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Pigeon Creek draws big laughs in playful 'Midsummer'

By Judith Cookis Rubens

REVIEW: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company

Posted: April 18, 2014 at 7:17 p.m.

To reach today's audiences, theaters often try hard to make Shakespeare "cool." Productions, Broadway and regional, have been known to add modern costumes, accents, or go wild with sets and production values.

Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company has a different philosophy.

The year-round touring company, based in Grand Haven, aims for original staging practices – as in, the way it was done in the Bard's time period. There are minimal sets on thrust stages, universal lighting (audiences are visible to the actors, making interaction possible), cross-gendered casting, and doubling of roles.

Some might call it stripped down, risky even, but there's no question it puts the focus on Shakespeare's stories and themes.

With its latest, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Pigeon Creek takes on the often dressed-up fanciful comedy about four young lovers and some fairies out for fun.

Using simple robes, a few masks, a well-crafted donkey head, and one very versatile wood bench, a cast of 13 energetic actors turns out the laughs, making the Bard's romantic comedy thoroughly accessible, understandable and enjoyable.

Much of the credit is due to the strong foursome playing rotating lovers (thanks to some meddling fairies): Hermia (Kimi Griggs), Lysander (Antonio Copeland), Helena (Sarah Stark), and Demetrius (Brad Sytsma). Hermia, smitten with Lysander, despite her father's objections, wants nothing to do with Demetrius, her father's pick. Meanwhile, Hermia's gal pal, Helena, pines for Demetrius, and sets about tricking him to pick her. When the impish fairy Puck gets in the mix with a love spell-gone-wrong, it results in total confusion.

Helena, much to her surprise, soon has two suitors wooing her – a development she immediately finds suspect, as if she's being mocked. Stark, as incredulous Helena, brings great energy and anger, kicking off a delicious scene where the four friends battle it out verbally and physically, in and around (sometimes on) audience members. All four actors so fully commit to their dialogue and fight choreography, it appeared to cause at least one real injury on opening night (ouch).

When jealous Hermia and Helena spar over their men's affections, it's a scene you could witness in any high school hallway today, or, perhaps, a "Real Housewives" taping.

Also adding laughs are the merry band of misfit actors who stage a ridiculous love play at the nuptials of Queen Hippolyta and Theseus, Duke of Athens. Kathleen Bode gives a spirited interpretation of pompous, preening actor Nick Bottom, who has, perhaps, the strangest of all the "dreams" on this summer's night. Turned into an ass, literally, as part of a revenge game between Fairy King Oberon and Fairy Queen Titania, Bottom's metamorphosis is topped only by his buffoonish acting. The evening's best props are used during the play-within-a-play, to great effect.

Bottom's laborer pals-turned-actors are charmingly awful, and Steven Anderson has a fine turn as their weary director, Peter Quince.

Kyle Westmaas and Janelle Mahlmann (doubling as Oberon and Titania) make headstrong partners, while Kate Tubbs is a playful, mischievous Puck.

Pigeon Creek smartly introduces each act with a modern song, hinting at the play's themes. The first act gets a fun rendition, set to flute, of "1234" (Oh, You're Changing Your Heart).

Directors Kat Hermes and Scott Lange rightly focus on getting their actors to truly understand, feel and project Shakespeare's prose and, here, it works.

Who needs modern day dress or big-budget sets and lighting, when the emotions still connect?

For some in the (heavily young) audience, it might have been a first taste of Shakespeare. Judging from their enthusiastic reaction, it likely won't be their last. And that's kind of the point.

SHOW DETAILS: Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" continues at Dog Story Theatre, 7 Jefferson SE, Grand Rapids, 8 p.m. April 18-19 & 24-26, and 3 p.m. April 20-27. Tickets: $7-14. For information: 616-425-9234 or www.dogstorytheater.com.

The production then moves to Seven Steps Up, 116 S. Jackson St., Spring Lake, 7:30 p.m. May 2. Tickets: $7-14. For information: 616-850-0916 or www.pcshakespeare.com.

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'Breaking Legs' brings an end to Broadway Onstage

By Dana Casadei

REVIEW: "Breaking Legs"

Broadway Onstage Live Theatre

Posted: April 13, 2014 at 6:20 p.m.

Chaucer once said, "All good things must come to an end." So is the case with Broadway Onstage, making its most recent show, "Breaking Legs," the last for not only the theater, but Dennis Wickline Productions as well, which produced 33 seasons of local professional theater.

After Broadway Onstage's 20 years in Eastpointe, it seems fitting that its last show is one they've done before, "bringing together some of the funniest moments and actors from its past," according to the show's press release. The Tom Dulack comedy was first performed at the theater in 2003, with four of the cast members coming back for this production: Tony Amato, Sal Demercurio, Sal Rubino, and Olivia Wickline. And it's still rather funny after all these years.

