Stage lights shine brightly on the eager performers in Encore Jr.’s "... Once Upon a Mattress"

Once Upon a Mattress

Kylie Scarpace is Princess Winnifred the Woebegone in "...Once Upon a Mattress." Photo Courtesy of Michele Anliker.

It’s six days before opening night and a group of young singers stand around the lobby of the Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter listening intently to musical director Cheryl VanDuzen lead them carefully through an ensemble number from Once Upon a Mattress.

Inside the theater, three actors are working on blocking a bit of stage business, getting used to a set that only became available a couple days before. It will be an intense few days for the young performers in preparation for a March 3 opening night.

For many stars of stage, movies, and television it was in theaters like this that a love of acting began -- in acting camps and after school programs. Thalia Schramm is casting and program director for Encore and directs many adult shows for the company and is the director of the youth theater production. She had worked as a camp counselor up north and “loved working with kids.”

“When I started working at Encore in 2009, when [the company] started, they didn’t have a summer program, so in 2010 I started a summer program, which has grown from four sessions and about 30 kids to 10 sessions and about 200 kids every summer,” she said.

Last year Encore started a winter youth program with a production of Seussical the Musical. The program is open to children up to 18 years old. This year 31 students are participating, ages 7 to 16.

This year’s show is called Getting to Know ... Once Upon a Mattress as a requirement of Rodgers and Hammerstein licensing for junior versions of established adult musicals. The additional intro is taken from the song "Getting to Know You" in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The King and I.


A Family Affair: "I'll Be Seeing You" at U-M’s Arthur Miller Theatre

I'll Be Seeing You

Actor John DeMerell plays Charles, father of I'll Be Seeing You playwright David Kiley.

Because nearly 900 letters were exchanged between soldier-journalist Charles Kiley and his fiancee, Billee Gray, during World War II, Ann Arbor’s David Kiley has an amazing window into not only his parents’ courtship, and their lives as young adults, but also what it was like to live in that era, both on the front lines and at home.

For this reason, he collaborated with his sister (Anne Kiley) and brother-in-law (Thomas Pellechia) to edit their 2015 book, Writing the War: Chronicles of a World War II Correspondent. But because Kiley -- director of communication at U-M’s Ross School of Business and publisher/editor-in-chief of the professional theater website -- is passionate about theater, he soon started thinking about how to adapt the material into a stage play.

The resulting show, I’ll Be Seeing You, will have its world premiere at U-M’s Arthur Miller Theatre this weekend, with performances on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm. In the show, two actors play Charles and Billee as they write and read each other’s letters; plus, two radio singers perform music from that era, while a radio announcer -- played by Kiley, who’s also making his directing debut -- offers news from the front.


Taking Control of the Story: Ping Chong + Company’s "Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity"

“When someone else tells your story, you lose power,” said Amir Khafagy on the portrayal of Muslims in popular culture.

On February 18 at the Power Center in Ann Arbor, UMS presented Ping Chong + Company’s Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity. This interview-based play analyzed the complexities of Muslim identities post 9/11.

Aside from the state-of-the-art projection, light, and sound design, there were no theatrical thrills. No dressings for the set, or costumes, and the performers were storytellers, not trained actors. The script was comprised of their own personal stories, creating a completely raw and enveloping experience. Often interview plays such as The Laramie Project are written based on true stories, but retold by actors. The entire show was performed with the actors sitting in chairs, reading off of scripts. This is to allow non-actors the chance to feel comfortable on stage, and able to tell their story. The script bounces from person to person with interludes of clapping, connecting the performers and audience to the rhythm of the experience.

Although Ping Chong + Company have developed dozens of plays utilizing this “formula,” the bravery of these individuals to take control of their story during heightened political tensions was therapeutic for everyone involved.


The Art of Storytelling Is Celebrated This Month With Two Big Events

Ann Arbor Storytellers Guild

The Ann Arbor Storytellers' Guild cracks up during its monthly meeting at Crazy Wisdom.

When we think of storytellers, we think of "olden times," before electricity, even before paper. The oral tradition is like an ancient audiobook -- but pre-dating actual books.

But Steve Daut and the Ann Arbor Storytellers' Guild beg to differ. For the past 25 years, this group has met monthly -- most recently at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tearoom -- to engage in the still au courant art of reciting verbal tales that run the gamut, from funny to high falutin'.

"For instance, at the last Crazy Wisdom event we had three personal stories, one traditional Russian folk tale, and one literary story from Mark Twain," Daut said. "Three of the stories were very funny, one was thought-provoking, and the other was just a warm and human tale. If you come to a regular Guild meeting, you can just listen or try your hand at telling, and everyone will be very supportive with tips and suggestions if you request it."


Doh! High art and pop art merge in U-M’s head-spinning "Mr. Burns"

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

Meditating on The Simpsons becomes a balm after a catastropic world event in Mr. Burns.

Shell-shocked people sit around a campfire discussing a favorite episode of TV series. They try to remember each detail to amuse each other and as a distraction from the problems all around them. The world has been thrown into darkness following a worldwide catastrophic event and stories are all that remain.

This is the premise of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, opening February 16 at the University of Michigan’s Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

“It’s a postmodern play, a pastiche of forms and thematically it goes to the heart of what it means to tell stories, why human beings tell stories,” said Daniel Cantor, the play’s director and head of performance for theater at the university’s School of Music, Theater, and Dance. “Why they need stories, why stories evolve and change across time but have different meanings for people in different contexts.”


