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 http://www.A2ct.org or by phone at (734) 971-2228.
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 http://www.purplerosetheatre.org.
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 http://www.theencoretheatre.org.
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.
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 http://www.music.umich.edu.
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 http://www.emutix.com or call (734) 487-2282.
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 http://www.ums.org.
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.
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 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 http://www.theencoretheatre.org/tickets.
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 http://www.purplerosetheatre.org .
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 Stephen Sondheim and book writer 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.
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 http://www.theencoretheatre.org/tickets.
A twirling mirror ball fills the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre with a dazzling display of twinkly stars setting just the right tone for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's giddy and highly entertaining production of The Wedding Singer. It's a nostalgic musical trip back to the go-go Reagan years of the 1980s and a search for true love by two lost souls.
The Wedding Singer was a Broadway musical based on the popular Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore rom-com. The film's writer Tim Herlihy teamed with Chad Beguelin to fit the movie to a theater stage and substitute an '80s Top 40 soundtrack with an original score with music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Beguelin. The result is often hilariously funny and sometimes a bit touching, even though we all know how it will end.
The trick for Sklar was to create music that echoes those hits without actually copying them. You'll recognize the inspirations immediately and smile. Beguelin's lyrics effectively capture the schmaltzy side of the era but also excellently parody some of the more strident songs.
Most importantly, the A2CT cast is fully engaged as they romp through several weddings and a bar mitzvah before true love finds its way to a Vegas wedding chapel (replacing a hectic airport scene in the movie and weary travelers with celebrity impersonators). Director Ron Baumanis keeps the sets simple, mobile and interchangeable. The focus is all on the performance of his talented cast.
Chip Mezo is Robbie, the wedding singer, who believes that the happiness he brings to the newlyweds and their guests is better than being a rock star. Unfortunately, it means he is reduced to living in his grandparents' basement. But Robbie believes in love. Mezo is a fine pop singer with just the right amounts of swagger and innocence.
He can do a Billy Joel style riff on "Somebody Kill Me," find the ethnic humor in "Today You Are a Man" and go all mushy on "Grow Old With Me."
The ultimate object of his affection is the sweet, consoling, ever hopeful Julia. Kimberly Elliott gives each of those qualities full play in her fine performance and, of course, adds a bit of goofiness as well. Elliott is a fine singer, whether on a song of longing, "Someday", or on a cheerful song of affirmation, "Come Out of the Dumpster".
The course of true love does not run smoothly. Robbie is in love with Linda, who dumps him early on as a loser who will never be the rock star she deserves. Julia is engaged to a Wall Street investor with a bullying personality and a roving eye. But they have loyal friends who help to steer them in the right direction.
Salina Burke as Linda gets two songs to display her strong pop voice. On "Let Me Come Home" she gets to sing, jump and perform a tasteful strip tease all at once.
Michael Cicirelli is Glenn, Julia's obnoxious boyfriend. He does a fine run down on Wall Street ethics in the song "All About the Green."
Robbie's band mates Sammy and George offer contrast. Sammy is a mullet-haired dude played with easygoing sincerity by Daniel Hazlett.
George is an observant, quietly mocking gay man who wonders at his friend's misplaced optimism. Chris Joseph is a bright, always engaging performer who often steals the show. He is hilarious as he noodles away at a bar mitzvah blessing and brings a bit of Little Richard to a dance with Robbie's forward-looking grandmother Rosie on "Move That Thang." But best of all, his face is a Greek Chorus of commentary on what's going on.
Becca Novak brings another big '80s style voice to the role of Julia's best friend Holly. She takes the lead on the rollicking "Saturday Night in the City" and joins Hazlett on a duet "Right in Front of Your Eyes." Karen Underwood plays Rosie with warmth and humor without overdoing the stereotype.
The solid band under the direction Jim Territo does an excellent job of hitting all the sounds of the '80s.
The ensemble brings those déjà vu weddings to life with some excellent bad dancing, drunken dedications, conga lines, and, as always, tense moments that might lead to a brawl.
This is a happy show. The songs are not very original and that's the point. The story is set in stone at the beginning and that's why it's so appealing. The director and his cast bring it all together into a concoction that is as spritzy and bright as a mirror ball twirling in the night.
The Wedding Singer continues at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on the main campus of the University of Michigan at 8 pm June 3 and 4 and 2 pm June 5. For tickets, visit http://www.a2ct.org/tickets or call (734) 971-2228.
A paleontologist walks on the stage. Behind him is a projection of a famous and enigmatic fossil find. The bones of two ancient bodies are seemingly entwined, facing each other.
