My Pulp review of the UMS presentation of ‘As Far as My Fingertips Take Me’

Screen Shot 2020-02-05 at 2.33.20 PMWhenever I see news footage of refugees, I always think, “How bad would things have to get before I packed a bag and fled from my home?”

The answer, of course, is really, really bad, especially when doing so would likely put me in mortal danger and leave me vulnerable, indefinitely, in countless ways.

So I knew that As Far As My Fingertips Take Me — a one-on-one installation performance that’s part of University Musical Society’s No Safety Net 2.0 theater series — would likely challenge me and make the pain of diaspora more tangible. But what I couldn’t have guessed is how strangely attached I’d become to the visible marks it left upon my skin.

Created by Tania Khoury and performed by Basel Zaraa (a Palestinian refugee born in Syria), the experience begins when you bare your left arm to the elbow, sit next to a white wall, pull on a pair of headphones, trustingly extend your arm through a hole in the wall, and listen to a recording of Zaraa telling his own refugee story, accompanied by an atmospheric rap inspired by his sisters’ journey from Damascus to Sweden.

On the recording, Zaraa introduces himself and says, “This is me, touching your arm,” and there’s something both unnerving and comforting about experiencing touch without being able to see its source. First, you feel the pads of your fingers being inked, one by one, and then you feel different areas of your arm being gently drawn upon: a line from one fingertip to a small boat full of people at the center of your palm; and from your wrist to your elbow, a caravan of walking figures, dragging their possessions toward a distinct border.

Zaraa completes the figures before the music ends, leaving you to look at your newly decorated arm and read a long poem (printed on the same wall) that contains the refrain that gives the song you’re hearing its thematic shape: “We only want what everybody wants.” READ THE REST HERE

My Pulp review of Purple Rose Theatre’s world premiere production of Jeff Daniels’ ‘Roadsigns’

Screen Shot 2020-02-05 at 2.45.21 PMFor more than a quarter-century, Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre has specialized in new plays that don’t normally require a music director.

That’s why I was initially surprised to hear that a musical (or “play with music”?) called Roadsigns would have its world premiere there.

But then I quickly remembered the theater’s movie/Broadway/TV star founder, Jeff Daniels, has been performing his ever-growing catalog of original folk songs as an annual fundraiser for the Rose, and his son, Ben Daniels, is a professional musician in his own right.

Then the whole notion of a Purple Rose musical felt not just sensible but downright inevitable.

Indeed, the seed for Roadsigns was planted long ago, in 1978, when iconic American playwright (and Daniels’ mentor) Lanford Wilson overheard Daniels playing guitar in his dressing room in New York. He suggested the actor build music around a poem Wilson wrote about a bus ride he once took from Missouri to Chicago.

So my sense while watching Roadsigns was that I was seeing a ’70s folk song come to life was right on the money. (Jeff Daniels wrote the play; he and Ben Daniels wrote its original music.) READ THE REST HERE

My Destination Ann Arbor Great Minds Think a Lot profile of Khadija B. Wallace

Screen Shot 2020-02-05 at 2.42.04 PMIn October 2019, as Khadija B. Wallace’s grandkids candied apples that would be delivered as a “thank you for your business” gift to several clients of Joyful Treats – Wallace’s Ypsilanti-based catering service – the original vision for the company was made manifest.

“The idea was, this would be our legacy for our kids,” Wallace said.

Occasionally helping out with cookies and candied apples helps Wallace’s grandkids start to “see (Joyful Treats) as theirs, and gives them the mindset for ownership, and shows them this can be a good job they can rely on,” Wallace said. “But I’m a big promoter of entrepreneurship, too. The whole reason for starting it was for them – so they could have it in their life.”

For Wallace, food has always been linked to family. She grew up watching her own grandmother catering events at her church and her place of employment, the University of Alabama. (Wallace moved back and forth between Michigan and Alabama throughout her childhood, and attended both Ypsilanti High and Eastern Michigan University.)

“I pride myself on my Southern heritage, because we’re known for good food and Southern hospitality,” said Wallace. “When I was growing up in Tuscaloosa, my grandma was always doing ice cream socials, and putting fancy plates and napkins and hankies out – all that stuff people don’t even use anymore – and what I remember is that my cousins and I would help Grandma for a while, then we’d sneak a treat and go out and play.” READ THE REST HERE

My Destination Ann Arbor blog post about Milan Let’s Chill Winterfest

Screen Shot 2020-02-05 at 2.37.19 PMEach year, after the holidays wrap up, and the long, deep freeze of winter takes hold, Michiganders tend to go into bear-like hibernation, only emerging from their cozy homes long enough to go to work, go to school, or run necessary errands.

