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“Urinetown” fills park with satiric comedy

by Bridgette Redman

REVIEW: Urinetown the Musical

Penny Seats Theatre

Article:10061; Posted: August 1, 2015 at 7:00 p.m.

Make sure you pee before Penny Seats Theater Company’s show, otherwise halfway through the first act, you’ll be cringing with the actors—they do that good of a job of eliciting sympathy for having to pee and not being able to.

The musical is “Urinetown” and it’s the place everyone is trying to avoid. But to do so, they have to pay to pee, and the fees keep going up. For those who just don’t have the money—they face exile to Urinetown.

Penny Seats performs in West Park in Ann Arbor in the summery outdoors. You’re invited to bring a picnic lunch, lawn chairs or blankets.

Director Lauren M. London has her work cut out for her with the space. There is a moat between the bandshell where the orchestra plays and the main staging area where most of the action takes place. She has no choice but to let some of her actors be seen before the arrive on stage as they have a bit of a hike to get to the stage, but she manages that well and creates compelling stage pictures so that you’re not looking off to the sides.

Roy Sexton plays Officer Lockstock, the narrator for the evening. He kicks off the musical with a speech that prepares the audience for what they can expect—an evening of satire and parody. Little Sally (Paige Martin) joins him in his early exposition and they frequently break the fourth wall to outright talk about the musical. Both are skilled in their roles. Sexton narrates with aplomb, moving in and out easily of narrator and police officer. Martin is loveable and innocent, asking naïve questions that Sexton answers magnanimously. She has great physicality, doing cartwheels and splits and interacting with the teddy bear she carries with her. She believably creates a child much younger than her actual age.

Linda Rabin Hammell brings character and spice to the role of Penelope Pennywise. She’s peppery as the custodian of Public Facility #9, insisting that everyone pay the proper fee else not get to pee. Her voice is perfect for the role.

Brendan Kelly makes a handsome lead as Bobby Strong, the revolutionary leader who follows his heart. He’s earnest and heroic, with a strong singing voice that carries him through his many songs. The wind that night wreaked havoc with his microphone, but that is one of the perils of outdoor theater and he adjusted as well as possible.

Playing opposite Kelly was Maika Van Oosterhout as Hope Cladwell. Hers was a fun role and she carried it off with style and grace. Her eyes were constantly wide, portraying an innocence and naîveté that fit the part well. She was especially amusing dancing while bound and gagged in a chair.

There were no weak members in the ensemble either. Each of them had their own characteristics, making them individuals while still fulfilling the part of an ensemble. They were giving to each other and changed quickly between roles when doubled. They did an especially good job as the town’s poor who desperately needed to pee in the first act and in the second were revolutionaries that were brash and frightened.

The singing, under the musical direction of Richard Alder, was impressive, as was the pit band that performed the music to accompany it. There were complicated harmonies throughout and upbeat songs that often belied what they were singing about. Again, the winds caused some problems with microphones that distorted sounds, but the actors were usually close enough that they could overcome that without amplification.

Victoria Gilbert’s choreography was most often amusing and always fit with the character of the show. Bridget Bly deserves a callout for her costumes. She provided good contrast between the UGC employees and the run-down poor of the city. She also made it possible to switch in and out of costumes, sometimes right on stage.

Penny Seats Theater Company also asks for some unusual donations during the show. Yes, every theater asks for donations, but Penny Seats is the only one I’ve attended where they asked for donations of your pee. They gave out free water to those who were willing to pee in a specially marked port-a-john with the pee being donated to University of Michigan researchers.

All of this makes for an experience—one that is an enjoyable two hours out in the park with fine singers, actors and dancers and an amusing, satirical musical comedy.

Editor’s Note: EncoreMichigan’s editor-in-chief and publisher David Kiley was cast in Urinetown as Caldwell Cladwell before acquiring EncoreMichigan last March. We will leave others to assess his performance.

SHOW DETAILS:
Urinetown the Musical

Penny Seats Theatre
West Park, 215 Chapin St., Ann Arbor
July 30--August 15, 2015; Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:00 p.m
$10.00
734-926-5346
www.pennyseats.org

 

The Harrowing: exhilarating performance art, but with technical challenges

by John Quinn

REVIEW: The Harrowing

A Host of People

Article:10060; Posted: August 1, 2015 at 2:00 p.m.

Theater defies stereotype. Metro Detroit has seen a wealth of productions impossible to pigeonhole, frequently because the concept is so original there is no comparison. Exploring beyond the confines of conventional theater is an exciting adventure, but be prepared. In the case of The Harrowing, both artists and audience are venturing into uncharted territory.

It was not necessary, though, to physically travel in uncharted territory to find the Detroit performance company, A Host of People’s “interactive traveling piece,” “The Harrowing.” It is located on Grayfield Street, south of Fenkell, and I live within walking distance. Nor was the venue untamed jungle. Regardless of its location adjacent to Eliza Howell Park, where the mosquitoes are the size of sparrows, the venue was the serene, orderly Brightmoor Youth Garden, the first of nine Detroit community gardens the company will tour through September 19. And how well the venue suits the production! “The Harrowing” is a multimedia, musical celebration of the community garden experience.

This performance piece is a “one and only” because some creative artists dared push the envelope, willingly taking risks to convey the deep respect in which they hold their inspiration – the garden. Some risks don’t pay off – but those that do create an experience so unique that it’s hard to describe and impossible to duplicate.

Patrons arriving at the community garden will discover the performers; Joe Aasim, Torri Ashford, Siena Harris, Sam Moltmaker and Sarah Wilder busy setting the scene under the deft guidance of their stage manager, Mycah Artis. Our next discovery is that “The Harrowing” is not subject to an admission charge – at least not in dollars and cents. As the price of admission, each participant is given a small rock upon which to write his or her name. When returned, the rocks provide the means of dividing the audience into small, more intimate groups. Every group shares the same experiences but not in the same order.

“The Harrowing” comprises stand-alone scenes illustrating past, present and future and built on a common theme – the communal nature of gardening and its similarity to the communal spirit of artistic endeavor.

While all aspects of “The Harrowing” exhibit out-of-the-box thinking, some set pieces are so extraordinary that they’re not easily forgotten. Foremost among these is an oral autobiography of a humble but universally loved vegetable and the metaphor it provides for life itself. It’s set in counterpoint to a narration of the identity and history of Grayling Street; from its potential as territory of the Three Fires People, to a neighborhood in central Redford Township, then to its present, seemingly timeless tranquility on the western edge of Detroit. There is ocean wave-like pattern, a return to the core themes of cooperation, continuity and community. Bear in mind the extraordinary research and memorization involved in this scene alone. Brightmoor is only one of nine venues for “The Harrowing;” the experience will have to be recreated for each venue. Each performance is strictly one of a kind.

Alas, while some aspects soar, some fly lower. The introduction of the piece is an introduction to the garden itself via wireless headset. The visible performers possess an infectious, almost messianic zeal for the earth and its bounty; the narration via headset is hesitant, detached and makes fresh vegetables sound as appetizing as day-old oatmeal – cold. This is the time to evoke the excitement of a Gospel revival meeting.

I found myself, yet again, arguably the oldest audience member--the elderly and infirm should be forewarned. If the other gardens are similar to the Brightmoor Youth project the ground is uneven and covered in loose bark mulch; each step must be taken with care. The venue is outdoors, so is nominally barrier free, but it will pose a challenge for some participants. There is, however, a recurring problem one would hope can be addressed.

Not all the performers are trained actors. So, with the breeze as an additional distraction, good luck at times understanding dialogue spoken--but not well projected--from the other side of the plot. For those of us already experiencing significant hearing loss, that is disappointing. Comprehension is more of a problem when some of the spoken words are performed as a prose round--performers overlapping and repeating the same phrase. The resultant cacophony renders the material unintelligible. A slide show with accompanying sound track assembled from fragments of commentary from real Detroit community gardeners is presented across the street from the vegetable patches in a navy blue, nylon tent that on a hot summer day has all the appeal of a Native American sweat lodge. The sound track is faint and moves quickly; the slides cannot successfully compete with the sunlight that inevitably finds its way in. The exercise teeters on the edge of comprehension, yet one is left with the feeling something important remains just out of reach.

The above comments are minor observations compared to the overall impression of “The Harrowing.” Sherrine Azab and Jake Hooker, co-founders of a Host of People and the dreamers and directors of this new and rare piece of performance art, can be justifiably proud of its easy accessibility and fundamental honesty. Many times over they’ve demonstrated the truth in their theme. Whether working with rich soil or rich language, the creative process is, at its “roots,” the same.

Show details: plus Time 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Performance Schedule
Friday, July 31, 2015 at Brightmoor Youth Garden, Grayfield, just south of Fenkell, Detroit
Saturday Aug 1, 2015 at Royal Garden at the Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts, short excerpts only. Schedule TBD. Orchard & Lahser Rd, Detroit
Sunday Aug 2, 2015 at Vedic Education Garden, on Freud St. between Dickerson & Newport, Detroit
Saturday Aug 15, 2015 at Oakland Ave Urban Farm & Garden, 9354 Oakland St, Detroit
Sunday Aug 16 at Shipherd Greens, West Village Agnes & Shipherd, Detroit
Saturday Aug 22, 2015 at Frontier Garden, Woodbridge, on Avery St between Merrick & W. Edsel Ford Service Dr., Detroit
Sunday Aug 23, 2015 at Hubbard Farms Community Garden, on Hubbard between Porter and Bagley, Detroit
Sunday Sept 13, 2015 at Hope Takes Root, Wabash St & Perry St, Detroit
Saturday Sept 19 at Feedom Freedom, 866 Manistique St, Detroit

A google map of these locations can be found at here. Rain cancellations and rain dates will be rescheduled and announced on our website and all social media outlets.

For more information, check out the company's website: www.ahostofpeople.org.

 

Glam-rock radio hits wow them at The Barn

by Marin Heinritz

REVIEW: Rock of Ages

Barn Theatre

Article:10044; Posted: July 30, 2015 at 12:00 p.m.

Let’s face it: almost everything about the 1980s is better when we’re making fun of it.

The narrator of “Rock of Ages” describes the Reagan Era as “a sexier time” and L.A.’s infamous Sunset Strip as “a majestic acid-washed epicenter.” And that’s exactly where the delightfully silly show, currently at The Barn Theatre, takes us.

It’s a place where both men and women wear big hair, bold make up, glittery animal print clothes and high-waisted denim of all varieties. They drink wine- coolers and describe things as “rad” without irony.

It’s surprising how well the cheesy glam-rock radio hits work in this jukebox musical, in no small part because of the audience’s nostalgia for the songs. Even those of us who were too cool for Whitesnake, REO Speedwagon, and Quiet Riot can’t help but sing along to the anthem rock of our youth in the right context. (Just try not to be in awe of how Poison’s “Every Rose Has its Thorn” sounds as a big musical number with harmonizing coming from the house as well as the stage.)

