Encore Theatre's production of "West Side Story" is unnervingly timely

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore Theatre's West Side Story

Not all that long ago, West Side Story seemed kind of quaint.

We’d all watch this classic, 1950s stage musical twist on Romeo and Juliet, built on the talent of four iconic artists (Jerome Robbins, concept; Arthur Laurents, book; Leonard Bernstein, music; Stephen Sondheim, lyrics), and think, “So many of the characters in this story are openly, unapologetically racist and anti-immigrant! I’m so glad we’ve evolved from this.”

Cut to the recent travel ban; and campaign promises about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico; and white supremacists proudly marching in Charlottesville last summer; and the U.S.’s short-lived, limited aid for American citizens living in Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria last fall; and the children of detained migrant families being separated from their parents.

So “West Side Story” -- playing through August 12 at Dexter’s Encore Theatre -- which had always felt a little dated to me, seems almost unnervingly timely now.

West Park Monster: Penny Seats' "Gravedigger" begins the outdoor season with a frank retelling

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Penny Seats Theatre Company's The Gravedigger

Meet me at the cemetary gates: The monster Anton (David Galido) and gravedigger Kurt (Robert Schorr) in Penny Seats' production of Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Gravedigger.

Penny Seats Theatre Company’s two-show 2018 summer season -- cheekily called "Hail to the Victors" -- consists of two different takes on Mary Shelley’s classic horror story. Next month, PSTC will present Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan’s stage musical adaptation of Brooks’ 1974 film comedy Young Frankenstein, but the company first kicked things off this past weekend with a two-hour production of Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Gravedigger, directed by Julia Glander and Lauren M. London.

Dual Struggles: Encore Theatre's "Big Fish" puts up a good fight

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore Theatre's Big Fish

David Moan as Edward Bloom, Emmi Bills as Sandra Bloom, and John Reed as Young Will in Encore Theatre's production of Big Fish. Photos by Michelle Anliker Photography.

A colleague of mine once observed that when you ask people about their mothers, you tend to hear stories and fond memories, but when you ask people about their fathers, tears flow within minutes. 

Why?

Perhaps because traditional, American modes of masculinity and emotional expression have stood at loggerheads for many generations, making father-child relationships highly complicated. Yet it’s precisely this dual struggle to connect that drives Big Fish, the novel-turned-movie-turned-stage-musical now playing at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.

Out of the Ether: Nancy And Beth conjure musical beauty from the fifth dimension

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Nancy and Beth

Most of us know Megan Mullally as boozy, unapologetically solipsistic Karen Walker on Will & Grace, and also perhaps as Parks & Recreation star Nick Offerman’s real-life partner, but not as a former dancer and Broadway performer. 

This is likely why you’d be surprised to learn that Mullally, in recent years, has teamed up with another multi-talented artist, Stephanie Hunt (who played lesbian bass-player Devin on Friday Night Lights), to form a music duo called Nancy And Beth, which will perform at The Ark on Monday, April 23

Where did the arbitrary names Nancy And Beth come from (complete with a capitalized And)? The answer will tell you a great deal about the two women’s soulmate-like friendship.

“The ether,” said Mullally.

“I was going to say ‘the ether’!” cried Hunt.

"Gruesome Playground Injuries" continues Kickshaw's dedication to challenging theater

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Kickshaw Theatre's Gruesome Playground Injuries

Doug (Michael Lopetrone) and Kayleen (Dani Cochrane)flirt with romance and self-sabotage in Gruesome Playground Injuries. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

Fittingly, Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries, now being staged by Kickshaw Theatre at Ann Arbor’s trustArt Studios, starts in a parochial school’s infirmary, where a deep, lasting friendship takes root between a girl and a boy who recognize in each other a common compulsion toward self-destruction.

The boy, Doug (Michael Lopetrone), is a reckless, thrill-seeking daredevil, while the girl, Kayleen (Dani Cochrane), suffers from stomach problems and later develops a serious cutting habit. The 80-minute play shows glimpses of these two characters at several different ages, between 8 and 38, but it jumps around in time, inviting us to piece together the puzzle of Doug and Kayleen’s intense connection by shifting from childhood to adulthood and back again.

