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A magical 'Cymbeline' in Kauzlaric's hands

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "Cymbeline"

Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Posted: July 28, 2014 at 4:49 p.m.

Sometimes you walk out of a theater and you know you've experienced something special. Something you're not likely to ever experience again.

On Sunday, I walked out of the Jackson Community College's Potter Center where the Michigan Shakespeare Festival was presenting "Cymbeline," with the realization that I may never again see this play done so well.

For starters, "Cymbeline" isn't done very often. It has a convoluted plot and lacks some of the poetry of Shakespeare's other works. It is neither comedy nor tragedy, and is one of his longer plays.

But director Robert Kauzlaric takes a strong hand to the script and molds it into a story that is compelling and fascinating. Then he works with a design team and a group of actors that couldn't be more committed to the group storytelling.

The production values are high, and what Jeromy Hopgood does with scrims and cloths and Diane Fairchild does with lighting is nothing short of amazing. Add to that the original music and sound design by Kate Hopgood that acts as a constant sound track, and the audience is transported out of this world into one of another time, place and setting. Al Renee Amidei's costumes along with Jeromy Hopgood's ever-moving set pieces make it possible for the play to move from Rome to England to Wales without ever losing the audience or leaving them behind.

It truly is teamwork amongst the production crew that makes things work. It isn't the costumes alone, the lighting alone, or the set pieces alone. All of them combine to tell the story, and it is their seamless integration as if done with one hand that makes the show magical.

The play opens with one of those rousing Shakespearean pictures with a large ensemble of people on stage, all moving in perfectly coordinated steps around a spotlighted chest. From the chest come costumes and masks in a choreographed dance. Then Joe Lehman mounts the box as chorus, narrator and Pisanio, servant to Posthumus to give the "once upon a time" in true Puck-like fashion.

Pisanio lets us know what has come before – that Imogen has eloped with Posthumus, an orphan raised in the court, and that King Cymbeline has banished Posthumus and imprisoned Imogen for this act. The King's two sons were kidnapped as babies, leaving Imogen as heir. The Queen (who has no other name) is an evil stepmother who wants her doltish son Cloten (by a previous marriage) to take the throne. Cloten and the Queen want Imogen to marry him to secure his right to the throne.

Lehman gives Pisanio a sprightliness that draws the audience in. He makes clear his loyalties, and we see in Pisanio one of the few characters who are constantly loyal and honorable, never being gulled by what seems to be, when what seems to be contradicts what he knows to be true. Lehman makes Pisanio a constant – that when things get confusing, it is always his opinion and view that can be trusted. As the story swirls around from place to place and plot to plot, Lehman ensures that things are understood and clear. He then returns as the Puck/narrator at the end of the play to let us know the moral, and give us Shakespeare's version of a "happily ever after."

Janet Haley is delicious as the evil stepmother and queen. She makes Disney's Maleficent seem cuddly and trustworthy. Haley moves in a sinister fashion, her hand growing in fearsomeness when she spreads her fingers and lays claim with it to the king, the throne, the world around her.

Rachel Hull's Imogen is powerful and intelligent. Hull gives the character a backbone that makes her one of Shakespeare's stronger women. She is faithful and can see through the schemes of others, even when they touch her dearly. The scene with her and David Blixt's Iachimo especially lets her shine. He tries to seduce her to win a bet with the banished Posthumus that he can compromise her honor. Hull lets her distress show at his news, and both build suspense so the audience is left to wonder whether she will give in.

Blixt creates an Iachimo that is casually evil. Unlike the Queen who is committed to her evil acts, Iachimo doesn't see himself as evil, merely as worldly. He does horrible harm for his own amusement, and does not think through what the consequences will be. It is this carelessness that sets up one of the more powerful moments at the end of the play, as Blixt leaves open the question of whether he is steeped in evil or whether it is possible for him to be redeemed.

The third bad guy of the play is Shawn Pfautsch's Cloten. Pfautsch creates a Cloten that the audience loves to hate. He is self-absorbed, arrogant, needy and vicious. He lacks all the virtues that Pfautsch gives Hamlet when he plays that role in the Festival's other production. Because of this, he becomes the clown of "Cymbeline."

David Turrentine plays the title role of the play, though he is often thrust into the background by those who take action around him. He is more acted upon than acting, influenced by his queen and ruled by his temper. He is the receiver of news rather than the maker of it.

Central to the play is the love story between Imogen and Posthumus. Hull and Edmund Alyn Jones could step right out of any fairy tale of a princess and a pauper. Their love for each other is deep, and the seeming betrayals leave them both devastated.

Shakespeare frequently shows in his plays that he believed it was birth – not upbringing – that makes a person noble. That blood is stronger than relations of choice, that nature trumps nurture. This we see in Sam Hubbard's Guiderius and Eric Eilersen's Arviragrus who are princely in a way that Cloten is not, even though they have been raised in a cave by Alan Ball's Belarius.

Blixt doubles as Iachimo and fight director in this production. Together, Kauzlaric and Blixt create scenes of war that are elegant, exciting and fit in perfectly with the mood and theme of the production.

While "Cymbeline" is often considered one of the Bard's lesser plays, this production is a pure Shakespeare experience. From costumes, to speeches, to movement, to stage fighting, to flawed heroes, to irredeemably evil villains, it has everything you expect from a Shakespeare play – and you leave wondering why it isn't done more often.

The answer might be because it can rarely be done quite so well.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Cymbeline'
Michigan Shakespeare Festival
Baughman Theatre at Potter Center on the campus of Jackson College
2111 Emmons Road, Jackson
7:30 p.m. Aug. 2, 8, 14
2 p.m. Aug. 6, 16
2 hours, 47 minutes
$31-40
517-796-8600
www.michiganshakespearefestival.com.

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Six 'Kings' draw a full house

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "The Kings of Unionville

Tipping Point Theatre

Posted: July 27, 2014 at 5:33 p.m.

This has been a very good season for original works locally, and Tipping Point Theatre ends its "Lucky 7" season with another winner. "The Kings of Unionville" is the brainchild of the company's producing artistic director, James R. Kuhl.

The village of Unionville, Mich., "Gateway to the Thumb," was founded in the 1850s by a few stalwart fathers who formed a secret philanthropic society. Membership was passed down from father to son, but by 2014, membership has dwindled to six. Six, that is, until Bruce, the vice president of The Kings of Unionville dies, putting a crimp in the weekly, six-handed euchre game. The surviving members decide it's time to bring in Ed's boy, Will, an expectant father. But Ed stubbornly insists on using an arcane society ritual, the "voting council," for the event. His son's initiation will be "by the book."

But Ed and Will's relationship is already strained. The younger man is reluctant to follow in his father's footsteps, either in joining a fading secret society with no secrets, or taking over the family funeral parlor. "The Kings of Unionville" explores one of the great themes of the human condition: the generational struggle between tradition and self-identity.

That struggle is so much a part of life that it can be worked again and again without becoming repetitious. Playwright Kuhl traces the development of "The Kings of Unionville" to his time as an apprentice at The Purple Rose Theatre, a time that coincided with the film release of Jeff Daniels' "Escanaba in da Moonlight." The ability to compare and contrast two works with similar themes but divergent plots highlights just how fresh and original this play is. The comedy is a rollicking good time, but the confrontations between father and son ring so true. Given the summer season, it reminds me of strawberry shortcake – a sweet treat with a tart foundation.

To extend that metaphor past its breaking point, that shortcake's topping isn't Cool Whip. The Tipping Point has assembled the cream of the local theater scene, an assembly of male talent rarely gathered in one place. Ed and Will are played by John Seibert and his son, Joseph – one wonders what past emotional moments might have added to their thoroughly grounded, believable performances. It is not lost on an observer that, while Joseph S. in not a newcomer, his appearance with John S. and company parallels the plot. A "family" of brothers is welcoming a new generation, one that will eventually succeed them.

The second pairing is a couple of cut-ups: brothers Leroy and Guvy – Dave Davies and Phil Powers respectively – who turn in the most physical performances of the evening. Ed speculates: Are we kings in a castle? Are we boys in a treehouse? Davies and Powers would have us guessing a "treehouse," one built by 10 year olds.

The six-pack (another stretched metaphor, I fear; there's a lotta Leinenkugel to be found) is rounded out by Thomas D. Mahard as Lloyd, the club's oldest surviving member, and Quintin Hicks as Hoagie, president and presider over the initiation ritual. They play opposing forces in the outrageously funny scene when we find the "ancient" solemnity has all the overtones of a frat hazing. The nub of the second act comedy lies in the fact that layers of amendments to a 162-year-old charter can make for parliamentarian nightmares.

The crown among the kings should grace the brow of director Brain P. Sage, who created a formidable ensemble. He's been ably assisted by Bartley Bauer, who created the paneled, mid-century basement set; lighting designer Joel Klain's very tight, subtle approach; Colleen Ryan-Peter's vision in assembling the costumes (particularly Leroy and Guvy's "Tweedledum and Tweedledummer," matching mechanic's outfits). Brandon M. Newton adds a touch of Michigan verity through an impressive assemblage of props.

There's a bit of melancholy in "The Kings of Unionville." Will is the only one of his generation who is eligible for membership. The society will eventually die, but its members are not yet ready to let go. Let's hope the secret society isn't a metaphor for local theater.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Kings of Unionville
Tipping Point Theatre
361 E. Cady St., Northville
3 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 13
7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 7
8 p.m. Thursday, July 31, Aug. 14, 21
8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 1, 8, 15, 22
3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2, 9, 16, 23
8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2, 9, 16, 23
2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 3, 10, 17, 24
2 hours
$27-32
248-347-0003
www.tippingpointtheatre.com

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Earnest actors keep the farce authentic

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "The Importance of Being Earnest"

Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Posted: July 27, 2014 at 1:29 p.m.

"There are no small roles, only small actors."

Never is this more apparent than in the Michigan Shakespeare Festival's "The Importance of Being Earnest" in which the two butlers, played by Rick Eva and Brandon St. Clair Saunders, have antics that rival the leads in comic effect.

Saunders anticipates every household need, and Eva mimics his masters with all of their silly demands. They're funny, amusing and nearly steal every scene they're in.