And then, of course, there are the audience members who show up wearing mullets and pink leggings--Rocky Horror Show style. Don’t even try to tell them the music’s not great.

The point is that it doesn't really matter. In this wonderful production, the music transports us, sounds better than we remember and is terrifically fun. The incredibly thin plot also doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this show is full of hilarious, dynamic characters performed by actors who are so committed, they utterly pull us into this ridiculous parody and leave us wanting more. (Bonus: there’s a cabaret show afterwards.)

“Rock of Ages” opened on Broadway in 2009, ran for more than five years, was nominated for five Tony Awards and adapted for a 2012 film. It tells the story of Drew, just a city boy born and raised in south Detroit, a busboy at a famous metal club who wants to rock and is waiting for a girl like Sherrie, oh Sherrie, an aspiring actress, just a small-town girl living in a lonely world. They both want to know what love is and, you guessed it, are on their way to finding it in each other, though it’s nearly thwarted by an egomaniacal rocker, some lap dances and a couple of German developers aiming to take down the Bourbon Room.

Michael Tuck plays an earnest Drew and has an excellent piercing rock voice that isn’t overly polished. He shines especially in “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and performs terrific duets with Julie Grisham as Sherrie. She has a sweet strong voice and palpable chemistry with Tuck. She also has electric chemistry with Jamey Grisham who just about brings down the house as megalomaniac Stacee Jaxx every time he appears on stage; his rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” though, is especially hilarious and oddly erotic. Penelope Alex rocks it as Justice, the Gentlemen’s Club owner and “mother to many a lost soul.”

Comedic highlights include Hans Friedrichs as Franz and Kasady Kwiatkowska as Regina in spandex leotards and leg warmers doing a very aerobic rendition of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and Eric Parker as Dennis, the Bourbon Room pothead owner, and Kevin Robert White as Puck-like narrator Lonny in “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” a homoerotic duel of mullets complete with ballet lifts.

The four-piece band led by musical director Matt Shabala, though mostly hidden beneath Shy Iverson’s wonderfully functional multi-tiered set with dozens of stairs, performs many of the familiar hits better than the originals. Hans Friedrichs’ costumes are perfectly wild and wonderful, and Jamey Grisham’s choreography has just the right amount of air-guitar. And credit must be given to Rowan Renstrom-Richards for the exceptionally big hair.

Director Brendan Ragotzy has done it again. With an ideal cast and crew and a clever sense of humor, he has shown that The Barn is the place for big, fun, excellent rock musicals.

SHOW DETAILS:
Rock of Ages

The Barn Theatre
13351 West M-96, Augusta
July 28--August 9, 2015; Tuesday through Friday at 8:00 pm, Saturday at 5:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 5:00 p.m. 2015
$37.00
269.731.4121
www.barntheatreschool.org

 

Channeling Streisand in a one-character play

by Marin Heinritz

REVIEW: Buyer & Cellar

Mason Street Warehouse

Article:10031; Posted: July 26, 2015 at 6:00 p.m.

In 2010 celebrated singer, actor, director, and gay icon Barbra Streisand released “My Passion for Design,” a coffee table book full of photos and text by her about her extravagant Malibu estate, or more precisely, her exceptional wealth and good taste.

It was an invitation to mockery and jealousy, like so much of Babs’ career and public persona, but one over-the-top detail in the book captured the imagination of playwright Jonathan Tolins. Inspired by a decorative arts museum in Delaware, Streisand transformed a barn basement into a shopping mall full of her stuff. Tolins ran with this ridiculous fact and created a satire in which there is a clerk who organizes, dusts, prices and sells all the objects as well as mans the popcorn and frozen yogurt machines for the singular, predictably demanding, customer.

The result is “Buyer & Cellar,” a witty and hilarious one-man show, now playing at Mason Street Warehouse. Nic Cory plays Alex More, a two-bit L.A. actor who’s just been fired from a job as mayor of Toontown at Disneyland and lands the gig as the “stranger dressed as Mr. Whipple in [Barbra’s] basement.” Cory also plays Barry, Alex’s delightfully snarky boyfriend, “an underemployed screenwriter and habitual TCM watcher”; Sharon, Streisand’s personal assistant who suffers no fools; James Brolin; and the diva, of course, herself.

He embodies and juggles the characters and dynamic scenes between them with aplomb, and though he does a wonderful job physically channelling Streisand with small gestures and postures, his vocal acrobatics and achievements are the most impressive. In fact, this show would make for an excellent radio drama.

The set, designed by Stephen Dobay, is simple and dressed all in white, and features a false proscenium, two tables, a chair and a bench against a backdrop of 60 drawers. Jennifer Kules lights it mostly in pastels, and the lighting design beautifully creates distinct shifts in time and scene, as does the music, often snippets from Streisand’s most memorable films.

Director Michael Heitzman puts it all together with blocking that fills the stage and creates convincing spaces, though Cory’s delivery of the smart and funny dialogue can practically stand alone. Heavy with pop culture references, especially to Streisand’s career, it both celebrates and makes fun of gays, Jews, Brooklyn, and L.A., and the best audiences will be savvy about all of the above and understand more than a little Yiddish.

The right audience is crucial to this performance. Since Cory has no other actors to play with on stage, he relies on energy from the crowd to fuel him. The biggest energy and laughs come from the high-pitched scenes between Barry and Alex, and Barry’s incredibly funny synopsis and analysis of “The Mirror Has Two Faces” is practically worth the cost of admission.

Above all, the pleasures of this show are in witnessing the great imaginative powers of obsession unfold with delight. It’s a wonderful conceit in homage to one of our greatest living icons and all of us who may aspire to be such a worthy diva.

SHOW DETAILS:
Buyer & Cellar

Mason Street Warehouse
Saugatuck Center for the Arts, 400 Culver St., Saugatuck
July 24-August 9, 2015; check website for perfomance times
$36.00-$39.00
269.857.2399
www.sc4a.org

 

A fish called Toothy

by Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: Invasive Species

Tipping Point Theatre

Article:10030; Posted: July 26, 2015 at 6:00 p.m.

You’ve heard the story of the grumpy recluse whose hardened heart melts when a winsome but equally lonely boy/girl/dog/cat/wild animal enters his life…but you’ve never heard the story quite the way Joseph Zettelmaier tells it in “Invasive Species.”

To begin with, the agent of thaw is a particularly ugly fish. Moreover, “Invasive Species” is more comedic than sentimental--way more. Then, too, Zettelmaier’s latest work is the first play ever set in Gobles, Michigan. (That’s just a guess, but I’m pretty sure Euripides never got around to writing “Iphigenia at Gobles.”)

In its world premiere staging by Joseph Albright at Tipping Point Theatre, “Invasive Species” proves sweet and funny and raunchy--not necessarily in that order. You’ve got to like a play that begins with drunken, slovenly fisherman Earl Hobbs (Aral Gribble) bellowing out “I hate wearing pants!”

Earl hates pretty much everything and he provides a hint as to why, calling out pitifully to someone--a wife or girlfriend--who has left him. As we’ll soon see, he has habit of talking to things that can’t answer back. And then, after fishing all night, Earl reels in something he has never seen before, and our story takes off.

In the next scene, a uniformed conservation officer, Eden Selkirk (Melynee Saunders Warren) comes to his door to identify the fish that Earl is keeping in an aquarium. It turns out to be a snakehead, an African fish that has no business being in these waters. It’s invasive and a danger to native marine life. By law, Eden is required to confiscate and destroy it but Earl, sensing a kindred spirit in the fish, which he names Toothy, will have none of it. Eden, sensing something kindred in Earl--although they are antagonists on the surface--lets Toothy remain in Earl’s tank.

Like Toothy, much of what passes between Earl and Eden exists beneath the surface…until it doesn’t. And just who is the invasive species will become something for the audience to ponder.

Gribble and Saunders are an engaging duo. They are a physical contrast: he’s large, she’s slim. His character is loud and sloppy and, hers is soft-spoken and stands, even sits, ramrod straight. He is the big lug with a heart of gold and she is the straitlaced, by-the-book woman with a heart of gold.

Gribble is also a skilled physical comedian: his depiction of a drunken man trying to fish with one hand and pull up his pants with the other is delightful.

Jennifer Maiseloff creates in one appealing set an indoor and outdoor space, the outdoors wrapping itself around the indoors like a shawl, or a hug, with a large back wall of inviting woods that fall somewhere on a scale between “Lord of the Rings” and “Jurassic Park.”

Alex Gay’s lighting and Theresa Williams’ soundscape provide welcome layers of atmosphere--the scene where Earl and Eden watch a movie on TV is especially convincing--and Williams supplies an expertly curated selection of fishing songs before the play begins and pleasing instrumentals between scenes.

1 hour, 30 minutes

SHOW DETAILS:
Invasive Species

Tipping Point Theatre
361 E. Cady Street, Northville
July 23--August 23, 2015; 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, with matinees at 3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
$27.00-$32.00
248 347-0003
TippingPointTheatre.com

 

To sell out, or not? That’s the question in ‘Jihad Jones’

by Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: Jihad Jones

Theatre Nova

Article:10028; Posted: July 26, 2015 at 11:00 a.m.

Giving new meaning to the term “struggling actor,” Seattle playwright Yussef El Guindi presents a performer wrestling with an ethical dilemma: should he accept a lucrative, potentially star-making, role in a movie, or turn it down because he’d be promoting a loathsome stereotype of his own ethnic group.

Take the money? Or run?

Ashraf, the actor in question, is pulling down $200 a week in a way-off-Broadway—i.e. Los Angeles—production of “Hamlet” when his agent, Barry, offers him the movie gig. Ashraf recoils. The script is awful (“120 pages of toilet paper!”) and he’d be playing an Arab terrorist with no redeeming qualities. He’s been down this road before. Two years previously he’d rejected a film called “Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes,” which explains why he’s stuck making $200 a week playing Hamlet.

Ah, but for this new movie Ashraf would be paid $800,000 (Barry thinks he can bump it up to $1 million); his idol, a revered, socially conscious director, will be in charge, and the hottest young actress in Hollywood, one Cassandra Shapely, has signed on, too.

So, before you can say “Dr. Faustus” or any variant thereof, Ashraf is given pause.

Part forum, part farce, El Guindi’s comedy owes a bit to all those Faust tales about selling one’s soul to the devil, and perhaps a little something to Alice Childress’ 1955 drama “Trouble in Mind,” in which an African-American actress finds herself cast in a Broadway play that depicts black people unrealistically.

All the action takes place in Barry’s office. Ashraf and Barry are eventually joined by the revered director and the hot actress, while Barry’s secretary comes and goes. Under Carla Milarch’s brisk direction at Theatre Nova, “Jihad Jones” is consistently entertaining. It runs about 70 minutes (20 minutes less than the program indicates) and any greater length would risk emphasizing the play’s flaws, chief among them that it’s more an intellectual exercise than a look at real people in a real situation.

