Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


A Forbidden Broadway Christmas springs from the Forbidden Broadway mold; if the original was successful, why shouldn't they make money off a Christmas-themed sequel? It's the very kind of business decision creator/writer Gerard Alessandrini would have mocked, had he not made it himself. In its third year at the Gem Theatre, this bastard child of the Broadway machine features spectacular voices paying homage to the genre, even as it bites back with literal and figurative Grinchiness.

The bread and butter of this cabaret-style production is the tunes, favorites spanning decades of Broadway history. Some songs are paired with their respective shows, as in an extended Les Miserables medley, but more unexpected and creative choices are revealed when, for example, Gypsy's "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" is reworded to address the industry's recent puppetry fad. Topics range from Christmas to the economy to more specific barbs aimed at Broadway's producers and divas, but you don't have to know who Cameron Mackintosh is (trust me, I didn't) to appreciate a song about the merchandising craze. Over the course of its two hours, the show does run a few concepts into the ground — yes, okay, Disney is everywhere! — but overall there is a decent balance of Christmas-specific parody along with the Broadway commentary, plus a hefty dose of riotous celebrity impressions for impressions' sake. The material is strong enough that I didn't mind the repetition, and each number offers something that the others don't.


The premise is almost disarming: performers Greg Trzaskoma and Brian Thibault (using their actual names) have written a musical. An expensive, bloated Titanic of an epic musical — ship or film, both apply. And they're pitching it to you, their audience of potential investors and sponsors.

Such is The Big Bang, the title of both the "proposed" show and this current offering by the Jewish Ensemble Theater. It brings something new to the genre, a fine solution to the problem of staging a traditional musical: all the people, the costumes, the orchestra! Here, Stacy Cleavland doubles as music director and the third cast member, single-handedly providing live accompaniment and delivering a few great jokes of her own. Director Mary Bremer establishes immediate contact between performers and audience that completely blurs the lines of pre-show and the play's start, delightfully heightening the unconventional portrayal. The conceit of pitching the play instead of performing it also allows for numerous descriptions of the artists' visions for the final product, each as gaudy and costly as a Las Vegas revue.


This was my first viewing of the Matrix Theater's three-year Puppet Scrooge franchise, so although the original 2007 script was purported to be further adapted and updated, I can't say what was old and what was new. Despite the promise of new and improved, the production I saw was a bit lacking in energy; admittedly, the bare-bones matinee audience may have had a hand in that. At its heart, though, I still felt there was something missing — yes, there are puppets, and there is Scrooge, but the two have trouble coexisting.

The root of this production's weaknesses may be in an adaptation that has trouble maintaining a point of view. Occasionally preachy and abrupt, it also spends a lot of time wandering deep in the vignettes presented by Scrooge's three spirits. On the one hand, the writers take liberties with changing characters' names and genders (most notably, this Scrooge is a woman), and add minor animal characters that watch the action and add punchlines, Statler and Waldorf–style. On the other, its lockstep devotion to the original story's structure and minor plots limit the exploration of these changes and muddle what could have been a freer adaptation. Moreover, in order to showcase the types of puppetry used, including hand puppets, rod puppets, shadow puppets, and a brief appearance by marionettes, Scrooge is often pushed to the edges of the stage, silent instead of interactive, and her path toward repentance is harder to track as a result.


O holy crap, is there a lot of content in Miracle on 9 Mile Street. For its first original holiday sketch show, Go Comedy! digs deep, with scenes that range from one-line jokes to musical numbers — blending puns, parodies, sight gags, and wacky characters into a sampler of sterling comedy. Barreling on a considerable wave of forward momentum, the ninety-minute revue hits plenty of high notes.

Under the direction of Michelle and Tommy LeRoy, the show's framework resembles the Second City mold: there is no plot, and almost no recurring characters. Instead, Miracle free-wheels variations on the holiday theme. Each sketch is polished and strong, the point of view is fresh, and the action rarely drags. Although most scenes had a familiar structure and length, one longer and quite ambitious time-shifting scene landed a sucker punch of tenderness that was a welcome counterpoint to the surrounding mania.


