Review: Civic Theatre Gives Othello a Contemporary, Feminist Twist



About to abuse Othello's ear.

Directors are forever trying to make Shakespeare more relevant for contemporary audiences. They place the Bard’s plays in new settings, emphasize themes that seem more relevant, sometimes even tinker with the text to clear up muddy passages.

Director David Widmayer makes an interesting attempt to breathe new life into Shakespeare’s tragedy of jealousy and rage [|Othello] for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre. His conceit is to move the play from its Renaissance time and Venetian setting to Saigon in 1969 and American soldiers preparing to fight in the jungle war with North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.

Widmayer also shifts some thematic emphasis, while staying true to Shakespeare’s language. The play is primarily about Othello as a stranger in a strange land, a black Moor in a white European city (here meant to represent Washington D.C.), who has emerged as a critical military leader. The Venetians (the government) need him but also never let him forget that he is not one of them. This leads to a fatal insecurity in his relationship with his new wife, Desdemona, daughter of a senator. The racial implications remain but Widmayer puts emphasis on two other themes: male aggression and blind ambition and the manipulation and disregard for women.

Shakespeare is always a challenge for community theater groups and for established professional repertory theaters alike. The plays are primarily in verse, the structure is awkward to modern ears and some passages are difficult to decipher. But the challenge is worth it for the rich beauty in the verse and deep insights in character and relationships.

Few relationships are more intense then the one between Othello and his conniving subordinate Iago, a man as jealous of Othello as he makes Othello jealous of the loyal and loving Desdemona.

Widmayer succeeds in drawing attention to other the themes and, in some aspects, bringing a modern attitude to the portrayals. He keeps the place names the same, as the program notes, to preserve the meter of the verse but this somewhat defeats the change of place. A 60s soundtrack between scenes is nice but doesn’t quite do it either.

The acting styles do not all mesh well though there is commendable effort throughout and some performances perfectly match what Widmayer sets out to do, make the play more contemporary.

The play’s plot, of course, revolves around Othello’s rapid advancement in the military. He marries a senator’s daughter and the senator is irate but tempered by the impending military crisis. Iago is a lieutenant to Othello and a man who uses his tongue and his wiles to poison Othello into believing Desdemona is having an affair with a rising young officer and Othello aide, Cassio. Iago uses his bright and loving wife Emilia and a former suitor of Desdemona, Roderigo, in his plot.

In the two major female roles, Annie Dilworth as Desdemona and Carol Gray as Emilia find that sweet spot that Widmayer was aiming for. They read Shakespeare’s language naturally, conversationally and without broad gestures. They also move with the ease and self-possession of modern women. These are women who are sorely wronged by their men. Dilworth makes Desdemona a witty, kind, and loving spouse whose later despair and resignation is all the more tragic. Gray’s Emilia is not the nagging wife of many productions but a spirited woman expecting to be treated as an equal partner by the man she loves but doesn’t really know.

Russ Schwartz as Cassio also speaks the language naturally. He portrays Cassio as a vulnerable subordinate wanting to prove himself but not quite at home in the uber macho military environment. Schwartz seems to combine a boyish charm with a deep insecurity. Greg Kovas brings humor to the role or Roderigo, a loud-mouthed drinker with a clumsy man-to-man bonhomie attitude.

Sean Sabo’s Iago is performed in a more traditional style. His gestures are broader, the language less conversational. He seems a bit stiff at first but as he outlines his deadly plot, Sabo digs deeper into the character. In many ways, Iago has the greatest burden of language and complexity of character. In his mind, he is a man denied who must bend to someone he sees as an inferior. But he conceals his evil with a sly and twisted charm and show of innocent good will. Sabo makes that difficult connection.

Justin Gordon brings a ferocity to his portrayal of Othello. He struts with the bravado of a man who knows that what matters is how he shows himself to these men who will always regard him as a lesser man no matter how much they depend on him. However, Gordon does not project or enunciate clearly enough, and in the final scenes he doesn’t capture the tension or sadness of realizing fully the mistake he’s made. In earlier scenes, he shines in showing a playful side to Othello’s relationship with Desdemona, but overall, the play’s crucial bitter sweetness is lost.

This is a good effort and worth seeing for the interesting shift in emphasis, especially at a time when male attitudes about women have played a prominent role in our current presidential election. As in Othello, the personal and the political have become sadly entangled.

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 Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of Othello continues 8 pm Oct. 28-29 and 2 pm. Oct. 30 at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the North Campus of the University of Michigan. For tickets and information, call the box office at (734)971-2228 or go online to [].

Review: U-M production finds perfection in nostalgic ‘Drowsy Chaperone’


Drowsy Chaperone Cast

The Drowsy Chaperone cast comes to life. / Photo by [|Peter Smith Photography].

A man with gray flecked hair, dressed in an old cardigan sweater sits in the dark complaining about modern theater and modern life in general. Things just ain’t what they used to be.

This is the beginning of magic, a near perfect production of […|The Drowsy Chaperone] by the University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre.

The man in the chair is sharing his weary view of the world and his obsession with a recording of a 1928 musical, from back in the day when musicals were fun. That musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, is a fizzy, frivolous fluff with the usual stock characters, thin and predictable plot, jazz inspired score and a fine example to the man in the chair of all the sweetness that has been lost in the world.

As the man tells us the story of the musical, the musical comes vividly to life in his nostalgia filled apartment. He swoons over every nuance of story and every piece of stage business and recounts the back stories for all the original stars, rising diva and fading diva, vaudeville comedy team and notorious womanizer, secretly gay leading man and charming old pros who have seen better days.

Director Mark Madama has assembled a terrific cast, each perfectly fit to the character they play. The style is arch, satirical but never so overplayed that it loses touch with what might have been a smashing opening night on Broadway those many years ago. The Drowsy Chaperone, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison and book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, uses that happy style of musical theater to poke fun at nostalgia but also offer an ode to entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

The 1928 play concerns the romance of a Broadway star and a businessman, their impending marriage, the star’s woozy “chaperone,” a couple of bakers (who are really gangsters), a producer afraid of losing his star, a chorus girl angling to take her place, a Latin lover, a dotty lady and her droll “underling.” Sound familiar? And every piece goes together like clockwork. Every performance is choice.

Hannah Lynne Miller is the effervescent Janet Van de Graaff, the star about to throw away the spotlight for marriage. Miller is a riot as she poses for the press, sputters between devotion for her new beau and anxiety over losing her celebrity fix. She’s a fine singer who delivers sincerity even on a song that the man in the chair warns has awful lyrics.

Equally compelling is Nkeki Obi-Melekwe as the title character, the chaperone. She is a deft comedian, with arched eyes and pained sophistication. Her singing shows great range and precise, sensitive phrasing needed to deliver all the humor and sly emotion of her “anthem” “As We Stumble Along.”