Which doesn’t mean Milarch and her cast do their darnedest not to notice. Michael Lopetrone is nicely understated as Ashraf, except for when the script calls for over-the-top acting. Dan Morrison is humorously fawning as Barry, Ashraf’s agent. As the idolized director, Julius, Phil Powers radiates a sense of being supremely comfortable about his place in the world. As Cassandra, Clearie McCarthy is underpowered as someone who is supposed to have taken Hollywood by storm, especially in contrast to Elizabeth Fritsch’s forceful portrayal of Peggy, Barry’s secretary.

Daniel C. Walker is credited as the production designer. Among his costume choices, Julius’ shorts and photo vest are just perfect, as is Peggy’s loud, bold dress. Barry’s rather bare-bones office does the job, and be sure to notice the realistic fake movie posters on the wall behind his desk, my favorite being “Gingerbread Man 2: The Passion of the Crust.”

SHOW DETAILS:
Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes

Theatre Nova
The Yellow Barn, 416 W. Huron, Ann Arbor
July 24--August 16, 2015;
Pay what you can with $20.00 suggested
734.635.8450
TheatreNova.org

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Jihad Jones - Theatre Nova

Read Dan Skora's review in The New Monitor

 

Catch "Hay Fever" in Holland

by Sue Merrell

REVIEW: Hay Fever

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre

Article:10027; Posted: July 25, 2015 at 1:00 p.m.

A weekend in the country may sound blissfully relaxing, unless you have “Hay Fever,” which in the Noel Coward vocabulary is a hilariously over-blown reaction to the pollen of melodrama exuded by the self-absorbed Bliss family. Hope Summer Repertory Theatre’s final show of the season is a perfect example of a play that’s still sparking laughter 90 years after its debut.

You know how some people can spin a personal problem into a cyclone, sucking in unsuspecting bystanders? Such high drama isn’t just a product of today’s minute-by-minute Facebook posts and media obsession with bad-mannered celebrities. It’s the sort of story Coward spins in his 1925 comedy.

Unbeknownst to each other, the four members of the Bliss family – novelist David, his retired actress wife Judith and their equally expressive grown children Sorel and Simon – have each invited a weekend guest to their home in the English countryside. But the unflappable housekeeper Clara welcomes each newcomer with the sort of ease that suggests surprises are routine in this household.

The play’s pace is very much the traditional 1920s three-act, although director Louis Rackoff has wisely eliminated the break between the second and third act. The opening act dawdles a bit by today’s standards introducing the crazy family members and their befuddled guests – Judith’s theater friend Sandy, the suspiciously vampy Myra, the diplomatic diplomat Richard and the painfully shy Jackie.

The comedy cyclone spins into full-force in the second act as the family and their guests play a parlor game and then pair up for games of romantic intrigue. No wonder by the next morning each guest is eager to escape while the Bliss family is still spinning in its own narcissistic world.

Susan Ericksen is perfect as the flamboyant, but –always-in-control Judith. Mark Kincaid has a nice touch as the debonair David, though the character isn’t on stage as much as I would have liked. Shannon Huneryager does a wonderful job of taking the small role of the housekeeper and making it shine with toe-tapping glee. The same is true of Kira Alsum who radiates discomfort as the shy Jackie. All the remaining cast members – Lucie DeSancy, Connor Briggs, Nosh Bridgestock, Ashlee Elizabeth Bashore and Kristopher Kuss – make excellent contributions to the witty whirlwind.

Director Rackoff makes good use of long pauses in the dialogue, when no one knows what to say, interrupted by perfectly timed bursts of characters speaking at once. He also has hilarious staging, such as the distinguished David riding around on a child’s tricycle or using the tricycle and a child’s rocking horse as acceptable guest seating for an otherwise formal tea with china cups and saucers.

The tricycle and rocking horse are part of an inspired set by Joe Flauto. The comfortably appointed cottage living room opens into a beautifully framed outdoor patio which becomes the stage for more than one pantomimed scene behind the main-stage action. The proscenium of this second stage is framed with paintings of harlequins and comedy/tragedy masks. The main set piece is a large fainting couch perfect for Judith, Sorel or Myra to arrange tempting reclines, and appropriate for fainting or other falls.

Kudos to sound designer Jeffrey Levin for the Chinese gong doorbell that creates its own anticipatory comedy. Kathryn Wagner’s costumes from Judith’s sparking evening dress to Myra’s deeply pleated, hip-hugging gown and Jackie’s eye-hiding cloche were perfect complements to all the dramatic excesses.

Between the British accents and the melodramatic acting style, I fear I missed the subtlety of many of Noel Coward’s well-written lines. But the audience was enjoying themselves. This is one “Hay Fever” you don’t mind catching.

SHOW DETAILS:
Hay Fever

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
DeWitt Stage, 141 E. 12th St., Holland
July 24, 25, 27, 29, 31 and August 4, 6
Evenings at 8:00 p.m.
$25.00-$30.00
616-395-7890
Hope.edu/hsrt

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Hay Fever - Hope Summer Repertory Theatre

Read Vicki and Steve's review in vickiandsteve.org

 

“The Art of Murder” is a grand killing

by David Kiley

REVIEW: The Art of Murder

Williamston Theatre

Article:10026; Posted: July 25, 2015 at 1:00 p.m.

“Just one more thing,” is a phrase made iconic by actor Peter Falk in his Columbo TV detective character. In “The Art of Murder,” at The Williamston Theatre, there are no trench coats or police for that matter, but the taut, funny murder yarn always seems to have one more thing…one more twist to keep the audience guessing.

“The Art of Murder,” a play by Joe DiPietro, who is perhaps best known for penning “Memphis” and the book and lyrics for “I love you, you’re perfect, now change,” had its first run in 2000. The plot seems heavily influenced by the real-life story of painter Margaret Keane, whose story about her and her slick, marketing-driven husband who secretly took credit for her work, was depicted in the 2014 film “Big Eyes.” DiPietro’s play focuses on Jack Brooks (Wayne David Parker), a bombastic artist who is taking credit for paintings create by his wife Annie (Robin Lewis-Bedz). Murder was not a part of the Keane’s real story, but it is an overlay to the play here that gives the tale a compelling arc that has audience members laughing and arching eyebrows throughout.

We’ll not dish out any plot spoilers here. Parker, as the overbearing, lecherous, misogynistic Jack hurls his bantam-weight bathing-suit-and-robe clad figure all over the theatre deftly, propelling his character and mixing meanness with humor. He reminds this reviewer a bit of a 1970s Mel Brooks, though able to showcase darker shades of mean and evil here in between the giggle lines. Lewis-Bedz had me worried a bit at the start of the play as her milquetoast quality seemed like lack of stage energy, and I just wasn’t buying her as the wife of Jack. But then it becomes clear that Jack’s love has everything to do with her brush-strokes rather than her wiles as a woman. And Lewis-Bedz, in fact, evolves her character just right for the story and nails the character’s submissive nature turned into deviousness and then self-confidence.

Dave Davies as Vincent, Brooks’ art dealer, is a treat to watch and listen to. He is flamboyant without too much butter and lavender. His performance is layered, as it needs to be, as no one in this story is quite what they seem when you first meet them. Julia Garlotte as Kate, the Irish housekeeper, is a bit of walk-in/walk-out character, but she ends up playing a pivotal role to the conclusion. She is nicely salty in places, and her Irish accent was nicely authentic.

"The Art of Murder" is a tidy, taut story, and something of a theatrical bon-bon. So, enjoy. Though there is no eating allowed inside the theater. Director Tobin Hissong orchestrates a very clean, tight production and very strong performances from an extremely well-cast group of actors. Set design by Bartley H. Bauer and sound design by Quintessa Gallinat accent the production nicely. The set is one room of a very large house, and it comes across that way very nicely through the clever use of sound and speakers and an intercom system in the house, rather than it feeling like a room floating in space.

If you like a good Sherlock Holmes story, or “Columbo,” then there is no reason not to like this very strong production. Being in the middle of this three-dimensional murder just the place to be.

SHOW DETAILS:
The Art of Murder

Williamston Theatre
122 S. Putnam St., Williamston
July 16--August 23, 2015; Thursday-Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
$22-$27 with discounts available for seniors, students and military
517-655-SHOW
www.williamstontheatre.org

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Art of Murder - Williamston Theatre

Read Dan Skora's review in The New Monitor

Read BRIDGETTE REDMAN's review in Lansing State Journal

Read LIZ BALL's review in WilliamstonToday.com

 

Slipstream’s “Shrew” a far cry from tame

by Frank Anthony Polito

REVIEW: Taming of the Shrew

Slipstream Theatre Initiative

Article:10007; Posted: July 21, 2015 at 6:00 p.m.

Slipstream Theatre Initiative closes out its current season with the Shakespeare comedy “The Taming of the Shrew.” Under the direction of company founder Bailey Boudreau, this “Shrew” presents a fresh take on the classic “Will boy get girl?”--the story of lovers Petruchio and Katharina, aka Kate.

At a brisk non-stop 80 minutes, Boudreau’s group of 11 actors act-out a truncated--and accessible--version of the centuries-old story. What makes this production all the more impressive is that over half of Boudreau’s actors are high school and college-aged young adults.

But this is no Theater for a Young Audience. Think of this “Shrew” as a CW or ABC Family TV show, featuring a cast of beautiful teens, along with a few obligatory adults playing the parents. Standouts among the talented cast include Maxim Vinogradov, an upcoming freshman at University of Michigan, as Lucentio, the would-be lover to Kate’s sister Bianca, and Madeleine Hughes, an upcoming senior at West Bloomfield High School, in the role of Grumio, (wo)man servant to our hero Petruchio. With Vinogradov’s first line there is a sense that the young actor has been doing this for quite some time, judging by his command of the classic text. With Hughes, her comic take on her character is so subtle that you have to think about what she has just said before you totally start cracking up.

In the more “adult” roles, Luna Alexander literally sparkles as our heroine Katharina. (All the women in Boudreau’s production wear pink sparkling Prom-style dresses, while the men sport blue silky shirts and ties designed by Boudreau himself.) Alexander is a pretty presence onstage, with a pretty sharp tongue. This Kate carries her own, and keeps Petruchio, the tall, handsome and lithe Steve Xander Carson, in his place. With her rich, smoky voice and his long limbs and hair, there’s a subtle masculinity to Alexander’s Kate and a femininity to Carson’s Petruchio, a concept that Boudreau intentionally explores in this boys-verses-girls production.

Another “adult” actor to note is the amusing Ryan Ernst as the old fool, Gremio. With his powder-white hair and beard, stooped over stance, wood walking stick and audible crick in his back, Ernst’s scenes are among the play’s most physical and comical. Pay close attention because Ernst’s non-Shakespearean adlibs (prunes and afghans!) will leave your sides splitting and your eyes watering.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to see an off-off-Broadway show in New York, get on over to Slipstream’s current home in Hazel Park. Seeing this “Shrew,” one is reminded of the former Expand Arts, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where “Shakespeare’s R & J” by Joe Calarco was first produced in the late 1990s. It’s a testament to Boudreau that he’s able to produce such an enjoyable and entertaining production in a space the size of a large living room, using nothing more than a few floor lamps for lights. Throw in a black curtain hung from the ceiling, a few set pieces and props, and a blue-and-pink-painted back wall with a door and window in it, and you get a piece of Classical Theater that’s fun for all ages.

