Thursday, May 7, 2015

Pit and Balcony's "Next to Normal" a dramatic and vocal standout

The set of "Next to Normal"

Matt Schramm as the father

Review and photos by Janet I. Martineau

Why, you might ask, would I want to go see a musical about mental illness?

Because in the case of "Next to Normal," opening Friday night at Saginaw's Pit and Balcony Community Theatre, it is SUPERB on all accounts. And because, with statistics saying that one in four Americans has some sort of mental issue, there might be something helpful or understanding to learn.

Other plusses  – it won a Pulitzer Prize and four Tony awards, its six actors portray compelling people you care about every step of the way, and there are an amazing 46 songs that propel the action (making it more opera than musical theater, but opera with a rock bent).

Director Laura Brigham landed herself a dream ensemble cast, if Wednesday night's dress rehearsal was any indication. And they in turn landed a dream director in terms of the overall look and movement of the show.

In the storyline we spend time with a middle-class family whose parents have been married for 16 years. Meagan Eager is cast as the mother, who is suffering from bipolar and delusional episodes. Matt Schramm is her devoted husband. Danessa Hellus and William Lockhart are the son and daughter, with teen-age issues of their own heightened by their mother's never-ending illness.

Henry Wakie is the daughter's sweetheart of a boyfriend. And Randy Robinson is cast as two of the mother's revolving-door mental health doctors – who supply her with more pills than seem logical, hypnosis sessions, shock treatment therapy that robs the memory, and just about anything else they can think of. 

None of which work.

As noted all six are incredibly solid, in particular in the vocal department because the lyrics and music of this work are totally tricky. A nightmare. Much of it sung opera style – glorious duets, trios, quartets, even sextets; voices always layering and deliciously treating the ears. Not only do these six actors have beautiful singing voices but they also deliver these songs emotionally and enunciate clearly.

Added onto that they have to have the dramatic chops to showcase the characters as characters not caricatures. In particular the two parents who have been coping with these mental health issues from their marriage day, more or less. Again a resounding success -- and with bits of humor along the way, resignation because they've all seen it before, and the message of the strength of family no matter its problems.

There are so many dramatic highlights it is impossible to list them all. But two of them are the family recalling the trips they took and the mother and daughter coming to terms with each other.

Brigham keeps the show hustling with nary a pause for set or scene change through the lack of lighting on the section being changed while the actors continue on another well lit part of the stage. Sometimes it's a little noisy but most of the time unnoticeable.

The scenic design created by a trio of people is hard to describe but it is rather cold, fragmented, multilevel – just like the story of this family.

And other absolute plus is the six-member orchestra headed by Loren Kranz, navigating that difficult score, with soaring piano segments by Sara Taylor, kept beautifully balanced by sound designer Blake Mazur so it never overpowers the singers.

A word of warning. That famous four-letter word is used frequently. But frankly in context. And the themes are definitely adult.

"Next to Normal" caps off a tremendous year at Pit, with five top-notch shows. it is a chancy show to do, very very chancy as it tackles the mental health elephant in the room that most people try to ignore.

For more photos:

