Penny Seats Theatre Company kicked off its 2017 season with the ebullient "Sing Happy!"
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.
Q: What is the mission of Penny Seats Theatre?
LL: We chose a casual model, bringing theater to Ann Arbor for very low, movie-ticket-level prices, funding every show in advance with private donations, not ticket sales. We encourage our patrons to come out to West Park on a summer evening -- or a pub or restaurant in the winter -- to enjoy first-rate theater in a comfortable setting. Our mission is to create excellent, accessible, affordable theater and to provide a creative outlet for experienced Michigan theater artists. We try to choose work that is engaging, to really bring our audience in, and to create an immersive feeling in each of our shows, both outside and indoors.
Q: How did you choose to do a Kander and Ebb revue this year?
LL: This Kander and Ebb revue was the brainchild of Roy Sexton, a long-time Penny Seats [participant] and dear friend. Roy brought the idea to the group, citing the intimate, powerful, funny, and narrative qualities of Kander and Ebb's songs. He knew it would work for us in this venue and at this time.
TS: Kander and Ebb are responsible for some of the most emotionally intense musical theater pieces! I LOVE their ability to be completely heart-wrenching with one breath and overjoyed with the next. Their use of language is just incredible. I was also super-excited to collaborate with R. MacKenzie Lewis again; he and I have directed many shows in the past, and his ability to create exciting and new orchestrations of existing material is unparalleled.
Q: What qualities were you primarily looking for when casting the show?
TS: I was honestly looking for four amazing vocalists. I ended up with just that: Sarah Briggs, Elizabeth Jaffe, Kristin McSweeney, and Lindsay Fritschmuth are absolutely amazing. Each one of them has a different vocal quality and bring different personalities to each thing they sing. They are all powerhouses both as singers and actors, and completely commit to every song.
Q: What was the process of “writing” this production like? How did you choose which songs to select and what order to put them in?
TS: R. MacKenzie Lewis and I are both HUGE musical theater nerds! Ha, ha. No, but really, we listened to hours of songs, went through scores and lists, and he came up with some really awesome "mash-ups" that seamlessly go together. We definitely had to make some cuts, but we finally landed on a great song list of well-known Kander and Ebb tunes as well as many lesser-known gems.
Q: How did you determine which songs should go to which actresses?
TS: Honestly, I wanted everyone to have some show-stoppers, everyone to have emotional ballads, everyone to have an equal feature. It really came from Ryan and I knowing their voices pretty well -- we have worked with all but Lindsay before -- and knowing their personalities, and seeing who-fit-what best. We switched some things around, and what we have landed on is perfect.
Q: What was your biggest challenge in putting this piece together and the most rewarding part?
TS: We initially thought we needed a guy in the show -- but having these four awesome women really made for a great "girl-power" creation. They banter with each other, they banter with Ryan and the band, and they have fun. Figuring out staging in the interesting space that is Conor O'Neill’s was probably the hardest -- since you have three [audience] sides to catch -- but the gals are champs with paying attention to the whole audience.
Q: Can you talk a little about the challenges and advantages of doing dinner theater?
LL: Dinner theater is a delight when done with the right partner. Conor O'Neill's is fantastic at making people feel welcome and relaxed, and the combination of a hearty meal and a show there could not be better. In dinner theater, timing is always critical, but Conor's has it down to a science, and we love creating the cozy, festive atmosphere that comes with their lovely Celtic Room. We couldn't be happier with this format. Of course, we need a little extra muscle when we resolve to bring and build our own stage in any venue, but this also gives us some leeway about the kind of environment we'd like to create. Thalia and our production team did a fabulous job with this U-shaped stage configuration, spotlighting not only the performers but our fantastic band as well.
Q: Who is your ideal audience for Sing Happy!? What do you hope they'll walk away with?
TS: Everyone! Well, there are a few swears, so maybe not EVERYONE! But anyone who loves musical theater, who loves quality music. You will laugh, you will probably tear up, you will nod with recognition when you hear something you know.
Q: What is coming up for you in the near future?
LL: This will be The Penny Seats' biggest year yet. Sing Happy! is the first of four productions in our 2017 season. Coming up in June and July, we'll return to our summer home at West Park with the world premiere of The Renaissance Man, a comedy riff on Macbeth, as told by workers at a Renaissance Faire, and Peter and the Starcatcher, the clever and sweet prequel to Peter Pan that has been lighting up the boards nationwide this year. Finally, in October -- just in time for Halloween -- we'll present Jeffrey Hatcher's chilling two-person adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. It's going to be a busy but exciting year for us.
TS: I work full-time with The Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter and am also currently directing the second year of my Encore Junior program -- a full-production with all children under 16. I founded it last year and it is an absolute blast. [I’m also] gearing up for my eighth summer running The Encore Musical Theatre Summer Program, and casting the rest of our ninth season: Into the Wild, Camelot, and 9 to 5 the Musical.
Toby Tieger has directed, acted in, and written plays over the last 10 years, and sees theater as often as he can. He is a bookshelver/processor with the Ann Arbor District Library.
"Sing Happy" runs February 9, 14, 15, and 16 at Conor O'Neill's, 318 S Main St., Ann Arbor. Dinner-and-a-show combo tickets are $30 each (dinner seatings begin at 6 pm); show-only tickets are $15. Curtain is at 7:30 pm in the restaurant’s Celtic Room. Visit pennyseats.org/box-office or call 734-926-5346 for tickets.