SHOW DETAILS:
Taming of the Shrew
Slipstream Summer Home, 20937 John R. Rd, Hazel Park
July 19--August 4, 2015; Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m.
Price: $10, in advance only
248.298.9617
www.SlipstreamTI.com

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Taming of the Shrew Slipstream Theatre Initiative

Read Patty Nolan's review in The Examinier.com

 

"Schoolhouse Rock Live" teaches and entertains

by Diane Speer
The Alpena News

REVIEW: Schoolhouse Rock Live

Thunder Bay Theatre

Article:10005; Posted: July 21, 2015 at 2:30 p.m.

Who knew that singing about the parts of speech, multiplication tables and the planets could be so fun? Thunder Bay Theatre currently is proving that point with its newest show of the summer season, "Schoolhouse Rock Live."

Based on the award-winning educational cartoon that aired on Saturday mornings from the 1970s through the 1990s, it comes chock-full of kid-appeal. A few of the youngsters attending Wednesday's opening night production could hardly contain their excitement over this fast-paced, high-energy musical revue of catchy tunes with a lesson.

Director Jeffrey Mindock didn't try to recreate the television version many will remember from their childhood. Instead, he chose to pay homage to the show and maintain the essence of its original songs while also envisioning classics like "Interplanet Janet" and "I Am Not Just a Bill" through a new set of spectacles.

The ingenious set by scenic designer Brandon M. Newton, constructed as a tree house, is stocked with familiar game pieces or toys like a Rubik's cube, giant pair of dice, Crayola crayon box and stacked Scrabble tile pieces. Set pieces serve multiple functions not only as cool visuals for the audience, but also as nooks and crannies for the cast to quickly stash prop pieces into or use as multi-level steps while engaged in song and dance.

The costumes by Guy Lee Bailey come with some loopy, mismatched separates that kids are so adept at putting together, and the lighting design by Colin Marshall, colorful like everything else about the show, add additional fun elements.

The show stars nine of TBT's current core company members who bring plenty of personality to their roles as fourth grade versions of themselves, all except for actor Nate Adams, who plays a teacher nervous about his first day on the job. The other eight are there to remind him that learning should be fun, and fun it definitely turns out to be. The silliness ranges from a line dance country-western number about nouns to a song about a camper unpacking her adjectives to ones that cover subjects like the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the effects of gravity and America's early inventors.

Choreography by Lucas Moquin and music direction by Nicole Pietrangelo are tight and topnotch. No doubt about it, this current core company is a talented bunch first seen in TBT's highly successful summer season opener, "The Drowsy Chaperone." While "Schoolhouse Rock Live" is long on material geared towards kids, adults should enjoy just sitting back and being entertained.

Adams, Moquin and Pietrangelo, along with Aidan Cleary, Emma Griffith, Bradley Hamilton, Megan Hoxie, Courtney Marshall and Rebecca Monk, all bring a lot pizzazz and humor to the show. Though most of the 22 numbers are done collectively, each actor gets a chance to take the spotlight on one or two of the songs.

A perfect treat for the 5 to 10-year-old set, the peppy show also should provide a walk down memory lane for many adults who watched the cartoon as a kid.

In conjunction with "Schoolhouse Rock Live," TBT is hosting a Late Night Cabaret featuring the show's performers on July 24 at the John A. Lau Saloon following the production. This special event gives attendees a chance to interact with the actors and enjoy more of their singing.

Also planned is Talk Back Thursday, where audiences who attend the July 23 performance are invited to stay at the theater afterward and hear insights about the show firsthand from the performers.

SHOW DETAILS:
Schoolhouse Rock Live

Thunder Bay Theatre
400 N. 2nd Avenue, Alpena
July 15--August 2, 2015; Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
$8.00-$15.00
989.354.2267

Reprinted with permission of the Alpena News, June 18, 2015

 

“Rivals” a hearty stew of comedy to be eaten with gusto

by Bridgette Redman

REVIEW: The Rivals

Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Article:10003; Posted: July 21, 2015 at 9:00 a.m.; updated July 24, 2015 at 9:24 a.m.

It’s nearly impossible to say too much good about Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals” at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. There are so many things in it that are delightful--individual performances, the accents, the elevated language, the malapropisms, the costumes, the set, the exaggerated movements, the asides, the sword fighting.

It’s an all-together satisfying afternoon at the theater. Traditionally, the Michigan Shakespeare Festival annually performs two Shakespeare plays and one classic. This year the classic is Sheridan’s “The Rivals,” written in 1775 and a favorite play of George Washington’s.

It is set in Bath, where lovers gather to woo and others gather to take the waters and cure their gout. Lydia Languish (Laurel Schroeder) is a young heiress who has no shortage of wooers. She has fallen in love with Ensign Beverly, who is really Captain Jack Absolute (Dan Wilson) in disguise. She is in love with the idea of marrying a poor soldier without her guardian’s permission. Her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop (Wendy Katz Hiller) forbids the match while she carries on a written liaison with Sir Lucius O’Trigger (David Blixt), under the name of Delia, whom O’Trigger thinks is Lydia, thanks to the machinations of the maid (Lydia Hiller). Meanwhile Jack’s friend Bob Acres (Milan Malisic) is also courting Lydia.

Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Alan Ball), then shows up with an arranged marriage for Jack—to Lydia. Throw in a mix of servants who all share their masters’ secrets and carry messages, and you have all the makings of this centuries-old comedy.

Director Robert Kauzlaric gives each character the room to be unique and interesting. He cut the play so that it flows smoothly and never lags. His blocking is a thing of beauty, one that adds to the comedy as players create stairs where none seem to exist, crosses create the traffic of Bath in the opening, and the final denouement presents a stage picture where all are shown off to their best advantage.

Dialect specialist Elise Kauzlaric deserves a special shout-out as she coached the actors in a number of different dialects and accents. Everyone had an accent and there was a distinct sound between the classes, city and country folk.

It’s hard to single out any actor in this production when all were played with such singularity and hilarity. These are actors at the top of their craft. Yet, it would be remiss not to mention many of the fine performances that went into making this comedy so enjoyable.

Ball has swagger as the father who expects his every whim to be obeyed and his quarrel with his son shows off just some of Ball’s comic range. Wilson is cool and collected as Capt. Jack, giving him a confidence that he’s going to be able to pull off all his plans even when they start to fall apart around him. He ends up playing straight man to the bigger characters around him.

Edmund Alyn Jones plays Faulkland, Jack’s friend who is wooing Julia (Annie Keris). He frets over her fidelity, despite all the evidence that she is true to him. Faulkland is one of those people who puts the worst possible interpretation on everything out of his own jealousies and Jones makes this a comic rather than tragic figure. His mourning is foppish as is his inability to be consoled with fact or reason. Keris balances him out perfectly with her steadfastness and by being the very picture of all that Faulkland knows he wants and worries he doesn’t have. Julia endures his bad behavior and even defends it.

Malisic plays up the difference between the old rich and the new in such a way that spins comic gold. His physicality is huge and he adopts affectations in an attempt to fit in among the wealthy. Everything about him is at odds with the other gentlemen, and he plays it up so that even to modern eyes the difference between class is obvious. He’s given a great assist by the costumer Melanie Schuessler when in the second act he comes out with blue hair and a tacky multi-colored outfit, but by then he’s already established that he is out of place and a comic figure for the audience and those in the play alike.

Blixt grounds O’Trigger with a gravitas that is in perfect contrast to Malisic’s outlandishness. Their scenes together work especially well as each one highlights the other’s personality. Blixt also doubles as the fight director and O’Trigger’s sword fight with Jack is skilled and filled with finesse.

Schroeder holds her own as the romance-addicted maiden who is more in love with love than with her lover. She is impish and impudent with her guardian, pouty with her friend and entranced with her lover until it comes time for them to quarrel. It is not entirely her fault that she is overshadowed by the bigger-than-life Mrs. Malaprop. Blame that instead on the costumer and Wendy Katz Hiller who fills the stage both with her 4-foot wide dress and her over-the-top behavior. Hiller owns the stage when she is on it and she charges through malaprop after malaprop without the slightest hesitation.

Lydia Hiller adds much to the role of Lucy, Lydia’s maid. She affects a simplicity with raised hands and open mouth that makes her seem quite daft and then drops it all in an instant when revealing how she schemes to make money from everyone. It’s a delicious contrast that adds spice to this already hearty stew of a comedy.

Schuessler’s costumes deserve their own curtain call. In particular, Mrs. Malaprop’s costume is tacky in the extreme, perfect for her character. The four-foot wide lemon yellow skirt is bedecked with swathes of orange, light blue and purple fabric. In contrast, the dresses of Lydia and Julia are beautiful and tasteful. Each character gets an outfit that is true to their character and evokes the period well.

“The Rivals” may not be the best known of the classic comedies, but in the hands of Kauzlaric and his team it is well-worth seeing. This comedy of manners tickles, woos and entertains its audiences.

Run time: 2 p.m. to 4:44, with one intermission.

SHOW DETAILS:
The Rivals

Michigan Shakespeare Festival
Village Theatre, Canton, 50400 Cherry Hill Road, Canton
July 29--Augut 15; check website for dates and times
Check website for ticket prices
517-998-3673
www.michiganshakespearefestival.com

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Rivals - Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Read Jenn McKee's review in MLive.com

 

Shakespeare like you've never seen... really

Bridgette Redman

REVIEW: Henry IV Parts I & II

Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Article:10000; Posted: July 20, 2015 at 11:00 a.m.

It’s no exaggeration to say you haven’t seen this Shakespeare play before.

Jan Blixt, artistic director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, has combined Henry IV parts 1 and 2 into a single play and put it up on the stage in a three-hour span. Epic in scale, the history takes the audience from the throne room of London to the battlefields of the North, with Scottish lords joining English ones in rebellion.

Blixt directs this adaptation with seven Equity actors in a cast of 19. It’s a cast from which much is demanded and more is given. Blixt knows how to double her cast and keep them coming back to fully populate Henry’s England. She also keeps the pace marching forward with actors filling the stage and finding humor amid the seriousness of the story.

In this adaptation, the emphasis is put on Prince Hal and his relationship with his father. Prince Hal, played by Shawn Pfautsch, is dissolute and given much to women and wine. While his father, played by David Turrentine, is heavy with the affairs of state and given to distemper and anger, young Hal is caught up in pranks with Sir John Falstaff (Alan Ball) and his companions.

Yet, when war catches up to the kingdom and young Hotspur (Milan Malisic) leads armies in revolt, Hal steps up to prove his worthiness to his father.

