Friday, December 15, 2017

Danger: Actors at work (and busting their chops in delightful comedy)!

Wayne David Parker, Terry Heck and Kyle Mitchell Johnson

Although Norm Foster will likely never win a Pulitzer Prize for his work, there's a reason why he's the most-produced playwright in Canada - and why Tipping Point Theatre in Northville has produced one of his shows in five of the last six seasons: because they're pretty damn funny.

Office Hours, Tipping Point's latest (which runs through Dec. 23), is also a treat for actors and directors who are up for an interesting challenge thanks to the play's not-so-typical structure. Rather than tell a single story from beginning to end, Office Hours features six seemingly unrelated tales set in six different offices scattered throughout an unnamed city. But be forewarned: Pay close attention to even the most irrelevant-sounding names and bits of dialogue, as they may become important plot points later in the show.

And that's what's so much fun about Foster's script: watching as he weaves his various threads into a connected whole, right down to the show's final moments.

Having a well-written script is one thing, of course, but it needs a sharp director and fine team of actors to successfully bring it to life. The performance I saw last weekend certainly proved that Foster's work was indeed in fine hands!

Beth Torrey, after having earned the distinction last season of  directing Tipping Point's all-time top-selling play (Sexy Laundry), returned to work her comedic magic on Office Hours. And she assured its success by returning two longtime Tipping Point favorites to dominate the stage: Wayne David Parker and Ryan Carlson. Then she added to the mix Terry Heck (who earned a 2015 Wilde Award nomination for Tipping Point's Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike) and new-to-Tipping Point Sarah Hawkins Moan and Kyle Mitchell Johnson, and the result this past Saturday was a delightful evening of laughter.

Because half the fun (more or less) is experiencing the plot unfold for yourself with little or no knowledge of the plot beforehand, I won't say too much more about it. But the other half of the fun (more or less) is watching how each actor is called upon to create a handful of unique characters and how they keep them separate as the night progresses so the audience doesn't get confused with their every subsequent appearance. It ain't easy - but they sure make it look that way, with top-notch performances by the entire cast.

Bartley H. Bauer's set and Kellie Dugan's props work hand in hand defining each office with the simplest and quickest of changes.

The Bottom Line: Tipping Point Theatre consistently offers a quality and entertaining product to its customers, which is why it continues to be among the top producers of live theater in Southeast Michigan.

For complete information about Office HoursCLICK HERE!

Ryan Carlson and Sarah Hawkins Moan

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Unsung heroes: Designers who add character to their shows

The set of American Buffalo at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre

As a critic, it's my long-held belief that designers can play an important role in boosting a production from one level to the next. In fact, their work can often add as much character to a show as do the contributions of its director and actors, just as designers can improve the quality of the storytelling through the efficient and effective use of space. Yet critics and theatergoers alike often ignore the contributions of these artists when discussing the shows they see. (And yes, I myself have been guilty of this at times over the years.)

It's no secret that Metro Detroit is blessed with an abundance of creative and skilled designers whose work can be seen in theaters throughout the year. Two recent productions served to reinforce just how important their work is to the success of a production.

The first was a few weeks ago when I attended the Detroit Repertory Theatre's season-opening production of Swimming Upstream by playwright Rich Rubin. The Rep is known for its shepherding of new plays and new playwrights, and this world premiere was enjoyable, but ultimately not very notable because of two things: a script that tries too hard to shoehorn the topic of climate change into a romantic comedy about a marine biologist whose specialty is saving salmon (and the world) from extinction, and the lack of spark and sizzle between its two lovebirds. (Sandra Love Aldridge as the biologist's mother, however, lit up the show with every appearance.)

But what I loved about the production was director Harry Wetzel's design for the set. Noted for his many years of design work at the Rep (among other things), I was impressed this time by his efficient use of space. Rubin's story unfolds in four separate places - an office, a restaurant and a couple of apartments (or houses) - and Wetzel was able to fit all of them onto the Rep stage simultaneously using multiple levels to help keep each location roomy, unique and separately identifiable.

What's more, his design allowed him as the director to ensure that scene changes were especially quick and short - and there were a lot of them - thereby not slowing down the action for more time than was necessary. As such, the story flowed from one scene to the next in rapid succession with just enough time in between for the audience to catch its breath and shift its attention to what happens next.

