Good Vibrations: Civic Theatre's "In the Next Room" promises more stimulation than shock

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In the Next Room

That look when the play's characters see the electrical device in the next room giving out good vibes.

On Monday, the cast and crew of the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of In the Next Room were busy with final preparations at the Arthur Miller Theatre, where the play opens Thursday.

The cast was doing a run through while director Melissa Freilich was busily taking notes and getting the perspective from every angle around the Miller’s thrust stage. The crew was making last minute adjustments to an unusual set and working with the sophisticated Miller Theatre lighting -- house lights, spotlights, lights on stage, mood lights.

On, off, on, off. Thank you, Mr. Edison.

Electricity is an important element in modern theater productions. It also plays a major role is Sarah Ruhl’s popular play. The full title is a bit “shocking” and a bit playful: In the Next Room, or, the Vibrator Play. The play is set in the 1880s, a time when the advent of widespread electrical power and modern ideas in medicine were coming together in interesting ways.

“Sarah Ruhl is one of my favorite playwrights,” said Freilich. “I think she writes some beautiful and really emotionally connected works. ... It asks us to imagine ourselves in this different situation in the 1880s when women were being treated for hysteria and yet the characters are so relatable. The situation seems so absurd to a modern audience. But I love a work that hooks us emotionally and then gets us to think.”

Review: UM’s Peter and the Starcatcher celebrates joyful child’s play

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Sebastian Gerstner and Olivia Hernandez

Yo-ho-ho, it's a bottle of fun. / Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan

Once upon a time ....

All good stories start that way.

The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance is presenting one of those timeless stories told from a different perspective.

Peter and the Starcatcher is a rollicking prequel to J.M. Barrie’s famous play of eternal youth, Peter Pan. Rick Elice’s play, based on a snarky young adult novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is a play about play, child’s play. It’s about taking on different roles, imagining far away places where adults are the enemy, leaping about and sword fighting, rude body humor, scary scenes and, of course, all’s well that ends well happy endings.

It’s not technically a musical but there is a lot of lively music and a few pirate songs and a mermaid song created for the show by Wayne Barker.

Best of all it’s a great piece of theater that stays loyal to Barrie’s original play, full of pirates and a tribe of, well, disgruntled chefs and three lost boys. And this time around, there’s a girl who tells good night stories, but only when she has time away from saving the world and rescuing a nameless young boy from unhappiness.

Review: Encore Theatre performs a practically perfect 'Mary Poppins'

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Sebastian Gerstner and Olivia Hernandez

Sebastian Gerstner and Olivia Hernandez on a jolly holiday at Encore Musical Theatre. / Photo by Michele Anliker Photography

One word sums up the Encore Musical Theatre’s production of Mary Poppins.

You know the word, so sing out.

SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS!

Encore has chosen the practically perfect musical for the holiday season with just the right mix of song, dance, and magic (and, of course, a spoonful of sugar).

The musical is an adaptation of the beloved 1964 Walt Disney movie based on books by P.L. Travers. The musical’s book by Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) follows the basic story from the film but puts a bit more emphasis on the social context of the period, Britain in 1910. A few new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have been added but pale next to the luminous score of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, which are still the songs you’ll leave humming.

The story is simple but has some deeper lessons to convey. The Banks family seems the essence of middle class propriety. Father is an overworked and fusty banker. Mother is a one-time actress who is feeling a bit confined by the tedium of being “the lady of house” with little to do. Their children are getting out of hand and driving off nanny after nanny until Mary Poppins arrives in the knick of time.

Review: U-M’s 'A Man of No Importance' celebrates theater and love

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The Cast of A Man of No Importance

Barrett Riggins, A Man of No Importance, talks to his fellow cast members. / Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

On one level the musical A Man of No Importance is a lovely celebration of community theater and those whose lives become brighter in its spotlight, but in a deeper sense it’s the story of one lonely man’s struggle to find himself and shed light on who he really is.

The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Drama finds the perfect tone for each of these themes in a production that is beautifully performed, capturing the nuances that give this musical its special power.

The musical with book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens is based on a 1994 movie starring Albert Finney and like the film, the musical is set in Dublin, Ireland, circa 1964. It’s a time of change, with musical and cultural influences shaking things up in the British Isles and soon in the world at large. But time moves a bit more slowly in Ireland, where people hold firm to their long held beliefs.

Alfie Byrne works by day as a bus conductor, but his real passion is directing plays. He relies on his friends and neighbors and the folks on the bus to be his star players. He has won some local renown for his production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at St. Imelda’s church hall, but now he wants to stage Wilde’s considerably more controversial Salome.

The flamboyant and sensitive Wilde is Alfie’s hero and a clue to what really bothers Alfie, a homosexual deep in the closet with a growing attraction to his young, golden-haired mate, the bus driver Robbie.

Alfie lives with his loving, dedicated, conservative, nagging sister Lily, who worries about Alfie’s lack of female companionship and about her own sacrifice of happiness to care for her “odd” brother.

