Brass Tacks' "39 Steps" has giddy fun with the Hitchcock classic

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Brass Tacks Ensemble's The 39 Steps

Daniel Bizer-Cox, Dory Mead, Isaac Ellis, and Maegan Murphy make the most of their invisible car in Brass Tacks' minimalist take on Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps.

The bare-bones thrust stage in a playroom at the Children’s Creative Center is the perfect setting for the Brass Tacks Ensemble’s production of Patrick Barlow’s playful The 39 Steps

Barlow turns Alfred Hitchcock’s famous thriller into an imaginative comic romp. While staying true to Hitchcock’s script, the play lets four actors engage is theatrical play as giddy as many days of child’s play at the Creative Center. 

Art and science come together in Civic Theatre’s production of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia"

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A2 Civic Theatre's Arcadia cast

L-R: Kate Umstatter as Hannah Jarvis, Laura Lilly Cotten as Thomasina Coverly, Chris Grimm as Septimus Hodge, and Russ Schwartz as Valentine Coverly in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Photo by Lisa Gavan | Gavan Photo.

Melissa Freilich loves Tom Stoppard’s plays.

“Tom Stoppard always asks you to think and feel as well,” she said.

Freilich is directing the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s production of Stoppard’s Arcadia, opening April 19 at the Arthur Miller Theatre.

It’s a play that combines entertainment with thought-provoking discussions of everything from poetry and mathematics to thermodynamics.

Purple Rose Theatre delivers a hilarious send-up of Sherlock Holmes

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Purple Rose Theatre's Sherlock Holmes cast

Alternate Fictional Realities: Paul Stroili (Watson), Tom Whalen (Vincent van Gogh), Sarab Kamoo (Irene), and Mark Colson (Sherlock Holmes) mix it up in Purple Rose's Sherlock send-up. Photo by Sean Carter Photography

Arthur Conan Doyle purists may be shocked. But imagine an alternative universe in which Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes and “the woman” Irene Adler are lovers and live together at 221B Baker Street with Holmes’ trusted companion and chronicler Dr. John Watson.

That’s the set up for Detroit playwright David MacGregor’s hilarious Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear at the Purple Rose Theatre.

Kind of Blues: K Edmonds channels a sassy Bessie Smith at Theatre Nova

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Theatre Nova's The Devil's Music

“I hate to see de ev'-nin' sun go down.”

When Bessie Smith sang those opening lines of "St. Louis Blues" the world took notice. Here was a voice to be reckoned with -- deep, resonant, and profoundly emotional.

Smith proclaimed herself "The Empress of the Blues" as a taunt to Ma Rainey’s "Queen of the Blues" title. No one would ever dispute Smith’s right to the crown. But popular music’s first great diva lived out those blues in a life that was both a celebration of free living and a reckless disregard for the dangers of that freedom.

The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is part cabaret show of Smith’s music and the alternately comic, melancholy, angry, and defiant story of Smith’s life from a shack in Tennessee to become one of the first major recording stars of the 1920s, as told by the irrepressible Smith herself.

Civic Theatre musical will take audiences on a "First Date"

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First Date at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre

Musical chairs: Drew Benson and Sarah Mazurek star in the pop- and rock-centric First Date.

Awkward!

Even terrifying at times.

That first date can make you sweat.  

That’s the premise of the chamber musical First Date, book by Austin Winsberg and music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner.

Aaron C. Wade will direct the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of First Date, March 8-11, at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the north campus of the University of Michigan.

PTD’s "Disgraced" explores tensions in multicultural USA

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The cast of PTD Productions' Disgraced

Present, tense: Neel Vaidya, Ryan McGriff, Lisa Coveney, and Angelicia Morton star in PTD Productions' take on the Pulitzer-winning Disgraced.

Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced begins slowly but builds into a fierce confrontation and a hard breakdown in social and political correctness. This 2012 drama is hot-wired with themes that still rattle American society at all social levels.

Ypsilanti’s PTD Productions dares to jump in with a generally compelling production of an emotionally and intellectually difficult play. Director Joe York gets fine performances from his cast, even though some are a bit miscast for the roles they play. This is a topical play that is also personal and deserves an audience.

