U-M Musical Theatre offers hard-hitting drama "The Exonerated"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

University of Michigan's production of The Exonerated

The acting students at the University of Michigan’s Department of Musical Theatre will be shifting gears to perform in The Exonerated, a docudrama that reveals serious problems in the United States criminal system.

The Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen tells the true stories of six wrongfully accused convicted survivors of death row in their own words. The script was prepared from interviews, letters, transcripts, case files, and the public record.

Encore Theatre presents an emotionally taut staging of “Next to Normal”

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore Theatre's Next to Normal

Bipolar disorder is not the usual musical fare. But the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal joins such recent topical musicals as Avenue Q, Rent, Dear Evan Hansen, and Hamilton as a forum for dealing with current issues using music and words to drive home tough lessons.

The Encore Theatre production of Next to Normal, with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, will not send you home whistling a tune, but it will leave you with a better understanding of the pain, confusion, and challenges faced by those with bipolar disorder and the family and friends around them.

Theatre Nova's annual panto gets goofy for Hanukkah with "The Elves and the Schumachers"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Theatre Nova's The Elves and the Schumachers

Sarah B. Stevens, Dan Morrison, and Elizabeth Jaffe in The Elves and the Schumachers by Carla Milarch and R MacKenzie Lewis at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Golden Record Media Company.

In England, the panto (short for pantomime) is a Yuletide tradition. A familiar fairy tale is retold as an excuse for a light-hearted vaudeville of jokes, well-worn comic routines, and song and dance. 

Theatre Nova has adopted the idea as an annual holiday treat. This year a new take on The Elves and the Shoemaker gets reimagined into a Jewish-centered The Elves and the Schumachers, just in time for Hanukkah.

The plot of Carla Milarch and R. MacKenzie Lewis’ retelling keeps to the basics: elves help a desperate shopkeeper and save the day. But, oy vey, do they wander far and wide into the surreal and the totally silly. 

Encore’s "Hello, Dolly!" is still looking swell

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore's Hello, Dolly!

Photo by Michele Anliker Photography

After all these years the adventures of New York City matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi are still going strong.

Dolly is now working her magic at the Encore Musical Theatre, where Hello, Dolly!’s jaunty style, catchy title song, and lively dances make it the perfect sprightly bauble for the coming holiday season. 

Hello, Dolly! was a hit right from the start. The original 1964 New York production starring Carol Channing became the longest running musical on Broadway up to that time, with numerous leading ladies filling the role that Channing made famous. The title song became a mega-hit record for Louis Armstrong, briefly toppling The Beatles from the top of the charts. The musical has been revived numerous times on Broadway, most recently last year with a smash hit staging starring Bette Midler. 

U-M’s "Passing Strange" follows a rocking journey of discovery

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Passing Strange

Justin Showell stars as the Narrator in U-M's take on the 2008 Tony Award-winning Passing Strange.

In the late 1970s, a young African-American with musical ambitions left his strict religious home in Los Angeles to set out on a journey to discover who he was, what he believed and where he belonged.

Years later, the rock songwriter and musician known as Stew turned his story of self-discovery into the unusual and critically acclaimed musical Passing Strange. The musical, with book and lyrics by Stew, and music by Stew and a former bandmate, Heidi Rodewald, received seven 2008 Tony Award nominations and Stew won the award for best book. Passing Strange also won the Drama Desk Award for outstanding musical. 

His story resonated with those who lived during those years and it resonates still with young audiences, which makes it a perfect vehicle for young actors. The University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre will present Passing Strange Nov. 15-18 at the Arthur Miller Theatre.

It’s the words that are scary in Brass Tack’s "Blithe Spirit"

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Brass Tacks Ensemble's Blithe Spirit

Ghouls, goblins, zombies, and ghosts.

Ooooh scary

Well, not all ghosts are scary.

Take Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. The ghost is mischievous but also charming. What is scary is the sarcasm that the characters hurl back and forth at each other. 

