Review: Kickshaw Theatre goes bold with The Electric Baby

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE


The cast of Electric Baby. / Photo by [http://www.scarterphoto.com|Sean Carter Photography]

The new [http://www.kickshawtheatre.org/|Kickshaw Theatre] is kicking off with a bold promise that it will be presenting theater with a bite by staging Stefanie Zadravec's The Electric Baby as its first production.

The Electric Baby is a play with drama, humor and a social conscience. But it is also burdened by its shifting styles, its dips into magic realism and its central symbolic image, a baby that "glows like the moon."

In choosing to take on this particular play, director Lynn Lammers dares to challenge her audience to give in to the playwright's excesses to mine for the moments of gold. She has the benefit of directing an outstanding and dedicated cast that shares her sensitivity and seriousness to material that often seems too fragile.

An immigrant mother in a rundown apartment is our guide. The Romanian immigrant, Natalia, talks directly to the audience, suggesting helpful folk remedies or telling fanciful folk tales, all while rocking her baby. The baby is hope in an unusual form.

The action begins with a middle-aged couple engaged in a fierce argument while waiting for a valet to bring their car after visiting the husband of their deceased daughter. The woman becomes enraged and hurries into the night.

Nearby, an immigrant African cabdriver picks up a young man and woman who have just dramatically stormed out of their low-paying restaurant jobs but become embroiled in their own argument about the woman's side job as an "escort."

The taxi and the running woman collide, setting off a series of encounters. In the process Zadravec explores a myriad of social issues from the impact of loss on a longstanding marriage, the problems of aging in an economic downturn, the problems of the young forced into dead-end jobs, the problems of immigrants trying to make it in a less than friendly America. To do this, she moves back and forth from realism to folk tale and mysticism. But the Kickshaw cast makes it work.

Vanessa Sawson's Natalia is earthy, confiding, at times romantic. The accent sounds very credible. She is especially effective at drawing the audience in as she cajoles them with her old country remedies. She is also good at portraying the bitter struggle in her once hopeful life in America.

William Bryson as the cabdriver, Ambimbola, also has a credible accent that booms with authority. He also has a sardonic chuckle and a face that animates a hundred different emotions. This character is a beacon of hope that depends on Bryson's charm to work.

The married couple groping to repair a badly damaged marriage are played sharply by Julie Glander and Peter Carey. Glander at first is a bundled of nerves as Helen, grieving and blaming for too long. Gradually she learns how to channel her grief and Glander handles the transition beautifully. Carey's Reed is a difficult character hiding a secret and holding down his own grief until it boils over. Carey's rich voice gives special weight to Reed's attempts to evade and then accept his responsibilities.

Mary Dilworth plays the foul mouthed young prostitute, Rozie, with a perfect combination of childlike vulnerability and defiant brass. Dilworth snaps off a torrent of vulgarity while retaining that hint of the young girl she once was.

Michael Lopetrone rounds out the cast as Dan, Don and David. He makes each a little different. His stuttering Dan is never played for laughs or sympathy.

This is a strong beginning for a new company that might have played it safe the first time out. It will be interesting to see where they go from here.


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 Electric Baby continues through Sunday, February 21 at the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth, 704 Airport Blvd, Ann Arbor, MI 48108. For tickets, visit kickshawtheatre.org or call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006.

Review: Purple Rose's Odd Couple Has Humor and Heart

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Guy Sanville's Oscar figures out that FU is David Montee's Felix Unger in the Purple Rose's production of  The Odd Couple.

Guy Sanville's Oscar figures out that FU is David Montee's Felix Unger in the Purple Rose's production of The Odd Couple. / Photo by [http://www.scarterphoto.com|Sean Carter Photography]

Oscar and Felix are back.

The most famous stage bromance, The Odd Couple, is as hilarious as ever at Chelsea's [http://www.purplerosetheatre.org/|Purple Rose Theatre], where the jokes just keep coming but the play's underlying humanity rises to the top.

Neil Simon had a long, prolific and successful career, but The Odd Couple is probably his most enduring and most produced work. Following its box office success on Broadway and as a [b:1449716|hit movie], it is produced regularly across the country and has even inspired a female version.

The Purple Rose makes their production special with an excellent cast in top form, hitting each zinger with perfect timing, while finding the play's heartfelt take on what it's like to be lonely in a big city.

