand-clapping foot-tapping time…and as usual, enjoy Chef Jarod’s terrific meal beforehand.

“Country Roads” continues through May 11th at The Dio. Tickets at http://www.diotheatre.com or (517)672-6009 – 177 E Main Street, Pinckney, MI  48169

 

Forever Plaid gets Dio Theater off to a terrific start in new home (Review) July 13, 2013

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What could be better than dinner and a show? And if its a good dinner and a great show, it makes it all the better — and that is what you get from The Dio – Dining and Entertainment this summer with their first production in their new Pinkney-based home, Forever Plaid.

Chef Jarod has prepared a delicious buffet-style dinner which begins serving at 6:30. The Theater itself is in an old opera house, and its beautifully re-designed by owners Steve DeBruyne and Matthew Tomich. As such, it has great acoustics (in fact, they are so good you can’t tell when the actors are using mics and when they are singing live).

This isn’t the first recent local production of Forever Plaid — but it is probably the best. Mostly sung-through (but leaving plenty of time to develop characters for its quartet of male early-1960’s crooners “gone before their time” and returning for one last live show), the intermission-less production zooms by in record time, winding its way through two-dozen tightly harmonized familiar 60’s numbers.

What a cast! Steve DeBruyne, Daniel Clair, Benjamin Dennis, and Thomas Mate create terrific characters on stage, and their vocals are astonishing. Each shows broad range, and director DeBruyne has done marvelous development work for each one — each cast member is different in size, shape, character, facial expressions, and it all combines for a highly entertaining evening. It’ll be hard for you to pick a favorite, as they each have a moment to truly shine.

Cara Manor gives them snappy and tightly choreographed moves that look like they are right out of any real-life 60’s boy-group — don’t underestimate how difficult this material is — and the actors carry it off very well. Shelly Walker’s costume design looks snappy, and Matthew Tomich does super work with the sound and lighting. Eileen Obradovich’s prop design works particularly well in the Ed Sullivan sequence. Mix in two parts musicians (George Cullinan on piano who also has done very good work as Musical Director, and Benjamin Merte on bass) and you have a martini that is well-served shaken or stirred — or in this case a little of both.

A highly entertaining evening out smack dab in the center of Pinkney — for Ann Arborites, thats a 15 minute drive north and a 15 minute drive west, and its a pretty drive. Go. Its fun. Its delicious. And its another great production for this new professional theater company in Livingston County.

Forever Plaid runs through August 3rd. Tickets at: http://www.diotheatre.co or 517-672-6009 or at their box office 135 East Main Street, Pinkney, MI.