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Go, Go, Go see “Into the Wild” at Encore Musical Theatre (Review) April 15, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals.
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Let me preface this by writing that Into the Wild at the Encore Musical Theatre Company is a developmental premier of a new musical with aspirations to get to Broadway. It will get there eventually and you should see it now while you can. And you should not miss the superstar performance of Conor Ryan, but I will get to that later. While it is technically a workshop of the show, it is hard to call it that because everything here is so well polished that it is almost hard to remember that this is a work-in-progress and will still change and grow over time.

Into the Wild is one of those rare experiences that will stay with you long after you’ve seen the show and it is also by far Encore’s most technologically advanced production to date. With music and lyrics by Niko Tsakalakos, Book and Lyrics by Janet Allard, the musical is bound to leave you thinking and talking. It is a matter of opinion as to whether you believe Christopher McCandless was an explorer and risk-taker off to find himself in the Alaskan wilderness — or if he was an idiot egotist with a death wish and possible mental illness out to spite his conservative family. Fact:  25 years ago, McCandless took off after college and bummed around the US and Mexico until making his way to Alaska, eventually starving after eating potato seeds loaded with neurotoxins that can paralyze a person over time. You might have read the wildly popular book by Jon Krakauer, or seen the movie, or read the amazing New Yorker article about his death a few years ago. But there is no denying that what the authors and musicians have done here is to make you feel empathy toward this misguided young man and his family, no matter what your personal opinion in the matter, and that is no mean feat.

Conor Ryan is simply remarkable as Chris. He is the beginning and the end of the show and everything outstanding in between. He’s already a NY theater star, graduating from UM’s musical theater program a few years ago (remember him as Valjean?) and immediately going into Cinderella on Broadway, and then co-starring with Kate Baldwin (as well as recording the new cast album) in John & Jen. Here, his vocals and acting soar – literally at one point – and it was a wise decision to bring this young soon-to-be-superstar to Dexter for this premier. Conor’s vocals are exquisite and his acting is superior all around. You should not miss this performance, because he is the Next Big Thing but also because he IS that talented. Sarah Briggs and Greg Bailey play his parents, and they are spot-on in their roles, and their songs. Young Chris is played by local child wonder Connor Casey, and he eschews cute-as-a-buttonness for a bitterness and edge that can already be seen in the character as a child. Nice work. Other folks that get caught up in the mess that is Chris McCandless include Daniel A Helmer who mixes humor and warmth in his roles, especially that of Wayne;  Gayle E Martin as Jan who brings some powerhouse vocals to her songs, especially “Forgiveness” in the Second Act; Alexandra Reynolds who is sweet and personable as Tracy; the versatile Matthew Pecek in multiple roles; and Mike Szymanski as substitute father-figure Russ.

Tyler Driskill serves as musical director as well as pianist and conductor of the outstanding 6-piece combo band. Vocals throughout are excellent, diction is great, and harmonies soar and land just where you expect. There were tears in audience members eyes, as well as a few of the performers, by the time the show reaches the sad ending and “Live Before you Die”. I particularly liked that the band was visible with the wall removed, instead of tucked away in the back room. Brian Usifer’s arrangements and orchestrations sound great.

This is a good time to mention that score — Oh My God fantastic. This is a show that deserves a studio recording as soon as possible — get it out there, let people listen to it in their cars and on their iPhones, and sing along at top voice — it is that kind of score. Allard and Tsakalakos have created music and lyrics that could easily hold its own against any of the current bumper crop of new musical Broadway scores this season. I fully expect it to be in competition for a Tony sometime very soon. I loved it, and actually found myself humming “Alaska” on my way to the car. Can’t remember the last time I could do THAT after a new show. This is like discovering something very special and precious, and while it will still be developed and is sure to change a bit, the score is utterly fantastic. In the capable hands of the musicians on stage at Encore, it takes flight.

