Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


7.25.2011

Dear readers,

In the first of what I anticipate will be many steps toward legitimacy and selling out and untold riches*, the Rogue Critic has a new website.

The new site resembles this one, but has some additional capabilities that will let me expand in ways I think you'll like. Watch the new space for more reviews, the continuation of the SIR series, and something new I'm cooking up and can't wait to announce.

Please adjust your bookmarks to www.roguecritic.com, and thanks for making the leap with me.

Sincerely,
The Rogue

*Just kidding. You know I'll always be your devoted scallawag.

7.24.2011

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Cheesecake on the lanai is child's play. The unofficial parody Thank You for Being a Friend (written by Nick Brennan) isn’t your granny’s Golden Girls; this is a jaw-dropping degenerate spin on the beloved 1980s sitcom, less worshipful homage than irreverent sideshow. That the show’s four women are all portrayed by men barely registers as a surprise compared with the script’s indulgently filthy plot points and rampant vulgarity. At the Ringwald Theatre, this Joe Bailey–directed Who Wants Cake? production is fearless in seeking the lowest of lowbrow humor, turning in a hot mess of a play that wants nothing more than to have some raucous fun.

The names have been changed to protect the copyright, so here we find “Blanchet” (Richard Payton), “Dorthea” (Jamie Richards), “Roz” (Joe Plambeck), and “Sophie” (Jeff Weiner) dealing with the latest upheaval at the Miami-area Shady Oaks retirement community. After a superbly corny take on the opening credits, the show dives right into the main conflict: the ladies’ new neighbor, former member of the boy band 'N Sync and famous gay Lance Bass (Billy Dixon), throws all-night bacchanals that are loud enough to keep the fearsome foursome awake. When confronted, sassy Bass refuses to suppress the noise; instead, the two parties up the ante by making a wager regarding the conveniently scheduled Shady Oaks talent show. The rest of the story concerns preparing for the show, dealing with diva personalities, making and changing alliances, and a decent helping of shenanigans. Within the premise, there are hallmark moments and scenes that would be right at home in the TV show, but a crass discussion of genitals or a comically brandished piece of sex paraphernalia is rarely far behind. Beyond Dixon’s feisty and conniving Lance, actor Rich Wilson portrays the few other characters that pop up, primarily toying with expectations as Lance’s servile plaything, Cubby. Interspersed among the bawdy humor and Golden Girls in-jokes are other major touchstones of camp that are splendid on their own merits.

7.23.2011

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The beauty of Joseph Zettelmaier’s And the Creek Don’t Rise lies somewhere in its wonderful simplicity. The playwright’s fish-out-of-water premise and intricate trio of relationships touches on a kind of real-world uncertainty, giving warmth as well as benign enmity to a skirmish between neighbors. Under the direction of Joseph Albright, this world-premiere production at Williamston Theatre humorously pits North against South in a play that uses Civil War history as an entry point to civil warfare.

When we first meet Rob Graff (John Lepard), he’s moving the last of the boxes into the Carson, Georgia, house he has purchased with wife Maddie (Kate Peckham). Both transplants from Michigan, Rob and Maddie are agog at the visage of their neighbor, Doc Boggs (Thomas D. Mahard), who arrives in his Confederate uniform to bid them welcome. Doc is a devoted reenactor of the “war of Northern aggression,” and when he invites Rob to participate in the next day’s battle, Maddie sees it as a way for her spouse to make friends and valuable connections in this foreign land. And in excellent concert with the gracious complexity of Southern rules of hospitality, she is both right and wrong. When Rob commits a gaffe of incomprehensible magnitude, Doc remains outwardly cordial and generous to a fault, but the wary Michigander suspects a steely hostility under the old gentleman’s acts of kindness. To the viewer’s great reward, Rob is entirely right. The men’s subsequent escalation is fantastic for injecting high stakes into a stiffly polite and largely harmless feud. Together, Lepard and Mahard expertly traverse their characters’ conflict, which pays off both in their growing understanding despite themselves and in the big laughs they deliver along the way.

7.22.2011

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Shakespeare West’s inaugural season continues with a stylishly contemporary Much Ado About Nothing. In keeping with the Blackbird Theatre’s penchant for pushing the limits of adaptations, this production, adapted and directed by Brian Carbine, plays with gender roles and musical showmanship to give a modern spin to a pair of comic love stories.

