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'Little Girls' still rule 'Annie'

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "Annie"

Wharton Center

Posted: Dec. 17, 2014 at 5:20 p.m.

There's much about Annie that is hard to resist: kids, dogs, memorable music, political jokes, and amusing bad guys who get it in the end.

It's a musical soaked in optimism and one that has always been for adults as much as for kids. Sure, it helps to have a younger person with you who can celebrate unreservedly the daydream of being the poorest of the poor, only to be snatched off the streets by the wealthiest of the wealthy and be given everything you can dream of.

This re-imagining of Annie shows a kinder, gentler Daddy Warbucks, one who doesn't need an Annie to mellow him; she simply gives him little reminders of how he can do what he is already best at.

On opening night, Annie was played by Adia Dant, and Dant's usual role of Pepper was played by Angela Pallaini. Dant was as adorable as one expects from Annie. Thanks to her charisma, costuming and red hair, she always owned the stage when she was on it. All eyes were drawn to this little spitfire who could alternately charm and flame.

All of the orphans made a fantastic ensemble, their dances looking like a natural play and their songs simply the way they communicated with each other through the rough life they found themselves in.

Under Martin Charnin's direction, this was a musical of belting. All the songs were done at top volume with high energy and the sound system turned up high. Even some of the gentler songs were belted, showing off the prowess of the singers more than the variety of the music.

Gilgamesh Taggett as Oliver Warbucks has a voice made for belting. At all volumes, the timbre of his voice had a rich, sometimes mellow sound. It was full and designed for the kind of singing "Annie" demanded. Taggett's Warbuck was one who was likeable from the very start. He was busy, yes, but his riches never alienated him from the audience. He had a big heart, and it showed from the very start. In the song "NYC," he brings his whole staff with him on the walk through the city and pays for their tickets at the Roxie.

As villains, Lynn Andrews as Mrs. Hannigan, Garrett Deagon as Rooster Hannigan and Lucy Werner as Lily provided some of the most amusing physical comedy in the show. Andrews is a larger woman, and she made all of her body work, shaking each part to great effect. She was a perfect demonstration of why Broadway needs women of all sizes, and why having a real-sized body is nothing to be ashamed of.

Deagon and Werner brought in the contrast, and the three of them were wonderful in such trios as "Easy Street." Deagon had the rooster-like moves down pat, showing a bodily flexibility that was entertaining and near cartoon-like.

We must not forget Sandy. While the terrier didn't have too many scenes in the show, Sunny was beautifully trained and did everything expected of her. She even had a solo walk across the stage in which she stopped and was as expressive as if she'd had lines.

This production spared no expense with the set of the touring show. Large blocks of flats moved in and out and rotated to create different rooms in the orphanage, different parts of New York City, different parts of the Warbucks mansion and the White House. All these huge changes were made quickly and flowed smoothly.

One thing hasn't changed about "Annie" in the 37 years it has been a musical: It is still a heart-warming story that the whole family can enjoy.

Wharton Center for Performing Arts
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 17
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 18
8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 19
2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 20
1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 21
2 hours, 30 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Annie - Wharton Center

Read PAUL WOZNIAK's review – City Pulse (Dec. 17, 2014)

Read KATE O'NEILL's review – Lansing State Journal (Dec. 17, 2014)


A circus takes the stage

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "Cirque Dreams Holidaze"

Fox Theatre

Posted: Dec. 17, 2014 at 4:20 p.m.

I'm imagining "Cirque Dreams Holidaze" creator Neil Goldberg asking young Kristine Hakobyan when she might be able to join the troupe and hearing her answer, "I'm flexible."

Boy, is she ever.

Hakobyan is among the dozens of circus performers who bend over backwards (literally, in her case) to put on this show. Among them are folks balanced precariously on things that might fall or roll away at any moment (a vertical ladder held upright by the climber, a stack of blocks and cylinders), a man who piles up a prodigious assemblage of glassware on his head, a couple whose costumes change as if by magic, hoop spinners, roller skaters and tumbling rope jumpers…who all take their turns at entertaining the audience.

It's as if Ed Sullivan's old TV program had returned in a live version. (Back in the day, kids, besides introducing the Beatles to American viewers, Sullivan often featured circus acts.)

The premise of this show is that the performers represent various ornaments come to life. The theme isn't really needed, but throw in an array of colorful, fanciful costumes; a smattering of Christmas songs (sung live to recorded accompaniment); and a Toyland set framed with giant nutcrackers and candy canes, and voila! you've got a holiday show.

This is a stage circus, not an arena circus and not, as some may believe, Cirque du Soleil. Nobody soars great distances (there are no great distances to be soared through), and even the tightrope man isn't that far off the ground – enough to get hurt (hope he doesn't) but not what you'd consider heart-stopping. And there are no animals except the human kind, although there are people dressed up as animals.

The show is entertaining, the performers highly skilled and there are plenty of suspenseful moments, most of them having to with whether somebody or something will come crashing down. Even the kid in front of me put away his electronic football game to watch.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Cirque Dreams Holidaze'
Fox Theatre
2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit
8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 17
8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 18
2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 19
2 p.m. & 8 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 20
2 hours

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In dreamy 'Snow Queen,' storytellers reign

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Snow Queen"


Posted: Dec. 14, 2014 at 2:33 p.m.

Winter doesn't officially begin until late December, but Michigan weather usually arrives early to that particular party. So the timing of the PuppetART original musical "Snow Queen" (script by Luda Mikheyenko, music and lyrics by Maria Mikheyenko, based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen) is right in line with our fast-encroaching frigid wonderland. This ambitious adaptation is notable for blending the worlds of story and storyteller, allowing human characters to help their puppet counterparts surpass the conventional boxes and boundaries of the form.

At the play's inception, a lone gentleman (Nicholas Pobutsky), amid a gentle evening snowfall with no witness but a cawing crow, begins to muse about the sparkling crystals. Likening the falling snowflakes to bees, he wonders to himself if the flakes similarly have a queen.

From the man's contemplative reverie springs two pint-sized puppet playmates, Kai and Gerda, who frolic together and marvel that their roses have bloomed, even in the cold of winter. However, when Kai brashly dismisses and mocks the Snow Queen, the mythical monarch commandeers the story and abducts the child. Gerda is bereft, and the storyteller – feeling responsible for her anguish – helps her set out on a treacherous journey to rescue Kai, realizing both the pull and the power of friendship.

Irina Baranovskaya's design plays with proportion and scale, making the Snow Queen a shockingly imposing presence and also allowing for intriguing crossover between the puppet and human worlds. Crafted by Baranovskaya as well as Igor Kan, Irina Smirnova and Sandra Cardew, the puppets assume the style best suited to their purpose: Gerda, for example, a hand puppet in the story world, gains a larger, more expressive form when the storyteller becomes her companion.

Performers Jaclyn Strez, Dave Sanders, Connor Ghena and Sasha Vulovic take on the many supporting roles, sometimes visible as supplemental backdrops to the action, other times disappearing into fanciful hybrid scenic/puppet creations.

But the most consistent contribution comes from Pobutsky, who remains onstage as Gerda's near-constant escort; the tenderness and skill of his movements allow the viewer to fully suspend disbelief and witness their scenes as true interactions between independent characters. Between stops on the journey, Pobutsky also engages in interstitials with the crow, now a comically sentient marionette, who frankly states the lesson of each story in advance of its occurrence.

Although the production is gorgeously innovative, there seems to be a direct correlation between every visionary moment of amazement and the glacial lull that accompanies its laborious setup. The pacing is predetermined, set to follow an instrumental score with pre-recorded dialogue and songs (variably voiced by Maria Mikheyenko, Nicholas Pobutsky, Jaclyn Strez, Aaron Timlin and Christine Moore; recorded and edited by John Willems), and the live performers do their best to stretch and fill those moments of marking time.

However, credit goes to the PuppetART team – clearly attuned to young attention spans – for knowing just how long it can draw out a marvelous reveal while keeping even the smallest eyes affixed and wide with wonder. For while "Snow Queen" proudly shows its sophistication in terms of art and form, the show's strength of clarity and message and its power to amaze are what cement its appeal to the young viewers it most endeavors to charm.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Snow Queen'
at Detroit Puppet Theater
25 E. Grand River Ave., Detroit
10 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 18, Jan. 15
2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 20, 27, Jan. 10, 17, 24, 31
2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 28
1 hour; no intermission
Recommended for all ages
$10 adults, $5 children

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Beck bubbles as Avonlea’s Anne

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "Anne of Green Gables"

What A Do Theatre

Posted: Dec. 13, 2014 at 11:03 a.m.

When you have a strong asset, you're going to use it. Especially when that asset has proved repeatedly she's up to whatever is asked of her.

What A Do Theatre has such a treasure in the person of high school student Averi Beck. Her presence in their company means they can confidently put such shows as "Anne of Green Gables" in their lineup and know that they'll have a seasonal hit.

It's somewhat of a risk, as Alice Chadwicke's adaptation of the L.M. Montgomery classic novel is a lengthy show all set in a single interior set with some of the more active moments taking place off stage. Anyone playing the title role of Anne must have the vocal stamina to talk with high energy and enough variation to keep the audience engaged.

