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Hurray for Hollywood?

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Hollywood Positive"

Go Comedy! Improv Theater

Posted: Aug. 16, 2014 at 10:32 p.m.; updated Aug. 17, 2014 at 8 a.m.

Imagine the plight of the legendary soul who asked a Maine resident for directions, only to be told "Well, yah can't get theah from heah." The Critic found himself similarly unsettled as he tried to reach Go Comedy! in Ferndale on the weekend of the Woodward Dream Cruise. There sat the theater on Nine Mile, crouched behind protective barriers designed to prevent maniac theater critics from t-boning the beauties passing on The Strip. But the congruence of the two events set me to thinking about the makings of a classic car and classic comedy. Here's the break-down to my test drive of the wickedly satirical "Hollywood Positive."

A classic car need a good design. "Hollywood Positive" has a design by playwrights Alara Ceri and Steven Karageanes, local talents who have found careers in LA. Their script isn't radically different, much the same as all cars seem to display the same low-nose, high-tail, aerodynamic features. The difference is in the details; for "Hollywood Positive," the beauty is in how familiar stereotypes can be bent to the playwrights' will. And everyone likes a pleasant surprise in design, like enough cup holders. Here, it's an unexpected twist to the ending.

A good plot needs to be as solid as an auto undercarriage. In observing the old adage, "Write what you know," Ceri might be writing a little autobiographically. One would hope not. The trials and tribulations of her plucky heroine shouldn't happen to nice people. But she does portray her protagonist, Ally.

After years of amateur theater, Ally takes her MSU theater degree to Los Angeles, despite the doubts of her parents. A fish-out-of-Great Lakes-water, she's plagued by a disingenuous roommate, phobic-ridden TV guys, a horny agent and talentless acting coach. These screwballs and many others are played by Dan Brittain, Genevieve Jona, Charlie Newhart, Brian Papandrea, Maggie O'Reilly, Vince Sabatini and Julia Schroeder. Performance is not Ferrari standard, but has the earthy reliability of a V-8 Camaro. What's missing is the "roar." While Go Comedy's performance space is one of the most intimate around, the cast is competing with the air conditioning system, and conversational tones on stage aren't carrying out to the whole audience. Projection is to theater what horsepower is to motoring.

Handling is an important part of a car's appeal. So what happened when director Steven Karageanes got behind the wheel of Steven Karageanes' play?

The playwright who directs his or her own work walks a fine line. The artist is not necessarily the best person to interpret his work for the public. The magic of theater is how a play becomes so "round" as more artists contribute to the endeavor. Here we have the project moving in the right direction, but the engine is stuttering.

"Hollywood Positive" is composed of short vignettes, separated by blackouts. Late in the play its structure loosens, becoming almost scattershot, and blackouts interrupt the natural flow of narration. With only four chairs as scenery, a segue should suffice in many instances. That would set apart the truly hysterical "star turns," a running gag in which each cast member solos as a hapless actor auditioning for a bored, unseen casting director. While these scenes appear to be inside jokes for the "industry," everybody can appreciate the comedy.

The 2014 "Hollywood Positive" is in showrooms – sorry, at Go Comedy! for a limited time. While not a family vehicle, it will hold a certain charm for the funkier set (is anybody "funky" any more, or am I just a fogey?). Think along the lines of a Kia Soul or a Fiat 500. Oh – Troy Street, a block south of Nine Mile, gives access to parking for your Studebaker.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Hollywood Positive'
Go Comedy! Improv Theater
261 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale
8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 21
8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22
90 minutes; no intermission

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Decade of changes buzzes through music revue

By Sue Merrell

REVIEW: "Beehive"

Mason Street Warehouse

Posted: Aug. 16, 2014 at 6:57 p.m.

"Beehive" at Mason Street Warehouse is buzzing with much more than the music of the '60s.

It's a parade of fashions and hairstyles, a newsreel of sad and funny memories, and a showcase of six versatile singers.