Then there is the artistic and technical end of things. – WOWSA. Director Mia Walker keeps things moving swiftly and makes good use of the multilevel set. The set design/projection design by Stephanie Busing is breathtaking: the projections here are beautifully interwoven with the story and later break your heart as you see “Day 99, Day 100, Day 101” approach. Robert Perry does excellent work lighting it all – things look brighter and more colorful than any show I can remember at Encore. Jenna Brand’s costume design is perfect, and inquiring minds want to know: “how did he change onstage from his shorts to the long pants without anyone noticing”?  Anne Donevan’s properties are outstanding – from boat oars, to hiking equipment, cookouts, bars, books – it is also all cleverly concealed on stage so that it appears as you need it and disappears virtually unnoticeably. Sound design by Chris Goosman and Terry Williams is terrific.  In short, this is the finest and most complicated technical production Encore has endeavored to produce, and it works spectacularly well.

While I almost hate to mention it, the show itself runs a bit too long and could use some tightening and shaping – and (I hate to say it) more musical cuts. Currently clocking in at 2:45 with the intermission, it needs some work which I am sure it will get as things move along in this development production and whatever next step this musical takes.

I have no doubt the final step will be Broadway. It deserves to be there. It will get there. And I’ll be there to review it all over again once it opens in New York. Congratulations to everyone involved with this production, I am going back to see it again before it leaves Dexter en route to points East.

Very Highest Recommendation.

Into the Wild’s developmental  premier continues at Encore Musical Theatre Company through May 7th. 3126 Broad Street, Dexter Michigan. Tickets at http://www.theencoretheatre.org or by calling 734-268-6200.

Extraordinary “Cabaret” at the University of Michigan (review) October 17, 2014

Posted by ronannarbor in Michigan, musical theater, Musicals.
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The University of Michigan’s Musical Theater program in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance is generally known for producing the best local musical theater presentations. Every now and again, even they outdo themselves and their production of the revisal version of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret is one of those musicals.

Every aspect of this production is just right — from Joe Locarro’s direction and Ron De Jesus’s brilliant choreography, to Bruce Brockman’s outstanding set design (I’ve never seen the stage of the Lydia Mendelssohn so amazingly transformed) and Rob Murphy’s lighting design, and the great musical theater program student cast.

Taking the 1998 revisal and lightening it up a bit (the Broadway version is actually a bit darker, and certainly costumes its cast in much less) until the (heavy-handed but affecting) ending, the production has the audience engaged from opening note. My one regret is that the revisal cuts my favorite numbers from the original production: “Telephone Song” and “Why Should I Wake Up?” – though it does substitute the latter with the grimmer “I Don’t Care Much” later in the show.

Watching UM musical theater productions is a bit like watching a pre-Broadway tryout, since that is where many of these actors will end up, some sooner than others. I can’t imagine it will take long for this production’s Emcee, Mackenzie Orr, to land a role there. He is in a word, magnificent. I could not take my eyes off of him, whether he was performing one of his (many) numbers, or simply lounging about the Berlin-based cabaret set, watching, wordlessly witnessing a world disintegrating on the evenings just prior to one of humanities greatest human tragedies. What makes this musical work so well is that the audience knows how it ends, while watching and witnessing a group of people who have no idea what their future will (or will not) bring – and the suspense is palpable (and why the original production did not feel the need to tack on the ending later added to the revisal).

Isabelle McCalla is a beautiful Sally Bowles, and she is directed to play the part similarly to leading ladies on Broadway (think Michelle Williams, Natasha Richardson), somewhat subduing the original humor and sassiness of the part. Dylan Stasack plays Cliff Bradshaw with the bravado necessary to be one of the few people on stage who see where this world is heading; the other is Ellie Todd playing a wonderful Fraulein Schneider (she who understands that marrying a Jewish suitor, Kyle Timson as Herr Schultz, is not the correct choice at the time).  Brian Flores plays a dynamic Ernst Ludwig, growing from friendly English-student nebbish to something far far more menacing. The entire singing/acting/dancing cast is excellent.

Kudos to musical director/conductor Catherine A Walker for superb work with the diction and blend, and her spririted on-stage orchestra. Good work is also done by Jim Lillie in his sound design, where every word is audible, and every sound has meaning (where were you during Les Miserables last season, Mr Lillie?).

If you have seen Cabaret before in its reincarnated version, you will find it is all here, with a few added surprises. If you have only seen the original 1966 version or the 1972 film version, you’ll find this to be an altogether completely different experience, and if you have never seen the show, you are in the for biggest surprise of all. Cabaret made musical theater history when it opened on Broadway. To see it performed live-on-stage, where you become witness to a world spinning out of control while dancing and boozing the nights away, leaves you with a sense of something profound. When you see it performed this well, it becomes extraordinary.