It's 2003, and the action takes place in successful mobster Lou's (Demercurio) Italian restaurant, which is managed by Lou's unmarried daughter, Angie (Sharron Nelson). A former professor of Angie's, Terrence (Charles Davis), comes to see if Lou and his associates, Mike (Amato) and Tina (Wickline), will back his new play about murder. To Terrance's (Charles Davis) surprise, the trio seems to be interested in producing his off-off Broadway show. But then Terrance discovers that his backers are actually gangsters, after the death of a lesser thug, which doesn't exactly thrill the hopeful playwright. Terrance must then wait for the family's final decision on his show. Oh, and he has to write the eulogy for the fallen man. And figure out how he feels about Angie, even though he's married.

While Dulack's script lacks a little luster – mainly its underwhelming characters and plot – the actors give it everything they've got.

The trio of Demercurio, Amato and Wickline play off of each other with the kind of relaxed comfort that only comes from the familiarity of having done this show together before. Amato's Mike is the most cartoonish of the trio, filled with constantly changing facial expressions, while Wickline's Tina is a stone-faced, brassy broad who doesn't take crap from anyone. Then there's Demercurio's Lou, who is the straight man of the group, and a mobster that instantly softens around his daughter.

Nelson's Angie is headstrong, blunt and has a delivery that shows she's a woman who is going to get what she wants when she wants it. While Angie is a tough woman, the actress also manages to smooth her around the edges a little and shows some vulnerability, especially in regards to Davis' Terrence.

Christopher Oakley's direction makes the conversations in the show feel natural and realistic. Oakley makes sure that his actors also play up the comedy as big as they can, including a scene that closes Act I with Angie and Terrence – and a very good foot massage.

Dennis Wickline's set feels homey. Dark wood fixtures, such as the tables and bar, contrast nicely against the light blue walls. Photos of Italy cover the walls, while red-checkered tablecloths hang over the tables.

Before last night's show began, a woman passed around a best wishes sheet for the audience to sign, with messages of how much they would miss this place and to thank Dennis for his years of producing theater. Who knows where Dennis and his gang are going to go from here, but like Mike said during the play, here's to hoping they continue "breaking legs."

SHOW DETAILS: "Breaking Legs" continues at Broadway Onstage Live Theatre, 21517 Kelly Road, Eastpointe, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through May 10. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Tickets: $18. For information: 586-771-6333 or www.broadwayonstage.com.

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A 'foreigner' finds a new home

By Dana Casadei

REVIEW: "The Foreigner"

The Encore Musical Theatre Company

Posted: April 12, 2014 at 6:01 p.m.

For some, going to a place completely new would be exciting. They could check out the local attractions, absorb the culture, and mingle with different people. For "The Foreigner"'s Charlie Baker (Adrian Diffey), being around new people in a new place isn't a thrilling thought; it's a panic-inducing one.

Some might also think that a theater known for its staging of musicals might also be a bit panic stricken not knowing how its patrons might react to its rather unusual dip into the comedy pool for its latest endeavor. But fear not, musical theater and comedy lovers: The Encore Musical Theatre Company's production of "The Foreigner" is a fine night of entertainment indeed!

As the production begins, Charlie and his dear friend, Sgt. Froggy LeSueur (Fran Potasnik), have just arrived at Betty Meek's (Lori Pelham) Fishing Lodge Resort in Tilghman County, Georgia. Coming all the way from London, where Charlie's wife is in the hospital, Froggy thought it would be a grand idea to get him away for a couple days. Charlie isn't exactly keen on being stuck in Georgia for three days since he is a shy man who isn't the best at conversation. But then Froggy comes up with a plan so Charlie won't have to talk to anyone at the lodge: She tells her friend Betty that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn't speak English and should be left alone. At first Charlie doesn't think he can go along with it, but after hearing a rather intimate conversation between Rev. David Marshall Lee (Jess Alexander) and his fiancee Catherine Simms (Kathryn Mahard), he decides to play along with the ruse.

While some guests find the "foreigner" to be a delight, others are slightly more suspicious. But their feelings towards Charlie don't stop anyone from having conversations in front of him, which is where Charlie discovers that some members of the lodge are up to no good. What follows is a bit of ridiculous mayhem, new friendships and the gang trying to save Betty's Inn from a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

During the show, Pelham's Betty remarks that Charlie is remarkable, and he is. Charlie transforms from an introverted science fiction proofreader to a man with confidence that's willing to take on the Invisible Empire. Diffey does this transformation with ease, changing little things that make a world of difference, such as Charlie's once stiff movements, which become more relaxed as the show goes on.

Of the supporting cast, Styles' Ellard is sweet and kind, and played with slightly exaggerated expressions and movements. Catherine is the most sarcastic character of the bunch, and Mahard delivers each witty comment with a deadpan that makes for huge laughs.

Larry Shue's script can at times be rather ridiculous – this IS a farce, after all – but it's still exceptionally funny. The show even has hints of drama in Act II, and moments that are rather sweet throughout.