Beck does this. From the moment she is first dragged on stage at the orphanage, she overflows with energy and speeds through her lines without ever stumbling on them or making them sound garbled. After the show, an audience member said they could listen to her talk for hours. She has that charisma and joie de verve, the kind that invites people to love her.

She shows up in Green Gables of Avonlea and manages to turn everyone's life upside down while winning their hearts. She turns everyone into "kindred spirits" with her over-sized vocabulary and yeti-sized imagination.

Given the way Chadwicke adapted this script, it is a story that is as much about Marilla Cuthbert, the spinster living with her brother Matthew who adopts the girl. Stacy Little's Marilla is cold and stern, made of down-to-earth, no-nonsense stuff, but Little manages to find the humanity in her and create a woman that we like and want to see won over to Anne's charms.

This is one of those challenging scripts where characters are described in detail before we meet them, giving the actors narrow confines in which to perform.

In this period piece, director Randy Wolfe gives his actors plenty of room to play without stepping outside what the script demands. Rachel Markillie has a great deal of fun with her gasping and supposed inability to talk. Hunter King's Moody Spurgeon is a yokel-like farm boy, and Grace VanHorn's Josie Pye is insufferably nosy, delighting in the misfortunes of her classmates.

Wolfe also manages to keep people moving on the very long stage that is rarely populated by more than a handful of people. It's a show that could easily drag if it weren't for the energy of Beck and the charm of characters such as Dave Stubbs' Matthew Cuthbert who can never give a straight answer to anything, but has more spine than he lets on.

It's a classic, old-fashioned play with its cast of 13, period costumes by Nancy King, and a script heavy in exposition and description. With its length, it has the potential to drag, but Wolfe and his cast ensure that it is constantly moving, interacting well with each other and keeping up the pacing. They even manage to handle well an ending that works too hard to tie things up with a deus ex machine where one wasn't needed.

As such, this holiday production of the orphaned girl who finds herself a home and manages to change the lives of those around her, makes for a great family night out.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Anne of Green Gables'
What A Do Theatre
4071 W. Dickman Road, Springfield
8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 19
3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13 (half-price matinee)
8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13, 20
2 hours, 39 minutes

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'Wicked' still casts a powerful spell

By Jenn McKee

REVIEW: "Wicked"

Broadway in Detroit

Posted: Dec. 3, 2014 at 10:31 a.m.

"Wicked" has long been typecast as "a girl thing," but while watching the newest touring production of the Oz-inspired stage musical, it struck me that the real beating heart of the show is a question that affects us all, particularly now, in this time of soul-searching upheaval: Is goodness about following and reinforcing rules that maintain societal order, or is goodness about staying true to your own personal moral code, no matter what the consequences?

To explore this idea, author Gregory Maguire published the bestselling novel "Wicked" in 1995, upending the Dorothy-centric "Wizard of Oz" narrative we'd all grown up imbibing. As a kind of prequel, "Wicked" tells the story of the shocking birth of green-skinned Elphaba (Laurel Harris), who would grow up to become the Wicked Witch of the West; her lonely childhood as an unloved outcast; and the unlikely friendship that grows between cerebral, outspoken Elphaba and her shallow, relentlessly cheerful schoolmate Glinda the Good Witch (Carrie St. Louis).

The original production of the stage adaptation (2003) – with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman – had the good/bad fortune to feature two of the most high-wattage, powerhouse female stars of Broadway: Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel (also known as Adele Dazeem, if you're John Travolta). They were both terrific (Menzel beat out Chenoweth for that year's Tony for best lead actress in a musical), and the cast recording featuring their voices has become iconic – to the point where "Wicked" fans have Menzel's and Chenoweth's song interpretations permanently glued onto the brain, right down to the phrasing.

So any actor stepping into these hallowed roles has some big ruby red slippers to fill, and they know it. Harris, a U-M musical theater grad ('07), nails Elphaba's caustic, bone-dry humor with her line delivery, to great comic effect, and she also conveys the character's passion, both in word and by way of powerhouse vocals. As the third point of Harris' and St. Louis's love triangle, Ashley Parker Angel – playing spoiled, rich bad boy Fiyero – is every inch the golden child (with fittingly golden pipes), and makes Fiyero's evolution feel natural. And in a featured role as The Wizard, former "That's Incredible" co-host John Davidson seems wholly at home on stage.

But on opening night, St. Louis outshone them all, selling the hilarious number "Popular" with such outlandishly goofy, winning charm that although Glinda is, ironically, the less glamorous of the two lead roles – being the ditzy, shallow beacon of the status quo, while Elphaba's the fierce, smart, principled rebel – St. Louis had the crowd in the palm of her delicate, well-moisturized little hand. So when Glinda finally realizes that she'll never win Fiyero's heart, St. Louis' reprise of "I'm Not that Girl" cuts you to the quick, while "For Good" has the feel of two true equals joining forces one last time.

Those who have seen the show before are now familiar with set designer Eugene Lee clock face- and gear-themed backdrops, lit by Kenneth Posner in such a way as to clearly delineate the contrast the between bright, cheerful Emerald City and the murderous mob hunting down Elphaba. Susan Hilferty's fanciful, often buoyant costumes are always fun to study, and Chic Silber's special effects go a long way toward completing our transport to this darkly magical, foreign-but-familiar land.

Of course, even loyal fans of a show may find that its original magic has diminished a bit over time. Familiarity, in this instance, doesn't necessarily breed contempt, but rather expectations that are really tough to satisfy each time.

That having been said, "Wicked" remains a good show with a compelling story, terrific songs and timeless themes. So while the elements that made "Wicked" seem so fresh and exciting a decade ago (an emphasis on women's friendships, a surprising twist on a pop culture staple like "The Wizard of Oz," etc.) may no longer hit you like a Kansas cyclone, it's still an adventure worth having.

Broadway in Detroit
at Detroit Opera House
1526 Broadway St., Detroit
Wicked runs Dec. 10 – Jan. 4, 2015
Monday through Saturday evening performances at 8 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
Sunday evening performances at 7:30 p.m.
Matinees at 1 p.m. on Dec. 23, 30 & 31
No performances on Dec. 15, 24 & 25 and Jan. 1
Sunday, Dec. 14 at 7:30 p.m. is a special open captioned performance.

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Wicked - Fisher Theatre

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Dec. 18, 2014)

Read JOHN GONZALEZ's review – Detroit Entertainment News (Dec. 12, 2014)


'A sad tale's best for winter'

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "The Winter's Tale"

Slipstream Theatre Initiative

Posted: Dec. 8, 2014 at 2:54 p.m.

So says young Mamillius, heir to the throne of Sicilia and character in William Shakespeare's romance, "The Winter's Tale." "Out of the mouths of babes ..." they say. Except Mamillius doesn't say that line, or any other line, in Slipstream Theatre Initiative's reinvention of Shakespeare's story. He's still a babe in arms.

That's one of the more minor alterations in Bailey Boudreau's adaptation. This performance script is a lean abridgement, shedding scenes and characters to focus on the core story. Spoiler alert: Shakespeare kills Mamillius off in Act III, Scene ii; Boudreau would have him spirited off to prosper in anonymity only to emerge to claim his birthright. "The Winter's Tale" is considered a comedy; how better to assure "And they all lived happily ever after" than by assuring us "And they all lived?"

"The Winter's Tale" concerns the intertwined fates of the royal houses of Sicilia and Bohemia, but we might just as well start, "Once upon a time in a faraway land ..." King Leontes of Sicilia (Steve Xander Carson) has been hosting a state visit from his childhood companion, Polixenes of Bohemia. Polixenes (Ryan Ernst) has stayed nine months and really needs to get home to his throne. Leontes is unwilling to see the party end, so he implores his queen Hermione (Luna Alexander) to apply a little sweet talk. She's too successful – seeing his wife and best friend so "familiar," Leontes literally snaps. In short order he accuses his wife of adultery, sends a loyal retainer, Camillo (Graham Todd), to poison Polixenes, and orders his new-born daughter to be abandoned in the wilderness.

Camillo instead warns Polixenes and spirits the Queen and her children to – of all places – rural Bohemia. Paulina (Jaclynn Cherry), a woman loyal to the Queen, tells the tyrant that his entire family is dead.

"The Winter's Tale" jumps 16 years to find a scandal in Bohemia (take that, A. Conan Doyle!). Polixenes' heir, Florizel (Ryan Ernst, now playing his previous character's son), is courting a beautiful shepherdess named Perdita (Luna Alexander – do you sense a pattern here?) who is, of course, the new-born from the first act, grown to womanhood. Madness is healed, identities revealed, fidelity is rewarded and "They all lived . . ." etc., etc.

I'm not casting stones when I describe "The Winter's Tale" as "Shakespeare Lite." Bailey Boudreau is directing his adaptation, and really knows how to tell the story. But, consider that in my Howard Staunton edition of the "Complete Works," "The Winter's Tale" is 66 pages long. This show runs about an hour and a half. "Antony and Cleopatra" is 67 pages long in the collection and Shakespeare in Detroit's March production ran a tad over three hours. One may conclude, then, that a lot of text has been jettisoned. Is that a bad thing?

It won't please the die-hard Shakespearean devotee. And, truth be told, a lot of brilliant material hit the cutting room floor. The editing, though, has produced a nimble, accessible text that neatly wraps up the core story while still observing The Bard's themes.

