Oh, What a Beautiful Production: Encore Theatre gives "Oklahoma" a magical infusion of youth

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore Theatre's production of Oklahoma.

Photo by Michele Anliker Photography.

The Encore Theatre’s artistic director and co-founder Daniel Cooney takes the helm of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s game-changing and beloved musical Oklahoma and has given it a youth infusion.

Just down the road from Dexter is the University of Michigan’s School of Music and Theatre with some of the most talented young performers anywhere, many of them bound for Broadway and Hollywood. The Encore has a group of excellent actors who perform at the highest level. Put them together and the result is magical.

From the moment a swaggering Curly greets Aunt Eller with the rousing declaration, "Oh, what beautiful morning, oh, what a beautiful day" we get the idea that we will be given a jolt of boundless energy. The electricity never flags.

Oklahoma opened on Broadway in 1943. It was the first of an unprecedented run of hit musicals. Rodgers' music and Hammerstein’s book and lyrics dominated Broadway for the next 20 years. Hammerstein stepped in to write the book and lyrics after Rodger’s long-time lyricist, the brilliant but troubled Lorenz Hart, declined to participate and suggested Hammerstein as a replacement. 

Cultures collide in Theatre Nova’s production of "Death of a Driver"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Actors Jalen Wilson-Nelem and Sarah Stevens and chugging beer on stage.

Jalen Wilson-Nelem and Sarah Stevens do their best to communicate across the complicated landscape that is post-colonial Africa in the Michigan premiere of Will Snider's Death of a Driver. Photograph by Sean Carter Photography.

An ambitious, idealistic young American woman with an engineering degree comes to Kenya with a dream of building a four-lane highway and helping Kenyans move forward. She has financial support and encouragement from the Kenyan government but this is her first time in Africa and she has a lot to learn.

She’s hired a young Kenyan man to drive her and they quickly develop a friendship. She values his knowledge and he is offered a rare opportunity to be involved in the project.

This is the plot of Will Snider’s play Death of a Driver, an examination of just how complicated it is to communicate across the historic, cultural, and fiercely political landscape of post-colonial Africa. 

Theatre Nova is presenting the Michigan premiere of Snider’s one-act play through June 9. 

The engineer and her driver form a close bond. They like each other, they are attracted to each other but they are from two different worlds. Snider tells the story in a series for vignettes across 18 years from 2002 to 2020. 

PTD Productions takes the challenge With David Mamet's language-rich “Glengarry Glen Ross”

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Jacob Williams-Justin and Rick Sperling wear suits and sit at a table in PTD Productions' "Glengarry Glen Ross."

Jacob Williams-Justin and Rick Sperling perform as John Williamson and Shelley Levene in PTD Productions' Glengarry Glen Ross at Ypsilanti's Riverside Arts Center. Photo taken from PTD Productions' Facebook page.

David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross is about double-dealing, backstabbing, power plays, American striving, and the rage of real estate salesmen in a heartless Chicago, circa 1980s. 

It’s also about language—Mamet’s sharp, snappy, multi-layered, and riveting symphony of words. They call it “Mamet-speak,” a mastery of street language, the language of the locker room, the real estate office, the street, and a perfect voice for the raging anger and dashed hopes of his characters.

It’s not an easy language to master. PTD Productions has taken the challenge in a lively production of Glengarry Glen Ross under the direction of Liz Greaves-Hoxsie. 

The first act is set in a Chinese restaurant near the real estate office. It’s a set of three one-sided dialogues each fueled by alcohol and grievance. 

"Marvin’s Room" walks a thin line between comedy and drama at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre

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Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's Marvin's Room

Bryan Shane (Dr. Wally) and Laura Chodoroff (Bessie) rehearse for Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's staging of Marvin's Room. Photo by Tom Steppe.

When the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre had to find a substitute for a previously announced play, Cassie Mann stepped in as director and suggested staging Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room, a play that walks that thin line between comedy and drama.