Paul Hopper's direction plays up the comedy inherent in Shue's script. Moments such as Charlie's panic-attack in Act I or when Charlie tells the group a story spoken mostly in gibberish during Act II are played as over-the-top as one would expect in a farce.

Hopper also doesn't play down the shows more heart-warming moments, like Charlie's blossoming friendships with Ellard and Catherine.

Set designer Daniel C. Walker created a fishing lodge that looks well worn. The furniture isn't brand new, nor should it be, and the dark wood on the stairs looks like they've seen better days. But it's those details, and the various fishing items on the walls that make the set feel like a lodge that has been around for years.

Sharon Urick's costumes match each characters distinct personality. Since Charlie isn't a flashy man, for example, having him dressed in a lot of browns and neutral colors captures his disposition perfectly. It would feel out of character to see him in say bright reds or complex patterns. Then there's Ellard, who is comparable to a young Forest Gump. He wears overalls the whole time, with only the shirt under them changing. Again, his clothes show the kind of man he is before Styles ever utters a word.

"The Foreigner" has been revived numerous times since its premiere in 1983, from high schools to professional theaters. With the right cast and director, it's a show that can soar, and The Encore's production soars well above the clouds.

SHOW DETAILS: "The Foreigner" continues at The Encore Musical Theatre Company, The Encore Musical Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter, Thursday-Sunday through May 4; no performance April 20. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes. Tickets: $22-32. For information: 734-268-6200 or www.theencoretheatre.org.

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Foreigner - The Encore Musical Theatre Company

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (April 17, 2014)


 

A spring breeze of comedy blows through Chelsea

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Lovers, Liars & Lunatics"

The Purple Rose Theatre Company

Posted: April 12, 2014 at 3:36 p.m.

The arrival of spring brings a fresh outlook to winter-weary Michigan, and a little levity is as welcome as a bed of crocuses. The Purple Rose Theatre Company is happy to oblige. Guy Sanville directs six top-notch performers in "Lovers, Liars & Lunatics," a Spring Comedy Festival of new one-act plays. Like the opening night cocktail buffet The Purple Rose sets out for ink-stained wretches and legitimate patrons alike, the plays offer quite a variety. Some are sweet, some are spicy, and a couple of them are downright surreal. But the entire selection is delectable.

Six playwrights have contributed to "Lovers, Liars & Lunatics": Carey Crim, Jeff Daniels, Kirsten Knisely, Lauren Knox, David MacGregor and Craig Pospisil. There are 10 plays (plus "Prologue"), so it's obvious some authors contributed more than one work. There are only six actors in the ensemble: Lauren Knox, Michael Brian Ogden, Rusty Mewha, Michelle Mountain, Rhiannon Ragland and Tom Whalen. It's obvious, then, that each actor plays multiple roles. Yet the one-acts gracefully segue, due largely to Sanville's unifying vision. There is such harmony that "Lovers, Liars & Lunatics" is greater than the sum of its well-written parts.

It's no coincidence, then, that the evening comes full circle – "Prologue," the first vignette, is Kirsten Knisley's set-up for the last play, her "Don't Sit under the Apple Tree." Set in 1945, long before the women's liberation movements, it's a quiet little piece that turns the tables on the standard "boy meets girl" plot. Rich girl Lauren Knox successfully pursues poor, reluctant boy Rusty Mewha to provide a gentle coda to the evening. What comes in between those scenes runs from the sublime to the ridiculously funny.

Consider Purple Rose founder Jeff Daniel's "The Anatomy of an Argument," a sextet for warriors in the battle of the sexes. The deliveries are as sharp as the writing; insults and observations are fired like precision machine gun fire. It also comes with a moral for men: "Once you're down, you STAY down!" That's to avoid the attack of "Big Mama She-Bear Gargoyles."

As a counter-point to the sweet and salty, "Just Desserts" by David MacGregor features humor as dark as good chocolate. A fed-up office worker (Michelle Mountain) takes action to expose the Notorious Pig – the co-worker swiping lunches from the break room fridge. The wickedly funny build in this play is only enhanced by Tom Whalen's no-holds-barred physical humor.

The second act holds a surprise that heightens the unity of this production. We find that Carey Crim's three contributions, "WebMD," "OK Cupid" and "Realtor.com," while complete within themselves, are pieces of a larger narrative. They tell of love lost and found again – even in the face of opposition – and prove that lovers and lunatics aren't that different.

Performed on Vincent Mountain's elegantly spare set, "Lovers, Liars & Lunatics" offers no distractions from the performances. The actors are on top of their game, demonstrating uncanny flexibility in character study and voice control. There are no duplications; every character is unique. In addition, the cast is capable of what this critic thought was a lost art – the ability to speak softly and yet project one's voice to the entire audience.

They say comedy is all in the timing. If that's true, then "Lovers, Liars & Lunatics" is runnin' like a Rolex.

SHOW DETAILS: "Lovers, Liars & Lunatics" continues at The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea, Wednesday-Sunday through May 24; no performance April 20. Running time: 2 hours. Tickets: $18.50-42. For information: 734-433-7673 or www.purplerosetheatre.org.

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Lovers, Liars & Lunatics - The Purple Rose Theatre Company

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (April 17, 2014)

Read JENN MCKEE's review – The Ann Arbor News (April 12, 2014)

Read PATTY NOLAN's review – Detroit Theater Examiner (April 12, 2014)


 

Steel Magnolias wilts with unprepared actors

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "Steel Magnolias"

Great Escape Stage Company

Posted: April 11, 2014 at 3:40 p.m.

The Great Escape Stage Company works hard to provide a good experience for its audience. The volunteers are friendly, ushers are introduced by name, the environment is convivial both before the show and during intermission.

The shows selected are ones that are audience pleasers, such as the current "Steel Magnolias." There is a feeling of community as the audiences are engaged with one another and enthusiasm permeates the place.

On opening night, despite an audience that was eager to support the show, the performance suffered. The actors often stumbled over their lines, called people by the wrong name and forgot what they were supposed to be saying.

"Steel Magnolias" is popular among audiences because Robert Harling's script is full of charm and humor. Truly's beauty parlor is a place where women gather and share their most important life moments along with the more mundane ones. It is a snapshot of life and shows how several very different women can create deep connections over a lifetime.

While some intense study time with the script can fix the stumbled line problems of opening night, only more rehearsals are likely to fix the slow delivery and enable the actors to pick up cues more quickly. It is a script that is meant to sparkle, not to plod. There are too many long pauses between lines. These are women who are energetic and are comfortable around each other. They should be nearly speaking over top of each other, not carefully waiting for each person to finish a line before beginning the next.

The actors also struggled with finding the right comic timing for lines that are memorable and genuinely funny. Some of this would have been aided by a greater commitment to distinct characters and to embracing their quirky nature in the subtext as well as the textual references.

The audience needs to be able to see that there are strong, genuine connections between characters, and not just be told about it in the lines.

Director Randy Lake chose to modernize the 1987 play, setting it in 2014. This worked in some ways and not in others. While many of the lines were updated to have pictures on cell phones, references to the year and to modern technology, too much else still felt like it was in the '80s. The music and movie references all dated the show as did the references to Princess Grace and Julia Roberts.

Cell phones also add new challenges to a show. Why would family members call Truly's shop phone to reach M'Lynn or Shelby when they both have cell phones that we've already seen? Also, by setting the opening scene in 2014, the later scenes move into 2015 and 2016 and it is challenging to predict what would be playing on a boom box (and why that and not an mp3 player?) two years from now. Ultimately, very little was gained by modernizing the play and it lost some of its logic.

The Great Escape Stage Company has a flexible space in their storefront location. This show was set up in proscenium style and the set was a well-designed one that made use of multiple levels and functioned well as a beauty parlor with its reclining chairs, sinks and hair blowers. While no one in the program is credited with design, several people are listed as contributing to the construction and painting of this well-made set: Ken Koberstein, Tim Lake, Paul Rauth, Ed Kernish, Gayland Spaulding, Georgia Marsh and the cast.

The Great Escape clearly cares about its audience and is making choices to create a good experience and community. They put on stage actors that the audience remembers and enjoyed from previous shows. What it needs now are actors who can show a greater commitment to their characters, who make bolder choices and who can connect. This starts with them knowing their lines and cues and then building upon that to create something greater than the narration of a script.

SHOW DETAILS: "Steel Magnolias" continues at Great Escape Stage Company, 155 W. Michigan Ave., Marshall, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through April 27. Running time: 2 hours, 34 minutes. Tickets: $12-15. For information: 269-781-2700 or www.greatescapestagecompany.com.

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Steel Magnolias - Great Escape Stage Company

Read NICOLE L.V. MULLIS' review – Battle Creek Enquirer (April 11, 2014)


 

A love story for the ages

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "Old Love"

Tipping Point Theatre

Posted: April 6, 2014 at 4:29 p.m.

The play, says Bud Mitchell, "is the story of my pursuit of a good woman." Molly Graham, the other main character, disagrees. She says the play "is the story of a messed-up life."

Actually, Norm Foster's two-actor comedy "Old Love" is a physics lesson, a study in what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object.

The irresistible force is Bud (Thomas D. Mahard), who was smitten by Molly (Ruth Crawford) on the day they met, 25 years ago. They were both married to other people at the time but even as the play begins, with him divorced and her widowed, she barely knows Bud is alive. Once she acknowledges his existence she is revealed as the immovable object.

You probably have a sense of how things are going to end up; the prolific Foster (53 plays, according to his web site) didn't get to be Canada's most-produced dramatist (his web site, again) by writing an unrelenting string of downers. It's the journey, not the destination, that counts here and Foster got to be oft-produced because he's an insightful and very funny playwright with deep affection for his characters.

