U-M’s "Insurrection" uses drama, comedy in a swirling, challenging trip through time

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Insurrection

Left to right: Shaunie Lewis as Mutha Wit, Aaron Huey as Ron, and Eddie Williams Jr. as T.J. in Insurrection: Holding History. Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

Time travel is a hot topic with three new television series featuring characters who travel back to historic events and learn some lessons about history and themselves.

Robert O’Hara’s 1995 play Insurrection: Holding History takes a fantastical and theatrical approach to time travel to offer some rich insights into African-American history and the continuing friction between black and white Americans.

The production by the University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre and Drama at the Arthur Miller Theatre takes a fine measure of O’Hara’s swirling combination of broad satirical comedy, cultural touchstones, and searing drama as Insurrection moves back and forth from the present to the doomed and bloody 1831 slave uprising of Nat Turner.

Ann Arbor Civic Theater’s “Almost, Maine” offers 9 emotional small-town snapshots

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Almost, Maine

"Look, up in the sky, it's one ofAlmost, Maine's vignette's!"

John Cariani’s Almost, Maine is set in a fictional town so named because it’s so far north that it’s almost in Canada. It’s distant from the urban chatter of Boston or Montreal, but that physical distance also suggests the emotional distance that the play’s characters have to bridge.

“Distance is a big issue in the play,” said Elizabeth Docel, who plays two parts in the production. “The town is distant from everywhere and the play is about the distance between people.”

[http://www.a2ct.org/shows/almost-maine|The Ann Arbor Civic Theater is presenting Cariani’s play March 9-12] at the Arthur Miller Theatre. It’s a play that has won wide support at regional and school theaters for its mix of comedy, drama, and a little magic realism.

“When I first read the play, it was so different from what I usually do,” said director Kat Walsh. “I usually do Shakespeare and works centering on social justice, and I found this play simple, sweet, and quirky.”

As she looked deeper into the play she also found a running theme.

Stage lights shine brightly on the eager performers in Encore Jr.’s "... Once Upon a Mattress"

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Once Upon a Mattress

Kylie Scarpace is Princess Winnifred the Woebegone in "...Once Upon a Mattress." Photo Courtesy of Michele Anliker.

It’s six days before opening night and a group of young singers stand around the lobby of the Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter listening intently to musical director Cheryl VanDuzen lead them carefully through an ensemble number from Once Upon a Mattress.

Inside the theater, three actors are working on blocking a bit of stage business, getting used to a set that only became available a couple days before. It will be an intense few days for the young performers in preparation for a [https://www.facebook.com/events/1640198305996603|March 3 opening night].

For many stars of stage, movies, and television it was in theaters like this that a love of acting began -- in acting camps and after school programs. Thalia Schramm is casting and program director for Encore and directs many adult shows for the company and is the director of the youth theater production. She had worked as a camp counselor up north and “loved working with kids.”

“When I started working at Encore in 2009, when [the company] started, they didn’t have a summer program, so in 2010 I started a summer program, which has grown from four sessions and about 30 kids to 10 sessions and about 200 kids every summer,” she said.

Last year Encore started a winter youth program with a production of Seussical the Musical. The program is open to children up to 18 years old. This year 31 students are participating, ages 7 to 16.

This year’s show is called Getting to Know ... Once Upon a Mattress as a requirement of Rodgers and Hammerstein licensing for junior versions of established adult musicals. The additional intro is taken from the song "Getting to Know You" in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The King and I.

Doh! High art and pop art merge in U-M’s head-spinning "Mr. Burns"

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Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

Meditating on The Simpsons becomes a balm after a catastropic world event in Mr. Burns.

Shell-shocked people sit around a campfire discussing a favorite episode of TV series. They try to remember each detail to amuse each other and as a distraction from the problems all around them. The world has been thrown into darkness following a worldwide catastrophic event and stories are all that remain.

This is the premise of Anne Washburn’s [http://www.music.umich.edu/performances_events/productions/2016-2017/mr…|Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play], opening February 16 at the University of Michigan’s Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

“It’s a postmodern play, a pastiche of forms and thematically it goes to the heart of what it means to tell stories, why human beings tell stories,” said Daniel Cantor, the play’s director and head of performance for theater at the university’s School of Music, Theater, and Dance. “Why they need stories, why stories evolve and change across time but have different meanings for people in different contexts.”

Review: Encore’s “Noises Off!” delivers a hilarious back-stage romp

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Cast of Noises Off!

Noisy cast. | Photo by [http://www.micheleanliker.com/|Michele Anliker].

The [http://www.theencoretheatre.org/|Encore Musical Theatre Company] is taking a break from musicals to offer up a double dose of farce.

Slamming doors, fractured romances, comical confrontations, and lots of sardines happen on stage and off in Michael Frayn’s witty send-up of the theatrical life Noises Off! and the Encore company deliver a laugh-filled romp.

A very British theater group is traveling the countryside with a country house farce called Nothing On. Frayn’s play begins with a dress rehearsal that suggests the troupe is not quite ready for prime time and then takes us to two performances that devolve into chaos, one from the backstage view and the other from the stage view. It’s an affectionate but also biting view of theater types -- just the sort of thing theater types love to do.

