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Older actors shine in 'Pippin'

By Bridgette Redman

REVIEW: "Pippin"

Wharton Center

Posted: Jan. 28, 2015 at 3:38 p.m.

Broadway is often a stage for young actors, especially in a physically demanding production like “Pippin” that is filled with acrobatics, magic tricks, and circus-feats of tumbling and balance. The production of “Pippin” currently playing at East Lansing's Wharton Center, though, belonged to the older actors.

In this complex coming-of-age play within a play where the young Pippin searches for meaning and fulfillment in his life, the brightest shining moments came from John Rubinstein's Charles (Charlemagne), Pippin's father, and from Priscilla Lopez’s Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother.

Rubinstein originated the role of Pippin back in the 70s when the musical first appeared on Broadway and he’s clearly having a blast with the part of Charles. He was full of humor and pumped the most laughs and energy out of every moment he was on stage. He chortled, he strutted, he stopped up his ears and went “lalalalalala” when he didn’t want to hear what Pippin was saying. Every choice was one that added excitement to the moment and invited the audience to be further invested in his character and the story being told.

Lopez absolutely charms and tickles the audience with her bawdy grandmother who encourages Pippin to take a little from life and search for meaning in sex. She gives the illusion of being made fragile by age and then soon bursts that perception with tricks worthy of this ensemble of gymnasts, aerialists, and magicians.

Central to the storytelling are the storyteller and the hero. Sasha Allen’s Leading Player pulls Sam Lips’ Pippin by the nose as he samples war, learning, sex, politics, art, religion, and country life on his journey for purpose. Allen is sassy in her attitude and has a commanding stage presence. One of the show’s challenges, however, comes in her singing style. Her voice is strong and skillful, but her pop background is very apparent.

Show tunes have always had a distinct sound from pop music, even when the two cross-over. Part of the reason for this is because pop songs can be heard many times before a listener decides whether she likes it. The lyrics can be learned after multiple repetitions of the song. In a musical, the lyrics are essential to the story and the listeners have only one chance to hear and understand them. It was too often difficult to understand what Allen was singing, particularly during her first-act solos.

Lips’ Pippin showed great contrast from the rest of the ensemble, underlining the Leading Players’ fourth wall-breaking assertion that he was new to the role. He was always one step off from the rest of the ensemble, a choice that contributed greatly to the story being told. It telegraphs the idea that Pippin doesn’t fit in anywhere he goes. Lips also has an enviable set of pipes that can go from softly singing to belting in a matter of a few bars of music. He’s an emotional singer who evokes a wide range of feelings in his listeners.

On opening night, Diane Paulus’ direction got applause as the curtain fell to reveal a perfectly staged set of circus performers posed to begin the journey. It’s an ensemble that often evoked Cirque du Soleil in their applause-inducing, breath-taking performances, but it was more than just a circus act. The highly skilled and talented ensemble was constantly raising the stakes for Pippin. With each trick, with each physical feat, they were insisting that it was realistic to be extraordinary, that he too must simply strive harder to join those around him who were doing the seemingly impossible.

It was a constant build-up of physical feats and wonders by people who lacked the authentic humanity of Kristine Reese’s Catherine or even Lips’ Pippin. They were always other-worldy, circus performers that reminded you of the denizens from Ray Bradbury’s carnival in “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” It was a contrast that made the finale, and the post-finale, resonate with power.

“Pippin” is a full night of entertainment with songs like “Corner of the Sky” and “No Time at All” that stick in your head long after the show is over. It is a performance that caters to the audience, breaking the fourth wall often to draw the audience into being a part of the storytelling and the journey.

It is perhaps fitting that it is the older characters, the ones who have found their corner of the sky and their place in the world, who really shine in this production. They are early hints to Pippin of what he might have if he can break away from the siren call of the Leading Player.

SHOW DETAILS:
"Pippin"

Wharton Center
Michigan State University, Cobb Great Hall, 750 E. Shaw Ln, East Lansing, MI 48824
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Jan. 27, 28, 29
8 p.m. Friday & Saturday, Jan. 30, 31
2 p.m. Saturday, Jan 31
81 p.m & 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 1
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including 20-minute intermission)
$34+ ($25 Student tickets)
517-432-2000
www.whartoncenter.com

 

'Steel Magnolias' - Shrinking violets need not apply!

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Steel Magnolias"

Purple Rose Theatre Company

Posted: Jan. 26, 2015 at 3:30 p.m.

There are plays that get produced over and over - fortunately, those tend to be the best of the best. The critic, therefore, will be reviewing the same show many times in his or her career. It’s not a bore. It's like dropping in on an old friend from time to time; reliving old memories, learning what's new. And when an excellent company revives an excellent show, there’s ALWAYS something new.

We come, then, to the happy congruence of The Purple Rose Theatre Company and "Steel Magnolias," a play that touches so close to the heart of the human condition that it enjoys universal appeal. It is called a dramatic comedy or a comic drama; take your pick. Imagine - it's taken me three times to realize that this play's "real feel" stems from the fact that a life is never all smiles or all tears, and how we humans deal with each profoundly defines our humanity.

All six characters in "Steel Magnolias" are women. So how did a man, namely playwright Robert Harling, achieve such a sensitive understanding of the feminine condition? "Steel Magnolias" is based on experiences within his own family, and began as a way of building a legacy for his late sister.

The time is the latter years of the 1980s and the scene is a breezeway cum beauty parlor in a small Louisiana town where, for 15 years, Truvy Jones (Rhiannon Ragland) has catered to an elite clientele. On this special day in June, the belles are getting done up for an afternoon wedding. Shelby (Rachel C. Hull), "the prettiest girl in town" and daughter of long-time customer M'Lynn Eatenton (Michelle Mountain), is marrying her beau. Shelby and her mother are on the scene, as well as Truvy's new, fresh out of beauty school assistant, Annelle (Lauren Knox), who (though very young) may have a "past." Or as Truvy succinctly puts it, "This is the eighties. If you can achieve puberty, you can achieve a past."

They are joined by two long-time sparring partners. They are Clairee Belcher (Susan Craves), widow of the former mayor, and cantankerous Ouiser Boudreaux (Laural Merlington), who asserts that people are nice to her only because "...I have more money than God." The six proceed to do what playwright Harling would have us believe women do out of sight of their men. When otherwise not engaged in washing and setting hair, they sit and gossip.

Boring? Never. Harling's wordplay is delightful and the ensemble misses no opportunity to deliver it adroitly. There are some interesting and illuminating surprises in store. Truvy has some of the most ear-catching bon mots in the script and Rhiannon Ragland's absolute deadpan delivery makes them even funnier. It is, however, Rachel Hull’s Shelby that is the eye-opener here.

The material is there to play the character as the gushing, blushing young bride. Hull's approach takes an alternate path. Her Shelby is self-possessed, self-absorbed, and something of a brat. This is strong motivation for the tension between M'Lynn and her daughter that ultimately drives the plot. Our growing animus with the character is suddenly upended when Shelby goes into insulin shock and it is revealed that her diabetes would so seriously affect childbirth that she should never conceive. Hull’s play of subtext is a marvel.

No less marvelous is Michelle Mountain's delivery of the climactic monologue. It is here, when the emotional conflicts - not only for M'Lynn, but for all the characters - are their most extreme that we discover that this catharsis has been implicit since Act I, scene 1. Ultimately, she delivers the moral of "Steel Magnolias:" "We should handle it the best way we know how and get on with it."

The design team for "Steel Magnolias" need a special shout-out. Each, in his and her area of expertise, have worked a little stage magic in helping us achieve our willing suspension of disbelief. Bartley H. Bauer’s meticulously appointed set, coupled with Danna Segrest’s detailed props grab us out of a Michigan theater and drop us definitively into that Louisiana beauty parlor. The average patron isn’t going to notice the lighting. You never do, unless something goes horrible wrong – like an instrument falling to the stage (or into the audience). Let me, therefore, note the subtle, atmospheric effect of Dana L. White’s design. The Purple Rose’s thrust stage is bathed in warm amber light from directly overhead, which parallels the appealing glow among the characters. Angie Kane Ferrante’s sound design ranges from hot radio hits from the '80s to a pretty convincing, wall-shaking explosion.

Who may have had the most fun in her work, if finding costumes for this show was less work than I suspect it was, is Christianne Myers. There’s no element of parody of what was, in retrospect, a pretty garish era. Truvy’s slinky duds are just this side of tasteful, and the mannish tailoring of Ouiser’s outfits shouts "no nonsense!"

What guy could be able to keep it real with all this lady stuff going on? That would be PRTC Artistic Director, Guy Sanville, who has yet again assembled an elegant ensemble capable of limning unique, memorable characters.

For The Critic, one of the most memorable quips of the evening issues from crusty, shoot-from-the-lip Ouiser. "I do not see plays, because I can nap at home for free." See "Steel Magnolias" and just try napping. I dare you.

SHOW DETAILS:
"Steel Magnolias"

Purple Rose Theatre
137 Park Street, Chelsea, Michigan 48118
2 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28, Feb. 4, 11, 18, 25, Mar. 4, 11
7 p.m. Wednesday & Thursday, Jan. 28, 29 Feb. 4, 5, 11, 12, 18, 19, 26, Mar. 4, 5, 11, 12
8 p.m. Friday & Saturday, Jan. 30, 31, Feb. 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21, 27, 28, Mar. 6, 7, 13, 14
3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, Feb. 6, 13, 20, 27, Mar. 7, 14
2 p.m Sunday, Feb. 1, 8, 15, 22, Mar. 1, 8
11 a.m. Thursday, Feb 26
$15-42
734-433-7673
www.purplerosetheatre.org

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Steel Magnolias - Purple Rose Theatre Company

Read JENN MCKEE's review - MLive.com (Jan. 24, 2015)

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Detroit Theatre Examiner (Jan. 25, 2015)

 

'Yellowman' is a timely reflection on color of skin and content of character

by John Quinn

REVIEW: "Yellowman"

Performance Network Theatre

Posted: Jan. 18, 2015 at 3:30 p.m.

All drama, says Aristotle, should provoke an emotional response; some emotional responses will have an audience squirming in their collective seats. “Yellowman,” Pulitzer Prize finalist Dael Orlandersmith’s powerful one-act, exposes a caste system within the African-American community based on skin color, in which dark-skinned and light-skinned hold each other in mutual contempt bordering on hatred. For Performance Network’s patrons, who are overwhelmingly of European heritage, it’s like being invited to dine with a family who proceeds to air its dirty laundry in public. As uncomfortable as it is to witness secrets revealed and emotions unleashed, the rank smell of our own unwashed sheets begin to intrude, adding to our embarrassment. Perhaps I’ve pushed that particular metaphor too far. Suffice it to say, “Yellowman’s” catharsis is not for the faint-hearted, regardless of ethnicity.

The play is structured in five sections, to be performed by two actors assuming multiple parts. That is always a challenge, one expertly handled here by Casaundra Freeman and Jonathan West, under the - as always - skillful direction of Lynch Travis. It is performed mostly in intertwined monologues, with frequent, deft shifts of voice and gesture to introduce other characters. Played against John Manfredi’s suitably stark scenic design, “Yellowman” is a glowing example of a growing trend this theater season - an elevation of the storyteller and the language that is his or her stock in trade.

Orlandersmith’s most sobering message is that bigotry is not ingrained. In fact, as they sing in “South Pacific,” “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” Internal references set “Yellowman” in Russelville, South Carolina, starting between 1966 and ‘68. Alma and Eugene begin a friendship that will bloom into love, despite the physical differences that society dictates should keep them apart. Alma is heavy-set and dark-skinned; Gene is referred to, in many instances derisively, as “high yellow.” Their affection endures through playground taunts and the soul-killing responses of their parents. Alma takes after her single-parent mother, Odelia, who bullies her child about being black, fat and ugly. Eugene’s parents, dark skinned Robert and fairer Thelma, pull the boy in different directions. Robert is so lost in bigotry he lashes out at his own son. Their bond is threatened, though, when Alma wins a scholarship to Hunter College and leaves for New York City. Gene, on the other hand, has no more ambition than to follow his father in working for the railroad.

