From Cirque du Soleil to Cider House Rules

By James Sanford

Get ready for a theater season full of variety

It may still be chilly outside, but local theaters are warming up for a season featuring everything from dozens of dogs to a bogus boy-band to a family-oriented fantasy written by (believe it or not) David Mamet. All that, plus a visit from Cirque du Soleil, a look back at Orson Welles’ hysteria-inducing “War of the Worlds,” a salute to African-American history and at least a couple of Pulitzer Prize-winning musicals as well.

Here’s a preview of the shows opening before the end of the month, plus a list of major attractions between now and May.

Jan. 26 “101 Dalmatians: The Musical” (Wharton Center): Broadway veteran Rachel York is hitting a new high in “101 Dalmatians: The Musical” — and not in the vocal sense.

“I’m on 15-inch stilts — can you believe it?” York asked, calling from an Atlanta airport terminal. In the musical, York plays the fearsome fashionista Cruella De Vil, who has perverse plans for Pongo, Perdita and the rest of the Dalmatians. By walking tall she helps maintain the show’s concept of providing a dog’s eye view of the world: All the human characters tower over their canine co-stars, and the furniture is slightly oversized as well.

“I’m 5 feet-9, so (the stilts) would put me at about 7 feet tall, if I’m doing my math right,” York said. “They do sort of help with the intimidating nature of Cruella, and I’m having a lot of fun on them, to tell you the truth. And they keep my butt in shape.”

The 38-year-old star — who previously visited Wharton Center in the 2007 tour of “Camelot” — said as a child she adored Disney’s original animated version of the Dodie Smith story. Yes, she loved the dogs, but she also had “an affinity for Cruella. I would even do impersonations of her. My family would say from time to time, ‘Do Cruella!’ So it’s funny, after 20 years of being a professional actress, to have this role. When I heard they were auditioning (for the part), I thought, ‘Now this is something I could do.’”

She’s apparently doing quite well, according to the critics. “(W)hat makes her performance so riveting is she’s having such a good time being bad,” wrote Gwenn Friss of the Cape Cod Times. “Her voice has a rich timbre, which is easily big enough for the role.”

“York strikes quite a chord as Cruella, both as actress and singer,” Alex Harvey of The Birmingham (Ala.) News. “She’s as nasty as they come, but with just enough twinkle in her eyes that she’s not going to terrify too many of the younger kids in the audience.”

York wasn’t surprised Cruella’s avaricious attitude came easily to her. “The Disney animated film was sort of engraved in my memory, so when I developed this character it didn’t take me that long to do it because I felt she was in me. I will say as she began to unfold there were different female personas I realized she was based on.”

For Cruella’s vocal style, York drew on Shirley Bassey and Eartha Kitt; for her commanding presence, “a little Anne Baxter, a little Bette Davis.” And Cruella’s evil expressions? “They live in my face,” York said. “I have the mouth to do this. I was born with a natural Cruella mouth.”

The intrepid Dalmatians themselves are a mix of costumed child actors and real Dalmatians, many of them rescued from animal shelters and trained to perform tricks and stunts. “I think the dogs are treated better than anyone else!” York said, with a laugh. “They have wonderful trainers who give them affection and everything else.”

Her four-legged co-stars have also been known to prompt some very un-Cruella-like behavior from York. “There’s a dog show at the end, when they do their tricks,” she said, “and I admit I get teary-eyed when I watch them.”

Something else about the show makes her cry.

“Have you seen the playbill?” York asked. “The actors don’t have their pictures in the playbill — only the dogs do. That’s kind of reverse discrimination!”

York laughed and added a brisk “just kidding!” to her complaint. But Cruella would be mortified.

Cobb Great Hall at Wharton Center, Michigan State University. $22.50- $58.50. 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26, 27 and 28; 8 p.m. Jan. 29-30; 2 p.m. Jan. 30; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 31. (517) 432-2000 or (800) 942-7866.

Jan. 28

“Altar Boyz” (Peppermint Creek Theatre): If you think airport security is a hassle, wait until you get scanned by the Soul Sensor DX-12, a device capable of detecting troubled souls. It’s about to be activated for Peppermint Creek Theatre’s “Altar Boyz,” opening Jan. 28.

“We’ve had this discussion in rehearsals,” said Chad Badgero, who’s directing the musical about a five-member, spiritually inclined boy-band. “How much do we actually believe the Soul Sensor works and how much is shtick?” Badgero suspects Altar Boyz Matthew (Chad DeKatch), Mark (Michael P. Zamora), Luke (Joe Quick), Juan (Diego Ramirez) and Abraham (Luke Rohlfs) “really believe the Soul Sensor can tell them how many souls in the audience need to be saved. And how do we save souls? Through dance and sweet pop music.”

