Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Boy meets girl, with an Edge, reproduced with permission from
The Encore Musical Theatre Company is once again flexing a different set of musical muscles. Its Encore on the Edge series provides a home for more unconventional, contemporary fare, encouraging devotees of the classic American musical to discover just how limitless and creative the genre can be. The second entry in the series, Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, brings familiar, simple storytelling into a cool new context: As directed by Daniel Cooney, the production is a musically gorgeous depiction of a romance from beginning to end, but it subverts expectations by also portraying it from end to beginning.

Jamie and Cathy (Steve DeBruyne and Thalia Schramm) meet, fall in love, marry, and watch their relationship crumble: This is the entirety of the plot, and how the audience witnesses it – through Jamie's eyes, at least. However, through alternating songs and swapped perspectives, the play also takes the opposite view. That is, Cathy's story begins at the breakup and plunges backward, reliving the milestones of their love in reverse order; by the end of the play, she's fresh off the promise of their first date just as he calls it quits. Husband and wife have utterly opposing timelines, and their perspectives on the relationship are as different as their chronology, although Brown's excellent script and thoughtful staging clearly ease the viewer through the unusual concept. What they do have in common is amazing music, which is the absolute pinnacle of this production. The songs have a contemporary feel and structure, especially in terms of shifting keys and meters, but the two performers and three accompanists (led by music director Brian E. Buckner) triumph as they make such loveliness seem so easy.


The challenge of the celebrity bio-play is in striking a balance between the individual’s public and private faces; showing only the former feels like a shallow impression, but revealing only the latter robs the viewer of the familiarity of the ingrained connection. Playwright David Rambo executes this conceit with skill in The Lady With All the Answers, an intimate exploration of extraordinary woman Eppie Lederer as well as of her nom de plume, famous advice columnist “Ann Landers.” Stormfield Theatre’s production, as directed by Kristine Thatcher and performed by Diane Dorsey, has mixed results in giving credence to both halves of the same subject, but succeeds in conveying unshakable strength and reason that reinforce the larger-than-life timbre of a nationally treasured voice.

The play opens with the moment of truth for any writer, her deadline, which Eppie is evading late in the evening in her downtown Chicago apartment. Something is evidently amiss: the character hesitantly dips a careful toe into her family life and upbringing, including the famous rift with her twin sister and professional rival “Dear Abby,” but for the most part she retreats behind the Landers persona and elegantly procrastinates. The character seems touchy about how to approach Landers’s fame, her boggled mind — that people have no recourse but this stranger for their weird, personal troubles — hovering near condescension and judgment. Yet despite her saucy quips that come across more like barbs, Dorsey is generously effusive connecting with the audience as she takes informal polls and initiates some easy question-and-answer, her delight in their laughter and reactions providing a concentrated shot of warmth to the character. Eventually she confesses to the viewers, who she addresses as readers but treats as friends, that her column is held up because she can’t think of how to tell the readership about her — Eppie’s — impending divorce.


Theater doesn’t always have to be challenging and demanding of its audience; sometimes, mere enjoyment will do. However, not all enjoyable plays are created equal: some wallow in baseness, no more than fluff, whereas others can be transcendent if given the right attention. Tipping Point Theatre demonstrates the artistic potential of the mainstream play in its splendid production of Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart. Here, Kate Peckham's meticulous direction and three knockout lead performances combine in a flawless tale of Southern sisterhood.

The Magrath sisters reunite in their granddaddy’s house in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, and seem determined to make the connection restorative, even in the face of dubious circumstances. Specifically, the occasion marks youngest sister Babe’s release from prison after admittedly wounding her state-senator husband via gunshot to the belly. In her role as the fragile but generous Babe, Maggie Meyer is deceptively aloof with her honesty and deftly unveils the real, worrisome troubles looming within the character. The news also summons home the furthest-flung of the sisters, Meg (Inga R. Wilson), an aspiring starlet whose magic singing voice proved to have more traction at home than in Hollywood. Here, Wilson revels in returning to this small pond a triumphant — albeit deceitful — big fish; unable to resist the temptation of past happiness, she perpetuates a vicious cycle of compensating for prior bad decisions by making new ones. But for all these choices blow up in their faces, Meg and Babe still feel like they’re better off than Lenny (Hallie B. Bard), who has assumed the mantle of caretaker to her ailing grandfather, wears her barrenness like an anvil, and can't seem to believe she deserves anything better. Bard takes this frumpy old-maid character, who asks little of others and expects even less, and gives her an active stake in the sisters’ relationship; the viewer is less inclined to pity her than to root for her strengthening backbone as Lenny draws purpose and fortitude from the unlikely source of her siblings.

