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'Annie' brings back good memories

By Jenn McKee

REVIEW: "Annie"

Fisher Theatre

Posted: Sept. 29, 2014 at 8:20 a.m.

Sometimes when you do something just for your kids – like answer the call to review a touring production of "Annie" at Detroit's Fisher Theatre, though you've already seen the show plenty of times in the course of your career – you end up being rewarded. (Not all the time, God knows, but every now and then, the universe throws us poor parents a bone.)

Yes, "Annie"'s back again, and fear not, moms and dads: This production's a winner.

That's partly because the production team injects subtle flourishes of fun into the usual proceedings: when FDR instructs his cabinet to sing a chorus of "Tomorrow," Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes gets notably swept up in the moment, over-emoting with effusive, hammy gestures; a military officer that delivers messages to the President plays a sublimely crisp version of keep-away with another cabinet member; orphan overseer Miss Hannigan – Lynn Andrews' performance is truly one of the production's biggest treats – hilariously pantomimes her favorite radio program; and Gilgamesh Taggett (as Oliver Warbucks) and Ashley Edler (as Grace Farrell) have terrific fun hitting home quick, witty exchanges like, "What did Harpo (Marx) want?" "He didn't say."

So even if you know the show, when it's done this well, it somehow feels fresh again.

Set in 1933, the show – with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin, and book by Thomas Meehan – begins with spunky, redheaded Annie (Issie Swickle) stuck in a girls' orphanage, supervised by booze-swilling, little-girl-despising Miss Hannigan. Annie runs away in the night, but after she's caught and returned to the orphanage, Grace Farrell, assistant to billionaire businessman Oliver Warbucks, arrives and explains that her boss, as a charitable gesture, would like to invite an orphan to spend Christmas in his mansion. Grace chooses Annie, and the girl charms everyone in Warbucks' household, including the tycoon himself. But when Warbucks asks to adopt her, she admits that she's still holding out hope to find the parents who had to abandon her as a baby. Warbucks decides to help Annie find her parents, but thanks to the generous reward he's issued, in the time of the Depression, imposters abound.

Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt's detailed sets – shifting from a drab, fully-realized fleabag orphanage to different locales in a swanky mansion, as well as the White House and a "Hooverville" – are gorgeous, placing us squarely in Annie's world (as do Suzy Benzinger's spot-on era costumes); Ken Billington's lighting design helps define the seedy people (and places) within the show, while more brightly highlighting the good; and Keith Levenson's masterful music direction, paired with Liza Gennaro's sassy choreography, give the production the spark that others sometimes lack.

For I found myself enjoying and appreciating numbers that previously registered as "meh" for me. "Little Girls," "Easy Street," and "N.Y.C." all riveted me – though the first two are also largely a function of Andrews, who knocks pretty much everything out of the park, musically and comedically, as Miss Hannigan. And perhaps not surprisingly, Swickle is an all-out charmer who also has ample chops to tackle the lead role with grace. (The production's orphans, while pretty strong overall, initially seemed a bit stiff, and struggled to get into a groove, in the show's opening scene.) Taggett, finally, is a far funnier, more appealing Warbucks than I'd ever seen before.

Yet another element that set this "Annie" apart from the pack is the way its focused, solo numbers deliver just as much impact as the big ensemble numbers. Though I've heard "Maybe" hundreds of times, this time, I really got to take in the beauty of the details Annie has in mind when imagining her parents, and the heartbreaking longing that drives those daydreams; and thanks to the show's technical elements, as well as the cast, the first "Tomorrow" and "We'd Like to Thank You" really put me in the mindset of people living through the Depression – a lens that's key to getting a bit more from this old chestnut of a show.

Many in Sunday's matinee crowd were kid-free adults who were seeing the show out of a sense of nostalgia; but for those thinking of taking the kids to "Annie," consider this: my 6 year old loved the show, but my 3 year old – well, after a handful of numbers, she grew pretty restless, crawling around the floor, climbing into everyone's seat, wanting to go climb the stairs to the balcony, etc. It was a full-on game of toddler whack-a-mole, at which point I thought, "I might as well have brought the cat along." So after this (occasionally maddening) experiment, I'd recommend just buying tickets for kids 5 and older.

In the course of parenting, we all inevitably revisit the books and movies and shows we grew up with ourselves, and this can be a mixed bag experience: That book or TV show you loved as a kid may now look painfully awful ("CHiPs," anyone? "The Dukes of Hazzard"?) through your now-more-sophisticated eyes. But every once in a while, things like a splashy stage musical about an orphan girl can take you by surprise – and make you feel like you're discovering it for the first time all over again.

Fisher Theatre
3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 1 (special open captioned performance)
1 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 3
2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4
1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5

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Ixion opens with intense drama

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "Topdog/Underdog"


Posted: Sept. 28, 2014 at 5:35 p.m.

Family relationships can get so intense and so heart-wrenching that they are hard to watch. There are few places outside a family where love and hate can incubate so deeply and with such passion.

"Topdog/Underdog" by Suzan Lori-Parks is one of those stories that slashes at one's soul, because it is a portrait of everything that can go wrong – even when people are trying to make it go right.

Ixion opens its first full season with this Pulitzer Prize-winning show, and the team of director Paige Dunckel and actors Rico Bruce Wade and Sineh Wurie hold nothing back in this tragic tale of two brothers who are trying to survive and find their place in a world that has no room for them.

Wade plays the role of the older brother Lincoln "Link," while Wurie is the younger brother, Booth. Living together in a dilapidated apartment with no running water or phone, they live off the money Link makes as a Lincoln impersonator at a carnival arcade. People pay money all day to shoot him with a cap gun while he pretends to watch the play. Meanwhile, Booth excels at shoplifting and wants to become a three-card Monte hustler. It's a trade that Link gave up after his partner was shot and killed.

Wurie is all energy and passion as Booth. It is as though lightning is crackling inside him at all times. Booth is angry and intense, constantly scheming of ways to make his life better. He's haunted by his past and present, and it drives him in angry ways.

Wade provides a contrast to Wurie's tension. Wade is calm, in control, relaxed even when he is anxious. He knows why he's made the choices that he's made and is never at the mercy of whims or emotions. His Link is temperate even when Booth provokes him.

Together these two fine actors dance upon a teeter-totter, fiddling on the roof in a most precarious fashion, one up and one down, and each stealing the advantage on each other only to lose it moments later. They struggle against each other – anger and control in a constant war. They each manipulate in their own way – one through violence and the other through skill and playing upon the other's over confidence.