Charlie Patterson is hilarious as the egotistic, posturing Adolpho, self-styled Latin lover. He has a love song to himself “I Am Adolpho” that he delivers with just the right amount of clueless self-congratulation.

Drowsy Chaperone Collage

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, the drowsy chaperone. / Riley McFarland and Jo Ellen Pellman. // Photos by [|Peter Smith Photography].

Kyle McClellan as the potential groom matches the self-loving ego of his bride to be with comic charm. But he also sings and dances superbly. McClellen and Christopher Campbell as his diligent best man perform a great tap dance routine to the song “Cold Feet.”

The tap dance is interrupted by the underling, a butler in the tradition of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, always one step ahead of the upper crusty. Aidan Ziegler-Hansen delivers his lines with precision timing and a bit of droll disdain. He also goes a mean little tap dance.

His usual partner is the ever-confused Mrs. Tottendale, played by Isbel Stein. Stein is amusingly spacey, dressed in a long-dated dress to match her bafflement. She and Ziegler-Hansen sing a goofy love song, “Love is Always Lovely in the End.”

Riley McFarland is the producer, a man in a constant state of despair as he is hounded by gangsters and a pushy chorine. He brings a bit of authority to a funny character. Jo Ellen Pellman plays Kitty, the “dumb blonde” stereotype, to a tee. Her voice cracks, her eyes roll, her body shimmies. It all works.

What also works is the clockwork timing of Joseph Sammour and Simon Longnight as the comic gangsters in both their comic wordplay (a stereotype of ’20s musicals) and their dizzy dance number “Toledo Surprise.”

Another post Lindbergh element to musicals of those days was an aviator, but here an aviatrix with a booming singing voice, well played by Cydney Clark.

The heart and soul of this production is Alexander Sherwin, that man in the chair. His voice may remind you of David Sedaris, a hint of sadness behind every laugh line. Sherwin takes us deep into this man who loves the theater and hates what has happened to it. He knows the story of every performer, the way kids know the story behind sports figures and rappers. He harbors ill will to the modern world and slowly, surely we find out why. Sherwin’s performance is impeccable and gives this bit of fluff its deeper meaning.

The musical direction and the jazz style orchestra under Jason DeBord is outstanding, especially in its ability to give punctuation to the humor on stage. Mara Newbery Greer’s choreography is terrific whether handing the lively tap numbers, a tricky skate routine or the ensemble in full motion.

Caleb Levengood’s set is a masterful tribute to nostalgia, a green colored parlor covered with star photos, posters and playbills and the comfy furniture of another era. The set is also well suited to the quick scene changes of the musical within the play. But there are some subtle touches that get at the heart of the man in the chair, like a row of pill bottles on his side table.

This is a big show, full of humor within the musical and at the expense of the musical. This is an ode to the giddy, goofy '20s musical in all its glory and the UM production grabs all that humor and goes deep into back story for a little more. Bravo!

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 Drowsy Chaperone continues at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre Friday through Sunday Oct. 14-16 and Thursday-Sunday Oct. 20-23. For tickets call the box office at (734)764-2538 or go online to [].

Review: The Purple Rose's Morning After Grace Is a Hilarious and Sensitive Comic Drama


Morning After Grace

Morning After Grace / Photo by [|Sean Carter Photography].

Growing old can be hell but it can also be hilarious as proven by the Purple Rose Theatre Company’s World Premiere presentation of playwright Carey Crim’s Morning After Grace.

Crim’s meditation on aging, marriage and sexual frustration is in the superb hands of director Guy Sanville. A three-actor cast handles the unforced and sparkling humor with the precision of a well-disciplined string quartet while also letting it all out when the humor turns to a cathartic sadness.

The scene is a wealthy retirement community on Amelia Island, Florida. An older but still handsome man stumbles from his bedroom into his living room with all the evidence of a head-splitting hangover. He plops on a couch with a look of bewildered exhaustion and falls into a light sleep. Suddenly, a head pops out from a tangled comforter. A woman’s face peeks out and a giddy, happy grin spreads across her face.

In this small opening we immediately understand the dynamic that will play out in Crim’s play. These two characters were strangers to each other just a day before. They’ve had a night at the man’s condominium. Their very different personalities will delight, challenge and comfort each other over a momentous morning.

The title is a pun. Grace refers both to the religious meaning of divine favor but it also refers to the man’s now-deceased wife, whose funeral is the catalyst for what ensues. In this production, it also could refer to the grace and style of the three performers.

Michelle Mountain is Abigail. Her beaming entrance is a clue to Abigail’s attempts to keep a happy mood as she navigates her way through her mid-60s after a divorce. Mountain is a gifted actress. She is as adept at physical comedy, which she demonstrates with some creative costume changes, as she is with fast repartee. She has an expressive face that can light up with delight and also display deep sympathy. Her Abigail seems to have it all together as a professional grief counselor until bit by bit we learn of her insecurity. But she’s an optimist and sweet-natured, a perfect foil to the stranger she went home with.

Randolph Mantooth is Angus, Abigail’s emotional opposite. He’s a young-looking 70-year-old with some unsettled business with his late wife. But he has long been a taciturn, cynical and angry man. This comes through in some sharp barbs that Mantooth delivers with droll precision. Mantooth’s gruff demeanor has a shaggy dog quality that promises that his bark in worse than his bite, even when things get a bit rough. He seems to be getting the upper hand in his byplay with Abigail, but things take an unusual turn.

Ollie enters the scene. Ollie is another resident at the community. He’s a 66-year-old former Detroit Tiger and Grace’s friend. Played by Lynch Travis, a big man who brings big warmth to the character of Ollie, he could seem menacing, but is really gentle, big-hearted and struggling with issues of his own.

Sanville has a deft touch with comedy. He never allows his actors to overplay or get out of character for the purpose of drawing a bigger laugh. This is comedy rooted in reality. These three fine actors bounce lines off each other that are often roaringly funny but are never delivered as jokes. Crim’s comedy emerges from the characters she has created not from a standard joke book.

It would be unfair to those planning to see the production to say more about the plot, but the story has several amusing revelations that twist the perspective on what we’re seeing. As we begin to understand what has gone wrong with Angus’ marriage, comedy gives way to some agonizing self-reflection and real moments of despair. Mantooth makes these moments chillingly real.

Just as the comedy itself is rooted in the real world, Sanville and set designer Bartley H. Bauer have opted to create a stunningly realistic upscale Florida condo, complete with a state of the art kitchen, which plays a major role in the play. This works well as it makes voyeurs of the audience, giving the sense that we are really there is someone’s apartment watching these three lives entangle.

Crim has premiered five plays at the Purple Rose and has a booming career on regional and Broadway stages. This is an excellent addition to those successes. She’s a witty, subtle but also deeply sensitive playwright. She explores in the real context of this play some serious issues facing older people and she brings true compassion to the questions raised. The play should get produced at many other theaters in the future.