Nor is that a light task when the others they share the stage with shine equally brightly. It is a cast that glitters in its gaiety in a fashion that would make Oscar Wilde proud.

Wilde's comedy has enjoyed enduring popularity as a silly story about two society men who each have secret lives to escape the social conventions and obligations of town and country. Jack Worthing (played by Joe Lehman) and Algernon Moncrieff (played by David Blixt) each escape their usual homes by assuming false personalities under which they fall in love with two different women. They both must overcome society's roadblocks and the fickle nature of their own lovers to make it to the altar and the wedded state.

Directed by Janice Blixt, "The Importance of Being Earnest" is played as written, with attention to all the whimsy that Wilde embedded in this 19th Century script. It is farce, and Janice Blixt shows a healthy respect for Wilde and the script by letting it play exactly as written and trusting that the audience doesn't have to be spoon fed its charm or wit.

Even David Turrentine's Lady Bracknell is not forced into the over-the-top cross-dressing exaggeration. Rather, the pure humor of a man playing this over-bearing society woman who is an arbiter of all that is proper is allowed to simply happen. Turrentine shines because he plays the role as a woman, not as a man playing a woman. There is no falsetto or overly mincing movement. Rather, Turrentine's Lady Bracknell is a strong woman who is overbearing and makes the men in her life cower in fear.

David Blixt and Lehman are charming as the two gentlemen who are madly in love despite a fair amount of cynicism over their expected roles in life. Both embrace the absurdities of their roles and the situations the characters find themselves in. David Blixt is particularly delightful in the scene where Lydia Hiller's Cecily Cardew informs him that they got engaged months before they met.

Hiller's Cecily is silly and sweet, with an energy that is completely different from the Ophelia Hiller played in "Hamlet" earlier in the day. Cecily is an airhead who is all sentiment and no sense. She flits. She flitters. Hiller makes the most of her airiness while never making her a clown or making a mockery of the character. Like all the actors in this production, she stays authentic.

Just as David Blixt and Lehman play off each other with great chemistry, so too do Hiller and Rachel Hull in the role of Gwendolyn Fairfax have a great stage relationship whether the sparks are flying between them or they're declaring love for each other.

It is also fun to watch mother-daughter pair as Wendy Katz Hiller plays governess Miss Prism to her daughter's Cecily.

Rounding out the cast is Alan Ball, who is the doddering country minister who is an intellectual most talented at putting his male parishioners to sleep and attracting the attentions of such single women as Miss Prism.

Each actor in this ensemble is committed to letting the script shine for all it is worth. They make choices that support the script and keep the humor at a quick pace. They also adeptly handle the accents while keeping the language clear and easy to understand. For this, they had assistance from dialect specialist Elise Kauzlaric.

Adding to the traditional presentation of the play are Suzanne Young's gorgeous period costumes. She even makes Turrentine look natural in a full Victorian gown. She also clearly worked in tandem and communicated well with scenic designer Jeromy Hopgood, for the set and costumes were of similar colors and hues. In a rare move for the Shakespeare Festival, the play opens and the scenes change with the grand curtain down and Diane Fairchild's purple lights shining upon it. Behind the curtain are the changes that transform the stage from Algernon's townhouse to Jack's garden and then to Jack's parlor.

Under Janice Blixt's light hand, this production is a playful one that speaks to the absurdity and triviality of proper life. The comedy shines most where it is most restrained and becomes a dalliance with pure entertainment and laughter.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Importance of Being Earnest'
Michigan Shakespeare Festival
Baughman Theatre at Potter Center on the campus of Jackson College
2111 Emmons Road, Jackson
2 p.m. July 30, Aug. 2, 3
7:30 p.m. Aug. 7, 9, 15
1 hour, 54 minutes
$31-40
517-796-8600
www.michiganshakespearefestival.com

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Importance of Being Earnest - Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Read ANN HOLT's review – Jackson Citizen Patriot (July 25, 2014)


 

Strong choices dominate 'Hamlet'

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "Hamlet"

Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Posted: July 27, 2014 at 12:33 p.m.

Whether they are aware of it or not, everyone knows "Hamlet." It is so much a part of our lexicon that people grow up hearing its words and phrases and memorize them even when ignorant of their origins.

It is because it is so well known and so enmeshed in our culture that it becomes critical in this play – even more so than in most others – that actors and directors make strong choices. These choices differentiate each production and keep it from being a bunch of famous quotes strung together.

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival's 20th anniversary production of "Hamlet" is bold in its choices. Artistic director Janice Blixt moves the famous Dane and his family's court into the modern era, and each actor has clear intentions and motivations in this most famous of Shakespearean tragedies. It is in the modern setting where Hamlet must determine how to avenge his father's death, a death he learns was murder committed by his uncle who then married his mother.

It all starts and ends with the Dane himself, the title character who is played by Shawn Pfautsch. Pfautsch is an emotional prince, ever caught up in one mood or the next, whether it is sorrow, anger, feigned madness or grief. There are few moments in which Pfautsch lets Hamlet have quiet or simpleness. He is a man caught up in complex emotions, and he doesn't hesitate to express them.

Where he is most effective is in his delivery of those all-too familiar lines. He makes each of the speeches his own, and he makes them seem comfortable tripping off the tongue of a man from this century. They are all internally consistent, part of the personality that Pfautsch creates for Hamlet.

But neither is the play simply a collection of speeches. This production of Hamlet is filled with characters who are intense in what they want and how they go about getting it. Even those characters who are caught up in events beyond their ability to affect are still committed to the attempt.

David Turrentine's Claudius and Janet Haley's Gertrude are a subdued couple, first as royals who are consolidating power and then as guilty spouses whose feelings toward the Danish prince split them in purpose. While together they are the controlled monarchs of a realm not long out of mourning, apart they show passion that arises out of fear – fear of being found out and fear for a son's life.

Alan Ball's choice for Polonius is an unusual one, as he is not the typical comic relief or clown of the play. Rather, he is a councilor who is earnest in his desire to serve a stable state. He loves his children and looks after their welfare in a way that does not seem at all absurd or over-bearing. His advice sounds wise coming from Ball's lips, and he brings the king and queen intelligence that is true if not the cause of Hamlet's madness like he thinks.

Edmund Alyn Jones as Rosencrantz and Topher Payne as Guildenstern are a doomed twosome who are nonetheless authentic in their desire to do service to both their monarchs and their school friend. That they cannot ultimately serve both is no fault of their own nor due to a lack of desire. With Pfautsch, the three establish well that they were once beloved friends, and we see that fall apart as the Wittenburg duo are forced to choose their loyalties.

Brandon St. Clair Saunders, whose voice resonates as Horatio, creates no such conflict in his character's loyalties. Horatio is first and foremost companion to Hamlet, and the two are trusted, devoted friends. Their closing scene is heartbreaking, and Saunders keenly shows that while Horatio may survive the play's bloody ending, he does not escape the tragedy.

Sam Hubbard is the impulsive Laertes, whose disposition is almost always a mirror opposite to Hamlet's. Like Hamlet, he has a father to avenge, a father who was murdered and for whom he wants justice. Even though he plots with Claudius, Laertes remains likeable, in part because Hubbard makes clear that his choices are motivated by honor, and that his actions are coming from the same place as the play's hero, Hamlet.

The Ophelia in this production is a serious, deep one who keenly feels the bonds that prevent her from making her own choices, whether it be with Hamlet, her father or the king and queen of Denmark. Lydia Hiller creates an Ophelia who is boxed in, for she has as much affection for her father as she does for Hamlet, and is torn between the two of them. The scenes between Pfautsch and Hiller are cold, as if they know they are predestined to be separated. There is little of affection and much of challenge and suppressed passion.

Helping to create each moment in this tragedy is Kate Hopgood's original music composition and sound design. It plays as a complex sound track that underlines each shift in mood and important choice.

The final fight scene, designed by fight director David Blixt, is a complex and intense one. Laertes and Hamlet are two well-matched fighters, and they are fierce and quick in their battle.

Jeromy Hopgood's set consists of clean, strong columns, with Diane Fairchild's design throwing lights from behind the column and into the fog that permeates the set.

With a constant attention to stage pictures, Janice Blixt offers a visually stunning "Hamlet" that is heavy in contrasts. Blixt's "Hamlet" works because of all the strong choices that are made. This isn't a carbon copy of someone else's "Hamlet." This is a "Hamlet" mutually created by director, technical artists and actors to create something different that still stays true to the soul of the original work.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Hamlet'
Michigan Shakespeare Festival
Baughman Theatre at Potter Center on the campus of Jackson College
2111 Emmons Road, Jackson
7:30 p.m. July 31, Aug. 1, 16
2 p.m. Aug. 9, 10, 13, 17
$31-40
517-796-8600
www.michiganshakespearefestival.com.

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Hamlet - Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (July 24, 2014)

Read ANN HOLT's review – Jackson Citizen Patriot (July 23, 2014)

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review – Detroit Free Press (July 22, 2014)

 

Would you kill to have a hit play?

By Sue Merrell

REVIEW: "Deathtrap"

Mason Street Warehouse

Posted: July 27, 2014 at 11:08 a.m.

What would you do to have a killer thriller?

That's the question posed – and answered – by "Deathtrap," the latest show at Saugatuck's Mason Street Warehouse.

As Saugatuck's Venetian Festival was getting underway Friday night and revelers were rocking under a bayside tent, across the street at Saugatuck Center for the Arts it was a dark and stormy night, and the stage was strewn with more bodies than a Shakespearean tragedy.

Ira Levin's 1978 comedic thriller is sometimes scary, sometimes silly and sometimes a little sluggish. But it's got more twists and turns than Hawaii's fabled road to Hana.

The action takes place in the carriage house office of has-been thriller playwright Sidney Bruhl (John Plumpis). The office is decorated with Bruhl's collection of medieval weapons and stage props from his murder mysteries. Director Kathryn Markey and lighting designer Jennifer Kules wisely use spotlighted vignettes of the weapons for an Alfred Hitchcock horror effect between scenes.

As the play opens, Bruhl has received a play from his student, Clifford Anderson (Alston Brown). Bruhl tells his wife, Myra (Beth Glover), that the kid's script has the makings of a hit and jokes that he should kill the student and produce the play as his own. Bruhl invites the student to his home to discuss the script, and Myra becomes concerned that Sidney may actually kill the young man.

