REVIEW: Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

In The Round is a student-run theater organization that produces two theatrical productions in an academic year. Last year, the organization produced Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band and Stephen Stater’s Spring Awakening. This year, In The Round presents the ambitious and timely, Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812. 

NP&TGC is a 2012 electro-opera musical that was adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It was written by Dave Malloy and won the Tony Award for Best Musical, Book, Score, and Orchestrations in 2012. It features vibrant, eclectic music with sudden shifts reflecting the turbulent situation between the characters and the state of 19th-century Russia. The music was extremely unique, with powerful, sweeping vocal moments and striking EDM-like dance scenes. I adored the creativity and thoughtfulness behind the score.

The actors maneuvered through this piece well. There are some incredibly difficult moments in this show that I commend the actors for working through and creating their own. The sustainably sourced costuming was another lovely addition that is appreciated in a time of dire need for increased sustainable options.

This production was performed in the Arthur Miller Theater, a thrust space. Some pictures of the staging/tableaux that were created in scenes were lost to me because of my stage-left seating. From my seat, some events that were happening in the plot were lost because of the dancers or levels the actors were creating. I wondered if my experience would have been different sitting in the upper mezzanine center. Pierre’s ‘home’ in the left-hand corner of the stage was visible to me, and his intentional manic scribblings throughout the musical were a compelling acting choice. Select moments between Anatole and Natasha were visible, and what I could see was beautiful, the two portrayed electric chemistry.

In The Round states that it is an organization “dedicated to queer stories and queer storytellers…we produce performances, relating the themes of our shows to themes of queer culture.” I admire that a theatrical organization is taking the initiative to amplify queer voices, but I seem to have missed the intention behind this production of NP&TGC specifically representing and amplifying an LGBTQ+-based story. There is evident relevance that anything could be a queer story, but I found myself longing for a more direct interpretation of the queerness in the show. I note that this is certainly a point up to interpretation by each audience member.

NP&TGC is an ambitious choice for any theater with its intense level of technical production, difficult musical excerpts, and involved direction. This gripping score is a vocal and emotional challenge and I commend everyone involved for creating this challenging piece of theater. 

Congratulations to everyone involved in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. In the Round will be performing bare: A Pop Opera next semester March 7th-9th in the Arthur Miller Theater. Auditions will be early next semester. 

 

 

Image thanks to In The Round on Instagram. 

REVIEW: Heathers: The Musical

MUSKET’s production of Murphy and O’Keefe’s Heathers took place at the Power Center for the Performing Arts this past weekend. MUSKET impressively holds the title of the oldest and largest student-run theater troupe on campus. They produce one fully staged and orchestrated musical each semester with an entirely student-led cast, crew, and production team. It serves as an essential platform for non-musical theater majors to participate in musical theater, offering endless opportunities for leadership, production, and performance to university students.

I observed several standout aspects of this performance. Firstly, the costume design (by Katy Sanchez) was beautifully crafted, immediately conveying the identities of the characters to the audience. The costumes adhered to the expected classic “Heathers” outfits, featuring heavy pumps, short skirts, and the distinctive red, green, yellow, and blue colors defining each character. Katy honored the original looks while bringing her flare into the mix.  

Secondly, the jocks, played by Ram Sweeney (Dylan Bernstein) and Kurt Kelly (Sohil Apte), had me chuckling at their scenes throughout the show. I appreciated their physicality, and even from my seat towards the back of the house, I could pick up their movements very well. Sohil, wrapping up his third production with the troupe, has become a frequent MUSKET actor.

Additionally, the dance numbers were an exciting aspect of the show, with choreography by Marcus Byers Jr and assistant Kate Player. The numbers were bright and intentionally crafted for the scene, adding significantly to the storytelling rather than existing as a mere spectacle. At times, the choreography compromised good vocal quality, but overall the actors handled this well. 

“Dead Gay Son” stood out as my favorite number in the show. It brought a blazing burst of energy immediately after intermission, and a bleak ending to Act I. The crowd responded accordingly to this excitement. Kurt’s Dad (Evan Hoefer) and Ram’s Dad (Zoltan Berensci) hysterically and passionately committed to the campiness of the scene.