Turrentine is regal as the aging king and gives stature to the king’s tempers. This is no common man engaging in a rage. Turrentine carries Henry with a dignity that sets him apart from his lords and the few commoners that populate the play. He is always grave and worn with care. We see the greatest depth in his Henry during his death scene where he goes from berating his son to giving him his blessing and wishing peace for his reign.

Pfautsch brings great charisma to Hal. He’s a rapscallion who is as carefree as his father is laden. He imbues the young prince with humors that make him a stranger to his father, though there are visions in him of the king he will become. His opening scene, taking place in a large bed, establish him as a playboy given over to pranks and hedonism. Pfautsch easily handles both the roustabout and the more princely Hal, reconciling them in a way that is credible.

Malisic’s Hotspur has the temper of the king and the youth of the prince. He is a young lion who suffers no pretense or disagreement. He reveals this temper well in the scene following his audience with the king where he shows himself disobedient to the king’s will and determined to flaunt the king’s orders. Even his friend and kin, who is sympathetic to his rant, cannot calm him or distract him with talk of plans.

It is in the two Henry plays that Queen Elizabeth famously fell in love with Sir John Falstaff, the fat knight who leads Hal astray and is notorious in his tale-telling and lies. He disrespects everyone but still manages to entertain his comrades. In this version, Ball dons the fat suit and is Hal’s disreputable companion. Falstaff follows Hal to war and reveals himself a coward incapable of great deeds. Yet, Ball gives the audience reason to like Falstaff—not for any noble characteristics, but because he is honest with us about honor, greed and selfishness.

And for those who attend Shakespeare because they like the sword fighting, Henry IV won’t disappoint. This is a war play and the first act ends with a great battle that brings out the whole company for intensive sword fights that range from single duels to large-scale group battles. Fight Director David Blixt (who also plays Owain Glyndwr, Douglas and the Archbishop of York) choreographs an exciting battle that encompasses several fighting styles from great-sword to axe to sword and shield.

If there is a flaw in this production, it comes in the attempt to mash the two plays together. After the huge battle, there is a resolution and intermission comes at a time that feels like an ending, in part because it is. The conflict is over, father and son are reconciled, enemies are slain and Falstaff is shown to again be ridiculous. There is no compelling reason for the play to continue and post-intermission feels like starting over. The story is repeating itself and the audience must once again reinvest itself in a story that feels resolved.

This is especially true for the main theme of the play—the relationship between father and son. The tension between them dissipates at the end of the first half, as Hal proves himself on the battlefield and gives his father reason to be proud of him. But then things pick up after intermission with Hal back in the tavern and his father once again disapproving. The strength of this play is in the first half, though the ending of the second half does draw things back into a sharp focus with the transformation of Hal from prince to king.

Anyone who has attended the Michigan Shakespeare Festival knows that it spares nothing in its production values to bring on the highest quality shows. The design team is as committed to storytelling as the artistic team and this is certainly true with Henry IV. Scenic Designer Jeromy Hopgood is able to take the audience from battlefield to throne-room to tavern with backdrops that fly in and furniture the cast rolls in before their scene. The furnishings are heavy and thick, speaking to the seriousness and weight of the play’s matters.

Lauren Montgomery is detailed in her costume design, particularly with the boots and the armor that combatants wear. Once again original music is provided by composer Kate Hopgood and she creates a soundtrack that is epic in scale and sets the mood for this brutal war story.

It isn’t often that Henry IV is performed—either part one or part two. This production is populated with fine storytellers who all work seamlessly together—from every foot soldier to each designer and tech to the leads—each person gives a fully committed performance that tells the story of Henry and Hal, and the kingdom that each bear responsibility for.

Run time 7:30 to 10:42, with one intermission

SHOW DETAILS:
Henry IV, Parts I and II

Michigan Shakespeare Festival
Village Theatre, Canton, 50400 Cherry Hill Road, Canton
August 1-15; check website for dates and times
Check website for ticket prices
517-998-3673
www.michiganshakespearefestival.com

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Henry IV - Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review in The Detroit Free Press, July 22, 2015

 

Music trumps plot in "Hatfields and McCoys"

by Bridgette Redman

REVIEW: Hatfields and McCoys

Cornwell's Dinner Theatre

Article:9999; Posted: July 20, 2015 at 10:30 a.m.

Go to Cornwell’s Dinner Theatre for good food, good singing and a fun show. Don’t go expecting a solid plot, good storylines or deep characterizations. In fact, the plot holes of "Hatfield’s and McCoy’s—Musical Comedy Feud” are a little like the potholes on Michigan roads—deep and plentiful.

The narrator (Kevin Grastorf) tells us there is a feud between the families of the Hatfields and McCoys. The families are represented by Randolph McCoy (Peter Riopelle) and Sarah Hatfield (Autumn O’Ryan). They each have adult--(or near) adult--offspring that we’re supposed to believe have never met even though they live in houses next door to each other. Yes, we’re told Roseanne McCoy (Kristina Heugel) has been away for school for a while, but she’s also close to her father and hasn’t been away her entire life.

The Hatfields and McCoys argue over a pig, but it is never clear whether it was this generation or one from 150 years ago. The two adult children, Roseanne and Johnse Hatfield (Kyle Porter) fall in love at first sight and during the annual Moonshine Jubilee, even Randolph and Sarah start making doe eyes at each other for no clear reason other than they’ve swallowed some moonshine.

If you’ve seen other Top Hat originals, the storyline is familiar. People are going to meet, fall in love, have a fight, and then get back together.

But let’s be honest. “Hatfields and McCoys” isn’t about story. It’s an excuse to put together a bunch of Americana hoe-down music (and some songs from other genres) into an hour and 40 minutes of musical comedy.

The McCoys of the cast are best at playing to the genre. Riopelle has a strong voice and makes big choices when it comes to playing the Kentucky moonshiner. He’s got the hillbilly swagger down pat and he is a devoted father. He growls and snaps at Sarah Hatfield and commits fully to the role with all its stereotypes. His dance moves are big and his singing is full-voiced.

Heugel, who also doubled as the show’s choreographer, plays up the sweet and innocent hillbilly girl. She obviously has a strong dance background and it shows in her moves on the stage. She also doesn’t hesitate to belt out the songs and her reactions to others on stage are generous and big.

On the Hatfield side, there is more hesitation in the acting and the vocals are not as strong. O’Ryan wavers between moments where she is solid and comedic and those where she is withdrawn and uncertain. This especially comes out in her duet with Heugel in “These Boots are Made for Walkin.’” She mutters her reactions and can’t match the strength of Heugel’s vocals.

Porter is adequate in his role as the young lover, portraying an innocence and optimism, but he also can’t compete with Heugel in their duets and comes out sounding weak. He does better with solo numbers like “Pennies from Heaven.”

Grastorf plays several roles from narrator to judge to Tug River residents--male and female. He’s consistently funny and is able to keep up with the McCoys when it comes to singing and dancing.

There are plenty of recognizable songs such as “This Land is Your Land,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Camptown Races,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “I’m in the Mood for Love,” and “Love Me Tender.” They’re pulled from the American standards book, as are songs like “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” “Dueling Banjos” and “Good Old Mountain Dew.” They’re oldies that are designed to appeal to the mostly senior audiences that Turkeyville draws in and the tour busses that fill up every show.

“Hatfield’s and McCoy’s” isn’t serious theater, but it is entertaining and a genuine crowd-pleaser. Top Hat brings in some talent and shows off some fancy feet dancing. It does what it sets out to do.

Run time: 2 p.m. to 3:41, with one intermission. Lunch is served at noon.

For more information, check out Cornwell's website at www.turkeyville.com.

 

Cheese but tasty: “Great American Trailer Park Christmas” is a summer breeze

by David Kiley

REVIEW: The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical

Farmers Alley Theatre

Article:9995; Posted: July 18, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

Sitting down to critique “The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical,” the newest offering by Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo, feels a bit like analyzing a bag of potato chips and onion dip for nutritional value and calorie count on MyFitnessPal. It is a guilty pleasure, and perhaps best not over-scrutinized.

That said, the show, an original musical and sequel to the earlier “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” produced by the company in 2009 and 2010, does bear scrutiny, not only because Farmers had the stones to put it on in July and August, but because as Christmas shows go, it is very much a worthier effort than many of the saccharine or derivative shows put on in December.

The story is set in Starke, Florida at Armadillo Acres, a mobile-home community. Scratch that. It’s a trailer park. Pickels (Nikki Scheidt), Betty (Gina-Maria Chimner) and Lin (Mary Teutsch) are waitresses at Stacks, a nearby “breastaurant,” (so called because they have to wear felt flapjacks over their breasts, complete with a felt pat of butter], and they are keen to have their trailer park recognized by Mobile Home and Garden magazine for its Christmas decorations. Darlene (Whitney Weiner) is a bitchy, acid-tongued resident who hates Christmas. But she has an electric shock from grabbing a hot and frayed cable-TV splitter, and has a case of amnesia that makes her love Christmas and fall for greasy, sweet, ne’er-do-well neighbor Rufus. Jackie, Stacks’ owner, is Darlene’s slimy, greedy boyfriend, who wants to marry her and evict everyone at the trailer park so he can build a combination auto-after-market mart/restaurant he wants to call High-Beams [he plans to have the waitresses wear headlights on their breasts].

Get the picture. There is so much cheese in the plot, Kraft should get a writing credit. There is also a nod to the Scrooge story with three visiting spirits. But here is the thing. It works. The book by Betsy Kelso and music/lyrics by David Nehls is quite good, even with such memorable ditty titles sure to make Irving Berlin spin in his grave as, “F*ck It. It’s Christmas,” “Christmas is for Dummies,” and “Black and Blue on Christmas Eve.”

The fact that all the music is original, that it all works and is quite solid musically stands the play in contrast to other Christmas shows that use the old standards. That’s not a bad practice, of course. People love to hear the cool Yule songs after Thanksgiving. There were four people sitting in my row who left at intermission, and I actually heard one say, “I thought there would be real Christmas music.” Really? You were pining for “Santa Baby” in July?

Be warned. The whole show is pretty bawdy, and there is a sign warning patrons that the show is not for kids. They aren’t kidding. Besides the f-bomb in a song title, there is a lot of talk about chlamydia, calling one of the character’s a “whore” several times (in jest), several references to all parts of the male anatomy, and so much more. But, hey, this is a trailer park of waitresses, and it is pretty clear there isn’t a decent SAT score or a bank account with $1,000 among them, let alone a dictionary or a subscription to The New Yorker.

The writing, the set and the music somehow all work together to make the audience actually care about these characters in the midst of all this cheddar, gouda, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Chalk that up to a lovely performance by Whitney Weiner, who manages to be mean, sexy, funny and vulnerable at different times, and sometimes at all at once. She seems to radiate on any stage she steps on to. The ensemble of “girls” works sweetly together. And tip of the hat to Rod Cone as Rufus, who holds his own and then some against four strong women performers. Adam Weiner is solid and funny as Jackie.