For its holiday mainstage show, Who Wants Cake? brings out the big guns: Joe Plambeck and Joe Bailey, the powerhouse at the company's helm. Directed by Jamie Richards, The SantaLand Diaries & Season's Greetings is described as a double bill; it draws its name from the titles of the two David Sedaris pieces presented, the former an autobiographical essay recounting the writer's experiences as a Macy's elf, the latter a fictitious — I hope — presentation of a housewife's annual Christmas newsletter.

The two halves of the play are decidedly distinct, as advertised, one narrated and the other in character, one man dressed in an elf costume and the other in winter white with kitten heels, one full of real-life crazies and the other invented craziness. Each has a surprisingly different tone, but together they deliver a cohesive blow to the merry and bright. This sort of anti-Christmas view is unique in that it skewers from within instead of without — rather than hovering at the fringes and throwing barbs, this show derives its humor from characters that stood so close to the Christmas spirit, they got burned.


In homage to the rapid-fire preamble of Williamston Theatre's This Wonderful Life — in which actor John Lepard traces the story arc of It's a Wonderful Life in less than a minute using sound bytes, like a gleeful parlor trick — I will attempt the same feat. Working alone, Lepard both shows and tells, plays all with distinction. Strong choices emphasize casual storytelling. Entire universe gives way to iconic staircase; twinkle-star angels, just like the movie! Labor deserving of a more daring script, yet satisfying. (How'd I do?)

First: John Lepard. The swell of one-man and one-woman productions this season should not diminish what a feat it is to energetically spin a compelling tale for seventy or eighty or ninety minutes straight. Lepard's task is to revive the classic film before the audience's eyes: in part to recreate dialogue, in part to narrate, and occasionally to provide commentary, all three of which he does with abundant sparkle and charm. The work this actor has put into the text is evident, from the consistent body language suggesting dozens of distinct individuals to the transitions between characters in mid-conversation. (Changing body and voice in an instant is no picnic in itself, to say nothing of adding a good Jimmy Stewart in heavy rotation.) A delight when he's clearly having fun, Lepard also summons a heartfelt and grave climactic scene bound to put a catch in one's throat.

A revised performance schedule almost caused me to miss If Only In My Dreams. Instead, I found myself at what had become the last performance in the Blackbird Theatre's longtime home. A mere two actors, Barton Bund and William Myers, gave the place not just a marvelous sendoff, but a cool and challenging take on a Christmas play.

If Only In My Dreams is a collection of four short stories and novel excerpts, told by their authors (Bund and Myers tackle two writers each). The set for this production is scaled way back; in fact, the open space, corner bar, and mismatched furniture evoked a Christmas-decorated basement. With very little to look at, and a single performer onstage at a time, the challenge of this production is earning and keeping an audience's attention, and Bund and Myers exceeded my expectations.


If you crave sincerity and the warmth of human kindness this time of year, look elsewhere. This joint effort of Who Wants Cake? and Sweetlove Productions is hardly even a Christmas story, but rather a loosely plotted comedy that happens to be set at the North Pole. However, if your idea of a happy holiday is spewing hot toddy through your nose from laughter, be sure to stay up late for The Real Housewives of the North Pole.

The original script, by director Marke Sobolewski and cast member Cara Trautman, draws inspiration from the Bravo network's Real Housewives series. Supposedly, behind every great man is a great woman, so here we look into the lives of Mrs. Claus, Mrs. Kringle, the mayor's wife, an uninhibited divorcee, and the new woman in town, whose contractor husband was hired to save the struggling Pole. The writers draw on the reality-TV framework with sparing use of "confessional" interview scenes, but aren't afraid to stray from the source material and let the simple story tell itself. The women are at their best in group scenes as they drink, fight, give advice, go on excursions, suspect and spy on each other, and throw a fundraiser. Although you don't have to like the Real Housewives franchise to enjoy this play, fans of "Tardy For the Party" should also be satisfied by the included spoofs.


