Encore Theatre's "42nd Street" brings excellent energy to a classic backstage story
The Encore Theatre’s production of 42nd Street is a great burst of energy, a thunderous display of tap dancing and a funny, charming, nostalgic return to another place and time.
When the curtain rises, the intimate Encore stage is full of rigorously syncopated dancers rehearsing in a frenzy. The bright colors, lights, and energetic tap dancing that open the show display the special mix of Depression-era anxiety and the joy of putting on a musical.
In 1980, Broadway producer David Merrick gambled that the 1933 hit movie musical 42nd Street would find a new audience on Broadway. Under the direction and choreography of Gower Champion, the show struck gold.
The 1933 movie had been a big hit, coming as it did in the midst of the Great Depression, and it acknowledged the hard times while promoting the idea that things will get better—and in the meantime, let’s have some fun. Based on a novel, the musical introduced the classic story of the chorus girl who becomes a star.
A Ghost Story: Purple Rose’s world premiere of the humorous but serious "In Common" explores friends struggling with relationships, past and present
A young woman races about frantically trying on one dress after another. She’s going out to meet with friends who want to introduce her to a man. But she’s not sure she’s ready yet.
Melanie is haunted by a memory. Her friend, confidante, and soulmate was killed after an incident in a bar. She watched it happen and saw him taken away by police. Melanie is white, her friend Cyrus was black. Another case of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people.
Cyrus died, but to Melanie he’s still alive, still giving her advice, still making her laugh. Recreational drugs and prescribed drugs don’t relieve her sense of guilt. But now, with the help of her friends, she grasps for something new.
The Purple Rose Theatre is presenting the world premiere of playwright Quinn D. Eli’s In Common, a play that balances a caustic sense of humor with a serious look at complicated relationships in a complicated urban environment.
Director Rhiannon Ragland and her excellent cast get the balance just right. The setting is, as Eli notes, “American, urban, Brooklynesque” and the time is “two years after Obama.” Things are more than a little uneasy, but Melanie and her friends are working through it.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 comic opera "Patience" skewers a popular art movement of the day—and the satire still stings
When Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Patience opened on April 23, 1881, London’s Savoy Theatre had another hit from the popular duo. Patience had another witty and stinging libretto from W.S. Gilbert and a witty and lush score from Arthur Sullivan.
Gilbert and Sullivan once again tapped into the latest fad by lampooning the aesthetic movement of the 1880s and '90s. The art-for-arts-sake approach to the arts, including theater, was itself a critique of art with a message or political manifestos. Though the movement preceded Oscar Wilde, he is often cited as an example of the aesthetic approach.
Over time, Patience has not been performed as frequently as Gilbert and Sullivan’s other comic operas, HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado.
Cameron Graham is directing the University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society production of Patience, which runs April 13-16 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater, and believes it has a lot to say about our own self-involved times as it did when it first wowed the London audiences.
Three Years Later "The Fourth Messenger" Gets Midwest Premiere at The Ark on March 18
Three years ago, The Ark was set to be the venue for the Midwest premiere of The Fourth Messenger, a musical with a modern perspective on the life and teachings of the Buddha. Then the pandemic hit and the musical was canceled.
Now, almost three years to the day, The Fourth Messenger, with book and lyrics by Tanya Shaffer and music and additional lyrics by Vienna Teng, will finally get its Midwest premiere at The Ark on March 18. The concert-style performance will be a benefit for The Ark, Ann Arbor’s popular home for folk, jazz, and alt-country.
In an interview with Shaffer in 2020, she described what inspired the musical while she was on a spiritual retreat.
“The idea came to me on a nine-day silent retreat when I was supposed to be clearing my mind,” she said. “I was thinking about the story of Buddha’s enlightenment, where he was found under a tree and vowed not to get up until he found enlightenment. Then for many days and nights, all the temptations of the world are trying to get him up. And it came to me that it would be cool as a song and dance, the temptations standing under a tree and then thinking the whole story would be a musical because it has that scale of a hero’s quest, and so I got excited on the retreat and for many hours forgot about my breath and I thought about the musical.”
Shaffer didn’t pursue the idea for another five years. She said she had trouble deciding how to handle the story about the historical Buddha and his teachings.
“I started to think how would people view this story if it was a woman, and I wanted to update it and make it feel very relevant and contemporary,” Shaffer said. “So it took me five years to find my way into it and then many years to workshop.”
The Fourth Messenger premiered at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, California, in 2013 and was presented at the New York Musical Festival in 2017.
Encore Theatre’s "Once on This Island" combines lilting songs, dynamic dancing, and caustic social commentary
Deep bass drums beat out a rhythm inviting people to dance. They dance to keep alive their spirits and their culture. They dance with joy, but life is never easy, even on a Caribbean island—especially when the island is Hispaniola and the country is Haiti.
Haiti is a troubled land. It has been hit hard by earthquakes, hurricanes, and a long history of unstable governments.
But the people of Haiti are resilient and fight back time and again. They also are in a divided country. There is a racial divide between the wealthy mixed-race elites and the struggling peasant class.
Once on This Island is based on Rosa Guy’s novel My Love, My Love. Lynn Ahrens’ book and lyrics for the musical Once on This Island combine a love story with a caustic take on class in the Caribbean. Stephen Flaherty composed the music that combines Caribbean beats for lively dances and soaring pop music for plaintive songs of yearning.
The Encore Musical Theatre presents an energetic, even passionate, production of the Ahrens-Flaherty musical through March 12 at the Maas Performance Center in Dexter.