Lovers, religious sacrifices, bodies covered in a long ago volcanic eruption? No one knows, everyone has a theory or two.
The paleontologist is an absent-minded professor, a bit of a joker, a man who admits being more comfortable on a dig conversing with ancient bones than in front of a classroom. But he has always been drawn to those dusty bones and their secrets and what they might say about love, community, and life.
This is the beginning of Matt Letscher’s richly-conceived comic drama Gaps in the Fossil Record, making its world premiere at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea.
Gaps is an interesting conversation across generations, a family drama, an emotional volcano at times, and even a bit of eco-science fiction. That it all works so well is a tribute to director Guy Sanville and his creative team, three superb actors, and the raw intelligence, wit, and insight of Letscher’s play.
Richard, the awkward paleontologist, is a very late bloomer. He’s given his life over to those lovely bones and shunned people. Now he’s a middle-aged college teacher who finds himself loved by a 20-year-old student. They’ve come to give the good news to the young woman’s mother, with whom she has a complicated, if loving, relationship.
This provides the bones for an interesting exchange of secrets, fears, hopes, and explanations across several years. To reveal too much of the plot would spoil some of the play’s appeal. Suffice it to say that the three characters go through some big changes that open both wounds and revelations.
Mark Colson is a gaunt, shambling figure as Richard, at first a nice guy, though seemingly ill fit for Jane, his assistant on a recent dig. As the play progresses, Colson must deal with the deepest emotions. He goes from sly wit, to anxiety-ridden unemployed middle-ager in crisis, to an old man with cognitive problems. Colson finds the core in each of these transformations, and in the beginning and at the end is our guide. His strongest emotional moments are also some of his more hilarious moments, a testimony to just how complex Letscher’s play is to perform.
Michelle Mountain is riveting as Susan, Jane’s mother and a widow of a complicated and tragic marriage. She also navigates the shifting tones beautifully, from horrified mother “losing” her daughter to an old geezer, to sympathetic mother-in-law struggling with her own desires, to troubled grandmother. Mountain’s Susan is blunt, foul-mouthed, tender, warm, and finally a survivor through life’s ups and downs. Every emotion is real.
Aja Brandmeier takes on two roles; the love-struck Jane, finding love in a world shy father figure, and Meredith, Richard and Jane’s teenage daughter. As Jane she has a kidding, ribald, and good but sometimes tense relationship with her mother. Brandmeier captures that tension excellently and is also convincing in portraying her affection for her smart but socially awkward older lover. But Brandmeier’s strongest moments come as Meredith, a purple-haired punk with a kindly heart. She tends to an aging father who doesn’t know her and here the character is a shy, tentative girl, more like her father. She’s also someone bewildered by a world in chaos. Brandmeier holds her body as if trying to hug herself and shield herself from a cold world.
Sanville brings this together with a rewarding simplicity. The acting is sharply in sync. The comedy never falters and the emotional highs never become too overwrought. The production values are high.
Vince Mountain’s gray set is basically a bare stage, a backdrop of white wall doors for projections of bones, with furniture pieces moved in and out efficiently. Lighting and projection design by Noelle Stollmack and sound design by Tom Whalen are integral to the production’s success and take center stage for a while at the end.
Gaps in the Fossil Record should find a place in many regional theaters and may well get its shot at Broadway, but Letscher should count himself lucky and well-served by this superb Purple Rose world premiere production.
The play received recognition with the 2015 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. The Foundation provides financial support to theatres with established reputations for producing new plays. The grants have provided funds for extended rehearsal time to develop plays and schedule productions. Fifteen of these plays have gone on to Broadway including the 2014 Tony Award winner All The Way and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner Next to Normal.
Playwright Matt Letscher is a Grosse Pointe native, a 1992 graduate of the University of Michigan, and an actor on stage, film, and television.
Gaps in the Fossil Record continues at The Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park Street, Chelsea, at 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 pm matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays; and 2 pm matinees Sundays through May 28. For ticket information, call the box office at (734) 433-7673 or visit http://www.purplerosetheatre.org.
Barefoot in the Park was an early Neil Simon Broadway hit.
It had the bantering dialog, the sarcastic asides, and the frazzled New York setting of most of his plays. But it's a romantic comedy without the neurotic edge or the bitter insights into the stress of the big city of his later plays, nor the depth of character of his biographical plays. It has its funny and its pleasant moments, but it hasn't aged as well as his later plays, perhaps because anxiety is funnier.
The Ann Arbor Civic Theater is presenting Barefoot at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the University of Michigan north campus. Director Wendy Wright notes that the play is a sweet product of its time that isn’t often performed. She also notes that Simon, the most successful comedy playwright in Broadway history, is having a moment at regional theaters and it’s a good time to take another look at the play that really launched him into orbit on Broadway and on film.