U-M's "You for Me for You" is a surreal, sensitive take on immigration

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

You for Me for You cast photo

U-M students Levana Wang (left) as Junhee and Amanda Kuo as Minheein You for Me for You by playwright Mia Chung. Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

Time, space, and matters of the heart converge in Mia Chung’s surreal drama You for Me for You.

Chung’s 2012 play hits on two red-hot topics -- immigration and the tension between North Korea and the United States -- in a story of two loving sisters who become separated in time and space.

You for Me for You will be presented Feb. 15-18 by the University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre and Drama at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

Encore Theatre shakes it up with “The Million Dollar Quartet”

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore Theatre's Million Dollar Quartet

The Million Dollar Quartet +1 rocks its way through the Encore Theatre. Photo by Michele Anliker.

Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on at the Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter as the way-back machine takes us to Dec. 4, 1956, when Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash came together for the first and last time as a quartet.

The Colin Escott-Floyd Mutrux jukebox musical The Million Dollar Quartet is less a historically accurate presentation of that day than an all out celebration of these four seminal figures in the history of rock 'n' roll and Sam Philips, owner of Memphis’ Sun Records and their mentor, producer and father figure (though only a few years older).

U-M’s "Merry Wives of Windsor" brings Falstaffian wit to the holiday season

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University of Michigan's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor

Left to right: Mallory Avnet (Mistress Page), Liam Loomer (Sir John Falstaff), and Christiana Moyle (Mistress Ford) in the University of Michigan Dept. of Theatre & Drama’s production of Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

The story is that Queen Elizabeth I was so delighted by William Shakespeare’s raffish Sir John Falstaff in the historical plays Henry IV, Part 1 and 2, that she asked the playwright to give the rotund knight a play of his own, a love story for an aging rogue.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare’s only farce, has been a hit ever since. The University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre hopes to brighten the holiday season with its production of the play, Dec. 7-10 at the Power Center, under the direction of John Neville-Andrews, a professor of theatre at UM.

“I looked at the season and it’s a very serious and somewhat political season, so I thought around Christmas time we needed something humorous, funny, and enjoyable; hopefully a broad comedy for the public to come see at Power Center,” Neville-Andrews said.

Neville-Andrews said he has a particular fondness for this play.

“I’ve directed it a few times and I was lucky enough to have another crack at it,” he said, “I’ve come at it with a very different approach.”

Neville-Andrews said he is making the comedy broader than in his previous productions.

“I must confess there are some anachronisms that I have put in,” he said. “I’ve indulged myself a little bit. I’m hoping that will enhance the comedy and people will respond to that and not say, 'Well, you’re not doing Shakespeare, people weren’t like that in the 16th century.' So, I’m not doing Shakespeare in the most traditional way.”

Merry Wives of Windsor is far from the serious intentions of the Henry plays, which concern the maturing of young Prince Hal on his way to becoming Henry V. Here the action moves from London to the smaller community of Windsor, in the shadows of Windsor Castle. Falstaff and his pals from London move their antics to the Garter Inn in Windsor. Falstaff sends identical love letters to two married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. When the two women compare notes, they begin to hatch a plot of revenge against the amorous and calculating Falstaff.

“It’s the only comedy that’s set in a specific town. Other comedies -- As You Like It, Twelfth Night -- are set in faraway places. When you look at it, it’s really about community,” said Neville-Andrews.

The community has welcomed outsiders before: a French doctor, a Welsh parson, and Mistress Quickly with her cockney accent.

The portrayal of this community is enhanced by set designer Gary Becker’s three-dimensional recreation of Windsor.

“It looks like the town of Windsor. In fact through the arch upstage you can actually see Windsor Castle,” Neville-Andrews said,

The set includes six Elizabethan houses on stage. And it’s all set for farce with four doors, a couples windows and the arch.

Some critics have complained that this Falstaff is not the same as the Falstaff in the Henry plays, where the heavy drinking knight was a sodden mentor to the future king. Neville-Andrews agrees that he doesn’t resemble that Falstaff, “but to a certain degree he does.”

“He’s still that chubby, ruffian, ragamuffin Falstaff and he’s still after money as he always is in the Henry plays. He and his cronies sort of ambush people to get their money, so he often seems to be in need of money and he needs money in this play as well,” Neville-Andrews said.

Queen Elizabeth asked for a Falstaff in love play, but Neville-Andrews said he doesn’t think she got what she asked for, as Falstaff is more in love with money and himself then the women he pursues.