This is a winner for the Purple Rose, a fine play with a superb cast.

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.

Regular performances of Morning After Grace are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 pm, with 3 pm matinees Wednesday and Saturdays and 2 pm matinees Sundays through Dec. 17 at the Purple Rose, 137 Park St., Chelsea. For more information or to make reservations, call the Purple Rose box office at (734)433-7673 or visit them [|online].

Review: U-M’s Ah, Wilderness! Offers Solid but Stiff Effort in O’Neill Comedy


Ah, Wilderness!

From Left to Right - Nat (Liam Loomer) and Essie Miller (Larissa Marten) question their son Richard (Kevin Corbett) about his fondness for European authors in the romantic comedy Ah, Wilderness! by Eugene O’Neill presented by the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Department of Theatre & Drama. / Photo by [|Peter Smith].

Ah, Wilderness! is an outlier among Eugene O’Neill’s plays, usually full of painful truth telling. It’s a summertime comedy, nostalgic for the youth the playwright never had. Its humor is soft and warm but it is also a quiet reflection on the limits of freedom, set appropriately on the Fourth of July.

The play offers two challenges to a university theater company. It is set in 1906, a time that O’Neill romanticizes as a period of innocence and propriety under assault, a time far removed from now. It is also a family play, in which most of the characters are younger or quite a bit older than the student actors.

The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance cast under the direction of John Neville-Andrews tries hard to create a semblance of an early 20th century family but seems stiff, corseted in their roles and their interplay with each other. This play depends on that interplay, but in this production only a few scenes capture what O’Neill was about.

The Millers of a “large small town” in Connecticut are a solidly middle class clan. Father Nat is the owner of the local newspaper, his wife, Essie, is the dominant figure at home and a stickler for moral values. They have four children, Arthur, a Yale student; Mildred, a modern young woman; Richard, an emerging firebrand; and young Tommy, a firecracker in more ways than one.

Richard is the central character here. He’s a young man intoxicated by new, revolutionary ideas. He’s hiding his copies of Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, Algernon Swinburne and Omar Khayyam. He’s also intoxicated with a girl named Muriel and trying out all he’s learned on her innocent person.

Another main character is Essie’s brother Sid. Uncle Sid is a cautionary tale, an alcoholic with a good heart and a crippling weakness. Sid is the object of Nat’s sister Lily’s affection and deep disappointment.

The Fourth is a holiday dedicated to celebrating a revolution and the ideas it helped take hold. But Richard is a classic naïf, a 16-year-old boy anxious to get on with becoming a man and ready to take that first step into naughty rebellion.

This production never settles into a comfortable give and take. The actors seem too often to be reciting and moving stiffly about. The gentle humor is often lost and the humor that is meant to be forced and awkward is never separated from all the rest. The actors seem to have trouble playing the middle aged characters authentically and fall back on stiff mannerisms of an earlier time. But there are good moments and solid effort.

Kevin Corbett gives Richard Miller the right amount of "gee whiz" enthusiasm for the swirl of ideas in his head and he has some good comic moments as he goes to the “dark side” in his encounter with a brassy lady of the night. But even he doesn’t quite capture the giddiness and fear of a boy on the cusp of manhood.

Larissa Marten has every bit the look of a strong matriarch as Essie. She’s tall with an attractive face made stern from admonishing her children. She also has a commanding voice. But her performance is stiff, missing the humor intended under what she says and posing too often. Essie is more than she seems as we see later in the play, but we get few suggestions of that early on.

Liam Loomer brings honest warmth to the role of Nat. He struggles to relax into a real middle-aged man and is forced into playing with cigars and pipes and too much joie de vivre. He does a fine bit of physical comedy in a scene with Corbett where he struggles to explain the “facts of life.” Loomer also has an uncanny resemblance to a young Orson Welles.

Oren Steiner probably has the hardest role in the play as Uncle Sid. Sid is a one-time valued newspaper reporter brought down by a weakness for alcohol. Despite his weakness, Sid is a lovable drunk, not the usual mess found in other O’Neill plays. Steiner does a good job of melding the two sides of Sid and brings some sweet interplay with his nephew Richard after Richard’s night out. But a lot of the humor that is sad/funny about Uncle Sid doesn’t come through and seems, again, stiff and labored.

Amy Aaron as the long-suffering Lily is fairly convincing but looks far too young for the part and lacks the nervousness that seems intended in a character defined as “poor spinster” forced to take shelter in her brother’s house while pining for desolate Sid.

Juliana Tassos plays the brassy prostitute with a nod to Mae West and a squawky voice. Morgan Waggoner is the ethereal Muriel. She gets the tension between desire and rectitude as the play becomes a poetic valentine.

A couple actors seem a bit more relaxed in their performances. Sarah Prendergast plays sister Mildred with a breezy good humor and no posed mannerisms. Eddie Williams as a shifty bartender is also natural as he seems to glide across the barroom.

Ah, Wilderness! was a sweet spot to which O’Neill never ventured again. His family plays in the future would be dark and brooding and even more revolutionary than Wilde, Shaw or Omar Khayyam. But even here he raised some real issues about the limits of freedom and the value of restraint when it comes in the warm embrace of a loving and upright family.

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.

Ah, Wilderness! continues at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the North Campus of the University of Michigan at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 13, 8 p.m. Oct. 7,8,14 and 15 and 2 p.m. Oct. 9 and 16. For tickets, call (734)764-2538, go online to or in person at the League Ticket Office in the Michigan League building at Fletcher and N. University.

Review: Encore’s Full Monty delivers laughs and quiet emotions


The Full Monty

Giving audience members their monty's worth. / Photo by [|Michele Anliker Photography].

The Encore Musical Theatre Company is taking it all off and going the [|Full Monty] for a lot of laughs and a bit of introspection.

The 1997 movie The Full Monty was part of a long tradition of British comedies with a biting social message. It was hilariously funny and a bit naughty but it was also at times a poignant and carefully observed view of a steel town, Sheffield, England, in the throes of yet another economic downturn.

In 2000 playwright Terrence McNally moved the story from England to equally downtrodden Buffalo, New York, and replaced the lively Top 40 R&B soundtrack with an original score with lyrics and music by David Yazbeck. The musical doesn’t have the grit or the deeper sense of class alienation of the movie, but it does have a nice blend of good humor, touching drama, and a bright jazzy score, which Encore brings beautifully to life.

Jerry Lukowski and Dave Bukatinsky are recently unemployed steel workers. Jerry is divorced, behind in his child support and afraid of losing contact with his middle-school-aged son. Dave is overweight, uneasy with his body and his life. After seeing the excitement created by a Chippendales-style strip show among the local women, Jerry decides that they should create their own show with dreams of making $50,000 and getting their lives back in order. Knowing their bodies would not be a lure, Jerry tells some local women that they will go the full monty, totally nude.