In addition, Thomas Schraeder's complementary lighting design helped define and focus the story's ebbs, flows and emotional beats.

As such, the show was well served by both artists.

That's also the case with The Jewish Ensemble Theatre's production of David Mamet's  American Buffalo, this time by pretty much it's entire design team.

The first thing I noticed as I entered the theater was the realism of its set. Mamet's story unfolds entirely inside a resale shop, and so set designer Elspeth Williams and property designer Harold Jurkewicz seemed to go all out in jointly creating a junky storefront that screamed "come in and browse" - so much so, that I observed several theatergoers wander about the front of the stage prior to the performance trying to check out as many of the goodies as possible. And at intermission, one gentleman seemed ready to walk on to the stage and take a closer look, but he thought better of it after hesitating a few seconds.

But what really impressed the heck out of me was how the inclement weather was handled - the rain against the windows, the thunder and the lightning - that in most productions come off as fake or artificial. Not here, though, thanks to Williams (as technical director) and the contributions of additional team members Neil Koivu (lighting design) and Matt Lira (sound design). Together their efforts were so effective and realistic that I briefly wondered if the windows of my car were closed when I first heard the torrential rainfall hit the storefront glass.

Enjoyable as the production was, however, it wasn't as powerful as I expected, mostly because some of the ingredients provided by Mamet - a rather tough taskmaster when it comes to wordplay and understanding its subtext - were under served or delivered a bit too cautiously.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Mamet is known for creating characters - often hyper-competitive alpha males - who live on the fringe of society or who are barely scratching the surface of the ever-elusive American Dream. In American Buffalo, a seemingly average junkshop owner is anything but, as we learn Don (Lynch R. Travis) is not above a little breaking and entering to increase his operating profit. Nor is his friend and accomplice, "Teach" (Matthew David), who worms his way in to a deal Don made with a recovering neighborhood junkie (Shane O'Connor).

Mamet's tight, street-smart dialogue - filled with subtleties, wordplay and varying degrees of manipulation among the characters as they jockey for power and control - is laden with profanity, and characters often talk over one another. Yet there's a rhythm to his words, an intensity, which eschews the usual line delivery found in the majority of plays. And that was what I felt was missing from parts of the production, which resulted in some of the interpersonal dynamics among the characters feeling a little off to me at times.

(I'll admit here to being spoiled by The Abreact's production back in 2008, which saw the interplay among and between the three characters sizzle from stop to finish.)

One final note: In his biography in the program, O'Connor says, "I'm sorry for always playing drug addicts on stage. At least it pays the rent." My words of advice? Don't be sorry! It was an absolutely amazing performance - so much so that I was ready to take him to a recovery clinic immediately after the performance to get him cleaned up!

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Swimming Upstream runs through Dec. 23 at the Detroit Repertory Theatre. For show details, CLICK HERE!

American Buffalo runs through Dec. 10 at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield. For show details, CLICK HERE!

Swimming Upstream at The Detroit Rep with
Yanni Papadimos, Sandra Love Aldridge and Audrey Lovy

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Life still sucks (or not): Two theaters and two directors approach the same script so differently, yet get equally entertaining results

Every so often, theatergoers have an opportunity to view firsthand what impact directors, actors and designers have on bringing a script to life when two or more theater companies produce the same show a few months apart from one another. The result, they'll discover, can be as different as night and day.

Critics, too, can have a lot of fun with such occurrences, as when Bridgette Redman (then a regular freelance critic and entertainment writer for the Lansing State Journal) and I got together several seasons ago and crafted a series of columns comparing and contrasting three productions of Doubt that took place over a short period of time. (For us, that was a lot of fun, and the reader response was great!)

Already this season we've seen two very different productions of Life Sucks, Aaron Posner's "irreverent variation on Anton Chekov's Uncle Vanya" - the first at Open Book Theatre in Trenton this past September, and currently at The Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale.

In trying to describe their differences in a way that paints a very specific picture, I came up with the following analogy (imperfect though it may be): Open Book's production was like walking into a neighborhood restaurant where you find tables draped in white linen with flickering candles on top, impeccable service provided by a polite and polished waitstaff dressed in clean and perfectly pressed black uniforms, and a kitchen that runs like clockwork; on the other hand, The Ringwald's production was like having dinner at a truck-stop diner where flirty waitresses refer to you as "honey" or "darlin'" more times than you can count, uniforms reflect the staff's personal styles and choices, the flurry of activity in and out of the kitchen occurs at various (and often breakneck) speeds, and orders are barked in to and out of the kitchen with a mix of urgency and humor.