But in recent years, the small town of Milan has given locals (and visitors from farther away) a compelling reason to actually come out and play in the snow.

Let’s Chill Winter Fest – coming up on January 31 and February 1 in 2020 – is a two-day celebration of all things winter.

“The very first year (2014), … it was in Wilson Park, and it was really just broomball games, with different groups making up the teams,” said Milan Main Street executive director Jill Tewsley. “It went so well that the next year, we made it a more family-oriented event and extended activities into our downtown. The idea was really about getting people out of their homes in the middle of winter – finding a way to kick the winter blues and do something that would be good for the community’s sense of connection and health, and provide something families could do that was affordable.” READ THE REST HERE

My Pulp review of Kickshaw Theatre’s ‘Santaland Diaries’

Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 6.37.38 PM.pngDespite the clichéd, eye-roll-inducing notion of creative work that makes you laugh and makes you cry, David Sedaris’ essays are nearly universally adored because they regularly, miraculously achieve just that.

This has become particularly true in recent years as Sedaris has explored, with bracing candor, the painful aftermath of a sister’s suicide and grappled with his complicated relationship with his aging, politically conservative father.

Yes, Sedaris and his craft have both come a long way since his hilarious, breakout 1992 radio essay “The Santaland Diaries” — chronicling Sedaris’ work experience as a Macy’s elf in New York City during the holidays — premiered on NPR’s Morning Edition. It’s since become a kind of subversive holiday classic, up to and including a one-man stage adaptation by Joe Mantello that’s now being produced (in Ypsilanti) by Kickshaw Theatre.

In The Santaland Diaries stage production, Sedaris (Yianni Papadimos) tells the story of being an aspiring young actor in New York, with big dreams of getting work on his favorite soap opera, One Life to Live. After three weeks, when nothing even close to that pans out, he answers a quirky newspaper want ad for Macy’s elves. He goes through multiple job interviews; sits through an inevitably absurd elf-training class; gives himself the elf-name Crumpet; and then finally, he works at different stations — with a broad array of Santas and fellow elves — within a department store’s seasonal, snow-globe world.

I’ve seen a few productions of Santaland Diaries now, and it’s always interesting to observe how different actors, of varying physical builds and backgrounds, re-shape Crumpet a bit in their own image. Papadimos, with his dark beard and burly build, looks all the more absurd in his green velvet jumper, candy-cane tights, and a jester-like red hat. And when Crumpet’s frustration threatens to reach its boiling point, or he’s particularly sharp-tongued, there’s a hint of real menace behind the words. READ THE REST HERE

My Pulp review of the UMS presentation of ‘Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce’

Screen Shot 2019-12-17 at 12.07.57 PM.pngUsually when I see a show for review, I don’t end up on stage, singing a Pogues song.

But then, most shows are nothing like Taylor’s Mac’s Holiday Sauce, which UMS brought to the Power Center on December 14 and 15.

Mac has so many talents that I’d wear out my hyphen key if I tried to list them all. A MacArthur “Genius” and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Mac created Holiday Sauce as a tribute to the playwright-singer-artist’s drag mother, Flawless Sabrina. “She used to always say, ‘You’re the boss, apple sauce,” Mac said, referring to the show’s title, and Sabrina regularly hosted “judy” and others during the holidays. (As Mac told the Los Angeles Times, “[M]y gender pronoun is ‘judy’ because I wanted a gender pronoun that is an art piece.”)

And indeed, Mac’s final elaborate ensemble for the evening, which made judy resemble a majestic, snow-covered peak, featured what looked like a formation of tiny pine trees that spelled “BOSS” down the gown’s back.

Mac wore this while performing the show’s quietest and most personal number, “Christmas at Grandma’s,” wherein judy sat alone on stage and played ukulele. The darkly comic, ironically jaunty song chronicled what the holidays were like when judy was annually dragged to visit homophobic relatives who were themselves struggling with past sexual abuse, a serious head injury, and alcoholism.

So … a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, right?

