PTD Productions' "Humble Boy" evokes "Hamlet" while also being funny

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Humble Boy by PTD Productions

This my not seem an obvious time for a play titled Humble Boy -- ahem -- but Ypsilanti-based community theater company PTD Productions will be presenting Charlotte Jones’ award-winning 2001 comic drama at the Riverside Arts Center nonetheless.

“I love plays that are both funny and poignant at the same time, and this certainly qualifies,” said director Laura Bird. “The main character is grieving the loss of his father, but he’s also getting grief from other people about how he’s grieving. And this is a subject I’m passionate about -- that there’s no wrong way to grieve. ... Plus [the play] has these great characters, and flirts with Hamlet in a lighthearted way.”

Expressionist Expressions: Brass Tacks Ensemble revives Eugene O’Neill’s "The Hairy Ape"

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Brass Tacks' The Hairy Ape

The cast of The Hairy Ape includes Alison Alkire (left), Angela Dill (right), Cydney Marie, Maegan Murphy, and Jennifer Oprisiu. Photo courtesy Brass Tacks Ensemble.

When someone “gets down to brass tacks,” they’re focusing on the essentials -- and this is precisely what an Ann Arbor-based theater troupe, The Brass Tacks Ensemble, aims to do.

The company’s sets, props, and costumes are usually spare and simple in hopes of putting the spotlight on a play’s story and inviting audience members to fill in blanks with their imagination.

BTE’s latest offering, Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (playing August 2-4 at Kerrytown Concert House), will be in keeping with the company’s vision.

Theatre Nova's Michigan Playwrights Festival looks for the seeds of a great play

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Michigan Playwrights Festival 2018

“Sometimes a play calls out for a staged reading,” said Carla Milarch, Theatre Nova’s founding artistic director.

This is precisely why the Ann Arbor-based company -- which specializes in producing new work and is located in the Yellow Barn on Huron St. -- is hosting its Michigan Playwrights Festival for a third year.

“We’ve configured it differently over the years,” said Milarch. “At first, we crammed all the plays into one big week. But we tend to find a lot of plays we really like and want to see read, so we decided to break it down into two installments. … We pick 10 plays and space the festival out so we have one week in the fall and one in the spring. This [July 25-29] will be the second installment of last year’s submissions.”

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

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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

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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.)