It is a play about tensions and pacing, and Dunckel makes certain there is a constant play of intensity so that even the silent moments grab the audience and keep them intently focused. She also manages to find moments of humor, though it is a humor that is costly. This is not a family with "Brady Bunch" moments. Rather, the release comes when Link and Booth are able to connect and to show that they are sometimes on the same side, that they still want to be brothers even after all the betrayals.

Ixiion performs in a small storefront with limited technical abilities. On opening night, the show was done with natural lighting, as the light board died 15 minutes before performance. This made some of the transitions more challenging and awkward, including the show's ending, where a light's out would have helped put closure on a dramatic moment.

The set was a simple one that clearly communicated the straits that the brothers lived in. A bed, a recliner and stacks of milk crates made up the furnishing, with set dressing composed of littered porn magazines, garbage bags, toilet paper and whiskey.

"Topdog/Underdog" is by no means a feel-good play, nor is it comedic. Rather, it is a serious drama that is violent and harsh. Wade and Wurie are fully committed to the script, and they make no apologies for the harsh things their characters do or for who they are. It makes for an intense night of theater that offers little hope for redemption or reconciliation.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Topdog/Underdog'
at AA Creative Corridor
1133 S. Washington, Lansing
7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 3
8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4
2 hours, 30 minutes

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Shaggy dog story makes a howlin' good play

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Sylvia"

Open Book Theatre Company

Posted: Sept. 28, 2014 at 2:48 p.m.

It was Dorothy Gale of Kansas who remarked, "My! People come and go so quickly here!" Fortunately for Metro Detroit theater patrons, as some companies go, others come to take their places. After a season in which we said good-by to some stalwarts, this weekend we say hello to Open Book Theatre Company of Southgate. As noted by show director Topher Alan Payne in his curtain speech, not only is "Sylvia" the first production of the new company, it's the first theatrical work to play in Penelope's Venue, inside Penelope's Vintage consignment store on Dix Toledo Road.

It's pretty daring to open a new company in a performance space in which the kinks haven't been worked out, but A. R. Gurney's sophisticated 1995 comedy about a man and his dog can go a long way to smooth out the rough patches. "Sylvia" is that funny. But behind the laughter lies textured portrayals of competing relationships and self-discovery. In addition, Gurney takes the shopworn theme of male midlife crisis and turns it on its head.

Empty nesters Greg (Sean Paraventi) and Kate (Jan Cartwright) have moved into Manhattan after 22 years of child-raising in the suburbs. Greg's career as a financial trader is unsatisfying; Kate is discovering new opportunities in education. Greg brings home a dog he met in the park bearing the name "Sylvia" – "she of the woods" – on her name tag.

And now to the major conceit of the comedy: Greg and Kate see a Labradoodle; we see Krista Schafer Ewbank playing a dog, but looking totally "womanish." She wears no dog make-up, no furry suit – the transformation is strictly physical. When Sylvia speaks, Greg and Kate can understand her – and vice versa. Greg turns to Sylvia to distract him from his sorry career and his stale marriage, much the same as other men employ an extramarital affair to cover their midlife crises. To Kate, Sylvia becomes a rival for affection that could doom her marriage.

The fun in "Sylvia" is experiencing the interactions among the three principal characters. Sylvia is a one-man dog; Greg is her "god." She's less respectful toward Kate, however, and that tense interplay is nicely defined in this production. Ewbank is on the mark for both physical and vocal elements of her canine character. In all, director Payne, while not mining the script for all its comic potential, renders the more serious side with a steady hand.

Melissa Beckwith assumes three roles in "Sylvia": a man, a woman and, since Gurney's being playful, a "we-don't-know." In reverse order, then, Leslie is an androgynous therapist hired out of desperation in a last effort to save her marriage. Leslie is a parody of mid '90s New Ageism, and the character's total loss of serenity after meeting Greg is a riot. With Phyllis, one of Greg and Kate's increasingly narrow circle of friends, Beckwith is clearly in her element. Put a tony character in a black dress, add a little alcohol and an enthusiastic dog, and one has the makings of broad physical comedy. The third character, Tom, is a fellow dog owner Greg meets in the park. He's hyper-macho, and has an un-neutered male Doberman to prove it.

The triple part is usually played by a man; leave aside the question of whether male to female or female to male transvestism is funnier. Beckwith is a top-notch performer, but it's a stretch to accept her as male (and "vive la difference!"). Thus we lose the subtext that Tom is uncertain about his masculinity and is living vicariously through his dog.

Penelope's Venue falls loosely into the "black box theater" category, albeit a bigger space than most. Its high ceiling is reminiscent of Downriver's other professional theater venue, the ballroom of the James R. DeSana Center in Wyandotte, home of The AKT Theatre Project. Their spaces provide for poor acoustics, and regretfully the cricket at the door was projecting better than the "Sylvia" cast. (Note: Don't kill the cricket; it's bad luck. Audition him for a musical).

On the other hand, Penelope's Venue is much narrower, along the lines of more-typical black boxes like The Matrix and Planet Ant. Lighting designer Harley Miah, who does beautiful work for AKT, is hampered by having so few positions to efficiently place equipment. The trade-off at the Ant and Matrix is more direct front lighting to compensate for the narrow angles, even though the resulting wash doesn't give the three-dimensional effect wider angles provide.

Anthropomorphizing pets is common to all who are owned by a dog or cat. Part of the joy in "Sylvia" is affirmation of our fantasy that pets are people, too. But the larger message is that in a well-lived life, balance, tolerance and compromise are essential qualities. Otherwise, you're barking up the wrong tree.

Open Book Theatre Company
at Penelope's Venue
12219 Dix Toledo Road, Southgate
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 3
9 p.m. Saturday Oct. 4
2 hours 20 minutes

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Performance Network mines the magic of Uhry classic

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "Driving Miss Daisy"

Performance Network Theatre

Posted: Sept. 27, 2014 at 2:44 p.m.

"Driving Miss Daisy" by Alfred Uhry can seem like a simple play. It needs three actors, three set pieces, and few costume changes. The script is straightforward, only 90 minutes long, and is performed without an intermission. Its needs are seemingly few.

Yet, it takes more than those things to bring out the magic in this story. It takes three actors committed to their craft and able to connect and disconnect at crucial moments. It takes a set that can work unobtrusively in simple yet complex ways. It takes a love for the characters, the words and the story.

Performance Network, in its opening production of a season that almost wasn't, finds this love, and they make the magic of "Driving Miss Daisy" happen. This production teases, charms and tantalizes. It makes the most of every moment, and shows in an almost palpable manner how a relationship grows from hostility to love.