Now, Casaundra Freeman is, by anybody’s standard, an attractive woman and Jonathan West is nobody’s idea of a “punk.” But we readily believe in their characters because they believe in them. There’s a bit of magic, then, in Freeman’s hypnotic, poetic description of Alma’s New York transformation. The ugly duckling becomes a swan with no more than a change of shoes. West also impresses in a transformative monologue, but in contrast with Alma’s optimism, Gene’s fate is startling, grim and tragic.

After introducing us to two very likable characters, I’d like to report that Dael Orlandersmith allows them a happily ever after. I can’t. Monday will mark the Federal recognition of Martin Luther King Day. Reflect, then, that August 28, 2015 will mark 52 years since Dr. King proclaimed, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." The dream remains a dream. Dramas like “Yellowman” are our wake-up call.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Yellowman' by Dael Orlandersmith
Performance Network Theatre
120 E. Huron St, Ann Arbor, MI 48104
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22, 29, Feb. 5, 12
8:00 p.m. Friday & Saturday, Jan. 23, 24, 30, 31, Feb. 6, 7, 13, 14
3:00 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24, 31, Feb. 7, 14
2:00 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 25, Feb. 1, 8, 15
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
$25-$41
734-663-0681
www.pntheatre.org

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Yellowman - Performance Network Theatre

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Detroit Theater Examiner (Jan. 17, 2015)

Read JENN MCKEE's review - MLive.com (Jan. 17, 2015)

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review - Detroit Free Press (Jan. 21, 2015)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Jan. 23, 2015)

 

Pigeon Creek Asks Shakespeare’s Comedic Questions

by Bridgette Redman

REVIEW: "All's Well That Ends Well"

Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company

Posted: Jan. 18, 2015 at 10:15 a.m.

It’s a premise that is sometimes hard to accept. Is all well that ends well if what happens along the way seems pretty unethical at best?

In Shakespeare’s comedy, we have a young lady pining away for the love of a man. When the man ignores her because she is not of the right social class, and perhaps because he mostly sees her weeping and unhappy, she does a favor for the king and gets the king to force the man to marry her. Then, when the man runs away from her, she tricks him into sleeping with her and gets pregnant. But in the end, he is willing to be her husband and so “all is well,” even if it seems a rough foundation on which to build a life.

Pigeon Creek, after getting a late start due to last week’s snowy and cold weather that caused them to cancel shows the opening weekend, performed this problem comedy to a sold-out audience, bringing in extra chairs and packing people in to see them perform in their usual style using Original Practice Shakespeare. Original Practice means universal lighting, doubling, modern accents and gender-blind casting.

Sean Kelley played Bertram, the object of desire. He gave him such a rebellious, almost hip-hop attitude that one almost might have thought he was corrupting Kathleen Bode’s Parolles, rather than the other way around as people in the story suggested. He acted with little regard for social structure, caught up in the tunes on his portable CD player, caring about it only when it came to the question of marriage. Kelley’s portrayal clearly showed the young lord’s immaturity and his actions constantly moved the story line along. He was comfortable talking with the audience and in the role that he played.

Janelle Mahllmann was great fun to watch in both her roles as the Countess of Rousillon and Mariana, a friend working out with the widow in a jogging outfit with hand weights. She had opposite manners in each role, going from high-born to a working class weariness masked by frenetic energy. Especially impressive was Steven Anderson’s portrayal of the king in the first half of the play. His pain was so apparent, his squirming and lack of health so specific in its choices that it made the audience yearn to aid him and squirm in their own seats in empathy with his suffering. If there was any complaint, it was that he could have had more vitality after his miraculous healing, and yet his choices did make things seem more realistic and credible.

Bode and Janna Rosenkranz as Le Feu had wonderful energy and connection in their conflicts with each other. Both played male roles, Rosenkranz with a fake beard. They circled and went at each other to great entertaining effect. Rosenkranz, with her constant amused mien, kept the upper hand to such a degree, that one almost started to sympathize with Parolles. The braggart captain often came across as a likeable character, one who received a rough come-uppance for a few simple boasts.

Kat Hermes played the central role of Helen, a girl who doggedly pursued her goals, first as a moonstruck maiden and later as the scorned and wronged spouse whom everyone sided with except for the fleeing husband. It’s a tough role to carry off, for she has to make us like her despite behavior we would now consider stalking. She often made choices for the character based on the moment in the script rather than the over-arching story line, making it hard to get a sense for who Helen is and why she is so beloved of everyone except her chosen love.

There were others in the ensemble who provided moments of both comedy and story telling. Aaron Fram’s Lavatch was properly naughty and saucy to the duchess and her household. Brieanne Roper was the appropriately demure young lady who came alive with fire when brought before the king to confront the man who had so insulted her morality. Her mother, played by Brenda VanderArk, was a proper guardian who willingly entered into the plotting with Helen.

This ensemble-directed show left a few questions unanswered, the major ones being, why did Helen so love this self-absorbed boy who was handsome in looks, but ugly in behavior? Why would she continue to seek him out when he so clearly rejected her? Why was there such disdain for Parolles who seemed only to follow along with Bertram’s youthful immaturities rather than being a corrupting factor?

Nonetheless, it is an amusing telling of the story, one of Shakespeare’s problem comedies. With the music pre-show and at intermission, Pigeon Creek seeks to entertain and make Shakespeare accessible to a wide audience. They have built up a loyal following for good reason. This is not one of their strongest shows, but it is filled with interesting choices and plenty of laughs.

