REVIEW: Color Cabaret

Biennially, the students of the SMTD Department of Musical Theater put together a cabaret to uplift the diversity within their department. Color Cabaret features BIPOC performers from all four years of the department performing many Broadway Classics and music from the Musical Theater canon. The group hosted two shows on February 22nd at 7p and 11p; around 60 minutes and II Acts. The Towsley Studio in the Walgreen Drama Center was packed to the brim with some of the most eager family members, students, and colleagues I have seen at a student production.

 

The directors of this performance were Oluchi Nwaokorie and Haoyi Wen, along with music director Caleb Middleton and choreographers Abigail Aziz, Keyon Pickett, and Logan Saad. The show consisted of a collection of Musical Theater numbers, fully choreographed dances, lighting, and orchestrated with a five-piece band. The performers hosted infectious energy that bled through the room—vibrant dance numbers, satisfying harmonies, and one-of-a-kind arrangements.

 

Many of their numbers used Broadway tunes with rewritten lyrics by the performers describing the experience of People of Color and the stereotypes placed upon them. Arrangements, lyrics, and poems were re-written by many of the members of the Cabaret, including Alyssa Sunew, Ryo Kamibayashi, Brendan Johnson, Drew Perez Harris, Aaron Syi, Angeleia Ordoñez, Anna Zavelson, Aidan Jones. (Along with two additional arrangments by Stephanie Reuning-Scherer and Catherine Walker/Henry Crater).

Every single aspect of this performance was led and created by Students of Color. Directing, marketing, arrangements, lyric re-writes, choreography, lights, band and music direction (etc.). Each number was truly unique—from Part of You World performed in different languages, to a witty Book of Mormon rewrite and medleys from Once On This Island, Falsettos, High School Musical & Rogers & Hammerstein’s music, I was on the edge of my seat after each performance. This group truly created a beautiful piece of theater on a rather bleak February night.

Color Cabaret is an enormously special part of SMTD and a thrilling way to amplify BIPOC voices in the Musical Theater Department. Be sure to catch Color Cabaret in 2026 (if you’re still here!). Next, The Department of Musical Theater will perform A Little Night Music April 18-21, 2024. Tickets are available here.

REVIEW: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

It was my pleasure to see the preview of the Michigan Musical Theater Department’s second show this season, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This show is an absolute riot and an effortlessly entertaining experience, making it a superior addition to the Dexter community’s cultural offerings. This marks one of the first, if not the inaugural performance with SMTD and the Encore Theater. As one of Southeast Michigan’s premiere theater companies, it Is thrilling to see this collaboration with such talented students from our university.  

Spelling Bee has achieved notable success as a standalone show. Its 2005 Off-Broadway production secured three Drama Desk Awards for Best Book, Director, and Ensemble Performance. The original Broadway cast garnered three Drama Desk Nominations and Six Tony Nominations, resulting in two Tony wins for Best Book (Rachel Sheinkin) and Featured Actor (Dan Fogler). Rachel Sheinkin’s book is marked by effortless wit, and the narrative unfolds with impeccable pacing. It seamlessly transitions between tender, grounded moments and a campy atmosphere that almost feels too whimsical to be true. Just when you anticipate a lull in the story, the writing takes an unexpected turn that keeps you on the edge of your seat. William Finn, known for his compositions in Falsettos and A New Brain (both of which received Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations and national recognition), brings his musical expertise to Spelling Bee. His music is nuanced and brings a campy yet touching score while catering to the modern listener’s sensibilities. Sheinkin and Finn make a formidable creative team, delivering a distinctive theatrical experience through their work on Spelling Bee.

One of the show’s standout aspects is the interactive audience experience, which is a pleasantly abrupt surprise that contributes to the cast’s infectious energy. The moderator, Miss Rona Lisa Peretti, will call out random contestants from the audience to participate in the Bee! If you are a uniquely gifted speller… this is your chance! 

This production features fantastic stage direction by Vince Cardinal and music direction by Tyler Driscoll, accompanied by a fantastically organized and attentive pit. The musicians performed on stage with a creatively spaced pit behind the stage. The design of this show was equally fantastic, with some unexpected hidden surprises sprinkled inside the set. The thrust-style stage gives each seat a unique theatrical experience.  

It’s always a delight to witness the musical theater students’ performances throughout the year. One impressive aspect of this particular show that stood out to me was the physicality among the vast range of ages. Each of the “competing spellers” seemed to embody the natural posture and mannerisms of anxious preteens awaiting their turn to compete. The adults all held a noticeable poise to set them apart. The costuming equally complemented the playful and innocent essence of the kids and youthfully spirited adults. These college students truly transformed into their characters out of the many young adults I know at SMTD.

Needless to say, the Spelling Bee rekindled the excitement of my inner child, and I anticipate that it will be a successful and thrilling run for the U-M Musical Theater students and Dexter Theater. The show will kick off its run tonight, October 19th, at 7:30 pm, and will continue with a ten-show schedule until October 23rd, culminating with a matinee at 2 pm. I strongly encourage anyone contemplating attending to find a kind friend with a car or splurge on the Uber to Dexter and experience this fantastic show; it’s unquestionably worth the brief journey from Ann Arbor.

 

Image thanks to The Encore Theater and University of Michigan SMTD.

REVIEW: Guys and Dolls

8:00pm • Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023 • Lydia Mendelssohn Theater

This Saturday’s performance of Guys and Dolls was one of the best musicals I have seen on campus. SMTD’s production staff, crew, and performers breathed life into the classic “Broadway fable” through their thoughtful and critical treatment of the 70-year-old subject matter, while remaining true to the musical’s original humor and optimism. 

