Civic Theatre musical will take audiences on a "First Date"


First Date at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre

Musical chairs: Drew Benson and Sarah Mazurek star in the pop- and rock-centric First Date.


Even terrifying at times.

That first date can make you sweat.  

That’s the premise of the chamber musical First Date, book by Austin Winsberg and music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner.

Aaron C. Wade will direct the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of First Date, March 8-11, at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the north campus of the University of Michigan.

PTD’s "Disgraced" explores tensions in multicultural USA


The cast of PTD Productions' Disgraced

Present, tense: Neel Vaidya, Ryan McGriff, Lisa Coveney, and Angelicia Morton star in PTD Productions' take on the Pulitzer-winning Disgraced.

Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced begins slowly but builds into a fierce confrontation and a hard breakdown in social and political correctness. This 2012 drama is hot-wired with themes that still rattle American society at all social levels.

Ypsilanti’s PTD Productions dares to jump in with a generally compelling production of an emotionally and intellectually difficult play. Director Joe York gets fine performances from his cast, even though some are a bit miscast for the roles they play. This is a topical play that is also personal and deserves an audience.

U-M's "You for Me for You" is a surreal, sensitive take on immigration


You for Me for You cast photo

U-M students Levana Wang (left) as Junhee and Amanda Kuo as Minheein You for Me for You by playwright Mia Chung. Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

Time, space, and matters of the heart converge in Mia Chung’s surreal drama You for Me for You.

Chung’s 2012 play hits on two red-hot topics -- immigration and the tension between North Korea and the United States -- in a story of two loving sisters who become separated in time and space.

You for Me for You will be presented Feb. 15-18 by the University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre and Drama at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

Encore Theatre shakes it up with “The Million Dollar Quartet”


Encore Theatre's Million Dollar Quartet

The Million Dollar Quartet +1 rocks its way through the Encore Theatre. Photo by Michele Anliker.

Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on at the Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter as the way-back machine takes us to Dec. 4, 1956, when Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash came together for the first and last time as a quartet.

The Colin Escott-Floyd Mutrux jukebox musical The Million Dollar Quartet is less a historically accurate presentation of that day than an all out celebration of these four seminal figures in the history of rock 'n' roll and Sam Philips, owner of Memphis’ Sun Records and their mentor, producer and father figure (though only a few years older).

U-M’s "Merry Wives of Windsor" brings Falstaffian wit to the holiday season


University of Michigan's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor

Left to right: Mallory Avnet (Mistress Page), Liam Loomer (Sir John Falstaff), and Christiana Moyle (Mistress Ford) in the University of Michigan Dept. of Theatre & Drama’s production of Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

The story is that Queen Elizabeth I was so delighted by William Shakespeare’s raffish Sir John Falstaff in the historical plays Henry IV, Part 1 and 2, that she asked the playwright to give the rotund knight a play of his own, a love story for an aging rogue.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare’s only farce, has been a hit ever since. The University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre hopes to brighten the holiday season with its production of the play, Dec. 7-10 at the Power Center, under the direction of John Neville-Andrews, a professor of theatre at UM.

“I looked at the season and it’s a very serious and somewhat political season, so I thought around Christmas time we needed something humorous, funny, and enjoyable; hopefully a broad comedy for the public to come see at Power Center,” Neville-Andrews said.

Neville-Andrews said he has a particular fondness for this play.

“I’ve directed it a few times and I was lucky enough to have another crack at it,” he said, “I’ve come at it with a very different approach.”

Neville-Andrews said he is making the comedy broader than in his previous productions.

“I must confess there are some anachronisms that I have put in,” he said. “I’ve indulged myself a little bit. I’m hoping that will enhance the comedy and people will respond to that and not say, 'Well, you’re not doing Shakespeare, people weren’t like that in the 16th century.' So, I’m not doing Shakespeare in the most traditional way.”

Merry Wives of Windsor is far from the serious intentions of the Henry plays, which concern the maturing of young Prince Hal on his way to becoming Henry V. Here the action moves from London to the smaller community of Windsor, in the shadows of Windsor Castle. Falstaff and his pals from London move their antics to the Garter Inn in Windsor. Falstaff sends identical love letters to two married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. When the two women compare notes, they begin to hatch a plot of revenge against the amorous and calculating Falstaff.