SHOW DETAILS:
'All's Well That Ends Well' by William Shakespeare
The Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company

Dog Story Theater
7 Jefferson SE in Grand Rapids
3:00 p.m. Sunday, January 18
Tickets $14 for adults, $7 for students and seniors
Tickets available at www.dogstorytheater.com

Seven Steps Up
116 South Jackson in Spring Lake
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24
Tickets $14 for adults, $7 for students and seniors
Tickets available by calling the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company at 616-850-0916

Beardsley Theater at the Frauenthal Center
425 West Western Avenue in Muskegon

7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 31
Tickets available at
www.starticketsplus.com,
or by calling the Frauenthal Box Office at 231-727-8001

Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including a 15-minute intermission)

 

Hilberry Theatre takes up Restoration project

by John Quinn

REVIEW: "The Way of the World"

Hilberry Theatre

Posted: Jan. 17, 2015 at 3:20 p.m.

Hold on. This really is a review, not an article in “News and Previews.” The above headline is a deception. Given the shabby state of journalism it’s not the first, nor the last you’ll encounter. The Hilberry isn’t renovating; it is, in fact, preparing to build a whole new theater. The project they’ve undertaken is a play driven by deception; full of characters who revel so joyously in self-serving manipulation and callous disregard for the holy state of Matrimony that they seem positively 21st Century. The Restoration project is, in fact, William Congreve’s 1700 classic, “The Way of the World.”

Charles I allowed his royal prerogatives go to his head, and he lost it – his head, that is. Convicted of treason, Charles was executed by Parliament 1649. The Interregnum was dominated by puritanical morals; the theaters, in fact, had been closed as early as 1642.

One can only imagine a rousing chorus of “Happy Days Are Here Again” resounding through the streets when the monarchy was restored in the person of Charles II in 1660. A "Good Time" Charlie indeed, his reign permitted everybody let his hair down, figuratively and literally, and playwrights were still writing naughty bits four decades later. “The Way of the World” remains a witty, sassy, thoroughly cynical comedy even after three hundred years.

The plot is convoluted, the more so since many of the characters’ names are similar. Mirabell (Kyle Mitchell Johnson) loves Millament (Annie Keris), who comes with a big dowry attached. But in order to get both the girl and the cash, he must win the approval of Millament’s aunt, Lady Wishfort (Bevin Bell-Hall), who despises him. Milady would rather have Millament marry an oafish nephew, Sir Wilfull Witwoud (Santino Craven), and keep the money all in the family, as it were. Worse for Mirabell, if Lady Wishfort should marry before her niece, a big chunk of the money goes with her.

In order to compromise Lady Wishfort, Mirabell marries off his servant, Waitwell (Michael Phillip Thomas), to the Lady’s maid, Foible (Devri Chism). Waitwell, in the guise of Mirabell’s aristocratic “uncle,” woos Lady Wishfort as part of a “bigamy as blackmail” plot.

The paradox in “The Way of the World” is that, while none of the characters are likeable, they’re all, perversely, lovable. Congreve is responsible for much of that. All the characters delight in their decadence because, as we are frequently reminded: it’s “the way of the world.” There are memorable characters that are hold-overs from the hedonism of Charles’ days into the dourer reign of William and Mary. Michael Manocchio (Witwoud) and Brandy Joe Plambeck (Petulant) play two over-the-top fops; complete with bizarre wigs, clown-white makeup, garish raiment and heeled pumps that could pass muster in “Kinky Boots.” While costumer Anne Suchyta has outdone herself with this entire production, how well these designs define the comic foils is worth noting.

Other characters stand out, not for their finery, but for their licentiousness. Mrs. Fainall (Sarah Hawkins Moan) and Mrs. Marwood (Tiffany Michelle Thompson) both have histories with Mirabell and alternately conspire for and against him. Mr. Fainall (Miles Boucher) isn’t about to let a little thing like marriage stand in the way of snatching all the dowry for himself - by any means necessary.

The scope of the Hilberry experience is educational, and success depends on a skillful, thoughtful teacher. For “The Way of the World,” that’s director Lavinia Hart, Associate Professor of Theatre and Head of the MFA Acting Program at Wayne State University. By adhering to the conventions of Restoration Theatre, she has not only taken her cast out of their comfort zones established by modern technique; she has made a three hundred-year-old script totally accessible to a modern audience. Objectively, the vocal inflections, movement and gestures seem stilted; subjectively, they bring out the best in Congreve. The ensemble is first rate, with few weak performances.

Adding to the visual feast are the complementary scenic and lighting designs. Sarah Pearline, an Assistant Professor of Set Design, provides a backdrop of huge, white flowers on a gilt-edged black backdrop. They are three-dimensional, but hit by Amy M. Schneider’s lights, they take on the striking luminescence of mother-of-pearl marquetry. It’s a dazzling effect.

I suppose it could be argued that theater is all about deception. I prefer to think of it as “illusion” instead, since the audience is a willing participant in the experience. Illusion, entertainment, education – make of it what you will, “The Way of the World” is the real deal.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Way of the World' by William Congreve

Hilberry Theatre

4743 Cass Avenue, Detroit, at the corner of Hancock.

Jan. 16 - Mar. 7

2 hours 40 minutes 2 intermissions

313-577-2972

http://hilberry1.com

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Way of the World - Hilberry Theatre

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Detroit Theater Examiner (Jan. 18, 2015)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Jan. 26, 2015)

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review - Detroit Free Press (Jan. 28, 2015)

 

One 'Mother' of an ensemble makes comedy to savor

by Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Things My Mother Taught Me"

Meadow Brook Theatre

Posted: Jan. 11, 2015 at 6:13 p.m.

Theater satisfies different tastes and appetites in the same way that food does. Just as there will always be daring, trendy restaurants combining exotic flavors in new ways, hoping to stay on the foodie-hipster cutting edge, our palates maintain a similar level of enthusiasm for simple, classic fare done exquisitely well.

As theatrical dishes go, “Things My Mother Taught Me” by Katherine DiSavino is as safe as they come: small scope, mostly external conflict, big physical comedy, and extra punchy laugh lines. Yet even so, the Michigan premiere production at Meadow Brook Theatre is anything but bland. Indeed, director Travis W. Walter and company find every opportunity to wring new comic zest out of an old chestnut: Parents just don’t understand.