The neat-freak, fuss budget Felix Ungar has been given the boot by his wife and his poker-playing buddy Oscar Madison, an uber masculine slob, reluctantly offers him temporary residence in his Manhattan apartment. The apartment has been too big and too empty since Oscar's divorce.

At the heart of this story are two men of opposite personalities who find a way to complement each other. Guy Sanville is the gruff, slovenly Oscar but with a look in his eyes that suggests a sensitivity befitting one of New York's top sports writers. He's funny in a sly, deadpan way. David Montee is a sweet-natured Felix, the slightly prissy man who enjoys cooking and can't stand a mess. Montee doesn't overdo the effeminate qualities as some actors would and instead emphasizes Felix's gentleness along with his irritating, but funny, perfectionism.

Lauren Mounsey makes her professional directing debut and does a fine job of keeping the mood droll and funny but also low key. The jokes are there and the audience laughs but they come out of real conversations. All of her actors are in sync which keeps things moving along hilariously.

The poker gang played by David Bendena, Jim Porterfield, Chris Lutkin and Tom Whalen kibbutz and razz each other with easy rapport. Porterfield is especially funny as the excitable cop Murray, whose agitation rises to a boil of nervous energy.

Oscar and Felix, of course, find female companionship in the form of the ever lovable Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn (Michelle Mountain) and Cecily (Rhiannon Ragland). They twitter and fidget about as their surname suggests and all in sparklingly twitty English accents. Their scene with Felix is both funny and endearing.

The intimate Purple Rose setting is perfect for The Odd Couple, drawing the audience into Oscar's Manhattan apartment. Set designer Bartley H. Bauer does a good job of presenting a well-appointed apartment that has somewhat gone to seed under Oscar's disregard.

These are characters we all know so well from stage, movie and a hit TV series, but the Purple Rose gives them bright new 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.


The Odd Couple continues through March 26 at the theater, 137 Park Street in Chelsea. Tickets range in price from $19 to $43 with discounts for students, seniors and groups. For more information or to make reservations, call the theater box office at (734) 433-7673 or go online to [http://www.purplerosetheatre.org|http://www.purplerosetheatre.org].

Review: Civic Theatre Cast Brings out Their Best for 'Company'

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The Civic Theatre cast brings out their best for 'Company'

Two's company, but seven is...also Company.

Intimate relationships are complicated, contradictory, and baffling.

Company is a musically and lyrically intense exploration of love and marriage, at times rueful, funny, bitter and hopeful. The musical, with music and lyrics by [a:Sondheim, Stephen|Stephen Sondheim] and [b:1449571|book] by George Furth, is musically challenging, lyrically intricate, and emotionally draining. The [http://www.a2ct.org|Ann Arbor Civic Theatre] has taken on the challenge with an outstanding ensemble who seem to relish the rich variety and tonal changes of Sondheim's music.

Director Rachel Francisco notes in the program that the play has an odd structure. The center of attention is Bobby, an aging man-about-town who has reached his 35th birthday without settling into a serious relationship. He is surrounded by married friends who both envy and worry about him. Bobby visits these couples and struggles with who he is and who he is supposed to be. Francisco notes that the action seems to play out in Bobby's head, a meditation on life, ending with a desperate affirmation.

Company is well named as the play provides spotlight moments for many in the cast, each song keying in on some aspect of love and marriage. Francisco and musical director Jennifer Goltz keep it fluid, moving easily from moments of slapstick humor to quiet introspection. Sondheim draws on jazz, the blues, and musical theater models. His multi-voiced settings, complex lyrics at breakneck speed, and his shifts in style are a challenge. Goltz gets the best from the singers and leads a small combo in a solid musical accompaniment.

At the center is Robby Griswold as Bobby. He is our guide through this mid-life crisis. He is charming, boyish, but also visibly aching for something else...or is he? Griswold is the glue that binds everything with his nuanced performance and his rich, intelligent singing. He wonders about the limits of intimacy in the reflective "Marry Me a Little." His rendition of "Being Alive" is strong, sad but triumphant.

But, of course, Bobby is not alone. He is surrounded and sometimes smothered by the affection of his friends.

Harry and Sarah seem happily married, even as they engage in a little karate. Jodi-Renee Giron's Sarah is tough and funny. Harry may not be all that happy as he sings "Sorry-Grateful," one of the most mature reflections on marriage. Paul Clark as Harry has a strong voice that captures the rueful mood.