Roustabout Theatre Troupe's "Shakespeare, You Sexy Beast" Was Refreshingly Risque

Shakespeare, You Sexy Beast

The Bard got positively bootyful in Roustabout Theatre Troupe's show.

Who knew Shakespeare could be so racy?

On February 9, Roustabout Theatre Troupe presented a sold-out performance titled Shakespeare, You Sexy Beast!, a montage of scenes and sonnets all centered around the theme of sweet, sweet love. (The show was also repeated February 10-11.)

As a local, it’s always exciting to see live theater in the Ypsilanti community. This used to be a rare opportunity, but now with Roustabout Theatre Troupe, Neighborhood Theatre Group, and PTD Productions live theater in downtown Ypsi is an actual “thing.”


Penny Seats Theatre Company kicked off its 2017 season with the ebullient "Sing Happy!"


They sure do look like happy singers.

When Lauren London started the Penny Seats Theatre Company in 2010, it was with the idea that Ann Arbor should be brimming with “high-quality, live theater that doesn’t break the bank.” That’s exactly what you’ll get if you see the new Kander and Ebb revue Sing Happy! -- Penny Seats' first show of its 2017 season -- playing in the Celtic Room of Conor O’Neill’s pub and restaurant on February 9, 14, 15, and 16.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the work of Kander and Ebb, they wrote the musicals Chicago and Cabaret, among many others. The four women who star in this revue are remarkably gifted, and the songs and arrangements that director Thalia Schramm chose are consistently beautiful, moving, and show-stoppers.

I’ve now seen Sing Happy! twice and recently asked producer Lauren London and director Thalia Schramm some questions about the production and the Penny Seats Theatre Company's upcoming season.


Review: Encore’s “Noises Off!” delivers a hilarious back-stage romp

Cast of Noises Off!

Noisy cast. | Photo by Michele Anliker.

The Encore Musical Theatre Company is taking a break from musicals to offer up a double dose of farce.

Slamming doors, fractured romances, comical confrontations, and lots of sardines happen on stage and off in Michael Frayn’s witty send-up of the theatrical life Noises Off! and the Encore company deliver a laugh-filled romp.

A very British theater group is traveling the countryside with a country house farce called Nothing On. Frayn’s play begins with a dress rehearsal that suggests the troupe is not quite ready for prime time and then takes us to two performances that devolve into chaos, one from the backstage view and the other from the stage view. It’s an affectionate but also biting view of theater types -- just the sort of thing theater types love to do.

Director Tobin Hissong keeps the verbal and physical action moving at breakneck speed. This is a play with a lot of witty dialogue and slapstick and mime. Hissong has a fine cast and he gets exactly the right comic effect from the various stereotypes Frayn uses for the play within the play and his portrayal of actors.

Daniel A. Helmer is the suave, sardonic Lloyd Dallas, the poor man assigned to direct Nothing On, a naughty sex farce. Helmer affects a just right Cary Grant snap in his English accent and a slightly florid set of gestures. At the beginning of the play, he’s a disembodied voice patiently and then less patiently taking his cast through their paces. Helmer has a winning charm that makes his character’s complicated romantic life believable and funny.


Bicentennial Smorgasbord: U-M Department of Dance's "Glancing Back, Dancing Forward"

Catching the University of Michigan’s bicentennial spirit, the Department of Dance’s student concert, Glancing Back, Dancing Forward (at the Power Center through Sunday), celebrates the Department’s own history and breadth.

A lobby installation -- designed by Stephanie Brown, Elizabeth Benedict, and Jessica Fogel -- chronicles the early days of dance at the U. There are pleasingly nostalgic photos of clogging and “aesthetic dances” in gossamer dresses out on the lawn, and excerpts from an early phys ed manual featuring line drawings and directions for calisthenics. Come the 1930s and '40s, we see the shift to “modern dance” in photos of earnest young women in Martha Graham-influenced dark jersey skirts.

Before the performance in the theater begins, the lobby is filled with dancers bringing these images to life. Choreographed by Department Chair Fogel and local tapper Susan Filipiak, this pre-show presents its examples of early-20th-century dance in overlapping layers. This results in sometimes odd but historically accurate juxtapositions, such as smiling, overalled tappers beside a stern woman in a high-necked ruffled blouse with a whistle.


Ignite the Dance: FUSE teaches everybody how to boogie

FUSE's Mark Carpenter

Mark Carpenter gets everybody dancing.

They say you should dance like no one is watching. But sometimes it's helpful to be aware of your audience -- especially if they're master dance instructors.

Mark Carpenter of Mountain View, California, and Barry Douglas of Detroit will be in Ann Arbor from February 3-5 as part of FUSE, teaching dance classes for beginners and experts alike. Put on by Ann Arbor Community of Traditional Music and Dance (AACTMAD) and A2 Fusion, the FUSE weekend includes instruction in fusion, blues, West Coast swing, and hustle as well as plenty of dance parties to test out your moves.

The AACTMAD page describes fusion as an “improvised lead-follow approach to dancing to any style of music that does not have a strictly defined dance aesthetic.” It incorporates a variety of styles to connect your movements with your partner’s movements and can either combine established dance styles or create an entirely unique dance experience.

“My version of fusion is a combination of dance styles and techniques," Carpenter said, "more than it is a dance in its own right, as in a basic step and mode of connection.”