Monday, March 30, 2015

review and photograph by janet i. martineau

Act I: Simmer, simmer, bubble, boil, explode.
Act II: Simmer, simmer, bubble, boil, EXPLODE.
The instigators: Racism and racists, rude comments about nearly every possible ethnic group, white folks, neighborhoods, history. Using comedy, satire and dialogue that makes us squirm in recognition.
Opening tonight is Pit and Balcony Community Theatre's production of the Pulitzer-winning "Clybourne Park" by Bruce Norris.
We caught the final dress rehearsal and everything about it is a keeper, except in the few opening moments when the script is a little bit draggy before it starts to simmer.
More or less a companion piece to Lorraine Hansbury's 1957 "A Raisin in the Sun," also a Pulitizer winner, this 2010 play examines a white Chicago neighborhood turning black and then black turning white. Act I takes place in 1957 and Act II 50 years later, in 2009.
What is delightful and the most fun is the seven-member cast portrays one set of characters in the first act and then a different set of characters in the second. It takes a bit of time for us to adjust to the sudden change, but it gives the actors a chance to show off two very different characters.
There is an eighth cast member, but mum is the word. And some of those 14 characters in the two acts are interrelated, but mum on that as well because the surprise is wonderful. In fact, mum on a lot in this review.
Directed by Tommy Wedge, everything about the production sparkles -- the attention to detail, the see-through set that changes dramatically between acts, the set decoration and costumes, the music, the pacing, and especially the acting (but then Wedge got himself a total dream team).
Without detailing their characters in both acts too much, the actors are Jim Stewart, grieving father and macho contractor; Ann Russell-Lutenske, frustrated wife and upscale lawyer; Cassidy Morey, deaf and pregnant foreigner and pregnant and mouthy American; Ekia Thomas, housekeeper and upscale professional, and Marco Verdoni, minister and lawyer.
Chad William Baker is cast as the lead bigot in both acts, and the coiled rattlesnake who sets off the dynamic explosions in both. And Kenneth Elmore is the significant other of Thomas in both acts.
They are all exquisite...totally into their dual characters with every fiber of their souls. When the explosions occur these actors leave us breathless with their intensity and flawless interweaving and rapid-fire exchanges. They are REAL.
Morey is a special treat with her foreign accent coupled with deaf speech pattern in the first act and her pregnant maneuvers in the second. And Russell-Lutenske's facial expressions shine.
Last year Pit brilliantly  staged "Raisin," directed by Linda Rebney, and now its companion is equally brilliant with Wedge. Good job.

Diction robs potential of SVSU's "Grapes of Wrath"

review by janet i. martineau

There is so much to praise, so so much, about the Saginaw Valley State University production of "John Steinbeck's The Grapes on Wrath."

But, unfortunately, there is also a giant shadow that threatens to overwhelm it.


Too many of the 36 members in the cast, at least on opening night Wednesday, mumbled their words and/or did not project in this play that is all about words. And sadly it was most prominent among its leads. 

There also was on that night an overall languid motion to the play, a lack of atmospheric energy and emotional commitment to the characters. An unusual situation in anything directed by David Rzeszutek, which usually bristle with energy and cast commitment to characters.

The production is loaded with vignettes -- two or three people speaking and numerous other cast members in various side ensembles working on something, like washing dishes, packing up the car, digging graves. They need you to believe they are doing what they are doing. In too many cases they do not.

But as we noted there are many many bright spots as well -- chiefly among cast members with small parts and who just nail them.

No. 1 in that department is Carl Mizell, who plays a homeless camp character named Floyd. His diction and projection outstanding. Totally into his character, even when not speaking lines but is a side picture to the action. Energy palatable. He connected.

Also delivering the goods is Blake Mazur as the simpleton Joad family son -- his body  movements and his speaking patterns spot on, character not caricature. He is lovable, someone you care about.

Kenneth Elmore is humorous as the profane and stubborn Granpa Joad, Cassidy Morey has all the moves down as the pregnant Rosé of Sharon sister, and as a resigned sad sack in her line delivery. Joshua Lloyd as the mayor of Hooverville is both hilarious and pathetic as a man who had endured one too many indignities in the camps of homeless and jobless "refugees" heading west in hopes of a better life in America.

And oh my God the saving grace is band leader/singer/guitarist Madalyn McHugh and her three band mates. They perform pre-show music, are a strong part of the play action once it begins, perform both original and traditional material, and sound incredibly good.

If the rest of the cast had delivered with the intensity of said above, we would've had something to really contend with in the annals of excellent productions at SVSU.

The set design by Jerry Dennis is intriguing --  a series of photographic landscape backdrops and small set pieces that drop down or are pushed on and off quickly. Minimalist but effective. And the overloaded Joad jalopy is a sight to behold as it moves around the stage.

The costumes look appropriately dust bowl.  For my preference the lighting is a little too dark but it certainly matches the mood of what is happening.

What did deliver absolute goosebumps is the connection of this 1938-set play to today's situations in America...politically, economically, environmentally. Not quite as grim as back then, but for sure in how the poor and disenfranchised are treated by the system.