For example, take the play’s move-in-ready Chicago apartment setting. Given a scripted vacant void, designer Brian Kessler goes the extra mile to show the bones of a fully realized real estate listing: “historic building” (hidden radiator), “recently renovated” (cookie-cutter floor plan repeated in the apartment glimpsed above), “modern kitchen” (accent lighting and backsplash straight out of a TV remodeling show).

This is the new abode of millennials Olivia (Dani Cochrane) and Gabriel (Lucas Wells), who are almost finished relocating from New York City - that is, just as soon as they can un-wedge the armchair from the front doorway and bring in the rest of their worldly possessions from the moving van. But this one obstacle spins off into many, beginning with the surprise arrival of Gabe’s, and then Liv’s, respective parents. (And their eagerness to “help.” And their suffocating advice. And their take-charge hijacking of the proceedings.) Add to that a few secrets shared and spilled, and a couple of personal disasters, and the whole zany plot takes on the feel of a long sitcom: larger than life, and sure to resolve happily in the nick of time.

To their credit, Walter and cast pump up these low stakes with an emphasis on chemistry and reactions, which here are irreproachable. Cochrane and Wells have coupledom down to a T, melding the easy rapport of a longtime pair with the growing pains of a big relationship step and the fresh challenges of joint decision making.

Moreover, these two crazy kids are wholeheartedly supported - not only as characters, but as actors - by the parental ensemble around them, all playing to the height of their skill and intelligence. Karen Sheridan kills with well-meaning kindness as she puts the “mother” in “smother,” bookended by the dually wise and incorrigible depths of Wayne David Parker. On the more imperious and detached parenting front, Debbie Williams’s mantle of tone-deaf disconnect proves the best vessel for Liz Goodall’s type-making costume design. And Phil Powers throws off his early tech-giddy shtick to deliver what might rank as an epic poem of “can’t hold his liquor.” Even the character of the Polish building super, whose defining trait is essentially “Foreign,” is uplifted in the capable hands of Mark Rademacher. Together, the cast navigates expert buildups and hammy releases, but also earns its syrupy sweet character payoffs, even pulling off a gratuitous and tonally mismatched why-the-heck-not? coda.

A meal can be as pedestrian and predictable as it likes; so long as it’s delicious and filling, that’s what diners will talk about. And so it is with “Things My Mother Taught Me,” whose standard sitcom fare gains gourmet flair by its sprightly jesting, well-played excesses, and rampant enthusiasm that emboldens the viewer to dig in and just laugh along.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Things My Mother Taught Me'
Meadow Brook Theatre
2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester, MI 48309
Running Jan. 7 - Feb. 1, 2015
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including 15-minute intermission)
$26 to $41
248-377-3300 or www.ticketmaster.com.

showtimes:
Jan 11, 2015 at 2:00 pm
Jan 11, 2015 at 6:30 pm
Jan 14, 2015 at 8:00 pm
Jan 15, 2015 at 8:00 pm
Jan 16, 2015 at 8:00 pm
Jan 17, 2015 at 2:00 pm
Jan 17, 2015 at 8:00 pm
Jan 18, 2015 at 2:00 pm
Jan 18, 2015 at 6:30 pm
Jan 21, 2015 at 2:00 pm
Jan 21, 2015 at 8:00 pm
Jan 22, 2015 at 8:00 pm
Jan 23, 2015 at 8:00 pm
Jan 24, 2015 at 6:00 pm
Jan 25, 2015 at 2:00 pm
Jan 25, 2015 at 6:30 pm
Jan 28, 2015 at 2:00 pm
Jan 28, 2015 at 8:00 pm
Jan 29, 2015 at 8:00 pm
Jan 30, 2015 at 8:00 pm
Jan 31, 2015 at 2:00 pm
Jan 31, 2015 at 8:00 pm
Feb 1, 2015 at 2:00 pm

 

Cheering from the sidelines of the dating game

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Armchair Dating"

Planet Ant Theatre

Posted: Jan. 31, 2015 at 12:33 p.m.

When I last saw actor/playwright Margaret Edwartowski, she was on stage at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts, accepting our 2013 Wilde Award for best new script for her delightful play, “Hamtown Races.” That nomination was made by my colleague, Donald V. Calamia; I was prepared to nominate her light comedy, “The Do Over” that season. If you’re a local theater buff, you might also know that her sweet comic one-act, “Mom is so GLAAD” was voted favorite play of The Ringwald Theatre’s 2014 Gay Play Series. That’s not a bad track record for only five years of playwriting.

Ah, but Margaret Edwartowski has 15 years’ experience in improvisational theater and sketch comedy, experience that has gifted her with an observant eye for the human condition in all its folly and a sharp ear for witty yet convincing dialogue. Edwardtowski is back at Planet Ant Theatre, where her first play, “Snowbound,” debuted about this time in 2010, and where “The Do Over” and “Hamtown Races” caught the eyes of the Wilde Awards committee. This time she offers an original romantic comedy, “Armchair Dating,” just ahead of Super Bowl Sunday.

Yes, indeed, 6:30 p.m. EST will mark the start of the 49th annual exercise in the all-American sport, armchair quarterbacking. Millions of sports fans will be screaming at unresponsive flat-screens, each fan sure that he or she could do better than any coach, player, or referee. But what happens if a close friend applies the same know-it-all attitude to your love life? “Armchair Dating” is the case study.

Struggling actress Liz (Lauren Bickers) meets Chuck (Andy Burt) when she gets in his shorts - his short-subject films, that is. Chuck feels Liz is the perfect match for his awkward best friend, Peter (Andy Reid). Andy is an aspiring painter (of canvases, not houses) but he’s also a trust-fund baby whose family’s wealth falls somewhere “between Oprah’s and the Sultan of Brunei’s.” Chuck becomes Cyrano to Peter’s Christian and begins coaching him on how to win the fair lady.

But Liz has a BFF, too - realtor Anita (Cara Trautman), who thinks all artist are “weird.” Chuck is ensconced in a recliner stage right and Anita on a love seat stage left, leaving the center as sort of a battleground for the potential partners. The “quarterbacks” call plays, comment on the success of their protégés and, ultimately, make their charges feel pretty inadequate. Will the pair smooth over their early rough patches, or is this budding relationship heading for the mother of all potholes?

