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Yee haw, it's 'Nunsense Jamboree'

By Diane Speer
The Alpena News

REVIEW: "Nunsense Jamboree"

Thunder Bay Theatre

Posted: Oct. 31, 2014 at 11:26 a.m.

It's got up tempo tunes, it's got singing nuns a little on the wacky side and it's got lots of Catholic humor, so it must be "Nunsense." Toss in some fringed cowboy boots, a guitar-strumming priest and yee haw, it morphs into "Nunsense Jamboree," Thunder Bay Theatre's latest show and the third installment in the ever popular "Nunsense" franchise.

TBT's core company takes on the guise of four nuns and two priests, with accompanist Bunny Lyon on the side. Together they make it all happen on another artfully designed set. In the hands of technical director Mark Exline, the country jamboree-inspired set sports faux wood, simulated giant lassos, mock wagon wheels, swinging saloon doors and even bling on the black curtains.

Emily Senkowsky, Christina Lewis, Brenna Murray and Bridget Anderson each are adorable and exude personality plus in the familiar roles of Sister Mary Amnesia, Sister Robert Anne, Sister Mary Leo and Sister Mary Wilhelm.

Actor Corey Keller starts the show off as Father P.G. Turner, who enthusiastically bounds onto the stage to make the opening spiel to the audience. He's anticipating a part in the nuns' traveling country-western show to promote Sister Mary Amnesia's new album, but unfortunately for him, he meets with disappointment. Instead of performing on stage like expected, humorously he's relegated to – as his name implies – turning pages for the accompanist.

Travis Welch plays Father Virgil Trott, the singing priest who joins in on many of the songs. There's not a sub-par voice in the group as they easily handle the 24 songs featured in "Nunsense Jamboree," even if they don't always sound convincingly country.

While most of the songs come with clever lyrics and pleasant, upbeat melodies, a few are particularly entertaining, like "We Miss You, Patsy Cline," where the titles of 43 hits by this country singing legend are strung together into a new song. Father Trott puts a bell on the floor that he dings with his foot every time a new Patsy Cline title is introduced in the song.

Some of the others tunes take on some odd-ball subject matter, like the TV Guide and drive-through cemetery services. As expected with a "Nunsense" production, there's also a liberal sprinkling of cornball nun jokes, an example being: What do you call a sleepwalking nun? Answer: a "roaming" Catholic.

Director Jeffrey Mindock, along with the rest of his talented production staff, continues to put up solid, entertaining shows during which it's obvious attention has been paid to all the important details, including the costumes (by Dane Hansen) and the lighting/sound design (by Colin Marshall and Exline).

All in all, it's a feel good production performed by a perky and very talented bunch that winds up being two-thirds a music/comedy jamboree and one-third a play with a plot about marketing Sister Mary Amnesia's new album and getting her on her way to Nashville.

Mindock chose to make the show a bit interactive too, with the characters holding both a mock auction and a giveaway of special "tokens" such as a glow-in-the dark rosary and a peal-and-stick St. Joseph prayer card that pull the audience into the action. Sometimes, however, it doesn't pay to catch a dress rehearsal rather than a regular performance, because then there are only a few people in the audience, making me a more likely candidate to get pulled into said action, which did happen Thursday, though it all was in good fun and I now happily have an autographed photo of myself with the cast taken on stage to hang on my bulletin board here at the office.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Nunsense Jamboree'
Thunder Bay Theatre
400 N. Second Avenue, Alpena
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6, 13
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 31, Nov. 7, 14
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 1, 8, 15
2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2, 9, 16
$8-15
989-354-2267
www.thunderbaytheatre.com.

Reprinted with permission of The Alpena News, Oct. 31, 2014

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Portrait of the artist as a young ham

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "Enter Laughing"

The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company

Posted: Oct. 26, 2014 at 4:10 p.m.

Take heart, would-be stars. If a kid with a ton of desire and a teaspoon of talent can make it, no matter how much his parents want him to go pharmacy school, maybe there's hope for us all.

That's the message, one of them, anyway, of "Enter Laughing." The kid in question is Carl Reiner, who went on to fame and fortune as an actor, writer and director despite a less than auspicious beginning. Rather, the kid in question is sort of Carl Reiner. He's called David Kolowitz in Joseph Stein's 1963 comedy (set in the 1930s) based on Reiner's sort-of autobiographical novel

It's cut from the archetypal cloth of show-biz biopics and bioplays about young people bound and determined to become artists despite their parents' objections. Most of those works tend toward the dramatic, whereas "Enter Laughing" goes for (what else?) laughs.

Mary Bremer-Beer's Jewish Ensemble Theatre production gets them, all right, and ought to add some as the actors become more comfortable in their characters' skins. The play has its moments, just not enough of them.

The script doesn't offer much help. Characters are underwritten, one- or at best two-dimensional, with uncomplicated desires. David wants to be an actor; his parents want him to do what they want him to do; David's girlfriend, Wanda, wants him to be happy; his best friend, Marvin, wants to vicariously enjoy David's success; Marlowe, who runs the third-rate theater company where David gets his first role, wants to make some money.

Only one character is fully realized, not David, but Mr. Foreman, the man who provides him his day job at a machine shop in the garment district. Foreman, a no-nonsense but kindhearted boss played with authenticity (and a nice New York Yiddish accent) by Greg Trzaskomsa, is the only character given a backstory and the only one who acknowledges there's a Depression out there.

T.J. Corbett is engaging as David, an effervescent post-adolescent, bubbling with self-confidence but not a shred of narcissism, and blissfully unaware there's more to being an actor than speaking loudly and over-dramatically. (If Corbett looks familiar, it's probably because he's been playing the kid in "Ernie," Mitch Albom's play about Ernie Harwell that's been running downtown every baseball season.)

Kathryn P. Mahard is hyperactively vampy (to great effect) as the lead actress in the godawful play David has been cast in, and Katy Kujala is sweet as Wanda, which is harder than it looks.

Playing Angela's father, the head of the two-bit theater company, Charles Van Hoose is reminiscent of the exquisitely hammy actors of the '30s and '40s (think Vincent Price) and comports himself as if he was born to wear the shabby red smoking jacket he's always wearing. The smoking jacket is just one of the fine vintage (or vintage-seeming) articles of clothing that costume designer Koerner provides.

Daniel C. Walker's set, a New York skyline that lights up at night, provides an atmospheric backdrop. Matt Lira's sound design includes the realistic clang of coins dropping in a pay phone, but the choice of music between scenes is problematic. Sure, songs from the '20s would still be heard in the '30s, but songs from the '40s? Probably not.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Enter Laughing'
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company
at Aaron DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center
6600 W. Maple Road., West Bloomfield
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 5
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30, Nov. 6, 13
5 p.m. & 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 1, 8, 15
2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2, 9, 16
7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2
2 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 5
2 hours
$41-48
248-788-2900
www.jettheatre.org

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Enter Laughing - The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review – Detroit Free Press (Oct. 29, 2014)


 

Haste lays waste in fair Verona

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Romeo and Juliet"

Hilberry Theatre

Posted: Oct. 25, 2014 at 4:25 p.m.

William Shakespeare accomplished one of the most enduring romances, that of "Romeo and Juliet," in a scant handful of scenes. The two lovers hardly ever interact; the bulk of the play dwells not on the totality of their love, but rather on the mounting impossibility of it, and the desperate decisions that hasten the couple's tragic deaths.