This production gets off to a great start by having two excellent actors in the lead roles. Eric Parker as Jerry brings energy, a bit of self-conscious swagger, and a sensitive change from macho to humane. Parker makes Jerry a full human being in search of who he really is. He isn’t a great singer but he gives real authority to tough songs like "Scrap," comic songs like "Big Ass Rock" and the gentle reflection of "Breeze Off the River," a love song to his sleeping son.

Greg Bailey’s Dave is a lumpish, dragging, sad-eyed mess as Dave. He’s good-hearted but unhappy with his body, his discomfort in what should be a happy marriage, and his loss of a job. Bailey captures just the right amount of languor and hangdog expression to make his transformation toward the end all the more triumphant.

The entire ensemble gives it their all. Dan Morrison is Harold, the laid off manager with the expensive wife. Morrison gives the character a nervous energy that goes from unease to “what the heck” let’s do it charm. Matthew Pecek is the mama’s boy Malcolm and he first appears as a suicidal mess, his thin body tightly wrapped, and then he opens up as he finds himself and love. Pecek, also, has a fine singing voice.

Jordan Harris plays Horse, a black man with the dance skills. Harris brings some extra zip to the dance numbers and some sly comedy when dealing with a certain black stereotype. The last member of the dance group is Ethan, a man obsessed with Donald O’Connor’s ability to climb walls and possessing a special asset for a stripper. Brendan Kelly is funny and also brings a good singing voice to his duet with Pecek.

Gayle Martin is Jeanette, the tough talking piano accompanist who has seen it all and played for the best of them (or so she says). Martin has some great lines, which she delivers with deadpan perfection.

A wilder bit of comedy is served up by the rubber-faced Sarah Briggs who plays Harold’s money loving wife. Briggs is a gifted comic actress who lights up the stage on "Life With Harold," a rollicking affirmation of love, and lets it all out in a later scene where her love shines through.

Alejandro Cantu has the difficult role of Nathan, Jerry’s long-suffering son. He loves his dad and his mom and he kind of likes his mom’s nerdy boyfriend. Cantu is a young actor who understands these conflicting emotions and just what they can do to you. His performance is direct, sensitive, and never “cute.”

In the small role of Keno, a studly Chippendales dancer, Colby Orton proves charming and captures the dancer’s sincere good intentions.

Thalia V. Schramm, who co-directed with Matthew Brennan, does double duty as Dave’s concerned wife, and provides the right amount of warmth when things get low.

Schramm and Brennan keep the comedy within the range of reality enough to make the serious moments have resonance. This is a comedy with serious content, from body image to economic justice to the plight of divorced fathers, and it plays them with some degree of respect.

Brennan is also the choreographer and he has the chore of directing some deliberately bad choreography in the beginning and then a triumphant Act One closer on "Michael Jordan’s Ball," a dance inspired by the great Bulls forward.

The small ensemble under musical director R. Mackenzie Lewis gives fine support from their perch. Yazbek’s score is serviceable, with some jazzy moments and a lively "Let it Go" ensemble number at the giddy and satisfying ending.

This is not a show for everyone. It has some rough language and bared backsides. But the end result is not raunchy and the music and story are upbeat.

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 Full Monty continues at the Encore Musical Theatre, 3126 Broad Street in Dexter through Oct. 22. For times and ticket information, call the Encore Theatre Box Office at (734) 268-6200 or visit [].

Review: Civic Theatre spells hilarious, poignant with Putnam County Spelling Bee


A2CT's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Getting ready for the Spellling Be.

Oh those middle school years, we remember them well. The humiliation, the anxiety, the bullies, the stress, the dire need to be good at something, what a wonderful time it was.

The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre is presenting a happy bit of nostalgia with [|The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee], a musical salute to all those anxiety-ridden kids who strived to be top speller.

The Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on the central University of Michigan campus is a perfect setting. The stage is simply decorated with a banner for the spelling bee, sponsored by the county optometrists, a riser of bleacher seats, a microphone and a table for the two adult hosts.

Spelling Bee takes a quirky, exaggerated look at some gawky budding adolescents and plays it for laughs that lead to some empathy and respect for the troubled young people who often get noticed for all the wrong reasons in school. Director Wendy Sielaff has brought together a fine cast that ham it up hilariously while also delivering the goods when called on to go deeper into character.

The music by William Finn is serviceable but the lyrics are used to convey those deeper feelings, while Rachel Sheinkin’s Tony-winning book richly skewers school life, spelling bees, and the cluelessness of adults.

We know the types. Here they are played not by middle-school-aged children but by older actors in reflection of those trying years.

Emily Fishman is sweet and appropriately apprehensive at Olive, dressed in an innocent pink jumper. Olive is torn between two neglectful parents and wants to finally get their attention. Fishman has a ringing voice, especially effective in "The I Love You" trio with her parents.

Nathan King is the goofy Leaf Coneybear, the non-achieving younger brother who gets no respect at home. But then again he dresses weirdly and shouts a lot. King brings a touch of Jerry Lewis to Coneybear but also some sweet pathos to "I’m Not That Smart."

Keshia Daisy Oliver is Logainne, the daughter of two gay fathers who want her to succeed a little too fervently. Oliver also finds the spot of empathy and a sweet moment of rebellion.

Bob Cox plays Chip, a boy moving into manhood at just the wrong time. Cox is dressed as a Boy Scout with too many merit badges. He is especially funny in "Chip’s Lament," a ditty about the betrayal of puberty.

Hallie Fox is Marcy, the over-achiever, the success-obsessed Catholic schoolgirl who sums up her anxiety with the song "I Speak Six Languages." Fox gives the character that determined to demented look and snappish voice of a future politician.

Finally, we come to the most outlandish contestant, Barfee (or as he insist, it’s pronounced Barfay). Connor Rhoades goes all out in his wrinkled white shirt, tie and shorts. Barfee is a big boy and the ultimate nerd who uses his foot to help him spell. Rhoades is a giant presence throughout but takes center stage with the "Magic Foot" number. He makes Barfee both anxiety ridden, pathetic, and strangely likeable. Rhoades also plays one of Logainne’s Dads (think Modern Family, here).

The other contestants are played (filled?) by good sports selected from the audience, who on Thursday provided some gentle laughs of their own.

The adult roles are also well played. Alison Ackerman is Rona, the teacher who never got over her success at the Bee. She is every bit the prim but enthusiastic teacher who misses the limelight. Ackerman also plays Olive’s absent in India mother in the "Love Song" trio.

Brandon Cave is excellent as the droll assistant principal Doug Panch who gives the spellers their words and much more. He gets some of the shows wittiest lines and he delivers them with low-key panache.

Finally, we have Nick Rapson as the coach who fills in as the sympathetic comforter of the “losers,” and he has just the right amount of sweet toughness and skepticism about the whole process. Thursday he had some humorous improvisation during his "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" spotlight and made it special. Rapson also plays Olive’s Dad in the "Love Song" trio and is a hoot as Logainne’s other Dad.