The play is set squarely into its 1960s time period - in this production 1965, to be exact - to make use of a groovy Top 40 soundtrack of the times.
The play concerns newly-weds who are setting up their first "home" in a cramped, one-bedroom walk up apartment on Manhattan's east side. Corie Bratter is trying her best to feather this love nest for her lawyer husband after a six-day honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel. She's nervous about his reaction to their new home that he has yet to see. She's also nervous about the reaction of her perfectionist mother.
The apartment house has many eccentric tenants but the only one we see is a charming old flirt who lives in an even more cramped attic apartment.
Even when the play was new, the relations between men and women, especially in New York City, were already changing, as Simon's later plays would show. But here the tension is between a nervous stay-at-home wife and her striver husband. The focus is on Corie's attempts to match her tart-tongued mother with the sweet-talking old gentleman, Victor. She also wants to loosen up her conventional lawyer husband enough so he can "walk barefoot in the park," even in February.
Colleen Davis is bright and cheery as Corie. She sets the tone for the play, eager to please and increasingly upset when things don’t go as planned. She is appropriately charmed by the old rascal and sees him in contrast to her stolid husband.
Karl Kasischke as Paul is the more practical of the two. Comically he comes into his own at the end when he finally loosens up for Corie. This comes after an argument that could be a bit more sharply played. I think Simon was looking for a bit of a slamming-door farce in this scene. Things pick up when Kassischke’s Paul goes into a bit of inspired hysterics that is the valve release that Simon has been building toward.
Ellen Finch as Corie's mother Ethel gives an excellent performance. She gets the funniest lines and she handles them with authority - droll, biting, but really affectionate. She's charming.
Larry Rusinsky gets to overact as Victor Velasco, the character that is meant to be broad. He is someone for whom life is a stage. His scenes with Corie and her mother are amusing and silly in a 1950s comedy way.
Also amusing in a small role as telephone installer Harry Pepper is Theo Polley. He sounds like New York and he also has a fine sense of timing.
This is not top drawer Simon. Some of the jokes are too rooted in their time period and in this case don’t even acknowledge the changing world of young women at the time. It lacks the insecurity that would be at the heart of later Simon. But it does have something that would be rarer in later Simon plays with the exception of The Goodbye Girl: It has a romance and an affirmation that love conquers all.
Barefoot in the Park runs through April 24, 2016 at the Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave, Ann Arbor. Buy tickets online, or call (734) 971-2228 (A2CT).
For many famous entertainers, the scariest thing in the world is to see someone rushing at them and screaming, "Oh my god, it's you. I am your biggest fan!"
But apparently for a young Patsy Cline, just on the verge of becoming a country and pop music phenomenon, a down-to-earth woman and fanatic devotee was just what she needed to stay grounded in the lives of the people for whom her music was a joy, a comfort, and a reassurance that they were not alone in their trials and tribulations.
Two extraordinary performers bring comedy and pathos to the unusual friendship between Cline and a divorced Houston mother of two in Always ... Patsy Cline at the Encore Theatre in Dexter.
The play was conceived by Ted Swindley as basically a musical revue of Cline's beloved catalog of songs through the eyes of her friend Louise Seger. Though we know how the story ends, with Cline's tragic death in a plane crash in 1963 at a shockingly young 30 years old, this is primarily a rollicking, laugh out loud comedy balanced by the plaintive sadness of so many of Cline's songs.
Sonja Marquis is a blunt, in-your-face Louise Seger. She's the kind of woman who harasses radio DJs, bellows when she wants attention, drinks like a sailor, and loves sad old country songs. Marquis is hilarious as she struts across the stage telling her story, swaggering and joshing with the audience, doing broad imitations of the sorry men in her life, and charging ahead without a second thought to form a lasting friendship with a soon-to-be very famous star. But Marquis also brings a poignancy to Seger, a lonely women in a bad marriage when she first hear's Cline's remarkable voice. She drops everything to badger a DJ to play "I Fall to Pieces" over and over, knowing what solace it brings her. That roughness and bluntness combined with a deep warmth plays out in her mostly long distance relationship with Cline.
Emmi Veinbergs becomes Patsy Cline. Standing on a honky tonk stage with a four-piece country band, Veinbergs shows that she has mastered every inflection of Cline's plaintive but clear and ringing voice. Cline was one of the first crossover country stars. Her distinct phrasing and soft Southern accent made her records appealing beyond the then narrow Southern country-western fan base. Veinbergs has the voice down perfectly and she also captures the way Cline swayed as she sang while avoiding the broad arm gestures of other singers. Veinbergs also bears a strong resemblance to the singer.