Initial kudos go, of course, to the three actors who bring the characters of Miss Daisy, Boolie and Hoke to life. The experienced team of Nancy Elizabeth Kammer, James Bowen and Bryan Lark tell the story of an older, fiercely independent woman who can no longer drive. Her son, Boolie, hires Hoke, and for 25 years, he becomes her chauffeur.

The play begins in 1948 in Atlanta, Georgia. She is Jewish, he is "colored." She is rich, he has been out of work for nearly a year. They have little in common except that they are on the fringes of Atlanta society, neither fully accepted by white Christians. Add to the mix that she doesn't want a driver. Her son hires Hoke and he must go about the process of convincing her to accept his services.

Kammer readily takes on the challenge of presenting a difficult, often-cranky woman that the audience can still love. Kammer instills Daisy with a dignity and a vulnerability in equal parts. She portrays a history, a woman whose background is ever present in her current choices. Kammer's Daisy is strong-willed, but able to show moments of pain and fear without it ever seeming inconsistent.

Bowen brings a full performance to the part of Hoke. He makes strong choices in body language, facial expressions, inflection and movement. He makes each line work, charming not just Daisy, but all of the audience. He isn't, as he tells Daisy later in the play, just the back of a neck that drives her about. He is a fully fleshed out person, and Bowen embodies Hoke from start to finish. He never plays a stereotype, but he shows the life of an African-American in this tumultuous period of 1948-1973.

Both actors have scenes where they tug at the heart, revealing in an expression or a pause how very much they are moved or affected by events taking place around them, whether it is a gift or the violent act of bigots.

It can be easy to overlook the character of Boolie, as the story truly is that of the blossoming relationship between Daisy and Hoke. However, Lark is fully the equal of the two giants he shares the stage with. His Boolie is filled with energy, and he embodies the Southern charm of an Atlanta businessman. Boolie clearly loves his mother, and he immediately sees the good in Hoke. Lark counter-balances some of the more serious scenes by giving Boolie a constant good humor and optimism.

Director John Manfredi chose to put two of his crew into work clothes rather than theater black and enter the stage as if they were part of the scene. Eric Hohnke and Cynthia Szczesny interact tenderly with Daisy, helping her up and down as they move the car and other set pieces around. Their presence seems natural and makes the scene changes move with grace and speed.

Manfredi was also in charge of the set design and created a beautiful triptych with the realistic painting of a house on each panel. The interior set pieces were kept simple, as were Michelle Raymond's properties. They provided what was needed, but not so much that it would get in the way or interfere with the telling of the story.

Suzi Regan created a sound track that assisted in the smooth scene changes, set the mood and contributed to the story telling.

Together, the team of actors, designers and crew created the magic that takes "Driving Miss Daisy" from a simple story to something intensely moving and memorable.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Driving Miss Daisy'
Performance Network Theatre
120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2, 9, 16, 23
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 3, 10, 17, 24
3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4, 18, 25
8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, Oct. 4, 11, 18, 25
2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28, Oct. 5, 12, 19, 26
1 hour, 25 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Driving Miss Daisy - Performance Network Theatre

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


A journey ends, a door opens, the past enters

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "Annapurna"

The Purple Rose Theatre Company

Posted: Sept. 27, 2014 at 2:20 p.m.

Name a main character Ulysses and unless he's a Civil War general, you've got "The Odyssey" on your mind. The Ulysses in "Annapurna" hasn't done much traveling to get back to his wife – he hasn't been to the Himalayan mountain that provides the title (more on that later) – but he has been lost for 20 years.

It's his wife, ex-wife actually – her name is Emma, not Penelope – who makes the journey from somewhere to get back to him in nowhere, a lonely dump of a trailer in the Colorado Rockies.

And so begins Sharr White's beguiling and deeply moving play, a drama that enfolds as it unfolds, rich in truth and metaphor, about two people who have badly damaged each other, and yet…

At the start, "Annapurna" might be a comedy, with Ulysses (Richard McWilliams) standing bare-assed at the stove when a woman, comes to the door. That would be Emma (Michelle Mountain), surprising Ulysses two decades after she left in the middle of the night with their five-year-old son.

Why she has come back is explained fairly quickly. She has found out that Ulysses is gravely ill and there are things that need to be said. "Just because you leave somebody," Emma declares, "doesn't mean you're not in a relationship." Why she left is the greater mystery, revealed as the play's layers are peeled back, not unlike the onion Emma works on as she fixes a sandwich (metaphors, many metaphors).

White has an enviable talent for letting his characters disclose their back stories in the natural course of their conversation. Ulysses, a poet and college professor, drank too much, smoked too much and, when Emma left him, fell apart, lost his job and has wallowed in grief and pain ever since. Emma fled to the East Coast, married another professor of poetry, gave up her career for parenthood, and has left her husband just as suddenly as she left Ulysses.

McWilliams and Mountain are so in synch that it's difficult to talk about one's performance without discussing the other's. Through stance and voice, McWilliams shows how Ulysses' hurting transcends the merely physical. Through touch, through movement, Mountain conveys Emma's willingness to assuage before she can acknowledge it verbally.

The play could remain fairly static and still work, but the actors and director Guy Sanville present a masterpiece of blocking and exquisite timing. Bartley H. Bauer's grubby set, Dana L. White's lighting atmospheric, Suzanne Young's down-home costumes, Tom Whalen's well-placed, natural sounds (sizzling meat, a running shower…) and Danna Segrest's props all contribute to the sense that we're eavesdropping on something real.

As for the title, Ulysses talks about the first expedition to reach the peak of Annapurna, in the 1950s. The climbers made it, but the casualties were horrific. You may be pondering that long after the play ends.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Annapurna'
The Purple Rose Theatre Company
137 Park St., Chelsea
Performances through Dec. 20:
7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
3 p.m. Saturday
2 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday matinees
1 hour, 25 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Annapurna - The Purple Rose Theatre Company

Read PATTY NOLAN's review – Detroit Theater Examiner (Sept. 27, 2014)

Read JENN MCKEE's review – The Ann Arbor News (Sept. 28, 2014)


'Here's to the ladies who lunch'

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "At the Bistro Garden"

Two Muses Theatre

Posted: Sept. 27, 2014 at 1:41 p.m.

It seems like just yesterday that local artists Diane Hill and Barbie Amann Weisserman, fed up with a theater lacking solid roles for women, founded Two Muses Theatre. Yet here they are, opening their fourth season, featuring a new musical with four strong, balanced parts for women.