Often, to stage the play is to tread a fine line between believing this love at first sight to be true, eternal, and impossible to live without, and looking with wiser eyes at the folly and impermanence of hell-bent adolescent immaturity. Yet the current Hilberry Theatre production, under the direction of Blair Anderson, focuses on the pitfalls of hasty decision-making at any age, highlighting the script's many correlations between rashness and calamity.

Whether this Romeo (Miles Boucher) and this Juliet (Devri Chism) are believable as soul mates seems to be beside the point. In this telling, the pair's conviction that their love is essential and eternal is enough; what is pushed to the forefront is their reactions to the obstacles to their union, and how quickly and completely they separately make decisions with permanent repercussions. Boucher is affable with his boundless schoolboy incredulity, galloping away with good fortune and misfortune alike. As Juliet, Chism strikes a more contemplative note, exuding earnestness as she carefully, monochromatically traces each train of thought to its logical foregone conclusion. Because the two are utterly like-minded in their desire to be together forever, no matter what the cost, the end result is scene work that immediately seizes on its objective and then agitates insistently to achieve it.

A similar affliction plagues much of the populace of Verona, composed of the full Hilberry graduate company, as well as a few undergrad players. From Romeo's macho, pugnacious friends to Juliet's domineering, punitive family, the community – especially the feuding Montague and Capulet clans – shares a fondness for spur-of-the-moment decisions that refuse to waver and a drive to enact them as soon as possible. (It stands to reason that these are people who would brawl in the streets armed with machetes, staged percussively by fight choreographer David Sterritt.) With such a core of heightened patter, braying and caterwauling, the show's primary source of conflict is not found between characters, but in the space between wanting and having.

The influence on youth, immediacy and impulsiveness also follows through to the costume design by Anne Suchyta, which peppers period-feel pieces among flea-market-trendy mismatches and magpie shimmer, as well as sound by Mario Raymond, which uses mournful contemporary recordings and chamber-music pop adaptations to bridge past and present. Scenic design by Tonae Mitsuhashi reimagines the multipurpose Elizabethan stage as a contemporary art installation, whose chief feature is a starscape of suspended light bulbs that extend into the entire theater space. The bulbs' faint, tinted light changes to color each scene, albeit with apparent disregard for day or night, although the scenic and lighting design (the latter by Heather DeFauw) finally find spectacular harmony in a stunning late tableau.

In a curious reversal, the production's pressure-cooker atmosphere is starkly offset by the few moments in which cooler heads prevail, and these in turn provide some of the richest moments of the play. Brandy Joe Plambeck's well-meaning Friar Lawrence is a patiently encouraging confidante, even as he plots to meticulously deploy his young charges as an instrument of peace between the warring families.

Yet the most complex and compelling character is one with no decisions of her own to make: As Juliet's nurse, Sarah Hawkins Moan pushes comically against the grain, exerting power over higher-status characters simply by making these hurried souls wait for valuable information, which in the world of this play is as torturous as hellfire. In the midst of tragically high personal stakes, the breaths of reason and laughter Moan provides serve as an exquisite counterpoint to the reactionary series of unfortunate events that presage so many avoidable fates.

In this "Romeo and Juliet," Anderson and company set out to characterize young love with a contemporary edge. Indeed, the production does have an instant-gratification focus reminiscent of youth, but as seen from a distance. The viewer will not be swept away by starry-eyed romance, but rather will bear sad witness to a runaway train propelled on the steam of snap decisions.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Romeo and Juliet'
Hilberry Theatre
4743 Cass Ave., Detroit
2 p.m. Wednesday. Oct. 29 (postshow talkback)
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30 (preshow discussion), Dec. 11
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 31, Dec. 12
2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25, Dec. 13
8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25, Nov. 1, Dec. 13
2 hours, 15 minutes
$10-31
313-577-2972
www.hilberry.com

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Puzzle Piece provides provocative probe of prejudice

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "White People"

Puzzle Piece Theatre

Posted: Oct. 25, 2014 at 3:35 p.m.

It can be an uncomfortable experience when a theater company holds a mirror before the face of society and reveals an unflattering image. When that company is intimately housed in The Abreact Performance Space, the revelation is literally "in your face." Thus, Puzzle Piece Theatre's "White People," a sobering meditation on fear and loathing of "Them," the "Others" and the "They're Not Like Us" gets very up close and personal.

The first production of J.T. Rodgers' play was in 2000, and was a reminder that the new millennium was not an Age of Aquarius in terms of race and class relations. Somewhere along the line it was nominated for both the John Barrymore Award and L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. "White People" is a one-act, structured as an interlacing series of monologues delivered by three actors. It shouldn't come as a surprise that all the characters are "white."

Alan (Matt Siadak) is an optimistic young college professor, living in Manhattan's Stuyvesant Town, who "squints" to avoid destroying the illusion that he's living in an urban Eden. His political correctness is torn between admiration for his prized pupil Felicia – a brilliant mind, though ghetto-raised – and the young black punks who literally beat the truth into him concerning the streets where he lives.

Mara Lynn (Laura Heikkinen, Puzzle Piece's associate artistic director) lives in Fayetteville, NC with a failed jock for a husband and a son in failing health. Feeling locked out of the American Dream, Mara Lynn channels her resentment towards the India-born specialist treating her boy.

Martin (Lindel Salow) is a New York transplant to a St. Louis law firm. An old school perfectionist, Martin is intolerant of the hip-hop culture thriving in his firm's mail room. He seems blind-sided by the fact his casual contempt might be license for his 15-year-old son to turn skinhead.

"White People" is under the direction of Puzzle Piece's producing artistic director, D.B. Schroeder. The performances are thoughtfully developed and compelling. The playing area of The Abreact seems smaller than ever, given the simplicity of the set and the effect of pools of light illuminating the vignettes.

Regardless if its award nominations, "White People" is only a partial success so far as its writing is concerned. It is difficult to sustain dramatic interest through a series of monologues, particularly when only one character – Alan, as it happens – shows any sign of growth. Although the soliloquies are linked thematically, they form a very loose fabric. We cannot fault Rodgers for not providing resolutions, although, in drama, ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. The characters' prejudices and intolerance are endemic.

Recent research in family history reminds me that, while the "No Irish Need Apply" signs were coming down by 1909, my great-great-Aunt Sara, in the U. S. for less than a decade, already felt superior to her newly arrived sister-in-law and her brood. The names Bridget and Patrick were "too Irish" for my grandmother and her brother; they became Catherine and Joseph.

Jump forward a century and consider the presidential election of 2008. The new administration had the potential to lead the nation into an era of healing and understanding. Instead, it has become a lightning rod for suspicion and divisiveness.

"White People" becomes a launching point for fostering discussion, a function that Puzzle Piece Theatre takes seriously. Performances are followed by a talk-back session involving the company and interested audience members.

Novelist Larry Niven pessimistically attributed prejudice and intolerance to "hard-wired" behavior of our pre-human ancestors. For preservation of the pack," different" meant "dangerous." Emotion takes a logical progression: "See the stranger, fear the stranger, hate the stranger, kill the stranger." So far along in our evolution, isn't it time to rise above primitive instincts?

