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Fantastic “The Lion in Winter” – Williamston Theatre (Review) February 22, 2014

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, Theatre.
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It’s Christmas Eve at the Chateau de Chinon in 1183 (its pictured above as it looks today) — 6 years before Henry II’s death and his son Richard’s ascent to the throne ( ten years later, followed by youngest son John).  Henry’s estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine has been freed from prison in London to come to Christmas court — and therein follows a (very fictional) account of a dysfunctional monarch family holiday, complete with mistress, quarreling brothers, and a fascinating look at a medieval royal family in upheaval (the play foreshadows eventual real-life history of who kills whom). It is said that the family members spend more time together in the same room in this play than they did in real life.

And that sets the stage for the delicious production of The Lion in Winter at the Williamston Theatre in collaboration with the theater department at Michigan State University. And oh, what a fantastic production this is! John Lepard has directed with a deft hand and a clear understanding of the history underlying the dramedy. Its a chess game played out with very real eventual consequences. He also understands the very funny script and the laughs abound throughout this production. Perfectly paced, two and a half hours fly by in what seems half that time.

John Manfredi portrays King Henry II with confidence and strength. Sandra Birch plays a superb Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their scenes together sizzle. As their sons, Michael Barbour (John), Andrew Buck (Richard) and Andrew Head (Geoffrey) turn in colorful performances that reflect their eventual roles in the drama of English Monarchy. Blaine Mizer is a fine King Phillip of France, and Katie Maggart turns in an excellent performance as his sister Alais (and Henry’s lover). The ensemble work here is superb.

But what makes this production work so well is the very smooth transitions from comedy to drama, often at the drop of a hat (or a knife, to be more specific here) — the pitch-perfect ability to switch from cat-and-mouse flirting to grab-them-by-the-throat hatred. Nowhere is this better evidenced than the show’s penultimate scene set in the cellar of the castle where Henry has imprisoned his sons. Once the knives arrive, the production shifts to all-out suspense, and despite the fact that I have probably seen this play in different productions at least a half dozen times, it still sent a shiver down my spine. Superb work all around, and it all starts with Lepard’s solid direction.

I had a very fun time at this show — I studied French history and love the way British and French storylines intersect in this show — and I can honestly say it is the superlative version of any I have seen. Bravo, Williamston and MSU.


“Five Course Love” musical makes for a great date-night at the Williamston Theatre (review) August 9, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, musical theater, Theatre.
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I love discovering new musicals that I have neither heard of nor seen, and then seeing them done well. Such is the case with Five Course Love at the Williamston Theater. This professional theater company continues to impress with their work, and this production is top-notch. An easy drive from Ann Arbor, this side of Lansing, it’s a great night out.

Laura Croff, Aaron T. Moore, and Matthew Gwynn in Five Course Love. Photo by Chris Purchis, Williamston Theatre

Three actors perform fifteen roles in a series of mishaps at differently themed restaurants, all loosely revolving around the theme of love. The music roughly follows the theme of each restaurant (country/western at the BBQ; fifties-pop in the diner; etc). Playwright/Composer Gregg Coffin has written a dandy show — one that deserves more stagings in the future.

The script is clever and funny. The music is musical. The lyrics are hilarious (and at times, bawdy — keep the under-13’s at home for this one). It’s a very difficult piece to perform, but it’s done well here. The cast did look tired heading into the final scene of the show; and the show itself does go on a bit long in one or two of the scenes.

Laura Croff, Aaron T. Moore, and Matthew Gwynn each contribute a handful of characters – at times more than one at once! They are personable, generally sound good together, and are clearly having tremendous fun. Harmonies suffer in a few instances, but that does not distract from the general goings-on. Musical accompaniment is provided by Jeff English, who is also the Musical Director. He has performed a great job with the cast, and he joins in on the fun from time to time as the performance progresses.

Bartley Bauer has designed a serviceable set; its gorgeously lit by Ted Rhyner with great costumes by Melanie Schuessler. At times, the costumes and props take on a life of their own (i.e. Laura’s leather ensemble as Gretchen; the horses in the Ballad of Guillermo).

But the evening wouldn’t be possible without the terrific direction of Tom Woldt. He uses cleverly repeating patterns that set character against character, and makes excellent use of the smaller theater space. It’s all tied together nicely in the final scene. This is fine directing.

Grab some tickets, bring a date, and go laugh. This is a wonderful summer surprise. Bravo to the Williamston Theatre for taking a risk with this lesser known work, and for giving it a top-notch home for the summer.

Williamston Theatre, Williamston Michigan – Tickets by phone at 517-655-SHOW.