"A Winter's Tale" is a counterbalance to "Othello;" two noble men, guilty of the deadly sin of jealousy, bring ruin on themselves and those around them. The difference, of course, is that Leontes repents. Saved from damnation by faithful servants (and 16 years of purgatory), Leontes is redeemed; Othello is doomed.

This production of "The Winter's Tale" might be described as "bohemian." It is performed at the Michigan Actors Studio in Ferndale with minimal set, lights and costuming. Shakespeare performed in full regalia can end with the technical aspects distracting from the drama. I quote again a college professor from my callow youth: "One goes to the theater not to SEE Shakespeare, but to HEAR Shakespeare."

Aye, there's the rub. The performance space is a two-story-high cavern, and lot of dialogue is lost in the rafters. Soliloquies, too, are lost; a character talking to him or herself is never really alone – the audience has to be in on the "conversation."

Noticeable in line deliveries is a tendency to actively break the meter of Shakespeare's poetry. On the upside, it makes the dialogue more conversational and thus more modern. On the downside, it interferes with the audience's interpretation of the text. These plays are playable 400 years later because the playwright knew exactly where to place the accents – on the key words of the text. Resistance is futile; Shakespeare wins every time.

A "winter's tale," to an Elizabethan, is one in the tradition of folk tales everywhere: rather outlandish, superficial; something tossed out to while away the dark hours of long, cold winter nights. The Starks are right – "winter is coming." I guess the nearest modern equivalent to legends around the hearth is organizing our Netflix stream. There are alternatives to "Game of Thrones" binges. Michigan Actors Studio is toasty, the audience affable, the fare entertaining. Just bundle up for the drive so you won't freeze you winter's tail.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Winter's Tale'
Slipstream Theatre Initiative
at Michigan Actors Studio
648 E. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale
7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14, 21, 28
7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 8, 15, 22, 29
7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 9, 16, 23, 30
7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10, 17, 31
1 hour, 30 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Winter's Tale - Slipstream Theatre Initiative

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review – New Monitor (Dec. 11, 2014)

Read PATTY NOLAN's review – Detroit Theater Examiner (Dec. 9, 2014)


Strange relatives and potent alcohol: A musical comedy made for the holidays

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Mame"

Riverbank Theatre

Posted: Dec. 7, 2014 at 2:14 p.m.

My Auntie Mary Clare took me to see the film "Auntie Mame." What an experience! Director Morton DaCosta, his writers and designers had turned Patrick Dennis' memoires of growing up under the tutelage of a flamboyant aunt into a visual and auditory delight, full of color and wit. My exuberant report convinced my parents to see it – which allowed me to see it again, but probably put me on a descending spiral into art criticism. I was 8. I didn't want Auntie Mame to adopt me; I wanted to adopt Rosalind Russell.

"Mame," the musical version of the play that inspired the film, opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York in 1966. It's opened again this December at the brand new Riverbank Theatre in Marine City. The venue is anything but a "black box" theater; it sports a paint job in sky blue and teal, off-set by white trim. Even the lighting instruments are white. It's a cheerful place to take in a musical, but the company's other location, just up Water Street – The Snug, which IS a black box – has hosted some very entertaining musicals, both large and small. While the production does show the potential of the new performance space, "Mame" is too ambitious a production to be completely successful.

"Mame's" Broadway premiere was in the golden era of the book musical. Everything was big: big voices and big orchestras; lavish sets and costumes. Musical numbers utilized big choruses of triple-threat singers, dancers and actors, performers capable of astonishing precision. "Mame" benefits from Jerry Herman's articulate, complex words and music coupled to the wild, witty book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. But it is ginormous. Can those big, historic shows ever be reimagined in leaner, meaner form?

Although "Mame" can boast of a great script, on further analysis one finds a rather thin plot.

Patrick Dennis, the son of a Chicago tycoon, is sent to live with his only living relative upon his father's death. Mame Dennis is an eccentric free spirit, whose Manhattan apartment is full of bathtub gin and unconventional guests. Her personality is the polar opposite of her late brother; she wants more for Patrick than his father's staid respectability. Her progress in freeing her "little man" is hampered by Dwight Babcock, the trustee for the boy's inheritance. So from roughly 1928 to 1946, through lean times and good times, "Mame" tells the story of Patrick Dennis' coming of age and the characters he meets along the way.

The recent, award-winning revival of Jerry Herman's "La Cage aux Folles" was a revelation. Stripped of its multiple sets, glitz and glamor, the production removed the distractions to reveal a more thoughtful exploration of the human condition than anyone would have expected. It also allowed Jerry Herman's musical interludes to achieve a life all their own.

Consider The Snug's production of yet another Herman musical, "Hello, Dolly!" last season. It down-sized Goliath into an agile, affable form that allowed the music to take center stage in more ways than one. Restaging the classic musical for current conditions is definitely possible, but can that be said of all of them?

A successful musical involves "attitude" from all artists involved. "Mame" is notable in that it is more dependent on defining character by costume and sets than its Broadway kin. Budget constraints will interfere. Attitude, style, flair – call it what you will, but it's the key to trimming the fat just enough to produce a savory piece of steak. It is unfortunate that iconic numbers, like "Open a New Window" and the first act finale, "Mame," simply lack sizzle.

The company once again, though, is showcasing its strong points: Paul Decker's solid musical direction, John Kreidler uncanny ability on a sound mixer, and some fine vocalists. Kathy Vertin is a rather subdued Mame, but there's nothing held back in her singing. Aaron Dennis Smith and Brittany Everitt Smith, two Marine City favorites, bring their A-game as the grown-up Patrick and plain-Jane Alice Gooch, Mame's secretary. An audience favorite is Christy Kreidler in the role of Vera Charles, Mame's "bosom buddy" and verbal sparring partner. But 11-year-old Gabriel P. Rowland Renaud, front and center as Young Patrick, is certainly holding his own among the adults.

But in general, Riverbank Theatre bit off more than it can chew in producing "Mame." That leaves director Nancy Arnfield with too many slow line deliveries and slow scene changes, tentative choreography and chorus work.

Our Auntie Mame proclaims that "Life is a banquet," but, while not starving to death, "Mame" leaves me a mite puckish.

Riverbank Theatre
358 S. Water St., Marine City
7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12, 10
7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13, 20
3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14, 21
2 hours, 30 minutes

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Strong talent spins 'round Farmers Alley

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "And the World Goes 'Round"

Farmers Alley Theatre

Posted: Dec. 7, 2014 at 6:59 p.m.

For Broadway divas Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera, the song-writing duo of John Kander and Fred Ebb were their go-to guys for music that would make them shine. For decades, the duo wrote songs not just for those two ladies, but for Broadway hits such as "Cabaret," "Chicago," "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "Curtains." They scored films, including writing the famous title song for "New York, New York."

In 1991, "And the World Goes 'Round" brought together a collection of their songs in a musical revue celebrating the duo's variety and prowess. Many of the songs come from their lesser-known musicals such as "The Rink," "The Happy Time" and "Woman of the Year."

This month, Farmers Alley Theatre presents the revue in cabaret format, with guests seated at tables and served drinks and raspberry cheesecake. They've already begun to add shows to the run, as they've been selling out their early dates.

Director and choreographer Stephen Brotebeck brings together an incredibly strong cast of actors and singers with the ensemble of Andrea Rose Arvanigian, Liz Fallon, Jamey Grisham, Melana Lloyd and Michael McGurk. Together they mine the emotional possibilities and the humor of each song in what is constantly a high-energy production that is high on sex appeal.

Lloyd starts the show with the title song, singing in true torch song style as the rest of the company dances to Jason Frink's intense lighting designs. Lloyd's voice is powerful and filled with character as she tells a story with her voice as well as with the lyrics. While she has fun comic moments in "The Grass is Always Greener" and "Class" with Arvanigian, she really shines in the solos featuring lost love and longing for something better. Her rendition of "My Coloring Book" is tear-inspiring, while "Maybe This Time" tinges hope with fear and reservations.

Fallon and Grisham make a sultry duo in both the comic "Arthur in the Afternoon" and the more dramatic "All That Jazz." They feed off each other and the audience, giving both songs playful elements that are engaging and energetic. Brotebeck's choreography fills the stage, while chairs, benches and steps add levels that keep things interesting.

McGurk gets his first comic moment early with the love song to "Sara Lee," given a hilarious assist by Lissa Hartridge's costuming when the women of the ensemble come out dressed as Sara Lee cupcakes. McGurk also shines in the torch song numbers and the moments of love and heart break. He covers quite the range of emotions, going from his comic numbers to the heartbreak of "Sometimes a Day Goes By," the loneliness of "Mr. Cellophane," the hope and controlled excitement of "Marry Me" and the confident invitation of "Cabaret."

Arvanigian captures the disillusioned socialite who realizes she's missing something in "Colored Lights," while doing a fun, story-telling Liza number to open Act II with "Ring them Bells."

And while each actor shined in their solos with their distinct personalities and voices, some of the evening's high points came in the group numbers when all five took the stage and performed complicated or comic choreography, such as when they danced the increasingly jittery "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup," donned roller skates for "The Rink," helped Arvangian act out the story in "Ring Them Bells," enacted the sadistic directions of a choreographer in "Pain" or brought the revue to a high-energy conclusion with the multilingual rendition of "New York, New York."