Neither is better than the other; the experiences are simply different. Very different. What's the same, though, is the ultimate result of your dining experience: a fun and memorable visit that accomplished what you hoped for and expected - a tasty, fully satisfying meal.

That's close to how I view the two productions. But if pressed for a more deeper (but equally incomplete) comparison about the style (not the substance) of each show, I'd say that it was if the Open Book production was set in the normally quiet estate of Grosse Point natives, whereas The Ringwald introduced us to that loud and rowdy bunch down the street who occasionally wakes us up in the middle of the night.

Again, both approaches are equally valid. Yet two directors interpreted the same material in significantly different ways. And even the designers brought a different look and feel to their respective productions. (Harley Miah's impressive lighting design for the Open Book production, for example, still sticks with me today.)

Because of choices made by the shows' directors (Krista Schafer Ewbank at Open Book and Joe Bailey at The Ringwald), a natural result is the different flow to how each story unfolds. Plus, since each actor brings their own unique skills and choices into their work, it's also expected that the actors playing identical roles will interpret them differently. And that's certainly the case with these two productions. (For more about Open Book's production see my post from this past September.)

For those who enjoy observing how different actors can play the same role so differently, Dyan Bailey as Pickles was radically different from Mandy Logsdon's, just as Bryan Lark's Dr. Aster was not in the same universe as Jonathan Davidson's. And Jane MacFarlane's Babs had little in common with Linda Rabin Hammell's, just as Sydney Lepora's Ella was worlds away from Caitlin Morrison's. But that didn't matter, as each fit snugly in to the worlds created by their directors.

Standouts in The Ringwald's production include Joel Mitchell, who runs rings around pretty much every other actor in town when it comes to playing pompous asses like The Professor. (He's also pretty damn good in other roles as well, as evidenced by his seven Wilde Awards nominations and two wins over the past 16 years.) The way he plays with certain words - both vocally and visually - adds important color to his dialogue.

Also impressive is Joe Bailey as Vanya. In yet another masterful performance, Bailey dives deep into his emotional well to bring all of Vanya's heretofore hidden pain to the surface. It's heart-wrenching to watch, made more so by his expert use of hand gestures and facial expressions to accentuate his words.

But it's Kelly Komlen who truly tears your heart out as Sonia, The Professor's daughter and Vanya's niece. Secretly in love with Dr. Aster, she believes he's out of reach - mostly, she believes, because she considers herself to be homely and he only dates hot, attractive women. (Their age difference doesn't seem to dawn on her; from his point of view, she's simply the younger niece of his life-long best friend.) Her last act meltdown was so powerful I couldn't help but ask Komlen afterward how she can go home and relax right after the show. Her answer made me laugh - and made total sense.

Lights by Brandy Joe Plambeck and the set by Jennifer Maiseloff served the concept well. I especially loved the painted scenery on the upstage and stage left walls.

So what's the moral of my story, you may be wondering? Directors matter. So do actors. And every so often its nice to have an opportunity to be reminded why that's so - and what impact they have on bringing a script to life.

The Bottom Line: If you're curious about which production I liked best, you'll be disappointed. Both were highly enjoyable. But they were also quite different - and that's what I love about live theater! And in this specific case, I went to The Ringwald knowing and appreciating the types of work they do, and they met and exceeded all of my expectations. As usual.

To see how on the mark or off base I am, you have only two more chances to catch Life Sucks at The Ringwald: today at 5 p.m and tomorrow at 8 p.m. For complete information regarding The Ringwald Theatre, CLICK HERE!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Two shows for the price of one: A stunning evening at JET; Puzzle Piece continues to impress

Lauren LaStrada and Alvin Waddles

With a vacation planned earlier this month, a sinus infection and a few personal weekend obligations, my theater-going adventures were rather limited in October - and as a result, a lot of fine work was regrettably missed. (I'm especially disappointed I couldn't squeeze The Ringwald's Rocky Horror Show featuring personal favorites Suzy Jacokes as Dr. Frank N Furter and Dyan Bailey as Magenta into my schedule; I heard they were great!) But the two shows I did see, both on their closing weekends, were memorable endeavors that should give critics plenty to think about when it comes to honoring the best shows and performances of the 2017-18 season.