“It’s the only comedy that’s set in a specific town. Other comedies -- As You Like It, Twelfth Night -- are set in faraway places. When you look at it, it’s really about community,” said Neville-Andrews.

The community has welcomed outsiders before: a French doctor, a Welsh parson, and Mistress Quickly with her cockney accent.

The portrayal of this community is enhanced by set designer Gary Becker’s three-dimensional recreation of Windsor.

“It looks like the town of Windsor. In fact through the arch upstage you can actually see Windsor Castle,” Neville-Andrews said,

The set includes six Elizabethan houses on stage. And it’s all set for farce with four doors, a couples windows and the arch.

Some critics have complained that this Falstaff is not the same as the Falstaff in the Henry plays, where the heavy drinking knight was a sodden mentor to the future king. Neville-Andrews agrees that he doesn’t resemble that Falstaff, “but to a certain degree he does.”

“He’s still that chubby, ruffian, ragamuffin Falstaff and he’s still after money as he always is in the Henry plays. He and his cronies sort of ambush people to get their money, so he often seems to be in need of money and he needs money in this play as well,” Neville-Andrews said.

Queen Elizabeth asked for a Falstaff in love play, but Neville-Andrews said he doesn’t think she got what she asked for, as Falstaff is more in love with money and himself then the women he pursues.

The slender, young U-M junior Liam Loomer dons some extra padding to play the lead role of the fat old man with the witty quips and outrageous behavior.

“It’s really interesting, isn’t it, having to inhabit a physical space I’m not usually inhabiting,” said Loomer. “I also play with age. Falstaff is a little farther up in age than I am personally.”

Loomer said he is trying to find a way to show redeeming qualities in the old knight.

“It is about his love for himself and his love for money,” Loomer said. “But I’m trying to find a way to show his other connections to humanity and I think it’s easier in the Henry plays because of his connection with Hal as a father figure and not as easy to see in Merry Widows.”

Loomer said he got some experience playing a middle-aged character in U-M’s production of Ah Wilderness.

“He wasn’t as old as Falstaff; it’s not easy," Loomer said. "We were talking last night and he’s still a little too youthful. I am in my youth, fortunately. One thing about Falstaff, he’s sort of youthful in spirit and has a certain innocence."

Falstaff gets his comeuppance from the merry wives of Windsor, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, who out-trick the master trickster and others as well. Christie Moyle plays Mistress Ford and Mallory Abnet plays Mistress Page.

“I like to think that we are the smartest people in the room at all times. Which is pretty much true,” said Moyle. “They plan everything, they know what’s going to happen, they see it through. What I’ve found interesting is that it doesn’t come from a place of malice but they genuinely enjoy doing it.”

Moyle and Abnet agree that their antics grow as much from boredom and a lack of attention as from any serious attempt to do harm to Falstaff.

“This isn’t the first time they’ve done something like this and it’s funny,” said Abnet. “You have Falstaff trying to woo us and we have an opportunity to pull a prank and it’s so enjoyable.”

Moyle said the males can be easily tricked because they don’t take women seriously.

“We trick our husbands, we trick everybody,” said Moyle.

Abnet said it was interesting that the women were not one-note.

“There is a line that the wives may be merry but honest, too, and the men all assume they can only be one thing and with all these tricks they are constantly proving they are so much more than that stigma,” Abnet said.

The actresses had to adjust to the biases of the times and also the physical discomforts.

“The corsets are hard,” said Abnet. “I didn’t think they were going to be hard. When I went for my first costume fitting I was so excited, the corset felt great. But there is a lot of running around and carrying the basket (with Falstaff inside) and throwing things so I didn’t realize it would be so restricting, and I have so much respect for the people who actually wore those things.”

Though the play is intended to get an audience laughing, Neville-Andrews said the theme of community may leave audiences thinking about some current events.

“When Falstaff comes to Windsor, he’s an outsider and has to be accepted and he has to be ‘tortured’ and go through some kind of trial before they welcome him in,” Neville-Andrews said. “By the end of the play, they all come together accepting Falstaff and his cronies who are invited back to a dinner and a big fire. If you think of Falstaff and his cronies as being like immigrants to a country that doesn’t belong to them, it might be a stretch, but there is a lesson in there about how we accept or don’t accept immigrants into our country. Do we accept their religion, do we accept their manner?”

