Encore helps develop new musical take on ‘Into the Wild’



Conor Ryan, as Christopher McCandless, sets off Into the Wild at the Encore Musical Theatre. / Photo by Michele Anliker.

The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter is participating in an exciting creative collaboration. Encore is offering its space and many of its talented actors and musicians in the “developmental premiere” of a new musical based in part on Jon Krakauer’s best-selling non-fiction book “Into the Wild” and in part on “Back to the Wild,” a photographic history of Chris McCandless’s journey by the McCandless Foundation.

Krakauer’s book told the story of Chris McCandless, who took off after graduating from Emory University on a cross-country tour in search of adventure and his soul. The adventure ultimately led to the wilds of Alaska and a brutal death and left more questions than answers about McCandless and his quest.

The book was later adapted into a critically acclaimed movie under the direction of Sean Penn.

Janet Allard wrote the book and lyrics for the new musical with music and additional lyrics by Niko Tsakalakos. Mia Walker is the director. She has worked as director or been assistant director on Broadway, off-Broadway, and touring productions.

Smooth Sailing: U-M’s "The Little Mermaid"


U-M's production of The Little Mermaid

Under the sea, you and me: Ariel (Halli Toland) and Prince Eric (Trevor Carr) take a dramatic pause in U-M's The Little Mermaid. Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

The seaway to true love is full of perils in Disney’s The Little Mermaid but, of course, the young lovers bridge land and sea for a happy ever after. And the magical production of the University of Michigan Musical Theatre Department carries us smoothly along to that expected Disney end.

The Little Mermaid production at the Power Center for the Performing Arts is light, airy, expertly performed and a fine display of how imaginative staging can turn fluff into gold. The production continues 8 p.m. April 14 and 15 and 2 p.m. April 15 and 16.

U-M looks for the human story In Disney’s iconic Little Mermaid


U-M's production of The Little Mermaid

That's why it's hotter under the water (slugs cutting rugs not pictured). / Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

In Copenhagen’s harbor a statue of a mermaid perched on a rock has become an iconic symbol for Denmark and a tribute to Denmark’s most famous writer, Hans Christian Andersen, author of the fable The Little Mermaid in 1837, among many other stories.

In 1989, The Little Mermaid became an icon of another kind for young girls everywhere when Disney Studios transformed Andersen’s grim tale into an animated romantic musical with a lighter touch. The Broadway-ready score by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman, the energetic heroine, Ariel, and a renewed emphasis on quality animation helped turn Disney Studios around and launched several more hit animated films.

In 2008, Disney’s The Little Mermaid was transformed into a Broadway musical. The University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre will present its take on Disney’s version, April 13-16, at the Power Center on the central University of Michigan campus. It’s a big change from last year’s musical offering, as intended, to give students an opportunity to work in a broad range of styles.

“Every year we try to balance,” said Linda Goodrich, stage director and choreographer. “In the four years, we try to give them everything from Disney to last year we did Green Day’s American Idiot. So a full range, from the golden age to contemporary, and we try to get a large selection of each offering.”

Goodrich found much to like about the Disney movie.

“I really love the music. Alan Menken is a master of musical theater. It’s contemporary. The song construction of the songs is light, golden age,” she said. “It’s well crafted, a beloved film.”

But her first experience with the theatrical version was a disappointment.

Purple Rose’s Vino Veritas finds humor and pain in the middle class


Vino Veritas

Aphrodite Nikolovski lets the truth be known to Alex Leydenfrost and Kate Thomsen / Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

The Purple Rose Theatre has made its mark as an outstanding professional theater company with smart, contemporary comedies with a sting.

So it’s appropriate that the Chelsea theater founded by Jeff Daniels would mark its 100th presentation with a new production of Detroit playwright David MacGregor’s Vino Veritas, which had its world premiere at the Purple Rose in 2008. It is a fine example of the plays that the company has premiered over the years. It’s contemporary, witty, fast-paced but also biting, brutally honest, and perceptive about the worries and frustrations of middle-class Americans.

Vino Veritas is set in “an upper middle class living room” on Halloween night. As the play opens a couple are waiting for their neighbors to come for a drink before they all head off for their annual appearance at a costume party.

The couple has recently returned from a trip to Peru. This was a rare adventure for the two studio photographers who had once been daring photojournalists. It was, it seems, an attempt to re-spark a troubled relationship. While there, the wife is given a bottle of wine made from the skin of blue dart tree frogs. The wine is alleged to be a truth serum.

The wife wants to share the wine with their neighbors; the husband is horrified by the idea. The madness ensues when the wine flows.

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



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

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

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

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

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


Almost, Maine

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

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

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

The Ann Arbor Civic Theater is presenting Cariani’s play March 9-12 at the Arthur Miller Theatre. It’s a play that has won wide support at regional and school theaters for its mix of comedy, drama, and a little magic realism.

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

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

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


Once Upon a Mattress

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

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

Inside the theater, three actors are working on blocking a bit of stage business, getting used to a set that only became available a couple days before. It will be an intense few days for the young performers in preparation for a March 3 opening night.

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

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

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

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

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


Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

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

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

This is the premise of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, opening February 16 at the University of Michigan’s Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

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

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


Cast of Noises Off!

Noisy cast. "> Photo by Michele Anliker.

The Encore Musical Theatre Company is taking a break from musicals to offer up a double dose of farce.

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

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

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

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

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


Purple Rose's Smart Love

David Bendena is Benjy in Purple Rose's Smart Love. | Photo by Sean Carter.

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

These are a few of the questions pondered in Brian Letscher’s new comic drama Smart Love, being given its world premiere at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre.

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