Encore Theatre's production of "West Side Story" is unnervingly timely

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore Theatre's West Side Story

Not all that long ago, West Side Story seemed kind of quaint.

We’d all watch this classic, 1950s stage musical twist on Romeo and Juliet, built on the talent of four iconic artists (Jerome Robbins, concept; Arthur Laurents, book; Leonard Bernstein, music; Stephen Sondheim, lyrics), and think, “So many of the characters in this story are openly, unapologetically racist and anti-immigrant! I’m so glad we’ve evolved from this.”

Cut to the recent travel ban; and campaign promises about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico; and white supremacists proudly marching in Charlottesville last summer; and the U.S.’s short-lived, limited aid for American citizens living in Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria last fall; and the children of detained migrant families being separated from their parents.

So “West Side Story” -- playing through August 12 at Dexter’s Encore Theatre -- which had always felt a little dated to me, seems almost unnervingly timely now.

Riveting Riveters: Purple Rose’s “Willow Run” tells the story of four strong women

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Purple Rose Theatre's Willow Run

Southeast Michigan was in the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt “the Arsenal of Democracy” as the area’s auto manufacturers moved from making cars to making planes, tanks, jeeps, and other machinery needed to fight the Axis in World War II.

The heart and soul of that arsenal was Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti as it was transformed from auto production to production of the B24 Liberator bombers. Willow Run was more than just a factory, it was a place where national necessity created profound social change.

Women began to fill jobs once held by men and proved their value time and again. The image of Rosie the Riveter became iconic for the emergence of women as a key part of the wider workforce.

The Purple Rose Theatre is staging the world premiere of Jeff Duncan’s Willow Run, an affectionate portrayal of this local and historic story of social change.  

West Park Monster: Penny Seats' "Gravedigger" begins the outdoor season with a frank retelling

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Penny Seats Theatre Company's The Gravedigger

Meet me at the cemetary gates: The monster Anton (David Galido) and gravedigger Kurt (Robert Schorr) in Penny Seats' production of Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Gravedigger.

Penny Seats Theatre Company’s two-show 2018 summer season -- cheekily called "Hail to the Victors" -- consists of two different takes on Mary Shelley’s classic horror story. Next month, PSTC will present Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan’s stage musical adaptation of Brooks’ 1974 film comedy Young Frankenstein, but the company first kicked things off this past weekend with a two-hour production of Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Gravedigger, directed by Julia Glander and Lauren M. London.

Shakespeare in the Arb gets to the roots of "Romeo and Juliet"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Shakespeare in the Arb's Romeo & Juliet

Flower children: Romeo and Juliet make eyes in the Arb.

It’s perhaps a little surprising that over the 18 years that the University of Michigan Residential College has presented a Shakespeare play in Nichols Arboretum, this year’s production is the first time for Romeo and Juliet.

Of course, it’s one of Shakespeare’s best-loved works, packed with some of his most memorable lines and phrases. Certainly, any play with romance at its core has a place in the idyllic Arb. So whatever the reasons that it hasn’t been done before, the important thing is that it’s being done now. For fans of Shakespeare, of the Arb, and especially of both, it’s a treat.

High School Musical: Civic Theatre’s "Heathers" tackles tough issues with satire

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Ann Arbor Civic Theater's Heathers

Some people remember the carefree days of high school when everyone pulled together as a family to learn and have a great time.

Yeah, and then there were the rest of us, sealed off into our little niches in the social pecking order. High school was a place of snobs, bullies, introverts, social misfits, swaggering athletes, harassed scholars, self-proclaimed social arbiters, and queen bees.

In 1988, Wynona Ryder and Christian Slater starred in a wicked comedy that exposed the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Heathers was a stew of sharp comedy and violent mayhem that still rings true.

In 2014, Heathers, The Musical with music, lyrics, and book by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, opened off-Broadway to excellent reviews and has been a popular choice for theater companies across the country.

Ann Arbor Civic Theater will present Heathers, The Musical at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, June 7-10, under the direction of Ron Baumanis.