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 Merry Wives of Windsor" will be presented at 7:30 pm on Dec. 7, 8 pm on Dec. 8 and 9, and 2 pm on Dec. 10 at the Power Center on the central campus of the University of Michigan. For tickets call the League Ticket Office at 734-764-2538 or go online to

Cast gives strong performance in U-M’s "Blood at the Root"


High school is a tough time in anyone’s life. It’s a time when we invent ourselves several times over and never get it quite right. Throw some deep racial tension into the mix and things can become explosive.

In 2006, a white student at Jena High School in Jena, La., was beaten by six black students. The beating followed a racially charged week. A new black student at the high school dared to sit under a shade tree unofficially reserved for whites only. The next day, three nooses were hung from the tree. More incidents followed, including a damaging fire at the school. The six students were arrested and initially charged with attempted second-degree murder, later reduced to aggravated battery. The events led to a protest against what some thought were excessive and discriminatory treatment of the six students.

Playwright Dominique Morisseau uses these events for Blood at the Root, a fictional story that explores how the young students, black and white, react to these events and how they struggle to define themselves beyond the broad stereotypes they’ve been assigned. The play deals with the protests, but Morisseau, who is black, is more interested in the emotional impact of these events on young adults trying to find themselves.

U-M’s "Blood at the Root" challenges audiences to deal with race


Blood at the Root

Left to right: Kathleen Taylor (Toria), Eddie Williams Jr.(Justin), Erin Croom (Raylynn), Elyakeem Avraham (De'Andre), and Kevin Corbett (Colin) in U-M's production of Blood at the Root by Dominique Morisseau. Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
--Abel Meeropol

In 2014 Stori Ayers was a graduate student in acting at Penn State University. She had the rare opportunity to be the first actress to play a key role in Dominique Morisseau’s Blood at the Root, which had been commissioned by the university. She and other cast members worked with the author to develop the play

After performances at Penn State, she continued to perform the role of Raylynn in a touring production across the United States and internationally.

Ayers, who now teaches at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance, will direct a U-M production of the provocative play, Nov. 16-20 at the Arthur Miller Theatre.

It’s the silly season at PTD Productions with "Farce of Nature"


PTD Productions, Farce of Nature

PTD Productions' Farce of Nature offers more ham than Easter dinner.

Hee-haw! Rural comedy is still alive, kicking, and knee slapping in the PTD production of Farce of Nature.

In a note to the audience, directors Janet Rich and Dennis Platte write, “We wish for you to take time to set aside the troubles of the world, to smile, and to be silly.”

The directors keep the silliness moving along at a quick pace and have encouraged the cast to bring on the ham.

Civic Theatre prepares a "Cabaret" for our unsettled times


Civic Theatre, Cabaret

Trish Fountain takes on the traditionally male role of the Emcee in Civic Theatre's updated version of Cabaret. Photo by Lisa Gavan.

When the musical Cabaret opened on Broadway in 1966, memories of World War II and revelations about Nazi concentration camps were still fresh for the majority of Americans. The story of Weimar Germany’s plunge into nihilism and the rise of the Nazi Third Reich resonated with audiences as a reminder of how insidious evil can be.

Kat Walsh and Jennifer Goltz-Taylor hope their production of Cabaret for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre is equally relevant for our troubled times.

“When Jennifer and I first proposed the show, we were looking at how polarized people are around a number of issues in our country and around the world,” said Walsh, the show’s director. “There’s a feeling of being unsettled on all sides of the political world. When we looked at the cabaret world in the 1930s, there was that same feeling of unsettledness. David Mamet said we’re here to engage with our audience and create a community, to ask what in the hell is going on it this world.”

U-M’s “One Hit Wonder” delivers with an energetic pop tart


One Hit Wonder

One Hit Wonder's charm isn't from its tried-and-true plot; it's from the cast's energetically delivered pop songs that everybody knows. Photo courtesy U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

As Paul Simon once noted, “It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” Sadly, many of them do not have as long and productive a career as Paul Simon. Many of them are “one hit wonders” but their single contribution to the charts linger on.

The University of Michigan Musical Theatre Department is presenting the world premiere of One Hit Wonder, an energetic musical that gives the university students a chance to workshop an original musical that is tailor-made for a young cast and audience on one hand and for a nostalgic older audience with a taste for 1980s-style pop music .