And I'll start with the show I saw most recently. And it was a doozy!

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Lauren LaStrada

I thought I was attending a musical when I took my seat this past Saturday evening at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield. Instead, I was transported back to the year 1959 where I found myself in a small bar in Philadelphia where noted jazz artist Billie Holiday was about to star in what would become one of her final performances before her death just a few months later. Only 44 at the time of her passing, Holiday - who had battled drug and alcohol addiction for many years - had recently been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, and her appearance at the club would put both the brilliance of her art and the ill effects of the disease on full display for all to see.

And that is what theatergoers - or should I say, concertgoers - experienced at JET, thanks to sensitive direction by Lynch Travis and one of the most amazing performances I've seen in ages by the gorgeous and uber-talented Lauren LaStrada (also known in the community as Lisa Lauren Smith, in case the last name doesn't ring a bell).

LaStrada doesn't just play Holiday; she becomes her. So much so, that Holiday's unique wordsmithing and vocalizing seems natural to LaStrada; it's not LaStrada singing to us, but Holiday. And that means LaStrada's performance is not an impersonation - at least not in the traditional sense; rather, it's as if Holiday's spirit has taken over the body of the actress and been given a chance to perform in public one last time.

More impressive than the 14 songs utilized in the show is how LaStrada handles the narrative. In print, Lanie Robertson's script comes off as a bit flat - as if you're reading entries from Wikipedia. But working with director Travis, LaStrada becomes a storyteller, whose warm and passionate delivery is filled with raw, emotional honesty. And so it becomes Holiday who is reliving her life's stories for us - its ups and downs; the good times and the bad - and not LaStrada pretending it's her life.

So, no, what I attended at JET this past Saturday was not a play or a musical. Rather, I experienced a true work of art that showed what can happen when you match the perfect artist with the perfect project (and director) that allowed the actress to rise above the craft to become...

Three days later I still can't find the perfect word or phrase to finish that sentence. Special doesn't do it justice. Nor do memorable or unique. But I suspect everyone in the audience that night understands what I mean, as they jumped to their feet immediately after the performance and would not stop clapping until LaStrada took to the microphone and offered a heartfelt "thank you" to the crowd - which endeared her even more to us.

This wasn't a one-person show, however, and I would be in error if I didn't comment on - gush over? - the incredible contributions of music director, pianist and performer Alvin Waddles. Celebrated worldwide as a pianist, composer singer and director, the legendary Waddles pulls double duty in the show: as musical director and as Jimmy Powers, Holiday's on-stage accompanist. Every time I've heard Waddles work his magic on the keyboard, I've been amazed and enthralled, and this show is no exception. Every song he plays looks effortless, and certain numbers defy logic. ("How can his fingers move so fast," I wondered more than once.) And the fact that the score is written for three musicians and JET went with only one didn't matter; they weren't missed, thanks to Waddles' brilliant artistry. (To be honest, in my humble opinion, it made the overall experience much more real for me, since the bar in the script is described as "seedy" - which means it very likely wouldn't have been able to afford a trio that night.)

But equally important as his keyboard skills was his performance as Powers. His facial expressions - especially as Holiday becomes more shaky and inebriated as the night wears on - were priceless. And midway through the show he got his own moment in the spotlight - which I understand changed nightly. If only the producers had recorded every performance! What a treat it would be! (I'd pay for a recording of that!)

All of the show's technical elements were fine, especially the lighting design by Neil Koivu. And although the uncredited set design was the polar opposite of what the script called for, it worked for Travis' production, which was nothing but a class act from start to finish. (UPDATE: The set was designed by Elspeth Williams, JET's resident designer.)

The Bottom Line: JET's first show of the season is already the high bar that every other show of the year must reach!

Information about The Jewish Ensemble Theatre's 2017-18 season can be found HERE.

Alvin Waddles

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Craig Ester in "The People's Temple"

I've kept an eye on Puzzle Piece Theatre since the first time I met producing artistic director (and founder) D.B. Schroeder sometime in late 2012 or early '13. His was - at the time - a very unusual story: A theater artist from Chicago moved here to produce theater (and be closer to his wife's family). Since I've been around the business, it traditionally works the other way. So that alone intrigued me.

