There's popcorn in the orchestra pit

By Christopher Horb

Celebrity guest directors, film adaptations make for a diverse upcoming theater season

Spielberg shares equal stage time with Shakespeare (sort of) in this diverse theater season that tries to leave no audience behind. This season’s crop of choices includes heavy hitters such as McNally, Chekhov and the Bard himself, but there are also new voices giving Lansing-area theatergoers a more contemporary experience. That includes over a dozen shows with Hollywood counterparts as well as a brand new theater company serving up a little sauciness.

All-of-us Express Children’s Theatre

Just because this season’s theme is “Exploring Our Roots,” artistic director Miranda Hartmann says that doesn’t mean the company is above trying something new. All-of-us will stage its first musical next July, “Aladdin & His Wonderful, Magical Lamp.”
“It’s a nice little milestone for us, said Hartmann. ”The last few years there have been a lot of kid-friendly musicals coming on the market, and we saw an opening.”
Also new to All-of-us this season: “The Beatles Slept Here,” a whimsical story steeped in the music and mythology of the iconic rock band. The company returns to more familiar territory with the fairy tale double bill of “The Princess and the Pea” and “Rapunzel.”

Ixion Ensembe

This debut season will feature just a pair of shows designed to whet appetites for a full slate next year, according to artistic director Jeff Croff.

“We’re offering an additional perspective to local theater,” Croff said. “We’re putting an emphasis on collaboration by recruiting storytellers from all disciplines.”

Croff is hoping to encourage new works through what he calls “The Wheel,” a writers´ group that will develop new concepts in staged readings and, ultimately, new productions.

The ensemble’s first shows are the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Topdog/Underdog” and the irreverent disco musical “Saucy Jack & the Space Vixens.” Croff is no stranger to the area theater scene, having previously headed up the Icarus Falling theater ensemble, which closed two years ago.

“It was a nice break but we’ve realized we just can’t stop doing theater,” he said.

Lansing Community College

LCC´s Performing Arts Department will work overtime to include an extra production in the lineup — the season opener, “Vigil.” The black comedy is directed by and stars Emmy Award-winner (and Lansing native) Timothy Busfield. Production coordinator Melissa Kaplan says she was thrilled at the chance to host a performer of Busfield’s caliber.

“It’s a really cool project all around,” she said. “It’s dark but it’s very witty and it’s a tour de force for the actors.”

The show was made possible through a Heart of Student Success Grant, which supports new productions. LCC’s season lineup also includes the musical “Ragtime,” the Shakespearean tragedy “Titus Andronicus” and the horror-film spoof “Slasher.”

Michigan State University

This year’s theme of (NEW) Plays in New Ways couldn’t be more appropriate. In fact, Rob Roznowski, the program’s head of acting and directing, says the season is going to be something of an experiment.

“The renovations (inside the MSU Auditorium and Fairchild Theater) are forcing us to rethink our performance spaces,” he said. “We’re trying to find locations specific to each production and asking ourselves how can we do these shows in unique ways.”

Roznowski pointed to November’s production of Shakespeare’s “Measure For Measure,” a satire on duty and religion that he’s hoping to stage in “a church-like setting,” as an example. Meanwhile, new shows will include “U.P.,” about a man seeking answers in the titular peninsula, and “The Lady Victory,” an adaptation of Jane Taylor poetry.

Mid-Michigan Family Theatre

Director Bill Gordon points to a pair of upcoming shows as illustrations of the stark contrasts visible this season. The futuristic “The Giver” is inspired by Lois Lowry’s dystopian children’s novel about kids fighting for individual freedoms in an oppressive society, while “Woods” is a fractured fairy tale featuring characters from Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood. “The Giver” was chosen partly due to the name recognition of the popular novel.

“So many middle-school age kids loved that book growing up,” he said. “The show has a small cast with lots of complexity to the staging and we thought it would be appealing.”

Over The Ledge Theatre Co.

Executive director Joe Dickson says his company — which debuted last November and is still enjoying a successful first season — is hard at work planning a full slate of shows for next year (possibly as early as this winter). Meanwhile fans can tide themselves over by catching this season’s final show, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which bows this weekend.

Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.

To celebrate its tenth anniversary, Peppermint Creek is presenting a lineup of premieres under the banner “Dare To Dream” — a theme that ties all the shows together, according to founder Chad Badgero.

“All the characters are dreaming of something more,” he said. “But it’s also a commentary on us as company. It’s gotten us thinking about the places we still want to go.”

The troupe’s mission — to produce contemporary theater that addresses vital social issues — is exemplified by such shows as “Next To Normal,” chronicling a family’s experience with mental illness, and “8,” a documentary play taken directly from the trial record of the federal constitutional challenge to California’s gay-marriage-banning Proposition 8.

Of the seven shows this season, three are musicals, which Badgero said was meant to raise an air of celebration.

Riverwalk Theatre

The season lineup includes 11 shows — including three black box productions — that run the gamut from the farcical comedy of “The 39 Steps” to the high-minded “Advise and Consent.” Riverwalk will also serve up musicals, including the family-friendly “The No-Hole Holiday” and adult-themed Broadway hit “Spring Awakening.”

Starlight Dinner Theatre

“These are tough times and we wouldn’t survive if we didn’t escape once in awhile,” said artistic director Linda Granger. “We get so many letters from people thanking us for allowing them to forget their worries for a bit.”

Accordingly, Starlight offers up Robert Harling’s Southern comedic drama “Steel Magnolias” as its season opener. The show continues to be a mainstay on the community theater circuit and ranked near the top of a Starlight poll gauging prospective audience interest.

“It’s dramatic but it’s also very funny at times,” Granger said. “The bond between these women and how they take care of each other is very heartwarming.”

Wharton Center

When the revival of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” rides into the Wharton Center next month, it will mark just the second stop on the classic musical’s national tour. This season’s schedule also includes a host of cinematically themed Broadway favorites, including the one-two punch of the Steven Spielbergian “War Horse” and “Catch Me If You Can,” as well as “Billy Elliot: The Musical” and “Sister Act: A Divine Musical Comedy.” It will also feature Green Day’s explosive punk rock opera “American Idiot.”

Marketing/communication director Diane Willcox is particularly excited for “War Horse,” which has earned much name recognition after inspiring last year’s acclaimed film adaptation. The show is brought to life utilizing elaborate, life-size puppets as the horses.

“It’s extraordinary,” she said. “It’s only a few seconds before you accept these puppets as the real thing. Your imagination just takes over.”

Williamston Theatre

According to artistic director Tony Caselli, change is in the air this season.

“There’s nothing gentle about the upheavals going on in these shows,” he said. “All of these plays deal with sudden life-changing events and what you do when the universe says, ‘This is happening to you right now.’”

Case in point — the season-opener “Boom,” an eclectic comedy about college students anticipating the end of the world. There will also be two world premiere productions by Michigan playwrights: Joseph Zettelmaier’s “Christmas Carol”-inspired “Ebenezer” and Annie Martin’s comedy “10:53.” In both cases, the playwrights will be working directly with the troupe to stage the plays.

“Generating new voices is such an important thing,” said Caselli. “We want audiences to know that if they keep coming, we’re promising to keep giving them new stories.”