SHOW DETAILS: 'White People'
Puzzle Piece Theatre
at The Abreact Performance Space
1301 W. Lafayette #113, Detroit
1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission
$15
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30
8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7
8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25, Nov. 1, 8
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct.26, Nov. 2, 9
313-454-1542
www.puzzlestage.org

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'Crucible' transcends time in intimate production

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "The Crucible"

Great Escape Stage Company

Posted: Oct. 25, 2014 at 12:30 p.m.

Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" has always been a thinker. Miller had things he wanted to say in the Tony Award-winning play.

The 1959 drama about the Salem witch trials was Miller's protest against McCarthyism and the hysteria that surrounded the anti-Communism movement of the 1950s. Directors continue to choose the play to explore how ordinary people find their goodness amid crowd-driven witch hunts.

At Great Escape Stage Company, director Edward Kernish makes bold choices to ensure the audience knows this play is allegory and not limited to the Puritan times of 1692 to 1693. This play could be set any time where technology does not exist, even a post-apocalyptic future.

The stage is small, less than 10 feet across, with the audience to either side, seated as though they were in a jury box judging the proceedings. With a cast of 20, this means things often get crowded, though Kernish keeps people shifting and rotating to allow for entries and to limit the time any one character has his or her back to one side of the audience.

In this large cast, three actors in particular stood out.

The play's themes rotate around John Proctor, and it is necessary to have a strong actor to make this play work. Dyon Casey fills the bill with a multi-layered performance in which he avoids stereotypes and finds the real humanity in Proctor. Casey creates a Proctor who is flawed but ever striving after goodness, who is strong and hot-tempered, but can be gentle and loving. Casey plays the role with a confidence that makes him stand out and garners sympathy for Proctor. He is an everyman who is caught up in a situation beyond his control and made worse because of the guilt he feels after poor decisions he's made.

His nemesis is Abigail Williams, the local minister's niece, who leads the children in making accusations against the people of the town. Vanessa Banister's stage presence dominates the boards. Every movement is sure, and she is always engaged in the play's activities. She listens as well as she speaks. Banister ensures that Abigail is a woman to be feared. She and Casey also possess the greatest volume and clarity, and ensure their voices aren't lost as they face different areas of the stage and audience.

Callie Bussell's Mary Warren is the opposite of Abigail in many ways. While the character is mousy and cowed, Bussell brings variety to the role. She finds Mary's backbone at the appropriate moments, and makes strong choices at all times. She carries her body in a way that communicates her ever-wavering allegiances. She desires to do the right thing, but is frightened of Abigail. She revels in the attention of being a court officer and the status it gives her, but she does not want to harm the family she cares for.

The three are surrounded by an ensemble that works hard to tell this story, some with more success than others. On opening night, John Sherwood lacked confidence in his role as Deputy-Governor Danforth. He avoided the sin of overplaying the role, but at times seemed to have difficulty getting out what he wanted to say, and unsure of his footing. He especially stood out, because Adam Bielby's Rev. Samuel Parris and Sam Jones' Rev John Hale moved and spoke with confidence.

Kernish keeps the nearly three-hour play moving by constant and often violent movement. These are people of passions, and the passions show in how they move and interact. There are some unmotivated movements sparked by the need to get people on stage, but that is a limitation of the space.

Costuming was a mixed bag. It was a bold choice to forgo the Puritan garb, but that was a choice that worked. Most of the costuming placed the setting in a rural town of indeterminate time period. The ministers were given sharp suits that set them apart as men of learning and influence. One of the bigger weaknesses, however, was the way that Abigail and Susanna Walcott were costumed. They stand apart from everyone in their yoga pants, hair fetishes and sexy dress in a community that values modesty. While it identifies their true character to the audience, it creates an interruption in the suspension of disbelief that the entire community would condemn its members to death based on their word and the supposed purity of soul of these children. Likewise, there are times when they are nearly gloating to each other at the success of their antics, something that makes the audience wonder why the judges and ministers do not notice.

Costuming is credited to Sue Kernish, Judy Edsall, Carol Bolthouse, Anna Earle, Carmen Hiser Cavello and Amanda Becker.

Director Kernish and Randy Lake were sparse in their set and house design, but are to be applauded for giving such dramatic flair to a small space that added an intimacy and intensity to this classic drama. There was literally no distance between audience and actors, bringing a greater immediacy and drama to the story.

The Great Escape does much to bring this classic to life, with a Proctor who makes us all question what we would do to hold onto that which we know is true, to believe in our own goodness and to be able to forgive ourselves and others.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Crucible'
Great Escape Stage Company
155 W. Michigan Ave., Marshall
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 31
8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25, Nov. 1
3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26, Nov. 2
2 hours, 48 minutes
$12-15
269-781-2700
www.greatescapestagecompany.com

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Crucible - Great Escape Stage Company

Read NICOLE L.V. MULLIS' review – Battle Creek Enquirer (Oct. 24, 2014)


 

'Motown the Musical' comes to Motown the city

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "Motown the Musical"

Fisher Theatre

Posted: Oct. 23, 2014 at 6:16 p.m.

The gala opening night of "Motown the Musical" at the Fisher Theatre found Berry Gordy, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and other luminaries watching themselves being portrayed onstage. Afterwards all three spoke to the audience, and Wonder even sang a bit of "I Wish." It was a thrill for first-nighters, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But what about second-nighters, third-nighters and everyone else who catches the touring version of Gordy's autobiographical musical (still running on Broadway)? Well, prepare to be wowed by reincarnations of the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas and ohmigod, young Reed L. Shannon as 10-year-old Michael Jackson fronting the Jackson 5 in their prime. (Note: Shannon alternates with Leon Outlaw, Jr., no doubt similarly impressive.)

Essentially, "Motown the Musical" is a corporate history with a soundtrack. But what a soundtrack! Come to think of it, what a corporate history: In 1959 Detroit songwriter Berry Gordy Jr. borrows $800 from his family to launch his own record company in a house he calls Hitsville USA and more or less changes history.

Gordy literally changes history in "Motown the Musical," implying that the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led to the Detroit riots (the riots took place in 1967, the assassination in 1968).

As a playwright, Gordy is a helluva songwriter. Character development is minimal. In terms of story, his accounts of his work with artists like Smokey Robinson, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye are intriguing, while other artists like Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 get a few sentences but plenty of time to perform, and still others – among them, the Temptations, Gladys Knight, the Four Tops – receive time to perform but no story. Much of the narrative is devoted to Gordy's long romantic relationship with Diana Ross, none of it to his marriages, or hers.

But hey, this is Gordy's story, as told by Gordy in a show produced by Gordy (and Kevin McCollum and Doug Morris), and he could have called it "Song of Myself" if he'd felt like it and if Walt Whitman hadn't stolen the title.

Not that it matters a whole lot. Great Motown music is the star of the show: "My Girl," "My Guy," "ABC," "What's Going On," "Ball of Confusion," "Baby Love," "Shop Around"…the program lists almost 60, and many are necessarily performed in condensed versions or fragments. The show ran three hours on opening night, largely because a long intermission allowed all the VIPs to mingle. A more likely running time would be2 hours, 45 minutes.

The songs aren't the only stars. Clifton Oliver is charismatic as Gordy, and unlike the man himself, "Motown's" Gordy sings. Allison Semmes captures young Diana Ross in voice and affect. Nicholas Christopher is spot-on as Smokey Robinson, as is Rashad Naylor in a brief turn as Jackie Wilson. Fine, too, are Elijah Ahmad Lewis as Stevie Wonder and Jaran Muse as Marvin Gaye.