"At the Bistro Garden" is tres LA. The Los Angeles-based creative team, playwright Deborah Pearl and composer David Kole, are in town to bring the right touch of Beverly Hills to West Bloomfield. Who better to create the story of three women who gather at Table 14 in one of the most famous restaurants in the history of Beverly Hills?

It's 1987, a time of big hair and big shoulder pads (and just before the iconic restaurant's closing). Three 40-something friends regularly gab and gossip at the Bistro Garden, which, as noted in the 2009 obituary of its founder, Kurt Niklas, "catered for decades to a high-powered crowd thick with denizens of the film industry and high society." But their lives are not as smooth as the restaurant's justly famous chocolate soufflι.

B.J. Beston (Diane Hill) has been divorced 9 years from a husband who wanted children. The many-times married Cheyenne (Carrie Sayer) knows all about the travails of motherhood. Her rebellious, free spirited daughter, Destiny (AlissaBeth Morton), is, at 19, becoming a carbon copy of her mother. While her domestic life appears tranquil, Abigail Hart (Amy Lauter) is about to be blind-sided by her husband's affair with his secretary. In the ensuing divorce, she loses the house and custody of her boy. The three supply emotional support for each other until unexpected entanglements drive wedges between their relationships.

There's a fine sense of ensemble among the four women; especially notable is the intense interplay between Morton and Sayer, as former wild-child Cheyenne is confronted with her bad parenting in the prickly relationship with Destiny. On the masculine side, John DeMerell acts as both the restaurant's Maitre D and our own MC, commenting on and guiding us through the action. He's ably assisted by Miles Bond and Rusty Daugherty, who play singing and dancing waiters, sales clerks and moving men.

"At the Bistro Garden" is the winner of the 2005 ASCAP Best New Musical award. One might infer that, though it's been thoroughly work shopped, this might represent its first full production. So how did it fair?

Not bad. The music is engaging, but its performance is odd. Musical director Daniel Bachelis is in sight, on a keyboard to our right. But composer David Kole has also provided orchestrations for the larger numbers, which are prerecorded. Although the score has an interior consistency, there is disconnection among the numbers. There is an advantage to having the musical director visible and keeping time; singing to a recording is often a perilous endeavor. Allyson Smith's choreography is attractive, but hampered by the stage furnishings.

At a two hour and 25 minute running time, "At the Bistro Garden" seems a little long. There appears to be no problem in Jules Aaron's direction, but the script could use a brush- up of the second act.

"At the Bistro Garden" is going to have instant appeal to women of a certain age; "been there, done that" is the operative term. But that appeal is not limited; anybody can find a kernel of truth in this study of the human condition. It's a fanciful feather in Two Muses' bonnet as the company continues its mission to provide increasing opportunities for women in theater.

SHOW DETAILS: 'At the Bistro Garden'
Two Muses Theatre
at Barnes & Noble Booksellers
6800 Orchard Lake Road, West Bloomfield
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 3, 10, 17
8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, Oct. 4, 11, 18
2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28, Oct. 5, 12, 19
2 hours, 25 minutes
Advance tickets: $23 for adults, $18 for students and senior citizens; $2 additional at the door

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Strange bedfellows change history (and each other)

By Donald V. Calamia

REVIEW: "The Best of Enemies"

UDM Theatre Company

Posted: Sept. 27, 2014 at 12:42 p.m.

Discussions of race and racism in modern-day America are fraught with danger, as emotion and passion often trump civility and reason, and political correctness and the fear of being called the dreaded "r-word" stifle an honest and open discourse. Even reviewing a play about racism is like stumbling onto a minefield, as my interpretation of the production might set off an explosive debate with other attendees whose personal experiences and biases might differ from mine.

But such is life.

Yet I suspect one area of agreement I'll have with others at the University of Detroit Mercy Theatre Company's opening night performance of "The Best of Enemies" is this: It was one heck of a thought-provoking night of theater!

Based on the true story of the "unlikely friendship" that emerged between a black civil rights activist and an exalted cyclops of the Klu Klux Klan, "The Best of Enemies" recalls the pain and division the residents of Durham, North Carolina faced when the federal government came to town to force their schools to desegregate 17 years after Brown v. Board of Education became law of the land. And what playwright Mark St. Germain paints quite vividly is the humanity behind the tough exteriors of activist Ann Atwater and Klansman C.P. Ellis.

If you were Bill Riddick, a young, educated and black federal mediator from the Department of Education facing a near-impossible task in a Southern town guaranteed to be hostile towards you, what would be your primary plan of attack? Riddick's idea was ingenious: You pull together the two most vocal leaders of the opposing factions and convert them to working together on the same team. Easy, it wasn't; Atwater and Ellis were longtime enemies.

But as St. Germain shows, a funny thing can happen when fiercely opposing sides realize they have more in common than they previously thought.

And that, quite frankly, is the beauty of St. Germain's script. Neither Atwater nor Ellis are saints in his play; both have flaws and painful histories. But more important is his revelation that both sides feared change, but for different reasons. For Ellis and the low-educated whites of Durham, federal mediators and the northern activists flooding into the South were seen as aggressors who wanted to destroy their way of life; and while the black community wanted equal education, they didn't necessarily want it sitting next to white kids.

History tells us desegregation prevailed, of course. Yet amid their volatile clash of personalities, St. Germain peels away decades worth of prejudice and hate and reveals very human truths about Atwater and Ellis – and by extension, us. And he skillfully reminds us that history is neither as black nor as white as it often seems (or is portrayed) to be.

But words alone do not a play make. Insightful direction is needed here, and it's provided by Dr. Arthur J. Beer, who gives life and power to St. Germain's script. With characters who are far-more complicated than the audience initially realizes, Beer carefully uses the beats of the story to shred the stereotypes of the angry black woman and the racist redneck to give us people we can relate to – even identify with and care about.

Even the show's technical wizardry serves the script well. With scenic and costume designer Melinda Pacha and lighting designer and technical director Alan Devlin, Beer places the action on a mostly bare stage – but that stage is rather deceitful. Upon entry into the theater, one sees only a brown, wood-paneled wall on stage. In the center of the wall is a large screen that comes to life a few minutes prior to the start of the show with a slideshow that helps set the tone of the show with photos of the era. (Never seen a Klan meeting before? Or a "coloreds only" waiting room or restaurant? You will here!) Then, throughout the show, the projections set each scene, which keeps the production running smoothly while tables and chairs are quickly exchanged.

But the highlights of the show are the three longtime pros and one relative newcomer who take the written word of their characters and find much to bring them to life.

