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.

University of Michigan Theatre takes the musical "Spelling Bee" on the road to Encore in Dexter

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Performance photo of the cast singing and dancing during The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Photo by Peter Smith.

Can you spell collaboration?

Vincent Cardinal, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre Department and a board member at Dexter’s Encore Theatre, and Dan Cooney, Encore’s artistic director, see advantages for everyone in bringing a U-M production to the city, which they will do with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

“The Encore, with its intimate setting and commitment to producing Broadway-worthy productions, is the ideal venue for this collaboration,” Cardinal said in a press release. “Artistic Director, Dan Cooney, and I have been talking about a collaboration for quite some time now and we are thrilled that it is finally coming to fruition!”

Coming to fruition is what The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is all about. It’s a funny, goofy, but sensitive musical about a spelling bee. But it’s really about adolescence and the agony of growing up told through song, dance, humor, and spelling.

Cardinal is a director who gets the best out of his student casts. The spellers each have their quirks, anxieties, and troubles but for one shining moment, they get a chance to be in the spotlight. Cardinal and his cast balance the awkward humor of being young with spotlight moments that focus on the thoughts and worries of each character. 

The show, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, plays on the usual cliches of nerdy young people who are not in with the cool kids. But the play then gives each speller a chance to confront the terrors of growing up and their aspirations for the future.

Near, Far, Antics Wherever They Are: Jeff Daniels’ "Diva Royale" keeps the laughs flowing at the Purple Rose Theatre

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Kate Thomsen, Rhiannon Ragland, and Kristin Shields in Purple Rose's Diva Royale

Kate Thomsen, Rhiannon Ragland, and Kristin Shields star in Purple Rose's Diva Royale. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

Jeff Daniels’ funny, silly, and embraceable comedy Diva Royale is—as the program announces—back by public demand at his Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea.

Three stay-at-home Michigan moms form a close bond with their devotion to Canadian diva Celine Dion and their discontent with home life. Dion is their anchor. They have all the albums, they know all the words to all the songs, they know the heartaches she’s endured and they also love (love, love, love) the movie Titanic, where Dion’s soaring voice gives lift to the love affair of poor Jack and well-to-do Rose.

When they discover that their goddess will be performing in the Big Apple, they are ready to set out on the adventure of a lifetime. As they tell us these events happened in 2019 BC—before covid.

The play is told in a fast-paced, frenetic style that keeps the jokes, the antics, and occasionally, the stinging truth at a high pitch. If one joke fails to amuse you, the next one will have you howling, as the audience was throughout the play at the press opening.

The Mating Game: Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's "The Matchmaker" Tells a Deeper Story Beyond "Hello, Dolly!"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Charles Sutherland plays Horace Vandergelder and Julie Post plays Dolly Gallagher Levi in "The Matchmaker" at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.

Charles Sutherland and Julie Post perform as Horace Vandergelder and Dolly Gallagher Levi in The Matchmaker at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre. Photo taken from Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's Facebook page.

In 1955, playwright Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker became a Broadway hit that ran for 486 performances, toured successfully, became a movie, and was embraced by regional and community theaters across the country. Today, Wilder’s play is rarely performed because of Hello Dolly!

“It’s an American classic and it doesn’t get done because Hello, Dolly! gets done,” said Wendy Wright, the director of the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s production of The Matchmaker, which will run October 19-22 at the Arthur Miller Theatre.

Hello, Dolly! is, of course, the hit musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s play with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. The song "Hello, Dolly!" was a mega-hit for Louis Armstrong before the musical was up and running, and the musical gave Carol Channing her greatest role. It, too, became a movie with Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau.

The Matchmaker has an interesting history. It began as a one-act play in England in 1835 and was expanded into a full-length play by an Austrian playwright in 1842. In 1938, Wilder, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and novelist, created an American version of the story that he called The Merchant of Yonkers. It flopped. But Wilder regrouped, put the focus on Dolly, and created The Matchmaker. He won the Pulitzer for the plays, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, and the novella, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

Sure Bet: University of Michigan's production of "Guys and Dolls" can't miss

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

University of Michigan's production of "Guys and Dolls"

Photo via University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance's Facebook.

Frank Loesser’s "Fugue for Tinhorns" sets the theme for Guys and Dolls with a funny, sweet mingling of voices in search of a winner: “I’ve got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere, can do, the horse can do.”