Mothers and daughters, and the ties that bind them, make for compelling and timeless dramatic fare. Playwright Lee Blessing’s sparkling Eleemosynary constructs a trio of such relationships, viewed through the lens of extraordinary accomplishment and intelligence. Here, director Lynn Lammers does examine the expectations placed on exceptional women, but the bread and butter of this Williamston Theatre production is in the compassionate struggles of parents’ hopes and their children’s resistance, dually absorbing to watch and heartbreaking to experience.

The play is consumed with three generations of brilliant women: young Echo (Michelle Meredith), a teen spelling prodigy, mother Artie (Rebecca Covey), a coldly private research scientist, and grandmother Dorothea (Julia Glander), an unabashedly deliberate eccentric. Because understanding Echo is predicated on understanding her lineage, early scenes often find her in a solitary position as chronicler/monologist as the tumultuous relationship between Artie and her own mother is fleshed out. Having broken with the confinements of a woman’s traditional role in mid-twentieth-century America, bold Dorothea is so enamored of all information and beauty and philosophy, she seeks to expand her wonder beyond the known world and into spiritual and metaphysical ones. Artie, in adolescence conscripted into everything from regular hypnosis sessions to haphazard experiments in human flight, severs ties with her mother and makes choices directly in opposition to Dorothea’s dreams, her interests strictly tangible and logical. The path of this relationship is given careful and affectionate treatment by Covey and Glander, the former bringing empathy to her character’s flawed, reactionary decisions, the latter showing all sides of a woman so loving and open and driven, her irresistibility masking the related threat of being swallowed up in her dominant personality and passion.


Playwright Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! spans one summer in the lives of eight gay men, but its depth of emotion and breadth of content makes the play, and this Who Wants Cake? production, feel more like an entire life, lived in the fortunate company of close friends. The world of the play, nineteen-ninety-something in upstate New York, is inconsequential but for faint cultural time stamps and understated New England–nautical fashion influences (by costume designer and choreographer Ben Stange). The summer lake house of Gregory (Keith Allan Kalinowski) and Bobby (Matthew Turner Shelton) is the getaway of choice for a passel of longtime friends and associates: Perry (Richard Payton) and Arthur (John Nowaczyk), who have been together more than a decade; John (Charles VanHoose), with his latest young plaything, Ramon (Vince Kelley), in tow; and Buzz (Joe Plambeck), whose adoration of long-ago Broadway musicals and their leading ladies would be a cliché but for how genuine it is. Spanning the duration of the summer, Memorial Day to Independence Day to Labor Day, the play’s three acts are relatively devoid of dramatic conflict. The men disagree, of course, and confront each other at times; however, the only really palpable danger is from outside influences, the kind with which any adult can relate.

The fear of aging and lost youthful creativity is presented to Gregory, a famous dancer and choreographer seeing the beginning of the end of his career, both in his encroaching physical limitations and in the perceived threat of up-and-comer Ramon. Romantic couplings and fidelity are embarked upon and violated and worked through with difficulty; even Perry and Arthur reflect on past indiscretions. Coping with illness and death is also present: here, AIDS makes Buzz’s vivaciousness feel downright defiant and brings John’s brother to the house in rapidly failing health. The prevalence of and attitudes toward AIDS speak to the unique perspective of a 1990s exclusively gay cohort, and the comfortably frank and close-knit network of who’s slept with whom might feel unfamiliar to some viewers, but the emotions behind these connections are universal; overall, the show is a fair and fond look at people weathering life — and doing it together.


At first blush, cancer might seem an unlikely topic for an exclamation-point musical — it’s a dreadful, incurable, terminal disease that reduces everyone it touches to untold depths of helplessness and pain. Yet by the same token, its ubiquity and totality makes cancer a broadly relatable subject. Moreover, it’s a part of life, which is inherently funny; thus, by the transitive property, cancer must be funny, too. (And this is saying nothing of the related rigmarole of health care and big pharma, about which we must laugh or else we’d cry.) Viewers with any lingering doubts need look no further than Cancer! The Musical (book by Thomas Donnellon, MD, and Shawn Handlon; music by John Edwartowski), a simply excellent treatment that turns the ultimate downer on its head. At the young Park Bar Theatre, this scrappy, winning revival directed by Handlon has no trouble seizing on the best of what the musical has to offer.

With subject matter ranging from patient care to laboratory research to business interests, the show is admirable for being all the things it needs to be, up to and including a love story and a high-stakes caper. On one end, patient Annie (Dawn Bartley) faces her cancer diagnosis and exploratory surgery with optimism and pluck — the viewer would be forgiven for suspecting that “Annie” is short for “Pollyanna.” However, her courageous turn is made palatable in its thawing effect on her officious oncologist, Dr. Harris (Pat Loos), so immersed in protocol, privacy laws, and malpractice fears that he eschews eye contact with his alphanumerically coded patients. Together, Bartley and Loos form a touching emotional core that keeps Annie’s fight largely in the medical realm, but still feels personal without being derailed by wallowing.