The "youngster" in the group, Dan Johnson, fully captures what Atwater sees as Riddick's arrogance. And a transition toward the end of show is well executed and fully believable.

Recent Wilde Award-winner Linda Rabin Hammell tackles a role that would be easy to either overplay (shrew) or underplay (doormat), that of Mary Ellis, C.P.'s wife. Mary's character helps shed light on her husband, but she also serves to represent the townspeople, many of whom might be ready to embrace change. And – like always – Hammell nails it with a nuanced performance that finds all the correct emotional beats handed her by the playwright.

Ultimately, the show's success rests on the believability of the actors who play Atwater and Ellis. We must buy in to the stereotypes before they can be destroyed – and both Madelyn Porter and Greg Trzaskoma work hard to make that happen. And they succeed!

Trzaskoma's Ellis certainly looks like the stereotypical redneck Klansman – a bit disheveled, a protruding belly, and a vocabulary rich with the now-infamous "n-word." He's loud and abrasive – and he's used to being a powerful man respected by many and feared by others. But as his status, livelihood and home life change, Trzaskoma applies every "trick" of his craft to show us the ongoing toll it takes on Ellis through the use of gestures, stature and vocal techniques – some of which are ever-so-slight and tough to perceive. (Maybe it was just me sitting off to the side a bit, but I lost some of his early dialogue because of the thick accent. But that stopped not long into the play.)

Porter's appearance is especially notable. One of the gems of the Detroit theater community – and someone whose work I've regretted missing in recent times – Porter is highly skilled at discovering the heart of even the toughest character, imbuing them with humor and passion that many others would ignore or fail to find. That's especially important in a production such as this, given the seriousness of the highly volatile situation in which Atwater finds herself and the tightrope one walks when discussing issues of race in a mixed audience of differing viewpoints. Porter instinctively knows when to allow us to laugh (and when not to), which helps the audience relax and breathe when other emotions might otherwise come into play. And her facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission.

Important plays are rare; so too are important plays about race and racism that don't have an agenda that overtly (or even covertly) take one side's position over another. While St. Germain's script and Beer's production tackle head on the troubling topics of race and racism in America and frame them within the context of an historical event, both focus on our shared humanity and a desire for a better life rather than any particular political position or dogma. Sometimes the least-known incidents of history can be its best teacher.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Best of Enemies'
UDM Theatre Company
At Marygrove Theatre
8425 McNichols Road, Detroit
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 3
8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, Oct. 4
2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28, Oct. 5.
Contains adult and potentially offensive language

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Family: Can't live with them...

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"

Tipping Point Theatre

Posted: Sept. 21, 2014 at 4:50 p.m.

The show's director, James R. Kuhl, is right: You don't need to know Anton Chekhov to enjoy "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," but it doesn't hurt. Foremost, he's not an ensign aboard the USS Enterprise; he was a Russian playwright. American playwright Christopher Durang has not only filled his comedy with Chekovian in-jokes, he's adopted the master's aesthetics. So – is "Vanya and Sonia," etc, etc, a "well made play?" Apparently, since it won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, plus numerous other awards.

Chekhov famously examined the complex relationships within families. Poor guy – he thought he was writing comedies, and his director, Constantin Stanislavski, kept turning them into tragedies. So how better to open Tipping Point Theatre's eighth season, themed "All in the Family?" "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" affirms what the Russians discovered: Laughter and tears aren't that far apart.

Bucks County, PA, despite its proximity to Philadelphia, is off the beaten track. Its only claims to fame are that Washington slept here and that writer Dorothy Parker owned a house in Piperville. But here is the life-long home of Vanya and Sasha, middle-aged brother and sister, whose professorial parents were ‘way too involved in community theater. They are well aware that by staying home to care for their dementia-ridden, now-deceased parents, they have never lived lives of their own. Their personal pity parties are interrupted – first by their housekeeper, Cassandra (who, like her Grecian namesake, makes prophesies no one believes), then by the homecoming of their sister, Masha.

It's Masha who actually owns the family homestead, but she left Bucks County for Hollywood and turned a role in a series of horror films into serious money. She's accompanied by her protιgι (shades of "Sunset Boulevard"), a handsome, 20-something lunk-head who goes by the name "Spike." What follows are riffs on classic Russian drama, drawn largely from "The Cherry Orchard," "The Seagull" and "The Three Sisters." Losing touch with one's past, especially "home," aspirations unmet, the acknowledgement of futile lives – all make their way into the play. Durang writes, "It's as if I took characters and themes from Chekhov and put them in a blender." The results, if you will excuse the expression, are "mixed."

There is tinge of "oh, what a good boy am I" self-congratulation present in the script of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike." The second act, while hysterically funny, is something of a hodgepodge.

This is where a director makes all the difference, and James R. Kuhl is a cut above the rest. Not only has he made sense out Durang's self-indulgence, he assembled an all-star cast to help.

At the top of the line-up are John Seibert as Vanya and Terry Heck as Sonia. The duo represent lives never fully lived, and the actors revel in their characters' resentment. Both have elegant monologues, arguably the best-written elements of the play. Heck's is a delicate dance as the spinster Sonia dips a toe in the water of real life. In a scene borrowed from "The Seagull," a live reading of Vanya's avant-garde play is interrupted by Spike's obsession with his smart phone. Vanya's tirade in response is an impassioned cry for the loss of community to electronically enabled isolationism. In Seibert's hands, it's a tour de force.

Janet Maylie as Masha, the fading diva, is suitably over-the-top. The interest here, though, is watching the character gradually descend from her high horse and become the sister her siblings thought they lost. "Spike," the lout, bounces around the stage like a big puppy; clueless yes, innocent, no. Gotta give a lot of credit to Brian Thibault; it's not easy acting when you spend half the play clad only in boxer briefs. Or is it true, as Masha observes, that all actors are exhibitionists?

Rounding out the cast are actors playing contrasting roles. Cassandra, as limned by Sonja Marquis, plays for broad comedy, whether mimicking a Greek Sybil or a voodoo priestess. Nina, on the other hand, is a sweet young girl next door. An aspiring actress herself, she's Masha's biggest fan and fascinated by Vanya's play. Tara Tomcsik finds the sense of wonder that is the fundamental to her character.

Chekhov's dramas are meant to feel "real." At Tipping Point, that reality is enhanced by a textured, detailed scenic design by Monika Essen and Alex Gay's subtle lighting.