So too did his approach to storytelling. This was a group that came into the market wanting to tell bold, important stories from the viewpoints of the artists who create them - and that's just what they've done since they first took to the stage with Show and Tell back in February 2013.

But they also wanted to tell stories others were not. In that, too, they've been successful, as only a handful of the company's shows have had name recognition.

And that includes its most recent show, which tackles a subject I suspect most theaters would hesitate to produce.

If I asked how many of my readers were familiar with Jonestown and the People's Temple, I suspect people my age (older than dirt) would recollect something about it. Younger folks, though, may not - despite its impact on our country's history and its relevance to today's political discourse.

The People's Temple, then, tells the story of the messianic rise and deadly downfall of American preacher Jim Jones and his attempt to build a socialist Utopia in the South African nation of Guyana. Written by Leigh Fondakowski in a collaborative fashion similar to that used by the creators of The Laramie Project, the script attempts to portray as accurately as possible the thoughts, feelings and actions of those who participated in or were impacted by Jones' work and actions.

It's a tough script, to be sure, as 10 actors bring five times as many characters to life throughout the show (which tends to be a shortcoming of the production, as it's not always easy to know which character an actor is bringing forward at any given time).

But it's a powerful script powerfully presented. That's especially true of the show's emotionally numbing second act that picks up speed as it drives fearlessly towards its inevitable conclusion. And by show's end you can't help but ask yourself the question director Schroeder likely wants you to consider: How could so many people fall for the Utopian dream espoused by their charismatic leader, especially when evidence of its flaws were plain to see? And how does this apply to today's political climate whereby American voters blindly follow the political candidates of their choice with little or no critical thinking of their own to help make wise decisions?

Under Schroeder's careful direction, his production becomes a true ensemble piece, with all 10 actors sharing the spotlight. It's always a pleasure to see Connie Cowper on stage; she's especially impactful as the mother of three daughters who move to Jonestown. Actor Steve Xander Carson continues to grow as an actor, as he is one of the best at creating four unique characters and keeping them visually and vocally separate from one another. That's also true of Linda Rabin Hammell, Karen Minard and Laura Heikkinen.

As with all Puzzle Piece shows, the production has a slim, tight budget but doesn't feel that way. And the space it shares with Slipstream Theatre Initiative is well utilized.

The Bottom Line: Puzzle Piece Theatre once again shows us why it's become an asset to our theater community with yet another important story that's told well.

To learn more about Puzzle Piece Theatre, click HERE.

Friday, October 6, 2017

'Sweeney' past and present: How The Encore's production ranks with earlier versions (and I bet they'll love the answer)

Sarah Briggs and David Moan

As regular readers may recall, I've said many times that Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd is my all-time favorite musical. (I've also said that on alternate days of the week, my favorite is A Little Night Music, also a Sondheim classic. But we're focusing on the former today and not the latter.)

My love affair with the show began with a trip to Toronto in 1980 specifically to see the First National Tour starring the great Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. As you might expect, it was an amazing production and a memorable one, well worth the four-hour drive each way and an overnight hotel stay.

Since then, I've seen countless productions - some great, some so-so, and one or two I've mostly forgotten. But many local productions had their moments of excellence, too.

I'll never forget The (late, lamented) Abreact's 2007 production in its Greektown loft, slimmed down to a cast of 13 and one musician in order to fit the show into a space that actually was someone's living room. Although the overall character work was likely the best I've seen, many of the singing voices were not. Frank Sawa's "emotionally taut" performance as Sweeney, however, dominated the stage (which, given the fact that the audience was mere inches away, also needed to be tightly controlled, which it was), and I suspect this is when my deep respect for the work of Linda Rabin Hammel (as the Beggar Woman) really took off. (She and her husband, Mark, who was spectacular as Judge Turpin, had the best voices by far.)

Not to be outdone, the touring production that came to Detroit's Fisher Theatre in 2009 was also a slimmed down version - this time to only 10 performers. And those 10 also served as the show's musicians. It was an unusual concept to be sure, but one that was well executed. Most striking for me was the production's superb lighting design, which I said in my review was "so intuitive and expressive that it could almost be considered the show's 11th character." I've never seen the show lit so well.

And then we come to The Encore Musical Theatre Company, which apparently loves the show so much it's become its first-ever major revival. Both productions, as different as they are, are equally noteworthy. But is one better than the other?