Hufano tears up 'The Model Apartment', reproduced with permission from
Playwright Donald Margulies may have written The Model Apartment as a dark comedy, but for the most part, director Lavinia Moyer Hart stops at "dark." Although the production at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre is twisted into absurdity, and objectively funny moments come and go, Hart doesn't play the scene for laughs, instead diving headlong into the characters and relationships of one nuclear family freshly and repeatedly ravaged by its history. Given a plot so intense it practically gasps for levity, the choice is indeed risky; it's also more than justified in this incendiary production, cemented by a must-see lead performance.

Max (Tom Mahard) and Lola (Trudy Mason) have sped from New York to Florida, eager to begin their retirement. However, their arrival is so early, they're waylaid in the model unit of the complex until their new-construction residence is completed. The production team has fun with the latest in 1988 retirement living: Beyond the busy tropical patterns, pastel-speckled flooring and bamboo blinds of the studio apartment, set designer Sarah Tanner's distinctly Floridian room even has a Florida room. Bland model-home accoutrements and ocean-inspired kitsch (properties by Diane Ulseth) are bonded to the furniture, enhancing the off-putting feel of a living space void of working appliances or any sign of life. Jon Weaver's sound design anticipates the trouble-free good life with placidly warm Nat King Cole tunes and uses ambient noises to expand on what's visible. Designer Donald Fox toys with automated lighting and lends both visibility and tone to the several lights-off scenes of Max and Lola's long night.


Death, being universal, unknowable, and utterly final, has been a target of artistic inquisition for ages. One such exploration is Everyman, the medieval morality play by Anonymous and the source of The New Theatre Project’s latest original contemporary production, The Everyman Project. The product represents months of development on the part of the ensemble and production team, as together they scrutinized the conclusiveness death brings and found it reflected in their own experiences.

The production is predicated on identifying moments at which we realized that our lives have immediately and irrevocably changed. In this collaborative adaptation, playwright Jason Sebacher and director Ben Stange framed this question as the base point for developing the original script, which establishes a loose quadrilateral of relationships among its performers (using their own names) and introduces them all to their most essential commonality: death itself. After a ritualistic, guttural group scene introducing distinctive onomatopoeic sounds and mantras, the narrative begins with the aftermath of an auto collision that spins out into scenes of Elise Randall’s gorgeous lamentation with her hospitalized, dying mother (portrayed by Analea Maria Lessenberry). Randall realizes her moment in a lonely monologue, then she suddenly and literally crosses paths with death.


'Seascape': Conventional meets primordial, reproduced with permission from
Understanding and belonging are at the center of Edward Albee's fanciful Seascape: Specifically, comprehension breeds evolution, which comes at the price of comfort and constancy. As directed by Lynch Travis, the production at the Blackbird Theatre spins a confrontation that is rooted in fantasy, but whose potential consequences feel very real. In trying to reconcile the commonplace with the uncharted in the world of the play, the viewer is challenged to reflect on both the value and the cost of those social and emotional developments that we believe make humankind unique.

The play begins with the placid visage of vacationing couple Nancy (Linda Rabin Hamell) and Charlie (Joel Mitchell), harmlessly quibbling over their expectations and hopes for their golden years. The actors play as much in subtext as they do in text: Hamell's insatiably chatty take on Nancy reflects her wanderlust and strife to remain active and vital; Mitchell's exasperated stoicism belies his repeated invocations of rest and yearning to blend into the scenery in solitude. Albeit at cross purposes, the duo has a believable feel of togetherness and a practiced cadence that suits the tone of Albee's packed-full dialogue. Even in the summer-afternoon light by designer Emily Clarkson, the wind-petrified sand shapes of their secluded beach setting (by Barton Bund, who also layers on dreamy, beachy love songs over the surf din of his sound design) are far from tropical; as it turns out, the craggy, imposing oceanfront implied provides the perfect setting for two stunning and inexplicable sea creatures to make landfall – and contact.

Objectively, group acting exercises can be pretty weird. They’re also incredibly effective at fostering teamwork and bringing people together. Playwright Annie Baker capitalizes on both these facts in her comedy Circle Mirror Transformation, so named for one such exercise. In the Performance Network production, director John Seibert and a skillful cast make good on years of experience as performers to recreate for an audience the singular trust and closeness of a handful of strangers taught to play together.

In small-town Shirley, Vermont, a member of the community institutes and teaches a six-week introductory acting course. In simplest terms, this is the entire play, whose single act concerns the class and its members: frequently reserved James (Mark Rademacher), experienced performer Theresa (Eva Rosenwald), branching-out divorcee Schultz (Taras Michael Los), and callously teenaged Lauren (Sarah Ann Leahy). James is husband to the hyper-nurturing instructor, Marty (Terry Heck); otherwise, the five are unknown to each other. At face value, the premise might sound tedious, but any viewer who has found true community within a classroom setting — especially in the study of performance — will be unsurprised by the wealth of discoveries and relationships blossoming over a fraction of one summer.