Very Very highly recommended.

All tickets for Cabaret are sold out for the duration of its run. Cancellations, if any, might be available at the door, although expect a long line ahead of you.

 

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

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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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

Broadway-bound JEKYLL & HYDE revisal is excellent…(Tour review, Detroit) December 2, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Broadway Tour, musical theater, Musicals.
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There’s no way around it…you either love Jekyll & Hyde the musical or you hate it…and this production might just change a few minds for those who don’t. Completely restaged, reimagined, re-orchestrated and more in line with the original concept album than the 97 Broadway production, the revised Broadway bound Jekyll & Hyde is magnificent and gets just about everything right that the original did not.

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Constantine Maroulis is excellent as Jekyll/Hyde as is Deborah Cox as Lucy. Teal Wicks turns in an emotional and heartfelt Emma and Laird Mackintosh as Utterson is steadfast and steady. Round it out with a fine supporting cast that never seems superfluous and never meanders across the stage without purpose as in the past production and you have a Broadway-ready cast and crew. All 20 cast members here are strong. Maroulis in particular is superb in the duel role of Jekyll and Hyde and he is in fine voice. Before the American Idol folks chime in, let me just remind people that before he was on that contest, he was a graduate of the Boston Conservatory and had done work at the Williamstown Theater Festival. He sings the part better than any performer I have heard in this part professionally.

Moodily atmospheric, Tobin Ost’s sets and costumes are stunning–and the stage far less cluttered and claustrophobic than the original…it works perfectly, complemented by Daniel Brodie’s excellent projections and Jeff Croiter’s rock-concert type lighting. The set and projections are so intertwined I’m not sure who to praise more, Tobin or Daniel, so I will praise them both.

Particularly effective here are the Fascade number (previously ensemble milling around in clumps) where, instead, maids and butlers dress the performers who play the Hospital Board of Governors. Another problematic number “Confrontation” which originally saw Jekyll turning his body side to side while singing “duet” with Hyde, here instead sings with a projection of Hyde, and it is magnificent projection design. Maroulis does very good vocal work here.

The one weakness at the Fisher is the sound design, which needs tweaking once it reaches the Richard Rodgers Theater, where it will no-doubt sound better than in the airplane-hanger-sized barn that is the Fisher Theater in Detroit.

This is a brand new show unlike the original and far superior to it. Who knew?  Clearly Frank Wildhorn did, as this reworked production is masterful. Credit director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun who manages it all at lightning pace without ever once missing a beat, while also not giving short-shrift to the quiet moments and emotion. Its very good work, and will surely be recognized at Tony time (as will, no doubt Tobin Ost’s set and Maroulis’s Jekyll/Hyde).  It comes in at 2:25 including intermission, and that is just right for this show. The great-looking scenery motion adds to the thrill — there are big pieces moving around here, and they flip and spin and rotate and revolve and form and reform like a gigantic erector set. No test-tubes and flickering candles in this lab, but an eerie, gothic, moody sensibility pervades everything.

Instant standing ovation at the end — expected of course, since this show has always thrilled audiences more than critics. I’ve been fortunate to direct this musical twice now…a few years from now, I am looking forward to directing this revised version somewhere, someday. Its superb. New Yorkers, feel free to purchase your tickets now — its coming in as a big fat certified hit.

I suppose I could have made this a much shorter review by just simply writing “I loved this production, go see it.”
Bravo.

“Young Frankenstein” the musical, Wharton Center East Lansing (Review) February 7, 2010

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It is what it is, and that is all that it is. Funny and entertaining, Mel Brooks’ musical adaptation of his own movie of Young Frankenstein is now playing at the Wharton Center in East Lansing — and if you missed it here (it closes Sunday evening) it rolls into the Detroit Opera House in a couple weeks with the same cast.

The show is nothing if not funny — the script is virtually intact from the movie, with more added to fill out the evening’s bawdiness. The audience just ate up the jokes, including those hidden in the clever lyrics. In places, Brooks has taken his own movie dialogue and incorporated it intact into the lyrics themselves. I didn’t get a chance to see this in New York, but I get the feeling this tour is pretty close to what audiences saw there.

