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Wednesday, September 4,2013

50 ways to stretch a stage

Lansing area theater season takes some chances in 2013-'14

by Paul Wozniak
In most towns, an alliance of zombies, ghosts and evangelizing Mormons would mean the apocalypse is nigh, but in Lansing it means a diverse theater season that promises engaging entertainment for all ages. In addition to stage adaptations of silver screen hits and dire denizens of the zombie zeitgeist, the 2013-14 lineup demonstrates how local companies and colleges are using theater as a tool for infinite exploration.

Almost every theater company in town has found a way to stretch. About the only new thing left for envelope-pushing Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. is an old thing. “Big Love”(Jan. 30-Feb. 8, 2014) is a take-off of “The Suppliants,” by Aeschylus, no less. “We’ve never tackled anything Greek,” artistic director Chad Badgero said. “But it’s modernized and it’s so abstract. We tend to do stuff that’s very realistic, and this is beyond that.”

The most obvious stretch for Williamston Theatre is its season opener, “The Woman in Black” (Oct. 13-Nov. 13), a spooky Gothic chiller about a malevolent spirit. Williamston Theatre Artistic Director Tony Caselli admits “dark and scary” is a different genre for Williamston, but says it fits the season’s broader theme of how we relate to the people around us.

The Michigan State University Department of Theatre seems to take “stretching” literally, as sheer muscle movement. Between roller-skating for the musical “Xanadu” (Nov. 15-24) to flying in “Peter Pan” (April 11-20), Associate Professor Rob Roznowski says the biggest challenges for his students will be physical.

“The rigging they’re bringing in for ‘Peter Pan’ is going to be state-of-the-art and they’re just going to experiment in our space,” Roznowski said. “We don’t really know what we’re going to have.” Whatever they use to keep the actors aloft, this won’t be Mary Martin’s “Peter Pan.” MSU’s version is boldly set in the British occupation of India. “Because of the racist overtones of the show with the Indians, we decided to address it head on,” Roznowski said.

Less political but potentially as relevant for students is Lansing Community College’s staging of “The Graduate.” Performing Arts Coordinator Melissa Kaplan said there’s a contemporary ring to the show despite its 1960s setting. “A young person with college degree in hand is expected to know what they want to do with the rest of their life,” Kaplan said. It happens all the time, but Kaplan is still eager to see how today’s students will respond to the production.

For kids who are too young for college or even high school, All-of-us Express Children’s Theatre can give them something to stress out about. Fantastic fare like “The Little Mermaid” and “Treasure Island” offer chances for kids to participate. “We do theater and people come and watch our plays, but what we mostly do is teach young people life skills,” Evelyn Weymouth, founder and interim artistic director, said. To celebrate the All-of-Us Express’ 25th anniversary, Weymouth is returning to A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh,” the theater’s first production.

Perhaps the least kid-friendly production of the season and the biggest stretch of all is “The Book of Mormon,” making a tour stop at the Wharton Center in June 2014. Its famous crude language and searing satirical take of organized religion will balance Wharton Center’s lighter fare, including as “Mamma Mia,” coming this November, and “Disney’s Beauty and The Beast” in February 2014.

Lansing’s Riverwalk Theatre may have the widest range of offerings this season. Between Tom Stoppard’s metamasterpiece “The Real Thing” in the Black Box space (Oct. 4-13), to the nostalgic main stage musical “White Christmas” (Dec. 4-15), Riverwalk has two stages that can accommodate both broad and niche audiences. That’s another kind of stretch.

“When I started, we did seven shows a year, period,” Riverwalk manager Mike Siracuse said. “Now we’re up to 21 events, if not more.”

Some productions, like “12 Angry Men” (Jan. 9-16), are scheduled but not cast. Auditions are coming up for many shows. Siracuse says the doors are open to everyone. “This is a community theater,” he said. “Anybody in the community is welcome to step in and come to auditions. You don’t have to be an actor, you have to want to be an actor.” But if you just want to watch, there’s plenty to see.

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