Theater for the People: U-M's "Me and My Girl" is a rollicking populist musical comedy

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

U-M's Me and My Girl

Elliott Styles as Bill Snibson and Sophie Madorsky as Sally in the U-M Department of Musical Theatre’s production of Me and My Girl playing at the Power Center April 12-15. Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

It feels a bit like director/choreographer Linda Goodrich, a professor in U-M’s musical theater department, has long had a date with destiny regarding the 1937 British musical Me and My Girl.

For although the show had long been one of Britain’s biggest home-grown stage musical hits, it didn’t make its Broadway debut until 1986 -- the same year Goodrich moved to New York.

“I remember seeing it on a marquee, but I never did see it,” said Goodrich. “In fact, I’d never seen it on stage before we started rehearsals. I’d always been familiar with the music and been curious about the show, but it just never crossed my path again.”

EMU's production of “Detroit ’67” brings the past into the present

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

EMU's production of Detroit '67

Brother and sister Lank (Darien Vaughn) and Chelle (Tayler Jones) face problems after they inherit their parent's Motor City home in Detroit '67. Photo courtesy of Eastern Michigan University Theatre.

Historical events, when presented as a series of statistics and dates, have far less impact on us than they do when integrated into a human story. 

This is why, of course, history is the backdrop for so many movies, plays, television shows, and novels. These entertainments let us briefly experience what it was like to be living when a specific historical moment was unfolding around us. And most recently, in our own backyard, the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit Riots/Rebellion -- depending on who’s telling the story -- spawned a number of creative works that helped us revisit this pivotal moment in the Motor City’s history.

University of Michigan graduate (and Detroit native) Dominique Morisseau got a bit of a jump on things, premiering her play, Detroit ’67, in New York in 2013. The drama -- now being staged by Eastern Michigan University’s Theater Department -- won the 2014 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, and ended up being the first in a Morisseau-penned trilogy focused on Detroit’s past. (Paradise Blue and Skeleton Crew were the second and third.)

U-M's "Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches” mines complex humor & heartbreak

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The cast of U-M's production of Angels in America, Part 1

The cast of U-M's production of Angels in America, Part 1. Photo by Kyle Prue.

It’s amazing how, when a brilliant script is masterfully executed, three and a half hours can seem to pass in the blink of an eye.

Yet that’s the experience you’ll have if you’re lucky enough to catch the University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches -- which is so terrific that it’ll remind you all over again why the play has earned its status as a timeless masterpiece.

Nervous Breakthrough: Ann Arbor novelist Camille Pagán's "Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties" explores loss & change

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Camille Pagan, Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties

Ann Arbor-based novelist Camille Pagán (Forever Is the Worst Long TimeLife and Other Near Death Experiences) was in the midst of writing a book that wasn’t going anywhere when she had an unnerving grocery-store experience.

“This guy, a college kid ... bumped into me and didn’t even look at me or say anything,” said Pagán, who also noted that on other occasions while out shopping, she’d observed “when a cashier would talk to and make conversation with a middle-aged man but then not talk to the middle-aged woman who was next in line. This seemed to me to really be saying something about our society and how we view and treat women as they age.”

Encore Theatre's "School of Rock" rolls despite its difficulty

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Encore Theatre's School of Rock

Horns high: Encore's School of Rock kids honor Ronnie James Dio's grandmother (whether they know it or not). Photo by Michele Anliker.

Taking a beloved hit movie and transforming it into a stage musical is standard practice these days. One look at current Broadway listings -- Aladdin, Anastasia, Frozen, the soon-to-open Mean Girls, and Waitress, to name a few -- proves how often the stage artists are borrowing from the screen.

But of course, not every translation works.

What made School of Rock -- the youth version of which is now being staged at Dexter’s Encore Theatre -- a bona fide hit (and a Tony Award nominee) instead of a B-side flop?