Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


I honestly can't think of a better description for the concept behind [title of show], the newest production by Who Wants Cake? at the Ringwald, than the scene in Spaceballs in which the characters (incongruously) pop in the VHS of Spaceballs to spy on what happens in a future scene. But first, they cue up the very part of the movie in which they're watching the movie, forming a picture-in-picture of sorts. One character tries to explain it, and both in real time and on the monitor, he says, "You're looking at now, sir. Everything that happens now, is happening now."

In the same vein, creators Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell decided to write a musical about writing a musical, starring them and two of their friends (as themselves). So if they say something while writing the show ("Even this?"), if they take their shirts off while preparing for the show (yep), it goes in the show. The original draft was finished in three weeks for submission to a festival. It was a big hit there, and again off-Broadway, and finally enjoyed a run on Broadway, all the while starring them and two of their friends (as themselves). That's not just the history of the musical, that is the musical. Everything that happens now, is happening now.


The cynic's rule of thumb is that messing with the classics inevitably mars them: prequels, remakes, spin-offs, all part of the system's blatant, artless grab for cash. So what was this cynic's take on mega-famous playwright Edward Albee hanging a new beginning onto his half-century-old primal scream, The Zoo Story? The Abreact's Michigan premiere of Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo blends the daringly droll with the psychotically unpredictable for an aggressive night of conversation.

In the new first act, entitled Homelife, Peter (Dave Davies) is at home, reading, when he's approached by his wife, Ann (Anne Marie Damman), who announces that they need to talk. In the second act, Peter has relocated to the park, still reading, when he's approached by the transient Jerry (Charles Reynolds), who claims he just wants to talk with someone. The identical frameworks are supported by a mostly open set that encourages duplicated stage pictures and movements, which directors Adam Barnowski and Andrea Smith use liberally to merge the stories of these mirror-opposite relationships into a cohesive whole.


The year is 1693, and the already-famous scientist and mathematician Isaac Newton (Alex Leydenfrost) is intent as ever on pursuing his work. What his colleague John Locke (Jim Porterfield) doesn't know is that instead of science or math, the great man is trying his hand at the illegal practice of alchemy. In Gravity, the David MacGregor play in its world premiere at the Purple Rose, Newton is scarcely an object at rest, fitfully traversing his Cambridge University suite and laboratory. In a plot that takes liberties with written history, he meets the headstrong widow Brilliana Cavendish (Michelle Mountain), then surprises himself by confiding in her about his true pursuits as their relationship grows. While the story figuratively brews, something is literally cooking in the laboratory oven, changing properties at a glacial pace.

What works in Gravity's favor is its lead actors, under the direction of Guy Sanville. As the overworked Newton, Leydenfrost is solitary, pensive, ruthlessly single-minded, and captivating as he is plagued with moments of weakness. Mountain is too good to be true as Brilliana, more intelligent and forward than centuries-ago women had permission to be. Porterfield's Locke is a smaller role, but he aptly plays the friend who spends too much time supporting and not enough time intervening. My favorite, however, was Newton's professional nemesis, Robert Hooke (Will David Young), who is absolutely the most fun a depraved weasel can be. The smug dressings down Young delivered made me wish he was available for parties. An additional plus is the actors' rich voice work — they have an easy cadence that rises to meet the classically inspired sentence structure. It's a shame, therefore, that the script is so far from Shakespeare.


Sometimes the phrase black comedy is used to describe a play that's sorta funny underneath it all — once you stop to think about it — beyond its dire circumstances. Not so at the Williamston Theatre, where The Smell of the Kill inspires peals of laughter because lives are on the line. Under the direction of Kristine Thatcher, this production is a wonder of a comedy that's also chillingly relatable.

The 90-minute play takes place in a suburban Chicago kitchen, itself a technical marvel. Not only are features like running water and working electrical outlets on display, but it was difficult to tell where set and lighting designer Daniel C. Walker's work ended and Lynn Lammers's scores of props began. No bones about it, this kitchen is better appointed, and possibly more livable, than my own. Remarkable sound design by Ken Faulk used numerous applications of offstage voices and noises that gave a clear impression of the house beyond what was visible. Stage manager Erin K. Snyder has her work cut out for her, gamely recreating the managed chaos of a real home.


Women and their expectations; men and their shortcomings. Writer and performer Robert Dubac uses an elaborate allegory to repackage this well-worn material into The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron?, now at the Century Theatre.