“Armchair Dating” is a mere 45 minutes; it’s reminiscent of an extended sketch comedy. Yet there is no sense of padding or anything missing - it efficiently tells its story. I can even see a time when Planet Ant can host “An Evening with Margaret Edwartowski,” pairing or even tripling one acts of complementary themes. There is an aesthetic to “Armchair” that reminds one of “The Do Over.”

There is rarely a dull moment in the production; since the characters don’t move very much, the rapid-fire dialogue sets both pace and tone. Note, though, the dim-light scene changes are a comedy all in their own, thanks to director Tara Rase and Shawn Handlon’s capable hand at the lighting board.

Opening night found some line readings still a little rough around the edges, not surprising in light of the whip-lash speed of the delivery. I rarely quibble about interpretation, but one bit sent me out of my suspension of disbelief. Peter sketches Liz - unlike a similar scene in “Titanic,” she’s still clothed - when a senseless spat has her running from Peter’s bohemian apartment. Peter follows; almost a token of resignation, he gives her the drawing - folded in eighths. I’m not much of an artist, but if I had a piece of art that I or someone else will keep, my first instinct would be to roll it. I understand that a roll would not be as unobtrusive until the reveal.

Festivities on Sunday will also include the second-most popular sport - betting on the game. I wager that Margaret Edwartowski and her talent for creating thoroughly realistic, developed characters will be back at The Ant before Super Bowl 50.

SHOW DETAILS:
"Armchair Dating"

Planet Ant Theatre
2357 Caniff in Hamtramck, MI 48212
9 p.m. Friday & Saturday, Jan. 30, 31, Feb. 6, 7, 13, 14
Running time: 45 minutes, no intermission
$10
313-365-4948
www.planetant.com

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Things My Mother Taught Me - Meadow Brook Theatre

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Examiner.com (Jan. 11, 2015)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Jan. 16, 2015)

 

'The Boys in the Band': Hell, hell the gang’s all here

by John Quinn

REVIEW: "The Boys in the Band"

The Ringwald Theatre

Posted: Jan. 10, 2015 at 3:45 p.m.

Well, son of a gun – you CAN make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!

Well, maybe YOU can’t, and I wouldn’t try, because I don’t have any cash to put in the purse. But Joe Bailey succeeded. The artistic director of Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre has redeemed Mart Crowley’s 1970 self-indulgent pity party, “The Boys in the Band.”

Its theme, homosexual angst in NYC before the Stonewall Riots ignited the modern LGBT civil rights movement, is arguably not as controversial as the play itself. You either love it or hate it. I’ve tipped my hand that I am in the latter category. We’re the minority: the show ran a thousand performances off-Broadway and the ensuing film unaccountably has a 100% approval rating on rottentomatoes.com.

I am uncomfortable with the script: it depicts characters that individually rely on shallow stereotypes but does little either to justify those choices or broaden those characters. Thus “The Boys” are neurotics, hyper-sexed spendthrifts, alcoholics, and druggies prone to infidelity and grating flamboyancy. Granted, the stereotypes are still with us. They tend, in a twisted way, to be based on a kernel of truth, but that’s no way to write a play. A more pervasive flaw is that the playwright’s zeitgeist requires that our boys collectively share a self-loathing, self-destructive psychology. Given the rampant prejudices of the time, Crowley seems to have skewed his gay characters to fit the sensibilities of the general public - the majority of ticket buyers. Thus “My Mother made me a queer” (“If I buy the yarn will she make me one, too?”) amounts to commercial compromise. That’s a direction that leads to what might be more delicately described as male bovine manure. After all, how could anybody be both happy and abnormal?

But audiences will not find cardboard cutouts populating the stage in a Ringwald production. “The Boys in the Band” features a tight ensemble of captivating performances that are more three-dimensional than had been written. One senses each actor’s personal touch on his character, aided and abetted by a thoughtful director. This identity with character, though, does not imply that any member of the cast is gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

So what afflicts our basket cases? The setting is a Manhattan apartment in 1968. This date is elegantly affirmed by scenic designer Jennifer Maiseloff’s tasteful choice of mid-century furniture and accessories provided by Vogue Vintage of Pleasant Ridge, not to mention Dyan Bailey compendium of girl group hits that enliven the sound design.

It’s Harold’s birthday and he’s keenly aware, as only a gay man can be, that he’s losing his looks. His BFF, Michael (Jamie Richards), is hosting a tres gay B-day par-tay; assisted by HIS BFF, Donald (Richard Payton). There’s just a few close friends invited, although “frenemies” is closer to the mark. They would be Brenton Herwat, James E. Lee III, Topher Alan Payne and Marke Sobolewski. The exchange of thinly veiled insults is positively, to put it delicately, feline. Not invited, though bought and paid for, is a gorgeous yet clueless rent boy (Dayne Laycy), meant as a special birthday surprise.

The other unexpected visitor is Michael’s old college roommate, Alan (Dan Morrison) so desperate to discuss something with his ex-roomie that he’s driven to tears. But Alan is the only avowed heterosexual in a room full of “fairies.” It only takes a few drinks for emotional murder to begin.

Even in an ensemble production there are bound to be memorable moments. Marke Sobolewski is playing Emory, who is clearly the most jarringly effeminate of the group. Crowley has gifted the role with scintillating one-liners, including a famous one that might be more delicately phrased, “With whom must I have sexual intercourse in order to procure a drink?” Considering the weather, Brenton Herwat must be relieved that he gets to keep his clothes on for a change. “Hank” is buttoning up emotions as tightly as the buttons that secure his vest. Those emotions may be too well guarded; Hank exhibits an ugly jealous streak that could a little more room to fester.

There is divided sentiment in watching Jamie Richards take “Michael” from smug self-righteousness to his beaten, fetal position, wracked with sobbing, that is the tattered end of the party. Is this just desserts, or more than one man should have to handle? Either way, it’s a powerful performance.