Although a quick listen to some of the Altar Boyz’ repertoire — which includes such ditties as “Church Rulez” and “Something About You (Girl, Makes Me Wanna Wait),” a tender ballad celebrating celibacy — might make you think the show is blasting the faithful, Badgero disagrees.

“I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, it makes fun of church.’ No, it makes more fun of boy-bands,” Badgero explained.

“Boyz” wrapped up its almost five-year off- Broadway run earlier this month after more than 2,000 performances. Badgero said its appeal is easy to understand: Not only is the Altar Boyz’ act family-friendly, but “every generation had its own boy-band, whether it was The Osmonds, The Jackson 5, New Kids on the Block, (or) ’N Sync.”

Badgero and his cast have been watching New Kids concert videos and “Backstage with Britney Spears” as research, which Badgero says has provided some great fun. “I would venture to say all the guys in the show — including me — are thinking this fulfills their life-long fantasy of being in a boy-band,” Badgero said.

Appropriately enough, “Altar Boyz” will be performed in a former church, the Temple Building in Old Town. Two weeks before opening, the Temple would have guaranteed the Boyz a standing-room-only audience: There were no chairs to be found anywhere in the empty rows that were once filled with pews. Badgero said seats will be brought in, which should enhance the whole one-night-only concert concept of the show. While the facility will need a bit of tweaking and a few touch-ups, Badgero said that’s all part of the fun.

“Taking something from zero and making it a full-on production and then bringing it back to zero — that’s what theater is all about,” Badgero said. “It’s my job.”

Temple Building, 500 E. Grand River. $15 adults; $10 students and seniors. 8 p.m. Jan. 28, 29, 30 and Feb. 4, 5, 6; 2 p.m. Jan. 31. (517) 927-3016.

Jan. 28

“You Can’t Take It With You” (Michigan State University): It’s been almost 75 years since George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s “You Can’t Take It With You” made its Broadway debut, but John Lepard, who’s directing the MSU Theatre Department production, insists the play still has much to say to a 21st-century audience.

“The comedy in it stands up,” said Lepard (who is also Williamston Theatre’s executive director). “It’s really great, subtle relationship stuff — that’s what gives it its legs. It’s all about family relationships and what happens when you throw a monkey-wrench into the works.”

“Can’t” is set in a New York household of the Sycamores, most of whom could kindly be described as eccentric. There’s a would-be ballerina who can’t dance, a painter with no artistic flair and a grandfather who refuses to pay income tax. When Alice (Emily Young), from the “normal” branch of the Sycamore family tree, brings home her new boyfriend, Tony (Wes Haskell), and his pompous parents (John LoPorto and Megan McDowell), the Sycamores pretend to be conventional and, of course, fail miserably.

The culture clash at the heart of the comedy may be timeless, but Lepard has encouraged his cast to research the mid-1930s to “figure out what people were like, what the social norm was at the time.

“For instance, when kids come home from a date, they don’t necessarily sit down on the couch and start mashing. But I think everybody’s getting a grip on 1936 and how to behave.”

Understanding some of the jokes, however, may require further study. “In one scene, Tony is opening a bottle and he says, ‘Why do they make these things for Singer Midgets?’ What’s a Singer Midget?” Lepard said.

(We’ll save you the Google search: The Singer Midgets were a musical novelty act of the day, and you’ve seen some of them performing as Munchkins in the 1939 film of “The Wizard of Oz.”)

Auditorium Arena Theatre at MSU. $12 adults; $10 seniors and MSU staff; $8 students. 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28; 8 p.m. Jan. 29-30 and Feb. 5-6; 2 p.m. Jan. 30-31 and Feb. 6-7. Director pre-show talk at 1:15 p.m. Feb. 7 and post-show talk back on Jan. 28. (517) 432-2000 or (800) 942-7866. www.

Jan. 29

“The Winter’s Tale” (Lansing Civic Players): A wife accused of adultery, a baby born in prison and abandoned, a man eaten by a bear, a statue that comes to life: These aren’t headlines from the latest tabloid — they’re plot points in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” in which misunderstandings lead to paranoia, death and financial windfalls. “Tale” unfolds twice as a fundraising event for Lansing Civic Players, which will also present the very un-Shakespearean comedy “Cheatin’,” beginning Feb. 5. Del Shores’ farce involves the romantic trials and tribulations of a beauty shop owner, a big-mouthed waitress, a former high school athlete and a dim-bulb of a mailman.