Lynn Lammers' production at Tipping Point Theatre honors those attributes in every respect. There is no shortage of laugh-out-loud lines, and Lammers allows them to land organically – no punched-up, hey-folks-here-comes-a-joke delivery allowed, and Mahard and Crawford execute the directive with ease.

For example, in a flashback Molly is a young mother with a 10-month-old son. The only time I get any sleep, she says, is when I'm driving. Imagine how a standup comedian might deliver the line. Now imagine the opposite and that's how they're doing it at Tipping Point.

Not only do Crawford and Mahard play Molly and Bud at different stages of life, they also play their respective spouses and a passel of passing characters with authority, aided by a few props and articles of clothing, all strategically arranged away in storage compartments that also serve as sitting surfaces in Daniel C. Walker's handsome, many-faceted set.

First produced in 2008, "Old Love's" theme of irresistible-force-meets-immovable object has antecedents in Lanford Wilson's "Talley's Folly" and Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" (for starters). The characters in "Old Love" are, well, older. That time may be running out gives Bud more incentive to get on with his wooing. The same idea makes Molly more resistant; she believes she is unattractive and buys her daughter-in-law's dismissive comment that "people her age don't fall in love."

But love knows no age, Foster points out, and if you can laugh on the way there, so much the better.

SHOW DETAILS: "Old Love" continues at Tipping Point Theatre, 361 E. Cady St., Northville, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday (except April 20) through May 4, plus 3 p.m. Wednesday, April 16. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. Tickets: $25-32. For information: 248-347-0003 or www.tippingpointtheatre.com.

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Old Love - Tipping Point Theatre

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review - Detroit Free Press (April 16, 2014)

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (April 10, 2014)


 

Little plot, but plenty of musical entertainment at The Dio

By Dana Casadei

REVIEW: "Country Roads: A Musical Journey"

The Dio - Dining & Entertainment

Posted: April 5, 2014 at 10:28 p.m.

In Steve DeBruyne's director's note, he mentions that something they wanted to do from the beginning at The Dio was produce shows that their audiences have never seen. Such is the case with their latest show, "Country Roads: A Musical Journey," which made its Michigan premiere this week.

The plot, or lack thereof, focuses on a record shop in Nashville called Country Roads. It's a place "where stars are made." The shop is managed by Jimmy (Tim Brayman), who has been in Nashville for 20 years with hopes of making it big. For now he sells records of country greats, and holds nights for new singers to perform. A new shop then opens and decides to hold nights like Jimmy's, making him wonder if he'll be able to stay afloat. He then must decide if his own dream is worth going for, or if he should throw in the towel.

His friend, Patsy (Aynsley Martindale), is going through a similar battle. She originally wanted to be a singer, but now she's writing songs for others to sing. Then there's fresh-faced Liz (Thalia Shramm), who just arrived in Nashville and has big dreams. The musical takes a view into their journeys, and features over 40 country songs along the way.

DeBruyne does a bit of it all. His direction makes moments feel natural. He also plays a variety of roles in the show, and sings each song with gusto. Act II's "If Tomorrow Never Comes" best showcases his tenor voice.

As for the rest of the cast, there were some hits and misses.

Brayman doesn't get to really sing until Act II, which is a shame because he does have a pleasant voice – and that almost makes up for his line fumbles and general awkwardness on stage. The only time Brayman didn't look stiff was when he was singing.

Now on to the good, because there is much to like in this production.

Martindale's Patsy may be over 40 and still trying to figure it out, but at no point does Martindale make her feel like a poor sap. Patsy is a character that we as an audience could simply feel bad for, but we never do. We root for her the whole time. Martindale's powerful voice is one of the show's highlights.

Per usual, Jared Schneider (Tourist/Ensemble) amazes not only with his acting but with his voice, which has a range that you don't see coming. He earned huge applauses and rightfully so. Liz Jaffe's (Minnie/Ensemble) Minnie Pearl is fantastic and spot-on, as is Jaffe's comedic timing throughout the show.

Leslie Jo Hood's script is basically 40-plus songs crammed together with very little dialogue that isn't a set-up for the next song. I would have gladly taken fewer songs if it had meant more character and plot development. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer a musical that has a bit more of a story to it. And a few of the transitions between songs felt awkward as well.

Marilee Dechart's costumes looked natural and what you'd expect in Nashville. There are a lot of plaid shirts and jean jackets, all of which felt authentic to the show. The same goes for Matthew Tomich's set design.

Last night's country fried chicken, a Dio favorite, was just as juicy and tender as I remember it, with a yummy crunch on the outside. The mac and cheese was creamy without being too heavy, and the BBQ pulled pork had a sweet tang. My only suggestion for Chef Jarod's menu would be to include less starch. Personally, I would have preferred a green vegetable to the corn – mainly so I wouldn't feel as bad eating four pieces of the delicious bread.