The catalog of great Patsy Cline songs provides an entertaining cabaret of music by some of country's greatest songwriters, who stood in line hoping that Cline would deign to sing their songs. Veinbergs does drop-dead renderings of "Crazy," "Sweet Dreams," "She's Got You," and "If You've Got Leavin' On Your Mind." She also covers Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" and the Kitty Wells hit "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."
Cline sings that song in the honky tonk where she meets her No. 1 fan Seger. She is singing along to music on a jukebox, growing distant and wistful because Cline is also a fan and her life plays out the drama in Wells' record as her songs will in the lives of millions of listeners just like Louise Seger.
In a later scene in Seger's kitchen, where Cline has been shanghaied, the two women lay out their grievances through songs, particularly "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray" and "Crazy." Veinbergs' singing and Marquis' humorous commiseration are brilliant demonstrations of the emotional power of country music to express the most basic human needs and provide solace.
These two fine actresses under the direction of Thalia V. Schramm get to the heart of the matter in these two scenes where a common understanding is played out with special delicacy. Dan Mikat is the music director and Veinbergs and the band would be welcome at the Opry any time.
The Encore set designed by Kristen Gribben is amazing in its detail and flexibility. In one part of the stage is a typical 1950s style kitchen, small but tidy. The rest of the stage is a wood paneled honky tonk that also doubles for the Grand Ole Opry stage. It is nicely detailed with photos, Schlitz promotional lights, and other bar room details.
"Always ... Patsy Cline" continues Thursdays at 7 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Saturday and Sundays at 3 pm through May 8, at the Dexter Musical Theatre Company in downtown Dexter. For tickets, call (734)268-6200.
Great theater has the power to magically take us to another place and time and introduce us to the most interesting and colorful people.
This weekend the Power Center is being transformed into Noo Yawk City, circa 1950s. Specifically it's the "devil's own street" Broadway with gamblers, chorus girls, and missionaries out to save their souls in a dynamic, eye-popping production of the beloved musical classic The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance production brings it all together: superb singing, beautiful choreography, sharp humor, and a flexible set and lighting that makes good use of the large Power Center stage.
Guys and Dolls is a "musical fable" that makes lovable mugs of the denizens of Broadway based on the streetwise stories of Damon Runyon with a book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Loesser created one of the finest scores and some of the most loved songs in the Broadway repertoire, drawing on a variety of styles, rhythms, and vocal arrangements. Loesser brought high class music to the lives of the city's "less reputable" residents.
Big musicals are always about strong collaboration. Here director Mark Madam, musical director and conductor Cynthia Kortman Westphal, and choreographer Mara Newbery Greer have put all the pieces together to bring out the best in their student cast.
The story is familiar. Nathan Detroit, proprietor of the "oldest-established, permanent floating crap game" in New York, is having trouble finding a place to host a dice game for a visiting Chicago gambler Big Jule. He is also trying to maintain relations with his "doll" Adelaide, star chanteuse of the Hot Box Nightclub.
Slick, suave, and daring gambler Sky Masterson is back in town and Nathan thinks he's found a way to raise funds to rent a space by betting that babe magnet Masterson will not get a nod from the uptight Sarah Brown of the Save-a-Soul Mission.
This simple plot creates the frame for all that music, complex dance routines, comedy, and romance, and the UM cast seems to be savoring every minute of it.
Will Branner brings a rich baritone and a bit of swagger to Sky. He moves smoothly, as he should, from confirmed playboy to romantically devoted swain. He does a fine job on "Luck Be a Lady."
He meets his match in Solea Pfeiffer's Sarah Brown. As Pfeiffer moves from uptight missionary to a dame in love she handles a sweet transition from operatic soprano to a more modulated popular voice. She is especially effective when Sarah lets her guard down on a trip to devil-may-care Havana (pre Castro). Pfeiffer completely embodies the music and lyrics of "If I Were a Bell," a giddy realization that she's falling in love.
Joseph Sammour plays the less refined street tough Nathan Detroit (as suggested by his name). He fidgets, he worries, he talks tough, but he's really a softie, madly in love with his Miss Adelaide. Sammour is both charming and sly as Nathan but he rises to the occasion on his big musical moment with Adelaide, "Sue Me," which he turns into a warm testimony of his devotion.