Equally impressive with the singers was the orchestra led by conductor Marie McColley Kerstetter, who also played keyboard. They took up the back of the stage and found the perfect blend of sound – neither too quiet nor too loud. The music was demanding and like the singers, each instrumentalist got his or her chance to shine. Jesse Williams was amazing on clarinet and saxophone, often adding musical curlicues that echoed the singers in perfect support. Matt Matuszek's trumpet playing added a jazzy sound to many of the numbers.

"And the World Goes 'Round" is a well-executed show with talent that shines from every actor, musician, director and technical designer and crew. Every moment is carefully planned and creates an evening of musical cabaret that can make for a great evening or afternoon out – especially if you're looking for a change from holiday fare.

SHOW DETAILS: 'And the World Goes 'Round'
Farmers Alley Theatre
221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 11, 18
8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12, 19, 26
8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13, 20, 27
2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14, 21, 28
7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14
2 hours, 12 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: And the World Goes 'Round - Farmers Alley Theatre

Read MARK WEDEL's review – Kalamazoo Gazette (Dec. 7, 2014)


Williamston welcomes the holidays with heartwarming comedy

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "Miracle on South Division Street"

Williamston Theatre

Posted: Dec. 6, 2014 at 2:35 p.m.

Every family has its secrets – some more than others.

"Miracle on South Division Street," now playing at Williamston Theater, reminds one a little of "Other Dessert Cities," only it has more charm, personality and gentleness to it. In both stories, the daughter is a writer who is about to reveal family secrets to the public. However, in "Miracle on South Division Street," it is the daughter who knows things the rest of the family does not.

Tom Dudzik's 90-minute play is about families and the stories that bind them together. In this comedy, the story has to do with a 17-foot tall statue of the Virgin Mary that was built in the 1940s after the patriarch of the family said she appeared to him in the barbershop on Christmas Eve. Ruth, the middle daughter, has called a family meeting with her mother, Clara, her younger brother, Jimmy, and her older sister Beverly.

Ruth, played by Emily Sutton-Smith, is filled with nervous energy about the upcoming meeting and what she plans to share. It is clear she loves her family, and equally clear she doesn't expect things to go well. Sutton-Smith has a beautiful presence about her, and she telegraphs much in the way she talks, the looks she gives and the way she moves. She handles the role with a gentleness, keeping it free of unnecessary anger and letting her choices move the play in the direction of heartwarming love rather than any hint of cynicism.

Ruth Crawford is delightful as Clara, the mother. She fills the stage from the time she walks on and hits her lines with an exquisite comic timing, tossing out humorous lines with an authenticity that never mugs. She's graceful while being larger-than-life, and gives an empathetic performance that brings the audience right along with her every emotion. She also finds something that connects her to each of her children, and it is easy to see from where they draw their very different personalities.

Wendy Hedstrom's Beverly comes late into the scene, and she makes it clear that this is not a comedy of manners or an English drawing-room. She's a Buffalo gal eager to get to the bowling alley and chug some beers before midnight mass. She is loud and brash, and Hedstrom plays those notes for all their worth, letting Beverly upset the apple carts and keep everyone from getting comfortable. She is most closely allied with Clara, and the two play off the younger siblings in a way that keeps the stakes high throughout this comedy.

Tony Sump has the challenging task of being the only man on the stage in a household of strong women. His character, Jimmy, is more laid-back and often has the role of straight man, feeding lines and situations and being the support his sister Ruth needs.

Under Rob Roznowki's direction, the zingers fly and the players are in constant motion, slowing only for the more poignant moments, where the contrast in movement makes things even stronger. Roznowski finds the heart of this story, highlighting both the love and difficulties that families have with each other. He makes sure that this is a heartwarming holiday story and not a cynical sit-com.

Bartley H. Bauer's set design works hand in hand with Michelle Raymond's props design, creating a kitchen whose open space makes it look big, while every cubbyhole is filled with items that make the house feel lived in. The family has been living there for decades, and it shows. Equally impressive is the statue of the miraculous lady, a tall, imposing figure behind a glass case, decorated for Christmas with flowers and lights.

"Miracle on South Division Street" is filled with personality, populated with a family of likeable people who are doing their best to believe in the miracles of life.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Miracle on South Division Street'
Williamston Theatre
122 S. Putnam Road, Williamston
8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 11, 18
8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12, 19, 26
3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, 13, 20, 27
8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, 13, 20, 27
2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, 14, 21, 28
1 hour, 28 minutes; no intermission

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Miracle on South Division Street - Williamston Theatre

Read KATE O'NEILL's review - Lansing State Journal (Dec. 12, 2014)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Dec. 11, 2014)

Read PAUL WOZNIAK's review – City Pulse (Dec. 10, 2014)


A word to the wise men (and women): Performance Network offers exquisite gifts

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Gift of the Magi"

Performance Network Theatre

Posted: Nov. 30, 2014 at 3:35 p.m.

'Tis the season for giving, and Performance Network is being remarkably generous this year, presenting two American classics reinvented for the stage. The discerning patron will find "giving" is the theme linking Steve Murray's "This Wonderful Life" and Annie Martin's "Gift of the Magi."

Chances are that we've all encountered William Sidney Porter under his pen name, O. Henry. He was an absolute master of short story, and either his "The Ransom of Red Chief" or "The Gift of the Magi" is dug up by American Lit teachers to illustrate that illusive literary device, irony. But in his forward to a 1962 O. Henry short story collection, news publisher Harry Golden noted a more frequently employed structure. "O. Henry also is an artist whose situations lend themselves to a geometric formula. The situation resolves itself by making an 'X'; or, in technical terms, it is a "chiastic resolution." So when Annie Martin takes motifs from "The Gift of the Magi" and writes variations on the theme, it's reciprocity, a "cross" in gifting, that provides unity.

If playwright Martin had stopped with a dramatization of "The Gift of the Magi," "Gift of the Magi" would be a short play indeed. O. Henry's story is about seven and a half pages; much of it is narrative. It's Christmas Eve, 1902. James and Della Young face the same problem – no money left for a Christmas gift for the spouse. Well, Della's managed to save "One dollar and eight-seven cents," which is the first line of the short story and a figure that echoes throughout the play. She sells one of the great joys of Jim's life, her beautiful long hair, to provide a watch chain elegant enough to grace his other joy, his grandfather's pocket watch. Meanwhile, Jim has sold the watch to buy tortoise shell combs to do up Della's luxuriant hair. Reciprocity!

"Gift of the Magi" goes beyond O. Henry for a glimpse at other couples in other years, all tied in a bow by that common ribbon, the Christmas exchange. The first jump, 40 years, lands us in World War II, when a couple were barely married before being separated by the guy's deployment in France. Their Christmas gift is faithful letter writing, with each almost anticipating the other's thoughts. Then on to 1962, when a couple of exes, Mikey and June, exchange barbs and ultimately, the greatest gift of all – distance.

Dropped into a snow-bound Chicago O'Hare Airport on Christmas Eve we find Dave and Renee; strangers, with a 10-hour delay and a desperation to get on the last plane out to Detroit in common. Here the playwright's chiastic resolution captures O. Henry's caprice to a tee.

Christmas Present – 2014, that is – finds five-month-married Neil and Jen spending the holidays with her family. Outside of church on Christmas Eve, attending a Living Nativity pageant, they tease about each having the biggest gift ever for the other. Surprise! Like watch chains and hair combs, the gifts conflict. And to add insult to injury, they're dragooned into pinch-hitting for two missing Magi.

Holding this bundle of Christmas joy together is director Suzi Regan, who also proves to be a talented sound designer. The sound is of a kind with all the technical aspects of "Gift of the Magi;" and, for that matter, with the tech for "This Wonderful Life." Whether it's John Manfredi's minimalist set, Dan Walker's subtle lighting, Monika Essen's subdued, versatile costumes or Michelle Raymond's imaginative props (a white Christmas tree that practically becomes another character comes to mind), the tech is a faithful background. Always present but never obvious, the designs enhance the storytelling while staying out of the way. Talent like that is a gift.

Alysia Kolascz and Barton Bund are the components of each couple. There is an easy interplay between the actors and a satisfying ability to run the gamut of emotions with which Martin has imbued her script. There is a bittersweet, tender feel with two lovers separated by war; here two actors separated by distance on stage portray the two as one. Contrast that scene with Mikey and June's ultimate break-up, when emotions are as prickly as a Douglas fir. The whole audience gets the point. The final scene, while border-line silly, still would make O. Henry proud.

It's a joy that so many first-rate, original dramas flow from the inventive minds and handy word processors of local playwrights. We can add "Gift of the Magi" to the "nice" list of holiday treats. But artistic inspiration knows no season, and original theater in Michigan is a gift that keeps on giving.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Gift of the Magi'
Performance Network Theatre
120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor
8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5, 12, 19
3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, 13, 20
8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, 13, 20
2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, 14, 21
1 hour, 25 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Gift of the Magi - Performance Network Theatre

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Detroit Theater Examiner (Dec. 14, 2014)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Dec. 4, 2014)

Read JENN MCKEE's review – The Ann Arbor News (Nov. 30, 2014)


You could laugh your tuchis off

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "Old Jews Telling Jokes"

The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company

Posted: Nov. 30, 2014 at 2:48 p.m.; updated Dec. 14, 2014 at 12:20 p.m.

