Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Making musicals based on the life's work of a musician or band is the new black, and here is the entry for the great Neil Sedaka. In his prolific (and ongoing) career, Sedaka has written approximately four hundred million songs, so the catalog from which Breaking Up Is Hard to Do is assembled makes for an impressive and instantly recognizable score. On the script side (concept by Marsh Hanson and Gordon Greenberg; book by Erik Jackson and Ben H. Winters), the play has in its favor a show-within-a-show framework that opens up song possibilities as well as a kicky premise that practically owes royalties to Dirty Dancing.

To be clear, this musical is more Mamma Mia! than Spring Awakening; there is not a single element as untoward as much of the plot of the above-mentioned Patrick Swayze film. Yet the parallels are myriad, most notably the Catskills resort setting, guests fraternizing with employees and becoming part of the floor show, and a hunky headliner whose attractiveness nearly demands its own byline. The story is peripheral: a jilted fiancée and her friend turn her honeymoon that wasn't into a girl's weekend at Esther's Paradise, and a bit of cunning lands them roles as backup singers for the house entertainment, upon which the resort's future hopes seem to rest. Given a cast of three men and three women, the viewer can gather sufficient evidence within ten minutes to solve that particular math problem. A limp, tacked-on conflict leads to a resolution that defies adjectives in its immense lack of importance. But no matter — happily, this Meadow Brook Theatre production, directed by Travis W. Walter, gamely shoves the story to the wayside in favor of stronger focal points like singing, dancing, comedy, and light 1960s camp.


So, okay, I'd never seen Our Town. Lest my American citizenship be called into question, of course I read the play, but somehow it never came to pass that I actually saw it. As initiations go, the Purple Rose production was a fine way to break the ice, a fresh-feeling approach to a classic that speaks for itself.

The success and longevity of Thornton Wilder's play is in its universality. The specifics of life in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, are not ubiquitously American; they describe a single small town, in New England, in the early twentieth century. Yet the stories of two families growing up, finding love, and suffering loss even now feel like our own. Newcomer though I was, it's safe to say there are few actors better suited to the role of Stage Manager than the lyrical Will David Young, whose leisurely paced, gentle narration neither extols nor condemns the proceedings. This warts-and-all take on the past is what sets the production apart. Eschewing anything idyllic or sepia-tinted, director Guy Sanville does not lionize the humdrum repetition of "Daily Life" in the first act. In fact, he is unafraid to dig for humor (even when it is of the "mothers be shrill!" variety), knowing there is plenty of time later in which to grab the viewer's heart, and squeeze.


It was in a moment of clarity that I came to appreciate the strongest element of local playwright Kelly Rossi's Calypso: a sly and successful misdirection that let the final plot developments hit me with full force. What made it less exciting was that I was in the car, halfway home from the Abreact, when it came to me. Far be it for me to criticize a play that encourages reflection after the fact, but in this case I wanted to go back and have the revelation in the moment, with time enough in the world of the show to let the realizations sink in.

The production is a whirlwind journey bent on immersing the viewer in its complex and guarded world, but with a running time of less than an hour, said immersion is almost akin to a dunk tank. Add to that the foreign subject matter — present-day witches and their influence and relation to the outside world — and Calypso can be a challenge to follow. Thus, from this capably acted and directed play, I emerged unclear on how much I had understood, and even less sure of how much I was intended to understand.


Demetri Vacratsis's Love Bombing After the Earthquake is not intentionally timely; there is no sense of Breathe Art Theatre Project capitalizing on recent global devastation. The predominant theme is grief — as much as these characters' environment has seen little rebuilding, the arrest and dysfunction in their emotional states are far more troublesome. The original script, also directed by Vacratsis, methodically digs into the ruins of four survivors to find whatever gasping, pulsing motivation remains to drive their damaged decisions.

The play starts with a bang, which grows into a rumble. In a precursor to a production filled with unsettling sounds, the four actors use the furniture and the concrete floor to simulate an earthquake to surprising effect. Fast forward one year, to parallel stories that begin as if at the edge of a canvas and creep toward an illuminating center. A wife is dead; a child is dead. A man is detained for questioning, but where and by what authority seems uncertain. A woman abandons everything that remained of her life in favor of perpetual reminiscence. One story appears much more dynamic than the other, but both are essential to the feel of this intense production.


One part history lesson, one part local-hero narrative, and one part victory lap, Joanna McClelland Glass's Palmer Park hits home because it is home. Any success story in Detroit, even a relatively short-lived one from four decades ago, remains cause for celebration. Now, economic turmoil and vanishing industry contributes to the city's bottomed-out property values and high crime rate; back in 1968, it was civil unrest, when "integration" generally signaled not diversity, but white flight.

