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Wednesday, August 24,2011

The curtain is going up on a season full of variety

From ‘Jersey Boys’ and ‘God of Carnage’ to Neil Simon and Shakespeare, local theaters aim to please

by Christopher Horb

The vacation is over. Sigh.


But just as summer makes its exit, fall
brings a diverse crop of offerings to local stages as a host of Lansing
area theaters get back to work.


From a curly-haired singing orphan to a
famed-fanged Romanian count to an odd and mismatched pair of roomies,
there will be many familiar types popping up this year when the curtains
rise — and plenty of new faces as well.


Theater fans will be challenged by
questions of race, politics and law, have their hearts warmed by
family-friendly fables and find their funny bones tickled by comedies
both light and dark, high and lowbrow.


So get your ticket and take your seat because the lights are dimming.




Stormfield Theatre 


Stormfield Theatre founder Kristine Thatcher has high-minded ideas on the power of theater.


 “For
us, with the production and for the audience, the reason we’re all
there is to figure out what kind of people we want to be,” she said.  “That’s the bottom line of why theater exists.”


It’s a philosophy that extends to
Stormfield’s upcoming season, which finds the company again tackling the
work of living playwrights and showcasing topics relevant to current
times.


Thatcher points to a pair of fall shows,  “Heroes,” a dark comedy, and “Race,” a thought-provoking legal thriller, as prime examples of what Stormfield can be.


 “(‘Heroes’)
is about the effect so war on the wounded psyche. With all these
veterans returning home, it’s really pertinent,” she said.


The play depicts a trio of World War I
veterans (played by Gary Houston, Richard Marlatt and Richard Henzel)
plotting to escape the confines of a military hospital. It was written
by French playwright Gerald Sibleyras and has been translated and
adapted by Tom Stoppard, one of Thatcher’s personal favorites.


 “It’s a comedy,” Thatcher said, “but with very dark gallows humor.  It’s got that Stoppard wit and depth.”


 “Race”
concerns a group of lawyers investigating a racially charged rape case
and comes from the pen of David Mamet, not a writer known for backing
away from hot-button issues.


 “It is controversial: With Mamet it always is,” Thatcher said. “It contains some very wry jokes.  It’s provocative — a topical detective story.”




Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.


According to Chad Badgero, the folks at
Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. have never been content with just
entertaining audiences — they want to get those audiences thinking as
well, by showcasing productions that address vital social issues. 


“Lansing audiences have proven to be
exceedingly brave and eager to answer the types of questions raised
here,” said Badgero, Peppermint Creek’s founder and artistic director.


The theme for the season is “Two-Sided,”  and
Badgero promises the crop of shows will illustrate the ambiguity and
complexities of a variety of topics, beginning with the season opener,
“Blackbird.”


Written by David Harrower, “Blackbird” is
the harrowing account of the reunion between a middle-aged man (played
by Doak Bloss) and a young woman (Angela Mishler) years after the end of
their sexual relationship.  What
gives the story a complicated dramatic heft is the fact that the
relationship occurred when the now-adult woman was only 12 years old.


 “The
play deals with how we fall in love, who we fall in love with and what
we deem appropriate when it comes to love,” he said. “It’s really
compelling theater.”


Badgero admits that the subject matter
may prove uncomfortable for some, but he relishes the chance to produce
such controversial work.


 “I
always hope that the material will elicit some sort of dialogue as we
are so often producing plays that are never wrapped up neatly in a bow
at the end.”



Williamston Theatre


Artistic director Tony Caselli offers up
one word to sum up the underlying theme behind the new season at
Williamston Theatre: redemption.


And sometimes redemption comes under the most unusual of circumstances.


Case in point:  Eric Coble’s “The Dead Guy,” a dark satire of American reality television that kicks off the fall season.


 “Some
of the behavior in reality TV is just so appalling,” Caselli said.
“This show asks ‘Is there a boundary of taste?’ and ‘is there a boundary
of common sense?’”


The titular character is both the subject
of and the title of an unscripted documentary series that follows its
star as he is given $1 million to spend over the course of one week.  The catch is that at the week’s end the lead must die in a manner voted on by the audience. 


 “It’s very funny, but a really dark look at the fame-obsessed side of our culture,”  Caselli said.