It's a little confusing, so bear with me. "Old Jews Telling Jokes" is a play in which actors, not necessarily old or Jewish, tell a profusion of very good jokes, mostly Jewish and mostly old. How old? I heard a few of these jokes in high school, a few in middle school and some of them must date back to the era of Fred and Wilma Flintstein – excuse me, Flintstone (they changed their name for business purposes).

Kayla Gordon's staging at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre moves not at a gallop but a canter (no pun intended), which is a good thing. Jokes are told or acted out briskly, but all the words are clearly enunciated and the punch lines land naturally.

The actors, whose Jewish accents are excellent, get into character even in the brief moments it takes to perform a joke. Check out the way Greg Trzaskoma, Fred Burchalter and Eric Gutman are sitting as they portray three Texans on a plane, the way Dorry Peltyn hesitates for a millisecond as she delivers a wife's spin on a doctor's diagnosis, or the way Sandra Birch bats her eyes as a sexy sheep on a desert island.

Speaking of desert islands, there are quite a few jokes about people marooned on same and none about an Irishman, an Italian and a Jew, or anyone else, walking into a bar. The implication here may be that Jews are well-acquainted with the wrong end of misfortune, but not so familiar with drinking establishments.

Or not. It's just jokes, culled by Peter Gethers and Michigan native Daniel Okrent from a web site and subsequent book, both called "Old Jews Telling Jokes."

There is a certain order to the proceedings. The jokes begin with birth and childhood and end with retirement and old age. Among topics visited in between are marriage, divorce, sex, bodily functions (lots of jokes about sex and bodily functions), business, food, religion, assimilation and doctors.

Along the way you'll find out what happens when the Catholic Church offers Jews $50 to convert; what happens when an Italian, an Irishman and a Jew open competing shoe stores, and why the secret to great sex is rye bread.

The show isn't all jokes. There are a few choice musings (everybody gets one) about the importance of humor, and a song or two, including a sing-along of Tom Lehrer's "(I'm Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica."

The laughs are big and frequent, and while it isn't crucial, knowing a few Yiddish words couldn't hurt. Those who are hard of Yiddish will find a helpful one-page glossary in the program.

Those who are hard of humor should do the rest of us a favor and stay home.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Old Jews Telling Jokes'
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company
at Aaron DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center
6600 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield
2 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 17
7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Dec. 4, 11, 18
5 p.m. & 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, 13, 20
2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, 14, 21
7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 30
1 hour, 20 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Old Jews Telling Jokes - The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company

Read RUTH CRYSTAL-ZAROMP's review – New Monitor (Dec. 4, 2014)


A timeless 'Carol' at Meadow Brook

By Amy J. Parrent

REVIEW: "A Christmas Carol"

Meadow Brook Theatre

Posted: Nov. 30, 2014 at 11:06 a.m.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a world where "A Christmas Carol" was irrelevant, a strange relic of bad old days? But more than 170 years after the story first appeared, this is still a planet filled with hardened hearts and have-nots. And a lot of us carry some Scrooge within us. Perhaps we all need a quick kick in the priorities, to be reminded occasionally that it's not the material things that matter, but that mankind should be our business.

This season marks the 33rd year that Meadow Brook Theatre has taken us on Scrooge's journey from lonely miser to loving mentor. The theater's annual tradition dates to when Terence Kilburn – who played Tiny Tim in the 1938 film version – was artistic director. Meadow Brook's version of the story was adapted and originally directed by Kilburn's partner, Charles Nolte, while the briskly well-staged current version was directed by Terry W. Carpenter.

MBT's show is visually – and auditorially – rich. From the audience, perched in the steeply descending seating that leads down to the stage, it's like watching a 19th-century British illustration come to life, from the pre-show caroling to the moment the curtains open on lovely Victorian sets and costumes (created by Peter W. Hicks and Mary Pettinato), and on through a show that makes ample use of excellent sound and lighting effects (designed by Mike Duncan and Reid G. Johnson).

Veteran Detroit actor Thomas D. Mahard has appeared in various roles in more than 1,000 performances of "Carol" at Meadow Brook. His Scrooge starts out not as an ultimate evil one-percenter, but rather a cranky and morose, occasionally even daffy, old uncle. This Scrooge nervously counts the individual coals in the small office stove, and is so immersed in money he can speed-count his banknotes and recognize the sound of different coins clinking in his cashbox. And yet we can soon see how his heart will melt, even in the first ghostly excursion. There, he immediately tries to jump into the middle of that long-ago party thrown by his beloved first boss, old Fezziwig, even partnering up with the Spirit of Christmas Past for a quick jig.

Among the other featured cast, Mark Rademacher does a strong double duty as a vivid Ghost of Jacob Marley and the kind of Ghost of Christmas Present you'd like to be: both jolly to those who need his warmth, and stern with Scrooge. Another standout, Tobin Hissong, is a kind and loving Bob Cratchit.

The remainder of the supporting cast is uniformly good, from Cratchit's kids to the various Londoners of past, present and future. The staging and ensemble are particularly effective in the flash-forward sequence to the dark days of Christmas future. In an inky gloom, a giant specter and an ensemble of anonymous black-clad figures surround Scrooge as he witnesses the universal disinterest in his demise. A quartet of actors – Phil Powers, Judy Dery, Sara Catheryn Wolf and Chip Duford – are wonderful as the sarcastic serving-class folk picking through Dead Scrooge's belongings, happy to mock and make a couple of pence off a guy who cared nothing for them in life.

Who doesn't wonder how they're regarded now, and how they'll be remembered? And so it's a timeless story not just because there is still poverty and selfishness in the world, but because we relate all too well to Scrooge's sadness and pettiness and inner desire to be better.

So if your ho, ho, ho has got up and gone, if you've got yourself a good case of the humbugs, if you need a few spirits to lift up your spirit, get yourself to Meadow Brook Theatre this holiday season.

SHOW DETAILS: 'A Christmas Carol'
Meadow Brook Theatre
2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester
8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 16
2 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 3
8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10, 17
8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4, 11, 18
8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5, 12, 19
2 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 30, Dec. 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: A Christmas Carol - Meadow Brook Theatre

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Nov. 26, 2014)


How relevant is theater? Check your national news feeds

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Invasion!"

Planet Ant Theatre

Posted: Nov. 29, 2014 at 3:46 p.m.

Review enough theater and you develop a sense of deja vu. Ok, this show is "Invasion!" produced by Planet Ant Theatre, not "White People," produced by Puzzle Piece Theater earlier this season. Its author is Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri, not American playwright J.T. Rodgers. It consists of vignettes performed by four actors, not monologues for three. It's directed by Molly McMahon, not D.B. Schroeder. The productions, though share a disturbing similarity in theme and tone. They are broadly differing testaments to a festering boil on the body politic; call it prejudice, call it bigotry, call it racism, I'm calling it "Fear of the 'Other.'"

"Invasion!" which premiered in 2006, was Khemiri's first play. In the spirit of the old adage, "Write what you know," his work reflects the suspicions, assumptions and prejudice he observed his Tunisian-born father endure in ethnically homogeneous Swedish society. While his own experiences seem less soul-killing – it would appear he inherited his mother's Scandinavian skin – his mop of black hair would stand out in a crowd. "Invasion!" is a visceral experience, one, apparently, as equally moving in Rachel Wilson-Broyles brilliant translation as in Swedish. In 2011 Khemiri won an Obie Award for Playwriting. At that time, playwright David Henry Hwang, a member of the award committee, commented, "The world is very complicated and mongrelized, and this play is a beautiful expression of this."

It is a beautifully crafted play, but it is beauty born from ugliness. And as performance scripts go, "Invasion!" is a tough nut to crack.

Part entertainment and part agitprop, it challenges both theatrical and societal conventions. Its scenes seem only connected by a name, "Abulkasem." But when that name, garnered from an overly-emoted play, becomes the buzz-word of the day among high-school boys, its pervasiveness attracts the attention of the authorities. Its alien origin arouses suspicion of everything dark, sinister and Arabic.

"Invasion!" has a manic drive to it, well captured by Molly McMahon and her cast. But pay attention: With four actors in multiple roles, it is more difficult than usual to identify time, place and character. But it is more important that the troupe manages to corral Khemiri's scattershot ideas into a unified whole.

The play begins rather light-heartedly with a massive breach in the theatrical fourth wall and vulgar enthusiasm characterized by Artun Kircali and Emilio Rodriguez. Youth are not afraid to twist language, and the characters' adopt – and adapt – "Abulkasem" to mean everything from "def, dope, pfat, whack" to multiple f-bombs. This is just the set-up for a twisted misuse of language.

Samer Ajluni, picking apples on an expired visa, wants to use the wealth of his native tongue to express his love for America and pop music. Linnae Caurdy, his interpreter, warps his adulation of ABBA into multiple terrorist threats. The scene packs the punch of a bolt gun between the eyes. We are left to speculate about the interpreter's motivation. Is it malice, or merely validation of her own prejudice?