Two sisters have taken different paths in life. Bessie, now in her early 40s, left Ohio for Florida to be a caregiver for the last 20 years for her chronically ill father and an aunt confined to a wheelchair. She accepts her burden lightly but knows she’s missed a lot. Her sister Lee stayed in Ohio 20 years ago and never looked back. She is now the single mother of two teenage sons.

Bessie receives bad news from her doctor. She has leukemia and needs a bone marrow donor. Lee has to come to Florida to help her sister.

Sound heavy?

Cassie Mann calls it “one of the funniest plays about a serious subject I’ve encountered.”

U-M Presents a Swirling, Perfect Staging of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Cole Newburg as Fredrik Egerman and Audrey Graves as Anne Egerman in the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance's production of "A Little Night Music." Theatre "A Little Night Music" at

Cole Newburg as Fredrik Egerman and Audrey Graves as Anne Egerman in the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance's production of A Little Night Music. Photo taken from University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance's Facebook page.

It always amazes me. 

Every year, the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance is a magnet for the best, most talented musical theater stars on the horizon. 

This weekend, all that training and dedication pays off in a swirling, funny, poignant, and smoothly executed production of A Little Night Music, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler. Here, a large cast can show their innate talent and what they’ve learned on their way to future stardom at the Power Center for the Performing Arts.

Director Telly Leung, music director and conductor Catherine A. Walker, and choreographer and student Davey Burton Midkiff bring it all together. 

A Little Night Music is, as a note says, “suggested by a film by Ingmar Bergman.” In U-M’s production, Wheeler keeps the main characters and the late 1800s Swedish setting. It’s mid-summer when the days run long, and a yearning for love is in the air. Wheeler makes room for Sondheim’s excellent music and razor-sharp lyrics, but also makes subtle changes that bend Bergman’s film in complex ways.

Encore Theatre hosts "Love Boat" vets in engaging, thoughtful "I’m Not Rappaport"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Ted Lange and Fred Grandy in I'm Not Rappaport.

Former Love Boat stars Ted Lange and Fred Grandy in Encore Theatre's presentation of I'm Not Rappaport. Photo by Michele Anliker Photography.

You remember The Love Boat? Sure you do.

On Saturday nights from the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s, the captain and his crew would help passengers find love, laughs, and life lessons.

Encore Theatre is taking a brief break from presenting musicals to showcase Herb Gardner’s I’m Not Rappaport, a funny, engaging, and thoughtful look at aging in the big city. It’s a perfect opportunity for a Love Boat reunion, bringing together Fred Grandy as the cruise ship purser Gopher; Ted Lange as Isaac Washington, the ship’s genial bartender; and Jill Whelan as Vicki Stubing, the captain’s daughter.

Two old men share a park bench in New York’s Central Park. Midge Carter (Lange) claims the bench for himself, a place where he can read a newspaper and hide from his obligations as a building superintendent. Nat Moyer (Grandy), a lifelong political lefty, loves to talk and wants to share his endless stories with the wary Midge. They’re an odd couple, who learn just how much they need each other.

Director Vincent Cardinal draws excellent performances from his veteran stars. They bring years of experience and a real love for the play they’re presenting. Cardinal balances physical comedy with the snappy and telling conversations that are the real heart of the play.

U-M’s take on Anton Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard" balances an awkward blend of comedy and tragedy

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Overheard shot of the stage with the cast of The Cherry Orchard

Photo by Erin Kirkland/Michigan Photography.

Is it a tragedy or a comedy?

Anton Chekhov, master short story writer and playwright, believed he had written The Cherry Orchard as a comedy, taking a jab at a rapidly fading way of life in rural Russia. When director Constantin Stanislavski directed the play for the Moscow Art Theatre in 1904, he directed a tragedy about a social order soon to be eclipsed by a very different social order.

The University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre and Drama balances the two points of view with mixed results.

In his program notes director Daniel Cantor acknowledges the shifting tone that leaves room for very different points of view.