The show's composition is commendable, making use of a number of layers and frameworks. The reality facing Robert the character is that his fiancée has asked for two weeks' time apart; with their relationship clearly in jeopardy, he needs to determine what she wants to hear before she calls. On stage, as the final minutes of the two weeks run out, Dubac reveals an inner struggle between the left and right hemispheres of the brain (oversimplified as the "male" and "female" halves) as he attempts to tap into his feminine side. He also portrays a handful of characters, all men from Robert's past, to help explain the origins of his flawed understanding of women.


The house lights came up; the plunking marimba sounds of Mike Duncan's movie-score music returned. It was intermission at Meadow Brook Theatre, and I was thoroughly spooked.

It doesn't take much time to start wondering what's really going on in Mindgame, the Anthony Horowitz play in its Michigan premiere. Major and minor clues are peppered through the first act, eventually leading one to realize that something is amiss. Writer Mark Styler (Loren Bass) has made the trip to secluded Fairfield, an asylum for the criminally insane, in order to unlock the secrets of the serial killer Easterman for his next lucrative true-crime book. Instead, he's stymied by Dr. Alex Farquhar (Mark Rademacher), who denies Mark access to the patients but keeps him talking, and Nurse Plimpton (Inga R. Wilson), who's both terrified and brusquely insistent that he depart. What begins as a long, indulgent talk between Mark and Dr. Farquhar is in fact laying out the complex groundwork for a reality in which nothing is as it appears. Once the story gets moving, it veers out of control, and — Here's the thing about reviewing a play in which unexpected things happen: you can't talk about anything for fear of spoilers. This one is best kept vague.


The title Mr. Marmalade may be catchy, but make no mistake: this is Lucy's world; everyone else just lives in it. Accordingly, I found the opening moments of the Breathe Art Theatre Project's production misleading. The onstage presence of the title character (Joel Mitchell) before the play even begins suggests that Mr. Marmalade is the focal point, whereas the real omnipresence is four-year-old Lucy (Christa Coulter), the lens through which every stimulus passes.

Essentially, if Lucy's not interested in something, it doesn't exist. In her eyes, her New Jersey home consists of dull, empty walls and grown-up chairs with their backs to her domain. The play's ninety minutes cover less than twenty-four hours of real time, but for Lucy and her play world, timelines bend to her will. The primary challenge in director Kevin T. Young's staging is the unavoidable dissonance between the narrative structure mirroring a four-year-old's attention span and the deep investment in her real-seeming imaginary life. Coulter is sometimes an uncomplicated child, but just as often the preternaturally composed adult Lucy imagines herself to be, and the shifts are fluid, not overt. Young's blurred lines of make-believe and reality lend occasional unevenness (especially the inconsistent use of characters' "play" accents), but also generate an atmosphere of stream-of-consciousness immediacy that ultimately work for Noah Haidle's darkly comic script.


Thursday nights at Go Comedy! occur in one-hour increments. Come at 8, 9, or 10 PM, and stay as long as you like. See one show for ten bucks, or see all three shows for ten bucks. Brief intermission-like breaks in between allow plenty of time to reset or to mingle with the performers, who hang out at the bar. Thursdays are easygoing, casual. Mind you, once on the stage, these aren't the Not-Ready-For-Weekend-Timeslot Players; this blend of Go regulars and area professionals has comedy prowess to spare.

At this shrine to improvisation, Thursdays were originally set aside for sketch comedy. The new lineup remains scripted, but has let go of the sketch concept for the time being in favor of three short plays, all written by local artists, and all with some flavor of comedy (c'mon, they're not going to rename the theater Go Drama! just for Thursday night). At 8:00, The Opal Show is restaged from BoxFest Detroit '09, written by Kim Carney and directed by Shannon Ferrante. The 9:00 spot belongs to Hobo, originally written and directed by Tim Robinson for the Planet Ant, now with a new cast and direction by Tommy LeRoy. Finally, Michelle LeRoy's brand-new Dial R for Radio Drama at 10:00 is billed as an "experimental improvised show," in which the script of the radio play can't account for what happens off the page.

For all its promotional material about cotton candy–colored dresses, the Gem Theatre's production of The Marvelous Wonderettes is actually quite analogous to a confection. The dancing and singing are a treat to see and hear, thanks to a talented cast and the best set I've ever seen at the Gem. The music is catchy and familiar, and jokes and sight gags keep the audience sated. However, underneath this sweet soundtrack lurk empty calories in the form of a wafer-thin premise.

Obviously the plot is not the selling point, but what keeps the show from being billed as a concert is the story and characters, so these elements invite dissection. The story — what little exists — is lame. Creator Roger Bean introduces us to the dimwitted one (why, yes, she is a blonde), the vampy attention hog, the bossy mousy one (glasses? check), and...the Ethel. Each girl is distinguished by her dress color better than she is by her name: just call 'em Blue, Pink, Orange, and Green.