Founding artistic director Dan Cooney stepped up to the plate first, with a 2009 production that dug "into the story's characters" to find "all sorts of gems to develop." And he succeeded at that quite well. Then he packed the show with "uniformly excellent singers" and hired Dan Walker to reconfigure the space to include "multiple levels, many doors, raised walkways across the left of the house and space above and behind the audience" to make adequate room for him and his 23 performers to work with.

But what performances he and musical director Tyler Driskill coaxed out of their cast! My highest praise was heaped upon Sara Litzsinger as Mrs. Lovett, which I sad was "my favorite interpretation since Angela Lansbury tackled the role a few decades back. Sure, she has a screw loose, but Litzsinger puts a lively spring in Lovett’s step, and wraps her in a sweet and charming goofiness that’s irresistibly delicious." And I meant it! (Litzsinger later won a Wilde Award for her performance.)

Walter ONeil's Sweeney was an interesting choice for the role. He "broods and allows his anger to bubble tightly inside, all the while waiting for the appropriate time to let it loose," I said in my review. "And what he lacks in height – he’s probably the shortest Sweeney I’ve ever seen – is far surpassed by a powerfully imposing, yet quiet intensity that always lurks behind his every glance."
And then there was Paul Hooper's dynamite performance as Judge Turpin, who to this day is still my all-time favorite in that role. (Now located on the West Coast, the uber-talented Hopper earned 13 Wilde Award nominations and two wins during his time here, which places him in a very elite company of theater artists.)

My only disappointments with the show had to do with "the artistic way in which the suddenly deceased" were removed from the barber shop and "the lack of blood - squirting or otherwise." So all in all, I thought it was a mighty fine effort from a young, first-year company trying to establish its reputation in the crowded Southeast Michigan/Washtenaw County market.

Apparently others thought so as well. Since only about one-third of new businesses survive until their 10th anniversary, I'd say The Encore Musical Theatre has certainly established strong roots since its inaugural season. And of all the shows from that year to revive, Sweeney Todd - as the most complicated, but maybe not the most popular decision sales-wise - is the one to pick if a producer's goal is to show off what they've learned in the intervening years. (Another production of Annie would make me shudder.)

So how does the current production compare to its predecessor? How's this for high praise: It's probably the best production I've seen so far at The Encore.

For starters, rarely have I seen such a large production - it has 21 actors and seven musicians - run with such clockwork precision. Director/choreographer Matthew Brennan's concept places the action on a factory floor, and every scene change flows like an assembly line, as people and set pieces enter, move about and exit in a most orderly fashion. One can almost see the conveyor belts above moving the actors across the stage, ensuring no one gets in another's way.

Even more striking are the automaton-like blank looks on the faces of the cast (the factory workers) as they set the stage - and more so when those not involved in a scene stare blankly ahead. Never is the focus lost, nor is attention drawn away from the action taking place around them. In fact, I found myself watching chorus members Gayle Martin and Dan Morrison quite a bit - they always seemed to end up somewhere in my direct line of vision - and never did I see their eyes wander or their faces show any expression other than robotic stares. And given the fact that Brennan's set design includes audience members sitting on the left and right sides of the stage, that's far more difficult to accomplish than what you might expect.

But once the chorus is called to duty as part of the story, they spring to life with great energy and their voices blend into delicious harmonies (which isn't always easy to accomplish with Sondheim's score), with the result being a fine effort by all involved.

The production's overall success, however, hinges on the performances of four specific actors. And here Brennan and The Encore acquit themselves quite well.

Keith Kalinowski, whose work I've enjoyed for several years, has the look, feel and voice to bring the terrible Judge Turpin to life. And Billy Eric Robinson wears the emotions of young Toby on his sleeve, the result of which breaks your heart.

But the most important relationship - and the one that has to work - is between Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett: If it's not believable, the story falls apart. And here's where Brennan's concept takes an unusual twist.

In many productions, Sweeney is portrayed as a man victimized by and obsessed with his past who is teetering on the brink of an explosion. He seethes; he's paces like a caged animal, or an animal on the hunt waiting to strike. His intensity is palpable and ever present.

Not so in The Encore's production. With angel-faced, innocent-looking David Moan in the role of Sweeney, such an approach would likely not work. Instead, it's a more measured interpretation; a more nuanced one. This is a Sweeney who is truly focused on his ultimate goal, which means he's very much in control of his emotions, and he's willing to wait till the time is right before he strikes.

