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.

Encore Theatre goes "Into the Wild" with a musical about Christopher McCandless



U-M grad Conor Ryan plays the main character, Christopher McCandless, as well as Alexander Supertramp in The Encore Theatre's take on Into the Wild. / Photo by Michele Anliker.

The developmental premiere of the new stage musical adaptation of Into the Wild opens this weekend at The Encore Theatre. The play (and book that it’s adapted from) are based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, an Emory graduate who abandoned all of his possessions and stopped communicating with his family when he chose to hitchhike to Alaska.

Into the Wild is directed by Mia Walker, who has worked on some of the most influential plays in the musical theater world over the last ten years. She directed the current national tour of Pippin, acted as associate director for both Waitress and Finding Neverland on Broadway, and was the assistant director of Invisible Thread (previously Witness Uganda) at Second Stage Theatre.

The play is written by Niko Tsakalakos (music and lyrics) and Janet Allard (book and lyrics). Tsakalakos studied at Tisch School of the Arts under the mentorship of William Finn, composer of Falsettos, A New Brain, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Recently, I was extremely fortunate to have an in-depth email interview with both Mia Walker and Niko Tsakalakos, where I had the chance to ask them about both the show and their career paths up until this point.

A Model Modern Pirate Musical: UMGASS's "The Pirates of Penzance"


With cat-like tread, upon their prey they steal.

Photo by Marilyn Gouin.

The University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society (UMGASS) hits the stage at the Mendelssohn Theater again this weekend with what must be their umpteenth production of The Pirates of Penzance. Pirates is far and away Gilbert & Sullivan's best-known work, well-represented in popular culture, as demonstrated by Muppets, Animaniacs, Kevin Kline, and even a complete production in Yiddish.

UMGASS takes Pirates seriously, which is to say, not seriously at all, delivering a delightful community production, loaded with talent and laughs, that stays true to the original work without casting it in amber.

"The Bridges of Madison County" makes its Michigan debut at The Dio Theatre


The Bridges of Madison County at The Dio Theatre

Francesca (Marlene Inman) and Robert (Jon McHatton) are 'bout to cross that chasm in The Dio Theatre's production of The Bridges of Madison County. Photo by Michele Anliker.

The stage musical adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County, now making its Michigan premiere at Pinckney’s Dio Theatre, ends its first act with a moment that feels like a key catching in a lock -- and in that instant, you feel each person in the audience make a choice: they’re either checking out or they’re all in.

Why? Because the show’s story, set in Iowa in 1965, focuses on a lonely, middle-aged, Italian former war bride (Francesca, played by Marlene Inman) who, while her husband and two teenage children are away for a few days at the Indiana State Fair, finds herself irresistibly drawn into a love affair with an itinerant National Geographic photographer (Robert, played by Jon McHatton) who’s in town to shoot pictures of the local covered bridges.

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.

Complicite’s "The Encounter" is a hallucinatory audio playground


The Encounter

Simon McBurney is a one-man cast of hundreds in Complicite’s The Encounter. Photo by Tristram Kenton x1080.

Thursday’s opening night performance of Complicite’s The Encounter, presented by UMS (and running through Saturday night), got me thinking about how, when you’re a parent of young kids, you notice on a daily basis how their powers of imagination, and capacity for wonder, utterly dwarf your own. Now, this isn’t too surprising when you consider how often kids are encouraged to conjure up stories and images, while the adults around them are stuck in “adulting” mode: worrying about work, home upkeep, money, relationships, emails, appointments, and various other responsibilities.

So how do you lure a capacity crowd of over-stressed adults down the rabbit hole of imagination and deep into the Amazonian rainforest? By finding new, innovative ways to open this often-jammed door in our brains.

With The Encounter, Complicite -- one of Britain’s (and the world’s) most inventive theater companies -- achieves new levels of theatrical immersion by delivering the show’s time-hopping, atmospheric narrative to the audience through headphones; employing a visceral, binaural soundscape (designed by Gareth Fry, with Pete Malkin) that does a real number on your perception; and through employing lighting (Paul Anderson) and projections (Will Duke) that make a deceptively spare set (Michael Levine) -- with a textured foam backdrop, suggesting an enormous recording studio -- into a hallucinatory playground.

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.

Theatre Nova's "Clutter" explores the traps of false memories



Artun Kircali as Sir and Tory Matsos as Woman in Clutter. Photo by Jee-Hak Pinsoneault.

Much like a plaster casting mold, most modern American plays squeeze themselves into ready-made stylistic and thematic models that have a good track record. The styles can often be pinpointed back to one or two particularly significant behemoths that are scattered throughout the history of the American theater.

One such theatrical prototype is the Memory Play. It was initially popularized by playwright Tennessee Williams in the preface for his 1945 drama The Glass Menagerie. As Williams described it, “When a play employs unconventional techniques, it is not, or certainly shouldn’t be, trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but is actually or should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are.”

The playwrights Pinter (Betrayal), Friel (Dancing at Lughnasa), and Leonard Jr. (The Diviners) are all known for their Memory Plays. Each examined different subjects, but all used the power of characters retelling their memories and dreams to exaggerate details in order to increase the emotional impact of those stories.

Clutter, the new show at Theatre Nova written by Brian Cox, is a world premiere Memory Play about the traps of false memories that we set for ourselves by taking part in nostalgic rumination.