But, of course, nothing is ever what it seems in such tales. Just when you think you know who killed who, you find out you're wrong, and then the alliances you've come to believe in prove faulty as well.

In this case, I will tell you that the first murder was so realistic, so well-staged and violent that I was seriously concerned the actor might be choking to death. His face turned flaming red. The second murder was also realistic and caused many in the audience to gasp. The third death, however, didn't seem realistic at all. It was almost like one of those cartoon deaths where the actor staggers around looking for a comfortable place to collapse. And, no, that's not all. There are more murder scenes before the show is over.

The Bruhl's psychic neighbor, Helga (Mary Robin Roth), provides most of the comic relief with her exaggerated predictions. Attorney Porter Milgrim (J.R. Stuart) completes the cast.

As a one-set drama, the play has the inevitable talky scenes with little action. But the play also has some great scenes with small moves and facial gestures that reveal the relationships and personalities without any words at all. In one of the best scenes, Bruhl and Anderson sit at the desk. Anderson is typing away on a new script, obviously delighted with his writing. Bruhl is unable to think of a word to type and becomes increasingly irritated and jealous. The scene moves well without any dialogue for several minutes.

The stormy night lighting effects at the end of the play were not as realistic as I have seen in other productions. It was if they were intentionally symbolic. It seemed to fit a show in which you never know what to believe.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Deathtrap'
Mason Street Warehouse
Saugatuck Center for the Arts
400 Culver St., Saugatuck
8 p.m. July 29, 30, 31, Aug. 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
7 p.m. July 27, Aug. 3
2 p.m. Aug. 10
269-857-2399
www.sc4a.org.

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Singers set stage spinning with night of cabaret

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "The World Goes 'Round"

Great Escape Stage Company

Posted: July 26, 2014 at 11:59 a.m.

What make the world go around? Is it money? Is it love? Is it the planet's inertia and gravitational pulls? What makes us go from season to season, ever changing and ever predictable?

Kander and Ebb covered many topics in their careers, often exploring what makes people do the things they do – how they fall in love, how they leave each other, how they envy each other and how they laugh.

The musical revue "The World Goes 'Round" tries to capture a little of everything from the duo's musical career from their big numbers to lesser-known early songs.

The Great Escape Stage Company launches this musical revue with nine singers decked in black and set apart with coats of many colors. Costumers Karen Carr York and Libby Carroll make the most with this simple theme by coordinating colors of props, hats and even balloons.

It's an intimate space in Downtown Marshall, and with the pit upstairs and behind the stage, the voices are always out front and bouncing around in this acoustically friendly environment. The ensemble members all have strong voices and never make the audiences strain to hear them.

Ensemble members include Vanessa Banister, Deb Culver, Alan Elliot, Cam Lake, Randy Lake, Brittany Lighthall, Tim Nolan, Hope Tolliver and Kerry Wilson.

The revue covers a myriad of moods and emotions, with the ensemble at its most entertaining during comedic numbers such as "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup" from "70, Girls, 70" and "Money, Money" from "Cabaret." It is then they let out the pure goofiness of the numbers and Terralynn Lake's choreography take over.

This is director Timothy Lake's first outing as a director. It's clear he is comfortable with the space and how to make good use of the tight quarters, so it is well-used without looking cramped. He was also skilled at getting actors into places so there could be easy changes from one song to the next. There was only one time where the transition felt awkward, though it could have been a scene change went wrong. There was a longer-than-usual pause between "Quiet Thing" and "The Grass is Always Greener." It perhaps stuck out because the others were so clean.

The set was still set up in the same way it had been for the company's previous production, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." However, it had a fresh coat of black paint with neon words splashed onto the walls and stair steps along with fringe and string lighting that gave it a very cabaret-like feel.

Culver sang the opening number, "And the World Goes 'Round," in a sultry fashion that slowly lit up the stage as she traveled across it.

Other highlights were Banister (last seen as Christine Colgate in "Scoundrels") leading the ensemble in a tight production of "All That Jazz," done traditionally with Fosse jazz hands and moody lighting.

While every performer had a solo moment where he or she got to show off vocal strengths, it was truly the ensemble numbers that gave this revue its greatest energy. They worked together well, and were generous in giving each other the spotlight.

"The World Goes 'Round" is an entertaining evening with songs from "Chicago," "New York, New York," "Cabaret," "Kiss of the Spiderwoman" and "Funny Lady." Even the lesser-known songs are so well performed as to be inviting and compelling.

Given how intimate the space is, the audience involvement with applause, laughter and sighs factor heavily into the experience. The Friday night crowd was small but highly responsive, something the actors seemed to feed into and give back to.

Whatever it is that makes the world go round, it was the singing and dancing on Friday night that made the audience go out with smiles on their faces.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The World Goes 'Round'
Great Escape Stage Company
155 W. Michigan Ave., Marshall
8 p.m. July 26, 31, Aug. 1, 2
3 p.m. July 27, Aug. 3
1 hour, 55 minutes
$15
269-781-2700
www.greatescapestagecompany.com

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A sure bet at Tibbits

By Judith Cookis Rubens

REVIEW: "Guys and Dolls"

Tibbits Summer Theatre

Posted: July 25, 2014 at 3:56 p.m.

"Classic" musicals generally endure the test of time, and, in the case of "Guys and Dolls," they've got the songs, substance and style to back up the label.

Tibbits Summer Theatre's current revival of the 1950 "Guys and Dolls" proves right on the money, still. Showcasing bright, young talent and high production values, this show about 1940s New York City sinners manages to feel wistfully nostalgic and of-today at the same time. It's a fine balance, and one that wouldn't work without the major song and dance talent of this year's company and their contagious energy.

Right from the opening "Fugue for Tinhorns," we're escorted into this frenetic world of wise-guy gamblers, show girls and missionaries, and the "oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York," run by perennial fiance, Nathan Detroit.

Nathan is one of the "guys," alongside pals Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet, and high-roller Sky Masterson, a ladies' man who'll bet on anything – even his ability to get a date with a straitlaced Salvation Army missionary girl. The "dolls" include Nathan's gal, Miss Adelaide, a showgirl who's hung on for 14 years hoping to marry and "fix up" her man; and Sarah Brown, a proper, Bible-quotin' girl who crumbles under Sky's rebellious charm and good heart.

At first, this musical comedy seems focused on Nathan's and Adelaide's "will they or won't they?" marriage drama. Both are drawn (by writers Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, inspired by Damon Runyon's stories) as larger-than-life characters, and, can, in some productions, sometimes seem cartoonish. But T.J. Besler, as Nathan Detroit, and Charlotte Vaughn Raines, as Adelaide, mix healthy doses of humor and "nooo yawk" quirks with sincerity and a touch of heartache, keeping their characters human.

Raines shines in her showgirl numbers, especially the signature "Adelaide's Lament," a funny ditty about the psychosomatic illnesses a girl can develop if she waits too long to marry.

Still, it's the mounting chemistry between Sky and Sarah that grounds this production and keeps it from getting too cheeky. Tyler Whiteman, as Sky, gets the girl with his sweet-talking, smooth moves, but also a vulnerability that rings true. Catherine Skojec's operatic vocal range shines brilliantly in her portrayal of straight-arrow Sarah, whose defenses come crumbling down in a Havana nightclub, aided by her new friend, "Bacardi." Her "If I Were a Bell," is sweetly funny, and Sky and Sarah share more lovely moments in duets like "I've Never Been in Love Before."

The theme of dolls hoping to change their guys runs throughout, providing some of the heartiest laughs (and subtle truths?). It's perhaps best summed up by Adelaide when she tells Sarah, "For fourteen years, I've tried to change Nathan. I've always thought how wonderful he would be if he was different." Ba da boom. It's part of what makes this comedy about men and women so timeless.

Other supporting standouts include the well-cast duo of commentators, Nicely-Nicely (Liam Johnson) and Benny (Ezekiel Edmonds). This pair can't get over the things some poor guys will do to please a dame. Tibbits' artistic director Charles Burr pops up in a great cameo as the elder missionary/Sarah's grandfather, and delivers a sweet duet, "More I Cannot Wish You," with her.

Each member of the dynamic chorus, notably Adelaide's backup Hot Box girls and the male Havana dancers, has unflagging energy and movement precision.

A well-transitioning Manhattan set by Myra Giorgi and costumes (think plaid-suited high rollers and showgirl chic) by Xiachen Zhou, help bring '40s NYC to vivid life. Composer/lyricist Frank Loesser's celebrated score is delivered by a hidden seven-person orchestra.

Director Trinity Bird really pulls out the stops in Act Two, letting the cast truly show their stuff. There's the flirty showgirl stripteases in "Take Back Your Mink," and the athletic, acrobatic choreography of "The Crapshooter's Dance," to the always-fun, "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." Choreographer Aisling Halpin designs a lively world that illustrates the ups and downs of gambling and keeps the tension building.

"The Crapshooter's Dance," a fast-paced nine-man number, recreates the rhythm and flow of a craps game, allowing each performer a brief solo and moving seamlessly into the jazzy, "Luck Be A Lady."

Finding such vocal and dance talent so far off-Broadway is, perhaps, a stroke of luck (and great casting!), but Bird's ability to mold it all into such an entertaining ride takes great attention to detail and rigorous rehearsing, no doubt. These eager performers really appear to be having a great time. No doubt you'll see them on larger stages in years to come.

That's a safe bet.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Guys and Dolls'
Tibbits Summer Theatre
14 S. Hanchett St., Coldwater
8 p.m. July 25, 26, 31, Aug. 1 & 2
2 p.m. July 30
$28-32
517-278-6029
www.tibbits.org.

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Guys and Dolls - Tibbits Summer Theatre

Read NICOLE L.V. MULLIS' review – Battle Creek Enquirer (July 25, 2014)


 

Quirky musical with oddball name pleases eye and ear

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "[title of show]"

Farmers Alley Theatre

Posted: July 19, 2014 at 4:30 p.m.; updated July 19, 2014 at 4:47 p.m.

Here's to the exciting life of the drama critic. This one drove five hours, round trip, to see a 90-minute musical. Driving into the sunset along I-94 to Kalamazoo (in my usual, white-knuckled fashion), I muttered through gritted teeth, "This better be good!" Well, the closing production of Farmers Alley Theatre's sixth season was worth the trip.