Marta, a bohemian girl, is one of three people with whom Bobby has off-and-on relations. Kate Papachristou has a voice that seems to rise above the others. Her Marta offers one explanation for Bobby's reluctance to get involved, the teeming, stimulating, maddening city of New York, in the frantic song, "Another Hundred People."

Another frantic song is from a bride in panic as the ceremony nears. Marci Rosenberg is hilarious as Amy, a woman in a longterm lesbian relationship who feels too much pressure to get married. Sondheim's "Getting Married Today," is a rapid fire musical stand-up routine that Rosenberg blazes through, while flailing across the stage hilariously. Her sweet-tempered, kind intended, Paula, is well played by Amanda Bynum.

April is another of Bobby's tentative love relationships. She's a stewardess, more noted for her beauty than her intellect, a definite bad mark from Bobby's female friends. Kimberly Elliott is funny and a little goofy as April and she and Griswold do a nice comic duet on "Barcelona".

A knock-out moment in Company is always Joanne's bitter observations on "The Ladies Who Lunch." Joanne and her third husband are a bit older than the crowd. As played by Amy Bogetto-Weinraub, she is a bit of a cougar, always on the hunt but more than a little sad about her situation. Her performance on "The Ladies" builds slowly to a savage, emotionally draining declaration that is more about self-loathing than gossip.

Others of note are Trisha Fountain as the square Jenny, Chris Joseph as the bisexual Bobby's sometimes boyfriend Kevin, and in the musical quartet, Greg Simon on trumpet and flugel.


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.


Company continues Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Arthur Miller.Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave, 48109. Tickets are available [:http://www.a2ct.org/tickets/buytickets|online] at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's website, by calling the A2CT office at 734-971-2228, or at the door. Additional information is available by visiting the theater's [:http://www.a2ct.org|website].

Review: Henry IV, Part I, University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

UMSMTD gives the devil his due in their production of Henry IV

UMSMTD gives the devil his due in their production of Henry IV

Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I isn't really about King Henry IV. It's about the rivalry between Henry's son, Prince Hal, the future Henry V, and the heroic and headstrong Harry "Hotspur" Percy.

The play is full of jolly roistering and clashing swords, but its theme of delayed maturity seems to fit well for a university production. And the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance offers a perceptive and [https://tickets.music.umich.edu/single/eventDetail.aspx?p=2398|action-p… production].

The heir to a much-disputed crown is happier in a tavern than on a battlefield and his father worries that Hal will never assume his proper role. Meanwhile, the son of one of his allies, Hotspur, has won acclaim for his daring. Hotspur and his father and aunt (a change of gender for the role) will soon change allegiance and lead a rebellion. Will Hal meet the challenge?

Not if an old, soused knight named Falstaff has any say in the matter. Falstaff is of course one of Shakespeare's great creations. He's a lecher, a drunk, a buffoon, a coward, and a great party animal. He's a "bad influence" but closer to Hal than his own father and something of a modern day cynic.

Director Priscilla Lindsay pulls all these elements together in a rousing, traditional staging of [b:1189350|one of the Bard's most popular works]. The production moves smoothly from the bawdy confines of the Boar's Head Inn to the royal court to the bloody fields of battle. Shakespeare's language is a challenge for young actors and the clarity of some of the actors is less than it should be. But Lindsay gets some excellent work from her three major actors.

Robert M. O'Brien is a handsome, charming, and playful Hal. He speaks the language well, he moves gracefully and, crucially, he makes a convincing move from party boy to a leader of men. He conveys some of the sadness and loss that that move will cause him.

The plum role in any production of this play and its sequel is of course Sir John Falstaff. Graham Techler may need padding to fill the obese profile, but he is a superb Falstaff. He handles both the rapid verbal wit and the complex physical comedy excellently. He's hilarious, but in his famous comments on "honor," he also conveys a deeper understanding of what he's saying.

But, the real find here is Caleb Foote. His Hotspur is a raging revelation. He is fierce, rapid-tongued, and physically athletic and on-edge. Foote's command of Shakespeare's language is amazing. He understands perfectly that the best approach is to speak it naturally as your own and in this case he even gives it a rough north English accent. When he is on stage, he commands the stage. He bears himself like a young Jimmy Cagney, which is perfect for the reckless if honorable warrior he plays.