SHOW DETAILS: "Country Roads: A Musical Journey" continues at The Dio - Dining & Entertainment, 177 E. Main St., Pinckney, 6:30 p.m. April 11-12, 18-19, 25-26, May 2-3 & 9-10; and 12:30 p.m. April 6, 13, 27, May 4, 8 & 11. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. Tickets: $35-41. For information: 517-672-6009 or www.diotheatre.com.

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Country Roads: A Musical Journey - The Dio - Dining & Entertainment

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (April 10, 2014)

Read RON BAUMANIS' review – Mostly Musical Theatre (April 5, 2014)


 

Late-night miscellany seeks common ground in dark mischief

By Carolyn Hayes

REVIEW: "Dark Night"

Planet Ant Theatre

Posted: April 5, 2014 at 2:50 p.m.

Planet Ant Theatre has made itself a steadfast breeding ground for new works, for local flavor, and for unconventional fare. And, not for the first time, the Hamtramck company's current offering manages all three in one fell swoop.

Drawing from the well of original scripts by local writers previously featured in the Ant Hill quarterly series of staged readings, five old favorites find new, fully produced life in the late-night anthology "Dark Night," directed by Sara Catheryn Wolf.

The "best-of" conceit has the potential drawback of how to bridge distinct plays with vastly different voices, tones and needs. In the case of "Dark Night," the hodgepodge of selections is loosely bound by thematic refrains of imminent danger or harm. Some of the short plays depend heavily on tone or structure, some thrive on suspense, and some are cut with ridiculous or subversive comic sensibility – qualities that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The successes are diverse and often pleasantly surprising, but as with any collected presentation of works, some simply play together better than others.

The evening begins close to home with "A Nice Place to Visit" (by Dave Davies), in which a prospective tenant (Zach Hendrickson) visits a Detroit apartment building and gets more than he bargained for in the building manager's daughter (Jaclyn Strez). Their nutshell interaction uses classic horror storytelling and farcically inflated stakes to efficiently introduce an unknown element and deftly exploit it. Strez excels opposite Hendrickson's suburban import, bouncing with orthodontic energy that makes the script's sly, metaphoric humor ping. A brief appearance by Phillip J. Hughes puts a Roald Dahl–esque skew on what came before, but ultimately the coda plays like a deflated afterthought to the spectacular immediacy of the main action.

Heavy genre influence permeates "Marielle" (by Maggie Patton), with overwhelming attention to atmosphere and affect that threatens to render story secondary to mood. The play's long monologue concerns a woman (DeAnnah Kleitz-Singleton) wrestling with inner torments and external jealousies alike. Although context clues suggest a contemporary setting, the dense language and heavy reliance on tortured inner monologue feel like a throwback to a past century. Conspicuous lighting cues, a stark white palette, and ambient soundscapes combine with Kleitz-Singleton's quick, venomous smiles and distracted tosses of her hair, together evoking a portentous inner world that might draw favorable comparisons to "The Yellow Wallpaper."

Playwright Mike McGettigan goes out on a structural limb in "A Case of the Mondays," juxtaposing the calm morning ablutions of an average Joe (David Angus) with the surveillance chatter of the team secretly monitoring him (voiced by Hendrickson and Patrick O'Connor Cronin). McGettigan hangs questions in the air and withholds the answers in favor of mundane, workaday conversation that is treated with superb comedic edge. Despite a few pacing lags, stage manager Jaclyn Cherry pulls the onstage and offstage elements together with finesse, in a defiantly weird offering that becomes more delightfully inexplicable with each passing beat.

"Dark Corners" (by Sean Paraventi) has the weakest footing of the lot, staking its success on withheld motives that encase its two characters in a scenic vacuum. Hughes and Katy Kujala meet in the park as strangers, their only personalities clumsily suggested by ersatz costume work. The plot is fueled by an implicit will-they-or-won't-they dance, but Kujala's unswerving, fabricated apprehension muddies Hughes's ill-defined duality of gregarious menace. Ultimately, the scripted zig-zag is fumbled into a halfhearted squiggle, leading to a hasty-arriving outcome that startles for reasons other than those intended.

Yet the production rallies to go out on a high note with "Restaurant Bill" (by Marty Shea and Ian Bonner). Featuring the entire ensemble, this bit of ramped-up realism livens up the social minefield of navigating the single pricy check at the end of a dinner with friends. Safe to say, Shea and Bonner take the accusations and negotiations of this familiar scenario to previously uncharted heights. Anchored by sharp character work and spectacular pacing across the board, the play inches toward a gratuitous display of bedlam that becomes the crowning comic achievement of the entire show.

The predominantly low-fi tenor of the late-night presentation does not extend to the plays' ends; rather, the flow of the action is clear, and further kept swift by efficient changeovers. By quickly donning and shedding each encapsulated story, the production maintains a jovial overtone that leaves it adaptable to the ominous and acerbic elements of its mixed-bag approach. The finished product is not intended to perfectly commingle, but the collected offerings form a competent sampler of entertainment, with rewarding peaks of excellent excesses at the ready.

