I am typically the guy who sits most standing ovations until the sheer peer pressure of the rest of the audience forces me to stand. I have never been a fan of the obligatory standing ovation for every performance of every show offered by community theatre. It is not that local amateur casts shouldn’t get a lot of love and appreciation for volunteering their time and effort. It is just that, in my opinion, standing ovations should be reserved for performances that far exceed expectations.
Which is why I was one of the first to my feet at the end of the Midland Center for the Arts (MCFTA) Center Stage Theatre production of Disenchanted.
Disenchanted is something of a cabaret, hosted by Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, that allows each of them, and a few other princesses, the opportunity to tell us what it is really like to be a cartoon, theme park, commercial version of a princess. And they are clearly tired of it, to say the least.
This clever storyline was created by Dennis Giacino, a history teacher who was pondering what the real Pocahontas would have thought of her Disney characterization. Of course this led to imagining other princesses answering the same question. Mr. Giacino not only wrote the book, music and lyrics for this show, but has won numerous awards for his effort.
The most well-written comedy, and especially a comedic musical, can fall flat if the cast isn’t up to the challenge. Here, Director Adam Gardner-Northrop won the lottery. His cast of six had both the acting and vocal chops to make this a truly outstanding production. As the primary hosts of the show, Tara Besso Ell (Snow White), Emily Rupp (Cinderella) and Danessa Hellus (Sleeping Beauty) brought not only outstanding vocal talent, but the timing and stage presence to make their characters simultaneously believable and hilarious. The facial expressions of Hellus alone were worth the cost of admission.
Meagan Eager’s characters (Little Mermaid, Belle, Rapunzel) were all very different and each side-splittingly funny. Brooke Gomez presented an identity-struggling Mulan, ticked off Pocahontas and cynical Princess Badroulbadour (no, you probably don’t know that one immediately) each with their own streetwise dynamics. The contrast of Gomez’s quiet contemplation and Eager’s crawling-over-the-bar rowdiness helped keep the pace rocking throughout the show.
One character, Lois Elizabeth Reeves (Frog Princess) doesn’t appear until the second act which likely reflects a point that Giacino is making regarding the slow development of ethnic diversity in Disney’s princesses. Reeves has her work cut out for her in sharing the stage with her strong fellow cast members. She has a beautiful voice but perhaps not yet the confidence of the others around her. I loved her character and am certain that her strength will develop with such strong role models around her.
Costumes for this show could be challenging as designer Caitlin Eldred had to create the elegance of the story book princesses contrasted with the normalcy of street clothes. The themes stayed consistent and added to the strength of the characters.
The set design by Evan Lewis was signature MCFTA. By that I mean there was a bar on stage where you can buy drinks before the show and during intermission. Actually, this set design provided a unique and useful rationale to the premise of a cabaret and allows for a second stage and curtains, ramps, and a reason for the pit to be in the middle of the stage. Lighting designed by Jared Mowbray was perfect for the setting with the occasional use of a spot light to emphasize some very funny moments. With the brick wall in the background, I felt at times like I was sitting at the Improv.
The music (directed by Matt Travis and Sara Taylor) was entertaining, if somewhat predictable at times. But holy cow, their pit band was made up of notable musicians you are likely to see at various venues in the region. Jantz Black, Lorenz Kranz and Ryan Fitzgerald would be a dream bar band for anybody, and they play along and interact with the characters in a charming and realistic manner throughout the show.
Having a good deal of experience in the Little Theatre at MCFTA, one of the nightmares can be getting the sound right in the space. Dan Hubbell’s sound design was brilliant as the balance between instruments, vocals and sound effects was spot on. Trust me, this is no easy feat.
I can’t really decide on my favorite musical number, but my least favorite was in reference to a particularly notable body part (parts?) of Disney’s princess characters. While most of the numbers dealt with specific characteristics of each princess’s story, this one seemed less integrated and more forced. But that is one song out of thirteen so who cares?
Regardless of how tickets have sold up to opening night, you should go online and get your tickets soon. I promise this is going to be one of those shows that people will start hearing about from their friends and remaining tickets will go fast. It is solidly PG-13 so if you don’t mind rowdy language, sexual reference, and drunken mermaids, this is a show you want to see.
Center Stage Theatre’s production of Disenchanted will be on stage at Midland Center for the Arts Jan. 13, 19, 20, 25, 26 and 27 at 7:30 p.m.; and Jan. 14 and 21 at 3 p.m.
Tickets are $26 and are available at midlandcenter.org, at the Center Ticket Office or by calling 800-523-7649. Sponsored by ACE Hardware of Midland. Center Stage Theatre season sponsor is Dr. John Carter, DDS.
This production contains adult language and subject matter.
Disenchanted Cast: Meagan Eager of Bay City; Danessa Hellus of Freeland; Tara Besso Ell of Midland; Lois Reeves of Mount Pleasant; Brooke Gomez and Emily Rupp of Saginaw.