These kinds of shows often suffer for lack of attention to the writing. Not here. Betsy Kelso and David Nehls did not mail this one in just to capitalize on the previous success of the original. The dialogue writing shows care and careful editing. I wish the same could be said of the Nunsense play/musicals, which are as tired as a Christmas tree in March if you ask me and churned out like sausage. Director Laurel Scheidt gets credit for keeping it on the rails with only a wobble here and there. W. Douglas Blickle’s set is spot on for a trailer park, capturing the grime and worn aspects of a trailer park, as well as the details like the pink Flamingos and garden gnomes, and the Christmas (and Hanukkah) decorations made from household this-and-that, especially beer cans.

There are a couple of times that the play risks hitting a ditch—when Cone and Weiner appear in drag, and when a Christmas tree turns into a kind of “burning bush” to speak to the cast. These are the moments when the cheese just melts all over the plate and drips down the sides. But what the hell. Pass the dip. Some days you just don’t count calories, even in the theater.

SHOW DETAILS:
The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical

Farmers Alley Theatre
221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo
July 17--August 9;
Evenings Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saterdays at 8:00 p.m.
Matinees Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
$34.00-$36.00
269.343.2727
www.FarmersAlleyTheatre.com

 

Laughter and fun with "Junie B. Jones"

by Bridgette Redman

REVIEW: Junie B. Jones

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre

Article:9991; Posted: July 17, 2015 at 9:00 p.m.

She’s sassy and eccentric. Unique and independent. She’s Junie B. Jones and she’s charmed kindergartners and first graders for nearly two decades since the first Barbara Park Junie B. Jones book was published in 1992.

Now in Holland, courtesy of Hope Summer Repertory Theater, she’s onstage as part of a musical that is sure to delight her fans and the adults they bring along with them.

The show, “Junie B. Jones: The Musical,” is cute and full of energy. It’s shiny, filled with primary colors and big dance numbers, and has professional actors playing the parts of kids and adults alike.

Central to the show is Junie B. Jones who is played by Mollie Murk. With her long pigtails and purple glasses, she has a wide-eyed look to her that goes well for a first grader who is on the verge of discovering the world around her.

Murk has many of Junie B.’s trademark lines and delivers them with just enough attitude to invoke the Barbara Park character without going so overboard that she becomes unlikeable and bratty. Rather, she is charismatic and endearing, making it easy for the audience to root for her and to share her emotions as she goes on the roller coaster ride that is first grade.

The musical starts out with her getting a notebook—a notebook in which she can write her life. She calls it her top-secret personal beeswax, which is also the name of the first song. It sets the tone for what is to come, with the nine-person cast pairing off in a circle around Junie B. for animated dance moves designed to delight.

And the adventures to record in the journal start soon and keep coming. She finds herself in need of new friends and glasses in first grade, both of which create a crisis for the young protagonist. Later, she wants to star in a kickball tournament, but things go awry for her in that department as well.

Murk is surrounded by an ensemble that is as endearing as she is. The actors playing kids find just the right postures to communicate their characters, often slumped and limbs akimbo, capturing the essence of young creatures who were not designed to sit still so long.

Raina Houston stood out in each of her roles—the bossy May, “that Grace” and Mother. Each were presented with widely different looks and attitudes and all were well done. May was filled with superior attitude, while it all melted away for the gentle mother who valued Junie B. Jones while offering proper guidance.

Early in the hour-long musical, Brianna Brice as Lucille, Benjamin Lohrberg as Chenille and Callee Miles as Camille sing a trio that inspires early laughter. Lucille explains to Junie B. that they can’t be best friends anymore because their names don’t rhyme.

Instead, Junie B. friends the new boy, Herb, played by Kenny Cole. Cole is yin to Junie’s yang. His Herb takes her craziness in stride and is always faithful and supportive. He balances an awkwardness with a patient forbearance.

The Dewitt Studio theater is in-the-round and Director Daina Robins keeps her actors moving so they don’t have their backs to anyone for very long. This is especially challenging in the classroom scenes where she has the movable seats set up at an angle to give everyone something to see. Most of the time, though, her actors are on the move and they find authentic reasons to change their facing and keep all of their young audience engaged.

For a theater-in-the-round, Keenan Minogue’s set is clever and invokes the main plot of Junie B.’s top-secret personal beeswax journal. The floor was made up of scattered pages, and the one corner had pages hung in a mobile style to make the background of the classroom. Jacquelyn Loy’s costumes were done in bright colors that were in harmony with the book’s illustrations. They helped make the adult actors convincingly play the part of young people. They also made for several effective quick changes amongst the actors who played several characters.

Overall, “Junie B. Jones: The Musical” was cute and clever, a fun morning for children and adults with good music, charming acting and bright colors.

SHOW DETAILS:
Junie B. Jones: The Musical

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
DeWitt Stage, 141 E. 12th St., Holland
Performances July 15, 17, 20, 22, 24, 28, 29, 30, August 1, 3, and 7 at 10:30 a.m.
Performances July 25, 27, 31, and August 5 at 1:30 p.m
Tickets: $15.00
616-395-7890
Hope.edu/

 

A Midsummer Night's Delight

By David Kiley

REVIEW: A Midsummer Night's Dream

Michigan Shakespeare Festival

When Shakespearean actors appear on stage in suits, corduroy jackets and sweater vests, amidst a forest setting, everyone’s “uh-oh” antennas should go up. It’s a hole in which the credibility of the cast and director begins the night. However, the cast of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival in Jackson quickly ascends from the hole, and brings their audience along for an utterly memorable and delightful evening of laughs and smiles that brings this centuries-old text to life in a new and fresh way.

The plot of “Midsummer” is a bit convoluted, so unless you are a Bard aficionado a quick review of the plot summary is advised before the action starts. The story surrounds the marriage of Theseus, the Duke of Athens (Matthew Fahey], and Hippolyta (Annie Keris), and expands to include the embattled passions of four young Athenian lovers—Hermia (Lydia Hiller), Lysander (Brandon St. Clair Saunders), Helena (Laurel Schroeder) and Demetrius (Milan Malisic), and a group of tradesmen turned actors, known as The Mechanicals, trying to put on a show inside the play. Of course, what gives the story, one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays to perform, the added oomph of the surreal are the faeries and spirits who inhabit the forest and manipulate the mortals.

The set is static throughout, a very simple forest settings with fabric curtains descending from the lights to represent trees, with a bit of green forest canopy laid in above and down stage to convey the right aura. The simplicity is a wise choice, as it gives the actors, 19 of them, room to romp, cavort, pine, fight and frolic. There are two stage balcony spaces that are used deftly as well.

The four intertwined lovers play wonderfully off one another as they sort out who they really want to marry (of course, not who their parents want them to), taking their passion to almost Three Stooges-like slapstick as when Hermia and Helena both hug their lovers legs as they get dragged around stage. The Stooges seem to be an influence on director Janice L. Blixt as she turned to Curley-and-Moe-like bits of business between Demetrius and Lysander as well. It all worked fine, and was not overdone, drawing great belly-laughs from the audience.

The Mechanicals worked as a tight and funny band within the cast, conjuring to mind at times the very best bits from Monty Python. It’s difficult not to call out Alan Ball as Bottom/the weaver, for his big stage presence and timing, and Edmund Alyn Jones who is funny and sweet, and adds polish to everything we have seen him in. But in truth all the Mechanicals were spot on. Blixt dances with a smidge too much modernity when the band takes out an iPhone and asks Siri for help with the moonlight, and when they share a tin of Altoids; it was a bit too much butter in the frosting but not so much to ruin the cake.

Costuming was deftly handled, with the mortal rich in modern dress, the Mechanicals in working-class/tradesmen clothes, and the faeries in…well…faerie dress and wearing bejeweled prosthetic ears. It sounds a bit of a mish-mosh, but actually worked perfectly. Shawn Pfautsch, who performed the title role of Hamlet in the festival last year, was an excellent Puck, a pivotal role to keep the play paced properly. David Blixt was commanding as Oberon, King of the Faeries.

The excellent results in this ‘Midsummer” production are very much due to a top-drawer, tightly knit ensemble rather than huge standout individual performances, and that is a credit to Blixt in casting and directing the multi-layered story with so many players and plot twists.

It should be said that this is a seasoned troupe of players with a terrific grasp of acting the Bard, and bringing the Elizabethan verse into a modern context that makes it wonderfully relevant and accessible to even someone whose closest brush with Shakespeare are the occasional send-ups on "The Simpsons."

Be sure and visit the Michigan Shakespeare Festival website for show times and it’s move to Canton, MI for some of its performances.

SHOW DETAILS:
A Midsummer Night's Dream

Michigan Shakespeare Festival
Baughman Theatre/Potter Center at Jackson College, 2111 Emmons Road, Jackson
July 9-18; check website for dates and times
Check website for ticket prices, and contact box office for a limited number of free tickets for students
517-998-3673
TheMichiganShakespeareFestival.com

 

Bawdy "Beaches" dispels movie version’s sentimentality

by Tanya Irwin

REVIEW: Beaches Be Trippin'

The Ringwald Theatre

Article:9962; Posted: July 12, 2015 at 8:00 p.m.

If you are expecting many similarities between the PG-13-rated movie “Beaches” and the over-the-top raunchy parody“ Beaches Be Trippin’,” you might be disappointed. The emphasis is definitely on the raunchy and it’s definitely a show to hire a baby sitter for. And don’t bring grandma, either, unless she can handle a plethora of F-bombs, blowjob jokes and a champagne glass that doubles as a dildo.

However, if you’re a fan of drag, quick wit and even a little improv, you’ll be right at home at The Ringwald Theatre's annual “Summer Camp” production, director and writer Brandy Joe Plambeck’s take on the sappily sentimental “Beaches.”

Even the 10-year-old characters at the beginning of the performance are over the top. CC Bloom (Joe Bailey) smokes a cigarette and quizzes the lost-on-the-beach Hillary Whitney (Richard Payton) about the size of her father’s penis and whether his pubic hairs are bushy or neat (in a questionable exercise of trying to determine which hotel the hapless Hillary might be staying at based on such characteristics of her father.) This is bread-and-butter, of course, for the Ringwald, so regulars of the theater surely won't plotz at all over the bawdy material.

Interspersed amidst the acting are videos of the two main characters’ pen-pal correspondence over the years (with CC’s laden with R-rated language.) The correspondence is read aloud by the characters, which is the voiceover to videos. CC’s letters are riddled with profanities and vulgarities while Hillary’s are more earnest--yet both elicit chuckles. (Hillary talks about Jew camp and the wonders of her first crush while CC talks about having to sleep with people in order to get acting parts.)