In summation, "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" benefits from thoughtful direction, inspired performances and attractive design. Regardless of the play's inspiration, in this production there was no rushin'.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike'
Tipping Point Theatre
361 E. Cady St., Northville
3 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8
8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25, Oct. 2, 9, 16
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, Oct. 3, 10, 17
3 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, Oct. 4, 11, 18
2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28, Oct. 5, 12, 19
2 hours, 20 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike - Tipping Point Theatre

Read RONALD BAUMANIS' review - Mostly Musical Theatre (Sept. 28, 2014)

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Detroit Theater Examiner (Sept. 26, 2014)

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (Sept. 25, 2014)

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review – Detroit Free Press (Sept. 24, 2014)


The house that Shepard built

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Buried Child"

The Abreact Theatre Collective

Posted: Sept. 20, 2014 at 5:47 p.m.

With a title as uplifting as "Buried Child," the viewer might presume (correctly) that bleak times are ahead. But the mechanism of bleakness in this play, which merited the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for playwright Sam Shepard, reaches beyond run-of-the-mill family troubles. In the season-opening production at The Abreact, director Greg Bailey manifests a household of isolation, scratching an incessant itch of mystery that will leave viewers gasping for salve in resolution.

The play and its characters are comparably confined to the front rooms of an old-fashioned farmhouse. Ailing patriarch Dodge (Alan Madlane) is immobile on the sofa, resigned to worrying his handkerchief against a stream of upstairs prattle from his wife, Hallie (Barbie Amann Weisserman). Borne back ceaselessly into the past, Hallie's soliloquy dwells on the pride and promise of their grown sons, which has long since soured: Affectless Tilden (Mike McGettigan) is now living under their roof under vigilant scrutiny after a less-than-prodigal return from New Mexico, and amputee Bradley (Patrick Loos) stops by regularly to vengefully minister to the resistant Dodge. A third son tragically died long ago, and naturally shines all the brighter as the favorite and hero.

Just as the dialogue dwells on the old, so does the atmosphere. Bailey's set design is overrun with the imprints of where photos and people used to be, and Weisserman's filthy costumes suggest the literal stink of perpetuity. The place feels pickled with alcohol and stale air; while the lighting (by John Jakary) and sound cues are reminiscent of a world outside, they can't penetrate such interior gloom. Contrast this with the inexplicable bounty of vegetables that Tilden keeps reaping from the forbidden, long-barren back fields – they stand out as uncharacteristically organic in such a decaying home, a clear sign that something is amiss.

Into the grotesque but certain rhythms of the house comes Vince (Michael Lopetrone), who claims to be Tilden's son and wants to drop in on his grandparents during a cross-country trip with a lovely young companion (Dani Cochrane). But the inhabitants don't claim to recognize him; indeed, they insist that there is no such person, and maddening appeals for clarity only lead to further obfuscation. It's with this twist that "Buried Child" not only cultivates that nagging sense of something wrong, that some key revelation is needed to make these pieces fall into place, but also continuously moves the goal posts of what knowledge or action is ultimately needed to right it.

These are tough, desolate characters to portray, and although the performances here sometimes run hot, there are more hits than misses. Highlights include Madlane's nothing-to-lose bursts of truth telling through questionable lucidity, as well as Loos's emotional preemptive strikes and devastating physical work. Incredibly, McGettigan makes anonymity into a personality, going beyond merely sad and slow to become a terrifically disquieting presence. And Cochrane, saddled with dynamism among stasis, lends fascinating evolution to her unsuspecting character as she is enveloped by the house's influence.

Although Shepard primarily dwells in the land of inference, the overarching mystery isn't beyond the viewer's grasp. But Bailey and company hit the nail on the head by making their production about more than the facts of the case. For over two hours, viewers are encouraged to believe that maybe once we know everything, then we can make sense of it. The show's success comes from building its real tension within a capricious, morphing grasp of reality – the palpable but arbitrary rules of the house's figurative gravitational pull, the manifestation of concurrent solitude, the need for release in the form of comprehension. The result is a production that is brutally far from withholding, but knows just what to keep out of reach.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Buried Child'
The Abreact Theatre Collective
1301 W. Lafayette #113, Detroit
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, Oct. 3, 10
8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 20, 27, Oct. 1, 11
4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5
Admission by donation

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Boeing once, Boeing twice: Bold comedy at the Hilberry

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Boeing Boeing"

Hilberry Theatre

Posted: Sept. 20, 2014 at 4:29 p.m.; updated Sept. 21, 2014 at 7:25 a.m.

"Timing is everything."

That fact was observed, not only by the long-time Hilberry Theatre patron seated on my right, but by guest director Lenny Banovez, co-founder and artistic director of New York City's Titan Theatre Company, in his director's note. While the adage is true of all plays, its application is never more critical than in the comic sub-genre, farce. Long-time patrons of the Hilberry will recall that the company explored farce in its infancy last season with Moliere's "A Doctor in Spite of Himself." This year we experience farce matured with Marc Camoletti's 1960 hit, "Boeing Boeing."

The French have a phrase for it. "ΐ chacun son gout – "To each one his taste." "Hit" can be a relative term when culture is factored in. "Boeing, Boeing" is the most popular French play ever, but it closed after only 23 performances in its 1965 Broadway run. The 2008 revival, though, won two Tony Awards and two Drama Desk Awards, so maybe tastes change. Certainly the definition of "erotic" has changed, since this "erotic farce" derives its comedy from the traditional building blocks of character and situation, rather than shock or innuendo.

But make no mistake – Bernard (Brandon Grantz) is an utter cad. Enjoying mid-century joie de vivre in Paris, Bernard is something of a sexual juggler – balancing three engagements, all at the same time. His secret? They're all "air hostesses" on international airlines, and he knows their schedules down to the minute. Thus his unsophisticated American girl, Gloria (Sarah Hawkins Moan), his fiery Italian inamorata, Gabriella (Annie Keris), or his Lufthansa lover Gretchen (Bevin Bell-Hall) don't suspect that she's not his one-and-only. He's safe – as long as faster planes, tail winds and mid-Atlantic storms don't upset the schedules.

But this is farce, so of course there are complications – not only for Bernard, but for his overwrought cook, Bert (Miles Boucher) and his visiting pal from Wisconsin, Robert (Brandy Joe Plambeck).

There's real comic power in Camoletti's script; there's real comic joy in the English version by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans. Rarely do you find a translation that flows so well in colloquial English. But wit is only part of the charm of "Boeing, Boeing." Director Banovez refers to farce as "the most difficult style of comedy." "Farce, at its best, is an articulate portrayal of chaos or ‘controlled chaos,' if you will."