It's hardly exaggeration to claim that A Christmas Carol is the juggernaut of holiday theater. Just about everything else is an also-ran, described as "an [adjective] alternative" to the gold standard, hence the popularity in film and theater in seeking out new and different adaptations for the well-worn story. In this reviewer's estimation, the Performance Network's premiere of Christmas Carol'd, by local artist Joseph Zettelmaier, takes its place at the top of the heap.

The other plays I had seen by Zettelmaier followed a pretty traditional structure, but here I was thrilled at his ear for narrative and easy shifts in time and place. In a cast of five, with one actor exclusively playing Scrooge (John Seibert), the other four "carolers" play all of the supporting characters and tackle the narration, which is primarily lifted straight out of Dickens's novella. The result retains the familiar dialogue, but steeps it in the author's rich and crackling prose, and Zettelmaier experiments with tag-team descriptions and overlap that only enhance its cadence and humor. In fact, the most disappointing moments in this production were when the narration was rushed, muffled, or drowned out by other sounds.


At Christmastime, plays about Hanukkah seem risky. Many Hanukkah stories concede to offer a sort of Christmas Lite — after all, Hanukkah is primarily known in the Christian world because it is What Jews Do At Christmas; it's "not even one of the high holy days," as one character kvetches in the The Hebrew Hammer. Adapted for the Planet Ant from a Comedy Central original movie, Hammer's plot also depends upon Christmas: there's a new Santa in charge, and he's a racist power monger who plans to end Hanukkah and Kwanzaa once and for all. The Jewish Defense League is desperate to stop him, and the only man resourceful and (ahem) unorthodox enough to do it is the title character (Jon Ager). With his love interest, Esther (Sarah Switanowski), they encounter hordes of characters, played by a supporting cast of five, on their adventures.

The influence of the blaxploitation genre shows, from the music to the montage sequence hilariously aping drug pushers. Ager and Switanowski give serviceable performances as the Hammer and Esther, infusing the genre with plenty of Jewish stereotypes. The ensemble plays an overwhelming number of characters, and although I'm not familiar with the source material, it seemed that some bits — and bit parts — could have been further distilled or eliminated for a smoother flow. The ensemble doesn't always shine when all its members appear together, but each actor had at least one outstanding character or scene to showcase. As the only woman in the ensemble, Lisa Melinn took on a large share of the character work, and her work is spot-on each time she's onstage.


Like a little kid who saw The Phantom Menace before Star Wars, the Purple Rose Theatre Company's final installment in the Escanaba trilogy was the first I had seen. Unlike that little kid, I wasn't disappointed, and, from the murmurs and chuckles of the audience, nor were the die-hard Escanaba fans.

The story of Jeff Daniels's Escanaba predates both Escanaba in Da Moonlight and Escanaba in Love, chronicling the very moment at which the Soady family history and traditions began: patriarch Alphonse Soady (Tom Whalen) completes the cabin at the deer camp. It's pretty unrealistic that every single tradition had its roots in just over an hour's time (including when Soady met Negamanee), but what legend was ever believable? The events are best taken in with the same skepticism one would use to interpret annals of ancient history — probably not how it really happened, but as close as we'll ever get.


I am not a Halloween person. Nor am I a scary-movie person. Had I not felt obligated to get the full experience for this review, I would never have chosen to sit in the designated "splash zone" at a theater with posters warning, "There will be blood!" Which explains why I took my seat for Evil Dead: The Musical, at the farthest reaches of the splash zone, with a bandana covering my hair and my torso sheathed in a scented trash bag. I was skeptical, but game. This exposition is necessary in order to put the following in its proper context: I loved every single minute.