The slender, young U-M junior Liam Loomer dons some extra padding to play the lead role of the fat old man with the witty quips and outrageous behavior.

“It’s really interesting, isn’t it, having to inhabit a physical space I’m not usually inhabiting,” said Loomer. “I also play with age. Falstaff is a little farther up in age than I am personally.”

Loomer said he is trying to find a way to show redeeming qualities in the old knight.

“It is about his love for himself and his love for money,” Loomer said. “But I’m trying to find a way to show his other connections to humanity and I think it’s easier in the Henry plays because of his connection with Hal as a father figure and not as easy to see in Merry Widows.”

Loomer said he got some experience playing a middle-aged character in U-M’s production of Ah Wilderness.

“He wasn’t as old as Falstaff; it’s not easy," Loomer said. "We were talking last night and he’s still a little too youthful. I am in my youth, fortunately. One thing about Falstaff, he’s sort of youthful in spirit and has a certain innocence."

Falstaff gets his comeuppance from the merry wives of Windsor, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, who out-trick the master trickster and others as well. Christie Moyle plays Mistress Ford and Mallory Abnet plays Mistress Page.

“I like to think that we are the smartest people in the room at all times. Which is pretty much true,” said Moyle. “They plan everything, they know what’s going to happen, they see it through. What I’ve found interesting is that it doesn’t come from a place of malice but they genuinely enjoy doing it.”

Moyle and Abnet agree that their antics grow as much from boredom and a lack of attention as from any serious attempt to do harm to Falstaff.

“This isn’t the first time they’ve done something like this and it’s funny,” said Abnet. “You have Falstaff trying to woo us and we have an opportunity to pull a prank and it’s so enjoyable.”

Moyle said the males can be easily tricked because they don’t take women seriously.

“We trick our husbands, we trick everybody,” said Moyle.

Abnet said it was interesting that the women were not one-note.

“There is a line that the wives may be merry but honest, too, and the men all assume they can only be one thing and with all these tricks they are constantly proving they are so much more than that stigma,” Abnet said.

The actresses had to adjust to the biases of the times and also the physical discomforts.

“The corsets are hard,” said Abnet. “I didn’t think they were going to be hard. When I went for my first costume fitting I was so excited, the corset felt great. But there is a lot of running around and carrying the basket (with Falstaff inside) and throwing things so I didn’t realize it would be so restricting, and I have so much respect for the people who actually wore those things.”

Though the play is intended to get an audience laughing, Neville-Andrews said the theme of community may leave audiences thinking about some current events.

“When Falstaff comes to Windsor, he’s an outsider and has to be accepted and he has to be ‘tortured’ and go through some kind of trial before they welcome him in,” Neville-Andrews said. “By the end of the play, they all come together accepting Falstaff and his cronies who are invited back to a dinner and a big fire. If you think of Falstaff and his cronies as being like immigrants to a country that doesn’t belong to them, it might be a stretch, but there is a lesson in there about how we accept or don’t accept immigrants into our country. Do we accept their religion, do we accept their manner?”


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.


"The Merry Wives of Windsor" will be presented at 7:30 pm on Dec. 7, 8 pm on Dec. 8 and 9, and 2 pm on Dec. 10 at the Power Center on the central campus of the University of Michigan. For tickets call the League Ticket Office at 734-764-2538 or go online to tickets.smtd.umich.edu.

Cast gives strong performance in U-M’s "Blood at the Root"

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High school is a tough time in anyone’s life. It’s a time when we invent ourselves several times over and never get it quite right. Throw some deep racial tension into the mix and things can become explosive.

In 2006, a white student at Jena High School in Jena, La., was beaten by six black students. The beating followed a racially charged week. A new black student at the high school dared to sit under a shade tree unofficially reserved for whites only. The next day, three nooses were hung from the tree. More incidents followed, including a damaging fire at the school. The six students were arrested and initially charged with attempted second-degree murder, later reduced to aggravated battery. The events led to a protest against what some thought were excessive and discriminatory treatment of the six students.

Playwright Dominique Morisseau uses these events for Blood at the Root, a fictional story that explores how the young students, black and white, react to these events and how they struggle to define themselves beyond the broad stereotypes they’ve been assigned. The play deals with the protests, but Morisseau, who is black, is more interested in the emotional impact of these events on young adults trying to find themselves.