SHOW DETAILS: "Dark Night" continues at Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck, 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday through April 19. Running time: 50 minutes; no intermission. Tickets: $10. For information: 313-365-4948 or www.planetant.com.

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Dark Night - Planet Ant Theatre

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (April 17, 2014)


 

Chilly drama, chilling performances

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Love is Strange"

Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company

Posted: April 5, 2014 at 1:54 p.m.

Local playwright Sean Paraventi's new work shares its title with Bo Diddley's 1956 R & B hit, "Love is Strange," but its plot is better summed up by the second line of the song – "Lot of people take it for a game." When the players are Carl and Megan – played by Joel Mitchell and Katie Terpstra – love is a deadly, depraved game. When birds of a feather flock together, sociopathy is as contagious as avian flu.

Since Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company is staging "Love is Strange" in the intimate Abreact Performance Space, an audience's instinct is to pull away for fear of contamination. Yet the story is so disturbing we are drawn back in, seeking, if not resolution, at least some closure.

It's been three years since Carl, a long-distance trucker, picked up a 13-year-old runaway named Megan at an Arkansas truck stop. At 16, Megan feels, in a pathetic innocence, that she's a fully adult woman and worthy partner for Carl. Generally left trapped in Carl's isolated home when he's working, she is mistress of the house, mistress of the bedroom and willing participant in Carl's gruesome fetish. Describing that in detail spoils the plot, but suffice it to say that Carl is one mean mother trucker.

"Love is Strange" runs only about an hour and a half, which means it's a very lean script, without diversions. The audience's perception of the characters is constantly challenged. What would appear a classic case of Stockholm syndrome, in which a captive begins to identify with the captor, becomes a more sinister balancing act. Director Frannie Shepherd-Bates keeps the plot rolling, even through the final revelation scene, which does seem to drag a tad. She is not afraid to give her cast free rein, so the graphic violence central to the story is chillingly visceral.

In the Playwright's Notes, Paraventi comments that he "didn't set out to be shocking or disturbing." "Love is Strange" is less shocking than it is disturbing. But he goes on, noting the twisted world in which Carl and Megan live, "Sometimes those worlds are uncomfortable places."

Theater has the ability to rip you out of your comfort zone, forcing you into a wider perception of reality. "Love is Strange" is a provocative piece. It's not for the squeamish, only the adventuresome.

SHOW DETAILS: Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company's "Love is Strange" continues at The Abreact Performance Space, 1301 W. Lafayette #113, Detroit, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through April 26, plus 3 p.m. Sunday, April 13. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission. Tickets: $15-18. For information: 313-454-1542 or www.magentagiraffe.org. This play contains mature content that may be shocking to some audience members, including violence, sexuality and graphic language. No minors will be admitted without a parent present.

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Love is Strange - Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review – Detroit Free Press (April 9, 2014)

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (April 10, 2014)


 

Open up and let love in at Williamston

By Carolyn Hayes

REVIEW: "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune"

Williamston Theatre

Posted: March 29, 2014 at 8:43 p.m.; updated March 30, 2014 at 8:42 p.m.

There are even more facets to love than there are cliches about it. Love is blind, love is strange, love hurts, love stinks, love is patient, love conquers all. In reality, from moment to moment, love can be fleeting, or unreliable, or cruel. But in the aggregate, regardless of the form it takes, love is lovely – and so is Williamston Theatre's "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune."

In this production of Terrence McNally's candid and naturalistic comedy, director John Manfredi gives the viewer a front-row seat to the unlikely germination of love – halting, mismatched, uncertain, backsliding, hard-won, real-life love – between two forlorn souls over the course of one intoxicating night.

That this is a tale about two consenting adults, intended for a mature audience, is abundantly clear from the play's first moments, which catch the title couple in flagrante under a bed sheet. Apparently, this escapade marks the capstone of a successful first date between Frankie (Suzi Regan) and Johnny (John Lepard), both employed at a New York City diner, both of evasive ages and backgrounds.

The scripted nudity is tastefully handled and comparatively brief, followed by costumer Amber Marisa Cook's various stages of comfortable undress, as the two continue getting to know each other through post-coital discussion and rituals. In the waning wee hours of Saturday night, the air is electric with the sleepless thrill of first attraction, the kind of marathon all-night talk that most viewers can recognize and remember. Consequently, Frankie and Johnny's discourse bears no resemblance to exposition or plot, but rather feels like mere conversation, as each variously works to enthusiastically connect or forcefully disconnect with the other.

The world of the play fits into Frankie's studio apartment, a shabby few hundred square feet that set designer Bartley H. Bauer wedges expertly into the cozy Williamston playing space and properties designer Michelle Raymond crams full of half-functional lifehacks. There is a real semblance of the outside world here, the New York of 1987, where everything is closed on Sunday and massive kickstand door stops are de rigueur safety precautions and a $7 movie ticket is highway robbery and the only way to identify a song on the radio is to call information and ask for the station's phone number.

