Preview: From Shakespeare to Rock and Roll, Area Theaters Have Something for Everyone



Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre bring Bettrofenheit to the Power Center in March 2017.

The overture is about to start
You cross your fingers and hold your heart
It’s curtain time and away we go –
Another opening of another show

~ Cole Porter

Autumn is just around the corner, school is back in session or soon will be, and another vibrant theater season in about to raise curtains all over Washtenaw County.

One of the perks of living here is access to so much great performing arts, from small jazz, folk and rock venues to huge arenas reverberating with mega amps and stomping fans; from intimate chamber recitals to resounding symphonies by the greatest musicians in the world; to quality professional and non-professional theater that ranges from challenging and experimental to comforting and familiar.

The theater season is especially noteworthy for the variety offered, something for every taste and numerous opportunities for sampling something that you might not think is to your taste until you try it. Two state universities, several professional and non-professional theater groups, and dramatic offerings by the outstanding University Musical Society make for a full menu of promising theater.

The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre continues a tradition that dates back to 1929 when it launches its new season with the musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Sept. 8 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on the University of Michigan Campus. It soon shifts gears from this light-hearted musical comedy for its second offering of the season, William Shakespeare’s Othello.

“We are a director driven company and have a director driven process,” said Alexandra Berneis, executive director of the AACT. “The directors come in with a play of musical in mind and a summary of ideas.”

The process for the next season begins in October. A committee of seven winnows through as many as 30 proposals, invites directors to come in to share their visions for the productions they’ve proposed, and narrows it down to a diverse season of plays.

“Usually, we end up with three musicals and three plays, but this season we had more play suggestions and we have four plays and two musicals,” Berneis said.

As a volunteer, non-professional theater, AACT tries to provide a wide range of opportunities for actors and production crew.

“We ask for plays to have at least six characters because of the venues we are working in and to involve as many people as possible,” Berneis said.

For smaller, more intimate and more experimental works, AACT created a Second Stage program for its small stage at its office at 322 Ann St.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will be presented Sept. 8-11 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on the main campus of the University of Michigan. A middle school spelling bee is the scene for a light-hearted look at childhood angst with adults playing the children.

Othello will be presented Oct. 27-30 at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the UM north campus. Shakespeare’s tragedy deals with complex themes of racial tensions, jealousy, deception, and stifled emotions.

In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play will be presented Jan. 12-15 at the Miller Theatre. Sarah Ruhl’s Tony-nominated play about the 19th century invention of the vibrator to ease “female anxiety” deals sensitively with various aspects of a woman’s life.

Almost, Maine, nine stories set in a small town in Maine, will be presented March 9-12 at the Miller Theatre.

Morning’s at Seven is a drama about four sisters in a small town during the 1930s. It will be presented April 20-23 at the Miller Theatre.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a musical based on Charles Dickens unfinished novel in which the audience helps solve the mystery. It will be presented June 1-4 at the Mendelssohn Theatre.

Second Stage productions are Sylvia, Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 and Criminal Hearts, June 16-18.

Order tickets at or by phone at (734) 971-2228.

Purple Rose's Odd Couple

Last season's The Odd Couple at the Purple Rose Theatre. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea opens its 26th season of professional theater on Sept. 29. The season features the world premiere of two comedies by Michigan writers, a revival and a Pulitzer-Prize winning American classic.

Artistic director Guy Sanville said the Purple Rose doesn’t usually build a season around a particular theme.

“But I would say this is a season about second chances, and we’ve always been drawn to that,” he said.

The Purple Rose is about developing new talent and introducing new plays.

“We’re constantly developing new work, it’s a key component of our mission,” he said. “This will be our 65th or 66th world premiere, at least half of our plays.”

He said the company currently has eight plays in development and that it sometimes takes years to develop a production.

“We have a group of playwrights we work with - Carey Crim, (Purple Rose founder) Jeff Daniels, Matt Letsher and Brian Letscher. We’re always interested in what they’re doing,” Sanville said.