Musical accompaniment by an on-stage five-piece band under the direction of Debra Nichols is solid, especially on some of the humorous percussion moments. Reilly Conlon brings the right clumsy humor and daffiness to the choreography.

Sielaff says this play has long been on her bucket list and now she can check it off as a success. She mines both the outsize humor and the quiet empathy that has make this a popular production across the country.

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 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues at 8 pm Friday and Saturday and 2 pm Sunday at the Mendelssohn. For tickets and information, go online to [], call (734) 971-2228, or purchase at the theatre before each performance.

Preview: From Shakespeare to Rock and Roll, Area Theaters Have Something for Everyone



Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre bring Bettrofenheit to the Power Center in March 2017.

The overture is about to start
You cross your fingers and hold your heart
It’s curtain time and away we go –
Another opening of another show

~ Cole Porter

Autumn is just around the corner, school is back in session or soon will be, and another vibrant theater season in about to raise curtains all over Washtenaw County.

One of the perks of living here is access to so much great performing arts, from small jazz, folk and rock venues to huge arenas reverberating with mega amps and stomping fans; from intimate chamber recitals to resounding symphonies by the greatest musicians in the world; to quality professional and non-professional theater that ranges from challenging and experimental to comforting and familiar.

The theater season is especially noteworthy for the variety offered, something for every taste and numerous opportunities for sampling something that you might not think is to your taste until you try it. Two state universities, several professional and non-professional theater groups, and dramatic offerings by the outstanding University Musical Society make for a full menu of promising theater.

The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre continues a tradition that dates back to 1929 when it launches its new season with the musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Sept. 8 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on the University of Michigan Campus. It soon shifts gears from this light-hearted musical comedy for its second offering of the season, William Shakespeare’s Othello.

“We are a director driven company and have a director driven process,” said Alexandra Berneis, executive director of the AACT. “The directors come in with a play of musical in mind and a summary of ideas.”

The process for the next season begins in October. A committee of seven winnows through as many as 30 proposals, invites directors to come in to share their visions for the productions they’ve proposed, and narrows it down to a diverse season of plays.

“Usually, we end up with three musicals and three plays, but this season we had more play suggestions and we have four plays and two musicals,” Berneis said.

As a volunteer, non-professional theater, AACT tries to provide a wide range of opportunities for actors and production crew.

“We ask for plays to have at least six characters because of the venues we are working in and to involve as many people as possible,” Berneis said.

For smaller, more intimate and more experimental works, AACT created a Second Stage program for its small stage at its office at 322 Ann St.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will be presented Sept. 8-11 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on the main campus of the University of Michigan. A middle school spelling bee is the scene for a light-hearted look at childhood angst with adults playing the children.

Othello will be presented Oct. 27-30 at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the UM north campus. Shakespeare’s tragedy deals with complex themes of racial tensions, jealousy, deception, and stifled emotions.

In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play will be presented Jan. 12-15 at the Miller Theatre. Sarah Ruhl’s Tony-nominated play about the 19th century invention of the vibrator to ease “female anxiety” deals sensitively with various aspects of a woman’s life.

Almost, Maine, nine stories set in a small town in Maine, will be presented March 9-12 at the Miller Theatre.

Morning’s at Seven is a drama about four sisters in a small town during the 1930s. It will be presented April 20-23 at the Miller Theatre.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a musical based on Charles Dickens unfinished novel in which the audience helps solve the mystery. It will be presented June 1-4 at the Mendelssohn Theatre.

Second Stage productions are Sylvia, Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 and Criminal Hearts, June 16-18.

Order tickets at [] or by phone at (734) 971-2228.

Purple Rose's Odd Couple

Last season's The Odd Couple at the Purple Rose Theatre. Photo by [|Sean Carter Photography].

The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea opens its 26th season of professional theater on Sept. 29. The season features the world premiere of two comedies by Michigan writers, a revival and a Pulitzer-Prize winning American classic.

Artistic director Guy Sanville said the Purple Rose doesn’t usually build a season around a particular theme.

“But I would say this is a season about second chances, and we’ve always been drawn to that,” he said.

The Purple Rose is about developing new talent and introducing new plays.

“We’re constantly developing new work, it’s a key component of our mission,” he said. “This will be our 65th or 66th world premiere, at least half of our plays.”

He said the company currently has eight plays in development and that it sometimes takes years to develop a production.

“We have a group of playwrights we work with - Carey Crim, (Purple Rose founder) Jeff Daniels, Matt Letsher and Brian Letscher. We’re always interested in what they’re doing,” Sanville said.

Carey Crim was asked to write this season’s first play with a couple of actors in mind for a romantic comedy about retired people.

Sanville, managing director Katie Doral, and others read the plays submitted, but the final choice is made by Jeff Daniels from their suggestions.

“He’s never turned anything down,” Sanville said.

“You read something and think hmm, this has possibilities. It might be a great speech or one great scene but you know the person can write,” Sanville said.

Purple Rose works with writers through its Greenhouse Workshops at the Chelsea Library to develop their talents. Sanville said the 2017-18 season is already in development.

Morning After Grace by Carey Crim has its world premiere Sept. 29 and runs through Dec 17. The comedy tells the story of Angus and Abigail, who meet at a wedding and wake up together after a wine-fueled night. The cast includes Randolph Mantooth, who many may remember as a regular on the TV series Emergency.

Smart Love by Brian Letscher is the other comedy having a world premiere. This “dark comedy” with some sci-fi elements is about a brilliant young man who struggles with his father’s sudden death and the revelation that his parents’ marriage wasn’t everything he was led to believe. The play explores the implications of artificial intelligence. The play opens Jan. 19 and runs through March 4.

The revival is Vino Veritas by David Macgregor. On Halloween night two couples prepare to attend an annual costume party. Their evening unravels after they share a bottle of South American ceremonial wine. The play opens March 23 and runs through May 27.

The season ends with the classic Harvey by Mary Chase. The award-winning play concerns one Elwood P. Dowd and his pooka companion, Harvey, a six-and-a-half-foot tall rabbit. The play opens June 15 and runs through Aug. 26.

For ticket information and reservations, call the box office at (734) 433-7673 or visit [].

Always...Patsy Cline

Always...Patsy Cline from Encore's 2015-2016 season. / Photo by [|Michele Anliker].

The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter is also offering a diversity of productions ranging from the heyday of rock and roll to the glory that was King Arthur’s Round Table.

The season opens Sept. 29 with The Full Monty. The popular film about a group of unemployed steel workers in northern England who form a striptease act has been transformed into a musical reset in Buffalo, N.Y. The production runs through Oct. 23.

The mildly naughty Monty gives way to the squeaky clean family classic Disney version of Mary Poppins, the story of a magical English nanny and her effect on a banker’s family, Nov. 25-Dec. 23.