Director Tobin Hissong keeps the verbal and physical action moving at breakneck speed. This is a play with a lot of witty dialogue and slapstick and mime. Hissong has a fine cast and he gets exactly the right comic effect from the various stereotypes Frayn uses for the play within the play and his portrayal of actors.

Daniel A. Helmer is the suave, sardonic Lloyd Dallas, the poor man assigned to direct Nothing On, a naughty sex farce. Helmer affects a just right Cary Grant snap in his English accent and a slightly florid set of gestures. At the beginning of the play, he’s a disembodied voice patiently and then less patiently taking his cast through their paces. Helmer has a winning charm that makes his character’s complicated romantic life believable and funny.

Review: Purple Rose’s "Smart Love" asks big questions in family drama

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Purple Rose's Smart Love

David Bendena is Benjy in Purple Rose's Smart Love. | Photo by [http://www.scarterphoto.com/|Sean Carter].

What is a human being? Is a human a collection of parts, an accumulation of memories? A smile, a dance, a bundle of eccentricities?

These are a few of the questions pondered in Brian Letscher’s new comic drama Smart Love, being given its world premiere at Chelsea’s [http://www.purplerosetheatre.org/|Purple Rose Theatre].

It’s a tightly focused family drama which is also a brainy sci-fi take on the limits of science and the consequences of going beyond those limits.

Good Vibrations: Civic Theatre's "In the Next Room" promises more stimulation than shock

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In the Next Room

That look when the play's characters see the electrical device in the next room giving out good vibes.

On Monday, the cast and crew of the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of In the Next Room were busy with final preparations at the Arthur Miller Theatre, where the play opens Thursday.

The cast was doing a run through while director Melissa Freilich was busily taking notes and getting the perspective from every angle around the Miller’s thrust stage. The crew was making last minute adjustments to an unusual set and working with the sophisticated Miller Theatre lighting -- house lights, spotlights, lights on stage, mood lights.

On, off, on, off. Thank you, Mr. Edison.

Electricity is an important element in modern theater productions. It also plays a major role is Sarah Ruhl’s popular play. The full title is a bit “shocking” and a bit playful: In the Next Room, or, the Vibrator Play. The play is set in the 1880s, a time when the advent of widespread electrical power and modern ideas in medicine were coming together in interesting ways.

“Sarah Ruhl is one of my favorite playwrights,” said Freilich. “I think she writes some beautiful and really emotionally connected works. ... It asks us to imagine ourselves in this different situation in the 1880s when women were being treated for hysteria and yet the characters are so relatable. The situation seems so absurd to a modern audience. But I love a work that hooks us emotionally and then gets us to think.”

Review: UM’s Peter and the Starcatcher celebrates joyful child’s play

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Sebastian Gerstner and Olivia Hernandez

Yo-ho-ho, it's a bottle of fun. / Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan

Once upon a time ....

All good stories start that way.

The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance is presenting one of those timeless stories told from a different perspective.

Peter and the Starcatcher is a rollicking prequel to J.M. Barrie’s famous play of eternal youth, Peter Pan. Rick Elice’s play, based on a snarky young adult novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is a play about play, child’s play. It’s about taking on different roles, imagining far away places where adults are the enemy, leaping about and sword fighting, rude body humor, scary scenes and, of course, all’s well that ends well happy endings.

It’s not technically a musical but there is a lot of lively music and a few pirate songs and a mermaid song created for the show by Wayne Barker.

Best of all it’s a great piece of theater that stays loyal to Barrie’s original play, full of pirates and a tribe of, well, disgruntled chefs and three lost boys. And this time around, there’s a girl who tells good night stories, but only when she has time away from saving the world and rescuing a nameless young boy from unhappiness.

Review: Encore Theatre performs a practically perfect 'Mary Poppins'

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Sebastian Gerstner and Olivia Hernandez

Sebastian Gerstner and Olivia Hernandez on a jolly holiday at Encore Musical Theatre. / Photo by [https://www.facebook.com/micheleanlikerphotography/|Michele Anliker Photography]

One word sums up the Encore Musical Theatre’s production of Mary Poppins.

You know the word, so sing out.

SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS!

Encore has chosen the practically perfect musical for the holiday season with just the right mix of song, dance, and magic (and, of course, a spoonful of sugar).

The musical is an adaptation of the beloved 1964 Walt Disney movie based on books by P.L. Travers. The musical’s book by Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) follows the basic story from the film but puts a bit more emphasis on the social context of the period, Britain in 1910. A few new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have been added but pale next to the luminous score of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, which are still the songs you’ll leave humming.

The story is simple but has some deeper lessons to convey. The Banks family seems the essence of middle class propriety. Father is an overworked and fusty banker. Mother is a one-time actress who is feeling a bit confined by the tedium of being “the lady of house” with little to do. Their children are getting out of hand and driving off nanny after nanny until Mary Poppins arrives in the knick of time.