Among the primary conceits of this staging is the reverse-gender casting, most notably romantically pairing two women in Beatrice (Diviin Huff) and Benedick (Emily Patton-Levickas) and two men in Hero (Forrest Hejkal) and Claudio (Maxim Hunt). This is a full, pronoun-changing choice — not a woman in the guise of a man, but rather Lady Benedick and Lord Hero, in every respect addressed and considered as such. Carbine and his cast play the bulk of the story faithfully, making the same-sex relationships feel less like the entire point of the production and rather an unremarkable fact. In fact, just as interesting is the reverberating effect on the platonic and familial relationships surrounding the main couples: instead of the men and women conferring separately, only crossing the divide to pair off and marry, Hejkal and Huff are closest confidantes, and Patton-Levickas sufficiently justifies a female Benedick’s supposed revulsion of women by comfortably dude-ing it up with the guys. Occasionally, the text staunchly refuses to bend to the choice, or the staging gets mired in the device, but these are ultimately forgivable in the face of a well-propelled narrative and moments of sweet discovery.

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Parody is fun when it takes a common cultural experience and dissects its flaws and quirks. However, a great parody manages to surprise the viewer, even as it adheres to its universally known story. Combining fine writing, abundant production values, and sharp direction by Joe Plambeck, Go Comedy!’s world preimere of RoGoCop! The Musical (book by Sean May, music by May and Ryan Parmenter) brings astonishment and hilarity to an exceptional spoof.

Set in year circa–The Future, Slightly New Detroit is riddled with crime and unable to fund basic public services. The police force is contracted out to a supercorporation, OCP, whose executives want to replace weak sleep- and paycheck-needing humans with bulletproof automatons. Their test case is sacrificial lamb Murphy (May), the newest cop at Metro West who is shot down in the line of duty and reborn as a hybrid robot-cop — or, if you will, a Robo[REDACTED for copyright]. The secret of RoGoCop’s origins as Murphy are soon found out by his former partner, Officer Lewis (Tara Tomcsik), whose guilt over Murphy’s death propels her to fall in love with him and help him exact justice on the men responsible for his death, both above and below the law.

7.17.2011

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Strange to think of winter in this heat, but Planet Ant Theatre’s latest original late-night comedy was born in January, with the Winter Improv Colony Fest — the coveted prize for the winning troupe was this time slot and director Matthias Schneider. Vaulting from improvisation to the scripted world, the winning trio invented and wrote Cop Block, a one-act revenge fantasy that plays with grizzled old clich├ęs. However, given a troupe whose predominant strength appears to be finding comic nuance in the everyday, this over-the-top genre parody makes for an imperfect fit.

The play’s simple story arc concerns police officers Shaw (Andy Wotta), McLopez (Andrew Seiler), and Freedom (Clint Lohman), recently bereft of their beloved chief by a noted cop killer/drug dealer. Intent on avenging their lost leader, the men set out to bring his murderer to justice, battling various personal demons along the way: McLopez’s domineering and disapproving wife, Freedom’s alcoholism, and Shaw’s rampaging ineptitude and fondness for “sampling” the drugs they encounter on the beat. From dramatic graveside pledges to off-the-books interrogation tactics to expository scenes at the shooting range, the best-known devices of law enforcement storytelling are all here. Happily for the plot, a too-early victory gone awry ramps up the interest, and what follows are some of the most crafty and inventive moments of the piece.

7.16.2011

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America is too big and diverse and good and bad and right and wrong to be represented by a single defining story, although if it could, Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man would rank high in the running. The country had changed in the half-century between when Wilson set his musical and when he wrote it, providing a built-in nostalgia that has endured the half-century since. Yet as demonstrated by the Encore Musical Theatre Company’s production, change itself can be a constant: the push of the outside world on a complacent society and the excited tumult it brings still feels defiantly American and abundantly contemporary. Readers should note the performance I attended was the final preview, so the version I saw has likely adapted further, but the production’s prevailing theme of resisting and subsequently transforming in unlikely and welcome ways shone clearly through.

The story of a seasoned con and the spell he casts on little 1912 River City, Iowa, is handled with love by director Jon Huffman and an exuberant cast of more than thirty adults and children. Here, the emphasis is on a buttoned-up community on the precipice of discovery and change, for which traveling salesman and supposed band director Harold Hill (Zachary Barnes) is merely the catalyst — he bilks the town’s parents into enrolling their children in a boy’s band, whose expensive instruments and instruction books and uniforms are billed as a kind of insurance policy against youthful indiscretion. Under the encouragement and tutelage of the “professor,” nearly every member of the population bursts out of his shell and embraces some vibrant form of self-expression that was previously frowned upon by the prim, puritanical town. From a story standpoint, these developments are cast as merely a distraction to keep Harold from being found out, but Huffman’s staging finds traction in these moments; the approach lends a creaky pace to the overarching story of a long con, but pays off in positively sterling discoveries that forgive the weaker fare.