There are no backup singers in this show. Even during a tribute to girl groups such as the Chiffons, the Angels and the Shirelles, ensemble members rotate from the "shoop, shoop" moves in the back to the microphone in the front. Not only does this give the audience a chance to see three different interpretations of such icons as Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner, but it gives each performer plenty of opportunity to shine in various styles.

The show opens with instant laughter, as the six cast members appear in huge beehive hairstyles that easily add a foot to each one's height. That lasts through "The Name Game," which pulls a few members of the audience into the "banana, fanna, foe, fanna" rhyme and introduces the cast. But before you can say "lose that wig," three ensemble members appear sleek and sparkly as a girl group trio. A few choruses of "My Boyfriend's Back" and "One Fine Day," and that trio is replaced by another, then another. Wig and costume quick changes throughout the evening make the cast seem much larger.

Some of the songs are presented in the style of the artists who made them famous. For instance, Crystal Sha'nae portrays the ultra-controlled and sophisticated Diana Ross in Supremes' renditions of "Where Did Our Love Go?" "Come See about Me" and "I Hear a Symphony." Later in the evening she gives a much more expressive performance as Tina Turner singing "A Fool in Love."

A collection of British imports were also given the "sound alike" treatment with Amy Goldberger singing "Downtown" and "Don't Sleep in the Subway" a la Petula Clark, Sandy Zweir belting Lulu's "To Sir with Love," and Laurie Elizabeth Gardner conjuring Dusty Springfield for "Wishin' and Hopin" and "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me." Near the end of the evening, Sweir also gives an outstanding three-song portrayal of Janis Joplin in bell bottoms.

But director Kurt Stamm sets aside a whole section of songs to be delivered in a campy, over-the-top style that keeps the laughs rolling. Gardner manages to sing "It's my Party" while forking down cake, and is equally humorous on "You Don't Own Me." Goldberger turns on the laughs with an exaggerated "I'm Sorry."

The evening has a strong serious side as well. Sonny Bono's "The Beat Goes On" serves as background for commentary on some of the events of the era, including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. News video is shown on a huge mock television screen with foil-wrapped antennae protruding from the top.

The giant mock television slides in and out as needed in Todd Engle's flower power pink set with a raised platform in the center, bead-draped entrances on either side and lighted flower and peace symbols on the ends. Music director Charles Hutchins and his five-piece ensemble are nestled off to one side of the stage so the drums, guitars and horns are part of the action.

One of the surprise standouts in the cast is recent Western Michigan University grad Kellie Goddard, who garnered hoots and applause for her humorous song "Academy Award." Later she gave plenty of class and power to Aretha Franklin's "Respect," sharing the spotlight with her backups, U of M junior Solea Pfeiffer and Crystal Sha 'nae. The elegantly tall and lean Pfeiffer also packed some punch with Tina Turner's "Proud Mary."

An audience sing-along of "Sunshine, Lollipops and Roses" received moderate response. There was probably even more impromptu clapping along to the Janis Joplin set near the end of the show.

The chronological arrangement of the show, and Stamm's addition of video clips, turns the evening into more of a retrospective of a decade and the monumental changes that occurred.

The "beehive" was just the beginning!

Mason Street Warehouse
Saugatuck Center for the Arts
400 Culver St., Saugatuck
8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 19, 26
8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 20, 27
8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 21, 28
8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22, 29
8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 16, 23, 30
7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 17, 24
2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 31

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Googly-eyed ambitions yield fuzzy returns

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Fuzzballs"

Go Comedy! Improv Theater

Posted: Aug. 15, 2014 at 4:55 p.m.

If Tommy LeRoy isn't already a local legend in metro Detroit theater, he should be. Seen the low-tech, high-impact blood and animatronic effects in the long-running "Evil Dead: The Musical"? That was Tommy LeRoy. Remember the larger-than-life ED-209 robot in "Robocop: The Musical"? Classic Tommy LeRoy. Point to anything that's ever been rigged to do an unexpected thing, any custom-built exactly-to-scale prop, or any visionary proportion-defying costume in an original production, and those in the know won't need many guesses to identify the source.