Review: U-M’s 'A Man of No Importance' celebrates theater and love

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The Cast of A Man of No Importance

Barrett Riggins, A Man of No Importance, talks to his fellow cast members. / Photo by [http://petersmithphoto.com/|Peter Smith Photography].

On one level the musical [http://www.music.umich.edu/performances_events/productions/2016-2017/no…|A Man of No Importance] is a lovely celebration of community theater and those whose lives become brighter in its spotlight, but in a deeper sense it’s the story of one lonely man’s struggle to find himself and shed light on who he really is.

The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Drama finds the perfect tone for each of these themes in a production that is beautifully performed, capturing the nuances that give this musical its special power.

The musical with book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens is based on a 1994 movie starring Albert Finney and like the film, the musical is set in Dublin, Ireland, circa 1964. It’s a time of change, with musical and cultural influences shaking things up in the British Isles and soon in the world at large. But time moves a bit more slowly in Ireland, where people hold firm to their long held beliefs.

Alfie Byrne works by day as a bus conductor, but his real passion is directing plays. He relies on his friends and neighbors and the folks on the bus to be his star players. He has won some local renown for his production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at St. Imelda’s church hall, but now he wants to stage Wilde’s considerably more controversial Salome.

The flamboyant and sensitive Wilde is Alfie’s hero and a clue to what really bothers Alfie, a homosexual deep in the closet with a growing attraction to his young, golden-haired mate, the bus driver Robbie.

Alfie lives with his loving, dedicated, conservative, nagging sister Lily, who worries about Alfie’s lack of female companionship and about her own sacrifice of happiness to care for her “odd” brother.

All of this could be heavy going, but A Man of No Importance is a funny, sweet and lively portrayal of the love of theater, life in the city and the value of friendship.

Director Vincent J. Cardinal is able to delicately balance the joyous with the morose and make it work. The musical numbers are not big show stoppers but they are well crafted to the needs of the show and are a pleasant mix of up-tempo and gentle. Cardinal and choreographer Aline Mayagoitia give stylish movement even to the rhythm of a bus ride and to a night out in working man’s Dublin. The band under music director Catherine A. Walker gives solid support with a score that uses Irish folk music and instrumentation as measured grace notes.

At the productions center is Barrett Riggins as Alfie Byrne. Riggins gives him a dreamy, distant quality but also shows the warm friendly man who, without realizing it, is a magnet to his friends who find meaning and purpose in the theater he loves. Riggins has the right mix of charm and sadness to make an audience smile and cry and his growing sense of who and what he is develops slowly and delicately. He has several standout musical moments, especially “Man in the Mirror” and the beautiful “Love Who You Love.”

Emilie Kouatchou is a charming, shy and yet strong presence as the girl on the bus who Alfie charms into playing his idealized Salome. She, too, harbors a secret and her performance intelligently foreshadows what is to come. Kouatchou has a fine voice and several good songs especially on the “The Burden of Life” and “Tell Me Why.”

A Man of No Importance

Director Professor Vincent J. Cardinal (right) with leads Barrett Riggins, Ben Walker, and Emilie Kouatchou.

Kat Ward is tough, unrelenting and yet warm and comforting as Alfie’s sister Lily. She won’t stand for any of these modern ideas and Ward plays this side of Lily with fierce determination but matches it with a touching concern for what she sees as her “wayward” brother. She also has a soft spot for the local butcher, and Alfie’s most talented actor, Mr. Carney.

Elliott Styles is excellent as Mr. Carney. He gives strong voice to the theater loving song “Going Up,” a modern take on “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Mr. Carney loves theater and Alfie’s sister but he is horrified by Wilde’s Salome. In an interesting bit of casting, Styles also plays Alfie’s dream image of Oscar Wilde in all his flamboyant glory.

Robbie, the object of Alfie’s affection, is played with boyish charm by Ben Walker, who leads the cast through a rollicking night out on "The Streets of Dublin" but also shows a sensitive side when he realizes what is happening with his friend.

BJ Myers plays Baldy, another poor soul brought to life by Alfie’s theater. He is a widower who tells Alfie something about love in the bittersweet "The Cuddles Mary Gave." Myers has a fine voice with a unique and effective phrasing.

The play is certainly not sympathetic to the official Catholic church teachings but it makes a clear separation between that and those on the parish level. Sam Hamashima plays a sympathetic, friendly Father Kenny as a sort of balance to the play’s criticism.

The set by Anton Volovsek makes great use of the Miller Theater’s small space in his recreation of a church hall, with a simple stage, a floor that probably doubles as a basketball court, a Sacred Heart of Jesus painting on a wall and heavy sidedoors that provide access points. Spare props fill in for dining rooms and street scenes.

The entire ensemble is excellent, everyone is into their parts completely. Alfie himself couldn’t have dreamed of a better or more dedicated company for his Salome or for a play that shows just how important one man can be to a community.


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.


A Man of No Importance continues 8 pm Friday, Nov. 18, and Saturday, Nov. 19, and 2 pm Saturday, Nov. 19, and Sunday, Nov. 20, at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the North Campus of the University of Michigan. For ticket information, call (734) 764-2538 or visit online at [http://tickets.music.umich.edu].