Music direction was led by Madeline Nolen, and the band featured 7 players. This pit was mighty for the minimal orchestration in the score. They played together well—this score is not easy for anyone! Likewise, Madeline conducted with passion and kept the ship running smoothly. The vocal harmonies dazzled in select moments, and some other times were a tad uncoordinated, possibly due to the stuffy mics.  

The version of Heathers performed was the official West End version. It differed slightly from what I usually remember seeing in a production of Heathers. Some songs in this revised edition felt superfluous to the plot, and some songs were removed or changed from the original Broadway version. Because of this, the pacing suffered a bit. However, I understand the tricky nature of navigating changing dark and often insensitive themes while trying to convey an aggressive message on mental health awareness through the music.

Truly, a big congratulations to the cast of Heathers. I admire the endless hard work that was put into the show. MUSKET remains an essential part of the undergraduate student experience—offering diverse opportunities to musical theater lovers throughout the school. Next semester, MUSKET will be putting on the McNally & Shaiman/Wittman musical, Catch Me If You Can. Based on Frank Abagnale Jr’s autobiography and the 2002 film, this show is a dance spectacle with a brassy, thrilling score. Directed by Sam Hedeman and music directed by Caitlyn Bogart, it’s sure to be an exciting ride. The show will go up March 15-17 in the Power Center for the Performing Arts. Auditions for the show will open in mid-January.   

 

 

Image thanks to @UMMUSKET on Instagram. 

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: Spring Awakening

8:00pm • Friday, December 2, 2022 • Arthur Miller Theater • Spoilers 3rd paragraph

Last Friday I had the honor of being one of the first audience members to experience the new student musical theater organization on campus, In the Round, as they presented Spring Awakening at the Arthur Miller Theater. First, I must confess, I approached Friday night’s performance with some trepidation. I’m from a small town with a smaller art scene, and when I hear “new theater company,” my mind is drawn to uncomfortable hours spent watching community theater groups stumble through off-key musicals. Within the first few minutes of this performance my fears were assuaged: the brilliance which In the Round exhibited in this production redefined for me, as a non-art-student, what it means to attend a school with some of the top music, theater, and dance students in the world.

Photo credit: Juliet Bornholdt.* From left: Luke Mannikus (Moritz), Sam O’Neill (Melchior), Juliet Freedman (Wendla). Wendla wears a purple sash to reflect the harm done by her community.

The highlights of the performance, for me, included the heartbreaking duet “The Dark I Know Well,” performed by Leslie Meloni as Martha and Bianca Garfinkle as Ilsa as well as the wildly impressive ad-libs of Chad Marge as Georg during “Touch Me.” Beyond those shout-outs, I appreciated the thoughtful handling of the underlying messages and themes in the show. In the Round chose to use the color purple throughout the performance, gradually incorporating the color into each character’s costume to symbolize the moment “the community irrevocably harms them” (In the Round). At the end of the show, purple flower petals rained down as the actors sat facing us to sing “The Song of Purple Summer,” seeming to warn the audience of the costs of censorship.

The production illustrated in vivid detail how each character was wronged by a culture of silence. This manifests particularly in the story arc of Wendla, played by Juliet Freedman, who begins the plot by begging her mother to explain where babies come from, and ends the victim of rape and a botched abortion. I also found a kind of symbolism in the way two actors, Jamie Martin Mann and Jill Pierangeli, repeatedly donned different roles to collectively portray all of the adult characters. While the actors admirably recast their personalities for the changing needs of each scene, the repetitiveness also served to represent the way the characters’ world strove to manufacture its children into uniformly moral (a.k.a. censored) adults.

This performance was truly the best introduction I could have had to the story of Spring Awakening, and I wish I could have attended all of the showings this weekend to dig more deeply into the care put into every detail of the show. I can’t wait to see what In the Round creates in the future, and I am so excited about this necessary addition to the campus art scene.