The non-musical backstage comedy Noises Off follows Feb. 2-19. The comedy shows the frantic activities backstage to present a door-slamming farce. If you ever wondered how they do it, this play gives you an idea.

Rock and roll royalty is the theme of The Million Dollar Quartet, an imaginary recreation of the famous afternoon when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash converged on the Sun Records studio after Elvis had become a star at RCA. The musical celebrates the music of these rock pioneers, April 14 to May 7.

Another country music legend, Dolly Parton provides music and lyrics for this musical stage version of 9 to 5. Parton starred with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in the film about secretaries rising up against a terrible boss that inspired the musical.

The Encore season ends as the last season ended with a Lerner and Loewe musical classic, Camelot, the story of Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot. The story of the Knights of the Round Table will run Aug. 3-27.

For tickets and information, call (734) 268-6200 or visit [].

The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance is preparing the next generation of great actors by presenting a richly varied season of straight plays and musicals.

The new season begins with Eugene O’Neill’s nostalgic comedy Ah, Wilderness Oct. 6 at the Arthur Miller Theatre. The play is O’Neill’s fond remembrance of growing up in small town America circa 1906. The production runs through Oct. 16.

The Drowsy Chaperone is a musical comedy about obsession with musical comedy as a theater fan’s favorite cast album comes to life with hilarious results. The musical runs Oct. 13-23 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

Clybourne Park

Last year's Clybourne Park, the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

A Man of No Importance is another look at the theater. The musical, based on an Albert Finney movie, concerns an amateur Dublin theater group and their leaders attempts to stage a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. The play runs Nov. 17-20 at the Lydia Mendelssohn.

Peter and the Starcatcher is a prequel to Peter Pan. This fanciful play follows Lord Aster and his daughter Molly on a mission from the Queen to destroy “starstuff”. Molly meets an orphan boy and adventure ensues. The play is based on the Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry book. Starcatcher runs Dec 8-11 at the Power Center on the central UM campus.

Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play by Anne Washburn is a dark comedy about a group of survivors after a global catastrophe who retell the story of an episode of The Simpsons and how that story-telling evolves over time. The production runs Feb. 16-17 at the Lydia Mendelssohn.

Insurrection: Holding History by Robert O’Hara is an award-winning play described as “Roots meets The Wizard of Oz,” a time-travel fantasy of black history set around the Nat Turner uprising. The dark comedy runs March 30 to April 9 at the Arthur Miller Theatre.

The UMSMTD season concludes with Disney’s The Little Mermaid. The stage version of the popular movie is based on a Hans Christian Anderson’s story about the mermaid Ariel, who wants to experience life on land. The musical features songs from the movie by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman and 10 new Menken composed songs with lyrics by Glenn Slater. The musical runs April 13-16 at the Power Center.

For information and tickets, call (734)764-2538 or visit [].

Eastern Michigan University has a full season of plays and musicals ranging from Shakespearean tragedy to provocative plays about current issues to a Christmas classic.

The season opens with the musical The Last Five Years about a New York couple who fall in and out of love over five years. The musical runs Sept. 9-11 at the Sponberg Theatre on the EMU campus.

Shakespeare’s Scottish play Macbeth about the ambitious Scot warlord and his equally ambitious wife runs Oct. 21-30 at the Quirk Theatre on the EMU campus.

Vital Signs by Jane Martin tells inspiring stories about women Nov. 18-20 at the Sponberg.

Dickens classic Christmas Carol is dramatized by Joseph Zettelmeir and runs Dec. 2-11 at the Quirk.

Lorraine Hansberry’s still relevant drama of black family’s fight for a better life, A Raisin in the Sun runs Feb. 8-12 at the Sponberg.

The Butterfly is the story of conflict between a butterfly and a spider based on a Persian fable. The play runs March 3-5 at the Sponberg.

Spring Awakening is a rock musical based on the German play by Frank Wedekind about restless adolescents. It will be presented March 31 to April 9 at the Quirk.

The EMU season ends with a production for children, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, based on the book by Kevin Henkes. It runs June 2-9 at the Sponberg.

For information about times and tickets, visit [] or call (734) 487-2282.

Beauty Queen of Leenane.

UMS brings The Beauty Queen of Leenane to the Power Center in March 2017.

The University Music Society has added drama in recent years to its world-class musical series. This years UMS will present three dramatic presentations:

RoosevElvis by the TEAM imagines an hallucinatory road trip from the Badlands to Graceland as Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley battle over the soul of a woman. TEAM has been described as “Gertrude Stein meets MTV.” The production runs Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at the Lydia Mendelsohhn.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh is presented by the Irish theater Company Druid. The play features McDonagh biting dialogue in a story about a conflict between mother and daughter in a depressed Irish village in the early 1990s. The production runs March 9-11 at the Power Center.

Betroffenheit is a combination of dance and drama exploring trauma, addiction and recovery. The production by Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre runs March 17-18 at the Power Center.

The Encounter uses hi-tech audio to tell the story of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre 1969 encounter with people in the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. Simon Burney’s solo performance immerses the audience in the sounds of the rainforest. The play runs March 30 to April 1 at the Power Center.

For ticket information, call (734)764-2538 or visit [].

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.

Review: Encore does ‘loverly’ Lady with minimalist charm


Jessica Grové is abso-bloomin’-lutely loverly in Encore's <em>My Fair Lady</em>.

Jessica Grové is abso-bloomin’-lutely loverly in Encore's My Fair Lady. / Photo by [|Michele Anliker Photography]

It’s loverly what a fine cast and a clever director and designer can do.

The Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter has taken on one of the most challenging and most beloved musical romances and redesigned it for the theater’s intimate confines.

My Fair Lady is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its Broadway debut this year. To mark the occasion Encore has enlisted the talents of noted theatrical director and set designer Tony Walton, who in 1956 was married to the musical’s original Eliza Doolittle, Julie Andrews.

Walton has taken a minimalist approach to a work that has always inspired a certain extravagance. But neither the Encore stage nor budget could accommodate that richness. Walton has been inspired by line drawings for a published script of [b:1379357|Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion], upon which My Fair Lady is based. The drawings by Feliks Topolsky and the original Broadway sets by Oliver Smith were inspiration for rear screen projections that neatly, and compactly, capture the look and feel of the various London locations. The costumes still have a stylized Edwardian charm. The low- and high- class areas are not as starkly defined but are still clearly suggested.

A chamber orchestra visible in the rear stage, a smaller ensemble, and the elimination of the grand ball scene allow Walton and his talented cast to focus on what matter’s most, Shaw’s great characters and wit and Lerner and Loewe’s beautiful music, one of the finest collection of memorable songs in the history of musical theater.