This is a tremendously physical production, yet his careful choices never let farce bleed into slapstick. While the cast demonstrates a fine example of ensemble acting, performances of the more absurd characters are memorable. These include Plambeck as the American in Paris man-child; Bell-Hall's take on Gretchen's Wagnerian-sized emotions; and Boucher's skill at turning the character of a snooty woman housekeeper, "Berthe," into downright snotty "Bert" the cook.

A standard of farce is the fast entrance – or exit. To this end, Michael Sabourin's scenic design spans the wide Hilberry stage to accommodate seven – count ‘em – seven doors. Above the living room set soar eye-catching silhouettes of a Parisian skyline. Lighting designer Tom Schraeder shows solid craftsmanship in the warm, even glow that marks the apartment lighting, and a playful whimsy in the rich backlighting of the silhouettes. John Woodland's costumes are stylishly retro, particularly the eye-popping primary colors of the ladies' flight uniforms.

As the Hilberry Theatre enters its 52nd season, it's time to give pause and reflect on its significance. Its fundamental purpose is to provide an advanced education in the performing arts. They're graciously letting us tag along. We've watched Boucher move from Macbeth to the comedic Bert, and Brandy Joe Plambeck play both the Marquis de Sade and the hapless Robert. That's just to name two of the artists who are expanding their potential under this program. What an education the audience gets on their journey!

So happy 52nd, Hilberry. Many happy returns.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Boeing Boeing'
Hilberry Theatre
4743 Cass Ave., Detroit
2 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 24 (post-show talkback)
8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25 (preshow discussion), Oct. 2
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, Oct. 3
2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4
8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 20, Sept. 27, Oct. 4
2 hours, 20 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Boeing Boeing - Hilberry Theatre

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (Sept. 25, 2014)


They cram a lot into 'Spamalot' – and good times ensue

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "Spamalot"

The Encore Musical Theatre Company

Posted: Sept. 20, 2014 at 3:35 p.m.

Excalibur. No, that isn't it.

Exuberance. Yes, that's the word for The Encore Musical Theatre's production of "Spamalot." In Thalia V. Schramm's staging, the Monty Python musical may lose a little of the heft and polish it had on Broadway but retains all of the hilarity and charm. If you aren't already a Monty Python fan, you will be. If you are a fan of the British comedy troupe, you'll likely be among the theatergoers happily whistling along to "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life." (I say "likely" only because not everyone can whistle.)

A raucous ruckus of reinvention, "Spamalot" recasts King Arthur and his knights into a band of nincompoops. Everything works here, from broad acting, to exaggerated accents (when called for), robust singing, a flawless five-person orchestra led by pianist R. MacKenzie Lewis, Daniel C. Walker's cartoonish castle set and unobtrusive lighting, and Sharon Urick's astounding array of costumes with an even more astounding number of changes offstage. Props, too, to properties designer Anne Donevan whose work incorporates rubber fish, a stuffed cow the size of a St. Bernard, and a killer bunny hand puppet. And that's just the animals.

Based on – creators Eric Idle and John Du Prez say "lovingly ripped off from" – the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," one of the musical's charms is that it never forgets it's a show, with such self-referential numbers as "The Song That Goes Like This" and "You Won't Succeed on Broadway"

Most of the actors do double duty or more, except for Keith Kalinowski as King Arthur, and Liz Jaffe as the Lady of the Lake. Come to think of it, each does a kind of double duty: Kalinowski manages to be both regal and ridiculous, and Jaffe demonstrates vocal strength while making fun of her singing.

Sebastian Gerstner is endearing and funny as Arthur's servant/sidekick Patsy, supplying the sound of hoof beats (clacking coconuts) as they pretend to ride horses, and he's a scream as the French Taunter calling out epithets ("I fart in your general direction") in a ridiculous accent.

Joey DeBenedetto is a hearty baritone as Dennis Galahad (who knew?), and Brian Charles and Ryan Dooley bring charisma and boundless energy as Sir Lancelot and Sir Robin, respectively.

None of this would be possible without a strong ensemble of singers/dancers who appear to be having as good a time as the audience. And that's a very good time, indeed.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Spamalot'
The Encore Musical Theatre Company
3126 Broad St., Dexter
7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25, Oct. 2, 9
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, Oct. 3, 10
3 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 20, 27, Oct. 4, 11
3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 21, 28, Oct. 5, 12

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

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Sept. 25, 2014)

Read JENN MCKEE's review – The Ann Arbor News (Sept. 20, 2014)

Read RONALD BAUMANIS' review – Mostly Musical Theatre (Sept. 19, 2014)


'Secret Garden' sprouts with young talent

By Judith Cookis Rubens

REVIEW: "The Secret Garden"

Farmers Alley Theatre

Posted: Sept. 20, 2014 at 2:38 p.m.; updated Sept. 20, 2014 at 3:50 p.m.

Without frequent watering, light and love, a lush garden will wither and go dormant – not yet dead, but not quite alive either.

This can happen to people, too, we learn, if exposed to great depths of loss and loneliness. In the musical, "The Secret Garden," now at Farmers Alley Theatre, widower Archibald Craven has gone dormant after losing his lovely wife, Lily, shortly after birthing their invalid son. Archibald, a hunchback pacing an empty mansion, is haunted by Lily's ghost and mourns his ill son, Colin, hidden away upstairs, waiting to die.

It's not exactly the upbeat stuff of today's family-friendly musicals. But this revival of a 1991 Broadway musical (Tony winner for its book), has enough lighter, happier moments to keep it from becoming too bloated and maudlin.

Based on the 1911 Frances Hodgson Burnett children's novel, "The Secret Garden" focuses on Mary Lennox, Archibald's niece, a sullen, 11-year-old orphan who's lost both her parents to a cholera outbreak in India. She's sent to live on the Yorkshire Moors of England with her distant uncle in his rattling, seemingly haunted mansion. At first she thinks she's all alone, but soon after befriending a young gardener, Dickon, and meeting her young cousin, Colin, Mary and her "new family" unite to revive a secret garden.

Marsha Norman's rich book stays true to the popular children's story, though we get more glimpses into the adults' backstories and more of a spiritual message about death. The deceased characters appear as ghosts, pacing the halls as observers, and sometimes mixing with the living – an interesting, but sometimes chaotic staging choice.

Archibald's wife/Mary's aunt, Lily, restlessly wanders the halls as a sparkling white image. Mary's parents – Rose and Albert – are there, too. Rose and Lily even converse as they watch and remember the action.

Director Kathy Mulay (directing several members of her real-life family in this show) has the great task of mixing the living and dead without entering campy territory. Certain scenes work better than others. The hovering ghostly figures in the Prologue's "House on the Hill," for example, seem to crowd one another irritatingly on the small stage. Yet the one-on-one interactions between Lily and grieving Archibald, or Lily and bedridden Colin are more powerful.