"Invasion!" was not the last word from Jonas Hassen Khemiri on the dangers of racial profiling. In 2013, in response to the Swedish government's implementation of Project Reva, he wrote an open letter to Minister of Justice Beatrice Ask. After its publication in Sweden's biggest daily paper, "Dagens Nyheter," it went viral on Facebook. In its own way, it's as provocative as "Invasion!" His sentiments echo eerily the American experience of Arabs and Latinos alike. You might want to check it out. (CLICK HERE to read Khemiri's open letter.)

SHOW DETAILS: 'Invasion!'
Planet Ant Theatre
2357 Caniff, Hamtramck
8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5, 12, 19
8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 29, Dec. 6, 13, 20
2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, 14
1 hour, 15 minutes; no intermission

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Invasion! - Planet Ant Theatre

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (Dec. 4, 2014)


Christmas is bustin' out all over at The Dio

By Jenn McKee

REVIEW: "Home for the Holidays"

The Dio - Dining & Entertainment

Posted: Nov. 29, 2014 at 9:31 a.m.; updated Nov. 29, 2014 at 11:52 a.m.

The Christmas season may just be officially getting underway, but it's already bustin' out all over at The Dio in Pinckney, which is staging, for the third straight year, the company's original musical, "Home for the Holidays."

Written by Dio co-founders Steve DeBruyne and Matthew Tomich, the show – which packs in an array of traditional, pop/rock, and obscure Christmas tunes – offers glimpses, both on-stage and backstage, of a live music show that's de-railing on Christmas Eve.

The leading lady, Portia (Thalia Schramm), locks herself into her dressing room, devastated by the news that her serviceman husband Eric (Peter Crist) can't come home for Christmas; Jimmy (Jared Schneider) is suddenly suffering from a nervous tic he can't overcome; Portia's understudy Belinda (Elizabeth Jaffe) is dying to step in, but she's not quite up to the task; and leading man Christopher (DeBruyne) is brimming with bitterness instead of Christmas cheer.

Meanwhile, one member of a sister trio – Jean, played by Sarah Brown – pines for Christopher, while the married stage manager (Jim Moll) and costume designer (Anne Bauman) try to pull the strings back-stage and make it all work out.

It's fitting that two of the show's numbers – the opener, "Snow," and "Sisters" – are drawn from the classic movie "White Christmas," given the winking tone and on-and-off-stage orientation of both narratives.

And it's fun to note the broad range of DeBruyne and Tomich's song choices, which aren't typical, and heavily favor contemporary pop culture. For example: "One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas," and "It Feels Like Christmas" from "The Muppet Christmas Carol"; Kenny Rogers' and Dolly Parton's "Christmas Without You," "I'll Be Home with Bells On," and "I Believe in Santa Claus"; "Believe" from "The Polar Express"; George Jones and Tammy Wynette's "Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus"; Faith Hill's "Where Are You Christmas," from the live-action movie "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"; and "All I Want for Christmas is You," by Mariah Carey.

Generally, though, the two hour show feels over-stuffed with numbers – though they each fit well within the confines of the story, "Home" starts to feel bloated in the second act – and not all vocalists on the Dio stage are created equal. Still, terrific, polished lead vocalists like Schramm and DeBruyne go a long way, so not surprisingly, the songs that prominently feature them are among the strongest. Schneider and Brown also deliver the vocal goods in featured roles; and Jaffe, once freed of the need to be the weak second fiddle to Portia, gets to shine brightest in "Hard Candy Christmas."

Tomich designed the show's tri-level set, which consists of the stage area; stairs to Portia's dressing room; and a few more stairs leading to (what are marked as) additional dressing rooms. Eileen Obradovich provided the show's props. Norma Polk designed the spot-on Christmas show costumes, while Tomich designed the sound and the lighting, which help establish shifts in scene and tone (and, in one instance, a sense of magic). Michelle Marzejon's choreography has hints of Christmas TV specials while also being fun to watch; and Beth Wondolowski directs the three-piece orchestra, which, despite a couple of rough spots on opening night, generally struck a good and consistent balance with the performers.

Finally, The Dio is a dinner theater, and it's one of the best-integrated ones I've yet visited. By that I mean, while I've been to theaters that have tried to serve food to patrons, and I've been to restaurants that have tried to play host to live theater, this was the first time I felt as though the venue was dedicated to both equally. With a buffet dinner before the show – the boneless fried chicken is a favorite for a reason, people – The Dio also has its performers serve drinks to patrons at this time; and during intermission, the performers distribute dessert and interact with the crowd. In this way, too, the two worlds of "restaurant" and "theater company" are collapsed at The Dio, and consequently, they seem more intimately enmeshed than in most dinner theaters.

So maybe if you need a lot of Christmas (and chicken), right this very minute, a trip to The Dio might be just what the doctor ordered.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Home for the Holidays'
The Dio - Dining and Entertainment
135 E. Main St., Pinckney
Seating 12:30 to 1 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 18
Seating 6:30 to 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5, 12, 19
Seating 6:30 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 29, Dec. 6, 13, 20
Seating 12:30 to 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 30, Dec. 7, 14, 21
Seating 6:30 to 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 22
Seating 6:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 23

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Home for the Holidays - The Dio

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Detroit Theater Examiner (Dec. 7, 2014)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Dec. 4, 2014)

Read RONALD BAUMANIS' review – Mostly Musical Theatre (Nov. 29, 2014)


'George Bailey, I'll love you 'til the day I die'

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "This Wonderful Life"

Performance Network Theatre

Posted: Nov. 27, 2014 at 2:59 p.m.

To what can we attribute the enduring popularity of "It's a Wonderful Life"? It was the only movie finished by Liberty Films under its founder, director-turned-auteur Frank Capra. To cover production delays on another project, RKO, the distributor, rushed it into theaters and smack into competition with Goldwyn Pictures "The Best Years of Our Lives." That film walked away with the Academy Award for Best Picture for 1946 and six other Oscars; "Lives" didn't break even in its first run. Some critics found the plot too sappy.

So what would motivate playwright Steve Murray to reinvent Capra's film as a stage piece, "This Wonderful Life"? And why would veteran director Tony Caselli mount this project – thrice? Finally, why would local favorite John Lepard assume the challenge of telling the story all by his lonesome – this time at Performance Network Theatre in Ann Arbor rather than his usual home base in Williamston, where he earned a Wilde Award for the 2009 staging of this production?

Well, perspectives change. Perceptions change. In 2006 "It's a Wonderful life" was ranked as the #1 Most Powerful Movie of All Time by the American Film Institute, and #11 of best American films ever. Ultimately, though, what remains constant is that it is one heck of good story.

Bedford Falls is a sleepy town somewhere in New York. On Christmas Eve, George Bailey, married and father of four, stands on the bridge above the falls and contemplates suicide. His dreams of education and travel were short circuited by his father's sudden death, as George stepped in to run the family business, Bailey Building and Loan Association. That esteemed institution is about to fail an audit. George's rummy uncle Billy lost the eight thousand dollar deposit needed to balance the books.

His course is changed by divine intervention. Heaven sends a guardian angel – second class. Clarence grants George's wish that he had never lived and shows him what the sorry state Bedford Falls would have been without him. "Strange, isn't it?" says Clarence. "Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

Staggered by the size of that hole, George recants his wish. His faith in himself restored; his faith in his fellow man is rewarded by an outpour of generosity from the townsfolk he assisted through the years.

So how do you turn a Hollywood film into a stage play? Murray didn't; he's crafted a story based on the movie's plot. John Lepard demonstrates mastery of an art form far older and closer to the heart than drama: storytelling. But, although there's a stool upon which he could perch and merely recite, Caselli has Lepard playing all over the fragmentary set, originally designed by Bart Bauer, which represents the totality of Bedford Falls.

In what must be an exhausting time onstage, Lepard narrates and commentates and captures the essence of character through nuanced body language and some striking vocal impersonations .The ease with which he rapidly moves between James Stewart's (Capra's George Bailey) trademark west Pennsylvania drawl and Donna Reed's (George's wife, Mary) demure, almost shy, line reading is magical.

Quintessa Gallinat's sound design is a tapestry backdrop for the story; add Daniel C. Walker's ever-changing pools of warm light, and the two designs immediately define time and space.

I'll pose another question about "It's a Wonderful Life." Why is this chestnut dusted off for endless reruns on cable networks every year in the holiday season? It IS life-affirming and inspirational. But when all is said and done, the flick is as welcome as turkey and mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving: comfort food for the soul. Its moral is best summed up in Clarence's observation, "Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends." It exemplifies Frank Capra's vision for his work. "My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other."

Take that, Wes Craven! The buoyant "This Wonderful Live" has the legs to make an annual run, so here's to "Sappy Holidays" now and for years to come.

SHOW DETAILS: 'This Wonderful Life'
Performance Network Theatre
120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 2, 9, 16
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 3, 10, 17
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4, 11, 18
1 hour, 10 minutes; no intermission

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: This Wonderful Life - Performance Network Theatre

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Dec. 4, 2014)

Read JENN MCKEE's review – The Ann Arbor News (Nov. 27, 2014)


A show NOT written by monkeys with typewriters

By Amy J. Parrent

REVIEW: "All in the Timing"

Hilberry Theatre

Posted: Nov. 22, 2014 at 9:19 p.m.; updated Nov. 24, 2014 at 5:38 p.m.