Roger Bart (Frankenstein — pronounced Franken-shteen) and Shuler Hensley (The Monster) reprise their Broadway roles, and that is a major boon to this tour. I have never been a huge Roger Bart fan, finding his squirming and mugging off-putting; but Shuler Hensley is just terrific here. The “Puttin’ on the Ritz” second act number is the true show-stopper it is intended to be. But if you’re looking for other hummable tunes, you’re not going to find them here (with the possible exception of Frau Blucher’s “He Was My Boyfriend” — the all-around funniest moment in the show.)

While the entire cast of the tour is strong, I particularly liked Cory English (Igor); Joanna Glushak (Frau Blucher); and Anne Horak (Inga).

There were some sound problems throughout the evening at the Wharton Center — mic cues were late, and some garbled. Those types of problems will be less apparent in Detroit where the show settles in for a longer run and those types of technical issues can be better compensated for.

Overall — I admit I had fun, but that’s about it. I wasn’t blown away by the show; I wasn’t blown away by the sets or costumes or performances. I wasn’t blown away by the script, lyrics, or score. I loved the two numbers mentioned above. Everything about this production is professional and well-done. So why wasn’t this the best thing since the invention of the zip code?

First, your enjoyment of this show will go hand in hand with your enjoyment of slapstick, borscht-belt humor, and broad bawdy jokes. Similar in style and direction to The Producers, Brook’s critics-wowing audience-alienating mega-award winning hit, it’s like a Bialystock and Bloom production come to full colorful life. I didn’t like The Producers, although I was equally awed by the talent on display both performance-wise and art direction wise. So consider this more of the same…but different…but not different enough.

Second, your enjoyment of this show will go hand in hand with your tolerance-level for Roger Bart. If hand-swinging, face-grimacing, all-out mugging, squeaking, and voice inflection humor are your thing, add another star to the review.

Finally, your enjoyment of this show will go hand in hand with your love of the original Mel Brooks movie. Filmed in black and white with the incomparable Gene Wilder, Terri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, and Cloris Leechman the movie is considered by many to be Mel Brooks at his absolute best. Adding music to the mix really does nothing more than make one long to run home and watch the movie again (which I did this morning).

You’ve surely already decided if you are going to go see the show or not — so go, have fun, and laugh. It’s cold outside, a good laugh is always welcome. But if you are a true musical theatre lover, you might not find the show as amusing as you would hope. Frankly, I had much more fun at the hilarious “The Addams Family musical” in Chicago a few months ago.

“Nine” movie adaptation is jaw-droppingly awful (Review) December 27, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, Movies, musical theater.
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First, for the record, NINE is one of my favorite 3 Broadway musicals. I saw the original 1982 production 3 times in NYC, and the revival as well (which was already watered-down…pun intended).  But what Rob Marshall has done with the movie version of NINE is jaw-droppingly awful.

First, Daniel Day-Lewis is woefully miscast. He looks vaguely Italian, and acts vaguely stereotypically Italian — but he can’t sing well, and he’s not Italian. He’s also 10 years too old for the part, and this is reflected in lyric changes.

Second, nobody in this cast is Italian with the exception of Sophia Lauren, who mutters through her role as Guido’s mother, and looks strangely CGI-like. I can list twenty Italian and Italian-American actresses right now that could have been cast instead. It’s nice to see her in the movie, but Sophia herself looks like she would rather be anywhere but.

Third, despite the star power here, only Penelope Cruz and (surprisingly) Kate Hudson turn in anything worthy of musical theatre performance. Sadly, Kate Hudson does so in a role created for the movie that does not exist in the stage production, and her number (in black and white) is awful. Her entire storyline, song, and character could (and should) be cut. Still, she has energy that is palpable, as is Cruz’s. Marion Cotillard turns in a nice acting performance as Luisa Contini, Guido’s suffering wife. Too bad most of her songs are cut.

And therein lies the biggest problem — characters and songs are cut, added, moved around, and rearranged to the point that NINE the movie no longer resembles NINE the musical. Judy Dench as a seamstress sings “Folies Bergeres” instead of Lillian LeFleur. In fact, Lillian LeFleur is cut! “Be on Your Own”, the most powerful song in the show, is cut. In fact, more than 60 percent of the musical score is cut, as is the drama. The new songs added do nothing. (By the way, they add new songs to movie adaptations so that there is something to nominate for “Best Song” for the Academy Awards — any song already performed in a Broadway musical is ineligible for consideration). Nothing here is worthy of nomination, and most likely nothing will be.

