Review: ‘She Loves Me’
A sweet smell of success permeates Performance Network’s holiday musical
Look out tap-dancing Santas, sugar plum fairies and ghosts of Christmases past: There’s a NEW holiday treat in town – and it can be found only at Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre!
Christmas-themed shows are surprisingly popular this year, but the most charming is probably “She Loves Me,” a 1963 musical by Joe Masteroff, with music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Its debut wowed the critics, yet it closed after only 302 performances; sweet, intimate, romantic comedies weren’t the rage back then. Today, only theater aficionados are familiar with this “crown jewel of musical theater,” while few have ever seen it.
Set in Budapest, “She Loves Me” is an engaging love story that takes its audience back to the 1930s when love-starved single men and women corresponded with one another through the Lonely Hearts Club section of the local newspaper. One such lost soul is Georg Nowak, longtime head clerk at Maraczek’s Parfumerie. Another is Amalia Balash, who comes to work at the shop when a sales position suddenly becomes available.
What the two don’t know, however, is that they’ve been secretly corresponding with each other! What’s more, each despises the other, and their working relationship deteriorates day by miserable day.
The secret friends finally decide to meet, but the situation gets more complicated when the rendezvous doesn’t go exactly as planned.
Are the two destined to remain single all their lives? (Hint: Since when does the boy NOT get the girl in an old-fashioned musical comedy?)
Theatergoers attending the opening night performance were treated to an energetic production that even musical-haters could love! It’s an entertaining evening filled with delightful characters, a few superb performances and well-crafted tunes – and the songs flow naturally from the dialogue. (None feels shoehorned into the production!) And unlike most musicals, dance does NOT play an integral role in the production.
It’s the perfect musical for the Network’s intimate space!
Scott Crownover, who plays Georg, is a captivating performer who lights up the stage no matter what musical role he plays. With this production he’s matched with one of his best co-stars yet, Jennifer Joan Joy, who makes her Network debut as Amalia. Both have gorgeous voices and expressive faces, but it’s their chemistry that successfully drives the show to its inevitable conclusion.
Charles Sutherland (Mr. Maraczek), Brian Thibault (Kodaly), Clifford Katskee (Sipos) and Andrew Miller (Arpad) add fine support. Even ensemble members Ivan Griffin (with yet another superb voice), Laurel Hufano and Aral Basil Gribble II have their moments to shine.
However, the best performance of the night – and one of the best so far this season- belongs to 2003 Wilde Award nominee Naz Edwards. Whereas some actresses would play Ilona as a stereotypical ditzy blonde, Edwards fills her character with an innocent charm and fortitude that quickly endears her to the audience.
And the band? Since the story takes place in Budapest, why not use a four-piece Hungarian Gypsy Band instead of an orchestra? It’s a unique and intriguing concept, one that adds considerable flavor to Milarch’s production!
Last Friday’s show was not without flaws, however.
The performance seemed to start out somewhat slowly, for example, and a few brief dead spots were scattered throughout the show. (Were there problems backstage, perhaps?) Plus, a few voices didn’t mix well initially, and there were occasional battles between the singers and the band to find the correct note. All were resolved by the end of the first act.
“She Loves Me” Presented Thursday through Sunday at Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor, through Dec. 26. Tickets: $24.50 – 34.50. 734-663-0681. www.performancenetwork.org.
The Bottom Line: Only a scrooge won’t love “She Loves Me.”
Review: ‘The Wizard of Oz’
There’s no place like Hasting St. Ballroom for unique look at Oz
They’re off to see the wizard at Detroit’s Hastings Street Ballroom, but it’s not the wonderful Land of Oz most people are familiar with.
Conceived and directed by Planet Ant’s Artistic Director York Griffith, this remounted and revised production from last season uses L. Frank Baum’s original novel as its source, not the 1939 movie most people have seen ad nauseam. So gone are the ruby slippers (they were silver in the book) and rousing musical numbers (only a very sad and lonely “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” made the cut); flying monkeys are nowhere to be seen, and neither is the Wizard – although their presence is certainly felt.
What’s left, then, is a minimalist production that seeks to understand and explore the personalities and motivations of its core characters.
It’s an intriguing concept – but one that leads to the darkest corners of Oz.
The changes between last season’s production and this are both subtle and significant.
When staged at Planet Ant in Hamtramck, “The Wizard of Oz” was a far more intimate production; the audience was never more than a few feet from the action. That made us part of the story, as if we were the munchkins watching the drama unfold before us.
While the move to the much larger Hasting Street Ballroom gives Griffith and his creators much more room to play, it’s lost its intimacy; the audience is now only a passive observer.
What we’ve gained, however, is equally important.
Now, Griffith and his six actors make great use of an extraordinary space that can easily become anything a creative mind conceives. Need a throne room for the Wizard? Simply march the characters into the theater’s lobby – and out of sight. If you’re going to tear apart the Scarecrow, where should you toss his head? How about into the light booth that overlooks the stage? And when you’re off to see the Wizard, why not parade everyone behind and through the audience that sits on three sides of the floor-level playing area?
It’s not only the creative use of space that works in this production’s favor, it’s also the minimalist way in which Griffith and script developer John Sousanis tell Baum’s story.
Helium-filled balloons become the deadly poppies that threaten the lives of the travelers; a single green light focused towards the exit creates the Emerald City. And the talented actors who play the “big six” – Dorothy, Scarecrow, Lion, Tinman, Glinda and Wicked Witch of the West – become whatever other characters and voices are needed to complete their journey.
The result, then, is an interesting and well executed production that, ultimately, is not for everyone. Young children might be frightened by the intensity of the production – or worse, bored by its lack of “spectacle” and cerebral dialogue. And diehard fans of the MGM movie might not be happy with what they may view as “tinkering” with their beloved work of art.
But lovers of edgy and experimental theater – and fans of the original novel – will probably view things differently.
So while you won’t actually SEE the wonderful Wizard of Oz, you actually will – in a whole new light!
“The Wizard of Oz” Staged Thursday through Sunday by Planet Ant Theatre at Hastings Street Ballroom, 715 E. Milwaukee at Oakland, Detroit, through Dec. 19. Tickets: $10 – $15. 313-365-4948. www.planetant.com.
The Bottom Line: A highly original – and unusual – take on a much beloved classic that some will love and others might loathe – but that’s what makes good theater!