An Honest Mistake: Purple Rose Theatre’s “Human Error” Uses Comedy and Relationships to Bridge the Nation’s Growing Political Divide
It’s no secret, this is a divided country. The chasm has widened between liberal and conservative, rural and urban, and religious and not so much. We don’t talk to each other; we scream at each other.
Playwright Eric Pfeffinger takes this disturbing truth and imagines what would happen if right meets left under unusual circumstances in Human Error, a comedy having its Michigan debut at the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea.
Madelyn and Keenan, described as NPR-listening, latte-sipping blue staters, have gone to a fertility clinic in hopes of starting a family. Unfortunately, as a nervous doctor tells them, their fertilized embryo has been implanted in another woman’s uterus.
Heather and Jim, described as small-government, churchgoing, card-carrying NRA members, agree to meet with Madelyn and Keenan, and after discovering they don’t have horns, Heather agrees to give the liberal couple the baby when it’s born.
Director Lynch R. Travis and his uniformly excellent cast do a good job of balancing Pfeffinger’s mix of broad comedy and heartfelt connections. The set is simple and spare. White chairs become a car, storage bins, and love seats. The stage backdrop is a set of curved gray-white walls for easy entries and exits. The audience is not distracted by scenery from the point the playwright hopes to make.
U-M students go back to the Victorian era in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest"
It was still early in rehearsals and cast members were beginning to master an unfamiliar language as well as a different set of values in a distant time. It was the ’90s when a queen reigned and defined an age.
No, not the 1990s, the 1890s.
That’s when Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest made its debut.
The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance will present Wilde’s giddy and ever-popular comedy February 16-19 at the Arthur Miller Theatre.
Every year musical theater majors at the University of Michigan perform in a non-musical production. It’s all part of making theater students at ease in both musical and non-musical productions and honing their skills.
Production director Vincent Cardinal, a professor of musical theater at the University of Michigan, has directed and produced scores of productions across the country and is also a noted playwright. Cardinal said Wilde makes it easier for the actors to get into the Victorian era.
“You’re never in better hands than someone like Oscar Wilde,” Cardinal said. “Wilde is going to give them great language, really great characters, and they’ll be really good. When not solving problems, they’re becoming really good at their craft.”
Chicago percussionist Kahil El’Zabar brings spiritual energy to Encore Theatre’s "American Songbook" concerts
Kahil El’Zabar has a very clear memory of the greatest performance he ever attended.
“I saw [John] Coltrane at a club called McKee’s in Chicago,” the jazz percussionist and band leader said in a phone interview. “I was 15 and [drummer] Elvin Jones went to sleep while he was playing and never lost a beat. The telepathy, the power of communication and connectivity, of mind and spirit in music, that one moment changed my life because I knew that I would want to be part of that embrace for the rest of my life. I would always search for that moment when you are beyond consciousness and can express something greater than yourself. I hope for that every time. When you do it, it is the most exciting and humbling experience you ever experience.”
El’Zabar and his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble will bring his unique approach to the Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter, Feb. 3-4. Last year at about the same time, El’Zabar and his group performed at Encore’s Modern Jazz Meets Musical Theatre; this year the theme is A Modern Exploration of the American Songbook.
The innovative, award-winning musician will celebrate his 70th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble next year. His career has been influenced by both his African heritage and growing up in one of America’s legendary jazz cities, Chicago.
El’Zabar’s music has a rich spiritual component that comes from both his experience in Africa and his exposure to the masters of jazz.
“When I came out of Lake Forest College in ‘73, I had an eight-month residency in Ghana,” he said. “I was at the University of Ghana in a city called Legon. Just how people related on a human level, the connection of touch, not just physical but eye and voice and through performance; it seemed to have this spirit that I wanted to retain in my own music.”
As a teenager in Chicago, he got to know performers like Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He admired the energy.
Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's take on "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" is a mystery that explores a spectrum of emotions and relationships
Cassie Mann was a fan of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and was excited when Simon Stephens' stage version became a hit in London and New York.
“I went to New York and saw the Broadway version and just loved it,” she said. “It’s got so many elements to it. It’s a family drama, it’s got humor, it’s a mystery, it’s got themes of perseverance and it’s a good character-driven play and yet it’s got a love of fun stuff that goes along with it.”
Mann wanted to direct a production for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and was all set to stage it in 2021, when the show was canceled because of the pandemic. This pause gave Mann a chance to delve a little deeper into the play and its unusual perspective.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time begins as a mystery. Fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone discovers the corpse of a neighbor’s dog and sets out to discover who murdered the dog. Though never explicitly remarked on in Haddon’s novel or Stephens’ play, Christopher is on the autistic spectrum. The story of this mystery and what comes after is told from Christopher’s perspective as a sort of therapy suggested by his teacher, Siobhan.
The play is a family drama revolving around Christopher’s troubled relations with his parents. But it’s also a celebration of his determination, his wit, and his mathematical genius.
Mann read some books on autism and one book in particular influenced her approach to the play.
A modern Marion takes the lead in U-M’s "The Heart of Robin Hood"
The legend of Robin Hood has been told for centuries. In the usual version, he is a nobleman who has been forced from his estate. He gathers a band of “merry men” who are dedicated to robbing from the rich and giving to the desperately poor.
But in earlier versions of the story, told in verse and song, Robin robbed from the poor but didn’t give to the rich and didn’t have noble aspirations. Playwright David Farr has returned to that earlier version of Robin Hood and to a very different Maid Marion, who challenges the outlaw to be a better man.
The University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama will present Farr’s The Heart of Robin Hood at the Power Center for the Arts, December 8-11.
Director Geoff Packard said that Farr takes a decidedly different view of Robin Hood and his Merry Men.