This also makes him thoroughly oblivious to the romantic advances of Mrs. Lovett - and of all the productions of Sweeney I've seen over the decades, this dichotomy is best explored here.

Working within Brennan's concept, Sarah Briggs - who is now my all-time favorite Mrs. Lovett because of this production - has great fun digging into the nooks and crannies of the script to find every fiber of Mrs. Lovett's emotional state. Her Lovett uses every tool in the book to seduce her prey, but nothing seems to work. So one can't help but wonder: Does Sweeney really care for her? Or is he simply using her to accomplish his primary goal? It's an important question - and it's one that is far more obvious here than in many past productions.

The result, then, is this: Together and separate, Moan and Briggs are dynamite, each with an amazing voice and stage presence. And in one unforgettable moment - barely more than a flash - the audience was left with no doubt about the evil that resided in Sweeney's soul. 

But it's the music that most will ultimately remember - and hum for days after. So final kudos go to returning music director Tyler Driskill, who skillfully drove the production forward with a band that flawlessly executed Sondheim's brilliant score.

Is it a perfect show? No - but few are. Most of my quibbles with the opening night performance reflect minor irritants that were likely one-time problems, such as a few chorus members whose voices could be barely heard out in the audience during their solos; the twice-promised fog that didn't appear; a few instances of "pitchiness" that started out ensemble numbers; and what I figured were slow light cues that found characters walking into dark spots on stage.

I also had a few issues with a couple of directorial choices. Where was the "build" - the increasing intensity - as the murder count increased?  (They almost seemed to become routine, expected and humdrum.) Plus, there didn't seem to be a cohesive approach to how to "show" the bloody murders. (Sometimes the lights blazed red accompanied by an obnoxiously evil sound, while sometimes it was a bit different; a white light with one murder made no sense to me. Was this a design choice or a technical execution error, I wondered.)  And once again, how the bodies were disposed of didn't work for me.

All in all, though, The Encore's second go-round at staging the Sondheim classic is a slick and memorable one, quite possibly it's best show yet - and one that everyone involved with should be proud to add to their resume.

The Bottom Line: How The Encore will top this I don't know, but it'll be fun to watch! Happy 10th anniversary - and I wish you several decades more!

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street runs through Oct. 22 at The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter. For complete schedule information, CLICK HERE.

To read my recent interview with Matthew Brennan and David Moan in Between The LinesCLICK HERE.

David Moan and Sarah Briggs

Monday, September 25, 2017

Life Sucks (but the play surely doesn't)

Arriving this past Friday night at Trenton's Open Book Theatre for a performance of "Life Sucks," which runs through Sept. 30, there was one thing I knew for sure: that actress Linda Rabin Hammell would give yet another excellent performance in whatever role she was about to portray. Even if the play sucked, I thought, she would at the very least be its high point.

Well, the play didn't suck. Far from it. In fact, it was quite entertaining and thought provoking. Heck, even the lighting design by 2015 Wilde Award winner Harley Miah generated numerous raves from theatergoers as they first walked in to the black box performance space - from me included.

As such, Hammell didn't have to bear the weight of the show on her shoulders. With seven Wilde Awards nominations and one win under her belt since 2006 (which places her in the elite top two-percent of all nominees over the past 16 years), Hammell is known for creating an amazing array of totally believable and fully realized (yet often-quirky) characters. She can now add her performance as Babs to her ever-growing list of memorable accomplishments.

But she wasn't alone.

Jonathan Davidson - a young actor whose stare could intimidate the devil, and who I once described to a friend as someone who "gleefully lurks around the dark corners of the stage" - is a more-recent favorite. As he's matured both in age and stage experience, so too have his performances, and as Dr. Aster, it shows. He's another whose work I try to catch whenever our schedules match.

And then I couldn't help but smile when I saw Mandy Logsdon's name in the program. Appearing more recently on my radar, she's what I'd call an "acting chameleon," as she easily morphs between loud, boisterous and bigger-than-life scene stealers who delightfully chew and spit out the scenery, to adorable young girls and women who ooze sweet tenderness. With but a simple glance or an almost-imperceptible change in facial expressions, Logsdon can warm or break your heart with equal skill. She does both in the role of Pickles.