The Palmer Park neighborhood of Detroit was one shining exception, a middle-class neighborhood fiercely united in its dedication to maintain the integrated balance of 35% black, 65% white. (Any more residents of color, the logic went, and "white eyes" would be scared away.) In its professional US premiere at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, directed by Yolanda Fleischer, the play documents the political and human implications of a concept that succeeded until it failed.


As part of its inaugural year, Stormfield Theatre presented two staged readings of The Exonerated. The work-in-progress nature of a staged reading isn't my usual repertoire, but I wanted to get a look at this new company "dedicated to living playwrights and their works." With the support of some heavy hitters in Michigan theater, the production of this Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen–penned script held a gravitas well suited to an exploration of wrongly convicted individuals on death row.

Stormfield artistic director Kristine Thatcher directs the piece and is also counted among the cast of ten. The script is the product of years of research and interviews, with the characters' words all taken verbatim from these sessions as well as trial transcripts and other sources. Without devolving into lamentations, the play doles out the stories of six real people — three black men, two white men, and one white woman — sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit, and imprisoned for as many as two decades before their exoneration and release.


One of my chief rewards after publishing a review is to finally read how other reviewers regarded the same production — although when I'm the odd one out, I get to pondering whether I had it wrong. A quiet house, an off night, I could have reviewed a bad egg. (Critics: they have doubts!) Given my cooler assessment in discord with the thrills over It Came from Mars, I was glad to have another stab at this co-production, now at the Williamston Theatre.

Was I mistaken? Yes, to a great extent. The play's second act, in which the War of the Worlds freakout premise is entirely contained, is practically perfect. Celebrated local playwright Joseph Zettelmaier allows his six characters to carry out hoped-for developments as well as taking the narrative in unexpected directions, all the while weaving together a formidable number of stories. Director Tony Caselli begins the act with tightly packed counterpoint dialogue layered over the infamous 1938 Orson Welles broadcast, masterfully allowing crucial words to be heard while rapidly registering six separate reactions, a clear demonstration to the audience that things are about to move very fast. The second time around, I connected more with the actors' changing energies — focused, distracted, diffuse — and was more easily swept up in the swift-moving flow.

The program notes for The Beaux' Stratagem at the Hilberry describe the show as "a naughty farce that titillates without being vulgar," and this is true enough. As a late entry into the period of Restoration comedy, the more ribald and consequence-free plots of its predecessors give way to undercurrents of morality and honor. Put another way, as plays concerning hidden identities and highway robbery go, this one is awfully nice.

Originally written by George Farquhar, the version staged here is an adaptation begun by Thornton Wilder and later completed by Ken Ludwig, but the story remains essentially the same. The beaux in question are Aimwell (Christopher R. Ellis) and Archer (Jordan Whalen), who have a plan to supplement their dwindling funds: One of them will guile a rich woman into marrying him, and they will share the reward. Alternating who plays the gentleman and who plays the servant in their travels through England, they arrive in the country town of Lichfield. There, they both fall immediately in love and also attempt to thwart the town's criminal element; by the end, the bad guys are punished, everyone else is paired off happily, and fortunes are secured.


It doesn't take much to get me excited for Little Shop of Horrors. Infectiously catchy book and score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, crazy sci-fi tale about ethical slippery slopes and the dangers of botany, Motown girl group–inspired trio as Greek chorus — is it all right if I bring my giant foam finger to wave? Yet for its clarity of vision as well as its pure excitement and fun, this production at the Performance Network stands out as a phenomenal theatrical experience.

The show is best known for the character of Audrey II, the strange and unusual plant that brings fame to a struggling Skid Row flower shop and to the young man who cultivates it, but at a steep price: the fresh human blood on which it feeds. Audiences are used to fantastic feats of puppetry making up Audrey II, often as big as a green Jabba the Hutt, backed by a very specific-sounding male voice over. To deviate from the long-accepted formula would require nothing short of awesomeness in execution to justify the choice, and this is just what director Carla Milarch has done. I won't spoil her extreme and provocative departure here other than to say it works without question, especially in the atmosphere of this production.


The severity of a blank stage sends a clear message to an audience: do not make assumptions. The Planet Ant late-night offering Henrietta Hermaline's Fall from Great Heights aims to keep the viewer guessing in just this way. In an abyss of black-painted walls and floor, a reality with so many incongruous elements lets the audience take nothing for granted and also insists that something must not be true — but just what that is remains withheld until the final moments.

