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Gorgeous but emotionally flat THE MUSIC MAN at University of Michigan (review) April 17, 2015

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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I am always so glad to have a ticket to a University of Michigan Musical Theatre Program show, because they are simply the best in town, every single time. That does not mean that the best is always perfect — and The Music Man, running this weekend at the Power Center is exactly that type of not-perfect.

There is a fantastic musical theater program cast of pre-professionals. I rarely highlight student names unless they are spectacular, and in this production, I don’t have one of those names to mention. Everybody is spot on good. Some have more charm than others. Direction and choreography by Linda Goodrich is terrific, as are all the vocals under the direction of Jason De Bord. The set is lovely, and the costumes are gorgeous. Lighting is spot on.

So why did I leave the Power Center feeling, well, sort of like I saw replacements in a Broadway tour? Was it an off-night? Did Harold Hill just not connect with me in the audience (he didn’t). Was it the lack of chemistry between Marian and Hill (there wasn’t). Or was it more-so that the entire affair felt so over-rehearsed that emotion was crowded out?

Or was it because the image of Gavin Creel playing Harold Hill, and that remarkable production (probably UM’s finest ever) still feels so fresh in my mind? That particular production by this same program was in 1998, so its been 17 years — and yet it still is the benchmark by which all of the musicals I’ve seen at UM will always be compared. This one did not compare.

Don’t get me wrong — this is a spectacular musical theater production, and you will leave knowing that you got your money’s worth — you saw some great up-and-coming Broadway and professional musical theater stars, and you sure got to see a really pretty show. But don’t expect to walk away feeling much.

The requisite tears came at the end of the show when the Boys Band arrives on stage, and the parents forgive all when they hear their kids play (badly). Its that classic musical theater moment that every single production of this show better do right, or don’t bother doing the show at all. And this production gets that very very right. I just wish there had been more of that throughout.

THE MUSIC MAN continues at the University of Michigan, Power Center through Sunday April 19th. All performances are sold out.




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.


Scrumptious “Sunday in the Park with George” – University of Michigan Musical Theatre program (Review) October 21, 2012

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Musicals.
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Continuing in a long string of the most professionally produced and technically proficient musicals in Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan Department of Musical Theater presents a scrumptious “Sunday in the Park with George” at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater.

Directed by Mark Madama, musically directed by Cynthia Kortman Westphal and Alexander Gemingnani (who also conducts), the production virtually channels the original Broadway Production with excellent performances by all actors, and gorgeous set design by Arthur Ridley and Costume Design by Rachel Ridley (with a smattering of costumes from American Players Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival). It also has some of the most remarkable sound design I have heard in the Lydia Mendelssohn (kudos to Jim Lillie).

While all of the performers are excellent (as should be, given the pre-eminent musical theater program), Trevor St. John-Gilbert is outstanding in his role of George/George and Madison Micucci is superb in her role as Dot/Marie. On stage virtually the entire performance, they bring excellent musical theater singing and acting chops to the very difficult Sondheim score.

You already know my schtick — there is absolutely nobody in Michigan that does better musical theater productions than the University of Michigan’s musical theatre program. You can take the cast, sets, and costumes and plunk it into any professional theater in America.  As usual, the run is entirely sold out, so I will not list ticket information here. For the remaining performances, cancellations, if any, are available at the box office before show time. Don’t count on it. For those who perpetually miss the boat on buying their tickets, just know that season tickets go on sale early each year for the following season. It’s the best ticket in town. Really.


Count yourself lucky if you have a ticket to BRIGADOON, University of Michigan Musical Theatre Program (Review) April 17, 2011

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, musical theater, Musicals, Theatre.
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To put it simply, the best musical theater in the region is consistently presented by the University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre Program. The productions from performance to stagecraft are indistinguishable from Broadway staging and tours (which is as it should be, since this one of the best musical theater training programs in the country). Brigadoon is no exception, and it is one of their finest.

Program artwork by David Zinn

Running one all-too-short weekend at the Power Center, Brigadoon shows what can be achieved when the performance, artistic, and technical aspects of musical theater come together in the perfect combination. The show itself falls into the dangerous territory of veering into light opera (where it is, alas, frequently produced). But this is a production whose grounding is solidly in the world of theater and musical comedy. This particular production could be lifted intact into any Broadway house, and thankfully, not into any opera house.

Thank Linda Goodrich for her fine direction; Mark Esposito for dazzling dance sequences; Catherine Walker Adams for pitch-perfect musical direction; Vince Mountain’s deceptively sparse and beautiful set (which is actually composed of huge pieces of rolling and flying stock); Shawn McCulloch’s colorful costume design (in particular the tartan clan costumes for the wedding); Rob Murphy’s colorful lighting design; and Jim Lillie’s excellent sound design.

Joe Carroll and Holland Mariah Grossman make for excellent time-crossed lovers Tommy and Fiona. Their “Almost Like Being in Love” is an Act I highlight. Will Burton plays a fine sarcastic and comic Jeff; Grace Morgan a fine Meg. Dereck Seay and Laura Reed turn in fine singing and dancing performances respectively as Charlie and Jean.