The musical in question is titled Robert Weiner, show director and one of the founders of Farmers Alley Theatre, tentatively describes it as a "musical documentary," an appealing explanation for this unique work.

In 2004, aspiring playwright Hunter Bell teamed up with his friend, aspiring composer Jeff Bowen, to create an entirely new musical as a potential entry in the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Although they hashed out a few ideas, they discovered that nothing they were working on was as interesting as their conversations ABOUT what they were working on. Thus was born "a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical." The existentialism boggles the mind. They were aided by two friends: Susan, a cog in a soulless corporate machine, and Heidi, the girl who flew the nest for the insecure life of a professional actor.

So "[title of show]" is a musical about the ups and downs of creative process. (The screwy title is merely the first line of the New York Musical Theatre Festival's entry form.) The most interesting part of the plot is the increasing tension between the partners as each realizes that the other doesn't necessarily share his vision for the future. "[title of show]" made it to the festival; it surfaced at special events for the next two years. It ran off-Broadway in 2006; Bowen and Bell, as well as director Michael Berresse, won Obie Awards. But Bell wouldn't rest until "[title of show]" made it to Broadway, while Bowen was willing to let it rest. There is an intrinsic honesty in this script that sets it a cut above the rest.

That being said, "[title of show]" remains, as its creators internally describe it, "self-indulgent" and "self-referential." A director and his cast have a greater challenge than usual winning over an audience, and Weiner and company don't disappoint. Stephen Guarino (Hunter) and Eric Potter (Jeff), something of the odd couple of musical theater, discharge Bell's rapid repartee like a machine gun. The ladies hold their own in the cross fire; Mary Teutsch plays in-a-rut Susan, the office manager, and Caitlin Lester-Sams plays Heidi, the starry-eyed actress.

You won't be humming the tunes while leaving the theater, but you'll remember the performances long after the songs themselves are forgotten. The singing is excellent all around, as music director Catherine A. Walker has brought out the best in her artists. Teutsch's rendition of "Die, Vampire, Die," which celebrates the triumph of willpower over the bloodsuckers that sap one's originality, is particularly moving. Lester-Sams sings the lovely "The Way Back to Then," an emotional reflection of Heidi's personal journey. The soprano's broad, powerful range made the number outstanding.

The ensemble is backed up by associate music director Nich Mueller, who is something of a virtuoso on keyboard. The show has a running gag; Nich plays Larry, another of the partners' friends, but who can only get in on the action when Hunter remembers to write him some lines. It's just one more twist in an already screwball show.

All in all, "[title of show]" is entertaining fare, a light snack on a warm summer night.

SHOW DETAILS: '[title of show]'
Farmers Alley Theatre
221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo
8 p.m. Thursday, July 24, July 31
8 p.m. Friday, July 25, Aug. 1
8 p.m. Saturday, July 19, 26, Aug. 2
2 p.m. Sunday, July 20, 27, Aug. 3
1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission
Contains adult language
$31-33
269-343-2727
www.farmersalleytheatre.com

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: [title of show] - Farmers Alley Theatre

Read MARK WEDEL's review – Kalamazoo Gazette (July 19, 2014)


 

Showing and telling the secret to quirky musical's flourish

By Carolyn Hayes

REVIEW: "The Big Bang"

Williamston Theatre

Posted: July 19, 2014 at 3:35 p.m.

Ever since there was a Broadway, there have been epic Broadway musicals ever topping themselves; to bring in top tourist dollars, producers need something that must be seen to be believed. But how does such a show even get to the stage, when investors must believe, but there's nothing to see? Such is the comic conundrum of "The Big Bang" (music by Jed Feuer; book and lyrics by Boyd Graham), the tiniest extravaganza that the theater world has ever seen. As directed by Rob Roznowski, Williamston Theatre's production capitalizes on the silliness of describing that which defies description, but also reaches into a different bag of theatrical tricks, wrapping up an absurd principle in sheer entertainment.

The substance of the show resides entirely within its Russian nesting doll of a premise. "The Big Bang," the musical concocted by two guys named Jed and Boyd, is about two guys named "Jed" (Zev Steinberg) and "Boyd" (Matthew Gwynn) who have, coincidentally, written a musical (one guess what it's called). But in the world of the show, Jed and Boyd's musical is still in its infancy and needs cash to get from page to stage, and so they've arranged what's known as a backer's audition, in which they describe their vision and perform selections in order to get potential investors on board.

Imagine Mel Brooks trying to sell "History of the World, Part I" to several dozen strangers in someone's living room. Add more songs, and there's the gist of it: The audience becomes the investors, the actual "Bang" is the pitch, and the comedy comes from both what is and what is not being shown.

Among the running jokes in the production is the sheer excess of the spectacle being proposed, which in its finished form promises hundreds of performers, thousands of costumes, and a projected budget that strings together an eye-crossing quantity of zeroes. The subject matter spans the history of time and space, from the titular big bang to the present day, which allows the highlighted topics to freely draw from middle and high-school-level curricula: galaxy formation, Biblical times, ancient civilizations, notable despots and discoveries, European history and the revelation of the Americas and the Far East.

Contrasted with this promise of grandeur, the reality of two nervous writers trying to generate the same buzz in far more modest surroundings is the source of much absurdity. But what begins as a laughably clumsy attempt at a multimedia presentation quickly reveals itself as this show's secret weapon. The stealthy collaboration of designers Kirk Domer (set), Alex Gay (lights), Karen Kangas-Preston (costumes), Bruce Bennett (properties), and Shannon T. Schweitzer (media) is utterly remarkable.

At first glance, the New York City home of Jed and Boyd's hosts is all coolly tasteful ambience, the kind of moody luxury that might make an '80s movie villain sit up and take notice. Yet when words fail and impromptu "picture this" embellishment is needed, the place morphs into a kind of ingenuity palace, wherein set dressings become ad-hoc props – and props instantaneous costumes – and the fussy, integrated home lighting scheme and slideshow not only bend to the writers' needs, but sometimes anticipate them as well.

Every choice serves to reinforce that the players really are Boyd and Jed; that this is not "The Big Bang" the Williamston play, but rather the backer's audition for "The Big Bang" at Dr. Thus-and-So's posh residence; that what's at stake is the viewer's enthusiasm, and how much of it is required to make a checkbook appear. In this vein, the pre-show flows seamlessly into the actual show, and the bullet points of a conventional curtain speech are folded deftly into the content, including consciously gratuitous product placement for the theater's actual sponsors. From their vantage point deep, deep undercover, the performers maintain stalwart conviction (if not confidence), which is the only way to sustain interest in a product this piecemeal, intentionally overblown, and frequently hokey.

While the writing is cute and good for a chuckle, the play itself makes little claim of depth, which is why the characterizations provide a much-needed final comic layer – infinitesimal glimpses at the nervous underbelly of two deeply uncool artists aiming way above their entrepreneurial aptitude. Roznowski's direction and Gwynn and Steinberg's vigorously affable performances reward close viewing with little slip-ups and moments of doubt or panic that give dimension and flair to a flat story arc.

Credit is also due to the unsung third character, music director Jeff English, who tinkles away on an onstage keyboard, never faltering with a cue and supplying just the right amount of saucy interjection.

This "Big Bang" takes a single, germinating concept and works within that simplicity to explode it into a fully realized musical that, in its own way, must be seen to be believed. The show gets in and gets out; any longer and it might overstay its welcome. But this thoroughly immersive, complete little world is undoubtedly a fun place to visit, with its humorously underwhelming pretense and surreptitiously overwhelming finesse.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Big Bang'
Williamston Theatre
122 S. Putnam Road, Williamston
8 p.m. Thursday, July 24, 31, Aug. 7, 14
8 p.m. Friday, July 25, Aug. 1, 8, 15
3 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, July 19, 26, Aug. 2, 9 16
2 p.m. Sunday, July 20, 27, Aug. 3, 10 17
80 minutes; no intermission
$20-25
517-655-SHOW
www.williamstontheatre.org

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Big Bang - Williamston Theatre

Read MARY CUSACK's review – City Pulse (July 23, 2014)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (July 24, 2014)

Read KEN GLICKMAN's review – Lansing State Journal (July 21, 2014)


 

'Matchmaker' ends Hope season with laughs

By Sue Merrell

REVIEW: "The Matchmaker"

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre

Posted: July 19, 2014 at 12:25 p.m.; updated July 19, 2014 at 12:51 p.m.

"The Matchmaker," the final show of Hope Summer Repertory Theatre's season, is a great match for the directing talents of HSRT founder John Tammi.

Tammi, who retired in May after a 46-year career in the college's theater department, has done a remarkable job setting up all of the funny business in "The Matchmaker" so that it seems perfectly natural. A dropped wallet is a key plot point, for instance, and yet Tammi has staged the scene so perfectly that the falling of the wallet seems incidental to a humorous struggle to remove a coat. Similar attention to detail throughout Friday's opening show created a snappy, fast-paced production with many laugh-out-loud moments.

Thornton Wilder's 1955 play is the basis for the 1964 musical "Hello, Dolly!" But without all the musical numbers, the characters and Wilder's social commentary are allowed to shine. Set in the 1880s in New York, it's the story of wealthy store owner Horace Vandergelder (David Colacci) who has hired matchmaker Dolly Levi (Susan Ericksen) to help him find a wife. Along the way, Dolly encourages the romance of his niece Ermengarde (Ellie Campbell) and her artist boyfriend Ambrose (Thomas Joscelyn), as well as matching clerk Cornelius (Joshua Kumler) with milliner Irene (Kate Thomsen) and assistant clerk Barnaby (Evan Adams) with Irene's assistant Minnie (Theo Zucker).

Wilder has included numerous nuggets of insightful commentary, such as Vandergelder's opinion that marriage is a way to make a housekeeper work harder because she thinks she owns the place. Dolly, on the other hand, expresses the opinion that it's a wife's job to spend her husband's wealth to support workers and craftsmen. "Money is like manure," she says. "It's not worth a thing unless it is spread about encouraging young things to grow."