The story is well known. An arrogant upper-class linguist accepts a bet from a fellow language expert to transform a howling lower class flower girl into a “proper lady” by teaching her how to speak like the proper people do. For Shaw this was a play about class differences and the snobbery of those on top. But Alan Jay Lerner’s book transformed it into the unlikely near romance of a beautiful young woman and a grumpy middle-aged confirmed bachelor. Lerner and Frederick Loewe created songs of poignant yearning for position and love and comic songs that capture the spirit of the “undeserving poor.” And it works every time.

The lead performers come with Broadway, film, and television credits that add a bit of glamour, but it’s their talents that really count.

Jessica Grové is an enchanting Eliza, feisty, determined and yet also a bit vulnerable. Grové has a rich, commanding voice that always hits the sweet spot on the show stopping “I Could Have Danced All Night,” but also finds the wistfulness of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” the fierce determination of “Just You Wait,” and the giddy joy of “The Rain In Spain.” The musicals ambiguous ending has always seemed a bit forced, but the sweet, resigned look on Grové’s face makes it a bit more believable.

The object of Eliza’s scorn and growing affection is of course the irascible Henry Higgins, or to the flower girl 'enry 'iggins, a man with a talented ear for accents and no sense at all for the feelings of others, until he’s transformed by his creation. Veteran British actor David Gerroll looks as if he were born to play Higgins. He’s lean, angular with a hawkish, weathered Sherlock Holmes face. He sings in the traditional Rex Harrison speak sing. He bites off Higgins' disdainful opinions of the world with relish and he really comes into his own in his final desperate attempts to keep Eliza without losing himself.

Eliza’s wastrel father with his original ideas on morality, Alfred P. Doolittle, is one of the great comic characters. Keith Allen Kalinowski gives a roaring, rollicking, joyful performance as this always drunk con man. He has two standout musical numbers on “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me To the Church on Time” and finds every nuance of humor and bits of naughtiness that the songs embody. He is supported by a lively, if confined, ensemble, and particularly by his two rubber faced mates Harry and Jamie, Dan Morrison and Jeff Steinhauer.

The small but important role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill is given a stunning performance by Riley McFarland. Not only does he have a beautiful, piercing tenor voice on “On the Street Where You Live,” but he has a bright, engagingly goofy personality that captures the sweet pain of Freddy’s unrequited love for Eliza.

Dale Dobson is a square jawed rock of propriety as Col. Pickering, the decent contrast to Higgins’ boorishness. Connie Cowper is nicely tart as Higgins' long suffering mother who comforts Eliza.

The musical director Tyler Driskill also finds a way to make a big show work in a small venue. The chamber orchestra does a fine job, and can be particularly expressive in the quieter moments. Sometimes the orchestra is a bit too loud over Higgins’ spoken songs but more often it can’t capture the sweep of a large orchestra on Loewe’s lushly romantic songs. But Driskill and his tiny crew have found a way to provide what’s needed and give full support for the fine singing of the ensemble and the solo performers.

This is solid musical theater, which is what is always expected at Encore. But for the company and for the multi-award winning Walton it has also been an interesting experiment in how to pare down a big, big show and bring out all the intimacy at its core. Walton and Encore have met the challenge.

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.

My Fair Lady runs through August 28. For ticket information, call the Encore Theatre Box Office at (734) 268-6200 or visit the website at [].

Review: Purple Rose's Morning’s At Seven mines gentle humor in family conflict


The cast of Morning's At Seven.

Morning's At Seven shows evenings at eight in Chelsea. / Photo by [|Sean Carter photography]

Paul Osborne’s Morning’s At Seven treads lightly on themes of personal disappointment, repressed feelings, and unrelieved tension in a small town Midwest.

Osborne’s sympathy for this world out-of-sync is given a respectful and well-performed staging by the [|Purple Rose Theatre] in Chelsea. Osborne, who grew up in Kalamazoo and went on to great success as a playwright and screenwriter, creates gentle comedy from material and settings that William Inge would later turn into steamy drama in Come Back Little Sheba, Picnic and other works.

Osborne’s approach is low-key and knowing and director Michelle Mountain captures that tone and the sometimes bittersweet nature of Osborne’s comedy. The staging also evokes through set, music, and soft lighting the particulars of place and time, 1938.

Morning’s centers around four sisters who live near each other in a small, rural Midwestern town. They are getting up in years, the oldest is 72 and the others are in their 60s. Their ambitions have been small, home centered, but underneath are disappointments never openly expressed.

Cora lives with her husband Theodore, called Thor, and her younger never-married sister Aaronetta Airie. Next door is sister Ida, whose husband Carl has mental-emotional problems. Their son, the well-named Homer, is 40 and has never left home. A few blocks away is Esther. Her husband David is a retired professor who disdains his wife’s family and openly dismisses them as a pack of morons.

The quiet disruption that motivates the play is provided by Homer, who brings home his girlfriend of many years, Myrtle. He visits her in the city but has never introduced her to his family. He’s never asked her to marry him and he’s never moved into the house that his father built for the couple.

Homer suffers from the same doubts and lack of confidence that torture his father. Meanwhile, the house sits empty and Aunt Cora wants it.

What makes this work to some extent is actors who can delve deeply and sympathetically into the motivations, pains, and sly humor of these characters, who in the hands of a lesser playwright and/or a less focused cast could become rube stereotypes ripe for contempt.

At the heart of the play is Aaronetta, the “old maid.” Laural Merlington gives an outstanding performance of this feisty, righteous woman. She captures all of Airie’s contradictions from her warm-heartedness to her suspicions, nervousness, and repressed desires. This is a complex character and Merlington does a fine job of finding all the shadings that make her live as a real person.

Airie’s pain comes from her lifelong love for her brother-in-law Thor. Richard McWilliams makes that affection seem well placed in his performance of a fine, well-centered, decent man. McWilliams captures his warmth, quick empathy and sly sense of humor. Thor is the rock-solid middle American but McWilliams lifts him beyond any easy stereotype as he maneuvers through the most dramatic sections of this comedy. His face and his voice fit exactly who this man is.

Ruth Crawford is Cora, a nervous bundle of a woman. Crawford gives the character’ s desperation to have a life of her own real credence and empathy even as she stubbornly holds her ground.

Rusty Mewha plays Homer as a repressed man-child, unsure of who he is, what he wants or how to live in a world that confuses him. He is socially inept and seemingly sexually repressed. Mewha squeezes a lot of humor out of Homer’s stiff cluelessness.

Homer’s parents have other problems besides home-hugging Homer. Carl thinks he’s a failure because he never became a dentist, though he is a talented craftsman who has built houses. Hugh Maguire plays Carl as a man in a daze - a man who can’t quite connect, even or especially with his wife. Franette Liebow is atwitter as Ida, a nervous woman not quite sure what she wants. She gives sympathy to a less defined role.