A large ensemble does topnotch work as an assortment of performers. Director Charles Randolph-Wright (he also directed the show on Broadway) oversees a striking re-creation of the golden age of Motown, with spot-on vintage choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams; clean, clear and not earsplitting sound by Peter Hylenski (thank you, thank you, thank you; Motown was never about volume), dazzling costumes by Esosa and snappy scenic design by David Korins, and complementary, protean lighting by Natasha Katz.

If you missed the glory days of Motown or want to relive them, now you can, and in a theater a10-minute walk from where it all happened. Chances like these don't come along very often.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Motown the Musical'Broadway in Detroit
at the Fisher Theatre
3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit
Performs Tuesday-Sunday through Nov. 16:
8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (no performance Friday, Oct. 31)
2 p.m. Saturday & Sunday
7:30 p.m. Sunday
1 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30
Open Captioned performance on Sunday, Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m.
3 hours
$39-95
313-872-1000
www.broadwayindetroit.com

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Motown the Musical - Fisher Theatre

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review – Detroit Free Press (Oct. 23, 2014)

Read SUSAN WHITEHALL's review – The Detroit News (Oct. 23, 2014)

Read PATTY NOLAN's review – Detroit Theater Examiner (Oct. 23, 2014)

Read GARY GRAFF's review – The Oakland Press (Oct. 23, 2014)


 

New work explores what it means to belong

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "9 x Nourished"

Flint Youth Theatre

Posted: Oct. 23, 2014 at 6:31 p.m.; updated Oct. 25, 2014 at 8:57 a.m.

Flint is a city that struggles. So it should come as little surprise that the artists who live there are drawn to that struggle and want to make art about what it is like to be a part of a city that continues to try to survive even while under intense economic, social and political pressures.

"9 x Nourished" is a devised theater piece that explores these struggles while also celebrating a piece of Flint that is positive, exciting and growing. It takes place at the Flint Farmers' Market in Downtown Flint, and the market is not only venue, but theme and setting for the work.

Flint Youth Theatre's cast of 23 worked with playwright Michael Rohd to tell the story of the market in many different ways. The evening's experience includes dance, a cooking demonstration with talking vegetables, a history lesson, tours of the city market, discussions with the audience, singing, monologues, and some traditional theatrical storytelling.

The cast is divided into the "now chorus" and the "then chorus," with the "then chorus" dressed in costumes from when the market first opened in 1905.

Director Janet Haley undertakes a difficult job with this brave cast. The venue is not built for theater, and the acoustics are often a challenge – as is lighting the space. She rises to this challenge with creative solutions designed to make this less of a traditional night at the theater and more of a theatrical experience in which the audience is immersed and participates.

Haley greets each guest as they arrive and assigns them to a small group of six. These six audience members stay together for the whole evening. They're assigned one of the adult actors who becomes their personal tour guide for the evening. As the show progresses, the audience is sometimes with just their group of six, sometimes divided into two groups, and sometimes together with the entire audience. It is all well choreographed and timed, even while accommodating the individual speeds of the audience members.

Our group was led by Brittany Reed, a graduate of the University of Michigan-Flint School of Theatre and Dance. She helped the group integrate, and immediately set the tone that this was an experience designed to be authentic and engaging. She was enthusiastic and moved easily between her role as tour guide and actor. She was especially moving during a monologue about an apple – transitioning from a conversation with a group member immediately into the story and hitting every note just right.

Despite the use of microphones, there were a few times when it was difficult to hear actors, particularly when soloists were singing from behind the circle of the audience. However when they were singing as an ensemble, the sound carried well, and all the actors projected well when speaking individual parts.

The actors in "9 x Nourished" are given a challenge of a work that is ever changing and relies on the audience to make it come to life. They move in and out of different roles, some acted, some being themselves. They sing, they dance, they act, they interview.

One of the things that makes the non-traditional format of "9 x Nourished" work so well is that it makes the effort to engage the audience and bring them into the work. It explores the theme of belonging by creating a structure in which the audience members also feel like they belong to the work.

The structure allows the artists to introduce a variety of themes without trying to solve them or even do more than make the audience aware of them.

By the time the evening is over, Haley, Rohd and their cast and crew have told several stories – stories of the Farmer's Market, the vendors who make it their home and look upon each other as family, Flint with its history and struggles, the country and its changes, the individual who needs a place to belong, and families who find ways to relate to each other. They tell these stories in a genuine fashion, with each storytelling trying to make the story his or her own.

It's an experience that brings the Flint Farmers' Market to life in new ways while also exploring the commitment people feel to their city, no matter what its reputation might be.

SHOW DETAILS: '9 x Nourished'
Flint Youth Theatre
at Flint Farmers' Market
300 E. First St., Flint
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 24, 31
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, 25, Nov. 1
2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19, 26, Nov. 2
Approximately 1 hour, 30 minutes
$12-16
810-237-1530
www.flintyouththeatre.org.

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'Once' creates magic with romantic tale

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "Once"

Wharton Center & Broadway Grand Rapids

Posted: Oct. 15, 2014 at 1:36 p.m.

"Sometimes in the middle of an ordinary life, love gives you a fairy tale," is a quote that floats around the Internet on wedding sites and other such places. What the pithy quote doesn't tell you is that sometimes the fairy tale doesn't end with the protagonists swearing "I do" and riding off into the sunset together.

Even in the magical world of musicals, it is possible for a love story to be told without a kiss, and for the demands and responsibilities of life to trump the longings of the heart and the passion of individuals.

"Once," the musical currently touring through Wharton Center, is one such fairy tale. It is a fairy tale for grown-ups, for those who have learned that life is complex and that love has surprising ways of changing us, even if we can't surrender everything to it.

The musical has an almost magical, mystical quality to it, even while being grounded in the modern world in a place that is easy to recognize. The audience is invited up on stage before the show to look up close at the pub that makes the set. There is no barrier or need to transport the audience to a fairy tale world. Instead, the world of Dublin is brought to the audience. The stage experience even extends beyond the auditorium, with actors performing as street musicians between the Wharton Center parking lot and the building. Later they take center stage while the audience is still wandering about them, and they sing and dance while the house lights are still up full in a pre-show that sets the world as firmly our own.

The two protagonists are nameless, a purposeful everyman and everywoman, even though they are more fully fleshed out than all of the rest of the named ensemble. They are "guy" and "girl." The guy is an Irish street musician, who is about to give up on his dreams because his broken heart has left him convinced that no one wants to hear his music – at least, no one who matters. The girl is an immigrant from the Czech Republic. She is a pianist, who becomes the guy's muse.

"Once" is a bittersweet tale that is filled with moments of gentle humor, humor that makes you smile and chuckle rather than guffaw. It is humor that humanizes the characters and make their dreams and desires feel more real.

On opening night, Alex Nee played the role of Guy, and he brought a charisma to the part that was compelling. He wasn't just a mesmerizing singer, he was a talented actor who knew just how to play moments of silence as well as the spoken ones. Even with a heavy accent and the clipped speech of an Irishman, he was clear and easy to understand.

