Friday, December 4, 2015

"It's a Wonderful Life" comes to life live at Pit and Balcony

At the end of show all is well in the little town

Kevin Kendrick, left, and Chad William Baker

Review and photographs by Janet I. Martineau

A Frank Capra movie classic comes to real-life this week and next at Saginaw's Pit and Balcony Community Theatre. 

While the final dress rehearsal of "It's a Wonderful Life" was a bit sluggish in its overall pacing and had some tech issues with props, sound and sets, there is no denying it sports an excellent cast.

And that its story dating back to the mid-1940s is as relevant, and maybe even more so, in today's world -- that being one good person through a series of small acts throughout his or her life can indeed defeat the evil out there, even though they have no idea of what they've done.

Chad William Baker is cast in the famed George Bailey role, a small town banker about to commit suicide until an Angel Second Class intervenes and subjects him to a look back at his life and what the town would have been like without him.

Baker is in just about every scene and goes through just about every emotion possible – frustrated young  man wanting to leave town for life in a bigger city, compassionate  banker who rises to the occasion during the great depression, good guy engaging in a battle of wills with a really bad guy, total rage followed by absolute joy, and, of course, the attempted suicide.

Baker delivers supremely throughout. He IS George Bailey quickly on and we are totally involved in his story that unfolds.

But oh my gosh, matching him in the acting department is Kevin Kendrick as Henry F. Potter, who owns just about the whole town and is evil incarnate. Despite the fact his character is in a wheelchair, an image that usually invokes sympathy, Kendrick's use of voice and body inflections and calculated delivery of them are so ruthless they are chilling. He is from start to finish a rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike.

When Baker and Kendrick are alone on the stage in scenes together they are mesmerizing, often with a bright red light shining behind them and into the audience. Representative of the devil perhaps .... because that angel is nowhere around.

Also delivering fine performances are Diamond Magee as that angel, hiply dressed and with an interesting swagger; Bill Kircher as George's kindly Uncle Billy; Audrey Lewis as George's loving and concerned mother and Michelle Mersey as George's patient wife.   

And in small but really captivating performances are the four Bailey children – Ann Hadley Gorsline, Thomas Hoving, Samantha Stricker and Gianna Hoving. 

Jessica McFarland directs the production, which opens tonight.

And as written it is a bit of a nightmare -- a long series of short scenes set throughout the town. It is here, at least the night the night we saw it, where the show struggles a bit in making those quick transitions smoothly. Her actors, all of them, are right on target (especially in that quick and chilling "what if"  finale), but the tech crews not necessarily so.

Also a huge clinker breaking the mood is the hissing of the fog-making machine. It sounds like a freight train.

Gary Reid's set an impressive one with a variety of buildings and the huge bridge from which George is attempting to jump. It evokes the mood of a small town.

Overall this is a show and solid production of it needed right now in a world of horrendous headlines. Yes good exists, in numerous small everyday actions taken by the majority of us.

For more pictures

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

126-foot "Where We Live" painting depicts Saginaw's rich heritage

Andrew Rieder with just a portion of his "Where We Live" painting

Story and photos by Janet I. Martineau

A new art acquisition was unveiled tonight at the Saginaw Art Museum.

Titled "Where We Live,"  the vividly colorful oil painting mixed with spray paint measures a whopping 41 inches high by...126 feet long. Yes. 126 feet long.

Each of its 14 birch plywood panels is 8 feet long and 4 inches thick, and weighs an estimated 50 pounds, minimum.

"I like to do large-scale paintings,"  says its creator Andrew Rieder, an assistant professor of art at Delta College and a board member at the museum, 1126 N. Michigan.

"Some of my early influences were people like Diego Rivera. I hope what people take away from this piece is a sense of pride about where they live and a new recognition and  appreciation of who has come from the area. It was a challenging but rewarding process to create."

Destined to hang just below the ceiling in the Artisan Wing, the piece captures Rieder”s fascination with Saginaw's urban-to-rural quick-change (buildings mix with landscapes) along with superimposed arts, cultural and humanities notables (black photographers Goodridge Brothers, painter E. Irving Couse,  saxophonist Sonny Stitt, poet Theodore Roethke and five others).

The Goodridge Brothers, photographers
Rieder began teaching at Delta in 2010 and lives in Shields. He runs and bicycles on the nearby rail trail and says he is captivated by the diversity of a landscape he sees there as well as on his commute to work each day -- again citing how the downtown/industrial and natural/rural  transition occurs quickly.

Work on the piece began last December, and throughout the process two of his advanced independent studies students (Michelle McLean of Freeland and Tom Osborne of Auburn) at Delta have helped him create what he designed in Photoshop.

"They painted the landscape in oil and then I spray-painted on the stenciled figures and went back and harmonized the two. I added the layers, so to speak."

Rieder consulted with Thomas Trombley,  an historian and deputy director at the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History, and also did some online research to zero in on the humans depicted.

As for how the project came about, Rieder said he overheard museum executive director Stacey Gannon mentioning she wanted a "mural" in the Artisan Wing. He volunteered to build and paint it on his own, being reimbursed only for the cost of the materials.

Rieder hails from Raleigh, N, C., and in 2004 graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2010 he received his master's degree from Michigan State University in East Lansing. Delta College is his first teaching job and he joined the board at the art museum in 2013.

Gannon says she wanted to find a way to celebrate the rich history of culture and artistic talent  contributed by the community and could not be more pleased by Rieder's finished product.

"I want people, in general, to understand how blessed we are with artistic talent and cultural assets, and to understand the value of what those offer," says Gannon.  "Think about it…what other community of our population (50k in Saginaw, right?) has what we have? And the iconic artists who have risen from our backyard, our amazing architecture and historical significance, it is tremendous."