But that’s the point, of course: While we’re all confronted each year by cultural depictions of perfect families joyously celebrating the holidays together, the reality is that a good number of us identify far more with the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys. READ THE REST HERE

My Pulp review of U-M’s musical theater department studio production of ‘A New Brain’

Screen Shot 2019-12-17 at 12.12.17 PM“Sometimes joy has a terrible cost” is a quintessential lyric in William Finn’s autobiographical musical, A New Brain.

And in the production staged this past weekend at the Arthur Miller Theater by the University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre, creatively blocked composer Gordon Michael Schwinn (Jack Mastrianni) gets an existential jolt of electricity by way of an unexpected, scary brush with death.

For just as Gordon struggles mightily to write a song for a children’s television show frog named Mr. Bungee (Matthew Sanguine), he meets up with his agent and best friend Rhoda (Brianna Stoute) for lunch and suddenly loses consciousness. After various tests, a hilariously blowhard doctor (Hugh Entrekin) tells Gordon he needs a craniotomy, and this scary news sends Gordon, his mother Mimi (Madeline Eaton), and his lover Roger (Luke Bove) into an emotional tailspin.

While this may not sound upbeat and lighthearted, A New Brain — which premiered Off-Broadway in 1998, with music and lyrics by Finn, and a book by Finn and James Lapine — is a kind of odd, lovable, small, shaggy dog of a musical. Because the primary narrative’s series of events is markedly compact (Gordon’s collapse, diagnosis, surgery, and outcome), the 90-minute show opens its doors with some quirky turns, providing space for fanciful character tangents (like “nice nurse” Richard’s lament, “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat”), minor characters (a homeless woman), and frog-haunted flights of hallucination and memory (“And They’re Off,” which fills in the blanks on why Gordon’s father isn’t part of the picture).

Inspired by Finn’s own arteriovenous malformation diagnosis, in the months following his Tony Award-winning success with FalsettosA New Brain is a flawed but endearing confection. For every seeming misstep — to name one, the homeless character never wholly justifies her sizable footprint within the show (even though Daelynn Jorif’s vocals wowed me) — there are several brilliant little strokes of wit, surprise, and warmth. READ THE REST HERE

My Michigan Alumnus story about the 1967 U-M Men’s Glee Club performances in the Soviet Union

gleeclubOn May 15, 1967, nearly five dozen members of the U-M Men’s Glee Club boarded a bus at the Michigan Union to embark on an eight-week world tour. Many of them had never traveled west of the Mississippi before, let alone to the other side of the world.

The tour’s itinerary involved more than 30 flights, including scheduled performances in Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, India, Sweden, France, and England.

It also included one particularly historic stop in Moscow during the Cold War. That leg of the journey came four weeks into the tour, directly after the glee club’s stop in India.

“We went from a dry 112 degrees to a wet 55,” says Donald Sanderson, ’68, a “clubber” who was part of the 1967 tour. “The contrast in the atmosphere was just as stark. The free air of India was exchanged for tangible oppression in Moscow.” READ THE REST HERE

My Metro Parent essay about learning the truth about my aging father’s economic realities

Screen Shot 2019-12-05 at 12.59.17 PM.pngLast year, while visiting my 76-year-old father in North Carolina during the holidays, he casually mentioned that he’d taken out a reverse mortgage – which is to say, he’d taken out a loan against the value of his fully-paid-for home.

“Wait – you did?” I said, stunned.

Though I knew that money had become more of a worry for Dad in recent years – he sheepishly apologized for no longer sending checks in our birthday cards (which were, I’d noticed, those free ones you get when an organization is soliciting for donations by mail) – I hadn’t realized his finances had gotten as dire as all that.

When I asked my dad whether the mortgage was a result of health care costs, he said, “It’s just everything,” with a shrug in his voice.

He never imagined he’d be in this kind of position in his old age, and I guess I hadn’t, either. READ THE REST HERE

My Planet Detroit essay about parenting in the age of climate change

Screen Shot 2019-12-05 at 12.51.13 PM.pngNobody can hold your feet to the fire quite like an eight-year-old.

Seriously. My youngest daughter’s been pushing me on some pretty hard questions lately.

And I’m not talking about death (we covered that ground pretty thoroughly two years ago) or Santa (in whom she likes to believe, so she just doesn’t go there).

I’m talking about how, after I drove Neve to a day camp this past summer, and we heard an NPR story about a heatwave in Europe making its way to Greenland, she quietly asked from the backseat, “Is something bad happening to the earth?”

I mean, how do you, as a parent in 2019, respond to that?

You start with a lot of throat clearing. READ THE REST HERE