First and foremost, the cast’s performance was exceptional. The actors embodied their characters with charisma and authenticity, making them relatable despite some of the more dated stereotypes. Their command over dialects transported us to the streets of New York, and their chemistry on stage gave the story’s romances real gravity that completely absorbed my attention. In particular, I was blown away by Alex Humphreys’ soprano (just like I was in last semester’s production of Rent!) in “I’ll Know” and literally all of her songs afterwards. 

I loved how the set and costume design expertly combined to craft a convincing world onstage, without visually overwhelming the talent of the actors. When the curtain rose at the beginning of the performance for “Runyonland,” the sparsity of the stage put the spotlight on the orchestra for a few well-deserved moments. An unexpected sense of excitement and anticipation overtook me as the curtain lifted a second time, revealing the blinking neon signs of Broadway and immersing me in the production’s vibrant atmosphere. 

Despite Guys and Dolls being a product of its time, based on the archetypes developed in Damon Runyon’s 1920s and ’30s stories about the New York underworld and Broadway, SMTD managed to navigate this delicate terrain with finesse. The show’s dramaturgs thoughtfully interpreted some of the more outdated themes in the show, making it relevant and engaging for a modern audience. I especially appreciated the incorporation of informational placards in the hallway, shedding light on the broader social context of the era. These additions offered audiences a deeper understanding of historical context like the LGBTQ+ scene in 1950s New York and the nascent Civil Rights Movement, adding layers of depth to the narrative we saw in the play.

In conclusion, SMTD’s Guys and Dolls was a resounding success on all fronts. The students’ dedication and talent elevated every aspect of the production, from the outstanding musical performances to the impeccable set and costume design. I was impressed by the production’s ability to breathe new life into a classic while addressing its historical context with sensitivity. 

If you haven’t yet seen Guys and Dolls, you still have the opportunity to buy tickets for this Thursday, Friday, or Saturday’s performances, and I urge you to do so! You might see me there as well!

PREVIEW: DOGFIGHT

Although I’m typically not a fan of musicals, there’s something intriguing about DOGFIGHT. The admission is free, which already provides a decent incentive for college students lacking funds, but the premise of the musical is particularly interesting, and watching talented UMich students pour their hearts into a performance is guaranteed to be an awe-inspiring experience.

Based on a film, DOGFIGHT takes place in the 60s and follows the story of marines preparing to be sent across the sea. They celebrate their last night of freedom by placing bets on who can find the ugliest girl to bring to a party. Questionable and immoral, I know, but the plot focuses on one couple and has a romantic twist that brings out the soft side in us enemies-to-lovers trope enjoyers. The play examines old-fashioned beliefs, war, vulnerability, and how traumatic events can change our perspective on the world and ourselves.

The performance will be held at the Arthur Miller Theatre, a small and intimate venue. I’ve never attended an event at the venue, but I’m interested in how the small space will transform the experience. Witnessing the talent of fellow students with this degree of closeness is bound to be spark pride in my status as a Wolverine and elevate the emotionality of the performance exponentially.

Once again— tickets are free! Tomorrow is the third and final show, so show up early to support the performers of UMich and be part of a wild ride.

REVIEW: Romeo and Juliet

In their new studio production, the Department of Musical Theatre presents William Shakespeare’s most well known tragedy Romeo and Juliet. Set in Verona, the play follows Romeo and Juliet, two young lovers from feuding families. Through a serious of rash actions and unfortunate misunderstandings, the lovers’ lives come to a tragic end, which ultimately reconciles the two families.

Performed in the intimate Arthur Miller Theatre with a minimal set, almost no props, and very basic costumes, this was an interesting production that seemed to want to focus on the raw emotion and drama in the play. The simplicity of the production worked well in that in allowed the audience to engage with the language of the play and the portrayals of the characters. However, it also caused some aspects of the performance to feel out of place, and sometimes a bit awkward, such as the use of physical swords in the final scenes since swords were not otherwise used in the production.

Another interesting aspect of the production was the casting choices. This production had actors playing roles of the opposite gender, with females playing the traditionally male roles of Mercutio, Benvolio, and the Friar, as well as a male playing the role of Juliet’s nurse. While this was sometimes confusing, especially at the beginning, it ultimately worked well, and brought out aspects of the characters that may not always be seen. In addition, the use of the cast within the production was also an interesting choice. While it is normal to have parts doubled, this production used the entire cast as the chorus. While it was nice that everyone was included, having all of the actors run on stage in the dark and crouch under a bright light while speaking in monotone unison was ultimately off-putting.

Although most of the cast performed well, one of the best aspects of the performance was Cameron Jones’ exuberant and sassy, but always caring, portrayal of Juliet’s nurse. Although not one of the lead roles, Jones shined in every scene he was in, captured the audience’s attention and affection, and brought humor and lightness to an otherwise emotionally tense and tragic play. As he strutted across the stage in his long black dress and apron wittily addressing other characters, he fully engaged the audience who laughed, smiled, and applauded all of his scenes.

Overall, this was a somewhat unusual production that had some great moments. While there was some awkwardness, the minimalistic set and costumes highlighted the emotions in the play and allowed the focus to be more on the actors and the scenes they were creating.

PREVIEW: Romeo and Juliet

 

WHO: The Department of Musical Theatre

WHAT: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

WHERE: Arthur Miller Theatre

WHEN: February 20-23

COST: $10 for students

Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy tells the story of Romeo and Juliet, a couple of young star-crossed lovers from feuding families. As they try to be together, a series of unfortunate events and misunderstandings ultimately lead to their deaths.