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Curtain Calls

By |2003-09-25T09:00:00-04:00September 25th, 2003|Uncategorized|
Review: ‘Triple Espresso’

Comedy at Gem Theater delights audiences of all ages
There’s something downright familiar about “Triple Espresso,” I kept thinking to myself as I chuckled and guffawed throughout the opening minutes of the show.
And finally it dawned on me: It’s not the show itself that I recognized, but the archetypes portrayed by the three talented actors who comprise the show’s ensemble.
Now playing at Detroit’s Gem Theatre, “Triple Espresso” is what you’d get if you combined a slightly lower-key – and much more talented – Jack from TV’s “Will and Grace” with Jerry Van Dyke’s character from “Coach” and added the deadpan Mr. Carlin from “The Bob Newhart Show” for good measure.
The result, then, is a very family-friendly “highly caffeinated comedy” that will tickle your funny bone from start to finish.
Set in the Motor City’s finest coffeehouse, Hugh Butternut is celebrating his 25th anniversary as the house entertainer at the Triple Espresso. It’s easy to see why he’s been a popular fixture at the well-known nightspot: He’s a lovable lounge lizard whose “smarm and charm” quickly wins over even the most hardened audience.
Joining Butternut for his special anniversary show are his former partners with whom he’s not spoken in 25 years. Once known as Maxwell, Butternut and Bean, the trio had a falling out after a disastrous appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show;” what should have been their big break was, instead, the end of what could have been a promising partnership.
Well, maybe.
“Triple Espresso,” then, is a fun-filled romp through the 1970s as we discover how the group met and formed their partnership. Although each brought to the troupe his own special skills – the magician, the musician and the comedian – it quickly becomes apparent that maybe their fateful performance on “The Mike Douglas Show” did them – and the world – a favor 25 years ago!
Part of the show’s charm is its format: While much of “Triple Espresso” is scripted to show off the talents of its engaging performers, there’s also an improvisational aspect that will keep the show fresh and alive throughout its run. On the night I was there, most of the audience members called upon to help move the story along seemed eager to accept the challenge; it might be more fun – and funnier – to be there on a night when things don’t work out so smoothly!
But be aware: Just because you’re seated in the mezzanine doesn’t make you immune from the “improv bug!”
What truly makes a visit to “Triple Espresso” entertaining, however, are its three talented performers.
As Butternut, Michael Pearce Donley is a master of the keyboard with an impressive voice to match. Always flamboyant but never quite over the top, Donley is most impressive imitating some of the world’s most popular musical artists of the ’70s.
In contrast is Bill Arnold whose deadpan delivery as Buzz Maxwell – a not-so-good magician who doesn’t want to be at the anniversary celebration – is simply delightful. It’s got to be tough for a good magician to play a flailing one, yet he pulls it off quite well!
And Bobby Bean? Although his role in the trio is never quite clear, Bob Stromberg’s performance as the putty-faced man who murders the English language is quite fun. And wait till you see how he tries to impress Roddy McDowell at the most inopportune time!
Triple Espresso Staged Tuesday through Sunday at the historic Gem Theatre, 333 Madison Ave., Detroit, through December. Tickets: $32.50 & $37.50. 313-463-4216.
The bottom line: Although not always a knee-slapping laugh riot, this “G-rated” comedy is great entertainment for the whole family; you’ll especially love the shadow puppets!

Review: ‘The Glass Menagerie’

Classic drama gets excellent staging at Planet Ant
At one time, Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” was required reading in most high schools throughout America. And if you didn’t study it in English class, then you more than likely attended an overwrought production staged by your high school or local amateur theater group.
But no matter how you were initially exposed to it, there was always one aspect of Williams’ first successful play that always stood out: its dialogue. Neither bad accents nor overacting can take away the beauty of William’s words.
Travis Reiff, director of Planet Ant’s current production of “The Glass Menagerie,” is an artist who obviously understands the power of the playwright’s work. This is not an “in your face” or overly emotional production of William’s play; rather he takes advantage of the Ant’s intimate setting to craft a more quiet and cerebral production than what usually appears on stage.
And although it’s not a perfect production, it’s by far the best staging of the William’s classic I’ve seen in the last 30 years!
The primary flaw in many productions of “The Glass Menagerie” is this: Everything is overstated for dramatic effect. In the Ant production, however, subtlety is the key: Laura, for example, is a cripple, but it’s virtually undetectable; her problem is more mental than physical.
What’s more, Reiff approaches the show from a representational point of view. Yes, Laura’s life is wrapped around her tray of glass figurines, but they aren’t really there; the audience has to imagine them. And the specter that hovers over the Wingfield family – the father whose wanderlust caused him to leave home years ago – is seen not as a painting hanging on a wall, but as a picture frame housing nothing more than a black background.
This approach, then, requires a team of skilled actors who can mold Williams’ words into painfully troubled – yet totally believable – characters. We’re not watching catastrophic meltdowns here; rather, we’re peeking into Williams’ somewhat autobiographical family as they struggle with their own personal demons.
Jessica Cloud does a fine job in her portrayal of the crippled young woman who has never received any gentleman callers. Her fright is believable, as is her breakdown when she learns that a dinner guest is none other than a boy she had crush on back in high school.
As Laura’s older brother Tom, York R. Griffith turns in a nicely understated and thoughtful performance. When he explodes, watch out: Because his anger is allowed to simmer and boil and slowly build to the melting point, its impact is all-the-more greater than many productions allow.
Not as comfortable in his role – but still nicely executed – is Joel Mitchell who plays Jim, the gentleman caller.
Most impressive, however, is the performance of Susan Marie Berg. Amanda is not an evil mother; she truly wants what’s best for her children. But the overpowering woman is lost in her own past life – the belle of the ball, yet abandoned by the love of her life – and her actions push her children to the brink of disaster.
The Glass Menagerie Staged Thursday through Sunday by Planet Ant, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck, through Oct. 12. Tickets: $15. 313-365-4948.
The bottom line: Both the comedy and the drama come naturally in a well-executed production of the Tennessee Williams’ classic.

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