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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.

“Billy Elliot” has Big Night at the 2009 Tonys June 8, 2009

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As predicted in this blog a month ago (and most blogs about Broadway, lets be fair) Billy Elliot had a big night at the Tony awards last night, winning 10 awards, including Best Musical. The voters took pity on Next to Normal by awarding it Best Score, one of only two major awards that Billy was nominated for that it did not win (costumes was the other – going to the well-deserved Shrek).

08tony.billy.4802David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. Photo NYT, 2009

The boys had a hard time articulating their thank you’s…what would you do if you were 14 in front of that size audience?…and rumor has it all of them will be gone from the show by the end of the year (little boys grow up and their voices change — two new Billies are already in rotation as of this past week in NYC).

Elton John, on the other hand, made a beautifully articulated thank you upon winning Best Musical and acknowledged the artistic team of Next to Normal (a not-so-veiled concession speech for best score).

I’ve blogged before about this brilliant show, so I won’t do so here again — just look down a few posts and you’ll find my thoughts on the show. But I did want to mention that while American audiences and critics were a bit more mixed on the show, the British media and audiences (the origin of this musical is on the West End, not Broadway) have readily appointed Billy Elliot as the finest musical ever written. I can’t really argue with them. I love musicals of all types, but there is something about Billy Elliot that speaks to every single child (and adult) who ever had a parent that told them “No” when they wanted to sing, or dance, or paint, or play an instrument. Told through dance, the story resonates with every single performer who has taken a step on a stage. The Tony Awards well-chosen “Angry Dance” last night was a good sample of emotion expressed through movement in the end of Act I curtain number.

Congratulations to everyone nominated for this year’s Tony’s and all those who weren’t. But my heart goes out to Billy…

For the Record: 2009 Tony Awards for Billy Elliot: Best Musical, Best Actor (David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik, and Kiril Kulish), Best Director, Best Featured Actor (Michigan’s Gregory Jbara), Best Set Design, Best Book of a Musical, Best Lighting Design, Best Sound Design, Best Orchestrations, Best Choreography.

Shrek; 9 to 5; Billy Elliot — Broadway Musicals May 10, 2009

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While on a quick weekend trip to NYC this weekend, I had the opportunity to see three top notch musicals, all of them adaptations of movie screenplays…and surprise of surprises not one of them was a clunker — Like The Wedding Singer and Legally Blonde the past few seasons,  Shrek, 9 to 5, and Billy Elliot are all solid adaptations that deserve great audiences and long Broadway runs.

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Lets start with BILLY ELLIOT, THE MUSICAL…I first saw Billy Elliot in London a few seasons ago, a few days before official opening night. I knew that it was going to be an international hit that first viewing, but the Broadway production is even larger, and the cast tighter and more skillful. I had the fortune of seeing Kiril Kulish play Billy Elliot – and his dancing is not fully describable in words; it demands to be seen. Here he is “flying” with his grown up alter-ego (Stephen Hanna).

Billy Elliot Kiril Kulish Stephen HannaBar none, this is absolutely the finest musical currently playing in New York. The audience routinely leaps to its feet to applaud young Billy in the many many many dance numbers – from jazz to ballet to tap. And Kiril is up to all of them. Supported by a top-notch cast this production just soars. Run do not walk to get tickets. The tour isn’t going to look like this. It can’t. The showmanship on display in this huge theatre with it’s huge soaring proscenium arch high above the house can’t be replicated anywhere else. When Billy flies, he truly flies in this theatre — and it is worth every penny. This is one of those shows that is worth flying in to New York for, even if it is the only thing you do while you are there.

For families — absolutely do NOT bring your under 10’s to this show — it is laden with coarse language, adult themes, and region-specific dialogue. It is not at all geared toward children in the audience, and while those preteen and older will be enchanted, it is NOT, repeat NOT a family musical.

My money for the Tony for Best-Just-About-Everything-This-Year gets bet on Billy Elliot — it might even surpass The Producers (and should) for Tony gold.

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At the Broadway Theatre, you’ll find another musical that has settled in for the longrun. SHREK THE MUSICAL is fun, tuneful, colorful, hilarious, and a bit green. There is whiz-bang technical wizardry on stage here, as are some dandy performances (in particular Christopher Sieber and Brian D’Arcy James). I wasn’t sure about this one going in, although friends who had seen it had all mutually agreed that they loved it. Well guess what – it IS that good.

shrek-cp-w5982417shrek2The sets and costumes are colorful and terrifically realized. The lighting design pops. The makeup affects are outstanding. One word of warning, though; just like the original movies on which this musical is based, this is not a musical for Tiny Tots– parents should use discretion when deciding upon a family outing — if you’ve seen the movie and the kids are okay with it, ask yourself will they be okay with those same situations front and center, live and in person.

In a year the Billy Elliot is sure to dominate all of the Tony Awards, Shrek’s nomination for Best Musical is a fit accolade for this superior entertainment. Modern day Music Hall meets Slapstick Comedy and Brian D’Arcy James exquisite and emotional Shrek ties it all into one entertaining night out.

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Finally, I had zero expectations for 9 TO 5 THE MUSICAL going into the Marquis Theatre. I was pleasantly surprised by the comic and tuneful performances, and the absolutely amazing set. Allison Janney and Mark Kudish both deserve their well-earned Tony Nominations (for Best Actress and Best Featured Actor), as does Dolly Parton’s songs and lyrics. Country pop lives on Broadway!

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The script is virtually intact from the 1979 movie, with the same jokes and the same punchlines — even the goofy “stealing the body in the hospital” sequence. But you expect no less.

What the real revelation here is the set, and I have to say as a Director and as a Set Designer, this technical team’s omission from the Tony Awards borders on criminal. Future generations will look back at this musical (and they WILL look back – as this is sure to be performed by every high school and community theatre from Peoria to Eureka in future years to come) as the groundbreaking set design that finally integrated both a standard fly system and video screen with the newest trend: popup scenery that rises from lifts in the stage — not just platforms, entire set pieces. It is so well done here that the motion never stops — the set and choreography so intricately integrated that you fear the performers will disappear into holes in the floor — yet there they are, fresh and perky throughout as massive pieces of wall, columns, and ceilings swing and move and rotate and assemble and reassemble and put you in an entirely new location within seconds. This set design is one of the most superior I have seen in a musical probably ever. TONY COMMITTEE TAKE NOTE: YOU HAVE MADE A GRAVE MISTAKE IN THIS OMISSION.

Oh, and Allison Janney is all that and a cup of milk. Not a singer, not a dancer, she sings and dances well and brings comic timing and stage presence to the Lily Tomlin role throughout the evening. Marc Kudish deserves his Tony nomination as well for his over-the-top performance, as well as his willingness to play foil to the three ladies of the office as he gets roped, tied, hung, flung, flown in, flown out, dressed to the nines, stripped to boxers, and still look like he is having the absolute time of his life.

All three of these shows will have long healthy runs on Broadway. None of them will look the same on tour  and are all worth seeing in New York. Billy Elliot is designed to tug at your heart and make you cry (and you will – over and over throughout the evening). Shrek unexpectedly brings a tear or two (Hey, Let Your Freak Flag Fly cast!!!) and 9 to 5 will wow you with sheer entertainment and technical wizardry beyond anything seen on the Broadway Stage to date.

A couple subtle notes: Encore Musical Theatre (Dexter) bigwig DAN COONEY plays Dick in 9 to 5. He’s fine in an important but small role. University of Michigan graduate Jeremy Davis gets to have fun in the show as well.

Support Broadway, our actors, directors, musicians and stage designers and technicians. GO SEE A LIVE SHOW.