Key roles are played by Larissa Marten as Hotspur's ambitious aunt, Matthew Provenza as the title character, Elyakeem Avraham as a Welsh lord and Jesse Aronson, Samuel Bell-Gurwitz, and Sten Eikrem as Hal's Boar's Head companions.

The complex battle scenes are excellently staged by fight director Robert Najarian. Costume designer Christianne Myers helps define the players by putting the king's men in golds and tans and the rebels in silver and gray.

The production concluded Sunday at the the Power Center on the central UM campus.


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: The Light in the Piazza, University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

A talented cast brightens the stage in The Light in the Piazza

A talented cast brightens the stage in The Light in the Piazza / Photo by Peter Smith

The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance loves to boast about the many graduates who are making a name for themselves on Broadway and in regional theaters across the country.

A new production of [http://tickets.music.umich.edu/single/eventDetail.aspx?p=2404|The Light in the Piazza] at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the UM North Campus just might add significantly to that list. An uniformly outstanding cast gives life to a musically challenging work that is at times comic, romantic, and richly melodramatic.

The musical with book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel is base on a [http://www.aadl.org/catalog/record/1063232|1959 novella] by Elizabeth Spencer about a mother and daughter trip to Italy. The time and lush setting suggest the romantic, Technicolor movie melodramas of the 1950s in which a family secret creates a tension that can only be resolved through love.

The UM production on the intimate Miller stage leaves the splendor of Florence, Italy, to the audience's imagination (for how could it ever be presented on a stage). The stage is bare except for chairs, a table and, in one key scene, a bed. These are moved about fluidly by the ensemble cast who remain on stage as a chorus of Florentines. The small orchestra is also on stage. Up front a common story plays out. Mother and daughter go to Italy, where once upon a time the mother and her husband had a carefree holiday before the realities of business and life intruded. The pretty but fragile daughter finds romance with a passionate young suitor from an equally passionate Italian family.

The "secret" is a childhood injury that has left the young girl mildly developmentally impaired. But this is the 1950s, and her parents want to protect her, or is it control her. A mother-daughter struggle ensues.

This is not your typical musical comedy. The music is rich and varied, moving from the lift of a jazz combo to the complex drama of grand opera. Music director Catherine A. Walker leads a five member orchestra through the score superbly. Walker also plays beautiful piano from boogie-woogie to rising romantic flourishes. This is not the kind of show in which you leave whistling a tune, but the songs musically and lyrically capture the range of emotions that are at the heart of the show.

The cast is challenged in unusual ways. The songs are in English and Italian. Some cast members must sing and speak in Italian and in the halting English we associate with Italian immigrants. They must also move easily from operatic passion to quietly tender emotion to joyful humor. Guest director Brian Hill makes it all work seamlessly. He has his young cast performing beyond their years and capturing every nuance of a richly nuanced play.

Christina Maxwell plays the delicate, charming daughter Clara. She perfectly captures the sweet innocent early on and the fierce young woman trying to make a life of her own as the story develops. He voice is sweet but, even in the tight confines of the Miller, needs more projection.

The Naccarelli family are a joy, even as they embody a variety of well-worn Italian stereotypes. Luke Steinhauer as Fabrizio, the suitor, is magnificently over the top in love. His "Il Mondo Era Vuoto" is at once passionate but outrageous and the reactions of his more knowing brother and father are hilarious. Ben Bogen is the philandering brother Giuseppe, quick and lively, who distracts his brother with a little jazz. Liesl Collazo is Giuseppe's tart-tongued, jealous but passionate wife and family translator, who also believes in love. David Barnes is suave and precise as the family patriarch who falls to the charms of Clara's mother and has a sweet duet with her. Kalia Medeiros brings spark to a giddy scene where she provides an explanation for what's going on when a family argument ensues in raucously rapid Italian.

But in this uniformly fine cast, one member stands out. Kaity Paschetto gives a star performance as Margaret, Clara's caring but tense mother. Paschetto resembles a young Angela Lansbury and seems to move as easily from comedy to drama to musical expression as that esteemed actress does. Her singing voice is bright, expressive, and emotional. She expresses excellent comic timing in her efforts to put off the suitor without causing a scene. But her best scenes are her sad encounters with her angry daughter and her long-distance conversations with an estranged husband (Charlie Patterson).


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.