It's worth noting because Go Comedy! Improv Theater's untamed late-Thursday time slot is not just being overrun by any old puppets, but by Tommy LeRoy puppets. The do-it-yourself ingenuity impresario is creator and director of the fluffy and flashy "Fuzzballs," in essence a live-action staging of a puppet TV show.

The production cites Jim Henson's "The Muppet Show" as inspiration, and its presentation borrows from the stage show "Puppet Up!," created by Henson's son. There are two major components to the setup: the playing area to one side of the Go stage, where scenes unfold live for a camera, and the simultaneous video image projected above center stage. (More so than usual at Go Comedy!, there are good seats and less-good seats for this production; for best results, aim for a clear view of the area in front of the "Fuzzballs" backdrop.) The puppeteers aren't masking themselves, but merely hovering out of frame, so viewers can choose to watch either the final product or how the sausage is made – or to compare the two, which is a mind-expander in and of itself.

LeRoy and company (numbering about sixteen in total, of which around half appear in any given performance) have scores of puppets at their disposal, from classic flap-head/floppy-arm to perfectly sculpted dinosaurs to everyday objects with rudimentary rubber-band mouths. Each is meticulously detailed and possessed of real personality, which is furthered by deft manipulation on the parts of the puppeteers. The work implies careful study of the shimmies and adjustments that inject life even into a puppet at "rest," as well as camera-specific use of perspective and foreground/background focus.

Essentially, if the Muppets had a single set, a cable-access budget, and a need to create a whole show on the fly, this is probably what it would look like. The one-act production features a blend of scripted vignettes and short-form improvisational games, contrasting chaotic free play with exhaustively constructed bits, many dependent on music. Although the sensibility is recognizably Henson, as "Avenue Q" taught the world, there's nothing like watching puppets saying filthy things. So while this show hardly wallows in its impiety, any time improvisers are allowed to work blue, four-letter words and adult subject matter tend to make an appearance.

The improvisational elements are skillful and good for some laughs, although what they gain by the puppetry medium is not as clear as what they sometimes lose. Setup drag and stilted transitions tend to remind the viewer of the benefits of editing, and the selected games' reliance on strings of one-liners holds the expressive puppet characters back in a talking-head purgatory of their own making.

Rather, this production is undoubtedly best in innovative segments that are engineered to be heightened by the format. These predominantly visual gags are dually splendid in concept and in execution, some with complexity that really rewards the behind-the-curtain view. Another particular highlight is a pair of friendly, disarming creatures (expertly characterized on press night by Tommy LeRoy and Michelle LeRoy) that seek out – and inevitably find – willing partners in cute gameplay; their assembled physicality, voice, rapport, and objective make a harmonious combination with exponential opportunities for humor.

There's truth in advertising in "Fuzzballs," whose subtitle reads, simply, "Comedy With Puppets." Comedy indeed winds throughout this peculiar grab bag of clever scripted and bawdy improvised fare. But ultimately, it's when the puppets stop being an incidental gimmick and start being the linchpin of the humor that this production intermittently finds its rewarding and hilarious groove.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Fuzzballs'
261 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale
10 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 21, 28, Sept. 4, 11
11:59 p.m. Aug. 23
45 minutes; no intermission
$10 ($5 midnight performance)


Vocal boys make good

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Forever Plaid"

The Dio - Dining & Entertainment

Posted: Aug. 2, 2014 at 6:37 p.m.

Upon opening, The Dio – Dining & Entertainment carefully selected the darling musical "Forever Plaid" (by Stuart Ross) as its statement first dinner-theater production. That was in 2013, when unexpected obstacles forced the run of the show to be truncated after its first weekend. But the company proceeded unruffled, and is now one year in and going strong, giving "Forever Plaid" a proper return. Helmed by cofounder and director Steve DeBruyne, the current production at last showcases what made it such an apropos entertainment selection for this cozy Pinckney venue, pairing a savory buffet dinner with a show that's earnestly sweet.