Even Vandergelder's clown-like assistant Malachi (Skye Edwards) pauses to share a soliloquy with the audience on the vices of drink and theft. "Never support more than one vice at a time," he suggests.

But it's the well-staged funny business that makes this show roll so smoothly.

In the opening scene, Vandergelder bounces from one chair to another while his barber (Khyel Roberson) follows him around with a razor trying to whisk away a whisker or two. At the hat shop, Cornelius is hiding in the closet, but seems to disappear by switching from side to side depending which door is opened. Barnaby is hiding under the table and manages some great sleight of hand with the table cloth, which appears to happen effortlessly but clearly took a great deal of planning and practice to execute.

Joseph Flauto's sets feature well-appointed background pieces that roll around to reveal a complete change of scene. Jason Resler's costumes are elegant, including bountiful bustles and flamboyant hats.

The play's final scene at the home of Flora VanHuysen (Jean Bahle) was dropped from the musical version, but provides a good resolution opportunity where all the couples are matched up and Dolly arranges herself as the perfect match for Vandergelder.

"The Matchmaker" is an excellent reminder that you don't need big Broadway production numbers to have a fine adventure in the theater.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Matchmaker'
Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
DeWitt Theatre
141 E. 12th St., Holland
8 p.m. July 19, 22, 25, 30, Aug. 1, 5, 8
$15
616-395-7890
www.hope.edu/hsrt.

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At midsummer, a sweet 'Dream'

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Shakespeare in Detroit

Posted: July 13, 2014 at 5:49 p.m.; updated July 13, 2014 at 7:55 p.m.

What do you call 800 people enjoying a Shakespeare play outdoors on a warm July evening in midtown Detroit?

How about a midsummer night's dream? Which not coincidentally is the latest offering from Shakespeare in Detroit, intrepid producer Samantha White's theater company, which brings free Shakespeare performances to various locations in the city. "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the troupe's first foray into comedy, was staged Saturday at New Center Park. And yes, the place was filled with some 800 people.

They were treated to a delightful production, with some standout performances, a less than cooperative sound system, a few smart choices on the part of director Cal Schwartz and/or his actors, and a couple of questionable choices, culprit(s) unknown. Well, as is said in Act One, "The course of true love never did run smooth."

Let's get the complaints out of the way; there aren't many. The play was publicized as beginning "promptly" at 8:30. It began promptly at 9. The amplification paid homage to the three bears. Sometimes it was too soft, sometimes it was too loud, sometimes it was just right, and occasionally it just growled. Finally, most contemporary productions edit Shakespeare, usually for the sake of brevity. Consequently, this production never dragged, but I did miss the famous speech that starts off, "The lunatic, the lover and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact."

Now for the good stuff. There was no scenery, just as in Shakespeare's time. I would not wish this on every play, but it's nice to remember how imagination can fill in the gaps.

Most of Shakespeare's plays have one or two huge roles and several substantial and smaller roles, but "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is all substantial and smaller roles. Schwartz also has many of his actors play two parts. Thus, opportunities to shine are spread around. Especially fine work is done by:

Laura Heikkinen as Hermia, the woman with two suitors: the one she loves and the one her father has picked. Aristocratic in bearing and bit reminiscent of Jane Fonda in voice, Heikkinen conveys Hermia's defiance and resolve.

Jennifer Cole as the fairy queen, Titania, and Hippolyta, bride-to-be of Duke Theseus. She overdoes it nicely as the fairy queen in chemically-induced love with a man with a donkey's head, and puts on a convincing Caribbean accent as Hippolyta who is, as the text says, from another country.

Chris Jakob, as mischief-making Puck, is indefatigable as he leaps and dashes about.

A special shout-out goes to Patrick Hanley in the small part of Snug, one of the tradesmen preparing their performance of "Pyramus and Thisbe" for the duke and his bride. Tabbed to play the lion in "Pyramus," he's always silently working on his scary pounce while more important things are going on around him.

Besides directing, Schwartz also designed the costumes. For whatever reason they are of vaguely late Victorian vintage, the era of Oscar Wilde's plays, but they are visually appealing and make it easy to tell the characters apart.

Additional performances of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" are planned. Whenever and wherever they may be it's certainly a pleasure to have Shakespeare in Detroit.

SHOW DETAILS: 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
Shakespeare in Detroit
2 hours, 15 minutes
www.shakespeareindetroit.com.

7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 6
Grand Circus Park (right outside of Comerica Park)
Free admission
Sponsored by the Detroit 300 Conservancy.

Noon Sunday, Aug. 17 & 24
The Whitney
4421 Woodward Ave., Detroit
$75, including brunch.
Limited seating; advance reservations required: 313-832-5700

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Shakespeare in Detroit

Read DREW PHILP's review – Metro Times (July 15, 2014)


 

Summertime, and the spoofing is easy

By Carolyn Hayes

REVIEW: "Whatever, Baby Jane!"

The Ringwald Theatre

Posted: July 12, 2014 at 5:37 p.m.

Not content to go dormant between mainstage seasons, The Ringwald has made an annual practice of throwing a bonus comedy production just as these lazy, hazy, crazy days reach their peak. Fittingly, the theater refers to this tradition as "summer camp." This year's selection, penned by Dyan Bailey and Brandy Joe Plambeck and directed by the latter, lovingly lampoons a cult classic diva horror film just dripping with satiric potential. Dust off the matronly Joan Crawford fright wig and slather on the Bette Davis pancake stage makeup – it's time for "Whatever, Baby Jane!" to storm the stage.

As with any parody, the 1962 original, "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," is recommended viewing in order to get the most of the stage experience. Still, newcomers will gain a quick story foothold: An opening video segment by Dyan Bailey appropriates scenes from the movie to trace the backstory of vaudeville sensation Baby Jane Hudson (Joe Bailey), whose childhood fame receded into the shadow of her ascending movie-star sister, Blanche (Richard Payton). After witnessing a mysterious car accident, the viewer catches up with the sisters decades later, living together in a desolate Hollywood mansion – Blanche confined to her upstairs bedroom in a wheelchair, with Jane the resentful and withholding caretaker.

Scenic designer Alexander Trice uses a multitude of DIY innovations to tiptoe past the gravel and peep through the stucco walls into a visually dissonant interior, not to mention generating locales beyond the house and manifesting pianos seemingly out of thin air. This flexibility allows the adaptation to hew close to the original, jumping among sisterly standoffs, intrusions by nosy neighbors and concerned housekeepers, and excursions to carry out plot developments. Although all the remaining characters are played by just two actors (Dyan Bailey and Joel Mitchell), very few scenes are impossible to reproduce, so that the show is by and large a reproduction with ample commentary.

And indeed, the meta, editorial voice continues almost nonstop. While the writing skews blue in more than a few dips into depravity, and some story incongruity is cleverly heightened or otherwise underlined, the production as a whole plays like a catalog of unrelated – albeit hilarious – bits and rejoinders, many germinating entirely in the moment. Nothing is above an aside, be it one of the many obliquely garish sound cues (by designers Dyan Bailey and Plambeck) or lighting excesses (also by Plambeck), which are wedged in from all sides as added comic fodder, but just as often serve as springboards for more ad-libbed silliness.

Of course, the show's real draw is in reanimating the Hudson sisters, transforming two male actors in all their grotesque, glamorous glory. While costumer Bailey Boudreau and assistant Tanner Murray exhibit fine character work in the matronly, the dumpy, the out-of-fashion, and the bizarrely inappropriate, the piθce de rιsistance here is from the neck up, in the form of devastating wigs (by Buddy VanLoon) and outrageous feats of makeup (by an uncredited mad drag genius). The looks do justice to the core impression work, from Joe Bailey's bitten-off Bette Davis speak to Payton's condescending Joan Crawford propriety. What's more, the pair's rapport onstage consistently has the feel of a double-dog dare, with each surprising and one-upping the other, and both trying desperately to hold character through pauses for deafening laughter.

With snappier writing, stricter adherence to script, more attention to timing and relationship, and better integration of effects with live action, this "Whatever" might have been a keener send-up of its source material. Yet the production's conscious decision to instead dig down for the kind of spontaneous, immediate comedy that can only happen with live theater yields an experience all the rarer, certainly wilder, and exhibiting an unconventional – but no less impressive – skill set. This kind of pure-sugar indulgence is a superb capper to a carefree summer day, giving audiences their sweet fill of laughter and sending them off with the best kind of bellyache.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Whatever, Baby Jane!'
The Ringwald Theatre
22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale
8 p.m. July 12, 14, 18, 19, 21, 25, 26, 28, Aug. 1, 2, 4
3 p.m. July 13, 20, 27, Aug. 3
1 hour, 20 minutes; no intermission
$10-20
248-545-5545
www.theringwald.com.

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Whatever, Baby Jane! - The Ringwald Theatre

Read DENISE MILLS MANZAGOL's review – The Oakland Press (July 18, 2014)


 

In Dexter, July is bustin' out all over

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Carousel"

The Encore Musical Theatre Company

Posted: July 12, 2014 at 3:28 p.m.

Daniel C. Walker is a man of many talents. Friday I took in the return of "Ernie," in which his subtle yet startling lighting design is in its fourth season of keeping audiences alert. Saturday the show was Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1945 musical, "Carousel," for which he provided not only the lighting and set design, but directed the whole shebang. The Encore Musical Theatre Company is featuring this well-beloved but perplexing musical theater standard through Aug. 10.

Written just after "Oklahoma!," "Carousel" bears a similar tone to its sister. Their scripts and scores are "integrated"; music, lyrics, character and dance all play a part in telling the story, not just added for entertainment's sake. Both have a somber, even menacing, undertone, lightened by comic relief. Each has a knock-out ballet sequence, both of them originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille. "Carousel" is darker than "Oklahoma!" perhaps because it's a cautionary tale. It warns that choices have consequences.

The setting is a fishing village in Maine. As post-Civil War New England industrialized, the sleepy hamlet has become a boom town, drawing young women to work in a cotton mill. Their diversion is an amusement park by the shore. It's here that Julie Jordon (Darcy Alexander) and Carrie Pepperidge (Mahalia Greenway) meet a swaggering carnival barker, Billy Bigelow (Joey DeBenedetto), who runs the carousel. On impulse, Julie chooses to stay with Billy past her curfew, thus losing her job. On impulse, Billy chooses to quarrel with his boss, the Widow Mullins (Emily Rogers), thus losing his job.