As Harold, Barnes relies on an innate charm that lends genuineness to his dishonesty, even as the performer subtly demonstrates the character spinning the lie to his advantage. Part of his modus operandi is to chastely seduce the local piano teacher, the only person who could reveal him as a musical fraud, and River City’s Marian Paroo (Stephanie Souza) presents a formidable challenge, doubling as the town librarian (read: Uptight Spinster Alert!) and smarty-pants at large. Souza’s turn as Marian casts an independent woman from the sad-old-maid mold, her interest lying not in Harold directly but in his startling influence on her self-conscious younger brother, played with practiced unease by Linus Babcock. The conflict comes to a head with the entrance of a vengeful fellow salesman (Keith Allan Kalinowski), whose brutishly comic grandstanding brings necessary distaste to a character technically in the right, both legally and ethically. A dozen or more small stories intersect to round out the portrait of an isolated, repressed city coming into its own, each of which is given ample attention and care that rewards a watchful viewer.

The action takes place in the positively quaint town square, whose stage-filling, two-story facades are further supplemented with a handful of other idyllic and innovative locales by set designer Leo Babcock. Lighting designer Daniel Fowler contributes a series of sunny July days and comfortably muggy twilights. The setting is amply fleshed out with lovely period costumes and properties by Sharlon Larkey Urick and Jennifer Colby, respectively; overall, it’s the closest a viewer can get to Greenfield Village with air conditioning. Music direction by Brian E. Buckner is at its best in its play with vocal tone and affectation, resulting in some supporting voices far funnier than the lyrics they’re singing; however, this is not to discount the musically sound ballads and company numbers, nor the giddy precision of the improbably impromptu barbershop quartet. Resonant brass and drums from the five-member orchestra just offstage are admittedly too aggressive for the Encore space; however, general amplification by sound designer Chuck Colby helps to quell the battle between voice and accompaniment. Nearly every number is florid with Barb Cullen’s choreography, from the restrained expression of a library scene to the unadulterated joy of teenagers allowed to cut loose. That the playing space never feels too crowded and only rarely too stagnant is a commendable accomplishment of the entire production team.

It’s The Music Man, two and a half hours of some of the best-loved songs in the genre. It’s how summer lets people not be themselves for a while. It’s America, back when it was unassailable; it’s America when bending the rules was the surest path to success. It’s a time capsule, yet the excitement of new personal and societal frontiers will forever feel timely. With its long view of River City and its many residents, this production is a celebration of progress and growth, which here rings out like the ultimate patriotic refrain.

7.01.2011

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To this reviewer, there’s no sport as evocative as baseball, extending beyond diamond and scoreboard into a dense, broadly appealing slice of American culture. It’s a sport uniquely synonymous with summer, whose nightly sights and sounds are known by heart, and its languid, measured pace translates better than any other contest to the medium of radio. Yet this only begins to explain why broadcaster Ernie Harwell was beloved as the voice of the Detroit Tigers, welcomed into legions of Michigan homes and cars and backyards for nearly half a century, and why his death from cancer in May 2010 struck fans with enduring sorrow. Now at the City Theatre — mere steps away from the continuing ritual at Comerica Park — journalist, author, and playwright Mitch Albom gives fans and viewers a glimpse into the sincere, modest, irreplaceable Ernie he knew for over 20 years. As directed by Tony Caselli, the world-premiere production of Ernie is as contentedly simple as its title: a portrait of an unfailingly good man, who loved life and baseball, and who will not soon be forgotten.

The play’s framework is found in the bowels of the stadium on September 16, 2009, where the 91-year-old retiree waits through a rain delay to be acknowledged at “Ernie Harwell Night.” Kirk Domer’s behind-the-scenes setting is full of interactive elements that enhance both setting and story, and Daniel C. Walker’s brilliant lighting design balances softness with a dazzling reminder of the game outside. From the outset, Ernie (Will David Young) is affably irritated that anyone would make such a fuss over him, and is just about ready to call it off and drive home when he’s approached by a mysterious Boy (Timothy "TJ" Corbett). There’s something intriguing about the Boy, dressed as he is in anachronistic clothing (fine work throughout by designer Melanie Schuessler) and deliberately evasive when Ernie questions his presence, but the youth’s stated intention is to guide the legend and Hall of Fame honoree through one final broadcast: that of his own life.