The play is a fast-moving interpretation of the Evil Dead series of films, which I have never seen because of my aforementioned avoidance of yuckiness. Five college students — protagonist Ash, his girlfriend, his sister, his best friend, and the girl his best friend is nailing — have the brilliant idea to spend their spring break alone, in the woods, in an abandoned cabin. They accidentally summon demons from another dimension, and one by one become possessed or worse. As the plot unfolds, the students, and a handful of other characters, sing their hearts out even as they are being shot and dismembered.


Playwright Jacob M. Appel, in his program notes for Causa Mortis or The Medical Student, suggests that his plays are defined by "strong female characters." I disagree. At the Detroit Repertory Theatre's world-premiere production, what I saw was shrill female characters.

The script is undoubtedly funny; it is madcap, full of jokes. I could envision a version of this show that attempted to bring out the humor through character and relationship, although there is only one relationship of note here. In the absence of a grounded approach, as in this production's larger-than-life presentation, an ensemble needs to perfect its timing and polish every joke in order to keep the audience laughing every instant. Once again, what I saw came up short; instead, the thinly sketched, stressed-out characters barked at each other for occasional laughs. 

In the talk back I attended after Dutchman, director LoriGoe Nowak told the audience that the Magenta Giraffe Theatre's production was intended to be abstract. I was actually surprised to hear this, as it had escaped my notice during the 60-minute play. Some choices became clearer in retrospect, but at first, most of the elements of this version did not seem much different from a classic staging.

The setting, especially, revealed details — from the set to the costumes to the passengers' movements suggesting a train in motion — that precisely evoked a 1960s subway car. The cohesive set design by Kevin Beltz lent intimacy and a sense of voyeurism that were well suited for this challenging piece. Lighting design by Gwen Lindsay and music by Chuk Nowak (mixed live from the conductor's booth onstage, an undercurrent of music blended with the constant sound of the train) added additional layers of vérité, so much so that the actors had to raise their voices over the din. The four nonspeaking passengers were unremarkable upon first glance, in nondescript costumes suggestive of decades ago. Perhaps the abstract point of view was a bit too well concealed.


The Tipping Point Theatre outdid itself for its first production truly in the round. Daniel C. Walker's set design gave the impression of dozens of entrances, including some on raised platforms visible from every seat. (Overheard from the audience: "I hope that's sturdy.") This ingenuity, and the creative staging on and around it, helped keep the action lively in Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!).

The plot is right there in the title: Three actors (Dave Davies, Michael Brian Ogden, and Jeff Thomakos), dissatisfied with doing A Christmas Carol for the umpteenth year, instead attempt to bring the entire Christmas experience to the stage in ninety minutes. The result is a whirlwind of word play and sight gags, infused with a few solemn moments. This is the first production of Every Christmas Story I have seen, so I can't distinguish old from new (as implied by the added "and then some"), but I can say that the play was at its most enjoyable when hitting close to home. Whereas interpretations of the Grinch and Rudolph stories were essentially truncated — but faithful — restagings of beloved holiday classics, the exquisite parody of Detroit's annual Thanksgiving day parade was both innovative and side-splitting. A few points of lull were smoothed over by the sense of speed: hold on, you'll like the next part.


Because construction traffic had kept me from seeing the first ten minutes of An Infinite Ache, I returned to the Williamston Theatre for the closing performance to get the whole experience. Interestingly, I found that "the whole experience" I had expected wasn't possible to get on the second try.

I expected a hilarious romp during the expository minutes, as mentioned by one reviewer; indeed, there were plenty of laughs from the start. However, because of the circuitous and unpredictable nature of the show's timeline, I found myself prematurely returning to my emotional state at the play's end. [The show has closed now; it's no longer a spoiler for this production if I reveal that the entire audience was reduced to snuffling and eye-wiping.] Even as I laughed along at the show's many funny moments — indeed, the larger crowd that joined me for my second viewing eagerly ate up the comedy — I felt like I was already at the closing, simply luxuriating in the memory of these lives, instead of living them along with the characters as I had the first time.


The writing process is difficult to translate into theater, because so much of it is deeply private and not easily put into words. Kitty Dubin's The Blank Page, in its world premiere at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, uses a writer's professional and personal relationships to give the audience a better view, and very nearly triumphs.