I enjoyed some of Fergie’s “Be Italian”, but the production number itself is like a bad advertisement for Victoria’s Secret — it even has haze lighting! Haze lighting!! But I liked the choreography, and it has some life.

Nicole Kidman, the most over-rated and talent-free actress of our time, here continues her long history of displaying both her over-ratedness as well as her inability to act, sing, or carry a scene. Plus she looks fat. Rob Marshall must not have liked working with her too much, since  her part is cut down to a sliver, and he gives her the least flattering camera angles of all the ladies in the show. Half of her spoken lines are not discernible as “Unusual Way” is intercut with dialogue.

As in CHICAGO, Rob Marshall tries to open up the film — instead, what happens is that boundaries are lost, scenes become discontinuous. Ghosts wear colorful clothing. Black, White, and Color, so integral to the original musical, is completely lost here. The script is changed beyond recognition…Carla is weakened and given a suicidal plot! What??? Guido’s ultimate decision to shoot himself or not, is also cut.

I could go on. I will stop here. I had a very difficult time sitting through this movie, a story and score that I just adore. This is an awful adaptation. I give it a C as a movie, a D- as an adaptation of a stage musical, or one star for effort. Wait for the DVD. The movie adaptationn of Mamma Mia looks like a masterpiece compared to this awful adaptation, because it at least followed the original script with a sense of integrity.

For Musical Theatre purists….Songs from the score of NINE that are cut in the movie version:

The Germans at the Spa…Only With You…the Follies sequence of Folies Bergeres…Guido’s Vision…Nine…The Bells of St. Sebastian…A Man Like You…the duet portion of Unusual Way…The entire Grand Canal sequence…Simple…Be On Your Own…Getting Tall…and all underscore music of the second act of the musical.

Little House on the Prairie, The Musical: Wholesome, lovely, and pure (Review) December 4, 2009

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Something very rare happened at the Fox Theatre last night in Detroit. I walked to the Box Office at intermission to get a ticket to see the show a second time for later in the weekend. Little House on the Prairie, the Musical, is wholesome, lovely, and pure. It brings something to the musical theatre that hasn’t been seen in a long, long time — a STORY, told simply, with a great cast, costumes, set, and fully geared to the entire family.

Granted, this is not West Side Story. The tale being told here is simple, humorous, and lively. It’s family theatre, and it’s fine. Seen only a few weeks after the not-ready-for-primetime “101 Dalmations, the musical”, Little House is a breath of fresh air – and I mean that in the best way.

While the musical follows the written books, not the tv show, everything here will be familiar (at least to 30-somethings and up). But there is a wonderful story for your young ones to follow as well. The audience was rapt to the show from start to finish, and I have to admit, there are some big tears by the end of the show — I dare you not to well up. I dare you, because you SHOULD well-up — it’s directed beautifully and performed pitch-perfectly to the style and size of the show, and the emotions are perfectly manipulated for you. I’m a big fan of gratuitous emotional manipulation if it is done right — and here it is done right — it sneaks up on you and catches you with a lump in your throat for most of Act II (which is stronger, by the way, than Act I).

Once again, the Fox Theatre proves to be the wrong venue for the production – and was more than half empty at the performance I saw. This is a musical that deserves to be seen. It came to town with great word of mouth from audiences, and critical word of mouth from theatre folks I know. Well, they’re Scrooges if they can’t take a family-classic and enjoy it for a couple hours. I loved it. As I stated before, I loved it so much I’m going back to see it again.

If you saw the musical version of LITTLE WOMEN a few seasons ago, you’ll instantly be familiar with the style of story theatre employed here — props become other objects, set changes and technical objects are kept to a minimum, and the musical focuses on the story at play.

The music is lovely — it evokes Americana at it’s best; though like Aaron Copland or Charles Ives, it soon fades away from memory. But it’s integrated well with the lyrics, and it sweeps you along on, well, the prairie. The art design is perfect for the show, and reminds you that life used to be lived on a much larger canvas than it is now. And the cast itself is one of the most appealing I’ve seen in a long time.

