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“Into the Woods”, University of Michigan, is wonderful (review) October 16, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Broadway Musicals, musical theater, Theatre.
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“Into the Woods” presented by the University of Michigan Musical Theater Program, is the only local production of this (way way overproduced)show that I have seen that does it the way it’s supposed to be done.  I had the fortune to see the original Into the Woods on Broadway when I was living there in the 80’s with it’s spectacular cast including Bernadette Peters, Chip Zien, and Joanna Gleason.

UM’s production is just lovely — from the set, lighting and costumes, to the very fine vocal work – especially the choral work here. Kudos to musical director Cynthia Kortman Westphal and director Mark Madama for the magic onstage.

The student actors are indistinguishable from a professional tour cast.  Eric Maler and Amy Blackman as the Baker and his WIfe turn in fine performances, as does Rachel Bahler as the Witch, but the entire ensemble cast here is superb. I especially enjoyed Andy Jones in his duel-roles of the Wolf as well as one of the Princes. He’s a hoot in both.

The show works particularly well in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater – large enough to make it a true proscenium musical with a full orchestra, but intimate enough that you can literally hear every word. Congratulations to the excellent sound design here.

Get out of the house, go see this “Woods” even if you have seen the show multiple times before (and how could you not have, given it is one of the most over-done musicals from elementary school to regional productions). Unless you have seen the show on Broadway, you haven’t seen it like this. Every joke, every piece of dialogue, and every note in Lapine/Sondhem’s work is nuanced and clever. It’s not either of the artists’ strongest works, but it is their most accessible by far. As you get into Act II (yes, folks who have done the show in primary and junior high schools, there IS an Act II), the story takes a decidedly more adult turn with all the grand themes of death, survival, coping, and rebirth that make all musicals soar.

Giants can be right. Witches can be good. And you will have a wonderful time venturing into these “Woods”.

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.

“Evita” – University of Michigan Musical Theatre Program October 17, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, Theatre.
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“Evita”, currently running at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre at the University of Michigan is a musical theatre diamond. Presented by the Musical Theatre department, it is as slick as a Broadway tour, and as tight as a college production can be.


The production reaffirms that the only current professional caliber musical theatre being presented in Ann Arbor is being done by the UM Musical Theatre program. Let me state up front that I love big-budget proscenium-theatre musicals with full orchestras. Especially when they are done right.

Under the expert direction of Linda Goodrich, the show plays out exactly as it should — a fast, straight-forward Act I, followed by an ever-increasingly more emotional Act II, through to the tear-jerker ending. “Buenos Aires” and “A New Argentina” remain Act One’s highlights, while “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and “Rainbow Tour” are clearly Act Two’s forte pieces.

To be sure, this is a problematic work of musical theatre. The Peron story doesn’t really play out true to reality, and follows a “spin” on her biography that bends the truth, and is mean-spirited at that. The Broadway production catapulted Patty LuPone to stardom (ironically, she will be performing here later this year).

But this production is simply first rate, from the fine performances of Desi Oakley (Eva) and Carlos Valdes (Che) to the smaller ensemble parts. The costumes, sets, lighting, choreography, sound, and orchestra are professional and slick. In short, everything a production of the show should be. Linda Goodrich and her design team have made the theatre feel twice the size that it is, and the simple (but beautifully designed) tiered set makes the proscenium arch feel far higher than it is. This is just plain old great design work. The costumes here, like in the original Broadway production, instantly make an indelible impression – separating class, age, and social rank – and make scene changes seamless and fluid without set changes. Can I add that Desi gets to wear the most stunning clothing I’ve seen in a show this season? By the time Eva reaches her Rainbow Tour, you are utterly transported to a different time and place. By that point in the story, the emotion has also kicked into high gear and it’s a race to the conclusion. Brava to both Ms. Oakley as well as Linda Goodrich’s fine pacing and direction.

This is a love it or hate it work of theatre. The same can’t be said of the production, and I loved it. Unfortunately, unless you already have tickets, you won’t be seeing this one. Every performance has been sold out for weeks.

On a final note, can we consider this show now “done” here locally? Civic, Encore, UM, EMU, Croswell…

Stunning “42nd Street” by University of Michigan Musical Theatre Program April 18, 2009

Posted by ronannarbor in Theatre.
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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — there is absolutely nobody that presents more professional musical theatre regionally than the University of Michigan Musical Theatre program. Recently celebrating it’s 25th birthday, the program is going strong, with graduates consistently working on Broadway and nationwide.

Nowhere is this professionalism more evident than in Linda Goodrich’s production of the musical theatre chestnut 42nd Street running this weekend at the Power Center. This is the second time she has directed this musical for UM, the last time in 1995 and the first UM show I had the privilege of seeing myself. This current production is equally stunning.

Bryan Langlitz plays Billy Lawlor and Mary Michael Patterson plays Peggy Sawyer, both to perfection. The cast is uniformly strong, and the tap is just spectacular. I’d venture to say they actually look more in-sync than some Broadway Tour companies, partly due to the sheer amount of time dedicated to teaching and perfecting the many dance numbers in classes as well as rehearsal each day.

The following photos give you a sample of the production. I’d urge you to beg, borrow, or steal tickets to see it while you may — and in reality, that is the only way you can — every single performance is sold out in the 1400 seat theatre.

Bravo UMMT — and a great big Brava to Linda~~

0809-42nd0110809-42nd0910809-42nd2810809-42nd3410809-42nd441(note: All photos courtesy of UM Musical Theatre Program, copyright University of Michigan Musical Theatre Program, 2009)