A month later, the couple is living with Julie's cousin Nettie (Marlene Inman), but their relationship is strained. Billy's frustration with unemployment has aggravated his temper. His desperation reaches a boiling point when Julie tells him she's pregnant. He reluctantly agrees to participate in a hold-up with his "unprincipled" friend, Jigger (Peter John Riopelle), a choice that goes terribly wrong. Billy chooses suicide over prison.

But he can't escape heavenly justice. Given the option to return to Earth for a day to tie up unfinished business, he chooses to visit his daughter, Louise (Jennifer Waltz). Time passes differently in heaven, and Louise is now a teen – scorned in town because of her father's reputation, yet drawn to the seedy carnival life he represented. Can Billy redeem himself by saving his daughter?

Oh, yes, "Carousel" is a play about choices – and there's the rub. Where do directors and actors find the motivations for characters making such obvious bad decisions?

In Dan Walker's vision of the play, it's not set in an idealized small town, but in the dreary, dangerous reality of its docks and mill. His characters make poor choices because the status quo is unacceptable. In this reading, as explained in the program's director's notes, Carrie and her eventual husband, Enoch Snow (the splendid Jess Alexander), are not just comic relief – but the two are still a stitch. In contrast to Julie and Billy, they are a pair making the right choices. This insight not only solves the problem of questionable motivations, it broadens "Carousel" into a modern morality play.

Dan Walker's scenic design is not the bright lights and colors of an amusement park, but a massive, brooding, bi-level depiction of the fishing docks. The Encore is not a particularly easy theater to light, but Walker succeeds, aided and abetted by Zach Johnson, a really accomplished guy with a follow spot. Costumer Sharon Urick's color palette employs neutrals and pale pastels, which contrasts nicely with the bolder black and reds worn by Billy and Mrs. Mullins. It's a visual reminder that the pair represents a life foreign to the staid townspeople.

Each principal performer not only ably sings the role, they look the role. The rather petite Darcy Alexander possesses a big, versatile soprano and complements lanky DeBenetto's broad tenor range in duets. DeBenedetto does not overlook his opportunity to stop the show. His solo, "Soliloquy," is one of the most difficult numbers in musical theater. At almost eight minutes long, it's more opera aria than show tune. It requires an artist to reach up in his register for powerful, sustained notes, and down in his soul to find the emotions involved. DeBenedetto doesn't disappoint.

Nor is there disappointment from classically trained Inman singing the inspirational "You'll Never Walk Alone." The combination of power and delicacy in her upper range is extraordinary. Peter John Riopelle's oily, sinister portrayal of Jigger is also a crowd pleaser.

But it would appear that the smaller the scene, the better the performances. Solos and duets are superb; the men's and women's choruses are a pleasure to hear (especially memorable is the boy's testosterone-driven chantey "Blow High, Blow Low"). But harmonies blur in full chorus scenes, likely because music director Tyler Driskill and his musicians are in the stage left wings, out of the performers' sight. Without a conductor, not everyone is coming in on time.

In addition, while Sebastian Gerstner's choreography is beautiful – and the second act ballet really elegant – at times the chorus looked hesitant, even fearful, when dancing. It was most noticeable in the Prologue – "Carousel" lacks an overture – a pantomime set to the "The Carousel Waltz." It's a lovely, minor-keyed piece, full of dissonance. There was a little more dissonance in music and choreography opening night than composer Rodgers provided for.

There was a time when popular music united the disparate elements of our culture, rather than becoming a tool to prying them apart. I like to think that the contributions of Broadway composers like Rodgers and Hammerstein can continue to span generations. The music is just too good to leave sitting on the shelf.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Carousel'
The Encore Musical Theatre Company
3126 Broad St., Dexter
3 p.m. July 13, 19, 20, 26, 27, Aug. 2, 3, 7, 9, 10
7 p.m. July 17, 24, 31, Aug. 7
8 p.m. July 12, 18, 19, 25, 26, Aug. 1, 2, 8, 9
2 hours, 45 minutes
$15-32
734-268-6200
www.theencoretheatre.org.

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

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

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


 

'Hot Mikado' sizzles at Hope Rep

By Sue Merrell

REVIEW: "Hot Mikado"

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre

Posted: July 12, 2014 at 1:32 p.m.

Bring on that polar vortex. "Hot Mikado" at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre will keep the lakeshore warm.

Talk about a sizzling show! That's not stage fog adding a dreamy atmosphere to the oriental setting. The stage is smoking from all that tap dancing and jitterbugging! Whew! Tires you out just watching all that activity!

It's enough to wake up Gilbert and Sullivan!

"Hot Mikado" is a 1986 jazz/swing adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular 19th century comic operetta. The story is basically the same. The Mikado (Churaqui Mosley) has decreed flirting to be a capital crime. But so many people were getting executed that the town of Titipu decided the next person scheduled to be executed, Ko-Ko (Dwight Tolar), should be Lord High Executioner. He can't execute anyone if he's top on the list. His side-kick, Pooh-Bah (Chip DuFord), takes over all the other government titles so he can rubber stamp anything.

The son of the Mikado comes to town disguised as a musician, Nanki-Poo (Thomas Joscelyn), looking for his love, YumYum (Taylor Harvey), who is about to marry her guardian, KoKo. In a plot twist only W.S. Gilbert could come up with, KoKo agrees to let Nanki-Poo marry Yum Yum if Nanki-Poo agrees to be the required execution victim a month later. But the nuptials are threatened by Katisha (Sierra White), an older vamp who wants Nanki Poo.

Never mind that the adaptation uses the fashions, music and dance of the 1940s in a Japan with no threat of World War II.

All the plot absurdities are swept away in one fantastic ensemble dance number after another. Joscelyn offers a great tap dance introduction when Nanki-Poo arrives. Later, others in the ensemble put on their tap shoes as well. More than once the ensemble rubber legs in unison. The Gentlemen of Japan juggle their hats up and down their arms. But the most breath taking dancing is the ensemble jitterbug and lindy hop, tossing partners over shoulders and landing on the floor in splits. Excellent fun. Who needs "Dancing with the Stars?"

The seven-piece onstage band features lots of big band brass and swing beat. With these orchestrations, it's hard to imagine this music bears any resemblance to Arthur Sullivan's original score, even though the song list is similar. "The Three Little Maids" is sung in perfect Andrews Sisters harmony.

Hope favorite Chip DuFord does an excellent job with the multiple personalities of the great Pooh-Bah. Tolar's KoKo is also very funny, especially with his oversized glasses and epaulettes.

I love a theatrical set that takes my breath away, and this one does. It's the basic red Japanese bridge and arch, accented with over-sized fans. But when the second act opens, a wall of Japanese lanterns is lowered. The lanterns take on various color schemes creating wonderful effects. Kudos to Brian Bembridge (scenic design) and Stephen Sakowski (lighting design). And another nod to costume designer Kristen P. Ahern for the bold pink and purple and yellow Zoot suits and a wraparound wedding dress that combines kimono and '40s styles.

I must admit I was worried about this show in the beginning. The opening number sounded flat, and one of the singers alternating in a three-part song didn't have his microphone on. But once everyone got over opening night jitters, the show soared at a break-neck pace. To quote the finale, sung with the crowd clapping along with revival enthusiasm, "Joy! Joy! Joy!"

SHOW DETAILS: 'Hot Mikado'
Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
DeWitt Theatre
141 E. 12th St., Holland
8 p.m. July 12, 17, 23, 26, 28, 31, Aug. 2, 9
$15-30
616-395-7890
www.hope.edu/hsrt


 

'Mr. Looong Gone' returns – in spirit – to Tiger Town

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Ernie"

City Theatre

Posted: July 11, 2014 at 3:22 p.m.

I had the pleasure of reviewing the premiere of Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom's homage to broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell in 2011. I wrote then that "Perhaps we can look forward to its return in future springs." And so it did.

But if "Ernie" is opening closer to the All-Star Game than to Opening Day this year, it played successfully in Lakeland, Florida during the Tigers' spring training. But Harwell was not only "The Voice of the Tigers" for 42 years; he was the "Voice of Summer" for Detroit sports fans. I associate his warm voice with the blazing heat of a Michigan summer than with the dreary, wet Michigan spring. Any time is the right time to remember a quiet, gentle, decent man.

The date of Opening Night has changed, but little else. "Ernie" plays at The City Theatre, inside Hockeytown Cafι, directly across Woodward from Comerica Park. It still can boast about Kirk Domer's disheveled scenic design that recreates a field access tunnel at the stadium. The startling lighting and sound designs by Dan Walker and Steve Shannon, respectively, effectively enliven the performance. Best of all, Alison Dobbins' remarkable video designs recreate the highlights from over 80 years of "America's Pastime" through archival photos and film footage provided by Major League Baseball.

Timothy "TJ" Corbett returns as the "Boy," a teen of indeterminate age but boundless enthusiasm. The fact that Corbett was an adult when he assumed the role and is now older still doesn't show. His use of vocal inflection and body language might make his next role Peter Pan.

What has changed is the actor in the title role. Peter Carey, who has served as understudy for the past three seasons, finally gets to play the part he learned in 2011. Similar to his stage partner, but different in effect, Carey successfully portrays a character 35 years his senior. He imbues the role with subtle hints of an aging, ill body. But, because of his many years in radio, Harwell is remembered for his warm, rich bass-baritone and Georgia twang. Carey has it down pat. It is interesting to note how he delineates Ernie, the guy in the access tunnel, from Ernie, Voice of the Tigers. The shift of inflection – the powerful, diaphragm-supported delivery – let's one know when the character is "on air."

The story is deceptively simple. It is the evening of Sept. 16, 2009. A reluctant Ernie Harwell has come to the stadium for one last thank you from an adoring city – Ernie is dying of cancer. To add insult to injury, it's pouring, and the storm has blacked out first the scoreboard and then the stadium lights. Harwell's aphorism, "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains" is a recurring observation. His nervous pacing is interrupted by a boy, clothed in knickers and po'boy hat, who is elusive about his identity, but is more than just a routine fan. The persistent pest coaxes Harwell to "make one last broadcast" and call his life story. "Ernie" is a play in nine innings.