Brass Tacks Ensemble will present Coward’s humorous take on all things ghostly Nov. 2-4 and 9-11 under the direction of Aaron C. Wade.

“It’s a haunted tale with a little bit of comedy and it’s that time of the season for a ghost story,” said Wade. “It a fun challenge to do this sort of theater.”

Theatre Nova’s "Stone Witch" meditates on elusive creativity

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The Stone Witch

Dennis Kleinsmith as Simon Grindberg in The Stone Witch by Shem Bitterman at Theatre NOVA. Photograph by Golden Record Media Company.

Theatre Nova continues a season of World and Michigan premieres with the first Michigan staging of Shem Bitterman’s meditation on creativity, ambition, and aging, The Stone Witch.

The title refers to a children’s book by a young but struggling children’s book author and illustrator. Peter Chandler has the talent but is unable to sell himself or his cherished first book, based on an old folktale told by his mother.

An editor at a prestige publisher offers Chandler a deal. They’ll consider his book if he can help them encourage their famous star children’s book writer and illustrator to finally break through and end a 12-year-long creative block.

It’s all about the dancing in U-M’s "Sweet Charity"

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Sweet Charity

You don’t have to be a big spender to enjoy the University of Michigan’s engaging, dance-happy return to the 1960s, Sweet Charity.

Sweet Charity is a lighter, thinner adaptation of Federico Fellini’s film Nights of Cabiria. The Neil Simon book changes the prostitutes of Rome into New York City taxi dancers at the Fandango Dance Hall. And the story is a mere pretext for the often-exhilarating dance numbers and clever songs.

With music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Sweet Charity is always on the move from the minute that Nevada Koenig struts on stage as the ever hopeful and usually disappointed Charity Hope Valentine. This is a musical about frustrated romance, but it’s also a musical about dance and movement.

Encore’s "A Little Night Music" takes a rueful look at love

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore Theatre's A Little Night Music

Sebastian Gerstner stars as the obnoxious Carl-Magnus and Leah Fox is his exasperated wife, Countess Charlotte, in Encore Theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.

Encore Musical Theatre continues its love affair with Stephen Sondheim with A Little Night Music, Sondheim’s wistful and rueful look at love.

Night Music, with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, was, as the Encore program notes “suggested by” one of Ingmar Bergman’s rare comedies, Smiles of a Summer’s Night. The setting is still Sweden at the turn of the 20th Century. A successful lawyer has recently married a much younger woman who has remained virginal during their eight months of marriage. She has developed a growing attraction to the lawyer’s seminarian son, who is wrestling with deep sexual conflicts of his own.

Things become complicated when the lawyer, Fredrik, comes home with tickets to see the noted stage actress Desiree Armfeldt, an old flame for whom the embers are still glowing. Desiree has started to grow weary of life as a touring actress and her affair with the obnoxious and married Count Carl-Magnus. Fredrik’s troubled married life and his love triangle with Desiree and Carl-Magnus eventually play out in the pastoral setting Desiree’s mother’s country house.

This might sound very serious, and it is, but it’s also serious comedy.

Civic Theatre’s "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" plays the con game for laughs

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Civic Theatre's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

After directing seven serious dramas in a row, including Jean-Paul Sartre’s vision of hell, No Exit, Glenn Bugala was ready for some laughs.

Bugala is directing the musical comedy version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.  Bugala, who has a Master of Fine Arts in acting from Purdue University, has performed and directed numerous productions at Civic since he became involved with the theater in 1997. His credits include directing Rent, Chess, Tommy, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, and Front Page.

Scoundrels, with book by Jeffrey Lane and music by David Yazbek, is based on the 1988 movie starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine as an odd couple of conmen engaged in fleecing rich women on the French Riviera. Caine played a smooth-talking gentleman who cons wealthy women to Martin’s rowdy, lowbrow who is happy snagging $20 from anyone he can.

“I think these days, with the news cycle, we could all use a comedy,” Bugala said. “I’ve known the movie since it came out, and I’ve kept a VHS tape of it since then.”