Davidson and Logsdon, it should be noted, earned their first Wilde Awards nominations this year (with Davidson winning for best supporting actor in a play),* which means the show's acting credentials were quite impressive before the house even opened. But since producer Krista Schafer Ewbank is also a smart director, she doubled down and added a handful of other strong and talented actors to the mix - many of whom, I suspect, will be on critics' radar for future acknowledgement.

Not surprisingly, then, the entire cast was quite adept at and comfortable bringing to life a rather unusual, sometimes-oddly-fourth-wall-breaking adaptation of Anton Chekov's "Uncle Vanya." It's not an easy play to stage (or interpret), as one is never quite sure whether "Life Sucks" is a comedy or a drama. (With absurdist theater, it's rarely easy to tell.) And since patrons are initially caught off guard with the show's sprinkles of audience participation, it also leaves the actors vulnerable to the ever-changing whims and foibles of theatergoers who may or may not be comfortable being drawn into the act. (That's when improv skills come in mighty handy!)

So with talented actors, a smart director, excellent support by the technical designers and a tough, but intriguing script by Aaron Posner, my Friday night at the theater was quite an enjoyable one. And it reinforced an earlier observation that Open Book is a theater to be taken seriously by patrons and industry participants alike. I'm eagerly looking forward to watching as Ewbank and her young company continue to mature and assume a significant voice in our ever-changing theater scene.

The Bottom Line: Does life suck? Maybe. Maybe not; that's for you to decide. What surely does NOT suck, however, is Open Book Theatre's delightful opening show of its fourth season.

For complete show details, CLICK HERE.

For more about Open Book Theatre, CLICK HERE.

Photo credits:

Center: Joshua Brown as Vanya. Clockwise from Bottom Left: Jonathon Davidson as Aster, Taylor Morrow as Sonia, Dale Dobson as Professor, Caitlin Morrison as Ella, Linda Rabin Hammell as Babs and Mandy Logsdon as Pickles. Photo: Krista Schafer Ewbank

Foreground: Linda Rabin Hammel; Background: Taylor Morrow.

* CORRECTION: Since I'm the guy who managed the process to determine this year's Wilde Awards nominations and wins, you'd think I'd have gotten this sentence correct. Or at least made it clear who was nominated and who won. But, no: After moving a few sentences around a couple of times and rewriting a few others (and then forgetting to go back and update the rest), the initial version of this sentence led my readers down the wrong path. The information is correct now - and I offer my humblest apologies to one and all.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Yes, change is in the air. As state theater executives learned this past Monday, I've decided it's finally time to sever all connections with and The Wilde Awards, two local institutions I co-founded over the past 16 years.

It was an amicable split, driven by directions in which the company is going that make me uncomfortable. However, I wish owner David Kiley well; financing has been a major problem since day one, and much of its budget has come out of his own pocket since he assumed control of the company. And so I thank him for his continued efforts on behalf of the theater community, a community that doesn't always appreciate the hard work done by others on its behalf. (I also thank him for putting up with me and the "hard-ass" positions I've taken throughout his time as owner. We might not have always agreed on things, but we have always agreed professionally and respectfully.)

So what does this mean for me and my future?

Between The Lines has invited me to return on a fairly regular basis to once again help increase its theater coverage with more previews and interviews, the first of which appeared a couple of weeks ago. I’ll be back with more stories in the coming weeks.

In addition, although my reviewing days are over (the unofficial count stands at 629, not including those I wrote for the Observer & Eccentric newspapers way back in the 1970s and early ‘80s), I plan to continue using this blog to share my thoughts on every show I see. These won't be formal reviews, but a mix of short and not-so-short write-ups that focus on whatever aspect or aspects of a production catch my attention. And so if I discuss a production you're involved with and you're not mentioned, please don't take it as a slight. Or that I didn't like your work. It simply means my focus was on something else and nothing more.

I'll also use this blog to chat about whatever else about the industry pops into my mind at any given moment.

Plus, I’m still continuing to investigate new and innovative ways to promote our theaters. But, as seen with both since its inception and a proposed online magazine Jenn McKee and I discussed with industry leaders a few months back, the stumbling block is always how to generate enough revenue to pay people for their time and keep the project afloat. So who knows what the future may bring.

Or I may finally hang up my "gone fishing" sign (despite the fact I hate fishing). We'll see.

But for now, I'll be back on Monday with my thoughts on Open Book Theatre's fourth-season opener. (Here's a spoiler warning for you: I recommend it!)