Burns Park Players
Ann Arbor's Upper West Side
by Sally Mitani
Twenty-some years ago, a group of Burns Park Elementary parents decided to put on a show to raise some money. Did no one tell them art is not what you do to raise money? Hello! Who put the non in nonprofit? The arts, that's who.
Against all odds, they not only made money, they had so much fun that they have done it every year since.
The Burns Park Players don't put on just regular plays, by the way, but musicals, with live orchestras, a strategy that ups the ante for catastrophic failure. And going for total insanity, they also involve dozens of elementary school students in the chorus numbers. You don't have to be a theater snob to imagine these Burns Park Players productions as fertile soil for some wickedly bad amateur theatrics-Waiting for Guffman bad.
But it's not like that at all. The Burns Park Players produce consistently sparkling, exuberant productions. Directed by a different U-M musical theater student every year, the productions have covered every subgenre of musical, from wheezy period oddities like Bye Bye Birdie (2004) to airbrushed, slick Disney fantasies like Beauty and the Beast (2008) and solidly golden-era Rodgers and Hammersteins like Carousel (2000). The sets have for years been a labor of love by Mark Tucker (creator of FestiFools) and artist Jeri Rosenberg. Real talent lurks in Burns Park. BP being Ann Arbor's Upper West Side, the talent is often highly trained, if overlaid by years of better-paying professional careers or parenthood. The kids-dozens of them-herded quickly on and off, usually in the chorus numbers, through some alchemy are consistently an adorable and inspired surprise. And here's a bonus: the old-fashioned, well-spaced upholstered seats in the Tappan Auditorium are nap-time comfy.
As I write this-in February of 2010, for we think ahead here at the Observer-I've just seen the one musical I know isn't going to be produced in February 2011, a stellar production of Guys and Dolls. With its jazzy, complex rhythms,
lyrics that make anyone sound smart and savvy, and a story line whose believability, if it ever existed, has long since disappeared into the mist, it was the perfect vehicle for hugely talented, energetic parents whose acting chops perhaps aren't 100 percent up to speed. The show was stolen, as Guys and Dolls usually is, by its Adelaide (Eva Rosenwald), and what she didn't steal was carried off by Lisa Harris's gorgeous voice in the quieter, sweeter role of Sarah Brown.
This year, the Players are tackling How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Rosenwald and Harris, who have been tag-teaming for years as female leads, have both dropped back to more minor parts; Caroline Huntoon plays Rosemary Pilkington, and Aviva Simonte is Hedy LaRue. How to Succeed, which opens on February 4, is set in a period newly mythologized by Mad Men. It's harder to love than Mad Men (or Guys and Dolls), but if a few hundred kids can't kick a little life into it, no one can.
[Originally published in February, 2011.]