She lauds Rieder's generosity, commitment and time investment, and says when she first  saw the piece in its development stages it brought tears to her eyes.

"That he captured exactly what our advisory council was looking for is astounding. It celebrates our heritage, our people, our landmarks…our history as a diverse, talented, gritty and persevering community.  

"The colors, the way he blended landscapes, images of people, landmarks, is absolutely beautiful.  It is as if it is in motion almost, as you look at it.  Vibrant, active images of who we are, where we live.  I love it and couldn’t be more pleased."

Her intention is to use the mural as a teaching tool and create a curriculum of educational opportunities around the various images within it.  

Installation will begin this week, she said, and she anticipates it will be done by mid-November.

For more pictures:



Friday, October 2, 2015

"Hairspray" tears up the stage at Saginaw's Pit and Balcony

review and photographs by janet i martineau 

Perpetual, perpetual, perpetual MOTION.

That word sums up the Pit and Balcony Community Theatre production of the musical "Hairspray," opening tonight (Oct. 2).

That word and a whole lot many more words which will follow in this review. We had to go home after its last dress rehearsal and take a nap... there was so much energy exuded.

Recently we extolled the choreography in the Midland Center for the Arts production of "Mary Poppins." Well, "Hairspray" may have gone one better because the cast just never ever stops moving in this  show directed by Tommy Wedge with choreography by Wedge and Candy Kotze.

In fact the whole show never ever stops moving – it just flows seamlessly with set movement part of the action all through the first act and then all through the second act. Not a pause at all.

Stupendous and refreshing.

For those unfamiliar, "Hairspray" is based on the movie by the same name, which tells the fictional story of an chubby white girl breaking down the color barriers on a hit rock and roll television dance show, set in 1962 Baltimore. Her mama Edna Turnblad is traditionally played by a male. The lyrics are hilarious, often spoofing the whole era, risque here and there.

Along with that splendid choreography, Wedge has assembled and directed a cast delivering endless vocal, acting and/or dance highlights. Their facial expressions are as fluid as their dancing.

Among the highlights are Jenny Cohen as that tubby teenager, Chad William Baker as her big mama (played so spot on), Paul Lutenske as her papa, Janelle  Bublitz as her nerdy best friend, and Brennon Meinhold as her eventual kinda-daft boyfriend.

Across the racial divide check out the overall performances of Donte Ashton Green as Seaweed Stubbs and particularly Adia Jackson as the really expressive Little Inez; the  vocal powerhouse of Shirlene Brown as Motormouth  Maybelle, and the all-out dancing by Ryan King.

Watch Carly Peil throw an excellent triple curve, two of them as men.

And overall just watch that entire ensemble who are as one.

With 19 numbers on the playlist, two are standouts: “Momma, I’m a Big Girl Now” for its intricate movements and razor-sharp lighting demands. And “Timeless to Me” for its sweet and tender dance between overweight mama (Baker) and skinny dad (Lutenske).

Bravo also to the orchestra, directed by Sara Taylor. What a sound. . And the lighting, colorful costuming, props, scenic design and attention to detail are all incredible.

Can you tell we liked this show, we really really really like this show.

And it has a little Saginaw back history. Back in 2003 it won eight Broadway Tony Awards, one of them best musical and another for best director, to Saginaw native and Arthur Hill graduate Jack O’Brien.

For more photos;

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Midland's "Mary Poppins" practically perfect in every way

The chimney sweeps dance with Mary Poppins and Bert (Emily and Bill Anderson Jr.) at center 

review and photographs by janet i. martineau

Truth be told, the Midland Center for the Arts production of the musical “Mary Poppins” is, as the flying English nanny herself sings, “practically perfect in every way” -- except maybe the set.

And up the clock Bert climbs
The show, which opened Friday night, has oodles of special effects -- a kitchen that falls apart and then repairs itself, both people and kites that fly, grandfather clocks that come out of a small carpet bag, statues and toys come to life, and one character who walks up a clock sideways. 

Intensely colorful costumes seem to get changed in a flash of an eye. Highrise set pieces with cast members atop them, like rooftops and chimneys, churn the stomach in fears someone will take a terrible tumble.  And there is even a live dog in the mix.

Humanwise this is a STRONG cast with exquisite singing skills and solid acting chops -- thank you director Laura Brigham for delivering them and this show in such fine form. 

Among the standouts are Tony Serra as the exceptionally stern and cross father of the house, Amy Meilink as the house maid, Joe Saba as the family no-so-handy-man, Katrina Doud as the “Feed the Birds” woman, Kori Orlowski as the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”  shop owner and  Wendy Winters as the nanny from hell who will engage in a singing duel with Mary Poppins.

And the two leads, married in real life, bring a star quality and professional aura to the show with Emily Anderson as Mary Poppins and Bill Anderson Jr. as her chimney sweep buddy Bert.

But where the whole thing takes absolute flight is in the choreography by Jennifer Bills Kennedy, a dance teacher who lives in Freeland and works in Bay County. 

These cast members, from leads to small roles, dance their hearts out and we mean stepping in time from start to finish in ensemble numbers that are too good to be true. Especially the chimney sweep number. And  “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” that just builds and builds and builds. 

it is frankly the main reason to see the show -- to watch the power, athleticism, unity and inventiveness; keeping in mind these cast members are not trained dancers of a dance company.

If there is a downside it is the set pieces that are a little cartoonish and cumbersome. and sometimes seem a odd (like in the park scene).

But frankly who was looking at the set when we could revel in the fury of the choreography, or  close our eyes and listen to the melodious voices singing this oh-so-familiar and delightful score, or bathe in the color of those costumes.

For more pictures:

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.