But there’s one thing more that has sparked this critic’s curiosity. Long-time Ringwald stalwart, Matthew Turner Shelton did not play his role of Harold opening night. Joe Bailey subbed. I’ve enjoyed the work of both actors over the years and, judging Shelton’s style, I can imagine how he portrays the role. But did the Harold I met reflect how director Bailey coached Shelton, or how actor Bailey internalized the character? How did the change of actor affect the emotional demands of the second act? Bailey’s Harold is dark, pretty menacing, and pretty scary. In very literal terms, the other characters were not greeting the Harold they were expecting. I’m want to see the play again to compare and contrast, and I repeat: I don’t even like the play. The production is that compelling.

It may be a relic of sadder times, but “The Boys in the Band” remains a provocative piece of drama that can still drive the conversation on sexual identity, and for that reason alone deserves a respectful revival. That describes the Ringwald's production to a tee. To put it more delicately – ah, the hell with delicacy! “The Boys in the Band” is a frickin’ good show!

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Boys in the Band'
The Ringwald Theatre
22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale, MI 48220
'The Boys in the Band' runs Jan. 8 - Feb. 2, 2015
8:00 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays & Mondays, Jan. 16, 17, 19, 23, 24, 26, 30, 31, and Feb. 2
3:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m. Sundays, Jan. 18, 25, and Feb. 1
2 hours, 10 minute intermission
$10-$20
Phone: 248-545-5545
www.theringwald.com

Production Details

 

Detroit Rep's 'Sweet Pea's Mama' plays on familiar types

by Jenn McKee

REVIEW: "Sweet Pea's Mama"

Detroit Repertory Theatre

Posted: Jan. 09, 2015 at 4:45 p.m.

In Robert Lawrence Nelson’s play “Sweet Pea’s Mama” – set near the end of Martin Luther King’s life, and now having its world premiere at Detroit Repertory Theatre - a white Southern woman (Abigail) gives a photo of her grown son to her longtime black maid (Coralee), saying, “For your album.” Yet when Coralee’s husband and 16 year old son come up in a conversation, Abigail can’t think of their names without help. This dynamic – Abigail’s unspoken assumption that her family matters, while Coralee’s does not – boils just beneath the surface throughout “Sweet Pea’s Mama,” directed by Barbara Busby.

And while you might assume that the play’s title refers to Abigail (Emily Rose Merrell), since Sweet Pea is the nickname of her developmentally disabled grown son Georgie (Aaron Kottke), it actually refers to Coralee (Jenaya Jones Reynolds). For when it became apparent, early in Georgie’s life, that he was impaired, Abigail withdrew from him, clinging instead to her other son, Sonny (Kottke), while Coralee took Georgie under her wing.

At the play’s start, Sonny is away at college, while Georgie is meandering through his days with Coralee. When MLK’s assassination is reported on television, Georgie flees the house in a confused panic – an act that ultimately changes everything. If this synopsis sounds vague, it’s largely because Nelson’s script lacks a central dramatic question to drive the story and provide momentum. “Sweet Pea’s Mama” moseys through its sequence of scenes in the same way kindhearted Georgie marks time in his childhood home: without a clear, defined sense of purpose or direction.

So it’s ultimately a “slice of life” family portrait play – which might have worked, too, had the characters felt like living, breathing, complex human beings, rather than familiar types we’ve seen in endless movies, TV shows, and books (entitled, bigoted Southern white woman; the code-switching maid who must compromise some of her dignity each day to keep her job; her son, representing the next generation, who pushes back against old racial strictures, etc.). Plus, Nelson’s hand is too-visible at times, such as when Coralee’s son Jerome (Chris Jakob) suddenly, extensively waxes poetic about a baseball game in a monologue, and when the absence of Abigail’s husband seems more a matter of artistic convenience than narrative sense.

Yet the best moments in Detroit Rep’s production of “Sweet Pea’s Mama” are the most intense ones: when Coralee loses her temper with Jerome, and sharply instructs him on how he must operate in the white world in order to survive, you can’t help but immediately reflect on Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other unarmed young black men who lost their lives this past year. And you get the sense that Reynolds, in delivering those words, is thinking of them, too. Plus, Merrell hits just the right notes of obliviousness when asking Coralee, “You know that feeling? When you just want something new?”

Harry Wetzel designed the set, consisting of Abigail’s pale-palette kitchen, while Thomas Schraeder designed the lights. Costume designer Judy Dery found era-appropriate hats and dresses for Abigail (and the perfect dresses for reluctant recipient Coralee to throw away), and Burr Huntington designed the show’s sound.

So everyone involved has done their job – but even so, the play never quite manages to grab you by the lapels and ask hard questions. It simply congratulates us for now being able to see our racial past for all its flaws. And for me, that’s not enough.

http://actorsequity.org/newsmedia/images/logo/logo_small.jpg

SHOW DETAILS: 'Sweet Pea's Mama'
Detroit Repertory Theatre
13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit, MI 48238
'Sweet Pea's Mama' runs Jan. 8 - Mar. 15, 2015
3:00 p.m. & 8:30 p.m. Saturdays
2:00 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. Sundays
8:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, Jan. 15, 16,
$17 for advance sales; $20 for door sales
(313) 868-1347
www.detroitreptheatre.com

Production Details

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Sweet Pea's Mama - Detroit Repertory Theatre

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (Jan. 16, 2015)

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review - Detroit Free Press (Jan. 15, 2015)

 

In dreamy 'Snow Queen,' storytellers reign

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Snow Queen"

PuppetART

Posted: Dec. 14, 2014 at 2:33 p.m.

Winter doesn't officially begin until late December, but Michigan weather usually arrives early to that particular party. So the timing of the PuppetART original musical "Snow Queen" (script by Luda Mikheyenko, music and lyrics by Maria Mikheyenko, based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen) is right in line with our fast-encroaching frigid wonderland. This ambitious adaptation is notable for blending the worlds of story and storyteller, allowing human characters to help their puppet counterparts surpass the conventional boxes and boundaries of the form.

