REVIEW: The Encore Theater’s White Christmas

The Encore Theater in Dexter, MI is one of the premier professional musical theater companies in the Southeast Michigan area. Their 2023 season ended with Irving Berlin’s classic holiday musical, White Christmas. The show had a three-week run beginning November 30th and wrapped up shows the weekend of Dec 17th. The Encore Theater brings in regional actors to perform in a selection of musicals. University of Michigan SMTD alums were featured across the cast including Allison Bell (Judy), Michael de Souza (Bob), Marlene Inman (Martha), and Jack Randal (Ensemble). These performers beautifully represented the standard at which SMTD is held.  It’s inspiring to see brilliant performers from the University working in our community! 

The musical version of White Christmas holds onto many classic aspects of the 1954 Paramount Pictures film. This performance had a firm grasp on the tradition of the story. I admired the cast’s dedication to the midcentury holiday feel. The experience felt like a vintage film set in 4K color right in front of my eyes.

The direction often felt a bit pedestrian. Some characters held different levels of emotional grounding, and sometimes romantic choices between the two pairs were uninspired. Performances ran over three weeks with many shows, and after so many performances dialogue can often get stuck. Perhaps an earlier performance offered a more believable approach to intimacy.

Although, a standout performance was given by Kailyn Leilani (Betty). Her dedicated choices with an overpowering voice left me anxious for her next entrance. The audience adored her 11 o’clock number “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me”, a moment filled with anticipation and passion. I hope to see her again at The Encore Theater, thoroughly inspired musically.

The Encore houses a thrust stage with lots of audience seating: over 20 rows of seats on the floor and a decently sized balcony. This is a great theatrical space with most of the seats offering an an acceptable view. For many character entrances, the cast would promenade right past my seat on house left, which is a fun enhancement to the theatrical experience. From a seat on the left side of the thrust, there were certain staging pictures that I missed due to the centered staging. At times I wished some interactions were set on a diagonal to allow for enhanced viewing, but with the majority of their seating in the center/balcony, the choice remains necessary. An exception to this was the choreography behind the dance numbers. Each routine was buzzing with energy and charisma. I was entranced by the articulate attention to detail of each routine! The director, Anna Dreslinski was also the choreographer, and this may have been the reason for a bit of a lopsided performance with thrilling, eye-catching dance numbers and some rather bland staging.

This show dazzled with sweeping dance routines and personal artistry with a warm and familiar holiday feeling. The Encore Theater maintains an intensely high level of theater in the greater Southeast Michigan area. I am anxious to see performances in The Encore’s 2024 season, including Into the Woods, I’m Not Rappaport and Oklahoma. Tickets are available on their website 



Image thanks to @theencoretheater on Instagram.

REVIEW: Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch

I loved Dr. Seuss’s books growing up but never watched the movies, so to celebrate the end of the semester and the coming of Christmas, I watched The Grinch at the Michigan Theater on Sunday, December 10th. I haven’t watched any of the previous adaptations, but they seem pretty different. The first version, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, came out in 1966 as a cartoon that’s 30 minutes long. The second version, also titled How the Grinch Stole Christmas, came out in 2000 as a live-action that’s 1 hour and 55 minutes long. The most recent one is what played at the theater: the 2018 animation that’s 1 hour and 30 minutes long, which is simply titled The Grinch.

This version is essentially the Grinch’s origin story and the audience gets to learn who the Grinch is as a person rather than a thief. The best part is we get to see his relationship with his dog Max, who is youthful and energetic in the film but old and weary in the book. Another character they redesigned was Cindy-Lou Who, the little girl who catches the Grinch in the middle of his act. In the book, she was less than two and only on a page or so; in the movie, she’s much older and one of the main characters.

The animation was fun and very fitting for a children’s Christmas movie. The palette was bright and the characters were cute, even the Grinch. I enjoyed hearing the narrator’s lines and rhymes because they added more of the book elements too. His voice surprised me though because he sounded relatively young when I was expecting an old man reminiscent of Santa, which I wish they went with instead. Because I knew the plot beforehand, it felt like a very long movie and some parts were dragging on, but I enjoyed it overall and would rewatch it again once it’s closer to Christmas.

REVIEW: Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra Handel’s Messiah

Handel’s Messiah is undoubtedly one of the most well-known choral repertoires, and the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra and UMS Choral Union’s performance of it was very lovely. As Handel’s Messiah is a Christmas tradition, there was a bed of red and white flowers circling the stage that was a nice visual addition. It was packed with a large choir accompanied by a small chamber orchestra, which also had a harpsichord and organ.

I enjoyed listening to the harpsichord because it added a playful quality to the music. The harpsichord is the predecessor to the piano but has a string-like quality, so the sound stood out amongst the rest of the instruments. When the organ played it took me aback because of how loud it was, but I loved the heavier atmosphere it layered onto the orchestra. The strings did a really good job recreating the baroque sound, which is much more airy and uses trills to emphasize notes whereas romantic music uses lots of vibrato.