All of this could be heavy going, but A Man of No Importance is a funny, sweet and lively portrayal of the love of theater, life in the city and the value of friendship.

Director Vincent J. Cardinal is able to delicately balance the joyous with the morose and make it work. The musical numbers are not big show stoppers but they are well crafted to the needs of the show and are a pleasant mix of up-tempo and gentle. Cardinal and choreographer Aline Mayagoitia give stylish movement even to the rhythm of a bus ride and to a night out in working man’s Dublin. The band under music director Catherine A. Walker gives solid support with a score that uses Irish folk music and instrumentation as measured grace notes.

At the productions center is Barrett Riggins as Alfie Byrne. Riggins gives him a dreamy, distant quality but also shows the warm friendly man who, without realizing it, is a magnet to his friends who find meaning and purpose in the theater he loves. Riggins has the right mix of charm and sadness to make an audience smile and cry and his growing sense of who and what he is develops slowly and delicately. He has several standout musical moments, especially “Man in the Mirror” and the beautiful “Love Who You Love.”

Emilie Kouatchou is a charming, shy and yet strong presence as the girl on the bus who Alfie charms into playing his idealized Salome. She, too, harbors a secret and her performance intelligently foreshadows what is to come. Kouatchou has a fine voice and several good songs especially on the “The Burden of Life” and “Tell Me Why.”

A Man of No Importance

Director Professor Vincent J. Cardinal (right) with leads Barrett Riggins, Ben Walker, and Emilie Kouatchou.

Kat Ward is tough, unrelenting and yet warm and comforting as Alfie’s sister Lily. She won’t stand for any of these modern ideas and Ward plays this side of Lily with fierce determination but matches it with a touching concern for what she sees as her “wayward” brother. She also has a soft spot for the local butcher, and Alfie’s most talented actor, Mr. Carney.

Elliott Styles is excellent as Mr. Carney. He gives strong voice to the theater loving song “Going Up,” a modern take on “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Mr. Carney loves theater and Alfie’s sister but he is horrified by Wilde’s Salome. In an interesting bit of casting, Styles also plays Alfie’s dream image of Oscar Wilde in all his flamboyant glory.

Robbie, the object of Alfie’s affection, is played with boyish charm by Ben Walker, who leads the cast through a rollicking night out on "The Streets of Dublin" but also shows a sensitive side when he realizes what is happening with his friend.

BJ Myers plays Baldy, another poor soul brought to life by Alfie’s theater. He is a widower who tells Alfie something about love in the bittersweet "The Cuddles Mary Gave." Myers has a fine voice with a unique and effective phrasing.

The play is certainly not sympathetic to the official Catholic church teachings but it makes a clear separation between that and those on the parish level. Sam Hamashima plays a sympathetic, friendly Father Kenny as a sort of balance to the play’s criticism.

The set by Anton Volovsek makes great use of the Miller Theater’s small space in his recreation of a church hall, with a simple stage, a floor that probably doubles as a basketball court, a Sacred Heart of Jesus painting on a wall and heavy sidedoors that provide access points. Spare props fill in for dining rooms and street scenes.

The entire ensemble is excellent, everyone is into their parts completely. Alfie himself couldn’t have dreamed of a better or more dedicated company for his Salome or for a play that shows just how important one man can be to a community.


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.


A Man of No Importance continues 8 pm Friday, Nov. 18, and Saturday, Nov. 19, and 2 pm Saturday, Nov. 19, and Sunday, Nov. 20, at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the North Campus of the University of Michigan. For ticket information, call (734) 764-2538 or visit online at http://tickets.music.umich.edu.

Review: Civic Theatre Gives Othello a Contemporary, Feminist Twist

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Othello

About to abuse Othello's ear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of Othello continues 8 pm Oct. 28-29 and 2 pm. Oct. 30 at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the North Campus of the University of Michigan. For tickets and information, call the box office at (734)971-2228 or go online to http://www.a2ct.org.

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

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Drowsy Chaperone Cast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drowsy Chaperone Collage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


The Drowsy Chaperone continues at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre Friday through Sunday Oct. 14-16 and Thursday-Sunday Oct. 20-23. For tickets call the box office at (734)764-2538 or go online to http://tickets.music.umich.edu.

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

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Morning After Grace

Morning After Grace / Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


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

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

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Ah, Wilderness!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


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

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

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The Full Monty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


The Full Monty continues at the Encore Musical Theatre, 3126 Broad Street in Dexter through Oct. 22. For times and ticket information, call the Encore Theatre Box Office at (734) 268-6200 or visit http://www.theencoretheatre.org.

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

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

A2CT's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Getting ready for the Spellling Be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues at 8 pm Friday and Saturday and 2 pm Sunday at the Mendelssohn. For tickets and information, go online to http://www.a2ct.org, call (734) 971-2228, or purchase at the theatre before each performance.