The actors are the highlight of the play, which has very few props and one constant backdrop: a painted wall of palm trees in a blue sky with a few white clouds. Bailey and Payton reunite after last year’s turns as Jane and Blanche Hudson in “Whatever, Baby Jane!” Bailey is hysterical as the bawdy, breast-shaking, wise-beyond-her-years CC Bloom. Her straight man, er, woman, Payton, has a sassy side of her own, often displayed in her expressions of exasperation in dealing with the ever narcissistic CC.

Brenton Herwat and Scott Jason Alexander Cook do a headspinning and terrific job of playing every remaining character, including CC’s mom Leona, love interest John

Pierce, Hillary’s husband Michael Essex and Hillary’s daughter Victoria. Their ability to quickly change costumes and personas is sometimes put to the test, as when Hillary and CC sit in the waiting room waiting for the doctor to appear. Hillary confides to the audience that the doctor has missed his cue to enter, as he has done in every single rehearsal in the previous week. It all works to the delight of the audience.

The off-script banter with the audience and the obvious improv deviations from the script are some of the most entertaining elements of the play. Early in the performance, Hillary’s spike heel goes through the floorboard on set. She gracefully recovers as CC harps on character John Pierce for not keeping the fictional set in better condition.

In another on-the-fly crack, CC ribs Hillary about being too permissive in allowing 7-year-old Victoria to get so many tattoos (which aren’t hidden by the child’s dress Herwat has donned.) Hewat’s body art had been on full display in a previous scene where the lean and attractive actor is wearing nothing more than Daisy Duke shorts, cowboy boots and a smile.

Musical numbers are lip-synced for the most part, with the exception of Hillary’s mini-rendition of “Free At Last.” Payton has a lovely voice which is underutilized in the production--but hey, she’s not the one who is supposed to be a singer/actress; that’s CC’s shtick.

There is no intermission and the scenes quickly flow between live acting and the video-projected letters as the characters quickly age. Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the movie knows Hillary dies at the end, and the play makes no attempt to keep the inevitable ending a secret. No sooner has Hillary birthed the baby that CC will end up taking custody of at the end of the performance, Hillary coughs into a hanky and then reveals a bloodstain to the audience.

It’s hard to believe impending death could be a comedic device, but somehow in this production it is, with the bloody handkerchief prompting a chuckle whenever Hillary shows it to the audience and reminds them of her forthcoming demise.

Even after Hillary’s matter-of-fact death, the jokes continue to fly until the very last word of the very last scene. Nothing is sacred, and that’s ok, because laughter is contagious.

SHOW DETAILS:
Beaches Be Trippin'

The Ringwald Theatre
22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale
July 11--August 3, 2016; Saturday and Monday evenings at 8:00 p.m., Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m.
$10.00-$20.00
248.545.5545
www.TheRingwald.com

 

Going old school: instruction through puppetry

by John Quinn

REVIEW: Banana for Turtle

PuppetART Theatre

Article:9958; Posted: July 12, 2015 at 10:30 a.m.

There is a door in the wall of the theater at PuppetART that serves as an ad hoc guest book. Boldly scripted near the center is the observation, “’Puppets’ more real than reality.’” It’s one patron’s tribute to an art form that demonstrates Oscar Wilde’s tenet: “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

The current production, “Banana for Turtle” employs the classic “string” guided marionette to perform one of the oldest functions for which societies have used puppetry--a means by which their philosophy and mores can be passed from generation to generation.

Four jungle friends--a monkey, a python, a parrot and an elephant--are waiting, not for Godot (who will not come), but for Turtle, who will come, albeit slowly. In the meantime, the companions explore some concepts as meaningful as Samuel Beckett’s, but much more interesting. While the theme that binds “Banana for Turtle” could by described as “discovery,” much of the play is an examination of perception. Monkey hangs from the trees by his knees and discovers a topsy-turvy world in which Python slithers upside down in a green sky. Which is “real?” And can, in a sense, both be real?

Irina Baranovskaya’s marionettes and scenery are striking combinations of color and form, attracting attention and keeping it. Once again, the engineering of the puppets is remarkable. Puppeteers Nick Pobutsky, Irina Baranovskaya and Jackie Strez take a curtain call in front of the puppet stage with their characters “walking” alongside. It reveals that three expert technicians handled five characters, quite a feat, but a tribute to dedication and craftsmanship.

“Banana for Elephant” is directed by Igor Gozman and features original music by Robby Gall. Yet again, PuppetART demonstrates unprecedented sophistication in what is considers “Theater for the Young,” and garnered six Wilde Award nominations for last season’s work. In addition, “Banana for Elephant,” a show suitable for the very, very young, should be visited by adults who didn’t learn the difference between subjectivity and objectivity the first time around. If we all saw this show, cable news and talk radio might go out of business altogether.

50 minutes

SHOW DETAILS
Banana for Turtle

PuppetART Theater
25 E. Grand River, Detroit, Michigan
July 11--August 15; Saturdays at 2:00 p.m.; Sunday, July 26 at 2:00 p.m.; Thursday, July 16 at 10:00 a.m.
Ticket are $5 for children and $10 for adults
Box office: 313-961-7777
www.puppetart.org

 

Hope Rep fires up “Smokey Joe’s Café”

by Sue Merrell

REVIEW: Smokey Joe's Cafe

Hope Repertory Theatre

Article:9956; Posted: July 11, 2015 at 2:30 p.m.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And Hope Summer Repertory Theatre’s production of “Smokey Joe’s Café” is a roaring conflagration.

Admittedly most of the roar at Friday’s opening performance came from the audience, which often accented its applause with hoots and whistles, as well as clapping along on familiar hits including “Jailhouse Rock” and “Stand By Me.”

Director Fred Tessler has put together a blazingly fast show that doesn’t dawdle with much dialogue or explanation, just bolts from one hot hit to another. He’s gathered an excellent cast of nine, including Equity performers Chip Duford and Sierra White. The orchestra, led by pianist John Jay Espino, is on a raised platform over the stage so the audience can watch all that wonderful guitar work and gleaming sax strut.

Originally presented on Broadway in 1995, “Smokey Joe’s Café” is a musical revue from the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The repertoire ranges from the obscure railroad rhythm of “Keep on Rollin’” to timeless hits like “Kansas City,” “Hound Dog,” and “Spanish Harlem.” Many songs are remembered as chart toppers for such artists as Elvis, The Coasters, The Drifters and Ben E. King.

Some are funny like “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety Yak” and “Charlie Brown.” Duford sings the bass part which often gets the humor lines such as “Don’t talk back” and “Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?”

Simeon Rawls, with his lanky limbs and expressive eyes, also plays the clown in several songs. Rawls and Duford give a great comedy portrayal of “Shoppin’ For Clothes” in which the flashy suits come to life and dance around the stage. But Rawls also shines on one of the most serious numbers of the evening--the stirring “I (Who Have Nothing).”

Sierra White garnered laughs as the overbearing one who gets left out in “Dance With Me” and the woman reading the riot act in “Hound Dog.” But White has such a powerful voice that her reprise of “Fools Fall in Love” gave me shivers.

There’s plenty of power to go around in this cast including Trequon Tate’s “Spanish Harlem” and the romantic duet “Love Me/Don’t” with Paul Williams and Anna ModicBradley.

Tall heartthrob Skye Edwards can’t help but sizzle from his first appearance in “Ruby Baby” to his climactic “Jailhouse Rock.” But he takes a back seat in “Teach Me How to Shimmy” when all eyes are on his dazzling dancing partner, Shannon McEldowney.

Danielle James takes the fun right onto the laps of a couple of lucky guys in the audience as she sings a sassy “Don Juan” with the help of a mile-long feather boa.

Jason Resler’s costuming is wonderful from the subdued hues of the fifties fashions in the beginning of the first act to the shiny suits and bright turquoise motif for the act’s final three songs: the snappy rhythm and blues of “On Broadway,” a fun “D.W. Washburn” with the whole company moving as a Bob-Fosse- style mass, and a rollicking gospel “Saved.” The sparkling black and white striped shirts for “Jailhouse Rock” are another memorable creation.

“Smokey Joe’s Café” brings back mounds of musical memories for the over-60 crowd, with the kind of pace and energy younger audiences will enjoy.

SHOW DETAILS:
Smokey Joe's Cafe

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
DeWitt Stage, 141 E. 12th St., Holland
July 10, 11, 15, 17, 21, 23, 30, and August 1, 3, 5, 7, 2015
Evenings at 8:00 p.m
$15-$30.00
616-395-7890
Hope.edu/hsrt

 

The importance of being Ernie

by Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: Ernie

City Theatre

Article:9950; Posted: July 10, 2015 at 5:30 p.m.

No one ever called him Mr. Harwell—not more than once, anyway. If you met him he’d make you feel like a friend. If you’d never met him, only heard him on the radio…he’d make you feel like a friend. Ernie Harwell was that kind of man.

And “Ernie” is that kind of play—it’s a memorable visit with a cherished chum. Back for its fifth season at the City Theatre, Mitch Albom’s play about the late baseball broadcaster continues its winning ways, a habit that team performing across Woodward Avenue might hope to emulate.

“Ernie” is a very good play about a very good man.

What makes it a winner? For starters (and no, there won’t be any jokes about relievers), there’s Harwell himself, voice of the Tigers for four decades and, before that, for other teams. He started young and ended old. In his 92 years, he knew everyone from Ty Cobb to Brad Ausmus and had a wealth of stories to tell.

Some of his best stories were about himself, not that the kindly, self-effacing Harwell was all that eager to tell them. That’s where playwright Albom’s considerable skills come into play. He invents a character, the somewhat mysterious Boy, who stands in for the rest of us, asking reluctant Ernie questions that prompt reminiscences. Thus, we learn how Harwell came to “identify” fans in the stands who caught home runs and foul balls (and a lady from Livonia goes home with a souvenir), and how in the his early days of baseball broadcasting, he would re-create play-by-play accounts of away games with telegraphed bare-bones information and a few sound effects.

This would be merely two guys talking without the vibrant performances of Peter Carey as Ernie Harwell, and Timothy “TJ” Corbett as the Boy. Carey, in his second year playing the role, sounds almost exactly like Harwell; the timbre is natural, but the phrasing and Georgia accent are also pitch-perfect. His movements, too, have the authenticity of the nonagenarian he’s playing (“Ernie” takes place the night of Harwell’s farewell appearance at Comerica Park).

Corbett, who has played Boy all five seasons, can still pass for a young teenager. The knee-pants and newsboy cap help sell the image, but somewhere there’s a portrait of Corbett aging rapidly. Eager and energetic, almost puppylike, as Boy, Corbett also plays a more sedate smattering of adults, like Ted Williams.

Williams, Harwell himself, old Tiger Stadium and other people, places and things appear in videos and still pictures projected on screens at the back of the stage. Video designer Alison Dobbins is one of the unseen hands contributing substantially to the production.

Top among them would be original and only director, Tony Caselli. “Ernie” moves so fluidly and easily, across and around the City Theatre’s wide, shallow stage, and sometimes up (on a staircase on wheels) you’d think it was occurring naturally. You’re never aware of the hand at the helm, and that’s the sign of a play well directed.