 “We
like to explore serious topics in a way that isn’t pounding your head
against a wall. We want you to be able to laugh at the same time.”



All-of-us Express Children’s Theatre


Even children’s theater has to grow up sometime.


At least that’s the philosophy behind the
All-Of-Us Express Children’s Theatre upcoming season, especially its
youth adaptation of Bram Stoker’s iconic “Dracula.”


The curtain rises on Tim Kelly’s
“Dracula: The Vampire Play” just in time for Halloween and, according to
artistic director Mary Hartmann, it’s a prime example of the troupe’s
effort to appeal to a slightly older audience.


 “We’re
trying to better engage our older youth participants,” she said. “We
were noticing that as they got a bit older — into their teens — we were
starting to lose them. We’re also trying to shoot outside our normal box
a bit and get away from the fairy tales we’ve done so often.”


Hartmann describes upcoming shows as being more “content-heavy” while retaining the youth appeal All-of-us is known for.


“Our ‘Dracula’ is not quite as dark as what you’d usually see in the typical production at an adult community theater.  (Kelly) is really good at adapting typically adult fare for younger audiences.”



Starlight Dinner Theatre


As Starlight Dinner Theatre artistic
director Linda Granger explains it, giving the audience what it wants is
the top priority. So when audience survey results pointed
overwhelmingly to a favorite choice for Starlight’s next show, Granger
paid attention.


You voted, Starlight listened and Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” will bicker its way back to the stage this fall.


 “There’s a real nostalgia aspect to it.  It’s something people are familiar with and remember fondly,” she said.  “And it’s Neil Simon; it’s very well written.”


Simon’s classic comedy about a pair of
extremely mismatched roommates has been adapted for both the big and
small screens since its 1965 debut, and Granger thinks it’s the perfect
lighthearted entertainment for audiences.


 “I’m
hoping (audiences) will go home feeling a lot better than they came
in,” she said. “For two hours, they won’t have to think about whatever
issues they’re dealing with — and they’ll get a really good meal, too.”



Riverwalk Theatre


From classic musicals to historical
dramas to eclectic comedy, Riverwalk aims to represent as wide a range
of theater as possible. There is, in the words of artistic director Mike
Siracuse, “a little bit of everything for everyone.”


 “We
have such a variety from beginning to end that I hope we see someone
from every household in Lansing at some point,” Siracuse said. “Of all
the shows we’ve chosen, there’s not a weak one in the bunch.”


He is particularly excited about
October’s “Conspiracy,” an adaptation of the acclaimed HBO movie that
dramatizes the Nazis’ planning for the implementation of Adolf Hitler’s
“Final Solution” during World War II.


 “They’re talking about all these people like they’re just animals, just units to be dealt with,” he said.


It’s the first time the work has been
adapted for the stage, and the theater has been able to work directly
with the show’s writer, Loring Mandel, to develop the production,
something Siracuse calls “a unique and exciting opportunity.”


 “What
(the play) depicts is so chillingly evil. Aside from the subject
matter, the fact that the author will be here working with us makes this
a media event. It’s a show people will be talking about.”



Mid Michigan Family Theatre


Youth theater doesn’t have to be child’s play — not as Bill Gordon sees it, anyway.


That’s why Gordon, director of Mid
Michigan Family Theatre has chosen to open the fall season with a
self-penned historical drama.


Gordon’s “The Man With the Camera” tells
the true story of Lewis Hine, a photographer whose work depicting child
labor in the early 20th century was instrumental in the reform of child
labor laws.


“It’s an important story to tell,” Gordon said. “There’s such a stark contrast between where we are now as opposed to then.  This really sheds light on how long it took to get from one point to the other.”


This season also includes the lighter
fare the group is known for, including Christmas fables and classic
titles such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” when Halloween rolls
around.


 “The
scary stories will give kids something else to occupy them beyond
thinking just about what kind of candy they’re going to get in their
bags,” Gordon said.



Lansing Community College


Although there will be many questions raised onstage this season at Lansing Community College, there will be no easy answers.


Melissa Kaplan, production coordinator
for the LCC Performing Arts Department, points to a pair of shows, “The
Gingerbread House” and “The Shrike,” as illustrations of that
philosophy.


 “Gingerbread”
is the darkly comic story of two unsatisfied yet ambitious parents who
decide to sell their children in order to advance their careers.