Venue: Lansing Civic Players Underground, 2300 East Michigan Ave.Tickets: $10 “The Winter’s Tale” Showtimes: 8 p.m. Jan. 29, 30. “Cheatin’” Showtimes: 8 p.m. Feb. 5, 6, 12 and 13; 2 p.m. Feb. 7 and 14 More info: (517) 485- 9115. On the web:

Jan. 31

“Jack Sprat Low-Fat World Tour” (MSU/Wharton Center): According to the classic nursery rhyme, Jack Sprat could eat no fat and his wife could eat no lean. That’s a recipe for disaster at the dinner table, according to “The Jack Sprat Low-Fat World Tour.” The family-oriented musical, a first-of-itskind collaboration between Wharton Center and the MSU Theater Department, will have two performances at the Pasant Theatre Jan. 31.

“It’s Wharton’s first show produced from scratch,” said visiting director Devanand Janki, whose credits also include last year’s Kennedy Center production of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ new musical “Barrio Grrl!” “Jack” was originally commissioned by the New York division of the American Cancer Society to encourage kids to re-examine their eating habits. The script weaves together off-the-wall humor and catchy slogans (“You gotta read the label before you put it on the table”) as Jack (Chris Robinson) and his junk-food-craving spouse, Gloria (Jennifer Shafer), learn the basics about calories, carbohydrates, proteins and more.

“It’s very tongue-in-cheek,” Janki said, with a smile. "There’s a guy dressing up as Carmen Miranda, there’s a Tina Turner type as (a diva named) Fiber and there’s ‘The Okra Winfrey Show,’ in which she’s interviewing a carrot and a brussel sprout.”

Not to mention a conga number extolling the glories of Vitamin C.

“It’s a little musical that feels like a big, splashy musical,” Janki said. “I think people will be surprised when they see it.”

The “Low-Fat” message hasn’t been lost on the performers, either. “I think all of us as a cast are eating healthier ourselves because of doing this,” said MSU first-year MFA student Brandon Piper, who plays the peripatetic MC Hubbard. “If we’re giving out all this information, we’d better be in shape.”

Pasant Theatre at Wharton Center, MSU. $8. 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Jan. 31. (517) 432-2000 or (800) 942-7866. or theatre.msu. com

More shows

All information is subject to change. Please contact theaters by phone or visit their websites to get the latest updates.


“Young Frankenstein” (Wharton Center): Mary Shelley meets Mel Brooks as Dr. Frankenstein (or is it Fronkensteen?) and his motley crew find something to sing about. Feb. 2-7. (517) 432-2000 or (800) 942-7866;

“Living the Dreams of My Ancestors” (Riverwalk Theatre): Union Missionary Baptist Church and Riverwalk Theatre collaborate on a musical examination of African-American history through the experiences of one family. Feb. 4-6. (517) 482-5700;

“The Revenge of the Space Pandas, or Binkey Rudich and the Two-Speed Clock” (Mid Michigan Family Theatre): A family-friendly fantasy isn’t what you might expect from David Mamet, but yes, he did write this tale of two kids (and a sheep) who tinker with time and find themselves catapulted into another galaxy. Feb. 5-7, 12-14. (517) 339-2145; www.freewebs. com/midmichfamilytheatre

“The Smell of the Kill” (Williamston Theatre): As their marriages hit the rocks, Nicky, Debra and Molly decide to put their husbands on ice — literally — with a little help from a walk-in freezer with a faulty door. Feb. 11-14, 18-21, 25-28 and March 4-7. (517) 655-7469;

“Steppenwolf ’s August: Osage County” (Wharton Center): Estelle Parsons plays the unbalanced, unrestrained and anything but understated matriarch of a supremely dysfunctional Oklahoma family in Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning domestic drama. Feb. 16-17. (517) 432-2000 or (800) 942- 7866;

“The Cemetery Club” (Riverwalk Theatre): The long-standing friendship of Jewish widows Doris, Ida and Lucille is jeopardized when Doris and Lucille disapprove of Ida’s new romance and scheme to break it up. Feb. 18-21, 25-28. (517) 482- 5700;

“American Buffalo” (Lansing Community College): David Mamet’s drama focuses on a team of would-be thieves planning to steal a coin collection from a junk-shop owner. Feb. 19-20, 26-27. (517) 483-1488; www.lansingcommunitycollege. com

“Power Plays” (Icarus Falling): Three one-acts by Elaine May and Alan Arkin examine status shifts in the workplace, in a warehouse and in a dentist’s office. Feb. 19-20, 26-27. (517) 898-1679;

“Dancing in Our Time” (MSU): Dancers from different generations come together under the direction of choreographers Sherrie Barr, Joni Starr, Carolyn Pavlick, Heather Vaughn Southard and Provost Visiting Faculty Artist Jin-Wen Yu. Feb. 23-28. (517) 432-2000 or (800) 942-7866;


“Dark Play, or Stories for Boys” (Peppermint Creek): Mind games in an Internet chat room have scary consequences in the real world in Carlos Murillo’s drama. March 4-7, 11-13. (517) 927-3016;

“The Watch List” (Riverwalk Theatre Black Box): Eric Dawe directs his own script about a civil liberties group shaken up by the revelation that one of its members has been named on a government “terror watch list.” March 5-7, 12-14. (517) 482- 5700;

“Enchanted April” (Riverwalk Theatre): Four women, each one dealing with her own heartache, pool their resources to rent an Italian villa in the 1920s. March 18-21, 25-28. (517) 482-5700; www.