Well worn "Blithe Spirit" a ton of fun at SVSU

Review by Janet I. MartineauPhoto by Kevin Rooker

Looking for something to do on this kind of chilly rainy ugly Sunday afternoon – then scurry out to Saginaw Valley State University to see its final performance of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit."

Showtime is 3pm.  And the Ric Roberts direction of the British theater classic  is simply ghostly.

That's ghostly not ghastly.

In a nutshell, a 1940s nervous-type author gathers his wife and another couple and invites a madame medium to dinner followed by a seance – under the guise of research for his next book. The only problem is the wacky medium conjures up his first wife....and the teasing bitch is, well, invisible and inaudible to everyone else except him.

Whenever the poor bloke responds to something she has said, and because the others haven't heard it, what comes out of his mouth highly offends them. Many many giggles, So well written. Even though the show runs long and could certainly have used some editing back in the day.

The Jerry Dennis set is absolutely gorgeous. Obviously British upper crust and so richly detailed with artifacts, many of them on loan from Court Street Antiques. And the Roberts-designed costuming is elegant beyond words.

Visually the sets and costumes put you right back into this British era and you settle in comfortably.

And then seven-member cast is spot-on with its  upper crust British accents and characterizations. Again however, in a long-time bugaboo at SVU --  probably because these are young actors in training --  some of them tend to speak their lines in a rushed manner so the words jumble together.

The acting is the strongest with Cassidy Morey, the ghostly first wife Elvira. Her words  are always crystal clear,  always tinged with sarcasm, as she glides through the set exactly as one expects of a ghost.

Her face is an ever-changing landscape, even her body movements are sarcastic. She literally buries herself in this role and also us along with her.

Matching her but totally in contrast is the daffy medium, Brianne Dolney. Her character is flamboyant, never all quite there mentally, prone to fainting, not well dressed, and not particularly gifted in mediumship. God love her and the way Dolney carries her off.

Put Dolney onstage with Morey, whom she can't see, and every moment is riveting. Dolney also speaks clearly for the most part.

Isaac Wood  is the jittery playwright and Mykaela Hopps his easily offended and delicate wife with Jonah Connor and Lexee Longwell as a couple invited to the seance which sets everything in wild motion.

Watching Wood's character inch by inch fall apart trying to navigate through life with two wives at once, and like we said one of whom no one else can see or hear AND is a handful, is delightful. Wood  is so into it he puts us into it and we start to feel his character's rising panic and frustration (although he does need to learn how to properly shake a martini).

Hopps has a thankless role -- as a nagging wife who is a little too high maintenance and      tightly wound so you immediately side with the ghost. She plays it very, very well.

The Connor and Longwell roles are minor, and neither does much to elevate them in some way.

Who does, even though about the only words she speaks are yes ma'am or no sir, is the family maid Edith, played by Amanda Moths. Edith is prone to rushing around way too fast, which her employers scold her for, so her attempts to slow down is slapstick at its best. 

Edith is always hovering about, snooping we suspect, and like Morey her face is a roadmap of expressions and her body movement equally expressive. 

Nice job all around on this well worn classic.

Friday, March 20, 2015

"Blithe Spirit" a fun and elegant romp at Pit & Balcony

Amy Spadafor Loose as the dead wife returned and Lucy Malacos as the medium seeking to send her back

review and photos by janet i. martineau

Dealing with someone who is dead is much less problematic than dealing with someone who has merely "passed over."

Especially if she is a jealous wife. Who has been called back by mistake. And has an agenda.

That is the premise of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit," an oldie but still goodie on the theater scene -- and opening tonight (March 20) for a two-weekend run at Saginaw's Pit & Balcony Community Theatre.

Saginaw Valley State University staged this 1940-era period piece earlier this season; its cast, shall we say, more youthful energetic. Pit's production is a more mature one, shall we say, its  performances and pacing more subdued. And both were/are absolutely splendid -- a joy of contrasts we did not anticipate as a critic.