It’s all about the bet, on the horse race, the football game and, especially, the game of love, not to overlook the crap game. And here’s a sure bet, audiences will love the University of Michigan’s production of the ever-popular Guys and Dolls, October 6-8 and 12-15 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. 

Guys and Dolls, with music and lyrics by Loesser and book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, brings Damon Runyon’s streetwise tough guys to life with memorable songs, sharp dancing, a unique Broadway language, and the bright lights of the big city.

History From the Margins: UMS is bringing Druid Theatre's productions of Sean O’Casey’s "Dublin Trilogy" to the Power Center

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

The Plough and the Stars

Jack Clitheroe (Aaron Monaghan) throws up his big brown jug in the Druid Theatre's production of The Plough and the Stars. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

“The whole world’s in a terrible state of chassis!”
—Captain Boyle
Juno and the Paycock

In 1916 a large part of the world was in chaos and crisis. World War I was tearing Europe apart, and in Ireland, the leaders of anti-British forces saw an opportunity to rise against a pre-occupied British government and attempt to finally drive the British government from Ireland.

The deadly events of what is remembered as the Easter Rising were the beginning of a violent eight-year period that would in time free Ireland from British rule but at a high cost. Following the Rising, a war of independence began, ending with a treaty to give Ireland Free State status while still bonded to Britain. That treaty led to a civil war pitting defenders of the treaty against those who believed the treaty was a betrayal.  

Playwright Sean O’Casey grew up in the tenements of Dublin. He was a self-taught reader, a laborer, a railway worker, and eventually, a writer with a keen ear for the language of his native city. In the 1920s, he created three plays that covered the period from the Easter Rising to the Civil War. Each play centers on the lives of tenement dwellers in the Irish capital who become caught up in the frenzy and frustration of the long-running domestic war. O’Casey’s plays are both comic and tragic as well as deeply humane.

The University Musical Society (UMS) is presenting the Druid Theatre’s production of O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy, under the direction of Druid founder and artistic director Garry Hynes, October 18-21. The Galway-based theater company is bringing the play to New York City and Ann Arbor only. 

Hynes was artistic director for Druid Theatre from 1975 to 1991 and again from 1995 to the present. From 1991 to 1994, she was the artistic director of the famed Abbey Theatre, where many of O’Casey’s plays premiered.

In a telephone interview, Hynes said O’Casey’s trilogy is about the working people of Dublin living in the tenements.

Insatiable Appetite: Encore Theatre serves up a delicious “Little Shop of Horrors”

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore Theatre's production of Little Shop of Horrors.

Seymour Krelborn (Tyler J. Messinger) wrestles with Audrey 2 (voiced by William Scott Davison) in Encore Theatre's production of Little Shop of Horrors. Photo by Michele Anliker Photography.

Feed me!

The Encore Musical Theatre Company is serving up a feast of fun, a musical time trip to 1960, and a charming story about an odd plant who develops a taste for human blood.

Little Shop of Horrors is not your typical musical, and it wasn’t your typical horror movie when B-movie master Roger Corman directed the screwball movie that inspired a hilarious and oddly lovable musical.

Little Shop of Horrors opened off-Broadway in 1982, with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken while Ashman also directed. The team went on to help rescue Disney animation with hit songs for The Little MermaidBeauty and Beast, and AladdinLittle Shop won raves off-Broadway and moved to Broadway for more acclaim. That led to another movie, the musical version.

The setting is 1960. A nebbish named Seymour Krelborn is laboring under slave conditions at Mushnick’s Florist at starvation wages and few prospects. He is hopelessly in love with Audrey, who also works at Mushnick’s, and is beginning to feel something for sweet, kind Seymour. But she’s currently going with a sadistic biker/dentist, a deadly combo.

Encore Theatre's "42nd Street" brings excellent energy to a classic backstage story

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore Theatre's production of 42nd Street.

 Allison Bell as Peggy Sawyer in Encore Theatre's production of 42nd Street. Photo by Michele Anliker Photography.

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

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The cast of Purple Rose's In Common gather on a stage set up like a living room.

Hungry Ghosts: Cyrus (Dez Walker), Melanie (Caitlin Cavannaugh), Vivian (Olivia Miller), Hal (Rusty Mewha), and Blair (Rachel Keown) have a lot In Common at Purple Rose. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

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.