Novelist Amy Kaplan, played here by a guarded Sarab Kamoo, is facing a three-month deadline for her second novel. The play covers those three months and ends on the deadline day. Meanwhile, her rabbi husband appears to give little more than lip service in supporting her, and a headstrong, youthful graduate student serves as a walking reminder of the vigor Amy had when she wrote her first, bestselling novel. Despite the play's title, there is a book in place at the beginning of the play; Dubin avoids clichés like writer's block, instead showing the audience a professional, disciplined scribe and her attendant insecurities.


The operative word for this twice-extended production at the Performance Network is stun. The careful unfolding of the plot often left me stunned. Even more so, Suzi Regan, the sole performer, is stunning. In The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead, the actress plays not three but seven characters, male and female, in a staggering range of ages. The title refers to an incident involving a jilted wife, her neighbor, and the blonde that the neighbor "catches" out with her husband at the mall. One misguided act of vengeance sets off a chain of events that takes the remainder of the play to unravel, and forever alters the lives of three families in the process.

At the forefront are Regan's brilliant characterizations, some as terrifically funny as others are devastating. To her great credit, the actress so embodies each of these characters, and makes them so physically and vocally distinct, that the play feels more like a collection of monologues than a one-woman show. However, what sets this apart from many other monologue collections is the details these stories have in common. Robert Hewett's 2004 script absolutely rewards the audience for paying attention, as one character's aside becomes another's catalyst. Regan and director David Wolber are careful to highlight these details without spelling it out for the audience, and the result is a tauntingly incomplete picture created by these several voices.


The audience at the final showing of One Flea Spare was one of the largest I had seen at the Planet Ant for a while, which brightens my spirits before any performance. Having arrived extremely early, I scrutinized every word of the program, including the short primer on the play's setting and history. Although the specific mention and definition of a few terms did aid my understanding, I later wondered why these could not have been made clear in context rather than by glossary. It turned out to be only my first concern with playwright Naomi Wallace's script.

The plot of One Flea Spare moves in fits and starts, beginning with a heap of exposition. A wealthy couple is quarantined in their home after several servants die of the plague, but just before their confinement ends, an AWOL sailor and the daughter of a neighbor separately infiltrate the house, and the quarantine begins again. This is all explained at the beginning; what the audience sees is the subsequent, "They wait."

It was near the end of "Try to Remember," right at the first of several repetitions of "follow-follow-follow-follow-follow-follow-follow-follow-follow," that I was able to remember how much I hate The Fantasticks. This is not the Hilberry production's fault.

In The Fantasticks, the first act is intended to be a Technicolor fantasy — the love we see between Luisa and Matt cannot be true until they have been beaten down in some way by life. However, despite the fact that a fantasy is supposed to be enjoyable, these characters are painted in the broadest strokes, smiles plastered on their faces, fairly shouting about how special they are. This inevitably gives me the impression of the lovers that (a) they're insipid, (b) they deserve each other, and (c) could they please do their awful courting offstage somewhere. Even after hoping for most of the play that the kids get smacked, when it happens to Matt in the second act, I don't enjoy it because of that horrid "Round and Round" song and the nonsense with the mask. Needless to say, I don't get it — are we supposed to root for these kids?


The evening I spent watching A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Blackbird in Ann Arbor had me lamenting the numerous shows I've missed seeing there in recent years. Director Bart Bund has an ease with Shakespeare to which other directors should aspire — he's comfortable experimenting with the source material without crossing over into irreverence.

I read in a review that having five actors play all the roles was well executed, but it is a particular marvel that not only were the characters' identities crystal clear, this was also the most accessible Shakespeare I have ever seen. Even in very good stagings of Shakespeare plays that I've read or seen before, I can momentarily lose the thread of narrative or have trouble distinguishing similar-looking actors. Here, the characters were thoughtfully crafted and the language enlivened with a sense of play that never fell into recitation.