It is Dani de Waal's Girl who brings the mystical quality to the show. At first, she seems an angel of sorts, someone sent to rescue Guy for no other reason that he needs a muse. As the story progresses, she becomes more grounded, and we see in her a woman with needs, commitment and dreams. De Waal is magical in her performance. She is ethereal and otherworldly at times, and then in the blink of an eye, completely human and down-to-earth.

Together de Waal and Nee have an incredible chemistry, made all the more so when considering that Nee is the understudy for the role that is usually played by Stuart Ward, an Irish actor touring with the show. There is a strength that comes in the spaces between them. Nee and de Waal create moments where the emptiness and distance is as powerful as any embrace could be.

The rest of the ensemble spends the entire time on stage, and they are a talented crew both vocally and physically. The choreography is splendid and natural. Each of the ensemble members (with the exception of the child actress) plays one or more instruments, and they not only perform with those instruments, but they dance while playing. If you've never seen someone dance while playing the cello, you won't want to miss "Once." Steven Hoggett's choreography is complex and deliciously Irish with foot stomping energy.

"Once" defies the usual format for musicals and for fairy tales in many ways. In doing so, it creates something new that is filled with soul, heart and love.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Once'
Wharton Center's Cobb Great Hall
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 15
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17
2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18
1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19
2 hours, 30 minutes
$34+
800-WHARTON
www.whartoncenter.com

The production then moves to:

Broadway Grand Rapids
at DeVos Performance Hall
303 Monroe Ave. NE, Grand Rapids
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 4
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 5
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6
8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7
2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8
1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9
$30+
800-745-3000
www.ticketmaster.com

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Once - Wharton Center & Broadway Grand Rapids

Read ALLAN I. ROSS' review – City Pulse (Oct. 15, 2014)

Read KEN GLICKMAN's review – Lansing State Journal (Oct. 15, 2014)


 

Curiouser and curiouser: An edgy production stands convention on its head

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Alice"

Nerve

Posted: Oct. 13, 2014 at 2:15 p.m.

Some theatrical experiences defy description. But a few adjectives come to mind that are applicable to "Alice," the performance organization Nerve's immersive journey through Wonderland. "Unconventional?" Without a doubt. "Unique" – that too. Unsettling? More than a little.

Sometimes it's best to let the artists speak for themselves. "Alice" is Nerve's latest experiment in "consensual theater" in which, according to the company's web site, "It's all about the senses." Nerve is all about "immersive, audience participatory shows in non-traditional spaces." This non-traditional space is the school associated with Drayton Avenue Presbyterian Church in Ferndale. Usually, audiences sit and watch performers. For "Alice," performers meet you in the lobby and sweep you up into the show.

"Alice" is an original work, based on characters and motifs created by Lewis Carroll in his timeless novels "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass, and "What Alice Found There." Regardless of their appeal to the very young, the "Alice" books aren't kid stuff. Carroll was a geometrician, a discipline based on rigid logic. His pair of novels are revels in the illogical, full of elegant word play. What better theme could one adopt for alternative theater than the madness created when a mathematician blows off steam?

"Alice" is highly conceptual, intensely stylized. The costumes and makeup only suggest character; voice and gesture are paramount. Our guide down the rabbit hole is the White Rabbit, who encourages us to explore the installation on our own. Sticking close to the bunny, though, keeps you in the center of the action. Her cohorts include a Mad Hatter and a March Hare, a Cheshire Cat, a Pale King and a malevolent Red Queen. And Alice? She's a raffia-haired puppet that the Rabbit pushes around in a cart.

Classrooms on both sides of a darkened hallway are transformed into "settings" for the play; they are themselves works of art. The attention to detail is striking.

The Hatter may be called "mad," but the fundamental theme of "Alice" is summed up by the evocative observance of the Cheshire Cat, "We're ALL mad here." And indeed, what started out as a romp in a garden of talking flowers descends into a darker, more twisted journey.

In the spirit of ensemble theater, Nerve provides no program for "Alice," but a tour of their website reveals that the core company are Laura Bailey, Steve Xander Carson, Marisa Dluge, Chris Jakob, John Denyer and Kathe Koja. They are familiar faces on Metro stages, but audiences at other venues haven't experienced them quite so up close and personal. This is "immersive" theater; even though participation is "consensual," the production is very much "in your face." But no audience members were harmed in the making of "Alice."

This is an experience for the adventuresome only – the adventuresome and the physically fit. I mean, plays have left me breathless in the past, but not quite in this manner. The painfully shy, like yours truly, can try to hide in the shadows, but it's likely that Red Queen will ferret you out. And that's a fate you really don't want.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Alice'
Nerve
at Drayton Avenue Presbyterian Church
2441 Pinecrest Dr., Ferndale
9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, 24, 31
9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, 25
Children 14 and over accompanied by parent/guardian only
1 hour, 20 minutes; no intermission
$30; $75 Halloween. All tickets are pre-sale only
248-506-4335
www.gonerve.com

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Alice - Nerve

Read PATTY NOLAN's review – Detroit Theater Examiner (Oct. 11, 2014)


 

Connections made on Thursday nights

By Amy J. Parrent

REVIEW: "Missed Connections: The Movie (Live on Stage)"

Go Comedy! Improv Theater

Posted: Oct. 13, 2014 at 11:19 a.m.; updated Oct. 14, 2014 at 10:48 a.m.

Go Comedy! continues on Thursdays with an assortment of scripted experiences with more on-the-edge improv.

Despite its billing as a filmmaking experience, the early evening show "Missed Connections: The Movie (Live on Stage)" is mostly a series of live vignettes (yes, there's a term someone could do an entire sketch about).

This troupe, a former mainstay of "The Sunday Buffet" show now promoted to nighttime, includes James Cerini, Jessica Loria, Kevin Lytle, Nuverre Naami, Tom Novik, Sean Robinson and Jason Valentini, with direction by Gary Lehman.

The hour-plus ranges from bits on a fixed Bingo game to a bizarre salsa lesson, as well as an interview that gives new meaning to the phrase "hot job market."

There are restaurant themes: A slap-happy night at an Applebee's, and – one of the best sketches – a Japanese chef who knows just what the customer needs.

Meanwhile, a man and a woman are spicing up the bedroom with roleplaying, the basis for videos interspersed through the evening. With his wife having nervously blurted out an interest in U.S. history, the husband attempts to launch sexy times dressed up as famous presidents. It does not go well. ("Nobody wants to f*** Nixon.")

One of the ensemble's standouts is Jason Valentini, convincing in a mix of roles, from various Dads to a man you definitely don't want answering the door on your trick-or-treat outing. Let's just say he went way overboard on creating his costume.

Valentini commits fully to the guy who's gone mad for Halloween, leading one theatre-goer to comment afterward, "If I wasn't afraid of clowns before, I am now."

The show takes a fling at tying the disparate bits together at evening's end. Some of the sketches are a bit rough around the edges, lacking either a clear strong premise or enough punch to carry it through. And Loria and Naami could sometimes project a bit more. But although parts lack polish, the cast works well as a group, pushing out energy and enthusiasm.

Each week, a different improv troupe will open the evening. On opening night it was the three-man crew called Javelin (Gary Lehman, Bob Wieck and James Quesada). First up was a trio of doctors – or were they kids playing doctor? – with a fascination for certain medical terms: "sternum, septum – all the ‘ums.'" Then they jumped to "exotic Greektown" where two girls were picking up a guy whom they begged to "say something in Greekish."

And just to reinforce that this is indeed Michigan-based improv, we returned to the doctors, now dumping on the Spartans of MSU, singing about its med school to the tune of "Hail to the Victors."

Throw in "Missed Connections" earlier references to local sights and businesses, and it's a reminder that no matter what school colors you bleed, part of the appeal of taking in Go Comedy! on a thirsty Thursday is that local flavor.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Missed Connections: The Movie (Live on Stage)'
Go Comedy! Improv Theater
261 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, 23, 30, Nov. 6
90 minutes
$10
248-327-0575
www.gocomedy.net

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A spirited romp at Go!

By Amy J. Parrent

REVIEW: "The Die Centennial"

Go Comedy! Improv Theater

Posted: Oct. 13, 2014 at 10:44 a.m.

Thursday nights in October at Go Comedy! Improv Theater end with the two-person improv, "The Die Centennial." A duo of jovial, off-the-wall spirits are celebrating 100 years of death with a look back at some of the highlights, lowlights and lowlifes they have observed from their incorporeal state.

Henry and Agnes Mortelli – James Quesada and Heather Sejnow – failed to receive an invitation to either heaven or hell upon their demise, although they suspect the latter is where they belong. So they wander the world, and into the audience, amiably chatting about a century of very odd observances.

Singling out audience members for brief inquisitions (no actual torture involved), the answers to their questions are springboards to eccentric improvs, using as props a few wigs, scarves and boas which they fling over their clothing, an appropriate approximation of their old turn-of-the-20th-century garb.

There was, they recall, the 1930s torture chamber that didn't seem THAT bad. And a 1950 cheerleading team whose overly elaborate rah-rah-rahs reveal a certain lack of sports knowledge. ("Kick it if you have to – or throw it, if that's your job.")

Quesada has a wonderful strong theatrical voice. Sejnow brings a particularly effervescent and wacky high spiritedness to her ghost, whether she‘s portraying a torture victim or a sexually starved Slav.

Upon being told by one man in the audience that he'd once been bitten by a horse named Steve, Senjow casually dropped, "Oh, if I had a dollar for every Steve that bit me … I'd have three dollars."

Another audience talk somehow led to a tale of two freezing-cold Russian lovers, and then an aside about the spirits' own disastrous attempts at a post-mortal coupling. Senjow scrunched her face as she remembered with distaste, "There was ectoplasm everywhere."

But the squeamish can be assured, these spirits are more garrulous than ghoulish, and the pair create a fine improv nightcap.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Die Centennial'
Go Comedy! Improv Theater
261 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale
10 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, 23, 30
$5
248-327-0575
www.gocomedy.net

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World-premiere parody puts the horror in puberty

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Are You There God? It’s Me, Carrie"

The Ringwald Theatre

Posted: Oct. 13, 2014 at 10:05 a.m.

In 1970, an emerging writer published a seminal young-adult novel of a preteen girl figuring out school, fitting in, boys, religious faith, and her developing body. The book was groundbreaking for its forthright discussion of sexual development, particularly the topic of menstruation. In 1974 came another writer's first published novel, which told the story of a different schoolgirl grappling with some bloody similar religious, social, and pubertal troubles. Although thematically comparable, that book was notable for…different reasons. Then in 2014, a pair of Michigan playwrights decided these two just had to get together.

Judy Blume, meet Stephen King. And brace yourselves for the Ringwald Theatre world premiere of "Are You There God? It's Me, Carrie."

For the concept alone, playwrights Lisa Melinn and Dyan Bailey deserve adulation. Mashed together, these two distinctive tales are as complementary as peanut butter and jelly. Their adaptation largely follows the milestones of the Judy Blume book, but vastly reimagines the girl-talking meetings of the secret club the Four Pre-Teen Sensations to replace Margaret with new girl Carrie White (Meredith Deighton). How would the young confidantes' frank dialogues change if one of them, say, had a demented, ultra-fundamentalist mother with dangerously wackadoo notions of sin and sexuality and a hankering for child abuse? How would sheltered, isolated Carrie's fortunes fare if she could be part of a gang at long last, and buy her first bra and go to a boy-girl party in a classmate's basement?

Here, the central girl characters operate together at a heightened dynamic of catty candor. As the group's ringleader, Nancy (Brittany Michael) maintains an air of worldly pretense, rolling her controlling tendencies and her mother's skanky influence into an outlandish persona of queen bee proto-tramp. DeAnnah Kleitz-Singleton excels as the perennially hectored, cookie-hoarding Gretchen, both in brooking dissent loud enough for the audience to hear and in subsequently backing down, and tomboy Janie (Katy Schoetzow) is farcically unsubtle in telegraphing her Sapphic leanings. Meanwhile, Deighton's Carrie hones a kind of skittish schizophrenia, innocently chirping her mother's backward lessons one moment, then spitting invective or manifesting uncontrolled telekinetic powers the next.

The production is every inch the 1970s, from groovy costume dresses and wigs (Melinn) to configurable set pieces (Gwen Lindsay) adorned with ripped-from-a-paperback designs. The design team also can't ignore the massive influence of the 1976 film "Carrie," pulling out lookalike costume pieces, strewing religious-icon properties (Schoetzow), borrowing familiar music cues (Bailey), and reserving an entire corner of the set for the looming-crucifix horror show that houses Carrie's mother, Mrs. White (Lauren Bickers).

The scenes with Carrie and her mother may be the best preserved from the source, which is an absolute godsend, because Bickers needs no enhancements to bring fireworks to this bat-guano crazy role. The result is less performance than possession, from full-throated invocations to histrionic crazy eyes; even her lying in wait is a laugh riot. No doubt the deck was always going to be stacked in favor of this outsized character, but the hilarity of Bickers's insistent command readily ensures that nothing else in this show comes close.

Ringwald newcomer Joel Hunter is a capable utility player, portraying all the show's men with everything from popular-boy suave to geeky exuberance. Beyond writing, designing, and also directing, Bailey appears onstage as well, both as a thick-skinned, resented early bloomer classmate and in a brief boozy stint as a grownup.

Although the laughs in store are big and unapologetically ribald, the production does suffer some inconsistencies, with fits and starts that most often surround the musical interludes. Yes, these characters sometimes pause to reflect in (period-appropriate) song, intoning intact or gently tweaked lyrics to the sound of a karaoke track. The song choices are passable, and one or two are simply ingenious for their comic juxtaposition. Yet more often than not, the audience is treated to a sparse handful of relatively funny discoveries dragged through a three-minute span of vocally unremarkable filler and clumsy aping of Schoetzow's choreography, heaving this otherwise breezy piece just over the one-hour mark.

In the Ringwald's campy, parodic pantheon, the rock-solid premise of "Are You There God? It's Me, Carrie" makes it another worthy entry. This wild – and wildly excessive – show lovingly desecrates what was a hugely formative pop culture touchstone for many women, while paying seasonally appropriate homage to a horror classic. Despite some disorder and energy dips, the bulk of the content is strong and purposeful, the outlandish, slapdash humor is in good form, and crackpot darling Mrs. White is always just around the corner, waiting to jolt the proceedings with a welcome Bible to the face.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Are You There God? It's Me, Carrie'
The Ringwald Theatre
22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale
8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, 25, Nov. 1
3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19, 26, Nov. 2
8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 13, 20, 27, Nov. 3
65 minutes; no intermission
$10-20
248-545-5545
www.theringwald.com

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Are You There God? It's Me, Carrie - The Ringwald Theatre

Read DENISE MILLS MANZAGOL's review – The Oakland Press (Oct. 15, 2014)


 

Dracula haunts Dio dinner theater

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "Dracula The Musical

The Dio - Dining & Entertainment

Posted: Oct. 5, 2014 at 7 p.m.