Yet even with the street sounds that mingle with the low background music (by sound designer Quintessa Gallinat) and the invading moonlight through the blinds (part of a fine haphazard lighting scheme by Genesis Garza), all that feels like an abstraction compared with the all-consuming relationship at stake within these water-stained walls.

Despite Lepard's cavalier insistence and Regan's apprehensive brake-tapping, Manfredi and company are careful not to take sides between the characters, as they debate whether to end or extend the evening, reveal the details of their pasts and expectations for the future, and argue the ramifications of bearing the same names as the subjects of a song in which one lover jealously guns the other down. The viewer can see and appreciate each perspective without vilifying the other, as the show's anti-plot weaves an indefinite journey in real time through meandering, authentic conversation and the simmering conflict of failing to see eye to eye.

Yet even when things seem directionless, the actors are constantly delivering thoughtful responses to the script in the form of mirror-image moods and refrains, a clear progression that give the play's two acts a light, swift feel of constant newness and burgeoning hope. Indeed, in a comedy socked with odd, curveball punchlines, it's telling that the funniest moments often come from the duo's silent moments of sizing each other up.

Whether Frankie and Johnny succeed as a couple is a matter of tenuous interpretation. Nonetheless, this production of "Frankie and Johnny" succeeds handily. The show crafts an intimate (in many senses of the word) portrait of two people, features a gifted cast whose undeniable chemistry makes it easy to root for them through disparity, and cultivates an underlying sense of safety and convivial spirit that lets this sweet, unlikely romance so tenderly tug at the heart.

SHOW DETAILS: "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" continues at Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam Road, Williamston, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday through April 19. Tickets: $20-25. Tickets: 517-655-SHOW or www.williamstontheatre.org.

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune - WIlliamston Theatre

Read BRIDGETTE REDMAN's review - Lansing State Journal (April 4, 2014)

Read TOM HELMA's review - City Pulse (April 2, 2014)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (April 3, 2014)


 

A different sport comes to Ferndale – and scores a big win

By Dana Casadei

REVIEW: "ComedySportz Detroit"

Michigan Actors Studio

Posted: Sept. 21, 2013 at 6:13 p.m.

Detroit is known for its sports teams. We root each year for the Wings as they make it to the playoffs time and time again, scream at the TV as the Lions play, and love watching Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera come up to bat. Now there's a new kind of sport entering the Detroit scene, ComedySportz Detroit.

This sport doesn't have bats or helmets, although there are team uniforms and fouls. At the press preview, and world premiere (according to the evening's referee, Jeff Fritz), two teams of three (a red team and blue team) battled it out for laughs – and points – at the Michigan Actors Studio in Ferndale.

When you walk in you're given a glow stick, a token to take home, that has a red and blue side. This is how points for the voting aspect of the show work. Before the show begins the players come into the audience to chat with spectators, immediately breaking down any sort of fourth wall.

The evening's ref explains the rules, and the three fouls, then introduces the two teams. One of the really interesting aspects of ComedySportz is no two shows will ever be the same. Teams are constantly competing against different ones, there's variety in the games that are played, and it's highly unlikely that two different audiences will give the exact same answers each night.

After the national anthem is sung – get ready for some off-key, and in last night's case, way off-tune, singing – the real fun begins. Games will be played, the ref may get a little too "drunk with power," and ultimately a winner will be chosen.

The debut teams, the Motor City Mechanics and the Ferndale Fire, both really brought their A-game, with each team's captain being standouts amongst the group. The Ferndale Fire's Rico Bruce Wade was dynamite, and the Motor City Mechanics' Jaclynn Cherry was simply superb. Both teams were strong, but some people were just genuinely funnier to watch.

Most of the games work well, but a few felt a little stale. Sit, Stand, Kneel has a few kinks to work out, and it wasn't all that funny to watch. Same goes for Do-Rap-Rap; it had some bumps, as players weren't always sure when to start the actual rap, and it felt a little predictable that the final two had players from each team.

I was most skeptical of 3 Things – which is very tough to briefly describe herein – but it ended up being one of the most amazing improv routines I've ever seen. At first I had no idea what was going to happen, but once the Ferndale Fire started the game, it was pure improv magic. Re-play was another highlight of the evening.

When some people think of improv, they automatically assume it will be dirty with a lot of swearing. This is another way that ComedySportz Detroit stands out among the improv crowd. One of the fouls, the Brown Bag Foul, works this way: If someone in the audience, or one of the players on stage, says something "you wouldn't want your grandma to hear," they have to wear a brown bag for the rest of that game. It's improv that's still funny for everyone, but parents won't get asked uncomfortable questions on the ride home.

If last night's show was any indication of what's to come for ComedySportz Detroit, the Michigan Actors Studio will be hitting homers for many weekends to come.

SHOW DETAILS: "ComedySportz Detroit" continues at Michigan Actors Studio, 648 E. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale, every Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 7:30 & 10 p.m. 105 minutes. Tickets: $10-$15. For information: 877-636-3320 or www.comedysportzdetroit.com.

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