Michael Wisniewski directs at Pit, he being a familiar face as a director and actor at Bay City Players. He also designed the magnificent set and also is its costume designer.  

The set -- that of wealthy Brits -- is total eye candy and richly detailed: a massive filled book case, pieces of art hung everywhere, flowers in vases and plants on the porch, lovely furniture, billowing curtains, a sliding door that covers the wooden steps leading to other parts of the house.

Add to that is the upper crust costuming, and in the case of the meddling madame an overwhelming array of necklaces.

And Wisniewski does not resort to an over abundance of special effects, as some productions do. He lets the lines do the work, and the movement of his actors.

Thus enter the cast, excellent all.

Michael Curtis as a novelist who has arranged a seance for research and Cathie Stewart as his prune-faced fussy wife.

Amy Spadafore Loose as the novelist's smirky and snotty dead wife, brought back by eccentric and flamboyant medium/madame Lucy Malacos.

David and Audrey Lewis as an elegant couple invited to the seance...and they are ever-so elegant.

And Karen Fenech as the always-in-a-hurry maid.

Great facial expressions all always. Solid diction (and hurrah no microphones in this production). Excellent delivery of the witty lines that are the hallmark of this play. Fluid movement for its farcical aspects. Timing solid. Just a snag or two with English accents fading and and a line fumbled.

Loose as the returned dead wife is a particular delight, only heard and seen by her hubby.  She is just so wonderfully smirky and snotty you want to go up on the stage and slap her face -- and she sports a fun dead-like pale face.

Malacos also is an athletic and scatter-brained medium...a person not quite right but interesting to watch in her hysterical actions. (And by the way, she did the same role when she was in high school.)

Listen also to the pre-show and intermission music which also fits the period.

The show is written long and talky ... but it flies by.

For more photographs: 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Midland's "Cabaret" scary stuff with outstanding choreography

Adam Gardner as the Emcee in the Midland Center for the Arts production of "Cabaret"

review and photographs by janet i. martineau

Midland’s production of “Cabaret” is scary...very, very scary.

Yep, it is set way back there in Berlin 1931, as the Nazis rise to power.

And the Kander and Ebb musical, which won a slew of Tony and Oscar awards, dates back to 1966.

Enough time has passed that it will come off as history, right?

Um, no, actually. We won’t get all political on ya, but headlines in the news recently make it all too relevant, familiar, sad....and scary.

“What Would You Do?” as one of songs poignantly asks.

Or, says the Emcee as he dances with a gorilla, if you could see her as he sees her “she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.”

Director Keeley Stanley-Bohn has assembled herself a fine cast in this Midland Center for the Arts musical, opening tonight and running through March 28. But what she also got was an excellent choreographer, Kelli Jolly.

This show MOVES. The dance numbers are athletic (especially the one involving chairs), deliciously naughty (the Kit Kat Klub is a model of depravity), inventive and the hallmark of the show. We want more, even though there are plenty.

And the singing matches the choreography. Outstanding. Be they solos or ensemble numbers.

Richard Bronson, cast as the American Cliff Bradshaw, has very little singing but oh my word WHAT A VOICE.

And Adam Gardner as the seedy Emcee, Emily Anderson as Brit Sally Bowles and Carol Rumba as Fraulein Schneider, who owns a boarding house, raise hair on the neck as well.

To give you a clue...toward the end Rumba sings an impassioned and determined “What Would You Do?” followed by Anderson’s meltdown in “Cabaret.”

We have no pictures to post from those two numbers because they grabbed us by the throat immediately and we were caught up so totally in listening to and seeing the emotion on their faces we forgot to click the camera.

Gardner, as usual, was superb in everything -- singing, acting, dancing. Does this man ever falter in a role? The show has him all over the place as a silent witness and as a vocal participant. 

It was fun, too, watching Anderson, who normally plays sweeties (like Maria in “Sound of Music”). This show stretches her tremendously and she captures Sally’s grit very well in the acting part and totally in the song and dance department.

Other strong performances are delivered by Kaitlyn Riel as the sailor-loving prostitute Fraulein Kost and Colin Russell as the hidden Nazi Ernst Ludwig.