Mitch Albom wrote in a column around the time of "Ernie's" premiere, "How do you make a play about an angel?" The answer: "It ain't easy." Having re-read my earlier review, I'm going to plagiarize myself – not because I'm lazy (though I am), but because I can't really improve on what I wrote. "The play defies conventional dramatic norms of conflict and resolution, focusing instead on a life well lived and the sport that influenced it. ‘Ernie' is filled with special moments; funny, wistful, thoughtful, loving. At times it approaches poetry, most notably in retelling ‘The Shot Heard 'round the World,' the game-ending hit in the 1951 post season play that won the New York Giants the National League pennant. A cadence develops between the characters as formal as the responses between priest and acolyte. We don't doubt for a minute that for the true believer, there's a little religion in the game."

One more personage remains the same for 2014 – director Tony Caselli. To him goes the credit for "Ernie" remaining a consistent fan favorite. It's appealing entertainment for theater fans, and yet still pleases sports fans. In short, as we say in show biz, this show's got legs, and I predict that "Ernie" won't be retiring at the end of the season.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Ernie'
City Theatre
2301 Woodward Ave., Detroit
8 p.m. Wednesday, July 23
5:30 p.m. Thursday, July 31, Aug. 14
8 p.m. Thursday, July 17, 24, Aug. 7
8 p.m. Friday, July 11, 18, 25, Aug. 1, 8, 15
3 p.m. Saturday, July 12, 19, Aug. 2, 9, 16
8 p.m. Saturday, July 12, 19, Aug. 2, 9, 16
3 p.m. Sunday, July 13, 27, Aug. 10
5 p.m. Sunday, July 20, Aug. 3, 17
1 hour, 37 minutes; no intermission
$20-25.
313-471-6611
www.olympiaentertainment.com

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Hope Rep's dynamic 'Doll People' great new musical for kids

By Sue Merrell

REVIEW: "The Doll People"

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre

Posted: July 10, 2014 at 8:40 a.m.

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre's Children's Performance Troupe has discovered a delightful new children's musical, "The Doll People," which opened July 9 for a packed house of about 100 kids and their parents. Many in the audience were young enough to sit on laps, and yet there was nary a whimper or whine as the fast-paced, 50-minute show unfolded.

Based on the best-selling children's books of Ann M. Martin, "The Doll People" was adapted into a catchy musical by Jahnna Beecham and her husband Malcolm Hillgartner, who have been involved in many HSRT productions. Beecham returned to Hope to direct the Midwest premiere of her musical.

The story is about a 100-year-old china doll family that lives in a dollhouse that engulfs the stage and audience. The dolls come to life when the real people aren't looking, but they have to watch out for the cat, who's been known to attack.

Beecham uses color blind casting for her multi-ethnic doll family. But when you've got doll characters with bright green hair and a blue plastic coiffure, it's no time to get hung up on skin tones. Besides, accepting differences is one of the themes of the story, as the Victorian doll house is invaded by a bubbling plastic princess from the Barbie doll generation.

Acting intern Taylor Harvey does an excellent job of portraying Annabelle Doll, the green-haired permanently 8-year-old daughter in the Doll family, who has discovered a diary left behind by her Auntie Sarah who disappeared 45 years ago. Another acting intern, Olivia Donalson, bursts with energy as the plastic, blue-haired Tiffany Funcraft, who buzzes onto the scene in a pink Barbie convertible. Despite their differences, the two quickly become friends and plot to leave the dollhouse and find the missing Auntie Sarah (Maddie Baldwin). But not without Annabelle's mustached Uncle Doll, portrayed with proper British demeanor by Aleksandr Krepivkin.

The trio head to the attic, where they discover Sarah caught in a mouse trap and covered in spider webs. Adrianna Jones does such a great job bouncing around the stage in her eight-leg spider suit that I never even recognized her as the same actress who portrays the more primly dressed nanny for the Doll family.

Annabelle's insistent little brother, sailor-suited Bobby, is given an enthusiastic portrayal by acting intern Aaron Alcaraz. Taylor Quick as Mama and Manning Goldman as Papa complete the Doll family.

The entire cast does a fantastic job of switching back and forth between the robotic movements of their doll personas and the warmth of their characters when the dolls come to life. One number has the entire cast doing a robotic hoedown dance when the unseen child wants to play "ranch family" with the dolls. The company's appearance of being forced to act totally out-of-character is hilarious.

The tension is gripping in the attic scene when the room darkens and scary cat's eyes appear. But the dolls sing a rhythmic number about one last chance as everyone in the room seems to hold their breath. Little audience members were wide-eyed with anticipation and ecstatic at the dolls' bold action.

Outsized props, such as a giant instamatic camera and a huge yellow crayon, help to create the illusion of the actors being doll size.

Audience members were encouraged to bring dolls and stuffed animals to the show. At the end of the program, the children were invited onto the stage in the center of the room to show off their dolls. Then they lead a parade upstairs to meet the cast.

"The Doll People" is a great introduction to theater for young people, and their doll friends.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Doll People'
Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
DeWitt Studio Theatre
141 E. 12th St., Holland
10:30 a.m. July 14, 16, 23, 28, Aug. 1, 6
1:30 p.m. July 21, 25, 30, Aug. 4, 8
50 minutes; no intermission
$15
616-395-7890
www.hope.edu/hsrt

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Musical revue revs up '60s jukebox numbers

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "Suds"

Cornwell's Dinner Theatre

Posted: June 28, 2014 at 3:45 p.m.

It's clean and wholesome – a place where dirt gets washed away and a kiss can change a life.

"Suds," now playing at Cornwell's Dinner Theatre in Marshall, takes place in a laundromat in the 1960s. It's a jukebox musical that manages to cram 50 songs into two hours, from ballads to bubble gum songs.

Directed by Dennis McKeen, "Suds" is a trip down memory lane for those who had their car radios up high in the '60s and were dancing in bobby socks at high school dances. The song list takes an entire page in the program, with such songs as "Secret Agent Man," "It's My Party and I'll Cry If I want To," "Respect," "These Boots are Made for Walking," and "Please Mr. Postman." Even some of the dialog is spoken song lyrics from hits in the '60s.

The curtains open on the pastel laundromat with pink and yellow washers and dryers that are used to hold props and costume pieces. The walls are a baby blue, and the washing machines up front help provide levels to the stage as actors climb up on them frequently.

There is a light-hearted energy as Cindy, played by Kaitlyn Cassanova, announces it is her birthday. Her world is filled with bluebirds and happiness, even confirmed by the radio that announces other birthdays, great weather and that the stock market is way up. All this is shattered by the arrival of the postman who brings her letter after letter of bad news instead of the birthday wishes and presents she was hoping for.

Two competing guardian angels show up when she tries to kill herself by wrapping a scarf around her neck and attaching it to the spin cycle of the washing machine. The angels mistake her floundering for dancing, and the three do a delightful rendition of "Locomotion" with Cindy providing well-choreographed death throes.

Cassanova brings a sweet energy to the role of the manic Cindy. She is able to play innocent, naοve and despairing all in quick swings that last the length of a song or two. Like her two cast mates, Miranda Jane as Marge and Sandi Oshaben as Dee Dee, she has a strong, clear voice. With pony tail and pin-up short skirt and shirt, she embodies the innocent girl of the '60s who is immortalized in songs of the era. This is not the hippie of the later decade, but the leftover from the '50s who is starting to find a new independence and meaning in life.

The two guardian angels bicker with each other over whose methodology is best to save Cindy. Dee Dee is the Sandra Dee optimist who is almost as innocent as Cindy and is certain all she needs to do is have a party and find Mr. Right. Marge is more worldly, a Pink Lady in orange with a beehive and sunglasses.

These three women hit major tunes from the era, working well as trios, duets and strong soloists. Led by music director Denise Minter, they keep their voices commanding through the whole show.

While the story centers around these three women, Shawn Patrick Fletcher comes in and plays everyone else, from "Mrs. Halo" to the candidates of a dating show, to the mail carrier, to Johnny Angel, to customers at the laundromat. While none of the show is heavy, his role is the most blatantly comic. He wears a different one of Costumer Kate Koskinen's outfits every time he comes in and makes bold physical choices whether he is dancing or simply crossing the room.

That all of the actors have high energy is a bonus for an audience that has just been fed a filling meal of savory turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, broccoli and turkey barley soup. With such a delicious buffet of food, it would be easy to feel sleepy if the music were not loud and the actors attention-grabbing.

Thankfully, the show is as light and fast-paced as the meal was delicious. Dinner starts two hours before the show, leaving plenty of time to explore Turkeyville's outdoor grounds, stores and fudge and ice cream parlor.

SHOW DETAILS: "Suds" continues at Cornwell's Dinner Theatre, 18935 15 1/2 Mile Rd, Marshall. Show times: Noon Tuesday-Saturday and 6 p.m. Friday-Saturday through Aug. 16; performances begin at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. respectively. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes (not including meal). Tickets: $42 (show and meal); $37 show only. For information: 269-781-4293 or www.turkeyville.com.

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Suds - Cornwell's Dinner Theatre

Read CHRISTOPHER TOWER's review – Battle Creek Enquirer (July 16, 2014)


 

'Very Bad Day' good for kids, parents

By Sue Merrell

REVIEW: "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day"

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre

Posted: June 25, 2014 at 10:20 p.m.

Alexander may be having a lousy day, but it was a great morning for about 100 kids attending the season opener for Hope Summer Repertory's Children's Performance Troupe in Holland.

Based on Judith Viorst's 1972 children's book, "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" is a spunky little musical that parents will find just as entertaining as their youngsters will.

Recent Hope College graduate Bradley Hamilton leads the seven-member ensemble in the title role. A downtrodden, Charlie Brown sort of character, Alexander wakes up to find chewing gum in his hair. He drops his sweater in the sink while the water is running, fails to find a toy in his box of breakfast cereal and his teacher thinks his drawing of an invisible castle requires too much imagination. The day continues with one such tragedy after another.