 “We
all have our idea of the American dream,” Kaplan said. “But you never
really know what you’re going to get when you go after it. Things don’t
always work out how you want them to. It is disturbing — it’s hard to
believe it’s a comedy, but we laughed out loud reading it.”


 Set
in the 1950s, “The Shrike” tells a less humorous but no less disturbing
story of a man trapped in an asylum by his wife and at the mercy of
institutional laws of the era.


 “It’s
an opportunity to talk about mental health and the laws pertaining to
it,” Kaplan said. “It’s not a high-action play, but it is high drama.”



Lansing Civic Players


Having canceled most of last season due
to financial difficulties, the venerable Lansing Civic Players returns
to the theater fold with a new artistic director and a definite mission:
to win audiences back.


 “This
is our comeback, definitely,” said Mike Stewart, who stepped into the
lead role earlier this year. “The challenge has been to get the word out
that we’re back.”


To accomplish that feat, LCP has scheduled a slate balancing theatrical favorites with edgier less familiar fare.


Stewart said the choice of Charles
Busch’s “The Divine Sister” as the season opener was a conscious
decision to let audiences know that LCP is, despite recent setbacks,
still willing to take chances.


 “I wanted to do something new and bright and fresh that no one else has seen unless they saw it off-Broadway,” he said.  “We were very lucky to get this.”


 “The
Divine Sister” is a raucous comic tribute to Hollywood’s portrayal of
nuns that tackles issues of religion and sexual hysteria head on. “It’s a
very adult show,” Stewart said. “Not for the faint of heart, but a
really fun show.”


Stewart admits LCP faces something of an
uphill battle following its reorganization, but expresses confidence in
this year’s offerings.


 “We’re
hoping to entice everyone into giving us another try. (LCP) has been
around a long time and I think we have the lineup that’s going to lure
people back.”



Michigan State University 


The name of the game at Michigan State University this season is “Re-Invention.”  According
to MSU Theatre Department chairman Kirk Domer, depicting the many ways
in which the members of American society have reinvented themselves in
the face of extraordinary circumstances has been the crux of its lineup.


 “The
idea was to take the mirror of liberal arts and use it to see what we
look like now compared to what we looked like yesterday,” he said.


It’s a philosophy illustrated by “Two
9/11 Plays,” a double bill debuting just after the 10th anniversary of
the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Domer said. “I think it’s going to be
pretty telling.  It’s a lot more about the human experience than it is about the devastation and destruction.”


The show’s two parts include “Return to
the Upright Position,” a collaborative performance poem, and “What
Happened: The September 11th Testimony Project,” which utilizes actual
reports from emergency personnel and bystanders at the World Trade
Center the day of the attack.


 “It’s
a real teaching opportunity,” Doner said. “We have a campus filled with
students who probably saw it all happen but were too young to
understand it at the time. What makes this so special is its timing and
its message. It’s a far more positive take as it looks at how far we’ve
come since it happened.” 




Wharton Center


Wharton Center began beating the drum for
the Tony-winning musical “Jersey Boys” almost a year ago, which makes
sense since it was technically part of the 2010-2011 season. The show,
which looks at the hit-laden career of  Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, opens Sept. 28 and runs through Oct. 16. 


According to public relations manager Bob
Hoffman, the “Jersey” campaign is typical of how Wharton has handled
other top attractions, like “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “Phantom of
the Opera”: “It’s a big mega-musical, like those shows,” Hoffman said.


Also on the Wharton schedule are the
partially revamped “West Side Story,” with some lyrics translated into
Spanish, and the 1980s extravaganza “Rock of Ages,” which weaves such
radio staples as “Sister Christian,” “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “We
Built This City” into a story of love, lust, success and failure in
Hollywood.


Wharton Center also has “really good
things for kids and families” this fall, Hoffman said. “They all have an
educational aspect to them, as well as being fun.”


Secrets of the ocean are revealed in a
stylish black-light puppet show called “Imaginocean” on Oct. 23, while
the evolution of a monarch butterfly is detailed in “Butterfly: The
Story of a Life Cycle,” presented in the Japanese puppetry style known
as bunraku (Nov. 6).  


Individual tickets to most of the Wharton
Center presentations went on sale Monday. Call (800) WHARTON, or visit
www.www.whartoncenter.com.

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