1 hour, 25 minutes.

SHOW DETAILS:
Ernie

City Theatre
Olympia Entertainment, 2211 Woodward Avenue, Detroit
July 8--August 2, 2015
Thursday-Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m.
Matinees Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m.
Special show times July 26 and August 2 at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.
$20.00-$25.00
(800) 745-3000
www.OlympiaEntertainment.com

 

“To Kill a Mockingbird” sings hope of change

by Bridgette Redman

REVIEW: To Kill a Mockingbird

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre

Article:9901; Posted: June 29, 2015 at 8:30 a.m.

Some stories are powerful no matter how they are told—whether on page, stage or screen. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of those stories.

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre opened an adaptation by Christopher Sergel on Friday at its Dewitt Theatre on Hope College’s campus.

This adaptation uses an adult Scout (Ashlee Elizabeth Bashore) as a narrator who stays on the stage and watches the action and brings in some of Lee’s more lush language to describe relationships and scenery. She also introduces us to her younger self, Scout (Ava Britt, a fourth grader at Black River Public School), Jem (Adam Chamness, who just finished 8th grade at Holland High School), Dill (Jack Burkholder, who just finished 6th grade at Harbor Middle School) and all of the rest of the population of Maycomb, Alabama that inhabit this play.

Central to this cast of characters, of course, is Atticus Finch (Mark Kincaid), the widowed father and lawyer who is trying to instill values in his children and is called upon to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Mychael Thompson) from the charges of raping a white woman.

The biggest weakness in this production was the diction. While everyone maintained consistent Southern accents through the course of the show, it was often rushed and sometimes not loud enough to be heard, especially when actors were turned to one side of the thrust stage or the other.

Kincaid was one of the exceptions to this issue. He spoke clearly and was a powerful force on the stage. He made sure to show all of the different descriptions of him. He was tired and old when Jeb described Atticus as such, but he was also always a man of integrity who could be passionate in his defense of the weak and innocent. He had a strength to him that could be seen in the way he carried himself, the way he spoke and the things he said.

Sierra White’s Calpurnia was also a delightful supporting character and was a proper mother hen every time she was on stage. She even earned applause when she took the three children back to the courtroom muttering all the way in a long cross about how they shouldn’t be allowed to see such things.

Director John K.V. Tammi was able to find the humor in this drama and worked well with the child actors to create scenes that strengthened this coming-of-age story.

The child actors are the main characters in this show and crucial to a successful performance. While they had clarity issues, they were a delightful trio who related well to each other and were good storytellers. They carried their burden well and showed a great deal of confidence and grace. Britt in particular was able to show childlike innocence, affection for her family and a spunky strength when confronted with adversity.

Kristin Ellert’s scenic design was sweeping and tall, with two houses that converted into a courtroom backdrop or a jail as needed as well as a tree that was sufficiently spooky for the Radley house. It worked well with Stephen Sakowski’s lighting design, which was most noticeable in the evening scenes where he balanced darkness with shadows and keeping the main action light enough to be seen.

Jeffrey Levin's moody sound designs were occasionally executed too loudly and covered up the actors who were speaking.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” continues to be a compelling story as the U.S. continues to struggle with treating people fairly under the law no matter what their color, gender or orientation. We’ve made great strides since the 1930s, and Friday’s opening came on the same day as the historic Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality. It offers hope that perhaps some day, this play will just be a historic reminder of past battles fought.

Run time: 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. with one intermission.

SHOW DETAILS:
To Kill a Mockingbird

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
DeWitt Stage, 141 E. 12th St., Holland
Evenings at 8:00 p.m.; single matinee on July 18 at 1:30 p.m.
$15-$24.00
616-395-7890
Hope.edu/hsrt

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: To Kill a Mockingbird - Hope Summer Repertory Theatre

Read KURT VAN KOERVERING's review in The Zeeland Record, July 2, 2015

 

Dio heads down the aisle with a delightful cast of women

by Bridgette Redman

REVIEW: "Always a Bridesmaid"

The Dio - Dining & Entertainment

Article:9874; Posted: June 21, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.; updated June 30, 2015 at 5:21 p.m.

Here comes the bride…and again…and again…and again.

Prolific writers are often able to achieve volume by finding a formula that works for them. It provides a framework within which they can achieve a success that their fans will appreciate and return for more.

Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten have written 15 plays together and several more individually. Each of them draws on Southern comedy and most of them focus on Southern women and their friendships and relationships. They’re bigger than life, yet charmingly familiar.

The Dio successfully put on “The Dixie Swim Club” last summer by these three same playwrights and returned to the well to find a similar crowd-pleaser for this summer-- “Always a Bridesmaid,” a play about four friends who, the night of their senior prom, vowed they would always be in each other’s weddings. Now they’re in their 40s and one of them is having her third wedding.

Like last year’s show, this play skips forward in time, covering a total of seven years and four marriages. Each scene opens with a young woman in a traditional bridal gown giving her post-marriage speech and enjoying some champagne as she speaks. Ann Dilworth gives delightful monologues as Kari Ames-Bissette and reveals some of the things that can go wrong in weddings—such as the perils of releasing doves on the first day of hunting season.

Each of the four weddings come with their own unique hijinks and their own set of mishaps. All of them are memorable and make for a comic evening for the audience. But this is not a play that relies on plot so much as it does on character and the ensemble of actors plays to this strength.

Nancy Penvose plays Libby Ruth Ames, the eternal optimist and romantic. She creates a likeable character who is the glue that holds these women together. As an actress, she is as generous as her character, giving straight lines to those around her and making them seem even bigger.

Sonja Marquis has the most costume changes, sometimes right on stage. Her character is the self-absorbed Monette, who wants people to “accept me for who I pretend to be.” Monette is obsessed with being younger and wearing 5-inch spike heels.

The somewhat tomboyish one of the lot is Wendy Hedstrom’s Charlie. Fiercely independent, she spurns dresses whenever possible and is cynical about the whole romance ideal. Hedstrom mines Charlie to provide several levels to the character without simply falling back on stereotype.

The script tells us that Amy Morrisey’s Deedra is cold-blooded, but we have to rely on what others say about her. The script doesn’t give her much opportunity to show that except in the second scene where we discover her bitterness has cause and isn’t just a personality issue. Morrisey does her best with what she’s been given and shines in the third scene where she’s faced with a tough, albeit amusing, choice.

Rounding out the cast is Fran Potasnik as Sedalia, the owner of the wedding venue who runs it with an iron hand and sometimes an axe, making sure all of her brides behave and the weddings go off with as few hitches as possible.

There are times early on when the Southern accents get thick, quick and hard to follow, but that doesn’t last long.

Director Steve DeBruyne paces the show well and keeps the stakes high in each scene. He stresses the relationships between the women and lets those take the forefront. Each woman gets her chance to shine in her own way.

The set is a single unit, designed by Matthew Tomich, who also did lighting and sound design. Norma Polk had the fun job of finding wedding and bridesmaid dresses for each scene. They ranged from the elegant to the comically atrocious.

Chef Jarod DeBruyne served up his usual delicious meal, this time a Greek salad with salad bar options, mixed vegetables, boneless fried chicken and a vegetable lasagna with squash and eggplant.

The story may be familiar to those who have seen other plays by Jones, Hope and Wooten, but it has an entertaining familiarity which invites audiences to remember their own friendships and perhaps even their own wedding days. It may be a formula, but it is a formula that works and serves its purpose.

Run time 7:48 to 10:15 with a 20-minute intermission for dessert.

SHOW DETAILS:
Always a Bridesmaid

The Dio - Dining & Entertainment
177 E. Main St., Pinckney
June 19--August 2, 2015
Thursday-Saturday evenings at 6:30 p.m.; Sunday matinees (July and August) at 12:30 p.m.
$35.00-$41.00
517.672.6009
DioTheatre.com

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Always a Bridesmaid - Dio Dining and Entertainment

Read DAN SKORA's review in The New Monitor, posted June 25, 2015

 

Hyper pirate holiday delights young audiences

by Sue Merrell

REVIEW: Jingle Arrgh the Way

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre

Article:9870; Posted: June 20, 2015 at 12:00 p.m.

Ever notice that Santa says “Ho, ho, ho” and a pirate says “Yo, ho, ho?”

Me neither. But it is just one of the similarities between Christmas and pirates that is pointed out in “Jingle ARRGH The Way,” the newest production of Hope Summer Repertory Theatre’s Children Performance Troupe.

A sequel to “How I Became a Pirate,” which was produced at Hope four years ago, the musical by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman is based on a story by children’s author Melinda Long.

What a hyper holiday! In just 60 minutes, our hero Jeremy Jacob (Connor Briggs) and his band of imaginary pirate pals bounce from Caribbean and pirate rhythms to hip-hop and jazz, with quick nods to “The Nutcracker” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.”

They string Christmas lights on the mast and replace the skull-and- crossbones flag with skull and crossed candy-canes. While sailing the ship to the North Pole, they play basketball and board games and sing about cookie recipes and dreams of acting. At the North Pole, they get a sprinkling of snow, have a run-in with a polar bear, meet Santa Claus and learn about true treasure. And they still get back to Holland, MI in time for Jeremy Jacob’s school Christmas pageant.

It’s enough activity to keep even the squirmiest toddler glued to his seat. Parents, on the other hand, will have to be satisfied with happy kids since there’s little plot or witty repartee for grown-up entertainment. There is one funny reference to the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” which would probably be overlooked by anyone who hadn’t seen the movie as many times as I have.

Director Desha Crownover describes this play as a “sprint.” I’d say it’s a flat-out run at some points, but that’s when the kids are laughing the hardest. In the intimate studio theater in DeWitt Center, the stage is surrounded on four sides by seating, so characters have plenty of opportunities to shake hands with audience members and interact personally, as well as run up through the audience when a polar bear growls.

Kids also appreciate pseudo-embarassing phrases such as “poop deck.” They love it when the scariest looking pirate, Sharktooth (Mychael Thompson) puts on a tutu and does a little ballet. French Chef Pirate Pierre (Noah Bridgestock) tries to dribble a basketball with a wooden spoon, which also draws laughs and hoots. There’s a fun comparison between the portly captain Braid Beard (Brandon Campbell) and hefty Santa (Liam Snead). Max (Brianna Brice) wears a hook on one hand and a stuffed parrot on her shoulder. Swill (Mollie Murk) has all the answers in her little black book.

The Christmas carol finale gives everyone a chance to sing along. But in my book, the most memorable lyrics are “Aye, Aye, Bye, Bye.”

SHOW DETAILS:
Jingle Aargh the Way

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
DeWitt Studio Theatre, 141 E. 12th St., Holland
June 17, 19, 22, 24, 29, July 1, 6, 8, 27, 31, August 5, 2015 at 10:30 a.m.
July 24, 29 August 3, 7, 2015 at 1:30 p.m.
check website for ticket prices
616-395-7890
Hope.edu/hsrt

 

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