Life At UDM Is A Cabaret, My Friend

By Donald V. Calamia

The UDM Theatre Company is closing its 42nd season with a rather unique endeavor in a rather untraditional space (for them) and featuring a very unique mix of performers. And the result is a night of entertainment that's tough to review, but totally worth the price of admission.

Started in 1972 when the University of Detroit and Marygrove College decided to combine their fine arts programs, the UDM Theatre Company stands apart from other college undergraduate theater programs in that it was designed as a professional theater company separate from the university's theater department. As such student actors must compete with outsiders and professionals for roles in Theatre Company shows - and once cast, they must work at a high level expected of a professional company member. Plus, working closely alongside many of the area's established pros is great training and experience for up-and-coming young artists.

As such, many (if not most of) Detroit's mainstream newspaper critics considered the UDM Theatre Company among the community's professional theaters and treated it as such pretty much from the start - much to the chagrin of a handful of local professionals who vehemently disagreed with the critics' decision. (We're one of the last bastions left fighting this battle 40 years later.)

If you're wondering where this review is going, here's the payoff: So with more than four decades of graduates - many of whom have gone on to Broadway, into television and film, or have established careers here in Michigan - Theatre Company management decided to tap into its alumni to create a special event to close its 42nd season. The result, under the supervision of Dr. Arthur Beer, is "A Cabaret Showcase," which features a mix of alumni and current seniors in a series of short plays, musical numbers, monologues and improv comedy.

And what a mix of locals and guests Beer assembled. Although guest artists will change every night, alumni flew in - or WILL fly in - at their own expense from both coasts and places in-between, while others who are unable to attend sent videos of their past or present work. In all, 20 acts and 30 people are part of the two-weekend program, Beer - the event's emcee - announced early in the show.

To be honest, an program such as this feels like the prelude to a major announcement, or a signal that change is coming - especially since a 42nd anniversary isn't one that typically generates this type of excitement. And speculation that longtime department staff such as co-founder David L. Regal, Beer (who has been at UDM since 1975), or Melinda Pacha ('81) could be retiring soon fuels the fire. Yet no announcement was made following the opening night performance - and no snooping around afterward revealed any heretofore unrevealed secrets. Only time will tell.

Nonetheless, the sold-out opening-night performance boasted a fine slate of acts, many of which starred top talent no longer seen on local stages for a variety of reasons.

Eric Maher, now technical director at The Berman in West Bloomfield, recreated a segment from his 2007 WILDE-r Award-winning "Lone Star" at Planet Ant Theatre, with 2011 UDM graduate Joel Frazee stepping into the two-person scene and perfectly capturing his character's personality.

Another two-hander starred local standouts Dax Anderson as an actor meeting for the first time with potential agent Harry Wetzel. I suspect many in the audience had the same reaction I did following their suburb scene: Why doesn't anyone cast these two in a show together? It would be dynamite! (Wetzel's work as a designer and director at the Detroit Repertory Theatre keeps him busy, but his stage presence is truly missed.)

Also missed on stage in recent years is James Mio, now a teacher at a suburban high school, who starred with Los Angeles-based Mary Vinette in "Off Base," a very funny one-act about a couple with different perspectives on America's Favorite Pastime. According to Beer, they rehearsed together only once - and they nailed it!

Another much-missed alumna - this seems to a recurring theme, doesn't it? - Maggie Wysocki had great fun (along with a half-dozen others) starring in the mash-up "Medea and the Trojan Women." And Karen Kron of Northville's Marquis Theatre dominated yet another two-hander as an emotionally upset housewife who comes up with a solution to resolve a nagging problem with her husband (Bryan Spangler).

Among the evening's other highlights were three monologues: UDM senior Chris Jakob excelled in a delightfully creepy "chat" about his pet snake; Patricia Thompson recreated a scene from "Angels in America"; and Mary Bremer enchanted us as a bag lady in Jane Martin's "Vital Signs."

The evening also included a few solo musical numbers, the bravest and most colorful of which earned Greg Trzaskoma plenty of laughs singing a tender, romantic ballad. Why? Unless you attend a future performance - and he's in the line-up - you may never find out!

Short videos submitted by Randy Gianetti (from his national tour of "Evita"), Anita Barone (a segment from Disney's "Shake It Up"), Amy Yasbeck (a scene from "Robin Hood: Men in Tights"), and Mary Gutzi (from her stellar performance in Broadway's "Cats!") were interspersed throughout the evening. And an original video by Marcus Neville took us on a humorous backstage tour of the Broadway theater at which he's currently performing in the recently opened "Kinky Boots."

Of all the acts, however, the one-night-only appearance - both on video and in person - of alumnus Keegan-Michael Key from the hit Comedy Central series "Key & Peele" was likely the most memorable for many in attendance. (I base that on the fact that he was certainly the most photographed after the conclusion of the show.)

Since this was a one-of-a-kind performance and will not be repeated in its entirety, future attendees may enjoy the work of such expected luminaries as Joe Kolinski (April 19-21), Mary Callaghan Lynch (April 20-21), and God knows who else, as the line-up has changed more than a baby's diaper over the past week or so.

Ultimately, though, audiences at the remaining four performances will likely enjoy one heck of a night of live theater, presented by a remarkable pool of talent that's tough to beat. (Performances are held on the UDM Livernois campus rather than at the Marygrove theater.)

For me personally, however, "A Cabaret Showcase" was a walk down memory lane. Beginning in the 1970s, the participating artists helped create memorable and oft-times award-winning shows I saw and loved - and in full disclosure, I employed many of them at the starts of their careers.

But more importantly, their return to UDM signifies a love for the institution and teachers who nurtured their talents. There's no better recommendation than that for future young thespians considering where to attend college.

Long live the UDM Theatre Company - in whatever direction it takes as it embarks on its 43rd season next fall!

REVIEW:

'A Cabaret Showcase'

University of Detroit Mercy Theatre Company at Grounds Coffeehaus in the Student Union Building, 4001 W. McNichols Road, Detroit. Friday-Sunday through April 21. 2 hours. $10-20. 313-993-3270. http://theatre.udmercy.edu

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