Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


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.

What this musical has going for it is word play and ingenuity. Thanks to the clever premise, the creators don't have to bother with creating a story or believably bridging the songs; they forge straight ahead into a string of happy numbers punctuated by a little narration and costume changes. Moreover, the "picture this!" nature gave leeway for a few moments of imperfection, all inherently forgivable. The ingenuity lies in the way Trzaskoma and Thibault — with considerable assistance from set, prop, and costume designers Monika Essen, Diane Ulseth, and Mary Copenhagen, respectively — reinvent their surroundings to suit the needs of the performance. Almost everything in sight is dismantled and reimagined as hats, microphones, sashes...the list goes on. The irony that this show, envisioned as a big-budget smash, worked best when exploiting the do-it-yourself ethos was not lost on me.

Trzaskoma and Thibault give it their all, demonstrating impeccable comic timing as well as song and dance skills. The numbers are good enough, a mixture of solos and duets with some variety in musical styles. However, by the end of the 80-minute performance, the sharp concepts and songs had begun to fizzle. Without a story to fall back on or any concrete relationship between the main two performers, this inventive little concept suddenly makes for shaky ground. The hasty ending, although it fit in with the concept, was perhaps too rushed, as though the creators ran out of ideas and simply wrote "The End." In addition, the politically correct may take offense at a few overly broad and simplified characterizations; I know there was one number near the end that had me stone-faced.

In digesting and scrutinizing this show, I have concluded it's best not to think about it. Thinking caused me to second-guess the premise, pick apart some of the numbers, and look back on the production soured instead of charmed. Take away the thought process, and The Big Bang is a well-paced cavalcade of jokes and invention as well as a pretty fine musical. The show is short, light, and full of songs; relax and enjoy.


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