“Opal’s Husband” (Starlight Dinner Theatre): In this follow-up to “Opal’s Baby,” Cupid’s arrows go astray and result in a lovelorn woman being stuck with a devoted elderly suitor who’s escaped from a retirement home. March 12-13,19-20. (517) 243- 6040;

“A Little Princess” (Mid Michigan Family Theatre): A young girl loses her standing at an upscale boarding school and is forced to work as a servant while searching for her missing father. March 19-21, 26-28. (517) 339-2145;

“In the Blood” (Michigan State University Second Stage): Single mom Hester looks for help from doctors, social workers and friends but finds new difficulties and challenges instead in Suzan- Lori Parks’ update of “The Scarlet Letter.” March 23-28. (517) 432-2000 or (800) 942-7866;

“The Cider House Rules, Part One: Here in St. Cloud’s” (Lansing Community College): John Irving’s sweeping novel charts 60 years in the lives of a small-town doctor (and part-time abortionist) and his young assistant. March 26-28 and April 2-3. (517) 483-1488;

“Alegria” (Breslin Center): The title of this Cirque du Soleil show is the Spanish word for “joy,” and that’s exactly what the various clowns, birds, aerialists, jugglers and contortionists hope to inspire. March 31-April 4. (517) 454-5656;

“It Came From Mars” (Williamston Theatre): Chaos reigns on Halloween night in 1938 as Orson Welles and the Mercury Players present their legendary radio play adaptation of “The War of the Worlds.” March 31-April 3, April 8-11 and 15-18. (517) 655-7469;

“Talking With” (Icarus Falling): The personalities of a desperate actress, a McDonald’s devotee, an ex-rodeo performer and a snake handler are revealed in monologues by Jane Martin. Dates forthcoming (517) 898-1679;


“A Chorus Line” (Wharton Center): An audition for a Broadway show becomes an odyssey in self-discovery in Michael Bennett’s groundbreaking musical. April 6-11. (517) 432-2000 or (800) 942- 7866;

“Rent” (MSU): Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical follows a group of artists and would-be artists in early-1990s New York City. April 16-18, 21-25. (517) 432-2000 or (800) 942- 7866;

“Third” (Peppermint Creek): Wendy Wasserstein’s drama concerns a professor who levels plagiarism accusations against what she calls a “walking red state” of a student. April 22-25 and April 29-May 1. (517) 927-3016;

“Dragon Song” (Riverwalk Theatre): Children on a distant planet dream of fulfilling their ambitions, despite rules designed to keep them in their preordained places. April 22-25 and April 29-May 2. (517) 482-5700;

“South Pacific” (Wharton Center): Love crosses the generation gap and racial prejudice rears its ugly head in the venerable musical drama. April 27-30 and May 1-2. (517) 432-2000 or (800) 942-7866;


“Knock ‘Em Dead” (Starlight Dinner Theatre): Murder is no laughing matter at Vinnie’s Belly Laugh, a comedy club where the acts are so funny, you could just die. May 7-8, 14-15. (517) 243- 6040;

“Size 8 Shorts” (Riverwalk Theatre): An octet of short comedies. May 7-9, 14-16. (517) 482-5700;

“Home: Voices From Families of the Midwest” (Williamston Theatre): The final installment of the Voices From the Midwest trilogy analyzes the idea of what makes up a family. May 13-16, 20-23, 27-30 and June 3-6, 10-13. (517) 655-7469;

“Hansel and Gretel” (Mid Michigan Family Theatre): A lost brother and sister learn a not-so-sweet witch lurks inside a house of gingerbread and candy — one more good reason to avoid afternoon snacks. May 14-16, 21-23. (517) 339-2145;

“The Phantom of the Opera” (Wharton Center): Ever heard of this one? Love never dies, and apparently neither does the popularity of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical spectacular about a young singer torn between her true love and her mysterious mentor. May 19-23, 25-30, and June 1-6, 8-13. (517) 432-2000 or (800) 942-7866;

“The Late Henry Moss” (Icarus Falling): Estranged brothers Ray and Earl realize they have very different memories of their younger days in this Sam Shepard drama. Dates forthcoming (517) 898-1679;