Cantor writes, “What’s fascinating to me about The Cherry Orchard is that it contains intense contradictions: contradictions in style, theme, and action, and highly contradictory characters. It fully occupies a tragicomic perspective that is always moving, shifting, turning on a dime—whipping from the profound to the farcical, the spiritual to the absurd. And sometimes both at once.”

Six-Pack of Shorts: Ann Arbor Civic Theatre tackles David Ives' comedy anthology "All in the Timing"

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Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's All in the Timing

Denyse Clayton, Julie Post, and Ellen Finch star in the "Words, Words, Words” section of Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's All in the Timing. Photo by Tom Mann.

When Bruce Morey was looking for a play to direct for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, he wanted a comedy that would engage a large cast and that wouldn’t be too time-consuming for cast members. Instead of one play, Morey found six plays in one package, David Ives’ All in the Timing.

“I wanted to do a comedy that didn’t have any heavy issues about it, just fun,” he said. “All in the Timing is a series of 10-minute plays and I wanted to explore 10-minute plays, which I think is great for community players because you can put a lot of people into these plays if you do it right. They’re shorter, so for people who work full time and have lives outside of theater, this is a great experience for them because they can come in and do a 10-minute play or a 15-minute play and maybe it’s their first experience with it. It’s self-contained and ideal for community players.”

The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre will present Ives’ six-pack of short comedies, March 14-17 at the Arthur Miller Theatre in Ann Arbor.

Director Morey and producer Nicole Arruda are working together on producing and directing.

Comic Duet: Theatre Nova's "Fortune" is a rom-com with expert timing

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Russ Schwartz and Josie Eli Herman star in Theatre Nova's Fortune. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

Russ Schwartz and Josie Eli Herman star in Theatre Nova's Fortune. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

This has been a chilly, wet, slippery, snowy winter, so it’s a perfect time to warm up with a rom-com—especially with Valentine's Day around the corner.

For Theatre Nova's production of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Fortune, director Carla Milarch brings two talented actors together in a comical duet. It’s a good choice for Nova's tiny, sometimes cramped space. There are some lighting special effects, but most of the fireworks come from the actors who play two lonely people looking for love.

Madame Rosa is a fortune teller, like her mother. It’s a family business and a curse. Unlike other “fortune tellers,” Madame Rosa actually can look into the past and predict the future, but she'd rather be a secretary. 

When not being Madame Rosa, she’s a lonely young woman named Maude who is afraid of what she can do and afraid to give up the business and do something about her life.

One day, a desperate young man demands that Madame Rosa read his fortune. He’s an awkward young accountant who has been regularly striking out in his attempts to find love. He wants to know what his future holds and doesn’t want it sugar-coated. 

Bold Conversations: Theatre Nova's "What the Constitution Means to Me" explores big issues on a small stage

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

What the Constitution Means to Me. Photo by Heidi Schreck.

Emily Wilson-Tobin and Skye Solea debate What the Constitution Means to Me at Theatre Nova. Photo by Heidi Schreck.

New York Times theater critic Jesse Green hailed Heidi Schreck’s play What the Constitution Means to Me as “not just the best play on Broadway, but also the most important.” 

Here was a theater piece that grappled with real issues while also being funny and intimate. The playwright played herself, offering her story as a template for long-simmering grievance.

Schreck’s play was not the usual Broadway fare. The set was simple, the approach was friendly and beguiling—and then, quietly, outraged. Schreck used her own story to explore what the U.S. Constitution got right, where it failed, and its impact on the lives of everyone.

The play opened on Broadway in 2018, in the wake of the Me Too movement that put a bright spotlight on male privilege, violence, and smug disregard for half of the human race. 

Yes, the play is about the Constitution but its real subject is a dawning feminism and how that hallowed document has helped and hindered the freedom of women and minorities over the last 235 years.  

Theatre Nova is the perfect venue for Schreck’s play. It’s a small theater in the heart of a great university town, a place where arguments about the Constitution really matter. Nova is presenting What the Constitution Means to Me through November 9.