Highly recommended — and I mean that in the most genuine, wholesome, lovely, purest way. This is clean-cut American musical theatre, and it deserves to be seen. Forget the cynics, just get your tickets. It’s here through Sunday. There is nothing objectionable for your little ones (though you might have to explain some of the storyline to them on the way home). Let me just warn you — if you think “Rent” is the best musical ever written, you are going to absolutely hate this musical — call it the anti-Rent…it’s the kind of show that was a dime a dozen in the 50’s — the musicals I grew up on, and the musicals that I consider the “heart” of musical comedy.

And that’s the view from Ann Arbor today.

101 Dalmations, the Musical — Review November 23, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Entertainment, Pets, Theatre.
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There are three reasons to see 101 DALMATIONS, THE MUSICAL….1) Rachel York, 2) Rachel York, and 3) Rachel York. Playing Cruella DeVil she has enough energy for three shows — look out Glenn Close, your nemesis has arrived.

Rachel York in 101 Dalmations, The Musical.

Cast, kids, and Dogs in 101 Dalmations, the Musical

Ok, now that I got that out of the way, I can honestly say that I enjoyed the musical more than I should have. Any new musical is always better than no new musicals. But 101 Dalmations is not ready for prime time. It’s a shame — they have a lot going for them, including a great musical score, good performances all around, some very enthusiastic kids in the cast, and that knock-out performance by Rachel York.

But it has a lot of problems too. Seen in the Sunday afternoon performance at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, in a half-empty house, the audience young and old was squirming in their seats by mid-Act One. The 5-year olds were mostly OUT of their seats by that point.

And there’s the problem — when the show works well it appeals to both kids and adults. When it is at its worst, even the adults have a hard time sitting still. There is too much talk — WAY too much talk — like a half hour too much talk in this 2-hour musical. And there is actually too much music too!…It’s a terrific score that mixes in all styles of musical comedy-style songs, but there is too much of it.  Trim the show to 90 minutes without an intermission, and you’ll have yourself a tight family entertainment.

Then there are the stilt problems. To make the “dogs” (played by people) look smaller, the rest of the cast is on 15 inch stilts. It looks terrible. While the sets are creatively skewed to make everything look like you are looking at it from a dogs-eye view, the stilts themselves are ridiculous. Two performers fell during this performance — and I have to admit by the middle of the first act, I started to watch the stilt walkers (and dancers) to see who else might go down, sort of the same way you watch figure skaters, to see who falls on their butt. That was enough to distract me from what might otherwise be some fine moments. I’d suggest they cut the stilts and work on creative use of costumes to achieve the same effect.

And then there is the other major problem — there aren’t enough dogs. Sure the kids are cute when they dance — and the Bark Chain is particularly well handled. The directing is generally sound. But the real dogs are reserved for dog tricks at the end of the acts, and there isn’t enough — the tricks are fun! A dog pees and flowers grow. They have charisma — the entire audience comes to life while they are on stage. It’s too bad that the rest of the show doesn’t have that kind of spark of life.

Which brings me back to Rachel York. She chews up the scenery, sings her heart out, flays her arms and legs and manages to stay balanced, and just seems to be having the time of her life. Her demise is strange — I understand why they handle it the way they do — it IS a family musical with lots of children in the audience after all…but it’s an anti-climatic end to an otherwise great stage performance.

To save yourself two hours — you can see Rachel York perform her entire number called “Hot” here: http://www.the101dalmatiansmusical.com/index.html

I liked the show. I hope they take the time to fix it as it travels across the country prior to a three-week engagement at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden. It’s not ready for a full-time Broadway production. It’s a shame. There are a lot of good actors and technicians at work here. But in the long-run, it needs work, lots of it, and more real dogs. Even if they do nothing else but cross the stage from time to time with the actors.

Despite that, the audience really seemed to have a great time. The chatter at intermission wasn’t bad – people genuinely liked the show. And there sure is a dearth of decent family-oriented musicals these days. The audience reviews at Ticketmaster.com, for example, are almost all entirely A’s and B’s. That’s pretty darn good!…And you actually do leave the theatre humming the theme song. That’s not bad either.

In a surreal moment – the show ended at the same time the Lions game ended down the street. Lions fans and families with toddlers mixed on Woodward in what can only be described as Detroit at its finest.