Carey Crim was asked to write this season’s first play with a couple of actors in mind for a romantic comedy about retired people.

Sanville, managing director Katie Doral, and others read the plays submitted, but the final choice is made by Jeff Daniels from their suggestions.

“He’s never turned anything down,” Sanville said.

“You read something and think hmm, this has possibilities. It might be a great speech or one great scene but you know the person can write,” Sanville said.

Purple Rose works with writers through its Greenhouse Workshops at the Chelsea Library to develop their talents. Sanville said the 2017-18 season is already in development.

Morning After Grace by Carey Crim has its world premiere Sept. 29 and runs through Dec 17. The comedy tells the story of Angus and Abigail, who meet at a wedding and wake up together after a wine-fueled night. The cast includes Randolph Mantooth, who many may remember as a regular on the TV series Emergency.

Smart Love by Brian Letscher is the other comedy having a world premiere. This “dark comedy” with some sci-fi elements is about a brilliant young man who struggles with his father’s sudden death and the revelation that his parents’ marriage wasn’t everything he was led to believe. The play explores the implications of artificial intelligence. The play opens Jan. 19 and runs through March 4.

The revival is Vino Veritas by David Macgregor. On Halloween night two couples prepare to attend an annual costume party. Their evening unravels after they share a bottle of South American ceremonial wine. The play opens March 23 and runs through May 27.

The season ends with the classic Harvey by Mary Chase. The award-winning play concerns one Elwood P. Dowd and his pooka companion, Harvey, a six-and-a-half-foot tall rabbit. The play opens June 15 and runs through Aug. 26.

For ticket information and reservations, call the box office at (734) 433-7673 or visit

Always...Patsy Cline

Always...Patsy Cline from Encore's 2015-2016 season. / Photo by Michele Anliker.

The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter is also offering a diversity of productions ranging from the heyday of rock and roll to the glory that was King Arthur’s Round Table.

The season opens Sept. 29 with The Full Monty. The popular film about a group of unemployed steel workers in northern England who form a striptease act has been transformed into a musical reset in Buffalo, N.Y. The production runs through Oct. 23.

The mildly naughty Monty gives way to the squeaky clean family classic Disney version of Mary Poppins, the story of a magical English nanny and her effect on a banker’s family, Nov. 25-Dec. 23.

The non-musical backstage comedy Noises Off follows Feb. 2-19. The comedy shows the frantic activities backstage to present a door-slamming farce. If you ever wondered how they do it, this play gives you an idea.

Rock and roll royalty is the theme of The Million Dollar Quartet, an imaginary recreation of the famous afternoon when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash converged on the Sun Records studio after Elvis had become a star at RCA. The musical celebrates the music of these rock pioneers, April 14 to May 7.

Another country music legend, Dolly Parton provides music and lyrics for this musical stage version of 9 to 5. Parton starred with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in the film about secretaries rising up against a terrible boss that inspired the musical.

The Encore season ends as the last season ended with a Lerner and Loewe musical classic, Camelot, the story of Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot. The story of the Knights of the Round Table will run Aug. 3-27.

For tickets and information, call (734) 268-6200 or visit

The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance is preparing the next generation of great actors by presenting a richly varied season of straight plays and musicals.

The new season begins with Eugene O’Neill’s nostalgic comedy Ah, Wilderness Oct. 6 at the Arthur Miller Theatre. The play is O’Neill’s fond remembrance of growing up in small town America circa 1906. The production runs through Oct. 16.

The Drowsy Chaperone is a musical comedy about obsession with musical comedy as a theater fan’s favorite cast album comes to life with hilarious results. The musical runs Oct. 13-23 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

Clybourne Park

Last year's Clybourne Park, the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

A Man of No Importance is another look at the theater. The musical, based on an Albert Finney movie, concerns an amateur Dublin theater group and their leaders attempts to stage a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. The play runs Nov. 17-20 at the Lydia Mendelssohn.