 

* additional credits:

Director: Jack Rosenberg
Choreography: David Midkiff
Associate Choreography: Rixey Terry
Lighting: Ethan Hoffman
Costumes: Cole Carrico
Scenic Design: Benjamin Garcia

PREVIEW: Spring Awakening

What: rock musical Spring Awakening, the inaugural performance of In the Round Productions

When:

  • Friday, December 2, 8:00pm
  • Saturday, December 3, 2:00pm, 8:00pm
  • Sunday, December 4, 2:00pm

Where: Arthur Miller Theater

Tickets: $6 for students, $10 for adults, available on the MUTO website (click here)

Originally written in Germany in 1891 by Frank Wedekind, Spring Awakening was adapted into a Tony-winning rock musical in 2007 by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. The play has always tested social acceptability, having been subject to extensive censorship for much of its existence, and even since its rewriting by Sheik and Sater in 2007. In their interpretation, In the Round Productions promises to present this coming-of-age story of sexual awakenings, morality, and rebellion through the lens of LGBTQIA+ culture. In the Round Productions is a new student organization sponsored by the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies which aims to “provide a space for queer stories and queer storytellers” (Maize Pages). I look forward to being among the organization’s first audience members as they make their debut performance this Friday night.

REVIEW: Little Shop of Horrors

2:00pm • Sunday, November 20, 2022 • Power Center

I’m so glad I had the opportunity to experience Little Shop of Horrors, presented at the Power Center this weekend by MUSKET. The performance began before the lights dimmed, as Chiffon (Arin Francis), Crystal (Maya Mcentyre), and Ronnette (Gilayah McIntosh) wandered the auditorium, interacting with the crowd. Eventually they disappeared backstage, only to reappear along with the rest of the cast, to open the performance with “Skid Row.” From that point onward I was continually impressed by the talent and personality of each actor. Forming the chorus, Francis, Mcentyre, and McIntosh were reliable throughout their performance both for their solid harmonies and for their affectionately eye-rolling reactions to Seymore and Audrey. In addition to his role as Orin Scrivello, Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, Caleb McArthur scrambled onstage in at least four other mini-roles, creating fresh personas for each. I appreciated the way that Michael Fabisch threw himself into the awkwardness required for the role of Seymore. And Mr. Mushnik, played by Dylan Bernstein, was a perfect drama queen.

My favorite human role was definitely Audrey, played by Mackenzie Mollison. In the beginning of the show, Audrey is trapped in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, and while in “Somewhere that’s Green” she dreams of living a simple life in a suburban development, she doesn’t believe she deserves to be loved by someone kind. Mollison brought humor to the role with her excellent comedic timing without oversimplifying the show’s darker themes of abuse and self-hatred. Her powerful voice seemed subtly restrained throughout the performance to reflect Audrey’s situation: occasionally bursting out in full spirit but quickly stifled again.

The shameless Audrey II, however, voiced by Morgan Gomes, resisted all restraints. Gomes, while only appearing onstage in person for the final curtain call, defined the performance with her spectacular voice. The plant only begins speaking mid-way through the performance, but when Gomes’ voice finally echoed through the theater, I saw jaws drop.

Engineering the evil plant itself is notoriously difficult, and MUSKET pulled it off with humor and style. In its first form, the Audrey II was a single, tentacle-like shoot with a little flower at the tip that Seymore slung around the shop during “Grow for Me.” Upon the plant’s entrance, I figured this first edition was too small for the team to have bothered animating–but to my surprise, in response to the characters’ lines, it drooped, perked up, and even nodded, all without any visible assistance or puppeteering from onstage. As Audrey II continued to grow throughout the show, I never noticed the stage crew replacing it or making adjustments, which is doubly impressive for such a large and mobile prop. The choice to have Audrey II consume its prey by sucking them into its stem resulted in some entertaining visuals: because the shape of the plant was vaguely humanoid, we seemed to watch Orin, Mr. Mushnik, Audrey, and finally Seymore disappear between the plant-being’s “legs.”

Overall, a big congratulations to everyone involved in putting together this fun rendition of Little Shop of Horrors. I encourage everyone who missed the performance to consider buying tickets to MUSKET’s winter semester show, A Chorus Line. I can guarantee that I will be in the audience.