At the play's inception, a lone gentleman (Nicholas Pobutsky), amid a gentle evening snowfall with no witness but a cawing crow, begins to muse about the sparkling crystals. Likening the falling snowflakes to bees, he wonders to himself if the flakes similarly have a queen.

From the man's contemplative reverie springs two pint-sized puppet playmates, Kai and Gerda, who frolic together and marvel that their roses have bloomed, even in the cold of winter. However, when Kai brashly dismisses and mocks the Snow Queen, the mythical monarch commandeers the story and abducts the child. Gerda is bereft, and the storyteller – feeling responsible for her anguish – helps her set out on a treacherous journey to rescue Kai, realizing both the pull and the power of friendship.

Irina Baranovskaya's design plays with proportion and scale, making the Snow Queen a shockingly imposing presence and also allowing for intriguing crossover between the puppet and human worlds. Crafted by Baranovskaya as well as Igor Kan, Irina Smirnova and Sandra Cardew, the puppets assume the style best suited to their purpose: Gerda, for example, a hand puppet in the story world, gains a larger, more expressive form when the storyteller becomes her companion.

Performers Jaclyn Strez, Dave Sanders, Connor Ghena and Sasha Vulovic take on the many supporting roles, sometimes visible as supplemental backdrops to the action, other times disappearing into fanciful hybrid scenic/puppet creations.

But the most consistent contribution comes from Pobutsky, who remains onstage as Gerda's near-constant escort; the tenderness and skill of his movements allow the viewer to fully suspend disbelief and witness their scenes as true interactions between independent characters. Between stops on the journey, Pobutsky also engages in interstitials with the crow, now a comically sentient marionette, who frankly states the lesson of each story in advance of its occurrence.

Although the production is gorgeously innovative, there seems to be a direct correlation between every visionary moment of amazement and the glacial lull that accompanies its laborious setup. The pacing is predetermined, set to follow an instrumental score with pre-recorded dialogue and songs (variably voiced by Maria Mikheyenko, Nicholas Pobutsky, Jaclyn Strez, Aaron Timlin and Christine Moore; recorded and edited by John Willems), and the live performers do their best to stretch and fill those moments of marking time.

However, credit goes to the PuppetART team – clearly attuned to young attention spans – for knowing just how long it can draw out a marvelous reveal while keeping even the smallest eyes affixed and wide with wonder. For while "Snow Queen" proudly shows its sophistication in terms of art and form, the show's strength of clarity and message and its power to amaze are what cement its appeal to the young viewers it most endeavors to charm.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Snow Queen'
PuppetART
at Detroit Puppet Theater
25 E. Grand River Ave., Detroit
10 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 18, Jan. 15
2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 20, 27, Jan. 10, 17, 24, 31
2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 28
1 hour; no intermission
Recommended for all ages
$10 adults, $5 children
313-961-7777
www.puppetart.org

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A show NOT written by monkeys with typewriters

By Amy J. Parrent

REVIEW: "All in the Timing"

Hilberry Theatre

Posted: Nov. 22, 2014 at 9:19 p.m.; updated Nov. 24, 2014 at 5:38 p.m.

So, Hilberry, it's pretty smart putting a sketch about a notorious contemporary composer in front of a reviewer who was a professional musician. For me, what is not to like as actors perform a spoken-parody of Phillip Glass's music, an absurd bit in which the composer buys a baguette and runs into an old flame.

And that's not even the nuttiest premise in the medley of David Ives' one-acts now playing at the repertory company. That award might go to the dark-humored, goofy yet ultimately poignant piece about Leon Trotsky arguing with his wife and assassin over whether the axe in his head is buried there or just smashed against it.

The eight one-act plays, all originally written in the late 1980s and early '90s and collectively titled "All in the Timing," are tied together by the various meanings of, theories of and manifestations of time. There are the rhythmic, repetitive beats of the Glass piece. There are sketches where time is constantly reset, as in the opening "Sure Thing," about the many ways a first meeting with a potential lover could go, or in that dream of Trotsky's last hours.

As the evening opens, it appears this will just be a bunch of gags tossed out there, to see what yucks will stick. But somewhere through the second one-act, based on the proverbial monkeys with typewriters trying for Shakespeare, the questions become much deeper, the characters much more heartbreaking, as they grapple with the meanings of their day-to-day existence – or in the case of two very appealing but "lowly mayflies," their one day of life.

In such a strong ensemble, it's difficult to single out actors. Mary Sansone and Kyle Mitchell Johnson delivered the goods together in a double-header of plays. In the first, "The Universal Language," an insecure woman finds confidence thanks to a con man. The second, one of the most touching of the evening, is "Time Flies," about those two tiny insects realizing that life is short, so carpe diem. Even if you don't know what carpe diem means.

Brandon Grantz is engaging as everything from an author-monkey named Milton to a laid-back guy enjoying his own private "Los Angeles" in "The Philadelphia."

Santino Craven particularly shines as a swinger amongst a revolving group of friends dining at "Seven Menus," while Bevin Bell-Hall, Tiffany Michelle Thompson, Brandy Joe Plambeck and Annie Keris admirably take us through a range of characters, from swinging ad execs to adulterous Trotskyites, with a little David Attenborough, who's also obsessed with mating. And mating. And mating.

Director David J. Magidson set the nimble pace through often densely-worded dialogue. There were some tiny comedy-timing errors, first-night issues to be adjusted, for instance in "Sure Thing," when the actors rushed through some laughs and the next punch-lines got lost.

But hey, that happens. Sometimes your life seems a little mixed up, or backwards. You're just in a Philadelphia.

Go to the show. You'll get it.

SHOW DETAILS: 'All in the Timing'
Hilberry Theatre
4743 Cass Ave., Detroit
2 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 3 (post-show talkback)
8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4 (pre-show discussion), Jan. 29
8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5, Jan. 30
2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 31
8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, Jan. 31
$10-30
313-577-2972
www.hilberry.com

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: All in the Timing - Hilberry Theatre

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Detroit Theater Examiner (Dec. 6, 2014)

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (Nov. 26, 2014)

Read SUE SUCHYTA's review - Dearborn Times-Herald (Nov. 28, 2014)

 

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