So, Hilberry, it's pretty smart putting a sketch about a notorious contemporary composer in front of a reviewer who was a professional musician. For me, what is not to like as actors perform a spoken-parody of Phillip Glass's music, an absurd bit in which the composer buys a baguette and runs into an old flame.

And that's not even the nuttiest premise in the medley of David Ives' one-acts now playing at the repertory company. That award might go to the dark-humored, goofy yet ultimately poignant piece about Leon Trotsky arguing with his wife and assassin over whether the axe in his head is buried there or just smashed against it.

The eight one-act plays, all originally written in the late 1980s and early '90s and collectively titled "All in the Timing," are tied together by the various meanings of, theories of and manifestations of time. There are the rhythmic, repetitive beats of the Glass piece. There are sketches where time is constantly reset, as in the opening "Sure Thing," about the many ways a first meeting with a potential lover could go, or in that dream of Trotsky's last hours.

As the evening opens, it appears this will just be a bunch of gags tossed out there, to see what yucks will stick. But somewhere through the second one-act, based on the proverbial monkeys with typewriters trying for Shakespeare, the questions become much deeper, the characters much more heartbreaking, as they grapple with the meanings of their day-to-day existence – or in the case of two very appealing but "lowly mayflies," their one day of life.

In such a strong ensemble, it's difficult to single out actors. Mary Sansone and Kyle Mitchell Johnson delivered the goods together in a double-header of plays. In the first, "The Universal Language," an insecure woman finds confidence thanks to a con man. The second, one of the most touching of the evening, is "Time Flies," about those two tiny insects realizing that life is short, so carpe diem. Even if you don't know what carpe diem means.

Brandon Grantz is engaging as everything from an author-monkey named Milton to a laid-back guy enjoying his own private "Los Angeles" in "The Philadelphia."

Santino Craven particularly shines as a swinger amongst a revolving group of friends dining at "Seven Menus," while Bevin Bell-Hall, Tiffany Michelle Thompson, Brandy Joe Plambeck and Annie Keris admirably take us through a range of characters, from swinging ad execs to adulterous Trotskyites, with a little David Attenborough, who's also obsessed with mating. And mating. And mating.

Director David J. Magidson set the nimble pace through often densely-worded dialogue. There were some tiny comedy-timing errors, first-night issues to be adjusted, for instance in "Sure Thing," when the actors rushed through some laughs and the next punch-lines got lost.

But hey, that happens. Sometimes your life seems a little mixed up, or backwards. You're just in a Philadelphia.

Go to the show. You'll get it.

SHOW DETAILS: 'All in the Timing'
Hilberry Theatre
4743 Cass Ave., Detroit
2 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 3 (post-show talkback)
8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4 (pre-show discussion), Jan. 29
8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5, Jan. 30
2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 31
8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, Jan. 31

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: All in the Timing - Hilberry Theatre

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Detroit Theater Examiner (Dec. 6, 2014)

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (Nov. 26, 2014)


Variety is the spice of 'Caroled!'

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Christmas Caroled!"

The Encore Musical Theatre Company

Posted: Nov. 22, 2014 at 5:27 p.m.

Gather 'round, children, for a bit of Christmas candor. In short, the parallels are scant between the world-premiere musical revue "Christmas Caroled!" (conceived and written by Daniel C. Cooney and Dayle Ann Hunt) and the classic Charles Dickens holiday tale – by this reviewer's count, there's an unpleasant grump agitated by seasonal cheer, a magical jump back in time, and a guy named Tim.

Truly, the strengths of this Encore Musical Theatre Company production do not lie in adaptation. But rather, under Cooney's direction, what does stand out is its throwback Christmas extravaganza, complete with a stream of variety show quirks and infectiously smiling faces.

A swift prologue in a drab, anonymous room introduces a drab, anonymous man, Abner Z. Scruggs (William Stutts, Jr.), whose entire agenda is to get stinking drunk and forget that it's Christmas. Clumsily established as a world-class humbugger, he then experiences a seismic event that knocks him back into his past as part of a famous comedy duo, specifically a '60s-era Christmas TV special with him and partner Jack Jacobs (Pete Podolski) as hosts.

To call whatever lessons or reparations Abner has in store half-baked would be generous. Indeed, without cue or counsel, he jumps right back into the old routine, and – other than some ham-fisted asides about the family he ignored in favor of showbiz – the show just goes on.

Yet the sooner the viewer can put the framing device out of mind, the better. Because in this production, "A Christmas Carol" might have inspired the title, but the exquisite TV variety special is its exclamation point.

Everything in the on-camera world has the sparkle of spectacle to it, from transforming Daniel C. Walker's set into a pristine studio-fake living room, to adorning it with the tasteful perfection of Anne Donevan's set dressing and properties. Designer Sharon Larkey Urick pulls out all the sartorial stops, outfitting 10 performers in daffy coordinated ensembles that would be well at home on "The Lawrence Welk Show." Although the lighting design (also by Walker) makes a cursory distinction between dramatic on-camera mood lighting and stripped back off-camera confrontation, the script offers frustratingly little in these moments between takes (underusing Tim Brayman and Michael Szymanski, MD, as behind-the-scenes workhorse types), so the device stalls out instead.

But again, most of the focus remains on the primetime show being filmed, and the bulk of it is sensational, thanks in no small part to new arrangements and orchestrations by R. MacKenzie Lewis. More than two dozen familiar tunes, devotional and secular alike, are given innovative and complex treatments as Lewis toys gleefully with fugue and genre and keeps the harmonies modulating. With Chris Rayis as music director and conductor, the collective vocals are strong, and featured soloists Mahalia Greenway and Jess Alexander both deliver repeated showstoppers.

Cooney's direction lovingly embraces the sense of fun, hokey insanity that passed for television entertainment in a time before devastating cool and hyperbolic cynicism. The TV personas' heightened faux earnestness proves just the right touch, casting silly proceedings into humorous relief, while also achieving tonal shifts that lead to a few surprisingly affecting moments. And although the performers are given little to work with in terms of text, their entertainment value is never in question.

As Jack, Podolski sports effortless rat-pack affability and a thousand-watt grin that eminently qualify him to lead the audience and Abner through his meandering journey. Greenway and Alexander are at home in the spotlight, but also blend with the cheerful ensemble (Sebastian Gerstner, Bryana Hall, Erika Jost, Colleen Kartheiser, Teola Lutsker, and Callen Snyder) in wholesome group numbers choreographed with vigor by Kristi Davis. The mercenary Stutts takes a rudderless protagonist and allows him to simply go with the grain instead of against it, enhancing the staged entertainment at the expense of an already-wobbly story arc.

Although there's little in terms of Scrooge-y satisfaction in "Christmas Caroled!," for most viewers, the production's massive Christmas catalogue and cheeky homage to TV variety specials of old can make up the difference. The show tosses aside its underdeveloped, perfunctory story in favor of a fully realized series of musical hits that keep on coming; the net result is a single-act performance that, at just over an hour, feels at once too long and too short. Yet anyone willing to overlook the weaknesses in the book can find melodic satisfaction on the other side, happy to see the forest for the white go-go boots and scarves gathered about the tree.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Christmas Caroled!'The Encore Musical Theatre Company
3126 Broad St., Dexter
3 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 11
7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4, 11, 18
8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 28, Dec. 5, 12, 19
3 & 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22, 29, Dec. 6, 13, 20
3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23, 30, Dec. 7, 14, 21
70 minutes; no intermission

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Christmas Caroled - The Encore Musical Theatre Company

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Nov. 26, 2014)

Read RONALD BAUMANIS' review – Mostly Musical Theatre (Nov. 29, 2014)

Read JENN MCKEE's review – The Ann Arbor News (Nov. 22, 2014)


Go Comedy! extends season's greetings #hohoho

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Hashtag The Holidays"

Go Comedy! Improv Theater

Posted: Nov. 22, 2014 at 3:53 p.m.

The Critic has no social media presence on the Internet #curmudgeon. In fact, I'm waiting for an anti-social media site to open so I can dislike everybody at once and save time and gas #bahhumbug. But we're well into the season to be jolly #deckthemalls, so a trip to Ferndale #fabulous for GO Comedy!'s #gocomedy annual romp #xmaspar-tay is in order.

"Hashtag The Holidays" is a sketch comedy #original, written and performed by Rj Cach, James Cerini, Suzie Jacokes, Tim Kay, Heather Sejnowski and Dez Walker #perps, with additional writing by Lisa Jacokes, Peter Jacokes and Aaron Johnstone #aidingandabetting The show is directed by Pj Jacokes and Tommy LeRoy with assistance from Aaron Johnstone #puppetmasters.

Sketch comedy is an established form of contemporary humor #SNL, in which improvisational techniques #thesecondcityetc are used to build ready-for-the-stage #crossedfingers vignettes #drivebycomedy. As is common to its genre, "Hashtag the Holidays" is a mixed bag #santa #naughtyornice. There are very successful bits #candycanesandmodeltrains and some marginal #coalinyourstocking. A couple have strong lead-ups, but weak punchlines #funnyasaheartattack. Sketch comedy highlights originality #didntseethatcoming, so unnecessarily recalling Comedy of Christmas Past is disappointing #2wildandcrazyguys.