I particularly enjoyed Sam Lips as Harry Beaton — he has very strong stage presence and his dance skills are exceptional…his funeral brought a tear to the eye because he infused Harry with a like-ability that is frequently missing in this part.

The entire ensemble is excellent from top to bottom. But what makes this Brigadoon stand out from the crowd is Mark Esposito’s choreography — the show moves from beginning to end, fusing Scottish-laden dance sequences with ballet, modern dance, and a fluid movement that makes the show at once rich in dance technique and yet light on it’s feet at the same time. It’s as if the cast is virtually willing us to dance through the heather in the highlands of Scotland and all will be well.

This is a brilliant production of Brigadoon, and those of us lucky to have tickets will cherish this performance for years to come — indeed, it will become one of the landmarks by which future UM Musical Theater productions will be compared.

Stunning “Ragtime” at University of Michigan Musical Theatre Program (Review) April 17, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Entertainment, musical theater, Theatre.
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The University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre Program has another stunning success on their hands. As usual, all performances are sold out, so beg, borrow, or take up any friend’s offer of an extra ticket to see this wonderful production. Seen on sold-out Friday night, this production proves once again why it is one of the top such programs in the country.

(Top) The entire cast of RAGTIME. (Bottom) Hava Kaplan, A.J. Holmes (photos courtesy of University of Michigan, 2010)

RAGTIME is one of those shows that stirs the soul (even though you are fully aware you are being shamelessly manipulated by the plot and storyline) and makes you feel something throughout it’s three hour run. From the extraordinary opening number featuring the full ensemble, to the stirring small-family unit finale. It’s one of my 10 favorite modern musicals. I saw it in the final weeks of it’s many-month Toronto development pre-Broadway, and couldn’t fall asleep for hours after walking back to my hotel room. The same thing occurred last night. Not without its problems (Grandfather has been whittled down to an afterthought, and a major character dies and is replaced by a new spouse with three lines of dialogue), the show is none-the-less spot-on in capturing three very different world-view experiences in turn of the century America (the previous turn-of-the-century, that is!).

Director Mark Madama has done a splendid job of directing his very talented ensemble cast (and the show is a true ensemble piece) mixing  large full-stage spectacle with quiet intimate reflective moments. The show’s three hour length never feels too long, nor too hurried. Choreographer Lyndy Franklin Smith does wonders with every musical number, and by the time the show reaches “Gettin’ Ready Rag” you want to jump onstage and join in the fun. Cynthia Kortman Westphal’s musical direction is top-notch and the cast sounds fantastic both individually and in ensemble. Jessica Hahn’s costumes and Dawn Rivard’s wig-work are great. It’s all well-lit and designed by David Neville, and kinda-well sound-mixed by Jim Lillie. The sound occasionally popped and crackled, but not to the point of annoyance nor distraction. That is bound to happen in a show where every single cast member is on a body-mic.

Performance-wise, the true standout in an excellent ensemble cast is A.J. Holmes as Tateh. His voice is terrific, but his acting brings life to this difficult role that ranges from broad energetic moments to quiet internalized grief, where a twinkling in his eye says more than words ever could. Bravo, AJ.

Equally strong performances are presented by clear-voiced Kent Overshown at Coalhouse; Britney Coleman as Sarah; Amanda Choate (Mother); Tyler Brunsman (Father); Joe Carroll (Younger Brother); Marken Greenwood (Emma Goldman) and Alle-Faye Monka (Evelyn Nesbit). The children in the show (Milo Tucker-Meyer and Hava Kaplan) are also terrific.

All of the featured performers are equally strong – and the payoff is a terrific and emotional finale, with a near-instant standing ovation. The script has manipulated you to tears. The cast has manipulated you to that ovation.

My one criticism: with very rare exception, I abhor orchestras on stage. This is not one of those exceptions. I know the recent Broadway trend has been to place the full orchestra on stage (Chicago, the Ragtime revival, Wonderful Town), but I hate it. It detracts from what is happening on stage, and Ragtime is a show that is written in clean, minimalist scenes. To have the percussionist bobbing and weaving across an 8 foot orchestra space, and the harp bopping back and forth while the Tuba player switches from one bright and shiny instrument to another bright and shiny instrument is merely distracting. Don’t get me wrong, they sound fantastic in this production. But in this case, quiet moments on stage that should be actors alone in a spotlight, are backed by distracting orchestra moves in silhouette that pull you out of the moment.

Congratulations to the University of Michigan Musical Theater Program for another fantastic production. Good luck seniors in your annual New York showcase! And to those who don’t hold tickets for the show, this is your reminder (as I did last year after 42nd Street) that tickets go on sale a year in advance, and season tickets as well as individual tickets can be purchased long in advance. And they have to be. This is by-far the highest quality musical theater you will see all year in Ann Arbor. Next spring’s Brigadoon is sure to be an equal stunner.