Although these real-life problems surely struck a note with the largely elementary-age audience, it was the play's unrealistic moments that garnered the biggest laughs. For instance, one of the ensemble members held a door knob and an idiotic expression to play the role of the bathroom door. The kids roared. Another ensemble member wore a cap with a faucet on the brim and a knob over each ear for hot and cold to portray the sink. It was a delightful addition, but evidently frightened a young tot seated on his mother's lap near me. He squealed in terror for a few minutes.

Director Daina Robins makes the most of these non-human roles, which included contrary elevator doors and an alluring copy machine. In each case, costume and actor's interpretation were very creative. The young adult ensemble – including Aleksandr Krapivkin, Theo Zucker, Ellie Campbell and Evan Adams – did an excellent job of wide-eyed child-like expressions and exaggerated childhood mannerisms to portray Alexander's brothers and his first grade classmates.

Shannon Huneryager does double duty as the patient mother and the quirky teacher. Joshua Kumler wears many moods as the distracted Dad, enthusiastic dentist and vaudevillian shoe salesman. He leads the ensemble in singing "Shoes," a jazzy finger-snapping tune, that's the musical highpoint of the show. Alexander is often threatening to run away to Australia, so at one point Down Under comes to him in the form of an ensemble song featuring a parade of Australian creatures including a kangaroo, a crocodile and a koala bear. The animal costumes were quick-change hooded sweatshirts that worked well. (Costume designer: Kaitlyn Pitcher).

The hour-long play was presented in the Dewitt Center's black box studio, which was set up with audience on all four sides and the stage in the center. The opening number, "If I Were in Charge of the World," is presented on a blank stage with just a few benches. As the show continues, the benches become a breakfast nook, classroom, shoe store. Other furniture pieces including Alexander's bed and the dentist's chair are wheeled in as needed. (Scenic designer: Ana Maria Aburto)

Several times during the production, Alexander turns to the audience and asks them to help him repeat his lament: It's a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. They repeated their lines so enthusiastically that it didn't seem terrible at all.

To its credit, the script doesn't offer any miracle cure for bad days, just the cuddly warmth of a supportive family and the wisdom that tomorrow is another day.

SHOW DETAILS: Hope Summer Repertory Theatre's "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" continues at DeWitt Studio Theatre, 141 E. 12th St., Holland. Show times: 10:30 a.m. June 27, 30, July 2, 21, 25, 30, Aug. 4 & 8, and 1:30 p.m. July 23, 28, Aug. 1 & 6. Running time: 1 hour; no intermission. Tickets: $15. For information: 616-395-7890 or www.hope.edu/hsrt.

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Strong characters, big secrets in appealing 'Last Romance'

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "The Last Romance"

The Purple Rose Theatre Company

Posted: June 21, 2014 at 2:59 p.m.

Much of "The Last Romance" takes place in a dog park, a setting that reflects the dogged nature of its main character, 80-year-old widower Ralph Bellini, as he pursues an initially reluctant woman, Carol Reynolds, whom he first noticed walking her Chihuahua.

At this point you think you know how things will turn out in this bittersweet comedy, but hold that thought. Playwright Joe DiPietro ("I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," the Broadway musical "Memphis") sometimes writes New York Times Sunday crossword puzzles and that requires a heap of unpredictability lest readers get bored and turn the page.

Nobody's going to get bored with the script or with Michelle Mountain's production at Purple Rose Theatre. DiPietro's three-hander (the third being Ralph's housemate, cook and sister, Rose) strikes an all-too-rare balance of plot and character: Things happen, they happen because of the way people behave, and each character is uniquely flawed and uniquely admirable. Almost immediately you want to know about them, and once you do you want to find out what's going to happen. You can't ask for much more in an evening of theater.

They have regret and loneliness in common (but it's a comedy, really) and, just to extend the canine metaphors, you might say that Ralph is a terrier who latches onto something and won't let go, Rose is a loyal bloodhound who assumes the role of being her brother's keeper, literally, and Carol is like her own timid dog.

Mountain's actors serve the script exceptionally well. Will David Young is all charm and twinkle from the moment he attempts to initiate conversation with Carol by asking "Do you like opera?" But there is an ever-present undercurrent of disappointment in Young's demeanor. It has to do with opera, and the story is among the many revelations DiPietro will provide.

Franette Liebow portrays well Carol's conflict between self-imposed diffidence and undeniable attraction to the handsome man on the park bench. Carol is the character who changes the most as things progress, and Liebow negotiates that with skillful subtlety.

Priscilla Lindsay turns in a thoroughly natural performance as Ralph's divorced sister, Rose, whose bossy intrusiveness is how she expresses loyalty to and concern for her brother. Additionally, she's jealous of Carol, afraid that her brother will leave her for this interloper. Lindsay conveys these emotions by the way she nearly stomps when she walks and even when her back is to the audience by the way she stands.

A real live dog puts in a relatively brief appearance, an adorable little Chihuahua (two of them alternate in the role) who steals its scenes. If DiPietro has any brains, the human actors say nothing of consequence while the four-legged actor is onstage. I couldn't tell you because all my attention was on the dog.

Also alternating in one role are Andrew Buckshaw and Ryan Dooley who play a character called The Young Man who sings arias between scenes. He represents a younger or alternative Ralph, although that's open to interpretation.

Reid G. Johnson supplies atmospheric lighting, mostly the late afternoon, outdoor variety, and Rhiannon Ragland's costumes ideally suit the characters: dapper for Ralph, subdued with flashes of color for Carol, dowdy for Rose.

SHOW DETAILS: "The Last Romance" continues at The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Show times: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Wednesday & Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 30. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Tickets: $18.50-42. For information: 734-433-7673 or www.purplerosetheatre.org.

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Last Romance - The Purple Rose Theatre Company

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (June 30, 2014)

Read PATTY NOLAN's review – Detroit Theater Examiner (June 21, 2014)

Read JENN MCKEE's review – The Ann Arbor News (June 21, 2014)


 

Hope's 'Music' brings the stage alive

By Carolyn Hayes

REVIEW: "The Sound of Music"

Hope Summer Repertory Theater

Posted: June 14, 2014 at 7:31 p.m.

How do you solve a problem like "The Sound of Music" (music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse)? How do you reproduce the viewing experience of a ubiquitous Julie Andrews film that, among its iconic moments, transports the audience to the actual Austrian countryside? If director David Colacci is to be believed, you don't. Rather, in the opening production of its 43rd season, Hope Summer Repertory Theatre presents what is very much a stage production, and something vibrant and spectacular in its own right.

In the DeWitt Theatre venue on the campus of Hope College, the cavernous room and low-lying thrust stage bear a certain concert hall feel. Scenic designer Joseph Flauto keeps things simple with a metallic proscenium that frames the playing space. With minimal configuration, the bars can suggest the gates of the Nonnberg Abbey, where the rambunctious Maria (Amanda Giles) is failing to fit into a life of quiet piety, or the terrace of the Von Trapp Villa, where she must win over seven precocious, motherless children as their governess – ultimately healing a family and defying Nazi invaders with the power of music.

Not a shadow betrays lighting designer Stephen Sakowski, who keeps the action lit from all angles to further ensure that the audience's disparate viewing angles all afford a decent vantage. An abundance of body mics – doubtlessly keeping sound designer Amanda Werre busy and the sound board operator even busier – elevates spoken and sung voices to a comfortable volume, which is critical when a large, well-rounded orchestra (led by music director/conductor Fred Tessler) looms within sight just upstage.

There's nary a fake mountain to be found; instead, some clever visual imagery becomes the first of the production's conspicuously stage-y elements. Rather than feeling stripped down, however, the show channels its visual richness into costumes (by Kathryn Wagner, who makes quick-change wizards of stagehands and child actors alike) as well as scenic and property touches that effectively ground the scenes. Collectively, the design choices free up the long musical to progress with swiftness and agreeable flow, keeping the attention on the story and performances, which pay dividends thanks to consistently excellent casting and directorial substance.

In the face of the vast variety of themes and plots, this production exhibits both tremendous range and the ability to harmonize its many elements and tones. Among the biggest crowd-pleasing scenes concern Maria's formative experiences with the Von Trapp children, and Taylor Quick, Sam Lowry, Marlies Otteman, Adam Chamness, Piper Kendall, Mia Silguero, and Grace Ford integrate seamlessly into the adult cast. Adorable factor aside, the group appears to maneuver tricky harmonies and meticulous choreography (by Skye Edwards) virtually unassisted, showing an excellent grasp of the material and clear character work (Kendall's chronically candid Brigitta is a particular gem).

Yet the time and place force another story, one of political upheaval and encroaching danger. As the strongly nationalistic Austrian opinions of Captain Von Trapp (Dwight Tolar) change with the climate from outlying to dangerous, Colacci and company convincingly escalate the very real Nazi threat. They also break the tension just as easily in the form of capitulating Elsa (Kate Thomsen) and Max (Chip Duford), who somehow infuse their wrongheaded position with infectious sparkle and fun.

Finally, the show executes a major romantic reversal and crisis of conscience that can be tough to track for its quickness. But here, a growling Tolar believably reawakens and transforms into a soulful romantic lead, and the wisdom of Mother Abbess (Linda Dykstra) rattles the rafters with compassion.

But of course, this world revolves around Maria – and with good reason, as Giles handles the enormity of the show with underlying adaptability and control. Not only possessed of the vocal prowess befitting a charmer of children, her gangly, awkward characterization plays well with both frankness and subtext, often at the same time, and makes possible some great laugh lines. She's purely irrepressible, with a Sutton Foster energy that makes a misfit splendidly lovable.

In all, this "Music" doesn't intend to merely replicate, nor does it aim to subvert or break the mold. Instead, this production attempts the best possible live theatrical experience, and the result is an admirable collection of winning strengths. The show adeptly blends youthful songs with ballads, lively dancing with serious drama, and well-known beats and dialogue with fresh discoveries of surprising levity. Movie magic may be in short supply here, but if anything, this makes the indomitable magic of theater shine all the brighter.

SHOW DETAILS: Hope Summer Repertory Theatre's "The Sound of Music" continues at DeWitt Theatre, 141 E. 12th St., Holland. Show times: 8 p.m. June 14, 20, 25, 28, July 2, 10, 16, 21, 24, 29, Aug. 2, 4 & 7. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. Tickets: $15-30. For information: 616-395-7890 or www.hope.edu/hsrt.

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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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