Theatre Nova’s "Mrs. Fifty Bakes a Pie" is a smart comedy about a serious issue

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Theatre Nova's Mrs. Fifty Bakes a Pie

All eyes on the pies: Patrick O’Lear (John, Mr. Milk) and Jeannine Thompson (Marta), along with Sarah Burcon (Fiona), star in Theatre Nova’s Mrs. Fifty Bakes a Pie.

Fiona is 50 years old, a bit shy and retiring and married to an abusive, arrogant, and philandering husband, whose love she still craves.

She needs help and her friend Marta knows just what she needs to feel empowered.

Detroit playwright Linda Ramsay-Detherage’s Mrs. Fifty Bakes a Pie is a whip-smart comedy just right for the #MeToo moment.  The play is being given its world premiere at Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova under the astute direction of Daniel C. Walker. 

Nontraditional: Pass the Hat Promotions' Catherine Zudak on why she prefers pop-up theater

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

Pass the Hat Productions' Inside the Rainbow

Pass the Hat's latest pop-up event involves (clockwise from upper left) playwright Emilio Rodriguez, singer-songwriter Jessica Feathers, and storyteller Jill Halpern performing June 1 at Riverside Arts Center's Off Center Gallery as part of its LGBTQ Pride Month multimedia exhibit.

I got interested in pop-up theater over traditional theater when I started writing plays. I’d been involved in theater for decades, but I had no idea how few new plays got produced. Because of the costs involved in putting on full productions, theaters usually produce crowd-pleasing shows. 

Pop-up shows are uber-affordable. I can pull a show together in three weeks or less by inviting new and emerging artists who already have art that relates to the show’s theme. 

All in the Family: Redbud Productions' "If I Forget" finds the flaws

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Redbud Productions' If I Forget

Family affair: Melissa Stewart, Dave Barker, and Susan Todoroff play siblings who reunite to celebrate their ailing father's birthday.

Ann Arbor's Redbud Productions usually picks the plays it wants to produce via what co-founders Loretta and Tim Grimes discover during their regular trips to New York City. Next spring the group is staging The Herd and its current production is If I Forget. Both plays are about birthday parties, which are supposed to be fun and funny, but they're not.

“We choose a lot of plays about families," says Tim. "Both of these are happy birthday parties that aren’t actually happy.”

Playwright Joseph Zettelmaier takes center stage with three regional productions

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Joseph Zettlemaier

Joseph Zettelmaier is a busy man.

The playwright teaches at Eastern Michigan University, is executive director of a theater company, and will soon have three of his numerous plays on stage locally.   

Northville’s Tipping Point Theatre production of Northern Aggression opened May 17; The Roustabout Theatre Troupe production of All Childish Things opens May 31 in Milan; and The Penny Seats Theatre production of The Gravedigger: A Frankenstein Play opens June 14 in Ann Arbor. 

Zettelmaier has written more than a score of plays that have been staged regionally and as far away as Calgary, Alberta, and Dublin, Ireland. He’s written comedies, dramas, science fiction, mysteries, and horror.  

“I am an insatiably curious human being,” Zettelmaier said. “I have these little rules I’ve come up with for myself as a writer and one is never tell the same story twice and another is if you’re not challenging yourself, you’re not challenging your audience either.”

PTD presents a timely staging of "The Crucible"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

PTD Productions' cast of The Crucible

Photo courtesy PTD Productions.

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible began with a class in America history when Miller was a student at the University of Michigan. The class included a segment on the Salem witch trials and Miller saw rich material for a drama that combined political, religious, and deeply personal conflicts.

He returned to the subject in the early 1950s, using the witch trials as a way to comment on the anti-Communist hearings of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. It was also an opportunity to show his rage at his friend and director Elia Kazan, who volunteered to name names of those who had any association with the Communist Party.

It’s a complex play dealing with a particular place and time while also exploring the broader view that we are not so far removed from the fanatics of Salem. Every few years offers up new examples of intolerance and repression, and an opportunity for theater groups to bring back Miller’s eloquent warning.