The German and British accents are strong and consistent. And the show moves moves well, with cast members quickly moving set pieces on and off.

But there are a few negatives. Like some detailing....don’t think there were plastic hangers in 1931 and a line about being balding by an actor with a thick head of hair. Some annoying offstage noise. A totally blown ending.

And the curious set by Evan Lewis. In an interview the director said its purpose was to capture Berlin’s cultural decline and that it was set in an abandoned library (Nazis being book burners) with the orchestra ON the circulation desk.

If I had not read this I would not have had a clue what it was trying to say. And while parts of it were intriguing mostly it jarred the eye on a variety of levels -- chiefly in making the orchestra too visible and in leaving an odd gaping hole at the left. But hey, at least it tried a new concept.

And thankfully the power of the show itself, Jolly’s choreography and the vocal power overcome those issues.

For more pictures:

Friday, October 10, 2014

You are in good company with Bay City Players "Company"

The single guy (Dan Taylor) holding the P, his three girlfriends far right and his five married couple friends

review by janet i. martineau

photos by michelle ouellette

When you are single, sometimes your married friends drive you nuts.

That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Stephen Sondheim's quirky musical "Company," playing the Bay City Players Oct. 9-12 and Oct. 16-19.

Directed by Mike Wisniewski, this production is graced with a plethora of gorgeous singing voices, delightful choreography and beautiful sounds eminating from the orchestra pit. That it is a bit draggy and sometimes the acting skills wobble is of small concern.
Danessa Hellus

For those unfamiliar with Sondheim, his music is an absolute nightmare of multiple complexities -- hence the fact I called "Company" a quirky musical. It demands much of  singers, it demands much of its orchestra and it demands much of its audiences with its fits and starts, unusual patterns, and sometimes discordant notes.

Added to that is the screwy storyline, told in a series of vignettes surrounding a 35-year-old single man named Robert, or Bobby, Weaving in and out of his life are five married couple friends, all of whom think he should get married despite the fact their own marriages are "complicated."

They engage each other in a oneupsmanship karate contest,  divorce only to live together again, get high on drugs, panic on their own wedding day --  one moment extolling the virtues of marriage and then in the next breath expressing doubts.

The reflective song "Sorry-Grateful" sung by three of the male spouses (Dale Bills, Trevor Keyes and Steve Moelter) sums it up, and dramatically is one of the stronger moments.

Added to that mix on stage are three of Bobby's on again off again girlfriends, themselves oddballs and of doubtful marriage quality.

So there you have it -- a mix of madcap music and madcap people.  And with virtually every cast member having at least one vocal solo or one moment of extended dialogue, there is no margin for error.

Fortunately in this production, only one cast member fails. We will leave him/her unnamed. The rest have one or more shining moments.

Kori Orlowski and Randall Manetta
Dan Taylor as Bobby is in virtually every scene and his three solo pieces are an absolute treat for the ears. Danessa Hellus absolutely owns "Another Hundred People." Denyse Clayton's sarcastic tones and movement in "The Little Things You Do Together"'  and "The Ladies Who Lunch" are rock solid delightful.

Kori Orlowski as the panicked bride sings in a machine gun the style during "Getting Married Today." While it is mostly unintelligible because of its rapid fire, it is nonetheless remarkable. 

Contrasting with her in that number is the exquisite high soprano churchy sound delivered by Amy Britt, which raises here on the neck.

And in what may be the show's most complicated song in terms of timing, Shanna Fancey as the goofy flight attendant girlfriend and Taylor deliver in sync in "Barcelona."

With the use of risers and alcoves, Wisniewski leaves all of the actors onstage all of the time, at home in their own dwellings in subdued lighting when not performing. Totally works as if to say even when not around our friends are still playing roles in our lives.

The use of those risers and choreographer Holly Haga Bills also keep the show moving effectively. And watching her choreography build step-by-step in "Side by Side by Side" is one of the evening's highlights, leaving the entire cast winded.

Released in 1970, the Tony-winning,"Company" still nails it when it comes to the world of human dilemma.