When Hallelujah played, the audience all stood up to sing along, and the singers around me were very talented, perfectly blending in with the choir on stage. My favorite part, though, was the 48th Air which featured a trumpet solo that traded off with the choir soloist. I don’t think I’ve heard a trumpet solo that was unaccompanied before. The trumpet had a very clear bell-like sound that traveled well through the large hall. I was also a big fan of the ending of the Messiah; it immediately captured my attention with the organ’s entrance and had a wonderful buildup that demanded the audience’s attention.

I’m not religious and wanted to attend this event purely for the music. I do think it’s more targeted towards vocalists than instrumentalists, but it was still fun to see a different side of the strings that had that baroque quality since many baroque pieces played now have adapted a more romantic style. It was a super long concert: almost 3 hours long, so I don’t think I’d attend another playing of Handel’s Messiah. However, I’m really glad I had the opportunity to see it live once.

REVIEW: Black Christmas (1974)

Before seeing Black Christmas (1974), I thought that the market for Christmas-themed movies was already saturated with titles. Having seen this film, I’m convinced that Christmas scripts face far less scrutiny than their non-holiday affiliated counterparts. Scary Christmas? You got it. Action hero Christmas? Easy. Low budget Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Years romcom with live action reindeer flights and pyrotechnics? Why not. As far as holiday movies go, Black Christmas, without a doubt, is one of the strangest and most unique titles that I’ve ever seen.

Initially, I decided to see the movie because I was very, very curious to see how Bob Clark blended two seemingly opposed themes: slasher violence and Christmas cheer. I didn’t really expect a masterpiece in Black Christmas, but the film pleasantly surprised me. Instead of getting the wacky, shocking-for-all-the-wrong-reasons hodgepodge that I’d thought the film would be, Black Christmas turned out to be a palatable slasher film with great acting and thoughtful set design.

Although the title of the film is Black Christmas, the character of the picture is truly that of a horror movie, as the plot could absolutely stand on its own legs without the help of holiday synergies. Further, the film truly embodies the spirit of the classic 70’s Slasher: the deranged killer constantly calls the landline to make threats to his victims, the murders are overwrought with gore, and the real identity of the maniac is concealed throughout the entire film. If you enjoy the unsophisticated rampages of Jason Voorhees and Freddy Kreuger, then you’ll surely appreciate Black Christmas.

Additionally, the film contains a few genuinely hilarious moments that occur at very well-timed intervals: the script actively provides for moments of levity, usually using supporting characters, while retaining the emotional gravity of the situation. As such, the movie has a great balance of different character types: instead of relying on the protagonist or the antagonist to provide moments of emotional color outside of their respective arcs, the supporting characters Black Christmas are able to provide humor without compromising the suspense of the plot. I especially appreciated the film’s usage of mischievous characters and painfully cringey situations.

While Black Christmas didn’t disappoint, it didn’t really impress. No single aspect of the film fell short of my expectations, but the overall lack of originality in the movie served to significantly constrain my opinion of it. I was hoping that Black Christmas would have integrated more “Christmassy” paradigms into its plot, but essentially, the movie is a standard Slasher-horror film neatly wrapped in gingerbread wrapping paper. Instead of drawing inspiration from both thematic centers to create a completely original idea, the film just, albeit cleverly, mixes the two distinct film styles. It’s weird, kind of scary, kind of funny, and a great conversation starter. If you have time, give Black Christmas a go, but if you don’t, you’re not missing out on a whole lot.



REVIEW: Handel’s Messiah

Saturday night I experienced Handel’s Messiah for the very first time. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I knew it was a Christmas tradition, so in the spirit of Christmas I got all dressed-up and went to the Hill, my first time there, to see Messiah. First I must say, the Hill Auditorium is absolutely breathtaking. We sat near the top (with quite a few other students who could only afford the $10 tickets!)–the bulb lights circling the ceiling, and arching down in rows framing the stage, created a beautiful optical illusion that was almost dizzying. It was so nice to have the opportunity to get dressed-up and go out to such a beautiful venue for a change of pace on a Saturday night.

I’m not a musician, so I can’t intelligibly describe how spot-on the performers were, except to say the performance sounded beautiful. The singers were incredibly talented, confidently hitting the highs and lows with precision and ease. The orchestra played perfectly well together, and when the chorale chimed in, belting out praises in unison, it sent chills down my spine.

What I loved most about this performance is that it was a simple, traditional expression of Christmas. From the bare, natural decor, consisting of beautiful poinsettia flowers and a gigantic wreath hanging from the organ pipes, to the simple but elegant dress of the performers, the performance felt historical and classy, with the focus left on the music and the message, with no distractions.  There are many events one can attend during the holiday season that celebrate Santa Claus and gift-giving, snow and decorations, and all of these are loads of fun, but it was refreshing that Messiah got to the heart of Christmas, celebrating the ultimate gift of God’s Son. It was an exquisite reminder of what I’m really celebrating at Christmas.

**Merry (early) Christmas everyone!!**

Take time to celebrate and enjoy the holiday season, amidst the craziness of final exams! 🙂