Esther and David live in a slightly different world a few blocks away, the world of books, ideas, and attitudes. Esther dresses better, has a more stylish hairdo, even talks in a more refined way. Susan Craves gives all these nuances to her performance as the oldest sister. It is she who finally brings order at the end. Tom Whalen is the arrogant, demanding, and clueless academic David. Whalen plays David as a man who sees himself as a charmer and a giant among intellectual pygmies.

Rhiannon Ragland has the thankless role of Myrtle. The audience wonders how she could ever put up with Homer for 12 years in their peculiar relationship. But Ragland does well at finding the unhappiness Myrtle pushes deep inside even as she repeats again and again how happy she is.

Set designer Sarah Pearline has created a simple but charming backyard with a farm field visible in the distance. Suzanne Young’s costumes aid in quickly defining the characters and the time period. Reid Johnson’s lighting also captures the mood.

Morning’s At Seven is a small, character-driven play. Its humor is low-key, drawing chuckles and wry smiles. There is no great drama and the ending seems a bit flat. But the play has found an audience many times on Broadway and at regional theaters because of its respect for and insights into small town characters. The Purple Rose production understands those strengths and does them honor.

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.

Mornings At Seven continues at the Purple Rose Theatre in downtown Chelsea, Wednesdays through Sundays through August 27. For information, call the box office at (734) 433-7673 or visit [] .

Review: Encore Theatre’s Assassins is Excellent Entertainment and Trenchant History, a Must-See


The cast of Assassins proves you can change the world with just a little finger.

The cast of Assassins proves you can change the world with just a little finger. / Photo by [|Michele Anliker Photography]

In a time of intense political grievance, the [|Encore Musical Theatre Company] is presenting a riveting, brilliant production of Assassins, a work that uses music, drama, and comedy to explore the darkest side of our democracy.

Presidential assassination is an odd topic for a musical but offers compelling material for lyricist and composer [a:Sondheim, Stephen|Stephen Sondheim] and book writer [a:Weidman, John|John Weidman]. Since the 1920s production of Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat, Broadway musicals have dealt with many serious topics, but usually in the context of a romantic core. Assassins is different, a multi-leveled examination of grievance and despair that is at once sympathetic and horrific, funny and sad, maddening and challenging.

Assassins tells the stories and the complaints of presidential assassins and would-be assassins from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. Yet this is no dry history lesson. The stories begin with Booth but are not chronological. The assassins interact across decades, each a separate and distinct personality with similar discontents but varied reasons. And the grim reality is fractured by comedy from musical lilts to slapstick.

Matthew Brennan does triple duty here as director, choreographer, and cast member as our storyteller/balladeer and as Lee Harvey Oswald. In Brennan’s director’s note he writes that this is the show that made him want to be a director and he gets everything right here. He has obviously thought long and hard about the rich possibilities opened up by Sondheim and Weidman, dramatically and musically.

Each part is well cast. They reflect our precise images and ideas of Booth and Oswald while delving deeper into the characters through the precision of Sondheim’s lyrics and music. The other assassins also have their day.

Brennan has that lean chiseled face of Oswald and looks about in that bewildered way that became so well known in the brief time he was on the public stage before his own murder. As the balladeer he is a clear note of conscience but also a fair guide to each grievance.

And who are these dark figures who present their stories, appropriately, on a set designed by Sarah Tanner of the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository?

David Moan is a dead ringer for John Wilkes Booth, the suave, handsome matinee idol. He wears the dashing mustache and styled hair but Moan’s face mixes the look of charm and steel that was Booth. He sings in an almost sweet and yet anguished voice as he makes his case and unburdens his agony that “our country is not what it was.” In the final scenes his voice has that rich syrupy southern warmth that must have made Booth the stage star he was, though always in the shadow of his brother Edwin.

Daniel A. Helmer is the funny, chipper, ever optimistic striver Charles Guiteau who assassinated James Garfield. Helmer sings, dances, and clowns and captures every nuance of a man who believed in his deepest heart in the American dream and never understood why he didn’t get his fair share. Helmer has him nailed in his performance.

More pathetic is Samuel Byck, who planned to kill Richard Nixon by hijacking an airliner and crashing into the White House. He was killed before he got off the ground. His story here is told in the recreation of two tapes he made, one addressed to Leonard Bernstein (for whom Sondheim wrote the lyrics to West Side Story) and another to Nixon. Keith Allan Kalinowski gives a shattering performance of a man on the verge of mental breakdown, everything in his life a mark of failure. Kalinowski’s performance is brusque, funny, soulful and full of pathos.

On a more “humorous” note are Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who in September of 1975 both decided to assassinate the least controversial, blandest president ever, Michigan’s own Gerald Ford in separate attempts. Fromme was as she said lover and slave of Charlie Manson and participant in his crimes. Sara Jane Moore was a scatter-brained, middle-aged housewife who wasn’t sure what she was doing or why.

Carly Snyder as Fromme and Sarah Briggs as Moore bring these characters to life in all their craziness and ineptness. Snyder has an interesting cross generation duet with John Hinckley (James Fischer) justifying her bizarre love for a madman. Briggs is a superb comic, with body motions and facial contortions that reveal the special anguish of Moore’s mental illness.

Dan Johnson plays the angry but personally retiring anarchist Leon Czologz, McKinley’s assassin. He captures the tight bewilderment of a man never at home in America and not really sure why. He speaks and sings poignantly of what it’s like to be on the bottom of the American economic system.

Ari Axelrod brings ferocity to his performance of Giuseppe Zangara, who in the attempt to kill president-elect Franklin Roosevelt killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. His death scene is ferocious but brilliantly undercut by a competing ensemble piece of bystanders who yearn for publicity for “saving Roosevelt.”

Fischer’s Hinckley is a quiet boy man. Fischer is a plaintive suitor to a phantom Jodie Foster. In one of many clever stagings, Hinckley’s pathetic assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan is stylized and highlighted by Reagan’s heroic voice of humor, calmness, and strength.

The music is alternately bracing, lush, and humorous, excellently performed by the orchestra under Tyler Driskill. The ensemble cast is excellent, especially on the multi-voiced final “Everybody’s Got the Right.”

One small glitch was a problem in the sound system but it didn’t distract from an outstanding show.

History often repeats itself, sometimes tragically in the form of assassinations. In a democracy we need and encourage dissent, strong voices with aggressive and sometimes vital complaints. But there is a line where complaint becomes madness and visions of a better day when our country was a better place distort reality. Sondheim and Weidman have given us a history lesson that provokes, amuses, shocks but never gives an easy answer. Encore brings that vividly to life.

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.

Assassins continues at the Encore Theatre in Dexter at 7 pm on Thursdays, June 23 and 30; 8 pm on Fridays, June 17, 24 and July 1; and 3 and 8 pm on Saturdays June 11, 18, 25 and July 2; and 3 pm Sundays June 12, 19, 26 and July 3. For tickets, call the Encore Theatre Box Office at (734) 268-6200 or visit the website at [].