Director Molly McMahon won this time slot for her work in the 2009 BoxFest showcase for women directors, which makes this scaled-back and female-centric piece seem rather fitting. The title character (Jill Dion) is a pathologically awkward, shy woman who finds little about herself interesting. She cannot believe any man would look twice at her, but one does, in the quite attractive form of Richard Prymus (Jonathan Davidson). He graciously indulges her desire to fly by taking her up in his small plane, and a romance of sorts is born. If this all sounds straightforward, consider the third character of Birdman (Richard Payton), the literally avian narrator. Do not make assumptions about a world in which a talking bird hails Henrietta Hermaline as his queen.

When one attends a play with two intermissions, one expects a marathon. Yet through the superhuman efforts of its actors, the Who Wants Cake? production of David Rabe's Hurlyburly better approximates a three-hour sprint. Fueled by cocaine and self-importance, the characters spew paranoia and cerebral nonsense at each other, rarely managing to actually converse. Marijuana doesn't even slow them down, even though they smoke plenty. The dichotomy created by this cruelly vivid world is the fascination of the antihero: although I personally wouldn't want to interact with these people for any length of time, the remarkable performances behind the characters make them intriguing to study.

The play concerns 1980s Hollywood and a group of men somewhere in the process of being chewed up and spit out by the business. All the action takes place at the home of casting directors Eddie (Stephen Blackwell) and Mickey (Jon Ager), who, together with actor Phil (Joel Mitchell) and writer Artie (Charles Reynolds), form an alliance of superiority and derision sufficient to make the crass, disrespectful guys of Swingers look like Cub Scouts. Blackwell is paranoid and listless; Mitchell once again reinvents the lovable hateable; Reynolds tries achingly hard to fit in, even as he's belittled for his successes; and Ager's cool unflappability is his best work — at least that I've seen — to date. The men are at their peak in a long scene at the beginning of the second act, all playing off each other easily, so comfortably ingrained in their odious roles. Pitch-perfect direction by Joe Bailey generates masterful, layered beats that flow from hilarious group storytelling to tandem solitude.


The success of a technology-themed play like Two Point Oh hinges on a lot of components working just right. The audio and video feeds need to precisely integrate with the action in real time. The blocking requires actors to respond to each other despite not being in the same room. And a primary character must be believable as an anthropomorphic manifestation of computer software. In this world premiere at the Detroit Repertory Theatre, there's not a whine, not a flicker, giving full attention to playwright Jeffrey Jackson's dexterous exploration of the relationship between human innovation and humanity. All this technology might sound like theater à la conference call, but the story that unfolds in this too-familiar reality, as directed by Harry Wetzel, delivers much more.

Not long after the play begins, billionaire software mogul Elliot Leeds (Monrico Ward) is dead. Much to the surprise of his wife and his business partner, Elliot has no intention to remain dead, thanks to a revolutionary computer program he developed in secret. The interactive and artificially intelligent software replicates his face, mannerisms, memories, and personality: meet Elliot, version 2.0. Ward's entire performance is logged via video feed to a giant flat-screen TV upstage, where he manages to be disarmingly human, yet unsettling — sometimes compiling exactly the right thing to say, but also nailing gorgeous glitches like buffering time as he computes and slightly inappropriate canned responses when the system misreads the situation. This stellar interpretation of what could have been just a talking head is instead the axis around which the play's many stories revolve, for as we are continually reminded, Elliot isn't real any more; the real intrigue is in the people affected by his electronic longevity.


WHEREAS, the Rogue Critic is a known detractor of the ubiquitous Andrew Lloyd Webber, and WHEREAS, the Rogue — having heard from trustworthy people that his early stuff is worth a listen — went into Jesus Christ Superstar with an open mind, and WHEREAS, the Rogue was indeed not moved by the score of the rock opera, THEREFORE IT IS HEREBY DECREED that the Rogue harbors a black, sucking void in her heart where her love for Webber should reside. Caveat emptor, if you will.

The production now at the Encore Musical Theatre Company has a number of clear strengths. With a cast of twenty-six, staging by directors Daniel C. Cooney and Barbara F. Cullen and choreography by Kristi Davis provide constant visual stimuli without once crossing over into clutter. Thanks in no small part to the set design by Toni Auletti (whose combination of arid boulder backdrop and modern scaffolding looks like a funky archaeological dig), stage pictures are consistently dynamic and thoughtful. A thrilling wordless prologue, inspired by the Stations of the Cross, is made even more memorable by use of an effectively jarring strobe light, which recurs as the same moments play out again later. The strong ensemble helps fill the stage with energy, and some of the voices — my favorite the inhuman tenor of the priest Annas (Andy Jobe) — are exceptional. At the center of the show, Aaron LaVigne is a magnetic presence, making it easy to understand what the fuss is about.