Peter and the Starcatcher is a prequel to Peter Pan. This fanciful play follows Lord Aster and his daughter Molly on a mission from the Queen to destroy “starstuff”. Molly meets an orphan boy and adventure ensues. The play is based on the Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry book. Starcatcher runs Dec 8-11 at the Power Center on the central UM campus.

Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play by Anne Washburn is a dark comedy about a group of survivors after a global catastrophe who retell the story of an episode of The Simpsons and how that story-telling evolves over time. The production runs Feb. 16-17 at the Lydia Mendelssohn.

Insurrection: Holding History by Robert O’Hara is an award-winning play described as “Roots meets The Wizard of Oz,” a time-travel fantasy of black history set around the Nat Turner uprising. The dark comedy runs March 30 to April 9 at the Arthur Miller Theatre.

The UMSMTD season concludes with Disney’s The Little Mermaid. The stage version of the popular movie is based on a Hans Christian Anderson’s story about the mermaid Ariel, who wants to experience life on land. The musical features songs from the movie by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman and 10 new Menken composed songs with lyrics by Glenn Slater. The musical runs April 13-16 at the Power Center.

For information and tickets, call (734)764-2538 or visit

Eastern Michigan University has a full season of plays and musicals ranging from Shakespearean tragedy to provocative plays about current issues to a Christmas classic.

The season opens with the musical The Last Five Years about a New York couple who fall in and out of love over five years. The musical runs Sept. 9-11 at the Sponberg Theatre on the EMU campus.

Shakespeare’s Scottish play Macbeth about the ambitious Scot warlord and his equally ambitious wife runs Oct. 21-30 at the Quirk Theatre on the EMU campus.

Vital Signs by Jane Martin tells inspiring stories about women Nov. 18-20 at the Sponberg.

Dickens classic Christmas Carol is dramatized by Joseph Zettelmeir and runs Dec. 2-11 at the Quirk.

Lorraine Hansberry’s still relevant drama of black family’s fight for a better life, A Raisin in the Sun runs Feb. 8-12 at the Sponberg.

The Butterfly is the story of conflict between a butterfly and a spider based on a Persian fable. The play runs March 3-5 at the Sponberg.

Spring Awakening is a rock musical based on the German play by Frank Wedekind about restless adolescents. It will be presented March 31 to April 9 at the Quirk.

The EMU season ends with a production for children, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, based on the book by Kevin Henkes. It runs June 2-9 at the Sponberg.

For information about times and tickets, visit or call (734) 487-2282.

Beauty Queen of Leenane.

UMS brings The Beauty Queen of Leenane to the Power Center in March 2017.

The University Music Society has added drama in recent years to its world-class musical series. This years UMS will present three dramatic presentations:

RoosevElvis by the TEAM imagines an hallucinatory road trip from the Badlands to Graceland as Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley battle over the soul of a woman. TEAM has been described as “Gertrude Stein meets MTV.” The production runs Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at the Lydia Mendelsohhn.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh is presented by the Irish theater Company Druid. The play features McDonagh biting dialogue in a story about a conflict between mother and daughter in a depressed Irish village in the early 1990s. The production runs March 9-11 at the Power Center.

Betroffenheit is a combination of dance and drama exploring trauma, addiction and recovery. The production by Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre runs March 17-18 at the Power Center.

The Encounter uses hi-tech audio to tell the story of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre 1969 encounter with people in the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. Simon Burney’s solo performance immerses the audience in the sounds of the rainforest. The play runs March 30 to April 1 at the Power Center.

For ticket information, call (734)764-2538 or visit

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


Hello, theater and music fans - just wanted to add that the University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society (UMGASS), established 1947, has two upcoming productions for our 70th anniversary season. UMGASS will present "The Sorcerer" from December 8th - 11th, 2016, and The Pirates of Penzance from April 13th - 16th, 2017 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater. I have the privilege to be the President of the Society this year, and I hope to see all of you at one or both of our large-cast, full-orchestra productions!