'Tis the season for ghouls, ghosts, pumpkins and vampires.

Those looking for the latter to spice up their Halloween season can head to The Dio in Pinckney and get their fill of the Bram Stoker tale told in all its classic glory. Forget Buffy and "Twilight." Forget the campy memes or modern twists on the legend. This is Count Dracula, Van Helsing, Mina, Lucy, Jonathan Harker and Renfield, straight out of the 1897 gothic horror novel.

Even the music, and the twist on the ending, is fully gothic in genre and style.

The tale? "Dracula The Musical" with music by Frank Wildhorn, the creator of the musical "Bonnie and Clyde: A New Musical."

Steve DeBruyne is the busiest man in the house, fulfilling the roles of artistic director, director of this musical, Jonathan Harker and head waiter for this dinner theater. While that may seem a heavy load, he carries it with grace and skill. The stage pictures are carefully planned and spread out among Matthew Tomich's two-story set. The pacing is sometimes ponderous, but this adds to the gothic feel of the musical. There are no comedic moments in this script. It is meant to be creepy and frightening, a traditional telling of the horror tale. DeBruyne captures this and keeps the intensity high.

The play opens with Harker arriving at Count Dracula's castle in Transylvania on a stagecoach. Joshua David Cavanaugh greets Harker with suitable creepiness and soon launches into his song "A Solitary Man," showing off his strong vocal abilities and rich timbred voice, though with an accent that sometimes muffled the lyrics.

The music, directed and conducted by Tyler Driskill, is rich and full, with a live orchestra of keyboard, cello, percussion and violin hidden behind the set. The score is filled with several solos, allowing the musical to feature the strong voices gathered in this cast, along with some beautifully arranged chorus numbers that infuse energy and hope into the story at key moments.

Sarah Brown's Mina is strong and as pure as Jonathan describes her in the first scene. She shows a real struggle between what she ought to do and the mind-controlling compulsion that Dracula throws on her. While Lucy, played by Mahalia Greenway, gave in easily and quickly to Dracula's calling, Mina resists, even after things seem hopeless.

Greenway does a beautiful job – first as the innocent young girl choosing among her three suitors, and then as the sexy and insane vampire filled with bloodlust and a passion for Dracula.

Midway through the first act, the audience gets to meet Jared Schneider's Renfield, a mental hospital patient who eats flies and spiders and who talks to Dracula in his mind. Schneider plays this grotesque man to the hilt, and his voice in "The Master's Song" is impressive and clear. His scenes, both in the first and second act, are highlights in the show, a true creepiness injected into the Victorian setting. His is a commanding presence that contrasts well with Cody Musteffe's Jack Seward, the doctor in the insane asylum, and one of Lucy's suitors.

Andrew Gorney's Abraham Van Helsing is another highlight of the show, with his barely hidden pain and his obsession with finding and defeating Dracula – the demonic Nosferatu he sings about with passion and conviction.

The posse of vampire hunters, played by Gorney, DeBruyne, Musteffe Peter Crist and Zak Stratton, raise the tensions in the second act, a group of men with little but conviction and scant knowledge to stir them on against the supernatural and seemingly all-powerful abilities of their foe. They open the act with the exciting "Undead One," where they confront the turned Lucy. Later they are almost heart-breaking in "You Have My Word."

Speaking of heart-breaking, DeBruyne's solo, "Before the Summer Ends," is a haunting love song that sets the stakes high for the remainder of the show.

Set designer Tomich also designed lighting and sound. While both designs were intricate and demanding, there were execution problems with the lighting, as spots often led the actors rather than captured them and there were odd moments of dark faces that seemed unintentional. However, the backlighting and silhouettes were stunning and added much to the show's spookiness, especially in the scenes with the vampires who haunted the story behind set pieces before coming out to feast.

Norma Polk's costumes were traditional Victorian, with the real triumph being the series of dresses worn by Mina. In her costumes we see the transition that takes place in Mina spelled out symbolically in color and fabric.

"Dracula The Musical" is a heavy production, meant to haunt in theme, story and music. The Dio stays true to Wildhorn's interpretation, paying attention to the details that make a tale gothic. It's fine October fare and served with a delicious dinner of fried chicken and exceedingly tender ribs.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Dracula The Musical'
The Dio - Dining and Entertainment
135 E. Main St., Pinckney
6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10, 17, 24, 31
6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, 18, 25, Nov. 1
12:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12, 19, 27, Nov.2
12:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30
2 hours, 36 minutes
$35-41
517-672-6009
www.diotheatre.com

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Dracula The Musical - The Dio

Read RONALD BAUMANIS' review - Mostly Musical Theatre (Oct. 12, 2014)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Oct. 9, 2014)


 

Frankenstein story finds hope amid despair

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "The Gravedigger, A Frankenstein Story"

Williamston Theatre

Posted: Oct. 4, 2014 at 7:11 p.m.

Mary Shelley has captured the imagination of artists everywhere since publishing her novel "Frankenstein" in 1818.

The novel has spawned books, plays, cartoons, movies, other novels, costumes and art work. These works have spawned genres from horror to comedy to drama to musicals.

Williamston Theatre opens its ninth season with a world premiere of the latest of these offerings, a new play by Joseph Zettelmaier dubbed "The Gravedigger, A Frankenstein Story," directed by John Lepard.

The play takes place in a cemetery outside Ingolstadt, Bavaria in the late 1700s. It is, we learn, where the parts that make up the creature come from. Victor Frankenstein has hired a gravedigger to dig up the needed parts for him. Much later, the monster, on the run from Victor, shows up at the cemetery, drawn there for reasons he doesn't understand. He enters an open grave and plans to die there. In Mary Shelley's novel, Zettelmaier's play would be set in chapter 23, in that period after he has fled and before he and the doctor have their final confrontation.

An unlikely friendship develops between the broken gravedigger, played by Mark Colson, and the creature who takes on the name Anton, played by Alex Leydenfrost.

Zettelmaier's play is an exploration of what makes a person human. If we are more than the collection of our parts, when does our soul develop? How do we learn to overcome our impulses and to become more than a collection of emotions and reactions?

Colson's Kurt, the gravedigger, limps onto the scene with wry humor and a pain that goes beyond his aching leg. He is a loner whose good heart shines through. He talks about the pain of the world and how it can only be endured, never avoided, yet he himself brings comfort and aid to others. He reaches out to Anton and patiently endures what other men might flee from.

In a cast of solid, strong actors, Colson shines with a strength that comes from his character's brokenness. He never loses the limp, and his actions are always consistent with that of a man who has a crushed leg. He also portrays the brokenness of spirit, a man who has lost all but still hasn't given up hope that people can be helped.

Leydenfrost captures the creature with a combination of slow speech and ponderous movements. He is an intelligent monster, one who is growing into life and starting to understand the world around him. Leydenfrost finds the perfect note that avoids the stereotype of the monster and creates a person that others can relate to. He is child-like and powerful at the same time. He is also, as the character says about himself early on, "damaged" – and Leydenfrost speaks and moves like a man who is damaged on the inside and despairing of redemption.