The Dio's resident chef, Jarod, knows his way around a chafing dish, creating a spread of rich entrees and sides that stay appetizing throughout the dining service. There's standard-issue green salad and warm breadsticks, fresh Waldorf salad and buttery sautéed vegetables, breaded boneless chicken crisp enough to write home about, and a pasta dish clotted with cheese and sausage. The stuff is reminiscent of a favorite homemade special-occasion meal, the kind that leaves stomachs straining in pleasure before coffee and dessert even hit the table.

Then it's on from gastronomical feats to theatrical ones, as the attention shifts front and center to "Forever Plaid," in which a semiprofessional 1950s guy group returns to Earth from the hereafter to at long last realize its harmonic ambitions. Plaids Frankie (DeBruyne), Jinx (Jarod Schneider), Sparky (Cody Musteffe), and Smudge (Thomas Mate) are humorously rusty at their old shtick, but their pipes remain refined and attuned, thanks in large part to music director George Cullinan, who also conducts coolly from an onstage keyboard (joined by bassist Benjamin Merte).

Overcoming physical ailments and paralyzing stage fright, the quartet bops and reverberates through its revue of standards, primarily crooning into handheld microphones that become part of Cara Manor's snappy-smooth unison choreography. Matthew Tomich is credited with set, lighting, and sound design, leaning into the lounge-y feel of the deeply hued space with gauzy hues that are reflected in the Plaids' sharp white dinner jackets (by costumer Norma Polk).

There are scripted breaks from the show's main trajectory, be they very Plaid diversions into other genres, or segues intended to dig deeper into the different personalities. Indeed, each actor has his own eccentricity: serious Schneider petrified of any blunder, vigilant Mate giving his peripheral vision a workout to crib the next step, baby-faced Musteffe getting carried away with himself, and ringleader DeBruyne doling out instructions and corrections. But with each digression, the group quickly springs back like a rubber band into its wheelhouse, with the wannabe lounge lizards reverting to their true blue Boy Scout selves, and to the superior four-part harmonic modulation for which these romantic ballads were written.

Metaphysical mystery, interpersonal relationships, and comic gaffes aside, this "Forever Plaid" is best at what the Plaids themselves do best: the music. The whole of the experience is a treat for eardrums and taste buds alike, ready and waiting to indulge viewers itching for a whole night out.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Forever Plaid'
The Dio - Dining and Entertainment
135 E. Main St., Pinckney
12:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 4
6:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 8, 15, 22, 29, Sept. 5
6:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 9, 16, 23, 30, Sept. 6
12:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 3, 10, 17, 24, 29, Sept. 7
90 minutes; no intermission

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Forever Plaid - The Dio

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Aug. 7, 2014)

Read RONALD BAUMANIS' review – Mostly Musical Theatre (Aug. 1, 2014)


Six 'Kings' draw a full house

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "The Kings of Unionville

Tipping Point Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Kings of Unionville - Tipping Point Theatre

Read RONELLE GRIER's review - The Oakland Press (Aug. 12, 2014)

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Detroit Theater Examiner (Aug. 2, 2014)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (July 31, 2014)

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review - Detroit Free Press (July 30, 2014)


Showing and telling the secret to quirky musical's flourish

By Carolyn Hayes

REVIEW: "The Big Bang"

Williamston Theatre

Posted: July 19, 2014 at 3:35 p.m.; updated Aug. 8, 2014 at 11:41 a.m.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The production then moves to:

Performance Network Theatre
120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 21 (preview), 28
8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 22, 29
3 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 23, 30
2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 24 & 31
$15 preview; $24-41 all others

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Big Bang - Williamston Theatre

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

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

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


At midsummer, a sweet 'Dream'

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Shakespeare in Detroit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Strong characters, big secrets in appealing 'Last Romance'

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "The Last Romance"

The Purple Rose Theatre Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Dana Casadei

REVIEW: "ComedySportz Detroit"

Michigan Actors Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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