Better yet, when the division between the ghosts and the living disappears, such as the charming Act II number, "Come Spirit, Come Charm," it's not so distracting.

Considering Lucy Simon's and Marsha Norman's music – a mix of gloomy operatic ballads and more uptempo English folk tunes – you'll want to keep your Kleenex handy, as the melodrama is never subtle. Especially laid-on-thick is the torn-apart romance between Archibald and Lily and the early death of Mary's parents.

However, one might argue the most tender and wrenching scenes are those in which the children confront their fears and losses, yet manage to go on. They believe in living, and, therefore, encourage the adults around them to do the same.

The young stars are superbly cast here. As orphan Mary, 13-year-old Traverse City actress Madison Hertel has a delightful stage presence and impressive singing voice that showcases Mary's complexities. She's one to watch, for sure.

Equally impressive is 11-year-old Jason Koch (Mulay's grandson, full disclosure), who more than holds his own as the sometimes-bratty Colin. Colin's and Mary's evolving relationship is one of the sweetest parts of the show, and young Koch brings humor and solid vocals to the part. Considering his real-life mother and father play Archibald and Lily, the scenes with this decidedly talented theater family are quite touching.

Other excellent highlights are U of M graduate Jane Bruce as Mary's plucky chamber maid, Martha, and NYC's DJ Bucciarelli playing the energetic Dickon. It's cheerful Dickon who helps Mary realize there's hidden life in the home's secret garden. Both actors breathe humor and fun into this show, which at times, can start to veer into gloomy depths. Bruce has fun with Martha's strong Yorkshire accent, while Bucciarelli's Dickon just exudes good cheer and optimism.

Mary's and Dickon's duets, including "Show Me the Key" and Act Two's "Wick," are delightful, and one can't help but wish for a few more of those scenes.

Other standouts include Zachary Joel Smits as Archibald's doctor brother, Neville, who has ulterior motives; and John Mulay (director Kathy Mulay's husband), as Ben, the home's longtime gardener.

Truly keeping it all in the family, husband-and-wife theater couple Jeremy Koch and Denene Mulay Koch (also two of Farmers Alley's co-founders) play Archibald and Lily, respectively. Their chemistry translates on stage, mostly in the end number, "How Could I Ever Know," when there's a recognition that Archibald might have to let Lily go to move on.

Trying out a new stage configuration, Farmers Alley pins most of its set design around an expansive video screen, which projects images of the mansion, the Moors, the garden. It allows audiences to follow the story from Colonial India to the ever-evolving garden.

It works technically, aided by luminous lighting by Lanford J. Potts, but, for a story so built around the transformative nature of greenery, it would have been fun to have a more colorful, 3D transformation in real blooms.

Music director Marie McColley Kerstetter and a hidden seven-piece orchestra do justice to the demanding musical score in all its somber and joyful parts.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Secret Garden'
Farmers Alley Theatre
221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25, Oct. 2, 9
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, Oct. 3, 10
8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 20, 27, Oct. 4, 11
2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 21, 28, Oct. 5, 12
2 hours, 25 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Secret Garden - Farmers Alley Theatre

Read MARK WEDEL's review – Kalamazoo Gazette (Sept. 20, 2014)


'The Value of Names': a betrayal exhumed

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "The Value of Names"

The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company

Posted: Sept. 7, 2014 at 4:58 p.m.

It was Lee Hays, of the Weavers, who once said the 11th commandment ought to be "Never give up a grudge." Hays has something in common with Benny Silverman, the pivotal character in Jeffrey Sweet's drama "The Value of Names."

Like so many other artists, Hays and the fictitious Silverman, an actor, were both blacklisted in the '50s after they were named as Communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

"The Value of Names," set some three decades later, in 1981 (coincidentally the year Lee Hays died), kicks into high gear when Benny (Thomas Mahard), who eventually made it big in a TV sitcom, again encounters the onetime friend who had denounced him before Congress, film director Leo Greshen (Phil Powers). A play of conflicting viewpoints and philosophies, "Names" is also and always a play with a beating heart – three, actually: Benny's, Leo's and that of Leo's daughter, Norma (Kathryn Mahard, Thom Mahard's daughter).

Yolanda Fleischer's production at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre never lets the play's intellectuality stray from its humanity. Early on, Benny and Norma discuss whether Norma, an up-and-coming actress, should keep the part she's been offered in a play; its original director has dropped out and been replaced by Benny's old nemesis. Father and daughter speak in ideas fit for a college ethics class – as a TV star, Benny refused to work with people whose politics he disdained; doesn't that make him guilty of blacklisting? – but their mutual affection is evident. For instance, Benny, who has taken up painting in retirement, gives his daughter's nose a playful flick with a paintbrush.

Leo shows up on Benny's Malibu patio, ostensibly to persuade Norma to stay in the play Leo is directing. Norma, knowing there's more at stake, eventually leaves and lets the two old adversaries have their long-avoided meeting.

Amid the cerebral give-and-take, with talk of Communist dogma, right-wing bigotry, of Trotsky, Stalin, Nixon, Ezra Pound, and the value of holding on versus moving on, it's clear that each man is more than the sum of his thoughts. And Fleischer ensures that the play is more than a static discussion. As Mahard moves around the stage, watering a profusion of greenery, he is a man who won't be pinned down. Powers, in need of not quite forgiveness but something similar, is the one who literally and figuratively reaches out.

Thomas Mahard is nicely wry and righteous as the wronged Benny, and Kathryn Mahard is convincing as the one who's always in the middle, between the two men, between Benny and his ex-wife (talked about but never seen), but the real wonder here is Powers who seems to have disappeared into his character. He looks different, his voice is different. It's not just, there's Phil Powers doing a good job playing so-and-so; it's where did Phil Powers go?

What's come to be known as McCarthyism, even when it predates the late senator, has been well chronicled in film and on stage – very notably in Arthur Miller's allegorical "The Crucible," about a literal witch-hunt – but rarely so clearly and concisely as in "The Value of Names."

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Value of Names'
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company
Aaron DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center
6600 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield
2 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 17
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 11, 18, Oct. 9
5 p.m. & 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13, 20, Oct. 11
2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14, 21, Oct. 12
7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14
1 hour, 20 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Value of Names - The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review – Detroit Free Press (Sept. 17, 2014)


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

By Dana Casadei

REVIEW: "ComedySportz Detroit"

Michigan Actors Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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