Joe Seibert is the young doctor who is on a mission to undo his mistakes and eliminate the monster he created. Victor, too, is a broken man, a man who is crazed from watching all those he loved be destroyed by what was supposed to be his greatest triumph. He is obsessed with revenge and blind to anything that might temper it. Seibert brings this single-mindedness to the role, finding both the doctor's strengths and weaknesses. He forces the questions: Who is the monster, and who is the man? Can too much sorrow cause a person to lose his soul?

Rounding out the cast is Alysia Kolascz, a gypsy named Nadya who raids the cemetery for bones and grave dirt so she can tell the future to her clients. Like Kurt, Nadya has lost much and yet still is able to see the good in Anton and recognize his growing soul. Kolascz brings a contrasting energy to the stage. She moves lightly despite her sorrow and smiles with a real lightness. If Kurt represents justice, Nadya is love, a love that is young, pure and simple, but no less deep for its brightness.

It is the relationships between these characters that bring strength to the play, for each of them draws something from the other. They learn from each other – in positive and negative ways – and the actors are able to bring a vulnerability to each of their characters that open the path for the relationships to bloom.

Central to this is the relationship between Kurt and Anton. Both men emerged changed from their encounter with the other, changed in life-altering ways. Anton finds a humanity that makes him more than a monster, while Kurt finds hope for redemption.

Lepard and his team of designers put laser-like focus on these relationships. Kirk Domer's set is representational, a series of wooden ramps and platforms, built up to allow the misty grave to dominate the upstage area, while a table and chairs create the downstage gravedigger' hut. Daniel C. Walker's lighting brings out the forest in the painted stage backdrop. Michelle Raymond finds music to create dramatic transitions between scenes, along with the sounds of the cemetery that so entrance Anton and guide him to feeling the presence of God.

Karen Kangas-Preston provides period costumes, including a series of changes for Anton. The makeup is uncredited, but someone did an excellent job of capturing the grotesque that is hidden for most of the play under a series of bandages.

Lepard approaches this script with great care, finding the humanity and emotions in it. He balances the violence with peaceful moments, the heaviness with humor, and the despair with hope. Each are given their time on stage with a commitment to telling the story that Zettelmaier has mined from Mary Shelley's novel.

In the end, the play is one of hope and redemption. It is one that shows the value of friendship, of trust, and of the belief that people can change, even those people who have nothing left to lose.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Gravedigger, A Frankenstein Story'
Williamston Theatre
122 S. Putnam Road, Williamston
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, 16, 23, 30
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10, 17, 24, 31
3 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4, 11, 18, 25, Nov. 1
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5, 12, 19, 26, Nov. 2
1 hour, 55 minutes
$10-27
517-655-7469
www.williamstontheatre.org.

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Gravedigger, A Frankenstein Story - WIlliamston Theatre

Read KATE O'NEILL's review - Lansing State Journal (Oct. 9, 2014)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Oct. 9, 2014)

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review – Detroit Free Press (Oct. 7, 2014)

Read MARY CUSACK's review – CITY PULSE (Oct. 8, 2014)


 

The Lehrer report: Be prepared for fun

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "Tomfoolery"

The Penney Seats Theatre Company

Posted: Oct. 3, 2014 at 2:14 p.m.; updated Oct. 19, 2014 at 11:24 a.m.

So, how is Tom Lehrer holding up these days? Not the man himself, he's 86 and living in California, but his songs, those hilarious exemplars of subversive wit that without benefit of radio airplay or the support of a major label went viral in the 1950s and '60s, or whatever the equivalent of going viral was back then.

For answers we turn to Ann Arbor's Penny Seats Theatre Company, which has dusted off and freshened up "Tomfoolery," the 1980 revue of Lehrer songs, and is presenting it cabaret-style at a downtown restaurant/pub, Conor O'Neill's, on Thursday nights.

Put together by Cameron Mackintosh (yes, that Cameron Mackintosh) and Robin Ray, "Tomfoolery" offers more than two dozen Lehrer compositions covering topics that range from the way one letter can change the sound and meaning of a word (written for a children's TV show) to sexually transmitted diseases (not written for a children's TV show).

A spirited four-person cast and piano accompanist have a ball with such Lehrer favorites as "Be Prepared" ("Don't solicit for your sister, that's not nice/ Unless you get a good percentage of the price"), "The Masochism Tango" ("You can raise welts/ Like nobody else"), "The Vatican Rag" ("Ave Maria/ Gee it's good to see ya") and "The Irish Ballad" ("She weighted her brother down with stones/ Rickety-tickety-tin…/And sent him off to Davy Jones").

Lehrer didn't just write wickedly funny lyrics. Each of those songs is musically accurate. "Be Prepared," ("the Boy Scouts marching song"), is a sprightly march; melodically, "The Masochism Tango" could pass for the real thing in Buenos Aires; without lyrics "The Vatican Rag" sounds like a ragtime tune circa 1900, and if "The Irish Ballad" were played on fiddle, flute and bodhran it could easily become a standard on St. Patrick's Day.

Other Lehrer efforts now seem like museum pieces. Songs about the Cold War, nuclear annihilation and pollution appear quaint at a time when our bigger worries are terrorism, mysterious diseases and climate change. Overall, though, Lehrer's oeuvre remains highly entertaining.

Matt Cameron, Laura Sagolla, Roy Sexton and Brent Stansfield are lusty singers whose appreciation for the material is fully evident. Pianist Rebecca Biber's accompaniment does the job, but it's a bit restrained, the better to hear the (unmiked) singers, I suppose, but one misses the hearty attack of Lehrer (a fine pianist) in his prime.

Director Lauren London has added inspired props and bits of business to many of the numbers. Especially clever are the posters on sticks – protest signs on one side, guitars on the other – and the way the folks killed off in "The Irish Ballad" eventually rise as zombies.

One practical note: You can enjoy "Tomfoolery" as a stand-alone performance or as a performance with dinner. You'll sit closer if you opt for the dinner and have a better chance at seeing everything.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Tomfoolery'
The Penny Seats Theatre Company
at Conor O'Neill's Irish Pub and Restaurant
318 S. Main St., Ann Arbor
6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, 16, 23 (with dinner; or 8 p.m. curtain)
6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9 (with dinner; or 8 p.m. curtain)
1 hour, 20 minutes
$20 with dinner; $10 show only
734-926-5346
www.pennyseats.org

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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.; updated Oct. 23, 2014 at 9:21 a.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
$27-41
734-663-0681
www.pntheatre.org

The production then moves to:

City Theatre
inside the Hockeytown Cafe
2301 Woodward Ave, Detroit
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 31
2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 1
1 p.m. & 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2
$30
313-471-6611
www.olympiaentertainment.com

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

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Oct. 9, 2014)

Read PATTY NOLAN's review – Detroit Theater Examiner (Oct. 4, 2014)

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
$15-42
734-433-7673
www.purplerosetheatre.org.

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

Read TOM HELMA's review - City Pulse (Oct. 3, 2014)

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (Oct. 2, 2014)

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

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


 

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

By Dana Casadei

REVIEW: "ComedySportz Detroit"

Michigan Actors Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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