In the shadow of the lady-quartet musical in the larger space next door, Defending the Caveman enjoys far more modest surroundings. Booking these shows together is an interesting exercise — it's almost as though the glossy Who-ville is incomplete without a Grinch grumbling in his cave on Mt. Crumpet. Yet however amusing, such comparison belies the curious warmth of this one-man show currently in rotation at the Century Theatre.

The short two-act play begins with a wordless video montage, a series of vignettes featuring performer Ben Tedder and his wife. Its content correctly predicts that the show is not about to break new ground in its exploration of the sexes: Man like grill. Woman like shop. Like much of the subject matter covered, the video is cute but predictable. The Rob Becker–penned script puts forward, amid a bare setting generously inspired by cave paintings and the Flintstones, the theory that men and women are still rooted in our hunter-gatherer pasts. As hunters, men focus on one thing (spoiler: it's TV) to the exclusion of anything else; as gatherers, women collect information on their surroundings and make it their business to be aware of everything. It's almost as if men were from Mars, and women from Venus! Given a topic that's been done to death, the production counts on Tedder's performance to sell it, and he wins over the audience with ease.



As with so many theaters of southeast and mid-Michigan, the Encore Musical Theatre Company is like a temple of ingenuity, with homemade aisles and risers and essentially no wings (on one side of the stage is an actual brick wall). The company's mission is to bring Broadway talent to its stage to work with local professionals, yet this small space has an intimacy an actual Broadway stage could never reach. For a group that produces only musicals, which traditionally feature huge casts and splashy production elements, this introduces myriad opportunities and challenges, both of which are well met by The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

However long, this is one literal title: behold, the silver anniversary of a county spelling bee (the winner of which qualifies for the national championship in Washington, DC). Aside from a few flashback/fantasies and one literal deus ex machina, the play's uninterrupted nearly two hours are confined to a school gymnasium until the winner is declared. However, with credit to librettist/composer William Finn and writer Rachel Sheinkin, the clearly laid-out structure of the competition is wisely broken up by dances, songs, rants, prayers, slow motion, a juice break, and even a little flirting; the show bounces and bops without straying too far from the story, and the time flies.


This review was a long time coming — at least two days later than I intended to post. Unfortunately, the extra time hasn't softened my frustration with this show. Don't get me wrong, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife isn't a bad production: for me, bad outings inspire malaise, not agitation. Instead, the conviction that's nagged at me since I left the Jewish Ensemble Theatre is that this one could and should have been better.

Charles Busch's plot-driven script concerns Marjorie Taub (Kate Willinger), who we meet in the throes of lamentation of the "idle rich" variety. She's bereft at the death of her therapist, and all the graduate-level literature and culture in the world can't shake off the sense that her life took a wrong turn somewhere. Enter Lee Green (Lynnae Lehfeldt), a childhood friend turned world-traveling mover and shaker, littering the scene with dropped names. However, suspicion quickly builds in Marjorie's husband, Ira (Phil Powers), and her mother, Frieda (Henrietta Hermelin); as immersed in Lee's world as Marjorie has become, no one else has even lain eyes on the woman — a conflict that comes to a head in a snappy and perfectly paced scene at the end of the first act. The second act shifts gears to examine a relationship that turns toxic, and the ending is predictably preachy-cathartic.


In transforming the Tipping Point stage into Ann Landers's living room, set designer Michelle LeRoy held back, using a few key furniture pieces, an extravagant square of hardwood floor, and a wall in just one corner of the black-box space. But what an understatement it is: the wall is the first thing one sees from the theater lobby (like peering into a dollhouse window), giving the initial impression of a full interior without overwhelming the senses during the performance. Moreover, the in-the-round setup means the wall necessarily appears behind the audience, literally enveloping viewers into the setting, as does the furniture that skirts the line between seats and stage. The overall effect of this innovation serves as fair warning for what an intimate production is in store, and this staging of The Lady with All the Answers could not have been as successful without it.

The lady in question is Eppie Lederer, known to most as Ann Landers, as portrayed with gusto by Julia Glander. This one-woman show spans a late evening in 1975, as the world-famous advice columnist sorts through old letters for publication in a book, reminisces about her career and relationships, and slowly composes a column whose subject threatens to cancel out all her past advice about marriage: the one announcing her impending divorce. The lyrical script by David Rambo (with the cooperation of Lederer's daughter, Margo Howard) makes plenty of discoveries while skating toward its conclusion; a few scarce moments that rattled like a recited biography only stuck out in contrast to the exquisite character study that prevails.