Any production of Guys and Dolls hinges on a great Miss Adelaide, the comic spark and the emotional draw of Loesser's songs. Hannah Flam is an outstanding Adelaide: adorable, loud, gawky, and thoroughly convincing. Her musical highlights are many from the Hot Box revue numbers "A Bushel and a Peck" and "Take Back the Mink" to her duet with Pfeiffer on "Marry the Man Today." But the tall, imposing Flam makes her biggest impression on "Adelaide's Lament." She's funny but also poignant when she sings that romantic troubles are enough "to give a person a cold."
The musical really kicks into gear with "Fugue for Tinhorns" in which Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southside and Rusty Charlie tout contrapuntally why they "have the horse right here." Noah Weisbart as Nicely-Nicely, Wonza Johnson as Benny, and Tyler Leahy as Rusty handle the complex musical and lyrical blending expertly.
Weisbart and Johnson team up for the song "Guys and Dolls" and make like a seasoned vaudeville team, both in fine voice and comic timing. Weisbart is outstanding as he leads the rollicking "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat." A nicer Nicely-Nicely couldn't have been cast.
Cameron Jones has a standout moment as Arvide, the older mission leader and father figure for Sarah. Jones sings a tender "More I Can Not Wish You" in a heart-rending tenor voice, each word sharply defined.
Under Westphal's direction the musical numbers are fresh and believable and the orchestra performance is bright and strong while never overpowering the singers.
Greer's choreography is rhythmically precise and effectively handles the numerous styles that Loesser uses from show-biz tap dance to the sensuous Latin movements of Havana to an aggressively stylized crap game. It all works, the student dancers bring rich life to every scene.
Sets by Edward T. Morris and costumes by Jessica Hahn and Michayla Van Treeck capture the period with simplicity but effectively. A special note should be made of Mark Allen Berg's lighting which is effectively used with the choreography to create a sense of drama and punctuate the rhythms.
Guys and Dolls continues at the Power Center on the U-M main campus at 8 pm on Friday, April 15, and Saturday, April 16, and 2 pm on Sunday, April 17. For ticket information, call 734-764-2538.
The University of Michigan production of Molière's The Imaginary Invalid is giddy, bawdy, extremely noisy, and intermittently funny.
Translator James Magruder sought to recreate the theatrical carnival that would have surrounded and interrupted Molière's play when it was first produced in 1673, but in the process Molière's satire takes a back seat and a beating. Director Daniel Cantor takes Magruder's ideas and adds on some of his own. Molière is a mix of pratfalls and comic repartee but the physical action here is often aimless and drags on and the verbal wit is often lost in the noise.
The production seems less like a carnival than a mishmash of Ionesco and Beckett, fart jokes raised to art by Aristophanes and beloved by 12-year-olds everywhere, English music hall and French chanteuses and even a Saturday Night Live skit.
The set design by Vincent Mountain seems to borrow a bit from Chaplin's factory scene in Modern Times or maybe from Fritz Lang's Metropolis as a way to emphasize constant motion, and every once in a while explodes in bubbles. The costumes are not time specific and range from Molière's day to the early 20th Century. The Entr'acte Company wear form fitting suits that would work just as well in a Star Trek play.
The high point of the production is one of the interludes developed by Cantor and the company. The comedy here is quick-footed, makes good use of modern day references, and cheerfully involves the audience. A talented actor named Caleb Foote delivers the goods, dressed as part clown, part busker serenading his beloved. Foote knows how to grab an audience and hold them for dear life. He makes the best of the free form material with a good singing voice and lively banter.
The cast of the central play is fine. Jesse Aaronson gets to ham it up as Argan, the titled imaginary invalid. He moans, groans, and makes body noises as an insufferable hypochondriac. Argan does battle with his impertinent servant Toinette, played with proper spunk and fire by Kay Kelley. Savannah Crosby plays Argan's older daughter, whom he tries to marry off to a doctor's son so he can be under constant care. She plays the daughter as a pretty 19th Century melodrama maid with a bit of a twinkle.
Also notable are Delaney Moro as Argan's second wife, who plots to take his fortune and sneers appropriately; Brendan Alpiner as the unappealing suitor who reels out memorized spiels of twisted flattery; and Anna Markowitz as the younger daughter, who jostles amusingly with her father, verbally and physically.
But the acrobatics, anachronisms, noise, and busyness drown out the satire that still has some power in our times of medical disasters and cure all fads. A last bit of SNL comedy in the finale makes reference to the presidential campaign at a time when that campaign has turned into dangerous high comedy itself.
The Imaginary Invalid continues April 2, 8, and 9 at 8 pm, April 3 and 10 at 2 pm, and April 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the UM North Campus. Tickets are available 9 am to 5 pm at the League Ticket Office within the Michigan League. Order by phone at (734)764-2538.