Staging for improv and sketch comedy trends towards minimalism #buddycanyouspareadime. The most successful skits in "Hashtag the Holidays," though, involve fairly elaborate costumes and props #yougottahaveagimmick. Dez Walker and Heather Sejnowski experience the horror of chestnuts roasting on an open fire #meltorme when the living flames are colleagues in full body suits #youhadmeatyellow.

The hit of the evening #savethebestforlast is an elaborately choreographed, slow motion snowball fight that simply gets out of control #laurelandhardy. The structure is elegant #franklloydwright, the timing flawless #igotrhythm, and the bit is visually striking #snowballtothegut.

There is room for some quieter comedy #wisewittyintrospective, as Dez Walker and Suzie Jacokes mark the years of a marriage #thehoneymoonisover through the couple's holiday traditions #festivaloflights. For sketch comedy, it's remarkably thoughtful and sweet #sugarplum.

Only six years old, GoComedy!'s yuletide salute is a child compared to hoarier holiday traditions #achristmascarol. But keep in mind when making your list #checkingittwice of seasonal entertainment that "Hashtag The Holidays" has been very good #forgoodnesssake this year.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Hashtag The Holidays'
Go Comedy! Improv Theater
261 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale
8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4, 11, 18
8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 28, Dec. 5, 12, 19
8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22, 29, Dec. 6, 14, 20
1 hour, 15 minutes; no intermission

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Cornwell's Dinner Theatre does corn well

By Sue Merrell

REVIEW: "Cornwell's Christmas Carol

Cornwell's Dinner Theatre

Posted: Nov. 15, 2014 at 10:58 a.m.

You expect a great turkey dinner with all the fixins when you go to Cornwell's Dinner Theatre in Marshall. After all, the farm/restaurant complex is called Turkeyville USA, and a rafter of the fowl are strutting their stuff outside the barn.

But this year's holiday show, "Cornwell's Christmas Carol," is more about hamming it up.

Created by producer/director Dennis McKeen, the two-hour show is basically a holiday music revue set at the family gathering of four country bumpkins who favor tacky tinsel dιcor and turn on the lights by clapping. The script is corny, but the songs are well done.

Uncle Cletus (Peter Riopelle) and Cousin Otis (Eric Cover) seem comfortable playing complete hicks. They sing hokey holiday parodies such as "Jingle Beers" and "Grandma Got Run Over by a John Deere." They even sing with a twang and "yer" instead of "you."

Cindy Lou (Holly Norton-McKeen) and Jimmie Ray (Shawn Fletcher) use a hayseed drawl when they are talking, but once the music starts they sing like angels with perfect enunciation. Jimmie Ray garnered hoots as well as applause for his stirring rendition of "O Holy Night." Cindy Lou seemed perfectly sincere singing "Merry Christmas, Darling," even though the audience soon realized the object of her affection was a pet pig.

For the first half hour there isn't a hint of a connection to the Charles Dickens Christmas classic, but a about halfway through the first act, the four characters decide to entertain themselves by acting out scenes from "A Christmas Carol." They take turns playing Ebenezer Scrooge. This bumps up the show's theatricality considerably, even though plenty of yokel yaks remain.

The spirit of Jacob Marley arrives from the most surprising place with lots of fog, flashing lights and sound effects. He's wearing a wreath of beer cans instead of the chains of the netherworld. And when Ebenezer is too frightened to go back to sleep, Marley sings him to sleep with "Silent Night."

Each of the other spirits arrives in equally surprising ways, with lots of fun twists. For instance, Jimmie Ray plays "Billy Bob" Cratchit as a lisping, bespectacled nerd, while Otis, the tallest member of the cast, is "Tiny Tim Bob."

Between the scenes, the characters return to their hillbilly personas to sing a few holiday songs. The trio of men adds sunglasses for a jazzy "Santa Claus is Back in Town." Cindy Lou climbs up on top of the piano to sing "Cool Yule" and joins with Jimmie Ray for a delightful duet on "Winter Wonderland."

The finale, "12 Days of a Redneck's Christmas," is creatively staged, and mercifully shortened to just the right length to be funny. Music director William Asher deserves a nod for using arrangements that make the familiar holiday repertoire seem fresh and energetic. This is particularly true of the encore, a sassy, syncopated version of "We Three Kings."

Cornwell's restaurant has a long history of serving tasty turkey dishes. The food service to a packed theater of 175 people runs smoothly from a simple salad and hearty bean and spinach soup before the turkey buffet to a choice of three desserts after. They even plan the schedule with an hour break between dinner and the beginning of the show so patrons can shop at one of the stores on the property while the tables are cleared. This also assures that all that tryptophan in the turkey doesn't lull the audience to sleep.

Friday's audience was lively and alert. When Scrooge woke up after the final spirit's visit, he asked "What day is it?" Right on cue, someone in the audience shouted, "Christmas!" Scrooge continued the interaction with the audience, suggesting someone go get a turkey from Cornwell's for the Cratchit family.

So if you've got a hankering for a huge turkey feast, and don't mind a stage show that doesn't take itself too seriously, add Cornwell's to your holiday calendar.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Cornwell's Christmas Carol'
Cornwell's Dinner Theatre
18935 15 1/2 Mile Rd, Marshall
12 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 18, 25, Dec. 2, 9, 16 (show at 2 p.m.)
12 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 19, 26, Dec. 3, 10, 17 (show at 2 p.m.)
12 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20, 27, Dec. 4, 11, 18 (show at 2 p.m.)
12 p.m. & 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21, 28, Dec. 5, 12, 19 (shows at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.)
12 p.m. & 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15, 22, 29, Dec. 6, 13, 20 (shows at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.)
$42 with meal; $37 show only

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Cornwell's Christmas Carol - Cornwell's Dinner Theatre

Read CHRISTOPHER TOWER's review – Battle Creek Enquirer (Dec. 3, 2014)


On the job intrigue provides laughs as Detroit Rep plunges into new season

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Buzz"

Detroit Repertory Theatre

Posted: Nov. 7, 2014 at 2:28 p.m.

For good luck at a wedding, the bride assembles "something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue." The must be true, too, to assure good luck for an evening of classy comedy.

Something old would be the Detroit Repertory Theatre, the oldest alternative professional theater in Michigan. The "new" is Michiganian playwright Richard Strand's "Buzz," receiving its world premiere. Leah Smith, director of development for the Rep and stage manager for "Buzz," "borrows" artistic director Bruce E. Millan's iconic curtain speech, but that's a fitting homage as well as being practical. Except for a few off-color epithets, though, the only blue around is the title character's shirt. "Blue," as in "sad," won't be found at all.

It would seem that Ryan Hutchings (Wayne David Parker), CEO of Hutchings Enterprises Inc., is nefariously trying to duck an expensive workman compensation lawsuit by trying to find a possible witness to his employee's accident. Once he settles on a stock clerk, Buzz Gunderson (Dan Johnson), as his witness of choice, we find that Hutchings' offer of a sizable bribe in exchange for scripted testimony will also preserve a dark, mean secret. It's obvious before we even meet Buzz that the witless slacker is the wrong guy for the job. Our opinion won't change but our reasoning will, as Strand peels away each layer of his elegantly structured plot.

"Buzz" is a celebration of rapid repartee; Parker and Johnson function like a classic vaudeville team. It is appealing to discover how timing and inflection can enhance even the best written lines. Harry Wetzel, the Rep's man for all reasons, both directs "Buzz" and designed the expansive set, thus being doubly responsible for the easy flow of the production.

And although the bulk of the plot revolves around the unstable relations between the guys, Rita Montpetit Liegl and Kennikki Jones-Jones, each making her first appearance with the Rep, create memorable characters who are determined to undermine Ryan Hutchings schemes. Liegl plays Alyson Schrum, the buttoned-down, no-nonsense company board member who won't accept Hutchings' account without investigation. Alyson Schrum, at least, has lines; as the accident victim Shirley Greenberg, Kennikki Jones-Jones is mute. Shirley might have suffered brain damage in her fall from the loading dock and has difficulty communicating – which aids in Hutchings plan to sweep the whole affair under the rug. But even though Jones-Jones' face is largely obscured by bandages, she efficiently creates the image of a woman wronged largely by body language.

"Buzz" satisfies on many levels. It's a thoroughly original piece marked by crisp writing, seasoned by biting wit. It's presented by artists who clearly understand the fundamentals of comedy and ably employ them to best effect.

But perhaps the most satisfying element of this production is that it marks the beginning of the 58th season for the Detroit Rep. In an industry where companies have lifespans comparable to mayflies, it's good to reflect on the stability afforded by a proven winner.

Detroit Repertory Theatre
13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit
8:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13, 20, Dec. 4, 11, 18
8:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7, 14, 21, 28, Dec. 5, 12, 19, 26
3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8, 22, 29, Dec. 6, 13, 20, 27
8:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8, 15, 22, 29, Dec. 6, 13, 20, 27
2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9, 16, 23, 30, Dec. 7, 14, 21, 28
2 hours, 20 minutes
$17-20; $75 Black Tie Event on Nov. 15

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Buzz - Detroit Repertory Theatre

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (Nov. 13, 2014)

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review - Detroit Free Press (Nov. 12, 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

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