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.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Pit & Balcony's "Hands on Hardbody" eccentric, funny, insightful

The contest is about to begin

review and photographs by janet i. martineau

Imagine, in real life, lasting 71 hours standing upright with one hand always on the body of a Nissan truck. Often in the hot Texas sun. With only a 15 minute break every six hours.

Imagine, in real life, being the director of a musical and for the final dress rehearsal one of your major leads is too sick to perform. So you fill in, script in one hand, hoping he will be well enough by opening night.

Both scenarios converged Thursday night at Saginaw’s Pit and Balcony Community Theatre with the Tony-winning show "Hands on a Hardbody," based on a documentary about a real competition to win a truck.

We know Thomas Wedge is an accomplished and inventive director. Getting to witness his considerable acting chops and singing skills was an added bonus on this night. Something that occurs very rarely in the world of theater. That he blended in with the rest of this cast was remarkable; his contestant character a cynical, smart-mouthed jerk.

As for the show itself, it is eccentric, funny, insightful and all heart as it examines the hopes and dreams and life situations of 10 working-class, down-on-their-luck Americans. The ensemble song "Used to Be" will break your heart as it touches a deep nostalgic chord.

And oh that real Nissan truck that shares the stage – it spins, honks, becomes a drum set, and displays both its headlights and back up lights during the show. An 11th character participating in the contest.

There is also an inventive dance number with one its two dancers seated in an office chair with wheels.

Michael Curtis as the oldest contestant
This could've been a rather stagnant show given its one set with a big old truck right in the middle. But Wedge, also the choreographer, keeps the thing alive with the  movement of that truck and its attached cast which crawls all over and around it.

To be honest, some of the singing voices are a little on the weak side, a few of the actors need to work on their diction skills and others weren't quite there yet within their characters. The all-white backdrop also is jarring, taking away from the alleged setting of a car dealership.

The show itself is far less engaging when they're competing and is strongest during those 15 minute breaks every six hours as well as when, one by one, they drop as contestants until the last person is standing.  And its script is also cliched and kinda predictable. 

But there are so many many dynamic moments.

Brian Bateson is cast as a sullen, silent contestant....until his solo song "Stronger." Major goosebump time with his vocal and acting prowess; won't be a dry eye in the place. Beautifully lit too (as is the entire show),  and with artful cast movement around him.

Then there is Ann Russell-Lutenske, cast as a god-loving, gospel-singing contestant. She rocks the place with "Joy of The Lord," during which, because of fatigue, she starts to lose it and gets a case of the giggles, then starts singing until the rest of the contestants do the same -- and then they collectively use the truck, all of them, as a percussion instrument. Cool, cool, cool.

She is also one of the most effective actors in the cast, and there are several other times when her singing powers also manifest themselves magnificently.

And Michael Curtis is cast as the oldest contestant, a physically and emotionally aching sad sack. His two vocal numbers, duet/solo combinations with cast wife Holly Jacobs, are heart-tuggers as he too is strong in his acting skills throughout and she matches him in her brief stage time. Their "Alone With Me" is a beautifully written song.

Other strong performances are delivered by "slutty" Meagan Eager and "sweet" Randy Robinson as two of the other contestants and Kale Schafer and Toysha Welsh Sinclair as the conniving car dealership employes. Sinclair is so wonderfully sassy.

A shout out too for music director Loren Kranz and his music ensemble. Never overpowered things and enhanced the mood considerably.

"Hands on a Hardbody" runs this weekend and next weekend.

For more pictures: